Editor's note: Portions of this column are based on a previous presentation by the author.
The Book of Mormon has sometimes been explained as the product not of simple fraud perpetrated by one fiendishly, peerlessly clever individual (Joseph Smith), but of a more complex, collective fraud. We might call this notion “Collective Deceit” (deception, that is, by Joseph Smith, the witnesses of the Book of Mormon and presumably others).
This hypothesis would explain the “supernatural” events associated with the recovery of the Book of Mormon by declaring, simply, that they never happened. Everybody testifying to them must have been lying.
However, it collides with abundant evidence regarding the character of Joseph Smith (see, for example, the materials gathered by Mark McConkie in his 2003 book “Remembering Joseph”). Moreover, it clashes directly with what we know about the character of the witnesses and their subsequent behavior (most conveniently summarized in various works by Richard Lloyd Anderson, including his classic 1981 volume “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”).
Many of those who interviewed David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, over his last decades noted the reverential awe with which he regarded the manuscript of the Book of Mormon that he had in his possession. He refused to part with it for any price, although he was by no means wealthy, and both he and his family felt not only that it was divinely protected but that they would share in that divine protection so long as they owned it (see Lyndon Cook’s 1991 collection of “David Whitmer Interviews”). Whether their sense of the manuscript’s near-supernatural potency was misplaced or not is irrelevant to the issue at hand: Such attitudes are impossible to square with cynicism and conscious deception.
There is simply no sign of dishonesty, no evidence for a conspiracy, among Joseph Smith’s associates — and, in the case of a group so large (11 official witnesses, plus Mary Whitmer, Emma Smith, Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith), it would have been inconceivably difficult to keep such a conspiracy secret. Particularly so since the alleged conspirators suffered a great deal (including death, in a few cases) for their supposed plot, gained nothing, were (in many cases) alienated from Joseph Smith and, collectively, lived several decades after the death of the Prophet and entirely isolated from any supportive or ego-gratifying community.
As the lawyer James H. Moyle, who had interviewed David Whitmer, justly observed (and is noted in the “David Whitmer Interviews”), “If there had been fraud in this matter Joseph Smith would have cultivated those men and kept them with him at any cost. The truth is that when they became unworthy they were excommunicated, even though they were witnesses to the Book of Mormon.”
In a letter dated Sept. 22, 1899, David Whitmer’s grandson, private secretary and business partner, George Schweich, recalled of his grandfather, “I have begged him to unfold the fraud in the case and he had all to gain and nothing to lose but to speak the word if he thought so — but he has described the scene to me many times, of his vision about noon in an open pasture — there is only one explanation barring an actual miracle and that is this — If that vision was not real it was HYPNOTISM, it was real to grandfather IN FACT” (capital letters in the original, in Cook's “David Whitmer Interviews”).
I’ve argued in previous columns and elsewhere that hallucination, whether individual or collective, cannot explain the facts surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. I won’t relitigate that issue here. But the facts are heavily against conscious conspiracy, too. As the early 19th-century Mormon convert John Corrill remarked, “As to its being a revelation from God, eleven persons besides Smith bore positive testimony of its truth. After getting acquainted with them, I was unable to impeach their testimony, and consequently thought that it was as consistent to give credit to them as credit the writings of the New Testament, when I had never seen the authors nor the original copy” (cited by Anderson in “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”).
William McLellan was closely acquainted with the Smith and Whitmer families from the time of his 1831 conversion. He carefully questioned them about the Book of Mormon. In 1880, long alienated from Mormonism, he still asserted their credibility (published in "William E. McLellan's Testimony of the Book of Mormon" by Larry C. Porter, BYU Studies, 1970): “I believed them then and I believe them yet.”
David Whitmer was once confronted by a mob of 400-500 Missourians who demanded, on pain of death, that he deny his published testimony of the Book of Mormon. Instead, he forcefully reasserted it (see Anderson's “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”). Neither he nor the other witnesses come across as cynical conspirators.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.