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Church Alleged to Possess 150-Year-Old Evidence : Mormon Origins Challenged Anew Over Purported History

<i> Times Religion Writer</i>

For the last year, the 5.5-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had to deal with a series of historical findings that have challenged the very origins of Mormonism.

So far the disclosures, which give a mundane and folk magic cast to the religious story of how church founder Joseph Smith located the gold plates that led to the Book of Mormon, seem to have perturbed few of the Mormon faithful.

They have forced church officials to admit to the existence of the documents, however, and to rationalize why Smith’s followers would present a different picture of the church’s birth than exists in the official histories.

Brother Alvin’s Role

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Now an allegation is being made that the church possesses a 150-year-old handwritten history that claims that it was the church prophet’s older brother, Alvin, who actually found the golden plates.

Joseph Smith, who organized the church in 1830, lamented his brother’s sudden illness and death in November, 1823, but does not credit the oldest son in the Smith family with any role in the discovery of the plates. Church accounts say that Joseph Smith alone found the plates in September, 1823.

Church officials here have been vague in their response to questions about whether they have the history, said to be written by Oliver Cowdery, a colleague of Joseph Smith and his scribe for most of the Book of Mormon. A highly reliable source told The Times in an interview here, however, that he has viewed it in the church’s headquarters.

The source, who insisted on anonymity in order to preserve his standing in the church, said the Cowdery history and the role it gives Alvin Smith lend further credibility to the documents disclosed earlier, which portray Joseph Smith’s involvement in occult methods to find hidden treasures without any references to religious events so familiar to present-day Mormons.

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Joseph Smith’s account, written in the 1830s, begins his story with a vision he said he had in 1820, at age 14, in which God, in the persons of the Father and the Son, told him that existing churches were wrong. An angel he called Moroni, son of an ancient figure named Mormon, told Smith in dreams on the night of Sept. 21, 1823, of an ancient record on golden plates to be found on a hill near his home in Palmyra, N.Y. Smith said that he went alone to the hill before dawn the next morning but that Moroni denied him immediate possession of the plates.

Smith said he returned annually on Sept. 22, the autumnal equinox, but was not permitted to obtain the buried treasure until 1827. From that point, after some difficulties, he said, he “translated” the plates into the Book of Mormon, a supposed history of ancient civilizations in the Americas which, for church members, supplements the Bible as authoritative Scripture.

Throughout its history, the Mormon Church has had to deal with charges that the Book of Mormon is a figment of Smith’s imagination and that Smith was just a treasure seeker. In earlier days, before most church members made their way to Utah, opposition to the teachings of the church and its advocacy of polygamy often led to violence against Mormons. Smith was a victim of a lynch mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844.

The church has countered the criticism of Smith by noting that charges of magic in Mormonism’s beginnings were written by unfriendly outsiders.

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In the spring of 1984, reports began to circulate that a Mormon bishop had purchased a letter written by Martin Harris, Mormonism’s first convert, that said a white salamander--a figure long used in myth and magic--had transformed itself into an old spirit to guard the plates. No mention was made of an angel. Another letter by Joseph Smith was rumored to exist in which he advised a man that “some clever spirit” would be protecting any buried riches being sought.

In recent weeks, the Harris letter was verified as authentic, and the church acknowledged that it indeed owns the rumored Joseph Smith letter. On the heels of those detailed disclosures, reports of the Cowdery history began to surface in the Utah news media.

Church spokesman Jerry Cahill acknowledged that Joseph Fielding Smith, a church apostle who was church president from 1970 to 1972, wrote 60 years ago, “We have on file in the Historian’s Office the records written in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, the first historian or recorder of the Church.”

Cahill said, “I presume (they are) in the possession of the First Presidency” because they are not in the history department archives. He added that he would not ask the First Presidency if it has the purported history, saying he does not want to bother that office with questions about rumored or reported documents. A First Presidency staff member had no comment.

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Church historians say that Cowdery, a schoolteacher a year older than Joseph Smith, was the official historian until 1831. Joseph Fielding Smith noted once that Cowdery’s successor, John Whitmer, “never was as successful in writing items of history and doctrine as was Oliver Cowdery.”

It is unknown what effect a study of the Cowdery history would have on the Mormon faithful and potential converts, but the reactions to the Harris and Smith letters have been remarkably mild.

Some Mormons have asked rhetorically how much difference exists--in the final analysis--between a salamander and an angel and between magic and religion. Others have said the basic truths of the faith are unaffected.

‘Why the Fuss?’

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The Arizona-based Latter-day Sentinel, which is also circulated in Southern California, recently ran a story with the headline, “So Why the Fuss Over the ‘White Salamander’ Letter?” It noted efforts to equate a white salamander with an angelic figure or an ancient warrior, which Mormoni was, according to the Book of Mormon.

Susan Turley, an editor at the newspaper, said, “Like most Mormons I know in the Phoenix area, my testimony of the church is not based on history but (on) what my own spiritual experiences and study of church doctrine have done for me.”

Robert Rees, assistant dean of UCLA’s College of Fine Arts, said the Book of Mormon has to have had divine origins. Otherwise, he said, it is not plausible that one man could write the 275,000-word book with its spiritual content and use of complicated literary forms.

Rees, a former editor of the independent and sometimes controversial Mormon journal Dialogue, said his friends in the church tend to be “open-minded” people who might challenge church teachings based on new information. However, he said, only a few are “mildly disturbed,” at most.

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Others think that the church is in for some rough times if the purported Cowdery history is eventually confirmed.

‘It Will Be Devastating’

“The Harris letter was bad enough, but if we find the Cowdery history really talks about Alvin discovering the plates and the salamander first, it will be devastating,” said Sandra Tanner of Salt Lake City, who along with her husband, Gerald, publishes critiques of Mormon history and doctrine.

The source interviewed by The Times described the Cowdery history as a book bound partly in leather, with marbled cardboard covers measuring about 8 inches by 10 inches in width and height and between half an inch and three-quarters of an inch thick. The pages are lined, he said.

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The source said he decided to be interviewed about the history because the Cowdery documents provide corroboration for the salamander references in the Harris letter, which some Mormons are claiming is a forgery.

“I don’t remember the exact wording, but it said that Alvin located the buried gold with his seer stone,” he said. “I remember clearly that it was not a private venture. Alvin had other people with him, including Joseph.

“There was no mention of a dream beforehand,” he said. The salamander appeared on three occasions, once to Alvin and twice to Joseph, he added.

The source said he does not think that the Cowdery history, if studied and openly discussed, would cause the leaders of the Mormon Church to rewrite the official history.

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“There is a propensity to keep things the way they are. Dutiful Mormons would say that after Alvin died, the angel came to Joseph and told him what to do,” he speculated.

Claim Questioned

Church spokesman Cahill noted that the claim about the Cowdery history, made by a person unwilling to be identified publicly, is not supported by another witness or photographs of the pages in question. “We can’t ignore Joseph Smith’s first-hand accounts,” he said.

At the same time, the church leadership’s unwillingness to speak further on the issue is being viewed by some as harmful to its public relations. “The church’s silence damages its credibility,” said George Smith of San Francisco, owner of the Mormon-oriented Signature Books publishing house.

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Indeed, the church got caught with a credibility problem earlier, when it tried to deny that the earliest known letter written by Joseph Smith was in its possession.

In late April, Cahill told the Salt Lake City Tribune that the First Presidency did not own the 1825 document. Cahill later said, however, that Gordon Hinckley, the second counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball, had informed him that they did have the letter, which was released publicly May 10. A New York City autograph collector later said that the church had owned the letter since 1983.

More importantly, though, it is the credibility of the church in its earliest stages that is being questioned.

Other than Smith and his family, Harris, Cowdery and John Whitmer were the primary witnesses to the founding of the church.

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They signed a joint statement affixed to the Book of Mormon that “an angel of God came down from heaven” and laid before their eyes the engraved plates that Smith said he translated. Smith claimed that the plates were later taken back by the angel.

‘A Bad Word to Use’

“Conspiracy may be a bad word to use,” said the source who claims to have seen the Cowdery book, “but there must have been some sort of agreement that Joseph is the new seer now that Alvin is gone. Certainly the family and Oliver Cowdery knew. I can’t imagine that any more knew, because it’s an important aspect of the founding of the Church and it hasn’t come down in other histories that we know of.”

Historian Richard L. Bushman of the University of Delaware, a Mormon, said in a telephone interview that he “would not say it’s impossible” that the alleged Cowdery story is true. If so, “Alvin’s role does come as a complete surprise. That’s the only indication that Alvin even took part in the events,” said Bushman, whose book, “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism,” was published last year.

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On the other hand, Mormon historian Ronald Walker of Salt Lake City said in an interview, “If we found out that Alvin is involved, it would not be surprising. There is evidence that (Smith family members) were up on Hill Cumorah digging before 1823.”

Walker has shown that the Smith family was among many Americans who had engaged in a “money-digging” craze during the early 19th Century. “I’m not sure the pieces fit together,” Walker said. “What we need is to get the church to release it, if the church has it.”

Both historians agreed that the alleged Cowdery account gains some plausibility in the light of two items: The curious account about Alvin in the 1830 Harris letter and the emphasis on the family’s role in acquiring the golden plates in a history written by Lucy Smith, the mother of Joseph, Alvin and seven other children.

Told to Bring Brother

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Harris, writing to a newspaper publisher about what Joseph Smith had told him three years before, said the spirit refused to let Joseph have the gold plates in 1823 and told Joseph to come back in a year. At a time not clear from Harris’ text, Joseph is told to bring his brother, Alvin, but Joseph protests that he is dead and asks if he should bring his remains. The spirit does not answer.

Upon returning to the site, Harris said, “Joseph goes to get the gold Bible, but the spirit says, ‘You did not bring your brother--you cannot have it--look to the stone.’ Joseph looks but cannot see who to bring. The spirit says, ‘I tricked you again--look to the stone.’ Joseph looks & sees his wife.” Joseph married early in 1827, Harris wrote, “and on the 22nd day of Sept. 1927 they get the gold Bible.”

In her book “Mormonism, the Story of a New Religious Tradition,” historian Jan Shipps also raises the possibility that the quest for the gold plates was not just Joseph’s venture but a family effort. Shipps based her conclusion on studying a history by Lucy Smith, which had been criticized and revised by later church leaders.

Family Credentials

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“That the prophet was Joseph was almost coincidental; it might have been Alvin or Hyrum (another brother) just as well, for the book is concerned with presenting the credentials, both religious and secular, of the family ,” wrote Shipps, of the University of Indiana. In the mother’s preliminary manuscript, Shipps wrote, “constant reference is made to the plates having been in the possession of the Smiths, rather than to Joseph’s having had them.”

Shipps also quotes Lucy Smith as saying: “Alvin manifested, if such could be the case, greater zeal and anxiety in regard to the Record that had been shown to Joseph, than any of the rest of the family.”

Alvin’s last words to Joseph before his death, according to the mother, included: “Do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given to you. Your brother Alvin must leave you, but remember the example which he has set for you.”


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