FAIR announced its review of MormonThink.com during its annual conference held the first week of August. A response to that review was recently posted at that site. What follows are some of my observations, which are not necessarily shared by other FAIR volunteers, about the response
MormonThink does a good job at posing questions to their readers to get them to reconsider the plausibility of LDS truth claims. The authors, a coalition of Mormon and ex-Mormon skeptics  (some operating under a cloak of anonymity while accusing the Church of less than complete transparency), find previous faithful attempts by unofficial apologists to answer similar questions “unsatisfactory.” A FAIR review demonstrated that MormonThink’s own predominately negative answers were ill-informed, highly slanted (not objective as advertised), and fail to more than superficially engage faithful answers. MormonThink’s response to FAIR’s rebuttal is a mixed. On one hand, the response shows a commitment to accuracy and correcting some of its more egregious errors. On the other hand, the response justifies its failure to take FAIR more seriously by making an appeal to authority. MormonThink seeks the attention of General Authorities and they believe FAIR is usurping the Brethren’s role. This suggests to me that they are less concerned about answers and more concerned about getting attention for dissent.
While in the future the MormonThink site might correct misinformation and engage Mormon scholarship more adequately, it will likely remain slanted towards convincing their readers to come to negative conclusions about Mormon truth claims. Nevertheless, the response to FAIR’s review is not all that encouraging that the writers will make rapid progress in first two areas. Let us look at a deficient response to one of the questions FAIR reviewed that MormonThink initially posed. The question is in italics, FAIR’s response in bullet points, MormonThink’s rejoinder is blockquoted, and my discussion follows. I invite commenters on this blog to address anything that I fail to in MormonThink’s rejoinder.
If the angel did indeed take back the gold plates and the urim and thummim from Joseph when Martin Harris lost the first 116 pages, he would have returned the urim and thummim to Joseph when he returned the gold plates to him, instead of having Joseph finish the translation using a common stone he found when digging a well.
- If Joseph was perpetuating a scam, why would he use a method—the seer stone in the hat—that would be open to ridicule and misrepresentation? If he could perform the impressive feat of producing the Book of Mormon in two months, why not do it with eyes closed in a solemn voice to impress everyone? There are too many hypothetical points to consider to allow such a criticism carry much weight.
- The critic overlooks the fact that the translation process was also a spiritual growing experience for Joseph. Granted, he initially required the Nephite interpreters and was thrilled with them. But, with practice, his abilities increased to the point that he did not require the use of the physical interpreters or seer stones.
- Joseph did not regard the stone as “common”—he and the early saints referred to both the Nephite interpreters and his other seer stones as Urim and Thummim. Joseph was unable to translate when Martin Harris secretly swapped the seer stone with a common stone.
Staring into a dark hat pulled over one’s face, looking into a rock, could be characterized as “a spiritual growing experience” or it can also raise questions because it looks like a lot of hocus pocus to many intelligent, reasonable and objective investigators. Most of the fair minded and good people in the world would likely agree that it looks like a scam in progress. So it’s a reasonable question and the rock-in-the-hat-process will be subject to ridicule and critical questioning until it can be demonstrated that it is a viable method of translating ancient documents. We are unaware of any credible scholars or linguists who use this method. Church employees who provide translation services indicate that they do not use the rock-in-the-hat-method either.
It is also important to point out that early scribes of J Smith describe his activities as a reader, not a translator. He saw English text on the rock in the bottom of his hat, the plates were never in view, and he dictated English sentences as they appeared. Those who reported this reading method were Emma Hale Smith (wife), Isaac Hale (father-in-law), Michael Morse (brother-in-law), Martin Harris, and Joseph Knight Sr. (For Primary sources and an excellent discussion of this issue, Grant H. Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, Signature Books, pages 2-5, and footnotes).
The responsibility to prove that J Smith was actually translating something is left with the church leaders. At this point, the accumulated evidence after 180 years indicates that there were no golden plates, that Smith translated nothing, and God did not put sentences in English on the rock in his hat. The first edition Book of Mormon provides ample evidence of that, due to the thousands of grammatical errors and contradictions. An admission by Smith that this is true is evidenced by his campaign to clean up the book’s grammar and publish a revised and heavily-edited version in 1837.
Smith’s edited book, from 1830 to the present, has corrected approximately 4,000 errors in: (1) punctuation, (2) uneducated grammar (they was a runnin), (3) editing out obvious mistakes, and (4) changing 2 Nephi 11 to coincide with Smith’s evolving belief system about God. The Book itself is why critics and skeptics wonder why Smith referred to the Book of Mormon as the “most correct book of any on earth.” Thousands of revisions, is not evidence in favor of J Smith’s claims. And investigators should not be belittled if they choose to keep asking “Did J Smith translate golden plates?” It’s a reasonable question.
If God gave J Smith revelations about the ancient Americas, why does the Book of Mormon reflect 19th century American myths about American Indians? Why don’t the large Nephite cities in the Americas turn up Nephite artifacts to support the book’s claims? Why was Smith wrong about America’s language, culture, mode of transportation (horses and chariots), flora and fauna? Why do the errors in the King James Version of the Bible that J Smith used (1796 version), show up in the Book of Mormon? Why do unofficial apologists put BOM geography on coasters to be rolled all over the Americas to try and find a place for them that makes sense? The official authorities say the Bom events occurred exactly where Smith said they did – North and South America.
Apostle Marion G. Romney reminded zealous apologists like FAIR to remember this. “I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting, I drove him home. … When we got to his home I got out of the car and went up on the porch with him. Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.’” (Marion G. Romney, in Conference Report, Oct. 1960, p. 78.) How do you reconcile the counsel from an esteemed apostle with all the errors in the foundational sacred text of Mormonism?
FAIR has no valid reason to complain that members ask legitimate and reasonable questions regarding the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, especially when unofficial answers contradict the answers of the general authorities and past presidents of the church. Most of the humans on the planet who have considered the church’s claims as presented by the missionaries, also find them without merit.
I agree that FAIR shouldn’t complain when legitimate questions are asked. As a volunteer who spends many hours each week answering Ask the Apologist questions, I am concerned with providing faithful and factual answers. I am always looking for ways to improve my ability to help those who have encountered criticism that may shake faith. However when questions assume invalid premises, they are not necessarily legitimate.
In the FAIR review, a corrective was suggested for one such faulty assumption. FAIR pointed out that Joseph did not consider his seer stone “common.” MormonThink defends the question’s premise by arguing that Joseph’s seer stones share more in common with ordinary rocks than with the Nephite interpreters. They point out (using prejudicial, anachronistic language) that the Urim and Thummim  was found in a box and another stone used in translation was found in a well). Later they point out accounts that the box was found by Joseph receiving a vision with the aid of a seer stone. These two data points (its miraculous finding — though MormonThink would have their readers believe it is hocus pocus– and its intentional burial as a relic) suggest that the Nephite interpreters are to be considered uncommon.
However MormonThink has not been thorough in their analysis of the circumstances of which Joseph’s seer stones were found. There are accounts that he miraculously found both his white and brown seer stones through seer stone aided visions . For the brown stone (the stone most attested to in the latter stages of the translation process), there are indications that it was buried as a relic. So while the Nephite interpreters have a more storied history and finding, this criteria MormonThink suggests does not sharply distinguish one set of seer stones as being common in contrast to the other set. Both discovery sequences tend to set both sets above commonly found stones, however.
In arguing against a data point of Martin swapping stones on Joseph caused him to not be able to translate, the MormonThink writers reverse their premise that the stone was common. The stone was apparently distinguishable enough for Joseph to detect the switch at the bottom of a “dark hat” that he reportedly used in a manner to eliminate all outside light. MormonThink also suggests that Joseph may have used the seer stone as a focusing device without addressing why the same would not be true of his use of the Nephite interpreters (if so, by this criteria both devices would be equally common or uncommon.)
I get the impression that the use of the hat is also used to support the notion that a seer stone might be common, in contrast to the interpreters. Accounts are mixed, but the majority that comment on the use of the spectacles in detail also indicate that Joseph put them in a hat to translate as well .
Another distinction that MormonThink appears to make is that the Nephite interpreters were in Moroni’s possession (giving the use of that object a sense of divine approval) while God (or any rational, objective being) would not approve of the use of a seer stone. Later in the response they cite agreement with FAIR to put stock in the accounts that Joseph saw the location of the plates in vision. However they fail to bring up accounts that Moroni instructed Joseph as to the plates’ location .
When they do bring the issue up elsewhere on their site they try to force their readers into forming a false dichotomy between the two data points, whereas FAIR synthesizes the two ideas. The result is that Moroni condoned the Prophet Joseph’s use of a seer stone. Once again, while MormonThink is entitled to their own opinions, they have failed to responsibly engage data and arguments that challenge their position. A more important data point that is ignored is found in accounts that Moroni took possession of Joseph’s seer stones after the loss of the 116 pages (there is one account Joseph got in trouble on another occasion as well). So both the Nephite interpreters and seer stones were in Moroni’s possession and it could thus be argued that both sets of devices were used under Moroni’s supervision and hence both were used with divine approval. Joseph Knight also indicated that Joseph Smith looked into his seer stone to learn who he should marry following Moroni’s command. 
Later the MormonThink response asks why Joseph didn’t use his seer stones to locate the lost manuscript, oblivious to the likelihood that his seer stones had all been taken away. This further illustrates that MormonThink asks questions for the rhetorical purpose of convincing their readers of an absurdity, when the real problem is that the question assumes facts not in evidence. When these types of non-legitimate questions accumulate, it seems clear to me that they are expressly designed to raise doubts and asked not for sake of intellectual exploration. We see very little attempt to answer such questions beyond the citation of a few pages of Grant Palmer’s critical book.
The response acknowledges, but fails to engage the brief response that FAIR offers for Joseph using different objects during the translation process. FAIR response deserves more consideration as does Mark Ashurst-McGee’s A Pathway to Prophethood. Brant Gardner’s FAIR conference address is also a valuable contribution. MormonThink makes no attempt to try to understand why rational, objective people in Joseph Smith’s time would not automatically consider Joseph to be a scam artist. They appeal to presentist values to condemn Joseph Smith. Making comparisons with translations done by modern Church employees in a non sequitar. Modern church employees work with modern languages that they can learn from living people.
The nature of Book of Mormon’s translation as Joseph’s role as a translator is an interesting question to explore, but this is tangential to the originally posed questions. Yes investigators should feel free to ask such a question, but I have seen no indication that MormonThink is equipped to provide answers.
There is a nice body of literature that studies the subject that MormonThink writers show no sign of mastering. In consulting these, they would realize the data point they obtain from Palmer from multiple witnesses is among the least important ones to take into consideration about the translation process. The witnesses can neither report, first hand, what Joseph saw; nor is it likely that he told them given his reservation about describing the process beyond it being done by the gift and power of God. Therefore the accounts of Joseph seeing English text that tightly corresponded to characters on the plates is a matter of conjecture in those accounts.
Much more important is analysis of the received text itself. If Joseph was dictating text, why would the person or mechanism responsible for producing the English text care about punctuation if neither Joseph or his scribe were? Not even Oliver Cowdery, though a school teacher, was concerned much about grammar at the time according to one account . More can be said of Joseph’s use of the word of translation, which had a wider connotation in 1830 or more could be said about speculative models that have been proposed about the translation process. I do not find MormonThink to be a helpful resource for someone investigating these issues.
 While the author of MormonThink’s rejoinder prefers to be considered a skeptic to being considered a critic, it is clear that the result of this professed skepticism is to consistently take a position against the Church of Jesus Christ’s truth claims. The skeptic in me believes that the few exceptions to that trend is primarily a strategy to gain credibility for their overall critical agenda. If MormonThink was truly more of a skeptical than critical site, they would spend a comparable amount of text introspectively scrutinizing their own positions and assumptions.
 MormonThink uses the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably with the Nephite interpreters. They have an article that makes this mistake in analyzing a quote from Lucy Smith and accuse FAIR of contradicting a 2008 manual containing that quote. However, it is clear the early saints sometimes used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to Joseph’s seer stones. One example comes from David Whitmer: “Finally, when Smith had fully repented of his rash conduct, he was forgiven. The plates, however, were not returned, but instead Smith was given by the angel a Urim and Thummim of another pattern, it being shaped in oval or kidney form.” “The Book of Mormon;’ Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3 cited in John Welch as the 93rd of 203 translation accounts in his compilation found in Opening the Heavens. Note this account challenges another premise found in the original question, that of Moroni returning the plates.
 One such account is quoted in Mark Ashurst-McGee’s A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Master’s Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000) p. 202 “Preside[n]t Young also said that the seer stone
which Joseph Smith first obtained He got in an Iron kettle 15 feet under ground. He saw it while looking in another seers stone which a person had. He went right to the spot & dug & found it” Wilford Woodruff’s Journal 5:382-3. Ashurst-McGee introduces and analyzes many other accounts of Joseph finding his seer stones. A summary statement is found on page 198. ” These are the methods Joseph Smith used in his acquisition of seer stones. He looked into a neighbor’s seer stone to find his first seer stone-a brown rock. Then Smith used this stone to find a white stone. This second stone is the well known seer stone that was unearthed on the property of Willard Chase under the pretense of digging a well. Next, at the angel Moroni’s direction, he used his white stone to find the Nephite “interpreters”-a large pair of clear, white, seer stone spectacles. Joseph Smith’s gradual development as a seer can be traced in part through his succession of seer stones and seer stone discoveries.”
 As can be seen by surveying the 203 accounts that Welch has compiled. A few accounts where Joseph is reported to have put the Nephite interpreters in the hat can be found in the FAIR wiki: http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Translation/Method
 The historical synthesis in FAIR wiki is far superior than anything that can be found on MormonThink’s site. See http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Seer_stones
 Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” Brigham Young University Studies 17:1 (August 1976)
 For example the cousin of Pomeroy Tucker the printing shop foreman when the Book of Mormon was published declared “Oliver Cowdery, the scribe of the prophet, was a young man of about twenty-four or twenty-five, about age of Smith. I had never known him previous to my return to Palmyra. He had been a school-teacher in country schools, and I am certain had little or no acquaintance with English grammar at that time.” Stephen S. Harding in Thomas Gregg’s 1890 publication The Prophet of Palmyra