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.
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.
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.
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.