The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon or LDS) has always been an enigma. The church’s published history is a mixture of truth, speculation, and falsified information. To resolve that, history students have sought more transparency from the church and less suppression of documents.
The historical archives of the Mormon Church hold most of the documents that could settle controversies, but only in recent years have some of these been made available. Most of the falsified history is deliberate. Its aim is to sanitize profane behavior (occult practices, unethical conduct, polygamist marriage, murder, etc.) and to protect the early leaders (Joseph Smith, Jr., Brigham Young, and other LDS apostles and prophets).
The new history carries an official endorsement from the LDS First Presidency, who stated (Saints, xv), “We pray that this volume will enlarge your understanding of the past, strengthen your faith . . ..” This is a double-edge sword because the formerly taboo subjects that it discusses now carry a church endorsement. In contrast, the still-censored and suppressed items could show church collusion by concealing them. After all, if we outsiders know about the suppressed items, then they do also. Their transparency becomes opaque at this point because it is selective.
The first chapter in Saints tells me something I’ve never read before; that “bad luck and unsuccessful investments” in Vermont are two main factors for why the Smith family moved to New York (Saints, 6). The truth is that while in Vermont, Joseph Smith, Sr. was charged with money counterfeiting and he was a divining rod practitioner, which is an occult practice he used for seeking buried treasure. A former Vermont judge, the Hon. Daniel Woodard, of Windsor County Court, wrote about an 1807 incident, “Joseph Smith Sr., was, at times, engaged in hunting for Captain Kidd’s buried treasure; and he also became implicated with one, Jack Downing, in counterfeiting money, but turned state’s evidence and escaped the penalty.”[i] Another judge, Joel K. Noble, wrote in 1842, “Jo. Smith Senior Lived in Vermont [and was] connected with a band of counterfeiters.”
Joseph Smith, Jr., like his father, used occult seer stones and divining rods to hunt for buried treasure. He was criminally charged for this in Bainbridge, New York, in 1826, of which Saints (33) treats dismissively. Yet photographic proof of Smith’s occult seer stones appeared in the church-owned Ensign magazine (October 2015), McKay’s Joseph Smith Seer Stones (Deseret Books, 2016), and Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature, 1987).
While Saints discusses Smith’s stones and rods, it minimizes his wrongdoing. The book elevates these as godly practices by claiming that God revealed “knowledge” to Moses and Aaron “in the Bible” through “rods and stones” (Saints, 21). That is utterly false and is not found anywhere in the Bible.
Quite interestingly, a footnote (Saints, 34, fn. 9) source for the discussion about Smith’s 1826 seer stone activity also provides proof that Smith practiced this often! They left that part out of his history. The source was Martin Harris, one of the Book of Mormon witnesses, who gave an interview to Tiffany Monthly in 1859. He openly spoke about Smith’s seer stones and money digging incidents. Saints ignored this and used only one line from the interview. That is dishonest history.
One of my pet studies has been the nine conflicting accounts of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in 1820. Saints does not acknowledge the conflicts between the varied accounts, but it cherry picks pieces from each one to form yet a new story (Saints, 14-16). Therefore, it does not follow their Scripture account as found in the Pearl of Great Price.
In several places, Saints, was much weaker than the new online “approved” essays on historical and theological subjects (LDS.org, 2013). For example, the section about the Book of Abraham translation (Saints, 220-221) left a gaping hole about the real controversy, which was Smith’s qualification, method of translation, and why it does not match what Egyptologists know today? It leaves one wondering why they left the best description online and put the weakest description in their new history.
In conclusion, Saints brought a few controversial issues to the front burner, but in distorted form. More could have been discussed, but the point has been made that it suffers greatly as a historical work. At times it simply falsified history with a revisionist account that contradicts well-known historical documents. Saints can only satisfy the subjective truth test that says “this is my truth” (but it is not objectively true). In reality it is another convoluted attempt to rewrite the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only this time as a novel.
(Reviewer: Kurt Van Gorden is the director of the Utah Gospel Mission and Jude 3 Missions and is the author of Mormonism (Zondervan, 1995) and a contributor to 16 apologetic books).
[TBC: Although there is a Urim and Thummin in Scripture (along with the rod of Moses), in form and function they have no relation to Joseph Smith's unbiblical practice.]