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 Pot” indeed!).”
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.