How Did Mormonism Originate? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1, we reviewed Grant Palmer’s conclusions about the true origins of the Book of Mormon.  There are three more foundational experiences of Mormonism that Palmer analyzes: the first vision, the angel Moroni, and priesthood restoration.  Again, if you would like to read more about these experiences, pick up Palmer’s book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.

Palmer explains, about these three experiences, that they

appear to have developed from relatively simple experiences into more impressive spiritual manifestations, from metaphysical to physical events.  Joseph added new elements to his later narratives that are not hinted at in his earlier ones.  His first vision evolved from a forgiveness epiphany to a call from God the Father and Jesus Christ to restore the true order of things.  His original golden plates story was largely borrowed from his environment and then altered, becoming more religious and Christianized.  His form-changing archivist [a character in a literary work by which Smith was likely inspired] became a resurrected angel named Moroni who dispensed heavenly wisdom and quoted liberally from the Bible.  Likewise, Joseph’s accounts of priesthood restoration developed from spiritual promptings into multiple, physical ordinations by resurrected angels.

Palmer revisits the origins of the Book of Mormon and the witnesses’ testimony:

The witnesses to the Book of Mormon reportedly saw both secular and spiritual treasure guardians by “second sight” or through “the eyes of our understanding.” Their testimony of the Book of Mormon was not of a secular event. Their emphasis was on seeing an angel and handling plates of gold, which was impressive for its metaphysical aspects.

Where has the Mormon church gone wrong, then, in its accounts of these foundational experiences?

Today we see the witnesses as empirical, rational, twenty-first-century men instead of the nineteenth-century men they were. We have ignored the peculiarities of their world view, and by so doing, we misunderstand their experiences. Over time, we have reinterpreted their testimony so that, like with the other foundation stones, it appears to be a rational, impressive, and unique story in the history of religion.

The foundation events were rewritten by Joseph and Oliver and early church officials so the church could survive and grow.  This reworking made the stories more useful for missionary work and for fellowshipping purposes. But is this acceptable? Should we continue to tell these historically inaccurate versions today? It seems that, among the many implications that could be considered, we should ask ourselves what results have accrued from teaching an unequivocal, materialistic, and idealized narrative of our church’s founding. The first question would be whether it has brought us closer to Christ. Has it made us more humble and teachable or more secure in our exclusivity and condescending toward others? Has it made us reliant on the expectation of infallible guidance and therefore, to a degree, gullible? It is appropriate to tell simplified, faith-inspiring stories to children, but is it right to tell religious allegories to adults as if they were literal history?

Palmers’ answer to this question is “no.”  He concludes his book with an appeal to his Mormon brothers and sisters to return to what he believes to be the true core of Mormonism, Jesus Christ.  For Palmer’s conclusions, he was disfellowshipped from the Mormon Church two years after he wrote this book.