The fact is that we all have our own backgrounds that play into how we see the world, but that doesn’t negate the reasons for why we have those beliefs. I assume that if I was born in Ancient Rome I would be okay with the institution of slavery, if only for the mere fact that, as far as we can tell, virtually everybody in that society was, so I have no particular reason to believe that I would be any different; so to some extent my current anti-slavery attitudes are the result of the fluke of me happening to have been born in a particular time and place where virtually nobody is okay with slavery–but that doesn’t mean that slavery is okay or that my reasons for not believing in slavery are illegitimate.
Like many other Mormons of orthodox upbringing who read a lot, the nature of my “testimony” has been shaped and morphed over the years as I’ve incorporated new beliefs and experiences into my worldview. This process has only been good, and has ultimately led to more confidence and connection with God as I feel like the dross aspects of my childhood belief have been burnt out, leaving the core of the gospel intact.
Often this language of change and development is used by people with a relatively liberal view on the truth claims of Mormonism as they try to keep what they like about Mormonism without having to believe in some of its core components, so to be precise: I believe that the authority of Christ’s Church was lost at some point after his death, that it was restored by God through Joseph Smith, that the Book of Mormon is derived from an actual ancient text, and that the current President of the LDS Church is the only one on earth to hold all of the ecclesiastical authority given to man on the earth. In all, my theological views are quite orthodox.
These are pretty standard component parts of an LDS “testimony,” and I think they are important to believe for Mormons because they are all logically interconnected, but they really don’t form the core of what Mormonism is about–which is ultimately about light, truth, worlds without end, and eternal increase–all hinging on the atonement of Christ.
I have a sociological “testimony” of the importance of the truth claims. Some people hold that the truth claims just aren’t important; this might sort of work for people who recognize the good in religion but can’t quite bring themselves to believe, but it doesn’t make a lot of coherent sense. I see the fruits of the gospel every day in my life and the lives of my co-religionists, but religion without a core belief usually isn’t very viable as an institution or life framework because it’s not nearly as rooted. As Christ says, we can only find ourselves by losing ourselves, whereas religion undertaken for personal benefit and not something higher reverses that by trying to losing ourselves by emphasizing ourselves. So, to make it work, you have to take the truth claims seriously since they are ultimately wrapped up in the legitimacy of the rituals, beliefs, and precepts. If you just take the social aspects you’re picking at a few beans when you have a huge feast in front of you.
My belief is largely based in the fruits that I have tasted regarding the Church and the issues above. When I believe more and am more orthoprax in my practice I feel more light in my life. When I have an issue and go to God in prayer, I am clearly communicating with another distinct individual whose personality traits and attributes are revealed through his communication with me. Occasionally the responses I feel are almost wholly contrary to what I knelt down expecting, suggesting to me that the individual on the other side is a real, concrete being, and not just some psychological projection or wish fulfillment.
I don’t begrudge other religionists or secularists projecting the same feeling. I remember walking down the street as a young missionary in Spain and thinking that the pair of individuals in front of us looked Mormon, only to find out moments later that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses; I am certain that God speaks to people according to the light that they have and allows them to grow in the light as well. However, there is a certain concreteness in the LDS priesthood authority and rituals. They aren’t just another way to approach God, but are His actual ordinances, made holy in a very real sense by his direct imprimatur.
The fruits of the gospel for individuals are, to me, patently obvious. You can feel the difference with practicing, believing Mormons. You can feel it in the meetinghouses, very much so in the temples, and when listening to the leadership. Mormonism = more light.
Others have recognized this but have issues with a particular doctrinal or other point that prevent them from fully embracing the gospel. To me the doctrine tastes good. In Mormon teleology there is no stasis afterlife with an eternal chasm between us and the Ultimate. The idea of post-life progression and development that mirrors our upbringing on the earth is incredibly affirming humanistically and better qualifies God for the title of “Father.” In Mormon teleology the ultimate is eternal expansion, creation, and family. To paraphrase non-Mormon physicist Freeman Dyson, “No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory.” The idea that this life isn’t our one test, after which we settle down for eternity, but is one facet of an overarching plan that stretches into infinity in either direction rests well with me. This theological belief is for the most part unique. There are other traditions in which deification plays a part, but in most of them the individuality of the person is lost as he or she is absorbed into the collective Ultimate. Mormonism is one of the few that recognizes the limitless potential of our individuality.
The LDS beliefs about priesthood authority make sense to me. If there is a God who cares about what we do as humans, I assume that he would provide some clear mechanism for disseminating his message. Some may argue that the Bible is clear enough to provide such a mechanism but here I will have to respectfully agree to disagree. As Joseph Smith stated. “for the teachers of religion of the different sects underst[and] the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”
The doctrine tastes good, I feel light and goodness emanating from the individuals and ordinances, and I have had very clear and intimate communications from Divinity, which has responded and interacted with me as if operating under specifically Mormon premises.
I can hear the back-of-the-mind skeptic immediately rejoining with “that’s all great and nice, but how do you know?” Usually (but not always) implicit in this question is the idea that to say that you believe something it has to be established via rigorous demonstration in a laboratory or along the lines of a mathematical proof.
(Side note: some dither about the distinction between “believing” and “knowing.” I haven’t been inclined to care about this debate since I took an epistemology class in college, since the debate about whether something is truly “knowable” as opposed to everyday strong belief [I believe the sun will come up] usually revolves around pedantic word games).
This argument is kind of a non-starter. Everybody bases aspects of their life (the most important ones) on principles not demonstrated in a laboratory. It’s the classic “is-ought” problem which, again word games notwithstanding, is pretty airtight. Nothing discovered in a laboratory will ever tell you why you should get up in the morning. Whether you are conscious of it or not you too base your life around metaphysical, non-laboratory principles. So unless somebody really takes the idea that you’re a biological robot with no free will seriously (with its accompanying implications for moral culpability and the existence of objective morality), everybody has internalized a “leap of faith” and assumes that feelings on some level provide a legitimate basis for epistemology. Most of us believe pretty fundamental moral principles because to do otherwise would cause us to be queasy; we just feel in our gut that it’s wrong. People might come in afterwards and come up with complex post hoc attempts to connect the rationale to the feeling in the stomach, but those attempts often feel strained and, besides, these moral beliefs exist prior to taking a graduate level ethics class.
Once feelings are seen as epistemologically legitimate in this case, it’s not a stretch to take these feeling experiences seriously in terms of what I believe about big picture questions and how I live my life.
One could argue that others also feel similar feelings about their respective religious traditions. This may be true, but an internal feeling experience is not something that can be felt for others: I can only tell you what I feel. Again, some would argue that on some deep level my brain is creating all of these things; it’s easy to get on the slippery slope of dilettante Freudian analysis that can be applied to anything (“Why do you like chocolate?” “Because of my potty training as a child.”). At some point you just have to accept what you feel.
What role, then, for empirical evidence? In the LDS temples it is taught that all truth is circumscribed into one whole. The scientific method is invaluable, even though it is, in my opinion, fundamentally incapable of answering the big questions with anything else besides a “null” result. If God created us in his image, and if one of our defining characteristics as Homo sapiens is the ability to think and to reason, then I assume that God wants us to use our intellect. Furthermore, the idea of a God who forces us into clear, sharp reason/faith conflicts sounds more like the God of somebody who is grinding a political axe against scientists. I don’t believe in a God who plants dinosaur bones in the ground to test us.
Of course, some who are more inclined to dismiss scientific perspectives will point to past failings of science, and there are certainly many to choose from: the Piltdown Man, eugenics, the three-century old constant cock-suredness that religion will die any day now, etc. (okay, that last one was social science, which may not qualify—another essay for another day), but here the vital distinction between differing levels of certainty is lost. As any scientist will tell you, theories come and theories go—that’s part of science—but some fundamentals are pretty well established. For example, the age of the earth is not based on a single bone fragment or two but literally on different methods that all agree with each other. If the geological, chemical, and fossil evidence is wrong, God would have to intentionally be manipulating what’s left in the ground and, as noted, I have a hard time believing a priori that God would do that. The scientific method is the greatest discovery of humankind, and its opening up of the universe to us should be celebrated, and not attacked. As noted in a revelation given to Joseph Smith while he was in a dungeon: “A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld . . . if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times.” We are living through that process now, and I believe it to be one of the most exciting things about living in the latter days.
What about cases where the two (the sense experience and the empirical one) seem to be in conflict? The famous evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould came up with the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria,” or the idea that religion is responsible for one proper domain of knowledge, while science is responsible for another, and the two don’t properly have much to say to each other. For a lot of science and a lot of religion this is true, but ultimately religion does make truth claims that abut on the natural world. The idea that God intervenes in history, that Christ rose from the dead and, in the Mormon case, that God visited Joseph Smith, are all events that happened in the natural world. Some may choose to allegorize these issues but, as noted above, the logical incoherence of that position doesn’t really bode well for religious vitality. There is some interaction between the two that is fruitful. As Einstein said, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” While some may argue that the grandeur of Sagan’s “billions and billions” is enough to invoke numinous feelings, they really can’t say anything to people for whom those raw facts don’t mean much: at the end of the day it comes down to their synapses being in a slightly different configuration. Full stop.
In terms of Mormonism’s concrete truth claims, again, these are not the fundamentals regarding what is important, but they are logically fundamental in that the core fundamentals hinge on them. By itself, God’s visiting Joseph Smith is important because it led to the restoration of priesthood power, ordinances, and further light and knowledge, but it is not the Church of Native American DNA or Abrahamic pseudepigrapha. However, these issues are occasionally stumbling blocks to people who would otherwise embrace and move towards the light of the gospel, and for that reason I will describe in detail, below, my understanding of these issues; however, the space I spend on these issues should not be seen as representative of their overall importance.
At the outset, if something is demonstrably and conclusively proven scientifically, then beliefs to the contrary need to be modified. Some of my coreligionists may see holding fast to beliefs in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary as a virtue of true faith. I disagree, and simply think that the hypothetical (a clear, core Mormon belief in conflict with something that has been clearly demonstrated scientifically), is a non-starter because my sense of God’s personality and attributes is that he would never do that. In cases where there does appear to be a conflict, it is usually easily resolved by taking a step back and asking, on the religion side, what is clearly fundamental and core according to the religious faith; many supposed beliefs are held that are based on assumptions that may not be valid. For example, nine out of ten Mormons will tell you that God revealed in the book of scripture known as the Doctrine and Covenants that the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri, but that is not what the text says at all.
On the other side, one has to be cautious about what the science or history does and does not say. Internet dilettantes often rush in where real researchers fear to tread in terms of the implications of their results and the level of certainty about them. There are a few issues that often act as stumbling blocks to people accepting the light and knowledge offered by the gospel. Some of them I have grappled with more than others, but I feel at peace with each of them. Again, by themselves these are all ancillary, but they are all logically connected to the core issues, and are therefore worth addressing.
Book of Mormon Anachronisms
There are various anachronisms in the Book of Mormon: things talked about that were not in the ancient Americas. Similarly, some ideas reflect concerns in Joseph Smith’s environment in the nineteenth century, but seem out of place for an ancient text. Much of the concern here is based on the traditional notion that the Book of Mormon translation was simply a matter of Joseph Smith being given the exact words. There is one later account that supports this idea (one of his colleagues indicated that he saw the letters at the bottom of the hat), but the only first person account that we have from Joseph Smith himself on the process is in Doctrine and Covenants 9, in which it is clear that there is a this-worldly intellectual component to the process. It’s not clear what exactly this is, since Oliver Cowdery (the scribe) presumably didn’t know reformed Egyptian, so I assume it was them filling in gaps with the knowledge that they had. That may be why large swathes of the Book of Mormon appear to be copied from the Bible. Once “study[ing] it out in [their] mind” became part of the process, it opened up the possibility of nineteenth-century influences or words making their way into the Book of Mormon text. This is not the conventional interpretation of that process, but to my mind it’s the one that we derive from the most objective reading of Doctrine and Covenants 9 and it helps explain the after-the-fact editorial changes and multiple drafts of the Book of Mormon as Joseph struggled to discern the will of the Lord. So when post-ice age, pre-Columbian horses are mentioned in brief passing along with a laundry list of other animals, I have no problem believing that Joseph may have just gotten that word wrong. End of problem. Since I don’t think the historical record supports the idea of God dictating the Book of Mormon precisely word-for-word, my belief doesn’t have to be problematized by a problematic word here or there.
Similarly, I am also open to the possibility of God placing nineteenth-century themes in the Book of Mormon to help its relevance, maybe including a theme that the characters actually did discuss but didn’t make it into the book, for example. Usually ancient religious texts seem a bit off kilter in modern-day contexts. Long before Book of Mormon anachronisms were any kind of a concern, Brigham Young said:
When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities . . . I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be rewritten, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiffnecked, the Lord can tell them but little.
Positive Evidence For The Book of Mormon
Some may see this as a short jump and skip to “inspired fiction,” or the idea that the Book of Mormon is inspired but not historical in any sense. Here there are enough points in its favor as an ancient document that are objectively difficult to explain away the idea that it is fundamentally ancient rests well with me. Again, it’s nothing that would convince a skeptic, but it allows the Book of Mormon to stand on its own to some degree with the assistance of the higher-level, feeling-based reasons for believing. There are various evidences but I will include a few brief examples. In one of the verses quoting Isaiah the Book of Mormon includes a copying error from the Greek Textus Receptus manuscript that was used for the early English translations of the Bible. To me this is evidence that Joseph Smith was using a King James Bible during the translation of these verses. However, in the same verse the Book of Mormon parenthetically adds “and all the ships of the sea” at the end.
This exact phrase is also found in other, more reliable Bible translations that were very rare in nineteenth-century America. In a sense this verse is representative of the Book of Mormon containing both reasons to believe and reasons to doubt. The Book of Mormon also parenthetically mentions how Moses did not die, but was taken up by God. This idea is found in very established ancient Jewish texts (specifically Josephus), but directly contradicts the Bible. However, Joseph Smith could not spell very well and was not very well read; consequently I doubt that he was haunting the few large libraries in the United States and digging up esoteric religious texts.
This problem of an unlettered Joseph Smith producing the Book of Mormon is serious enough that various people (including a Stanford environmental science professor) have tried to historically connect the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith’s later colleagues; however, the historical narrative implicit in these attempts is quite strained. It appears that Joseph Smith, and Joseph Smith alone, dictated the Book of Mormon.
Again, these points will not convince a skeptic, but they give enough of a gritty, realistic texture to the Book of Mormon that I have no problem assuming that I am reading something based on actual ancient figures and not just taken out of somebody’s fanciful stream of thought. As somebody who received a B- in a Book of Mormon class, I can assure you that the complexity of the book and its narrative is such that Joseph Smith would have had to have been a savant-level genius to dictate it off the top of his head while keeping all of the characters, time, and storylines straight. Consequently, I have long assumed that, if I were to ever leave the Church and take a naturalistic view of the Book of Mormon, I would have to believe that Joseph had worked on an earlier draft that he was reading to his scribes, but, then, in that case, the lost 116 page incident (when one of his scribes lost the first 116 pages of the Book and they had to start over) would not make any sense because then he could have just redone it from the earlier manuscript. This is something that should at least give people pause before they automatically discard the possibility that the Book of Mormon is what it says it is.
Lack of Book of Mormon Archaeological Evidence
The Book of Mormon claims to be based on an authentic historical text covering about one thousand years of history. Some people have argued that if it were historical, then we should have found some kind of archaeological evidence for the peoples mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In principle, I understand this. I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster despite occasional eyewitness testimony because I think that if there really were a plesiosaur living in Scotland some hard evidence would have shown up by now. While it’s harder to demonstrate a negative than a positive, I believe some cases have indeed met that burden beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, in terms of archaeology and what we would expect to find, the confidence intervals are huge. For example, estimates for how many people lived in pre-Captain Cook Hawaii vary widely and are intensely debated. As noted above, there are variations in our level of surety about different scientific statements. Paleodemography is not in any way an exact science, and there’s a good chance that we know more about the age of the universe than we do about the pre-Columbian population size in the Americas. Anthropology is built around showing what was there, not showing what is not there—it flips the direction of testing and null results are harder to demonstrate.
So archaeology is not very precise to begin with. Any honest archaeologist will admit as much (there are entire lines of technology that we only know about from a handful of recovered artifacts). On the other side of the coin, even if archaeology was methodologically more precise, the Book of Mormon doesn’t really give us enough to be able to systematically investigate it on-the-ground.
First, it is important to understand the nature of the civilization discussed in the Book of Mormon. With a few exceptions, war deaths are measured in a thousand or two thousand casualties, journeys across the political units are measured in a day’s journey or two, and people can see across the different homelands of the respective civilizations from man-made towers. This is not the Roman Empire. Near the end of the book there is a final battle where about a million are killed, but otherwise the civilizations in question are clearly smaller tribes (which, interestingly, is not how it would have been pitched had Joseph Smith created it, since throughout his life he believed and implied that these civilizations covered the Americas).
Second, if the gold plates are to be taken seriously as a historical record, then it’s not a stretch to assume that they have the problems of other ancient historical records. Sometimes we assume that the gold plates are precisely accurate in terms of dates and figures when they consist of an amalgam of imperfect records. Consequently, the dates may not be accurately reported and people and events may be later interpolations based on tradition, so I’m not going to be surprised if we don’t find evidence for a million-person slaughter at exactly the year 421 AD (and even if there was, we have no idea in the Americas where it happened, or any idea whether we would find anything even if we knew when and where it happened). That’s one reason why Jaredite anachronisms in particular don’t bother me; I doubt that record was precisely preserved through the multiple millennia it purports to cover. If we combine inaccurate reporting that inevitably occurred in its ancient context, combined with the slippage between the nineteenth century and the ancient world during the translation, combined with the fact that the civilization in question is relatively small, combined with the fact that all that we know about location is that it occurred somewhere in North or South America, we have what amounts to a non-falsifiable hypothesis—which is okay: the Book of Mormon was never meant to have its veracity conclusively demonstrated using conventional academic methods.
I am often surprised at how members treat polygamy, as if it were some great mystery that we don’t really understand the divine reasons for. We do—twice the Lord has explained the rationale (in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants), and in both cases the explanation is the same: polygamy is commanded in order to increase fertility, and increase fertility it does. Polygynous societies have naturally higher fertility rates as polygyny increases marital rates, and in the era before widespread artificial contraception having children was generally controlled by marital status. It is true that some evidence suggests that later-parity plural wives have fewer children, but on the aggregate the increase in the overall marriage rate = many more children.
The critical mass of the Church in the Utah corridor that served as a base from which missionaries were sent to other areas of the world was largely created through the sky-high fertility during their time in Utah. Even if it seemed crazy at the time polygamy was introduced to suggest as much, the Church is the size that it is today because of polygamy. I think other explanations people have given may have some merit (for example, it allowed for the Church to close ranks and become a “peculiar people”) but the core justification of the issue is plainly written in the text of the revelations themselves and doesn’t require a lot of deep thought.
Another major polygamy-related concern is that its motives might really have been hedonistic in nature. This conclusion is usually drawn from stringing together a series of surface facts: Joseph Smith had around 33 wives, probably more, some of them teenagers, and there’s documentary evidence that some of them involved sex. Especially if one is predisposed towards seeing Joseph Smith as a con man in the first place it is likely that these factoids might incline one towards seeing the whole polygamy institution in Mormonism as stemming from libido.
However, when one takes the time to actually read the primary sources a more complicated, textured picture emerges. It’s not that there are slam-dunk responses to any of the points implied above, but rather that the theology undergirding it was taken very seriously by all involved and wasn’t just reducible to sex.
When one sees pictures of the women he married and reads their accounts one doesn’t get any sort of a Playboy Mansion feel. The desire for sealings to improve one’s position in the afterlife extended not just to wives, but also to the sealing of children (e.g., while Brigham Young’s multiple wives are well known, less well known is the fact that he adopted 48 members of the Church as children in one day), and there is a documented chain of theological development as the doctrines of polygamy, childbearing, and exaltation were forming. On a side note, the LDS theology of offspring and family and how it is connected to eternal glory and deification is perhaps one of the major reasons why Mormons have significantly larger families today, and I personally have a strong testimony in the role of numerous family kin laying “at the very foundation of everything worthy to be called happiness.”
Joseph Smith also pressured nearly all other male members of the hierarchy to enter into polygamy, even when doing so meant more exposure, risk to himself, and potential apostasy of some of his closest adherents. This wasn’t the textbook case of some local New Religious Movement leader appropriating all of the females in the group for himself. Disseminating the doctrine among others provided more physical risk to him as well as serious domestic contention with his main wife, Emma.
Now, it is entirely possible that all of this was conjured up and gradually developed to allow Joseph to fulfill his carnal appetites, but that would have been the most time- and effort-intensive (not to mention dangerous) way to have a few illicit sexual encounters (and they do appear to be a few—while his main wife Emma continued to bear children through this, all of the rumored children of plural wives for whom we have DNA evidence have been shown to not be Joseph Smith’s children).
One other issue that sometimes arises is the fact that Joseph Smith was sealed to women who were married to other men. We know hardly anything about these relationships besides their bare existence, and people come to different conclusions based on different premises. First and foremost, if one is okay with the idea that a man can have more than one sexual partner, one should also be okay with the idea of a woman having more than one sexual partner, so sexual polyandry (a woman having more than one husband) does not bother me any more than sexual polygyny (a man having more than one wife) does. Nonetheless, my reading of the historical record makes me assume that these were sealings in name only, and did not include a sexual component. First, polyandry doesn’t fit into the theological edifice constructed around polygamy. Second, the “culture of honor” attitudes of the day saw sexual relations with married women as a major infringement on the rights of the husband (even more so than today), and a case in which violence may be warranted, yet we have no record of any disgruntled husbands, which is even more compelling given that some of these husbands were not members of the Church. Those points, combined with the fact that there is no direct evidence for sexual relations in these sealings, leads me to believe that they were in-name-only, as was explicitly done in later polygamous marriages that were drawing on the Nauvoo era as a template.
Finally, some raise the age of wives as an issue. Specifically, two of Joseph Smith’s wives were fourteen at the time they married him (although some have argued that these were also non-sexual marriages, but I don’t remember the particulars of that argument). The fact is that at the time there was no stigma against marriage at that age. Some may argue that it is wrong to marry a fourteen-year-old in any age or context, but they are making that call from a day and age when life expectancy is into the 70s and 80s. Our lifespans have lengthened, and with that, the intervals between major life events have expanded. If people in the nineteenth century waited until they had completed graduate school and made partner before they had children, they could easily have been dead for ten years before they had their first child. There are very good, valid reasons for why societies with much shorter lifespans tend to bear children at younger ages.
Book of Abraham
Book of Abraham concerns arise from a volume of Mormon scripture which was based on papyri that were believed by Joseph Smith to have been the writings of Abraham. At least a portion of these papyri were later found, and the Egyptian writings do not bear any relationship to the Book of Abraham text. There’s a technical Egyptological and historical debate about whether Joseph Smith used the portion of the papyri that we now have for the Book of Abraham; I was once up on that particular debate but I’ve forgotten a lot of the details.
In the end, I’m disinclined to believe that Abrahamic records really made it across the millennium accurate and intact before they were written down on papyrus, and I just think that Joseph Smith got it wrong in terms of what the papyri were. That being said, some of his takes on Egyptological symbols found in one part of the papyri that we do know very directly about—the facsimiles (the pictures on the papyri) —were, in my opinion better than you would get if you were guessing, and touch on gospel principles through the lens of ancient Egyptology. Many people assume that the whole set of facsimiles interpretations is wrong, if one puts all the “this is what you should think”s aside and objectively examines the parallels themselves, I believe they’re fairly compelling on the whole when compared to the alternative of lucky guessing.
For example, the image in Facsimile 2 identified by Joseph Smith as the location where God lives is the symbol for the Egyptian creator god; similarly, the four gods of the four cardinal directions were identified by Joseph Smith as a symbol of the four cardinal directions, a boat identified by Joseph Smith as (among other things) a symbol for one thousand is a boat that in Egyptological mythology is sailed by a god for one thousand cubits, etc. If you do not want to believe, none of this forces you into some epistemological corner, but it’s conspicuous enough to open up a space for belief if slam dunk word-for-word perfect translation isn’t assumed.
I get the sense that the translations here were similar to the Book of Mormon translation, the product of his own efforts and the spirit, but not so much a precise word-for-word communication. If the prophet of some other New Religious Movement demonstrated similar coincidences in his interpretation of ancient Egyptian records, it certainly wouldn’t convince me to convert and wholeheartedly follow it, but after faith it’s a confirmation and is one extra little thing that carves out a space for faith.
In terms of how Joseph Smith could have possibly misidentified the papyri: there were various instances were Joseph Smith identified artifacts in a very specific way: he supposedly identified a skeleton as belonging to a Lamanite named Zelph, and he identified an altar in Missouri as belonging to Adam. These specific idiosyncrasies never really made it into the core gospel elements or became part of the core institutional Church, and the most we have from them are a diary account here and there from somebody else. Often we tend to see revelation as some clear either/or, when it is clear from descriptions of the process that, while clear revelations do exist, once again much of the process involves intellectual and spiritual struggle, and I am okay with the idea that Joseph may have seen some things in those artifacts that stemmed from something other than pure revelation from God. He was a man of his day, and his world was full of magical and fantastical elements that were a part of the conscious substrate that he was working from, so I am okay with some of that leaking into his religious experience as long as it doesn’t appear that it affects the core elements.
A relevant question here is whether Joseph Smith believed in what he said here, or whether, perhaps like L. Ron Hubbard, he was making fantastical things up for fun. Here the general consensus is that he was sincere in his belief about the Abrahamic records. There is some evidence that Joseph Smith tried to decipher Egyptian by reverse translating the Book of Abraham. Furthermore, he used this attempt at reverse translation to try to decipher some plates that were brought to him (now known to be a hoax). It’s clear from all of the records that he at least thought that his translation was correct. The evidence here is compelling enough that, if I were to leave the Church and adopt a naturalistic perspective about the origins of Mormonism, I’ve decided that the most likely scenario is that Joseph Smith started Mormonism as a hoax (the tangibility of the gold plates and the eleven witnesses don’t allow the sincere-but-delusional option), but gradually grew to believe his own fabrications, because it’s clear that by the Kirtland/Nauvoo period he was sincere in his beliefs about his prophetic abilities. Much of what he did does not add up if it is assumed that he was doing it as a con-man for his own gain.
Masonry and the Temple
The LDS temple ceremonies have a number of elements that are clearly related to freemasonry in some way. The old interpretation of these connections was that masonry itself was derived from the ancient Israelite temple rituals, but historically it’s dubious that there would be an uninterrupted chain from the ancient Israelite temple to the earliest solid historical record for masonic ceremonies, and today the Church has no official stance on the connections between the LDS temple ceremonies and freemasonry. While the details and specifics are obviously masonic, the structure of the temple endowment ceremony reflects themes found all over the ancient world (e.g. Wikipedia “Eleusinian Mysteries”): concentric spaces of increasing holiness and decreasing profaneness, liturgical re-enactments of creation stories, the use of secret names, words, or tokens for admittance into areas of holiness and teaching, and most importantly, symbolic entry into the presence of God. God speaks to different peoples in their own ways and according to their own understanding, and I believe that for the early nineteenth century the masonic rituals were the most accessible framework through which Joseph Smith could be instructed that could tap into that archetypal temple theme found throughout the world. These connections aren’t parallelomania, and they aren’t grasping for straws. It’s clear that through the temple ceremonies Joseph Smith tapped into something more archetypal and ancient than was found in his immediate, largely low-Church Protestant surroundings and historical context.
On a similar but distinct note, I have a strong belief in LDS temples as holy places. Some of the defining architectural characteristics of the earliest Gothic cathedrals in France were innovations designed to let cathedrals have bigger windows so that they could let in as much light as possible to convey a celestial feeling. LDS temples carry on this tradition and are bathed in bright light. If there is any location on earth that is representative of the presence of God, it is the celestial room of an LDS temple. LDS temples are not just historically interesting artifacts, but with full parking lots and waiting rooms, pulse with the holy rituals and experiences of a living religion.
My own experiences and perspectives are probably not much help for people who struggle with the Church due to social issues, simply because I am right wing by disposition and, if anything, my Mormonism drags me to the left on certain issues. The Church’s gendered theology is grounded in the belief that there is a Heavenly Mother and a Heavenly Father. This is a radically feminist theological point, but it is also simultaneously deeply heteronormative. Many liberal Mormons try to have their cake and eat it too, either by 1) simply ignoring the logical inconsistency of demanding both a Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father while simultaneously arguing for the validity of same-sex deification, or 2) redefining Heavenly Mother out of existence by de-sexing her. My concordance with the Church’s position here is based on my belief that sex/gender is an eternal principle, and that deification takes both halves of humanity to form one complementary whole, that female-ness and male-ness are both part of the fundamental reality of the universe, and are not mere social constructs.
Those are the basic common stumbling blocks for people who are otherwise naturally attracted to the Church but can’t quite bring themselves to continue forward. There are other odds and ends—you can find them online—but most of them have pretty solid answers. For me personally there aren’t any major items left “on the shelf” that I just ignore; my framework accounts for all of it, consequently I feel that I can enjoy the light and truth that comes into my life by simply assuming and acting according to the premise that the gospel is what it says it is. While doubt may initially have a role in developing a mature and seasoned outlook, at some point full doubt needs to be cast off for full spiritual maturity.
To reiterate—my testimony is not based on the responses to the issues outlined above, but rather on the spirit manifested in the people, rituals, and spirit of Mormonism. I can play apologetic defense, but ultimately it is other things that cause the concrete positive reason for me believing.
Do I want to believe? Yes, and the desire to believe does play a role in having that belief—Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon said as much, long before the term “confirmation bias” was coined. There is a common question of why God would judge somebody for having an honest non-belief. I think that the fact that the desire to believe and the act of believing are connected answers this concern, since if anything is rooted in our bald free will, it’s the desire for something, net of whatever predispositions towards faith belief we might have, and attributes stemming out of our own free will are grounds for critique or acclamation in ways that a predisposition not stemming from our free will is not (something people who don’t believe in free will rarely acknowledge).
So yes, I believe. I have tasted the fruits of Mormonism, and they are good to me.
Posted September 2018 on FairMormon.org
Stephen Cranney is a government education and social stratification statistician and an occasional freelance data scientist. He has a joint Ph.D. in Demography and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Demography from University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in Political Science from Brigham Young University. His research interests center around education, fertility intentions, sexuality, and the social psychology of religion.