June 23, 2019
To Dr. William Lane Craig:
Dear Dr. Craig,
I have followed your work for some years now as my interest in philosophical theology has grown. I have sporadically listened to your podcast and have read a number of both your online and print publications. I have watched a number of your debates with prominent atheists on the question of God’s existence. I have even listened to you speak in person. A year ago you shared a stage with Jordan Peterson and Rebecca Goldstein at the University of Toronto debating the question: “Is There Meaning to Life?” I was in the audience on that occasion. For the most part I have found you to be a fine public speaker, a persuasive debater, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. I have not always agreed with your arguments, but as a fellow theist I have at least always appreciated that you have so vocally defended the existence of God.
There is one area, however, where, I must confess, I have found your reasoning and argumentative abilities so woefully impaired that I feel compelled to air a few of my thoughts (for whatever they might be worth).
That area is how you discuss the claims of “Mormonism,” so-called, or more properly the beliefs and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The catalyst for my decision to write to you was when a close friend of mine who is entering a PhD program in philosophy at Texas A&M University sent me a link to your May 26, 2019 podcast episode on “Mormon” Transhumanism. I listened to your interview with Mr. Kevin Harris with attentiveness. I was previously aware of your chapter in The New Mormon Challenge critiquing the Latter-day Saint concept of Creation, and even though I disagreed with your critique, I thought perhaps you might have something interesting to say in this episode.
I was, however, greatly disappointed with what I heard.
I shall not endeavor here to list all of my complaints with your most recent podcast discussing “Mormon” Transhumanism. If I have to pick just one thing I found particularly objectionable, it was your abuse of Richard Bushman’s already oft-abused quote about “the dominant narrative” of the Church not being true. You, apparently, immediately took this to mean that Bushman was urging some kind of need to move Latter-day Saint theology “toward[s] orthodox Christianity,” and that he was otherwise providing signs for “a real hope that the Mormon Church [sic] might morph into another Christian denomination that would come to actually embrace orthodox Christian doctrine and repudiate the errors of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.” Suffice it to say that you have badly misunderstood Bushman’s comment. Bushman himself has clarified what he meant with his off-the-cuff statement that “the dominant narrative [of the Church] is not true.” Quoth Bushman, “I still come down on the side of the believers in inspiration and divine happenings—in angels, plates, translations, revelations.” What he appears to have meant with his comment was that Latter-day Saints need to move beyond a simplistic Sunday School version of their history, and that a robust, mature Latter-day Saint historical and theological narrative needs to appreciate how people can react differently to the same disconcerting information about the early history of the Church. (Incidently, I wholeheartedly agree with Bushman on this point.)
In any event, after I listened to this podcast, I went deeper down the rabbit hole out of what I can only call morbid curiosity to see what else you might have said or written about “Mormonism.” There I discovered additional episodes of your podcast, such as this one, where you rehash some of your criticisms of the “Mormon” view of Creation, or this one, where you say remarkable (and abysmally uninformed) things like, “Mormonism [sic] as a religious movement is not characterized by a kind of intellectual element in the way that Christian theology and the Christian church has been. It is more experiential, less doctrinal, less intellectual, and that would fit right in with the Rescue Plan – not attempting to mount an intellectual defense of Mormon [sic] doctrine and give apologetics but to simply do public opinion surveys and a better job of PR.” (There is well over 180 years of a rich “Mormon” apologetic tradition which amply disproves this notion that Latter-day Saints have no intellectual grounding for their faith.)
My continued investigation led me back to some of your debates with prominent atheists and critics of creedal Christianity. There I was astounded at how blithe and dismissive you often were towards Latter-day Saint theology and history during what were otherwise engaging intellectual discussions.
Take, for instance, this exchange in your debate with Alex Rosenberg:
Rosenberg: “Let’s turn to the argument from the New Testament. I am sort of gob smacked as a philosopher that he should persist in propounding this preposterous argument. Ask yourself the following question: in 1827, Joseph Smith got eleven people to certify that they observed the golden tablets which he – an illiterate person – was able to translate from Reform Egyptian and convey the Book of Mormon to the Latter Day Saints. Do we believe on the basis of those eleven certificates that are only about one hundred and sixty years old that the Book of Mormon is the revealed word of God?”
Craig: “As for the resurrection of Jesus, he just doesn’t understand, I think, the credibility of the New Testament documents in this regard. You cannot compare them to Joseph Smith which were probably lies or to Mohammed’s ascension which is probably a legend because in this case we are dealing with early eyewitness testimony that is not the result of conspiracy or lie; these people sincerely believed what they said. That is why most historians accept those three facts. Therefore, the naturalist has got to come up with some alternative explanation. You can’t indict eyewitness testimony in general and then use that against a specific case – you would have to show in the specific case of the Gospels that this testimony is unreliable. That is not the opinion of the majority of historians who have investigated these documents.”
Here you offhandedly dismiss Joseph Smith’s claims as “probably lies.” But you never actually explain why or give any evidence for this belief. You merely assert it. Nor do you actually address Rosenberg’s argument. He is, strictly speaking, correct. There are multiple reliable eyewitnesses to the existence of the golden plates. Latter-day Saint historians and, yes, apologists have produced a compelling body literature arguing for the sincerity, truthfulness, and credibility of these witnesses.1 Have you engaged this literature at all? Are you familiar with it? Are you familiar with the trend among even skeptical or naturalistic historians and biographers of Joseph Smith to acknowledge at least the material existence of the plates, even while seeking naturalistic explanations for them?2 You can’t merely brush aside the testimonies of the early, sincere eyewitnesses to the Book of Mormon as “the result of conspiracy or lie[s]” simply because they are inconvenient to your argument.
After this exchange, in a post-debate summary, you again affirmed, “I would say with regard to Joseph Smith that what he was saying about the golden tablets and the golden spectacles were just lies. I think Joseph Smith was an imposter, and so these were lies.” It may be that Joseph Smith was an imposter, but why do you think so? What specific reasons do you have for arriving at this conclusion? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how problematic it is for a man of philosophical erudition like yourself to make sweeping claims such as this with nary a shred of evidence, or even some kind of justifiable argument.
Your debate with Rosenberg is not the only instance where you have given unsatisfying and perfunctory answers to important questions about Joseph Smith. On your July 12, 2011 podcast responding to questions about evidence for the Resurrection, you make the following claim: “And as for Joseph Smith, he had obvious motivations for carrying on this ruse in view of the fact that he was the leader of the cult and it gave him a position of power and prominence that he enjoyed. So I don’t have any problem with saying that Smith could well have been insincere in his claims.” Ignoring your pejorative language (“the leader of the cult”) that is completely indecorous and entirely undignified for any serious intellectual, you casually indicate that you “don’t have any problem with saying that Smith could well have been insincere in his claims” on the grounds that “he had obvious motivations for carrying on this ruse.” You may not have a problem with saying such, but that can only be because you, frankly, appear not to have the slightest clue about the life, personality, or character of Joseph Smith. It is the summit of pure folly to make him into some kind of a moustache-twirling nineteenth-century David Koresh or Jim Jones. I know of no serious historian or biographer (not Fawn Brodie, not Robert Remini, not Richard Bushman) who would paint such a crass portrait of one of America’s most important religious figures. Even Joseph’s most ardently skeptical biographers, such as Brodie, have granted his basic sincerity. It is simply impossible for any reasonable, fair-minded individual to walk away from reading his papers and honestly believe Joseph Smith was insincere or conniving.3
But you need not take my word for it. If you think I’m wrong, I invite you to rummage through the Prophet’s papers for yourself. Kindly point me to specific examples of his insincerity, conscious deceit, or wilful malice. If you cannot, then I would urge you to refrain from further making any such embarrassing comments.
Perhaps the reason why you have not given concrete examples of why you believe Joseph Smith was untruthful, or why you have not provided any specific reasons for believing he was insincere, is because you are incapable of doing so. I say this because of your July 12, 2011 podcast you say the following:
Dear Dr. Craig, doesn’t your argument for the resurrection prove too much? If it is true that people willing to endure persecution are such solid witnesses to their claims, to have eye-witnessed truth, then what about the claims of the witnesses of the golden plates in Mormonism? Even if the plates were a forgery, what motivation would Joseph Smith have had for carrying on his claims in the face of persecution? If he had none, but did it anyway, why couldn’t the apostles have done the same?
Dr. Craig: Well, now here it’s important to understand what the argument is intended to prove. This argument from the disciples’ willingness to die for the truth of the message they proclaimed is only meant to show that they sincerely believed what they said. It’s not meant to prove that what they said was true, but simply that they sincerely believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And then we want to ask the question, well, what is the best explanation of the origin of that belief? So the claim here that’s being made is very modest, namely that these men sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead. And I don’t know anybody who would doubt that—any historical scholars. Now with respect to the witnesses to the plates – I’m not an expert on Mormonism [sic] – but as I understand it I think the original witnesses did recant and claim that they didn’t see the plates after all. It’s not true that they persisted.
Notwithstanding your understated disclaimer, this answer, Dr. Craig, betrays your profound ignorance of early Latter-day Saint history. As a matter of fact, the Three and Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon never recanted their testimonies. Not in the face of damage to their reputations or literal mob violence. Not even after a substantial number of them fell out with Joseph Smith and were either excommunicated from or otherwise abandoned the Church of Jesus Christ. Again, the literature on this topic is substantial. You’ll pardon me for asking a question with an obvious answer, but are you acquainted with any of it?
What’s more, the parallels to the behavior of the witnesses to the Resurrection are striking. So striking, in fact, that Latter-day Saint apologists have made more or less the same argument you have made: “This argument from the Book of Mormon witnesses’ willingness to die for the truth of the message they proclaimed is only meant to show that they sincerely believed what they said. It’s not meant to prove that what they said was true, but simply that they sincerely believed that Joseph Smith had seen an angel and had golden plates. And then we want to ask the question, well, what is the best explanation of the origin of that belief? So the claim here that’s being made is very modest, namely that these men sincerely believed that Joseph Smith had seen an angel and had golden plates. And I don’t know anybody who would doubt that—any historical scholars.”
This is precisely why Rosenberg brought this up in your debate with him. Your arguments for the reliability of the witnesses of the Resurrection have been employed to great effect for the reliability of the witnesses of the golden plates. Out of what I am charitably going to assume is mere neglect, you are clearly incapable of properly responding to this counter-argument, which I further assume is the reason why you have succumb to such uncharacteristic condescension and disdain.
Now I harbor no delusions that any of this is likely to change your mind about Joseph Smith or the Restored Gospel. But if I may be indulged to offer you some advice, Dr. Craig, it would be this: rather than persist in making such uninformed and easily discreditable remarks, inform yourself on the life and teachings of Joseph Smith by becoming knowledgable in the best of Latter-day Saint academic history and apologetics. Again, there is a substantial body of work by Latter-day Saint historians and apologists chronicling a believable account of the Prophet’s life and ministry and offering compelling arguments for the credibility of the his claims. I would be more than happy to give you my own recommendations if you desired.4
I mean this sincerely, Dr. Craig, when I ask: what do you have to lose? You will be benefited by shedding your heretofore ill-informed views thanks to the help of credible scholarship, which is the hallmark of true intellectual integrity and honestly, and you’ll become better-prepared to provide actual cogent rebuttals (not snide handwaving) the next time an atheist or a Latter-day Saint brings up this line of argumentation. And, as a Christian, is it not your biblically-mandated duty not to bear false witness against your neighbors (Exodus 20:16) and to otherwise exercise your God-given rational faculties to the best of their abilities in defending what you suppose to be the truth (1 Peter 3:15)?
Should you elect to undertake it, I would be more than happy to help you in an endeavor to become more knowledgable about the history and faith of the Latter-day Saints.
Stephen O. Smoot
- The foundational work on the Book of Mormon witnesses is Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981); see also Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 39-60; Steven C. Harper, “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” Religious Educator 11/2 (2010): 37-49; Alexander L. Baugh, “The Testimony of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2016), 45–58; Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019). Online resources summarizing this scholarship include these offerings from Book of Mormon Central: “Who Were the “Few” Who Were Permitted to See the Plates?“, “Why Were Three Key Witnesses Chosen to Testify of the Book of Mormon?“, “How Important Was Oliver Cowdery in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon?“, “How Did Martin Harris Help Bring Forth the Book of Mormon?“, “Did the Book of Mormon Witnesses Really See What They Claimed?”
- The most recent offerings in this trend being Ann Taves, “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates,” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 61, no. 2–3 (2014): 182–207; reprinted in The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism and Sacred Texts, ed. Blair G. Van Dyke, Brian D. Birch, and Boyd J. Peterson (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2018), 93–119; Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies in the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 50–65.
- The experience of my friend Don Bradley is illustrative of this point.
- Here and here are two good places to start.