12. Defection of Church Leaders and Scholars
Early Church History
In the early days of the church, there was substantial apostasy among men at the highest ranks of church leadership. These were individuals who knew Joseph intimately and in many cases claimed to have been part of the miraculous events surrounding the founding of the church.
For example, William Law (Second Counselor in the First Presidency) was one of Joseph's staunchest supporters. As evidence of the prophet's corruption accrued, Law became increasingly disillusioned. The final straw occurred when Joseph tried to convince Law's own wife, Jane, to become one of his plural wives. William Law confronted Joseph and threatened that unless he went before the High Council to confess his sins, he would expose his seductions before the whole world (Horace Cummings, Contributor, Salt Lake City, April 1884, Vol. 5, p. 255; Thomas Ford, History of Illinois, p. 322; John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, p. 147; Joseph H. Jackson, Narrative of the Adventures and Experiences of Joseph H. Jackson, pp. 21-22).
Law was only one of several men that ultimately left the church specifically due to Joseph trying to seduce their wives. Others include Dr. Robert D. Foster, who arrived home unexpectedly from a business trip to discover Joseph dining with his wife. His wife later confessed that Joseph had been preaching polygamy and had endeavored to seduce her (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 371). Another example is Hiram Kimball, whose wife Sarah swore in an affidavit:
"Early in 1842 Joseph taught me the principle of marriage for eternity, and the doctrine of plural marriage . . . I asked him to teach it to someone else. He looked at me reprovingly . . . [saying] 'I will not cease to pray for you.'" (Historical Record, Vol. 6, p. 232)
Along with Austin Cowles (formerly the First Counselor in the First Presidency), William Law published accusations of heresy, adultery, and fornication against Joseph in the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor on June 7th, 1844.
Additionally, the Nauvoo Expositor described Joseph's embezzlement of city funds set aside for building the town's temple. Cowles also charged that he had seen "a revelation given through the Prophet" which taught "the doctrine of the plurality of wives" - revealing that Joseph was preaching polygamy, at that time a secret teaching of the Church due to its criminality. Joseph responded by convening the Nauvoo city council and placing the Nauvoo Expositor itself on trial. There were no jury, lawyers, or witnesses for the defense. Joseph proclaimed that the revelation on polygamy referred to in the Nauvoo Expositor:
" . . . was in answer to a question concerning things which transpired in former days, and had no reference to the present time." (Nauvoo Neighbor, June 19, 1844. Words in italics were omitted from the History of the Church when the proceedings were reprinted (see Vol. 6, p. 441).
Joseph then ordered the Nauvoo Expositor's press destroyed along with every issue of the paper that could be found on June 10th, 1844.
The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon were all excommunicated from the church, although Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery later were rebaptized. Joseph Smith called Harris "too mean to mention" and told people that God had called Harris "a wicked man." While David Whitmer never renounced the Book of Mormon, he did regard Joseph a fallen prophet. Cowdery joined a Methodist congregation and announced to his fellow churchgoers the sorrow and shame he felt of his connection with Mormonism. Speaking of the process he and Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon, Cowdery admitted that he sometimes:
" . . . had seasons of skepticism, in which I did seriously wonder whether the prophet and I were men in our sober senses when we would be translating from plates through 'the Urim and Thummim' and the plates not be in sight at all." (Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter-Day Saints (Norton, Ohio, 1839))
That the Three Witnesses were a gullible sort is illustrated by an incident in July, 1837. Joseph had left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find on his return that all three of the Witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. This faction rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone in which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, and Frederick G. Williams, formerly Joseph's First Counselor, became her scribe. The girl seeress would dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations. (See Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, pp. 211-213).
Brigham Young stated:
"...witnesses of the Book of Mormon who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7, p. 164)
Michael Ash stated that the Three Witnesses were honest and that they never denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon:
"Like Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, David Whitmer bore the testimony to the truthfulness of reality of his encounter with the angel and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon until the day he died. Book of Mormon critics have not been able to impugn their testimonies but have instead resorted to character assassination. As history demonstrates, however, the honesty, integrity and reliability of these witnesses confound the critics every bit as much as the testimony of the three witnesses confounds those who refuse to accept the revealed word of God." (Michael R. Ash, The Book of Mormon)
B. H. Roberts (1857-1933)
In 1921, a young man from Salina Utah sent a letter to Apostle James Talmage. The letter contained 5 questions submitted to him by another individual who was investigating the claims of the Book of Mormon. The questions were regarding the likelihood of the book being an ancient and true record. The letter and questions were forwarded to Elder B. H. Roberts, who had studied and written extensively regarding the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Elder Roberts was a scholar and intellectual General Authority for the church (President of the First Quorum of the Seventy). He had compiled and written works on the veracity of the Book of Mormon, as well as the Comprehensive History of the Church. He was known as the great defender of the Book of Mormon.
Elder Roberts set off with the assurance that because the Book of Mormon is true, evidence to the contrary could necessarily be shown to be false or unsubstantiated. His response to the 5 questions was delayed due to finding the difficulties more serious than he had first thought. He wrote President Heber J. Grant and requested a meeting with the First Presidency, 12 Apostles and Council of the Seventy. In this meeting he wanted to present a 141-page typed report in order to garner the collective wisdom of these Brethren, as well as the inspiration of the Lord to find satisfying solutions to the problems presented, both for this young man, and other potential investigators.
Elder Roberts emerged from nearly two full days of interaction with the General Authorities deeply disappointed. His previous dogmatic beliefs and claims of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon had been replaced with painful doubts. He later wrote to President Grant expressing frustration that so much of what was said in the meetings was "utterly irrelevant" and not helpful in resolving the questions. The Brethren, in view of their lack of ability to thoughtfully address the problems presented, responded by bearing their testimonies.
Elder Roberts went on to write extensively (privately and unpublished in his lifetime) about the problematic origins of the Book of Mormon. Ironically, it was while serving as Mission President that he continued his investigations leading to the embarrassing find of remarkable similarities between the Book of Mormon story and Ethan Smith's book View of the Hebrews. Roberts, in a letter to President Grant, presented his new ideas that Joseph Smith possessed an exceptional imagination that warranted his psychological ability to present to the world the Book of Mormon from plates that were not objective, but subjective.
Elder Roberts seems to be soft selling to the church President his belief that the plates weren't real - thus making Joseph a liar. But in his written papers, unpublished until 1985, he shows how he believed Joseph essentially made up the Book of Mormon. Roberts argued that the book View of the Hebrews gave Joseph a skeletal framework from which to base his book. Joseph then filled in the body of the book with experiences, stories and beliefs from the context of his own life and experiences.
Thomas Ferguson received degrees in political science and law, and practiced law in Orinda, California. Ferguson also worked with the F.B.I., but his first love seemed to be trying to prove the Book of Mormon through the study of Mesoamerican archaeology. In 1983, J. Willard Marriot wrote a letter in which he commented concerning Ferguson's dedication to establishing an archaeological base for the Book of Mormon:
"We spent several months together in Mexico looking at the ruins and studying the Book of Mormon archaeology. I have never known anyone who was more devoted to that kind of research than was Tom. I remember when he was with the F.B.I., he would arise at 4:30 or 5:00 AM and read the Book of Mormon and information he could find pertaining to it." (The Messiah in Ancient America, 1987, p. 250)
His wife, Ester, recalled that during their courtship she was sometimes piqued by his passion for the Book of Mormon and once complained to her mother, "I think I'm going out with the Book of Mormon." Throughout their married life Ester staunchly supported her husband's efforts.
As noted further in The Messiah in Ancient America:
"Tom Ferguson first approached the President of Brigham Young University, Howard S. McDonald, about establishing a Department of Archaeology . . . Tom Ferguson was able to convince officials of BYU of the benefit to the University of having such a department . . .
Ferguson devoted a great deal of his life trying to prove the Book of Mormon by archaeology, and was considered by the Mormon people as a great defender of the faith. He wrote at least three books on the subject. He received a grant of $250,000 after meeting with President David O. McKay which funded five years of work searching for archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon (1955-1959).
However, after all of his efforts Ferguson failed to find the evidence he sought:
"Ten years have passed . . . I sincerely anticipated that Book-of-Mormon cities would be positively identified within 10 years - and time has proved me wrong in my anticipation." (Letter from Ferguson dated June 5, 1972)
Following the discovery of the Egyptian Papyri and evidence of strange accounts of the First Vision (from Cheesman and BYU), Ferguson concluded definitively that the church was false. He didn't share this information with his family, seeing the church as having social utility. But the documentation of his personal conclusions is irrefutable. For example, in a letter written Feb. 9, 1976, he gave this advice:
" . . . Mormonism is probably the best conceived myth-fraternity to which one can belong . . . Joseph Smith tried so hard he put himself out on a limb with the Book of Abraham, and also with the Book of Mormon. He can be refuted - but why bother . . . It would be like wiping out placebos in medicine, and that would make no sense when they do lots of good . . .