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.:

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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.”

Seminars - Hope and Healing Center and Institute

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.


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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.

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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).


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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.”

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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).


(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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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***  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 MormonCWHN 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.

Sandra and Gerald Tanner: LDS critics, most prominent in the 60s and 70s

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The Tanners were significant LDS Church critics for generations.   Each had doubted the Church as a teenager.  In 1958, when Jerald was 19, he was began to hold religious meetings in SLC.  By this time, Jerald had aligned with Pauline Hancock’s group, headquartered in Missouri.  Hancock believed in the Book of Mormon but renounced nearly all other beliefs which distinguish Mormonism from fundamentalist Protestantism.

Sandra McGee met Jerald at such a meeting in Salt Lake City in 1959. They married two months after this initial meeting.  Four months after their marriage, Sandra converted to evangelical Protestantism.  Both resigned their membership one year after they married in 1959.   Sandra was 18 when she was married and 19 when she left the Church.  Jerald was 21 when they married and 22 when they left the LDS faith.

From Lawrence Foster’s article in the 1984 Dialogue journal:

Another important transition in the Tanners’ career came in 1964 when Jerald quit his machinist job to devote his full time to their anti-Mormon publishing.  That work has always been conducted on a shoestring and threatened with closing, due to Jerald’s ill health and the recurrent shortages of funds.

Originally, they were known as the Modern Microfilm Company.  In 1983 they incorporated into the non-profit, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc.  Their organization has disseminated LDS-critical material since the early 1960s.  Their goal is to lead Mormons to the true Jesus.  That was the trendiest option to Mormonism at that time: call Mormons to return to the biblical Jesus.

Non-Mormon writer, Lawrence Foster, writes about the reason for the Tanner’s continued hostility:

“Why was the Tanners’ disillusionment with Mormonism so deep and their hostility toward it so sustained? A key factor was Jerald Tanner’s reaction to his initial naive and unrealistic understanding of Mormonism. As a youth, he appears to have believed that Joseph Smith was perfect and that the Latter-day Saint Church had all the answers and could do no wrong.”

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When his research increasingly showed him that Joseph Smith had flaws, that the eternally true (and some assert, changeless) Church had in fact changed, and that Mormon leaders had sometimes made mistakes, even very serious ones, he was furious.

He felt that he had been cheated — sold a bill of goods — that the Church had willfully lied to him about matters of the highest importance. Not only did the emperor have no clothes, but the Mormon Church had sold them to him!

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The anger, even fury, that emerges from much of the Tanners’ writing, with its frequent obtrusive underlining, LARGE CAPITALS, and LARGE CAPITALS WITH UNDERLINING, along with sharp attacks on the personal motives of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders, seems to be crying out for the Mormon Church either to prove that it is perfect or else cease making its exclusivistic truth claims.”

These quotes are from a non-Mormon commenting on the Tanners in their heyday, in 1984.  So, two teenagers have unrealistic expectations and make a career out of them.  Bad scholarship.

More from Foster on possible motive.  Foster is an interesting scholar, taking on Mormon critics when most non-Mormons don’t bother to investigate.

“As described in the Faulring interviews with Sandra Tanner, Jerald’s family life seems to have been filled with stress. Both he and his family appear to have been isolated from many positive aspects of Mormon culture.

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His father developed a drinking problem, Jerald himself, during his teenage years, began to drink so heavily that for a time he feared that he might become an alcoholic.

Some of Jerald’s Mormon friends also were outsiders who drank and did not conform to the ideal pattern which the Church has sought to develop. Quite possibly Jerald’s failure to find satisfying social contacts in the Mormon Church contributed to the deep bitterness which he eventually developed toward it.

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In comparison, Sandra Tanner, whose social experiences with Mormonism while growing up were positive, expresses a more balanced understanding of the personal appeal of Mormon culture, even when she criticizes specific Mormon truth claims.”

Why Jerald is more hostile to social aspects of Mormonism makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

“They were a united team with a common mission for decades:

Neither individual alone could have been as effective; together they have compensated for each other’s weaknesses and have developed a remarkably strong partnership.

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Jerald, an intense and almost painfully shy man, is primarily responsible for the research and writing. His own drive, more than any other factor, sustains their operation. Whether Sandra would even have become an active anti-Mormon had she been by herself is open to question.

On the other hand, Jerald would hardly have been effective by himself either.  Sandra, a warmer and more outgoing personality, takes major responsibility for dealing with the public. Whereas Jerald is often socially inept and strident in his writing, Sandra conveys real warmth and caring that only close associates have the opportunity of experiencing with Jerald.”

How they view the Church and its history:

“…the Tanners are critical of what they term the Mormon “suppression” of documents and evidence for a very different reason: they believe that the full record of Mormonism, if it could be made available, would utterly refute the Church’s truth claims and lead to the destruction of the faith.

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At every point, the Tanners see fraud, conspiracy, and cover-ups. They always assume the worst possible motives in assessing the actions of Mormon leaders, even when those leaders faced extremely complex problems with no simple solutions.”

Foster contrasts the Tanners with the approach taken by historians:

In general, the primary goal of the historians has been to understand and appreciate the remarkably complex and multi-faceted movement that constitutes Mormonism.

Toward that end, Mormon historians, like historians in all fields, seek to sift through all pertinent evidence in order to reconstruct the fullest possible picture of the past and its significance for the present.


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Both positive and negative factors are candidly considered in trying to come to a realistic understanding of Mormon development.

By contrast, the Tanners sound like high-school debaters. Every bit of evidence, even if it could be most plausibly presented in a positive way, is represented as yet another nail in the coffin being prepared for the Mormon Church.

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There is no spectrum of colors, only blacks and whites, good guys and villains in the Tanners’ published writings.

Even when the Tanners backhandedly praise objective Mormon historical scholarship, they do so primarily as a means of twisting that scholarship for use as yet another debater’s ploy to attack the
remaining — and in their eyes insurmountable — Mormon deficiencies.

All too often, the Tanners’ work thus simply provides a mirror image of the very Mormonism that it is attacking.

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The Tanners faded from prominence with the arrival of Ed Decker (above).  Ed published the over-the-top (but founded on Tanner scholarship) God Makers in 1982.  Newer critics — John Dehlin and others, including Runnells — didn’t surface till the 2000s and recently.

Dehlin (below) and Runnells do what is trendy today:  believe in secularism and no God.  But they, too, rely on Tanners’ scholarship.  Nobody else but the Tanners copied (without permission) from LDS archives and started a “ministry” for Mormons.

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I wrote about the Tanners in an earlier post about Jeremy Runnells and the CES Letter.  A couple quotes from a non-Mormon scholar on the Tanners’ “scholarship”:

Ex-Mormons almost always rely on Sandra Tanners for their material.  Even Ed Decker used that argument — the Tanners are awesome scholars — in his God Makers’ series.


Problem with Decker’s claim:  it’s simply not true.  The Tanners fail when it comes to honest scholarship.

Gilbert Scharffs wrote this LDS Church-supporting book, “The Truth about the Godmakers” in 1986.  I’ll quote from Scharffs’ book below.

By the way, reading this book (published in the 80s) today is almost as good as any of the current books defending the Church.  That is how old nearly all the critics’ claims are!

In reply to the God Makers’ chapter, “The Mormon Dilemma”

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Decker’s claim:  “Jerald and Sandra Tanner are former Mormons who have established an international reputation for their impeccably accurate and thorough research,” claim the authors.

Scharffs’ response: quotes  Lawrence Foster, a professor of American history at Georgia Tech, a scholar who is non-Mormon and who has spent decades in intensive work on Mormonism.

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Foster has even served as President of the 1,000-member Mormon History Association (although he is not a Mormon), and he has received an NEH Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship to Australia and New Zealand.

Foster has said of the Tanners:

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Until they “are prepared to abide by accepted standards of scholarly behavior and common courtesy, they can expect little sympathy from serious historians,” and “the Tanners’ own work falls short of history.”

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Foster also stated, “The Tanners have repeatedly assumed a holier-than-thou stance, refusing to be fair in applying the same debate standard of absolute rectitude which they demand of Mormonism to their own actions, writings, and beliefs.”

Foster gives the Tanners credit for publishing old LDS documents, “but criticizes them for using unauthorized materials which” have been acquired leaving “much to be desired, ethically speaking.”

The Tanners often publish “scholarly works of living individuals without their permission,” because “the end (destroying Mormonism) justifies the means.”

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Foster continues, “The Tanners seem to be playing a skillful shell game in which the premises for judgment are conveniently shifted so that the conclusion is always the same — negative.”

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Foster also quotes from another Tanner critic who said, Jerald and Sandra Tanner have read widely enough in the sources of LDS history to provide that [larger] perspective, but they do not.

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Although the most conscientious and honest researcher can overlook pertinent sources of information, the repeated omissions of evidence by the Tanners suggest an intentional avoidance of sources that modify or refute their caustic interpretation of Mormon history (“Career Apostates,” Dialogue, Summer 1984, pp. 35-60).

This isn’t a Latter-day Saint condemning the Tanners.  This guy Foster is a non-LDS scholar who made a career out of studying Mormonism.  He’s fair.  Not an ideologue.  

Foster wrote the following article in Dialogue:    Career Apostates:  Reflections on the Works of Jerald and Sandra Tanner

As a non-Mormon scholar who has spent nearly a decade of intensive work in Mormon history without becoming either Mormon or anti-Mormon, I believe that I am in a particularly advantageous position to suggest some new perspectives on the Tanners and to present a balanced analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their work.

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Foster will be shunned by most colleagues if he grinds an axe.  Good scholars aren’t dogmatic.  Not against the Mormons.  Not against any minority or other group.  Anti-Mormons don’t always follow the same academic standards as those in the academy (American universities).

If you think you can trust the Tanners’ research methods you might be in for a disappointment.  If you think you can trust what John Dehlin and current critics share — warmed-up Tanners’ research — with his listeners (he runs a podcast, unabashedly asking for donations)  I wish you good luck.

You’d be better served listening to this fellow below, Lawrence Foster (link to bio above) who doesn’t believe in the First Vision, but is at least fair to our history.

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Below are a few archived FARMS articles about the Tanners from decades ago.  Bad scholarship is the hallmark.

FARMS wrote a response to one of the Tanners’ many books and another response to the Tanners’ criticisms of the LDS witnesses:


Robert and Rosemary Brown wrote this book in 1986 about LDS critics:   They Lie in Wait to Deceive. 

Volumes 1 and 4 address the Tanners specifically.

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Michael Quinn, a historian and former member of the LDS Church, takes issue with the Tanners’ work.  Quinn, an ex-communicated former member, still points out bad scholarship when he sees it.

He noted that “although the most conscientious and honest researcher can overlook pertinent sources of information, the repeated omissions of evidence by the Tanners suggest an intentional avoidance of sources that modify or refute their caustic interpretation of Mormon history.”

To their credit, The Tanners have debunked what they characterize as misrepresentations of the LDS Church by Ed Decker, a Christian evangelist. They criticized his film The God Makers IIdespite their involvement in his earlier film, The God Makers.

So, if you’re seeking information about the LDS Church you might want to find other sources than the Tanners.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision


Joseph Smith-History Insights, Pearl of Great Price Central  

Jeff Lindsay:   Questions About Joseph Smith’s First Vision Accounts: Introduction and Resources

Anthony Sweat does a great job describing the harmony, differences between the many accounts:

Stephen Smoot wrote this review of Stephen Harper’s 2019 book:   First Vision:  Memories and Mormon Origins

Stephen Harper recently interviewed:

Stephen Jones is Real provides his insights:

Jeff at Latter-day Saints Q & A shares this presentation:

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Harvard-trained attorney and Berkeley PhD shares his insight.   BYU devotional given in 1983:

“I have spent half of my time studying the sources of the life of Joseph Smith, and the other half studying the words of Christ and the New Testament prophets. I find it hard to believe in the biblical prophets without also accepting Joseph Smith and those called after him. The same reasons that lead a thinking person to accept Peter and Paul as Christ’s servants should also lead that person to accept Joseph Smith as commissioned by Christ.

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Here I am going to take Paul as an example because we know more about his life than that of any other New Testament prophet. His main strengths as a prophet are also those of Joseph Smith.

If you forget some comparisons, please remember the principle—that the leading evidences that Paul is a true prophet also support Joseph Smith as called of God. Remembering that fundamental proposition, you can reconstruct this talk anytime with you own examples. Proof of the mission of any true prophet gives the format for identifying a later true prophet.”

Another BYU devotional.  This one from Truman G. Madsen in 1978:

This portion of his talk shares the memory of an acquaintance of Joseph.  She was present when an area church leader visiting her family twice.  Each time the churchman discouraged this person’s father from allowing Joseph to have such good relations with his family.

Critics claim Joseph didn’t share his vision with others till 1832.  Simply not true.

“The enemies of Joseph Smith have made out over and over that he was shiftless, lazy, indolent, that he never did a day’s work in his life.10 But a document exists that contains reported recollections about Joseph Smith as recorded by Martha Cox.

One of these comes from a woman, identified as Mrs. Palmer, who knew him in his early life when she was a child.11 As a girl—years younger than him, apparently—she watched him with others of the boys working on her father’s farm. Far from his being indolent, the truth is that, according to this account, her father hired Joseph because he was such a good worker.12

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Another reason was that Joseph was able to get the other boys to work. The suspicion is that he did that by the deft use of his fists. It is my belief that one of the feelings he had of unworthiness, one of the things for which he asked forgiveness (and his account shows that he did pray for forgiveness prior to the visitations of Moroni), was this physical propensity.

He was so strong, so muscular, so physically able, that that was one way he had of solving problems. This troubled him. He did not feel it was consonant with the divine commission he had received.13

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Mrs. Palmer’s account speaks of “the excitement stirred up among some of the people over [Joseph’s] first vision.” A churchman, she recalls, came to her father “to remonstrate against his allowing such close friendship between his family” and the boy Joseph. But the father, pleased with Joseph’s work on his farm, was determined to keep him on.

Of the vision, he said that it was “the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy.” Later, the daughter reports, Joseph claimed to have had another vision; and this time it led to the production of a book. The churchman came again, and at this point the girl’s father turned against Joseph. But, she adds significantly, by then it was too late. Joseph Smith had a following.14″


Insight into Joseph’s style:

Joseph personally wrote very little.  Instead, he used many scribes:

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Sandra Tanner, one of the LDS Church’s biggest critics, has been asked many times over the years why she left Mormonism.  Of course, each time she shares a slightly different version.  Years apart, and depending on the context, Sandra’s stories are slightly different.  We wouldn’t expect anything else.

A friend of mine — who has studied ex-Mormons for decades — told me he had seen a list of Sandra Tanner’s many and various deconversion stories.  Do these unique deconversion stories — some short, some long, some very detailed, some with dates, some with key details absent — prove Sandra was lying?

Of course not!  The same must be said for Joseph.  However, LDS critics are not nearly as consistent.

An anonymous letter (in favor of the LDS Church) in response to the Tanners’ book, “Mormonism–Shadow or Reality.”

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Commenting on the differences between the various accounts of the First Vision, one non-LDS scholar commented as follows:

“Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between this canonical account [the 1838 account of the First Vision as found in the Pearl of Great Price] and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith’s own hand in 1832.

For example, in the 1832 version, Jesus appears to Smith alone, and does all the talking himself. Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer (or historian) would expect to find contradictions in competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event.

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And despite the contradictions, key elements abide. In each case, Jesus appears to Smith in a vision. In each case, Smith is blessed with a revelation. In each case, God tells him to remain all of from all Christian denominations, as something better is in store.”

(Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 171, comment in square brackets added for clarification)

More from Robert Boylan here.

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A few personal thoughts about claimed conflict or tension between Joseph’s 1832 and 1838 accounts.  Joseph said Lord twice in his 1832 journal.  Joseph said separate beings in 1838 account.

All the Father did was introduce. Nothing is contradictory in the 1832 account. It’s true, details are lacking. Clarification is lacking. I wish it was more obvious.  But it does not contradict later accounts that provided additional details.  1838 was meant to be the published account, as part of the History of the Church.
I’ve become a better, clearer writer after years living with my wife. She’s a super writer. I must have been a horrible writer in high school (which Joseph didn’t have) and early at BYU.
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By the way, Joseph usually wrote several drafts before publishing future revelations. His 1832 journal account surely isn’t the polished work he (and future scholars and members) later wished it would have been, since critics now closely scrutinize it.
When my wife will edit my writing, I now try to make everything painfully obvious, so my wife won’t ask a bazillion questions about who and what.  Many such details are often completely unclear in every rough draft, as was JS’s 1832 journal account of his vision.
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My wife edits everything that important audiences might see. Everything. Because I can’t anticipate what isn’t clear. Joseph made similar errors, in my view.

Why so many accounts?

Did Joseph change his story?

Why weren’t the accounts identical?

Why don’t more Latter-day Saints know about the various accounts?

Conclusion on First Vision issues:

Critics claim Joseph didn’t report on the First Vision till his first written account in 1832.  Not true.  At least one account in the area newspaper (in 1831) reported that Joseph had seen God.  4 witnesses were aware of this 1831 account.

Listen around the 1:27:00 mark:

Interpreter Radio Show — March 11, 2018

Short introduction about Joseph’s First Vision accounts written by himself or his scribes during his lifetime:

A graphical comparison of the details of Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision.

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Short introduction about accounts written by others during Joseph’s lifetime:

Short introduction with a focus on the familiar 1838 account:

Joseph’s First Vision may be the most well-documented theophany in history.  Five of the eight documents are unique with three being copies of previous ones.   Five other known writers documented the event in Joseph’s lifetime.  Joseph published two known accounts in 1839 and 1842.

Scholars would be thrilled to have that much direct and indirect documentation of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, and Paul on the road to Damascus.

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Speaking of Paul, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote about the many parallels between Paul’s and Joseph’s accounts here.

Both gave their accounts at different times, in different settings, with differing details.  Complementary accounts, not obvious fraud.

Both can still be considered prophets.  Worth reading.

Couple background videos about Joseph’s First Vision:

Joseph provided accounts throughout his life and many written accounts. Below is a graphic published in the Improvement Era in 1970.  The same information was published in BYU Studies in 1969.

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Richard Anderson wrote of the First Vision and details surrounding Joseph’s accounts in the April 1996 Ensign.  Click here.  

Some claim the Church wasn’t transparent on this topic.  But above we can read the Improvement Era publication in 1970, listen to a BYU devotional in 1983, and a detailed Ensign article in 1996.  That’s not typical of an institution hiding this information.

Matthew Grow shares his insight in Rome in 2016:

Ron Barney was the executive director of the Mormon History Association when he gave this talk:

Joseph’s story got abroad in the early days.  He published his account to put an end to rumors and falsehoods.  Joseph was never eager to share the First Vision.  This may seem strange with us.  But this is consistent with how he handled many other events.

For example, Joseph didn’t tell his father of his nightly Moroni visitations until Moroni told him to do so (the next day, after Joseph collapsed crossing the fence).  Joseph likely wouldn’t have told anyone — and followed this pattern with his 1st Vision — unless instructed by the angel.

Joseph was religiously private.  Joseph hesitated giving details about the translation of the Book of Mormon when asked for particulars by Hyrum.  Joseph tried to teach church leaders to keep sacred experiences sacred. Joseph taught in 1835 before the Kirtland Temple dedication, “If God gives you a manifestation, keep it to yourself.”

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April 3, 1836: Savior appeared to Joseph and Oliver.  They received keys from Moses, Elias, and Elijah.  Elder Pratt included this (Joseph Smith’s) journal entry into D&C 110, but not until 1876.  But most don’t realize the Joseph discreetly kept the record of the event to himself.  Joseph told few if any of the full scope.

Oliver was also disinclined to speak of the awesome 1836 event.  Oliver had already shown this behavior: visited by the Savior in 1829 and shown the plates in a vision, Oliver shared this to virtually no one.

Not until November 1852 was this account published in the Deseret News.   This was entirely consistent with Joseph.  He shared little.

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Matthew 17 contains the Transfiguration.  Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to tell no man.  This type of event was not to be spread abroad.

According to Hugh Nibley:  “From his own account [in the 1838-39 account of the First Vision] it is apparent that he would not have told it publicly at all had he not been “induced” to do so by all the scandal stories that were circulating.   It was a rule among those possessing the Gospel in ancient times that the greater teachings not be publicly divulged.”

Likewise, no narrative exists from Joseph or Oliver relative to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.  The record shows Joseph and Oliver discussed it, but determined sharing was not appropriate.

Steven Harper:   Four Accounts and Three Critiques of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

Joseph Factual and interpretive (what vision meant over time) memory plays a role in Joseph’s individual accounts.

Criticisms that Steven Harper addresses:

Image result for a priori knowledge1)  Critics — from the first minister to today’s critics — denounced Joseph’s First Vision a priori.  It just couldn’t have happened.  Reasonable people know this, they say.  This view is from a skeptical interpretation or hermeneutic.  Latter-day Saints tend to have a hermeneutic of trust.

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2)  Joseph didn’t share First Vision story till 1840.  False:   written accounts exist from 1832.   Other details were shared by others in 1820 and certainly before 1840. Critics’ methods assume how a person, such as Joseph, must have acted if the accounts were true.  Joseph was criticized and persecuted.  He didn’t share this story much in the early years.

A few days after Joseph’s vision, Joseph shared his story with the Methodist minister (who had been involved in the area’s religious upheavals).  This minister showed great contempt.  Joseph said in his 1832 account that “he could find no one” who would believe.

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3)  No revivals in Palmyra in 1820.  Perhaps true, but you can’t prove a negative.  But Joseph talked about the activity across the “district” and didn’t specify 1820.  Many camp meetings were held in Manchester and the area in years around and including 1820.  Joseph was factually accurate when you read the text of Joseph’s own report.

Brett McDonald also created a video, explaining the historical evidence behind the First Vision (from start till 43:00).

Joseph saw God and Jesus (2 unique individuals) in 1820.   At the outset and for a variety of reasons (mostly persecution), Joseph told few people about this event.  But Joseph shared much, much more than critics want to acknowledge.  And he was consistent in his accounts of the vision.

Brian Hales shares information to rebut the CES Letter — the latest aggregated tract critical of LDS truth claims.

Brian Hales points out in the above video (starting at 4:25) that Joseph (w/ Sydney Rigdon) saw “the plain separateness of” God and Jesus, as they saw the 3 degrees of glory in vision (D&C 76).  Their joint vision occurred on February 16, 1832.  This vision occurred around 6 months before Joseph personally penned his first account of the 1st Vision.

Joseph did not hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead when he wrote his first account in the summer of 1832.  How could he?  Joseph saw God and Jesus separately several months before on 2/16/1832 recorded in D&C 76.  He was neither a Trinitarian in 1832 — at the time Joseph recorded his First Vision story — nor earlier.  The historical record is clear on the basis of recorded visions.

Critics assert that Joseph didn’t tell others about his first vision for years.  And that his accounts weren’t consistent.  The research shows otherwise.

Consider this timeline from the YouTube video below:

This speaker, Matthew Brown, at the 2004 FAIR Mormon conference showed below that Joseph did share his 1st Vision account with many others than the Methodist minister. The entire video is good. The first vision discussion starts at 18:40.

At 20:50 of the below video Matthew Brown points out that Joseph’s father and mother reported (verbally and in print) that Joseph was mistreated and persecuted in 1820 (after his first visitation from heaven took place) by religionists.

At 21: 09: A non-Mormon Smith neighbor is also quoted in 1820 who witnessed a religionist’s reaction. This religionist was a Presbyterian minister instructed the non-Mormon neighbor’s father to not allow his son to associate with the Smith boy. The minister continued, saying that Joseph “must be put down or else he would someday convince others to follow after him.” Not persecution? Would you have wanted to share your first vision with lots of folks after that?

These above accounts aren’t in alignment with many LDS critics’ claims. Critics claim that the 1st Vision didn’t exist until 1838, and wasn’t generally known by Latter-day Saints till 1840.

Further facts (at 22:10 in video): Joseph’s own town newspaper published in 1830 that Joseph Smith had seen God personally.

Missionaries from 1830 on taught that Joseph saw God and Jesus (as separate beings) in a grove of trees in 1820. The phrase, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”, was generally known.

Was Joseph’s experience known only to a few individuals?  No! The opposite is true. In 1831 Joseph told a crowd of over 200 people about his earliest manifestation. And in 1834 he related it in a midst of many large congregations.

In addition to clarifying who knew about the First Vision before 1840, Matthew Brown shares much about the misconceptions regarding Joseph’s early days and ministry. So, watch the entire video…

Did early LDS leaders misunderstand the First Vision, as critics suggest?  Nope.

Early friends and associates of the prophet were familiar with Joseph’s First Vision story.  Read the link below:

Did Early LDS Leaders Misunderstand the First Vision?

A friend posted this in a discussion group:

“Use this handy chart. The First Vision Accounts are numbered 1-8. If it’s not on the list (for example, Cowdery’s 1834-35 letters to the editor, which is a Book of Mormon origin story) it’s not a FV account. Antis like to throw those in to make the differences seem larger than they are. Letters A-P are the various story points.

1) Letter Book, 1831-32, Joseph Smith
2) Jewish Minister, 1835, Joseph Smith
3) Official Version, 1838-39, Joseph Smith
4) Pratt tract, 1840, Orson Pratt
5) Hyde tract, 1842, Orson Hyde
6) Wentworth letter, 1842, Joseph Smith
7) N.Y. Spectator, 1843, Joseph Smith
8) Neibaur diary, 1844, Alexander Neibaur

A) Religious excitement: 3,8
B) JS’s concern for his soul: 1,4,5,6,8
C) Disillusionment w/existing churches: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7
D) Which church was right: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
E) JS searches the scriptures: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
F) JS prays: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 
G) Strange force of opposition: 2,3,4,5,8
H) Appearance of light: 1,2,3,4,7,8
I) Appearance of Deity: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
J) Two personages: 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 
K) Forgiveness of sins: 1,2,4 
L) Testimony of Jesus: 1,2,3,7 
M) Join no church: 1,3,4,5,6,7,8
N) Gospel to be restored: 4,5,6
O) JS filled with love: 1
P) Unsuccessful in getting others to believe:1,3,8

With respect to the age question, every FV account which mentions age (as originally written) has him at 14 years old. The only outlier is the 1831-32 Letter Book account – which has him at 15 in an inclusion – which was added after the fact, in somebody else’s handwriting.”

Lots of publications on this topic. The Church was not hiding this.

Detailed information about the First Vision, including historical confirmations of details in Joseph’s accounts, are given in the following works as cited by M. Roper:

  • Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 373-404.
  • Richard L. Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 82-93.
  • Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 43-64.
  • Peter Crawley, “A Comment on Joseph Smith’s Account of His First Vision and the 1820 Revival,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 (Spring 1971): 106-7.
  • Marvin Hill, “The First Vision: A Critique and Reconciliation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer 1982): 31-46.
  • Paul R. Cheesman, The Keystone of Mormonism: Early Visions of Joseph Smith (Provo: Eagle Systems International, 1988), 20-37.

Other useful works include:

  • James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision – What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era, Vol. 73, April 1970, pp. 4-13.
  • James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue, Vol. 1, Autumn 1966, pp. 29-45.
  • James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7, 1980, pp. 43-61.
  • Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Confirming Witnesses of the First Vision,” Ensign, Vol. 16, No. 1, Jan. 1986, pp. 32-37.
  • Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, Vol. 15, No. 1, Jan. 1985, pp. 8-17.
  • Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977.