Book Review: An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins

I finally picked up Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins from the Provo library. It’s been in print for six years, but I’ve never bothered with it for a couple of reasons. First, when it came out, I was a believer, but more importantly, from what I had heard from several friends, both in and out of the church, it didn’t offer much more than a summary of what I already knew. But I figured at this point I ought to read it, particularly since it’s been such an object of ridicule among some apologists; BYU professor and MA&D fixture Bill Hamblin recently remarked of the book, “If that’s the best you can do, I rest my case. (“Golden Potindeed!).”

The book does not make any pretense of being scholarly. Rather, Palmer says that his purpose is to “introduce church members who have not followed the developments in church history for the last thirty years to issues that are central to the topic of Mormon origins.” And for the most part, Palmer’s book does just that: he surveys much of the research that has been done among critics and apologists over the last thirty years or so and presents the material well for the novice reader. Not surprisingly, he finds the critics on surer ground.

The first chapter methodically covers each of Joseph Smith’s alleged attempts to translate, and Palmer seems almost disappointed to report that Smith failed in every case. He does a good job of explaining both the context and source materials for such varied projects as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST), the Book of Abraham, and the Kinderhook plates: “My conclusion is that a large body of evidence demonstrates that Joseph mistranslated a number of documents.” Oddly enough, Palmer still finds value in Smith’s writings “on a spiritual level” (36), though he does not see them as authentic translations of real records.

The next chapter discusses Joseph Smith as author of the Book of Mormon. Here he discusses Joseph’s education and intellect, and his wholesale lifting of Bible passages (particularly New Testament passages) and recasting them as Nephite revelation. Seeing the source material side by side with the Book of Mormon makes it difficult not to see the borrowing, intentional or not. Palmer then discusses the cultural mythology of Joseph’s contemporaries and includes B.H. Roberts’ conclusions that the Book of Mormon is the product of a nineteenth-century mind.

The third chapter discusses the Bible in the Book of Mormon (Palmer’s organization is a little haphazard). Again he shows obvious borrowings from the Bible. The next chapter is quite interesting in that it discusses late Protestant conversion patterns, how they show up in nineteenth-century camp revivals and in the Book of Mormon. The similarities are obvious. Palmer also shows how contemporary religious issues (in particular the tension between Universalists and Restorationists) appear in the Book of Mormon, as well as the idea that the Holy Ghost reveals truth through feelings.

The wheels come off Palmer’s thesis somewhat in his covering of the “Golden Pot,” a German short story that, as Palmer shows, does have some parallels to Joseph Smith’s story of finding the golden plates. Palmer makes a rather strained case that an itinerant magician in Joseph’s neighborhood may have acquainted him with the story. But the parallels seem forced and unimportant, and the chapter detracts from what has so far been a pretty solid recitation of Mormon sources. It’s no accident that it’s this chapter that the apologists prefer to focus on in their derision. In truth, Palmer has given them some ammunition here.

Palmer’s discussion of the eleven witnesses is thorough and damning. These were men who believed in “second sight,” or the ability to see things with the spiritual eye, not the physical. Apologists such as Daniel Peterson have long puzzled me in their insistence that I take the witnesses and their statements seriously. But as Palmer puts it, modern believers “tend to read into their testimonies a rationalist perspective rather than a nineteenth-century magical mindset” (175). These were people who believed in ghosts and talking toads, divining rods and peepstones. And he does a good job of showing that nearly all the witnesses spoke of their having seen the plates through this second sight, their “spiritual eyes.”

The last two chapters deal similarly with the restoration of the priesthood and the First Vision. We find in both cases that the Sunday School version of events does not hold up under scrutiny. Of course I already knew that. So my friend was right: other than the Golden Pot story, Palmer’s book told me nothing that I didn’t already know. But then as an introduction to the novice, Palmer’s book is a good place to start. For the skeptic, Palmer lays out the problems in a straightforward and easy-to-read way; for the believer, he provides copious footnotes that, if followed, will give the reader a good cross-section of current scholarship.

In the end, Palmer remains to me more of an enigma than Joseph Smith is. After essentially debunking most of Mormonism’s foundational claims, Palmer still says, “I cherish Joseph Smith’s teachings on many topics” (261). From what I know, many people who have read Palmer’s book can no longer say that.

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6 Responses to Book Review: An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins

  1. chriscarrollsmith says:

    Thanks for the review, Runtu. I haven’t read this book yet either, for much the same reason. It sounds like it’s be worth picking up, if only for the witnesses chapter. I’m a bit surprised at your concluding thought. Aren’t you one who still has some appreciation for Mormon teachings? Maybe I’m confusing you with moksha.

  2. runtu says:

    Yeah, you’re probably thinking of moksha. I do find many of Mormonism’s teachings attractive, but not so much that it makes up for the simple problem of its being a made-up religion. Truth matters to me.

  3. Eric says:

    It’s been a few years since I read this book. I read it during my transition between fooling myself and leaving the church, and wasn’t too impressed by it. I found Brodie’s book much more thought-provoking, even considering its age.

    As I recall, I came away from “An Insider…” neither liking or disliking the book. However, the section concerning the “magical mindset” was quite interesting and led me to further reading on the subject outside of the LDS context.

    Interestingly, after reading about the “magical mindset” of the time, I reevaluated a fictional work by Orson Scott Card (occasionally apologist in his own rite) known as the Alvin Maker series, which relies heavily on the assumption that the “magical mindset” was real in an alternate history / semi-fantasy work of fiction. Since this research, I’ve seen Card’s apologetic tendencies more as an attempt at denial concerning his often vocal religious beliefs.

    However, I have to give credit for “An Insider…” as a good read for someone in early transition out of Mormonism. While the author seems to give up on his point by the end of the book, the reader may be apt to continue on their research of historical truths concerning the LDS church rather than follow Palmer’s conclusions.

    Excellent review, my friend.

  4. Laura says:

    you’re blogging again? 🙂

  5. chriscarrollsmith says:

    Heh. The Alvin Maker series was such a blatant apology for Joseph Smith’s use of magic that I couldn’t read it anymore after the first book.

  6. bull says:

    FARMS did a couple of “reviews” of this book which I read in the interest of open mindedness. If you want to see text book examples of ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments then I highly recommend them. I believe that such responses say a lot about the church and its defenders. Lacking any substantive response they resort to personal attacks and basically fail to respond to the book’s key points. In the one are you point out they respond and then basically say, “See how bad that was. Imagine how the rest of it is.” They are basically writing for people who won’t touch non-approved books to give the illusion that there really aren’t any problems and then the sheep continue on content without bothering to look at the actual book.

    The problem is that if you even bother to crack the book then you realize that the FARMS response must be talking about something completely different.

    Hey, it worked on me for many years. I was floored when I realized how dishonest the apologists were when I started reading unvarnished history and realizing that the church was the most dishonest, untrustworthy source when it comes to its own history and doctrines.

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