The Impact of the Digital Age on the Historical Claims of LDS Scripture
Given a choice between life and death, choose life. Given a choice between right and wrong, choose what’s right. And given a choice between a terrible truth and a beautiful lie, choose the truth every time.
Mira Grant, Deadline
Both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham were claimed by the LDS Church’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, to be translated from the recovered writings of ancient prophets. However, today, there is abundant evidence that seriously undermines these claims. Scientific research has failed to find a trace of ancient Book of Mormon Israelites in the pre-Columbian Americas. Meanwhile, Egyptologists have found no resemblance between the Book of Abraham text and the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the papyri from which Smith claimed to translate it. Instead, both books show obvious signs of being the creations of a nineteenth century American mind.
As scientific and historical criticism intensified in the mid to late 20th century, Mormon scholars felt a need to defend LDS scripture from its detractors; and Mormon apologetics was born. Until recently, this apologetic work was carried out by a small group of scholars affiliated with church-owned Brigham Young University (BYU). Therefore, few members were exposed to apologetics, or the criticism that sparked it, as it was never openly talked about in church. The arrival of the internet and social media is now exposing historicity debates to a much larger audience. This greater transparency has spurred an increasing number of respected LDS academics to argue more publicly for a nineteenth century origin for these two sacred Mormon texts.
For most of its history the LDS Church has displayed an intolerance towards members or scholars who challenged the historical claims of Mormon scripture. Excommunications for apostasy were relatively common. At present, there are signs, however, that the Church is becoming less inclined to take such strong action against members who publicly question the historicity of LDS scripture. This short essay explores the impact of the internet on LDS scriptural apologetics, the emergence of more nuanced views, and their likely impact in different LDS faith communities.
Mormon apologetics: complex answers to simple problems
Two events in the mid twentieth century sparked the emergence of LDS apologetics. In 1945, Fawn Brodie published No Man Knows My History, a groundbreaking biography of Joseph Smith. Among other issues, Brodie exposed Mormon scholars to Smith’s history of treasure seeking, his use of a seer stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, and the striking similarities between the book’s narrative and nineteenth century frontier views of the origin of Native Americans. Then, in 1966, the rediscovery and translation of the papyri from which the Book of Abraham originated further suggested a nineteenth century origin for the text. Both events cast a cloud over Smith’s prophetic claims of their ancient and miraculous origins.
Hugh Nibley, widely considered the Mormon Church’s greatest scholar, played a preeminent role in defending both books of scripture from the assault of historical information. Nibley believed defending LDS scripture was so complex an endeavor, that doing so was best left to the Church’s brightest scholars. In the quotes below, Nibley laid what would be the foundation for over half a century of Mormon apologetics. By substituting the simple but momentous problems facing LDS scripture with complex answers, he took the debate out of the hands of students and placed it, instead, in the hands of “experts”.
Problem 1: The Book of Abraham text does not match the Joseph Smith papyri at all
“Consider for a moment the scope and complexity of the materials with which the student must cope if he would undertake a serious study of the Book of Abraham’s authenticity. At the very least he must be thoroughly familiar with (1) the texts of the “Joseph Smith Papyri” identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead, (2) the content and nature of mysterious “Sen-sen” fragment, (3) the so-called “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” attributed to Joseph Smith, (4) statements by and about Joseph Smith concerning the nature of the Book of Abraham and its origin, (5) the original document of Facsimile 1 with its accompanying hieroglyphic inscriptions, (6) the text of the Book of Abraham itself in its various editions, (7) the three facsimiles as reproduced in various editions of the Pearl of Great Price, (8) Joseph Smith’s explanation of the facsimiles, (9) the large and growing literature of ancient traditions and legends about Abraham in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, etc., and (10) the studies and opinions of modern scholars on all aspects of the Book of Abraham.”
Problem 2: Book of Mormon history does not match New World science at all
“The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon or any other ancient text is, never oversimplify. For all its simple and straightforward narrative style, this history is packed as few others are with a staggering wealth of detail that completely escapes the casual reader. The whole Book of Mormon is a condensation, and a masterly one; it will take years simply to unravel the thousands of cunning inferences and implications that are wound around its most matter-of-fact statements. Only laziness and vanity lead the student to the early conviction that he has the final answers on what the Book of Mormon contains.” 
Having laid the foundation, Nibley then modeled a research approach Mormon scholars have faithfully exploited to this day. If you don’t have a single piece of solid evidence to solve these two problems, inundate your readers with numerous indirect claims. After two decades of research in Mesoamerica, at a BYU roundtable in 1969, Mormon scholars admitted they had found no evidence for the Book of Mormon. This failure to identify a single solid piece of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon was then obscured by decades of assembling large numbers of far weaker cultural parallels between the Near East and Mesoamerica. The failure of Egyptologists to identify a single solid piece of evidence that the Book of Abraham was translated from the papyri has largely been obscured by assemblies of parallels between the book and ancient Egyptian cosmology.
The name for this now thoroughly discredited research strategy, is “parallelomania”. Ever since Nibley, BYU apologists have used this approach to divert the attention of members and other inquirers away from uncomfortable truths. LDS apologetics has always been more concerned with distracting from, rather than illuminating, truth. Mormon historian John Hamer, a Seventy in the Community of Christ and former Mormon, accurately encapsulated this apologetic strategy on the Mormon reddit site in August 2020:
“Generally, you can avoid saying “well, this is a forest,” if you spend all your time staring at bark through a microscope and telling yourself that the pattern in bark is similar to the pattern in an elephant’s hide.“
The use of parallelomania has proven to be highly effective for Mormon audiences for precisely the same reason “Gish galloping” is an effective debating technique. Named after the Creationist Duane Gish, the technique relies on overwhelming opponents with as many arguments as possible, without regard for the accuracy or validity of each argument. Opponents are thwarted because it is far harder to properly refute a series of weak claims than it is to make them. Mormon audiences, unfamiliar with New World or Near Eastern historical research, are often wowed by the sheer number of claims the apologists make. In his magnum opus, Mormon’s Codex, apologist John Sorenson identifies well over 400 parallels between Middle Eastern and Mesoamerican societies. Consider these ringing words of endorsement of Sorenson’s book from the Deseret Books website:
“Are we to simply suppose that mere coincidence can account for similarities of this magnitude? The parallels are too striking and too sweeping to answer in the affirmative. Even the greatest savant of the early 19th century—let alone a marginally literate frontier farm boy—could not possibly have produced a volume as rich in Mesoamericana as the Book of Mormon.“
Since Nibley’s pioneering work there has been an explosion of similar apologetic research defending LDS Scripture. In response to the overwhelming scientific evidence that Native Americans are exclusively descended from Asian ancestors, BYU apologists have shrunken the geographical footprint of the Book of Mormon narrative to a small region somewhere in modern day Guatemala. The discrepancy between the papyri and the Book of Abraham has largely been addressed by claiming the Book of Abraham text was contained on missing segments of the papyri and by obsessing about parallels between the Book of Abraham and the ancient Near East.
Until recently, few members of the Church, outside of a small circle of intellectuals, have been aware of the historical controversies surrounding LDS scripture. While the Church has financially supported LDS apologetics for decades, it has never widely publicized the fact. It has clearly been important to the Brethren that the historical claims of LDS scripture be rigorously defended. But they were most comfortable when this defense was conducted out of sight of ordinary members. The arrival of the internet completely disrupted this arrangement.
The impact of the Internet
Prior to the internet, most members of the Church were never exposed to research that challenged the historicity of LDS scripture or to radical apologetic defenses published by Mormon scholars. That all changed at the turn of the century. The development of the internet and highly sophisticated search engines has given members unprecedented access to vast amounts of historical information about the Church. A member can learn more about church history in an afternoon of ‘googling’, than in a lifetime of church attendance.
Perhaps more important than providing access to information, the internet has enabled far greater connectivity between members struggling with doubt. Prior to the internet, members troubled by church history rarely encountered other members struggling with the same problems. The proliferation of discussion blogs, personal websites, podcasts, and social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, has enabled people with doubts to do something they have rarely been able to do before. They can communicate freely, and anonymously if they choose, with many other Mormons who share the same questions about the faith.
The size of the exmormon community, and its capacity to support Mormons going through a faith crisis, must be a major source of concern for church leaders. The exmormon community, is arguably the largest and most well-connected ex-faith community in the world. In October 2020, the Exmormon reddit site, had approximately 180,000 members. This is larger than the memberships of all other post-faith reddit groups combined. The popular Mormon Stories podcast, founded by clinical/counselling psychologist Dr. John Dehlin, has published over one thousand interviews since 2005, with downloads approaching 6 million annually in 2018. Jeremy Runnells’ CES Letter, which contains a detailed list of troubling questions about the LDS Church’s origins, history, and current practices, is now available in multiple languages and has been downloaded about one million times. The doubting fringe of the Mormon Church is broad and includes large numbers of Mormons who still attend.
The information age has created enormous problems for the Church because it has lost control of knowledge about its own past. Suddenly, many more members are becoming aware of the amount of evidence that challenges the traditional accounts of how the Books of Mormon and Abraham had come into existence. For many members with questions, the apologetic “cure” has been worse than the malady (doubt), particularly when the cure was delivered by scholars at the Lord’s university. The bigger problem, however, is that members are also being directly exposed to Mormon apologetics and the apologists themselves. Many ordinary members have been shocked, not only by the desperate responses Mormon apologists have been forced to make in response to critical research, but also by the harsh tone of many apologists, inexperienced with communicating empathetically with ordinary members.
LDS apologists now find themselves the targets of severe criticism by rank-and-file Mormons. Nibley and Sorenson, two of the most lionized LDS scholars are now openly criticized in online forums for their failure to adhere to widely accepted standards in secular scholarship. Several leading Mormon scriptural apologists have openly admitted to overlooking evidence that does not align with their prior conclusion of the truthfulness of LDS scripture. Daniel Peterson, a professor of Arabic at BYU, is reluctant to acknowledge any valid criticisms of the Church. In 2017 he said “Ultimately, you see, there can never be proof that something that is true is actually false.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by Kerry Muhlestein, a strident defender of the Book of Abraham:
“I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, and anything else that we get from the restored gospel, is true. Therefore, any evidence I find, I will try to fit into that paradigm.”
Given these stark admissions, their reluctance to subject their work to genuine peer review, and a disconcerting trend towards hostile personal attacks on critics, LDS apologists have even found themselves unwelcome at BYU. The overwhelming majority of LDS apologetics has been produced by the Foundation for Apologetic Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS); established in 1979 and, until recently, located in the Maxwell Institute at Church-owned BYU. However, in late 2010, under the pretext of improving the academic quality of the university’s scholarship, the Maxwell Institute took steps to distance the Institute from apologetics. The FARMS Review was renamed the Mormon Studies Review in 2012 and in 2014, Daniel Peterson, who has been a divisive figure in LDS apologetics for decades, was fired as editor of the Review, and FARMS effectively disappeared. A group of disgruntled apologists, under the leadership of Peterson, now publish their polemics in the online journal Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
The two major apologetic organizations today, FairMormon and Book of Mormon Central, are now staffed largely by untrained volunteers. No current LDS apologetic organizations nor journals are officially endorsed by the Church. The Church now prefers to outsource apologetics by encouraging “independent voices”, presumably so it cannot be held accountable for anything they say. By distancing itself from the apologists, the Church can maintain plausible deniability. They can leave the controversy to others without ever having to resolve it by any official statement.
The internet has created further challenges for the Church by drastically reducing the power it held over questioning members. Until recently, the Church has wielded considerable control over members publicly expressing doubts about Church history by employing the threat of church discipline. People with questions have consequently been isolated, having few places to turn for support. This alienation benefited the Church, because doubting members remained largely invisible. With the emergence of large online communities of people questioning the Church, excommunication has become far less threatening for members and more of an embarrassment for the church. After a recent series of high-profile excommunications (e.g. John Dehlin, Jeremy Runnells, Bill Reel, Sam Young) the church has begun pulling back from using this draconian tool. The negative, and frequently national and international exposure of the Church’s actions has only been compounding the problem.
Easy internet access to well-founded criticism of LDS scripture, the alarming nature of the apologetic retreat, the dismantling of Church-funded apologetic organizations and the clear weakening of the Church’s disciplinary threat to those publicly questioning the traditional narrative has provided fertile ground for the emergence of less fundamentalist views of the historicity of LDS scripture. There is a growing number of “liberal” Mormon scholars who now believe all LDS scripture was created in the nineteenth century. Some LDS scholars are facing the fact that LDS scripture is largely fabricated stories heavily influenced by racist nineteenth century American culture. They are now placing greater emphasis on the spiritual message of scripture and downplaying the fact that the history described in the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon is fiction.
The Book of Abraham
Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Abraham from papyri that accompanied some Egyptian mummies he purchased from a traveling exhibition in 1835. By the time American scholars had learned to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, Joseph Smith was a martyr and the papyri almost forgotten. For many years the papyri were assumed to have been destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871. However, in 1966, the Egyptian papyri once owned by Smith, along with the receipt of sale from Smith’s widow Emma, were found in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When the papyri were examined by Egyptologists from the Universities of California and Chicago, these specialists found that the hieroglyphics bore no resemblance to Smith’s translations. Rather, the papyri were common funeral texts from the Book of the Dead; specifically, the Breathing Permit of Hor.
For over 50 years, Mormon scholars from BYU have produced numerous books, dozens of research papers and thousands of pages of longwinded apologetics to obscure the now obvious fact that the Book of Abraham originated in the mind of Joseph Smith. A small handful of men are responsible for diverting attention from this reality, largely by the perpetuation of the excuse, rather conveniently, that the Book of Abraham is contained on a “missing scroll”. This argument, invented by Nibley, is now unquestioningly defended by John Gee, the senior Book of Mormon apologist at BYU, and his junior colleague Kerry Muhlestein.
Brian Hauglid has also published apologetic work on the Book of Abraham alongside Gee and Muhlestein. Hauglid has a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Studies from BYU and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Utah. After joining the BYU faculty in 1999, Hauglid served as director of the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies within BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute. He recently co-edited Revelations and Translations Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (2018) in the Church’s Joseph Smith Papers project. Some of Hauglid’s earlier work was cited in the LDS Church’s Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham”.
But after two decades of research on the Book of Abraham, Brian Hauglid grew weary of the type of apologetics produced at BYU. In a post on Dan Vogel’s Facebook page in November 2018, Hauglid publicly renounced his former belief that the Book of Abraham came from a missing section of scroll and heavily criticised the scholarship of his colleagues Gee and Muhlestein.
“For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these videos. I have moved on from my days as an “outrageous” apologist. In fact, I’m no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan’s excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. I now reject a missing Abraham manuscript. … I no longer agree with Gee or Muhlestein. I find their apologetic “scholarship” on the BoA abhorrent. One can find that I’ve changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications.”
In a recent interview on Radio Free Mormon, Hauglid lamented John Gee’s habit of “omitting important evidence” that seriously undermined the missing scroll theory, and Gee’s fear of peer review, even by colleagues within BYU’s Maxwell Institute. Hauglid now believes the Books of Mormon and Abraham are nineteenth century productions and sees himself as a heretic rather than apostate. He had retired from BYU just five days before the interview.
Hauglid’s rejection of the missing scroll theory affects some of the most important apologetic claims made in the Church’s Book of Abraham essay concerning missing papyri. Consider this quote from the essay which is sourced directly from his work.
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri.
Academic retractions of this magnitude are extraordinarily rare and Hauglid is to be commended for his integrity and the courage it must have taken to speak out and challenge the scholarship of his peers. At the time of writing, the Church’s Book of Abraham essay still cites Hauglid’s earlier research that he has now recanted.
The Book of Mormon
Central to the Book of Mormon story is the purported historical account of three migrations from the Middle East to the New World many centuries before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. These groups all went on to establish and lead large cohesive civilizations that existed for over two thousand years. The book only records interactions between these three groups and makes no clear mention of any encounters with indigenous groups in the New World. For virtually the entire history of the Church, the Book of Mormon has been presented as a history of the ancestors of Native Americans and Polynesians.
Largely in response to the mounting evidence against an ancient Middle Eastern presence in the Americas, LDS apologists have been promoting increasingly restricted models of early Israelite settlement in the Americas and recognizing the long existence of Indigenous Americans. These more limited geographies, centred on Mesoamerica, are largely based on the work of LDS scholars at BYU. Preeminent among them is John Sorenson, who has spent half a century accumulating hundreds of “parallels” between Mesoamerican and Middle Eastern cultures and the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon. All of Sorenson’s apologetics is published in Mormon journals and has never been peer reviewed in mainstream scientific journals.
For over 50 years Sorenson’s adherents, including Matthew Roper, Daniel Peterson, John Tvedtnes, Terryl Givens, Richard Bushman and others, have praised his abuse of parallels. Parallelomania is notoriously susceptible to the influence of the firmly held beliefs of the individual scholar. Since Sorenson has previously admitted to never seriously questioning his core beliefs since childhood, he is naturally inclined to see what he wants to see, not see what he doesn’t want to see, and only report parallels that align with his fixed views. Even contemporaries of Sorenson, Brant Gardner and Mark Wright, who have published Mesoamerican limited geography apologetics, have severely criticised his reliance on this “fundamentally flawed methodology” after reviewing his life’s work. They also criticized Sorenson’s tendency to ignore the scholarship of his apologetic colleagues when he doesn’t agree with it.
In spite of half a century of limited geography research, the prevailing view, still dominant among ordinary Mormons who are largely unaware of LDS apologetics, locates the events in the Book of Mormon and the descendants of the Book’s peoples across the entire western hemisphere and much of the Pacific. LDS scholarship has largely failed to have any significant impact outside of a small circle of LDS intellectuals. The failure of limited geography apologists to influence widely held beliefs in the Church implies this research was never really intended to do that.
There is now overwhelming evidence the historical account of the colonisation of ancient America, as described in the Book of Mormon, is complete fiction. There is no reliable evidence any Middle Eastern groups ever set foot in this part of the world before Columbus. Scientists from the diverse fields of archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, paleontology and genetics have built a coherent and compelling explanation of the colonisation of the New World and the Pacific. While this evidence has been compelling in its breadth and totality, the singular power of DNA evidence has dealt the most devastating blow. Recent whole-genome tests on thousands of Indigenous Mesoamericans and Polynesians, detailed in my book, The Sacred Curse, have failed to find a trace of pre-Columbian Middle Eastern DNA. The truth is, that Book of Mormon people left no archaeological or genetic trace anywhere in the New World. The Lamanites likely first came into existence in the nineteenth century mind of Joseph Smith.
Greg Prince is arguably the most high-profile LDS scholar to recently publicly question the historicity of the Book of Mormon and retain his membership. Prince is a distinguished scientist in the field of infectious disease and highly regarded among Mormon scholars; coauthoring with Willian R. Wright an acclaimed biography of David O. McKay in 2005. Prince doesn’t shy away from any of the major issues the Church is currently grappling with in its essays in an article he published on the Sunstone website in 2018. Here is Prince’s take on the Book of Mormon:
Since it presents itself as a history book, it has been defended as such nearly since its publication in 1830. I have already described several data sets, all obtained through scientific methodology, that do not support the book’s claims to ancient origin. From what I can see, the Church is in a transitional phase right now, quietly deemphasizing the ancientness paradigm while gradually emphasizing the metaphor paradigm—that is, The Book of Mormon as authentic scripture written, under inspiration, by Joseph Smith as the means of bringing people to a knowledge of Christ. Perhaps the Church will make a full transition to this metaphorical paradigm without ever having to directly disavow the ancientness paradigm. Only time will tell.
Prince’s approach to dealing with the historicity problem borrows heavily from the work of Jewish scholars. According to one scholar Prince quotes, the Book of Mormon “is a book-length midrash on the King James Bible”. A midrash is a commentary on the Hebrew Bible, written by Jewish scholars, supposedly under inspiration; the Talmud being one example. Prince suggests the historical details should be overlooked in order to get to the truths Joseph Smith was revealing. “The Book of Mormon may not be what it says it is, but it does what it says it does—which is much more important.”
To help those struggling to overlook the considerable history woven into the pages of the Book of Mormon, Prince quotes Harold Kushner, a prominent American rabbi. Kushner, a conservative Jew aligned with its more progressive wing, shared a way Mormon apologists could deal with “the apparent coming to light of facts to cast doubt on the validity of its founding narrative”.
“Might I suggest that they use the tactic used by many modern Jews dealing with biblical narratives that defy credulity, from a six-day story of creation to Jonah living inside a large fish. We distinguish between left-brain narratives (meant to convey factual truth) and right-brain narratives (meant to make a point through a story; the message will be true even if the story isn’t factually defensible).”
There are significant challenges Prince does not address that will stretch these “tactics” to breaking point. All senior leaders throughout the Church’s history have believed the historical details in the book. About a third of the Church’s membership believe they are descended from Jews who migrated to the New World and out into Polynesia. For almost two centuries the Book of Mormon has been used as a tool to erase the true history of indigenous peoples upon joining the Church. It is also particularly hard to ignore passages in the Book of Mormon that are the most explicitly racist in LDS scripture:
…wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Nephi 5: 21)
And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgressions and their rebellion against their brethren (Alma 3: 6)
Apologetic arguments that the curse was being cut off from God, the change in skin pigmentation was merely a sign of the curse, that the word “skin” referred to their clothing, or that the skin pigmentation came from mixing with Native Americans, are crass excuses that wither on serious reflection. There is no doubt about the nineteenth century intent of the “inspiration” swirling around in Joseph Smith’s mind; racist ideas common in Smith’s neighbourhood that have found their way into the pages of LDS scripture. The only option for the LDS Church, to assure members that the Church means what it says on the topic of race will be to remove these and similarly offensive verses from the scriptural canon.
David Bokovoy is another prominent Mormon scholar to recently suggest a nineteenth century origin for the Book of Mormon. Bokovoy holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East and an MA in Jewish Studies from Brandeis University and is highly regarded among his LDS peers. Like virtually all biblical scholars, Bokovoy is convinced that multiple authors wrote Isaiah, and several later chapters of Isaiah, quoted by Nephi, were written many years after Lehi left Jerusalem. Since those portions of Isaiah could not have been on the brass plates, this makes parts of the Book of Mormon problematic. While Bokovoy has not been disciplined by the Church for his comments, his public remarks likely ended his career prospects within the Church Educational System or at Church-owned universities. Bokovoy recently shared his personal views on the origin of the Book of Mormon on his Facebook page:
“It’s a beautiful book that has had a significant impact on many people, but it’s simply not ancient. It may therefore be inspired, but it’s clearly a 19th century literary work that addresses in detail the theological and historical concerns of Joseph Smith’s day.“
The failure of LDS apologetics
For over five decades the LDS Church employed faithful scholars to defend the historicity of LDS scripture. During that time, it has been common practice for Church leaders to direct questioning members to these scholars, and their work, for answers. However, the overwhelming majority of LDS leadership and ordinary members have taken virtually no notice of their work and still hold firmly fundamentalist beliefs. Most Mormons still widely believe the Book of Mormon is the history of Native Americans and the Book of Abraham is a direct translation from ancient Egyptian papyri. If the success of BYU apologetic research were measured by its success in influencing the beliefs of the general membership, then it has been a dismal failure. Clearly, Mormon apologetics was never intended to shift the beliefs of the masses. Its role was to shield the ninety and nine, secure in the fold, from the lone truth seekers.
The internet disrupted the 20th century apologetic model, and the Church has been forced to adapt. In 2011, Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen admitted the church was experiencing “a period of…apostasy” not seen since Kirtland when, in 1837-8, one third of the leadership left the church. It was directly in response to this increased apostasy, brought on by increased access to challenging historical and doctrinal issues, that the Church began publishing the Gospel Topics Essays on its official website in 2014. The intent of the essays is clear. Speaking to seminary and institute teachers in 2016, Elder M. Russell Ballard said it was crucial teachers “know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand”. He counselled teachers to use them to “inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood” (bold added).
Despite Ballard’s counsel to a restricted audience, most members remain unaware of the essays, few have seen them, and some who are aware of them refuse to read them. Unless members know what they are looking for, and where to look, the essays are difficult to find. Of those who have read the essays, many have found them deeply troubling to their faith. The Church’s Book of Mormon and DNA Studies essay, written by a small group of apologists, is a master work in damage control. The essay is grounded on the unspoken assumption that, while the Lehites assumed control of largely Indigenous civilizations for over a thousand years, they made virtually no genetic impact on the Americas. Buried in the wordy and highly technical essay is the admission that Lehite DNA hasn’t been found but it doesn’t really matter because we wouldn’t expect to find it anyway. The irony is, given the far closer geographical proximity of Europe to the Middle East, white Mormons are far more likely to carry traces of Jewish DNA than are Indigenous Americans or Polynesians.
The closure of FARMS, the publication of the essays and the recent unpunished public rejection of historicity by some LDS scholars, are all signs the church may be gradually shifting emphasis, as Prince observed, away from “ancientness” and towards “metaphor”. However, more strident apologists like Stephen Smoot still rail against scholars advancing what he terms “Inspired Fiction Theories”:
If the work of Latter-day Saint scholars in the past 50 years has proven anything, it is that a rigorous defense of the Book of Mormon’s historicity can be and has been made in such a compelling manner that one must confront this body of scholarship and adequately account for it before one can propose any Inspired Fiction reading.
However, there are growing numbers of apologists, and former apologists, who are less convinced of the reliability of such an enormous body of research. Responding to fellow apologists who objected strongly to his calcified views, even Smoot was prepared to make this concession; “faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is not a prerequisite for salvation”.
Saving American scripture
The growing awareness of more “nuanced” views of LDS scripture, and the racism it contains, raises serious questions. Will less fundamentalist beliefs ever be widely held and can these views sustain faith in the spiritual value of LDS scripture? Will the Brethren ever publicly acknowledge the nineteenth century origin of LDS scripture or edit out racist verses? It appears extremely unlikely senior church leaders will publicly endorse nuanced views until they are far more widely held among ordinary members. An increasingly obvious feature of modern LDS revelation is that it almost always reflects the wider views of the members. For the foreseeable future, members of the Church coming to terms with the nineteenth century origin of LDS scripture must reconstruct their faith with little or no ecclesiastical support.
Faith reconstructions can be long and painful and involve balancing the pros and cons of remaining in the fold. There are frequently powerful family, cultural and financial pressures that make accepting nuanced views more attractive. These pressures are particularly acute within the Utah-Idaho bubble where Mormonism is typically a person’s tribe. Here, leaving the Church can severely impact a person’s career, their standing in extended Mormon families and many of their non-family friendships. Because of these pressures, members in Utah and Idaho will be more inclined to hold less fundamentalist beliefs in order to retain their faith.
However, nuanced Mormonism may be far less satisfying for well over half the Church who live in the “mission field”. For foreign members and North Americans outside of the Mormon corridor, the scales are tipped against maintaining nuanced views. Most family, cultural and financial pressures to stay in the fold are lower beyond the Zion “curtain” and the incentives to leave are far greater. Only those with extensive LDS families, or a spouse with deeply traditional beliefs, would feel sufficient pressure to remain. In countries with populations heavily dominated by non-Mormons and non-Christians, re-entering normal society can be an enormously fulfilling and refreshing experience. Many departing the Church in largely secular countries often feel they are rejoining their tribe.
A further challenge for non-US Mormons, is the fact that American exceptionalism, the premise the United States is God’s chosen country in a “Promised Land”, is deeply embedded in the Book of Mormon narrative. American Mormons who hold these nationalistic views, and they are legion, find considerable support for them in the stories told in the Book of Mormon. Take away this religious history and non-American Mormons would feel further alienated. They are likely to feel increasingly uncomfortable in a church stained by a history of perpetuating nineteenth century American racism. Perhaps that is why arguments over historicity, have always been dominated by American Mormons. They may be perceived as uniquely American problems for a uniquely American church.
The internet is likely to be the most socially disruptive technology we will see in our lifetimes. Its impact on debates about the historicity of the Books of Mormon and Abraham has been profound. It has exposed far greater numbers of members to facts that strongly suggest the founder of the LDS Church was influenced more by the world around him than by ancient prophets. Mormon leaders know that attempts to change the way Latter-day Saints think about LDS scripture risk undermining the foundation upon which many have based their religious convictions. It remains to be seen if a middle ground can be found—a means to reinterpret scripture to detach it from true history—without doing damage to everything else the Church professes on spiritual and moral issues.
Sincere thanks to Neville Rochow QC and Barry Richins for critical comments on this essay.
 Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed., in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 14: Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000, 154–55.
 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 5: Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book/FARMS, 1988, 237.