LDS FAQ: What's Up With Anti-Mormons? And Can LDS Scholars Refute Their Arguments?
Anti-Mormons: Who are they, what's their beef, and can LDS scholars refute their endless arguments against, say, the Book of Mormon? This is part of the LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) suite by Jeff Lindsay, my attempt to deal questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My writings merely reflect my personal understanding and, yes, biases.
One of the best sources on the complex topic of Mormon polygamy is "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)"
by Greg Smith. That link allows you to play an MP3 file to hear Greg Smith's hour-long talk on the topic. You can also read his words at FairMormon.org, complete with footnotes. He treats many aspects of this complex issue, including polyandry and young wives.
Mormanity is my LDS blog, in operation since 2004. Numerous issues have been discussed there. Join the fray! Or visit the other blogs on my blogroll there.
Also consider my "Book of Mormon Evidences" page.
You can order a free Book of Mormon at ComeuntoChrist.org.
It is a common myth that anti-Mormon attacks have completely overwhelmed the intellectual position of Latter-day Saints, leaving us with nothing but blind faith in "warm feelings" we get about the Church. The portrayal of Mormons as idiots without any intellectual foundation in our religion is a common caricature based on deceptive marketing. With the flood of anti-Mormon arguments, books, pamphlets, movies, and Web sites, it is easy to think that Mormonism would be completely devastated if only 10% of all the things said against it were true.
I once met a new convert, a college student, in my town of Appleton, Wisconsin, who showed me a couple of thick books loaded with accusations against the Church. She was upset and angry and planning to leave the Church. I tried to calm her down, and one by one, we discussed the arguments that were bothering her. Once one attack was diffused, she raised another, and another, and I think I helped her see that there was little merit to what she had raised so far, and that the bulk of the anti-Mormon material was truly deceptive. Then she just dug in her heels and said, "Well, it doesn't matter. If only 10% of all the things in here are true, that's enough to destroy the Church!" She left the Church, and if she had lived 2,000 years ago as an early Christian convert, I'm sure she would have left the Church then, too. After all, if only 10% of the things that the anti-Christians said were true, then that would be enough to destroy Christianity, right? (Oh, how I wish modern education would help people understand that critical thinking means more than just thinking of criticism.)
Anti-Mormon literature is often ignorant of what Latter-day Saints really believe and especially ignorant of LDS authors have written in response to anti-Mormon attacks. Many of the common attacks against the Church are regurgitated arguments from the nineteenth century, arguments which have been thoroughly and carefully treated by responsible LDS writers who do much more than just talk about some warm feeling in their hearts. But the anti-Mormon writers and speakers of today make it sound as if no Mormon has ever dared to respond to their awesome arguments, and that the Church can only retreat and hide when faced with an intellectual battle.
The flaws in some standard anti-Mormon arguments have been pointed out by a number of non-LDS writers. In one interesting example, two evangelical critics of the Church, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, presented a paper at the 1997 Evangelical Theological Society Far West Annual Meeting, April 25, 1997 that warned the evangelical community about the impressive efforts of LDS scholars and criticized the blind approach of typical anti-Mormon literature. Their article, "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" (later published in Trinity Journal, Fall 1998, pp. 179-205), is one of the most intriguing non-LDS articles I've ever encountered from critics of the Church. (One of several copies of it on the Web can be found at ComeToZarahemla.org, or Cephas Ministry (archived).)
Mosser and Owen note that anti-LDS writers have ignored the work of some LDS scholars who are providing "robust defenses" of the LDS faith. In preparing their paper, Mosser and Owen did something that few critics have done: they have actually read a wide variety of LDS scholarly writings. As a result, they came to the following five conclusions:
The first [conclusion] is that there are, contrary to popular evangelical perceptions, legitimate Mormon scholars. We use the term scholar in its formal sense of "intellectual, erudite; skilled in intellectual investigation; trained in ancient languages." Broadly, Mormon scholarship can be divided into four categories: traditional, neo-orthodox, liberal and cultural. We are referring to the largest and most influential of the four categories--traditional Mormon scholars. It is a point of fact that the Latter-day Saints are not an anti-intellectual group like Jehovah's Witnesses. Mormons, in distinction to groups like JWs, produce work that has more than the mere appearance of scholarship. The second conclusion we have come to is that Mormon scholars and apologists (not all apologists are scholars) have, with varying degrees of success, answered most of the usual evangelical criticisms. Often these answers adequately diffuse particular (minor) criticisms. When the criticism has not been diffused the issue has usually been made much more complex.
A third conclusion we have come to is that currently there are, as far as we are aware, no books from an evangelical perspective that responsibility interact with contemporary LDS scholarly and apologetic writings. In a survey of twenty recent evangelical books criticizing Mormonism we found that none interact with this growing body of literature. Only a handful demonstrate any awareness of pertinent works. Many of the authors promote criticisms that have long been refuted; some are sensationalistic while others are simply ridiculous. A number of these books claim to be "the definitive" book on the matter. That they make no attempt to interact with contemporary LDS scholarship is a stain upon the authors' integrity and causes one to wonder about their credibility.
Our fourth conclusion is that at the academic level evangelicals are losing the debate with the Mormons. We are losing the battle and do not know it. In recent years the sophistication and erudition of LDS apologetics has risen considerably while evangelical responses have not. Those who have the skills necessary for this task rarely demonstrate an interest in the issues. Often they do not even know that there is a need. In large part this is due entirely to ignorance of the relevant literature.
Finally, our fifth conclusion is that most involved in the counter-cult movement lack the skills and training necessary to answer Mormon scholarly apologetic. The need is great for trained evangelical biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians to examine and answer the growing body of literature produced by traditional LDS scholars and apologists.
Further analysis based on the paper of Mosser and Owen has been provided by Justin Hart in "Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It" in Meridian Magazine (ldsmag.com), an article with several follow-on parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. For an interesting example of the issues that Owen and Mosser have raised, see Paul Owen's rebuttal of anti-Mormon John Weldon's response to the original article of Mosser and Owen. Owen appears to be appalled at the "head-in-the-sand" approach of John Weldon, who has demonstrated the very problems that Mosser and Owen speak against in their paper and says that Weldon's anti-Mormon "intellectual narrow-mindedness" is "astounding."
Latter-day Saints who study the responses of LDS writers to anti-Mormon criticisms know that there are many excellent resources which may refute or at least defuse many of the arguments hurled against us. These resources, found at places like the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS), FairMormon.org, SHIELDS, and even my little Web site (including my Mormon Answers section), do not rely on blind faith and emotional feelings to deal with the critics - though there are some tough issues like polygamy for which we don't have good answers (ugh - I really don't like polygamy!). But for many issues, Mosser and Owen are correct in observing that there are "robust defenses." In fact, many of the defenses turn the tables on the critics and leave them in intellectually untenable positions. In fact, we could turn around and ask them a few tough questions of our own -- see, for example, "My Turn--Questions for Anti-Mormons."
There is plenty of room for decent people to disagree with us. Sometimes I even disagree with "us." Most Protestants and Catholics who disagree with us are not "anti-Mormons" but simply people of another denomination. But when someone strives to stir up anger toward the Church and relies on misinformation or half-truths, then I'm inclined to apply the anti-Mormon label--especially when they do it for a living. On the borderline are well meaning people who feel an evangelical duty to battle "cults" (which tend to be any group that disagrees with them) and write articles regurgitating the sensationalist and shocking diatribes of full-blooded anti-Mormons. I tend to call such critics anti-Mormons as well (I sense that they usually don't mind the title, unless they are posing as "loving friends of the Mormons" in order to launch more effective assaults on our faith). Those of other faiths who disagree with us and engage in civil discourse with us about their differences are usually not "anti-Mormons" but perhaps simply critics or just adherents of a different faith.
Some pastors and ministers who might consider themselves as anti-Mormons are sincere in their differences with LDS theology and write intelligently and honestly about their views. They can differ without distorting the truth and can be respectful and kind in their discussions. I guess that intelligent and honest writing doesn't sell well, because so much of the popular writings against the Church are ugly, deceptive, and inflammatory. This is the stuff that I tend to call "anti-Mormon." I admit that there isn't a crisp dividing line between "anti" and just "critical" - but there is an extreme that merits the "anti" label.
While some critics are honest, I fear that others are deliberately deceptive. Some surely know what we really believe, but seem to go out of their way to distort it. I feel that way about Ed Decker's classic work, The God Makers. His movies and writings create the impression that temples are evil, scary places with devil worship, homosexuality, and conspiracy. He alleges that Mormons are plotting to take over the country and impose a theological dictatorship. He warns people not to pray to understand the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, frightening them with the idea that Satan will come and deceive them if they do. I think this goes beyond the sincere.
One of the strangest and most dishonest tactics of some anti-Mormons is falsely claiming to have advanced degrees in order to buttress their credibility. An amazing example is Dee Jay Nelson, who gained the trust of many people by claiming to have academic credentials and an international scholarly reputation--all of which was entirely bogus. He was a con-man who led many gullible people out of the Church during the peak of his illegitimate career as an anti-Mormon lecturer. Others include Walter Martin and the duo of "Dr." John Ankenberg and "Dr. Dr." John Weldon (yes, he lists himself as "Dr. Dr." as if he had two doctorates, though it appears that he lacks even one real doctorate - and no real Ph.D. with two degrees would describe himself as "Dr. Dr."!). (Some info and a review of their work is Daniel Peterson, "Chattanooga Cheapshot, or The Gall of Bitterness," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 5/1 (1993):1–86.) The father of anti-Mormons, Doctor Philastrus Hurlbut, was actually named "Doctor" by his parents but lacked a degree. I don't think he promoted himself as if he had the degree, but that title has been used by others to increase respect for that immoral and twice excommunicated anti-Mormon. Other questionable anti-Mormon "Drs." include "Dr." James White, whose Doctorate of Theology appears to have come from an unnamed correspondence school. Fortunately, this form of deception applies only to a minute minority of our critics. The majority are much more honest in their work, in spite of often being wrong or misguided, in my opinion. .
Among the specific tactics used by those I consider anti-Mormons, an especially interesting one is their creative use of definitions to classify Mormons as a cult or as non-Christian. Ironically, the non-standard definitions they craft would also condemn Christ and His early disciples in the New Testament as cultists and non-Christians. For details, see my page, "Do Latter-day Saints Belong to a Cult?" For a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of related anti-Mormon techniques, see my spoof page about an exciting new software product, CultMaster 2000.
An excellent resource exposing many anti-Mormon tactics is They Lie in Wait to Deceive, Volumes 1-4 by Robert and Rosemary Brown.
"Historical or Hysterical -- Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources" by Matthew B. Brown is based on a presentation he gave about the abuse of historical sources by anti-Mormons in their attacks on the Joseph Smith story. (It includes a number of graphics taken from PowerPoint slides that can be expanded upon clicking to see details. Numerous references are provided for the points Brown makes.) Very instructive about some anti-Mormon tactics in using historical sources. I should note that some critics try to be very accurate and careful in their use of historical information, but some of the most common stuff you run into on the Internet and "Christian" bookstores falls into the other category,
There is no simple wy to describe them. Some are pastors or self-appointed ministers who use anti-Mormonism as an important part of their career, focusing on stirring up fear against Mormons. Others are dedicated to attacking many religions in their "anti-cult" ministries. Others may be secular with either a disdain of religion in general or with a specific axe to grind against the Latter-day Saints. Some vocal anti-Mormons are former Mormons themselves who left the Church for a variety of reasons, including differing with teachings or having a bad experience in some way. This is not an unusual thing. In the history of religion, former members of a religion are the ones with the motivation and ability to do the most harm. Someone who has no connection to the Church is generally less likely to have the anger and bitterness that seems to characterize the most vocal anti-Mormons (or anti-anything). A modern example for us is Tricia Ericson, a bitter authored a book warning America of a Mormon takeover if Mitt Romney becomes President of the United States. Her approach verges on hysteria, on the view of some people. You can learn a few things about anti-Mormonism by simply reading the reviews and rebuttals of her hostile and deceitful work. See "A Reply to Ms. Ericksom" by the cool-headed Stephen Smoot at the FAIR Blog. Her attack on the Church has, unfortunately, been given much publicity by CNN and others, and no doubt she will be a star witness for many years to come as other anti-Mormons treat her words as if they were reliable, factual, and unbiased. This reminds us of what Hugh Nibley said long ago about typical anti-Mormon tactics in his essay, "How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book" (also listen to Nibley give this hilarious speech):
The whole corpus of anti-Mormon literature rests foursquare on the testimony of people who claim they were once good Mormons. To get an inside track you have simply to latch on to one of these, and they are not hard to find. The fact that any intelligent Saint would recognize in a moment that Ann Eliza Young was never anything remotely resembling an orthodox Mormon should be a warning to keep one's distance from informants who are still Mormons.
Daniel C. Peterson authored the following passage on the Evangelical approach:
The fact is that evangelical Protestantism represents a faction, no more, of a minority faction, no more, of Christianity. That faction arose, relatively late, in northwestern Europe, and it is still basically dominant only among those of northwestern European extraction. It is distinctly a minority in Italy and Brazil and Mexico and Spain and France and Argentina, and it is virtually invisible in Greece and Romania and Russia and Armenia and the Ukraine, to say nothing of Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq.
Latter-day Saints do not claim that their faith-group is exhaustive of Christendom. We recognize that there are Catholic and Orthodox and other Christians. Some evangelical Protestants seem reluctant, however, to grant that the Copts or the Catholics are Christians at all. Some say so implicitly, and others have told me so explicitly, under direct questioning.
Latter-day Saints do, of course, claim that God has acted to restore the true fullness of Christianity, and that that fulness is embodied in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Such a claim can seem arrogant, and I, for one, would be very hesitant to make it -- indeed, I would refuse to make it -- were it not for the presupposition of direct revelation that undergirds it.
To assert, as some evangelicals have declared directly to me, that they alone are Christians, and that they have arrived at their unique Christianity by virtue of their own reading of the Bible -- implicitly dismissing the other claimants to Christianity as either preternaturally stupid or irrationally evil or some mixture of the two -- seems to me both arrogant and, in view of the fact that the preponderant majority of world "Christians" hold to different opinions, quite unlikely to be true. Even to claim that evangelical Protestants alone are "biblical" or "orthodox" Christians, seems an improbable and smug declaration.
That is the point. Ironically, Latter-day Saints rely, here, upon God's grace, where some of my evangelical interlocutors -- the ones that I have in mind -- seem quite evidently to trust in their own understanding.
But most evangelicals, though critical of our religion, are not what I would call "anti-Mormons." In fact, many are very respectful and tolerant, in spite of their strong disagreement with our views. The evangelicals I have know over the years have largely been fine examples of Christians who were not out to defame us or stir up fear about the Mormons, and have been great people to dialog with.
Some anti-Mormons seem ignorant of Hugh Nibley's work. When forced to confront his writings, many rapidly dismiss him as irresponsible, biased, sloppy, deceitful, etc. On the other hand, there are some non-LDS folks who have pointed out a variety of flaws in Nibley's writings. While Nibley did much to advance study of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, LDS people must understand that his work can be rather dated now and often contains errors that he is not around to correct now. Enjoy it, but proceed with caution. But proceed with even more caution with anything I write, for I am far less competent and qualified that he was - I'm just an amateur apologist, guys.
Regarding Nibley, as brilliant and talented as he was, he spent much of his life writing for LDS audiences, and thus may not be widely recognized by other scholars in his field. in spite of some great early publications. That's my opinion, though I have incredible respect for him, having watched him in action and having read much of his work.
Some related insight into Nibley is provided by two well educated anti-LDS writers, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, mentioned above, whose article, "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?," is one of the most intriguing anti-LDS articles I've ever encountered. It warns that anti-LDS writers have essentially completely ignored the significant scholarship of Hugh Nibley and many other LDS scholars who are providing "robust defenses" of the LDS faith. In preparing their paper, Mosser and Owen did something that few anti-LDS writers have done: they have actually read a variety of LDS scholarly writings. Their response, paraphrased, is: "Wake up, anti-Mormons! We're losing the intellectual war without even knowing it!" Here is what they say about Nibley:
Hugh Nibley: The Father of Mormon Scholarly Apologetics
Hugh Nibley is without question the pioneer of LDS scholarship and apologetics. Since earning his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1939, Nibley has produced a seemingly endless stream of books and articles covering a dauntingly vast array of subject matter. Whether writing on Patristics, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the apocrypha, the culture of the Ancient Near East or Mormonism, he demonstrates an impressive command of the original languages, primary texts and secondary literature. He has set a standard which younger LDS intellectuals are hard pressed to follow. There is not room here for anything approaching an exhaustive examination of Nibley's works.(1) We must confess with Truman Madsen, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Brigham Young University: "To those who know him best, and least, Hugh W. Nibley is a prodigy, an enigma, and a symbol."(2)
The few evangelicals who are aware of Hugh Nibley often dismiss him as a fraud or pseudo-scholar. Those who would like to quickly dismiss his writings would do well to heed Madsen's warning: "Ill-wishing critics have suspected over the years that Nibley is wrenching his sources, hiding behind his footnotes, and reading into antique languages what no responsible scholar would every read out. Unfortunately, few have the tools to do the checking."(3) The bulk of Nibley's work has gone unchallenged by evangelicals despite the fact that he has been publishing relevant material since 1946. Nibley's attitude toward evangelicals: "We need more anti-Mormon books. They keep us on our toes."(4)
No doubt there are flaws in Nibley's work, but most counter-cultists do not have the tools to demonstrate this. Few have tried.(5) It is beyond the scope of this paper to critique Nibley's methodology or to describe the breadth of his apologetic.(6) Whatever flaws may exist in his methodology, Nibley is a scholar of high caliber. Many of his more important essays first appeared in academic journals such as the Revue de Qumran, Vigiliae Christianae, Church History, and the Jewish Quarterly Review.(7) Nibley has also received praise from non-LDS scholars such as Jacob Neusner, James Charlesworth, Cyrus Gordon, Raphael Patai and Jacob Milgrom.(8) The former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, George MacRae, once lamented while hearing him lecture, "It is obscene for a man to know that much!"(9) Nibley has not worked in a cloister. It is amazing that few evangelical scholars are aware of his work. In light of the respect Nibley has earned in the non-LDS scholarly world it is more amazing that counter-cultists can so glibly dismiss his work.
Footnotes from the above passage:
1. FARMS is currently working on a twenty volume collection of Nibley's works, ten of which are already published (abbr. CWHN).
2. Truman Madsen, foreword to Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless: Classic Essays of Hugh W. Nibley, edited by Madsen (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), ix.
3. Ibid., xiv.
4. Quoted by Madsen, ibid., xi.
5. In fact, the only substantial evangelical interaction we have seen to date is James White's 56 page (single spaced) disputation of the proper syntax of the pronoun in Matthew 16:18. This paper can be acquired from the Alpha & Omega Ministries Internet site.
6. For a sharp critique of Nibley's methodology from an LDS perspective see Kent P. Jackson in BYU Studies 28 no. 4 (Fall 1988):114-119.
7. Specific references can be found in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co. and FARMS, 1990), 1:xviii-lxxxvii.
8. See the contributions by these men in volume one of Nibley's festschrift By Study and Also by Faith.
9. See Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 147 n. 105.
I think my LDSFAQ Suite offers useful answers to many common questions and allegations. Other general resources with many articles and responses include: