A Summary of Five Reviews of Grant Palmer’s “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” (with a Few Comments of My Own)
by George E. Cobabe
No, Grant, that’s not history–and it was certainly not written with “…balanced scholarship and academic integrity.”1
This pretty well sums up the central theme of five different scholarly reviews of Grant H. Palmer’s book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.2 The purpose of this article is not to duplicate the existing reviews and answer the many objections to Palmer’s book, but to summarize and point to the five reviews as a source for the answers. The five reviews are:
- “Trustworthy History?” written by Steven C. Harper and found in FARMS Review (Vol. 15, Issue 2). Steven C. Harper (Ph.D., Lehigh University) is assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. This review identifies many sources, scholars and issues that Palmer simply ignores. Harper focuses primarily on how Palmer manipulates evidence regarding Mormon origins.3
- “The Charge of a Man with a Broken Lance (But Look What He Doesn’t Tell Us)” written by Davis Bitton and found in FARMS Review (Vol. 15, Issue 2). Davis Bitton (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Utah and served for ten years as assistant Church historian. This review identifies sources, scholars, and issues that Palmer simply ignores.4
- “Prying into Palmer” written by Louis Midgley and found in FARMS Review (Vol. 15, Issue 2). Louis C. Midgley (Ph.D., Brown University) is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Brigham Young University. In his review, Midgley looks at the history of the writing of this book and Palmer’s employment history with the Church Education System. He also effectively debunks Palmer’s assertions concerning parallels between the book The Golden Pot and Joseph Smith’s history.5
- “A One-sided View of Mormon Origins” written by Mark Ashurst-McGee and found in FARMS Review (Vol. 15, Issue 2). Mark Ashurst-McGee is a graduate student at Arizona State University and is an associate editor of the Papers of Joseph Smith at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. He won the Reese Award for the best thesis in Mormon History in 2001 for his work on Joseph Smith. In this review Ashurst-McGee looks at Palmer’s primary points and responds to each argument showing that conclusions supporting Joseph Smith are entirely reasonable and usually more so than Palmer’s assertions.6
- “Asked and Answered: A Response to Grant H. Palmer” written by James B. Allen and found in FARMS Review (Vol. 16, Issue 1). James B. Allen (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is professor of history emeritus, senior research fellow, Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-Day Saint History at Brigham Young University, and former assistant Church historian. In this review, Allen looks at Palmer’s book as a believing scholar. He considers many of the points Palmer’s tries to make and shows that a believing perspective is just as valid as a doubting viewpoint. He persuasively suggests that all of the various points that Palmer brings up have already been “asked and answered.” A shorter version of this review is found in BYU Studies (Vol. 42, Issue 2).
The complete text of these reviews can be found on the web at www.farms.byu.edu under the subheading of The FARMS Review.
Several of the major points covered in these reviews are considered in the following sections.
The Insider’s View
Palmer’s claim to be an “insider” is not justified by the evidence. He presents no evidence of having any special status as an “insider” to the Church or Church history. In fact, he presents no reason for anyone to assume that he has attained this status. Midgley tells how, when Palmer was confronted with his assertion of special status, he blamed his publisher for including the claim in the title, and seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by the action. He indicated that the publisher changed the name of the book to include the idea of insider status for “sales purposes.”7
Furthermore, Palmer makes no effort to include any sources that would indicate he was any sort of special insider. He consistently provides sources from recognized anti-Mormons, which would only serve to justify the conclusion that the only groups Palmer could claim “insider status” with are the critics of the Church.
Palmer also implies that there are those within the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute that agree with his version of Mormon origins. A statement from that institute, responding to Palmer, clearly refutes that this is the case. You can find this statement as part of FARMS Review (Vol. 15, Issue 2) at http://farms.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=15&num=2&id=510
The Book’s Genesis
Even while claiming special status as an “insider” and as a faithful member of the Church, and while having employment with the Church Education System, Palmer worked on this critical book for twenty years.
In 1985 a Hofmann forgery known as the Salamander letter became public. Midgley shows how this letter affected Palmer’s faith. When Palmer became aware of the book The Golden Pot, he saw parallels between the Salamander letter and the fictional story. Palmer saw in this connection a secular explanation for the origins of Mormonism.
When the true nature of the Salamander letter as a forgery became known, Palmer was apparently unwilling to rethink his position and thereby remained bereft of faith. He apparently began writing his book during this time, as in 1987 Midgley came into possession of an early draft. Palmer first used the name Paul Pry, Jr., a pseudonym also used by an early anti-Mormon writer active in the 1800s. Midgley indicated that “[b]y hiding behind the name Paul Pry, Palmer signaled his anti-Mormon agenda in the first draft of his book.”8
The evidence indicates Palmer turned from his faith based on a Mark Hofmann forgery and E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale, and then wrote this book to justify his new found beliefs. Palmer wrote his book with the goal of publishing it even as he maintained the fiction of being a believer in order to maintain his employment with the Church. He waited until he had retired to bring the book forward for publication. How can this be considered the work of a faithful “insider” in the Church?
New Mormon History
Palmer has an incorrect view of what constitutes “New Mormon History” and uses the idea to incorrectly interpret Mormon history. Harper says that Palmer “…shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what he calls ‘New Mormon History.’ … The incongruence between Palmer’s approach and New Mormon History is striking.”9 There is not much new in Palmer’s approach or with his ideas. “Though he promises to present the findings of New Mormon History, his accounts and findings are merely the latest in the long line of polemical accounts of the Latter-day Saint past.”10
Ashurst-McGee notes that “Historian D. Michael Quinn finds the essence of the New Mormon History in its ‘effort to avoid using history as a religious battering ram.’”11 Whereas, in the past, it has been the stance of most LDS historical writings to take a stand for or against the Church, it is the purpose of “New Mormon History” to avoid that approach. It is clear that Palmer has failed that test and really makes no attempt to meet the standard of New Mormon History.
Palmer consistently presents only one side of a question and only uses evidence that supports his views. He consistently avoids evidence that would be contrary to his point of view.
Harper indicates that Palmer is “guilty of censorship and repeatedly privileges late hearsay over early eye-witness accounts.” This is the case even though the more reliable early accounts are “more affirming of Joseph Smith’s integrity than Palmer claims.”12
Midgley says that Palmer makes no attempt to present a full body of information, rather Palmer “suggests that what he is presenting is a kind of summary of a widely held consensus. But this is simply not true.”13 He also points out that the absence of citations contrary to Palmer’s view is not for a lack of material, as there are ample sources available. The absence of such materials in Palmer’s bibliography shows that he is “either misleading or perhaps badly informed on the topics he treats.”14
Ashurst-McGee makes the observation that “[a]s a historian, I find that the book fails to follow the basic standards of historical methodology.”15 While it may sound as though this is “picking at nits” there is an important point that needs to be understood: In writing history the purpose of the methodology employed is to provide credibility to the author. When the proper methodology is used the reader can be reasonably confident that the author has examined both sides of the question and presented them both fairly. There is nothing wrong with coming to a conclusion and arguing a particular point of view, but it must be presented fairly. Again, it is this test that Palmer fails rather spectacularly.
Allen observes that “highly respected Latter-day Saint scholars have examined the same evidence and drawn different conclusions” than those presented by Palmer. Allen said that he would “not attempt…to answer all the problems raised by Palmer; [as] a few examples will illustrate the kind of faulty speculation, incomplete evidence, and misleading ‘parallels’ that plague his book.”16
The Golden Pot
Palmer asserts that early Mormon history was based on a fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffman’s entitled The Golden Pot. Yet there are very few similarities between the story and the history, even as Palmer relates them.
Hoffman’s Der golden Topf was first published in German in 1814 and then made available by Thomas Carlyle in English in 1827 under the title The Golden Pot. An online version can be found at www.horrormasters.com/Text/a0355.pdf17
After going through a rather detailed examination of some of the claims of Palmer relating to the similarities between the two, Midgley makes the observation that “Every claim that Palmer makes concerning parallels between Hoffmann’s weird tale and the story of the restoration is just as tenuous and problematic–just as forced or contrived–as is his claim that there is translation of an ancient history being described in that tale.”18
Allen points out that the comparisons between The Golden Pot and Joseph’s story are forced, “that is, they are presented in such a way that the context in ‘The Golden Pot’ is distorted and the comparison with Joseph Smith’s story is contrived.”19
Palmer asserts that the Holy Ghost is an “unreliable means of proving truth.”20 Palmer presents himself as a faithful Mormon whose “intent is to increase faith, not diminish it.”21 Yet he denies the very basis of a faithful LDS testimony–the spiritual witness that the gospel is true. This is not something that lends itself to argument as it is something that is experienced on a very personal level. However, if you have received such a testimony you will recognize the fallacy in Palmer’s argument. It is hard to see how denying the testimony of the Holy Ghost can increase faith.
As Allen points out, “If one looks at the story [of the restoration] through the eyes of faith and assumes that the gold plates were real, an equally or perhaps even more ‘plausible scenario’ emerges.”22 There is simply no reason to deny the testimony of the Spirit or to fail to examine the history of the Church from a believers’ perspective.
The Believers’ Perspective
Palmer denies the value of the believers’ perspective, while the reviewers consistently say that the perspective is to be valued and has greater value and consistency than does Palmer’s.
Allen, informally representing all five reviewers, said: “Those who genuinely seek the truth will read not only the works of the naysayers, who obviously look at the evidence through the eyes of disbelief, but also the works of LDS scholars who look at it through the eyes of faith and whose works are readily available to those who want to find them.”23
Secular Explanations for Divine Events
Palmer considers other, secular historical events. He attempts to justify alternative explanations and conclusions to the generally accepted version of Mormon history and origins. These are treated one by one, chapter by chapter, in the various reviews. It is beyond the scope of this short article to do anything more than acknowledge the effectiveness of the answers given by the reviewers. Please read the reviews for further information about each point.
The reviews summarized have effectively shown many of the weaknesses of Palmer’s assertions and have dealt effectively with the lack of similarities between The Golden Pot and early Mormon origins. There is, however, one aspect of his fantastic assertions which has not been noted by any of the reviewers–the implied assumptions inherent in the alleged acceptance of the The Golden Pot story by Joseph Smith. To believe Palmer’s version of history you must subscribe to the following scenario (or something very similar) with all its assumptions.
Der golden Topf was first published in Europe in the German language in 1814 and 1819. It was published in French in 1822.24 It was not available in English until 1827 in London and Edinburgh,25 and became available in America that same year. According to Palmer, a man by the name of Luman Walters lived in Paris after the story had been first published and when the story would have been available to him. Palmer suggests, although he offers no real evidence, that Mr. Walters had an unusual interest in the occult and things magical and therefore would surely (despite a lack of evidence) have brought Der golden Topf with him from Europe. Mr. Walters moved to Sodus, New York,26 about 25 miles from Palmyra, and lived there at least during the period of 1820 to 1823 when it is suggested that he likely knew Joseph Smith.27 Walters and Joseph Smith were part of a group involved in digging for treasure at Miner’s Hill, owned by Abner Cole.
According to Palmer, Luman Walters became acquainted with Joseph Smith during this period, and was thought to be the “most likely conduit”28 for The Golden Pot to be made available to Joseph Smith. Abner Cole and others claimed that it was during this period the “idea of a ‘book’ [The Book of Mormon?] was doubtless suggested to the Smiths by one Walters, although they make no direct connection with ‘The Golden Pot.’”29
Even as Palmer points to the relationship between Walters and Joseph Smith as a reason to accept The Golden Pot as the basis for early Mormon history, he fails to mention that Brigham Young noted that Walters “rode over sixty miles three times the same season they [the gold plates] were obtained by Joseph” in an effort to obtain the plates for himself.30 This hardly sounds like a man who had convinced Joseph to concoct the story of the plates based on some fictional story. Either Walters believed the plates were real or knew they were not because of his part in formulating the plan of deception. His desire to obtain them certainly suggests the former and negates the latter. Even this does not establish that Joseph and Walters were acquainted; only that Walters knew about Joseph Smith.
In 1820 Joseph Smith received a visit from God the Father and Jesus Christ. Yet Palmer claims that Joseph received the idea of this divine visit from conversations with Luman Walters sometime during the period 1820-1823. This means that Joseph Smith was chosen by Mr. Walters from a town 25 miles from his own (a significant distance in the 1820s), and was convinced, apparently rather quickly, by virtue of a story Walters related (from the German or the French version as the English version was not available until 1827) to formulate a lifelong plan of deception. Palmer never does claim that Joseph ever read the book, only that Walters shared the story with him. Joseph was 15-18 years old at the time, and yet we are to believe that Walters convinced him to adapt and concoct a story that would follow in some crude manner the outline of this fictional book. Somehow Walters convinced this young man, whom he had known for a relatively short time, to commit to living this lie for the rest of his life. Furthermore Walters had Joseph backdate the beginning event to an earlier year and then begin immediately the deception that would become the central focus of his entire life. This plan had to be followed in spite of the persecution that immediately came into the Prophet’s life because of the very nature of the story.
Not only did the young Joseph need to commit to this path, it also had to be enthusiastically accepted and followed by his trusting family. According to this scenario his family must have seen some virtue in doing so, although no evidence is given as to what they hoped to gain from this action. Surely at that time they would have had a challenge seeing any economic advantage to the tale. Either that, or Joseph was able to immediately take the story verbally related to him (as he was unable to read it in the German or French), make the personal commitment needed, and then quickly convince his family that it was true and that God had, indeed, visited him a few years ago and that he had just forgot to mention it.
Kind of hard to imagine isn’t it?
Furthermore we are to believe that Joseph Smith managed to follow this plan in a consistent manner for the next 20+ years and to give his life in the cause of the concocted story.
We are also required to accept the critic’s common accusation that Joseph Smith was lazy and shiftless, and still acknowledge that he was yet able, at a young age, to commit to a life that would tax his very being. Certainly if we are to believe The Golden Pot scenario we could at least remove the lazy and shiftless label from the young Joseph. However, we all know his critics will not likely allow this to happen anytime soon.
Palmer would have us believe that a young, gullible boy would be turned into an aggressive, effective charlatan, in a very short time, after being told a fictional tale by a relative stranger–and that this boy’s family would give him complete support in his fabrication. The very nature of this assertion would make someone with any sort of reasoning ability cringe at the thought that someone might actually believe Palmer’s fantastic tale. Surely we need to go back to some of the time honored alleged sources, although thoroughly discredited, for the Book of Mormon and resurrect the Spaulding Manuscript or the View of the Hebrews, for even as poorly supported as those arguments are, they are much more believable than the story of The Golden Pot.
Sorry Grant, this just isn’t creditable history. Not even close!
1 James B. Allen, “Asked and Answered: A Response to Grant H. Palmer,” FARMS Review 16:1 (2004), 235.
2 Grant H. Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002).
3 Allen, “Asked and Answered,” 235-236, n. 1.
7 Louis Midgley, “Prying into Palmer,” FARMS Review 15:2 (2003), 408.
9 Steven C. Harper, “Trustworthy History?,” FARMS Review 15:2 (2003), 275.
11 Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A One-sided View of Mormon Origins,” FARMS Review 15:2 (2003), 311.
12 Harper, “Trustworthy History?,” 278.
13 Midgley, “Prying into Palmer,” 401.
14 Ibid., 402.
15 Ashurst-McGee, “A One-sided View of Mormon Origins,” 312.
16 Allen, “Asked and Answered,” 236.
17 Midgley, “Prying into Palmer,” 369, n. 14.
18 Ibid., 395.
19 Allen, “Asked and Answered,” 266.
20 Palmer, An Insider’s View, 133.
21 Ibid., ix. See also Allen, “Asked and Answered,” 238.
22 Allen, “Asked and Answered,” 249.
23 Ibid., 285.
24 Palmer, An Insider’s View, 141.
25 Ibid., 138.
26 Ibid., 139.
27 Ibid., 142.
28 Ibid., 141.
29 Ibid., 142.
30 Allen, “Asked and Answered,” 261 and Brigham Young, “The Priesthood and Satan, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 18 February 1855, Vol. 2 (London: Latter-Day Saint’s Book Depot, 1855), 180.