Many have already commented on this talk, and deservedly so. Faithful members of the church have generally responded quite favorably to it, though not without some dissenters who were alarmed by the talk's strident tone. Ex-Mormons and Post-Mormons have had a decidedly negative reaction. LDS friends of mine gushed about it on their Facebook status updates, and the faithful LDS blogs were equally Morgasmic over it. I think the primary reason so many faithful members responded to the message with such delight is not the content of the sermon, which was pretty light on substance, actually, but because of the manner in which it was delivered. Even zealously faithful Mormons acknowledge that General Conference addresses often have a soporific effect. The typical delivery of the septuagenarian and octogenarian male speakers is slow and plodding and monotonous; the female speakers often speak in a grating, sickly sweet sing-songy style. It is unusual for Mormon speakers to employ a lot of inflection in their voices, or to engage in exaggerated gestures. It is rare for a Mormon apostle to raise his voice in a General Conference address. So the fact that Elder Holland was clearly agitated, perhaps even angry as he nearly shouted some of the lines of his sermon, and the fact that he emphasized his points with arm-waving I think woke up a lot of the people who were zoning out rather than tuning in to General Conference. Any sign that these guys actually have a pulse is enough to invigorate the faithful, it seems. The odd (for Mormons) manner of his delivery is one reason I chose to embed the video here rather than just cut and paste from segments of the text. Watch the video with the sound turned down. Elder Holland really does have an angry countenance as he delivers his message.
At the beginning of this post, I made three statements about Elder Holland's address. I said that it was rife with lies, logical fallacies, and emotional and psychological manipulation. I now take each of those assertions in turn. First, the lies. Elder Holland makes factual assertions that simply are not accurate. He also tells a number of half-truths, in keeping with the LDS church's stated policy of only sharing facts that show their prophets in a positive light. Elder Holland omits numerous details about the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and about the events leading up to the deaths of Hyrum and Joseph Smith at Carthage. Elder Holland also misleads the audience about the prop he carries with him--the copy of the Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith allegedly read from shortly before the death of him and his brother. Now, let's go through the sermon and count the lies and omissions:
1. The Lies
Elder Holland starts his address by citing a story from the Book of Mormon familiar to all Mormons, that of Lehi's dream. From the Book of Mormon (partially quoted by Elder Holland), 1 Nephi 8:4-28:
But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you; for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.
And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.
And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go.
And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit.
And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them.
And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
Elder Holland quotes from a portion of this story from the Book of Mormon. It is a curious choice, because Elder Holland, who later in his address will mock those who question the Book of Mormon's authenticity, fails to mention to his audience that this story from the Book of Mormon was plagiarized--from Joseph Smith's own father!
Joseph Smith's mother, on whom Mormon historians rely extensively for information about the early years of Joseph Smith and the early days of the establishment of the LDS church, wrote the following about a dream that Joseph Smith, Sr. had in 1811--nine years before the earliest date asserted for the First Vision, sixteen years before Joseph Smith is said to have received the gold plates from an angel, and eighteen years before the Book of Mormon was published:
In 1811, we moved from Royalton, Vermont, to the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Soon after arriving here, my husband received another very singular vision, which I will relate:
"I thought," said he, "I was traveling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing, before I went any further. So I asked myself, 'What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?' My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, 'This is the desolate world; but travel on.' The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it; for, said I to myself, 'Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and straight is the gate that leads to everlasting' life, and few there be that go in thereat.'
Traveling a short distance farther, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the termination; but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, 'I can not eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.' Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.
While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.
I presently turned to my guide, and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. 'No,' he replied, 'look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.' Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children, standing some distance off. I immediately went to them, and brought them to the tree; upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees, and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.
After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building which I saw. He replied, 'It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.'
I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy."
Elder Holland then segues from the plagiarized story at the beginning of the Book of Mormon to a whitewashed account of the final days of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. He begins the story with a lie:
The Smith brothers certainly knew that they faced a challenging and dangerous situation. But did they "know" they faced "an imminent martyrdom" as Elder Holland so dramatically and emphatically declares? The historical record is mixed, but a few facts not mentioned by Elder Holland suggest that Joseph Smith had no intention of dying a "martyr's" death at Carthage. First among these was his securing of two pistols, which he used in the gun fight that resulted in his death. Elder John Taylor, who became the third President of the LDS church, wrote in the official History of the Church that:
May I refer to a modern “last days” testimony? When Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum started for Carthage to face what they knew would be an imminent martyrdom . . . .
Elder Cyrus H. Wheelock came in to see us, and when he was about leaving drew a small pistol, a six-shooter, from his pocket, remarking at the same time, "Would any of you like to have this?" Brother Joseph immediately replied, "Yes, give it to me," whereupon he took the pistol, and put it in his pantaloons pocket.... I was sitting at one of the front windows of the jail, when I saw a number of men, with painted faces, coming around the corner of the jail, and aiming towards the stairs....
I shall never forget the deep feeling of sympathy and regard manifested in the countenance of Brother Joseph as he drew nigh to Hyrum, and, leaning over him, exclaimed, "Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!" He, however, instantly arose, and with a firm, quick step, and a determined expression of countenance, approached the door, and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed died." (History of the Church, Vol. 7, p. 100, 102 & 103)
If Joseph Smith knew he was going to be killed, why did he have a gun delivered to him? Why did he discharge his weapon? Certainly, Elder Holland knows about this because he cites to the History of the Church elsewhere in his talk.
But that is not all Elder Holland fails to mention. He makes no mention of the fact that on the day Joseph and Hyrum were killed, Joseph sent for the Nauvoo Legion to come break them out of jail. Nothing in the historical record indicates that Joseph Smith thought, on the morning of June 27, 1844 when he had a letter smuggled out of the jail to the Nauvoo Legion, that they would fail to rescue him. In fact, just the opposite: the historical record is clear that Joseph Smith thought the mob that was coming to kill him was the Nauvoo Legion coming to his rescue:
The morning of 27 June, Smith sent an order (in his own handwriting) to Major-General Jonathan Dunham to lead the Nauvoo Legion in a military attack on Carthage "immediately" to free the prisoners. Dunham realized that such an assault by the Nauvoo Legion would result in two blood baths - one in Carthage and another when anti-Mormons (and probably the Illinois militia) retaliated by laying siege to Nauvoo for insurrection. To avoid civil war and the destruction of Nauvoo's population, Dunham refused to obey the order and did not notify Smith of his decision. One of his lieutenants, a former Danite, later complained that Dunham "did not let a single mortal know that he had received such orders (from Smith). "[Later that same day] Around 5 p.m., more than 250 men approached the Carthage Jail. When informed of this by the panicky jailer, Joseph Smith replied: "Don't trouble yourself, they have come to rescue me." (D. Michael Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p. 141).
Elder Holland then mentions that Hyrum Smith read from the Book of Mormon in an effort to comfort his brother. To add dramatic emphasis, he makes this claim:
Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die. I hold in my hand that book, the very copy from which Hyrum read, the same corner of the page turned down, still visible.
It seems Elder Holland was, at the very least, exaggerating. He was, indeed, holding an early edition of the Book of Mormon, with a page flipped down, that may have been the one Hyrum Smith had with him at Carthage. The problem is that the LDS church has previously identified a different book as "the very copy from which Hyrum read." See this story from the LDS Church News and the discussion of the topic at the PostMormon discussion board for more. Now, this may seem a small matter, but watch the video and see how sincerely and emphatically Elder Holland attests to the fact that he is carrying the "very copy from which Hyrum read." And then compare it to the emotional verve with which he testifies about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. It is the same. If you feel all warm and fuzzy from his declaration (which was false) regarding the book he held in his hand, perhaps it should give one pause about using those warm and fuzzy feelings to determine the truth of that which he is asserting elsewhere. If he lies so emphatically and effectively about these little things, what about the big things to which he "bears solemn witness"?
Next, Elder Holland engages in hyperbole. What he says is patently ridiculous. Here it is:
For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands.
He really cannot be serious. Only in the bizarre bubble world in which this Baron of Bluster lives could someone really think that the Book of Mormon has been more assiduously criticized than the Bible or the Qu'ran. Elder Holland has a Ph.D. from Yale University. He knows better than this. And what does he mean, exactly, by the phrase "And still it stands"? In the sense that there are some few souls among the population of the earth who believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary? Sure, I will give it that. But by that criteria, he should accept the Qu'ran, which has been far more "examined and attacked" and "stands" in a far stronger position than the Book of Mormon, with over 1.5 billion believers compared to Mormonism's fewer than 10 million.
For our next lie from Elder Holland, we get this gem:
Witnesses, even witnesses who were for a time hostile to Joseph, testified to their death that they had seen an angel and had handled the plates.
Let's examine this in a little more detail than what Elder Holland gave in his General Conference address (and in more detail than what the LDS church has ever given in any of the materials it has produced over the years discussing the testimonies of the so-called Three Witnesses. Elder Holland certainly gives the impression that the Three Witnesses (David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris) never wavered in their testimonies. The historical record, though, contradicts this myth perpetuated by Elder Holland. Some facts about the Three Witnesses that Elder Holland fails to mention are found at Mormon Think and this page here. Elder Holland either is ignorant of these facts (and, given his educational level, the position he holds, his past correspondence with church critics, and the ease with which these facts are obtained), or he is deliberately misleading his audience. Why does he not mention that all three witnesses left the church, that they were not simply "for a time hostile to Joseph" but that they actually left the church, condemned Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet, sustained men other than Brigham Young as the true Prophet after Joseph's death, joined other churches, qualified their testimonies by saying that they had beheld the plates and angel with their "spiritual eyes" or the "eye of faith," were literally cursed by Mormon leaders, robbed by their fellow Mormons who drove them out of town, etc.? (not all three did all of these things, but each of these things applies to at least one of the Three Witnesses). I think Elder Holland is deliberately leaving a false impression with his audience, a false impression reinforced by all the lesson materials the LDS church produces concerning the Three Witnesses. The numerous facts in the historical record that call into question the veracity of the Three Witnesses and the reliability of the testimony that is found in every Book of Mormon are never discussed in a church setting. I can understand why--the real history is embarrassing and is not faith promoting. But rather than lie about the Three Witnesses, perhaps Elder Holland would better serve the cause of truth by simply neglecting to mention them at all.
Finally, nearly fifteen minutes into the talk, we get a true statement from Elder Holland:
Now, I did not sail with the brother of Jared in crossing an ocean, settling in a new world.
No doubt. It is interesting to me that Elder Holland mentions perhaps the most ludicrous story in the entire Book of Mormon in an address in which he is trying to persuade people of the literal authenticity of the book as an ancient history translated by the gift and power of God. The story of the sailing of the brother of Jared (whose name Joseph Smith allegedly had miraculously revealed to him as "Mahonri Moriancumr") is analyzed in this brilliant piece by Dr. Kent Ponder. No, Elder Holland did not sail with the brother of Jared. And neither did anyone else. And I didn't accompany Frodo up Mount Doom, either.2. Logical Fallacies
Well, I have spent enough time on the lies and misrepresentations made by Elder Holland in his talk. Now let's look at the logic of his principal arguments in favor of the Book of Mormon's authenticity. These are the things that many faithful Mormons described as "powerful" and "forceful" and even "irrefutable." I will quote the bulk of Elder Holland's argument and then point out what I see as the flaws in his reasoning. From Elder Holland's talk:
As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth? Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
Curiously, when Elder Holland submits "yet one more evidence" he has not yet submitted any evidence. This is the first thing he mentions as evidence in support of the Book of Mormon. Oh, wait. Check that. He did say right before this that Hyrum Smith read from the Book of Ether. So the fact that Hyrum Smith found comfort in some of the words found in the Book of Mormon (which, incidentally, are borrowed from the New Testament, about which the Book of Ether "author" would not have known anything about, but which was familiar to the Smith brothers) is, I guess, some of the "evidence" that Elder Holland cites.
But let's look at the second part of the above-quoted passage from Elder Holland, the part where he asks rhetorically whether Joseph and Hyrum would quote from a book just before they died, knowing that they would soon face their Maker. Let's count the logical fallacies in this passage. First, as noted above, it is based on the false premise that they knew they were going to die at the time they were reading from the book and testifying of it to the guards.
Second, it is based on the false premise that they had a choice to deny the book to save their lives. Nothing in the historical record supports Elder Holland's false premise. The Smith brothers were not incarcerated for believing in the Book of Mormon; nor could they have secured their release from jail by admitting that the book was not of divine origin.
Third, even if they did expect to die, that fact alone would not prevent them from continuing to perpetuate a lie to their last breath. Again, this argument is based on the false premise that a dying man's words are always truthful. Plenty of people engaged in frauds (whether deceiving only others or deceiving both others and themselves) have gone to their deaths spouting their false beliefs. Do the names David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite mean nothing to Elder Holland? If so, Elder Holland may I introduce you to my friend Google?
Fourth, Elder Holland finds it significant that Joseph testified of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon (according to the History of the Church, but it is interesting that Elder Holland never quotes from a sermon by Joseph Smith in which Smith taught from the Book of Mormon or quoted from it. Indeed, I have read many talks given by Joseph Smith and cannot recall a single instance where he quoted from the Book of Mormon) and that Hyrum Smith read from it. But these facts are entirely irrelevant to the question of whether the Book of Mormon's origins are divine and whether the Book of Mormon contains actual ancient history. I know some liberal Mormons who read the Book of Mormon and gain inspiration and comfort from its pages but who nevertheless do not believe it came from an angel or contains real history.
More from Elder Holland speaking of the Book of Mormon:
Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather, who said simply enough, “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.
By invoking his grandfather's testimony, Elder Holland commits the fallacy of an appeal to antiquity. Just because his grandfather believed it to be so does not make it so. This is not evidence for anything. Anyone can regurgitate the religious opinions of their forebears. I am sure most of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world could cite their grandparents' testimonies about the Prophet Muhammad. Is Elder Holland going to accept them as true?
Elder Holland then gives his own testimony on his own "oath and office." This, too fails as evidence of anything. He commits the logical fallacy of an appeal to authority--that because he says it is so, it must be so. After all, an apostle wouldn't lie, right?
Elder Holland also (and this may be the most unfortunate part of the whole talk) commits the logical fallacy of ad hominem attacks. He labels those who do not accept as true the story Joseph Smith told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (an angel gave him gold plates on which were engraved books written by multiple ancient prophets in a language never before or since found, and he translated the record by putting a seerstone in a hat, on which the words in English would appear as he dictated them to his scribes, and when he was finished the angel took the plates back) as "foolish," "deceived," and "misled," and labels any ideas about the possible origins of the Book of Mormon that differ from Smith's miraculous tale as "frankly pathetic."
In the same passage, Elder Holland engages in some sleight of hand, wherein he talks about "failed theories about [the Book of Mormon's] origins, and then names just two theories (of many) that have been advanced. It is sleight of hand because there are really two issues regarding the Book of Mormon's "divine origins." One question is whether the book contains an actual history of real people who lived anciently. A second question concerns how the book that Joseph Smith had printed and distributed, and which the LDS church continues to print and distribute to the world, was produced. The second question is really not nearly as relevant and important as the first. Here is why: either the Book of Mormon peoples and civilizations actually existed or they did not. Either the book is an actual history or it is fiction. If the answer to the first question is that the Book of Mormon is not real history, then it follows that we know at least part of the answer to the second question. If the Book of Mormon is not an actual history, then it follows that it was not produced in the manner that Joseph Smith claims (i.e., there was no angel with gold plates and there was no miraculous translation with a seerstone in a hat, etc.). We still do not know the full answer to the second question, but at that point it is more a matter of academic interest.
If, however, the Book of Mormon can be shown to be an actual history, then, and only then, does Joseph Smith's story about how the book was produced become plausible and worthy.Elder Holland focuses on the second question only because he knows there is no "proof" right now of how the Book of Mormon was produced (i.e., whether Joseph acted alone or had accomplices, and if he had accomplices, the extent of the conspiracy). Elder Holland focuses on this question, rather than the first question concerning the evidence for the Book of Mormon as an actual history because he knows that there is a mountain of evidence against the Book of Mormon and that almost any unbiased inquirer who examines the evidence against the Book of Mormon will be persuaded by the evidence that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth-century fabrication and not a document of ancient origin. All Elder Holland can point to is some vague "literary and Semitic complexity," which he never defines. Nor does he provide any examples, or explain how having "literary and Semitic complexity" would prove the Book of Mormon is true.
For anyone sincerely wanting to look at the evidence on the Book of Mormon, I refer you to the web sites included in my sidebar under the Book of Mormon heading (which includes church sites with articles from LDS leaders.
And this brings me to my final point. If Elder Holland is so sure that the Book of Mormon can withstand "examination and attack," if he is so sure that the evidence against the book and the arguments of its critics are "pathetic" and "silly," why does he not encourage his audience to research those arguments and look at the evidence and decide for themselves? Why all the yelling and arm-waving and empty rhetoric and angry testifying? Why the fear-mongering (warning of "destruction" and "dangers" and "deception" of the "elect" and "travail of the latter days" and such)? Why resort to the tactic of portraying those who have left the church as "crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit," conjuring the mental image of cockroaches scurrying over and around a book lying on the floor. Why the insults? Where is the "Love. Healing. Help. Hope." he talked about in the beginning of the talk? The whole talk smacks of desperation and insecurity. The truth of proposition is not determined by how vociferously it is stated.