THE B. H. ROBERTS STORY
The Lord obviously did not intend the Book of Mormon to be an open-and-shut case intellectually, either pro or con. No miracle and no matter of faith is.
No one has ever sensesd this fact more keenly than B. H. Roberts, who for many years was the "lightning rod" among the General Authorities, as he was called upon to take the strikes against and questions about the Book of Mormon and to supply answers wherever he could. Often he had good replies, but sometimes he had none. Today we still do not have all the answers, and we should not expect to have. But we have made considerable progress since B. H. Roberts' day.
The book Studies of the Book of Mormon (edited by Brigham D. Madsen, with a biographical essay be Sterling McMurrin: University of Illinois Press, 1985) publishes three Roberts papers in which he bluntly lists many Book of Mormon "problems" for which he has no answer. The book has raised two main questions. They are dealt with by John W. Welch and Truman G. Madsen in two lengthy reports available on the attached order form. THe first question, to which Welch respons, is to what extent are Roberts' "problems" still problems today? Madsen and Welch then deal with the second question: are the editors telling the whole story when they imply that Roberts abandoned ship?
The first reports shows that Brigham D. Madsen should have brought the modern reader of the Roberts paper up to date on supportive Book of Mormon research since Roberts' day. "In their own words," says Welch, "they recognize the need for this, but then they make little effort to do it." The Welch report then offers an analytic guide to the up-to-date literature, summarizing where a person can go to find answers to most of Roberts' problems. Roberts' main concerns center around these issues:
Indian Origins. Roberts found that most people in his day believed something different than he did about the origins of the American Indians. Most of those opinions, on both sides, are now seen as oversimplificatinos. While Roberts could not reconcile these opinions, there are now logical and plausible explanations for Roberts' questions. See, for example, the recent work of John Sorenson, which the editors of the Roberts papers simply ignore.
Archaeology. Roberts was often asked to respond to questions about pre-Columbian archaeology; however, he did not have many answers at his disposal. Today, though, there is strong evidence answering most of the questions he faced, and valuable and interesting evidence relating to the rest. For example, Roberts could find no evidence of barley in America before Columbus; such samples have since been found.
Absurdities. Roberts found some passages in the Book of Mormon that seemed absurd or erroneous. On closer examination, few of these oddities are problematic. In fact, many end up strengthening the credibility of the Book of Mormon. For example, Roberts did not see how Captain Moroni could wave a "rent" (Alma 46:19 1st ed.) in the air, but in Hebrew that expression is perfectly acceptable.
A Parallel? Lastly, Roberts displays many purported similarities between the Book of Mormon and the Ethan Smith's 1823 View of the Hebrews (VH), which argues that the American Indians were descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes, a common theory widely believed for centuries. Most of the suggested similarities between VH and the Book of Mormon, however, are not so precise or significant as they might appear at first glance. "We have gone back and looked at VH anew," says Welch. "It turns out that the Book of Mormon differs from and even contradicts VH far more than it resembles it. This makes it very hard to believe that Joseph Smith relied on VH to any significant extent." Since many people have pointed to "parallels" between the Book of Mormon and VH, Welch offers 84 "unparallels," such as the following:
VH lists many prophecies about the restoration of Israel, including Deuteronomy 30; Isaiah 11, 18, 60, 65; Jeremiah 16, 23, 30-31, 35-37; Zephaniah 3; Amos 9l Hosea and Joel. These scriptures are essential to the logic and fabric of VH; yet, with the sole exception of Isaiah 11, none of them appear in the Book of Mormon.
VH produces numerous "distinguished Hebraisms" as "proof" that the American Indians are Israelites; however, hardly any of these points are found in the Book of Mormon. For example, VH reports that the Indians are Israelites because they use the word Hallelujah. Here is one of VH's favorite proofs, a dead giveaway that the Indians are Israelites. Yet the word is never used in the Book of Mormon. Nor are 34 other Indian words listed in VH with supposed Hebrew equivalents.
VH says the Indians are Israelites because they carry small boxes with them into battle to protect themselves against injury. This, the book asserts, is a sure sign that the Indians' ancestors knew of the Ark of the Covenant! How could Joseph Smith pass up such a "distinguished and oft-tested" Hebraism as this?! Yet in all the Book of Mormon battle scenes, there is not one hint of any such ark, box, or bag serving as a military fetish.
VH produces "great authority" that the Indians migrated from north to south (an important matter for VH, since it claims that this squares with biblical prophecies). But in the Book of Mormon, all migrations are from the south to the north.
VH argues that the Indians are Israelites because they knew the legends of Quetzalcoatl. But the surprise here is that VH proves beyond doubt that Quelzalcoatl was none other than—not Jesus, but Moses! He was white, gave laws, required penance (strict obedience), had a serpent with green plumage (brazen, fiery flying serpent in the wilderness), pierced ears (like certain slaves under the Law of Moses), appeased God's wrath (by sacrifices), was associated with a great famine (in Egypt), spoke from a volcano (Sinai), walked barefoot (removed his shoes), etc. If VH provided the inspiration for the Book of Mormon, it did not provide much: None of these hallmark-details associated with Quetzalcoatl/Moses are incorporated into the account of Christ's visit to Bountiful in 3 Nephi.
In the face of these differences, the few similarities pale. "Would Joseph have contradicted or ignored VH at virtually every turn if indeed he gave it basic credence as his source?" asks Welch's report.
In the second report, Truman Madsen and John Welch address this question: What did Roberts believe? Roberts was relentless in his statement of the problems mentioned above. In his Study, he stated the case against the Book of Mormon as potently and pugnaciously as possible, usually not offering any proposals for easy ways out. Why was he so tough?
Some suggest that he had lost his faith in the Book of Mormon. But those who say this have a hard time accounting for Roberts' almost obsessive and devoted religious use of the Book of Mormon up to his dying day. (See B. H. Roberts, "His Final Decade: Statements About the Book of Mormon," recently expanded and available on the attached order form.)
Nor will it do to claim that he had a private "doubting" position and a public "orthodox" facade, for Roberts was, if he was anything, intellectually honest and outspoken. It is essential in addressing this problem to determine when Roberts wrote "A Book of Mormon Study." Brigham D. Madsen presents the picture of Roberts privately working hard on this Study for many years after 1922. Facts contained in the very typescripts from which the editors worked, but inexcusably buried and ignored by them, however, prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Roberts wrote the Study in 1922 and returned to it again only to make minor corrections and the outline which he called "A Parallel." After 1922, Roberts served vigorously as mission president in New York, delivered dozens of talks about the Book of Mormon, published the Comprehensive History of the Church (1930), all strongly endorsing the Book of Mormon.
Why, then, is he so tough? To understand this, one must understand Roberts. He loved to debate and knew how to argue a casse in its rawest form. He also believed deeply that by debate much good would emerge. He saw some unresolved problems, and he wanted to state those problems clearly. He also wanted to get the attention of others so they would know of those difficulties and of their seriousness. To have presented the problems any less clearly and dramatically would have been uncharacteristic of Roberts. At the same time he "most humbly prayed" and "most anxiously" awaited the "further development of knowledge that will make it possible for us to give a reasonable answer to those who question us concerning [these] matters" (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 175). To a considerable extent, that development has already occurred.