Although we knew that Mormon scholars were very upset with us, the treatment we received was mild compared with the wrath that rained on some of the church’s own scholars by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). For a number of years it has been evident that many of those associated with FARMS have been very disturbed with Mormon scholars who expressed doubts about the Book of Mormon.
In 1991, FARMS launched a vicious attack against some of the more liberal scholars who were expressing doubts about the historic accuracy of the Book of Mormon. They were accused of being wolves in sheep’s clothing and offering “a Trojan horse” to an unsuspecting Mormon audience. Stephen E. Robinson, chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU, was incensed by the book The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture. He compared the views expressed in the work to those of Korihor, the notorious “Anti-Christ” who was “struck dumb” because of his skepticism.1 Professor Robinson declared:
Korihor’s back, and this time he’s got a printing press. Korihor, the infamous “alternate voice” in the Book of Mormon, insisted that “no man can know of anything which is to come”...In its continuing assault upon traditional Mormonism, Signature Books promotes with its recent and dubiously titled work The Word of God precisely these same naturalistic assumptions of the Korihor agenda in dealing with current Latter-day Saint beliefs….this is a propaganda piece.
For years anti-Mormons have hammered the Church from the outside, insisting that Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints’ scriptures he produced were not what they claimed to be. Whether Signature Books and its authors will convince the Saints of the same hostile propositions by attacking from the inside remains to be seen….What the anti-Mormons couldn’t do with a frontal assault of contradiction, Signature and Vogel would now accomplish with a flanking maneuver of redefinition.
I suppose by now it is clear that I did not like this book….Give me a Walter Martin anytime, a good stout wolf with his own fur on, instead of those more timid or sly parading around in their ridiculous fleeces with their teeth and tails hanging out. Give me ‘Ex-Mormons for Jesus’ or the Moody Bible Tract Society, who are at least honest about their anti-Mormon agenda, instead of Signature Books camouflaged as a ‘Latter-day Saint’ press. I prefer my anti-Mormons straight up.2
The following year, BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson, editor of Review of Books, warned of an “anti-Mormon” movement within the church itself:
We have seen that George D. Smith and Signature Books reject the title ‘anti-Mormons’ … Are ‘anti-Mormons’ mere mythical beasts, the stuff of persecution-fixated Latter-day Saint imaginations? If not, how would we recognize an ‘anti-Mormon’ if we saw one?
Nobody would suggest for a moment that George D. Smith and Dan Vogel fit the traditional ‘anti-Mormon’ mold in all respects. There are a number of differences between them and the late ‘Dr.’ Walter Martin, and between them and the Tanners.
In the past, anti-Mormon attacks almost invariably came from outside the Church; for the most part, they still do. For the first time since the Godbeite movement, however, we may today be dealing with a more-or-less organized ‘anti-Mormon’ movement within the Church. With ‘anti-Mormon Mormons,’ as Robert McKay puts it.
Should we be concerned about the possibility of unwholesome opinions, even enemies, within the Church? Jesus certainly seemed to think that internal enemies were a possibility. ‘Beware of false prophets,’ he said, ‘which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (Matthew 7:15).... So the possibility of enemies among the membership of the Church seems established.3
In 1993 a book was published that caused a great deal of controversy among scholars at BYU and FARMS. They feared that it could have a profound effect on those who believe in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The Mormon scholar Brent Lee Metcalfe, who had formerly served as a missionary for the Mormon Church and later worked for Church Security edited the book New Approaches to the Book of Mormon. Ironically, like us, Metcalfe started out as an apologist for the Book of Mormon. Metcalfe not only believed in the authenticity of the Book, but he also strongly supported the leaders of the church.
Around 1979, after Metcalfe had returned from his mission, he began coming to our bookstore to argue with us about Mormonism. Although he was just a young man at the time, it did not take long for us to realize that he was one of the strongest defenders of the Mormon Church that we had encountered. It was obvious, in fact, that if he kept up his research, he would soon be a formidable opponent.
Unfortunately for Mormon scholars, as Metcalfe continued his research, he began to see serious problems in the Book of Mormon and finally concluded it was not an actual historical account written by the ancient Nephites.
When New Approaches to the Book of Mormon was published, defenders of the Mormon Church realized that they had a very serious problem indeed. Consequently, FARMS reacted with an unprecedented 566-page rebuttal.4 This volume of Review of Books has fourteen authors responding to the ten scholars who wrote essays for New Approaches to the Book of Mormon.
While BYU professor Louis Midgley was very displeased with both Metcalfe and his book, he made this revealing comment about it:
The most imposing attack on the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon has been assembled by Brent Lee Metcalfe… the publication of New Approaches is an important event. It marks the most sophisticated attack on the truth of the Book of Mormon currently available either from standard sectarian or more secularized anti-Mormon sources, or from the fringes of Mormon culture and intellectual life.5
Vern Anderson, a reporter for The Associated Press, noted that the response prepared by FARMS to Metcalfe’s book was rather spiteful in tone:
When Brent Metcalfe compiled a book of essays suggesting that Mormonism’s founding scriptures wasn’t the ancient history it purports to be, he expected some criticism. Nearly a year later, he’s getting it, in a vitriolic volume that exceeds his own book by 100 pages and seeks to expose him as a faith-destroying secularist masquerading, badly, as a well-meaning pursuer of historic truth…“Pseudo-pious,” “shoddy pseudoscholarship,” “deceptive and specious” and “distorted” are just some of the barbs aimed at Metcalfe and other contributors to New Approaches to the Book of Mormon… Metcalfe and the nine other essayists in New Approaches — most of them at least nominal Mormons — place the Book of Mormon squarely in the 19th century. Most, including Metcalfe, see it as entirely Smith’s creation. A few agree it is frontier fiction but believe it contains inspired truths. The essayists question the book’s authenticity on a variety of levels — textual, archaeological, demographic and linguistic.6
As the battle between liberal Mormon scholars and those supporting FARMS intensified, some of the rhetoric became very harsh. Metcalfe became a special target of ad hominem attacks by Mormon scholars.
For example, BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson ridiculed Metcalfe for what he perceived to be his gullibility in promoting the documents forged by Hofmann. However, in his attempt to castigate Metcalfe, Peterson failed to tell his readers that the Mormon Church itself bought many of Hofmann’s documents and church leaders supported him until the very end. Furthermore, some top church scholars validated the forged documents. How, then, can Peterson single out Metcalfe for failing to detect Hofmann’s deceit? One would think that Peterson would be far more concerned that the leaders of the church, who are supposed to be inspired by God to detect evil conspiracies, would fall for Hofmann’s deception.
W. Peterson, who serves on the FARMS’ Board of Directors also didn’t tell his readers that FARMS was involved with promoting Hofmann’s forged documents. These scholars accepted the Salamander Letter as an authentic document, but they went much further. Although the Letter contained a devastating blow to the Mormon Church, FARMS scholars became apologists for it. They whitewashed its contents so that it would appear acceptable to the Mormon people. In a FARMS Update entitled Moses, Moroni, and the Salamander, we find the following:
Martin Harris’ letter [the Salamander Letter]...has dismayed some people. Harris talks of a “white salamander” which was “transfigured” into “the spirit” otherwise known to us as the Angel Moroni… as new research is showing, the salamander has been thought for millennia to have supernatural and extraordinary powers.
Obviously, much has changed culturally since 1830. Some of us may wince at the suggestion that an angel of God should be associated with, or described as, a salamander. But to people then, no image or description would better fit the appearance of a brilliant white spiritual being, once a valiant soldier, now dwelling in a blazing pillar of light, shockingly pure and glorious, speaking with the voice of God while flying through the midst of Heaven, than the salamander! Moroni should be flattered.
Still, it was predictable that people would not understand this.7
While Metcalfe recognized that the contents of the Salamander Letter discredited the Book of Mormon, FARMS scholars claimed that it provided additional support for the Book. The “Church” section of the Mormon newspaper, Deseret News,8 printed this:
The recently discovered Martin Harris letter…adds evidence to support Harris’ account of his interview with Prof. Charles Anthon, according to researchers at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).
John W. Welch, president of the foundation, said the phrase “short hand Egyptian” is a scholarly term that Harris probably would not have learned on his own.
“The phrase almost certainly came from Anthon,” declared Welch. “It is a very precise term that was used by scholars in the 1820s and would have been known to just a few students of ancient languages…it is highly unlikely that the phrase was part of Harris’ vocabulary.”
In the FARMS publication, Why Might a Person in 1830 Connect an Angel With a Salamander?,9 the staff reported that they had found “further evidence in favor of the authenticity of the [Salamander] Letter” in the portion of the Letter that mentioned short hand Egyptian. Actually, the appearance of these words in the Salamander Letter did not help establish its authenticity. On the contrary, it only demonstrated that the forger of the Letter plagiarized these words from a letter by W. W. Phelps, which was published in Mormonism Unveiled.
In our opinion, FARMS’ academically suspect response to the Salamander scandal raises the question of how far its researchers will go to save Joseph Smith. The fact that they tried so desperately to explain away the obviously occult implications of the Salamander Letter casts serious doubt on the legitimacy of their findings, as well as their scholarship on a whole.