Before I launch into this post, I need to share some background info. Several years ago I made several new friends, and I realized that they were Mormons as I got to know them better over time. I was given a copy of the Book of Mormon and invited to lots of church events. Because I am a curious person, I gave it a run for its money. I read the book cover to cover, visited the website, talked with Mormon friends, etc. The product of that research has come to completion in this piece, which I hope will find its way to Mormons around the world. I know that my little blog doesn’t reach a huge audience, but I hear rumors that there are literally hundreds of people on the internet around the world, and someday this might make a difference in someone’s life. My goal is to describe, in some detail, my impression from the results of my research into Mormonism. I give full permission to anyone who wants to link or distribute this article for educational purposes, so long as they send me gift cards for Chipotle.
I’m going to break from my normal writing style and include links and references, although most of this stuff is common sense. In my experience talking to others about religion, we usually end up talking about really hard stuff. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there a God? Are we created, or did we end up here as a result of random cosmic chance? These are tough questions with definitive answers that are either unreachable or shrouded deep in the recesses of history. Mormonism, in comparison, is a piece of cake. Because it started in the 1800’s, there are lots of primary source documents, easily attainable online, that spell out the origin of Mormonism. This post is longer, so grab yourself a drink and let’s get started.
1) Joseph Smith Was a Shady Dude
To quote Gordon Hinckley, “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that [First] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud.” He is referring to the initial vision Joseph Smith claimed to have, the one which drove him to find the golden plates, translate them, and establish the one and only true church on the face of the earth. So obviously we need to take a good, hard look at Joseph Smith.
There he is.
Before we even talk about the First Vision, let’s acknowledge that as a young man he used seer stones to find buried treasure. He didn’t just do it for fun, he actually convinced people to pay him to treasure hunt. Now lets fast forward a bit, past the whole First Vision account. Joe has founded this religion, which has relocated to Ohio. A traveling salesman comes buy, selling Egyptian scrolls. Joe decides to buy the scrolls, as he is convinced that they are written by Abraham himself. Let’s ignore the incredible leap of imagination and assume that a traveling salesman in 1830’s rural Ohio really is selling Egyptian scrolls actually written by Abraham thousands of years ago in a language that Joseph Smith can translate. Joe translates these scrolls into the Book of Abraham, and it is later canonized into Mormon scripture. Well, after a couple decades go by, it just so happens that we discover the Rosetta Stone, allowing us to actually translate the same Egyptian that Joseph Smith translated from this scroll. Turns out that his translation is completely, objectively wrong. The original scroll was actually like a guide to burying someone in a pyramid and had absolutely nothing to do with Abraham. I mean, I’m not saying he made it up just to publish weekly installments into a newspaper that he also happened to own……ok yes I am.
Knowing that Joe’s vision is sandwiched in known instances of him lying to take advantage of others makes the First Vision account even more important. It could be possible that he lied those two times and everything else really was from God, but it would take some extraordinary evidence to somehow confirm that. Because this section is full of problems and I have places to be, I will reference you to this well written account that takes these questions into more detail. Basically, problems around the First Vision and his subsequent translation of the plates include, at minimum, the following. There are several accounts of the First Vision, and they don’t really match up. When it comes to the golden plates themselves, it turns out that no one really saw them. Even Martin Harris admits that he only saw them with “spiritual sight”, which you may recognize as being different than “actually seeing them”. Joseph Smith was unable to retranslate the sections that Lucy Harris took, which he should have been able to do if he was in fact translating. The plates no longer exist (if they did at all), so we have nothing to compare the translations. Joe didn’t even translate from the plates. He looked into a hat and used his seer stone. I’ll ask the obvious question here: if God or Moroni or whoever went to all of the trouble to hide the plates for a thousand years just so Joe could find them in his backyard, why didn’t he actually translate from them? The church doesn’t like this idea very much, so they print lots of pictures depicting the translation like this:
From official church publications
When it actually happened like this.
I feel inspired already
Joseph’s “translation” and subsequent revelations then brought about practices that were not Biblical and made no sense. Polygamy is a great example of this. Joe claimed he received it as a revelation from God himself. The reasoning is unclear, but the most common reasons I hear from my Mormon friends are pathetically inadequate. One thought is that it was commanded for reproductive reasons, specifically population growth. This doesn’t make sense because he married women that were already married, and women can’t be doubly pregnant (I think. I haven’t finished med school yet so the jury is still out on this one). Another idea is that because entering the celestial kingdom requires a sealing to a Mormon man, marrying more women will allow more them to enter the Celestial Kingdom. This idea of eternal marriage is not found anywhere else in the Bible, is unique to Joseph Smith, and still doesn’t make sense because he married women who were already sealed to other men. To boil this down a little bit, Joseph Smith received a revelation from God Himself that he was to bring about a new institution called plural marriage, overturning all religious and social norms, and that his first step should be to have sex with his maid. He went on the marry more than 30 women, some of them only 14 years old (this LDS essay hilariously describes her as being “several months before her 15th birthday).
Yes, honey, God appeared and told me to sleep with the maid. He sure did.
The Book of Mormon itself is slow. After I read the whole thing, I realized that it was written exactly as if it was being made up on the spot. Over and over again, he writes “It came to pass”, “notwithstanding”, and “wherefore”, including the inspirational “It came to pass that a long time came to pass”.
Much of the actual content covers ancient North American civilizations. The Lamanites, Jaredites, and Nephites supposedly established cities, cultures, and trade routes all over North America. Ether 15:2 references a battle in which 4 million people supposedly died. Moroni 6 references a battle in Upstate New York where 100,000+ people died. He writes about cities with stone walls, chariots, spears, horses, and armor.
We have not found any of this. The lack of archaeological evidence for these people groups is shocking. If these groups existed right here in our backyard, surely there would be something (anything) to get people talking. Instead, there is an enormous void. This article sums up the problem nicely. There is no solid evidence from any scientist to actually support the Book of Mormon as a historical document. It’s embarrassing, really. My Mormon friend said “Well, how much do we know about ancient Aztecs, or Incas? Later civilizations came through and destroyed evidence of their culture”. Yes, but we still know they existed. At least they are known to have existed at a certain place and time, with some insight into their level of civilization and culture. And that’s way more evidence than anything in the Book of Mormon. Let me put this in perspective. If we can find the remains of a couple thousand 3rd Century Roman soldiers in Germany, why can we not find a North American battlefield where four million people supposedly died? Like I said, embarrassing.
2) The Church is Shady Today
How much money do you pay to the church? 10% for tithe, plus fast offerings, and probably more for miscellaneous things, right? Your children go on missions, you help out with church functions, donate extra for special occasions. Good for you. So where does your money go? If you answered “The church uses it to feed hungry children around the world”, I may have some bad news for you.
Hint: These kids don’t get the money.
First of all, the LDS church is hilariously secretive about its finances. Bloomberg used church sources and church statistics to do some calculations, and they are not impressive. According to the church itself, $1.3 billion was given in aid from 1985-2010. That is a big number, but they admit only a third of it was cash, the rest was volunteer hours and material donations. Also, it’s a tiny fraction of their income, which is estimated to be around $8 billion per year. This makes their donations to charity a pitiful 0.7% of their income, and that estimate is probably high due to the fact that the statistics came from the Church itself. You have probably lost that same percentage of your money to your washing machine. I spend way more than that on Chipotle.
I know the church demands financial accountability from Mormons. I know it’s part of the temple recommend process. Mormons are completely expected to be full tithers. I don’t understand how Mormons are fine with one way transparency. The LDS church doesn’t talk about where their money goes. My LDS friend told me he doesn’t worry about it because they have “lots of accountants that watch it all”. In contrast, my church has an annual meeting where they run through the entire budget line by line. It’s incredibly boring. Every expense, from the pastor’s salary to electric bill, is covered in detail and approved by the congregation. You can find copies of it online. They go out of their way to be transparent, and the LDS church goes out of their way to be secretive. This should be a huge red flag.
The church has a history of being dishonest with money. It goes all the way back to the Kirtland Bank, started by Joseph Smith himself. Is there any evidence today that their financial priorities are out of line? Yes. A huge, expensive piece of evidence. It looks like this:
That is City Creek Center, a shopping mall in Salt Lake City. The church dropped around $1.5 billion on this mall. They spent more on this shopping mall than 25 years of humanitarian aid combined. I’d say that counts as at least some evidence that they aren’t spending money their money feeding hungry kids.
Next, would you believe me if I said the church has lied to you recently? How about last April, in General Conference? Elder Cook got up and said that the church “Has never been stronger”. Now, I could just link you to graphs, pictures, or ward reports to show that things aren’t exactly going splendidly for the church, but those are just facts. Instead I’ll just ask you two questions. First, are wards in your area dividing or merging? My Mormon friends are excited because three separate wards are joining to form a super ward in our city. A growing church does not merge their groups/wards/congregations, they start new ones. Second, how many people are on the books as “members” in your ward, and how many people actually show up on Sunday?
Also, are they as diverse and well dressed as this picture from the marketing department?
There are plenty of other issues to write about, but the only other issue I’ll talk about here is the Church’s fear of information. It is fascinating that each of my Mormon friends has urged me to go to lds.org. Some have even said specifically to not go to other sites that may be full of “anti-mormon lies”. There was even a conference talk last month about visiting Church sites and avoiding sites that are not faith promoting. I have never once told someone to go visit a website or read an article about my faith. Instead, we sit down with some drinks and talk about it. I fully support people researching online and bringing questions. I fully support clicking my links and researching my opinions. What is it that the LDS church is so afraid of online? Is it people like me that are spreading “anti-Mormon lies”? I’m just a normal guy with a laptop, and it only took me a minute to find primary historical documents that the church would find very embarrassing. Maybe that’s what they are afraid of.
3) Mormon Practices Are Shady
Here’s this tricky part. Mormons, you are great people. Every Mormon I have met is kind, friendly, smart, and genuinely good. They love their families, work hard in school and at their jobs, and are successful people. Here’s the problem:
The good things about the Mormon church are not unique, and the unique aspects of the Mormon church are not good.
So you like that the church is pro family? You like the way they teach you to love your neighbor, help the poor, and be selfless? Yeah, me too. None of that stuff is uniquely Mormon.
Here’s the unique stuff. Your church location is assigned to you based on geography. You are expected to follow a specific set of rules that directly affects your standing in the church. You are a grown adult, and geriatric white men have decided the kind of underwear you should wear. The church claims to be pro-family, but pulls 19 year old teens from college and home to send them on missions, allowing minimal contact with families while they act as door to door salesman for the church. The church deliberately excluded black men from the priesthood as a matter of doctrine until 1978, at which point the unchanging, everlasting God of the Universe decided he was actually totally cool with black Mormons, a decision which had nothing at all to do with cultural movements at the time.
Now for the bonus round, AKA random questions that didn’t make it in yet. Why not drink alcohol? Is there a good reason for it? Why can’t you decide for yourself? Why can’t you drink alcohol, but Joseph Smith certainly did? I’ll let you find that reference on your own. He actually had a liquor license.
If the church leadership is really composed of prophets, seers, and revelators who speak directly with God, why is conference so uninspired? Main messages last month included life changing ideas like visiting the church website, protecting the family, and not using Snapchat.
If this is the one true church on the earth, why is it composed of a tiny fraction of the population located primarily in Utah? If this is the one true church, why are they building shopping malls?
I have so many more questions, but I’ll end this right now in the interests of time. For me,this was the ultimate killing blow. You may have heard of Occam’s razor. It basically says that you should pick the principle that has the fewest assumptions, as it is most likely to be correct. Let’s look at it this way.
For me to believe in Mormonism, I first have to believe in Joseph Smith. I need to believe that he was actually visited by an angel and given gold plates, which nobody saw and which we don’t have today. I need to believe that his translation was inspired by God and not his imagination, and that his stories are all true, despite the amazing lack of archaeological evidence otherwise. I have to be ok with Joe doing his translating with his head in a hat, instead of, you know, looking at the golden plates with writing shown to him directly by God. God really did command Joseph to practice polygamy, even though that had never happened before and there was no reason for him to start. Also, God did command him to start building temples and performing rituals like baptism for the dead, restoring the priesthood that Jesus Himself somehow forgot to restore to the apostles while He was on the Earth. Finally, after God appeared to Abraham, he has subsequently appeared to each Prophet since, and that every one of them has received divine instruction from God as a true prophet, even though all prophets have been old white guys that rose through church leadership and receive their position like a corporate promotion. Their leadership of the church and my tithing is currently my only way to enter the celestial kingdom where I can be with my family forever, eventually becoming a god of my own future planet, an idea that is taught nowhere in the Bible and exclusively in Mormonism. Also, God lives on the planet Kolob.
Of course, the other explanation is much simpler. Joseph Smith made it all up.
If you want to dig deeper into this, I’d urge you to read either the CES letter or this publication, which go into much greater depth and detail. They are written by Mormons for other Mormons and offer a perspective which I cannot, having never been a Mormon. I would also encourage you to head over to this forum, full of smart, kind, beautiful people who have walked the road away from the Mormon church and help each other out.
Please leave comments, questions, and remarks in the comments below. You can also send them directly to my face, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!