Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger
Prophecy Proves Revelation
[p.143]There are certain events plainly predicted in the Prophets, yet future, which, when fulfilled, will convince all the heathen nations of the true God, and they shall know that He hath spoken and performed it. And all the great and learned men of Christendom, and all societies, who put any other than a literal construction on the word of prophecy, shall stand confounded.
—Parley P. Pratt,1 a Mormon apostle
Prophecy was central to Joseph Smith’s message. He traced prediction and fulfillment of prophecy back to Jared and the Tower of Babel, and noted that ancient prophecies were recorded on the brass plates of Laban (1 Ne. 3:30). Soon after publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith recorded prophecies from Adam himself.2
The Book of Mormon’s notion of prophecy responded strategically to objections which had been raised by deists. For example, it detailed the case against prophecy through the person of Korihor, archvillain and anti-Christ of the Book of Mormon narrative. Korihor “began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ” (Alma 30:6). He asked: “Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come. Behold, these things which ye call prophecies se against prophecy through the person of Korihor, archvillain and anti-Christ of the Book of Mormon narrative. Korihor “began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ” (Alma 30:6). He asked: “Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come. Behold, these things which ye call prophecies … are foolish traditions of your fathers. How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye [p.144] do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ. Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds … lead[s] you away into a belief of things which are not so” (Al. 30:13-16). Asked why he spoke “against all the prophecies of the holy prophets,” Korihor replied: “because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, in ignorance.… Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true” (Alma 30:23-26).
Unbelieving Nephites at the time of Jesus’ coming articulated similar objections to prophecy· Samuel the Lamanite prophet predicted particular signs of the coming of Christ. When the signs started to appear, unbelieving Nephites said that “Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken” (Hel. 16:15-16).
Thus the Book of Mormon summarized the arguments against prophecy popularized by deists: Bible traditions are foolish and untrustworthy; foreknowledge is impossible; prophecy is a delusion used by corrupt priests to manipulate people; there is no way of knowing the truth of prophecy, since the law of averages allows for correct guesses. But the Book of Mormon also launched a counter-offensive to preserve prophecy as proof of revelation. On one level, the Book of Mormon affirmed a traditional view of prophecy. Its presentation of the prophetic gift and the means by which it was given were similar to views held by Protestant enthusiasts in western New York. But Mormon scripture went further and enlisted prophecy and revelation in its own cause.
Fulfilled prophecy was meant to inspire faith in future fulfillment. The Book of Mormon included both prophesied signs of the birth and death of Jesus Christ and notice of their accomplishment. Such accounts of the fulfillment of prophecy were meant to assure readers that God would yet fulfill his covenant to Israel by working through the predictions of the millennial agenda. Because of what the Bible and Book of Mormon describe as a sign of the last days—notably the discovery of a new book—readers were encouraged to believe that the signs leading to the winding up of this world’s affairs were in the process of being fulfilled and that the Millennium would soon come. In turn such belief in prophecy would become [p.145] part of what might enable the end. With other millennialists, Smith thought that human effort could help bring in the Millennium. If Smith could arouse the expectation of the faithful, God would come that much sooner to his temple. Prophecy was as much foreseeing the event as its cause (1 Ne. 10:13; Moro. 8:29).
This emphasis on the importance of worthiness for fulfilling prophecy—in the future as well as in the past—helped to answer one objection Thomas Paine had raised. He had scorned biblical prophets for giving predictions and then, when no fulfillment was forthcoming, explaining away the failure by supposing that God had “repented.”3 But the Book of Mormon did not include the notion that God “repented,” and Smith edited this notion out of his Inspired Version of the Bible.
Conditional prophecy was a different matter, since its purpose was to effect repentance. Nephite prophets warned their nation to repent or be destroyed (1 Ne. 1:4). Abinadi preached repentance to the people and warned that God would allow their enemies to bring them into bondage if they refused to repent (Mosiah 11:20-26; 12:1-8). In Enos’s time many prophets were required to proclaim forthcoming doom in order to keep the people in line: “I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceeding great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction” (Enos 23). But indictment and threat were never without the accompanying promise of a Messiah from whom sinners could hope for reprieve.4 Rather than representing God as capricious, conditional prophecy verified God’s respect for human freedom. God would not violate human “free agency,” but neither would he deny justice and withhold punishment, for that would make God inconstant.5
The Book of Mormon showed that people in all ages had had access to such notions about prophecy. Because of the doctrine that faith in Jesus Christ saves, critics had often asked about the status of those who lived before Jesus. The standard Christian response was that they too were saved by faith when they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Smith made prophecy prove that what was known of Jesus in 1829 A.D. was also known at the time of Adam (D&C 20:26-28). The content of doctrine in all ages was the same: repentance, baptism, faith, and continuing revelation. If anyone should wonder why this was so, he or she were told in the Book of Mormon: “And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long [p.146] beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming? [Alma is speaking to his son, Corianton, about 73 B.C.] Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children? Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming?” (Alma 39:17-19). Thus the Book of Mormon assured modern believers that the ancients had full doctrinal faith.6
Virtually without exception, Smith made prophecy predictive, specific, and detailed.7 The messianic prophecies designated aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, his doctrinal positions, the signs of his birth and death, and the exact number of years from the time of a prophecy to the date of his birth. In the Book of Mormon Isaiah 29 is deployed as a detailed prediction of the Harris-Anthon consultation and the coming forth of the American scripture. The three witnesses are predicted in several places. Even the name of the one to translate the records was known to the biblical patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob. These are not equivocal predictions which might fit circumstances other than those intended.
Smith’s attitude toward prophecy was literalistic,8 a feature he shared with conservative and millennialistic Protestants. In this they may have been partly reacting to the deistic call for allegorical rather than literal understanding of prophecy. But when Christians agreed to understand a prophecy allegorically, deists scorned them for their apparent embarrassment over literal interpretation. Smith’s use of prophecy exhibits disdain for anything other than literal interpretation.9
The Book of Mormon provided detailed accounts of familiar prophecies which had been fulfilled and used similar detail to introduce fulfillment of prophecies which were not so familiar to traditional Christian readers. Messianic prophecy is particularly prominent in the Book of Mormon. In no other instance was Smith more precise than in describing the events and significance of Jesus’s life as foreseen by those living before his time. The creation of a whole line of Nephite prophets who predicted the coming of Jesus to the exact year dramatically reaffirmed Christian claims that the messianic passages of the Old Testament had accurately pointed to the birth of Christ. In the Book of Mormon, even his many titles and names had been foreknown: Messiah, Savior, Redeemer, Son of [p.147] God, “Son” of Righteousness,10 Only Begotten, Holy One of Israel, Mighty One, Father and Son, Good Shepherd, King of Heaven, and the Eternal Father of heaven and earth.11
Prophecy described to Book of Mormon characters far in advance what would happen at Jesus’ birth and death. A new star and the sun shining for two days and a night would announce his birth. A three-day darkness accompanied by earthquakes would signal his death (Hel. 14). He would be born of a virgin named Mary (1 Ne. 11:18; Mosiah 3:8); be baptized by John (1 Ne. 11:27); be rejected (2 Ne. 25:12), mocked and scourged (Mosiah 15:5), lifted up on a cross (1 Ne. 11:33). He would break the bonds of death (Mos. 15:8) and rise from the dead (2 Ne. 15:13). He would atone for sin (Mosiah 3:11), would redeem his people (15:1), and satisfy the demands of justice (v. 9). He would be the means of salvation to the gentiles (2 Ne. 33:9); would bring about the resurrection of the dead (Alma 5:14); and would judge all humanity (2 Ne. 33:7, 11). Such knowledge was known by Adam (Book of Moses, revealed in 1830).
The Book of Mormon also prophesied of the fate of the Jews. Smith operated within a premillennial framework which considered the conversion of the Jews an indispensable part of the last days. Thus the Jews became part of the House of Israel which should be grafted onto an olive tree (1 Ne. 10:12-24). Because they had denied Christ (1 Ne. 19:13), the Jews had to be scattered over the earth (10:12) and be persecuted by other nations for many generations “until they shall be persuaded to believe in Christ” (2 Ne. 25:16; 1 Ne. 19:14). Eventually, assisted by the rulers and monarchs of the gentile world (2 Ne. 10:8-9), they would be gathered (v. 8) and once again occupy the “land of Jerusalem” (20:29). They would accept Christ and his atonement and no longer look for another Messiah. They would also believe the Book of Mormon (25:16). A place for God’s people would then be established in the mountain tops. From there God’s word would go forth. Jerusalem, along with Zion, would be world centers. Universal peace would prevail (2 Ne. 12:14/Isa. 2:14; 2 Ne. 21:11-12/Isa. 11:11-12).
The Book of Mormon spoke about the future of the Lamanites or native Americans as well. As an expression of God’s wrath, they would be scattered and smitten by gentiles (1 Ne. 12:14). God would take away their land (2 Ne. 1:11) and cause them to be afflicted, slain, cast out, hated—to become a “hiss and a by-word” (3 Ne. 16:9). But they would survive (2 Ne. 3:3; Alma 9:16), and their fortunes would [p.148] change for the better when they discovered their Israelite origins, learned of the restored gospel and how to be saved (1 Ne. 15:14). They would know that this knowledge comes from God, would rejoice (2 Ne. 30:6), and would come into the “true fold of God” (1 Ne. 15:15). They would be nourished by gentiles (22:8) who would share the records of the Jews and the Book of Mormon with them (2 Ne. 29:13). In future generations the Lamanites would become a “white and delightsome people” (30:6).12 Together gentiles and Lamanites would build the New Jerusalem (3 Ne. 20:22; 21:22-23).
The Book of Mormon detailed other events in the gentiles’ future. The Book of Mormon foresaw that they would scatter the Lamanites, possess the land of promise, and prosper because of the Spirit of the Lord (1 Ne. 13:14-15). God’s blessing would make them a mighty nation (22:7; 3 Ne. 20:27). God would establish his church among them when they repented and obeyed him. He would give them much of his gospel “which shall be plain and precious” (1 Ne. 13:34; 3 Ne. 21:22). They would then take the “fulness of the gospel” to the Lamanites (1 Ne. 15:13) and to the Jews (3 Ne. 16:4). The restored gospel would divide the gentiles into two camps: those who accepted it and those who rejected it (1 Ne. 14:6-7). Those who rejected it would do so because they already had a Bible and would expect no other scripture (2 Ne. 29:3, 9). Some of the gentiles would pridefully consider themselves to be above all other nations and yet allow fraud, false religion, murder, and secret combinations to go unchecked. As a consequence, God would remove the “fulness” of his gospel from them (26:22; 27:1; 3 Ne. 16:10). Even then, if they would repent, they would once again be considered God’s people (v. 13).
The Book of Mormon foretold its own appearance. It would appear when Nephites had disappeared and when Lamanites had been smitten by the gentiles and had lost the Nephite records. Gentiles would have many churches but would minimize God’s power, would prefer human wisdom, support secret combinations, and keep the poor in poverty (2 Ne. 26:14-22). There would be “wars, rumors of wars, and earthquakes in divers places” (Morm. 8:26-30; cf. vv. 31-34). At just that time the gentiles would bring forth the Book of Mormon. Its appearance would demonstrate God’s power (1 Ne. 13:35).
Joseph Smith’s role was anticipated, as mentioned (2 Ne. 3:6-7, 15).13 A seer would perform work which would be of great value for [p.149] the Lamanites (vv. 7, 11). He would make his full-time career doing God’s work (v. 8) and would be as great as Moses in the eyes of God (vv. 8-9; compare Moses 1:41). He would be made strong out of his weaknesses (2 Ne. 3:13). Although many would try to destroy him, his persecutors would be confounded, and instead of death he would receive God’s blessing (v. 14). Like Moses, he would have a spokesman (v. 18).
The Book of Mormon thus contained many detailed predictions dealing both with ancient and contemporary events. Revelations which came in this early period but after the translation of the Book of Mormon—such as those recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants—were more reticent about predicting the new church’s fortunes. The majority of revelations which do prophesy express general confidence in the eventual success of efforts undertaken to found the church. David Whitmer reported an early failed prophecy not recorded in the official edition of Smith’s revelations—Smith’s prediction that Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery would be able to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada.14 Such a failure may suggest why Smith was thereafter cautious. His role as a prophet who could predict the future was more potential than actual before he left New York for Ohio in 1831.
Responding to deists’ criticisms of unfulfilled prophecy, Smith furnished what he took to be abundant proof of fulfilled prophecy.15 By showing that ancient prophecy dealt with matters of nineteenth-century concern and by demonstrating congruence with his theology, Smith strengthened the claim for the Book of Mormon’s being a special revelation.
4. Used with individuals: 2 Ne. 5:22; Alma 5:51. Used with nations and peoples: 1 Ne. 14:5-7; 22:18; 2 Ne. 6:12; 28:17, 19; 31:13-14; Jacob 3:3; Mosiah 11:20-25; 29:19-20; Alma 8:16, 29; 10:20-23; 13:27, 30. This list is only partial.
8. Especially in portions reproducing texts declared fulfilled by the New Testament. It is also true of those pertaining to the millennial scheme of events and those portraying the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Book of Mormon. One important factor in this literalism was Smith’s conviction that he could do something to fulfill a prophecy. This lay behind Smith’s use of Isaiah 29:11-12. The literalism lent itself to strategies by which people could intentionally fulfill prophecy.
9. For example, see D&C 77:2 dealing with the “beasts” of Rev. 4. Joseph thought that the four beasts were real, saved from other worlds, and now living in heaven with real power over earth’s inhabitants (Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1927], 5:340-44). Paul’s “earthly” corresponding to the “heavenly” is touched on in D&C 128. Parley Pratt, Voice of Warning, 6-7, 25, later contrasted the literal prophetic fulfillment with what he called the modern system of “spiritualizing” of which, he felt, the biblical prophets knew nothing.
10. Apparently Smith meant to apply the title “Sun of Righteousness” from Mal. 4:2, which had been applied to Jesus early on in church history. When Cowdery heard the word “sun,” he transcribed it “son.” Smith used the rest of the verse (“with healing in his wings”) to describe Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (2 Ne. 25:13).
12. Dark skin as a sign of God’s displeasure is taught in 1 Ne. 12:23; 2 Ne. 5:21-23; Alma 3:6-9; Morm. 5:15. In W. W. Phelps’s version of Joseph Smith’s 1831 revelation, verse 4, Smith envisioned inter-marriage with the Indians as a way of making them “white and delightsome”: “For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and just, for even now their families are more virtuous than the gentiles.” Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Phelps, and apostate Ezra Booth all knew about the revelation. Brigham Young’s attitude on inter-marriage with native Americans during the early Utah years, when many Mormon men took Indian wives, carried out the principle established in the 1831 revelation. See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism Like Watergate? (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Company, 1974), 6-14. See also Richard S. Van [p.151]Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986).
13. David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses, agreed that Smith was the “man who is not learned” of Isa. 29 but not that he was the choice seer. The seer was to be a descendant of Lehi through the youngest son, Joseph (2 Ne. 3), from whom the Indians descended, and the choice seer was to come from the Indians. An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 26-27. See chap. 1, n12, for Whitmer’s comment on Smith as the “choice seer.”
15. Rejection of “spiritualizing” was to be an ongoing weapon in Mormon polemics against Protestant interpretation of the Bible. Most millennialists agree with this position against mainline Protestant interpretation. Some passages, however, could have both a literal and a spiritual fulfillment. Compare 1 Ne. 22:1-3, 6, 27 with Isa. 48-49.