This is a guest post by Rich Wilson.
I recently started reading The Book of Mormon and have found it a very tough slog, even compared to the KJV Bible. So you can imagine my relief when I took a break from that book and starting reading David Fitzgerald’s The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion Book One: The Mormons.
It is, to say the least, a much easier read.
The book is aimed at two audiences — and devout Mormons aren’t one of them. David acknowledges that if one is already “in,” this book probably won’t pull you out, nor is it intended to. Rather, The Mormons is aimed at most of the readers of this sort of blog as well as ex-Mormons (or perhaps Mormons who are having serious doubts). David expresses respect for the Mormons he’s known — and that’s why he’s compelled to point out where their beliefs fall short of being true. I share that sentiment, too. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known is a devout Mormon, and while I like to pretend he doesn’t really believe all that stuff, I know he does.
Full disclosure: Even though I’ve known Mormons personally, my background on Mormonism comes mostly from one South Park episode (which was hilarious, but way too short) and the PBS two-part documentary The Mormons (which was more extensive, but shied away from pointing out the crazy).
David starts with a thorough history of Joseph Smith‘s discovery and “translation” of the Book of Mormon, and writes about how the story evolved over time. There are numerous conflicting versions of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” and the way the story changes is fascinating. It’s also interesting to watch the various power struggles of the early days, and coming to understand how many of the players had to be “in” on the hoax.
The story documents some fascinating financial shenanigans as the church moves to Ohio and begins a bank called the Kirtland Safety Society Bank Company, later changed to the “anti-Banking Company to avoid following state regulations (you know, because putting “anti-Banking” on all your bank notes makes you totally not a bank, subject to any state rules). Chased out of Ohio, they landed in Missouri, where Joseph revealed that God had promised all the land to the Mormons — to take by force if necessary. (And they wondered why they weren’t popular in Missouri.) Unfortunately, the result would not be the last bloody story in Mormon history. Not by a long shot. The chronological history takes us through to the death of Joseph Smith, including what Fitzgerald says may have been the “most decent thing” Joseph Smith ever did: return home at the request of his wife Emma, even though he was ready to flee west. In his own words, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter.”
After Smith’s death, there were, of course, a number of people who claimed that Smith himself had appointed them leaders of the church. One in particular, James Strang, had his own book of ancient golden plates and received word (from angels!) that the new prophet would be able to translate the book of one King Rajah Manchou of Vorito. What more proof could one need?!
With the death of Joseph Smith and subsequent power struggles, Fitzgerald moves from generally chronological history to covering some of the major highlights — or lowlights — of the Mormons, including the many splinter churches. Polygamy receives the first crack, deservedly, since it has probably had the greatest impact on the church and the various directions and schisms it has taken. And while it’s amusing to read about characters such as Nancy Rigdon who rejected Smith loudly no matter how much he threatened her with God’s word, it’s also chilling to read about the reality of sexual abuse in groups living out Joseph Smith’s doctrine to this very day.
A close second to the embarrassment of polygamy is the no-less-sinister racial history of the church. Not much needs to be said, other than the fact that, to this day, there isn’t any good theological explanation for why 19th century bigotry still found a place in 20th century Mormonism, bigotry that (among other things) did not allow black people to become priests in the church. The apologetics are amusing, until you remember what they’re trying to explain away.
Oh, wait, did I forget to mention the different kinds of heaven, and the “sealing” and baptism of the dead, and the magic underwear, and the planet Kolob? (Or is it a star? Joseph Smith didn’t seem to know the difference.) Yeah, that’s all in there, too. As well as Joseph’s assured view that certain ancient documents were Reformed Egyptian dictionaries… only to be told that they were the Greek versions of Psalms.
And so it came to pass that David Fitzgerald did also write upon numerous problems with The Book of Mormon itself. Including its apparent reliance on other fictional sources, such as Shakespeare’s works, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the King James Bible. Interestingly, this “perfect book” dictated by God to an Angel contains the same errors that the 1769 edition of the KJV Bible (available to Smith at the time) had.
As if the obvious fan-fiction nature of the book wasn’t enough, we also take a quick tour of the problems of having no archaeological record of anything mentioned in the Book of Mormon anywhere in the Americas, including chariots, advanced metallurgy, horses, elephants, many crops, or cities with millions of people.
Of course, the Church has had to do some backpedaling over the years to cover things up and we get some great coverage of that as well. The Book of Mormon has undergone many edits, and a great many documents have disappeared for decades, only to show up and require new twisted apologetics to explain. Interestingly, many of the problems with the Book of Mormon, the church history, and general canon have been brought to light by the church’s own members… most of whom have since been either excommunicated or left on their own. And it’s in this chapter that we inevitably deal with what, perhaps even more than polygamy, the church wishes would just go away: the Mountain Meadows massacre. I’ve read (and Fitzgerald repeats it) that the massacre was the worst civilian atrocity in American history up until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. (The Rosewood massacre might contend, but in any case, they’re all horrific.)
We end by looking to the future, including Humanist Mormons, gay Mormons, and the effect of the Internet and open dialogue on Mormonism. David Fitzgerald contends the Internet is having the same effect on Mormonism that it’s having on all other religions: marking their end.
Well, not quite the end. David has some sage advice for anyone wanting to dialogue with Mormons. Briefly, you need to understand the way their religion is part of every facet of their lives. It’s not just a set of beliefs and something they do on Sundays, and simply pointing out that their prophet was a huckster probably isn’t going to go very far.
The book is a fascinating read on the whole, and I have no doubt that anyone, even ex-Mormons, will learn something new. There were only two sections that dragged slightly for me — one about famous people I didn’t know had connections to Mormonism and one about the Mormon basis for Battlestar Galactica. These are minor quibbles to be sure, and I wholeheartedly recommend the book whether you plan to invite in the next missionaries to ring your doorbell or you just want a little more insight into what Mormons actually believe.
Rich Wilson concluded that he was wrong about Santa when he was four and has been trying to challenge his own beliefs ever since, with varying degrees of success. His biggest hope is that his son will be better than he is at figuring out what isn’t true.