April 3, 2009


Some have asked questions about my sources. Last week an old friend of mine shared that he or she has had some of the same concerns about Joseph Smith, but was unsure how to proceed to obtain answers from unbiased sources. Someone told the friend that there are no unbiased sources on the Church. I think there is some truth to that. So my advice to this friend was as follows:

It first depends on what topic interests you. I think unbiased sources exist when it comes down to physical science. For example, most of the DNA and language studies to determine the origins of Native Americans were approached with no reference to the Book of Mormon whatsoever. Also look at Reformed Egyptian, archaeological sites from the Americas and what they've found and not found. The scientists didn't want to prove or disprove any of the Church's doctrine, they just wanted to know what was supported by the research. So those are probably the most unbiased sources you can find - peer reviewed scientific articles by people who have nothing for or against the Church.

Regarding Joseph Smith, sources completely free of bias are harder to come by. It depends upon which side you would rather err - on one side, you get a lot of facts stated pretty bluntly, which make Smith sound pretty bad on their own. On the other side, though, you have some LDS authors who do their best to really put all of these facts in the historical and religious context of the 1800s, which was quite a bit different from what we are used to. So if you're worried that the historians might lead you astray by leaning either way, you may feel it best to go with LDS historians and authors.

I think the best bet is to find historians who are or were active in the Church at least at the time they published their work, and hopefully who are still in good standing at BYU or in other church callings. It sort of depends on the specific topic like I stated. I suggest the following:

  • Dr. Susan Black on Joseph Smith's personal history. She is very active and teaches at BYU currently. She really knows the facts, but also puts them in a religious context. She is biased towards Joseph Smith, but I think that's a wise route to take to be sure you're not getting someone who's on the other side, maybe telling lies.
  • Dr. Jessie Embry is a wonderful source on both African Americans' being denied the Priesthood, and Polygamy after Joseph Smith. She is also very active in the Church and uses a religious context for things while mostly giving the facts. I write "mostly" because I recently read a book she wrote where she avoided identifying Joseph Smith as marrying both a mother and her daughter.
  • Dr. Todd Compton is also an active member of the LDS Church. He seems to me like a very balanced source - his thesis for In Sacred Loneliness was that polygamy was the new and everlasting covenant, but that it just didn't work in a practical sense. I feel like he really states the facts plainly, uses original sources as much as possible, gives balanced interpretations of events, etc.
  • B. H. Roberts was an apostle who had some questions about the Book of Mormon and took a very direct approach at studying it. I have found him to be an excellent source for discussion, although becoming somewhat dated.
  • I have also found the PBS documentary on the Church to be a balanced source. I feel that it shows the modern church for the good that it does, while also asking questions about its history and doctrine where appropriate. It uses interviews from both sides, as well as some in the middle ground.

By using these sources, I made sure that I was basing my decision about the Church on events and facts that the Church agrees actually happened, and I wanted to make sure I knew the Church's explanations for said events and facts. Whether or not I agreed with the reasoning, explanations, or lack thereof is what lead me to where I am now.
Some great online sources from the LDS perspective (although clearly biased) can be found on my links list ("LDS Responses" and "LDS Apologetics"). These sites cover a lot of the main concerns about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
Hugh Nibley and Robert Bushman are outrageously biased toward Joseph Smith and make a lot of arguments that could be considered plausible, though it takes a lot of imagination. Bushman's review of Joseph Smith is coated in sugar, and tiptoes around some of the details of my concerns. So if you want to know some general concerns, but also really want to make them fit your faith in the Church as being led by God, these two are good sources.

Some LDS sources that are pretty negative toward Joseph Smith are Michael Quinn and Grant Palmer. They were LDS at the time of their publications (Quinn has since been excommunicated), but they sort of call the Church to repentance. You may want to avoid them for that reason, or may want to check them out to hear that side.
There's a difference between anti-Mormon literature and literature that doesn't put the Church in the perfect light. "Anti" material may ignore context or treat the Church and Joseph Smith as Satan's work, and so on. I did my best to avoid anything that put off that feeling. So I basically stuck with LDS authors or authors whose work was backed up by LDS authors, or authors whose work was not in direct regards to the Church, but had implication for LDS doctrine.
So in brief, it depends on what you specifically want to know about. My biggest question was obviously about polygamy, so I began with Compton, then Embry.
What is most important for anyone regarding these concerns is that you do not take my word for it. Check out as reliable sources as you can and then the decision is between you and your beliefs.


The Mudras said...

Everybody has a bias. Everybody has "an agenda." People may even have "an axe to grind" (but only people who disagree with whatever argument I am pushing).

The issue is whether the bias has influenced the content or the selection of facts.

Plenty of Mormons have decided to leave the church by reading nothing but church-sanctioned materials: scriptures, church history, sermons of general authorities.

And there are plenty of books that do not even mention Mormonism, but show that Mormon views of history, science, psychology, anthropology, mythology, philosophy, etc., are wrong.

Jared Diamond's history of pre-Columbian America, for example, puts the lie to the whole idea of the Book of Mormon's version of it: Guns, Germs and Steel.

A classic study of religious and political movements is Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. Hoffer doesn't even mention Mormonism, but any Mormon will recognize himself as the title character.

Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things is also good.

The list could go on and on.

Anonymous said...

I think reading a bunch of controversial material concerning the church but disregarding the council to read the scriptures and pray can lead you to this point. There are tons of excuses to leave the church - but in the end they are all pretty lame - and whatever your reason you'll have to answer for it.

Anonymous said...

Amen. Isn't general conference great? I love living to the apostles and President Monson.

Eli said...

Response to Anonymous and Anonymous: These kinds of attacks are groundless. Have you ever read anything but the scriptures? Who ever said anything about me not praying? There are tons of excuses to stay in the Church, but in the end they don't make Joseph Smith any more of a prophet. And you will have to answer for celebrating your ignorance.
You're obviously too uncomfortable to have a discussion about this revealing your identity. That's fine, but give me some argument with substance. If you want to hurt my position, then give me good reasons that Joseph Smith had sex with dozens of women other than his first wife. We can go from there.
I'm glad for you that you're happy not knowing about the real Joseph Smith. I really am. Some of us love God more than we love our romanticized version of Joseph Smith, though.

The Mudras said...

My response to the two "Anomymous" posters:

There are THOUSANDS of blatant contradictions and scientifically impossible statements in all the Mormon scriptures - Bible, BoM, D&C, PoGP.

How can you think that it is a "lame excuse" to realize that the very scriptural foundation of the religion is only a shoddy, superstitious, man-made fiction?

When the choir in the "great and spacious building" was singing "We Thank Thee O God For A Prophet" showing photos of Monson, I couldn't help but think:

He's a prophet who doesn't prophesy;
He's a seer who doesn't have a Urim and Thummim;
He's a revelator who doesn't reveal;
He's a translator of ancient documents who doesn't translate (D&C 107:92).