When Raymond Richards included a lecture on the Mormon Church in his course on American history he ran foul of not only the Mormon community but also the University of Waikato heirarchy. He told his story at the NZ 2001 Skeptics’ conference in Hamilton.
My experience as a lecture at the University of Waikato has shown that danger to academic freedom comes as much from inside the university as from outside. University management caved in to religious radicals.
Every year, I teach the history of the United States to scores of first-year students. The course includes a lecture on Mormonism, which is the most successful religion to start in the United States. The lecture is based on the research of the most respected historians in the field. (Bibliography available on request from editor.)
After I gave the lecture in August 1998, the university’s Mediator, Bethea Weir, told me that a handful of my students were charging me with harassment. They were demanding an apology and equal time to present the Mormon view. She said she had been flooded with calls from Mormons in the community, outraged by reports of my lecture. Weir planned to process the students’ charges of harassment.
This news came as a shock to me. I had heard that the Mediator at the University of Waikato entertained dozens of harassment cases each year. Still, I was surprised to find that a university would subject a lecturer to a threatening procedure for teaching what historians around the world have known for years. The charge could lead to my dismissal.
To historians, there was nothing controversial about my lecture. They know the Mormon Church started as a scam. It was founded by Joseph Smith, who was born in 1805 and grew up in New York State in a poor family. Determined to make money and fascinated by mysticism, Joe made plans. At the age of 16, he said he had found a seer stone while digging a well. He claimed the stone gave him power to see buried treasure. Folk beliefs told of gold hidden by Indians and by Captain Kidd, the pirate. Some men claimed paranormal ability to find buried loot. Charming and smooth talking, Smith hired himself out as a gold digger. He would put his magic stone in his hat and, holding the hat in front of him, seek to divine buried treasure. However, this venture led to his conviction for fraud in a New York court in 1826. It was the first of three criminal convictions he received during his life.
Smith thought of another idea to make money, using the same magic stone. Now past 20 years old, he claimed that angels had visited him since he was about 14. His story changed a few times, but he settled on a version that Mormons today call “the First Vision”. He said an angel called Moroni had shown him where to dig up ancient, gold plates with hieroglyphics on them. Joe spread the news of this “golden Bible” – which would soon be for sale. He said the inscriptions were in “reformed Egyptian” (a language that never existed) that he could read, using special powers. Smith put his seer stone in his hat, held the hat to his face, and dictated the Book of Mormon. He first claimed the plates were hidden in the woods while he dictated, then he said the angel had taken them back. Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. He copied symbols and rituals from the Freemasons, who also tell of golden plates hidden and discovered. The fraternity’s influence is obvious in Mormon temples and ceremonies, and in the symbols on the special underwear that Mormons have on at all times.
The Book of Mormon is exactly what one would expect from farm boy Joe Smith. It shows a small vocabulary and is full of awkward prose and wooden characters. Mark Twain called it “chloroform in print.” It contains 25,000 words copied from the King James Version of Bible, which was written centuries after the gold plates were supposedly inscribed!
The Book of Mormon contained little new. Smith copied ideas from folk tales and other writers. The book tells how, about 600 B.C., a lost tribe of Israel sailed from Arabia to America, which was the promised land. Once there, they split into two factions, the Nephites and the Lamanites. Nephites had white skin and were good but prone to the temptations that come with success. Lamanites had dark skin and were bad.
According to the Book of Mormon, these Jews founded a great civilization in North America, more than a thousand years before Columbus.
They built dozens of huge cities with millions of inhabitants. They used steel – more than a thousand years before steel was invented. Elephants, lions, camels and horses co-existed with them in North America. As the story goes, Jesus visited America soon after he was crucified. He first established the Christian Church there.
But, the Lamanites wiped out the Nephites in a great battle in today’s New York State in AD 385. The Lamanites were the ancestors of the Indians. The belief that Indians were descended from a lost tribe of Israel was common in Smith’s time. In fact, Indians are Mongoloid, from Asia; they are not Semitic. Neither are Maori descended from Jews, although the Mormon Church teaches that Polynesians are descended from Hagoth, a Nephite shipbuilder! Teachers have to correct this drivel.
During that climactic battle in A.D. 385, millions of people were slain. The true faith was lost. This history survived only because the prophet Mormon wrote it on golden plates and buried them until the angel Moroni revealed the plates to Joe Smith, 1400 years later, thus restoring the true church.
It is a romantic story, but no evidence for Book of Mormon people or places has been found. The Book of Mormon tells of an imaginary world, like The Lord of the Rings. All religions have their myths, but the Mormon Church teaches this fiction as fact. That millions of people believe this hogwash is a black mark against our education system. Educators are not teaching sound methodology and critical thinking.
Each field of scholarship has its own pseudo-scholars. Geography has its flat-earthers. Biology has its creation scientists. Anthropology has chasers of surviving ape-men. Archaeology has believers in ancient astronauts. Medicine has homeopaths. Physics has inventors of perpetual motion machines. Psychology has phrenologists. Astronomy has astrologers.
History has holocaust deniers – and Mormons.
The Book of Abraham
In 1835, Smith bought mummies and scrolls that had been looted from Egypt. No one in the United States could read hieroglyphics then, but Smith said he could – by inspiration from heaven. He said that one scroll was in the handwriting of Abraham of the Old Testament. From it, he produced the Book of Abraham. Unlike the golden plates, those scrolls still exist. Scholars today can read hieroglyphics, and they say the scrolls are 2000 years too young to have been written by Abraham and that Smith’s “translation” is a fraud, nothing like the original scroll. He made it up!
Mormons still believe the Book of Abraham is inspired, and it contains striking teachings. It says God cursed Black people because in a previous existence they did not help Jesus in a fight against his brother, Lucifer.
The Book of Abraham also teaches a version of the doctrine of eternal progression, an idea known since mediaeval times. The doctrine teaches that the meaning of life is to strive toward becoming a god.
Mormons explain: “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”
Life on earth supposedly is but one phase in a process of our eternal enhancement. Everybody had a pre-existence as a spirit. The memory of that time is now veiled from us. Life on earth is a school to which God’s children go to gain a body and to learn. The greater your progress on earth, the greater your glory in heaven as you advance toward becoming a god yourself, governing your own planets. Righteous Mormon men who have died are now living as gods on planets unknown to us. Earth’s god lives in the heavens near a place called Kolob.
By the 1840s, Smith was showing signs of megalomania as he kept up his pose as a prophet. He set up a Council of Fifty to govern the world with him after the imminent return of Christ. Smith had himself crowned King on Earth. The Council also managed Smith’s campaign for President of the United States.
Church members had already experienced violent conflict with their neighbours, and now they fought among themselves. The bitterest controversy involved the doctrine of polygamy. For years, Smith and other Church leaders had been married to many women at the same time, while denying it. In 1843, Smith announced that polygamy was divinely sanctioned. He had about fifty wives. Some of his brides were married already, some were sisters, some were mother and daughter, and some were as young as 14 years. He proposed marriage to females as young as 12.
When an Illinois newspaper criticized Smith, he ordered its press smashed. He was arrested and jailed. A mob broke into the jail and shot Smith dead. He was 39.
After Smith’s death, the Church split into many factions, with most members following Brigham Young to found Salt Lake City in Utah. In 1896, the US Congress forced the Church to set aside polygamy so that Utah could join the United States as the 45th state. Some Mormon groups still practice polygamy. About two percent (40,000 people) of Utah’s population live in polygamous families.
Struggle for Acceptance
Since World War 2, the Church has tried hard to gain acceptance. It has stressed so-called family values. In 1995 the Church hired a public relations firm, which recommended that the Church stress the “Jesus Christ” part of its name, even though the Jesus of Mormonism bears little likeness to the Jesus of Christianity. Mormonism is a religion in its own right, as different from Christianity as Christianity is from Islam.
Church leaders continually revise Mormon scriptures and doctrines in the effort to gain wider acceptance. For example, until 1978 the Church banned Black men from the priesthood, which falls to Mormon males at the age of 12 years. US President Jimmy Carter threatened to withdraw the church’s tax-exempt status because of its racial discrimination. Within days, Church President Kimball announced a revelation from God, lifting the ban.
The Book of Abraham still says Black people are cursed, and the Church still struggles with a reputation for racism. The Church has never disowned the idea that Black-skinned people are cursed.
The Church also has a reputation for sexism. Women are not allowed in the priesthood. The Church teaches that a woman’s place is in the home, raising children. The Mormon Church has excommunicated supporters of equal rights for women.
The Church also has a reputation for hostility to intellectual inquiry, with a record of trying to silence people who disagree with it, such as myself. Mormon scholars are excommunicated, for destroying faith, if their research leads them to reveal information the Church does not like. Fawn Brodie was a Mormon and a historian who uncovered Smith’s 1826 conviction. Michael Quinn was a Mormon and a historian who discovered that the early Church included female priests. Both were excommunicated for their work. In 1998 the American Association of University Professors censured Brigham Young University in Utah for its violations of academic freedom. BYU’s goal is to provide an education consistent with the Book of Mormon. Research is subordinate to revelation, since there can be no disagreement with God’s university. BYU’s philosophy, then, is hostile to the purpose of a university.
So, what started as a scam is now perhaps the fifth biggest church in the United States, surpassing the Presbyterians. The Mormons claim 10 million members worldwide, half of them outside the United States. The annual income of the Church is $US6 billion, making it bigger than Nike Corporation. Its success, however, is a monument to a fraud.
List of Charges
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not like its history told. The university’s mediator told me the complaining students had drawn up a list of charges. They claimed I had harassed them when I said the Book of Mormon is full of awkward prose and wooden characters, and when I said Joseph Smith was a megalomaniac.
I could not believe the university was considering disciplining me instead of telling the students they had no basis for complaint. I waited for the mediator or university managers to dismiss the charges. I waited for the Vice-Chancellor, Bryan Gould, to stand by me. After a month of stress, with the threat of punishment still hanging over my head, I decided to go to the media, since sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Newspapers, radio and national television reported the conflict. I argued for scholarship and academic freedom, and Mormons as far away as Australia sent letters to the university and to newspapers, demanding my sacking. Threatening calls to the departmental secretary led to a security alert on campus. From university managers, however, came not a word.
Vice-Chancellor Bryan Gould did not speak up for his lecturer, for historical scholarship or for academic freedom. I wrote to Professor Gould, reminding him that I had every right to lecture as I had. His reply shocked me. He wrote that he would try to “provide some satisfaction to the complainants.” The Vice-Chancellor, then, would seek to please a religious group at the expense of a historian.
Sure enough, the so-called mediator suddenly announced in a press release that the students had dropped their charges – but that Mormon representatives would be debating me in public! There had been no discussion with me about a debate, but this arrangement met the Mormons’ demand for equal time. I was so angry at this imposition that I refused to go along with it. Weir then released another press statement, attacking me for not agreeing to discuss matters, making me look bad. Reluctantly, I agreed to the debate, but only if security guards were present.
The evening was unpleasant for me. The Church stacked the lecture theatre with Mormons who hissed at me and called for my sacking. Speaking for the complaining students were the local Mormon bishop, Mike Roberts, and a Mormon student leader who had not been at the lecture. Roberts admitted he was not an expert in US history, but told how he thought a lecture on the history of his Church should go. I had to sit in front of tiers of glaring faces while the student slandered me as incompetent and unprofessional. Neither she nor Roberts engaged with the historical information I gave.
The Vice-Chancellor’s treatment of me had a chilling effect on free speech at the University of Waikato. Several colleagues told me they would drop controversial topics from their courses to avoid being charged with harassment.
These days, I try to reassure them. The experience of being charged with harassment led me to learn the law regarding free speech and academic freedom. I advise lecturers charged for what they teach: Don’t negotiate, litigate! Lecturers who are disadvantaged by their employer for what they teach should sue under the 1990 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which guarantees freedom of expression, and the 1989 Education Act, which guarantees academic freedom for lecturers and students.
Bethea Weir has been promoted. University managers are considering the disestablishment of the now vacant job of Mediator.
Historians and other scholars must be able to teach the results of research and thinking without being disadvantaged. The fact is that Joseph Smith was a swindler. There is no reason to believe angels led him to the Book of Mormon. The “history” of America taught by the Mormon Church is fiction. Seeking to satisfy Mormons who object to this information being taught is a mistake. Negotiating lecture content with interest groups is a threat to education. Fortunately, the law means there is no need for academics to pander to people who discount scholarship and the free exchange of ideas.