Daniel C. Peterson, a leading LDS scholar and apologist, has written an article entitled, “When the criticisms of the Book of Mormon can’t be taken seriously.” In his article he suggests that some criticisms of the Book of Mormon are so silly that they should be dismissed with laughter. “Sometimes, an efficient response to certain criticisms is simply a good laugh.”

Well, some criticisms might well be so implausible as to deserve ridicule. Often, however, what is really happening is that Mormon representations of the criticisms are caricatures. Take, for instance, Peterson’s description of a supposedly laughable criticism of the Book of Abraham (apparently he didn’t have enough for just the Book of Mormon):

More than 20 years ago, two critics suggested that the cosmological ideas in the Book of Abraham derive from a 1728 entry in Benjamin Franklin’s unpublished personal papers and from an obscure 1755 work by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant that was barely noticed in Germany and wasn’t published in English until 1900.

Peterson is referring here to an essay by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe entitled “Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Cosmology.”[1] Nowhere in that essay did Vogel and Metcalfe suggest that any ideas in the Book of Abraham derived from Franklin or Kant at all. Rather, Vogel and Metcalfe cited Franklin and Kant among a slew of other authors to illustrate the fact that the cosmological ideas in Joseph’s supposedly ancient scriptures reflected his modern intellectual environment. Thus, after quoting Christian Huygens and Immanuel Kant, the authors comment, “Certainly in such an intellectual climate, Joseph Smith’s ideas about pluralism and astronomical hierarchy were not unusual.”[2] One could wish for more than these two citations to establish such a conclusion, but in any case Peterson has misrepresented the argument that Vogel and Metcalfe made. Moreover, the plausibility of their conclusion is greatly enhanced by the large number of elements of the cosmologies of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham that appear to echo cosmological knowledge and speculation in the early modern era.

Peterson’s laughs continue to come at unnamed critics’ expense, which may be kindness on his part but may also reflect the fact that the laughable criticisms are largely or entirely Peterson’s inventions. According to Peterson, some critics claimed that the Arabian place name Nahom mentioned in the Book of Mormon might have been taken from a map in the library of Dartmouth College—an impossibility, Peterson chortles, because Dartmouth did not acquire the map until 1937. Who are these critics? I have no idea. I have read a lot of criticisms of the LDS argument that Nahom is a “bull’s-eye” that verifies the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but I have never seen a critic make the claim Peterson reports. At most, some critics have suggested that this and several other maps in existence in Joseph’s day show that it is possible he, or one of his associates, saw the name on one such map. The specific map in question was evidently first cited in this connection not by a critic of the Book of Mormon but by a defender of it.[3]

The history of dubious defenses of the Book of Mormon (and of the Book of Abraham) could be the grist for a lengthy volume. In our own day, the BYU establishment scholars are embarrassed by enthusiastic apologists who claim, for example, that the Book of Mormon lands should be located in the Great Lakes region (the “Heartland Model”) rather than in what is now southern Mexico and Guatemala (the BYU-approved “Mesoamerican Model”). The BYU model itself can elicit some guffaws, as in the claim that Moroni walked thousands of miles carrying golden plates weighing around fifty pounds in order to bury them near what fourteen centuries later would be Joseph Smith’s home. There are at least eight problems with that claim:

  1. that ancient Mesoamericans wrote long religious texts on metal plates
  2. that they were golden but not really gold, contrary to Joseph Smith’s claim
  3. that they would only weigh around fifty pounds (unlikely even if not pure gold)
  4. that after his people had remained in and around the region of Tehuantepec for a millennium, Moroni would walk to what is now upstate New York with the plates—never mentioning that he had traveled a great distance
  5. that the location where Joseph Smith claimed to find the plates was not the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon, despite statements from Joseph and his associates supporting that identification
  6. that the man to whom these golden plates were revealed just happened to have a history of claiming to be able to find buried treasure with a seer stone (a claim documented to be false!)
  7. that the man in question, Joseph Smith, would not show the plates for two years even to his wife, and eventually showed them only to close male family members and supporters
  8. that after Moroni went to all that trouble to make the plates available to Joseph Smith, he would not actually look at the plates when producing his “translation” of them

Forgive me for not detailing the evidence pertaining to all of these points here, which would make this article ten times longer. Mormons have offered defenses against many of these difficulties; to describe and answer all of these defenses would certainly require a book. For now, laugh if you are so inclined.
NOTES

[1] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Cosmology,” in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 187-219.

[2] Ibid., 207.

[3] Ross T. Christensen, “Comment,” Ensign, Aug. 1978.

 

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