Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Major News from Salt Lake City
11/18/2007 - James WhiteThis is some of the biggest news I've seen coming out of Mormonism in quite some time. Here is the Salt Lake Tribune article (ht: TC). Changing a single word in the introduction to the Book of Mormon may not seem like a huge thing to most folks, but it is the word that is changed that says a lot. For those not familiar with the situation, let me summarize it.
There is truly no question that Joseph Smith believed the Book of Mormon story took place all across the United States, including upstate New York. That is, the battles and armies described in the book were not tiny affairs hidden away in some yet-to-be-discovered valley in the jungle of Meso-America. The fact that Smith identified some bones found during one of his journeys as a "Lamanite" proves this (and the excuses offered by LDS apologists on this account ring very hollow).
It is very clear that the leadership of the LDS Church until very recently believed firmly that the Book of Mormon is a historical document that explains where the American Indians came from. The fact that leaders as well known as Spencer W. Kimball made it clear they believed that native American converts to Mormonism would see lighter and lighter offspring (as the "curse of Cain" was lifted) once again proves this to be the case. It was the claim of the Book of Mormon that a dark skin was a curse placed upon the Lamanites for their unrighteousness (a curse not placed upon the white and delightsome Nephites). The long history of racist views amongst the leaders of Mormonism is, likewise, well documented. Indeed, the fact that blacks were not admitted to the LDS priesthood until 1978 (though the theology behind that ban was not changed, but has been swept under the rug) again shows that the viewpoints expressed by Joseph Smith, flowing from the worldview predominant amongst unlearned Americans of the early 1800s in that area of the world continued to determine LDS theology right into the modern day.
But with the advent of DNA studies, the LDS faith has once again been challenged to its roots. Previous elements of Smith's supposed revelations have already been proven false at their core. The Book of Abraham is an albatross draped across the neck of LDS apologists, an obvious fraud defying rational defense. And as LDS apologists have strained to give credence to Smith's revelations in the Book of Mormon, they have had to draw his claims in ever smaller circles, doing all they can to minimize the huge target that they are called to defend. So much is this the case that modern LDS apologists are want to limit the Book of Mormon story to a 40 square mile area, so small that it could be plausibly argued that modern archaeological research could miss it...forever. But when DNA studies began to prove what critics have been saying all along, namely, that the American Indians are anything but the descendants of Jews who fled to the Americas under God's guidance around 600 B.C., the LDS apologetics community was pressed beyond its limits.
Surely, attempts have been made to deflect the weight of these studies, but they are truly little more than O.J. Simpson style excuses, concocted to allow those who wish to continue to believe to do so, but little more. Those who are seriously seeking evidence of Smith's prophethood are now faced with serious, fair, and weighty evidence on all hands that demonstrate conclusively that Smith, and the religion he founded, while a fascinating study in human nature, is anything but divinely instituted.
The change that has been made is a clear sign that, just as the smoke screen blown out by Hugh Nibley after the discovery of the Joseph Smith papyri was nothing but damage control, a rear-guard action, likewise the flurry of "it doesn't necessarily mean that" papers thrown out by LDS apologists have simply given the church some plausible excuses while they try to find another path to follow.
Now, before we get too excited, let's realize something: the introduction is still making historical claims that have no foundation whatsoever. And, if one is cynical (as I tend to be), this could be little more than a signal of the new apologetic: that the BoM story is so small, so minor, that it did indeed take place in a very small area, and hence the offspring of the Lamanites would be a very small minority percentage of the actual heritage of the modern native Americans, hence, would be next to undetectable in the gene pool. The approach to the major problems with Smith's supposed revelations in the past have been handled in similar fashion, with the hopes that the apologetic excuses are enough to keep the bleeding, membership wise, to a minimum. This kind of argument, which again seeks to minimize the prophetic claims of Smith and hence offer a smaller "target," would fit into Salt Lake's consistent paradigm. So while this change may well indicate that some of the leadership is leaning toward a less strident view of Smith's claims to prophethood, we can not at yet know for sure.
Which leads me to speculate: what if future generations of Mormons adopt the "Smith wrote a nice book of parables for us called the Book of Mormon" paradigm? Could Mormonism survive such a transition? I normally try to avoid such theoretical speculation, but in today's situation, it is hard not to ponder the possibilities. It is well known that Mormonism's growth has "gone soft." The numbers indicate little more than "natural growth," not the massive explosion seen in the 1970s and 80s. Mormonism has lost its way, and it cannot get traction in post-modern Western culture. On the one hand, this may be due to Mormonism trying to follow in the "don't offend anyone, just share your story" mold. The Mormonism of old was bold and clear in its claim to be the "One True Church," and that is attractive to many. Surely the reasons for the change in its growth rate are many and complex. But one thing is for sure: the hard core of Mormonism in central and southern Utah is not ready to turn Smith into a religious fiction writer. The farther Salt Lake slides toward that viewpoint, the more growth you will see in the "fundamentalist cults" (as Salt Lake sees them) in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. At the same time, Mormonism's over-seas numbers reflect a wide range of challenges to the religion as well. How they will handle the continuing secularization of the West, coupled with the challenge of Islam all over the world (Mormonism, as a religion, simply doesn't have the depth of theology and tradition to survive long in dhimmi status under Islam), is anybody's guess.
So this change is certainly to be noted, especially if more changes of a similar nature begin appearing under the auspices of the leadership of the religion. Keep your eyes open, and continue to pray for opportunities to share the life-giving gospel of Christ with Mormons you may meet. Remember, even when religions undergo major changes, most of those who become disillusioned and leave do not end up in Christ-honoring churches. I have met many LDS now who have left the faith and are now skeptical about any religion at all. Pray that God will bring honor and glory to Himself by revealing His truth to those in the LDS faith, bringing them to faith in the one true and eternal God.