Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mormonism: A Racket Becomes a Religion

I didn't (and to some extent still don't) know much about the Mormon church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) until quite recently. What little I had read about them simply sounded about as fantastical as Scientology. A brief, debunking account mentioned lost tribes of Israel in... Missouri! The piece read and felt like an attempt at smearing and I didn't really think much more about it. Until I stumbled on this gem below...

Excerpt from Christopher Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great

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.


At 6:24 PM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

What a bunch of Morons these Mormons really are. Just goes to prove how easily men can be tricked by one evil individual. Going by this article, I'd say the same goes for Islam as well, though and I know you won't agree with that.

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Well, all religions are man-made of course but I do have more respect for the original three monotheisms than for this quite recent quackery. The Mormon Church simply demonstates that you can make gullible people believe in anything you want them to believe in. It's called the game of the Big Lie.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger Baconeater said...

You will enjoy this episode of South Park, I command you, my gentile slave.

At 1:10 AM, Blogger Alma Allred said...

It's interesting that you can read a bit of propaganda and then make a judgment based upon that propaganda without any concern that it may not be valid. For example: "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."

While that's a favorite claim made by ignorant people, it has yet to be demonstrated. In 1827, Mormons noted that Smith was arrested and found "not guilty" in the above trial. Critics have asserted ever since that he was found guilty after a confession of fraud. In the 1970's a Protestant clergyman discovered a historical document related to this Bainbridge trial. It was a bill for costs incurred in the trial, but made no mention of the disposition of the trial. Invariably, people point to this bill and claim it is proof of his conviction and confession. Hitchens has jumped on the same specious bandwagon and you've bought it hook line and sinker. Too bad. I hope that some day our educational system will teach critical thinking skills. Until then most people will buy whatever is for sale.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

Why do I get the feeling Alma has been baptizing the souls of Jews murdered in the Holocaust? Does that accussation sound accurate, Alma? Are you a Mormon or a Moron?(or both?)

At 3:57 PM, Blogger Alma Allred said...

Eitan Ha'ahzari --how typical. In the absence of a coherent argument, just resort to name calling. It's very effective on the elementary school playground and demonstrates that what I wrote about the need to teach critical thinking skills is valid.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Gert said...


I take it from your profile that you are indeed an adherent of this ridiculous cult. That is of course your right, 110%. Do not be surprised though that some will mock you for that (i'm sure you're not).

I'm sure most Mormons are thoroughly decent people but to believe that Native Americans were actually a tribe from Jerusalem is asking for ridicule. Smith may or may not have been a criminal as you assert but he was clearly a charlatan (perhaps even a thoroughly nice one too, not sure).

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

Alma: now you tell me: in light of what you claim to be "G-d's truth" do I really need a "coherent argument" to prove you wrong!?

Why if I found Smith's "secret" tablets and showed them to you you'd still be a devote Mormon(or was it..?)

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

I see we have a devout X-ian with a big botTOM taking strides in preaching the "true" faith.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Alma Allred said...

I don't mind being mocked, Gert--it's especially easy to ignore when it's based in ignorance. That's why I suggested that people use their minds when dismissing Joseph Smith as a con man or Mormonism as a giant delusion. But your reply is a typical case. Do you really think that Mormons believe that all the Native Americans came from Jerusalem--a whole tribe no less? That's such a typical straw man that it's hardly worth noticing. Mormonism believes that 2,600 years ago, a group of between 12 and 25 people settled somewhere in the western hemisphere. I've looked at the scientific arguments, and I honestly don't see how belief in that minor emigration qualifies for instant ridicule. Is belief that Moses and a million people got lost for 40 years any less credible?

At 10:17 PM, Blogger Alma Allred said...

>Alma: now you tell me: in light of what you claim to be "G-d's truth" do I really need a "coherent argument" to prove you wrong!?

It'd be a good start, but I don't recall writing anything about "G-d's truth." I challenged the validity of a claim made against the founder of my faith the response from you was--juvenile--for the lack of a better word.

>Why if I found Smith's "secret" tablets and showed them to you you'd still be a devote Mormon(or was it..?)

It seems to me that if you found Smith's tablets, that would be a point in my favor--or haven't you thought this through yet?

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Emmanuel said...

I think Mormonism is being unfairly singled out here. So what if Joseph Smith made up the whole book of Mormon? Didn't someone make up every other religion's holy texts as well? Besides, who the founders were doesn't mean much - the question is how is the religion today. If it makes its believers happy and doesn't enslave women in "plural marriages" anymore, why is it even our business to insult their religion?

I must say I hate dissing religion, because when I do, I feel like I'm doing the most irritating thing religious people do - proselytizing.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

alma: just to clarify, weren't the original "holy" tablets stolen by the wife of Smith's accomplice and then sent to hell by Smith himself?

emmanuel: point well taken. I'll stop with my "juvenile" (as alma put it) behavior.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Gert said...


"Mormonism believes that 2,600 years ago, a group of between 12 and 25 people settled somewhere in the western hemisphere. I've looked at the scientific arguments, and I honestly don't see how belief in that minor emigration qualifies for instant ridicule."

This may well be the current day view held by LDS but it's clear that Smith's early interpretation (cough!) was much more radical than that. Religions always change their narrative over time, of course, when it becomes clear that their original stance has become untenable.

2,600 years, that's about 100 generations and would make that group quite numerous. What's supposed to have happened to them?

Scientific arguments? The religious, very broadly speaking of course, aren't known for their scientific inquisitiveness. Are you telling me that some Mormon scientists are trying to underpin what is clearly a rather opportunistic hoax carried out by the founder of your Church?

"Is belief that Moses and a million people got lost for 40 years any less credible?"

Nope, that is just as incredible and archaeological evidence seems to point out it probably was a myth, perhaps one with a kernel of truth deep inside it's largely unknown origins.

As regards delusions, yes, that's how I've come to view almost all religions: as outdated and obsolete delusions. Once perhaps the only way to explain certain things but now no longer necessary.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Alma Allred said...

eitan ha'ahzari, as a clarification, no, the original "holy" tablets weren't stolen, a portion of the translated manuscript was. The tablets were examined by 15 men who provided statements that they had seen and handled them, after which, Joseph Smith he returned them to the angel who had custody of them--hence my comment that if you found them, it certainly wouldn't concern me.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Alma Allred said...

Gert, it seems to me that you begin with some assumptions that are fairly tenuous. I don’t see that Joseph Smith’s early interpretations that Native Americans were descendants from this group differ from mine—unless you think that Joseph Smith believed that these 25 people represent the only genetic stock of Native Americans. Smith’s interpretations didn’t preclude the presence of others who came in successive or previous migrations. What of that stance has become untenable?

What’s supposed to have happened to those people over 2600 years? You ask that question as though there is no evidence of massive civilizations in the western hemisphere or that there weren’t over 30 million people living here when Columbus arrived. When I wrote that I had considered the “scientific arguments” that consist of comparing DNA from European Jews to Native Americans as though that could demonstrate that the 25 or so ancient Israelites’ DNA would be the same as that of European Jews.

The religious aren’t known for their scientific inquisitiveness? So, you’re not above stereotyping? I wonder about some very religious people who are known precisely for their inquisitiveness such as Isaac Newton or Gregor Medel? Perhaps you meant Mormon scientists such as Orson Pratt (invented the odometer), or James Fletcher (physicist who headed NASA or Henry Eyring? Perhaps the man who obtained more firearms patents than anyone else Jonathan Browning? Of course not. These were simple minded dolts who just happened to invent and discover without any inquisitiveness at all.

No, I’m not telling you that Mormon scientists are trying to underpin anything—that wouldn’t be very scientific would it? But we come back again to your claim that Mormonism is clearly an “opportunistic hoax.” Is may be “clear” only because you’re facing it from a perspective that is largely uninformed.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Gert said...


"But we come back again to your claim that Mormonism is clearly an “opportunistic hoax.” Is may be “clear” only because you’re facing it from a perspective that is largely uninformed."

The origins of a religion that involve an angel called Moroni, gold plates telling the story of some alleged Israelites that migrated to North America, a translation of these texts into English? Well, I can only see that as a hoax. I'd have to believe in G-d first of course to be even remotely receptive to such a "revelation" but all other elements sound fantastical, to say the least. This revelation seems as fabricated as Scientology.

And opportunistic? Well, it's my understanding that Smith was claiming these 15 - 25 people were Israelites, thereby creating a rather transparent connection with the Holy Land. At the time of revelation, this would have been a rather a convincing point to many early adherents of Smith's newly created religion. That Smith didn't perhaps mean to connect these immigrants directly to Jewry in the modern sense of the word is perfectly plausible but I wonder how many back then and how many today actually make the distinction between his alleged North American Israelites and what we now loosely term "Jews".

As regards my ignorance of modern day LDS, I hold my hands up.But Hitchens' piece isn't about modern day LDS, it's a slightly satirical take on Joseph Smith's revelation and the origins of the Mormon faith.

You may accuse me of ignorance but isn't it entirely possible that you were born into this faith and that this makes it rather difficult to look at it objectively?

At 6:01 PM, Blogger The Sentinel said...

The founders were also Freemasons, and many Mormon rituals are simply Masonic rituals.


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