Well, that was interesting. Following my last post, which expressed some public concerns regarding the recent Interpreter article addressing the Documentary Hypothesis, the editors decided to republish an essay I wrote over a decade ago on temple imagery in Jacob’s Book of Mormon sermons.
I find this interesting because the article was written over a decade ago, and first published in a book dedicated to Mormon studies researcher Matt Brown in 2014, i.e. seven years ago, and I’ve gone through some deep, personal changes since that time. But I also find this interesting because I was not contacted by anyone from Interpreter regarding republishing the piece, or whether or not ten years later, I would like to add or change anything to the essay prior to republication.
If I had been asked, I would not have given my permission, which is probably why the editors did not contact me. And if the piece were to reappear in print, I would want to add a new introduction or an addendum to the article. I wish to state publicly, therefore, that I do not agree with the editors’ decision to publish the piece without seeking my input and minus an addendum that reflects my current views on the essay. It should have also included an updated biography and picture that reflect my current life and position so that there was no confusion.
That having been said, I wish to also state that despite my disagreement, in the end, I really do not care about the issue. I’ve moved on to a happier, healthier state, and I feel bad that this trivial matter has caused some negative feelings for individuals engaged in online discussion. To me, it’s not a big deal, and I truly hope that both sides will extend kindness and empathy towards each other. Life is far too short to worry about such things, especially with so many important social matters that should occupy our attention.
I do wish, however, to use this opportunity to answer some questions that I receive from time to time. I’m going to be very open and quite personal with this post with the hope that what I share can promote understanding and healing.
I suffer from ADHD. As I child growing up in the 1970’s, this challenge was never addressed. I struggled in school. I could hyper focus on whatever attracted my attention at the moment to the point of obsession, but that created challenges for fulfilling my daily-required tasks. I barely graduated from High School.
I’m also a very free spirit. I was a teenager in the 1980’s, and I was obsessed with 1960’s Rock N Roll. I played and performed in Rock and folk bands, wrote my own songs, and spent my days focused upon music, surfing, and girls—probably in that order.
I was raised in a devote LDS home, but I was also a Hippie surfer kid at heart who felt passionately about social justice issues and helping others. The only car I have ever loved was a 1960’s VW Hippie bus that tragically blew up one day when we skipped school to go to the beach.
I wasn’t interested in religion until my Senior year of High School, and then my ADHD kicked in. I served an LDS mission in Brazil, and despite the hard work, I would force myself to wake up at least an hour early so that I could devote myself to studying Mormon Doctrine, The Great Apostasy, Doctrines of Salvation (I read all three volumes both in English and in Portuguese), the Discourses of Brigham Young, the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and other such works. I loved my mission, but I also looked forward to the day when I could return home and devote hours and hours to my obsession studying Mormon history, scripture, and theology.
When that day came, the passion continued. By the time I was 23, I had collected a massive LDS library, and had made my way through the entire 26 volumes of the Journal of Discourses. This commitment eventually led to two graduate degrees and an 18-year career as a professional religious educator for the LDS Church. To say that I loved Mormonism with all my heart, mind, and soul would be an understatement. My love drove my studies, my degrees, and my career. It also drove my publications defending the Book of Mormon’s claims.
My first publication was twenty-one years ago with the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies through the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). That article was followed by many others, and even a book co-authored with famous Mormon apologist John Tvedtnes. I traveled as a speaker for the Know Your Religion circuit, and taught annual adult classes for BYU’s Education Week. I taught thousands of students about interesting connections between the Book of Mormon, LDS temple worship, and the ancient world.
The year is now 2021, and I no longer attend the LDS Church, and I have been quite vocal on occasion sharing my conviction that despite its power and beauty, the Book of Mormon is not a translation of an ancient text. And so I am sometimes asked how I could hold such a view and explain the links between the work and the ancient world that I devoted so much attention to exploring. It is a fair question, and one that I’ll try to answer as openly and honestly as possible.
I’ll start by quoting the thesis I present in the rereleased essay published by the Interpreter:
“When Book of Mormon prophetic discourse is read through the lens of ancient temple worship, many of these sermons can be shown to reflect imagery and ritual performances directly associated with biblical concepts.”
This essay I wrote a decade ago (first published in 2014) does not claim that the reading I present constitutes evidence that the Book of Mormon is ancient. It states that it “reflects” those views. Even my most apologetic work, the book I co-authored with Tvedtnes, states clearly in the introduction that the topics of Hebraisms and other such matters do not prove that the work is ancient.
I honestly cannot pin point the moment I knew that the Book of Mormon wasn’t ancient. I don’t know. But it’s been awhile, even though I wouldn’t admit it to myself. In fact, a major driver for my publications connecting the Book of Mormon with the ancient world was that I was trying desperately to make the book be something that it wasn’t. I wanted the Book of Mormon to be an ancient record. In truth, I still do. But it is not, and it has taken me many, many years to work through my feelings on that matter.
I sincerely apologize, therefore, to those who have been in my classes or who have read my work. I wish that I had been stronger. All I can say is that I loved the LDS Church and its scriptures so deeply that I could not allow myself to face this topic with as much honesty and integrity as I wish I would have.
The book is not ancient, but that does not mean that it is not inspired, and for many years, I saw the Book of Mormon that way as an active, committed, believing Latter-day Saint.
The Book of Mormon is a beautiful, powerful, unique 19th century religious work. And I have published extensively on its fascinating literary, religious, and linguistic connections with the ancient world. Yet what I have written is only the tip of the iceberg for the insights I once wanted to share with others. In fact, many years ago, I had a dream that I was dying in the hospital and was visiting with one of my former religion professors at BYU. I shared with him my lament that I would not be able to publish the many, many exciting connections I had seen between the Book of Mormon and the ancient world. That dreamed haunted me for quite sometime. But that is no longer the case.
The year is now 2021. I will never publish anything like that ever again on the Book of Mormon, which is why I wish the editors of Interpreter would have asked about my feelings. I simply do not have the passion for the topic I once did, and I also never again want to leave anyone with the impression that my observations provide evidence that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work. For every exciting link I can point out, I can also identify two or three anachronisms, which show that the work is a 19th century religious production. Let us consider simply a few points that pertain to my own studies:
1. The story of a buried book protected by a guardian spirit that Smith needed to prove himself worthy to unearth is a direct product of his mystical treasure seeking activities.
2. The story of an indigenous white skinned people with connections to the Israelites who were destroyed by the darker skinned natives was a common narrative Smith inherited from his culture.
3. Nearly every single verse of the Book of Mormon either alludes to, echoes, or directly quotes the King James Bible familiar to Smith.
4. The Book of Mormon quotes Hebrew and New Testament texts known to Smith that would have been unavailable to the people of the Book of Mormon time.
5. Many of the narratives in the Book of Mormon derive from the New Testament book of Acts.
6. The Book of Mormon presents Jesus himself delivering the Sermon on the Mount to the indigenous people of America. However, the sermon is an amalgamation of teachings attributed to Jesus by the author of Matthew and much of it would have made absolutely no sense to the people of America given its original historical setting.
7. The sermons in the Book of Mormon reflect the exact same patterns Smith was exposed to along the western frontier. They are not like the sermons we see from the ancient Near East, including the Book of Deuteronomy.
8. The Book of Mormon answers all of the serious religious questions 19th century Christians were debating during Smith’s life.
In the creation of the Book of Mormon, Smith clearly reflected his own understanding of the way God creates. Smith rejected the traditional Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo and instead argued that God created by taking unorganized material and giving it structure. The evidence is clear: this is precisely what Smith himself did in the creation of the Book of Mormon.
So how did he do it?
For those interested in this subject, I would high recommend reading William Davis’ Visions in A Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon
Bill’s study shows how Smith used several techniques that facilitated the process of oral composition, including the semi-extemporaneous amplification of skeletal narrative outlines, the use of formulaic language in biblical and pseudobiblical registers, rhetorical devices common in oral traditions, and various forms of repetition (e.g., recycled narrative patterns) to come up with all those words.
Smith was a product of his time.
And Davis shows that post revolutionary America taught, developed, and encouraged oratorical skills at a level unparalleled in twenty-first-century American practices that Joseph Smith took full advantage of. We have record of people from his era committing lengthy biblical sections to memory for oral performances.
As far as we can tell, Smith began talking about the plates and the book in 1823. He claimed to obtain the record in 1827. That means he spent three or four years telling and developing stories for his account. Four years without TV, electricity, or computers. Four years listening to sermons and reading the Bible. He completed five hundred printed pages within a ninety-day period. But remember, he wasn’t writing. He was simply speaking words out loud and/or reading text from the KJV of the Bible and Adam Clark’s Commentary.
But in addition to this, we know from his mother’s account that Joseph Smith was a great storyteller, and that for years, he would sit around the kitchen with his family telling the most incredible, detailed stories about the ancient inhabitants of America.
Like many 19th century Americans, Smith took the Bible very seriously. He believed it contained a history of the cosmos, the earth, and human origins. Smith assumed that all human beings were descendants of one of Noah’s three sons—Ham, Shem, or Japheth. Yet the problem for Americans who embraced this traditional 19th century perspective was that the indigenous people of America were left without origin.
One of the reasons Smith created the Book of Mormon was to link the indigenous people of America with the Bible’s history of humanity. The Book of Mormon presents the 19th century perspective that darker skin derives from a divine curse for displeasing God. The reason this controversial notion appears in the Book of Mormon is because Smith believed that the Bible contained a record of human origins. It therefore needed to account for racial distinctions. An important part of Smith’s work, therefore, was to fill in what he perceived as the missing biblical data for human origins there were other works that parallel the Book of Mormon from the 19th century that make a similar effort.
Smith was like so many others in his day that believed that the indigenous people of this continent had connections with ancient Israel and he produced a spectacular, unique oral production that addressed these issues, and it’s a book that is totally consistent with his skills, experiences, and the practices and beliefs of his time.
So that’s how he came up with so many words—well, that and he did copy many of them directly out of the KJV of the Bible and Adam Clark’s commentary.
The Book of Mormon is an incredible work, do doubt, unlike anything that has ever been done before, and I can show many, many beautiful connections between it and the ancient world like those addressed in the most recent Interpreter republication, but that doesn’t mean that the Book of Mormon is ancient. It doesn’t even mean that the book is inspired or came from God. It simply means that it’s interesting, and despite its impressive links with antiquity, the Book of Mormon is clearly best contextualized in Joseph Smith’s world and via his unique background and skills.
I never wanted this to be the case, but it is, and I must speak out with full honesty on the subject, both as a former religious educator and as a student of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East.
I have said this many, many times over the years, and I will once more. This fact does not preclude the book from being inspired. It simply means that those who feel that they access divinity through its pages may need to reconceptualize how they understand the work religiously.
So given that conviction, why do I now no longer attend the church that I devoted my education, my career, and my life to? I’m going to now be even more open publicly.
There is good in Mormonism, and I celebrate that good. I am grateful for it. But what is good is not unique and what is unique is not good. Ultimately, what makes the LDS Church unique is modern prophetic leadership. Many other communities teach the importance of families, believe that they will continue in the next life, and embrace the values of honesty, integrity, and perform community service. What makes Mormonism special is its claim for modern prophetic revelation and authority.
I believe that the LDS church leaders mean well. But they are not good religious leaders. It gives me no pleasure to state this; in fact, it causes me considerable pain and angst. But I must speak out. Their teachings and policies do tremendous harm to the LGBTQ+ community. Every six months they instruct their members to doubt their doubts, to only look towards approved sources of information, to never share their doubts or concerns with non-believers. They say things that divide families and the community, calling those who leave the church lazy learners who cannot exercise even a particle of faith.
I would honestly feel alright about their leadership, if these men could keep up with the world in terms of its progress in helping those who have been historically marginalized or abused, but tragically this has not been the case. LDS Church leaders have fought against the extension of basic human rights to minorities and women. And they continue to collect tithing from the poor and downtrodden, including those suffering in third world countries. I disagree with this, and so I cannot attend.
And now, it has become an even deeper issue for me personally since I have discovered how much happier and spiritually edified I feel as a person committed to spiritual independence. I no longer spend eight to ten hours per day in the Mormon scriptures. I spend an hour per day in the gym. I no longer spend three hours ever Sunday sitting in meetings. Instead, I go out hiking in the Utah mountains and spiritually connect with the beauty of the earth.
Today, I am free. And I am healthier spiritually, physically, and emotionally than I have ever been in my adult life. I remain grateful for my life as a believing, committed member, but I see that time as training wheels for where I am today. Now I get to ride the bike myself and take it wherever I long to go.
What a long, strange trip its been. In some ways, I have come full circle. I’m still that same Hippie surfer kid I once was. I even play in a bar band those old songs I wrote in High School, and I fill my days trying to make heaven on earth now in the present rather than worrying about an afterlife. Love is my religion, and I do love humanity (including the LDS church leaders) and am doing my very best to serve others. I sincerely hope that LDS Church leadership will consider the harm that they are doing, and seek to improve–to better follow the example of Jesus and create a community that uplifts the poor and the oppressed. I support and sustain them in their effort to improve.
But perhaps the best way to conclude my personal essay that gives more background than most readers would find interesting about a republished article that explores temple imagery in the Book of Mormon would be to site one of my favorite songs from the Who. This really resonates with me:
I’m free, I’m free
And freedom tastes of reality.
If I told you what it takes
To reach the highest high
You’d laugh and say nothing’s that simple
But you’ve been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
and no one had the guts to leave the temple!
But I’m free, I’M FREE!
And I’m waiting for you to follow me!