Professor says he ‘can’t manage to disbelieve’ in the Book of Mormon

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: By Kenneth Riley, IRI

Scholar discusses conflict between gospel and secular ideas about love and charity.

A sneak peek into Council of Fifty Minutes, a newly released, Nauvoo-era document.


Having considered for many years the standard arguments against the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, Daniel C. Peterson says he “can’t manage to disbelieve.”

Brother Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, is a longtime defender of the Church in his published writing and public speeches, most recently as founding editor-in-chief of the online Interpreter: a Journal of Mormon Scripture. He was the concluding speaker at the annual FairMormon Conference on Aug. 5.

“My argument would be that all of the counter-explanations of the Book of Mormon that I’ve looked at — and I think I’ve looked at all of them — run into walls,” he said.

He compared arguments against the divinity of the Book of Mormon to the discredited Ptolemaic theory of the cosmos.

“Initially, it seemed fairly simple,” he said. “But the trouble is that it got more and more complex” as proponents encountered problems with it and had to shore it up with added theories.

“To me, the explanation of Joseph Smith is simple and elegant and the alternative explanations just don’t work,” Brother Peterson said. “They get more and more complex, and it’s just too much for me. So I’ve said sometimes that I just don’t have the faith to disbelieve Joseph Smith’s story; I just can’t get there; I can’t do it.”

Brother Peterson suggested some logical options for those who reject Joseph Smith’s account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and demonstrated how each, in turn, lacks plausibility.

The options are that Joseph had plates or he had no plates. Within each option are subdivisions that can be followed through.

“The first option is that he knew that he had no plates,” Brother Peterson said. “This runs into a number of issues. You have to ask, first of all, was this deliberate? Was it cynical or was it pious? Was he a cynical fraud? Just a con-artist, a 19th century con man? …

“This is a man whose personal, private writings, letters to his wife, personal journal entries, are full of prayers. … Certainly there’s nothing at all in the early Joseph Smith that you could say points to someone who’s a cynical, manipulative deceiver.”

Moreover, Brother Peterson asked, would a cynical con artist put up with some of what Joseph endured, such as the misery of confinement in Liberty Jail, the suffering endured by his followers and his ultimate martyrdom?

Other explanations don’t work work either, he said. “Even if you decide that Joseph is a conscious deceiver, there are other people who are seeing things with him. Most of his revelatory experiences after the First Vision are shared.”

He added, “Suppose you say Joseph was hallucinating the plates. What about all the other people? Did he really manage to find, just in time, the eight local yokels who also hallucinate plates? … You can say all you want that Joseph just thought he had plates; he was mentally ill. But then you’ve got a whole bunch of other people who seem to be densely concentrated around the area where Joseph lives [who also reported seeing the plates].”

Another option is that Joseph had plates but he made them himself, Brother Peterson said.

“Now you have to come up with evidence that Joseph was able to make plates. What evidence is there that he was a metallurgist or a blacksmith or anything of the kind that he could make plates? …

“Where do you get that much gold? … We’re talking about thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold in today’s prices. …

“And then it disappears. The family had this enormously valuable artifact, and then they lost it or something? And they continued to live in poverty? It’s really rather strange.”

Brother Peterson said there is no evidence for the plates having come from someone else, a contemporary.

“Maybe he received them from a non-contemporary.” Then, he said, “Well, I have a candidate,” and displayed on a screen a painting of the angel Moroni.

Brother Peterson concluded by bearing testimony “that the Book of Mormon is true, that it really is what it claims to be, and the presence of that physical object [the plates], in much the same way as the physical resurrection of Christ, does establish the truth that God actually intervened in this world and did something measurable, tangible, demonstrable and visible.”

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed