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The Book of Mormon: The Keystone of the Mormon Religion

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The Book of Mormon: The Keystone of the Mormon Religion

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 2
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In September 1827, Joseph Smith reported that an angel named Moroni had appeared to him once a year beginning in 1823 and had at last entrusted to him some gold plates that had been buried in a hill near his home in upstate New York. According to Joseph, on the plates were written ancient scriptures, most of them from an Israelite people descended from a man named Lehi, who had journeyed with his family from Jerusalem to the Americas six hundred years before Christ. Over the course of the next two years, Joseph produced an English version of these records, called the Book of Mormon, which he claimed to have translated by supernatural means from the gold plates. In late March 1830, Joseph began selling copies of the Book of Mormon. He later claimed that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” 


Basic Facts about the Book of Mormon
 Distribution:  140 million copies
Languages: 107
Length (in English): 15 books, 239 chapters, 531 pages, about 270,000 words (about one- fourth longer than the New Testament) 


Nearly everything about the Book of Mormon is in dispute. The gold plates on which it was supposedly written are no longer accessible and no copies of the writing on them (except a few characters that no one has ever been able to decipher or even identify with a particular language) were ever made, so no examination of the original text is possible. According to Joseph Smith, Moroni took the plates to heaven once the translation was complete.

Joseph showed the plates to eleven men, whose testimonies appear at the front of the Book of Mormon. These men were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Joseph’s father and two brothers, and six men from the Whitmer family. These eleven men corroborated Joseph’s claim to have possessed some metallic plates and that they had curious markings on them. The witnesses had no way of knowing even approximately how old the plates were or what if anything they might have said. In addition, three witnesses claimed to have seen the angel. It should also be noted that several of the Book of Mormon witnesses later qualified their testimony, describing their experience of seeing the plates in visionary or mystical terms.

Although Joseph claimed to have “translated” the plates, he did not do so by any direct examination of the plates themselves. Those who saw him during the translation work recount that they saw him with his face buried in his hat, with a “seer stone” in the hat, and Joseph dictating to a scribe the words of the text as they came to him. The plates would typically be set aside covered with a blanket or even not in the same building. To faithful Mormons, this method shows that Joseph was supernaturally guided in his work; to everyone else, it sounds more like divination or magic than divinely inspired translation.

  Chronology of the Origins of the Book of Mormon
Sept. 23, 1827 Joseph claims the angel Moroni gave him the gold plates
Jan. 1828 Joseph translates some of the characters on the plates; Martin Harris shows the characters and translations to Charles Anthon
April—June 1828 Joseph translates 116 pages of the “Book of Lehi,” which is stolen
April—June 1829 Smith dictates most of the Book of Mormon text to Oliver Cowdery
March 26, 1830 First edition of the Book of Mormon goes on sale 

If Joseph was not supernaturally inspired, might he have produced the Book of Mormon using natural resources? Many Mormons argue no, pointing out that most of the translating took place during a two-month period in 1829. However, by their own account, Joseph had the plates for nearly two years prior, and he may have been working on the story line of the Book of Mormon even earlier. Furthermore, much of the Book of Mormon appears to have been copied from other sources. Of the 239 chapters in the Book of Mormon, 27 are copied nearly verbatim from the King James Bible. Joseph may have derived other parts of the Book of Mormon, or at least ideas found in it, from contemporary sources. The extra-biblical source most likely to have influenced the Book of Mormon was A View of the Hebrews (1823) by Ethan Smith (no relation). And there are still other sources from which Joseph may have drawn ideas and words.


Five Major Figures of the Book of Mormon 
Lehi: A Jewish prophet who traveled with his family from Jerusalem to Arabia and from there across the oceans to the Americas about 600 years before Christ.
Nephi: One of Lehi’s sons, a prophet who wrote an earlier (unknown) version of the first two books in the Book of Mormon, and the patriarch of the Nephites, a generally righteous people whose decline into wickedness led to its demise.
Laman: One of Lehi’s unrighteous sons, the patriarch of the Lamanites, a generally wicked people who eventually killed off nearly all of the Nephites by AD 421. Traditionally, LDS leaders have taught that most if not all Native American peoples as well as Pacific Islanders are of Jewish descent, tracing their lineage back to the Lamanites.
Mormon: The Nephite prophet who is credited with compiling, abridging, and writing on gold plates almost the entirety of the Book of Mormon.
Moroni: The son of Mormon and last living Nephite, who appended some final material to the Book of Mormon and buried the plates in the hill Cumorah. He appeared as an angel to show those plates to Joseph Smith some 1400 years later. A statue of Moroni in his angelic form, facing east, adorns the top of every Mormon temple. 


The theology of the Book of Mormon does not deviate as radically from traditional Christianity as Joseph’s later teachings. In fact, in some ways the Book of Mormon echoes the Methodism with which the young Joseph was familiar. Its primary importance for Mormons is in establishing the claim that the Bible is not the complete canon of Scripture and that Joseph Smith was a prophet authorized to add new revelations. From an evangelical point of view, the Book of Mormon should be rejected as scripture in view of the suspicious circumstances of its origins, its contradiction of certain biblical teachings, and its alleged validation of Joseph Smith (who went on to teach polytheism and institute polygamy, among other deviations) as a prophet.