Anti-Mormon Literature and History
Historian Gerrit J. Dirkmaat explains the origin of one of Joseph Smith’s most prominent early antagonists, Doctor Philastus Hurlbut.:
From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism’s section on “Anti-Mormon Publications:”
“From its beginnings, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members have been targets of anti-Mormon publications.
Apart from collecting them for historical purposes and in response to divine direction, the Church has largely ignored these materials, for they strike most members as irresponsible misrepresentations.”
So, the LDS Church doesn’t sponsor seminars to refute these critics. Nor train scholars in apologetics.
The above link discusses the major periods of Church history and the major critics within each period.
EARLY CRITICISMS (1829-1846).
The most notable anti-Mormon work of this period, Mormonism Unvailed (sic), was published by Eber D. Howe in 1834. Howe collaborated with apostate Philastus Hurlbut, twice excommunicated from the Church for immorality. Hurlbut was hired by an anti-Mormon committee to find those who would attest to Smith’s dishonesty. He “collected” affidavits from seventy-two contemporaries who professed to know Joseph Smith and were willing to speak against him.
Mormonism Unvailed attempted to discredit Joseph Smith and his family by assembling these affidavits and nine letters written by Ezra Booth, also an apostate from the Church. These documents allege that the Smiths were money diggers and irresponsible people. Howe advanced the theory that Sidney Rigdon obtained a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding, rewrote it into the Book of Mormon, and then convinced Joseph Smith to tell the public that he had translated the book from plates received from an angel. This theory served as an alternative to Joseph Smith’s account until the Spaulding Manuscript was discovered in 1884 and was found to be unrelated to the Book of Mormon.
The Hurlbut-Howe collection and Campbell’s Delusions were the major sources for nearly all other nineteenth- and some twentieth-century anti-Mormon writings, notably the works of Henry Caswall, John C. Bennett, Pomeroy Tucker, Thomas Gregg, William Linn, and George Arbaugh. Most of these writers drew routinely from the same body of anti-Mormon lore (see H. Nibley, “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book,” Brigham Young University Extension Publications, Feb. 17, 1962, p. 30).
MORMON STEREOTYPING AND THE CRUSADE AGAINST POLYGAMY (1847-1896).
Probably the most influential anti-Mormon work in this period was Pomeroy Tucker’s Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (1867). A printer employed by E. B. Grandin, publisher of the Wayne Sentinel and printer of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, Tucker claimed to have been associated closely with Joseph Smith.
He supported the Hurlbut-Howe charge that the Smiths were dishonest and alleged that they stole from their neighbors. However, he acknowledged that his insinuations were not “sustained by judicial investigation.”
Of fifty-six anti-Mormon novels published during the nineteenth century, four established a pattern for all of the others. The four were sensational, erotic novels focusing on the supposed plight of women in the Church. Alfreda Eva Bell’s Boadicea, the Mormon Wife (1855) depicted Church members as “murderers, forgers, swindlers, gamblers, thieves, and adulterers!”
Orvilla S. Belisle’s Mormonism Unveiled (1855) had the heroine hopelessly trapped in a Mormon harem. Metta Victoria Fuller Victor’s Mormon Wives (1856) characterized Mormons as a “horrid” and deluded people. Maria Ward (a pseudonym) depicted Mormon torture of women in Female Life Among the Mormons (1855). Authors wrote lurid passages designed to sell the publications.
Excommunicated members tried to capitalize on their former membership in the Church to sell their stories. Fanny Stenhouse’s Tell It All (1874) and Ann Eliza Young’s Wife No. 19 (1876) sensationalized the polygamy theme. William Hickman sold his story to John H. Beadle, who exaggerated the danite myth in Brigham’s Destroying Angel (1872) to caricature Mormons as a violent people.
THE SEARCH FOR A PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPLANATION (1897-1945).
When the Spaulding theory of Book of Mormon origins was discredited, anti-Mormon proponents turned to psychology to explain Joseph Smith’s visions and revelations. Walter F. Prince and Theodore Schroeder offered explanations for Book of Mormon names by way of imaginative but remote psychological associations. I. Woodbridge Riley claimed in The Founder of Mormonism (New York, 1903) that “Joseph Smith, Junior was an epileptic.” He was the first to suggest that Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1823) and Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of Nature and Providence, Displayed (1825) were the sources for the Book of Mormon.
At the time the Church commemorated its centennial in 1930, American historian Bernard De Voto asserted in the American Mercury, “Unquestionably, Joseph Smith was a paranoid.” He later admitted that the Mercuryarticle was a “dishonest attack” (IE 49 [Mar. 1946]:154).
Harry M. Beardsley, in Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire (1931), advanced the theory that Joseph Smith’s visions, revelations, and the Book of Mormon were by-products of his subconscious mind. Vardis Fisher, a popular novelist with Mormon roots in Idaho, published Children of God: An American Epic (1939). The work is somewhat sympathetic to the Mormon heritage, while offering a naturalistic origin for the Mormon practice of polygamy, and describes Joseph Smith in terms of “neurotic impulses.”
In 1945 Fawn Brodie published No Man Knows My History, a psychobiographical account of Joseph Smith. She portrayed him as a “prodigious mythmaker” who absorbed his theological ideas from his New York environment. The book repudiated the Rigdon-Spaulding theory, revived the Alexander Campbell thesis that Joseph Smith alone was the author of the book, and postulated that View of the Hebrews (following Riley, 1903) provided the basic source material for the Book of Mormon. Brodie’s interpretations have been followed by several other writers.
Church scholars have criticized Brodie’s methods for several reasons. First, she ignored valuable manuscript material in the Church archives that was accessible to her. Second, her sources were mainly biased anti-Mormon documents collected primarily in the New York Public Library, Yale Library, and Chicago Historical Library. Third, she began with a predetermined conclusion that shaped her work: “I was convinced,” she wrote, “before I ever began writing that Joseph Smith was not a true prophet,” and felt compelled to supply an alternative explanation for his works (quoted in Newell G. Bringhurst, “Applause, Attack, and Ambivalence-Varied Responses to Fawn M. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 57 [Winter 1989]:47-48).
Fourth, by using a psychobiographical approach, she imputed thoughts and motives to Joseph Smith. Even Vardis Fisher criticized her book, writing that it was “almost more a novel than a biography because she rarely hesitates to give the content of a mind or to explain motives which at best can only be surmised” (p. 57).
REVIVAL OF OLD THEORIES AND ALLEGATIONS (1946-1990).
(The Encyclopedia of Mormonism was published in the 90s and doesn’t provide information on current debates.)
Anti-Mormon writers were most prolific during the post-Brodie era. Despite a generally favorable press toward the Church during many of these years, of all anti-Mormon books, novels, pamphlets, tracts, and flyers published in English before 1990, more than half were published between 1960 and 1990 and a third of them between 1970 and 1990.
Networks of anti-Mormon organizations operate in the United States. The 1987 Directory of Cult Research Organizations contains more than a hundred anti-Mormon listings. These networks distribute anti-Mormon literature, provide lectures that attack the Church publicly, and proselytize Mormons. Pacific Publishing House in California lists more than a hundred anti-Mormon publications.
A broad spectrum of anti-Mormon authors has produced the invective literature of this period. Evangelicals and some apostate Mormons assert that Latter-day Saints are not Christians. The main basis for this judgment is that the Mormon belief in the Christian Godhead is different from the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. They contend that Latter-day Saints worship a “different Jesus” and that their scriptures are contrary to the Bible. Another common tactic is to attempt to show how statements by past Church leaders contradict those by current leaders on such points as Adam as God, blood Atonement, and plural marriage.
A current example of ridicule and distortion of Latter-day Saint beliefs comes from Edward Decker, an excommunicated Mormon and cofounder of Ex-Mormons for Jesus, now known as Saints Alive in Jesus. Professing love for the Saints, Decker has waged an attack on their beliefs. Latter-day Saints see his film and book, both entitled The Godmakers, as a gross misrepresentation of their beliefs, especially the temple ordinances. A regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Arizona Regional Board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews are among those who have condemned the film.
Though anti-Mormon criticisms, misrepresentations, and falsehoods are offensive to Church members, the First Presidency has counseled members not to react to or debate those who sponsor them and has urged them to keep their responses “in the form of a positive explanation of the doctrines and practices of the Church” (Church News, Dec. 18, 1983, p. 2).
Two prolific anti-Mormon researchers are Jerald and Sandra Tanner. They commenced writing in 1959 and now offer more than 200 publications. Their main approach is to demonstrate discrepancies, many of which Latter-day Saints consider contrived or trivial, between current and past Church teachings. They operate and publish under the name of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc. Their most notable work, Mormonism –Shadow or Reality? (1964, revised 1972, 1987), contains the essence of their claims against the Church.
*** The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article stops there, as it was published in the 90s.
The critics in the last 20 years have gotten their notoriety not through new material or scholarship, but through online podcasts or PDF sharing of all material they inherited from the past. From Decker. From the Tanners. From Brodie.
A friend made this video:
John Dehlin runs a podcast in Cache Valley. Jeremy Runnells spread his aggregation of criticisms in his “CES Letter”. And Mike Norton enters LDS Temples and then posts videos to YouTube.
No definitive history of anti-Mormon activities has been written. A sample of LDS sources on anti-Mormonism follows:
Allen, James B., and Leonard J. Arrington. “Mormon Origins in New York: An Introductory Analysis.” BYU Studies 9 (1969):241-74. Analyzes pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon approaches.
Allen, Julie K. and David L. Paulsen. “The Reverend Dr. Peter Christian Kierkegaard’s ‘About and Against Mormonism’ (1855).” BYU Studies 46:3 (2007):101-156.
Anderson, Richard Lloyd. “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised.” BYU Studies 10 (1970):283-314. Analyzes the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits published in Mormonism Unvailed.
Bunker, Gary L., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Graphic Image 1834 –1914. Salt Lake City, 1983. Traces the history of anti-Mormon caricature.
Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana, Ill., 1984. Discusses the early anti-Mormonism writings of Campbell, Howe, and Hurlbut.
Foster, Craig L. “Henry Caswall: Anti-Mormon Extraordinaire.” BYU Studies 35:4 (1995-96):144-159.
Introvigne, Massimo. “Old Wine in New Bottles: The Story behind Fundamentalist Anti-Mormonism.” BYU Studies 35:3 (1995):45-73.
Kimball, Edward L. Review of Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, by Richard E. Turley, Jr. BYU Studies 32 (Fall 1992):171-177.
Kirkham, Francis W. A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols. Independence, Mo., 1942, and Salt Lake City, 1952. Examines the early newspaper articles and anti-Mormon explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon.
Larson, Jennifer. Review of Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, by Richard E. Turley, Jr. BYU Studies 32 (Fall 1992):178-184.
Nibley, Hugh W. The Mythmakers. Salt Lake City, 1961. Surveys the anti-Mormon writers during the Joseph Smith period.
Nibley, Hugh W. “Censoring the Joseph Smith Story,” IE 64 (July, Aug., Oct., Nov. 1961). Serialized articles examining how fifty anti-Mormon works treat the Joseph Smith story.
Nibley, Hugh W. Sounding Brass. Salt Lake City, 1963. Surveys the anti-Mormon writers during the Brigham Young period.
Nibley, Hugh W. The Prophetic Book of Mormon, CWHN 8 chaps. 4-8, 10-12, examines anti-Mormon arguments.
Scharff, Gilbert W. The Truth About the Godmakers. Salt Lake City, 1986. Treats the film The Godmakers.
Underwood, Grant. Review of Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism, by Dan Vogel. BYU Studies 30 (Winter 1990):120-126.
Responses to the CES Letter: the most recent installment of anti-Mormon claims
This video shows how many people feel during their first brush with anti-Mormon material:
Growing up in the 1980s and graduating from high school in the early 90s, I remember hearing about Ed Decker’s production, “The God Makers.”
More than a few times I visited Christian bookstores and read their book chapters on Mormons, usually in the “CULT” section. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was a curious kid. I understand most people aren’t so curious.
In the early 2000s, during a break in school — about 1/4 mile from the Mormon Handcart Park in Iowa City, IA — I decided to see what “The God Makers” was all about.
Our home teacher had many books defending the Church, including “The Truth About the God Makers”, published in 1986. He gave me a stack of books and I dove right in.
I probably read 10-12 books cover to cover. Some of the material was brand new. Other stuff I had heard from my parents. All of the issues were a lot to cover in a few weeks of summer break, but I’m glad I tacked the material then, and have revisited the critical arguments since.
I first heard of the CES Letter in the summer of 2015. I chat with all kinds of people around me. On a plane trip — among lots of other topics — the woman to my left told me her LDS faith had been rocked by the CES Letter. She said she had never heard of any of this stuff before. I told her nothing was new that she was telling me.
It’s true. Those who’ve reviewed the CES Letter, feel free to review “The Truth About the God Makers.” The author, Gilbert W. Scharffs, responds to each each scene and claim Ed Decker presents in his awful, over-the-top movie.
Sadly, people left in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, in part as a result of the God Makers. Surely, lots of other issues were involved. It’s never 1 single issue. They left in the 60s and 70s, due in part to work by the Tanners and earlier critics.
They’ll, unfortunately, consider leaving today over material found in the CES Letter. Interestingly, however, it’s all the same material with very few exceptions. No longer in VHS, today’s critics use PDFs. No longer hyped over radio, today’s critics share via email and podcast.
Indeed, style and method of dissemination is different, but the core arguments are almost identical. Ed Decker’s style was inflammatory, mocking, and sensational. Jeremy presents as a victim. Nobody told him all this stuff. On that topic — nobody told me! — consider listening to this podcast.
From his podcast: “Geoff Biddulph is a convert to the Church of just over 15 years. Before joining he read a lot of anti-Mormon literature. However, it was the Spirit that converted him and helped him be open to being baptized. Since then, Geoff has read the book of Mormon more than 10 times and have read the entire Bible at least five times.
He has a large library of Church-related material from which he draws upon as he writes for the Millennial Star blog—where he has contributed for nearly a decade.
He his wife Cindy were married in the Denver temple nearly 11 years ago and they now have five kids. He is joining us by phone today from Denver, CO. Geoff is here to talk about an article he wrote for the Millennial Star Blog entitled, “Why Didn’t the Church Teach Me This Stuff”
Jeff at Latter-day Q & A shares his insight on this same question:
Many people have heard of and debated these issues for decades. I’m a member of the John Whitmer Historical Association. Of course, many don’t know about most of these historical and sometimes-debated details. Most members aren’t scholars. Nor are they apologists.
For those who don’t please start where you are. I’d encourage a line-upon-line approach. That’s what I had to do when I read “The Truth about the God Makers” around 18 years ago.
And I’m grateful I immersed myself on these topics, though I’d argue core faith is actually what is essential — not knowing a bazillion counterarguments.
Topics that “destroyed” Jeremy’s testimony have been debated by scholars and LDS associations members for decades. Nobody hid this material. Some unique LDS folks study deeply, in addition to progressing through the Gospel basics in Sunday School.
Online debate and study forums have been hashing out these issues well before the internet. Most people, however, — be they Mormons, Catholic, or atheist — don’t study very much. And that’s OK, too!
Jeff Lindsay has blogged in defense of the Church since 1994. Jeremy Runnells is a young man who recently left the Church. Jeremy panicked with (to him) alarming, new information.
Why do these two people — Lindsay and Runnells — come to very different conclusions when facing the same issues? Why is one person’s faith so brittle? Context and framing makes all the difference. Listen below:
I argue that many who leave today would not have left over the same material decades earlier. Now Christians of all stripes, including Mormons, have an alternative that they never would have considered till recently: agnosticism and atheism.
Agnosticism allows many to feel they can checkmate all religious responses as outdated, uninformed, and foolish. The most unfortunate part? The typical rejection of Jesus and his Gospel.
These views are more acceptable than ever. More popular than ever. More peer pressure to join these groups than ever. Sam Harris, the handsome fellow above — one of the “new” atheists — attracts lots of folks to his flock. These new atheists mock belief and believers, assigning to their followers smart-guy status.
And these followers believe it, despite atheism having no more settled foundation than in the past. It’s simply a fact that secular is more attractive today than in the past. But truth shouldn’t be settled on the basis of trends, social acceptance, and political popularity.
Evangelical Christianity or other sects are usually not attractive to doubting Latter-day Saints. I’ve seen data showing 9 out of 10 former Mormons don’t believe in God. Decades ago this did not occur.
As they weaken in faith, so many members see no credible option for belief. But what many don’t initially realize is they’ve started to follow another faith: the faith of atheism/agnosticism. Indeed, they put their faith in atheist podcasters and thinkers.
John Lennox discusses the faith of atheists:
Lennox schools prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, on the topic of blind faith. Even Dawkins operates on the basis of faith, no different than believers. There’s so much none of us can know. So we trust. We have faith. All of us. No matter how much atheists hate to admit this. They do, too.
Returning to the woman on the airplane in 2015. As I got to know her further, she recently had experienced divorce, had a special relationship with Heavenly Mother, by her own admission didn’t like hierarchies & patriarchal arrangements, and was repulsed by polygamy.
In my experience, it’s virtually never about the big lists alone. Other things are inevitably occurring in the lives of those who leave. I’ve talked to many, many folks about their faith crises. Nobody leaves who was yesterday in full faith, working at the veil. It’s always a years-long process. Often involving other life issues. We can help with all those variables. Faith is work. And worth it!
Many, many people have spent much more time than Jeremy Runnells — the fellow who crowdsourced the CES Letter on the ex-Mormon reddit subgroup — in understanding these issues.
I learned about these issues decades ago and found virtually nothing new in his document. Ed Decker, the Tanners, and a long list of critics before them have thrown lots of charges on the wall hoping that some will stick. Some things we’ll never know. For many things, however, answers exist. Study, prayer, and humility are key.
FAIR Mormon has thousands of pages of answers that can be searched via an internal search engine. I’ll list four other resources that have responded to each and every criticism within the CES Letter:
#1: Jim Bennett. Jim is the son of the late U.S. Senator, Bob Bennett. Jim is entertaining, bright, articulate, and lots of fun to read. Jim wrote for the Deseret News for years. He’s now running to fill an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
updated PDF: https://canonizer.com/files/reply.pdf
#2: Brian Hales. Brian is arguably the single greatest expert on Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Brian spent much time not only answering polygamy-related questions within the CES Letter, but was very efficient in responding to all other claims.
As mentioned above, Brian has built and maintained this incredible resource on Joseph Smith’s polygamy. The critics may disagree with Brian, but they nearly universally respect his research and scholarship.
Brian has shown in the linked site above, and Dan Vogel (one of the most prominent LDS critics alive) agrees, that there is no solid evidence of Joseph’s sexual polyandry. Polygamy? Yes. Polyandry? No.
Brian’s wife, Laura Hales, has made significant contributions toward educating Latter-day Saints. Her book, “A Reason for Faith” and weekly podcasts are very insightful and impeccably well researched.
#3: Michael Ash. Michael is a life-long defender of the LDS faith. He has written these books (among others): “Bamboozled by the CES Letter” and “Shaken Faith Syndrome.”
#4: Brett McDonald. Brett created the “LDS Truth Claims” YouTube channel in the last year. He directly responds to every charge found in the CES Letter.
One of my favorite presentations by Brett:
#5: I recently found this blog — Conflict of Justice — that has many good points about the Book of Abraham and seer stones. Since the Book of Abraham is a topic loved by the critics I thought I’d include this blog in the list.
If one is willing to leave the Church — an institution claiming to be the restored Church of Christ — he/she should consider all the data. Not only the cherrypicked information you’ll find in critical material, such as the CES Letter. Please review the in-depth responses above and within the above links.
It would have been a very poor choice to leave the Church in the 60s, due to materials put forward by the Tanners. It would have been a very poor choice to leave the Church in the 80s, due to materials put forward by Ed Decker.
It is, likewise, a very poor choice to leave the LDS Church today, given this (hardly new) material copied/pasted by Jeremy Runnells and aggregated into the CES Letter.
Our culture is much more accepting of atheism and is increasingly secular. Folks form agnostic groups and support each other in their doubts and new faith online. Though society welcomes these new trends, the facts of the restoration and the divinity of Christ remain the same.
I urge to review all the data. There are reasons to believe. Study and pray. No blind faith. Inform your faith. The Gospel was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Leaving the LDS Church and Returning
Great insights from Elder Uchtdorf:
Don Bradley was interviewed about his period outside of the Church:
Dusty was referenced in a talk by Elder Uchdorf as one who opposed the Church who returned to faith:
Lee, a young LDS actor, shares his story about leaving the Church and coming back.
Three prominent Latter-day Saints left the Church. Years later they returned. Each story of deconversion and reconversion is very unique.
I’ll introduce each panelist briefly:
- on the right: Janet Eyring; niece of Spencer W. Kimball and cousin of Henry B. Eyring; grew up in Berkeley, CA; graduated from BYU in 1976; served mission in Toronto; got Master’s & PhD at UCLA; crisis of faith started as a child & wasn’t resolved till 46; spent 20 years outside the Church
- middle: Don Bradley; grew up in Upstate NY; Bachelor’s in History from BYU; spent time as an agnostic and atheist, then back to theist, then Baha’i, then generic Protestant before returning to the Utah-based church where he had begun; now getting Master’s in History at Utah State
- on the left: Maxine Hanks; related to Marion G. Hanks; was excommunicated as one of the “September 6” in 1993; was out of the LDS Church for 20 years; 1/2 of life in the Church, 1/2 of life out of the Church; feminist who has authored or co-authored several books including Women & Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, Mormon Faith in America, Getting Together With Yesterday, A History of Sanpete County, and was a contributor to Secrets of Mary Magdalene, Religion in America, and Latter-day Dissent.
For young Latter-day Saints:
Patrick Mason — author of Planted — discusses belief and doubt.