Reviewed by Steven C. Harper
From the perspective of denominational history, it is interesting
to note the incredible interest in the history of their community shown by many
of the people who have forsworn the theological tenets that are the reason for
the community’s existence and have rejected the authority of the institution
around which it is organized. In some (perhaps many) instances, study of the
community’s history appears to be a surrogate for lost faith. In other instances,
however, it becomes an effort to find hard evidence that can serve as justification
for abandoning the community’s creedal base. If it is the latter and if the
interest in history becomes a preoccupation that leads to writing about the
community, very often the outcome is history that is tendentious in the extreme—history
the community dismisses as “apostate.” Although such slanted accounts do not
provide good models for the scholarly writing of denominational history, they
are useful to scholars as evidence of what can happen when the religious basis
of personal identity is shattered.1
Though common, this phenomenon described by Methodist scholar of Mormonism
Jan Shipps has never had a clearer manifestation than in Grant Palmer’s An
Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Beginning with his three and a half decades
of employment in the Church Educational System (CES), Palmer emphasizes how
well suited he is to write for Latter-day Saints on the contested history of
events upon which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded.
Palmer projects a welcomed mixture of candor and empathy. This subtle packaging
invites readers to receive the book as a benevolent act of a knowledgeable,
official church teacher, self-commissioned to save the Saints from ignorance
(p. vii). His CES tenure is roughly equivalent to the life span of “what
has been termed the New Mormon History” (p. x), to which Palmer acknowledges
his debts. Thus readers are primed for a marriage of inspiring, authoritative
instruction (as one would expect to receive in a Latter-day Saint institute
course) and “demythologized” church history. Readers are assured that this book
will return them to the “real world” that existed “before everything was recast
for hierarchical and proselyting purposes” (p. ix). The conductor of the
train bound for this promised land is a fearless, now retired CES man with a
mission. He cites Hugh B. Brown, who “admire[d] men and women who have developed
the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress,”
to justify dissension without fear of consequence and resistance to all efforts
to enslave the mind (p. xi). Who could resist getting aboard?
Palmer does not realize that there is no promised land where the past is unmediated,
where the truth about what really happened is only as far away as the last edition
of original documents, where a consensus reigns, and where things simply “ring
true.” This train is bound, instead, for the place New Mormon History had
once vowed to leave, never looking back. Once aboard Palmer’s train, the
reader is not returned to an “original time and place” or a “real
world” (p. ix) but, rather, to a tendentious, polemical past that both
the historical profession generally and New Mormon History specifically abandoned
around the time Grant Palmer completed his master’s degree in history in
1968.2 This destination is obvious to informed readers intimate with the sources
Palmer uses as well as those he neglects. His interpretation relies undeviatingly
on reading, selecting, and arranging evidence in ways that support the bias that
his press—Signature Books—often manifests. Palmer employs the same
tactics for which he criticizes traditional Mormon historiography. Though he promises
to present the findings of New Mormon History, his methods and findings are merely
the latest in the long line of polemical accounts of the Latter-day Saint past.
Palmer suggests that he is single-mindedly interested in presenting the findings
of an objective history that scholars at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for
Latter-day Saint History, Brigham Young University, and elsewhere have collectively
gathered, arriving at “a near-consensus” (p. ix; see p. 255 above).
This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what he calls “New Mormon History.”
The practitioners of the history to which Palmer refers are not in consensus.
They are New Mormon historians merely because they agree in principle on a generally
shared methodology. In addition, some New Mormon historians contest the “facts”
that Palmer regards as the truth about the Latter-day Saint past. The incongruence
between Palmer’s approach and New Mormon History is striking.
Professional historians of the Latter-day Saint past do not claim to present ultimate
truths. They strive, rather, for a much more tentative, contextual understanding
of the past, which is often not a conclusion on the ultimate veracity of the religious
claims involved. A practitioner of New Mormon History, for example, asks questions
about the significance of Mormonism without presuming to prove or disprove whether
Joseph Smith saw God and angels or translated by the gift of God.3 Palmer, by
contrast, is sure he has proven that Joseph Smith did not translate or receive
ministering angels. Palmer’s history is bound, perhaps unconsciously, by
an ideological tradition abandoned by the historical profession generally. Sometimes
called “scientific” history, this ideology is informed by the Enlightenment’s
skepticism of revelation and faith and by an assurance that discerning what really
happened in the past is possible. Articulated by the German scholar Leopold von
Ranke, among others, scientific history is based on the idea that an objective
scholar with access to all the data can decipher what really happened just as
it occurred.4 This is Palmer’s premise.
A couple of comparisons show the distinction. Jan Shipps is known to be guided
by the question, What difference does religion make? She does not seek to establish
whether John the Baptist actually ordained Joseph Smith. She seeks instead to
understand the significance of Joseph’s certainty that he was ordained by John
the Baptist. Palmer argues that John the Baptist did not ordain Joseph Smith.
He assures readers that his history has been “demythologized—placed in its original
time and place, amid all the twists and turns that exist in the real world—it
rings true” (p. ix). In Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism,
a definitive example of New Mormon History and the best “insider’s view of Mormon
origins,” Richard L. Bushman indicates that his “method has been to relate events
as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where
possible. Insofar as the revelations were a reality to them, I have treated
them as real in this narrative.”5 Palmer is certain that “a body of authentic,
reliable documents” will result in a real or true history
of Mormonism (p. ix). Bushman is less sure. His hesitancy stems from the
recognition that the Enlightenment ideal has gone unrealized. There is no unmediated
reality, or, rather, no mortal capable of “seeing” the past without its being
simultaneously refracted by the necessarily subjective lenses of those who recorded
the texts and the historians who interpret them. Bushman is “loath to go all
the way with the postmodernist thinkers” and forsake the Enlightenment ideal
altogether, yet he acknowledges that all written history is inevitably shaped
by the social contexts of its producers.6 That is true of the type of history
Palmer has written, which is the kind Jan Shipps has described.7 Moreover, it
is true of this very review essay. “Objectivity,” wrote Bushman, “disguises
a play for power by those who pretend to the authority of objective scholarship
when they are every bit as self-interested in the outcome as any religious apologist.”8
It would be better not to make pretensions to writing “without any agenda” (p. viii),
as Palmer does. His feigned claims to objectivity thinly veil his transparent
To support my claim that Palmer’s book is polemical pseudohistory presented
as a synthesis of “New Mormon History,” I will examine his chapters
on what he considers to be evidences of evangelical Protestantism identifying
the Book of Mormon as a nineteenth-century text, on the testimonies of the Book
of Mormon witnesses, on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s assertion (or,
in his opinion, their conspiratorial claim) that ministering angels restored the
priesthood, and on Joseph Smith’s 1838 history of his first vision. In each
case Palmer can be shown to present a partisan polemical argument. In addition,
he is guilty of censorship, and he repeatedly privileges late hearsay over early
eyewitness accounts.9 As will be shown, the relevant texts support interpretations
more affirming of Joseph Smith’s integrity than Palmer claims.10
Evangelical Protestantism in the Book of Mormon
Alexander Campbell, a contemporary of Joseph Smith and principal founder of the
Disciples of Christ, claimed that Joseph Smith simply cobbled together the Book
of Mormon from a variety of popular doctrinal, political, and class conflicts
that filled the news of the time.11 Drawing on Campbell and other contemporaries
of Joseph Smith, Palmer argues that parts of the Book of Mormon are “artful
adaptations” of the fervent evangelical Protestantism that pulsed through
America during Joseph Smith’s lifetime (p. 95). Numerous other Book
of Mormon critics have sought evidence to support the original Campbell thesis.
They disparage Joseph Smith’s honesty, yet they are willing to acknowledge
that he was a kind of genius capable of such a remarkable feat. Palmer grants
that Joseph Smith was indeed brighter than he is pictured in the early affidavits
attacking him. Drawing on the earlier critics’ work, Palmer compares passages
from the Book of Mormon with the Jacksonian world—frontier revival settings
and preaching styles, conversion dynamics, ideas of human nature. He draws a number
of parallels to support the Campbell thesis that the Book of Mormon was authored
by Joseph Smith and therefore reflects his world. There is nothing ancient about
it, says Palmer, repeating a conclusion going back to at least 1832.
Sources for Joseph’s clever fiction, Palmer argues, came from an 1826 Methodist
camp meeting near Palmyra, where the anticipated farewell address of a respected,
aged preacher, Bishop M’Kendree, summoned as many as ten thousand who pitched
tents and listened intently. He reportedly preached powerfully on “the whole
process of personal salvation.” Many were moved and committed to Christ.
“This,” says Palmer, “is reminiscent of King Benjamin’s
speech to the Zarahemlans” (p. 97; cf. Mosiah 2-5). The question
is whether this or other experiences in Joseph Smith’s America inspired
him to write the Book of Mormon, or whether Joseph translated an authentic ancient
history by “the gift and power of God” (Testimony of Three Witnesses).
To address that question honestly, one must not only examine the early American
republic, as Palmer does, but the ancient world, which Palmer avoids, along with
the vast literature produced by those who have dealt with this issue.
Hugh Nibley writes, “Of all the possible ties between the Book of Mormon
and the Old World, by far the most impressive in our opinion is the exact and
full matching up of the long coronation rite described in the book of Mosiah with
the ‘standard’ Near Eastern coronation ceremonies as they have
been worked out through the years by the ‘patternists’ of Cambridge.
Imagine a twenty-three-year-old backwoodsman [or even a Harvard professor] in
1829 giving his version of what an ancient coronation ceremony would be like.”12
Other scholars have confirmed Nibley’s conclusion and presented further
evidence that King Mosiah’s coronation ritual, including Benjamin’s
sermon, belongs less to the setting of a camp meeting in the early American republic
than to an ancient Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.13
As long as one ignores the ancient Near East, however, superficial parallels seem
to suffice. That a sermon in some ways similar to Benjamin’s occurred near
Joseph’s home is, to Palmer, proof that Joseph Smith wrote Mosiah 2-5
based on it. Never mind that Joseph Smith is not known to have been at the 1826
camp meeting. Neither Joseph, his mother, Joseph Knight, nor other known sources
of information on Joseph’s activities in 1826 mention the event. Even supposing
that the 1826 camp meeting profoundly influenced Joseph Smith, his 1832 written
history largely bears out Emma Smith’s later recollection that he could
hardly have composed a well-written letter at the time of their marriage in 1827.
Palmer’s argument demands that Joseph Smith must have heard Bishop M’Kendree,
remembered his sermon, crafted King Mosiah’s sermon from it at least two
years later (without, as Emma Smith testified, any written sources to jog his
memory), and positioned it coherently in the midst of a complex book that ran
to nearly six hundred pages (pp. 97-98).
Relying on the critics’ research of patterns in nineteenth-century conversion
accounts, Palmer asserts that Alma’s conversion narrative in Alma 36, among
others, is typical of Joseph Smith’s America. Specifically, Palmer asserts
that Alma’s account mirrors the conversion narrative of Eleazer Sherman,
published in Rhode Island in the same year as the Book of Mormon (p. 103).
Granted, there are similarities between conversion dynamics in the Book of Mormon
and those in the early 1800s. Why would there not be? The striking fact here is
that by attributing Alma’s conversion to Smith’s observations, Palmer
fails to explain how Smith acquired knowledge of a variety of ancient evidence.
Book of Mormon witness Hiram Page testified that Joseph Smith could hardly pronounce
the name Nephi, let alone produce the Book of Mormon without divine help (see
page 304 below). So how can Palmer’s argument possibly explain Joseph’s
knowledge of the demonstrably ancient name Alma, the ancient literary form of
his narrative, and the distinctiveness of his literary voice?
Around 1960, the “Israeli scholar Yigael Yadin found a land deed near the
western shore of the Dead Sea dating from the early second century. One of the
names on the deed was ‘Alma son of Yehudah,’ demonstrating Alma to
be ‘an authentically ancient Semitic masculine personal name.'”14
Alma’s conversion narrative at Alma 36 is narrated in an ancient literary
form of inverted parallelisms called chiasmus.15 Scholars have identified many
examples of inverted parallelism, or chiasmus, in the Old Testament. Placed beside
the strongest of those examples, the parallelism of the conversion narrative in
Alma 36 is impressive.16 Although scholars had discovered chiasmus before Smith
translated the Book of Mormon, it is unlikely that he had heard of it and implausible
to suppose that he had mastered the technique.17 His wife was certain that he
was incapable of literary complexity, ancient or otherwise. Others who knew him
(or read the Book of Mormon) shared her judgment.18 Smith’s holograph writings
during this period reveal a man more adept than some have supposed but of limited
literary ability.19 Finally, a “sophisticated analysis by a Berkeley group
concluded that it is ‘statistically indefensible to propose Joseph Smith
or Oliver Cowdery or Solomon Spaulding as the author of the 30,000 words . . .
attributed to Nephi and Alma. . . . The Book of Mormon measures multiauthored,
with authorship consistent to its own internal claims. These results are obtained
even though the writings of Nephi and Alma were “translated” by Joseph
Terryl L. Givens argues that, “to be widely plausible,” alternative
explanations for the Book of Mormon’s origin need both to “credit
the book’s indisputable complexity—its rich mix of history, warfare,
theology, allegory, and characters—and to discredit Joseph as author. He
had to have received, in other words, the help of a collaborator.”21 Palmer’s
argument does just the opposite. He takes pains to minimize the complexity of
the Book of Mormon while arguing that Joseph Smith, though uneducated, was sufficiently
clever and observant enough to have authored it himself from beginning to end.
The first 116 pages—which were subsequently lost—served, according
to Palmer, as an “apprenticeship.” The intervening nine months provided
Joseph time to “ponder the details of the plots and subplots,” and
then, in the next ninety days, Joseph dictated the final manuscript, which, Palmer
says, must have become “progressively easier,” considering his “familiarity
with the Bible and with American antiquities” (p. 66). Palmer’s
own less complex book, by contrast, took much longer to write—twenty years—though
it is only half as long and was written with the benefit of a graduate education,
modern technology, “colleagues,” extensive library resources, “years
of research,” and an editor (p. xii).
After giving a presentation on architectural proportions pervasive in the ancient
world, a Jewish scholar marveled that the monetary system set forth in Alma
11:5-19 was informed by identical mathematical principles. Though he was
unwilling to grant that the entire Book of Mormon was ancient, he was convinced
that those verses were “unthinkable” when the Book of Mormon was published
in 1830. Recent scholarship suggests that the Nephite monetary system has Egyptian,
Babylonian, and Israelite analogues.22 One wonders when Joseph Smith worked out
the arithmetic of Alma 11:5-19 or what unlikely source informed him. One
finds nothing remotely like it in the culture of the early American republic.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon Plates
In his treatment of the “Witnesses to the Golden Plates” (pp. 175-213),
Palmer attempts to discredit the testimonies of the eleven men whose eyewitness
testimonies are printed in each copy of the Book of Mormon. To that end (agreeing
with the Hurlbut affidavits now), he claims that Joseph Smith was adept at treasure
seeking and trickery23 and that his mastery of the magical folklore of nineteenth-century
America gave him power over the men who witnessed the plates, all of whom, he
states, believed in what he calls “second sight” (p. 175). Palmer argues
that Joseph Smith wrote the testimonies printed in the Book of Mormon (pp. 195,
202) and implies throughout this chapter that he somehow induced the visionary
experiences of the witnesses by playing on their credulity. Though the testimony
of the Eight Witnesses says that they actually hefted the plates for themselves,
Palmer claims that this is not so. “If the three witnesses and others inspected
the plates in a vision, perhaps the eight did also” (p. 204).
That is an incredible “perhaps,” given the testimony of the eight and those
who heard one or more of them say that they had hefted actual plates. A hearsay
report that John Whitmer claimed the plates “were shown to me by a supernatural
power” is enough for Palmer to draw the conclusion “that the eight, like the
three, saw and scrutinized the plates in a mind vision” (pp. 205,
206). That same report, by the way, has Whitmer saying, “I handled those plates”
(p. 205).24 Daniel Tyler reported hearing Samuel Smith say that “he had
handled them and seen the engravings thereon” (p. 205). Emma Smith once
“felt of the plates, as they lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape.
They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would [rustle with a metallic
sound] when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb
the edges of a book.”25 Palmer’s attempt to get the plates out of the hands
of the Eight Witnesses fails. But it reveals a challenge historians face when
dealing with the Book of Mormon witnesses. The historical record is overwhelmingly
Their actual statements included in every copy of the Book of Mormon are, of course,
the exception. By Palmer’s rule that early, eyewitness sources are the most
reliable (p. ix), these statements should be privileged over later secondhand
materials. But Palmer impeaches their testimonies without cause; he decides instead
to credit an array of hearsay statements arranged carefully to demonstrate that
what the witnesses actually experienced was what he calls “visionary”
and hence not “real” (p. 194); “thus it may not be as significant
as we have assumed that three signatories to the Book of Mormon saw and heard
an angel” (p. 195). Discrediting the witnesses by “spiritualizing”
their testimonies is reflective of Palmer’s obsession with the scientific
history idealized by the Enlightenment skeptics. On that point, Givens writes:
At least one historian has written of Martin Harris’s alleged equivocation
about his vision, pointing out that he claimed to have seen the plates with his
“spiritual eyes,” rather than his natural ones, and thus that he “repeatedly
admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience.” It
is not clear, however, that visionaries in any age have acquiesced to such facile
dichotomies. . . .
Paul himself referred to one of his own experiences as being “in the body,
or out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Cor. 12:3). He obviously considered
such a distinction irrelevant to the validity of his experience and the reality
of what he saw. It is hard to imagine a precedent more like Harris’s own versions
in which he emphatically asserts until the day of his death the actuality
of the angel who “came down from heaven” and who “brought and laid [the plates]
before our eyes, that we beheld and saw,” while also reporting, according
to others, that he “never claimed to have seen them with his natural
eyes, only with spiritual vision.”26
“It must have been relatively easy,” Palmer concludes, “for
the witnesses to accept Joseph’s golden plates as an ancient record. Appreciating
their mindset helps us understand Mormon origins in their terms” (p. 213).
What Palmer calls their “mindset” is merely his bias attributed to
the witnesses. This chapter does not give us access to their minds. And Palmer’s
patchwork of “testimony” carefully stitched together is emphatically
not in their terms. Instead we are told “the witnesses believed that a toad
hiding in the stone box became an apparition that struck Joseph on the head”
(p. 195). That notion comes from Willard Chase, a contemporary of Joseph
Smith who was at least as involved in treasure seeking as Joseph Smith. Chase
envied Joseph’s discovery of a seer stone and golden plates and tried to
wrest them from him. In his second- or thirdhand account, Chase claims that Joseph
Smith “saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance
of a man, and struck him on the side of the head.”27
For his source of knowledge of what the Book of Mormon witnesses believed, Palmer
cites Benjamin Saunders, a brother-in-law of Willard Chase. The Saunders statement
is frank, generally favorable to the Smiths, and entirely believable when reporting
firsthand knowledge. When he comes to reporting what Joseph Smith found in the
box containing golden plates, however, Benjamin Saunders’s report merely
mirrors Chase’s opinions. “When he took the plates,” he claims,
“there was something down near the box that looked some like a toad that
rose up into a man which forbid him to take the plates.”28 It is a useful
example of the reliability of eyewitness rather than hearsay testimony, which
Palmer fails to discern. Note that neither Chase nor Saunders says that it was
an actual toad that Joseph saw. Chase attributes his hearsay knowledge to a conversation
with Joseph Smith Sr., which Palmer exaggerates into “the witnesses”
(p. 195). Neither Saunders nor Chase nor even Joseph Smith Sr. was actually
present when Joseph went to the hill where the plates were deposited. Only Joseph
knew firsthand what happened there. Yet his testimony seems to be the only one
Palmer does not trust. Instead Palmer modifies and amplifies these thirdhand accounts
and inserts his version into the minds of the Book of Mormon witnesses to discount
their credibility. Whether the questionably motivated, hearsay statements from
Chase and Saunders (which tell us about their perceptions but not Joseph’s
actual experience) are more believable than the eyewitness testimonies of Joseph
Smith and the Book of Mormon witnesses is never questioned by Palmer.
Thus readers are denied access to the authentic voices of Oliver Cowdery,
David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Each of them did speak for himself at length.
We have their words in abundance, even if not always directly. Those interested
in knowing what the Three Witnesses thought, said, and knew will resent Palmer’s
selective presentation; they will want to read the witnesses’ own words. There
is an entire book of David Whitmer interviews.29 And numerous, consistent statements
by Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery are readily available in the same compilation
Palmer uses when convenient for his purposes.30 An honest inquirer who examines
all the evidence as presented by the eleven witnesses themselves will be convinced
that they believed that their testimonies—as printed in each copy of the Book
of Mormon—were real and true in the most literal sense. Oliver Cowdery wrote
in 1835 that his generation’s tendency to explain away the divine “figuratively”—what
he called spiritualizing—was unwarranted since he believed the scriptures
“are meant to be understood according to their literal reading.”31
It seems unlikely, then, that Cowdery, who, of all men, knew whether Joseph
Smith’s claims were real or not, would mince words or confuse illusions with
actual events. Whatever the nuance—which is impossible to conclude, given the
variety of hearsay accounts of the Book of Mormon witnesses—not just the preponderance
but all evidence points to their individual and collective certainty that the
Book of Mormon was divine.
In his chapter on priesthood restoration (pp. 215-34), Palmer charges
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery with inventing in 1834 the idea that angels
had ordained them to holy priesthoods beginning on 15 May 1829. Their motive,
he argues, was Eber D. Howe’s exposé, Mormonism Unvailed, which
sought to undermine the Church of Jesus Christ by attacking its origins. Thus
Palmer concludes that the “most plausible explanation” of the historical record
is that angel stories invented in 1834 “were retrofitted to an 1829-30 time
period to give the impression that an impressive and unique authority had existed
in the church from the beginning” (p. 230). Howe’s anti-Mormonism, however,
did not initiate Joseph Smith’s credibility crisis, which began much earlier.
The Painesville Telegraph, for example, challenged Cowdery’s authority
in 1830 by pejoratively referring to Cowdery’s claim to have a divine mission
and to have seen and conversed with angels.32 That account and others show that
claims to ministering angels predate Palmer’s 1834 scenario. Most emphatically,
though, Joseph Smith claimed in 1832 an angelic restoration of priesthood in
his first attempt to write his history. Palmer obliquely asserts that the only
significant reference to “authority from angels” before 1835 was the 22 September
1832 reference that is now Doctrine and Covenants 84:28. Palmer keeps silent
regarding Joseph’s testimony written that same year:
An account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth
in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God of whom he beareth record
and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according
as the Lord brough
forth and established by his hand
he receiving the testamony from on high seccondly the ministering of Angels thirdly
the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster
the letter of the Gospel—the Law and commandments as they were given
unto him—and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of
the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and
ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration
of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God confered upon him and the continuation
of the blessings of God to him &c.33
Joseph’s own account of “the rise of the church of Christ in the eve
of time” establishes the “reception of the holy Priesthood by the
ministring of Aangels” as a crucial step in the restoration of the fulness
of the gospel.34 Palmer is aware of this source; he quotes it extensively in his
discussion of Joseph Smith’s first vision (pp. 236-37), censoring
conspicuously the passage quoted above.
Instead of acknowledging that Joseph Smith wrote in 1832 that he had received
both priesthoods from ministering angels, Palmer privileges statements of David
Whitmer and William McLellin dating to the 1870s and 1880s. They claimed, at
that late date, that they “never heard” of angelic restoration of priesthood
until 1834 or 1835, showing, Palmer insists, that Joseph Smith first thought
of it at that time (pp. 217, 224-25). Absent from Palmer’s treatment are
earlier statements of William McLellin dating to 1847: “When the holy angel
visited and ordained Joseph, Oliver was with him.” And in 1848 he wrote: “We
hold that JOSEPH SMITH and OLIVER COWDERY, in May 1829, received the authority
of the lesser priesthood, and the keys of it, by the visitation and the administration
of the angel John, the Baptist.”35 In 1861 David Cannon visited Oliver Cowdery’s
grave in Richmond, Missouri, with David Whitmer, who reiterated Cowdery’s testimony,
“saying ‘I know the Gospel to be true and upon this head has Peter James and
John laid their hands and confered the Holy Melchesdic Priestood.'” Cannon
continued, “The manner in which this tall grey headed man went through the exhibition
of what Oliver had done was prophetic. I shall never forget the impression that
the testimony of . . . David Whitmer made upon me.”36 These statements were
among the seventy priesthood restoration documents published by BYU Studies
in 1996, but readers seeking a reliable account based on relevant early documents
will not find them in An Insider’s View. Palmer rejects early eyewitness
evidence, instead exclusively using late documents produced by men clearly engaged
in an effort to recast early Latter-day Saint history.37 Palmer favors these
late accounts of not hearing of angelic priesthood restoration over
early, consistent, eyewitness accounts of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
This kind of gnat-straining, camel-swallowing analysis continues when Palmer focuses
on Oliver Cowdery’s testimony that he and Joseph received the priesthood
from angels “while we were in the heavenly vision” (p. 227).38
For Palmer, visionary means unreliable. But Cowdery thought he was confirming,
not compromising, the importance of his experience by describing it as a vision.
Still, there was no doubt in Cowdery’s mind that the events were real. He
[Joseph] was ordained by the angel John, unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood,
in company with myself, in the town of Harmony, Susquehannah County, Pennsylvania,
on Fryday, the 15th day of May, 1829, after which we repaired to the water, even
to the Susquehannah River, and were baptized. . . . And while we were in the heavenly
vision the angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood: and then, as
I have said, we repaired to the water and were baptized. After this we received
the high and holy priesthood.39
If Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith invented this testimony to establish authority,
one wonders why Cowdery did not expose Joseph later when he was removed from priesthood
office. Instead, in a deeply moving, private letter to Phineas Young written in
1846, Cowdery wrote:
I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a
character, as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called
hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for
the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive
on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances,
had you stood in the presence of John,
our departed brother Joseph,
to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence
receive the Greater, and looked down through time, and witnessed the effects these
two must produce.40
It is well attested that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery both testified early
and often that angels ordained them to the holy priesthood. Why, though, the
question remains, did Joseph Smith seem to publicly proclaim his written revelations
and safeguard his visions, including details of priesthood restoration?
John Wigger’s influential book Taking Heaven by Storm41 shows how
early Methodism gained converts in great numbers by acknowledging popular spiritual
experiences and in appealing to the longings of ordinary people. As America
and Methodism became more middle class, however, revelatory experiences became
suspect. Samuel Goodrich described this process tersely by saying that “orthodoxy
was in a considerable degree methodized, and Methodism in due time became orthodoxed.”42
Informed by this larger history, Richard Bushman argues that perhaps Joseph chose
not to trumpet his heavenly visions as he did his printed revelations for fear
of being marginalized even more. This view finds support in Joseph’s own
accounts and other early documents. He reported relating his first vision to an
influential minister, following which he was persecuted, “but all this did
not destroy the reality of his vision” (Joseph Smith—History 1:24).43
He explained that he and Cowdery “were forced to keep secret the circumstances
of our having been baptized, and having received this priesthood; owing to a spirit
of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood.”44
In particular, they “had been threatened with being mobbed.”45 Martin
Harris said at least one Palmyra man threatened Joseph Smith with violence in
1827 for claiming that “angels appear to men in this enlightened age.”46
Bushman, the most informed scholar on Joseph Smith’s world, thus offers
an explanation alternative to Palmer for Joseph’s apparent reticence to
speak casually about ministering angels.47 This reading of the evidence is far
more compelling than Palmer’s exaggerated hermeneutic of suspicion.
The First Vision
To discredit Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of his first vision, Palmer borrows
an argument made by the late Reverend Wesley Walters in 1969.48 Historians Richard
Bushman and Milton Backman responded to this argument, and Backman’s monograph
Joseph Smith’s First Vision soon followed.49 Although there is nothing
new in Palmer’s discussion, much is missing. Neither Backman nor Bushman is
cited; Palmer also pays no attention to the evidence they used or the interpretations
they offered. Rather, Palmer cites hearsay by Oliver Cowdery in 1835 and by
William Smith in 1841, again violating his own rule that early sources are unfailingly
Oliver Cowdery could know of the first vision only by hearing about it from Joseph
Smith. Richard Bushman showed the weaknesses in this same Cowdery evidence in
his response to Walters in 1969.51 Though Palmer never questions Cowdery’s
confused hearsay on the first vision, he views Cowdery’s eyewitness testimony
of actual gold plates and angelic priesthood restoration as incredible (pp. 226-34).
William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, apparently made no mention of the
first vision in relating Joseph’s history during an interview in 1841 (pp. 241-42).
Hearsay that fails to mention the first vision becomes Palmer’s evidence
that the event did not happen. When, anticipating divine judgment, William wrote
his own recollections in 1883, his stated intention was “to correct the
errors instilled into the minds of the people—by the many falsehoods and
misrepresentations that book writers have set afloat concerning the character
of Joseph Smith.” In that account, William Smith strongly confirms his brother’s
own narratives of the first vision, adding that “a more elaborate and accurate
description of his vision, however, will be found in his own [that is, Joseph
Smith’s] history.”52 That 1883 source—published on pages subsequent
to the 1841 account Palmer cites—is selectively ignored.
Walters challenges the credibility of Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of his first
vision by claiming scant evidence of a revival in Palmyra town in 1819-20. Thus,
Walters reasons, the religious anxieties Joseph reported feeling as a result
of that revival must be pretense. Writing in 1982, Marvin Hill conjectured that
perhaps the first vision occurred in the wake of a documented 1824 Palmyra revival,
that Joseph Smith was mistaken chronologically but credible otherwise.53 But
both Bushman and Backman have shown that if one listens carefully to Joseph
Smith and tests his statements against local history, Joseph’s accounts are
Joseph never said that he was influenced by a Palmyra revival. He wrote that after
moving with his family to Manchester, about two miles south of Palmyra, “there
was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion”
(Joseph Smith—History 1:5). One must force a Palmyra revival into Joseph’s
account, which Palmer does, citing Oliver Cowdery’s 1835 hearsay statement
that a Methodist minister, Reverend George Lane, was in “Palmyra and vicinity”
in 1823 (p. 242). Palmer refers to Palmyra repeatedly, with virtually no
discussion of “the whole district of country” that is the locus of
Joseph Smith’s history (Joseph Smith—History 1:5), apparently unaware
that a religious excitement occurred in the region of Manchester at the time Joseph
Smith said it did. Lucy Mack Smith confirmed that “a great revival in religion”
stirred “the surrounding country in which we resided.”55
A contrast is illustrative here. Backman shows that local newspapers regularly
featured news of religious revivals throughout the region of western New York.
Narrowly focused, Palmer says simply, “there is not a single reference to a
Palmyra revival between 1818 and 1821 in any of the major [note the
qualifying term] religious periodicals” (p. 244, emphasis added). But that
is not quite right. Backman did find one reference to a Palmyra “revival.” “In
June 1820, the Palmyra Register reported on a Methodist camp meeting
in the vicinity of Palmyra because an Irishman, James Couser, died the day after
attending the gathering.”56 Otherwise, it seems, the familiar revival customs—even
including an event as public as a camp meeting—hardly seemed newsworthy. Backman’s
article gives all the relevant statistical information, showing how “great multitudes
united themselves to the different religious parties,” as Joseph Smith said
(Joseph Smith—History 1:5). The groups Joseph Smith mentioned specifically—Methodists,
Baptists, and Presbyterians—gained significant numbers in 1819-20 (Joseph Smith—History
1:5). Of the 6,500 who became Presbyterians in the United States in 1820, nearly
one-fourth lived in western New York.57
Joseph Smith said that this excitement “commenced with the Methodists”
(Joseph Smith—History 1:5). In July 1919, Methodists of the Genesee Conference
assembled at Vienna (now Phelps), well within walking distance of the Smith farm.
The Reverend George Lane and perhaps a hundred other exhorters were present. One
participant remembered the result as a “religious cyclone which swept over
the whole region,” and Joseph Smith may have been in the eye of the storm.58
Joseph’s contemporary and acquaintance Orsamus Turner reported in his “own
recollections” that Joseph caught a “spark of Methodism” at
a camp meeting on the road to Vienna, which must have occurred between 1819 and
Joseph Smith’s first vision is the best documented theophany in history.
Several extant accounts, including Joseph’s first attempt at a written history
in 1832, have been published by Backman and also by Dean Jessee.60 The polished
1838 account, of course, is canonized in the Latter-day Saint Pearl of Great Price.
Palmer draws attention to differences in the details Joseph recorded in 1832 as
compared to 1838. The earlier account (which Palmer quotes at length, leaving
out the key introductory section, in which Joseph claims to have received the
priesthood from angels after the first vision), emphasizes a personal quest for
salvation. “I cried unto the Lord for mercy” in the wilderness. A
“pillar of light” brighter than the sun appeared, and Joseph “was
filled with the spirit of God.” He then “saw the Lord and he spake
unto me saying Joseph
a summary of other things Joseph was told, briefer than but nevertheless consistent
with the 1838 account.61 Assuming (uncharacteristically, but, for once, according
to the canons of traditional historiography) that Joseph’s earliest account
is necessarily the most reliable—particularly since it fails to mention
two divine beings, says nothing about a religious excitement, and is generally
typical of a visionary subculture of Joseph’s era—Palmer concludes
that the 1838 account must be an untrustworthy elaboration. Bushman, however,
interpreted this language differently.
Behind the simplest event are complex motives and many factual threads conjoining
that will receive varying emphasis in different retellings. In all accounts of
his early religious experiences, for example, Joseph mentions the search for the
true church and a desire for forgiveness. In some accounts he emphasizes one,
in some the other. Similarly, in the earliest record of the first vision he attributes
his question about the churches to personal study; in the familiar story written
in 1838 or 1839 he credits the revival and the consequent disputes as raising
the issue for him. The reasons for reshaping the story usually have to do with
changes in immediate circumstances. We know that Joseph suffered from attacks
on his character around 1834. As he told Oliver Cowdery when the letters on Joseph’s
early experiences were about to be published, enemies had blown up his honest
confession of guilt into an admission of outrageous crimes. Small wonder that
afterward he played down his prayer for forgiveness in accounts of the vision.
Such changes do not evidence an uncertainty about the events, as Mr. Walters [and,
following him, Palmer] thinks, as if Joseph were manufacturing new parts year
by year. It is folly to try to explain every change as the result of Joseph’s
calculated efforts to fabricate a convincing account. One would expect variations
in the simplest and truest story.62
Joseph Smith’s accounts of his first vision are remarkably consistent. His
descriptions are, in fact, portraits of the time and place in which he lived.
Indeed, if Joseph had repeated well-rehearsed statements verbatim from year to
year rather than the thoughtful accounts he gave in specific contexts, historians
would rightly find him more calculating and less credible. As it is, Joseph’s
testimony compels many to belief—perhaps most notably the British literary
scholar Arthur Henry King, who wrote:
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed.
I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life
being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself,
this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool
account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel
the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically,
but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic.
That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this
man was telling the truth.63
Palmer claims to recapitulate the findings of New Mormon History, but An
Insider’s View is old-fashioned polemics. It is, as Shipps said, “tendentious
in the extreme.” It is a pitiful failure to write credible history because Palmer
fails to obey rules of historical methodology that he simultaneously professes
to be inviolable. He cannot, with any degree of credibility, for instance, pretend
Joseph’s 1832 testimony of receiving priesthood from angels does not exist and
then uphold the same document as the authentic record of Joseph’s first vision
experience. He concludes An Insider’s View by reviewing his reasons
why Joseph Smith’s claims to having translated ancient records by divine means
cannot be true. He similarly dismisses Joseph Smith’s testimony of the first
vision, the restoration of priesthood, and the testimonies of Book of Mormon
witnesses. He uncritically follows Enlightenment ideas of rationality. But at
the end of his book, he does an abrupt about-face and adopts a stance Givens
has called “a strangely irrational position.”64 Discarding his Enlightenment
standards, Palmer wants Mormonism to be ineffable—like it was in some imaginary
beginning before, he argues, it was ruined by Joseph and Oliver (pp. 260-61).
“I cherish Joseph Smith’s teachings on many topics,” Palmer concludes, “such
as the plan of salvation and his view that the marriage covenant extends beyond
death. Many others could be enumerated. But when it comes to the founding events,
I wonder if they are trustworthy as history” (p. 261).65
Palmer unconvincingly strives to separate the few of Joseph Smith’s teachings
he accepts from the Prophet’s claims to angelic ministrations or translation
of actual documents by the gift and power of God. He wants to keep eternal marriage
but jettison priesthood. He wants Latter-day Saints to emphasize Jesus at the
expense of the revelations attested by Joseph Smith of Jesus Christ. He wishes
that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would reorganize like its
cousin, recently rechristened the Community of Christ, so that “anyone willing
to covenant with Christ” may enjoy full fellowship, “regardless of
their belief in the claims of their founding prophet” (p. 263). This
conclusion is the most peculiar part of the book, the most incongruent.
Palmer approvingly quotes a declaration by Joseph Smith in 1838: “The fundamental
principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning
Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended
up into heaven'; and all other things are only appendages to these” (p. 261).66
Can it be that neither Palmer nor his editors recognized this inconsistency?
How could one who distrusts the claims of Joseph Smith based on Enlightenment
standards of rationality accept the testimony of Peter or Paul of a risen Christ?
As Givens demonstrated, “the protest against Mormonism turns out to be, in the
final analysis, much the same as the Enlightenment’s protest against Christianity
itself.”67 If, as Palmer asserts, “there is no evidence that he [Joseph Smith]
ever translated a document as we would understand that phrase” (p. 259),
what evidence exists that Jesus “rose again the third day”? If the Book of Mormon
can be attributed to the creativity of an observant nineteenth-century farmer,
cannot the New Testament be dismissed even more easily as the creation of first-century
Jews? Cannot Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus be dismissed far more
easily than the eyewitness testimonies of eight men who hefted the Book of Mormon
plates and three men who claimed to their deathbeds that a heavenly messenger
displayed the same plates to them? Here Palmer partakes of an old, oft-repeated
effort to debunk Mormonism, precisely because Mormonism demystifies the ineffable
and forces choice. As Terryl Givens wrote, “Mormonism’s radicalism can thus
be seen as its refusal to endow its own origins with mythic transcendence, while
endowing those origins with universal import since they represent the implementation
of the fullest gospel dispensation ever. The effect of this unflinching
primitivism, its resurrection of original structures and practices, is nothing
short of the demystification of Christianity itself.”68
In contrast to Palmer, Bushman proposes a philosophically consistent way to know:
“I hold to my beliefs not because of the evidence or the arguments but because
I find our Mormon truth good and yearn to install it at the center of my life.
After losing many followers when he taught an especially hard doctrine, Jesus
asked his disciples, ‘Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him,
Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life’ (John 6:67-68).
The truth we have is truth to live by.”69 The truth of which Bushman speaks
is also irreducibly historical. It is necessarily grounded on actual gold plates
revealed by a resurrected inhabitant of ancient America whose Near Eastern colleagues
restored priesthood authority to Joseph Smith Jr. beginning on 15 May 1829 near
Historicity is the crux of Palmer’s problem. In a genuinely moving passage
(the most autobiographically revealing one in a confessional book), Palmer relates,
“I was about fourteen years old when I heard [Congressman Douglas R. Stringfellow]
speak, and it was a truly inspiring experience” (p. 132). Indeed, when
this formative episode, which Palmer received as a completely factual recital
(based on feelings that he and others attributed to the Holy Ghost), was later
shown to be a fabrication, seeds of doubt sprouted. Similar experiences later
eroded his faith more, until he rejected as unreliably subjective the experiences
of goodness of which Bushman speaks, shifting his faith to Enlightenment rationalism
as the way to discern truth. “Is something true because I and others find
it edifying?” (p. 131), he wonders plaintively, lamenting his youthful
vulnerability and failure to discern between a sensational yarn and the work of
the Holy Spirit. Now seasoned and skeptical, Palmer wonders whether there is any
difference. Still he clings tenaciously, if irrationally, to a thread of faith
in revelation. But in doing so, he fails to discern that one cannot aim Enlightenment
skepticism at the historical claims of the restoration and then propose as an
antidote a pragmatic embrace of “the testimony of the prophets and apostles
concerning Jesus Christ” (p. 261). Early converts understood and explained
why. Eli Gilbert wrote of the Book of Mormon: “I gave it a close reading.
And it bore hard upon my favorite notions of universal salvation. I read it again,
and again with close attention and prayer. I examined the proof; the witnesses,
and all other testimony, and compared it with that of the bible, (which book I
verily thought I believed,) and found the two books mutually and reciprocally
corroborate each other; and if I let go the book of Mormon, the bible might also
go down by the same rule.”70
William McLellin asked Hyrum Smith to baptize him on 20 August 1831, a month after
meeting David Whitmer, who “bore testimony to having seen an Holy Angel
who had made known the truth of this record to him.” Compelled, McLellin
closed his school and followed the Mormon missionaries to Missouri. He met Martin
Harris and, on 19 August 1831, “took Hiram the brother of Joseph and we
went into the woods and set down and talked together about 4 hours. I inquired
into the particulars of the coming forth of the record, of the rise of the church
and of its progress and upon the testimonies given to him.” McLellin writes
that the next day “I rose early and betook myself to earnest prayr to God
to direct me into truth; and from all the light that I could gain by examinations
searches and researches I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth
and Validity of the book of Mormon and also that I had found the people of the
Samuel Smith, another Book of Mormon witness, later served a mission with McLellin
after a call received in a revelation that McLellin requested of Joseph, secretly
testing Joseph to see whether he could discern the answers to five questions known
only to McLellin and God (D&C 66). This intimate contact with Book of Mormon
witnesses, whose testimonies McLellin solicited and examined, combined with the
receipt of revealed answers to McLellin’s questions, was powerful evidence
to him that Joseph Smith translated by the gift of God. McLellin later disobeyed
one of the commandments revealed in answer to his request—”commit
not adultery” (D&C 66:10)—and was cut off from the church. He
spent many of his remaining years searching for ways to discredit Joseph Smith,
probably to minimize cognitive dissonance. It is these efforts that Palmer emphasizes
(pp. 224-25, 247).72
Palmer is silent on McLellin’s dogged conviction that Joseph Smith translated
the Book of Mormon and received divine revelations. Speaking of his personal experience
with Joseph as he received that revelation for McLellin on 25 October 1831, McLellin
declared in print in 1848, ten years after his final excommunication: “I
now testify in the fear of God, that every question which I had thus lodged in
the ears of the Lord of Sabbaoth, were answered to my full and entire satisfaction.
I desired it for a testimony of Joseph’s inspiration. And I to this day
consider it to me an evidence which I cannot refute.”73 That testimony,
absent from Palmer’s book, is located just pages from a Hiram Page statement
Palmer manipulated to compromise Page’s witness of the Book of Mormon plates
(see fig. 1 on pages 304-5).74 In 1880 McLellin reaffirmed his 1831 conviction
of the Book of Mormon:
When I thoroughly examine a subject and settle my mind, then higher evidence must
be introduced before I change. I have set to my seal that the Book of Mormon is
a true, divine record and it will require more evidence than I have ever seen
to ever shake me relative to its purity I have read many “Exposes.”
I have seen all their arguments. But my evidences are above them all! . . .
When a man goes at the Book of M. he touches the apple of my eye. He fights against
truth—against purity—against light—against the purist, or one
of the truest, purist books on earth. I have more confidence in the Book of Mormon
than any book of this wide earth!75
As Bushman asserts and as early converts who interviewed Book of Mormon witnesses
testify, “a more persuasive argument can be made for belief in God and Christ
through the Book of Mormon than through any of the arguments of conventional Christianity.”76
Then why was An Insider’s View written? It certainly will not serve
Palmer’s stated “hope for a greater focus on Jesus Christ in our Sunday meetings”
(p. 263). To the degree that a “lingering distrust” of history not sanctioned
by the Church of Jesus Christ exists (p. viii), this book will exacerbate
it, not cure it. Is it possible that Palmer is so naïve as to imagine that
attacking Joseph Smith’s theophany, reception of priesthood at the hands of
resurrected angels, tutelage by a messenger sent from the presence of God, and
divinely aided translation of an authentically ancient record will endear his
work to mainstream Latter-day Saints or win the support of church leaders? If
so, surely his astute “colleagues” at Signature Books could have disabused him
(p. xii). Perhaps, though, they intended to exploit his status with the
Church Educational System to push their agenda under a sophistic guise. The
book will appeal to those already dissatisfied with Latter-day Saint faith for
reasons other than its historical claims. Suspicious of church leaders and seeking
salve for cognitive dissonance, this group is a good audience for what Shipps
described as tendentious history written by those who share the need to address
anxieties that stem from abandoning faith. This is true regardless of their
employment, church membership status, or calling, all of which are featured
prominently on and in the book, concealing the message behind a seemingly trustworthy
messenger. Palmer’s book will reassure the self-assessment of this demographic
and may meet its author’s psychological needs, but to scholars it provides “evidence
of what can happen when the religious basis of personal identity is shattered.”77
The book bespeaks incongruity. It feigns objectivity. It defines incredibility.
As Shipps indicated, when one’s motive for writing history is an identity crisis
engendered by forsaken faith, the result is intensely revealing—though, alas,
for this very self-serving reason, it is not trustworthy history.
- Jan Shipps, “Remembering, Recovering, and Inventing What Being a
People of God Means: Reflections on Method in the Scholarly Writing of Religious
History,” in Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 179-80.
- Judging by James B. Allen, Ronald W. Walker, and David J. Whitaker, eds.,
Studies in Mormon History, 1830-1997: An Indexed Bibliography (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 2000), 324, An Insider’s View is Grant Palmer’s
first published work in Mormon history. His master’s thesis, “The
Godbeite Movement: A Dissent against Temporal Control” (Brigham Young
University, 1968), is the only entry under his name.
- For example, Mark Ashurst-McGee distinguishes between Joseph’s efforts
to translate by scholarly means and the translations he accomplished by the
gift and power of God in “Joseph Smith, the Kinderhook Plates, and the
Question of Revelation,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the
Mormon History Association, Snowbird, Utah, 16-19 May 1996; typescript
in L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young
University, Provo, Utah (hereafter Perry Collections).
- See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question”
and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
- Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1984), 3.
- Richard L. Bushman, “The Social Dimensions of Rationality,” in
Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars, ed. Susan Easton
Black (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1996), 73.
- See note 1.
- Bushman, “Social Dimensions of Rationality,” 73; see also Richard
L. Bushman, “Faithful History,” Dialogue 4/4 (1969): 11-25.
- John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph
Smith Papyri,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint
History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks,
Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 175-217,
especially 176-77, discusses the inherent problems of giving later hearsay
the same credence as early eyewitness accounts. Gee, who earned his Ph.D. in
Egyptology from Yale University in 1998, is also the author of A Guide to the
Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000). LDS Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein
(Ph.D., UCLA) noted, “Palmer’s description of P. JS 11 is not completely
accurate, but it is sufficiently so for any general purposes. The big problem
comes in his line at the bottom of page 12 which reads ‘Joseph Smith used
this papyrus as his source for Abraham 1 through 2:18.’ Just how he determined
this is a mystery to me. He, and others, have apparently assumed that since
the Book of Abraham text refers to facsimile 1 as the drawing at the beginning
of the book that the source of the text of the Book of Abraham is the text appearing
directly after the picture. This is an assumption, and nothing more. It is not
unusual for pictures to be far from the text with which they go, both in ancient
Egypt and in books today. Palmer himself refers to figures in his own book that
are not right next to the text with which they are associated.” Muhlestein
to Harper, 17 May 2003.
- Some of Palmer’s other claims are dealt with in other reviews in this
number, pages 257-71 and 309-410.
- Alexander Campbell, Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon (Boston:
Greene, 1832), 13.
- Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS,
- See Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah
1-6,” and Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s
Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” in King Benjamin’s
Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,” ed. John W. Welch and Stephen
D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 233-75, 183-90; and John A.
Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study
and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, ed. John M. Lundquist
and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197-237.
- Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2002), 144. See Daniel C. Peterson, “Is the Book of Mormon True? Notes
on the Debate,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for
Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 146, who cites
Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba (New York: Random House, 1971), 176. See also Paul
Y. Hoskisson, “Alma as a Hebrew Name,” Journal of Book of Mormon
Studies 7/1 (1998): 72-73; Terrence L. Szink, “Further Evidence
of a Semitic Alma,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 70.
- John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Book of
Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds and Charles
D. Tate (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 33-52.
- John W. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the
Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book and FARMS, 1991), 114-31. See also Welch, “Chiasmus in the
Book of Mormon”; John W. Welch, “What Does Chiasmus in the Book
of Mormon Prove?” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, 199-224.
- John W. Welch, “How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the
Book of Mormon Was Translated?” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 47-80.
- Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, in Early Mormon Documents,
comp. and ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:539. See
also Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 157-59.
- Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, in Vogel, Early Mormon
Documents, 1:539 n. 24.
- Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 156-57, quoting John L. Hilton, “On
Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship,” in Book of Mormon
Authorship Revisited, 241. Givens, passim, presents a thorough assessment of
Book of Mormon claims and deals substantively with the Book of Mormon-related
arguments Palmer makes while providing a presentation with integrity conspicuously
missing from Palmer’s discussion.
- Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 159.
- John W. Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of
Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 36-45. Earlier
research appears in Robert F. Smith, “Weights and Measures in the Time
of Mosiah II” (FARMS, 1983). See also “Egyptian Hieroglyphs for
Grain Measurement,” chart 113 in Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids
for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999).
- For a much different account, see Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni: Angel
or Treasure Guardian?” Mormon Historical Studies 2/2 (2001): 39-75,
which addresses a wider array of evidence than Palmer and, in the process, shows
that characterization of Joseph Smith as a treasure seeker actually began in
1830, when Palmer said it stopped; this reveals one of the demonstrably false
assertions in Palmer’s argument.
- Both comments of John Whitmer appear as quotations reported by Theodore
Turley and recorded in History of the Church, 3:307.
- Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith, III, in Vogel, Early Mormon
- Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 41-42, emphasis added; the two former
quotations come from the Testimony of Three Witnesses in the front of the Book
of Mormon, and the latter one is the statement of Reuben P. Harmon, made in
about 1885, cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:255. Note how Givens,
unlike Palmer, distinguishes between firsthand and hearsay accounts.
- The Willard Chase statement is reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,
2:64-74; the quotation is found on p. 67.
- The Benjamin Saunders statement is reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,
2:136-40; the quotation is found on p. 137.
- Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem,
Utah: Grandin, 1991).
- For Harris and Cowdery statements, see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:253-511.
Note the distinctions in language between hearsay and eyewitness testimony.
- Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, February 1835, in Vogel, Early Mormon
- “The Golden Bible,” Painesville Telegraph, 16 November 1830,
3, quoted in Brian Q. Cannon et al., “Priesthood Restoration Documents,”
BYU Studies 35/4 (1995-96): 181 (document 20); see also 181-82 (document
- The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 1989), 1:3.
- Joseph Smith, Letterbook 1, Joseph Smith Collection, Family and Church History
Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake
City, Utah (hereafter Church Archives), p. 1, quoted in Personal Writings of
Joseph Smith, comp. and ed. Dean C. Jessee, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book and Brigham Young University Press, 2002). See also Cannon et al., “Priesthood
Restoration Documents,” 176 (document 5); Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,
- Cannon et al., “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” 195-96
- David H. Cannon, autobiography, quoted in Cannon et al., “Priesthood
Restoration Documents,” 198 n. 10.
- On this point, see Kenneth W. Godfrey, “David Whitmer and the Shaping
of Latter-day Saint History,” in Disciple as Witness, 223-56. See
also Larry C. Porter, “The Odyssey of William Earl McLellin: Man of Diversity,
1806-83,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836,
ed. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (Urbana: BYU Studies and University of Illinois
Press, 1994), 291-378.
- From Book of Patriarchal Blessings 1:8-9, Church Archives, quoted
in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:453.
- Cannon et al., “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” 182-83
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 23 March 1846, Church Archives, quoted
in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:491-92.
- John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular
Christianity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Samuel G. Goodrich, Recollections of a Lifetime (New York: Miller, Orton
& Mulligan, 1856), 1:217.
- The quotation, from verse 24, is in reference to the apostle Paul and the
similarity of his situation to Joseph’s own.
- Joseph Smith, “History, 1839,” Joseph Smith Collection, Church
Archives, p. 18; compare Joseph Smith—History 1:74-75. Also in Cannon
et al., “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” 178 (document 12); Vogel,
Early Mormon Documents, 1:76.
- Joseph Smith, “History, 1839,” Joseph Smith Collection, Church
Archives, p. 18; compare Joseph Smith—History 1:74-75. Also in Vogel,
Early Mormon Documents, 1:76.
- “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859,
- Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith Lecture Series (BYU-Hawaii, 13 November
2001), notes in my possession.
- Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,”
Dialogue 4/1 (1969): 60-67.
- Richard L. Bushman “The First Vision Story Revived,” Dialogue
4/1 (1969): 82-93; Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-Over
District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU
Studies 9/3 (1969): 301-20; Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision:
The First Vision in Its Historical Context (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971).
- William Hartley, review of Power from on High: The Development of Mormon
Priesthood, by Gregory A. Prince, BYU Studies 37/1 (1997-98): 225-30,
argues that because recollections can be valuable historical sources and are
often at least as reliable as contemporary accounts, “Joseph Smith’s
later perspectives on early events deserve as much trust as do his early statements”
(p. 227). Palmer responds directly to this statement with the assertion
that to give retrospective accounts that much credence “is contrary to
the traditional canons of historiography” (p. 254 n. 52). This
is fine irony from a determined debunker of traditional historiography and of
the canonical account of Joseph Smith’s first vision.
- Bushman, “First Vision Story Revived,” 82-93.
- William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald, 1883),
3, 9, quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:493, 496.
- Marvin S. Hill, “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation,”
Dialogue 15/2 (1982): 31-46.
- Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 53-59; and
Backman, “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District,” 309.
- Lucy Mack Smith, “Lucy Smith History, 1845,” in Vogel, Early
Mormon Documents, 1:288.
- Backman, “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District,” 309.
- Ibid., 317.
- M. P. Blakeslee, “Note for a History of Methodism in Phelps, 1886,”
7, in newspaper clippings and histories, 1883-1911 (Perry Collections),
quoted in Backman, “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District,” 308.
For a discussion of this issue, see Larry C. Porter, review of Inventing Mormonism:
Tradition and the Historical Record, by H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters,
Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 126-36.
- Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s
Purchase and Morris’ Reserve . . . (Rochester, N.Y.: Alling, 1852), 214.
Richard L. Anderson evaluates Turner’s credibility as a witness in “Circumstantial
Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences,” BYU Studies 9/3
- See, for example, Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision; Dean C. Jessee,
“The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies
9/3 (1969): 275-94; Personal Writings of Joseph Smith; and Jessee, Papers
of Joseph Smith, 2 vols.
- Joseph Smith History, 1832, quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:28.
- Bushman, “First Vision Story Revived,” 83; cf. Bushman, Joseph
Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 49-54.
- Arthur Henry King, Arm the Children: Faith’s Response to a Violent
World (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1998), 288.
- Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 178: “To consider ‘the historical
validity of the Book of Mormon . . . strangely irrelevant to the experience
of finding spirituality through the Latter-day Saint scriptural tradition’
is itself a strangely irrational position.” The internal quotation comes
from Ian G. Barber, “Beyond the Literalist Constraint: Personal Reflections
on Mormon Scripture and Religious Interpretation,” Sunstone, October 1997,
22, and reflects a viewpoint essentially identical to Palmer’s.
- Givens ably deals with this theme in “‘This Great Modern Abomination':
Orthodoxy and Heresy in American Religion,” in Viper on the Hearth:
Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
- Quoted from Joseph Smith Jr., answers to questions, Elders Journal 1/3 (July
1838): 44. The portion in single quotation marks is reminiscent of the wording
of several of the Catholic and Protestant creeds familiar in Joseph Smith’s
day. Compare also 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; D&C 20:23-24.
- Givens, Viper on the Hearth, 93.
- Ibid., 83.
- Bushman, “Social Dimensions of Rationality,” 77.
- Eli Gilbert to the editor, 24 September 1834, Messenger and Advocate 1 (October
1834): 10. For another example, see Milo Andrus, Autobiography of Milo Andrus
1779-1875, Perry Collections; and Benjamin Brown, Testimonies for the
Truth (Liverpool: Richards, 1853), 3-9.
- Shipps and Welch, Journals of William E. McLellin, 29, 33.
- For a study of McLellin’s conversion and excommunication, see Steven
C. Harper, “Drawing Lessons from a Life: William McLellin 1831-1832,”
in Lives of the Saints: Writing Mormon Biography and Autobiography, ed. Jill
Mulvay Derr (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint
History, 2002), 77-82.
- William E. McLellin, response to J. Tyler on succession to First Presidency,
Ensign of Liberty of the Church of Christ 1/4 (January 1848): 61.
- Hiram Page to Bro. William, Ensign of Liberty of the Church of Christ 1/4
(January 1848): 64.
- William E. McLellin to James T. Cobb, Independence, Missouri, 14 August
1880, Manuscripts Collection, New York Public Library, quoted in Porter, “Man
of Diversity,” 291.
- Bushman, “Social Dimensions of Rationality,” 71.
- Shipps, “Remembering, Recovering, and Inventing,” 180.