[p.179]The strength of Joseph Smith’s defense of God was personal revelation, but it would also prove to be one of its weaknesses. To explain why Oliver Cowdery and Hiram Page failed to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon after a revelation told them they would succeed, Smith said that “some revelations are of God, some revelations are of man, and some revelations are of the devil.”1 This kind of reply offered no security to one who relied on revelation coming through Mormon priesthood channels, for Smith was as high as one could go.
In addition, that security was tied to the truth of Smith’s story of the origins of the Book of Mormon and the testimony of the three witnesses. These stories were to guarantee the existence of the plates and the validity of the translation, to demonstrate that Smith was a man through whom God was working. All converts could obtain assurance of an angel that what the witnesses heard and saw was true and could themselves “know” that it was true. When pressed, however, the witnesses also admitted that their “seeing” the plates was more like something they imagined. If believers should ever doubt that such “seeing” was valid, then they had no assurance at all of the truth of Smith’s defense of God.
Not only might believers doubt the witnesses “seeing” the plates, but what assurance remained if even the Book of Mormon witnesses doubted or no longer believed that they had seen an angel? Or worse, if one of them, David Whitmer, for example, claimed to know that Smith had fallen into error?2
Ultimately, all this comes down to the question of whether one can believe Joseph Smith, which returns us to Thomas Paine in the mid-1790s: believers believe the Old Testament or the Koran (and now the Book of Mormon) only if they believe Moses or Mohammed (and now Joseph Smith). In the end there was no gain over the way [p.180] people came to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Knowledge then cannot replace faith. Faith is a gift, is itself revelation, is a sign that God is at work. Knowledge will fail and then faith must carry the believer. Smith himself said just that to Oliver Cowdery when Cowdery failed to translate the plates. Cowdery was told to “rely upon the things which are written.” But if people cannot believe the Bible or its story of Christ on the basis of apostolic witness, then they can no more believe in Christ on the witness of the Book of Mormon and the witness of Mormonism’s living apostles.
To defend God, Smith tried to preserve the Bible as special revelation through the Book of Mormon, but in the end he made it more difficult to accept the Bible, since one had to accept two books instead of one. In his battle with skeptics, Smith tried to refurbish the Bible in order to make it intellectually acceptable. He supplied portions which were lost, corrected contradictions3 he discerned, and eliminated italicized words which were “the work of man.”
However, his strategy was compromised when the Book of Mormon manuscript itself turned out to have omissions, corrections, emendations, and contradictions. If the Book of Mormon was to be a corrective for the Bible, what was one to do if it also needed correcting? Or if immediate revelation could supply the correction, what was one to do if the revelator later received contradictory revelations?
Smith wanted to settle all doctrinal contention and denominational strife. But within a few years after his death, there were several contending factions which claimed Smith as founder and the Book of Mormon as scripture. The very thing Smith criticized and tried to correct in Christendom had come to his own movement. Personal revelation could not solve the problem of Mormons contending over who had authority, succession, priesthood, and true doctrine. Each made the claim and could well produce a young man who would look at rival Mormon factions, the contending denominations of his day, and come to the conclusion that none was right.
1. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 54. Compare D&C 46:7. Smith said that one could tell the difference [p.181]when a former revelation is contradicted; see History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1927), 4:581.
2. Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards et al., 1854-86), 7:164. No less a person than Brigham Young said of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon: “some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, were afterwards led to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel.” Ibid.
3. Ironically, Smith introduced contradictions between the monogamy of the Book of Mormon and the polygamy of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Unitarian monotheism of the Book of Mormon and the polytheism of the Doctrine and Covenants. The Book of Mormon account of Jesus’ birth names Jerusalem as the birthsite rather than the New Testament’s location of Bethlehem (Alma 7:9-10).