Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Joseph Smith responds to Thomas Paine

In 1980 Robert N. Hullinger, an ordained Lutheran minister, published the book, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon. Twelve years later a new edition, Joseph Smith's Response to Skepticism was published by Signature Books.

I've read the edition by Signature Books. It's a fascinating book, no matter how one feels about Joseph Smith. I feel that Hullinger stayed true to his purpose, where he writes in his Introduction:
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.

Since I've never liked trying to write a book review of my own, I've selected a review by Sandra Tanner, and with the permission of the author here is her appraisal of the book:

Mormon Answer to Skepticism:
Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon

by Sandra Tanner
President of the Board
Utah Lighthouse Ministry

Robert Hullinger's book, Mormon Answer to Skepticism, examines the major thought patterns of the Book of Mormon in relation to Joseph Smith's personal development. Why did Smith view the American Indians as Israelites? Was he familiar with View of the Hebrews? What influence did Masonry have on the Book of Mormon? Was he disturbed by the religious controversies in the New England area?

Hullinger argues that Joseph Smith was responding to the critics of the Bible in his day, such as Thomas Paine. Paine, often referred to as the father of the American Revolution, became notorious for writing The Age of Reason, published in 1793–94, advocating deism and arguing against Christian doctrines.

Lucy Smith, Joseph's mother, wrote about the family's encounter with the writings of Thomas Paine. Shortly before Joseph Smith was born, while the Smiths were living in Tunbridge, Vermont, Lucy became interested in religion and started attending the Methodist meetings. Asael Smith, Lucy's father-in-law, disapproved and tried to convince Joseph Smith, Sr., to quit attending. Lucy wrote that Asael "came to the door one day and threw Tom Pains age of reason into the house and angrily bade him read that until he believed it.[1]

Hullinger observes:
Prophecy in the Book of Mormon is a massive response to deistic objections. Smith traced prediction back to the time of Jared, including the note that prophecies from the time of Adam were on the brass plates of Laban (1 Ne 3:20) and, soon after the publication of the Book of Mormon, produced prophecies of Adam himself. . . .

No room was allowed for Paine's charge that the prophets were "liars and impostors," for Smith made the gift of prophecy depend upon merit. Prophets were identified by their genealogies, their properly recorded calls from God, their exemplary lives, and their fulfilled predictions.

Smith generally acknowledged the objections that skeptics had toward prophecy. He detailed the case against it as he saw it through the person of Korihor, the arch-villain and antichrist of the Book of Mormon. 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).[2]

Further on, Hullinger states:
Fulfilled prophecy was meant to inspire faith in future fulfillment. By including signs of the coming birth and death of Christ and notice of their accomplishment in the Book of Mormon, Smith pointed that reader who had been looking for such signs to those of the coming millennium. By what the Bible and Book of Mormon describe as signs of the last days, including the discovery of the latter book, the reader was encouraged and challenged to expect the imminent wind-up of this world's affairs and the beginning of the millennium.[3]

In discussing Smith's view of revelation, Hullinger concludes:
In defense of God, Joseph Smith assailed the natural revelation of deism and the static revelation of traditional Christianity. To enable revealed religion to overcome natural religion, however, he supported the deistic attack upon the view that the present Bible is God's complete and errorless revelation to mankind. Destruction of the traditional view left him free to preserve special revelation by his own means.[4]

[1] Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Signature Books, 2001, p. 291.
[2] Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon, Clayton Publishing House, 1980, p. 141.
[3] Ibid., p. 142.
[4] Ibid., p. 150


Mark D. said...

Joseph Smith is one of the most fascinating characters on the early to mid-19th century American frontier, and he was a religious genius. I am not an LDS believer, and I do not believe that Smith was divinely inspired, but he was an incredible American thinker -- I think one of the most inventive and intuitive religious thinkers in American history. As far as being truly innovative, I would place him on a par with Emerson. And Smith's accomplishment is even more impressive given his lack of of formal education.

I have read the first edition of Hullinger's book, and it really opened my eyes to Smith's genius and intent. While some of Smith's later activities at Nauvoo are questionable, his early work in composing the Book of Mormon is every bit the kind of insightful and brilliant narrative theology that Hullinger describes.

Smith's genius was to avoid dry academic debate (debate that he was unsuited to as a result of his lack of education), but to express himself through the telling of stories that were powerfully resonant to the people of his day.

Hullinger's book is well worth reading.

Phil Johnson said...


J said...

Joseph Smith is one of the most fascinating characters on the early to mid-19th century American frontier, and he was a religious genius.

Smith was genius, like PT Barnum was a genius perhaps. When the COLDS produces Zee Golden Plates--and say the seer stones too-- maybe a few reasonable Americans might take the strange myth of Moroni seriously--maybe not. Donde estan las placas???

Anonymous said...

In a time when science and evolution are undermining and eroding a belief in Christ, a time when the selfish gene takes its form in the odolness of reality TV and a welfare state, christianity is facing its toughest ever challenge, and looking at the next generation arising out of the school system, it's losing.

I've always found it odd that those of faith will hold to the Bible and argue its perfection despite considerable evidence to the contrary, and yet decry the book of Mormon for comparable failings.

I think oddly enough, the Book of Mormon may yet come to be the saviour of Christianity in the US. Personal revelation, a supporting text or witness of the divinity of Christ, these arguments would serve as a valid counter to many of the arguments that undermine christian credibility - and with little real trade off (since ultimately they believe in the same God although having some docrinal differences.

The Book of Mormon, whether true, or false marks joseph smith as a remarkable man. A man who may yet save Christianity (at least for a while).

If a true Prophet, then he stands vindicated and to be revered. If a false prophet, he is at least to be admired for his intellectual ability, and the sheer scale the impact of his idea on the US and the rest of the world.

Phil Johnson said...

Get a life based on reality, Anonymous.