Summary: The critics of the Book of Mormon claim that Joseph Smith either copied from someone else the story found in the Book of Mormon or he invented the entire story on his own. However, after almost 200 years of exhaustive research, using the most up-to-date investigative tools, no one has ever been able to prove either theory. Yet, at the same time, there are thing written in the Book of Mormon that its defenders have a hard time explaining. But how can this be if the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God? This article examines this question and provides the answer.
The apostle Paul told the saints living in Corinth, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), and in the book of Hebrews, he gave an example of this when he said, “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (Hebrews 11:7).
It wasn’t raining when God told Noah to build an ark, so he had to make a decision. Did he believe his eyes, when he looked up and saw a clear blue sky, or did he believe what God had told him that it was going to rain so hard that he would need a ship to survive the coming deluge? Either way, it took faith for him to make his decision because he didn’t know which option was correct. And we face those same kinds of decisions today.
The critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that Joseph Smith copied the story in this book from someone else’s work. However, after almost 200 years of exhaustive research, using the most up-to-date investigative tools, no one has ever been able to prove that Joseph relied on any source of information whatsoever when writing the Book of Mormon, therefore the critics have had to rely on the theory that he made up this entire book from his own imagination.
But here again they’ve been stymied in explaining how an uneducated farm boy who was only twenty-three years old, living in the outer fringes of 1800 rural America could have made up such a highly complex story that included deep religious philosophy, sound military strategies, have an in-depth understanding of human psychology, and an intricate knowledge of political theory. Some have suggested he was a genius to explain how he did this, but their theories fall apart the closer we examine them
For example, when composing the Book of Mormon Joseph had a scribe by the name of Oliver Cowdery who, at age twenty-two, wrote down nearly every word of the Book of Mormon as Joseph dictated them to him. During this time, he and Joseph were visited by John, the Baptist, and three of Christ’s original apostles, Peter, James, and John.
Oliver then assisted Joseph is going over the manuscript of the Book of Mormon once it was completed, and then he lent his support in helping get this book published. In April of 1830, when Joseph Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ, as it was then called, Joseph was sustained by the members as the first elder of this new church and Oliver was sustain as the “second elder,” effectively making him a co-leader alongside of Joesph.
Oliver was then sent on a missionary journey to Missouri, a distance of about three hundred miles, to preach to the America Indians, but while in the town of Kirtland, Ohio, he was instrumental in converting a number of people through the use of preaching about the Book of Mormon and its divine origin, and over the next several years he continued doing missionary work through the use of the Book of Mormon in converting people to the Church of Jesus Christ. What we see from his history is that he was intimately and heavily involved in both the writing, promoting, and convincing people that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, translated from an authentic ancient record written on gold plates.
However, a short six years later, Oliver began to have philosophical disagreements with Joseph Smith over a variety of issues, and he also began to compete for leadership of the church against Joseph. He accused Joseph of mismanaging church funds and spread rumors that Joseph was committing adultery. In time, his disaffection led to him and others to convince members of the church to question Joseph’s claim to be a true prophet of God. On April 12, 1838 a council of the church considered several charges that had been brought against Oliver, and after considering all the evidence, they voted to have him excommunicated, along with several other men who had also been part of bringing forth the Book of Mormon.
However, despite Oliver’s desire to lead the Church of Jesus Christ himself, he didn’t seek to start his own religious organization to compete with Joseph’s once he left the church. Instead, he went to law school and remained in Ohio to pursue a career as a lawyer and later became active in politics.
Because of the grudge he held against Joseph Smith, Oliver had every reason to expose the fraud that he and Joseph had perpetrated on gullible people by telling everyone the details of how he knew that the Book of Momon was a complete work of fiction, that there were no gold plates that had been delivered to Joseph by an angel, and that his written testimony wherein he declared he had personally been shown the plates by an angel, was all a hoax.
Even if what Joseph said about the Book of Mormon was true, Oliver could have lied and made false statements just to smear Joseph’s reputation as he had done prior to his excommunication, out of pure revenge. Furthermore, he had no incentive to maintain his testimony of the Book of Mormon. In fact, by not renouncing it, he left himself and his reputation, open to ridicule. But there is no record that he ever denied the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, even once.
Then, in 1848, Oliver traveled more than a thousand miles to Utah and asked to be readmitted to the church, even though he would never again hold any position of authority in it. In the face of these well documented and undisputed facts, the claim that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction invented by Joseph Smith in collusion with Oliver Cowdery is impossible to maintain.
This is just one many, many examples that could be cited about the Book of Mormon providing strong convincing evidence that it is what Jospeh Smith claimed it to be – a translation of an ancient record, accomplished through the gift and power of God.
However, on the other hand, there are things about the Book of Mormon that its supporters have trouble defending. For example, there are many places in its pages where we find words and phrases that are nearly identical to what is found in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.
When we consider that most of what’s in the Book of Mormon happened before the birth of Christ, and that many of the biblical phrases found in it are nearly word for word in what was written hundreds of years later by the writers of the New Testament, it gives the clear impression that Joseph Smith copied or closely paraphrased these words from the New Testament and inserted them into the Book of Mormon to make it sound more scriptural.
For two people, living at two different time frames, living in two widely separate places, having different cultures, to use the same phrase once or perhaps twice, is extremely rare, but to see this sort of thing happen frequently is very, very difficult to explain. In fact, there is no evidence to show that this kind of thing has ever happened before. There is a word that describes this kind of literary activity. It’s called plagiarism, and that’s one of the stronger pieces of evidences the critics of the Book of Mormon use to discredit it.
But there are other things found in the Book of Mormon that are equally puzzling. Although it’s true that many of the things the critics have complained about the Book of Mormon have been adequately explained away, which tends to add greater credibility to the authenticity of the book, yet there are other things that can’t be explained.
For example, throughout the Book of Mormon we are given many very precise details of the geography where the Nephites lived. It tells us there was a sea on the east and on the west (Alma22:27), that there was a narrow neck of land on the north “being a day’s journey for a Nephite… from the west sea to the east,” (Helaman 4:6-7). It talks about a large river they called Sidon that emptied into the west sea (Ama 50:11). The main city in the Book of Mormon was called Zarahemla that was quite large in size and very metropolitan in its culture, and there are also many, many other cities and their locations which are mentioned.
Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that the place where the events in the Book of Mormon took place is in Central America, and even though many people in this church have sought to identify exactly where this land is located, not only do they disagree with one another’s theories, but professional archeologists have not been able to positively identify any area in all of Central America that perfectly matches the detailed description of geography contained in the Book of Mormon.
Others have suggested that the land of Zarahemla was not in Central America but in North America, around the Great Lakes area of Ohio. Others have suggested it was around the state of Florida, while others claim it was in the Midwestern United States. But, despite personal theories that purport to show where the Nephites lived, all of them have serious deficiencies in their theories when we compare them to the geographical descriptions found in the Book of Mormon.
In the end, what we are left with is that there is strong evidence to support the Book of Mormon’s claim to be actual history, and there is strong evidence that casts credible doubt on that claim.
However, this is nothing new because we find this same situation existing in the Bible.
Christians believe the Bible was written by holy men who were inspired by God (2 Peter1:21). Therefore, they claim that everything in the Bible is absolutely true. That means the Bible is an accurate account of history, and that everything contained in it is free from error.
As evidence of this, archeological research, done by many professional archeologists, both Christians and non-Christians alike, have verified many of the places recorded in the Bible. For example, we know from historical records that Jesus did exist, that his apostle did go throughout the known world teaching the gospel of salvation through a belief in Jesus as the Christ. Historical documents have verified most of the kings of Israel and the kings of other countries as recorded in the Bible.
Even the dates of certain events, such as the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and by the Romans have all been verified. All of this provides strong evidence that the Bible is what it claims to be, namely that it was written by holy men of God as moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and is an accurate history of the Israelite people.
Given this fact, it is therefore certain that the description of God’s dealings with mankind such as God appearing to Moses in a burning bush, or the visions of Ezekial, or Saul’s vision of Jesus while traveling on the road to Damascus, can be considered reliably accurate, even though these things are impossible to physically verify.
All of this then gives people greater confidence in believing that the doctrines taught in the Bible are likewise true, such as Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for our sins, that he rose from the grave, and that believing on his name is the only way to get into heaven.
However, there are other things about the Bible that suggests otherwise.
For example, the account of the creation of the world doesn’t fit with a what science has discovered about how the earth was formed. The story of Adam and Eve is likewise in direct opposition to what science has discovered through fossil remains about the origins of man. Furthermore, despite much research into the history of Egypt, there are no records that support the existence of a man named Moses, nor any evidence of even one of his ten plagues happening, or even the existence of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, let alone a mass exodus of them.
Although there is some scanty evidence that a man named Jesus lived during the time the Bible says, there are no extra-biblical accounts of even one of his miracles. Not even the historian, Josephus, mentions that Jesus performed any miracles. Given how amazing they were (raising the dead, feeding 5,000 people), and given that the Bible says that his fame spread abroad all throughout the region (Mark 1:28), this lack of any recorded mention by anyone of even one of his wonderous miracles is hard to explain.
What we see then is that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon have abundant evidence to support their claim to being the word of God, and they also contain abundant evidence to cast serious doubt on that claim.
The prophet Lehi taught that there must be opposition in all things (2 Nephi 2:11, emphasis added), and the apostle Paul taught that we are saved by faith (Romans 3:28). In order to have faith in something there has to be the existence of opposites. The Chinese refer to this as the ying and the yang. It is impossible to make a decision unless there are two or more competing things to choose between, and when we don’t know for sure which one is the correct choice, then we’re forced to make our decision based on an educated guess, which is another way of saying faith.
For example, at the time when Jesus lived on the earth, there were many men who went about proclaiming themselves to be the promised Messiah who was sent by God to defeat Israel’s enemies (in this case the Roman Empire) and establish a new Jewish kingdom that would rule the world. This is what the Jews were expecting, but the question they had to decide was, “Is this Jesus the real Messiah, or is he no different than all the other false Messiahs?” This is why “the Jews came round about [Jesus], and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). Even Jesus asked his own disciples, saying, “Whom do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).
The reason why it took faith to believe in Jesus back then was because there were many other people claiming to be the promised Messiah that, despite his many miracles, there were those who saw evidence that seem to suggest to them that Jesus was a charlatan. For one, his message wasn’t about how he was going to overthrow the Roman Empire. In fact, he said nothing bad about Rome. For another reason, his small band of twelve men didn’t act like soldiers of war but rather went around preaching peace. There was nothing about this man Jesus that made people think he was the kind of Messiah they were looking for.
It’s the combination of positive and negative evidence that creates doubt in people’s minds of what is true and what isn’t. Therefore, what we see is that God deliberately makes it hard to either believe or not believe.in him because he doesn’t give us any clear answer one way or the other. As Lehi taught his family, “ye are free to act for yourselves–to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life” (2 Nephi 10:23). But to do that we have to make a choice, based on faith of which evidence we want to accept and what evidence we want to overlook or discount.
Someone who believes in Christ will choose to believe the biblical evidence that to them “proves” God is real, while overlooking or making excuses for those things that don’t fit what they want to believe. On the other hand, an atheist will choose to focus on all the errors in the Bible and dismiss the evidence that shows that the Bible is God’s word to mankind. And the same is true of the Book of Mormon. There is strong evidence that both supports as well as discounts this book of scripture as coming from God, and for that reason it takes faith to believe in it.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Scripture