Book of Mormon/Authorship theories/Golden Pot
Former LDS Church Education System (CES) teacher Grant Palmer argues that Joseph Smith developed his story of visits by Moroni and the translation of a sacred book from The Golden Pot, a book by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann.
To date, Palmer's conclusion has not been found credible by any other historians or authors, including other anti-Mormon writers. His theory is based on a forgery from twenty years before his book's publication, and he remained wedded to his ideas despite this. His inability to jetison his convoluted pet theory once the Salamander forgery became known does not speak highly of his historical skills, or his work's intellectual rigor. Palmer's decision to hide his hostile work until he could retire with a pension paid by the tithing funds of the Church belies his claimed commitment to honesty and 'telling the whole truth.'
Understanding this attack requires that we understand the intellectual history of Palmer's claim. This is not to dismiss Palmer through argumentum ad hominem, but because the context in which ideas are developed can often explain the origin of those ideas.
Therefore, one must realize that Grant Palmer was a teacher in the Church educational system. More than twenty years prior to publication, while still a Church employee, Palmer began work on the manuscript that was later published as "An Insider's View."
Palmer's theory based on a known forgery
In 1985 a Hofmann forgery known as the Salamander letter became public. Louis Midgley has shown how this letter affected Palmer's faith. When Palmer became aware of the book The Golden Pot, he saw parallels between the Salamander letter and the fictional story. As personal doubts were arising Palmer saw a connection between these two fictional stories and a secular explanation for the origins of Book of Mormon.
When the true nature of the Salamander letter as a forgery became known, Palmer had already convinced himself that the Book of Mormon was not a work of God. He therefore was unwilling or unable to reconcile his faith. He took his 20 years worth of letters and began writing a book during this time of which an early draft came into Midgley's possession during 1987. Palmer first used the name Paul Pry, Jr., a pseudonym also used by an early anti-Mormon writer active in the 1800s. Midgley indicated that "[b]y hiding behind the name Paul Pry, Palmer signaled his anti-Mormon agenda in the first draft of his book."
After going through a detailed examination of some of the claims of Palmer relating to the similarities between the two, Midgley makes the observation that "Every claim that Palmer makes concerning parallels between Hoffmann's weird tale and the story of the restoration is just as tenuous and problematic—just as forced or contrived—as is his claim that there is translation of an ancient history being described in that tale."
James Allen points out that the comparisons between The Golden Pot and Joseph's story are forced, "that is, they are presented in such a way that the context in 'The Golden Pot' is distorted and the comparison with Joseph Smith's story is contrived."
A Tortured Tale
To believe Palmer's version of history one must subscribe to the following scenario (or something very similar) with all its assumptions—
Der golden Topf (The Golden Pot) was first published in Europe in German in 1814 and 1819. It was published in French in 1822. It was not available in English until 1827 in London and Edinburgh, and became available in America that same year. According to Palmer, a man by the name of Luman Walters lived in Paris after the story had been first published and when the story would have been available to him. Palmer suggests, although he offers no real evidence, that Mr. Walters had an unusual interest in the occult and things magical and therefore would surely (despite a lack of evidence) have brought Der golden Topf with him from Europe. Mr. Walters moved to Sodus, New York, about 25 miles from Palmyra, and lived there at least during the period of 1820 to 1823 when he likely knew Joseph Smith. Walters and Joseph Smith were part of a group involved in digging for treasure at Miner's Hill, owned by Abner Cole.
According to Palmer, Luman Walters became acquainted with Joseph Smith during this period, and was thought to be the "most likely conduit" for The Golden Pot to be made available to Joseph Smith. Abner Cole and others claimed that it was during this period the "idea of a 'book' [The Book of Mormon?] was doubtless suggested to the Smiths by one Walters, although they make no direct connection with 'The Golden Pot.'"
Even as Palmer points to the relationship between Walters and Joseph Smith as a reason to accept The Golden Pot as the basis for early Mormon history, he fails to mention that Brigham Young noted that Walters "rode over sixty miles three times the same season they [the gold plates] were obtained by Joseph" in an effort to obtain the plates for himself. This hardly sounds like a man who had convinced Joseph to concoct the story of the plates based on some fictional story.
Either Walters believed the plates were real or knew they were not because of his part in formulating the plan of deception. His desire to obtain them certainly suggests the former and argues against the latter. Even this does not establish that Joseph and Walters were acquainted; only that Walters knew about Joseph Smith, had heard about the plates, and presumed they were genuine. This, of course, is fatal to Palmer's theory, but he does not account for it.
Joseph Smith reported his First Vision from God the Father and Jesus Christ as happening in 1820. Yet Palmer claims that Joseph received the idea of this divine visit from conversations with Luman Walters sometime during the period 1820-1823. This means that Joseph Smith was chosen by Mr. Walters from a town 25 miles from his own (a significant distance in the 1820s), and was convinced, apparently rather quickly, by virtue of a story Walters related (from the German or the French version as the English version was not available until 1827) to formulate a lifelong plan of deception. Palmer never claims that Joseph ever read The Golden Pot, only that Walters shared the story with him.
Joseph was 15–18 years old during these years, and yet the reader is to believe that Walters convinced him to adapt and concoct a story that would follow in some crude manner the outline of this fictional book. Somehow, Palmer insists, Walters convinced this young man, whom he had known for a relatively short time, to commit to living a lie for the rest of his life. Furthermore, Walters had Joseph backdate his First Vision to an earlier year and then immediately begin the deception that would become the central focus of his entire life. This plan would be followed in spite of the persecution that immediately came into the Prophet's life because of the very nature of the story.
It is not clear what Walters would have gained from encouraging Joseph in such a course, and there is no evidence that Walters turned up later to try to profit from Joseph's position of prominence in Kirtland or Nauvoo.
Not only did the young Joseph need to commit to this path, it also had to be enthusiastically accepted and followed by his trusting family. According to Palmer's strained scenario, Joseph's family must have seen some virtue in doing so, although no evidence is given as to what they hoped to gain. During this period the Smiths were under extreme financial hardship, and they would scarcely had seen any economic advantage to the tale. (Any delusions which the Smiths might have entertained about Joseph's story making them rich and popular would have been quickly dispelled by events.
Walters would have had to persuade Joseph, or the future prophet was able to immediately take the story verbally related to him (as he was unable to read it in German or French), make the personal commitment needed, and then quickly convince his family that it was true and that God had, indeed, visited him a few years ago and that he had just forgot to mention it.
It is no wonder that Palmer's theory has not been embraced by others who share his disbelief in the Restoration, since this reconstruction is at least as incredible as talk of angels and gold plates.
History of Dissembling
The evidence indicates that Palmer turned from his faith based on a Mark Hofmann forgery and E.T.A. Hoffman's fairy tale, and then wrote this book to justify his new found disbelief. Despite his lack of faith in the Church's foundational events, Palmer continued to portray himself as a believer, in order to maintain his employment with the Church. However, Palmer did wish to publish his book; he simply waited until he retired with Church pension intact.
Palmer's supporters have argued that there is nothing wrong with Palmer deceiving Church leaders and members about his convictions and beliefs, while being paid with Church funds to teach Church doctrine to its youth in the CES. Palmer's supporters on this point should consider that non-LDS thinkers clearly understand the ethical and moral problem here, even if Palmer doesn't:
- It [the clergy's] duty to to fix the lines (of doctrine) clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.
- [note] Louis Midgley, "Prying into Palmer (Review of: An Insider's View of Mormon Origins)," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 365–410. off-site PDF link
- [note] Midgley, 395.
- [note] James B. Allen, "Asked and Answered: A Response to Grant Palmer (Review of: An Insider's View of Mormon Origins)," FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 235–286. off-site PDF link
- [note] Palmer, An Insider's View, 141.
- [note] Palmer, 138.
- [note] Palmer, 139.
- [note] Palmer, 142.
- [note] Palmer, 141.
- [note] Palmer, 142.
- [note] Allen, "Asked and Answered," 261; and Brigham Young, "The Priesthood and Satan, Etc.," (18 February 1855) Journal of Discourses 2:180.
- [note] C.S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," Easter 1945; reprinted in God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970 ), 89–90.