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An Insider's View of Mormon Origins

Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Signature Books, 2002).

Grant Palmer is a retired CES instructor and Institute director with a master's degree in history.  His purpose in writing Mormon Origins was to incorporate recent critical historical and scholarly studies of LDS history in an orthodox defense of the faith.  Palmer feels compelled to "lay out the evidence and state the implications of what I see as clearly as possible" (Preface, p. xii), a refreshingly direct approach.  Still, his aim is to "increase faith, not diminish it" (Preface, p. ix).

While traditional defenders of the Mormon faith might dispute that claim, Palmer argues that his account of Mormon origins still "rings true" and is often "more spiritual, less temporal, and more stirring" than the revised standard version of Mormon origins (Preface, p. ix).  By holding that "faith needs to be built on truth--what is, in fact, true and believable," he parts ways with the practitioners of what has been termed faithful history.  Orthodox arguments often appear to be based on conclusions, not evidence, and some familiarity with that genre is required in order to comprehend the novelty of Palmer's endeavor.  As he puts it more succinctly: "Your friends don't always tell you what you need to hear" (Preface, p. viii).  Palmer writes things that Mormons need to hear but haven't.

Mormon Origins is Palmer's contribution to what he calls "a more candid discussion of the foundations of the church" (Preface, p. xiii).  In eight chapters he covers selected topics in early Mormon history, including Joseph Smith's various translation projects; 19th-century influences on the Book of Mormon narrative; enlightening details regarding the official witnesses to the Book of Mormon; and early accounts of priesthood restoration, LDS authority claims, and Joseph's First Vision.  I will briefly summarize Palmer's treatment of these topics, then offer short comments on his attempt to offer an alternative to "faithful history."


In Chapter One, Palmer assesses Joseph Smith's "translations of ancient documents by the power of God" (p. 1).  Eyewitness accounts by those with direct knowledge such as Emma Smith and Martin Harris indicate that Joseph translated using one of his seer stones buried in a hat, rather than peering at characters on the plates through a clear "Urim and Thummim" as is often depicted.  "[I]t did not constitute what we would normally consider to be a translation," as Joseph did not really work with a source document in developing the text he dictated (p. 2).  This odd notion of translation without source documents is also reflected in D&C 7, which purports to be the translation of a "parchment of John" not presently existing (p. 4). In the balance of the chapter, Palmer reviews evidence on the JST, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Joseph, and the Kinderhook Plates.  He concludes that "a large body of evidence demonstrates that Joseph mistranslated a number of documents" and that he knows of "no substantial evidence to support [Joseph's] claim to have ever literally translated any document . . ." (p. 36).  He now reads these texts as representing "a nineteenth-century encounter with God rather than an ancient epic" (p. 36).

The Book of Mormon

In Chapter Two, Palmer first points out that LDS scholars including James E. Talmage, John A. Widstoe, and J. Reuben Clark have invited "thorough and impartial examination" of the Book of Mormon (p. 39).  In three chapters, Palmer considers what such an examination reveals in light of contemporary historical knowledge.  First, he shows that Joseph was not merely an "unschooled farm boy" as is often asserted, but that he acquired a detailed "knowledge of the Bible, of evangelical Protestantism, and of American antiquities within his environment," all themes that feature prominently in the Book of Mormon (p. 44).  Palmer provides a series of quotes from the Book of Mormon and New Testament texts (in parallel columns) and from Ethan Smith's Views of the Hebrews to support his outline of "a plausible scenario for how the Book of Mormon came to be" (p. 66).

In Chapter Three, Palmer carefully considers the relationship between Book of Mormon narratives in 1, 2, and 3 Nephi concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and parallel texts in the Bible.  Drawing on the work of secular scholars, Palmer shows how Book of Mormon treatments of these biblical narratives resemble expansions and recastings of biblical material (p. 69).  Even the name "Nephi" appears in 2 Maccabees 1:36 (although personally, I prefer a derivation from Genesis 6:4, where the Hebrew term nephilim, KJV "giants," is mentioned in connection with the sons of God having intimate encounters with the fair daughters of men).  He discusses the journey to America as an expansion on the Exodus, the Christ prophecies as textually dependent on (later) biblical texts, the 3 Nephi Christ discourses as textually dependent on (later) biblical accounts, and Book of Mormon miracles as inflated versions of biblical miracles.  The analysis raises the question of whether Book of Mormon stories are authentic history or merely expanded retellings of similar biblical accounts (p. 93).

Chapter Four reviews Book of Mormon texts that appear to encapsulate evangelical Protestant revival preaching patterns and Universalist theology, both prominent features of 19th-century American Christianity.  For example, criticism of fine clothing, a paid ministry, and Freemasonry appear in both the Book of Mormon and New York popular preaching (p. 95).  Furthermore, revival camps, preaching styles, and conversion behavior practiced in western New York resemble the accounts in Mosiah and Alma (p. 95-96).  "Jacob [in chapters 1-3 of his book] uses exactly the same emotional, descriptive catchwords as the evangelical preachers of Joseph Smith's era to produce the same guilt-ridden trembling, shedding of tears, and fainting" (p. 114-15).

Supernatural Beliefs

In Chapter Five, Palmer investigates how supernatural beliefs and folk tales were incorporated into stories of Mormon origins by highlighting E.T.A. Hoffman's book The Golden Pot, first published in English in 1827 but published in German in 1814.

Chapter Six expands on the supernatural theme by showing the mindset and worldview of those who witnessed the Book of Mormon.  They believed in "second sight," which "included the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere "with "spiritual eyes" (p. 175-76).  It is generally admitted that Martin Harris' religious beliefs were rather ungrounded, amply reviewed by Palmer, but he also notes David Whitmer's possession of his own seer stone and Oliver Cowdery's use of a dowsing rod (p. 176-83; a reference to Cowdery's waterwitching talents is found at D&C 8:6-8, rendered even more explicit in the original 1833 Book of Commandments text).  Palmer also reviews the claims of James J. Strang to have unearthed Nephite plates in 1845 and translated them as the Book of the Law of the Lord (p. 208-09).  Both Martin Harris and David Whitmer endorsed his claims, as did Lucy Smith and William Smith, Joseph's mother and brother (p. 209-12).  Even Oliver Cowdery appears to have affiliated with Strang's church, moving close to the group's Wisconsin headquarters in 1847.  To Palmer, "[t]his replication of an earlier pattern of belief confirms that it must have been relatively easy for the witnesses to accept Joseph's golden plates as an ancient record" (p. 213).

Foundational Myths

In the final two chapters, Palmer addresses what might be termed the foundational myths of the modern Mormon Church: Joseph Smith's First Vision and his later receipt of divine priesthood authority at the hands of angelic messengers.  In Chapter Seven, Palmer cites credible sources to the effect that the original Mormon authority to baptize and to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost came to Joseph and his associates via the word of the Lord in prayer or a similar spiritual prompting (p. 216-19).  The relevant passages in modern LDS scriptures, D&C 13 and D&C 27:7-12, were in fact added years after the dates listed in the modern headings. Palmer suggests the additions were designed to boost the authority of Joseph and Oliver in the face of later criticism (p. 230-32).  [Note: Chapter Seven in its entirety is posted at the publisher's website.]

In Chapter Eight, Palmer tells a similar story regarding the accounts of the First Vision.  In 1832, Joseph first wrote of it as a personal conversion experience.  By 1838 (when he wrote the present canonized version), he depicted it as the opening herald of a new dispensation, "suggest[ing] that when he rewrote his history in 1838, he reinterpreted his experience to satisfy institutional needs" (p. 240).  Again, conflict within the Church appears to have been connected with the emergence of the enhanced authority claims.  In the messy 1837-38 period, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery were all excommunicated, as well as Mormon apostles William McLellin, Luke Johnson, Lyman Johnson, John Boynton, Thomas B. Marsh, and Orson Hyde (p. 245-48).

History or Heresy?

No Mormon who reads this book is likely to be unmoved.  The book itself is an indictment not of Mormonism or the LDS Church but of the way its history has been presented.  Palmer asks rhetorically, "It is appropriate to tell simplified, faith-inspiring stories to children, but is it right to tell religious allegories to adults as if they were literal history?" (p. 261).  The orthodox response is likely no, but neither is it right to endanger people's faith by giving them too much truth.  On this disputed point, dialogue continues.

It is proper to give Palmer the last word.  He said his research "initially filled me with a sense of loss.  But I realize that the focus of my worship, as a Mormon, is Jesus Christ.  As I learn more about our history, I arrive at a greater commitment to Christ's teachings" (p. 261).

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Last update: 3/3/2004; 12:16:32 AM.