Joseph Smith's Response to Skepticism

Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger

on the cover:
As an ordained Lutheran minister, Robert Hullinger approaches Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon skeptically. At the same time, he explains in this thought-provoking re-evaluation of early Mormonism, “I prefer to put the best construction on Joseph Smith and let his expressed motives speak for themselves, then draw conclusions from the evidence. This approach may not always rule out a negative opinion of Joseph Smith, but it allows for a more charitable estimate of his intentions.”

“One of the most charitable studies of Joseph Smith ever written by a non-Mormon” — Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

“[A] serious theological analysis.” — Glenn C. Stone, Lutheran Forum

“In Hullinger’s hands, [Joseph] Smith becomes a guide to frontier intellectual life.” — Ben L. Kaufman, religion reporter, Cincinnati Enquirer

“Hullinger … places Joseph Smith in his time and environment. The effort of the young Smith reveals itself as an original and genuinely religiously motivated answer to the religious and national problems of its religious milieu.” — Heikki Raisanen, Theologische Literaturseitung

“Robert Hullinger has extracted the major religious thought patterns from the Book of Mormon, steeped himself in the ideas and literature of Joseph Smith’s time, and correlated his findings into a readable account. He makes available to readers a great amount of material in bringing to our generation the flavor and overtones of those days in western New York.” — Wesley P. Walters, pastor, Marissa, Illinois, Presbyterian Church

about the author: Robert N. Hullinger serves Bethany Lutheran Church in Erlanger, Kentucky, as pastor. He is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, and of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

title page:
Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger
Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1992

frontispiece [Joseph Smith photo]

copyright page:
A version of this book was published in 1980 as Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon by Clayton Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri.

Cover design by Connie Disney
∞ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper Printed for Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984.
© 1992 by Signature Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Composed and printed in the United States of America.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hullinger, Robert N.

Joseph Smith’s response to skepticism / Robert N. Hullinger.
p. cm.
1. Smith, Joseph, 1805-44. 2. Book of Mormon—Evidences, authority, etc. 3. Authority (Religion)—
History of Doctrines—19th century. 4. Deism—History—19th century. 5. Skepticism— History—
19th century. 6. Revelation—History of doctrines—19th century. 7. Mormon Church—Doctrines—
History—19th century. I. Title.

BX8695.S6H85 1992
289.3—dc20 89-27211
ISBN: 0-941214-83-4

dedication: To Charlotte,
my inspiration, and to Lisa, Jennie, and Rob, our on-going revelations
well, most of the time.

Preface [see below]
Introduction [see below]

Part I. The Defender
01 – Purpose of the Book of Mormon
02 – Translator or Author

Part II. A Defense Needed
03 – New England and Western New York
04 – The Palmyra Region

Part III. Sources for the Defense
05 – The Indians’ Lost Book of God
06 – Ezekiel’s Two Books
07 – Isaiah, Buried and Sealed
08 – Masonic Ritual and LorePart IV. Case for the Defense
09 – A God of Revelation
10 – Prophecy Proves Revelation
11 – Records of Revelation

Part V. The Defense Rests
12 – An American Prophet

Appendix 1
Appendix 2

Preface and Acknowledgements

[p.ix]As a child in Grand Island, Nebraska, I treasured the legend told me by a worldly-wise fifth grader: every time I crossed Koenig and Locust streets I traveled the Mormon Trail. Since this was on my way to school, I walked daily with those pioneers, struggling westward in the face of adversity. It has been a long time since I walked alongside those men and women, but their story I still find fascinating, even though my path to Zion as an ordained Lutheran minister leads in a different direction.

The reader should note that Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason is used in this study to indicate what kind of climate popular deism fostered in Joseph Smith’s world. I do not necessarily imply that the Mormon prophet read Paine’s book, though I believe he did.

Even if one believes that Joseph Smith was at best a scoundrel, one still must account for the Book of Mormon. If Smith was trying to sway the world for his own purposes, one still must deal with the way he chose to do it. That means looking at the appeal of the Book of Mormon. I prefer to put the best construction on Joseph Smith, let his expressed motives speak for themselves, then draw conclusions from the evidence. This approach may not always rule out a negative opinion of Joseph Smith, but it allows for a more charitable estimate of his intentions.

Many people helped bring this book to life, first in 1980 and again in this revised edition. George B. Arbaugh provided the initial impetus by encouraging me in my brash suggestion that I help him update his 1932 study, Revelation and Mormonism. Neither of us could have foreseen that my conclusions would call into question his central thesis about the Book of Mormon. Pastor Walter E. Kraemer of Oakland, California, lent moral support during my research days in Berkeley. Arthur Carl Piepkorn of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis; [p.x] Jan Shipps of Indiana-Purdue University, Indianapolis; H. Michael Marquardt of Sandy, Utah; and Dan Vogel of Columbus, Ohio, all shared with me some of their research. In addition, Mssrs. Marquardt and Vogel critiqued the manuscript at different stages of production. Richard L. Bushman, noted Mormon and early American historian, reviewed the earlier manuscript, except chapter 8. Other Saints of both the LDS and RLDS churches read portions of the manuscript. Of course, none of these scholars necessarily accepts my conclusions. Appreciation is also due archivists of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City and of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri, for their helpfulness. Gertrude and Clara Moellering of Cincinnati, members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church which I serve, provided a working translation of Diedrich Willers’s 1830 letter.

Special gratitude is due Pastor Wesley P. Walters, recently deceased, who shared a great deal of source material from his files, the conclusions of his pioneering work in Mormon origins, and much time and effort in reading critically and helpfully several drafts of this work. His standard of scholarship and detail set a goal toward which I strained in completing this study.

Finally, the reader will notice that variations of nineteenth-century English usage are reproduced as they occur in the sources. No “sic” calls attention to typographical and other errors. No italics or capitalizations are there except those that occur in the sources. Only an occasional editorial bracket is used to clarify.

Acknowledgement is made to the following for permission to quote from the sources indicated or to reproduce the items cited: Alfred A. Knopf, for Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers; Brigham Young University Studies, for “View of the Hebrews: Substitute for Inspiration?”; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for Joseph Smith’s Letter Book, Joseph Smith’s “Manuscript History of the Church,” and the preliminary manuscript of Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches; Charles Scribner’s Sons, for Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Developments of American Religious Life; Concordia Publishing House, for Church, State, and the American Indians and Religious Bodies of America; Concordia Theological Monthly, for “Joseph Smith, Defender of the Faith,” where portions of the Introduction, chapters 1, 3, 9, 10, and 11 first appeared; Cornell University Press, for The Burned-over District: The [p.xi] Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850; Deseret Book, for History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Harper and Row, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America and The Story of Religions in America; Harvard University Press, for Nature’s Nation; Herald Publishing House, for Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development; Journal of Mormon History, for “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comparative Interpretation of Joseph Smith”; Lutheran Quarterly, for “The Lost Tribes of Israel and the Book of Mormon,” where portions of chapter 6 first appeared; Michigan State University Press, for Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (1967); Religious Bodies of America; Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for photographs of the E MS 2 Nephi excerpt and the Anthon Transcript; and Wesley P. Walters, for photographs of Albert Neely’s bill.


[p.xiii]The man who established a religion in the age of free debate, who was and is to-day accepted by hundreds of thousands as a direct emissary from the Most High—such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fanatic, impostor, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problems he presents to us.… [T]he wonderful influence which this founder of a religion exerted and still exerts throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained.

—Josiah Quincy,1 mayor of Boston

When the Book of Mormon appeared in late March 1830 and a new church was organized early the following month, America saw the beginning of yet another effort to defend Jesus Christ against all adversaries.2 To lead the way out of perplexity generated by religious strife, denominational polemics, and rationalistic views of Jesus, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith forged his own theology of revelation.

Many, if not most, of those he hoped to lead responded by attacking his character and person. To discredit him, they recited his money-digging activities and court trials. They dismissed his “Golden Bible” because of its style and language and its preoccupation with contemporary concerns.

As early as 1831 the influence of Sidney Rigdon, an ex-Campbellite minister, was cited to explain the origin of the new scripture.3 Rigdon was supposed to have purloined the manuscript of a fanciful romance dealing with the origin of the American Indians. Eber D. [p.xiv] Howe, an anti-Mormon newspaper publisher in Painesville, Ohio, publicized the theory in 1834 in a book that is still influential.4 A hundred years later this theory found its best presentation in a work by George B. Arbaugh.5

At the turn of the twentieth century, psychology was used as a tool to explain Joseph Smith. Once again he was assumed to be author of the Book of Mormon. He was an epileptic, a dissociated personality, and paranoid—but nevertheless capable of producing an elaborate hoax. This explanation is also still being offered today.6

Fawn M. Brodie buried the purloined manuscript theory7 in her 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. But Brodie’s greatest service was considering how ideas current in the 1820s related to the personal life of the Mormon prophet. This strengthened the case for an environmentally-based understanding of Smith. However, her portrait of Smith suffers from some blurred edges.

For example, Marvin S. Hill, a Mormon scholar, called Brodie to task for explaining Smith solely through his personal charisma and dismissing his religious motivations, thereby neglecting the religious force and appeal of his message.8 Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon historian, similarly stressed the need to see beyond Smith as saint or fraud in order to reveal a “larger than life whole man.” To that end she challenged scholars to determine to what extent the scriptures Smith produced can be used as “primary source material” for better understanding him.9 This study is a partial acceptance of that challenge.

Mario DePillis, a Catholic scholar, emphasized that as with other religious innovators, Joseph Smith’s quest was ultimately for religious authority.10 De Pillis looked to Smith’s explanation of his first vision as the springboard for understanding his quest.11 Smith found that no church was right and determined not to join any until the full gospel became clear to him. DePillis was the first non-Mormon to take seriously Smith’s response to early nineteenth-century society.12 Although De Pillis was aware of the importance of the Book of Mormon as a base for Smith’s claim to authority, he looked primarily to developments which followed publication of the Book of Mormon. To overcome skepticism about his new American scripture, Smith created a dual priesthood, settled doctrinal questions, and mediated God’s revelations in order to reestablish divine control.13 My study hopefully complements De Pillis’s findings by [p.xv] concentrating on Joseph Smith’s basic objective in producing the Book of Mormon.

There has been a growing awareness that deism was an important part of the cultural and intellectual milieu of Joseph Smith’s time, along with the revivalism and sectarian strife of New York’s “burned-over district.” Psychologist I. W. Riley first saw deism as important in the story of Book of Mormon anti-Christ Korihor, but he did not see how deism was also part of a complex which included Freemasonry and Roman Catholicism.14 American historian David Brion Davis saw Mormonism as a link in the Puritan tradition opposing deism, revivalism, Methodism, and Unitarianism, but he did not develop this insight.15 Milton Backman and Ivan Barrett, both Mormon writers, saw deism as part of the contemporary context but did not believe that Smith was particularly influenced by it.16 Richard Bushman, a Mormon historian, suggested ways in which Smith himself responded to skepticism but did not discuss this subject in the context of the Book of Mormon. He found that the first vision story was designed to meet rationalistic demands for evidence.17

Religious authority in the 1820s was based on the assumption that the Bible was a special revelation from God rather than a natural revelation deducible from nature. Behind this lay convictions about the nature of deity—that God was personal and in reach of humanity rather than an absentee landlord. I believe that Joseph Smith tried to defend faith in a personal God against denominational strife and popular skepticism. He staked out the principle of continuous, personal revelation as the ground for battle and regarded himself as defender of God. The Book of Mormon was an apologetic for Jesus Christ.18

Mormon readers should know at the outset that as a practicing Lutheran I do not share many of their beliefs regarding the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. I do not believe that the Book of Mormon is a historical narrative of ancient Americans during the period from 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. Rather, I believe that the book is a product of the early nineteenth century and was written by Joseph Smith. Whatever motives led Joseph Smith to produce the Book of Mormon—whether he was trying to sway the world for his own purposes or was trying to affect the world in a positive way—we must still deal with the way he chose to do it, and that means looking seriously at the obvious appeal of the Book of Mormon which [p.xvi] remains just as strong today as it was in 1830. I prefer to put the best construction on Joseph Smith and his intentions; to let his expressed intentions speak for themselves and then to draw conclusions from the evidence, as I understand and interpret it. Such an approach, too often missing in Mormon and non-Mormon discussions of early Mormonism allows for a more charitable—and what I believe is a more accurate—appraisal of Joseph Smith than has been previously achieved. [p.1]


1. Figures of the Past (Boston, 1883), in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1958), 132.

2. Unless otherwise noted, the Book of Mormon edition I use is that published in 1920 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

3. James Gordon Bennett cited a “Henry Rangdon,” “Ringdon,” or “Rigdon” as the person. A successful journalist, Bennett interviewed people who knew the first Mormons and wrote a two-part article for the New York Courier and Enquirer in 1831. See Leonard J. Arrington, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites,'” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 355-64.

4. Mormonism Unvailed (Painsville, OH, 1834).

5. Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932).

6. Isaac Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903); Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Morroone mit Exkursen über die Anfänge des Islams und des Christentums (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1912); Walter F. Prince, “Psychological Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon,” American Journal of Psychology 28 (July 1917): 373-89; but compare Theodore Schroeder, “Authorship of the Book of Mormon,” American Journal of Psychology 30 (Jan. 1919): 1-13; Bernard DeVoto, “The Centennial of Mormonism,” American Mercury 19 (Jan. 1930): 1-13 (Arbaugh, 227-29, rejects Prince and DeVoto); and Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2d ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), 418-21.

7. Brodie, appendix B.

8. Marvin S. Hill, “Secular or Sectarian History? A Critique of No Man Knows My History,” Church History 40 (Mar. 1974): 78-96.

9. “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 6, 19, 20.

[p.xvii]10. “The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 69-88.

11. This has traditionally been dated in 1820.

12. Milton V. Backman, Jr., American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), does this from a Mormon perspective. Compare also Ivan J. Barrett, Joseph Smith and the Restoration: A History of the Church to 1846 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1973), 5-13.

13. De Pillis, 82.

14 Riley, 151-59. J. E. Homans [Robert C. Webb, pseud.], The Real Mormonism: A Candid Analysis of an Interesting but Much Misunderstood Subject in History, Life, and Thought (New York: Sturgis & Welton, 1916), 429-43, objected to Riley’s placing exerpts from Paine in parallel with Korihor’s remarks, which he charges tear Paine out of context.

15. David Brion Davis, “The New England Origins of Mormonism,” The New England Quarterly 37 (June 1953): 158.

16. See Backman and Barrett.

17. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and Skepticism (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1974). Bushman found that William Paley’s arguments were used—that Smith was a neutral observer of the vision and became committed to it in spite of persecution and personal loss.

18. See my “Joseph Smith, Defender of the Faith,” Concordia Theological Monthly 42 (Feb. 1971): 72-87.