ORGAN OF THE ROMAN THEOLOGICAL FORUM
|Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.||Distributed several times a year to interested members.|
|Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.||Not to be republished without permission.|
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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 95||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||September 2001|
WHO ARE THE MORMONS? (Part I)
by Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
[Editor’s Note. The following article is a reprint of an Australian Catholic Truth Society publication dated December 1982.]
I. THE MORMON CHURCH TODAY
A Knock at the Door. "Good morning! We’d like to speak to the head of the house, please!" Denise looks at the two men at the door of her flat for a moment, slightly bemused. They are well-groomed, with short-cut hair and dark suits. They have name-tags reading "’Elder Richards’ and ‘Elder McKay’, although there is nothing very ‘elderly’ about them: neither appears to be over twenty-one. There is frankness and honesty in their faces, and, to Denise's young Australian ears, well tuned to the media’s constant flow of imported songs, movies and television shows, the American accent brings with it subtle overtones of modernity, competence, and good style.
"Well," she replies, rather awkwardly, "this is my flat. I live here with my small son".
"Oh, that’s fine," joins in the other young man. "We’d really appreciate it if we could come in for a few moments. We’d like to bless your home".
Denise is becoming slightly embarrassed. These visitors are obviously peddling a religion of some sort – and that is something she hasn’t much time for. She was baptised a Catholic, and believes vaguely in Someone Up There, but went to a state school, and has not been near a Church in years. She married Rick in a civil ceremony. She is on the point of telling the two young Americans politely that she’s not really interested today, thank you; but then, on a sudden whim, she changes her mind. After all, it’s been pretty lonely these eighteen months since Rick walked out on her, leaving her with three-year-old Brett and a deserted wife’s pension. Not much social life now. It can’t do any harm, she thinks, to talk to these obviously harmless young fellows, even if they turn out to have a few weird ideas.
"Okay" she replies, "I guess so. Come in – you’ll have to excuse the mess. Brett’s always leaving his blocks all over the floor".
That sudden whim was one that changed Denise’s life. Before long, she was hearing the story of how, shortly after Jesus Christ came to earth, two thousand years ago, the Church he established become totally corrupt, abandoning many of the doctrines and practices of its founder. Only about 150 years ago was the "everlasting gospel" restored in its original purity through new revelations given through an angel to an appointed prophet, an American youth named Joseph Smith Jr.
Getting Involved. Denise found it all a bit much. Her visitors had an obviously deep conviction – their faith plainly meant a lot more to them than the vague or half-hearted religiosity displayed by many of her acquaintances who regarded themselves as practicing Catholics or Protestants. Perhaps they were on to something. But how could she possibly assess the truth or falsity of their rather extraordinary claims? They left her some pamphlets and said they might call again before long.
Within a few days the two young men were back. They did not seem quite so strange this time. As pleasant as ever, they were by no means raving fanatics. Denise learned that Donnie and Marie Osmond, whose television show she had often enjoyed, were devout members of their Church. Nothing weird about them – they were attractive and talented entertainers. More importantly, their image enshrined values which the better part of Denise’s nature told her were true and good: innocence, cheerfulness, family loyalty, with never a trace of anything arrogant or smutty or cynical. Definitely G-rated.
During the next couple of weeks, Denise went along to a few Church functions. She attended a "fireside night", at which young single men and women gathered in a family home for informal prayer, a round of brief ‘testimonies’ about their experiences in the Church and their faith in Joseph Smith’s revelation, and a friendly supper and chit-chat (no smoking, alcohol, tea or coffee).
A Sunday gathering at the Church began in the morning with study classes in religious doctrine, and a segregated session in which the women discussed homecraft, cooking, child-rearing and family life, in a spirit of obvious pride in their distinctive role as homemakers. Babies and small children were everywhere – clearly a source of great joy to mothers who, as Denise soon discovered, were repelled by abortion and contraception, and saw large families as a rich blessing from the Lord. She had always been a little disdainful of such attitudes, and tended to feel that women’s emancipation in the 1980’s required a certain loosening of these ‘apron-strings’. But as she mingled with these pleasant young mothers who welcomed her so warmly, Denise became aware of an unsuspected sense of dignity which came through in this love of domestic activity. Perhaps, after all, it was her own values that had been somewhat warped. Maybe she was the one who needed ‘liberation’: liberation from media propaganda which encouraged women unconsciously to ape the life-styles of men.
In the afternoon a quite lengthy, and rather informal, service of worship followed. It was more like a ‘meeting’ in some ways. Between hymns and prayers, different members of the congregation (both men and women) would stand up and talk about a variety of things, sometimes religious, but often just practical: the state of things within the local congregation; difficulties being experienced in daily life by members who might need special assistance or prayers; or the financial matters which play a very large part in a denomination which is run with American business efficiency, and requires from each employed member one-tenth of his/her income (tithe) as a donation to the Church.
Denise Is Converted. After that Sunday the two ‘elders’ came to visit Denise every day for a week, and she came to feel more and more at home with them and their Church. Perhaps more than anything else she was impressed by their warmth and hospitality, the obvious goodness of their values, and the sense of deep unity and solidarity in their religious community. She mentioned this to her American visitors, who were not slow to point out that these qualities she observed were evidence of their Church’s divine mission: Jesus had taught, "By this will all men know that you are mine, that you love one another", and had also declared that "a tree is known by its fruits".
Denise had to admit that the lifestyle of this Church contrasted pretty favorably with her vaguely-remembered childhood religion, in which the Catholics she knew seemed to only half-believe in their Church and its teaching, and ducked in and out of Church on Sunday as if it were a mere ‘filling station’ – never even getting to know most of the other members.
How could she really be certain, though, that Joseph Smith really was a prophet from God? After all, some of his claims did seem pretty strange. When, after much discussion about the doctrinal issues, Denise put this question to her counselors, the response moved her deeply. They did not try to present her with more arguments, more reasons, more objective evidence. The time for rational apologetics was over. One of the elders leant forward slowly, looked her straight in the eye, and quietly ‘bore his testimony’ in tones of the utmost authority and conviction.
"Denise," he affirmed, "I’ve prayed long and hard about this – many times. And I know – I just know and believe from the deep experience of my own heart – that Joseph Smith is the true prophet sent by God to restore his everlasting gospel. And if you honestly ask God to enlighten you, he’ll speak to your heart clearly in the same way. We can see that the Holy Spirit has been touching you, Denise, these last two weeks, as you’ve come to discern God’s love alive and active in our Church community. Don’t turn away from him. Just accept it in humble faith, and you can be baptized this coming Sunday".
Denise did pray for guidance. And suddenly it all seemed to feel so right. How could such goodness and sincerity be wrong? Surely that warm feeling of reassurance and conviction in her heart was as clear an answer to her prayer as she could expect. She decided then and there to be baptized, and the missionaries left to report the happy news to the Church. That week, in the mail, Denise received letter after letter, card after card, from local believers (most of whom she had never met) expressing their joy and congratulations on her conversion, and welcoming her in advance to the Church community. That Sunday she was baptized by the bishop. It was an occasion of great rejoicing as yet another member was enrolled in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, often known simply as the "LDS" Church or, more commonly, the Mormons.
The Appeal of Mormonism. The story of Denise could be the story of any one of many converts of the Latter-Day Saints – in Australia and many other countries – who have been won by the door-knocking campaign of thousands of young missionaries throughout the world. Perhaps 600 are active in Australia at the time of this writing. The Mormon Church is practically the fastest growing denomination in the world, as well as being a business empire with an annual income of over one billion dollars. Beginning in 1830 with 30 members, it had over 268,000 by the turn of the century, passed the million mark shortly after World War II, and has exploded from 2 million members in 1964 to more than 4 million in 1978.
The appeal of this church seems to lie largely in the qualities which held such an attraction for Denise – the appeal of a loving Christian community, which should of course be found in every Catholic parish, but is not always clearly in evidence, as we must admit candidly. Unlike some of the more ‘unworldly’ sects, the LDS Church is down-to-earth in many ways, with a strong emphasis on practical charity. It takes great care to share its resources for the assistance of its own aged, sick, poor, handicapped, and unemployed members. Education is given high priority, and Brigham Young University in Utah, with an enrolment of well over 25,000 students, is the biggest church-affiliated university in the U.S.A.
The LDS Church is not without its intellectuals and apologists, but in general it does not tend to emphasize the need for rational evidence as a criterion to religious truth. Its missionaries and teachers, as we have seen, prefer to appeal powerfully to the emotions. They encourage each other (and potential converts) to look for God in the experience of their own hearts, imagining that internal feelings of conviction, serenity, or "burning in the heart" can safely be assumed to be the testimony of the Holy Spirit. By endlessly repeating to each other their absolute, unshakable faith in Joseph Smith’s trustworthiness, Mormons reinforce an essentially blind faith which dismisses any persistent questioning or coldly critical appraisal of the ‘prophet’ and his message as evidence of insincerity, lack of true prayerfulness, or satanic hardness of heart.
This sheer dogmatism bears a surprising affinity with the apparent sophistication of liberal Christianity, which relies subjectively on a ‘lived experience of faith’. While spurning rational argument for God’s existence and the objective truth of revelation, it can have a powerful impact on those who may be gullible, lonely or insecure. It is important for Catholics to be well aware of this if they are going to try ‘talking turkey’ with the zealous young men who come knocking at the door.
There is a seeming paradox in the way Latter-Day Saints approach the non-Mormon ("Gentile") world. On the one hand they are unsurpassed in the zeal with which they seek converts. But on the other hand they are much more cautious than most religious groups about providing easy access to their various theological works and ‘scriptures’ (apart from the Book of Mormon, which is always readily available). You will not find public LDS bookshops and reading rooms in our cities where the inquirer can simply browse around at will without being accosted.
Mormons much prefer to introduce outsiders gradually to their doctrines. In a face-to-face situation they can control the level of doctrinal input and the flow of conversation. There is a good reason for this rather secretive procedure; and, while hostile critics tend to see it as deviousness, the Mormons themselves would consider it a prudent and charitable method of evangelization. The fact is that while the LDS Church strives to promote an initial media image of Christian ‘normalcy’ by publicly emphasizing many features of its code and creed which are similar (or at least sound similar) to traditional Christian ideas, their true beliefs are very bizarre, and would alienate many potential converts irretrievably if they were bluntly spelt out all at once, rather than being introduced little by little.
Cases have been recorded of LDS converts abandoning the Mormon Church when, after a whole year or more of membership, they finally realized with dismay what the Mormons really mean by some of the Christian sounding words they use. For while the LDS ‘Articles of Faith’ sound quite familiar in many ways to those who have been brought up in a Christian culture, they are given a totally different meaning. Mormons like to say, for instance, that they believe in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – and in the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, without a human father. But, as we shall see, their understanding of these doctrines has nothing in common with the authentic Christian interpretation.
Most sects, and even other world religions such as Judaism and Islam, at the least share with us the same basic monotheistic belief, that is, belief in one God, a spiritual Being far beyond our comprehension: eternal, unchangeable, all-knowing, all-powerful, the personal Creator and Lord of the entire universe and all that exists in it – ‘seen and unseen’. The Mormons, in sharp contrast to this, are polytheists. They believe that the cosmos is eternal and uncreated, and that it is inhabited by a great many gods (and goddesses) who are not very different in their essential nature from us humans. We shall turn now to look more closely at the origin of this church and its "restored gospel", which is supposed to be identical with that preached by Jesus and the early Christians.
II. THE FOUNDATION OF THE LDS CHURCH
The story of the Latter-Day Saints begins with the birth of Joseph Smith Jr. on 23 December 1805, in Sharon, Vermont. As Mormons themselves are quick to point out, his family was poor, and Joseph never received much formal education. In his autobiography (now published in the volume Pearl of Great Price and regarded as divinely inspired scripture) Smith tells us that after his family moved to Palmyra, New York, he became engrossed at the age of fourteen in a religious revival movement which was sweeping the countryside. However, in searching for the true faith, he was troubled and confused by all the conflicting Protestant versions of the gospel – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and so on.
Visions and Golden Plates. In response to the Bible’s promise of wisdom to the honest seeker (James 1:5), Joseph tells how he prayed for guidance, and was "immediately" treated to a supernatural manifestation. A terrifying darkness seemed to envelop him, but this was soon followed by a "pillar of light" brighter than the sun which delivered him from this "enemy power". And then:
"I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spoke unto me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other: ‘This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him’" (Pearl of Great Price – Joseph Smith 2:17).
These "personages" then told Joseph that he should not join any of the existing Christian ‘sects’ for they were all wrong: "all of their creeds were an abomination" and all those who were members were corrupt (ibid. 2:19).
Smith goes on to claim that three years after this, on 21 September 1823, he experienced a second vision, in which an angel appeared to him:
"He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do…He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants. Also, that there were two stones in silver bows – and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim – deposited with the plates…and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book" (ibid.).
This exalted messenger directed him to a locality on the west side of a nearby hill, and Smith tells us that, sure enough, he unearthed the golden plates and other objects in a stone box. But before he could remove them, the angel appeared again and told him he was not to take them yet, but was to wait exactly four years. Accordingly we learn that on 22 September 1827, Joseph returned to the hallowed spot and received the Book of Mormon, inscribed on the plates in "Reformed Egyptian" (a language unknown to non-Mormon scholars) from the angel. He kept them for two years or so, translating them with the miraculous help of the ‘Urim and Thummim’.
Exactly how he made use of these objects (if at all) is not made clear. One of Smith’s associates, Martin Harris, testified that even before securing the plates, Joseph possessed a special stone which he would place in his hat. Then pulling his hat closely over his face, he would claim to discern where money or other treasure was buried in the ground. This, according to eye witness David Whitmer, was the procedure he used when translating the plates, which were concealed from others in the room behind a screen, and under a tablecloth or pillowcase (Martin 1978, pp.50-51). Smith’s wife Emma also testified as to how she acted as one of his scribes.
"I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour" (ibid. p.50).
A number of witnesses allegedly saw the golden plates and left their testimonies. Harris, Whitmer, and another assistant, Oliver Cowdery, swore in a signed statement that they had "seen the plates" and "the engravings which are upon the plates". In the same statement they also affirmed their certainty "that (the plates) had been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us". Later on a further eight witnesses – mostly from the Smith and Whitmer families, also signed a statement testifying that they had seen and handled the plates, "which have the appearance of gold".
Finally, when the translation was complete, Smith tells us that he returned the plates at the angel’s command. Cowdery later told Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as head of the Mormon Church and pioneer of Utah, that he and Smith took them back to the "Hill Cumorah" and deposited them underground in a room full of other plates (Barrett 1973, p.118). Presumably, the Latter-Day Saints believe they are hidden there to this day.
New Revelations, New Church. The Book of Mormon was only the first in a constant stream of new ‘revelations’ which Joseph Smith handed down during the next fifteen years – 135 in all. Many of these are now printed in the other two volumes which Mormons recognize (in addition to the Protestant Bible) as divinely-inspired scripture – Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.
An initial problem was to secure the publication of the Book of Mormon, which local printers apparently did not consider a potential best-seller. The difficulty was overcome by a convenient new revelation: God told the prophet Joseph that Martin Harris must sell part of his farm in order to finance the venture. Harris promptly obeyed, to the tune of $3,000, and the first edition of 5,000 copies rolled off the press in 1830. On April 6 that year, the new Church was formally established with 30 members at Fayette, N.Y.
There was much hostility, however, from the local populace, many of whom regarded Smith as a charlatan and a thief; and the infant Church, though growing all the time through the zealous proclamation of the ‘restored gospel’ was forced to migrate through several states during the 1830’s, all under the guidance of precise revelatory directions given through the prophet.
The ‘saints’ moved to Jackson County, Missouri, which Joseph revealed would become "Zion" – the "New Jerusalem" where Christ would soon return to earth to reign in glory. (Jackson County was the original site of the Garden of Eden, and the lost tribes of Israel were also expected to return there eventually from their long, secluded exile up beyond the Arctic Circle). At Kirtland, Ohio, Smith found himself in trouble with the law on financial charges, while in Missouri the leading Church officials were tarred and feathered, then run out of town.
Conscious, no doubt, of the saying that prophets are not honored in their own country, the persecuted Mormons moved onwards to the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois, where they founded the town of Nauvoo (a word Smith said was Hebrew for "beautiful place"). Here he reigned for some years, not only as Prophet, but also as "General" and "Chief Justice". His word, in fact, was law. But after the neighbouring citizens became increasingly incensed at Mormon propaganda and practices, including reported instances of polygamy, Smith and his brother Hyrum were at length arrested and jailed. There, at Carthage, Illinois, on 27 June 1844, an angry mob stormed the jail and shot dead the two Smith brothers while they were awaiting trial. The Latter-Day Saints revere their founder as a martyr, but it is doubtful whether he qualifies for that designation in its classical sense: far from surrendering his life voluntarily for the sake of his faith, Joseph Smith Jr. died with a gun in his hand, in a true Western style shoot-out.
Shortly afterwards, under the charismatic leadership of Smith’s elected successor, Brigham Young, the Mormons migrated once again, this time out to the far west, where they settled permanently by the Great Salt Lake, and built up a unique politico-religious community – often in the face of hardship and opposition, and at the cost of cruel bloodshed on both sides in the initial struggles with the "Gentile" world. That community endures to this day as a powerful social, economic and political influence in the state of Utah, centered on Salt Lake City. Such success may in itself appear to be a sign of credibility, but we shall do well to examine the Mormons’ claim on our allegiance rather more closely.
III. GOLD PLATES AND MIRACULOUS STONES - CREDIBLE REVELATION?
Criteria for an Authentic Revelation. In assessing the truth or falsity of an alleged revelation from on high, there are several criteria which a prudent and reasonable person will want to apply. One obvious test will be the content of the alleged revelation itself. If it turns out to be incoherent or self-contradictory, or if it is irreconcilable with other truths which we can ascertain by our natural human reasoning, then, of course, it cannot be true. (We shall look at the doctrinal content of Mormonism in due course.)
But if it passes that test, this in itself will only prove that it may be true. We shall need further evidence before we can wisely accept in faith that it definitely is true. (It will be unreasonable, of course, to go to the opposite extreme and demand absolute, ‘scientific’ proof before we are prepared to believe, as that would be ‘stacking the cards’ in advance against God. The ‘rationalist’ who rests his skepticism towards any revealed religion on this principle forgets that God may wish to respect the freedom he has given us to give us the opportunity of exercising faith as a virtue – the virtue of loving trust in his truthfulness. Persuasive indicators are all we can reasonably expect: absolute proof, by its very nature, could only come with that direct, ‘face-to-face’ knowledge of God which is what Christians mean by the heavenly reward that follows our period of trial here on earth.)
Intrinsic plausibility of the alleged revelation, then, is not enough. Religion is an area where it is to some extent necessary to judge a book by its cover, so to speak; that is, to judge a purported revelation by the credentials of the ‘revealer’, and not only by the content of his message. It would be easy, but intellectually dishonest, for a Catholic writer to score cheap points against the Mormons simply by setting out the strange LDS theology in a scornful, polemical style, relying on its mere oddity and unfamiliarity to his readers to immunize most of them quite effectively from any potential sympathies which they might feel for the ministrations offered by young Mormon door-knockers. But this would be a mere appeal to prejudice, of the sort which can just as easily and cheaply be turned against Catholics by unbelievers and pagans.
To those hearing them for the first time, many of our own beliefs – biblical inspiration, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Real Presence, and so – certainly sound just as implausible or outlandish as some of the Mormon doctrines. The point is that we puny mortals, living in a small corner of a vast cosmos, with very little direct knowledge of ultimate reality, and biased unconsciously by all sorts of passing cultural and philosophical influences, must be very cautious about presuming to know in advance what sorts of things God would or would not do or reveal – and especially about assuming that any given report of supernatural phenomena (miracles, angels, and so on) can be dismissed without further ado as incredible to ‘modern man’.
As one who personally finds no difficulty in believing that on Mount Sinai God once spoke through tablets of stone, I do not feel especially inclined to laugh out of court immediately the suggestion that on the Hill Cumorah he spoke again on plates of gold. After due consideration, to be sure, I believe the one and reject the other. But this is not because stone seems to be vastly and obviously more credible than gold as a preferred medium of divine communication; nor because I find it self-evident that the wastes of Sinai are a far more appropriate venue for mystic divine revelations than the rolling hills of up-state New York.
Nor (with respect to our Protestant brethren) is it primarily because I am confident that my personal interpretation of the Bible is vastly and obviously more competent than that found in Joseph Smith’s supposed plates and other supplementary ‘scriptures’. Indeed, Mormons in controversy with Protestants habitually make the telling point that the ‘Bible alone’ principle is not only logically incoherent (none of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible claims that itself and the other 65 – and no others – are inspired by God and constitute the sole source of revealed truth) but leads directly and irremediably to the plethora of conflicting denominations which, as young Joseph realized, could scarcely reflect the true plan of Christ for his Church. Latter-Day Saints point out (very sensibly) that the Bible needs some sort of infallible clarification from an ongoing, living Church authority, if it is to be a focus of unity, rather than division, amongst Christians.
No, the basic reason why I accept Moses’ tablets, but reject Joseph Smith’s plates, is that the former are offered to me, as it were, by a vastly and obviously more competent-looking authority. In looking for signs of trustworthiness in a self-styled bearer of divine revelation, I find that the Catholic Church – that organized communion of Jesus’ followers which has existed continuously from the first century A.D., recognizing the leadership of the Apostle Peter and the line of Roman Bishops – has credentials infinitely more impressive that those of Joseph Smith Jr. Let us consider those of the latter.
Joseph Smith – A Credible Prophet? In the first place, it is clear that as a youth, Smith was a practitioner of the occult and superstitious practice of divination, which has always been emphatically forbidden by the Scriptures and the Church. We have already noted his method of ‘translating’ the golden plates. In many pre-literate cultures, including that of the North American Indians, the practice of gazing at special stones (especially luminous quartz crystals), with a view to obtaining secret knowledge, has been common. Amongst the less educated whites in upper New York early last century, this practice of ‘peep-stone’ gazing or ‘glass-looking’ was sufficiently widespread to be outlawed as a form of charlatanry. Smith later denied any participation in such activities, but the evidence cannot be ignored. Several years after Smith assumed the role of Mormon prophet, his disillusioned father-in-law, Isaac Hale, recalled how, in November 1825, Joseph was employed by a team of ‘money-diggers’, and that:
"his occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face. In this way he pretended to discover minerals and hidden treasures. His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man – not very well educated, and very saucy and insolent to his father, (Martin, W: "The Maze of Mormonism", 1978, p.34).
Hale noted that, when the team began digging (without success) in the area where Smith had told them an old Spanish fortune was buried, he claimed that "the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see". The diggers soon gave up, and Smith, who had been boarding at Hale’s house, took off, leaving an unpaid bill of $12.68 (ibid.)
Hale was not alone in testifying to Joseph’s dubious activities. On 11 December 1833, another neighbor, Willard Chase, swore an affidavit before a Wayne County JP, stating the way in which Smith obtained his ‘peep-stone’. In 1822, Smith and his brother Alvin assisted Chase in digging a well. Chase found a curious-looking stone, and as they were examining it, "Joseph put it in his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat". Smith wanted to keep the stone, but Chase (who desired it as a curio) would only lend it to him. While he had the stone on loan (two years or so) Joseph "began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it". In about 1825, some time after it was returned, Joseph’s brother Hyrum came and asked Chase to lend the stone again. He agreed, but in the fall of 1826, Hyrum angrily refused to give it back. Chase asked for it once more in 1830. Hyrum again refused him, shaking his fist and telling him that "Joseph made use of it in translating his Bible" (ibid. pp.221-222).
Joseph Smith was in fact convicted of ‘glass-looking’ in the Bainbridge Court in March 1826. The court record was printed twice in the 19th century, but the original was for some reason unobtainable, and this provided LDS apologists with a loophole: they denied emphatically that the court record was genuine, admitting that if it was, this would be a fatal blow to the credibility of their prophet (e.g. Nibley 1961, p.142). However, on July 28, 1971, an independent document was discovered, verifying the authenticity of the missing court record: an original bill of costs in the handwriting of Justice Albert Neely, detailing his fees for a list of cases tried in 1826. There, in the middle of the list, is the name of Joseph Smith, convicted for the ‘misdemeanor’ of ‘glass-looking’ on 20 March 1826. (ibid. pp.35-38). Martin’s book reproduces a photograph of this document and gives still further contemporary evidence of Smith’s ‘peeping’ activities with his stone and hat.)
Smith’s consistency is also open to serious question. The final, official version of Smith’s discovery of the plates is, as we have seen, that the angel Moroni appeared and informed him how to get them. But two neighbours, the brothers Hiel and Joseph Lewis (regarded by their fellow-citizens as "truthful, honorable, Christian gentlemen") testified that in 1827, when he first began translating the alleged plates, Smith’s original story was that his mystic information was none other than the ghost of a bearded Spaniard, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and blood streaming down! Not one word about angels! (ibid. pp.335-336). Perhaps even worse, the Lewis brothers recall that, in June 1828, two years before the foundation of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith approached their father, Rev. Nathaniel Lewis, and expressed the wish to join his denomination – the Methodist Episcopal Church. However, he was so notorious as a person of bad character that the Methodists agreed to keep him only if he agreed to submit to a disciplinary investigation and publicly renounce his fraudulent and hypocritical practices. Joseph confirmed their suspicions that his application was motivated chiefly by a desire to gain respectability by declining these conditions promptly, and having his name struck off the Methodist roll after only three days (ibid. pp.336-337). The glaring inconsistency, of course, is that according to Smith’s "divinely-inspired" autobiography in the Pearl of Great Price, God himself had already told Joseph in the first vision of 1820 that he must not join any of the existing ‘sects’, all of which were "corrupt". What business, then, had he in becoming a Methodist?
Smith’s handling of money scarcely inspires confidence in his reliability. G.T. Harrison, a practicing attorney and former Mormon, has researched the court records of Geauga County, Ohio, and found that thirteen lawsuits were brought against Smith between 1837 and 1839 by creditors, for sums totally nearly $25,000. Most of these resulted from the failure of a highly dubious "bank" which he had set up in Kirtland in contravention of Ohio state laws. Although the LDS Church has subsequently denied that he was ever proven guilty, the court records show at least five convictions (Martin 1979, pp.38-39). Smith by that time had a large following of reverential disciples who constantly had to bail him out. The prophet’s response to these charges against him may be assessed by the reader in the light of Christ’s teaching on humility and praying for our persecutors. In his History of the Church (6:408-409) Joseph writes:
"In all these affidavits, indictments, it is all of the devil – all corruption. Come on! ye persecutors! ye false swearers! All hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! for I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-Day Saints never ran away from me yet".
(To be continued in the next issue)