Mormonism Blog
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September 7, 2019, 9:01 PM

Rough Stone Rolling: My Last Word on Joseph Smith

My final post in my Christian conversation with the Latter-day Saints is a review of Richard Lyman Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which has somehow escaped my notice in the 13 years since it was published. I finally discovered it recently when a person who had been LDS for over four decades told me that this was the book that changed that person’s mind about Joseph Smith and helped lead that person to leave the LDS church.

I was surprised to find that Rough Stone Rolling was not at all an “anti-Mormon” book. In fact, it is the most even-handed biography of Smith I have ever found, although written from a sympathetic point of view. The author, a professor of history at Columbia University, is a Mormon in good standing, and the book was highly praised when it was reviewed in the LDS-owned Deseret News. Yet the book gives both sides of the story, with all the supporting information I would want to know about Joseph to make a fully-informed decision about him, while leaving plenty of room for the reader to decide either way about him.

While Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945) was a ground-breaking work full of masterful research on Joseph, I found Rough Stone Rolling to be far more interesting. Here I found more of Joseph’s heart (as best we can discern it), and less of the naturalistic explanations and psychoanalyzing found in Brodie. (Unlike Bushman, Brodie was excommunicated for her views.) Yet it is not a hagiography (puff-piece promotional for a saint) like the LDS Church History Department’s recent book Saints: The Standard of Truth (see my review at

Rough Stone Rolling is a critical work in the best sense of the word, i.e. a work that asks and answers the right critical questions about Joseph. It makes a generous use of sources that are not easy to get, including collections of primary sources like: Where can you find the 4 written sources for Joseph’s famous 1844 King Follett sermon that introduces his doctrine of eternal progression? (In 2 of those sources, Joseph dares “all Hell” to prove him wrong. For such an important sermon, I’m glad that 4 people recorded it.)

Bushman gives us a stimulating discussion of the Book of Mormon unlike any that I have seen. He explores theories of its origin, preferring to give far more credit to Joseph than to any source that he might have borrowed from (such as View of the Hebrews, Solomon Spaulding, or Sidney Rigdon), while nevertheless expressing wonder at how Joseph could have produced such a text. He also makes persuasive cases for both sides as to whether the book’s content is true or false, while hinting that his own position may be that such a book need not be factual to be true.

Reading Bushman’s account of the Saints’ experiences at the hands of mob “democracy” in Missouri is revealing. The author explains why the Missouri mobs thought they were simply doing the will of the people by beating up Mormons and destroying their property, and why they thought that no judge or sheriff could punish the people from doing the people’s will. What happened to the LDS over and over in the 19th century could easily happen again in the 21st century to both LDS and Nicene Christians, at the hands of mobs with the names Antifa, Resist, and the political parties that support them. Speaking of the government’s claimed powerlessness to help the Saints on such occasions because of “States’ rights,” Joseph declared these authorities to be “a stink” and that “they shall ascend up as a stink offering in the nose of the Almighty.”

Rough Stone Rolling also sheds new light for me on Joseph’s views on African Americans and slavery. While the Book of Abraham declares Africans to be under a curse and therefore unable to hold the priesthood, and while he positioned himself in Missouri as being against abolition, in his 1844 campaign platform, Joseph is all in favor of setting blacks free from slavery: “Break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire them to labor like other human beings.” (Here Bushman cites Joseph’s actual campaign brochure.) Joseph claims that slaveholders would readily set their slaves free if compensated for their losses. It is difficult to tell which of Joseph’s views on the subject are his heartfelt convictions and which ones are for political consumption, but it is helpful to have all of those views on the table.

Bushman’s description of Joseph’s Council of Fifty at Nauvoo was also enlightening for me. I had been led to believe that this was a super-secret council that anointed Joseph as a political king. I was surprised to find that this council included 3 outsiders, i.e. non-Mormons. Apparently, the Council’s first task was to find a more secure place for the Saints to live than their current location, probably sensing that their days in Illinois were numbered. Furthermore, the Council sought to lay out a broader vision for the implementation of the Kingdom of God on earth, a sort of shadow government waiting for God to bring the present world order to an end. Whether this was a treasonous body, or whether it potentially placed too much power in the hands of Joseph, the reader may decide.

The part of Rough Stone Rolling which probably turned the above-mentioned LDS reader against Joseph may have been the author’s treatment of Joseph’s plural marriages. Bushman’s approach to this subject is not attack, but matter-of-fact. His frank acknowledgement of the large amount of deception required in these marriages differs from the recent Church Historical Department book only by degree; while the Saints book concedes in a brief sentence that Joseph was compelled to deceive his wife Emma at times, Bushman’s book spells out how many times Joseph had to deceive both her and others. Yet Bushman explains that Joseph never thought of himself of committing adultery or practicing polygamy; he thought he was simply following orders from God. Whether this was God or not, the author leaves the reader to decide, without comment.

If I could recommend one book for an honest LDS seeker after truth to read about Joseph to place the necessary facts in their hands, I would recommend Rough Stone Rolling. Check out what you find there against the History Department’s book. Check out the works of Fawn Brodie and of Jerald and Sandra Tanner to dig deeper into their perspectives. You will then have all of the most important data necessary to draw the conclusions that everyone must make about Joseph Smith. Don’t leave it to someone else to do your thinking for you. You are the one who must answer to God for what you think of Joseph, and what you think of Jesus.

Whatever you do, don’t let anyone lead you away from Jesus. He alone can save us and put us right with God.

September 7, 2019, 8:57 PM

Faith-Promoting Fibs

LDS apostle Paul Dunn was a popular speaker, author, and church educator from the 1950’s until he quietly stepped down in 1989. I have two of his books, Ten Most Wanted Men and You Too Can Teach! He offered very sound advice on subjects like leadership and decision-making. Some of his spiritual advice would be good advice for Nicene Christians as well.

But Paul Dunn made the mistake of stretching the truth in some of his inspirational talks. He claimed to have been a professional baseball player with the St Louis Cardinals; it turns out that he played less than a month, at the minor league level. He also told numerous combat stories that were either not true or that were falsely told as if they’d happened to him (see

This leads me to wonder about the passage in Ten Most Wanted Men (page 108) where Dunn claims to have known and pitched to baseball hero Lou Gehrig during batting practice. Dunn was 17 when Gehrig died of ALS in 1941. The story is not impossible, but becomes harder to believe in light of Dunn’s reputation for stretching the truth elsewhere.

Dunn believed that combining stories and altering names was OK because his intent was not to deceive, but to make points about God that remain valid, and to do so in ways that would be most effective for reaching his audiences. But aren’t such points undermined when the audience finds out the truth about what really happened? And doesn’t the phenomenon lead us to wonder about testimony stories told by others?

Nicene Christians are also guilty of stretching the truth in similar ways: healing stories and conversion stories that prove to be exaggerated, embellished, or totally fabricated. Every time this happens, it weakens our confidence in stories of faith that do deserve to be believed. Did God miraculously provide for that children’s home to stay open? Did that hippie kick his drug habit with no withdrawal symptoms? We are afraid to celebrate, for fear that the story has been stretched.

But why should it matter? Can a fib be faith-promoting? If we ask the question this way, the answer is obvious. While fiction does have its legitimate capacity to inspire, even fiction depends for its inspirational power on how faithfully it has depicted reality. And when lives or livelihood hang in the balance, none of us wants to be ripped off by a lie, no matter how inspiring it may be.

Mark Hofmann, the document forger who bombed two people to death in Salt Lake City in 1985 to cover up his web of deceit, successfully deceived the LDS church into purchasing numerous fake Mormon historical documents that had been pronounced genuine by the experts. These included the famous “Salamander Letter” (where an angel appears to Joseph Smith in the form of a salamander), and a blessing by Joseph Smith declaring his son Joseph III to be his successor.

As told in Naifeh and Smith’s book The Mormon Murders, in his confession, Hofmann says he did not believe he was cheating a customer by selling them a forgery that could not be detected by the experts. When he was a boy, he says he electroplated a mint mark on a US coin which the Treasury Department later pronounced genuine. Hofmann believed that if the experts say such an article is real, then it is worth whatever the buyer wishes to pay for it. “My feeling is, it’s not so much what is genuine and what is not, as what people believe is genuine.”

To illustrate his point, Hofmann says, “My example would be the Mormon Church…I don’t believe in religion as far as that Joseph Smith had the First Vision or received the plates from the angel Moroni or whatever. It doesn’t detract from the social good that the Mormon church can do. To me it is unimportant whether Joseph Smith had that vision or not as long as people believe it. The important thing is that people believe it.”

Sound familiar? How many people believe that it doesn’t matter whether any religion is true, as long as it produces nice results? To what extent is the human race benefitted by lies?

Look at it this way. Does it matter to you whether a document that cost you $10,000 really came from the pen of the named author? Or are you just as happy with an amazingly accurate fake?

What about the books and articles that quoted or cited the documents forged by Mark Hofmann as if they were true? Does it matter whether any effort is made to set the record straight? Joseph Smith may or may not have declared his son Joseph III to be his successor, but we can no longer cite Hofmann’s document as evidence.

The issue of faith-promoting fibs is what stands behind our need to know whether the Biblical documents, or the LDS canonical writings, are genuine or fabricated. We may dismiss the issue by professing that we’re OK with inspiring fiction, but deep inside, we know better.

September 7, 2019, 8:54 PM

Can God Change?

Does God change, or does God remain forever the same? A related question: Can God change his mind or his plan? Can God change his rules, or is everything that God decrees an expression of unchanging divine principle?

In one of his last sermons before his death, Joseph Smith issues a new doctrine that God was once a man who became God: “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea.” (Journal of Discourses 6:3) Here in this sermon is where the central LDS doctrine of eternal progression gets its start (,_etc.).

Like his ancestors before him, the LDS God starts out as a human being, becomes God, and is now in the process of becoming an even greater being. That’s change, on steroids! Not even today’s process theology proposes such radical change for God.

The LDS God is also very capable of changing his mind on major issues. The best example is the 1978 revelation giving the priesthood to all worthy male Africans, to whom priesthood status had been denied ever since 1836, when Elijah Abel was ordained. (To clarify the significance here, all male members in good standing hold the LDS priesthood, not merely a select few.)

The reason blacks were denied the priesthood is because they were cursed because they had not been worthy in the pre-mortal spirit world. Brigham Young even declared that interracial marriage with blacks was a capital crime: “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This shall always be so.” (Journal of Discourses 10:110)

(Here we see the courage of the late prophet Thomas Monson. After the 1978 revelation that decriminalized African descent, Monson, who was an apostle at the time, was the first official who dared to perform an interracial temple marriage. The 1978 statement did not explicitly set aside the words of Brigham Young.)

How can such extraordinary change take place? The LDS understanding is that the word of God’s living prophet at the moment (the functional equivalent of a Pope) supersedes all previous revelation, written or oral.

Apostle Bruce McConkie, a strong defender of the previous doctrine on blacks and the priesthood, totally changes his tune as soon as the revelation comes out (indeed, he helped write the new revelation). Shortly thereafter, he tells a public audience at BYU, “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.” ( In other words, forget all that I ever wrote on the subject!

My problem with this approach is that we end up with a God who is always changing his mind about matters that ought to remain settled. God may issue a firm statement this year, but who knows what God will think next year? Who can rely on the word of such a God?

Bedrock principles do not change with time. Don’t tell me racism is wrong today but was OK with God in the days of Jim Crow, or that sex outside of marriage was wrong in the Victorian age but is right today. If racism is wrong today, it was always wrong, whether we acknowledged it or not. Don’t drag God into it, as if God can’t make decisions for all time on such matters.

Objection: Doesn’t God set aside the Law of Moses for Christians? And what about God’s seeming turnabout on eunuchs, who are forbidden to enter God’s sanctuary in Deuteronomy 23:1, but who receive a blessing from God for doing what is right in Isaiah 56:4-6?

Jesus is central to our answer to the question of God’s law. Jesus has harsh words for anyone who would relax even one tiny letter of God’s law (Matthew 5:17-19, Luke 16:17), yet according to Mark (7:19), he was implicitly “cleansing all foods” (i.e. setting aside the kosher food laws) when he declared that nothing that goes into a person can defile a person (Mark 7:14-23). In another radical move, Jesus says that God permitted divorce in the Law of Moses “because of your hardness of heart…but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)

How can Jesus make such breathtaking pronouncements? Because Jesus is our authorized interpreter of God’s law. Being God in the flesh, he is uniquely qualified. This means that no one else is authorized to issue any such radical updates to God’s law. And because Jesus says that he came “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), Jesus makes all of the Hebrew sacrifices unnecessary, because he has already offered the ultimate sacrifice that takes away sin on the cross (Hebrews 9:23-26).

Isaiah’s declaration of God’s blessing on eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and do what pleases God does not throw out the ceremonial law on who is permitted to enter the Temple, any more than Jesus’ heart for the handicapped (Luke 14:13-14) sets aside the ceremonial laws about them (Leviticus 21:16-24). Isaiah 56 and Luke 14 merely clarify that God still loves these classes of people, and that the Temple ceremonial laws are not intended to convey otherwise.

Can God change his mind (= repent)? We are told that God “was sorry” (nicham) to have made the human race in Genesis 6:6, that God “was sorry” to have made Saul king (1 Samuel 15:11), and that God “changed his mind” about destroying Israel (Exodus 32:14) and Nineveh (Jonah 3:10 – all the same word). But the Bible also says that God is not a human being, that he should repent (same word – see Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29).

The same word can and does cover both meanings. Should we suppose that God did not know what would happen under Plan A, so God changes his mind to a better plan? As a Calvinist, I prefer to think that God’s mind does not change, but that God enacts first one course of action (Plan A) that God knows will be disastrous, then switches to a better course of action, purely by sovereign choice, to prove what would happen under Plan A.

Does the Calvinist solution sound complicated? To me, it sounds a lot better than the prospect that God keeps making bad decisions that have to be changed. How do you make a deal with a God who can’t be counted on to keep promises? If those promises were conditional, we can understand why they would be withdrawn, but not if they were mistaken planning on God’s part.

Having a God who can always change his mind and issue a new revelation may be convenient, but it’s not true to life. Having a God who is too much like us always leads to messy complications. How much better to have a God who does not change! (Malachi 3:6)

September 7, 2019, 8:44 PM

The Book of Abraham: How Good Was Joseph's Translation?

Shocking news, delivered by BYU professor Hugh Nibley, one of the top defenders of the LDS Church: “The papyri scripts given to the Church do not prove the Book of Abraham is true.” Dr. Nibley goes on to warn his audience, “LDS scholars are caught flat footed by this discovery.”

There it was, on page 4 of BYU’s Daily Universe on Friday, December 1, 1967. (Good luck finding a photocopy! You won’t find it online. It is old news that has been “shadow-banned” for decades.)

To an academic assembly at BYU, Nibley inadvertently confesses that the document which they had hoped would prove Joseph Smith’s ability to translate ancient scripture had just been found to be anything but proof. Nibley goes on to express to his audience his fear that discoveries like this were going to “bury the Church in criticism.”

The discovery to which Nibley refers was an Egyptian papyri text from which Joseph translated a book in the Pearl of Great Price (a volume of LDS scripture) called the Book of Abraham. Joseph’s source was found on a mummy that he bought from a traveling salesman. Joseph declared that he had found the words of Abraham written while he was in Egypt, which Joseph proceeded to translate. At the same time, Joseph composed his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, in which he demonstrates how he translated the text. (Obtainable at

It was thought that the Book of Abraham papyri had been lost. But then they reappeared in 1967 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, from which the LDS church obtained them. Now, Joseph’s translation could be tested. The results could help confirm Joseph’s ability to translate the Book of Mormon as well, although no one possesses the golden plates which Joseph claims to have translated.

The results proved to be an embarrassment. The text turned out to be a pagan Egyptian funeral text from approximately the 1st century AD, almost 2000 years after Abraham. Several scholars, both LDS and secular, made translations that agreed with one another. These translations reveal that for every one Egyptian word in the text, Joseph had anywhere from 50 to over 150 words in his translation, including 178 words for the name of the Egyptian deity Khons (the entirety of Abraham 1:16-19).

The 11 pages of the Book of Abraham (approximately 5470 words) are “translated” from the following Egyptian words: “…the great pool of Khonsu [Osirus Hor, justified], born of Taykhebet, a man likewise. After (his) two arms are [fas]tened to his breast, one wraps the Book of Breathings, which is with writing both inside and ouside of it, with royal linen, it being placed at (his) left arm near his heart, this having been done at his wrapping and outside it. If this book be recited for him, then he will breath like the soul[s of the gods] for ever and ever.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, page 98. Download the entire issue at

In his own translation of the Egyptian text, Nibley himself could not evade the truth about what the papyri text actually said. So he spent years of his life and work trying to find an alternative way to understand the Book of Abraham and its connection (or lack thereof) to the text that Joseph had claimed to have translated. He eventually published his conclusions in his book The Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment.

Nibley’s basic theory was that Joseph’s book was actually not a translation but a midrash, an imaginative expansion on the meaning of his text, comparable to the Jewish midrashim or “commentaries” on the Hebrew Bible. (My explanation here is itself a midrash on what Nibley actually said. Nibley never used the term midrash.) Other LDS scholars have suggested that Joseph used the Egyptian text as a “super-cryptogram” or a memory device. These theories are refuted by Joseph himself in his handwritten manuscript included in his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, where he says it is “A Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the catacombs of Egypt.” (See the similar preface in the printed version of the Pearl of Great Price.)

If I were die-hard LDS, I would probably resort to Nibley’s explanation. But for me, and for anyone who is more committed to the honest truth than to any ideology, the truth about the Book of Abraham would be like (theoretically) digging up the bones of Jesus: proof that Joseph did not have the faintest idea what he was translating, and indirect proof that none of his translations were from God, including the Book of Mormon.

For me, here is solid proof that Joseph was a deceiver, a false prophet. The truth about the Book of Abraham is a major piece of what keeps me from getting sucked in by the attractiveness of the LDS church.

I have spent 41 years studying the LDS people and their story. I find them fascinating, and I have a great burden in my heart for them to know the truth, both about Joseph, and about Jesus. If any LDS person asks me the Golden Question, “Why haven’t you become one of us?”, the evidence on the Book of Abraham would be part of my answer.

But I have no desire to take away any Latter-day Saint’s faith in all that they hold sacred. My desire is for them to transfer all of their faith onto Jesus instead of Joseph. Jesus is the truth who will never let you down. You were never wrong to place your faith in him! The bedrock truth of Jesus’ resurrection endures when all other claims of faith on the market collapse. And faith in his saving death on the cross is the only way you can know for sure that you have been saved from your sins and eternally put right with God.

September 7, 2019, 8:40 PM

Can Falsehood Produce Good Fruit?

“John said to him, Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. But Jesus said, Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” – Mark 9:38-39

“What, then (shall I say)? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” – Philippians 1:18

“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name? And then I will confess to them: I never knew you.” – Matthew 7:22-23

How can the LDS faith be evil, when its people do so much good? Can God be at work within a false church? Can a person come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as a member of the LDS church, or will they be automatically lost? Does following a false prophet send you to hell?

I grappled with these questions while visiting a local stake conference meeting during our two months in Utah. I saw and heard powerful conversion stories and testimonies of changed lives. How could I explain all this?

I would say that what I saw was stories of people who were thirsty for Jesus, and for whom Jesus met that powerful thirst, even though they were swallowing a lot of toxic elements along with that living water.

Can God work within a false church? Apparently so. One suspects that God similarly chose to save people inside the ancient Gnostic and Arian heresies. But that’s no reason not to reach out to those who are entangled in serious deception.

If you follow a false prophet, you are in danger of ending up where the false prophet leads you. You are not guaranteed to be lost, but we need to take Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7 with the utmost seriousness.

It is worth noting that the high sexual morality defended by today’s LDS church was not gotten from the personal example of Joseph Smith, but actually contradicts his example. This is what Jesus really means when he says, “You will know them by their fruits.” We know a church, not by the fruits of their followers, but by the fruits of the prophet they follow.

I also notice that many LDS have a faith that is more evangelical Christian than it is LDS. Glenn Beck’s theology sounds more like Billy Graham than Joseph Smith. I see this phenomenon as the reason why numerous LDS may find themselves being saved from Joseph’s eternal fate, and why God seems to be producing the fruits of the Spirit in such people.

Lately, the LDS have been putting a strong emphasis on Christ’s atonement. As they do so, they have been messaging a different doctrine of atonement than what they have always taught. The LDS talk a lot about the Savior, but they are unclear on the question “Savior from what?” The official LDS Articles of Faith teach that Jesus saves us only from the effects of Adam’s sin, so that now people can be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of their gospel. The LDS have also tended to de-emphasize the cross, as we see from the absence of crosses anywhere on their buildings. (A surprising exception that contradicts the rule: Alma 34:10-15 proclaims a doctrine of the Atonement that reads like it was written by St. Anselm!)

So the recent effort to proclaim the Nicene Christian version of Jesus taking away all of our sin is not very LDS at all, but it does speak to the hearts of multitudes who are desperate to know God’s forgiveness. The apostle Paul is thrilled that Jesus is being proclaimed, even by legalists in his day, because God can use the name of Jesus to lead people to salvation from sin, even in a movement where people are trying mistakenly to save themselves by their own good works.

Sadly, what converts get after they join the LDS church is a works-based theology that is a burden to the soul. That’s why my heart went out to the LDS when I first met them. Grace is almost nowhere to be found. Life becomes an endless treadmill of obedience and obligation that drives many to depression. The LDS prophet Spencer Kimball describes forgiveness in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness as such a long process of suffering, contrition, and penitence that it sounds like a miracle if anyone ever obtains it. 2 Nephi 25:23 speaks of grace, then pulls the rug out from under it when it says, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (See also Mosiah 4:30.)

Even if Jesus is working within the LDS church to draw people to himself, he is doing so within a church with a very different understanding of God. In his last few years before his death, Joseph Smith (and his successors from Brigham Young onward) taught “eternal progression,” the doctrine that God started out as a human who become God through obedience to the same principles that his ancestors followed, and that today’s LDS hope to follow to be exalted to godhood. As the prophet Lorenzo Snow put it: “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.”

That’s a very different God than the God of Isaiah 43:10 and numerous other verses, where God says clearly, “Before me was there no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” Isaiah 45:22: “I am God, and there is no other.” Deuteronomy 4:39: “The Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath: there is no other.” Joel 2:27: “I, the Lord, am your God, and there is no other.”

I would argue that, as is the case with Islam, anything good in the LDS church actually comes from the Bible as its source. In neither Islam nor the LDS church does the new prophet bring a major or unique teaching that improves on the Biblical message.

Can Jesus be at work in the LDS church? Jesus did not object when a guy who did not follow him used his name to cast out demons (although in Acts 19:13-16, demons themselves question a similar exorcist’s right to do so). But in every possible instance where God seems to be at work in the LDS church, we must ask: Is it all about Jesus, or is it all about Joseph?

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