12. Defection of Church Leaders and Scholars
Early Church History
In the early days of the church, there was substantial apostasy among men at the highest ranks of church leadership. These were individuals who knew Joseph intimately and in many cases claimed to have been part of the miraculous events surrounding the founding of the church.
For example, William Law (Second Counselor in the First Presidency) was one of Joseph's staunchest supporters. As evidence of the prophet's corruption accrued, Law became increasingly disillusioned. The final straw occurred when Joseph tried to convince Law's own wife, Jane, to become one of his plural wives. William Law confronted Joseph and threatened that unless he went before the High Council to confess his sins, he would expose his seductions before the whole world (Horace Cummings, Contributor, Salt Lake City, April 1884, Vol. 5, p. 255; Thomas Ford, History of Illinois, p. 322; John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, p. 147; Joseph H. Jackson, Narrative of the Adventures and Experiences of Joseph H. Jackson, pp. 21-22).
Law was only one of several men that ultimately left the church specifically due to Joseph trying to seduce their wives. Others include Dr. Robert D. Foster, who arrived home unexpectedly from a business trip to discover Joseph dining with his wife. His wife later confessed that Joseph had been preaching polygamy and had endeavored to seduce her (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 371). Another example is Hiram Kimball, whose wife Sarah swore in an affidavit:
"Early in 1842 Joseph taught me the principle of marriage for eternity, and the doctrine of plural marriage…I asked him to teach it to someone else. He looked at me reprovingly…[saying] 'I will not cease to pray for you.'" (Historical Record, Vol. 6, p. 232)
Along with Austin Cowles (formerly the First Counselor in the First Presidency), William Law published accusations of heresy, adultery, and fornication against Joseph in the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor on June 7th, 1844.
Additionally, the Nauvoo Expositor described Joseph's embezzlement of city funds set aside for building the town's temple. Cowles also charged that he had seen "a revelation given through the Prophet" which taught "the doctrine of the plurality of wives" - revealing that Joseph was preaching polygamy, at that time a secret teaching of the Church due to its criminality. Joseph responded by convening the Nauvoo city council and placing the Nauvoo Expositor itself on trial. There were no jury, lawyers, or witnesses for the defense. Joseph proclaimed that the revelation on polygamy referred to in the Nauvoo Expositor:
"…was in answer to a question concerning things which transpired in former days, and had no reference to the present time." (Nauvoo Neighbor, June 19, 1844. Words in italics were omitted from the History of the Church when the proceedings were reprinted (see Vol. 6, p. 441).
Joseph then ordered the Nauvoo Expositor's press destroyed along with every issue of the paper that could be found on June 10th, 1844.
The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon were all excommunicated from the church, although Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery later were rebaptized. Joseph Smith called Harris "too mean to mention" and told people that God had called Harris "a wicked man." While David Whitmer never renounced the Book of Mormon, he did regard Joseph a fallen prophet. Cowdery joined a Methodist congregation.
That the Three Witnesses were a gullible sort is illustrated by an incident in July, 1837. Joseph had left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find on his return that all three of the Witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. This faction rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone in which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, and Frederick G. Williams, formerly Joseph's First Counselor, became her scribe. The girl seeress would dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations. (See Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, pp. 211-213).
Brigham Young stated:
"...witnesses of the Book of Mormon who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7, p. 164)
Michael Ash stated that the Three Witnesses were honest and that they never denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon:
"Like Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, David Whitmer bore the testimony to the truthfulness of reality of his encounter with the angel and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon until the day he died. Book of Mormon critics have not been able to impugn their testimonies but have instead resorted to character assassination. As history demonstrates, however, the honesty, integrity and reliability of these witnesses confound the critics every bit as much as the testimony of the three witnesses confounds those who refuse to accept the revealed word of God." (Michael R. Ash, The Book of Mormon)
B. H. Roberts (1857-1933)
In 1921, a young man from Salina, Utah sent a letter to Apostle James Talmage. The letter contained five questions submitted to him by another individual, who was investigating the claims of the Book of Mormon. The questions addressed the likelihood of the book being an ancient and true record. Elder Talmage forwarded these questions to Elder B. H. Roberts, who had studied and written extensively regarding the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Elder Roberts was a scholar and General Authority for the church (President of the First Quorum of the Seventy). He had compiled and written works on the veracity of the Book of Mormon, as well as the Comprehensive History of the Church. He was known as the great defender of the Book of Mormon.
In the process of investigating these questions, Elder Roberts uncovered numerous discrepancies that he was unable to answer. He wrote the prophet, Heber J. Grant, and requested a meeting with senior church leaders. In this meeting, he wanted to present a 141-page typed report in order to garner the collective wisdom of these church leaders, as well as the inspiration of the Lord. He sought solutions to the problems presented, both for this young man, and for other potential investigators.
However, Elder Roberts emerged from nearly two full days of interaction with the General Authorities deeply disappointed. He later wrote to President Grant, expressing frustration that so much of what was said in the meetings was "utterly irrelevant", and not helpful in resolving the questions. The Brethren, rather than substantively addressing the concerns Elder Roberts had shared, instead bore their testimonies.
Here is an excerpt from the letter written by Elder Roberts to President Grant on January 9, 1922:
"I just wanted the brethren to know that I was quite disappointed in the results of our conference, but not withstanding I shall be most earnestly alert upon the subject of Book of Mormon difficulties, hoping for the development of new knowledge, and for new light to fall upon what has already been learned, to the vindication of what God has revealed in the Book of Mormon; but I cannot be other than painfully conscious of the fact that our means of defense, should we be vigorously attacked along the lines of [these] questions, are very inadequate." (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 50).
Elder Roberts had the tenacity and intellectual honesty not to dismiss these concerns outright. He was committed to finding answers that would substantially resolve them:
"What shall our answer be then? Shall we boldly acknowledge the difficulties in the case, confess that the evidences and conclusions of the authorities are against us, but notwithstanding that, we take our position on the Book of Mormon and place its revealed truths against the declarations of men, however learned, and await the vindication of the revealed truth? ...What will the effect be upon our youth of such a confession of inability to give a more reasonable answer to the questions submitted, and the awaiting of proof for final vindication? Will not the hoped for proof deferred indeed make the heart sick? ... Again I ask, is silence our best answer? And again the question comes, can we remain silent in our age of free inquiry? ...These questions are put by me at the close of this division of the 'study' not for self-embarrassment, surely, nor for the embarrassment of others, but to bring to the consciousness of myself and my brethren that we face grave difficulties in all these matters, and that if there is any way by which we may 'find wisdom, and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures'----for I am sure that neither an appeal to the books written by men, nor even to the books of scripture now in our possession, will solve our present difficulties---then a most earnest appeal should be made to that source of wisdom and knowledge, and with a faith and persistence that will admit of no denial." (Studies of the Book of Mormon, 59)
Elder Roberts went on to write extensively (privately and unpublished in his lifetime) about the problematic origins of the Book of Mormon. His motivation appears to have been the desire to document potential concerns of investigators, and eventually, to address those concerns. It was while serving as Mission President that he continued his investigations, leading to the embarrassing find of remarkable similarities between the Book of Mormon story and Ethan Smith's book, View of the Hebrews.
Throughout this process, did Elder Roberts lose his faith? The answer to that is difficult, since publicly he continued to affirm the divinity of the Book of Mormon. His approach seems to be one of a man that believed the church to be true, but that felt it was important to directly and honestly address what he considered to be substantive concerns. He never found answers to many of the concerns that he raised, and he was disappointed by the church's reluctance and inability to address those concerns in a meaningful way.
Forty-four days prior to his death, Elder Roberts spoke with Wesley P. Lloyd, one of his former missionaries in the Eastern States Mission. The conversation occurred on August 7, 1933, and was three and a half hours long. Lloyd recorded the conversation in his journal that same day:
"The conversation then drifted to the Book of Mormon and this surprising story he related to me. That while he was Pres. of the Eastern States Mission a Logan man by the name of Riter persuaded a scholarly friend who was a student in Washington to read through and to criticize the Book of Mormon. The criticism that the student made was that at the time of the discovery of America there were fifty eight distinct languages in existence among the American Indians, not dialects but languages as different as English is from Spanish and that all human knowledge indicates that fundamental languages change very slowly whereas at the time of the Book of Mormon the people were supposed to have been speaking all one tongue. The student asked Riter to explain that proposition. Riter sent the letter to Dr. Talmage who studied it over and during a trip east asked Brother Roberts to make a careful investigation and study and to get an answer for the letter. Roberts went to work and investigated it from every angle but could not answer it satisfactorily to himself. At his request Pres. Grant called a meeting of the Twelve Apostles and Bro. Roberts presented the matter, told them frankly that he was stumped and ask for their aid in the explanation. In answer, they merely one by one stood up and bore testimony to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. George Albert Smith in tears testified that his faith in the Book had not been shaken by the question. Pres. Ivins, the man most likely to be able to answer a question on that subject was unable to provide the solution. No answer was available. Bro. Roberts could not criticize them for not being able to answer it or to assist him, but said that in a Church which claimed continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary. After the meeting, he wrote Pres. Grant expressing his disappointment at the failure of Pres. Ivins to contribute to the problem. It was mentioned at the meeting by Bro Roberts that there were other Book of Mormon problems that needed special attention. Richard R. Lyman spoke up and asked if they were things that would help our prestige and when Bro Roberts answered no, he said then why discuss them. This attitude was too much for the historically minded Roberts. There was however a committee appointed to study this problem, consisting of Bros Talmage, Ballard, Roberts, and one other Apostle. They met and looked vacantly at one and other, but none seemed to know what to do about it. Finally, Bro Roberts mentioned that he had at least attempted an answer and he had it in his drawer. That it was an answer that would satisfy people that didn't think, but a very inadequate answer to a thinking man. They asked him to read it and after hearing it they adopted it by vote and said that was about the best they could do. After this Bro Roberts made a special Book of Mormon study. Treated the problem systematically and historically and in a 400 type written page thesis set forth a revolutionary article on the origin of the Book of Mormon and sent it to Pres. Grant. It's an article far too strong for the average Church member but for the intellectual group he considers it a contribution to assist in explaining Mormonism. He swings to a psychological explanation of the Book of Mormon and shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith. That his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective. He explained certain literary difficulties in the Book such as the miraculous incident of the entire nation of the Jaredites, the dramatic story of one man being left on each side, and one of them finally being slain, also the New England flat hill surroundings of a great civilization of another part of the country. We see none of the cliffs of the Mayas or the high mountain peaks or other geographical environments of early American civilization that the entire story laid in a New England flat hill surrounding. These are some of the things which have made Bro Roberts shift his base on the Book of Mormon. Instead of regarding it as the strongest evidence we have of the Church Divinity, he regards it as the one which needs the more bolstering. His greatest claim for the divinity of the Prophet Joseph lies in the Doctrine and Covenants." (Wesley Parkinson Lloyd Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Box 1, folder 2, mss 2312. Note: Spelling and grammatical errors in the original have been corrected.)
Apologists claim that B.H. Roberts never wavered in his faith in the Book of Mormon. They say his purpose was to stimulate thought, rather than to find answers to questions that were personally disturbing:
"Perhaps the strongest evidence that B.H. Roberts' studies of the Book of Mormon are not an expression of his disillusionment with it is the fact that he makes absolutely no attempt in the manuscripts to answer the difficulties raised in them. Page after page in the manuscripts catalogues sundry difficulties, some unspeakably lame, in the tone of a harsh critic, with no attempt to answer them in either study. Isn't it odd that the great B.H. Roberts, ever skilled in dealing with sophisticated attacks on the Church, does not attempt to offer any solutions or possible answers to the difficulties mentioned in the studies? Why is that? Given what he himself said about them, and what we know from studying his works, it is clear that they were written to stimulate thought and discussion, not to attempt to answer them, just as he said they were. Isn't it manifestly unfair to hold these writings up as proof that Roberts' faith in the Book of Mormon was shaken, and doesn't it speak to the weakness of the anti-Mormon position that so much effort has been made to score points off of the alleged shaken faith of Mormonism's greatest defender?" (see Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony by McKay V. Jones)
Thomas Ferguson received degrees in political science and law, and practiced law in Orinda, California. Ferguson also worked with the F.B.I., but his first love seemed to be trying to prove the Book of Mormon through the study of Mesoamerican archaeology. In 1983, J. Willard Marriot wrote a letter in which he commented concerning Ferguson's dedication to establishing an archaeological base for the Book of Mormon:
"We spent several months together in Mexico looking at the ruins and studying the Book of Mormon archaeology. I have never known anyone who was more devoted to that kind of research than was Tom. I remember when he was with the F.B.I., he would arise at 4:30 or 5:00 AM and read the Book of Mormon and information he could find pertaining to it." (The Messiah in Ancient America, 1987, p. 250)
His wife, Ester, recalled that during their courtship she was sometimes piqued by his passion for the Book of Mormon and once complained to her mother, "I think I'm going out with the Book of Mormon." Throughout their married life Ester staunchly supported her husband's efforts.
As noted further in The Messiah in Ancient America:
"Tom Ferguson first approached the President of Brigham Young University, Howard S. McDonald, about establishing a Department of Archaeology…Tom Ferguson was able to convince officials of BYU of the benefit to the University of having such a department…
Ferguson devoted a great deal of his life trying to prove the Book of Mormon by archaeology, and was considered by the Mormon people as a great defender of the faith. He wrote at least three books on the subject. He received a grant of $250,000 after meeting with President David O. McKay which funded five years of work searching for archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon (1955-1959).
However, after all of his efforts Ferguson failed to find the evidence he sought:
"Ten years have passed…I sincerely anticipated that Book-of-Mormon cities would be positively identified within 10 years - and time has proved me wrong in my anticipation." (Letter from Ferguson dated June 5, 1972)
Following the discovery of the Egyptian Papyri and evidence of strange accounts of the First Vision (from Cheesman and BYU), Ferguson concluded definitively that the church was false. He didn't share this information with his family, seeing the church as having social utility. But the documentation of his personal conclusions is irrefutable. For example, in a letter written Feb. 9, 1976, he gave this advice:
"…Mormonism is probably the best conceived myth-fraternity to which one can belong…Joseph Smith tried so hard he put himself out on a limb with the Book of Abraham, and also with the Book of Mormon. He can be refuted - but why bother…It would be like wiping out placebos in medicine, and that would make no sense when they do lots of good…