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Book Review: The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844

By H. Michael Marquardt

Xulon, 1st edition, 2005

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Note: Page references are from the 1st edition of this book. An expanded second edition was released in 2013.

If a person is going to study the history of Mormonism, there is no better period of time to consider than the years of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s life. This is the focus of H. Michael Marquardt, who is a long-time independent historian and researcher,  By no means is this book short, as it weighs in at more than 600 pages. But with the format of footnotes at the bottom of the pages and an easy-to-understand writing style littered with plenty of original quotations, this might be the one book a newcomer to Mormonism may want to consider to become familiar with this topic.

In chapter 2, Marquardt goes right into the supposed Paymyra Revival of 1820 and shows how such an event never took place, despite the chronology insisted upon by LDS historians. As he clearly shows, this revival did not take place until 1824-1825. He writes on page 13:

An examination of newspaper accounts, religious periodicals, church records, and personal narratives shows that there were no significant gains in church memberships or any other signs of excitement or revival in Paymrya in 1820.

He adds,

The 1824-25 revival likewise received enthusiastic write-ups in an equal number of publications. But there is total silence in these same periodicals about any revival in Palmyra between 1819 and 1821. (19)

Then, referring to his supposed vision that he claimed to have had at the age of 14, Marquardt says that Smith’s experience was not unlike testimonies of many others of that day. He writes on page 52,

Joseph Smith’s childhood vision, as his 1832 narrative describes, of Christ’s appearing and granting him forgiveness for his sins was similar to those of other young people of his day. The later 1838-39 version of his first vision introduces a revival before his vision and creates a chronologically implausible picture.

When it comes to the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, Marquardt shows the many discrepancies that cause great problems for LDS historians. For instance, the question of why the plates were even needed if Joseph Smith never looked at the plates but rather looked into his hand to deliver the translation is discussed. He writes:

Surviving accounts of the translation process suggest that Smith worked without directly using the plates–this despite all of the difficulty in obtaining, hiding, and bringing the plates along. When it came to translating the crucial plates, they were no more present in the room than John the Beloved’s ancient parchment, the words of which Joseph also dictated the next year. (97)

Although something heavy that was covered up was handled, the “gold plates” were never seen by any of the so-called “witnesses” or, for that matter, even his close relatives.

Joseph permitted the family to feel and handle what he said were the plates before depositing them in the chest. William Smith handled them and hefted them while [they were] uncovered but I handled them and hefted them while [they were] wrapped in a tow frock.” He mentioned that his “Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family.” (118)

On page 144, Marquardt mentions how the Book of Mormon witnesses did say they “saw the engravings that were on the plates. . . Whatever one may think about these statements no physical plates were put on display for the general public to look at.” For those claiming to see the plates, Marquadt points out on page 206 that these plates could only be seen with “a spiritual eye.” Bill McKeever and I deal with this topic in chapter 32 of our book Answering Mormons’ Questions (“What about the witnesses who claimed they saw the gold plates?”)

On page 169, Marquardt makes a great point about the Book of Mormon’s obvious plagiarism of the Bible:

The Book of Mormon asserts that ancient New World peoples possessed most of the Old Testament. However, Book of Mormon peoples would not have had access to the New Testament. Those who believe in the book’s antiquity try to reconcile the presence of New Testament phrases by suggesting that in translating the book Joseph Smith was given an understanding of ideas on the golden plates but had to choose the words to express them. Consequently, where a thought was sufficiently close to biblical wording he adopted or adapted the biblical phrase. This does not sufficiently explain why he implemented the King James style throughout and not a “more original” style. It also ignores the fact that the adaptation of biblical texts is deeper than mere use of phrases from the New Testament in the Old Testament time period. The Book of Mormon does not simply introduce random New Testament phrases. It reflects on and expands New Testament meanings in an Old Testament context and creates Old Testament events that flow from these New Testament interpretations. (169)

In addition, problems he finds include:

  • Prophecies of the coming of Jesus: “It is easy for the book to prophesy of events that had already occurred.”
  • “Material in the Old Testament part of the Book of Mormon reads like a late Christian document, written after the New Testament was compiled.”
  • “The Book of Mormon preaches the “doctrine of Christ” nearly 600 years before Jesus initiated his ministry in Palestine.”
  • The addition of verses 9-20 in Mark 16–not found in the earliest biblical manuscripts–is included three times in the Book of Mormon. If this wasn’t in the original manuscripts and was added sometime in the second century, then why did this passage make it into the Nephites’ scripture?
  • Long sections copied directly from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
  • Nephite prophets understanding of Jesus’ mission before the events even took place.
  • 3 Nephi following Matthew’s gospel so closely, even though 3 Nephi was supposedly composed before Matthew was written.
  • “Literary dependence on nineteenth century events,” including baptism by immersion and of children, Freemasonry, and name of the church.

The idea that the Native Americans were ancient Hebrews was a common theory in the early part of the 19th century. Thus, so much of the Book of Mormon has the marks of a 19th century creation.

In chapter 14, Marquardt talks about the Inspired Version, also know as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST). It always puzzles me why, if Joseph Smith really had the ability to translate, the JST is not more often used in the LDS Church. Certainly this version is quoted in church manuals and Ensign magazine articles, but if this “translation” really had been completed by Smith, I would think it should be more often used. Many Latter-day Saints have never even seen a complete copy of the JST.

We must not think of this as an actual Bible translation, as Marquardt explains:

Since Joseph Smith did not have knowledge of Hebrew or Greek during this period of Bible revision, we should not expect his revision to contain readings in ancient biblical manuscripts. Nor should we think that his revision is any kind of restoration of what was in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the Greek New Testament. Joseph Smith’s work is a revision rather than a translation, since church members knew that Joseph Smith had not studied Hebrew or Greek to produce his manuscript. But church members also thought that Joseph did not have to know Hebrew or Greek because he got his corrections via revelation. (325-26)

In addition, Smith did not study Egyptian, so his work with the Book of Abraham could not be properly called a “translation.” He had free reign to interpret any way he pleased, Marquardt points out, because “there were no scholars in America at the time who could give a good translation from the Egyptian writing” (389). Just as he did with the Book of Mormon, Smith liberally used his Bible to produce the Book of Abraham, mainly relying on the book of Genesis. (402) He also was clueless about the Egyptian language:

Joseph Smith’s work on his Book of Abraham Egyptian alphabet, seven years later, shows that he could not understand or interpret documents written anciently. From examinations done by Egyptologists, their studies show that Smith had not the slightest idea what the Egyptian characters meant relating to names, places, and subject matter. These manuscript pages clearly show that Joseph Smith pretended to translate Egyptian records. The claim that they had been written by the biblical Abraham is without a solid foundation. (406)

In 2013, an expanded second edition of The Rise of Mormonism was printed. I only have a copy of the first edition, so I’m glad a new version came out. My hope is that the many grammatical/typing errors I observed throughout have been corrected. If so, then these corrections will certainly improve the readability of this book. Overall I recommend The Rise of Mormonism for those interested at a well-researched look at early Mormonism.

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