Five Questions that Forced a Mormon General Authority to Abandon
the Book of Mormon
Brigham H. Roberts is revered in Mormon history as one of the
Mormon Church's greatest theologians and historians. His six-volume
Comprehensive History of the Church is still one of the most
respected works of Mormon history. Roberts was a General Authority,
member of the Mormon Church's First Council of the Seventy, a
group which is second only to the First Presidency and the Quorum
of the Twelve Apostles. In 1898 he was elected to the U.S. House
of Representatives, although he was never seated because he was
As a young missionary in Tennessee, Roberts began to formulate
his defense of the Book of Mormon. Upon one occasion he debated
a Campbellite minister on the authority of the Book of Mormon.
That debate was the beginning of his reputation within the Mormon
Church as a leading defender of the Book of Mormon. In time he
became recognized as the expert Book of Mormon apologist. In
1909 he published his chief defense of the Book of Mormon, entitled,
New Witnesses for God.
The Doubts Begin
In 1921 an event occurred which forever changed Roberts' life.
A young Mormon from Salina, Utah, William Riter, wrote to Apostle
James E. Talmage with five questions challenging the Book of
Mormon. Riter had been asked the questions by a man from Washington,
D.C. who was investigating the claims of Mormonism. Talmage was
too busy to answer the questions, so he sent the letter on to
Roberts until his death in 1933. The study deeply challenged
his faith in the Book of Mormon and ultimately changed his opinion
of divine origin.
Roberts' personal struggle with his waning confidence in the
Book of Mormon is recorded in three documents he produced in
the last years of his life. None of these works was published
during his lifetime, but they are now available. A comprehensive
study of these documents was published in 1985 as Studies of
the Book of Mormon by the University of Illinois. This book is
edited by two Mormon scholars: Brigham D. Madsen edited the manuscript
and Sterling M. McMurrin wrote an introductory essay.
Roberts studied the questions for four months without replying
to William Riter, Riter finally wrote to him, asking if he had
completed his response. On Dec. 28, 1921, Roberts wrote back
saying he was studying the problems, had not yet reached a conclusion
and would soon respond. The next day Roberts wrote an open letter
to President Heber J. Grant, to Grant's counselors, to the Twelve
Apostles and to the First Council of Seventy, rquesting an emergency
meeting with all them to discuss the matter.
Roberts told the General Authorities: "I found difficulties
(raised by the five questions) more serious than I thought..
it is a matter that will concern the faith of the Youth of the
Church now (and) also in the future." President Grant responded
immediately to Roberts' request for an emergency meeting of the
Church's top leadership. Within a week the brethren assembled
for an intense two-day conference at which Roberts delivered
a 141 page report entitled, "Book of Mormon Difficulties,
a Study." Robert appealed to the collective wisdom of the
brethren and said he was seeking the inspiration of the Lord
in order to answer the questions.
It is fair to say the General Authorities "stonewalled"
Roberts at the meeting. After two days, he came away disappointed
and discouraged. In a letter to President Grant four days after
the meeting he said: "I was greatly disappointed over the
net results of the discussion.. There was so much said that was
utterly irrelevant, and so little said that was helpful."
Roberts continued to discuss the matter through letters with
President Grant and continued for some months to meet with a
committee formed out of the larger group comprised of one of
Grant's counselors, Talmage, and Apostle John Widsoe. But, Roberts
never was satisfied with the response of the brethren.
As his investigation continued, he became more and more disillusioned
with the Book of Mormon; and he always resented the response
he received at the two-day seminar. Two months before his death
he told a friend, Wesley P. Lloyd, former dean of the graduate
school of BYU, that the defense the brethren made for the Book
of Mormon might "satisfy people who didn't think, but (it
was) a very inadequate answer for a thinking man." He said
Apostle Richard R Lyman did not take the matter seriously and
the others "merely one by one stood up and bore testimony
to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. George Albert Smith
- in tears - testified that his faith in the Book of Mormon had
not been shaken by the questions."
Roberts told Lloyd "in a Church which claims continuous
revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary."
Concerning the Five Questions
Of the five questions, Roberts was most concerned about the linguistic
problem. However, he also discovered new problems. He told Lloyd
he saw literary problems in the Book of Mormon as well as geographic
problems. Of the geographic problems he asked: Where were the
Mayan cliffs and high mountain peaks in the Book of Mormon? The
geography of the Book of Mormon looked suspiciously like the
New England of Joseph Smith!
The Five Questions Roberts Couldn't Answer
B.H. Roberts asked the General Authorities to answer these five
1. Linguistics: Riter asked - if the American Indians were all
descendants of Lehi - why there was such diversity in the language
of the American Indians and why there was no indication of Hebrew
in any of the Indian language?
2. The Book of Mormon says that Lehi found horses when he arrived
in America. The horse described in the Book of Mormon (as well
as many other domestic animals) did not exist in the New World
before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.
3. Nephi is stated to have had a "bow of steel." Jews
did not know steel at that time. And there was no iron on this
continent until after the Spaniard conquest.
4. The Book of Mormon frequently mentions "awards and scimeters
(scimitars)." Scimitars are unknown until the rise of the
Moslem faith (after 600 A.D.).
5. The Book of Mormon says the Nephites possessed silk. Silk
did not exist in America in pre-Columbian times.
Joseph Smith Did Not Get the Book of Mormon from God!
Roberts eventually concluded that ;Joseph Smith wrote the Book
of Mormon himself - that he did not translate it from gold plates.
Smith produced it, Roberts said, by drawing upon his own natural
talent and materials like Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews (published
near Joseph's home a few years before the translation of the
Book of Mormon).
Roberts became convinced that View of the Hebrews was "the
ground plan" for the Book of Mormon. Roberts, the man who
had started his missionary career defending the Book of Mormon
and became its staunchest apologist, had to admit the evidence
proved Joseph Smith was a plagiarist.
One must empathize with the elderly Roberts as he came to realize
he had spent a lifetime defending something which he now knew
was a fraud. It is heartbreaking. It is perhaps, this fraudulent
perpetration of the Book of Mormon that is the most heartbreaking
aspect of Mormonism. Millions of Mormons base their faith in
Mormonism upon this book which is no more than the invention
of Joseph Smith. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt correctly identified
the essential question concerning the Book of Mormon when he
"If true, (the Book of Mormon) is one of the most important
messages ever sent from God to man. If false, it is one of the
most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever planned
upon the world, calculated to deceive and ruin millions who sincerely
receive it as the Word of God, and will suppose themselves built
upon the rock of truth, until they are plunged, with their families,
into hopeless despair."
What was the final resolution for Brigham H. Roberts? No one
can say for sure. However, I am afraid for him. I fear that this
giant intellectual, who could stand against the president of
the Church and call the Apostles to task, committed intellectual
suicide. In a conversation with Wesley Lloyd, just two months
before his death, Roberts showed him what he called "a revolutionary
article on the origin of the Book of Mormon." In Lloyd's
opinion, Roberts' work was, "far too strong for the average
What Lloyd saw was "A Book of Mormon Study," a 300-page
document in which Roberts sets forth his reasons for concluding
that the Book of Mormon was not of divine origin. In the document,
Roberts investigated the documents (including View of the Hebrews)
which Joseph Smith could have consulted in writing the Book of
Mormon. He investigated "the imaginative mind of Joseph
Smith." He quotes Joseph's mother who recalled how Joseph
would give "amusing recitals" in which he would describe,
"the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress,
mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their
cities, their buildings, with every particular, their mode of
warfare; and also their religious worship." All this, Roberts
acknowledged, "took place before the young prophet had received
the plates of the Book of Mormon."
Roberts suggests that Smith became caught up in spiritual "excesses"
out of which he imagined prophecies and manifestations:
"His revelations become merely human productions. .. Morbid
imagination, morbid expression of emotions (were) likely to find
their way into the knowledge of Joseph Smith and influence his
conceptions of spiritual things."
The Gold Plates Didn't Exist
Roberts, according to Lloyd, concluded that Smith's visions were
"psychological" and that the gold plates, "were
not objective" - that is,, they didn't really exist! They
existed only on a "spiritual", or subjective plane.
God was gracious to B.H. Roberts. God let him see the overwhelming
evidence of Joseph Smith's fraud. We cannot be sure what his
final conclusions were because he died before he could resolve
these issues. However, the evidence indicates that B.H. Roberts
was so steeped in the deception of Mormonism that he was unable
to escape its spiritual hold. In his last conversation with Lloyd,
with only two months of life before him, Roberts indicated that
he had not yet given up on Joseph Smith. He said that although
the Book of Mormon was of obvious human origin, perhaps the Church
was still true. Perhaps he could yet establish the divinity of
Joseph's call. If the Book of Mormon failed him, perhaps he could
find divinity in the Mormon Church's secondary book of scripture,
the Doctrine and Covenants!