While somewhat uncomfortable with the term “Mormon scholar” as it applies to me, I have worked very hard to achieve my academic credentials and that hard work does seem to justify adding my voice to the chorus. Thus, I have finally decided to toss my hat into the ring beside that of my father, Mormon Tabernacle Organist Emeritus Robert Cundick, whose name I share, and who was one of the earliest contributors here.
Surely there has never been a time when heartfelt feelings about religion were viewed with more skepticism than in our day. Feelings are seen as barriers to reason. The search for knowledge must be conducted dispassionately because emotion can cloud objectivity and lead us astray. But while my professional life has been lived in the world of science, as the child of a musician—and from twenty years as a singer in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—I have experienced another home in the world of the arts. And how could an artist deny the power of feelings and emotion? The genius of artistic creativity would be impossible without them.
Thus it is that I am unashamed to admit that feelings play a large part in my belief that in 1820 a teenaged boy living in upstate New York knelt in prayer in a grove of trees to seek light and knowledge from our Father in Heaven. Joseph Smith’s prayer was answered with a glorious vision in which he saw and spoke with God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ. As a result of that vision and others to follow, Joseph was eventually led to a stone box hidden on a hillside. Within the box were golden plates containing the engraved record of a civilization that existed somewhere upon the American continent between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. These plates had been expressly preserved to come forth in our day. With God’s help, Joseph translated the record and published it in 1830 as “The Book of Mormon.” The book’s most remarkable feature is its account of a visit of Jesus Christ to the Americas following his resurrection.
This is the point where the skeptic will doubtless pause and say, “How can an educated person possibly believe such things?” Indeed, only this afternoon I encountered an article expressing this very reaction from evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, who opined that anyone who could believe in Mormonism is a “massively gullible fool.”
Marginalized to the class of gullible fools, what have I to say for myself?
First of all, if there is one thing of which I am absolutely sure, it is of the existence of a God whose spiritual children we are and who hears and answers our prayers. My evidence? Certainly it is nothing that an evangelist of nonbelievers would accept. It is simply the warmth that I feel when I approach Him in prayer, the insights and inspiration He gives to me, and the tangible support I have felt throughout my life whenever I have called upon Him.
All I can say to someone who doubts this reality is that you will never know until you kneel down and try it for yourself. Ask Him if He is there, and then listen. Be patient. If you are sincere and express a willingness to believe in Him, He will answer. You will have to take a leap of faith and trust your feelings, but if you do so, your confidence that He lives will grow to the point where it can reach a kind of certainty. While this will never qualify as proof in the scientific sense, you can nevertheless be very sure of it.
But what of Joseph Smith? How can I have confidence in such a story? How can I believe that a man who thumbed his nose at the religious establishment of his time, told stories of golden plates that were later conveniently returned to an angel, and introduced the controversial practice of polygamy [a practice which, by the way, I believe served as an Abrahamic-like test of faith, and which I fervently hope will never be asked of the church again]—how can I believe that such a man could have been called of God? The short answer is, “I have read The Book of Mormon many times and found it to be the surest testament that Joseph’s story is true.”
Google “Book of Mormon” and you’ll find all kinds of assertions as to why it cannot possibly be true. I’m sure I have read just about every argument there is. But to me, what the arguments continually fail to account for is how an uneducated young man such as Joseph Smith could possibly have produced a religious book of such great depth. Consider this:
The best available scholarship suggests that what Joseph described as translation took place as he put special stones inside of a hat and pressed the hat to his face. He would then dictate to a scribe. He first used a pair of stones he referred to as “the Nephite interpreters.” These were with the plates when he found them and have since come to be known as the “Urim and Thummim.” Later, he used a “seer stone”—a small oval-shaped stone a little smaller than a hen’s egg. Pressing the hat to his face apparently helped him eliminate outside distractions and focus his spiritual awareness. Whether he saw the words he dictated or simply expressed impressions that came to him we cannot know for sure, but while focusing in this way, he dictated for hours upon end.
Yes, in our day this sounds like superstitious nonsense and makes it easy for people like Dawkins to dismiss the whole thing with the wave of a hand. Joseph’s father-in-law, Isaac Hale, thought that he was pretending and that it was all a conspiracy to extract money from gullible people. Taking the story upon its surface, I can sympathize with that reaction. However, here’s the problem:
If Joseph was pretending, if he was making it all up as he went along, or even if he had spent a great deal of time beforehand working out what he was going to dictate to the scribe, how could he possibly have produced—speaking with his face buried in a hat and without asking to review the manuscript—a book of over 500 pages that would have any sense of coherency? Add to that the presence of sophisticated ancient literary devices such as chiasmus, or the powerful imagery and exposition of Lehi’s dream of the tree of life, or a detailed knowledge of ancient olive tree cultivation demonstrated by the allegory of the olive tree, or the profundity of King Benjamin’s speech, and it is even more baffling. These are but a few examples. Scholars have pointed out many remarkable complexities in the book that would not be apparent to the casual reader.
I have reviewed and rewritten the words of this short testament many times. I cannot imagine working it through in my mind, then dictating it once from memory and leaving it to stand with only minor grammatical corrections.
Given Joseph’s wife, Emma’s, later recollection that “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon,” other theories have been proposed. It has been suggested that he must have obtained a manuscript from someone else or written the text in advance while borrowing heavily from other sources. But here, too, a major difficulty arises. Joseph dictated the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon to a man named Martin Harris. Harris pleaded with Joseph to let him take the pages home to show to others, including his wife, who were skeptical about what was going on. After Joseph reluctantly allowed him to do so, the pages were lost.
Joseph was devastated. After a time he began again, but rather than repeat the same material, he translated from what was described as a separate account of the same time period taken from a different section of the plates.
“A likely story,” one may say. Joseph knew that he could not reproduce the precise text of the lost pages and so he manufactured an excuse as to why it came out differently the second time. But the point is that this clearly contradicts the theory that he was dictating from a manuscript. If that were so, the lost pages would not have presented a crisis. Joseph would simply have read them off again.
Regardless of the precise nature of the process, the bottom line for me is what was actually produced. For the serious reader the book defies easy categorization. Give it a cursory glance as did Mark Twain and you can simply pass it off as “chloroform in print.” But give it the benefit of a close, prayerful reading, and you’ll find unexpected depth.
Yes, there are chapters and verses that mirror the Bible. There are even a few verses with close parallels in the New Testament. With the exception of the section on the visit of Jesus Christ, it would seem that these verses must have come from somewhere besides the plates since ancient American prophets would not have had contact with the old world at the time. Perhaps in some cases both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament were drawing upon earlier, common scriptural sources. But elements that seem to have been influenced by sources outside of the plates may also tell us something about the translation process. Perhaps it was not as literal as many would like to think.
In any case, elements that appear to have come from the Bible or the times and culture in which Joseph lived are seamlessly interwoven with events and descriptions that, to me, ring true as authentic ancient history. In this mixture, my artistic sense sees similarities to an impressionistic painting. Monet, for example, created works that transcend the literal scene. They are as much atmosphere as depiction. When I view them it is as though I am sensing something half remembered and ever longed for.
In the same way, I can see the Book of Mormon as the product of a kind of spiritual impressionism. That is not to imply that it is not based on the actual record of an ancient civilization. But just as Monet transformed literal scenes into something more, so might the Holy Spirit have helped Joseph to combine echoes of the religious life of an ancient civilization with inspired insights from the Bible and his own experience to form a work that both surpasses the verbatim translation and integrates teachings important to the founding of a modern-day church.
Let the critics quibble over individual brush strokes. For me, the whole of the canvas—from “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents” to “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true”—is a spiritual masterpiece. And its major focus, even while recounting events of war and conflict, is always upon the life and mission of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
By a process that may seem strange to us but is not so foreign to the world of the past, Joseph Smith produced a new scripture that is especially suited to the needs of our day. The Book of Mormon both affirms and clarifies the mission of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Bible. My testimony of its truth does not rest upon whether there were horses or elephants in ancient America (two examples of issues raised by critics—horses and elephants are among animals that, while only briefly referenced in the book, are not proven to have existed in the new world during Book of Mormon times). Details that Joseph may have gotten wrong are trivial given all that he got right.
I always have to return to his own description of how the book came about, and, fantastic as it may seem, it continues to make the most sense to me. He described the translation process as “the gift and power of God” and I can think of no better explanation than that. And as with the Bible, the Book of Mormon is best appreciated and comprehended by prayerfully seeking help from our Heavenly Father.
Yes, those golden plates may at first sound far-fetched. But what other writing medium would likely survive for centuries buried underground? The Dead Sea Scrolls—another set of ancient records hidden in hopes of preservation—were written upon animal skins. Many of these disintegrated over the years, leaving only fragments. Absent the good fortune of an unusually dry ambient climate they would not have survived at all.
And we are not limited to Joseph Smith’s word that the plates existed. Three witnesses testified that they were shown them by an angel of God, and Joseph showed them personally to eight others. Though critics have worked hard to discount these witnesses, I have found nothing that convinces me they should not be taken at face value—especially given that the three who saw the angel became disaffected and left the church (two later returned) and yet went to their graves affirming the truth of their witness.
Furthermore, my convictions are not limited to the events of the early nineteenth century; more light has shown upon us through the intervening years. We have loved and appreciated every president of the church. The strengths and inspiration of each have always seemed to match the needs of their time and there has never been a hint of insincerity in our beloved hymn, “We Thank Thee, Oh God, for a Prophet.” But the church is nonetheless an institution led by mortals doing their best to listen for God’s direction. It is not perfect, although it is sometimes difficult to resist a natural desire for it to be so. And I suspect that important changes have sometimes had to wait until the people as a whole were ready to receive them.
Have I convinced you that my words are true? Not likely unless you were already convinced. But I do hope that I have at least helped you to better understand how intelligent, educated people can believe such things, and perhaps even prompted you to inquire further. If you want to understand what Mormons really believe, the first thing you should do is read The Book of Mormon. The most important question is whether or not this book comes from God, and I believe that it does.
Several years ago my father was commissioned to write a choral piece to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the prophet Joseph Smith. Dad conceived of a dialog between the chorus, representing the modern day church, and a soloist, representing Joseph Smith. It was my privilege to compose the text. Towards the end, the chorus sings these words to Joseph, speaking of our Savior, Jesus Christ:
So as He appeared unto you,
We know that we, too, shall see Him,
Whether in this life or in the world to come.
And we shall fall at His feet and worship Him;
And shall testify with our tears of our love for Him;
And shall smile as we look on His tender face in gratitude.
One of the things I love most about Mormon doctrine is that we don’t believe people will be condemned on judgment day simply because they were unable to find or embrace God’s truth in this life. If not here, everyone will have a fair opportunity to learn about, understand, and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ in the afterlife. [That’s what our practices of proxy baptism and other temple work are all about, but that’s a subject for another day.]
I believe that one day, each of us¬—Mormon and non-Mormon alike—will be a participant in the scene I have described above. And on that day, all will know that what was only vaguely perceived or not discovered at all by many here upon earth is in fact the central truth of the universe: God, our Heavenly Father, lives. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is real.
May we all one day greet one another in their presence and rejoice in the opportunity they have given us to learn from our experiences here upon earth!
And finally, when all is said and done, it is my conviction that our Heavenly Father has left the choice to believe as an exercise of individual free will. Scientific proof of beliefs about God and realities beyond the physical world will not come in this life, nor is it meant to. Confirmation from our Heavenly Father is only given upon terms of faith. “…Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Luke 11:9). Our choice to believe is our knock upon God’s door. Once that is accomplished, we need only ask Him to open.
If you choose to believe, you will find many convincing reasons to do so. If you choose not to believe, you will doubtless find many reasons for that, too. But I am glad that I have made the choice to believe. God has blessed me greatly; this choice has led me to great happiness in this life and great hope for the life to come. I would urge any who read this to perform the “experiment” of choosing to believe. I am confident that if you are sincere in your efforts, the result will be the same for you.
Posted January 2013 on FairMormon.org
Robert Milton (“Robb”) Cundick, Jr., earned a BA in Biology and PhD in Medical Biophysics and Computing (now known as Medical Informatics) from the University of Utah. From 1970-72 he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany. Since graduation in 1978 he has pursued a career in medical software development, having worked at Technicon Instruments, Inc. of Tarrytown, New York, and the Department of Medical Informatics at the University of Utah, where he worked closely with Dr. Homer Warner as a chief developer of the medical expert system Iliad. For the past sixteen years he has developed research database applications for Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City. He also teaches a course, “Decision Support Systems,” for the online Medical Informatics program at Northwestern University. From 1990 through 2011 he sang 2nd Tenor in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and he currently serves as webmaster for the Choir’s internal and public websites. He is married to the former Laurel Soderborg and has five children and eight grandchildren.