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How Mormons Are Defending the Book of Mormon

Part Three in a Four-part Series on Mormon Apologetics

by Robert M. Bowman

from the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1989, page 29. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Is the Book of Mormon the Word of God, an ancient collection of Scriptures restored to the world through Joseph Smith? Or is it a 19th-century fiction which serves to lead people away from the God of the Bible?

In this article I do not attempt an exhaustive study of this question. Instead, my more modest aim is to illustrate and critique ways in which Mormons defend the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text and the Word of God. I will try to show that even the most sophisticated and seemingly convincing arguments offered for the Book of Mormon by Mormons today are unable to overcome some very easy-to-understand objections.


Mormons frequently argue that Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon himself. In reply, some writers have argued that Joseph Smith plagiarized most of the Book of Mormon from a novel by Solomon Spalding, along with passages of the Bible.[1] While in this writer's opinion there are serious problems with this theory as a complete explanation of the book's origin, it is plausible that Joseph Smith did get ideas or even material directly or indirectly from one or another manuscript by Spalding.[2]

The most likely explanation, however, is that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon by combining ideas from various sources with his own imagination and some plagiarism from the Bible and other sources. This is a more complicated theory, but it is able to account for the totality of the Book of Mormon in a way that simpler theories cannot.

View of the Hebrews

The most important source used by Joseph Smith, other than the Bible, appears to have been Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews.[3] Written by a Vermont minister in 1823 (with a second edition in 1825), this book argued that the American Indians were descendants of the "lost tribes of Israel." The author urged Christians to evangelize the Indians in fulfillment of biblical prophecies, particularly prophecies found in the book of Isaiah. Numerous parallels between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon have been identified by various writers, including the Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts.[4]

Mormons have typically denied that Joseph Smith used Ethan Smith's book by arguing that there are only a few similarities and many dissimilarities between the two books, disproving literary dependence.[5] But such reasoning is fallacious, since all that is being claimed is that View of the Hebrews is a major source of the Book of Mormon, not that it is the only source. It should also be noted that the number of parallels has generally been underestimated. David Persuitte lists some 61 parallels between the two books, many of which can hardly be explained on any other basis than literary dependence.[6]

In one interesting article, two Mormons argued that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize the Isaiah chapters of the Book of Mormon from View of the Hebrews. They claimed that if the two books were produced independently, one would still expect (on the basis of a statistical analysis that need not be discussed here) that about 8 of the 66 chapters of Isaiah would appear in both books. Since actually 9 of the 66 chapters appear in both books, they concluded that the number of chapters common to both is not statistically significant, and therefore that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize them from View of the Hebrews.[7]

This argument, however, assumes that both books will quote extensively from Isaiah. Only on the basis of this assumption can they claim that "the odds are approximately one in a million against there being no common chapters in the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews."[8] There are, of course, millions of books which do not copy from Isaiah at all! This simple point completely invalidates the argument. Moreover, even if it could be shown that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize Ethan Smith's use of Isaiah, he still plagiarized Isaiah itself!

The Use of the Bible

That Joseph Smith copied whole chapters from Isaiah and other books of the Bible in the King James Version into the Book of Mormon is generally not now denied by Mormon apologists. However, they explain this copying by saying that translating the Book of Mormon from the plates was such spiritually and mentally draining work that when Joseph Smith came to passages virtually identical to the Bible he simply used the King James Version as "a reasonably good translation already existing."[9]

This explanation is difficult to square with the fact that the biblical chapters copied into the Book of Mormon contain numerous minor variations. If Joseph Smith used the King James Version to simplify his translation task, why the minor changes? Some Mormons have claimed that these changes can be shown in the cases of the Isaiah chapters to reflect a more accurate original text of Isaiah.[10] While this claim is itself highly debatable, it is also inconsistent with the explanation that Joseph Smith simply used the King James Version to make his translation work easier.

Worse still, one Mormon scholar set out to prove that the section of the Book of Mormon which parallels the Sermon on the Mount (3 Nephi 12-14, cf. Matt. 5-7) reflects an accurate text, and ended up proving instead that the Book of Mormon followed the King James Version in various minor translation errors.[11]

A more fundamental problem pertaining to the Sermon on the Mount is why Jesus would deliver virtually the exact same sermon to the Nephites as He had to the Jews. According to the Book of Mormon, the Jews in Palestine and the Nephites in America were separated by six centuries and by thousands of miles. Yet in this sermon Jesus' teaching presupposes the context of the Jewish nation in first-century Palestine. Specifically, He was criticizing the Pharisees, a religious group originating in Palestine four centuries after the Nephites supposedly left Palestine! For example, in the statement (which Jesus corrected), "thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy" (3 Nephi 12:43), the phrase "and hate thine enemy" was a Pharisaic interpretive addition to the Old Testament command to love one's neighbor. Such examples could be multiplied.

The best explanation of the presence of whole chapters from the King James Version in the Book of Mormon, then, remains that Joseph Smith used these chapters to "pad" the Book of Mormon.


The only direct physical evidence for the Book of Mormon as an ancient document that is known to exist is the "Anthon transcript," a piece of paper (rediscovered recently) on which Joseph Smith wrote down some of the characters allegedly found on the gold plates. According to Joseph Smith's account in the Mormon scripture Pearl of Great Price, he gave Martin Harris (one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon) this paper with some of the characters translated and some not. Harris took this "transcript" to a Columbia professor named Charles Anthon, who "stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I [Harris] then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters" (Joseph Smith -- History 1:64). When Harris stated that the characters were copied from gold plates revealed by an angel and that he could not bring them to Anthon because they "were sealed," Anthon replied, "I cannot read a sealed book" (1:65).

Of the many problems associated with this story, one cries out for special attention since it involves a direct contradiction. Anthon is said to have praised the translation as the best he had ever seen. Yet no one has been able to translate any of the characters of the Anthon transcript (which still exists[12]). Recent scholarly treatments of the Anthon transcript by Mormons have compared its characters to Egyptian and certain American Indian scripts; argued that Anthon was lying when he later denied authenticating the transcript; discussed how Egyptian might have evolved into "reformed Egyptian" -- but failed to address this simple problem.[13]


One of the most interesting ways in which Mormons are trying to defend the Book of Mormon is by claiming that its geography fits with great precision the geography of some portion of Central America. However, Mormon scholars are not entirely agreed as to which part of Central America it fits! At least three or four different areas in Central America are claimed to be the Book of Mormon lands -- the Costa Rica area, the Yucatan peninsula, and the Tehuantepec area including Guatemala and southern Mexico.[14] The Tehuantepec theory is currently favored by a majority of Mormon scholars, yet even these scholars disagree among themselves as to how the Book of Mormon fits the Tehuantepec area.

Among Mormon scholars who hold that the Tehuantepec theory is correct, John L. Sorenson's An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon[15] is widely regarded as the standard reference. But there are serious problems with Sorenson's construction. (For what follows see the map accompanying this article.) The Book of Mormon references to a "narrow neck of land" between the "land northward" and "land southward" (Alma 22:32) have until recently always been understood to refer to an isthmus, and on the Sorenson theory this is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.[16] One difficulty with this view (there are several) is that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is not particularly narrow in comparison with the land on either side of it.

A recent book by Richard Hauck argues for another location, namely that the "narrow neck" is a coastal strip along the Pacific connecting Mexico and Guatemala.[17] This view conflicts with the Book of Mormon itself, which states in Alma 22:32 that "the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward." Here the statement that the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla (which were both in the land southward, as the map shows) were "nearly surrounded by water" is explained by the statement that a "small neck of land" connected them to the lands northward (note Hauck's artificial separation of these two statements[18]).

An even more troublesome feature of Book of Mormon "geography" is its clear reference to four seas -- north, south, east, and west (Helaman 3:8). In Sorenson's view the east sea is the Gulf of Mexico and the west sea is the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the Pacific side.[19] But this view places the east and west seas due north and south of each other! Hauck therefore makes these two gulfs the north and south seas.[20] But both views must strain to come up with four seas. Hauck argues that the east sea is the Caribbean, which is not impossible, but then must identify the west sea as a part of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, that is, as part of the south sea.[21] Thus in effect Hauck can only come up with three seas, not four. This is one of the most glaring difficulties for any Central American theory of the Book of Mormon.

It is important to note the assumptions made by these authors. Both Sorenson and Hauck make it clear that they are assuming that the Book of Mormon is both internally consistent and historically authentic.[22] Both writers also try to argue that Book of Mormon archaeology is basically at the same stage as was biblical archaeology in its infancy, and Hauck makes much of the fact that biblical scholars do not regard archaeology as "proving" the Bible, but only confirming its historicity.[23]

On this last point it is necessary to observe that the basic historicity of the Bible as an ancient document referring to real places and real people never needed proving by archaeology because it was never in doubt (even if it has been disputed on certain details). We have always known where Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, Egypt, Rome, Athens, Crete, and many other such biblical places are located. We have extrabiblical records and books that have survived the centuries referring to Nebuchadnezzar, to Augustus Caesar and Tiberius, and even to such persons as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. The apologetic usefulness of archaeology to the Christian has been in filling in the disputed details, not in authenticating the Bible as an ancient collection of basically historical books.

The situation is much different with the Book of Mormon. No one had ever heard of Zarahemla, Nephi, Manti, Cumorah, or Mormon until 1830, and still none of the Book of Mormon place names can be positively identified. None of the persons described in the Book of Mormon is known from other sources to have actually existed, except certain figures in the Bible (Isaiah, Malachi, Christ). In every way the evidence for the basic authenticity of the Bible is direct, tangible, and undisputed even by knowledgeable unbelievers. By contrast, the alleged "evidence" for the Book of Mormon is all indirect, hypothetical, and convincing only to Mormons.


If the Book of Mormon were the Word of God, then of course faith would be needed for a person to acknowledge it as such. But faith needs to be distinguished from credulity. Faith is believing in God and His Word on the basis of His evident revelation in history. Credulity is believing something merely on the basis of its claiming to be true.

In one sense the Mormon believer surpasses credulity to the point of believing the Book of Mormon because he or she wants it to be true. This might seem a slanderous accusation were it not for the fact that the Mormons themselves have said as much. Thus it is quite common for Mormons to encourage prospective converts, as one Mormon writer put it, to "desire to know that the book of Mormon is true" (note: not to know whether it is true) and "hope the Book of Mormon is true."[24] Clearly, a strong subjective "testimony" that the Book of Mormon is true is a predictable result if one first ardently desires and hopes that it is true, and then reads it and asks God if it is true.

The definitive test of the Book of Mormon and of Mormonism as a whole must in the end be its faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible. Mormons cannot consistently subtitle the Book of Mormon "Another Testament of Jesus Christ" alongside the Bible and then denigrate the Bible's "testimony" to Jesus Christ. But criticize the Bible they must, because it contradicts the doctrines of Mormonism. In the fourth and concluding part of this series, then, I shall consider ways in which Mormons are defending Mormon doctrine.


1 This case has been argued most vigorously by Wayne Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis, and Donald R. Scales, Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House Publishers, 1977); cf. Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism, 2d ed. (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House Publishers, 1978), 59-68.
2 Harry L. Ropp, The Mormon Papers: Are the Mormon Scriptures Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 33-34, 107; Ernest H. Taves, Trouble Enough: Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), 52-57 (note that Taves writes as a humanist skeptic); for a somewhat different treatment, cf. David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1985), 247-55.
3 A reprint of the 1825 edition is available from Utah Lighthouse Ministry, P.O. Box 1884, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.
4 B. H. Roberts, "A Parallel," in Studies of the Book of Mormon, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 321-44; cf. in the same volume, "A Book of Mormon Study," 149-319.
5 John W. Welch, Finding Answers to B. H. Roberts' Questions, and an Unparallel, F.A.R.M.S. Preliminary Report, No. WEL-85d (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [F.A.R.M.S.], 1985), 32-60. F.A.R.M.S. is a Mormon apologetic organization that draws upon BYU scholars and others to defend Mormonism and especially the Book of Mormon.
6 See the index under "Parallels, Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews" in Persuitte, 292.
7 Spencer Palmer and William Knecht, View of the Hebrews: Substitute for Inspiration?, F.A.R.M.S. Reprint, No. P&K-64 (F.A.R.M.S., n.d.), reprinted from BYU Studies 5 (1964):105-13.
8 Ibid., 108.
9 B. H. Roberts, Bible Quotations in the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S. Reprint, No. ROB-04 (F.A.R.M.S., n.d.), 192; reprinted from Improvement Era (1904):179-96.
10 John A. Tvedtnes, The Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S. Reprint and Preliminary Report, No. TVE-81 (F.A.R.M.S., n.d. [1984]).
11 Stan Larson, "The Sermon on the Mount: What Its Textual Transformation Discloses Concerning the Historicity of the Book of Mormon," Trinity Journal n.s. 7 (Spring 1986):23-45.
12 Martin Harris' Visit with Charles Anthon: Collected Documents, Preliminary Report by the F.A.R.M.S. staff, No. STF-85a (F.A.R.M.S., 1985), 12-13.
13 Ibid., 1-11, 67-69.
14 Paul R. Cheesman, These Early Americans: External Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 160-71.
15 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., and F.A.R.M.S., 1985).
16 Ibid., 29-37.
17 F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon: Settlements and Routes in Ancient America (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988), 34-40.
18 Ibid., 37-38.
19 Sorenson, 37.
20 Hauck, inside front cover.
21 Ibid.
22 Sorenson, xv-xviii; Hauck, 22.
23 Sorenson, xvi; Hauck, 18-19.
24 Daniel H. Ludlow, "The Challenge of the Book of Mormon," in The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture, Papers from the First Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, ed. Paul R. Cheesman (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 14.

End of document, CRJ0046A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"How Mormons Are Defending the Book of Mormon"
release A, March 22, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

Part One of this four-part series is unavailable. The author feels it is too outdated.

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.

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