The CES Letter, Explained

Introduction to The CES Letter

The CES Letter was written by Jeremy Runnells, a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called the Mormon Church, or LDS Church. It is titled “The CES Letter” because Runnells wrote the letter to a friend of his grandfather who was a CES (Church Education System) director. Runnells stated this in his letter: “I’m a disaffected member who lost his testimony so it’s no secret which side I’m on at the moment,” implying his feelings and actions were opposed to the Mormon Church. Runnells says that his letter lists all of his personal problems with the Mormon Church and its history, however, he crowdsourced at least some of the content of his letter from an ex-Mormon Reddit group. The letter has had its own website since 2013 and has been edited to soften its tone and change some of its sources. One of the changes includes its title “The CES Letter: My search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts,” and its third title change since the publication of the CES Letter. Mormonism Explained will simply refer to it as the CES Letter. A CES Letter summary: the CES Letter covers thirteen topics and many more subtopics. Among these topics, Runnells addresses historical topics like Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, polygamy, and priesthood restoration. He also addresses doctrinal topics like spiritual witnesses to truth and the nature of God.

Critics View & Factual Responses

What is the CES Letter?

The CES Letter Mormon was written by Jeremy Runnells, a former member of the Mormon Church. Runnells wrote the letter to voice his grievances with the LDS Church. He addressed the letter to a friend of his grandfather’s, a CES (Church Education System) director...
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A CES Letter Summary: What Should I Know?

The CES Letter contains thirteen arguments against Mormonism. The topics addressed by the CES Letter are: the Book of Mormon, Book of Mormon translation, the first vision, the Book of Abraham...
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The CES Letter is Crowd-sourced

The CES Letter is a crowd-sourced compilation of many anti-Mormon arguments. The document is presented as a personal letter written by Jeremy Runnells to a CES director. The author never received a reply...
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Critiques of Joseph Smith in the CES Letter

The CES letter criticizes Joseph Smith in various ways. A CES Letter summary of these arguments against Joseph Smith follows. First, the CES Letter claims Joseph Smith wrote (not translated)...
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Critiques of Mormon Prophets in the CES Letter

The CES Letter questions the Mormon belief in prophets and focuses on five teachings and events around prophets. Part of the CES Letter’s argument relies on an assumption that prophets are infallible, or can’t make mistakes...
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Untrustworthy Testimonies and the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon

The concept of testimony and spiritual witnesses comes under fire by the Mormon CES Letter. The idea that there are truths that can be known by spiritual means...
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“Other Topics” and the CES Letter

The final section of the CES Letter Mormon lists “other” arguments against the Mormon Church. Some of these arguments are the church’s lack of financial transparency, censorship in the church...
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Explanation of the CES Letter

There are some basic principles that each reader needs to understand before delving into this response to the CES Letter: first, the rhetorical strategy used by the author of the CES Letter is to inundate the reader with so much information, without regard to the accuracy of the evidence, so that the reader becomes overwhelmed. This rhetorical strategy is effective. The CES Letter covers thirteen topics, but many more subtopics. The CES Letter is about 136 pages in length. 

The second thing to note is that it is easier to make an accusation than it is to refute it. Third, evidence is open to interpretation. There is never just one explanation or conclusion to a topic. This is why historians still argue about events long discussed and even longer past–because the same evidence can be interpreted in many different ways and smart people do not always agree on the interpretation of evidence. Finally, there is an assumption by believing Mormons that evidence is important and one piece of crucial evidence in a discussion of any religious topic is the evidence that comes from spiritual experiences and faith in God. 

The organization of this section of the website is to list each topic and subtopic of the CES Letter. When expanded, either the whole text or a summary text of the CES Letter is presented in bolded and italicized text. Below each bolded and italicized section from the CES Letter, a response is given. The researchers at Mormonism Explained have tried to be as succinct, but as thorough as possible in their responses.

Book of Mormon

1769 KJV Errors

“What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? A purported ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?” 

Many of the biblical quotations found in the Book of Mormon contain various types of errors and mistranslations,i but what these errors ultimately mean is debatable. Many questions remain about the nature of the Book of Mormon’s translation, including its extensive quoting of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).

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17th Century Italics

“When King James translators were translating the KJV Bible between 1604 and 1611, they would occasionally put in their own words into the text to make the English more readable. We know exactly what these words are because they’re italicized in the KJV Bible. What are these 17th century italicized words doing in the Book of Mormon? Word for word? What does this say about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record?” 

The biblical quotations found in the Book of Mormon often reproduce italicized words found in the King James Bible.viii Rather than demonstrating that the Book of Mormon isn’t true or ancient (as implied in the CES Letter), this may simply suggest that the Book of Mormon is intentionally relying on the version of these passages found in the King James Bible. Such an approach, even if it somewhat obscures the original reading, integrates the two texts together in a way that is predicted by the Book of Mormon’s own teachings and prophecies.ix   

There is no such thing as a perfect translation, in which the ideas expressed in one language are rendered into another with absolute precision. Meanings that can be communicated purely by grammar in one language (e.g., Hebrew), often require the addition of further words in another language (e.g., English.) Hence, many adjustments, such as adding words that weren’t in the original language, are often needed. If the King James Bible uses additional words (identified by italics) to help render a genuinely ancient text into readable English, it would follow that the Book of Mormon could easily use the same solution to the same problem.

  • References

    viii. See Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, Part 5 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2019), 182: “It is true that italicized words are often different in the Book of Mormon, 163 out of 425 cases (or 38.4 percent), but still the majority (61.6 percent) remain unchanged.” 

    ix. See 1 Nephi 13:39–40; 2 Nephi 3:12; 2 Nephi 29:6–9; Mormon 3:21; Mormon 7:8–9. 

Mistranslations

“The Book of Mormon includes mistranslated biblical passages that were later changed in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These Book of Mormon verses should match the inspired JST version instead of the incorrect KJV version that Joseph later fixed.”  

The CES Letter correctly notes that the Book of Mormon makes use of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) in some cases where the KJV contains a mistranslation. The CES Letter then assumes that such errors wouldn’t have occurred if the Book of Mormon was indeed divinely revealed to Joseph Smith. Yet whether or not these mistakes would have been allowed or facilitated by God is an open question.  

Every translation of an ancient text will follow certain priorities or guidelines. Some translations attempt to achieve a very literal rendering of the original text, sometimes to the point that it may even sound awkward in the target language. Other translations aim for a fairly loose correspondence of ideas. A translation of a single text may even considerably vary in how “tight” or “loose” it is, depending on the context of a given passage.  

When it comes to the translation of the Book of Mormon, it is possible that one significant goal was to thoroughly integrate relevant KJV passages and language with the Book of Mormon text itself, despite it sometimes resulting in a fairly loose representation of ideas. Under this understanding, achieving textual and doctrinal integration of the Bible and Book of Mormon would be the primary concern,x rather than an attempt to produce a strictly literal translation of Nephite source texts or to correct the errors in the KJV.xi  

When Joseph Smith later carried out his inspired revision of the Bible—commonly referred to as the Joseph Smith Translation (JST)—he was operating under a different set of translation goals. In that context, it seems he primarily intended to correct doctrine and clarify readability, rather than bring an entire ancient text into a modern language or attempt to merge two sacred texts.xii  

Thus, the difference in how biblical passages were handled in these separate translation projects can be explained by their having different priorities in different contexts. Many questions remain about the Book of Mormon’s translation, and even among believing Latter-day Saints there are different theories about how the translation was carried out.xiii So, there may be multiple possible solutions to this concern, depending on one’s starting assumptions and working theory of translation.

  • References

    x. See 1 Nephi 13:39–40; 2 Nephi 3:12; 2 Nephi 29:6–9; Mormon 3:21; Mormon 7:8–9. 

    xi. For a comprehensive treatment of the Book of Mormon’s reliance on the King James Bible, see Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, Part 5 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2019). 

    xii. See Kent P. Jackson, “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), 5863, online at https://rsc.byu.edu/joseph-smith-prophet-seer/joseph-smiths-new-translation-bible-1830. 

    xiii. See, for instance, the different approaches in the following sourcesBrant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011); Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The Nature of the Original Language, Part 3 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2018). 

DNA

“DNA analysis has concluded that Native American Indians do not originate from the Middle East or from Israelites but rather from Asia.” The CES Letter then asks why, in 2006, the Introduction to the Book of Mormon was changed to state that the Lamanites areamong the ancestors” of the American Indians (whereas it previously stated that they were theprincipal ancestors” of this group). The Letter then gives the following update:The Church conceded in its January 2014 Book of Mormon and DNA Studies essay that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA. The Church, through this essay, makes a major shift in narrative from its past dominant narrative and claims of the origins of the Native American Indians.” 

Although Mormons don’t believe in scriptural infallibility, it is important to recognize that the Introduction to the Book of Mormon (which was changed in 2006) actually isn’t part of the canonized text itself.xiv Instead, it was composed by a scripture committee in modern times.xv Occasional errors and the need for ongoing adjustments in these types of supplemental materials is expected.  

Decades before the change in the Introduction took place, some Latter-day Saint scholars, commentators, and leaders had already concluded that Lehi’s colony was likely just a small group that assimilated into a much larger network of ancient American societies. This idea was published in a variety of venues and gained a fair amount of visibility within the Church.xvi So, while the adjustment to the Introduction may have been surprising to some, it was welcome and not entirely unexpected for others.xvii  

If Lehi’s people truly did amount to just a small drop of DNA in the figurative gene pool, then all trace of their genetic influence could easily get lost over time.xviii This could explain why Native American DNA is predominately of Asian—rather than Middle Eastern—origin. Notably, the idea that Book of Mormon peoples integrated into much larger pre-existing societies was adopted by Mormon scholars long before DNA analysis was possible.xix  

  • References

    x. See 1 Nephi 13:39–40; 2 Nephi 3:12; 2 Nephi 29:6–9; Mormon 3:21; Mormon 7:8–9. 

    xi. For a comprehensive treatment of the Book of Mormon’s reliance on the King James Bible, see Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, Part 5 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2019). 

    xii. See Kent P. Jackson, “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), 5863, online at https://rsc.byu.edu/joseph-smith-prophet-seer/joseph-smiths-new-translation-bible-1830. 

    xiii. See, for instance, the different approaches in the following sourcesBrant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011); Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The Nature of the Original Language, Part 3 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2018). 

Anachronisms

“Horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheels, chariots, wheat, silk, steel, and iron did not exist in pre-Columbian America during Book of Mormon times. Why are these things mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being made available in the Americas between 2200 BC–421 AD? … Unofficial apologists claim victories in some of these items but closer inspection reveals significant problems. It has been documented that apologists have manipulated wording so that steel is not steel, sheep become never-domesticated bighorn sheep, horses become tapirs, etc.” 

The CES Letter implies that many items mentioned in the Book of Mormon are anachronisms. An “anachronism” is something that does not fit in a given time or setting, like the idea of a cell phone being used by William Shakespeare (long before cell phones were invented).

One important consideration is a phenomenon called “loan-shifting.” This takes place when explorers or settlers, such as Lehi’s colony, encounter unfamiliar plants, animals, or other items in a new environment. In many instances, the new arrivals will use familiar terms from their old setting to describe unfamiliar (but similar) items in their new locale. For instance, settlers in North America have traditionally called the American bison a “buffalo,” even though that technically isn’t correct and is based on the name of certain Old-World animals. Whether one wants to call this “manipulated wording” or something else, it is clearly a real phenomenon that must be considered. Because loan-shifting is well-attested in both ancient and modern times, it could affect the text of the Book of Mormon on various levels.xx

In other instances, the perception of an anachronism may simply be due to a lack of familiarity with the meaning of terms in earlier periods of the English language.xxi It is also possible that anachronisms can be introduced through the translation process itself for various reasons. For instance, the King James translators frequently used the term “candlestick” even though ancient Israelites actually didn’t use candles.xxii Sometimes such mistranslations are accidental, but in other instances a translator might knowingly “update” an ancient text, to help it make better sense to a modern audience.xxiii

Finally, one must factor in the highly fragmentary nature of the archaeological and historical record, especially in ancient America.xxiv In a number of instances, items in the text that were once thought to be anachronistic, due to an apparent lack of supporting evidence, later turned up in the purported ancient context. While some items mentioned in the text haven’t yet been verified, historical and archaeological developments continue to shed light on the Book of Mormon and offer varying degrees of support for its claims.xxv

Thus, whether due to loan-shifting, changing English definitions, translation issues, or fragmentary archaeological evidence, there are multiple avenues to potentially account for alleged Book of Mormon anachronisms.

  • References

    x. See 1 Nephi 13:39–40; 2 Nephi 3:12; 2 Nephi 29:6–9; Mormon 3:21; Mormon 7:8–9. 

    xi. For a comprehensive treatment of the Book of Mormon’s reliance on the King James Bible, see Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, Part 5 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2019). 

    xii. See Kent P. Jackson, “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), 5863, online at https://rsc.byu.edu/joseph-smith-prophet-seer/joseph-smiths-new-translation-bible-1830. 

    xiii. See, for instance, the different approaches in the following sourcesBrant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011); Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The Nature of the Original Language, Part 3 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2018). 

Archaeology

“There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites and Lamanites, who were supposed to have numbered in the millions. … Admittedly, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but where are the Nephite or Lamanite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc.? How can these great civilizations just vanish without a trace?” 

Many items of material culture described in the Nephite record have been identified in ancient America or are believed by scholars to have existed in that setting. These include temples, highways, market systems, towers, fortifications, stone monuments, cement buildings, various types of weapons, written records, and so forth.xxvi While not everything described in the text has turned up in the archaeological record, many items have now been found. In some instances, these ongoing discoveries have directly overturned assumptions made by the Book of Mormon’s critics.xxvii 

So, what the CES Letter likely means (by a lack of “directly” supporting evidence) is that there aren’t any known archaeological artifacts that can be definitively traced back to Book of Mormon cultures. If so, that assessment would essentially be correct.  

What the CES Letter doesn’t explain is that there is actually very limited inscriptional data from Book of Mormon times in ancient America.xxviii And without such data, it would be difficult or impossible to distinguish Nephite artifacts from those of surrounding cultures. As explained by Latter-day Saint archaeologist John E. Clark, “The problem, then, is not that Book of Mormon artifacts have not been found, only that they have not been recognized for what they are.”xxix 

“This [lack of archaeological evidence] is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists have developed the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and claim that the Hill Cumorah mentioned as the final battle of the Nephites is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere. This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught.” 
 
The limited Book of Mormon geography model came about gradually and for a variety of reasons.xxx Contrary to the CES Letter’s claim, the adoption of this model wasn’t merely due to a lack of archaeological evidence at the hill in New York near Joseph Smith’s home (which many early Latter-day Saints assumed was the Hill Cumorah spoken of in the Book of Mormon). Instead, various types of data—particularly textual evidence from the Book of Mormon itself—led scholars to conclude that the hill in New York is not the Hill Cumorah where the final Nephite-Lamanite battle was fought.xxxi  
 
The history of prophetic statements and views on Book of Mormon geography is also more complex than the CES Letter makes it appear. Early church leaders, including Joseph Smith, assumed that the Book of Mormon took place throughout the entire American hemisphere. Yet when one looks closely at their recorded statements over time, it becomes clear that their views on geography were based on opinion and assumption, rather than revelation.xxxii  

In recent years, the LDS Church has made it clear that the specific ancient American setting of the Book of Mormon has not been divinely revealed.xxxiii Thus, there is plenty of room, doctrinally speaking, for believing Mormon scholars and researchers to reach their own conclusions about the Book of Mormon’s probable setting, based on the available historical, archaeological, cultural, geographical, and scriptural data. 

Geography

“Many Book of Mormon names and places are strikingly similar to many local names and places of the region where Joseph Smith lived.” After presenting two maps, explaining potential relationships, and providing a list of parallel names, the CES Letter asks, “Why are there so many names similar to Book of Mormon names in the region where Joseph Smith lived?”   

The maps and data which the CES Letter relies on were created in the 1980s by a man named Vernal Holley. However, several factors substantially reduce the significance of these proposed parallels: (1) The named locations in Holley’s maps bear hardly any resemblance to the geo-spatial relationships described in the text of the Book of Mormon itself. (2) Some locations didn’t exist at the time or weren’t given the names listed by Holley until after the Book of Mormon was translated. (3) Others had very small populations or were located hundreds of miles away, making them poor candidates to have influenced Joseph Smith’s thinking. (4) Some of the names are also found in the Bible, which offers another (often more likely) source for those names. (5) Only a few names involve a precise match in spelling (Alma, Boaz, Jerusalem, Jordan, Noah), and of these only one Alma isn’t found in the Bible.xxxiv  

After presenting a list of identified parallels, the CES Letter asks, “Is this really all just a coincidence?” Yes, it appears that way. It would be expected that a few names (of many dozens) in the Nephite record would, by happenstance, resemble a few of the numerous toponyms scattered for hundreds of miles surrounding Smith’s environment. It also isn’t surprising that some biblical names can be found in both contexts.   

The CES Letter draws attention to the Comoro islands off the east coast of Africa, which had a capitol city named Moroni. It is proposed that these locations are the source of the names of the angel Moroni and Hill Cumorah, in connection with the Book of Mormon. The CES Letter suggests that Joseph Smith was exposed to these names through the widely circulated treasure hunting stories about Captain William Kidd.  

Stories of Captain Kidd and buried treasure were indeed prevalent in Joseph Smith’s environment, and several late hostile reminiscences report that Smith was in some way influenced by them. However, there are problems with the connection proposed in the CES Letter 

Neither the Comoro islands nor the city of Moroni are known to have been mentioned in any of the stories about Captain Kidd.xxxv And while it is true that Captain Kidd once visited the Comoro islands, he apparently only did so before he was a pirate, and neither of these names turns up that history.xxxvi  Considering how obscure the connection is, there is no reason to assume that anyone in Joseph Smith’s vicinity would have been familiar with any variations of the names Comoro or Moroni in relation to the stories of Captain Kidd.  

View of the Hebrews

“There was a book published in 1823 Vermont entitled View of the Hebrews.” The CES Letter lists a chart of what it believes are similarities between View of the Hebrews and The Book of Mormon. This list was initially created by Mormon historian B. H. Roberts.  

Roberts researched The Book of Mormon extensively so that he could play devil’s advocate and create a list of issues that critics might pose in the future. In one of those exercises, he also read View of the Hebrews and created a list of similarities that critics might highlight. This information was given to Mormon Church leaders so that they could craft responses to those things on his list.xxxvii The idea that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery plagiarized View of the Hebrews was first proposed in 1902, 72 years after The Book of Mormon was first published.xxxviii However, a case could be made for an earlier date of 1887 for the first allegation.xxxix The Mormon Church was unconcerned by this proposition and published the book themselves once its copyright had expired.xl There is no evidence that Smith had read or was even aware of View of the Hebrews in 1828–29 when The Book of Mormon was being transcribed. The only existing evidence to show that Smith was aware of the book at all came in 1842, in which he quoted from a book that quoted from View of the Hebrews.xli 

There are certainly broad parallels between the two books, as Roberts and the CES Letter demonstrate.xlii However, there are many more differences than similarities.xliii For example, one of the correspondences listed in the CES Letter is that both books discuss the destruction of Jerusalem. Though this initially looks like a similarity, it is not once you look at the details. The Book of Mormon describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC (1 Ne. 1:4 & 13). View of the Hebrews, meanwhile, describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.xliv In another instance, the list in the CES Letter states that The Book of Mormon was first published in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, as that is adjacent to where View of the Hebrews was first published in Poultney, Rutland County, Vermont. However, The Book of Mormon was actually first published in Palmyra, New York, not Sharon, Vermont.xlv 

One scholar noted that, “VH is merely a book presenting reports that support the idea that the Indians were descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. It contains no history, no narratives, no visions, no revelations, no personalities, no literature of these people themselves. Thus, there are an enormous number of things which the Book of Mormon contains which VH does not. The reader can get a good idea of the meager contents of VH by reading [a] summary of its main points. Anything beyond this is new material added by the Book of Mormon. Thus, even if VH is advanced as an explanation for some of the Book of Mormon, it does not explain very much.”xlvi This scholar then lists 84 “unparallels” between the two books, demonstrating how disparate they are.xlvii 

While superficial similarities between the two books are undeniable, when you look more closely at the contents of each volume, the differences are stark.xlviii The Book of Mormon is a narrative history of a group of people, while View of the Hebrews is a much-shorter academic essay attempting to prove that Native Americans are Israelites. Additionally, in several places, The Book of Mormon flatly contradicts View of the Hebrews.xlix It also contradicts common beliefs and writing styles from Joseph Smith’s era.l 

“Reverend Ethan Smith was the author of View of the Hebrews. Ethan Smith was a pastor in Poultney, Vermont when he wrote and published the book. Oliver Cowdery – also a Poultney, Vermont resident – was a member of Ethan’s congregation during this time and before he went to New York to join his distant cousin Joseph Smith. As you know, Oliver Cowdery played an instrumental role in the production of the Book of Mormon. This direct link between Joseph and Oliver and View of the Hebrews demonstrates that Joseph is very likely to have been aware of the theme and content of that book. It gives weight to all the similarities described in the preceding comparison chart. Apologists may point out that the Book of Mormon is not a direct, word-for-word plagiarism of View of the Hebrews, and indeed that is not the claim. Rather, the similarities should give any reader pause that two books so similar in theme and content would coincidentally be connected by Oliver Cowdery.” 

Any connection between Oliver Cowdery and Ethan Smith is unproven. Cowdery was likely living out of town with relatives during the years in which his family may have been members of the same church Smith belonged to. The historical record has mention of Cowdery’s stepmother attending church services on three occasions: once in 1803, when she joined the congregation, once in 1810, and once in 1818, when her three daughters with Cowdery’s father were all baptized during the same service. Each of these three instances occurred when the prior pastor, Reverend Mr. Leonard, served the congregation. No other Cowdery family members are mentioned in church records, and it is unclear how often the family attended services. There is no record of them attending the church during Smith’s tenure as pastor, a change which occurred three years after the baptism of Cowdery’s half-sisters. No document has been found linking Cowdery to that church, Ethan Smith, or his writings.li 

Cowdery was Joseph Smith’s third cousin once removed, a fact which he and the Smith family seemed to be unaware of.lii They met for the first time in 1828, after Smith had started on the translation of The Book of Mormon.liii 

Because there is no known link between Cowdery and Ethan Smith or View of the Hebrews, there is also no known “direct link” between Joseph Smith and View of the Hebrews, as claimed by the CES Letter. Despite having some broad generalities in common, their themes and content are not similar. View of the Hebrews is an academic essay combining supporting evidence, history, and the author’s personal theories, attempting to prove that Israelites were the ancestors of the Native Americans. It reads like a textbook. The Book of Mormon is a religious historical narrative, telling a story. Its themes and content are theological, not academic.  

“LDS General Authority and scholar Elder B.H. Roberts privately researched the link between the Book of Mormon and the View of the Hebrews, Joseph’s father having the same dream in 1811 as Lehi’s dream, and other sources that were available to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and others before the publication of the Book of Mormon. Elder Roberts’ private research was meant only for the eyes of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and was never intended to be available to the public. However, Roberts’ work was later published in 1985 as Studies of the Book of Mormon. Based upon his research, Elder B.H. Roberts came to the following conclusion on the View of the Hebrews: ‘Did Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.’—B.H. ROBERTS, STUDIES OF THE BOOK OF MORMON, P.240.”

B. H. Roberts engaged in a thought exercise on behalf of the leaders of the Mormon Church. His list comparing The Book of Mormon to View of the Hebrews was so that those leaders could craft responses to the arguments, should the critics pose them. He was playing devil’s advocate, not giving his own opinion.liv

In the preface to his report, he stated, “In writing out this report to you of those studies, I have written it from the viewpoint of an open mind, investigating the facts of the Book of Mormon origin and authorship. Let me say once for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine.  This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a ’study of Book of Mormon origins,’ for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it…” (Emphasis added).lv This preface was reprinted on pages 57–58 of the same book the CES Letter cites above, so it is unclear how the author of that document missed it.lvi  

Roberts also explained his position in the Mormon Church’s official magazine, The Improvement Era: “Meantime, the fact should be recognized by the Latter-day Saints that the Book of Mormon of necessity must submit to every test, to literary criticism, as well as to every other class of criticism; for our age is above all things critical, and especially critical of sacred literature, and we may not hope that the Book of Mormon will escape closest scrutiny; neither, indeed, is it desirable that it should escape. It is given to the world as a revelation from God. It is a volume of American scripture. Men have a right to test it by the keenest criticism, and to pass severest judgment upon it, and we who accept it as a revelation from God have every reason to believe that it will endure every test; and the more thoroughly it is investigated, the greater shall be its ultimate triumph….”lvii He also at times referred to the book of Third Nephi in The Book of Mormon as “a fifth gospel.”lviii 

As for Joseph Smith’s father having similar dreams to that of Lehi in The Book of Mormon, this was recollected in 1845. The dreams occurred in 1811, 34 years earlier.lix With The Book of Mormon being published in 1829, it is possible that these later recollections were influenced to some degree by the narrative of the book.lx Additionally, because biographical editing standards of the day meant that the editors, Martha and Howard Coray, inserted their own ideas and outside sources into the material, it is unclear how much of Lucy Mack Smith’s recollections came from her and how much was crafted by the editors.lxi It is also possible that Smith’s memories of the dreams in question are perfectly accurate. It is impossible to know for certain, as it does not appear she wrote down the details of the dreams in 1811.  

“While this does not prove that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from the View of the Hebrews, it does demonstrate that key elements of the story of the Book of Mormon – i.e. Native Americans as Hebrew descendants, ancient records of natives preserved, scattering and gathering of Israel, Hebrew origin of Native American language, etc. pre-dated the Book of Mormon and were already among the ideas circulating among New England protestant Americans. With these ideas already existing and the previously cited issues with KJV plagiarism, errors, anachronisms, geography problems, and more issues to come, is it unreasonable to question Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon origins as Church Historian B.H. Roberts did? UPDATE: Additional information and analysis can be found at cesletter.org/voh.” 

Joseph Smith’s life, culture, and environment likely played a role in influencing his word choice when it came to translating, writing, sermonizing, dictating revelation, and interpreting prophecy. However, this does not mean that he plagiarized The Book of Mormon from his surroundings.lxii It is not unusual that 19th century vernacular would creep into his work, even if The Book of Mormon was a standard translation from one language to another.  

One thing the CES Letter does not mention is that, while there are some things that Smith could have pulled from his environment, there are many things in The Book of Mormon that contradict the 19th century zeitgeist.lxiii For example, descriptions of the Arabian landscape in Smith’s era were often incorrect to what we know today, and yet, Smith was correct in his descriptions.lxiv 

While readers can examine the evidence and decide for themselves whether Smith borrowed from outside sources when dictating The Book of Mormon, the “previously cited issues” the CES Letter presents are often exaggerated or distorted. One such instance is in the testimony of B. H. Roberts, who only questioned the origins of The Book of Mormon as a thought exercise and not because he doubted them.lxv 

The CES Letter gives a link to additional information and analysis; however, the page does not exist. The error page is mocking the LDS Church, which is antithetical to the CES Letter’s stated goal to refrain from tearing down anyone else’s faith.lxvi  

The Late War

“The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain: This book was an 1819 textbook written for New York state school children. The book depicted the events of the War of 1812 and it was specifically written in a Jacobean English style to imitate the King James Bible. This affected scriptural style was calculated to elevate the moral themes, characters and events depicted in the narrative to inspire the readers to ‘patriotism and piety.’ Readers already accustomed to revere scriptural sounding texts in the ancient Bible would be predisposed to revere this history book which employs the same linguistic style. The first chapter alone is stunning as it reads incredibly like the Book of Mormon.” The CES Letter then quotes part of The Late War. 

Pseudo-Biblicism (writing employing KJV-style language) was a popular writing style for approximately 100 years between about 1750–1850.lxvii There are many books and newspaper articles written in this style from that period. This would naturally lead to similar word choice and phrasing among those works. While Joseph Smith’s environment likely colored his own word choice during the translation of The Book of Mormon, this is not evidence that he copied The Book of Mormon from other books written in the same style.lxviii There is no evidence that Smith ever read The Late War.lxix  

In fact, one researcher’s in-depth analysis showed that, “even if Joseph had grown up reading and re-reading The Late War, it would not have given him the ability to produce Book of Mormon grammar. That required extensive knowledge of a wide range of extra-biblical earlier English, mostly 16th- and 17th-century in character, but also including usage from before and after the early modern period. In a nutshell, the Book of Mormon text exhibits high levels of archaic (morpho)syntax; the pseudo-biblical texts exhibit much lower levels of archaic (morpho)syntax.”lxx 

This means that The Book of Mormon uses the same language patterns that the King James Version of the Bible does to a high degree, while other books from that period are obvious caricatures of the style and their similarities in language to the KJV Bible are much lower. The above researcher was not the only one to make this discovery.lxxi  

“In addition to the above KJV language style present throughout the book, what are the following Book of Mormon verbatim phrases, themes, and storylines doing in a children’s school textbook that was used in Joseph Smith’s own time and backyard – all of this a mere decade before the publication of the Book of Mormon?” The CES Letter then gives a list of alleged similarities between The Book of Mormon and The Late War. 

As mentioned earlier, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever read The Late War.lxxii Additionally, the computer program that found the correlations did not take context into account.lxxiii Of the 549 correspondences they found, 75 of them were taken from the standardized copyright template alone.lxxiv Many are words or phrases found in the Bible, which makes sense if one was a similar religious work and one was imitating the KJV language. Others are 19th-Century vernacular. Very few of them are contextually similar.lxxv  

“The parallels and similarities to the Book of Mormon are astounding. This web page outlines very clearly and simply just how phenomenally unlikely it is that so many common rare phrases and themes could be found between these books without the Late War having had some influence on the Book of Mormon. Former BYU Library Bibliographic Dept. Chairman and antique book specialist Rick Grunder states in his analysis of The Late War (p.770): ‘The presence of Hebraisms and other striking parallels in a popular children’s textbook (Late War), on the other hand – so close to Joseph Smith in his youth – must sober our perspective.’” 

Computer searches that hunt for parallels between books will inevitably find them. However, “when literary parallels are the result of intensive searches of massive databases, they cannot help us identify an author (or even influences on an author), nor can they help us understand the relationships between texts.”lxxvi These types of parallels are so common that one author satirized them by claiming that The Book of Mormon was influenced by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—despite its publication 25 years after that of The Book of Mormon.lxxvii 

With the 75 parallels from the standardized copyright template removed, only 0.93% of possible phrases from The Late War appear in The Book of Mormon, and only 0.23% of possible phrases from The Book of Mormon appear in The Late War. Less than 1% of the text of each book is similar. This means that the likelihood of The Late War having any influence over The Book of Mormon is incredibly small.lxxviii 

In a response to Grunder’s claims, one scholar wrote, “This, as Schaalje insists, is ‘the crux of parallelomania.’ … In this case, what may seem highly suspect or too coincidental to be believable as random chance is really quite believable. Where we are dealing with environmental influence on a text in its historical process, any two texts can display large quantities of similarities found through comparison. But, a mountain of these parallels (while seemingly too large to be mere coincidence) isn’t evidence of a more genetic relationship.”lxxix It is reasonable to expect that books written in a similar time, in a similar place would have similar phrasing in places. What Grunder does not do is provide evidence of influence of The Late War on The Book of Mormon.lxxx 

The First Book of Napoleon

“Another fascinating book published in 1809, The First Book of Napoleon.” The CES Letter then quotes a portion of The First Book of Napoleon. “It’s like reading from the Book of Mormon. When I first read this along with other passages from The First Book of Napoleon, I was floored. Here we have two early 19th century contemporary books written at least a decade before the Book of Mormon that not only read and sound like the Book of Mormon but also contain so many of the Book of Mormon’s parallels and themes as well.” 

As was discussed in earlier sections, books written in the same part of the country during the same time period would have similar phrasing in places, but that does not denote any relationship between the texts.lxxxi Additionally, The Book of Mormon is unlike other pseudo-archaic works from the period in that those works demonstrate a noticeable caricature of King James Bible language, whereas The Book of Mormon uses actual KJV language rather than an impersonation of it.lxxxii 

“The following is a side-by-side comparison of selected phrases the Book of Mormon is known for from the beginning portion of the Book of Mormon with the same order in the beginning portion of The First Book of Napoleon (note: these are not direct paragraphs):” 

The First Book of Napoleon  The Book of Mormon 
Condemn not the (writing)…an account…the First Book of Napoleon…upon the face of the earth…it came to pass…the land…their inheritances their gold and silver and…the commandments of the Lord…the foolish imaginations of their hearts…small in stature…Jerusalem…because of the perverse wickedness of the people.  Condemn not the (writing)…an account…the First Book of Nephi…upon the face of the earth…it came to pass…the land…his inheritance and his gold and his silver and…the commandments of the Lord…the foolish imaginations of his heart…large in stature…Jerusalem…because of the wickedness of the people. 

 

The CES Letter is correct when it says that these are not direct paragraphs. These paragraphs have been described by one commenter as “perhaps the most egregious deliberate deception within the [CES] Letter.”lxxxiii The reason for this bold indictment is that it took 25 pages of The First Book of Napoleon and three chapters of The Book of Mormon to piece together these paragraphs of disjointed, partial phrases.lxxxiv It is difficult to see how this could be a sincere question, or how The First Book of Napoleon could be the inspiration for The Book of Mormon given this information. 

Additionally, the context is very different in each book. The “condemn” line from both books demonstrates this. The First Book of Napoleon says, “…and condemn not the feebly imitative manner of writing therein occasionally employed, until thou canst point out a language more impressive, or more appropriate, than that in imitation whereof these chapters are framed.”lxxxv In contrast, The Book of Mormon says, “condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”lxxxvi The Book of Mormon isn’t talking about “writing” at all, but religion. The other phrases are equally different.lxxxvii 

There is no evidence that, at the time of the dictation of The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith had ever read or had any knowledge of View of the Hebrews, The Late War, or The First Book of Napoleon.lxxxviii 

Early Godhead

“The Book of Mormon taught and still teaches a Trinitarian view of the Godhead. Joseph Smith’s early theology also held this view. As part of the over 100,000 changes to the Book of Mormon, there were major changes made to reflect Joseph’s evolved view of the Godhead.” 

 

  Original 1830 Book of Mormon Text  Current Book of Mormon Text 
1 Nephi 3 vs 1 Nephi 11:18  And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin whom thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.  And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh. 
1 Nephi 3 vs 1 Nephi 11:21  And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!  And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yeah, even the Son of the Eternal Father 
1 Nephi 2 vs 1 Nephi 11:32  And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world;  And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; 
1 Nephi 3 vs 1 Nephi 13:40  These last records…shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world;   These last records…shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; 

 

The “over 100,000 changes to the Book of Mormon” are mostly minor things such as punctuation and spelling. This was because the original manuscript was delivered to the printer without any punctuation and with numerous spelling errors.lxxxix In the rare instances when the changes were more significant than that, it was done to clarify the intended meaning of the verses in question.xc  

The Book of Mormon view of the Godhead is less like the modern-day understanding of the Trinity and closer to the ancient Israelite view.xci For the early Israelites, God the Father/Elohim was given the title El Elyon, God Most High. The Sons of El Elyon formed the heavenly council. Yahweh, the Tetragrammaton, is a Son of the Most High God. Humans are the sons of Yahweh, making Him both God and Son of God. Yahweh would someday come to Earth as the human Messiah and is a distinct being separate from God the Father, El Elyon. This understanding of the Father and the Son is expressed all throughout The Book of Mormon.xcii 

The alterations to the verses in question were made to clarify the intended meaning of the text for early Mormons who were confused by this understanding of God and Jesus Christ. In the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, “explain” is a valid meaning of “translate,” because a translation that cannot be properly understood by the readers is not a very good one.xciii Smith, declaring himself the translator of The Book of Mormon, occasionally altered the text in such a way as to explain the intended meaning to readers.xciv 

As for Smith’s personal theology, a few weeks before his death he said, “I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years. I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! We have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural: and who can contradict it?”xcv 

The CES Letter then cites additional verses still in The Book of Mormon today that it says could be read with a Trinitarian view. “Boyd Kirkland made the following observation: ‘The Book of Mormon and early revelations of Joseph Smith do indeed vividly portray a picture of the Father and Son as the same God…why is it that the Book of Mormon not only doesn’t clear up questions about the Godhead which have raged in Christianity for centuries, but on the contrary just adds to the confusion? This seems particularly ironic, since a major avowed purpose of the book was to restore lost truths and end doctrinal controversies caused by the ‘great and abominable Church’s’ corruption of the Bible…In later years he [Joseph] reversed his earlier efforts to completely ‘monotheise’ the godhead and instead ‘tritheised’ it.’ UPDATE: Additional information and analysis can be found at cesletter.org/trinitarian. Assuming that the official 1838 first vision account is truthful and accurate, why would Joseph Smith hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead if he personally saw God the Father and Jesus Christ as separate and embodied beings a few years earlier in the Sacred Grove?” 

As discussed in the prior section, The Book of Mormon reflects an early Israelite understanding of the Godhead, rather than a Trinitarian understanding.xcvi In this understanding, Yahweh/Jehovah, the Messiah, is a member of the heavenly council and a son of El Elyon, the Most High God. Yahweh is also the God and spiritual father of humans. This makes Him both God and the Son of God, though He is physically distinct from God the Father.  

The interpretation given by both the CES Letter and Boyd Kirkland may be because they are confusing the metaphysical Trinity of the Christian creeds with a social Trinity. Three beings who are one in purpose but are separately distinct personages form a social Trinity. In John 17:22, Jesus Christ asks the Apostles to be one in the same way that He is one with His Father. As the Apostles cannot become part of a metaphysical union like the creedal Trinity, Mormons view the Godhead as a social Trinity instead.xcvii 

One scholar explained, “As a reader who knows about First Temple theology, and who considers many other important Book of Mormon passages that [the CES Letter] does not address, I know that Yahweh, God of the Old Testament, is a Son of El Elyon, God Most High, and that Yahweh/Jesus becomes the father of humans who covenant with him. Yahweh is the creator of the earth. In light of the different context I bring to the same passages that [the CES Letter] cites, I don’t have the same problems [it] does. … In the Book of Mormon, therefore, Jesus is God of the Old Testament, who gave the law to Moses, part of a social Trinity that is ‘one God.’ Jehovah has a Father, El Elyon, God Most High, that bears witness of Him and to whom He prays. Christ is a father to human via covenant, and therefore, ‘because of the covenant ye have made ye shall be called the Children of Christ, his sons and daughters: for behold this day hath he spiritually begotten you (Mosiah 5:7).”xcviii This understanding was not altered by Joseph Smith’s changes to the Book of Mormon text.

Book of Mormon Translation

Translation Method

Unlike the story I’ve been taught in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, Ensigns, Church history tour, MiIssionary Training Center, and BYU…Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat for translating the Book of Mormon. He used the same magic rock he used during his treasure-hunting days. He put a rock in his hat and put his face in the hat to tell customers the location of buried treasure on their property, and used this same method for translating the Book of Mormon. The Church admitted this in the October 2015 Ensign, where you can see a picture of the actual rock Smith used.  

When translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith used at least two different instruments as revelatory aids. One was a set of Nephite “interpreters,” which consisted of two transparent stones placed in metal rims that resembled spectacles. This object was discovered alongside the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Smith also used one or more personal seer stones that he discovered before he obtained the gold plates. No matter which stone he used in any given circumstance to facilitate his translation, all of them were later referred to generically as the “Urim and Thummim.”xcix 

In his youth, Smith was often hired as a day laborer in order to help support his family. Some of the jobs he took involved treasure-hunting or looking for lost objects using a seer stone.c This was a fairly common activity in his cultural environment and wasn’t necessarily viewed as incompatible with Christianity. Eventually Smith left treasure-seeking behind and used his prophetic gifts–and even his seer stones–for religious purposes, such as translating the Book of Mormon.ci  

Individual accounts of the translation process vary.cii While Smith himself only stated that it was “through the gift and power of God,”ciii scribes, friends, and family members who witnessed the translation efforts reported conflicting stories, indicating that the process likely differed at various times.civ 

While some, including the author of the CES Letter, may be perplexed by the idea of using physical objects to aid in receiving revelation, the Bible is replete with such stories. Notable examples include: Joseph of Egypt’s divining cup (Gen. 44:2–5); Jacob’s rod of poplars (Gen. 30:37–43); the staffs used by both Moses and Aaron to perform miracles (Ex. 7:8–12; Ex. 14:16–22; Ex. 17:1-6); the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:10–22); the ephod worn by Levite priests associated with the Urim and Thummim (Ex. 28:15–30); the brass serpent (Num. 21:8–9); the lots cast by the Apostles (Acts 1:26); and the use of consecrated oil during a blessing (James 5:14–15).

The Plates

The gold plates were covered, placed in another room, or even buried in the woods. The gold plates were not used for the Book of Mormon we have today. Why were the plates necessary? Possession of them placed the Smith family in considerable danger, causing them a host of difficulties. If they weren’t part of the translation process, why did it happen? Why did the Lord direct the writers of the Book of Mormon to make a duplicate record of the plates of Lehi? Why was it necessary for Moroni to instruct Smith each year for 4 years before he was entrusted with the plates? Why was it important for Moroni to show the plates to 3 witnesses, and for Smith to show the plates to an additional 8 witnesses? Why bother if they weren’t used in the translation process? Why would the Lord have Moroni seal up the plates and the interpreters for translation for hundreds of years if Smith was just going to use a stone he already had for the translation? Is that really a credible explanation of the way the heavens operate? 

Historical sources report that Joseph Smith did, in fact, use the plates for the translation of at least part of the Book of Mormon, mooting the CES Letter’s arguments. 

It may be true thaAnd whilet Joseph Smith did not directly read from the gold plates during most of his translation efforts,cv itbut that doesn’t mean the plates were meaningless or played no essential role in the coming forth of even those portions of the Book of Mormon the Book of Mormon. For one thing, they served as tangible evidence that helped support Joseph’s miraculous claims. Many eyewitnesses reported seeing them, hefting them, moving them from one location to another, or rustling their pages.cvi The existence of real plates also invites belief that there were real Nephites and that the Book of Mormon presents real history. Finally, the gold plates hold various layers of symbolic value, as they typologically represent Jesus Christ himself.cvii 

Additionally, as outlined in the “The Rock and the Hat” section, Smith used several instruments as an aid to his translation efforts, including that of the interpreters.cviii  

Artwork

The Book of Mormon translation that the Church portrayed and still portrays through artwork to its members has Smith running his fingers over the gold plates as if he’s reading them or looking through the spectacles that held the interpreters/Urim and Thummim. This is not the way it actually happened.  

As mentioned above, there are accounts, ignored by the author of the CES Letter, that Joseph Smith did use the plates and interpreters at certain points in his translation work. So, artwork that portrays these methods is not necessarily wrong, it just does not reflect his process in translating all of the text. 

Whether due to a lack of knowledge or an artist’s own preferences, LDS artwork in the past has not always been historically accurate, particularly in representing all the various translation methods employed by Joseph Smith. The purpose and intent of art, however, is often subjective. Artists may wish to inspire certain feelings or follow their own artistic taste, rather than strive for precise historical representations.   

Mormon artist and historian Anthony Sweat, after interviewing other Church artists, found that the majority felt that an artist “carries no responsibility” to always “paint historical reality.”cix Sweat also described being told by such artists that, in the past, they had been approached by the LDS Church to paint historically accurate artwork. Some of these commissions included depictions of Joseph Smith using a personal seer stone and a hat to block out the light. However, the artists were unable to create images that were both accurate and evoked the feelings they wished to inspire in their viewers.cx These artists should not be viewed as trying to deceive Church members or teach a false understanding of history. 

Since that time, some artists have successfully produced historically accurate art on behalf of the Mormon Church, including Anthony Sweat.cxi This artwork has been featured prominently in various LDS publications.  

  • References

    cix. See Anthony Sweat, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, “Appendix: By the Gift and Power of Art,” in From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2015): 229–243, online at fairlatterdaysaints.org. 

    cx. Sweat added that his own initial efforts to depict the scene of translation had an unintended effect (where Smith looked like he was ill). Anthony Sweat, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, “Appendix: By the Gift and Power of Art,” in From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2015): 237, online at fairlatterdaysaints.org. 

    cxi. See “Artwork of Anthony Sweat,” accessed February 1, 2024, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org. 

Availability of Information

Since learning this disturbing new information and feeling betrayed, I have been attacked and gaslighted by revisionist Mormon apologists claiming that it’s my fault and the fault of anyone else for not knowing this. “The information was there all along,” they say. “You should’ve known this,” they claim. These gaslighting revisionist apologists don’t have compassion, understanding, and empathy for those who are shocked to learn this faith-challenging information. How could it have been expected of me and any other member to know about and to embrace the rock in the hat translation when even religious professors at BYU rejected it as a fictitious lie meant to undermine Joseph Smith and the truth claims of the restoration?  

Many details known today about the Book of Mormon’s translation were not frequently taught by the Mormon Church throughout its history. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. In some cases, the information simply wasn’t known or believed to be true by Church leaders or members.cxii In other settings, presenting specific translation details may have been tangential to a publication’s primary purpose. And there is the possibility that some controversial historical information has been intentionally avoided in prominent Church publications, due to it being unsuitable for some audiences.  
 
However, it is also true that much information regarding Joseph Smith’s translation method has been published by the LDS Church in various settings for many decades, including in 1939,cxiii 1974,cxiv 1977,cxv and 1993.cxvi It is understandable that someone like the author of the CES Letter may not have been familiar with this information, but that doesn’t mean the LDS Church was trying to deceive its members or betray their trust. 

Even when Mormon leaders, members, or scholars are aware of essentially the same data, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will agree on its interpretation. The precise method of the Book of Mormon’s translation is not a revealed doctrine of the Church. Thus, it is understandable that two BYU scholars writing in the past may not share the consensus view among Latter-day Saint historians today. There is plenty of room in the Church for members and scholars to disagree on non-essential details of Church history, and hopefully to collectively gain a better understanding over time. 

  • References

    cxii. See, for instance, Richard Lyman Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Money Digging,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016), 2–3, online at rsc.byu.edu.  

    cxiii. See Dr. Francis W. Kirkham, “The Manner of Translating the Book of Mormon,” The Improvement Era 41, no. 10 (October 1939): 596–597, 630–632, online at archive.org. 

    cxiv. See “A Peaceful Heart,” The Children’s Friend (September 1974), online at churchofjesuschrist.org. 

    cxv. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign (September 1977), online at churchofjesuschrist.org. 

    cxvi. See Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign (July 1993), online at churchofjesuschrist.org. 

First Vision

Four Different Accounts

There are at least 4 different accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision given by him over the years. These other accounts are all different and unfamiliar to the account I grew up with. The 1832 handwritten account has no mention of two beings visiting him, it was written 12 years later, he said he was 15 years old, he already knew not to join any church, and there’s no description of being attacked by Satan.  

Joseph Smith produced four written accounts of his First Vision during his lifetime,cxvii in the years 1832,cxviii 1835,cxix 1838 (JS–H 1:5-20), and 1842.cxx There are also secondhand accounts from those who heard Smith relate the story.cxxi Smith claimed that in this vision he was personally visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ.cxxii  

Although each of the accounts differs somewhat in emphasis and in the finer details, a “basic consistency” runs through all of them.cxxiii It is actuallyAs historians generally recognize, it is quite common for details to vary between separate but true accounts of the same event, especially if their compositions vary according to time, circumstance, or intended audience. A well-known example of this phenomenon from the scriptures can be seen in the New Testament Gospels. The accounts of the visions experienced by Paul and Alma the Younger also show similar consistencies and variation.cxxiv  

Much like the author of the CES Letter, some Mormons may be unfamiliar with these different First Vision accounts and their points of divergencedistinction. However, the Mormon Church has published each of these accounts multiple times in the past,cxxv including comparing and contrasting the different details provided therein.cxxvi Rather than being a cause for doubt or concern, some historians have felt that the First Vision accounts come across as highly believable recollections of a lived experience.cxxvii  

Contradictions

Joseph Smith wrote in his 1832 account that he knew the true church of Christ didn’t exist anymore. He went to pray for forgiveness for his sins. But in the 1838 account, he said that he wanted to know which church was the true church of Christ, because it had never entered into his heart that they were all wrong.  

The solution to this seeming inconsistency may have to do with the degree of belief or understanding held by Joseph Smith in different contexts. It appears he was indeed coming to suspect, based on what he read in the scriptures, that none of the Christian denominations in his day represented Christ’s true church. Not only does this idea turn up in the 1832 account (as pointed out in the CES Letter), but Smith said something similar in the 1838 account: “I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (JS–H 1:10; emphasis added).  

However, notice the degree of uncertainty and deliberation going on in his mind. Although Smith was clearly entertaining the possibility of a complete Christian apostasy, it doesn’t mean he was committed to that idea until after his First Vision. It apparently had not fully “sunk in” or entirely “entered into [his] heart” until the Lord clarified the matter (Joseph Smith–History 1:18).cxxviii It is also understandable that, years later, Smith might have struggled to recollect and record these types of nuances with perfect clarity.  

Late Appearance

No one, not even his family, had ever heard of the First Vision from between 12-22 years after it supposedly occurred. The first written account was in his journal in 1832, and there’s no record of any vision before then. The First Vision appears to have not been widely taught to members of the Mormon Church before the 1840s.  

The assumption held by the author of the CES Letter seems to be that if Joseph Smith had actually experienced his First Vision, then reports of that event should turn up in the historical record long before Smith’s first autobiographical account given in 1832. One thing to consider is that Smith appears to have been somewhat reticent about his experience from the very beginning. He didn’t tell his own mother right after it happened, and when he told a local preacher he was immediately ridiculed (Joseph Smith–History 1:20–22). After that type of response, it isn’t hard to imagine that Smith would have been hesitant to share details about his vision until he was more firmly established in his prophetic calling.cxxix  

Moreover, the assertion in the CES Letter that there is “absolutely no record of any claimed ‘first vision’ prior to this 1832 account” is not accurate. Newspapers between 1829–1831 reported that Smith had claimed to see God, and even mocked him for it.cxxx If no one was speaking of the First Vision before 1832, one would wonder where the authors of these publications were getting this idea. Other historical sources provide additional evidence that, prior to 1832, Joseph’s thinking and revelations were informed by his First Vision experience.cxxxi 

The article cited by the CES Letter in support of this claim by James. B. Allen was published in 1966.cxxxii In the half-century since that time, further research has come to light surrounding the First Vision.cxxxiii It is true that there were infrequent mentions of the Vision prior to the 1840s, and it is also likely true that there were members of the Mormon Church who did not know about the Vision before then.  

However, as seen in the Palmyra newspaper called The Reflector, Smith was being criticized for that specific Vision during the 1830s.cxxxiv Other periodicals from the time period show a similar slant, widely mocking Smith’s different claims (for example, the Painesville Telegraph).cxxxv Notwithstanding this evidence of criticism of Smith’s claims, there are possible reasons why Smith may have wished to keep his visions to himself.cxxxvi He may have remembered the early persecution he and his family endured, or he may have believed that it was better to keep his sacred experiences private.    

Other Problems

Depending on the account, Joseph Smith is visited by a spirit, an angel, two angels, many angels, or the Father and the Son. The 1832 account says he was 15, while the other accounts say he was 14 when he had the vision. He has different reasons for praying in different accounts. The historical record shows there was no revival in Palmyra, New York in 1820. Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith stated they joined the Presbyterian church after Alvin Smith’s death, while Joseph Smith claimed it was several years before his death. Why did he also hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead if he saw both Father and Son?  

It is true that the different accounts of the First Vision vary somewhat in the details. This can cause confusion and skepticism in some readers, which is natural. However, it is actually quite common for different accounts of the same true event to have differences, especially when the accounts have been composed at different times and under different circumstances.cxxxvii In fact, verbatim accounts that align in every respect are a sign of possible deception, indicating that the story may have been rehearsed. 

Joseph Smith did not state that there was a religious revival in Palmyra in 1820. He stated that there was “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” that “commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country” (JS–H 1:5). The correct wording is important because the historical record shows that this was in fact true. On June 28th, 1820 and July 5, 1820, the Palmyra Register ran articles about the death of a man resulting from alcohol poisoning.cxxxviii That man had attended a camp meeting “in this vicinity” held by the Society of Methodists, where he had imbibed too much alcohol. Multi-day camp meetings initiated by the Methodists in Palmyra and the neighboring town of Phelps (also called Vienna) happened regularly between 1816–1820, which attracted thousands of attendees from miles around. In particular, between 1819–1820, several towns within a 20-mile radius of Palmyra experienced heightened religious excitement, and Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all reported significant membership gains throughout western New York during that time period.cxxxix 

Though some passages in the Book of Mormon may be ambiguous, others are clear that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate beings.cxl Shortly before his death, Smith stated, “I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years. I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural: and who can contradict it?”cxli The view of the Godhead expressed in the Book of Mormon is closely aligned to that of the early Israelite view.cxlii The confusion may arise because in Mormon theology, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit form something like a social trinity.cxliii This means that they are three distinct, separate beings in separate bodies, but have the same purposes and goals.  

  • References

    cxxxvii See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, First Vision Accounts,” Gospel Topics Essays, November 20, 2013, online at churchofjesuschrist.org. 

    cxxxviii See “Effects of Drunkenness” and “‘Plain Truth’ is received,” The Palmyra Register, June 28, 1820 and July 5, 1820, online at debunking-cesletter.com. 

    cxxxix See Pearl of Great Price Central, “Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #7, February 24, 2020, online at pearlofgreatpricecentral.org 

    cxl See Brian C. Hales, “Trinitarian View,” The CES Letter: A Closer Look, accessed January 31, 2024, online at debunking-cesletter.com. 

    cxli Andrew F. Ehat, Lyndon W. Cook, eds., “16 June 1844 (1) (Sunday Mormon), Grove East of Temple,” in The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), online at rsc.byu.edu. 

    cxlii Michael R. Ash, Bamboozled by the “CES Letter” (self-published online, 2015): 40, online at . See also Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 1: First Nephi, 6 volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007): 38–39, 214–222. 

    cxliii See Brian C. Hales, “Trinitarian View,” The CES Letter: A Closer Look, accessed January 31, 2024, online at debunking-cesletter.com. See also, Ari B. Bruening and David L. Paulsen, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review of Books 13:2 (2001): 109–169, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org; David L. Paulsen and Ari D. Bruening, “The Social Model of the Trinity in 3 Nephi,” in Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, ed. Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearn (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell for Religious Scholarship, 2012): 191–233; Daniel C. Peterson, “Notes on Mormonism and the Trinity,” The Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 41 (2020): 87–130, online at journal.interpreterfoundation.org. 

Book of Abraham

Papyrus Found

Joseph Smith claimed the record was written by Abraham “by his own hand, upon papyrus,” which is still in the Book of Abraham today. It was thought the original papyrus was destroyed in a fire so that claim couldn’t be evaluated. However, the original papyrus Smith translated has been found and identified as parts of standard funerary texts that date to between the 3rd Century B.C.E. and the 1st Century C.E., long after Abraham lived. We know this is the correct papyrus because the hieroglyphics match in chronological order to the hieroglyphics in Smith’s Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which contains his Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). We know the papyri fragments belonged to Smith because they were glued to backing paper and have drawings of a temple and maps of Kirtland, Ohio on the back. They also came with an affidavit signed by Emma Smith, confirming they belonged to Smith. 

The complete introduction of the initial publication of the Book of Abraham states, “A TRANSLATION Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” “Upon papyrus” is not a prepositional phrase directly modifying the previous phrase “written by his own hand.” Therefore, it merely informs the reader upon what “the ancient Records…from the Catecombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham” were written. This introduction is not explicitly claiming that the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed contained Abraham’s own handwriting as the CES Letter asserts.  

“By/with the hand” is an ancient Egyptian idiom denoting authorship.cxliv This means that Abraham would have been the author of the text regardless of whether others later copied that text onto fresh papyrus. The text claims it is an autobiography: “I [Abraham] shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me” (Abr. 1:31). There is evidence that some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries believed that the mummies and the papyri he possessed were as old as Abraham, but Oliver Cowdery published in a newspaper a letter wherein he corrects this misunderstanding, indicating that they have made no claims as to who the mummies were: “It has been said, that the purchasers of these antiquities pretend they have the body of Abraham, Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, Joseph, who was sold into Egypt, &c. &c. for the purpose of attracting the attention of the multitude, and gulling the unwary–which is utterly false. For the purpose of correcting these and other erroneous statements, concerning both the mummies and also the records, we give an extract of a letter written by a friend in this place, who possesses correct knowledge concerning this matter, to a gentleman who resides at a distance. Who these ancient inhabitants of Egypt are, we do not pretend to say, —neither does it matter to us.”cxlv Regardless of any correct or incorrect assumptions about the mummies and records that others have made, they do not necessarily reflect on the historicity of the Abrahamic text on the papyri.   

Many of the original papyri scrolls and papers owned by Smith were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire.cxlvi This includes the “long roll” or scroll, which was singled out by eyewitnesses of the translation efforts as being the source of the Book of Abraham.cxlvii Today, the Mormon Church owns eleven small fragments of papyri (containing portions of the Book of Breathing and Book of the Dead) that survived from the 1840s.cxlviii It is true that none of these fragments include text from the Book of Abraham, something that the LDS Church acknowledged shortly after receiving them from the Metropolitan Museum of Art over Thanksgiving weekend of 1967.cxlix However, the CES Letter’s claim that these fragments are definitively the papyri that Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham is contested by some scholars.cl Mormon Egyptologists John Gee, John S. Thompson, Kerry Muhlestein, and Stephen Smoot, as well as scholar Tim Barker, have each publicly challenged this claim within the past five years, demonstrating that any assumption the fragments were used to translate the Book of Abraham creates real historical and textual problems that are not resolved.cli   

As previously stated, contemporary eyewitness accounts point to a scroll that is no longer extant.clii The theory that the Book of Abraham was located on that scroll and that Smith translated the record from it is referred to as the “Missing Scroll” theory. Another popular theory, though less supported by the contemporary claims, is the “Catalyst” theory, in which it is postulated that the record never appeared on the scroll, but that Smith received revelation dictating the text after being inspired by looking at the papyri. Due to the lack of extant evidence, the source of the Book of Abraham cannot be determined at this time. 

Common Pagan Funerary Text

Egyptologists have translated the source material for the Book of Abraham and found it to be a common pagan Egyptian funerary text for a deceased man named Hor around the 1st Century, C.E. it has nothing to do with Abraham or anything Smith claimed. The rediscovered papyri fragment that contains the image reproduced as Facsimile 1 had its holes filled in with pencil drawings that Egyptologists say is nonsense. The CES Letter includes an image that its author claims Facsimile 1 should look like, “based on Egyptology and the same scene discovered elsewhere in Egypt.” Non-Mormon Egyptologists disagree with every explanation or interpretation Smith gives for the figures on all three facsimiles. The author of the CES Letter was particularly disturbed to learn that Smith identified a god drawn with an erect penis as God the Father.  

Though the CES Letter claims that “respected modern Egyptologists” say the filled-in portions of Facsimile 1 are “nonsense,” it does not actually cite any Egyptologists saying this. The credited source is Kevin Mathie, who is a musical director and composer.cliii It is unknown who filled in the missing portions of the papyri when creating Facsimile 1, but it was likely Joseph Smith or Reuben Hedlock, the engraver of the woodcut used to reproduce the facsimile. Though modern editing standards would require that holes in the papyri be shown as such, editing standards in the early-to-mid 1800s were different. At that time the holes would have been filled in to be more aesthetically pleasing.cliv   

It is true that non-Mormon and Mormon Egyptologists recognize that some of the restorations were likely not accurate to the original image, especially in the way some of the texts were restored.clv Smith does not appear to be restoring ancient Egyptian religion but rather ancient concepts that might relate to Abraham’s religion. Therefore, his priority was likely not hyper-accuracy in restoring the text (that he does not even translate) and illustrations from the Egyptian vignettes. However, at least one non-Mormon Egyptologist agrees that Smith was correct in some of his restorations and many of the concepts in his restorations and explanations do have ancient precedent.clvi  

The CES Letter states that this same scene has been discovered elsewhere in Egypt, but that is not accurate. There are unique features on this image that have no known parallel.clvii The reconstructed image provided in the CES Letter was taken without attribution from Charles M. Larson’s By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri.clviii Larson is also not an Egyptologist, but a Social Studies teacher.clix Amateurs can certainly engage in solid research, but when the CES Letter misidentifies these sources as Egyptologists, it can give readers false confidence that the scholarship is correct when it may not be. This image is a notable example: the reconstruction is inaccurate, according to both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists.clx 

Non-Mormon Egyptologists do disagree with many of Smith’s interpretations of the images on the facsimiles included with the Book of Abraham. However, Mormon Egyptologists believe the situation is more complex. A discussion of the facsimiles will follow in the next subsection. Regarding the figure Smith identified as God sitting on his throne, however, it is unclear why the author of the CES Letter finds this “disturbing.” Smith did not draw this picture, but merely stated that the image represents an ancient depiction of God. Gods were often depicted with ithyphallic images in antiquity.clxi 

Facsimile Summary

Respected non-LDS Egyptologists say that Joseph Smith’s translation of the papyri and facsimiles is gibberish and has absolutely nothing to do with the papyri and facsimiles and what they actually say. On Facsimile 1, the names are wrong, the Abraham scene is rendered incorrectly, and Smith names gods that are not part of the Egyptian belief system or of any other known mythology or belief system. On Facsimile 2, Smith translated 11 figures, and none of the names are correct. NOne of the gods exist in Egyptian religion or any other recorded mythology, and he misidentifies every god on the facsimile. On Facsimile 3, he misidentifies the Egyptian god Osiris as Abraham, the Egyptian god Isis as the Pharaoh, the Egyptian god Maat as the Prince of the Pharaoh, the Egyptian god Anubis as a slave, misidentifies the dead Hor as a waiter, and twice misidentifies a female as a male. 

A study has shown that Egyptologists themselves are often incorrect when they try to determine how an ancient Egyptian would have interpreted different symbols.clxii Egyptologists who have published on the meaning of the various items in the facsimiles often do not agree among themselves.clxiii Egyptologists also rarely have professional training in the correct Greco-Roman era or the Demotic script necessary to critically assess the iconography associated with the Book of Abraham.clxiv Furthermore, ancient Egyptians could give a symbol many different meanings, making it difficult to tell which one would be “correct” in the context of the facsimiles.clxv  

Regarding Facsimile 1, in addition to being a unit of measurement the cubit also referred to an angle of the sky, so that when tracking the stars over the course of a year, they would move one cubit for one day. Smith’s statement of “one day to a cubit” fits well in the ancient world.clxvi The word “Kolob” has the same root structure as Semitic words related to prominent stars in the sky.clxvii Additionally, Smith called the Earth “Jah-oh-eh” and later clarified that it meant “O the Earth!”clxviii Assuming Smith styled the Semitic yod as the English letter J,  “O Earth” in ancient Egyptian would have a pronunciation corresponding well to Joseph Smith’s rendering.clxix In Facsimile 2, Smith identifies an upside-down cow as the sun. Hathor, symbolized by the cow, was the protector of the sun disc, and was even sometimes identified as the sun itself.clxx Elsewhere, Smith states that the four canopic jars represent the “four quarters” of the Earth, an idiom in his day to mean the four cardinal points on a compass. One of the roles of the four Sons of Horus symbolized by the jars was to represent the four cardinal directions.clxxi Smith identifies Min, god of fertility and the harvest, as God sitting on his throne. Ancient Egyptians identified this figure as the “Great God,” the “Lord of Life,” and the “Lord of All.”clxxii Smith identified another figure as Abraham, while Egyptologists indicate that it is the deceased as Osiris. Smith’s reinterpretation of Osiris to represent Abraham has ancient precedent, as early Jews and Christians made similar connections.clxxiii Smith identified another figure as the Pharaoh, while Egyptologists have identified it as Isis. Isis’s name means “throne,” and she held a shared identity with the office of the Pharaoh.clxxiv In vignettes from the (Ptolemaic) time period in which the papyri originate, the genders of deities and priests are sometimes switched.clxxv Additionally, the name “Shulem” is widely attested to in Semitic languages from Abraham’s time period, as well as from the Ptolemaic time period.clxxvi On the interpretation of Facsimile 3, Smith also noted that Abraham was “reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy in the king’s court.” There are numerous ancient accounts of Abraham teaching the Egyptians astronomy.clxxvii  

Elsewhere in the text of the Book of Abraham, the place name of “Olishem” (Abr. 1:10) and the word “Shinehah” (Abr. 3:13), which Smith identified with “the sun,” were given. Ancient inscriptions mention a place called Ulišum in the region of southern Turkey, which is linguistically related to Olishem and in the vicinity of Abraham’s likely homeland, just as the Book of Abraham claims. While the exact location of Ulišum has not yet been located by archaeologists, they are confident that it was in the general region where they are searching, thus making it a likely candidate for the Olishem of the Book of Abraham.clxxviii In the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts (ancient Egyptian religious writings), a term used to describe the path of the sun through the sky, or its ecliptic, is š-n-ḫꜣ. It is linguistically acceptable for this term to have been pronounced similarly to “shi-ne-hah.”clxxix Additionally, Chapter 3 of the Book of Abraham describes Kolob governing lesser stars, which is similar to a concept in Egyptian cosmology in which a celestial body governed everything it encircled.clxxx 

Smith does appear to have made some connections on the facsimiles and in the Book of Abraham that Egyptologists could recognize as reflecting the ancient understanding. We cannot yet say that all of Smith’s understandings of the vignettes have ancient roots (some of the explanations may simply be him reinterpreting the vignettes to illustrate Abraham’s story);clxxxi however, many have been shown to be quite plausible. We look forward to further research on these matters.

Cosmology

The Book of Abraham teaches an incorrect Newtonian view of the universe. Einsteinian physics has succeeded Newtonian astronomical concepts and models of the universe. Keith E. Norma, an LDS scholar, has said that for the LDS Church, “It is no longer possible to pretend there is no conflict.” Grant Palmer, a Mormon historian and CES teacher, agreed and cited Norman’s work in his book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. 

This supposition is incorrect. Although the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) document created in Kirtland, Ohio by William W. Phelps appears to have a Newtonian view of the universe,clxxxii the Book of Abraham itself teaches a geocentric model of the universe instead.clxxxiii  

Additionally, the cited paper by Norman only mentions the Book of Abraham once, and only in a speculative context. The premise of the article is that the concept of eternal matter conflicts with the Big Bang Theory.clxxxiv However, Stephen Hawking explained that infinitely dense matter existed prior to the Big Bang in what is known as a singularity.clxxxv This negates Norman’s theory and thus, there is no conflict between Mormon cosmology and the current scientific understanding. 

King James Version Text

Much of the Book of Abraham chapters 2, 4, and 5 are identical or close paraphrases of the KJV Genesis chapters 1, 2, 11, and 12.If the Book of Abraham is an ancient text written “by his hand upon papyrus” thousands of years ago, why does it have 17th Century KJV text in it? 

While the Creation accounts in Genesis and the Book of Abraham do closely parallel each other in important ways, there are also significant differences between them. The Abraham account speaks of a council of Gods, rather than a singular God, and these Gods “organized” rather than “created.” It does not separate the creation period into “days,” but leaves the timeline vague. Rather than seeing that the creation elements were “good,” the Gods saw that they “obeyed.”clxxxvi 

Since every biblical text we have today is a much later copy than its original source material, it is possible that any similarities in the Creation texts from Mosaic and Abrahamic tradition could be due to both records stemming from the same source. Additionally, there are Hebrew traditions of Abraham learning of the Creation, such as The Apocalypse of Abraham, so it is possible that God gave two prophets similar revelations.clxxxvii Also, the Book of Abraham is a translation. This means that Smith, as translator, would have put the ideas from the record into his own words. It would be natural for him to use the Bible text he was familiar with as a guide when the concepts being expressed were the same.

  • References

    clxxxvi See John Gee, “The Creation,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2017): 129–142, online at rsc.byu.edu 

    clxxxvii See Amy Elizabeth Paulsen-Reed, “The Origins of the Apocalypse of Abraham,” Doctoral Dissertation, Harvard Divinity School (2016): 185–187, online at dash.harvard.edu. 

Anachronisms

There are anachronisms in the Book of Abraham like the words “Chaldeans,” “Egyptus,” and “Pharaoh.” The text also refers to the facsimiles in a few verses. As noted and conceded in the Church’s “Translation and HIstoricity of the Book of Abraham,” the facsimiles didn’t even exist in Abrham’s time as they are standard first century C.E. pagan Egyptian funerary documents.   

As noted above, the Book of Abraham is purported to be a translation. Translators have the task of making their work understandable for their audiences. Most languages do not translate word for word, meaning that some of the phrasing might be Smith’s. He simply chose words that his audience was familiar with, if that is the case. Suppose the text said, “ruler of Egypt.” It would make sense to choose the word “Pharaoh” when recording the translation, as that was a term 19th-century speakers commonly used. Another possible explanation is that Smith received revelation dictating the translation to him. 

Further, while the Chaldeans are traditionally known as a group in Southern Mesopotamia much later than the time of Abraham (thus anachronistic), there is inscriptional evidence demonstrating that the Chaldeans resided earlier in the area of Southern Turkey and Northern Syria.clxxxviii This understanding places their origins closer to Abraham’s time and nearer the homeland of Abraham as portrayed in the Book of Abraham. 

Based on the evidence, it seems that after Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the “long scroll,” he took three pictures that were on at least one other papyri and used them out of context, likening them to the story of Abraham. Why he did that is not fully understood; however, the three pictures do seem to relate to themes of ancient temple progression that the life of Abraham also seems to reflect. Such correspondences may have inspired Joseph Smith to connect the two traditions.clxxxix Given that at least one of the vignettes was not on the same scroll as the Book of Abraham, it should not be assumed that any of the vignettes were ever original to the Book of Abraham. Further, the Mormon Church’s essay did not state that the vignettes reproduced in the facsimiles did not exist in Abraham’s time. It stated that the fragments of papyri in their possession did not date to Abraham’s day.cxc  

A closer look at the Book of Abraham manuscripts from the Kirtland era indicates that vs. 1:12 and 1:14 appear to be editorial insertions.cxci If they reflected what was translated, then the text must be referring either to 1) another picture that Abraham had in mind, or 2) the vignette for Facsimile 1 that Smith possessed, and the verses in question were editorials added to the Abraham text at the time the papyri was originally made. It is also possible that the insertions in the manuscripts were made in Smith’s day to reference the images that Smith himself added to the text in the publication. 

Light from Kolob

Facsimile 2, Figure #5 states that the sun receives its “light from the revolutions of Kolob.” The sun’s source of energy is actually internal and caused by thermonuclear fusion. It doesn’t shine because of any external source. 

Smith’s explanation actually states that “it is said by the Egyptians” that the sun receives its light from the revolutions of Kolob “through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash.” The correct wording is important to the claim the CES Letter is making. Smith qualified the statement as saying it was an Egyptian belief, not his own or that of the prophet Abraham, and he merely defined “Kae-e-vanrash” as “the governing power.”  

In Mormon belief, God is the creator or organizer of all matter in the universe, being Himself “the governing power.” Therefore, the sun receiving its power from thermonuclear fusion is, in the view of Mormons, by God’s design. This is not what Smith’s explanation for the figure was describing, however, and as noted, he stated specifically that it was not his own belief. 

The Philosophy of a Future State

Joseph Smith owned a book by Thomas Dick called “The Philosophy of a Future State.” Oliver Cowdery quoted lengthy excerpts from it in the Messenger and Advocate newspaper. Many features of the Book of Abraham resemble concepts from this book, including that of eternal progression, that matter is eternal, that Creatio ex nihilo is incorrect, that numerous stars were peopled with progressive beings called “intelligences,” and that the systems of the universe revolve around a point in the center, the throne of God. 

Though it is likely that Joseph Smith owned a copy of The Philosophy of a Future State, the Nauvoo library where Smith donated the book merely records it as “Dick’s Philosophy.cxcii Dick also wrote a book titled The Philosophy of Religion, which may have been the book in question.cxciii It is true, however, that Oliver Cowdery quoted from The Philosophy of a Future State in The Messenger and Advocate.cxciv  

In the Klaus Hansen quote from the CES Letter, he claims that in the Book of Abraham, Kolob is at the center of the universe while other stars revolve around it in ever-diminishing order. However, the Book of Abraham teaches a geocentric model of the universe where the Earth is at the center, not Kolob. This is why revolutions are longer as you draw nearer to Kolob (Smith states in his explanation that one day in Kolob’s time is equal to 1,000 years here on Earth). This is the opposite of what Hansen and Dick claim.  

“The throne of God” is a biblical phrase (Matt. 23:22, Heb. 12:2, Rev. 7:15). It is natural that two books focusing on religion might use phrases from the Bible, even if they are used in contrasting ways, as Dick and Smith use them. Additionally, in the 19th century, one definition of “intelligence” was “a spiritual being.” The example sentence given in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary refers to superior intelligences inhabiting the universe.cxcv If the Book of Abraham is a translation, “intelligences” could be Smith’s word choice rather than Abraham’s. It would not be unusual for two books published within 20 years of one another to use the same term for the concept of intelligent beings existing elsewhere in the universe. However, the idea in Dick’s theology that these intelligent beings “populate numerous stars” is not in the Book of Abraham as the CES Letter erroneously claims. The Philosophy of a Future State also does not reject Creatio ex nihilo. It embraces the idea, suggesting that God created the universe from nothing in such a way that it would begin to evolve from its initial creation.cxcvi  

While there are similarities between the two books, there are wide convergences as well. The Book of Abraham often rejects the ideas espoused in The Philosophy of a Future State and teaches their opposite. Though Cowdery quoted from its passages and it is possible that Smith owned a copy of Dick’s book, any influence over the contents of the Book of Abraham is speculative. 

  • References

    cxcii. See Kenneth W. Godfrey, “A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,” BYU Studies Quarterly 14, no. 3 (July 1, 1974): 386–389, online at scholarsarchive.byu.edu. 

    cxciii. See Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Random House, 2005): 648, footnote 81, 1st Vintage Books edition (2007).  

    cxciv. See Oliver Cowdery, “Extract From Dick’s Philosophy: Section X,” The Messenger and Advocate 3, no. 3 (December 1836): 423–425, online at contentdm.lib.byu.edu. 

    cxcv. Webster’s Dictionary 1828, “Intelligence,” American Dictionary of the English Language, accessed February 5, 2005, online at webstersdictionary1828.com. 

    cxcvi. See Jeff Lindsay, “Joseph Smith’s Universe vs. Some Wonders of Chinese Science Fiction,” The Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 29 (2018): 105–152, online at journal.interpreterfoundation.org. 

Elder Holland BBC Interview

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was asked in a BBC interview with John Sweeney about the Book of Abraham. He said he didn’t know how it was translated or what the vehicle was for the translation, but that it was translated into the word of God. Is that really the best that a “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” can do? “I don’t know” isn’t good enough when this is causing people to leave the Mormon Church. Respected Egyptian scholars and Egyptologists like Dr. James H. Breasted, Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, and Dr. A.H. Sayce all said that the Book of Abraham translated incorrectly and that Smith was ignorant of basic Egyptian facts. Another Egyptologist, Dr. Robert Ritner, gave a rebuttal to the Church’s Gospel Topics Essay, “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” that was sobering and devastating. A video and PDF linked in the CES Letter give a complete, thorough, and unbiased overview of the issues with the Book of Abraham. Though these last two offerings are anonymous, you don’t have to have a PhD or be an Egyptologist to understand the problems with the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith’s claims of being a translator. 

While it is understandable that some viewers of this interview, including the author of the CES Letter, would feel confused or frustrated by Jeffrey R. Holland’s response, his response is not surprising. The method of translation of the Book of Abraham is in dispute.cxcvii Even Joseph Smith’s own scribes and close friends gave differing accounts of the translation process.cxcviii We cannot expect Holland to know something that professionally trained Egyptologists and historians do not know, as prophets are not all-knowing.cxcix Unless something has specifically been revealed to them by God, they use their own judgments, knowledge, and opinions to inform their decisions the way we all do. 

Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator: An Inquiry Conducted was written by F. S. Spalding and published in 1912.cc Though the CES Letter repeatedly mentions the beliefs of “modern Egyptologists” regarding the Book of Abraham, each of the Egyptologists quoted in this portion were dead by 1943.cci The field of Egyptology has progressed considerably in the 80 years since then. Additionally, Spalding’s methodology in conducting his study was flawed. Not only did he disqualify Mormons from participating in the conversation, he sent warnings, instructions, and biased correspondence to the experts he requested statements from; he concealed correspondence that disagreed with his premise; he advised the experts that the original documents were available for study, when they were not; he erroneously claimed that the Mormon Church declared the papyri to be the autobiographical writing and sketches of Abraham himself, rather than a copy; he announced that Smith would be judged on his ability as a translator, though none of his experts translated any Egyptian writing from the papyri themselves; and he claimed the experts were in complete agreement in their judgments when they repeatedly contradicted one another. The experts themselves did not agree when they spoke without collusion; they showed signs of being coached on what to say; with one exception (that of Breasted), their notes were brief and contemptuous, showing no actual analysis of Smith’s claims; they admitted that they found the exercise foolish and beneath their time; they claimed that there were numerous identical vignettes found, but did not produce any in their rebuttals; and they did not translate any of the text on the vignettes themselves.ccii Though the experts agreed on the sole point that Smith was incorrect in his explanations of the facsimiles, these numerous flaws in methodology cast doubt on Spalding’s work as a serious critique.  

Dr. Ritner is the only “modern Egyptologist” that the CES Letter cites. Of the claimed modern Egyptologists mentioned in the document, one third are not Egyptologists and one half were dead by 1943. The overstating of credentials for these sources raises concern about the accuracy of the information provided in the CES Letter. Ritner’s premise is that the Book of Abraham was crafted by Smith with the aid of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the few surviving papyri fragments. Mormon Egyptologists and historians have presented evidence calling this claim into question.cciii Though the CES Letter claims that Ritner responded to the Mormon Church’s essay in a “sobering and devastating” fashion, he does not address many of the points made in the essay.cciv Ritner did not discuss any of the following evidence named by the Mormon Church: ancient near Eastern poetic structures found in the Book of Abraham; the ancient Mesopotamian deity of Elkenah that Smith identified on Facsimile 1; the numerous extra-biblical accounts of Abraham teaching astronomy to the Egyptians, an Egyptian text not discovered until the 20th century that describes the Pharaoh attempting to sacrifice Abraham before he was saved by an angel, and Abraham teaching in the Pharaoh’s court, as detailed in the Book of Abraham; and other details from extra-biblical accounts that align with details in the Book of Abraham, including Abraham’s father, Terah, being an idolatrous man, a famine in Abraham’s homeland, his familiarity with Egyptian idols, and his being younger than 75 years old when he left Haran.ccv Because Ritner did not address any of this provided evidence, it is difficult to agree with the CES Letter that his rebuttal was both “sobering and devastating.” Though he made valid points in his own essay that the LDS Church may wish to address in the future, his silence on these issues means that his response is not comprehensive.  

The cited video and corresponding PDF (based on the video) contain inaccuracies regarding the history of the papyri. Additionally, though the CES Letter states that the source of the video is unbiased, it was produced by MormonThink, a website dedicated to critiquing the Mormon Church. One need not be an Egyptologist with a PhD in order to adequately discuss the Book of Abraham, but one should strive for accuracy if they wish to be taken seriously on the subject. Emma Smith and her second husband sold the papyri and mummies that Smith obtained to a man named Abel Combs. The video and PDF both claim that Combs sold the collection to Wyman’s Museum, which moved to Chicago. This is incorrect. Two of the mummies and the papyrus scrolls were first sold to the St. Louis Museum, which was located in Wyman’s Hall but was not called Wyman’s Museum.ccvi The other two mummies remained with Combs, as did the fragments that were later returned to the Mormon Church. The museum eventually closed and its curator moved to Chicago, taking the mummies and the scrolls with him to his new position at the Chicago Museum, which subsequently became known as the Wood Museum.ccvii These items were still there in 1871 when the museum was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire.ccviii The video and PDF further state that Combs gave the fragments to his servant, Alice Heusser, whose nephew eventually sold them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In reality, upon his death they were given to his servant Charlotte Benecke Weaver. Weaver’s daughter, Alice Heusser, first approached the museum with them in 1918, asking them to examine them. Museum staff declined. Approximately 30 years later, a museum curator reached out. Heusser had passed away, but her husband sold them the fragments. In 1967, the museum returned them to the LDS Church.ccix In another claim, the video and PDF assert that the image in Facsimile 3 was at the end of the “long roll,” after the image from Facsimile 1 and the Book of Breathings. However, Gustav Seyffarth, the only Egyptologist ever to examine the papyrus scrolls, noted that they contained an additional record after the image in Facsimile 3. He did not provide the name of this record, only stating that it contained, “The beginning of the Book of….”ccx While the original scroll is no longer extant and this cannot be confirmed, it is inaccurate to state unequivocally that the image in Facsimile 3 was the end of the scroll when evidence exists to the contrary. Further, evidence exists to suggests the “long scroll” from which the Book of Abraham was translated is not likely the scroll on which Facsimiles 1 and 3 appear.ccxi  

While it cannot yet be proven that Smith was accurate in every explanation and the source material for the Book of Abraham is still unknown, there is evidence supporting many of Smith’s claims and explanations. Many of the areas the CES Letter deems settled are actually in dispute. It is understandable that some may find these conflicting conclusions confusing and frustrating to navigate. It is also understandable that some may doubt the veracity of Smith’s claims. However, the matter is far from conclusive and there is evidence supporting the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

Polygamy & Polyandry

Married Women

Joseph Smith was married to at least 34 women, and 11 of those women were already legally married to other men. Apostle Orson Hyde was sent away on a mission so that Smith could secretly marry his wife. 

It is unfortunate but understandable that the author of the CES Letter did not know the history of polygamy (called plural marriage) in the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church has never denied that its founder, Joseph Smith, had multiple wives. Throughout much of the 20th Century, however, the LDS Church did downplay the practice of plural marriage.ccxii This would naturally lead to confusion on the part of the author. The sources cited in the CES Letter indicate that the Mormon Church admitted Smith’s polygamy with multiple women for the first time in 2014. However, in 1886, Assistant Historian for the LDS Church, Andrew Jenson, named those wives in The Historical Record, a periodical he published to detail Latter-day Saint history.ccxiii This information has been publicly available and repeated in Mormon Church publications since that time.ccxiv Church leaders even collected sworn affidavits from Smith’s wives.ccxv 

It should be noted that in early Mormon practice, there were three different types of unions practiced by the members, including by Smith. Those involved civil marriages that were solely for the duration of this lifetime on Earth; eternity-only temple sealings, which were unions designed only for the next life and not for this one; and joint marriages plus temple sealings intended to last not only for this lifetime, but also the next life.ccxvi Some of the women listed as Smith’s “wives” were only sealings for eternity, not marriages during their lives on Earth. There is no evidence that those particular unions involved sexual intimacy of any kind. Less than half of Smith’s unions appear to have been consummated, and in those that were, sexual relations were infrequent.ccxvii The unions that the CES Letter refers to as “polyandrous” were eternity-only sealings, not marriages for this lifetime. These sealings do not appear to have been consummated marriages.ccxviii Several of Smith’s wives were only sealed to him for the first time after his death.ccxix 

Regarding Orson Hyde and his wife Marinda, Hyde left on his mission on April 15, 1840, and returned home on December 7, 1842.ccxx There are two dates recorded for Marinda’s sealing to Smith. Smith’s scribe, Thomas Bullock, recorded it as taking place in April of 1842.ccxxi However, in a sworn affidavit Marinda Hyde gave to the Mormon Church, she stated it occurred in May of 1843, which would have been six months after her husband returned from his mission.ccxxii There are also conflicting reports of whether or not Hyde knew of this sealing in advance.ccxxiii Hyde was not sent on his mission so that Smith could secretly marry his wife, as the earliest date for the sealing was two and a half years after he left, and was closer to his return date than his leaving. 

Types of Sealings

The Mormon Church and unofficial apologists claim these polyandrous marriages were “eternal” or “dynastic” and didn’t involve sexual relations. Smith tested Heber C. Kimball and his wife Vilate by telling them he wanted to marry Vilate. After a lot of stress and prayer, they finally agreed, only for Smith to tell them it was a test and they passed. Why all the stress and worry if it was just an innocuous dynastic sealing? Among the wives was a mother/daughter pair and 3 sister sets. If these were non-sexual dynastic sealings, why would he need to be married to both family members? Couldn’t the women just be sealed together in family sealings? 

In Mormon theology, a “sealing” is a way to bind families together in the eternities. Mormons believe this ordinance is necessary to receive their fullest potential in the next life. Couples and families reach that potential together, and cannot do so on their own. A so-called “dynastic sealing” is a way of linking multiple families together through the sealing process or covenant.ccxxiv It is true that some of Smith’s sealings were done for this reason, notably with Helen Mar Kimball (the daughter of Smith’s friend, Heber C. Kimball).ccxxv Another possibility is his sealing to Fanny Young (elder sister of Brigham Young).ccxxvi Some dynastic unions were eternity-only, but some were true marriages for both this life and the next, which included the potential for sexual relations. It is unclear why the CES Letter conflates “dynastic” with “celibate.” 

Regarding the morality of women being sealed to Smith rather than their legal husbands, this was the woman’s choice to do so. Some of those women were married to men who refused to join the Mormon Church, and therefore could not be sealed to their wives.ccxxvii They believed that in order for those women to receive all of their promised blessings in the next life, they needed to be sealed to a man who was willing to partake in the sealing covenant after being baptized into the Mormon Church. (Baptism is a prerequisite before being sealed.) In other cases, the reason for the sealing to Smith rather than their legal husbands is unknown.ccxxviii At least some of the husbands knew and approved of these sealings, which do appear to have been made for dynastic reasons.ccxxix In all cases, however, it was the woman’s choice.ccxxx Because under Mormon belief, each woman would need to be individually sealed to a man in order to receive those promised blessings in the next life, being the sibling or parent of a sealed woman was not enough. This is why Smith was sealed to some mother/daughter and sister pairs.  

It is true that some individuals and couples were tested by Smith prior to their own sealings.ccxxxi Heber C. Kimball and his wife Vilate were were among those couples. They did not know at the time that it was only a test designed to show the seriousness of the covenant they were making, and the Abrahamic sacrifice that plural marriage was for the Mormons living during that time period (D&C 132:56, 50–51; D&C 98:14–15; D&C 136:31, 37).ccxxxii Though this may seem cruel to some readers, the Kimballs were rewarded immediately afterward for their faithfulness by receiving the sealing ordinance, one of the very first such sealings ever performed.ccxxxiii

Ages of Wives

Of the 34 wives, 7 of them were teenage girls as young as 14. Smith was 37 when he married 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball. That’s a 23-year age gap. Even back then, that was shocking. Smith married her after that disturbing test he gave her parents. Her mother was very concerned and worried. If this was a non-sexual dynastic linking, why was her mother so upset over the marriage? 

It is true that Helen Mar Kimball was only 14 years old at the time of their sealing; however, theirs was by all evidence a non-sexual relationship.ccxxxiv Their union was instigated by her father for the purpose of linking the Kimball and Smith families in the eternities.ccxxxv Though the idea of a young teenager being married today is rightfully shocking and disturbing to most readers, it was not shocking “even back then” as the CES Letter claims. Along the frontier in the 19th century United States, which included Nauvoo, Illinois and later Utah, it was not unusual for young brides to marry much older men.ccxxxvi In 1890, 50 years after Smith’s sealing to Kimball, the age of consent was 12 years or younger in 38 states.ccxxxvii Though there is no evidence of sexuality in this union, it is understandable that this may be difficult for some readers to condone.  

The CES Letter implies that Smith was sealed to Helen Kimball shortly after the test he gave her parents. However, in reality it was two years later.ccxxxviii The two incidents were not connected. 

 As for why Vilate Kimball was upset over the sealing, her husband, Heber C. Kimball, was already married to a second wife, Sarah Noon.ccxxxix Though the two women got along well with one another, she understood what a difficult sacrifice it was to practice plural marriage, and had hoped her daughter would not need to endure a similar sacrifice. 

Order of Sealings and Marriages

Joseph Smith died without being sealed to his children or parents. If the primary motive of those sealings was to be connected in the afterlife, what does it say about Smith’s priorities if he was sealed to a non-related, already married woman and her already married daughter before being sealed to his own family members? He was married to at least 22 other women before being sealed to his first and only legal wife, Emma. Emma was not aware of most of those other sealings. Why was she the 23rd wife sealed and not the first? 

Parent-to-child seedlings did not begin until the Nauvoo temple was completed after Smith’s death.ccxl Though Smith taught that these types of sealings were possible,ccxli and early Mormons often temporarily performed certain ordinances outside of temples while they were being built, Brigham Young confirmed that this type of sealing was only to be done inside of temples.ccxlii Because the Nauvoo temple was not complete until after Smith’s death, he was not sealed to his parents or his children during his lifetime. 

Emma Smith famously and understandably vacillated between acceptance and anger over the polygamy doctrine.ccxliii While there are reports of her having participated in some of Smith’s sealings to other women,ccxliv after his death she also denied that the practice had ever taken place.ccxlv Because of this, it is impossible to determine what she knew and when she knew it.ccxlvi 

Mormons believe that sealings are eternally binding covenants with God, with serious consequences if those covenants are broken.ccxlvii At that time, part of the sealing covenant was accepting the plural marriage commandment (D&C 132). Because Emma Smith did not accept this part of the covenant, Smith believed he could not be sealed to her until she did accept it without her potentially facing grave repercussions from God. It is understandable that some would feel sorrow and anger on her behalf over this, but Smith seemed to believe he was protecting her, rather than punishing her. 

Coercion

Joseph Smith took Helen Mar Kimball’s hand in marriage while promising her and her family eternal salvation if she accepted. Some of the other marriages included threats that Smith was going to be killed by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t marry him. How is it okay that he coerced these girls into marrying him? 

While Helen Mar Kimball did intimate at one time that she believed Smith promised her and her family eternal salvation if she was sealed to him,ccxlviii she later explained that she had been too young or foolish to understand what Smith was teaching her.ccxlix Her parents did not appear to share that same understanding of his words.ccl  

The CES Letter is incorrect in its statement regarding the angel and Smith’s life being in danger.ccli Smith did not state that he would be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t accept Smith’s proposals. He would be slain by the angel if he didn’t propose the sealings to them. He was the one commanded to enter into plural marriage.cclii  

While in today’s world we are very cognizant of power imbalances when it comes to romantic relationships, it is important to recognize that none of the women in question felt they were manipulated into their relationships with Smith. The women were always given a choice in the matter, and those choices were respected. Some of the women Smith approached refused him without any repercussions.ccliii Sealings performed later in the Nauvoo temple required all participants to acknowledge that they were there willingly.ccliv  

D&C 132

D&C 132 has very specific and bizarre rules on how polygamy is to be followed. The only form of polygamy permitted is a union with a virgin after first giving the opportunity to the first wife to consent to the marriage. If she doesn’t consent, the husband is exempt and can still have other wives. If the new wife is not a virgin before marriage and completely monogamous after marriage, she’ll be destroyed. The man only needs to desire another wife. He doesn’t need a specific revelation from the Prophet allowing it. D&C 132 is unequivocal that polygamy is only permitted “to multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.” This is similar to the Book of Mormon, which only allows polygamy when God commands it to “raise up seed.” This isn’t how Smith practiced polygamy. He married women who were already married and not virgins, without the knowledge or consent of his or their spouses, while one man was on a mission and one woman was pregnant. He used threats or promises of salvation to coerce women into marrying him.  

While Doctrine and Covenants 132 can be confusing to understand in places, the CES Letter makes multiple misstatements in this subsection. The term “virgin” in this section does not mean someone who has never engaged in sexual relations the way the CES Letter posits. We know this because many of the women Smith and other early Mormons were sealed in plural marriages with were either already civilly married to other men or were widows or divorcées.cclv When the term is used in the scriptures, it typically refers to a young woman who is morally pure according to her situation in life. 

One of the definitions of “destroy” in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary is “to take away; to cause to cease.”cclvi Mormons believe that if they keep their temple covenants, they will be able to have eternal increase, progression, and blessings (D&C 131:4, D&C 132:17). When the sealing revelation in D&C 132 speaks of people being destroyed if they don’t accept the plural marriage portion of the covenant, it means that their potential for further growth and increase is taken away. Additionally, the revelation states that men must “abide in [Christ’s] covenant” and “shall commit no murder to shed innocent blood” (D&C 132:19). To say that they have no restrictions on them except to wish for another wife is inaccurate. While it is true that men did not need to receive a direct commandment from the prophet to enter the practice of plural marriage, all men needed to obtain approval from their Church leaders before entering one.cclvii 

The CES Letter is also incorrect when it says that the only reasons given for plural marriage are “to multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.” The section gives multiple other reasons: “to multiply and replenish the earth,” “to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world,” “for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men,” “for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified” (D&C 132:63); “to prove you all, as I did Abraham,” and finally, “that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice” (D&C 132:51).  

It is not accurate to say definitively that Smith did not follow the guidelines for managing plural marriage given in the sealing revelation. The women in question were apparently morally pure; while we cannot determine whether it is true in every case, there is clear evidence that many of the spouses knew about the sealings in advance, and some even participated in those sealings;cclviii it is unclear if Orson Hyde was on a mission or had already returned home at the time of the sealing between Marinda Hyde and Smith;cclix and more than one of the women was pregnant at the time of the sealing, which actually indicates a lack of sexual activity.cclx Additionally, the claim that the women were coerced appears to be incorrect.cclxi 

Joseph Smith’s Bad Behavior

Joseph Smith’s pattern of behavior over at least 10 years of his life was to keep secrets, to be deceptive, and to be dishonest, both privately and publicly. It paints a very disturbing pattern and picture. He denied practicing polygamy in public sermons and had an illegal marriage to Fanny Alger, which Oliver Cowdery called, “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” He practiced polygamy before the sealing authority was given, which meant the relationship with Alger was adultery. He destroyed the Nauvoo Expositor because it exposed polygamy, which led to his death. Emma didn’t know about these marriages until after the fact. The other Mormons didn’t know until 1852. He asked 31 witnesses to sign an affidavit published in the October 1, 1842 Times and Seasons saying that he did not practice polygamy. But several people were secret polygamists at that time or knew that Smith was one, including Eliza R. Snow who was one of Smith’s wives, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, and Bishop Whitney and his wife, who both witnessed Smith marry their daughter shortly before the affidavit was written. What does it say about Joseph Smith, having his wives and close friends lie and perjure themselves by claiming he wasn’t a polygamist?  

Little is known about Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger. Most of the information available is based on second- or third-hand sources that came decades later.cclxii Alger appears to have been Smith’s first plural wife. Best estimates put their union as taking place sometime between late 1835 and early 1836.cclxiii According to Smith, the sealing power was restored to the Earth on April 3, 1836,cclxiv so it is posible that Smith and Alger were sealed.cclxv Because it was not a civil marriage but only a religious ceremony, it would not have been an illegal union. The revelation Smith claimed to receive ordering plural marriage is said to have been received in 1831.cclxvi Smith apparently spoke to Alger’s family members about the practice, who approached Alger on his behalf.cclxvii After she agreed to the union, there was a ceremony of some sort performed by either Oliver Cowdery or Levi Hancock, the brother-in-law of Alger’s father.cclxviii Reports exist of an altercation taking place between Smith, Alger, Emma Smith, and Oliver Cowdery, which led to the dissolution of the union.cclxix Alger moved out of the Smith home and into the home of Chauncy and Eliza Webb for a short time until she joined the rest of her family elsewhere in Ohio. Much later, the Webb family alleged that Alger was pregnant at the time her relationship with Smith ended, but these reports cannot be corroborated.cclxx Her oldest living child was not Smith’s.cclxxi In September of 1836, the Alger family began their move to Missouri. At a stopover in Indiana, Alger married Solomon Custer after a brief courtship.cclxxii It appears that, whatever her relationship with Smith had been, they considered it over if Alger felt free to marry another man. After Alger’s departure from Kirtland rumors circulated, fueled by Cowdery, who did not approve of polygamy.cclxxiii Cowdery insinuated that Smith was guilty of adultery with Alger, and did indeed refer to it as a “dirty, nasty, filthy” thing.cclxxiv However, while the official copy of the letter from Cowdery’s letter book says “affair,” this appears to be an alteration by Cowdery’s nephew, who maintained the letter book.cclxxv Cowdery’s original word was “scrape,” which shows it was not a romantic affair but rather, a difficult situation.cclxxvi To address the rumors Cowdery was fomenting, Smith spoke to the High Council at Far West, Missouri, during Cowdery’s excommunication trial.cclxxvii The meeting minutes state simply that Smith addressed “the girl business” to the Council’s satisfaction.cclxxviii Therefore, claims that Smith was dishonest about the relationship with Alger do not appear to be accurate, as he explained the situation to the Far West High Council.  

While it is true that Joseph Smith did publicly deny engaging in polygamy while in Nauvoo, those denials were carefully worded to avoid outright dishonesty.cclxxix Moreover, he did attempt on at least one occasion to publicly teach the practice to the Mormons, but was rebuffed.cclxxx The context regarding the denials is important. Under Illinois law at the time, adultery and fornication were only considered illegal if that behavior was conducted openly and was publicly known.cclxxxi Because Smith was not civilly married to any of his wives except Emma Smith, any religious sealings to additional women would legally have been considered adultery if they were publicly known or flaunted. Smith was accused of adultery by two of the editors of The Nauvoo Expositor, William and Wilson Law, and an indictment was issued on May 25, 1844.cclxxxii The following day, he gave an address to the Mormons in which he denied committing adultery and having more than one wife.cclxxxiii This was done specifically to counter the charges of adultery brought against him. If he had admitted to engaging in polygamy, he would have been guilty in the eyes of the law. By denying it, he was not legally guilty. This incident was certainly walking along the edge of dishonesty, and it is understandable that some may be upset to learn this information. Though it doesn’t sit well with some readers, technically, Smith did only have one legal wife. While Smith was sealed to multiple women at that time, a religious sealing did not have legal standing under the law. He was not civilly married to them even though some of the unions were considered marriages by Smith and the women involved, and were consummated as such.cclxxxiv Additionally, The Warsaw Signal newspaper was printing frequent stories in opposition to the Mormons, encouraging mob violence against them with the intent of driving them from the county.cclxxxv There was also a conspiracy against Smith’s life with the intent to lure him out of the city in order to murder him.cclxxxvi These two circumstances gave Smith extra incentive to keep polygamy quiet in order to protect the Mormons from that brewing violence. Evidence exists to suggest that protection of the Mormons against mob violence was also a primary reason for the destruction of The Nauvoo Expositor.cclxxxvii  Moreover, it is inaccurate to say that the Mormons were unaware of their leaders practicing polygamy before 1852. The confirmation of the practice to the rest of the world occurred in 1852, but the practice was taught quietly to many Mormons while in Nauvoo before Smith’s death and more widely to the rest of the Mormon membership while stationed at Winter Quarters during their exodus West.cclxxxviii 

The destruction of the printing press for The Nauvoo Expositor led directly to the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. However, the situation is far more nuanced than described in the CES Letter. The editors of The Nauvoo Expositor were mostly former Mormons who had turned against Smith for various reasons.cclxxxix Evidence shows that Smith attempted several times to make amends, but was unsuccessful.ccxc Tensions were growing steadily in Hancock County between the Mormons and non-Mormons in the early 1840s. With the release of The Nauvoo Expositor Prospectus and subsequent single issue, those tensions escalated dramatically.ccxci The text of each was inflammatory and threatened that future editions would be even less restrained.ccxcii In an attempt to prevent mob violence from descending on the Mormons, as well as to prevent the outraged Mormons from retaliating against the editors of The Expositor themselves, the Nauvoo City Council voted almost unanimously to destroy the Expositor printing press, type, and remaining copies of the edition.ccxciii Prior to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the First Amendment was seen as only pertaining to federal cases, rather than state cases. Additionally, suppression of printing presses was common in 19th Century America.ccxciv Smith and the City Council believed their city charter gave them the authority to suppress a libelous press as a nuissance.ccxcv The press was therefore destroyed on June 10, 1844.ccxcvi Evidence exists to suggest that the editors of The Expositor intended the City Council to destroy the press for the sole purpose of igniting mob violence against the Mormons.ccxcvii Their desire was successful, and the action escalated the tensions to the point that after a succession of legal hearings against Smith and the City Council, Smith, as Mayor of Nauvoo, called out the Nauvoo Legion militia and placed the city under marshall law.ccxcviii The Warsaw Signal then openly called for the death of all Mormons in Illinois if Smith was not delivered for execution.ccxcix Smith eventually surrendered to the authorities and paid his bail for a charge of inciting a riot, but was then rearrested for treason for calling out the militia.ccc However, according to a letter from Smith to Governor Ford, he had done so on the Governor’s orders.ccci Because treason was a charge without bail, Smith was unable to leave the Carthage jail. As he was held there, a mob stormed the jail and murdered Smith and his brother, Hyrum. While the legality of Smith’s actions can be debated, the CES Letter goes beyond the evidence when making definitive statements about Smith’s intent and motivations in suppressing the Expositor press. Readers can draw their own conclusions after examining the evidence. 

Regarding the affidavits released in the Times and Seasons newspaper on October 1, 1842, there is no indication that Smith asked the signatories to write and sign the documents.cccii In fact, the affidavits did not concern Smith at all and did not even mention his name.ccciii One of the signatories, Eliza R. Snow, who was already sealed to Smith at the time, explained that they wrote the affidavits in response to John C. Bennett, a former-Mormon-turned-critic who was trumpeting a doctrine of his own making called “spiritual wifery.”ccciv According to Snow, they did not refer to Smith’s form of plural marriage at any point.cccv Thus, the CES Letter’s usage of these affidavits as proof against Smith’s honesty is questionable when Smith is not even the subject of them.  

Secret Polygamy

Joseph Smith was already a polygamist when this edition came out, and it publicly teaches that monogamy is the doctrine of the Mormon Church in D&C 101:4, 13:7, and 65:3. He continued secretly marrying women and young girls while those revelations remained in force.  

The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants does not “ban polygamy.” D&C 13:7 is today’s D&C 42:22, and it states that the law of the Mormon Church is monogamy.cccvi In 1831 when Smith claimed to receive this revelation, saying to cleave unto your wife and none else, the commandment was monogamy. The “law” in the Mormon Church is always monogamy unless directly commanded otherwise, and only for as long as commanded.cccvii D&C 65:3 in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants is today’s D&C 49:15–21.cccviii This revelation was also allegedly given in 1831, and was in direct response to the conversion of Shakers who believed that marriage was forbidden by God. This revelation teaches that marriage is ordained by God.  

The 1835 section 101 is not a revelation at all, but a statement on marriage written by Oliver Cowdery at Smith’s request.cccix This statement was written so that the Mormons would have a written record of their beliefs on marriage, which at that time was strictly monogamous. The Mormon Church was based in Ohio in 1835, and had recently announced the Law of Consecration, which was about the Mormons “having all things in common.”cccx Some Ohioans at the time believed this included having wives in common, as other “free love” societies/communities had sprung up out of the Second Great Awakening and the close-knit Mormons were viewed to be one of them.cccxi The article was written in part to refute that idea.  

A second reason it was written was because, under Ohio law at the time, any ordained minister could obtain a license to perform legal marriages, and any religious society could perform marriages without a license so long as the ceremony was conducted “agreeable to the rules and regulations of their respective churches.”cccxii Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite minister before converting to the Mormon Church, was denied a license to perform marriages by a judge despite meeting the requirements—the only such denial on record during that period—and was later arrested for performing an illegal marriage before he was able to produce his original Campbellite license to void the charge.cccxiii By issuing the statement on marriage, which included formalized rules and regulations, the Mormons were able to side-step the requirement to obtain a license to perform marriages by the state and perform legal marriages under the second statute cited above.   

The language of the statement was ambiguous as to whether or not a man could at some point in the future have more than one wife.cccxiv Because this was not a revelation, but a statement of fact regarding the teachings of the Mormon Church in 1835, it does not it does not “ban” those teachings from changing in the future to allow for polygamy. Whether or not Smith was already a polygamist at the time the statement was released is in dispute, as the marriage date for his union with Fanny Alger is unknown. However, best estimates put it at late 1835 to early 1836.cccxv It is also disingenuous to suggest that Smith continued “secretly marrying women and young girls while those revelations remained in force.” After Alger, his next sealing was in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841.cccxvi Reports indicate that Smith claimed to receive the revelation regarding sealings and polygamy as early as 1831, though it was not yet put into practice.cccxvii It would appear that these revelations and the statement on marriage were not “in force” at the time, as Smith had knowledge that they would be superseded by the sealing revelation. 

  • References

    cccvi. See “Doctrine and Covenants, 1835, Pages 121–122,” Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 19, 2024, online at josephsmithpapers.org. 

    cccvii. See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Polygamy,” Newsroom Topic, accessed February 19, 2024, online at newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org. 

    cccviii. See “Doctrine and Covenants, 1835, Page 192,” Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 19, 2024, online at josephsmithpapers.org. 

    cccix. See “Doctrine and Covenants, 1835, Pages 251–252,” Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 19, 2024, online at josephsmithpapers.org. 

    cccx. See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Law of Consecration,” Answers to Church History Questions, accessed February 20, 2024, online at churchofjesuschrist.org. 

    cccxi. See Richard S. Van Wagoner, “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 68–70, online at dialoguejournal.com. 

    cccxii. M. Scott Bradshaw, “Joseph Smith’s Performance of Marriages in Ohio,” Brigham Young University Studies 39, no. 4 (2000): 23, 57–59 online at jstor.org; see also Gregory L. Smith, “Polygamy Book: Joseph Smith’s performance of marriages in Ohio,” FAIR, accessed February 20, 2024, online at fairlatterdaysaints.org. 

    cccxiii. See M. Scott Bradshaw, “Joseph Smith’s Performance of Marriages in Ohio,” Brigham Young University Studies 39, no. 4 (2000): 23–24 online at jstor.org. 

    cccxiv. See Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 1: History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, Inc., 2013): 164. As cited by Hales, RLDS Elder David H. Bays said the following regarding this statement: “You may have observed the ingenious phraseology of that part of the document which is designed to convey the impression that the assembly, as well as the entire church, was opposed to polygamy, but which, as a matter of fact, leaves the way open for its introduction and practice. The language I refer to is this: ‘We believe that one man shall have one wife; and one woman but one husband.’ Why use the restrictive adverb in the case of the woman, and ingeniously omit it with reference to the man? Why not employ the same form of words in one case as in the other? Why not say of the man, he shall have ‘but one wife except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.’ We repeat the question with emphasis, Why not restrict the man to one wife in the same manner that the woman is restricted to one husband? The reason seems obvious.” As also cited by Hales, Mormon President Joseph F. Smith said, “The declaration…that ‘one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband’ bears the implication that a man might possibly be permitted at some time to have more than one wife, while a woman was to have ‘but one husband.’” 

    cccxv. See Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger,” Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, accessed February 20, 2024, online at josephsmithspolygamy.org. 

    cccxvi. See Gary James Bergera, “The Earliest Eternal Sealings for Civilly Married Couples Living and Dead,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 49, online at dialoguejournal.com. See also Don Bradley, “Knowing Brother Joseph: How the Historical Record Demonstrates the Prophet’s Religious Sincerity,” 2023 FAIR Conference presentation, accessed February 19, 2024, online at fairlatterdaysaints.org. 

    cccxvii. See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Polygamy: Latter-day Saints and the Practice of Plural Marriage,” Newsroom: Additional Resource, accessed February 20, 2024, online at newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Warren Jeffs

Today, Warren Jeffs is more closely aligned to Joseph Smith’s Mormonism than the modern LDS Church is. D&C 132 is the kind of revelation you’d expect to see from Jeffs to his followers, rather than anything from God. Smith and Jeffs both had dozens of wives, some of whom were very young while others were already married to other men, and some of those wives were biologically related as sisters or mothers/daughters. 

While it is understandable that the author of the CES Letter might see some superficial similarities between Smith and Jeffs, it is important to look more closely at the details.cccxviii Smith never acknowledged that he was lying about being a prophet, while Jeffs did on at least two occasions.cccxix Additionally, unlike Smith, Jeffs forced young women into marriages to men again their will, ordered them to submit to sex, pushed men and boys out of the community, banned the color red in his community, and was even accused of incest.cccxx Smith did none of those things. 

Prophets

Adam-God

Brigham Young taught what is called the Adam-God theory, which is that Adam is “our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.” He taught this in General Conference and as part of the Lecture at the Veil in the endowment ceremony in the St. George temple. It was even published in the Deseret News. Since then, other Prophets and Apostles have renounced this theory as heresy and false doctrine. What about the people who followed the Prophet in Young’s day? What about the people who went through the temple when that was in place? 

Brigham Young did indeed periodically teach what has come to be known as the “Adam-God Theory” between 1852 and 1877, the end of his life.cccxxi This theory says that Adam was also God the Father, living a second mortal probation after being the Savior of another world and being exalted. However, there is confusion over what exactly Young was trying to communicate, and the Mormon Church does not have the original shorthand transcripts for the sermons in question.cccxxii Numerous theories exist that attempt to explain his thinking on the subject.cccxxiii Regardless of his intended meaning, over the span of approximately 25 years the theory was taught in Church magazines, at General Conference, in sermons, hymnals, private meetings, and even in the St. George temple.cccxxiv However, the teachings were never canonized as official doctrine of the Mormon Church and have been denounced by later leaders as incorrect.cccxxv 

Young appears to have developed this theory after engaging in speculation with his close friend, Heber C. Kimball, and building on ideas expressed by Joseph Smith before his death (D&C 78:16, D&C 137:1–5).cccxxvi At times, Young alluded to the concept coming as revelation.cccxxvii However, it should be noted that Young believed that all knowledge and ideas were revelation from God, even when learned from other humans.cccxxviii At other times, he also said the belief was merely his opinion.cccxxix Young also stated repeatedly that Mormons should not believe his words were true unless they prayed over them and received a spiritual confirmation that they were true.cccxxx 

Mormons do not believe that prophets and apostles are infallible.cccxxxi They are mortal human beings who can and do occasionally make mistakes. This theory appears to be one of those errors. There are keys to trusting imperfect people, such as giving them the benefit of the doubt and focusing on the broader principles rather than the finer details.cccxxxii Mormons believe that if someone follows the guidance of their prophet, even if that prophet is in error, they will still be blessed.cccxxxiii Therefore, those who followed the counsel of Brigham Young will be blessed, even if he was in error about the Adam-God Theory. 

Blood Atonement