My Turn: Questions for Anti-Mormons
In my suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs," I've attempted to answer some of the endless questions that our critics throw out. Now it's my turn to ask a few. I do this not to argue with them, but to point out to others that we don't need to be on the defensive all the time. There are some meaningful issues that need to be considered beyond just the attacks of critics. Copyright © 2003-2014 by Jeff Lindsay, who is solely responsible for the contents. This page has not been approved by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For years, I've been answering questions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many questions have come from honest people just wanting to know more. Many of the questions I get are from those who aren't looking for answers, just opportunities to attack. Those who overhear the "dialog" between anti-Mormons and LDS defenders get the impression that Latter-day Saints are always on the defensive, fighting against arguments that seem significant due to the loudness and persistence of the attackers. If all we do is answer the never-ending attacks, people might miss an important fact: we are on a firm foundation, and we've got some pretty strong evidences and arguments of our own.
Of course, it's natural for Latter-day Saints to avoid direct attacks on other faiths. Yes, we think they there has been a loss of many truths and authority in other religions, but we go out of our way to respect the beliefs of others. We don't have paid ministries devoted to demonizing other denominations. We don't harass Baptists on their way to church with anti-Baptist rhetoric and literature. We don't make movies aimed at making people afraid of Catholics. We don't organize our forces to stop the building of new Protestant churches. We don't claim that Evangelicals are pagan cultists because they interpret the Bible differently that we do. But we certainly could ask some pointed questions, if we wanted to. Not to belittle other beliefs, but to cause people to think.
We don't have a monopoly on truth, nor do we have all the answers. We're still learning, and some things we think we know may need revision in the future. That's mortality, and we're as mortal as anyone. But we do have something marvelous that we want to share whose source is not merely mortal: the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know it's true, even though there's a lot I still don't know. But based on what I think we know, I'm trying the best I can to deal with the questions that people ask. But it's important to understand that we can do more than just cower under the relentless attack of harsh questions. We've got a few questions of our own that need to be confronted.
I'll keep answering your questions, of course, but on this page, it's my turn.
If the Book of Mormon is a fraud, then please answer these questions:
The book of First Nephi in the Book of Mormon describes a journey through the Arabian Peninsula in much detail, sometimes giving specific directions like "south south-east," and describing specific places such as the Valley of Lemuel with its continually flowing River of Laman, a burial place called Nahom, and a fertile and inhabitable spot called Bountiful due east of Nahom, where Lehi's group lived for a period of time and were able to construct boats and sail to the New World. Incredibly, these details are not only plausible based on modern knowledge, but specific candidates for these locations exist, as I show on my page on Book of Mormon Evidences (including photos). In fact, the candidate for Nahom is confirmed as an ancient burial place in just the right location (Nehhem) and is associated with an ancient tribal name with the same consonants (NHM), based on a recent find of an ancient altar from that tribe dating to around the time of Lehi, with an ideal candidate for Bountiful nearly due east of Nahom on the coast of Oman. And in spite of much mocking by anti-Mormons about the non-existence of rivers, a continually flowing stream has been found in an impressive valley in just the right place to be the valley and river spoken of by Nephi. These places and the NHM name could not possibly have been known to Joseph Smith. They remain unknown to most college graduate in our day, and unknown to almost all anti-Mormons, based on their remarkable silence on these impressive "bulls eyes" in the Book of Mormon. But I'll ask the question again: is there any way that such precise confirmation of First Nephi could have occurred if the unschooled farm boy Joseph Smith were just making up a wild story about a mythical adventure in a remote land? How can you explain away plausible and accurate directions that bypass the empty quarter and would allow an actual ancient journey, a description of a valley and river that anti-Mormons have alleged cannot possibly exist, the existence of an excellent candidate for Bountiful (also was said to not exist anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula), and a direct hit in identifying an ancient burial site and its rare name? Say what you will about other issues, but is there any way that First Nephi could have been written by anyone in North America in 1830, or is it more plausible that the accurate description of an ancient journey in the Middle East was written by someone who actually made the journey?
The Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer) saw an angel and the plates, and experienced direct and real divine testimony that the plates were of God. They never denied the reality of this experience to their dying day, even though they all became unhappy with Joseph Smith at various point in their lives and would have had every reason to expose him if the Book of Mormon had been a fraud. Martin Harris mortgaged and lost his home in support of the Book of Mormon, and suffered much because of his commitment to it. They had little to gain and did lose much for their testimony, yet stayed true to it all their lives. These were not knaves lacking integrity, but were men of good character. Martin Harris, for example, was well known as a man of great honesty. Even the first anti-Mormon book, E. D. Howe's Mormonism Unvailed, stated that Martin Harris was "considered an honest, industrious citizen by his neighbors" (p. 13). When J.A. Hadley's newspaper, The Palmyra Freeman, published what he said was the first anti-Mormon newspaper article in 1829, Harris was described as "an honest and industrious farmer of this town" [R.L. Anderson, "Martin Harris: The Honorable New York Farmer," Improvement Era, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Feb. 1969), pp. 18-21]. Many others outside the Church confirm that Harris was an honorable man. And he, like all other witnesses, insisted throughout his life that he had truly seen the plates and knew the Book of Mormon was authentic.
Eight other official witnesses saw the plates and likewise bore witness to the Book of Mormon and never denied it. Others such as Emma Smith knew of the physical reality of the plates and never denied their witness of the divinity of the Book of Mormon. Numerous statements from those outside the Church support the integrity and character of the witnesses. To date, no anti-Mormon critic has seriously confronted the overwhelming documentation in support of the reliability of the witnesses, nor has anyone been able to explain away or discredit their testimony. The only plausible explanation is that these people actually saw the gold plates and were convinced of its divine origins. Their testimony exceeds every legal standard for reliable testimony and cannot simply be ignored. Examples of the serious scholarship on this issue, replete with documentation, include Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), and Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981).
A summary of the issues and some quotes from non-Mormons about the integrity of the Three Witnesses is on my page, "Circumstantial Evidence and the Witnesses of the Golden Plates: Can They Be Ignored Any Longer?"
For further impressive details, please see the following pages:
So how can the critics explain this? They'll raise some red herrings about witnesses leaving the Church, laugh about the family relationships some of them shared, and even distort the abundantly documented record to infer that some denied their testimony - but the historical record is truly clear that the witnesses stayed true to what they had personally witnessed: the reality, authenticity, and divinity of the Book of Mormon.
Helaman 3:9-11 indicates that cement as a structural material began to be used around the 1st century B.C. Critics once ridiculed this as wildly out of place for the Americas. But in recent decades, it has become well known that ancient Mesoamericans did in fact use cement in their buildings - and this appears to have begun about when the Book of Mormon says it did. I offer some details on my Book of Mormon Evidences page, and FARMS offers a related article on cement in the Book of Mormon. See also Matthew Roper, "Right on Target: Boomerang Hits and the Book of Mormon," 2001 FAIR Conference.
Mesoamerican work with cement involved more than merely applying a veneer to buildings, as some anti-Mormons have alleged. Important structural elements were made with cement. John Welch provides further data in his article, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. D.W. Parry, D.C. Peterson, and J.W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), pp. 372-374:
No one in the nineteenth century could have known that cement, in fact, was extensively used in Mesoamerica beginning largely at this time, the middle of the first century B.C.
One of the most notable uses of cement is in the temple complex at Teotihuacan, north of present-day Mexico City. According to David S. Hyman, the structural use of cement appears suddenly in the archaeological record. And yet its earliest sample "is a fully developed product." The cement floor slabs at this site "were remarkably high in structural quality." Although exposed to the elements for nearly two thousand years, they still "exceed many present- day building code requirements."  This is consistent with the Book of Mormon record, which treats this invention as an important new development involving great skill and becoming something of a sensation. . . .
John Sorenson has further noted the expert sophistication in the use of cement at El Tajin, east of Mexico City, in the centuries following Book of Mormon times. Cement roofs covered sizable areas: "Sometimes the builders filled a room with stones and mud, smoothed the surface on top to receive the concrete, then removed the interior fill when the [slab] on top had dried." 
Footnotes for the above passage:
1. See Matthew G. Wells and John W. Welch, "Concrete Evidence for the Book of Mormon," Insights (May 1991): 2.
2. David S. Hyman, A Study of the Calcareous Cements in Prehispanic Mesoamerican Building Construction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1970), ii, sec. 6, p. 7.
3. John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon," Ensign, October 1984, 19.
Nothing in Joseph Smith's experience could have suggested that Native Americans once built with cement. Now was that just a lucky guess? And getting the date right? How much faith does it take to ascribe that to luck, too?
For details, see my Book of Mormon Evidences page.
"Mesoamerica" is a term coined by anthropologist Paul Kirchoff in 1943 for the region comprising southern Mexico and Guatemala. According to John Sorenson, Kirchoff "identified more than a dozen features - for example, writing systems, sacred temple towers, tribute-collecting governments, and bloody sacrifice - that were shared by cultures throughout this area" (John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life, Provo, Utah: Research Press (1998), p. 6). The term, meaning "in between America," was liked by other scholars and stuck.
Mesoamerica is the only region in the ancient Americas where society was complex enough to merit the anthropological term "civilization." The Incas and others in the Andes came close, but appear to have lacked writing, which is one of the standard traits of "civilization." Advanced civilization with a history of written records and other basic "civilized" traits was not part of the Native American culture that Joseph Smith might have encountered in New York. The Book of Mormon describes ancient societies unlike anything within New York and within the scope of Joseph Smith's knowledge, but which are quite at home in ancient Mesoamerica, where most LDS scholars feel is the location of the lands described in the Book of Mormon.
Very little was known about Mesoamerica in Joseph Smith's day, certainly not much was known by Joseph when the Book of Mormon was published in 1827 (see "What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?" and also see John L. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?"). The very existence of the great Mesoamerican civilizations was outside the knowledge of most people in the United States until the publication of a popular book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (New York, 1841), which came into the hands of Church leaders in 1842. The biographer of Stephens wrote that:
The acceptance of an "Indian civilization" demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition of Stephens appeared in England], an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged.... Nor did one ever think of calling the other [e.g., Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent "civilized." In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts -- savages. [Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, p. 75]
Thus, if he were making up the Book of Mormon, the descriptions dealing with geography and culture in lands joined by a "narrow neck of land" would not be likely to correspond to any real candidate for a narrow neck. Yet if the narrow neck of land is in Mesoamerica, specifically in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, near the Yucatan peninsula, then the Book of Mormon account is consistent with modern knowledge of that area on numerous counts, and can be shown to have a self-consistent geography that actually fits the map (see John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book (1985)). In this region, there are many things that correspond with descriptions in the Book of Mormon. For example:
The basic connections between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica are remarkably striking. Some critics argue that basic aspects of Mayan culture and Mesoamerica in general were known to Joseph Smith because they can find a handful of largely obscure books in print in Joseph's day that mentioned the existence of cities and civilizations in Central America. Never mind that Joseph did not have access to these books or that there is no evidence he ever saw them before the Book of Mormon was published. We are to simply believe that knowledge of Mesoamerica was common in Joseph's day. What the critics overlook is that not even the scholars of Joseph's time were aware of many basic facts about ancient Mesoamerica that provide support for the Book of Mormon. How did Joseph leap ahead of the experts in so many matters?
David Whitmer spoke of the expected rejection of the Book of Mormon when it was published because of the advanced civilization it described. In an 1883 interview with James H. Hart, Whitmer said that
When we [the Witnesses] were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure that the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and people should discover evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book.
Interview with James H. Hart, Richmond, Mo., Aug. 21, 1883, as recorded in Hart's notebook, reprinted in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews: A restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), p. 76, as cited by Daniel C. Peterson, FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, p. xxvi.
The civilizations of the Book of Mormon, with cities, temples, priests, judges, merchants, and organized religion, seem greatly out of line with the Native American culture that Joseph Smith was likely to have known. The Book of Mormon description was so out of harmony with popular understanding of Native Americans that the witnesses feared rejection of the book, but were given faith that in the future evidence for the plausibility and truthfulness of the book would be become known. In this century, critics take it as common knowledge that there were the types of civilizations described in the Book of Mormon - civilizations like the Olmecs and the Mayans. In crying that there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon, how do they explain that our growing knowledge of ancient Mesoamerica has made the Book of Mormon increasingly plausible over time? At first the very idea of advanced civilizations with cities, temples, etc. seemed out of place. As that became known, we reached a point where it was believed that the people of these ancient civilizations were peaceful and free of wars, challenging the Book of Mormon. But in recent years, it has become widely known that ancient Mesoamerica was filled with wars, consistent with the Book of Mormon.
Take the very basic issue of language, for example. The Book of Mormon describes people who kept and cherished written records, who recorded their history, who had priests and prophets and books of scripture and prophecy, and who used written language in their commerce. None of this was characteristic of the Native Americans in Joseph's area. And while scholars today know that written language was central to ancient Mesoamerican culture, that knowledge only became available a few decades ago. Through the recent work of scholars like Linda Schele, we have come to learn that the Mayans had advanced writing systems (and we have learned that they were a warlike people, offering human sacrifice and blood sacrifice in particular, consistent with Book of Mormon depictions of ancient peoples). The existence of written language among ancient Native Americans is one more area that Joseph could not have easily fabricated. For further details, see my Book of Mormon "Nuggets" page, "What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?" The only part of the world that provides a credible geography comparable to that of the Book of Mormon also offers the only place in the New World during the time span of the Book of Mormon that had an advanced writing system used for history, for religion and prophecy, and for commerce. That part of the world also was plagued with wars of the kind described in the Book of Mormon. How do the critics explain these basics?
Further, Mayan patterns of warfare bear many resemblances to the descriptions in the Book of Mormon. An online resource describing Mayan warfare is found at Maya Warfare, Myth and Reality by David Freidel of California State University, Hayward. The use of militias assembled from men and boys to fight specific campaigns, the challenges in providing food from villagers, etc., all are found in the Book of Mormon. How did Joseph, being totally unfamiliar with war and especially with ancient warfare, manage to do so well?
By the way, although the Book of Mormon refers to a species of animal with the term "horse" (possibly as a food source), there is never any indication of horses being used in battle or of people riding horses at all, in contrast to what we might expect if Joseph had fabricated the Book of Mormon. Some horse remains apparently have been found from Mayan times - see my discussion on the issue of the horse in the Book of Mormon on my page about problematic plants and animals in the Book of Mormon.
Speaking of the complexity of Mesoamerican and Book of Mormon societies, Helaman 7:10 in the Book of Mormon speaks of the prophet and religious leader Nephi, a descendant of the original Nephi who crossed the ocean, praying out loud on a tower in his garden "which was by the highway which led to the chief market, which was in the city of Zarahemla." In 1830 and even in much of this century, the idea of ancient Americans having urban gardens, multiple markets (implied by the existence of a "a chief market"), highways, and personal towers seemed out of place. Recent discoveries now show that Helaman 7:10 is entirely plausible (for details, see the section on "Gardens, Towers, and Multiple Markets" on my Book of Mormon Evidences page). Thus, we can also ask the question, "How did Joseph Smith know about urban gardens, towers, highways, and multiple markets in Mesoamerica?"
This is another gem that critics have ignored, as far as I can tell. Yet the issue of volcanism in the Book of Mormon provides utterly compelling evidence of authenticity. Details are on my page of Book of Mormon Evidences. If the Book of Mormon is true, then we should expect to find evidence of significant volcanic activity (according to the description of events in 3 Nephi) around 33 A.D., and that activity should be in Mesoamerica (based on the best understanding of Book of Mormon geography, independent of any considerations of volcanism). So we have a simple test that cannot be obscured by the tragedy of destroyed written records or the complexities of archeological interpretation of a fragmentary and complex record. We can simply ask: was there volcanic activity in Mesoamerica around 33 A.D.? This is something that ought to be hard to miss if it occurred. And the answer is clear and irrefutable: yes, there was impressive volcanic activity in Mesoamerica dating to that time, activity of the kind that would fit the Book of Mormon account remarkably well. There is even a city that was partially buried by the huge lava flow from that event. Please look at the detailed evidence on this issue and ask how Joseph Smith, who knew nothing about volcanoes, could accurately describe the results of volcanic activity, and manage to have the date of the event later be confirmed by scientists in a land that corresponds with Book of Mormon lands? It will take a LOT of faith to ascribe this issue to luck.
Details are on my page on Book of Mormon Evidences. Critics, for example, long mocked the name "Alma" as being a Latin female name from "alma mater" (and many women in Mexico, for example, carry the name Alma). How stupid could Joseph have been to pick that for the name of an ancient Semitic man? But over a century later, a find in Israel would confirm that Alma was a man's name in the area of Jerusalem around the time of Lehi and Nephi. Was this just more blind luck? Many other names in the Book of Mormon, including names that critics have attacked, prove to be authentic Middle Eastern names. As an exercise, try making up some completely new random names for ancient Egyptians, and then see how many of them fit compiled lists of ancient Egyptian names. It's not easy to get even one direct hit by luck.
When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the idea of ancient people in this continent keeping a written record was hilarious, and the idea of ancient Americans or anybody else writing on metal plates was simply bizarre - "too funny for words," as Hugh Nibley puts it. It was ridiculed many times, and still is by some critics. (2009 update: I am not saying that nobody knew of ancient writing on metal or ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica. There were pre-1830 sources that are relevant. For a discussion, see "Those Implausible Plates" at Mormanity. But such information was far from common knowledge, and yes, the "props" of the Book of Mormon and the ridiculed concept of scripture on gold plates written by ancient peoples were far more implausible in 1830 than today.) But since 1830, numerous discoveries have confirmed the ancient practice of writing sacred records on metal. It has been documented as a practice known in the time and place of Lehi at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, adding tremendous plausibility to the Book of Mormon. In fact, numerous details about the Book of Mormon have been verified as authentic ancient practices regarding records, especially sacred records. Such practices include the concept of burying a record, the use of a stone box to preserve it, placing the title page as the last plate of the record, the use of mountain repositories (the original Cumorah) for sacred records, and so forth - details that Joseph could not have fabricated unless he were just wildly lucky. Documentation for these issues is provided by John A. Tvedtnes in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000) and many other sources. Some online resources include:
The idea of the ancients burying a sacred book on gold plates was utterly laughable to others in 1830, but has gained significant credibility since then. This most basic aspect of the Book of Mormon is firmly in the milieu of the ancient world, but that's based on modern knowledge, not knowledge that Joseph could have had.
The eminent non-LDS scholar, R.H. Charles, gives us some insight into these ancient practices, and notes their relationship to the Book of Mormon:
The tradition of secrecy begins with Enoch: When Enoch found the Book of Adam and read it, 'he knew that the human race would not be able to receive it. So he hid it again, and it remained hidden until Noah.' But the practice began with Adam, who received the golden book from Michael and hid it in the crevice of a rock. The Torah itself was buried when Israel sinned, to be dug up in later times. The Copper Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows us how in times of dire peril all those sacred things that have been dedicated, including the holy writings, were buried for safety, a practice clearly set forth in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 13: 18-20.) From early Babylonian sources comes the report of Berossus, that Kronus ordered Xisuthros (Noah) to inscribe in writing the beginning, middle, and end of everything, and to bury the records in the city of Sippar, to be exhumed after the Flood.
(The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, reprint, 1979, vol. 2, p. 614, as cited by Kerry A. Shirts, Journal of Mormon Apologetics, Vol. 1, 1999, p. 94)
In 2 Nephi 3, Nephi provides information about the ancient patriarch and prophet, Joseph, that is not found in the Bible. Interestingly, 2 Nephi 3: 9,10, and 17 indicate that Joseph prophesied of the future bondage of Israel in Egypt and their deliverance of Israel by Moses and Aaron. Ancient Jewish documents, not available to Joseph Smith, provide support for these details. Two of the second-century-A.D. targumim (translations of the Bible into Aramaic) show that Joseph knew of Moses and Aaron and their role as deliverers of Israel. For details, see the short article, "Joseph's Prophecy of Moses and Aaron" by John Tvedtnes.
If the Church of Jesus Christ is not a divinely restored Church, or if it is a man-made non-Biblical heretical cult, then how do we answer the following questions?
It is difficult to read the Old Testament or New Testament without seeing a heavy emphasis on sacred covenants between God and man. Covenants are the tool for bringing man to God and rescuing fallen from sin through the Atonement of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Covenants are the instrument for bringing man to the grace of Christ. But very few mainstream Christian religions resonate with the covenant language of the scriptures. In other words, where else do you find a people who view their relationship with God through a two-way covenant perspective, in which they regularly make covenants with God and are taught the important of making and keeping divine covenants? This approach, which resonates so well with the ancient Biblical perspective, is clearly found with the restored Gospel in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For details on why I make this claim, please see my new page, "Latter-day Saints and the Covenant Framework of the Gospel:
An Ancient Perspective Restored." I also strongly recommend Jon D. Levenson's scholarly work, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), which discusses the ancient Biblical concept of covenant relationships and especially the covenant aspects of the ancient Temple, as well as the concept of continuously renewing and keeping covenants.
I recognize that in Catholicism and other religions, the written theology certainly speaks of God's covenant with man, and baptism, communion, and other ordinances may viewed as symbolic of that covenant. But in my view, these expressions of God's covenant often miss the two-way nature of Biblical covenants, in which God offers mercy or blessings to those who keep the terms of the covenant, a thing that requires conscious covenant making (e.g., making an oath or promise before God) and covenant keeping (including obedience to God's commandments). It's not that keeping the covenants earns anything, but such obedience is a condition for receiving the grace that is offered under the terms of a covenant (for details, see my page, "The Relationship between Grace, Works, and Eternal Life"). Other religions speak about God's new covenant and in Catholicism (if I understand correctly), the sacraments are viewed as expressions of the covenant between God and man, and man's partaking of these sacraments may be viewed as man fulfilling an obligation in a two-way covenant. But I do not see the ancient and modern LDS emphasis on making and keeping covenants. The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, with its vast array of articles, does not have an entry under "Covenants." (There's one on the Ark of the Covenant -- see the listing of the "C" entries . Their old article on the "Covenanters" (now gone, but archived) is about a group of people by that name, not about those who make covenants in general.) On the other hand, I am impressed with the analysis of covenants by the Catholic writer, Rev. William G. Most, in his excellent article, "A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework," where I agree with nearly the entire essay. But in terms of what individual members experience in their religious life, I don't think any other church compares with the abundant emphasis on making and keeping covenants that we find among the Latter-day Saints.
The role of covenants was important not just during the time of the Law of Moses. God's covenant with man was already being discussed in scripture before the time of Moses, as well as in New Testament times when the Law of Moses was fulfilled. God spoke of establishing his covenant when He spoke with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:15). The well-known covenant God affirmed with Abraham and his descendents (Gen. 15:18; 1 Chronicles 16:15-36) meant more than just a promise of land in Palestine. It also dealt with the salvation of men's souls and receiving mercy from God, but on conditions of obedience to God.
Covenants are an eternal part of God's plans for man. For example, consider Ezekiel 16:60,62:
Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with the in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant.
And I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord.
Where else do you find the true nature of covenants so clearly taught as in the LDS Church? The nature and form of covenants in the Temple are particularly impressive in light of ancient perspectives, especially in light of what modern scholars have identified as the ancient Biblical and Middle Eastern six-part "covenant formulary" which is beautifully and impressively present (restored!) in the LDS Temple. I discuss this in more detail on my page of "Questions about the LDS Temple and Masonry."
Some Christians claim that there was no need for prophets after the coming of Jesus Christ. This is a terribly misinformed belief, for the New Testament clearly and repeatedly reports that prophets and prophecy were integral parts of the original Church of Jesus Christ after Christ had ascended to heaven. For example, consider Acts 13:1-3:
1 Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.
3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
Using the gift of prophecy, leaders in the original Church received revelation through the gift of the Holy Ghost - praying and fasting to be in tune with the Spirit - and received guidance about which people to put into certain callings in the Church. Those who were called were "separated" or set apart (that's the modern LDS term) through the laying on of hands. This little episode is characteristic of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, as it was characteristic of the original Church, and points to the importance of prophets and prophecy in the operations of the Church. Why don't we have anything like this in the other churches of the world that claim to teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ? (Note: Some groups, such as Catholic and Orthodox churches, do have a form of laying on of hands for ordination, and a faithful Catholic writer explained to me that "prophets" in a sense still exist in that faith, though not as people who receive revelation from God, but as faithful people who "prophecy" by making statements of faith. I don't accept that definition as consistent with the Bible, but it is a factor to consider.)
Other Christians, being familiar with the obvious fact that prophets were present and active in the original Church, admit that they were needed then, but argue that we no longer need them nor new revelation of any kind now that the Bible is "complete" (see my page on the Bible for some tough questions on that issue). Observing that their churches no longer have prophets and apostles, or the gift of revelation, it's understandable that they would take this rather self-serving position. Any other position would imply that their form of Christianity was missing something -- that maybe there had been an apostasy or corruption of some kind in the past. But this is not a doctrine one can logically extract from the Bible, but a man-made doctrine to explain away an annoying problem.
Ironically, the belief that prophets and revelation aren't needed anymore now that we have the Bible is utterly unbiblical. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:
11 And he gave some, apostles [i.e., some were ordained to be apostles]; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
Paul in Ephesians 4 explains that prophets and apostles are an integral part of the Church for the work of the ministry, and are needed until they succeed in bringing all the Church to a unity of the faith--something that clearly has not yet been achieved. Therefore, they are still needed, and in this day of lies and corruption and confusion, they are needed more than ever! (See also Amos 3:7.)
In Matthew 23:34, Christ also prophesied that he would send prophets to the people, but that these prophets would be rejected and killed (something all too familiar in LDS history):
Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city...
To clarify the time frame over which prophets would be on the earth, Revelation 11:10 also prophesies of two prophets in particular who, in the last days, will be killed in Jerusalem and be revived miraculously. If there are yet to be two prophets who will be killed in Jerusalem before the Second Coming of the Lord, who can anyone maintain that God would not have prophets on the earth after the time of Christ or after the "completion" of the Bible? How can anyone say that Latter-day Saints are unbiblical for believing that God would have prophets on the earth in these last days, when that's perfectly consistent with prophecy in the Book of Revelation?
One of the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament, The Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (available in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989, pp. 149-158), shows that early Christians after the time of the New Testament still understood the significance of apostles and prophets. This document tells its readers to deal with "the apostles and prophets . . . in accordance with the rule of the gospel" (11:3, p. 155). It also speaks of prophets as "high priests" (13:3, p. 157), and contains other LDS concepts such as striving to become perfect (1:4; 6:2), reviewing basic doctrines with those about to be baptized (7:1), bishops and deacons who carry out the ministry of prophets and teachers (15:1), and enduring in faith to be saved (15:5). Apostles and prophets were a real influence in the original Church of Jesus Christ. Why should it not be the same today? Does any other Church offer this great blessing from the original Church, now restored on earth?
See Ephesians 4:11-14, and the discussion on my LDSFAQ page on the Restoration.
If Joseph Smith were just borrowing ideas from his environment to make a new religion, it seems unlikely that he would have come up with the concept of vicarious baptism for the dead. There is one obscure passage in the Bible that mentions people being baptized for the dead, but that one verse is not much to go on. Ever since the revealed practice was introduced, we've been ridiculed for this seemingly bizarre concept, but time has vindicated Joseph. Numerous early documents show that at least some Christians practiced vicarious baptism on behalf of those who had died without baptism, and non-LDS scholars have recognized that the LDS concept is not as crazy as our vocal critics would have you believe. If baptism for the dead is not an authentic early Christian practice that has been restored by a prophet of God, then how did Joseph Smith ever come up with the idea and how did he manage to stray so far from established knowledge of his day and yet be vindicated by later scholarship? For details, see my LDSFAQ page on Baptism for the Dead.
The churches of Joseph Smith's day, like nearly all non-LDS churches of our day, claimed that temples were no longer needed. Other Christian churches also claim that the there are no esoteric or secret doctrines or rituals in Christianity, and condemn the Latter-day Saint Temple concept as being remote from Christianity. Certainly nothing in Joseph's environment could have given him motivation to introduce Temple worship and claim that it was a restoration of ancient revealed religion. But now a wide array of information from the ancient world provides evidence for the authenticity of the LDS temple concept as a restoration of ancient Christian practices. I discuss a few examples on my LDSFAQ page about the LDS Temple and alleged connections with masonry.
For example, the structure of the covenants in the Temple accurately follow a six-step ancient Middle Eastern pattern only recently recognized by scholars. Some scholars have also recently come to appreciate the significance of the ancient Christian prayer circle, as Hugh Nibley has documented (see "The Early Christian Prayer Circle" in Mormonism and Early Christianity, ed. by Todd M. Compton and Stephen D. Ricks, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1987, pp. 45-85). The use of white clothing, washings and annointings, new names, handclasps, ritual drama, and other aspects of the LDS Temple are also clearly part of an ancient milieu far beyond what Joseph Smith could have fabricated by borrowing from Masonry or anything else in his environment. If he were a fraud, how could he have understood and restored ancient covenant and early Christian practices like the prayer circle?
LDS people familiar with the Temple may be interested to read the works of St. Cyril of Jerusalem at the Early Church Fathers Site at Wheaton College. I particularly recommend Cyril's discourses on the mysteries found in lectures 19, 20, 21, 22, and 23 at the end of Book 1), including the lecture on "chrism." Cyril mentions some interesting rituals that correlate to a few specific details in the Temple. Some things are highly interesting. Cyril mentions some interesting rituals that correlate to a few specific details in the Temple. Some things are close enough to startle.
I also strongly recommend "Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices" by John A. Tvedtnes at FairMormon.org. After reading that (along with some of the other resources I point to), ask yourself this question: "If Joseph Smith just borrowed from Masonry and other things he knew, how could he have come up with so many non-Masonic elements that appear to have ancient Jewish and Christian roots?" Any critics care to answer? Please? After all, it's my turn.
Other relevant resources include:
In Acts 2:46, we read that the early Christian were "continuing daily with one accord in the temple." Also Acts 5:42 says they were "daily in the temple." Luke 24:53 affirms that they "were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God." Why, if it was not important? Just a convenient gathering place? If so, why did Jesus give it such reverence? (See Matt. 21:12-14, Matt. 23:21)?
In fact, the Bible prophecies that the Temple will play a pivotal roll in God's work of gathering in the last days. Yes, that's right: the very work that the Latter-day Saints claim to be undertaking, gathering out the elect of God from among the nations, and bringing them into the Restored Gospel with the restored Temple of God. Look at Isaiah 2:2-5:
2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
3 And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.
This passage, pointing to the central importance of the Temple in the last days, teaches that many nations will flow to it, and that it will be established in the tops of the mountains (such as, say, the Rocky Mountains). It's important enough that it was repeated in Micah 4 (antis of Micah's day no doubt ranted about his "plagiarism" by quoting wholesale from Isaiah, but authentic scriptures are filled with quotes of past revelation). The role of the Temple in the future is also discussed in Ezekiel 40 to 47, and in Ezekiel 37:26-28:
26 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.
27 My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
28 And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.
When the Lord returns to earth for His grand Second Coming, where will He go? Why, to that "convenient gathering place," the restored Temple of God, according to Malachi 3:
1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.
2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap:
3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.
After the Lord's triumphant return to earth, the restored Temple will continue to be important. In Revelation 7:15, we read about the saints of God during the great Millennium: "Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them."
The Bible teaches that the Temple of God was important before and after the ministry of Christ, that it was important Christ, that it was important to early Christians, that it will play a central role in the gathering of the last days, that it will play a role in the Second Coming of Christ, and that it will be important during the Millennium. Is there any other Church that can offer a Temple that fits what the Bible says, or that can explain what the Temple is and why it is important? Can any other organization offer anything close to the restored Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ that is indeed playing a pivotal role in the gathering of the last days and is a place where Christians gather and serve God daily, in one accord, and will be doing so for many years to come? If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the place, then where shall we look for the temples of the last days? Where can Christians gather daily to serve God in His temple?
If there was not an apostasy, why has the temple concept been lost from mainstream Christianity? Why do non-LDS Christian churches deny the importance of the temple and say it is not needed? Is the Bible wrong on this issue? No. But it's a tough question that others need to confront: what happened to the Temple? Is there a possibility that God has restored it?
This is a very hot issue, in my opinion. Reading early Christian documents such as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is much more like reading a modern LDS General Conference Report than reading the writings of Martin Luther or other the many modern ministers who attack us for our doctrines regarding faith, works, and salvation. But our doctrines are clearly on firm Biblical ground, and are well supported by the writings of the earliest Christians - most of which were unknown to Joseph Smith. Was he just lucky that the doctrines he pretended to restore were in fact what ancient Christianity believed, or was he a prophet of God?
This question builds on the previous one. Look at the Pastor of Hermas, for example, an ancient Christian text that was accepted as scripture by some early Christians (available online at the Early Church Fathers section of www.ccel.org). In Second Hermas, an angel, the "messenger of repentance," teaches the importance of obedience, of keeping the commandments, of repentance, explaining that obedience is possible to those with faith in God. He also teaches about following the Spirit of God, and how prophets speak as moved by the Spirit in order to access the grace of Christ faith in Christ and baptism. There is never a trace of modern Protestant theology in which man lacks free agency and God does everything. In Command II of the Pastor of Hermas, the angel teaches the need to do good to be an approved servant of God (v. 10-11), and then exhorts man to keep the commandments, and to teach others to repent and to "keep their repentance pure all the remaining days of their life" (v. 12). This is consistent with LDS teachings (and other Biblical teachings, of course), in which we are told that we need to maintain a remission of our sins by enduring in faith to the end and continually repenting. Third Hermas continues such themes, teaching that repentance is essential for salvation (Similitude VIII, v. 45). For example, in Similitude VI, vs. 4-6, we read:
These commands are profitable to those who shall repent of those sins which they have formerly committed; if for the time to come they shall not continue in them.
Whosoever therefore ye be that repent, cast away from you the naughtiness of the present world; and put on all virtue, and righteousness, and so shall ye be able to keep these commands; and not sin from henceforth any more.
. . . Walk in my commands, and live unto God. . . .
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers - including many of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament - frequently sound like something out of a modern LDS General Conference sermon, lacking the Trinitarian metaphysics of modern mainstream Christianity and showing no trace of salvation through "faith alone" as often taught in modern Protestantism, giving instead an emphasis on repentance and keeping the commandments, following Church leaders, enduring to the end, and so forth. I give some examples of quotes from the Apostolic Fathers on my Faith, Grace, and Works page. Barry Bickmore's Early Christianity and Mormonism site provides many more examples from early Christianity that resonate much better with modern LDS theology than with modern mainstream Christianity. The evidence that Joseph Smith was a restorer and not an innovator is truly significant.
One of the best and most impressive sources of information about early Christian documents pertinent to restored LDS beliefs is found in the book, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity, by Barry Bickmore (Ben Lomond, CA: The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999). It contains extensive and fascinating evidence from the writings of early Christianity that support the doctrines of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. How could the LDS position appear to be so strong in light of early Christian writings if there were not a true Restoration?
Among many examples I could cite, let's consider the early Christian text, the Pastor of Hermas, which is wildly out of sync with the doctrines of our loudest critics but agrees well with LDS views. The same applies to many other early Christian writings. Why is that?
Ongoing revelation from God, including revelation given by angels, is implicit in the Pastor of Hermas, contrary to the mainstream view that prophets are no longer needed, that revelation ceased with the Bible, and that the ministry of visible angels to men has ended. The section on discerning between the Spirit of God and other spirits in Command XI of Second Hermas is remarkably similar to Doctrine and Covenants Section 50, and the declaration that prophets or "whosoever speaketh by the Spirit of God, speaketh as the Lord will" echoes the Lord's words in Doctrine and Covenants 68:4: "And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation."
Third Hermas, Similitude V, teaches of the sanctity of the human body that we must keep pure and undefiled for the Holy Spirit to dwell in it. In fact, we are told not to defile our "body and spirit,"
For they are companions together, and the one cannot be defiled but the other will be so too. Keep therefore both of them pure, and thou shalt live unto God. (Similitude V, v. 63)
This is classic LDS understanding which has been lost or diluted in mainstream Christianity--further pointing to the Restoration that occurred with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Much more can be said on this topic, but I encourage you to examine such writings yourself. For that purpose, I highly recommend The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989.
Details are on my LDSFAQ page, "The Oneness of God." It's hard to look at the evidence without realizing that Joseph Smith really did restore aspects of original Christianity that have been lost by apostasy. See also my page on the Restoration.
The extensive documentation behind these questions is on my page about theosis (the Christian doctrine of the divine potential of God's children). But let's look in more detail at a new flavor of this question:
The work in question is Jordan Vajda, OP, "Partakers of the Divine Nature": A Comparative Analysis of the Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization, master's thesis, Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley, 1998, published under the same title as Occasional Paper No. 3 by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (Provo, Utah, 2002).
In this work, Father Vajda notes that the writings of the early Church fathers clearly express a belief in the divine potential of human beings - that we can become "gods" through the grace of Christ and partake in the divine nature. In his introduction to the FARMS publication, he states:
The historic Christian doctrine of salvation -- theosis, i.e., human divinization -- for too long has been forgotten by too many Christians, despite the fact that this teaching is a part of that common inheritance -- first millennium Christianity -- that unites Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians.
Chapter 2 of Father Vajda's thesis, The Doctrine of Theosis, or Becoming a God," explores the thinking of early Christians on this important doctrine that has been lost from much of modern Christianity. The following excerpt is from the beginning of this chapter (pp. 9-10):
Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and after they had climbed a high mountain, something amazing happened. The face of Jesus "shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light."  This account of the transfiguration of Christ became a key text when patristic writers, and specifically the Greek Fathers of the Church, attempted to understand and explain the doctrine of theosis, or salvation as human divinization.  The transfiguration was interpreted as a revelation illustrating what happens when a human body is divinized, when it participates "in the divine nature."  In the words of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), it was a revelation of "what we once were and what we are to be" when deified by Christ.  These gospel passages were also significant because they so handily encapsulated a number of issues central to the content and experience of theosis: the unearthly light which emanated from Christ's body, the vision of that light by human persons, the relationship between divinity and humanity, and, at the center of it all, the person of Christ himself.
From the very beginnings of the Church the centrality of Christ has been recognized; he is the one who makes salvation -- human divinization -- a possibility. Two classic texts which come from the early centuries of the Church clearly demonstrate this belief. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-c. 202) -- who had known St. Polycarp, who had known the Apostles  -- wrote, "the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is."  St. Athanasius of Alexandria (295-373) also explained that "God became man, so that we might be made gods."  Thus, at the root and core of the doctrine of theosis was not only a belief in the centrality of Christ but also the belief that he makes theosis possible precisely because he is both God and human.
Footnotes from Father Vajda:
1. Matthew 17:1-8, Jerusalem Bible (hereafter referred to as JB). Parallel passages are in Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.
2. Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, ed. John H. Erickson and Thomas E. Bird (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974), 60-61; Andrew Louth, trans., Maximus the Confessor (New York: Routledge, 1996), 70-71, 108-9; Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, trans. Liadain Sherrard (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), 100, 123; Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), vol. 2 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 260-61; Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, trans. C. J. de Catanzaro (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist, 1980). 357.
3. 2 Peter l:4, KJV.
4. St. Gregory Palamas, Homilies 16, quoted in Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, 266.
5. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching, with an introduction by John Behr (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 1.
6. Robert M. Grant, trans., Irenaeus of Lyons (New York: Routledge, 1997), 164.
7. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 54, quoted in Christoforos Stavropoulos, Partakers of the Divine Nature: An inspiring presentation of man's purpose in life according to Orthodox theology, trans. Stanley Harakas (Minneapolis, Minn.: Light and Life, 1976), 24.
Though Vajda notes a number of differences between the doctrine of theosis among the early Greek fathers and the doctrine of exaltation in LDS teachings, the similarities are clearly significant, and make the LDS view appear to be much closer to early Christian teachings than the views of some of our most outspoken critics, as Father Vajda notes in his conclusion (pp. 56-57):
Finally, what has resulted from taking "Another Look at The God Makers," as the title of chapter one proposed to do? As chapter three has made abundantly clear, the Mormons truly are "godmakers": as the doctrine of exaltation explains, the fullness of human salvation means "becoming a god." Yet what was meant to be a term of ridicule has turned out to be a term of approbation, for the witness of the Greek Fathers of the Church, described in chapter two, is that they also believed that salvation meant "becoming a god." It seems that if one's soteriology cannot accommodate a doctrine of human divinization, then it has at least implicitly, if not explicitly, rejected the heritage of the early Christian church and departed from the faith of first millennium Christianity. . . . And the supreme irony is that such persons should probably investigate the claims of the LDS Church, which proclaims that within itself is to be found the "restoration of all things."
Father Vajda notes in his introduction that "those who sought to deny the label 'Christian' to the LDS Church were, more often than not, the very same people who would turn around and attempt to deny this label to the Catholic Church - with the same reasons being used in both instances to justify the conclusion." Knowing the flaws in the reasons used to attack Catholics allowed Father Vajda to also see the flaws in the attacks on Latter-day Saints.
Of the many different human translations and the many different human committees over the centuries that have selected various groups of books to include in the Bible, which translation and which selection of books has God endorsed? How do you know? Was there, perhaps, a living prophet that told you? Understanding the true nature of scripture is vital if you are to truly understand Christianity. For details, please see my LDSFAQ page on The LDS View of the Bible.
Remember, there is no definitive collection of books in the canon of the Bible. There have been many different selections of books over the ages that have been used and approved by various human groups. Perhaps you are using the selection of books common to most Protestants, or perhaps you are using the selection favored by Roman Catholics. How do you know these are divinely approved selections? Recognizing that NONE of the original Biblical texts are available, and that each book has multiple variants from which to choose, how do you know that the translators of whatever version you prefer selected the proper variants or combinations of variants and then properly translated them? (For details, see my page on the LDS View of the Bible.) By what authority were these decisions made and the final product approved? Are you just hoping that they got it right?
Continuing revelation from God is the far better way to ensure that we humans ultimately get the guidance that God wants us to get. A static text can be misunderstood in a thousand ways, but these errors of understanding can continually be corrected by continuing revelation.
To think that a single ancient book is all that humans need for guidance from God is like thinking that a car on a straight and narrow path can safely reach its destination if the steering wheel is aimed in the right direction at the beginning of the journey, with no further guidance needed after dozens and hundreds of miles. Winds, tires, the suspension system of the vehicle, road conditions, engine vibration, and a dozen other factors can cause slight drifts to occur which can rapidly take the car off the road. A guiding hand on the steering wheel is needed constantly to bring the car to its destination - and so it is with the Church.
Baptism was meant to be by immersion (that's the definition of the Greek word for baptism) and was performed for those who had faith in Christ - definitely not infants. But after the loss of prophets and apostles in the early Church, the ritual of baptism changed from immersion of those who believed to the sprinkling of infants. And rather than being a ritual valid only if conducted by one who had authority from God, given by the laying on of hands, ministers today have no claim to divine authority other than a subjective sense that they are called, or perhaps a college degree. How did these changes occur? Were they authorized by God, or were they man-made changes suggesting a loss of divine ordinances, revelation, and authority from the original Church of Jesus Christ?
Once derided as the weak underbelly of Mormonism, an easy way to shake off Mormon testimonies, the growing evidence and scholarship around the Book of Abraham now makes it one of the more impressive evidences for Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet of God. For example, on Facsimile 1, Joseph has long been mocked for identifying the vertical lines at the bottom as a symbol for the "pillars of heaven" and for labeling the crocodile at the bottom as "the idolatrous God of Pharaoh." But modern scholarhsip shows that these are indeed plausible meanings for those figure. See, for example, "Powerful Egyptological Evidence for Book of Abraham facsimile 1, figure 9 Crocodile as "Idolatrous god of Pharaoh" by Kerry Shirts. Here is one excerpt (see Shirts for the references):
The Egyptologist Alan Gardner demonstrated that the kings and queens of the XVII dynasty bore the name "Sebekemsat (Sobk is his protection), and this proves that "the crocodile-god was still thought of as somehow connected with the monarchy." In the earlier XIII dynasty, Gardner noted several kings bore the name "Sbk-htp -- Sebkhotep." The Amherst Papyri "from the Fayyum depicts the crocodile not as Pharaoh but as the god of Pharaoh. According to Bonnet, the submission of Pharaoh to the crocodile down to the latest times is attested by the association of the crocodile with the royal image on the monuments and in annals." With Sobek absorbing the god of the king into himself, Bonnet says this is why "hymns of praise to the king and his crown can be addressed directly to Sobek -- that is, the croc is the god of Pharaoh." And Suchos is often referred to as a "living image" of Re, in other words, the Ka of Re, the spirit of the sun god Himself! And this agreement (Einigung) with Re for the understanding of Sobek has always remained fundamental (grundlegend).
Yes, the crocodile can be the idolatrous god of Pharaoh--an impressive direct hit by Joseph.
Further insight comes from Daniel Peterson in his 1994 article, "News from Antiquity":
Ancient texts indicate that the idolatrous gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash, described in the book of Abraham (Abr. 1:6, 13, 17; facsimile 1, figs. 5-8), truly were worshipped in the ancient world, despite the fact that the Bible makes no mention of them. 5 Furthermore, ancient texts suggest that the ensemble of four figures depicted as figure 6 of Facsimile 2 could indeed "represent this earth in its four quarters" in the ancient world, as the explanation to the facsimile in the book of Abraham says. 6 Ancient texts also support the interpretation given in the book of Abraham of figure 11 of facsimile 1 as "designed to represent the pillars of heaven, as understood by the Egyptians." In fact, the phrase "pillars of heaven" occurs in Egyptian literature. 7 The angled lines below the lion couch in facsimile 1 are identified as "the firmament over our heads" (fig. 12), which must seem rather strange to any modern reader. It only makes sense when we realize, in light of recent research, that the lines represent the waves of the water in which the crocodile is swimming, and that one way the ancient Egyptians conceived of heaven was as "a heavenly ocean." 8
One noteworthy element of the religious situation portrayed in the book of Abraham is the identification of a crocodile as "the idolatrous god of Pharaoh." (Facsimile 1, fig. 9.) Although this may have seemed strange in Joseph Smith's day, discoveries in other ancient texts confirm this representation. Unas or Wenis, for example, was the last king of the fifth dynasty (circa 2356-2323 b.c.), and his pyramid still stands at Saqqara, south of modern Cairo. Utterance 317 of Unas's Pyramid Texts includes the following: "The King Appears as the Crocodile-God Sobk," and "Unas has come today from the overflowing flood; Unas is Sobk, green-plumed, wakeful, alert. -- Unas arises as Sobk, son of Neith." 9 One scholar observes that "the god Sobk is -- viewed as a manifestation of Horus, the god most closely identified with the kingship of Egypt" during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom era (circa 2040-1640 b.c.), which includes the time period that tradition indicates as Abraham's lifetime. 10
Intriguingly, Middle Kingdom Egypt saw a great deal of activity in the large oasis to the southwest of modern Cairo known as the Faiyum. Crocodiles were common there, and Sobk (or Sobek) was the chief local deity. The last king of the twelfth dynasty, which may include the period of Abraham's life, even adopted the name of the crocodile god, calling himself Nefru-sobk ("Beautiful is Sobk"), and five pharaohs of the next dynasty, the thirteenth, took the name Sebek-hotpe ("Sobk is content").
Further details are on my LDSFAQ page, "Ancient Evidences for the Book of Abraham: Other Records Confirm its Story." Also see the direct hits in Joseph's explanations of the facsimiles - and the remarkable arguments used by critics to downplay this evidence - on my LDSFAQ page, "The Book of Abraham, Part 2 - Evidence that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God." Another helpful resource is "The Jewish Origin of the Book of Abraham" by Jonathan Moyer, a scholarly paper exploring the ancient Jewish roots of the Book of Abraham.
My answers to common questions about Book of Mormon evidence - including archaeological disputes, geography, and a brief mention of DNA studies. It's one of my LDSFAQ pages. Other related LDSFAQ pages include Questions About Alleged Problems in the Text, Questions About Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon, Questions about Plagiarism (was it based on works of Ethan Smith, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, or perhaps even Tolkien?), Questions About Changes in the Book of Mormon, and Questions About Metals in the Book of Mormon.
Introduction to the Book of Mormon - my page.
2 Nephi 12 and the Septuagint: Evidence for Fraud or Authenticity in the Book of Mormon? - my work from July 2001, including the tentative discovery of paired tricola in the Book of Mormon as another authentic Hebrew poetical form that Joseph would have been unlikely to fabricate - after all, it wasn't recognized yet in his day.
The Arabian Bountiful Discovered? Evidence for Nephi's Bountiful by Warren P. Aston, an article related to chapter one of In the Footsteps of Lehi. This confirmed ancient location and place name matches the Book of Mormon text remarkably well. The burden is on the critics to explain how Joseph Smith could possibly have fabricated the account about Nahom and the journey in the Arabian peninsula described in First Nephi. Forget your gripes about the word "adieu" or your offense at the use of King James language. Here's a specific place and a confirmed place name that adds irresistible credibility to First Nephi. Critics, the ball is in your court and - oops! You missed. Another ace for Joseph Smith.
Kerry A. Shirts' "Mormonism Researched" Pages - back at last! One of my favorite LDS writers is back online, featuring loads of great research on the LDS scriptures and related topics.
The Tanners' Response (??) to the Arabian Geography in the Book of Mormon - Scott Pierson's valuable page on a topic that's got the critics nervous.
Photos from Oman - a photogallery with some beautiful photos that show some of the remarkable scenes related to candidates for Bountiful. Thanks to Omanet.com for this non-LDS site.
DCP's Gospel Research Pages (archived from 2003) by D. Charles Pyle. This site tackles many anti-LDS arguments with sound logic and solid research. A valuable page on this site is Pyle's review of Marian Bodine's book, "Book of Mormon vs. the Bible (or common sense)". Includes a couple photos of relevant evidence.
Response to the Smithsonian Institution's 1996 Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon - Deals with the many sloppy statements made by a department at the normally quite reputable Smithsonian Institution - but made without the benefit of adequate scholarship about either Mesoamerica or the Book of Mormon. The Smithsonian Statement is embarrassingly out of date and needs significant revision. Many issues are covered, including transoceanic voyaging and allegedly missing items such as silk.
Maxwell Institute, which includes such gems as:
Where Did Nephi Build the Ship?" - an excellent article by Maurine and Scot Proctor about their journey to Wadi Sayq, a possible location for Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula. Includes new photographs.
Arabia and The Book of Mormon - Cooper Johnson's excellent article at FairMormon.org, reviewing a presentation by S. Kent Brown.
Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard L. Anderson.
Mounting Evidence for the Book of Mormon - an article in the January Ensign by Daniel C. Peterson.
The Golden Era of Mesoamerica - by Steven Jones, showing interesting Mesoamerican parallels with 4th Nephi in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon and the Dead Sea Scrolls by Stephen Ricks.
Hard Questions and Keeping the Faith by Michael R. Ash. A good article on dealing with the many attacks that are made on the Church by anti-Mormons.
Letters to an Anti-Mormon - lengthy but excellent article by Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, pp. 90-298) responding to some arguments of James White.