Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Joseph Smith's amazing discovery

We have all heard the story of Joseph Smith, and how he founded the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon church) by having a revelation about where he might find a set of coded gold plates.  Millions of people believe in this implausible tale and this demonstrates to me that even decent human minds can be twisted to reach some surprisingly contorted views of the real world.  This makes belief in the bible sound almost completely sane and sensible, although . . . it must be said that there are similarities!

The story that we are normally told involves Smith also having a pair of magic spectacles which allowed him to translate the gold plates into the Book of Mormon which he published in 1830.  The story often goes that he sat behind a curtain and dictated the words of the Book of Mormon to a neighbour, such as Martin Harris, who rarely got more than a glimpse of them.

The classical view of Joseph Smith
translating (image from here)

Carelessly, he lost the first 116 pages.  I won't waste much time wondering what they said but some speculate that they were stolen by Lucy Harris, the wily and wise wife of the neighbour who had been wasting too much time round at the Smiths, writing a book of nonsense.  Perhaps she thought Smith could demonstrate the truth of his claims by simply translating the pages again.   He didn't.

But it seems that this story itself might be apocryphal.  Yes really!

Set aside the question of the weight of this set of gold plates (90 kg or 200 pounds!) and how anyone could have carried them around.  Neglect the fact that the plates have mysteriously disappeared and that the magic spectacles have not survived.  There are other reasons to doubt it.  The Mormons themselves tell of a different method of translation where Smith never even needed to look at the gold.

It seems that Smith had two magic stones which eventually became known as the Urim and the Thummim (as in the contents of the lost Ark of the Covenant).  He almost certainly dug them up while he was digging a well, but perhaps they had been there waiting for him to dig at a revealed spot!  He would put one of these stones into a hat and then bury his face in the hat and dictate in muffled words.

The 'much more believable' (??) view of Smith
inventing the Book of Mormon

The words of David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses whose testimony appears at the front of the Book of Mormon come from this site (and elsewhere):

"I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe . . . "

Somehow the Mormons must think that that makes the story more believable.

Incidentally, all this took place only a few months after Smith's initiation into the Order of Freemasonry.  Many parts of Mormon symbolism are said to resemble Masonic ritual, although somewhat modified as Smith claimed that the Masons had corrupted the truth over the centuries.

The veracity of these stories is there for all of us to believe or doubt.  I have to say that I don't find it overwhelmingly convincing.  Tomorrow I will mention something about another document that Smith apparently translated.  You might see something about his modus operandi.  However, I do find it amazing that so many people think the opposite way to me.  It can't be true that they don't think about it at all.

So surely Smith's most amazing discovery was that people can be much more gullible than even scam artists expect to be possible!


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The majority of what you have alluded to as being factual is skeptical at best and frankly inconsistent (on many points) with historical documents and testimonies (both of mormons and non-mormons). I am not sure where you got most of your information on this matter. I respect your informing your readers of these ideas. It is important that we seek to learn and understand everything we can about a subject before forming an opinion.

Plasma Engineer said...

Skeptical is good, isn't it. There is no reason to be afraid of skepticism unless you are pretending to be something that you are not.

Where I gathered my information is not worth recounting because you would simply disparage each of them, but you can find these truths very easily for yourself.

In actual fact I think if you disagree with the views expressed in this post then you have the perfect opportunity to address them individually and provide evidence for your claims. I welcome the chance to discuss them and understand how anyone can claim the Mormonism is not an obviously-made-up religion.

Just dropping in and posting a comment like that is a lazy tactic which will not have affected the views of the readers at all. We all know what you are up to and we welcome (and await) your evidence.

Incidentally, testimonies are not evidence! 'Historical' documents might just as easily be historical lies too.

Derby Sceptic said...

Anonymous - if you feel you have a valid point why hide under the Anonymous label, why not identify yourself as most of the respondents to this blog do?

Kevin Crenshaw said...

A few years ago people made fun by calling them "magic spectacles" or "magic glasses." Today, you can buy a pair:
http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2013/11/google-glass-sdk/