This week Slate is publishing three excerpts from Christopher Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
If the followers of the prophet Muhammad hoped to put an end to any future "revelations" after the immaculate conception of the Koran, they reckoned without the founder of what is now one of the world's fastest-growing faiths. And they did not foresee (how could they, mammals as they were?) that the prophet of this ridiculous cult would model himself on theirs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—hereafter known as the Mormons—was founded by a gifted opportunist who, despite couching his text in openly plagiarized Christian terms, announced that "I shall be to this generation a new Muhammad" and adopted as his fighting slogan the words, which he thought he had learned from Islam, "Either the Al-Koran or the sword." He was too ignorant to know that if you use the word al you do not need another definite article, but then he did resemble Muhammad in being able only to make a borrowing out of other people's bibles.
In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being "a disorderly person and an impostor." That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or "necromantic" powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the "Book of Mormon." He had two huge local advantages which most mountebanks and charlatans do not possess. First, he was operating in the same hectically pious district that gave us the Shakers and several other self-proclaimed American prophets. So notorious did this local tendency become that the region became known as the "Burned-Over District," in honor of the way in which it had surrendered to one religious craze after another. Second, he was operating in an area which, unlike large tracts of the newly opening North America, did possess the signs of an ancient history.
A vanished and vanquished Indian civilization had bequeathed a considerable number of burial mounds, which when randomly and amateurishly desecrated were found to contain not merely bones but also quite advanced artifacts of stone, copper, and beaten silver. There were eight of these sites within twelve miles of the underperforming farm which the Smith family called home. There were two equally stupid schools or factions who took a fascinated interest in such matters: the first were the gold-diggers and treasure-diviners who brought their magic sticks and crystals and stuffed toads to bear in the search for lucre, and the second those who hoped to find the resting place of a lost tribe of Israel. Smith's cleverness was to be a member of both groups, and to unite cupidity with half-baked anthropology
The actual story of the imposture is almost embarrassing to read, and almost embarrassingly easy to uncover. (It has been best told by Dr. Fawn Brodie, whose 1945 book No Man Knows My History was a good-faith attempt by a professional historian to put the kindest possible interpretation on the relevant "events.") In brief, Joseph Smith announced that he had been visited (three times, as is customary) by an angel named Moroni. The said angel informed him of a book, "written upon gold plates," which explained the origins of those living on the North American continent as well as the truths of the gospel. There were, further, two magic stones, set in the twin breastplates Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament, that would enable Smith himself to translate the aforesaid book. After many wrestlings, he brought this buried apparatus home with him on September 21, 1827, about eighteen months after his conviction for fraud. He then set about producing a translation.
The resulting "books" turned out to be a record set down by ancient prophets, beginning with Nephi, son of Lephi, who had fled Jerusalem in approximately 600 BC and come to America. Many battles, curses, and afflictions accompanied their subsequent wanderings and those of their numerous progeny. How did the books turn out to be this way? Smith refused to show the golden plates to anybody, claiming that for other eyes to view them would mean death. But he encountered a problem that will be familiar to students of Islam. He was extremely glib and fluent as a debater and story-weaver, as many accounts attest. But he was illiterate, at least in the sense that while he could read a little, he could not write. A scribe was therefore necessary to take his inspired dictation. This scribe was at first his wife Emma and then, when more hands were necessary, a luckless neighbor named Martin Harris. Hearing Smith cite the words of Isaiah 29, verses 11–12, concerning the repeated injunction to "Read," Harris mortgaged his farm to help in the task and moved in with the Smiths. He sat on one side of a blanket hung across the kitchen, and Smith sat on the other with his translation stones, intoning through the blanket. As if to make this an even happier scene, Harris was warned that if he tried to glimpse the plates, or look at the prophet, he would be struck dead.
Mrs. Harris was having none of this, and was already furious with the fecklessness of her husband. She stole the first hundred and sixteen pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them, as presumably—given his power of revelation—he could. (Determined women like this appear far too seldom in the history of religion.) After a very bad few weeks, the ingenious Smith countered with another revelation. He could not replicate the original, which might be in the devil's hands by now and open to a "satanic verses" interpretation. But the all-foreseeing Lord had meanwhile furnished some smaller plates, indeed the very plates of Nephi, which told a fairly similar tale. With infinite labor, the translation was resumed, with new scriveners behind the blanket as occasion demanded, and when it was completed all the original golden plates were transported to heaven, where apparently they remain to this day.
Mormon partisans sometimes say, as do Muslims, that this cannot have been fraudulent because the work of deception would have been too much for one poor and illiterate man. They have on their side two useful points: if Muhammad was ever convicted in public of fraud and attempted necromancy we have no record of the fact, and Arabic is a language that is somewhat opaque even to the fairly fluent outsider. However, we know the Koran to be made up in part of earlier books and stories, and in the case of Smith it is likewise a simple if tedious task to discover that twenty-five thousand words of the Book of Mormon are taken directly from the Old Testament. These words can mainly be found in the chapters of Isaiah available in Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews: The Ten Tribes of Israel in America. This then popular work by a pious loony, claiming that the American Indians originated in the Middle East, seems to have started the other Smith on his gold-digging in the first place. A further two thousand words of the Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament. Of the three hundred and fifty "names" in the book, more than one hundred come straight from the Bible and a hundred more are as near stolen as makes no difference. (The great Mark Twain famously referred to it as "chloroform in print," but I accuse him of hitting too soft a target, since the book does actually contain "The Book of Ether.") The words "and it came to pass" can be found at least two thousand times, which does admittedly have a soporific effect. Quite recent scholarship has exposed every single other Mormon "document" as at best a scrawny compromise and at worst a pitiful fake, as Dr. Brodie was obliged to notice when she reissued and updated her remarkable book in 1973.
Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife). As a result, he overreached himself and came to a violent end, having meanwhile excommunicated almost all the poor men who had been his first disciples and who had been browbeaten into taking his dictation. Still, this story raises some very absorbing questions, concerning what happens when a plain racket turns into a serious religion before our eyes.
It must be said for the "Latter-day Saints" (these conceited words were added to Smith's original "Church of Jesus Christ" in 1833) that they have squarely faced one of the great difficulties of revealed religion. This is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive "revelation," or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. There is indeed a fine passage in Dante's Inferno where he comes to rescue the spirits of great men like Aristotle, who had presumably been boiling away for centuries until he got around to them. (In another less ecumenical scene from the same book, the Prophet Muhammad is found being disemboweled in revolting detail.) The Mormons have improved on this rather backdated solution with something very literal-minded. They have assembled a gigantic genealogical database at a huge repository in Utah, and are busy filling it with the names of all people whose births, marriages, and deaths have been tabulated since records began. This is very useful if you want to look up your own family tree, and as long as you do not object to having your ancestors becoming Mormons. Every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the congregations meet and are given a certain quota of names of the departed to "pray in" to their church. This retrospective baptism of the dead seems harmless enough to me, but the American Jewish Committee became incensed when it was discovered that the Mormons had acquired the records of the Nazi "final solution," and were industriously baptizing what for once could truly be called a "lost tribe": the murdered Jews of Europe. For all its touching inefficacy, this exercise seemed in poor taste. I sympathize with the American Jewish Committee, but I nonetheless think that the followers of Mr. Smith should be congratulated for hitting upon even the most simpleminded technological solution to a problem that has defied solution ever since man first invented religion.
To loosley quote MDBeach:
“Hitchens is a neocon assbag”
I got a kick out of that. I can’t stop being amazed at how people describe other people they don’t care for. I hope I remember neocon assbag the next time I need to express disdain for someone.
I snuck a peek at Hitchen’s book last time I was in Border’s (week ago) and read the entire chapter on Mormons. I am such a cheap assbag that way.
Much of what he comments on is accurate but I noted several stretches. He uses one D.P. Hurlburt affidavit source from time to time in compiling his remarks. D.P. Hurlburt is really to be admired for what he did. He smelled a skunk with Ole Joe’s new religious movement at about the 5 year watermark of it’s infancy. About 1835ish D.P. traveled back to Palmyra NY where the whole shbang started off and he went literally house to house best he could chasing leads and aquiring statements from those who knew the Smith family so as to build a case against Mormonism.
Hurlburt’s efforts are hotly disputed and largely tossed out by LDS apologetics as slander and extreme bias. There is really no way one can be sure that no one in the Hurlburt camp did not embellish or alter the statements. Though, some of what Hurlburt collected can be corroborated elsewhere by other historical pieces.
Hitchens used a few stretches that Mormon apologists love to roll to the back of their mouth and spew gracefully into the spittoon at their feet.
No matter. There is plenty of other stuff that Smith hung himself out to dry with on the Mormon history books. It all adds up easily enough with or without Hurlburt’s affidavits. But kindly try not telling the Mormon apologist that… they upset easily and their spittoons are brimming already.
I love that wife of the scribe stoll the half finished Book of Mormon from Smith and challenged him to reproduce it from his golden tablets behind the blanket. Priceless.
Noggin - your scientology post and your comments about D.P Hurlburt have finally convinced me to register and join the fun.
I read Hitchens book and found it to be superb, especially the section on Mormons.
I am the offspring of the “Mormon Apologists” you mention, and I find myself in constant polemic battle with my father and his Mormon Fundamentalist friends - as I like to call them.
I will be doing my own research on D.P Hurlburt to see what I can find, I am constantly looking for a solid piece of evidence that will shut my parents up, because of course they feel obligated to tell me that I am going to hell and living in sin, along with Harris, Hitchens and all other atheists.
Anyways, thanks for the good posts, and if anyone has any good “daggers” I can use, because it’s obviously not a fair “fight”. (I’m a 22 year old full time college student, these Mormon Fundamentalists - google Dan C Petersen, Louis Midgley - are well into the second half of their life). I only wish Sam would have spent a little more time on the “Mormons” in either of his books.
Good K :wink:
Glad to have you, thanks for the comments. There is a large resevoir of commentary and dissection available with google. I have debated Daniel Petersen several times informally on his home turf over at the LDS forum he hangs out at. He is an assbag of unique proportions. He is a Mormon “scholar” with the PHD to back it up and loves all things Islam. When I took him to task on Islam fascist suicide bombers, he came unglued at my suggestions and finally placed me on his ignore list.
His reason? I refused to spell the word ‘god’ with a capital G.
Kind of strange, but it’s his world and over there, I just did not fit into his game plan. He loathes the non PHD wielding armchair exmormons who dare to point out the flaws in his logic chains (which, inevitably, are nothing more that gigantic circles, btw).
It’s fun to wrankle over there and stir the pot, but after awhile, the vertigo involved in that sort of debate gets old.
I do hope you go after other religions. That is the achilles heel. In trying to point out that all religions with exclusivity claims have at their command the promise that god will lead the honest inquirer to any such brand X religion, you will be met with disdainful howls of protest from the Mormon scholars. You will be told that none of these other religions are ever asked to directly ask the gods in the format found in Moroni chapter 10 vs 3-5…. and therefore (cue the sweeping arm gesture that sweeps all problematicals under the carpet)... they do not hold the highest format of truth available to mankind (aka Mormonism).
Ahh.. Moroni 10. If I had a nickel for everytime I’ve been told to read that…
If you don’t mind, I’ll email you some of the conversation I’ve had with these F.A.R.M.S guys, and maybe you can back me up a little.
I’ll be in touch,
...if anyone has any good “daggers” I can use, because it’s obviously not a fair “fight”.
I am a former, amateur, Mormon apologist, and current atheist. If you are looking for a “smoking gun” in Mormonism, in my opinion, you will find none better than the problems with the Book of Abraham.
Apologists have a way of trying to squirm out every time you try to pin them down. The apologist’s strategy is to show that the critics cannot rule out the possibility that the Mormon claims might be true; they are not interested in taking a look at what is most likely to be true in light of all the evidence. The only way to win that game is to show that there is no possible way that something can be what it is claimed to be. In my opinion, the closest thing we have to that is the Book of Abraham, because just about every way they try to evade being pinned down, the evidence prevents their escape. I love it, frankly. There are only two transformations of Mormonism by the apologists that can slip through the death hold of the BoA, and both of them are so radical, most TBM’s would not be able to stomach them.
One of the more popular apologist theories about the BoA is they say that the text of the BoA was still a true revelation even if it was not a translation. That ship doesn’t sail, in my opinion.
One, let’s look at the product of this so-called “inspiration”. It cannot be a 100% true account by Abraham, even if it was received by pure revelation, and not by translation. The text contains anachronisms and incorrect reconstructions of history and plagiarized ideas from 18th and 19th century books.
Two, I am not going to let the apologists off the hook with the scrapping the claim of translation. They say, “Look, Joseph has a history of using the word translation differently than the way we usually think of the term”. Problem is he gives line by line translation of the hieroglyphics in the facsimiles. He claims that part of the translation will only be revealed in the temple, but if the world can figure it out, so be it. He claimed that the BoA was a translation of the papyri that were “written by the hand of Abraham”, and he even pointed out to one gentleman the autograph of Abraham. In the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, characters from the papyri are paired up in order with verses from the BoA.
Three, apologists have tried to find some sort of hidden pattern or code in the characters that would lead to the text of the BoA, but have been unsuccessful. I’m sorry, but the JS was “inspired” by the scrolls even though the BoA is not a direct translation is debunked.
The two new ways of looking at Mormonism that work if one still wants to be a believer (and I use that term loosely) are these:
1) Joseph knowingly produced a fraud, but did it to bring people closer to Christ. So, he was a pious fraud.
2) Blake Ostler’s expansion thesis. Now Blake only applied this to the Book of Mormon, but others have applied the same thinking towards the BoA. Those parts of the BoA that are clear anachronisms, or historical inaccuracies, or plagiarisms, were the product of Joseph’s own mind due to his prejudices and imagination. Everything else in the BoA (that we can’t prove false) is pure revelation from God. JS was mistaken about the papyrus and mistaken that what he received was a translation. JS couldn’t tell what was from God and what was from his own imagination. Every statement from later prophets that contradict this thesis, such as “the prophet won’t lead us astray” is likewise the mistaken notions of those other prophets. It is each of our responsibilities to discern the wheat from the chaff.
To learn more about the BoA controversy, take a look at the links at the bottom of the following post: BoA: Joseph Knowingly Deceived