The Non-Historical Book of Mormon is More Than A Mere Fairy Tale

Two readers posted comments recently on my article about Joseph Smith as tertön and the Book of Mormon as terma. They were both similar in questioning the idea that the Book of Mormon may not be a historical text.

Two readers posted comments recently on my article about Joseph Smith as tertön and the Book of Mormon as terma. They were both similar in questioning the idea that the Book of Mormon may not be a historical text. The comments read, in part:

The more I study it, the more I become convinced that it is *exactly* what it claims to be–even to the point of it being rather mundane. No doubt, the process of translation was miraculous–and there were heavenly beings involved and so forth. But the supernatural elements of the process never lessened the reality of the cold, hard, palpable aspects of the experience.

If Joseph envisioned within his mind the Book of Mormon text are you likewise suggesting that the text is not historical? Furthermore, what doesn’t make sense in this theory is your assumption / rationale behind Joseph’s mystic interpretations – if this is true than the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a fairy tale dreamed up by Joseph through a deep state of meditation and oneness.

I admit that for the longest time I too thought that the Book of Mormon was a historical text, for that is exactly what the LDS Church teaches, and what it taught me growing up. It was what Joseph Smith himself seemed to believe, that he was somehow channeling (or what he called “translating”) the written words of ancient Mesoamericans that lived long ago in the Americas (the predominant Mormon theory of where the history took place). He says he did this from what he called “the gold plates,” metal sheets of a gold alloy with the etchings and engraved writings of these former Pre-Columbian Christian prophets. This he says he did even though it seems, from the accounts of those who witnessed the translation, that he never once even looked at these plates while “translating,” but rather was looking intently at a brown “seer” stone deposited in the bottom of a white stove pipe hat. This alone should give us pause to reconsider the source of the text.

I perceive it is ok to believe in supernatural things as long as those things have a basis in actuality. Genuine supernaturalism is that which refers to things that we do not know, areas of our ignorance, outside our realm of current understanding. Consciousness, for example, may be properly considered a “miracle,” as atheist Sam Harris recently called it, because we do not understand how it arises. But a supernaturalism that refers to things that are contrary to nature, or that break natural law in any way, I think is not good and may be described as superstition. Any and all parts of the Joseph Smith story that seem to break natural law, or what we know about the nature of reality, I perceive, would be well for us to eradicate from our beliefs, to unlearn them, and we should seek to uncover the true reality of them, their true nature.

If God is not a God of Truth and of Natural Law, then I don’t know what God would be. If the truth of the story is something other than what we thought it was, then we should be open to it, surrender ourselves to it, and seek it out, as that may be where we can find God. We can only find God in Truth. And as Mark Twain once wrote, truth is stranger than fiction. In my view, God can never ever be found in error, inaccuracy, delusion, illusion, or misconception.

The more I study the Book of Mormon, the more I’m convinced that the book is not like what we thought it was. It does not seem to me to be the mundane translation of a work written by ancient Mesomerican Christians from 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. that Joseph Smith merely vocalized with his mouth so that scribes could write it down. This would essentially make Joseph into a puppet, an empty passive man, who was unable to reveal insights into the depths of spirituality himself, and so he must have channeled the words of others, even long dead prophets from another time and place. I think Joseph was doing much more than that.

One of the primary reasons why I think that it is not a historical text is because no one outside of Mormonism has concurred with that analysis. It seems that no scholar, researcher, archaeologist, scientist, explorer, theologian, philosopher, historian, academic, or otherwise who is not a Mormon agrees that the text accurately reflects a source from ancient Pre-Columbian Mesomerica. There are many who will agree that the book contains a wealth of spiritual insights, and may even reflect many similar spiritual sentiments as expressed in ancient times, but I don’t think I’ve come across a single one who believes that it actually came out of ancient Mesoamerica.

This is a great stumbling block for Mormons, but they don’t often see it that way. One simply cannot create one’s own exclusive historical past, separate and apart from the rest of world history. The past doesn’t work that way, but this is what Mormons generally do with the Book of Mormon and the creation of a “Mormon” Mesoamerica. To write history legions of historians from all around the world look very closely at all the evidence from archaeology, known texts, other historical sources, genetics, present-day culture, and many other areas in order to establish what they think happened in the past. This process generally comes to a consensus, at least in the broadest terms of peoples, places, cultures, customs, events, beliefs, languages, migrations, etc. Such historians have studied Mesoamerica for a couple hundred years, most intently within the last half century, and have not found any substantive evidence of connection with the Book of Mormon. In other words, that does not seem to be its source. If we are disciples of Truth, then that should cause us to seek elsewhere instead of driving our shovels deeper in the Earth.

The mode of reception of the text alone should be enough to make us think twice about the true nature of this spiritual text. Joseph did not simply stumble onto something while he was out for a walk in the woods. He did not conduct an archaeological dig on a nearby hill, discovering an ancient artifact that had strange writing on it, and then call in expert scholars and archaeologists and linguists and academics to study that artifact, announce it to a world audience, and have it translated among the brightest minds in the world,  publishing in the highest of academic journals and presses, where it may then enter the history books. This is how all ancient historical artifacts are discovered, analyzed, and brought into the light of the world’s knowledge and history, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

No. It didn’t happen like that. It was much more mystical and visionary in nature. There is very little that was “cold, hard, and palpable” about it.

Joseph was told about the existence of gold plates in a vision of an angel during the night. In fact, he was told all about the people whose story was on these gold plates, in many such visions, over a period of several years. At times he wasn’t sure if it was a “dreem of Vision,” or what he may have considered a fantasy in his imaginative mind at night as many of us experience. But over time he seems to have become convinced that the dreams or visions expressed real realities, even actual historical realities, and that he would be the one to bring them to light.

Eventually, after many years of previous “attempts,” it came to the point where he thought he could retrieve the plates. But the retrieval of the plates was shrouded in secrecy, in the dead of night. No one saw him retrieve them, and there is a substantial amount of mystery, and folk magic, surrounding the circumstances of their retrieval. I perceive that he made an artifact like the “gold plates” he had seen in vision, that he thought through his faith he could alchemically transmute into the “real deal,” or materialize them, shifting them from vision to material reality (see Ann Taves’ theory). The artifact he made may have also acted as a kind of mystical talisman or amulet, to inspire him in his further visioning and channeling.

Once he had this artifact, he always kept it wrapped in a cloth so no one could ever see it directly, but only touch it through the cloth. Even he didn’t look at it while translating, as already noted, but it always stayed wrapped in the cloth. When he offered it to witnesses to see it, it was under the circumstances of mystical visions, spiritual eyes, and supernatural powers that it was seen, arguing that it was not the artifact he had in hand that he was showing them, but the one he saw in vision that he considered the “real deal.” And once the “translation” was finished, the artifact mysteriously vanished, never to be seen by anyone again.

Reasonable people cannot be criticized when they think this story is fantastic, and dismiss the superstitious idea that it comes from an actual historical text from ancient America. It came to light in a way that is nothing at all like any other historical artifact or text that has ever been discovered by humanity. And I think that points us towards a reality and a nature of it that is quite unlike any other historical artifact or text that has ever been discovered. We should not think it is just like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Popol Vuh, or any other ancient text that we can go and view in a museum and analyze critically. Joseph didn’t frame it that way, and he didn’t offer us that chance. It was a highly spiritual text, and the nature of its generation was also highly spiritual, not historical, archaeological, academic, or commonplace. I think we should leave the book in the place Joseph found it, the mystical and spiritual mind, and not try to force it into a historical, archaeological, geographical or other such context.

But just because it does not seem to be a historical text does not mean that it is without merit, value, or worth, or even that it has no connection to the ancient world. Some seem to think that if the book is wholly without a typical historical source that it is therefore useless, untrue, false, fantasy, or a mere fairy tale dreamed up in Joseph’s mind. That, I think, is far from the truth. It is clear that the book is inspiring to millions of people, and I think that points to a deeper reality of its nature, one that we haven’t yet touched, let alone explored. No one for a moment thinks that C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia are historical, but that doesn’t keep many from being deeply inspired by them, being a kind of metamyth, or myth of myths, of the Christian gospel. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is anything but historical, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many deep themes of light and dark, good and evil, to learn from in it. And neither of these authors were considered mystics, or prophets. Or were they?

As noted in my previous article, the earth-terma texts that Tibetan Buddhist tertöns revealed and translated are not considered to be actual texts that were buried in the ground, hidden away for centuries, recovered, and then translated from one language to another, but were the result of a shift in consciousness of these spiritual adepts to a unitive state, a deep state of oneness with being, a mystical nondual experience deep inside their consciousness, an egoless pure spiritual trance, even a Divine state of unity in God consciousness, wherein the adepts were able to divine eternal truths about the nature of life, consciousness, humanity, reality, suffering, death, liberation, and nirvana (a kind of heaven). The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, is a popular text of deeper consciousness, the best-known of Nyingma literature, and is considered a spiritual guide with themes of spiritual death, rebirth, and liberation, and it was revealed by the tertön Karma Lingpa in just this manner. I’m suggesting that the Book of Mormon was revealed and translated in much the same way as these texts were.

Why did the tertöns think that the wisdom was coming from an ancient source, just like Joseph? Rather than it coming from certain ancient people, I think it is perhaps because the wisdom is eternal, a perennial wisdom, or ancient wisdom, which has its source within humanity itself, within human consciousness, within human nature, within truth and the very fabric of reality. It may be found in any time, and in any place, by any person, without any outside influence, because it is a treasure buried deep within the consciousness of the human, underneath all ego or psychological self. Our ego hides it, obscures it, covers it, denies it, even rejects it. When the ego-self is surrendered, and one comes into oneness with reality and the truth of one’s life, without any egoic stories or delusions or illusions, then that reality is a revelation of the deepest Soul of humanity, the True Self, even what we know and call God.

Without ego to obscure perception, this Soul is universal, pure, undefiled, whole, complete, perfect, and perceived equally among all of humanity that experience it. It is exactly the same wherever it is found, and whenever it is experienced, in any person, at any time. When sages or adepts access this pure state of consciousness, they realize that it is the very same consciousness that adepts of the past accessed, and from which all their wisdom has sprung. In a way, they have “united” their minds with the sages of the past, the same state of consciousness which those ancient sages accessed from which they gave their teachings. That wisdom points to the truth of the human condition, its true nature, and how humans can access that same Wisdom, that same Truth, that same God consciousness, that same Purity of mind, because it liberates people from the suffering, delusions, diversions, and distractions of their ego. It is a return to innocence of mind, directly perceiving the purity of one’s Soul and Life in this cosmos.

All the spiritual wisdom of the world has come from this state of pure consciousness, or one near it. I think it is this state of consciousness that Joseph Smith accessed, and from which he divined the Book of Mormon text. I think he used the seer stone in order to change his consciousness, or “change his mind” (see the Greek metanoia), shift his perspective beyond his typical ego mind, or beyond the standard everyday Joseph that friends and family knew. He was going much deeper into his mind, subduing his egoic mind using the scrying exercises of staring at the seer stone until much deeper thoughts emerged. This is similar to the ancient and modern use of many types of meditation objects to engage a deeper state of mind where insights can emerge in consciousness, “aha” moments, epiphanies, revelations, etc.

I don’t think Joseph was seeing an actual ancient text written by ancient Americans in his mind, but rather he was experiencing wisdom in his mind, a stream of wisdom from that pure state of consciousness itself, and he was seeing his mind translate that wisdom into symbols, an undecipherable script, like the tertöns’ dakini script, which his mind then translated into the English text of allegories, stories, parables, characters, metaphors, similes, poetry, etc. Joseph read this text he saw within his mind. Wisdom cannot be written of directly, because it is of an experiential nature, but the mind translates this experience into words, into language, into a host of symbols to try and communicate it to others, even as I perceive Joseph’s mind did, just like the Tibetan tertöns.

The Bible is thought by most critical biblical scholars to not be literal history. Literalism is a surface reading that interprets the written events occurring just as they are written, as if there was someone there, at the scene, taking word-for-word notes like a court stenographer. This is obviously not what happened, even if there are many real historical aspects in it, but it has caused a host of deeply problematic interpretations of the Bible that do not accord with reality or the truth of the world as we know it, or as science has discovered. The Bible was not written as a historical text, but by prophet-mystics to be a spiritual guide to deeper or higher spiritual truth. This text points to real realities that may be experienced in the human being, but are not explicitly written. They cannot be directly addressed, which is the reason that the scriptures are filled with allegories, stories, mythology, and Jesus’ favorite teaching tool, parables. The deeper wisdom is hidden within the parables, within the allegories.

Just because the Bible is not a literal explicit history of past events does not mean that it is worthless, that is doesn’t contain truth, or that it is a kind of fairy tale or fantasy that has little to do with our reality, merely dreamed up by ancient novelists. The prophet-mystics who wrote the text were pointing us towards real experience, but experience that cannot be communicated except through direct experience. All other communication of it must be through the use of symbols.

Similarly, I don’t think the Book of Mormon is a literal history of past events. The only truly historical references in the text I think may be from Joseph Smith’s own personal and family life, and from the books and other sources that he came into contact with in his life, many of these expressed through symbol, story, and parable. The deeper wisdom that he was pointing towards was the same wisdom as the ancients accessed in similar states of unitive consciousness, a perennial or ancient wisdom in Divine consciousness, God consciousness. He testified of this same Wisdom through the use of his own allegories, parables, symbols, characters, stories, and symbolic history.

It is myth, it is mythology, just as the Bible, in the most serious and complex sense of those terms, as per scholars like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. We learn through story, through narrative, and so the prophet-mystics often use such to convey their deepest intuitions and experiences of life, of this deepest form of consciousness, and how people may reach the most ideal expression of human Life, revealed in a much grander, more universal, more comprehensive and encompassing Reality. It helps bring people to God, to Truth, to Life, to Light, to Love, to Oneness and Nonduality with Nature, and the eternity of the Cosmos, to the True Nature of their fundamental Being, which is God.

I believe Joseph united his consciousness with Divinity, just as many ancient prophets, mystics, sages, monks, nuns, theologians, shamans, and others. He achieved God consciousness, or theosis, the highest realization that humanity may have. And those realizations flowed from this deeper unitive Divine consciousness in Joseph, through Joseph, and onto the paper of his scribes as the text of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was not an empty puppet, a passive prophet, and there is nothing mundane about his revelation of this text. He was a prophet! He was as profoundly a mystic and prophet as any major mystic or prophet of the past. It was his inspiration in Divine consciousness. It was his revelation in union with God. He let go of his egoic consciousness, and dove deep into the abyss of his mind in order to commune with God directly, in union with God consciousness, the God that was in him, that was one with him, and which is one in all of us too (John 17).

As Joseph once exclaimed from the darkness of Liberty Jail:

The things of God are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy Mind, O [Human]! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and sink and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of Eternal Expanse. [You] must commune with God! How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart. None but fools will trifle with the souls of [humans].

I think Joseph was pointing to these deepest qualities of human consciousness itself that reveal the Divine in us, not any kind of academic intellectual book learning as many modern commentators have often thought. In many cases, too much intellectual learning and acquisition of knowledge can stunt our progress to these spiritual depths of consciousness, because they are superstructures that we build up in the ego and are often unable to let go of them to perceive the unadulterated, unfiltered, direct Truth. We become stiff-necked and hard-hearted, thinking we are so learned. Continued eating of the Tree of Knowledge does not lead back to the Tree of Life. When we point out the unlearned youth of farmer Joseph, it should make this clear to us, but we stumble nonetheless.

I’m suggesting that Joseph revealed one of the most exquisite and remarkable spiritual texts of 19th century America, which is paralleled by many other holy texts revealed in the same way. It is similar to the host of terma texts from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the Old and New Testaments from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Quran from Muhammad in Islam, and other modern spiritual texts like The Seth Material of Jane Roberts and A Course in Miracles of Helen Schucman. And many more. It came from the same omnipresent source of Wisdom as those texts did, deep within human consciousness, within all human consciousness, as God may be found in each and every one of us. The texts point us to that same state of consciousness, in at-one-ment with the Divine, with God, the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Highest, the One.

I perceive we should view the Book of Mormon as an extraordinary and powerful outpouring of mystical insight and spiritual revelation from Joseph Smith’s consciousness in Oneness with God in him, which is inspiring to millions of people around the world, and is not derived from a superstitious historical past in Mesoamerica that does not seem to exist except in Mormon conversation.

I believe this reframing of the Book of Mormon will open it up to the wider world of spiritual conversation, and help it regain its stature and significance as one of the world’s great holy texts, another testament of God, even God as manifest in human, to be taken seriously alongside the rest.

It may even help point us towards realizing God in ourselves, which I perceive is actually the goal of them all.

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25 thoughts on “The Non-Historical Book of Mormon is More Than A Mere Fairy Tale

  1. Bryce, you wrote: “I don’t think Joseph was seeing an actual ancient text”

    Whether or not it was ancient, he was definitely seeing actual text, in English, which he read aloud so that his scribe could write it down. This is based on Royal Skousen’s careful inspection and analysis of the Book of Mormon manuscripts. Skousen is the expert on this stuff, and I strongly encourage you to get acquainted with his work. Here’s a good place to start:

    See also part 3 of Brant Gardner’s book on the translation:

    Best wishes,
    Jack Lyon

    1. Hi Jack. Good clarification. I am very familiar with Skousen’s work, and I’ve read Gardner’s book. They are good works of scholarship.

      Yes, I do believe Joseph was seeing text, that he was actually seeing symbols in his mind’s eye, in his consciousness, and perhaps even the English translation of these symbols, just as the accounts describe, and as Skousen and Gardner discuss. I just don’t think they were from an ancient textual source. That was the key word in that sentence.

      The symbols and words that appeared in his consciousness I don’t believe had an ancient source in Mesoamerica as we have come to believe. I think they had their source in his consciousness itself, in the nature of the human mind, from the deepest experience of human nature and human life, in Oneness with Being, or Divinity. I think his deepest mind, even his subconscious or unconscious, shaped and formed the Wisdom he was experiencing into symbols, characters, an unknown script, like the dakini of the tertöns: “a non-human type of code or writing that only a tertön can decipher.” I think the characters he saw in his mind’s eye were this kind of script, that only Joseph could decipher into English text, because it was a script that was created in his mind. Here is an example of tertön dakini script:

      There are other examples of this phenomenon, even in the Bible, such as the story of seeing unreadable writing on the wall in Daniel 5. But there are other modern examples as well, even from automatic writing, such as Hélène Smith, a late 19th century French medium, who automatically wrote in a script she called “Martian,” which only she could subsequently translate into French. See here:

      There are also other examples of this phenomenon, some described in Diana Reed Slattery’s book-length study on the topic, Xenolinguistics. Some of the symbols that her deep consciousness revealed to her, which she calls “Glide,” can be seen here:

      Another example would be the symbols that Allyson Grey perceived in her deep consciousness, which she calls her “secret writing.”

      I think what we are seeing in all these examples, including Joseph’s, is the mind’s ability to form language from experience, the mind is in the act of language construction, symbol-making, the very primal act of meaning-making itself, on the most fundamental pre-linguistic level of consciousness (as Gardner talks about in his book).

  2. Bryce,

    We need to remember that, while non-LDS experts may be qualified in their respective disciplines, they are not experts in the Book of Mormon. So far as I’m aware, it is only LDS scholars (to date) who have the training and expertise necessary to understand how the Book of Mormon might make sense in a real world context.

    What I’m saying may seem rather smug–but, in today’s world, where specialization is the name of the game, it’s unthinkable for a scholar not to defer to other specialists when she must touch upon disciplines that are not under the purview of her training. And, IMO, until LDS scholars are afforded the same distinction (with regard to LDS scripture and history) non-LDS experts will run amok in their efforts to make sense of the BoM’s claims.

    As it relates to your personal understanding of the Book of Mormon and its provenance, I can’t escape the notion that your conclusions force upon you an interpretation of the facts that is wildly out of sync with the available historical evidence. And, so, I find it strangely ironic that you would call on others to not be dodgy with real world evidence–not to suggest that you’re being disingenuous. But you may have some rethinking to do.

    That said, I am by no means an expert in … well, anything really. But I have read the Book of Mormon on a fairly consistent basis for 40 years or so–and I can tell you that, insofar as I have any ability at all to comprehend the nuances of great literature, those people are real. They are not mere caricatures provided as a symbolic means of comprehending deeper truths. Yes–they can serve as metaphors, but they’re real, too. And, I give it to you as my opinion that, without the sense that God interacts with real people, the BoM would lose it’s power to call us to repentance.

    1. Hi Jack, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Although non-LDS experts may not be experts in the Book of Mormon text, I think it is a fallacy to think they therefore do not know whether the book’s civilizations existed in the real world. This seems like it would be similar to saying that only experts in the legend of Atlantis are educated or sufficiently well-informed to know whether Atlantis really existed.

      Events, peoples, civilizations, customs, languages, religions, and artifacts of the past do not exist independently of all others, where only certain modern-day experts know whether they really existed. Historians share knowledge with each other, archaeologists of various disciplines compare notes. There is peer review. There are major journals where findings are published. This knowledge is passed around, and the history of the past is established with consensus in the community of historical scholarship. That is what such historians do; it is their entire vocation.

      I perceive that it is not possible that LDS-experts somehow know something about the ancient Mesoamerican past that no non-LDS experts seem to know about. If the Book of Mormon truly had a Mesoamerican provenance, a real direct connection to Mesoamerican history, I think it would have been well-established by now in the academic community. I think there would be a preponderance of evidence that such was the case. But there hasn’t been, and I think that is because there is little or no substantive evidence that non-LDS experts think is credible. Many LDS experts are clearly biased to see evidence where there may be none, and so they live in a bubble, a self-constructed echo chamber. A people may have their own mythology, but not their own ancient history. History is shared among all humanity.

      I think placing the Book of Mormon in a Mesoamerican context is essentially pseudohistory (perhaps even cryptohistory) and pseudoarchaeology. In order for the Book of Mormon to fit into the historical record, it would require a rewriting of that record for it to make sense. It’s an interpretation of the past that is outside of the archaeological science and historical communities, which reject it for many reasons as reflecting an authentic past of that region and time.

      I’m curious which interpretation you believe I have that is wildly out of sync with the historical evidence? Which evidence?

      Regarding your last comment, I do think that the Book of Mormon reflects real people, and is not merely caricatures. I think it is a reflection mostly of Joseph Smith himself, his deepest yearnings, struggles, thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories, intuitions, insights, understandings, hopes, dreams, interpretations, ideas, problems, etc. I think it may also include reflections of people close to Joseph, his family members and friends. In a more general way, I think it reflects all human beings at the deepest level, even human nature at the ground of being, the very psychological structure of the human mind, of human life, and the monomyth of the human journey through life, which is all framed with very Protestant Christian symbols (not Mesoamerican spiritual symbolism).

      These are all very real people, and real aspects of humanity. There is nothing fake about them. They exist within us too, which is why the book touches and moves so many people on a very deep level. It is speaking of things related to the human heart and soul, the deepest realities of humanity. God does interact with real people, because God dwells in people, in humanity. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16). I believe it was this indwelling Spirit of God in Joseph Smith, a real person, which was the interaction that produced the Book of Mormon.

      I perceive that Joseph didn’t recover an ancient text, but rather ancient wisdom, perennial wisdom, the same as many mystics and sages have rediscovered throughout history. It is ancient not because it came from ancient people, but because it is omnipresent within human nature itself throughout time. It is precisely because the book was written from this omnipresent source of Wisdom that it has power to call us to repentance. That Divine state of consciousness from which Joseph divined the book is where repentance leads. I perceive that it is from that “repentant” state of consciousness, a consciousness that is at-one in God, that can teach us how to repent and at-one ourselves, to turn our consciousness and being back to reconciliation and at-one-ment in God.

  3. Bryce, here’s a great article by Dan Peterson:

    Perhaps you’re already familiar with it–it addresses the problem of getting the historical evidence for the provenance of the BoM to jibe with a strictly secular interpretation of the facts. Now I know that your position is not strictly secular. Even so, it seems that your approach to history and other disciplines having to do with the narrative of the book’s emergence are of a secular bent. So I wanted to share this article with you as a means of shedding light on where I think you may be in conflict with the opinions of experts on the subject.

    1. Jack, thanks for sharing the article. Peterson talks mostly about the witnesses. I think the witnesses may have seen what they say they saw. The three were likely in a mystical visionary state of consciousness, just like Joseph often was. There are some reasons to believe the eight may have been also, but if they did see an actual physical object, then it may have been the replica plates that I believe Joseph made.

      What I don’t believe is that there were actual ancient gold plates from Mesoamerica that Joseph dug up in a nearby hill, and on which was “reformed Egyptian” that Joseph somehow translated, which contained a Christian gospel as preached in Pre-Columbian America. That is all very supernatural, or breaks the laws of nature, and is far outside the realm of real history and archaeology. I don’t believe God is a supernatural God, who works contrary to nature. God is not unnatural either. I perceive God is the most natural being there is, even Being itself. If we look for God in the supernatural or the unnatural, I don’t think we’ll find God, at least not the real God.

      I think Joseph was attempting to reify his visions of gold plates into real ones, and I think this may have convinced him, after several years of visioning the plates and attempting to “retrieve” the plates, that he needed to make something like the plates which through his faith could be transmuted into the real plates he had seen in visions, as in alchemy. I think this works well with Ann Taves’ theory of the materialization of the plates ( I perceive that Joseph wasn’t lying or being deceitful. He thought he had seen real gold plates in his visions, and that he could bring them into material reality. I think what he found, instead, was that the treasure he was looking for was buried in his mind, in his soul, in his spirit, his consciousness in Oneness with the Divine, perhaps quite similar as the tertöns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition retrieved the terma texts from a pure state of mind. The real value of the “gold plates” was the Wisdom that he “translated” from his mind onto paper. That is how he reified his visions into material reality, it seems to me, through the translation of perennial Wisdom he perceived deep in his mind. The Book of Mormon was the true materialization or transmutation of the “gold plates” of his visions into objective reality.

  4. Bryce, I understand your thinking about all of this. I know where you’re coming from, believe me. But when I read the Book of Mormon, I see stuff like this: “There is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.” (Alma 34:11.) Most people just breeze right over stuff like that, but I don’t. I think, “Sacrifice his own blood? What the heck is that?” Then I turn to Google:
    Here’s another one: “And it came to pass that they took him; and his name was Nehor; and they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death.” (Alma 1:15.)
    First, there’s Mormon’s stutter: “there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge . . .” If we read between the lines, Mormon’s backpedaling implies that Nehor’s acknowledgment was the result of torture.
    Second, there’s that “ignominious death.” What was it? As usual, Mormon is coy about revealing the gory details, but we can get an idea from a later event: “Zemnarihah was taken and hanged upon a tree, yea, even upon the top thereof until he was dead.” (3 Nephi 4:28.)
    Now, you have to understand that hanging by the neck with a rope was not practiced anciently. Instead, as the NIV Study Bible points out (note to Deuteronomy 21:22), the Hebrew word usually translated as “hanging” really means “impalation.” So a more accurate version of Zemnarihah’s death might be that he was “impaled on a stake” rather than “hanged on a tree.” That could also explain the meaning of “between the heavens and the earth” in the case of Nehor. It’s hard to imagine what kind of death could be more ignominious than that.
    Those are the kinds of “inspiring” little nuggets I find as I read the Book of Mormon. They may not be pleasant, but they strongly suggest a factual background for the record. Our version of the ancient book reads the way it does because it passed through the 19th-century mind of Joseph Smith. But the marks of an authentic ancient record are still there.
    You might be interested in my Readable Scriptures edition of the Book of Mormon, which tries to approximate the presentation of the record Mormon intended us to have rather than the straitjacketed, double-columned, versified version we usually read. You can download a sample here:
    More information here:
    What is most interesting about this to me is that neither Joseph Smith nor Oliver Cowdery seems to have understood the real nature of the record they were bringing forth. If they had, they wouldn’t have allowed it to be formatted by typesetter John Gilbert in the way it was.
    Aside from the nature of the text itself, there’s this:
    Please take a long, hard look at his translation of the “Caractors” document. It’s not so easily dismissed.
    And then there’s stuff like this:
    And more keeps turning up. I don’t think that would be the case if the Book of Mormon were not an authentic ancient record.

    1. Thank you, Jack. All of these “evidences” for the historicity of the Book of Mormon have not been endorsed by any non-Mormon experts that I know about. They are not substantive, and most likely reflect our propensity for finding patterns in data, signals in noise. Humans can make connections between the most disparate things if we want to. It amounts to a conspiracy theory to suggest that Mormons have knowledge about the ancient history of Mesoamerica and the people who lived there that no one else in the academic community seems to know or agree with:
      I don’t think the Book of Mormon is the translation of an ancient record as we’ve thought, for which there does not seem to be any agreement in academic scholarship, but I do think it is “ancient” in a sense. I think Joseph discovered, as many mystics have throughout history, the perennial wisdom that is found within the human mind and human nature itself. This wisdom, I perceive, is hidden within humanity, within you and me, in all generations of time. I think it is our divine nature.

  5. I understand your point, but there’s an awful lot of signal in the noise. As Joseph Smith wrote in 1842, “It will be as it ever has been, the world will [eventually] prove Joseph Smith a true prophet by circumstantial evidence.” Although I know you’re not saying that Joseph wasn’t a prophet.

    1. There’s an awful lot of conspiracy theories too, some quite elaborate, which no one else in the world believes or thinks is credible except the conspirators. I perceive that Joseph is a true prophet too, but he won’t be vindicated by conspiracies, or by uncorroborated evidence, but by the Truth. God is Truth or nothing at all, in my view. Could Joseph have been a prophet and the Book of Mormon be not historical but a revelation of perennial wisdom that Joseph discovered within himself? I think so.

  6. Bryce,

    How many non-LDS Book of Mormon experts are there? You see, the thing about conspiracy theory is that there is typically a generous overlap in background between the claims of conspiracy theorists and the claims of experts in the relative disciplines. Not so with the BoM. There’s hardly a modicum of overlap between LDS and non-LDS experts on the subject. Except for the most egregious claims of the Book of Mormon — most of which have been substantiated — the non-LDS scholars wouldn’t know what to look for even if they tried.

    And so, if we disagree with LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon then we are disagreeing with the experts–and that’s OK. We’re free to dissent from the consensus. We just need to remember that, because academia typically doesn’t invite Book of Mormon scholarship into its circles, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there are no experts in the field.

    1. Jack, I think the way you framed the question is insightful. It is as if Book of Mormon scholarship is its own independent discipline and not a subset of any other field, and so it requires its own independent experts. I think that is very much the case! But consider if the book was really from a Mesoamerican source, and about a Mesoamerican people and culture, then it should fit well within the field of Mesoamerican scholarship, as does the Popol Vuh, for instance, should it not?

      There are many Mesoamerican scholars and experts. A group of them met earlier this month, in fact, at a conference in Austin, Texas.

      It’s not that there is no overlap between fields on the subject, but rather that the Book of Mormon, if it was authentically historical, should fit squarely and wholly within the field of Mesoamerican scholarship, and there should be a host of correspondences and correlations in the text. Mesoamerican experts would be overjoyed in studying the Book of Mormon, because it would represent an exquisite and lengthy historical view into Mesoamerican traditions and mythologies from the Preclassic or Formative Period into the Classic Era, giving a wealth of understanding about the Zapotec, Mayan, or other cultures which lived in that region.

      The problem is that the Book of Mormon text does not fit within a Mesoamerican context as established by Mesoamerican scholarship. Those experts have concluded quite adamantly that there is little to nothing in the Book of Mormon that resembles pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization. That is why they don’t invite Book of Mormon scholarship into their circles. To give just one example, the book teaches a very Christian gospel, in detail about Christ, mentioning that name some 326 times, and Jesus about 169 times, but there is no mention of either Jesus or Christ or the Christian gospel in any ancient Mesoamerican society, in any artifact, text, or ruins whatsoever. It’s just not there. They worshiped very different gods and practiced very different spiritual traditions. This should bring us pause.

      No, there is no subset. And you are right that there is no overlap either. And I perceive the reason for that is because they are two wholly different and disparate subjects, fields, and disciplines. There is little to nothing substantive to compare between them, and that is likely because they are not remotely related to one another.

      But there is a larger issue here that should make us question the book’s historicity altogether, whatever the speculated geography. If the Book of Mormon really did fit perfectly into a historical context, and it was shown by the consensus of scholarship in the field to have substantive and extensive connections to those civilizations, then the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith would have to be accepted by all reasonable people as absolutely real, and the Church Joseph founded accepted as God’s divine organization. A truly historical Book of Mormon essentially forces people to become Mormons. The historian Jan Shipps once pointed this out, “Literal acceptance of the Book of Mormon automatically turns people into Latter-day Saints (whether they join the Church or not).” John-Charles Duffy also wrote in Sunstone, “Orthodox intellectuals are naïve if they imagine they can persuade non-LDS scholars to seriously consider the possibility that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document.” Any initial support by non-LDS scholars “will wane…once scholars realize that accepting the Book of Mormon’s antiquity also means coming to terms with LDS claims about Joseph Smith’s access to supernatural powers and thus, by extension, about his prophetic vocation and the divine origins and authority of the LDS Church.”

      For Mormons that might not seem to be a problem; we are a proselyting people and want people to join the Church. But let’s think about it. Accepting a historical Book of Mormon essentially means accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet and the claims of the LDS Church. The two cannot be disentangled from one another. Is that how history works? That by uncovering the mere existence of certain ancient cultures and people forces one to accept a modern faith and church? Is that how the gospel works, or even spirituality in general? I perceive that is quite contrary to the Christian gospel, and even the Mormon faith. Consequently, it seems to me that in order to be a reasonable faith, based on faith and personal spiritual experience, Mormons must assume that the Book of Mormon is not historical, or at least that such historicity could never actually be discovered. And if it could never actually be discovered, then its historical existence should be deeply questioned, for no historical realities require themselves to never be found. I think this is pointing squarely back in the direction of mysticism and a mystical source for the text, not a historical source.

      As I said before, if God is not Truth, then I don’t know what God could be. God will always be found in the direction of Truth and Reality, and not ever in error and misconception. If through reasonable thought we conclude that the Book of Mormon could not possibly be historical, then we should concede this, surrender to this truth and this reality, and this should awaken us to a deeper search for its true nature and reality which can only lead us closer to God. For if Joseph was truly a prophet of God, who revealed a text that is deeply spiritual and touches our souls, then we should inquire as to how he did that, where did it come from, how might we find that same spirituality that he experienced?

      It seems to me that the Book of Mormon is an exquisite 19th century American spiritual text, divined entirely from the mind and consciousness of Joseph Smith. I perceive that he attuned his mind to a consciousness that is little known to us in our modern world today, but has been described throughout the world’s religions as higher consciousness, unitive consciousness, divine consciousness, God consciousness, pure consciousness, collective consciousness, transcendent consciousness, a consciousness that is at-one with all being, including one’s own divine nature.

      As any good mystic will tell us, God lives in us. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? (1 Cor. 3:16). Ye are Gods! (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34; D&C 132:20). God is not separate from us. God is our own deepest being, the most fundamental being within human nature, and I think Joseph attuned his mind to this divinity within him, beyond all ego, and this resulted in an outpouring of his Soul, even his True Self in God, in a tremendously creative autobiographical spiritual allegory. I think most of the book points directly back to Joseph Smith, and his personal experiences, even his psychological experiences which are similar among all humans throughout history. It seems that many events from his own life are played out in dramatic parable within the book. Even his First Vision experience seems to show up several times in different contexts and in different symbolic characters.

      It seems to me that he unconsciously put into symbol and story his own life and experience interacting with God in him, influenced heavily by his own cultural understandings. I think it points to the spiritual realities that lay deep within each and every human being, including you and I, and that is why it is so deeply inspiring to so many. Joseph tapped into the same perennial wisdom that has been unleashed in mystics, prophets, sages, monks, nuns, and shamans throughout time and in every place of the world, and that is why it is yet “another testament of God.” It is a testament of God in humanity, even within Joseph, teaching us that it is within us as well, if we will put off the natural man and realize the Saint within us.

      Joseph was not a puppet, merely mouthing the words of long dead prophets. I perceive they were his words! as he at-oned his consciousness with the Divine in him. It was his prophetic state of consciousness, in oneness with God, that revealed them to us, it seems to me. And I think this is what makes it powerful, relevant, and inspiring to us, to realize the same divinity within us too.

      1. Bryce, you wrote:

        Those experts have concluded quite adamantly that there is little to nothing in the Book of Mormon that resembles pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization.

        Actually, the experts have paid no attention to the Book of Mormon in any serious way. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, “The Book of Mormon has not been tried and found wanting; it has simply not been tried.”

        > The problem is that the Book of Mormon text does not fit within a Mesoamerican context as established by Mesoamerican scholarship.

        Well, actually:

        Yes, those books are Mormon apologia, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. And I can assure you that no one has given more thought, time, and effort to this subject than John Sorenson, who deserves to be taken seriously.

        Also, sometime soon, linguistic scholars will have to take Brian Stubbs seriously, just through the sheer force of his research:

        Joseph was not a puppet, merely mouthing the words of long dead prophets. I perceive they were his words! as he at-oned his consciousness with the Divine in him. It was his prophetic state of consciousness, in oneness with God, that revealed them to us, it seems to me.

        You are not wrong about this. Joseph was indeed the “author and proprietor” of the Book of Mormon. It has been given to us in his words. For more about Joseph Smith as the author of the revelations he received, you might have a look at this:

        But that doesn’t mean the revelations weren’t from God, nor does it mean that the Book of Mormon isn’t an authentic ancient book. It is an authentic ancient book–as filtered through the mind–the Divine consciousness, if you will–of an uneducated, highly religious, 19th-century farmer.

        1. “Actually, the experts have paid no attention to the Book of Mormon in any serious way.”

          Why is that? I don’t think there is a conspiracy among Mesoamerican scholars to boycott or avoid Mormonism. I think it is because there is no substantive relationship between the BoM and Mesoamerica, so why should they pay attention to it? Why should they take it seriously? If there were a substantive and real relationship there, then they would pay attention to it; they would be very interested in it. But there does not seem to be, taking into consideration the whole of Mesoamerican scholarship and history, so they don’t. It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole; it doesn’t work, and so they move along.

          Of course Mormons who believe the book has an ancient American setting are going to find evidence for that, just as Mormons do that think it has a Great Lakes setting or Heartland setting. Mormons have found evidence for the book nearly all over the world:

          But it seems that none of that evidence is convincing to the wider academic communities. We can find evidence for just about anything we want to, if we believe strongly enough in it, but that doesn’t mean it is good evidence that establishes a true history of what actually happened in the past.

          If all of this evidence and research by John Sorenson, Brian Stubbs, and others is so good, so plain, so compelling, so clear, so forcefully revealing of the Mesoamerican setting of the BoM, then why do you think the academic community doesn’t believe it? Is there something wrong with them? Can they not see what we can clearly see? Do they have something against Mormons for some reason? Have none of them actually read our research? Not one? Are they simply all in the dark about what Mormons know, completely unaware of this research? Will there come a day when suddenly they will all wake up and realize that Mormon scholars were right all along and the BoM is actually from ancient Mesoamerica? Do you think that such a real historical reality could be seemingly hidden from general academic knowledge for so long, with all our Mormon efforts to proselytize it?

          “But that doesn’t mean the revelations weren’t from God…”

          I didn’t say they were not from God. I said they were. Joseph at-oned his consciousness in God consciousness, and it is from that extremely lucid, pure, holy, and creative state of being that I think he was able to produce this book. It came from God, in Joseph, from his Divine nature at-one in God, it seems to me.

          I do think the book is ancient, but not in the way we normally think. We think it was written anciently, hidden in the ground, recovered centuries later, and translated. I don’t think that is what happened, and I think there is substantial evidence that it is not what happened that we refuse to recognize and accept. Rather, I think Joseph discovered a perennial Wisdom that exists buried within the minds and hearts of humanity itself, within consciousness, and this perennial Wisdom has been rediscovered repeatedly throughout history by mystics, saints, prophets, adepts, tertons, and sages from all around the world. That is why, I perceive, the book seems to have an ancient character, and ancient elements. It contains the same perennial Wisdom that the ancients discovered too, that they revealed from their own experiences in Divine consciousness, and wrote about in books such as the Bible, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Sutras, the Quran, the Egyptian texts, the Tao Te Ching, the Nag Hammadi library and Gnostic texts, the Hermetic writings, the Talmud, the Zohar, and many others:

          As long as we look in Mesoamerica for the source of the Book of Mormon, we will not find it, I perceive, because it exists within our very own selves. We keep looking “out there,” but I perceive it is actually “in here.” As we at-one our own consciousness in God, as we exercise this “faith,” and put off our ego or “natural man,” then the perennial revelations of God will be unfolded to our view too, just as they were to Joseph and all the rest. Isn’t this what the Book of Mormon itself promises us? (Ether 4:7, 13-15).

  7. “A truly historical Book of Mormon essentially forces people to become Mormons.”
    Yes and no. Yes, I think irrefutable archaeological evidence would work upon the hearts and minds of people in a more forceful way. And, IMO, that’s one of the reasons why the Lord has been slow to allow that kind of hard evidence to surface. Even so, it is beginning to surface and, IMO, will one day become so robust that the honest in heart will feel obliged to acknowledge it. Mormons believe that, in a coming day, all things will be revealed that have to do with the earth and its history and future–and I believe that we’re seeing evidence of this restorative and prophetic process already at work.
    On the other hand, there will be many folks who will not see robust evidence of the Book of Mormon as proof that the LDS church must be true–or that the fulness of the gospel is to be found on the earth. There are many people even now — today — who feel that way. Margaret Barker is a good example of someone who seems to be an enlightened christian soul who feels that, while Joseph Smith was endowed with true prophetic gifts, the church he established — as it is today — is no longer what it was at the outset.
    That said, I’m happy for people to believe the Book of Mormon to be true (and to live by its precepts!) for the best reason they can come up with–even if that means they don’t accept it as an historical document. I think, in the end, God will be more concerned about whether or not we lived by its teachings than anything else.
    Even so, I believe that there are fundamental theological problems with a non historical approach to the Book of Mormon. And if, for the sake of argument, the church were to classify it as a mythical document with no historical veracity it (the church) would implode. The restored gospel is grounded in history. It is substantiated by the reality that God has, does, and will continue to intervene in the lives of His children so long as there is faith.
    Jack Lyon is spot on:
    “Actually, the experts have paid no attention to the Book of Mormon in any serious way. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Book of Mormon has not been tried and found wanting; it has simply not been tried.’”
    And the main reason for why the BoM has not even “been tried” is put forth perfectly in your quotation of Duffy’s article:
    “Any initial support by non-LDS scholars ‘will wane … once scholars realize that accepting the Book of Mormon’s antiquity also means coming to terms with LDS claims about Joseph Smith’s access to supernatural powers and thus, by extension, about his prophetic vocation and the divine origins and authority of the LDS Church.’”
    It’s not so much that non-LDS scholars haven’t found anything that matches up with the Book of Mormon’s claims (presupposing that they even know what those claims are). It’s that they’re not even looking! And I can’t say that I blame them. To accept the claims of the BoM is to accept everything that goes with it–and that’s a huge leap of faith that no one should be expected to take for the sake of the academy. And that is why, to date, only believers have taken the study of the BoM seriously as a scholarly enterprise.

      1. Well, old dogs like me can certainly be blind without knowing it. I’m willing to be wrong — I mean, if that’s what it takes to get a better understanding of things — even though I can’t always see how I’m wrong.

        1. And Jesus said, “no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.” (Luke 5:37-39)

    1. Jack, that’s fine. But they are not the only experts, and one does not need to be an expert in the Book of Mormon to know whether it originated in Mesoamerica. There are quite a number of experts in Mesoamerican studies, and not one of them that I know of that is not Mormon thinks that the Book of Mormon originated there. That is the elephant in the room. I perceive that it is a conspiracy to think that Mormons know something significant about Mesoamerica that the rest of the field of Mesoamerican scholarship is blind to or unaware of.

      1. Bryce, I apologize for beating this dead horse to a pulp. But, IMO, the real elephant in the room is right there in Sorenson’s letter to Coe. I find it astonishing that Coe, one of the few Mesoamericanists who supposedly has some understanding of the BoM’s claims, could be so utterly ignorant of his ignorance on the subject.

        “I perceive that it is a conspiracy to think that Mormons know something significant about Mesoamerica that the rest of the field of Mesoamerican scholarship is blind to or unaware of.”

        It’s not about what LDS scholars claim to know about Mesoamerica per se. It’s about what they claim to know about the Book of Mormon and how that knowledge informs their work in the trenches, so to speak. And, so long as Non-LDS scholars are uninformed about the BoM, that’s where the gap in understanding between the two groups will remain. Non-LDS scholars are simply unequipped to see evidence for the BoM–and, on top of that, we shouldn’t even expect them to be looking for it.

  8. Bryce,

    Amazing articles, thank you for writing them. I went through a transition period, myself, where I became disillusioned with the gospel – or my interpretation of it at the time, and ended up leaving the church as a result. Basically, the God I had experienced didn’t seem to match up as much with the way I was interpreting God as taught by the church. Your articles are showing me that there still might be a way to interpret the teachings of Joseph Smith that line up more with my current understanding of reality.

    Anyways, I think it could be very possible that if Joseph Smith was acting as a channel for divinity in the manner you described, that he could have “tuned in” to some historically accurate depictions of life in the ancient Americas, almost as a form of remote viewing (Joseph McMoneagle is a really interesting reference if you haven’t yet looked into RV), even if the BOM is more of an allegory than historical. What are your thoughts?

    1. Thanks Jackson. I do think Joseph was a genuine mystic, even though I think he was mistaken at times. We forget his humanity, his fallibility, his imperfection. I think the church has unfortunately taken him far too literally.

      I don’t think mystics are able to tune in to historical reality as we usually know it. I think they tune in at a much deeper level to universals, sometimes called archetypes, general patterns, holistic processes. In that sense, I think he accurately conveyed life generally in the ancient Americas, which surely had wars, times of peace, personal challenges, awakenings, different views on religion, migrations, prosperity, famines, etc. I think mystics are able to tune into this deeper human nature because they become deeply attuned to their own human nature, and that human nature is universal. It even extends beyond humanity to life in general, the natural world, and cosmos. I think Joseph was conveying those deep archetypes, rather than literal historical realities.

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