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.