A Response to

Orson Scott Card's article

Book of Mormon: Artifact or Artifice?

Original article at http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html


         Orson Scott Card is a popular and prolific writer of inspirational fiction and science fiction. He is also a faithful Mormon. He gives many of his novels a Mormon setting, and draws many of his themes from Mormon history and Mormon teachings. In this article he discusses the issue of whether the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient document (as Mormons claim), or rather a work of fiction. Although that may not have been his intention, Card gives us excellent reasons to view the Book of Mormon as fiction.

         In this critique I will comment on most of Card's arguments, which will be quoted in italics.

         After telling us how much the Book of Mormon has influenced his life and his work, Card begins his analysis of its authenticity:

"Either Joseph Smith's account is true, or it isn't. Either the witnesses who said they saw the plates lied, or they didn't. "

         These are false dilemmas. Two sentences and two logical fallacies. Smith's account could be partly true and partly false. The witnesses could have been telling what they perceived to be the truth, but still be mistaken. If they had been hallucinating, for example, or if they had been deceived by a hoax, we do not need to say they were lying. For excellent discussions of the witnesses, see Dan Vogel's article in American Apocrypha as well as Grant Palmer's chapter on the witnesses in his book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins.

"If the account he gave us is true, then the Book of Mormon must be what it purports to be, ..."

         This does not logically follow. Smith may also have been deceived, or deluded. Smith also gave us an accurate account of the finding of the Kinderhook Plates and the purchase of the Egyptian Papyri, but the accuracy of those accounts does not prove that they are what they purport to be via Smith's "translations" of them.

"...Joseph Smith's role in providing us with the Book of Mormon was solely as translator. Therefore, we should find his influence in the book, or the influence of any other 1820s American, only where we would expect to find a translator's influence: that is, in matters of word choice, consciously or unconsciously linking Book of Mormon events to experiences that he and his American readers could understand, choosing the clearest language he had available to him, fitting ideas he found in the book into existing American concepts as best he could.. "

         Card is preparing us for an assertion that Smith's influence (and the influence of his times) in the text can only be attributed to his role as a translator. However, these elements are also equally attributable, and even moreso (as we will see later) to an author who is trying to produce a believable fiction, as Card then states:

"Or he did not get the Book of Mormon the way he said, in which case somebody in the 1820s in the United States made it up, and in that case it is fiction, and we should find Joseph Smith's or someone else's influence there as author. In that case all of the ideas and events in the book should come out of the mind of an 1820s American, and it should reflect faithfully the kind of thing an 1820s American would do in trying to create a record which he was going to pass off as an ancient document. "

         That is an excellent statement of a test for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

         Card then proceeds to show elements of the Book of Mormon which do not reflect the ideas of 1820s America. This is one of his principal arguments. His first example is when Amaleki turns over the records to King Benjamin. Card says:

"[Turning over records to a king] is something that would certainly not be a cultural idea available to Joseph Smith. You don't turn ancient records over to kings in the world of the 1820s in America. Kings would have nothing to do with ancient records. You would turn ancient records over to a scholar. "

         Card overlooks the fact that the author of a fiction about times when there were kings will certainly realize that the fictional culture which he is creating would have different ideas and customs from his own. Smith's notion of a king (especially a righteous king such as King Benjamin was supposed to be) having sacred records has an excellent model in the story of righteous King Josiah (2 Kings 22), to whom the priest Hilkiah delivered the sacred record which was found in the temple. Card's argument makes Smith too stupid.

         Card summarizes the basic problem quite well:

"If the Book of Mormon is [a hoax], then some American in the 1820s, most probably Joseph Smith, actually set out to fake a document that would fool us into thinking that all these other guys wrote it, reflecting the concerns of at least three different cultures, none of them particularly similar to the culture of frontier America in its fifth decade. "

         Card then draws on his wide experience as a professional science-fiction writer to compare what it would require for someone in the 1820s in America to write a fiction that people would accept as fact. In doing so, he points out a difference between a science-fiction writer and Joseph Smith:

"[When we write science fiction, o]ur name is on it as author, and we expect to get credit for our inventiveness. "

         Card seems to be unaware that on the title page of the first edition of the Book of Mormon it said: "Joseph Smith, Author And Proprietor", and he sent two of his followers to Toronto to try to sell the copyright. Apparently just like an author of science fiction would do.

         Card then gives an excellent example of an attempted hoax from the 18th century, James McPherson's production of the poems of Ossian. In doing so, Card is trying to show how McPherson's hoax is different from the Book of Mormon. He gives as differences:

         I see those same items as ways in which the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are actually very similar to Ossian and McPherson:

         Ironically, Card characterizes Joseph Smith's work very well:

"[If Joseph Smith is a fraud, h]is work should proclaim itself to be a phony on every page today. This is because every storyteller, no matter how careful he is, will inadvertently confess his own character and the society he lives in. He can make every conscious effort, he can be the best educated scholar you could possibly find, but if he tries to write something that is not of his own culture he will give himself away with every unconscious choice he makes. Yet he'll never know he's doing it because it won't occur to him that it could be any other way. "

         And that's exactly the way it is! Card says that a science fiction writer, no matter what era of past or future in which he sets his tale, will betray his own decade, its culture, its attitudes and its science. And what do we find in the Book of Mormon? The attitudes, culture, science, and burning issues of frontier America in the 1820s. For details, see the extensive examples listed in David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon edited by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, the earlier collection of essays edited by Metcalfe, New Approaches To The Book of Mormon, and many other works.

         On the language of the Book of Mormon, Card suggests that the reason it is full of grammatical errors is because it is the only the language of the translator (Smith), who was translating strange concepts and unfamiliar language. He discounts David Whitmer's statement about the process. Whitmer, who acted for a time as Smith's scribe during the translating, had testified that the English words appeared on the seer stone, and Smith would read them off. Only when the scribe had written it correctly would the words disappear from the stone and the next words would appear. The reason Card does not accept this testimony is because it lays the blame for grammatical errors on God, and because one would become disillusioned about the Book of Mormon's authenticity if one accepted it. Well, of course!

         Card then explains that this is what caused Whitmer to leave the church, but immediately contradicts himself by saying that Whitmer left the church not over anything having to do with the Book of Mormon (which Whitmer devoutly believed in until his death), but because Smith changed revelations after they had been received and printed and pronounced "correct" by God. Quite a different matter!

         Card then stacks the deck with a valid question but invalid answers:

"If the Book of Mormon is a fake, what should we expect an 1820s American to put into this book?"

         He of course will list all kinds of things typical of the 1820s that are NOT in the book, ignoring (or explaining away) the many such things that ARE in the book.

         He starts with the fascination in the 1820s with the Lost Ten Tribes, as likely ancestors of the American Indians. He finds it significant that the Book of Mormon does NOT claim that the Indians are descended from the Ten Tribes. David Persuitte deals with the reasons why Smith avoided suggesting that the Ten Tribes all came to the Americas. It would have caused him several problems, a very important one being that it would have made it too obvious that he was getting much of his information and many of his ideas from Ethan Smith's 1825 book View of the Hebrews. (See Persuitte, op. cit. pp 136ff). And Card overstates the case by saying that the Lost Ten Tribes are "barely hinted at" - Lehi is actually a member of one of the lost tribes (Manasseh). Card should check the index of the Book of Mormon under "Israel, Ten Lost Tribes Of" and "Israel, Gathering of".

         Card discusses at great length the fact that women play almost no role in the Book of Mormon, and are rarely even mentioned. Only three women are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon. Card argues that this would be so alien to Joseph Smith's culture that it is evidence that Smith did not write it. That is not very persuasive evidence. The principal themes of the Book of Mormon are the preaching of the gospel to sinners, and the many wars between the righteous and the wicked. Those are male-dominated areas, and they were also male-dominated in America of the 1820s. It is only males, in the Book of Mormon, and in Smith's day, and in Smith's church, who did the preaching and the fighting.

         Again, Card himself makes the best argument against the Book of Mormon:

"But the most telling confessions are little, tiny, unnoticeable choices, because that's where even the most brilliant fakers would give themselves away. He will make his invented culture different from the culture he lives in -- but it will only be different where he has thought of it. "

         And that is precisely what happens. The vocabulary is rich in the terminology and the political ideas of the new American democracy. For many lengthy and detailed examples, see Tom Donofrio's article "Early American Influences on the Book of Mormon" at http://www.mormonstudies.com/early1.htm and his article "Book of Mormon Tories" at http://www.postmormon.org/tories.htm. Grant Palmer (op. cit.) has an entire chapter on "Evangelical Protestantism in the Book of Mormon" (pp 95-135), with precise comparison of the conversion stories and the sermons in the Book of Mormon and the similar phenomena which were so prominent in the few decades in America during which the Book of Mormon was produced. These are precisely the kind of thing Card says would show the Book of Mormon to be a hoax. And they are not isolated or hard to find in the Book of Mormon. They are practially on every page.

         Card argues that the mention of "judges" as rulers is inconsistent with Smith's age, when judges merely heard cases in court, and that therefore this is evidence of the genuineness of the Book of Mormon. Card seems to forget that one of Smith's major sources was the Bible, where "judges" were indeed rulers (see the entire book of Judges, and 1 Samuel 1-9). The mention of judges as rulers is exactly what Smith might assume occurred also in his imaginary ancient America.

         Card also makes much about the importance of "lineage" in the Book of Mormon, and suggests that it was not at all an important factor in America of the 1820s. He argues that in America money was more important. This does not seem very factual, nor does it seem persuasive. First of all, the Book of Mormon frequently mentions the evils of wealth (Card might check the words "Rich" and "Riches" in the index to the Book of Mormon). This was also a frequent social issue in America of the 1820s. And to suggest that the Americans of the 1820s had no interest in "lineage" is contradicted by Smith's own family. His mother Lucy wrote a biography of Joseph in which she began by reciting at length all of the family's ancestry. Although ancestry was very important to the ancient Jews, Card does not mention the odd assertion in the Book of Mormon that Lehi, a great and wise and learned prophet, was unaware of his own tribal affiliation until he obtained the Brass Plates (1 Nephi 5:14). So which is it?

         Card refers frequently to "Meso-American culture" for comparisons with the Book of Mormon. He apparently subscribes to the "limited geography" model for the Book of Mormon. Not only does this limited model have serious problems and internal contradictions (see Earl M. Wunderli's article "Critique of a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon Events", in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 35:3:161-197, Fall 2002), it also conflicts with authoritative statements of the Mormon prophets for over a century and with revelations in the D&C such as D&C 54:8. But Card also digs himself a hole by implying that "Meso-American culture" is somehow the culture of the Book of Mormon. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is precisely the great many dissimilarities between what is known about ancient Meso-American culture and what is described in the Book of Mormon that is one of the strongest arguments against the latter's authenticity. The plants, the animals, the religion, the language, the money system, the calendar, the chronology, the genetic make-up of the populations... all of these are quite different. Even a cursory encyclopedia article describing ancient Meso-American civilization will provide dozens of facts that do not and cannot fit into the Book of Mormon story. Read any description of Maya or Aztec civilization written by non-Mormon historians (such as World of the Maya, The Aztec: Man and Tribe, both by Victor W. Von Hagen, Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization by Charles Gallenkamp, Early Man In the New World by Kenneth MacGowan and Joseph A. Hester, Jr.) and you will be hard-pressed to see any similarity with the civilization that is described in the Book of Mormon. Any similarity, such as the method of merging differing peoples in the Book of Mormon, which Card says is "typical" of Meso-American patterns, can be discounted as pure coincidence.

         Card attempts to deal with the "horse" problem as a linguistic problem:

" if in fact there were no horses in America at the time of the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew word for horse could still quite readily be applied to some other animal that functioned like a horse."

         One must immediately ask, "And what animal was that?" There was NO animal in ancient America that "functioned like a horse." There were no draft animals. There were no animals which a man could mount and ride. There were no large domesticated animals at all (the only animals domesticated by the Maya were turkeys, ducks, bees, and dogs - see Gallenkamp, op. cit. p. 132). And then one must ask - since the translation of the Book of Mormon was supposedly done with divine assistance - if the Nephites were using a Hebrew word for "horse" for something that only reminded them of a horse, but was really a deer or a tapir or some other animal (which we can presume is not extinct), why did not God inspire Smith to translate it with the correct name, rather than one which would later (as God should have known) call into question the authenticity of this translation?

         Card asks:

"Great Spirit. Speaking of cowboys and Indians, why don't we see much more of the 1820s view of American Indians?"

         The term "Great Spirit" (Alma 18:26) was supposedly the Indian term for God. It would be quite natural for a hoaxer to put that into a theological discussion between ancient Americans. Unfortunately for the hoaxer, the term did not exist until the Indians had been exposed to Christian monotheism through missionaries. It is a white man's term, invented by Christian missionaries, to try to explain monotheism to the native Americans, who were consistently polytheistic. Thus, it is an anachronism.

         Actually, we DO see the 1820s American view of the native Americans. They are continually pictured as hunters, wanderers, lazy, filthy, dark-skinned, simple-minded, warlike, and a constant threat to their more civilized neighbors. That certainly sounds like the attitude of the white population on the western frontier of America in the 1820s.

         Card comments:

"But no one in the Book of Mormon rides anywhere. How did Joseph Smith know to keep his made-up Nephites and Lamanites on foot -- and how did he keep himself from ever pointing out the fact? "

         Card has not read his Book of Mormon very carefully: He should look up "chariots" in the index.

         Card marvels that ordinary work-a-day relationships are missing in the Book of Mormon, even though they were an important part of 1820s America:

"So where are those trade relationships in the Book of Mormon? "

         Perhaps this is a hint that the hoaxer creating the Book of Mormon did not think that such relationships were an interesting part of the fictitious society he was creating? It would seem that this lack would mark the Book of Mormon as not authentic. The Bible mentions many trades and occupations. Why would not an authentic record of ancient Jews in America do likewise? Obviously, the writer was more interested in wars and miracles, the more sensational parts of his story. The work-a-day world makes for boring reading.

         Card comments:

"Swooning. Where did Joseph Smith get this business of people swooning to show great feeling? Especially men! That was unthinkable in the 1820s. A man fainting and then lying as if dead for several days? That doesn't reflect any social patterns in Joseph Smith's culture. In fact, it's embarrassing, right? "

         Card is viewing the Book of Mormon from his own 20th century standpoint, not that of the 1820s in the western "burnt-over district" of New York, where swooning by both sexes was a typical manifestation of the "spirit." See Palmer's chapter, cited above. Thus, the "swooning" is a telling indication that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith's time.

         Card makes a startling assertion when he says:

"And, in fact, it is worth pointing out that nowhere else in all of Joseph Smith's writings do we get the slightest hint of his having an interest in military strategies or achievements"

         Are we talking here about the same Joseph Smith who, according to his mother's account, as a child entertained the Smith family with tales of Indian warfare (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches..., p. 85), who raised the largest standing army in the United States, and made himself a "lieutenant general" (the highest rank any American military officer had ever held), and proposed to the President of the United States that he (Smith) should be authorized by the U.S. government to raise an army to pacify the western territories of the U.S.? How could Smith have a greater interest in military matters than that?

         Card makes much of the fact that the books do not deal with the character they are named after:

"The organization of the books in the Book of Mormon is peculiar in the extreme. Each of the books that Mormon wrote -- Mosiah, Alma, Helaman -- spends much of its time talking about someone other than the person the book was named for. "

         This is not at all unusual, since the author of the Book of Mormon would have seen the same thing in the Bible: the Books of Samuel are not just about Samuel, the books of Kings are also about Elijah and other non-kings. None of the New Testament books are talking about the person the book was named for. Even so, why would such a thing tend to indicate authenticity?

         Card declines to discuss the Jaredites, since he says Hugh Nibley's book does it so well. He asserts:

"Suffice it to say that if you read The World of the Jaredites, you'll realize that the book of Ether is rich in a culture that is strikingly different from the rest of the Book of Mormon -- and from anything else that Joseph Smith would have any inkling of."

         Oddly enough, the world of the Jaredites strikes many readers as being remarkably similar to the world of the Nephites - constant wars between the righteous and the wicked, ending in a mass battle on the very same battlefield, exterminating an entire race. B. H. Roberts, one of Mormonism's most notable scholars, remarked on the similarities between the Nephites and the Jaredites, in his posthumously published Studies of the Book of Mormon (ed by Brigham H. Madsen; see the index under "Book of Mormon parallels - internal: Nephites and Jaredites"). David Persuitte discusses the likely origin of the Book of Ether in his book (op. cit.) as an early draft of Smith's explanation for the source of the American Indians - many Americans in the 1820s believed that the Indians had come to America from the dispersion at the Tower of Babel. Neither Card nor Nibley deals with the fact that no reputable scholar believes that the Tower of Babel story is anything more than myth.

         Card summarizes:

"The truth, the important truth of the Book of Mormon is only understood with the Spirit through faith. If you don't believe in the book, it's not going to change your life. And I mean believe in it in a way far different from believing it's a genuine artifact. You have to believe in it also as something meant for you as a guide to your life. So, I have very little interest in attempting to prove the book. I haven't proven it here. The only real proof is when you prove it with your life, living the gospel it teaches and participating in the Church that was established with that book as the mortar holding it all together. "

         But what precisely does the Book of Mormon teach that was not already taught by the New Testament? Certainly modern Mormonism is not an embodiment of Book of Mormon teachings. Many of Mormonism's most important doctrines are not even found in the Book of Mormon: the plurality of gods, eternal progression, three degrees of glory, proxy baptism for the dead, plural marriage, endowments, God having a body of flesh, God being an exalted man, and others. (Click here for a detailed listing.) In referring to "the Church that was established with that book", one must assume that Card is referring to the church headquarter in Salt Lake City, to which he belongs. But the Book of Mormon has also given rise to many other churches, such as the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and almost two hundred other "Restoration" churches, ranging from the Fundamentalist churches which still practice polygamy to the anti-polygamy churches such as the Temple Lot (Hedrickite) church. So, how does one authentically practice Book of Mormon teachings?

         The fact that the Book of Mormon may have changed anyone's life (which I will not deny) says nothing for its authenticity. Many books that are admittedly fiction have done the same, as well as many religious books which Card would likely consider as false (the Koran, for example).

         To summarize, we must remember that there are all kinds of hoaxes: clumsy hoaxes and very clever hoaxes, and all kinds in between. The best hoaxes can deceive millions. Card would have us believe that the Book of Mormon is not a clumsy hoax, therefore it is authentic. Ironically, Card gives us the very tests by which we can recognize a hoax, even if it is rather clever. And the Book of Mormon, by Card's own criteria, is a very clever hoax. It has deceived many people, who should have known better.

         Hoax detection is really just a matter of having sufficient facts and being sufficiently skeptical. The Book of Mormon stands out as a product of the 19th century. It incorporates the ideas and attitudes of that time, clothed in the pious-sounding language of the King James Bible, which makes up much of its content.

         The Book of Mormon is a very clever combination of Joseph Smith's imaginative tales of Indians, his familiarity with the King James Bible, his knowledge of popular ideas about the origin and culture of the American Indians, Campbellite theology, Ethan Smith's ideas about the Indians as Israelites, and Smith's own experience as a treasure-hunter. In other words, the Book of Mormon is an excellent example of what is condemned in the Mormon endowment ceremony, where Lucifer says: "We teach a religion made of the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture." What better characterization of the Book of Mormon?

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©  2003 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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