Tuesday, June 11, 2013

No Middle Ground on the Book of Mormon: An Earlier View

In 1899 Lily Dougall published a novel about Joseph Smith entitled, The Mormon Prophet. In the preface to her book, the writer explained her views of Joseph Smith as portrayed in her fictional tale. Rejecting earlier attempts to attribute the Book of Mormon to outright “conscious invention,” she offered what she felt was a more sympathetic explanation. “Smith,” she reasoned, “was genuinely deluded by the automatic freaks of a vigorous, but undisciplined brain, and that, yielding to these, he became confirmed in the hysterical temperament which always adds delusion to self-deception, and to self-deception half-conscious fraud.” Anticipating subsequent psychological explanations of more recent critics, Dougall attributed the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s religious experiences to unspecified mental maladies of which the Prophet may have been either partially or completely unaware (Lily Dougall, The Mormon Prophet, 1899, vii).

Brigham H. Roberts, a Latter-day Saint leader, and one of the seven Presidents of the Church's First Council of Seventy, reviewed Miss Dougall’s book for the New York Times Saturday Review.

He characterized Dougall’s theory as an attempt to find a psychological “middle ground” that avoided the prophet/fraud dichotomy. While appreciative of the kindlier tone of her work, in comparison to others, Roberts explained that Dougall’s position was “utterly untenable.”

“The facts in which Mormonism had its origin are of such a character that they cannot be resolved into delusion or mistake. Either they were truth or conscious Simon-Pure invention. It is not possible to place the matter on middle ground. Joseph Smith was either a true prophet or a conscious fraud or villain. Had his religion found its origin in the visions of his own mind, without any connection with material objects, as was the case with Emanuel Swedenborg, then there would have been room for Miss Dougall’s theory;  but the facts in which Mormonism had its origin had to do with quite a different order of things.”

Why is this? The Book of Mormon “was no visionary book–no mere creation of an overwrought brain–but actual substance, sensible to touch as to sight, consisting of golden plates, with length breadth and thickness. Each plate was about seven by eight inches in dimension, and somewhat thinner than common tin; the whole bound together by rings made a volume some six inches in thickness.” Joseph Smith claimed to have handled these plates and others (the three and eight witnesses) saw and handled them also. “It cannot be said that Joseph Smith and these men were self-deceived in such things: not even the `automatic freaks of a vigorous but undisciplined brain’ could delude itself in such matters. The Book of Mormon plates had an existence, and Joseph Smith and others who testified to the fact saw and handled them, or they were conscious frauds and lied and conspired to deceive.” This physicality was just as true with other revelatory experiences associated with the restoration. Resurrected personages actually laid their hands upon the head of Joseph Smith. “There was no chance for self-delusion or mistake to enter into such transactions, and no theory based upon the idea of Joseph Smith being confirmed in hysterical temperament can explain away these stubborn facts, however well-intentioned or skillfully worked out.”

B. H. Roberts, “`The Mormon Prophet’: Congressman Robert’s Views of Miss Dougall’s Novel,” New York Times Saturday Review 23 (September 1899).