The introduction to the Book of Mormon states, “It is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains the fulness of the everlasting gospel.” Millions of Latter-day Saints worldwide believe that it is an ancient record translated by Joseph Smith by the gift and power of God.
In recent decades, some have questioned whether it is necessary to accept the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient record to believe it is inspired. As the “Inspired Fiction Theory” goes, the Book of Mormon can be read as inspired yet fictional scripture that draws readers closer to God while not describing actual events or people from antiquity.
While this might sound reasonable, there is no easy way to get around the crucial importance for the historical authenticity of both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s account of its coming forth.
Below are the top five reasons why the Book of Mormon needs to be a historical record:
1. The Book of Mormon itself purports to be a historical record.
The Book of Mormon unambiguously declares itself to be an authentic ancient text. From the book’s title page to its concluding pages, the account narrated in the Book of Mormon purports to have taken place in antiquity. This should compel readers to approach the Book of Mormon and evaluate its claims on its own terms. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, “The [Book of Mormon] is here to be felt and handled and read. No one can dispute its presence.”
2. Book of Mormon authors say they will meet readers at the last judgement.
At least two different prophetic authors of the Book of Mormon claim that they will meet readers at the bar of God on the day of judgement. Nephi, at the end of his record, proclaims in 2 Nephi 33:10–11, “And now, my beloved brethren, … Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that [what Nephi wrote] are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.” Moroni also promised his readers that he would meet them (Moroni 10:27).
If Nephi and Moroni only existed inside the mind of Joseph Smith, then they are no more likely to meet us on the judgement day than Oliver Twist or Severus Snape. These passages are rendered plainly absurd if they were not written by real ancient prophets.
3. The gold plates had to come from somewhere.
It is an incontestable historical fact that Joseph Smith had in his possession a set of metal plates with “the appearance of gold” between the years 1827–1829, and that he showed these plates to multiple eyewitnesses who hefted, handled, and examined the plates either directly or indirectly (and in some cases affirmed encounters with an angelic personage).
The testimony of multiple men (and women!) who had an experience with the plates forces us to ask where these plates came from. They were, after all, a tangible object. They did not appear out of thin air. Somebody has to have made them. They had to have come from somewhere. Either they were made by ancient prophets, or they were not. Either Joseph Smith was telling the truth about how he came into the possession of the plates he showed the witnesses, or he was not. If the Book of Mormon is not an ancient record, then its account of how these plates were made cannot be true. Neither can Joseph Smith’s account of how he found them. If these accounts are not true, then the credibility of Joseph Smith’s claims are fundamentally and irreversible compromised.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s pronounced in 1994: “I am suggesting that we make [a] do-or-die, bold assertion about the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. We have to. Reason and rightness require it.”
4. Joseph Smith maintained a consistent narrative about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon throughout his life.
The Prophet Joseph Smith himself described how the Book of Mormon came forth in personal journal entries and published histories. For example, responding to the question, “How, and where did you obtain the Book of Mormon?” in an editorial published in July 1838, Joseph replied: “Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon.”
The Prophet never deviated from this claim, retelling the same basic account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon well into the last months of his life.
5. The Book of Mormon’s testimony of Christ is predicated on the idea that he actually visited the Americas.
Above all, the Book of Mormon testifies of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the eternal truths of his gospel. “From the title page to the book’s final declaration,” wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “this testament reveals, examines, underscores, and illuminates the divine mission of Jesus Christ as recorded in the sacred accounts of two New World dispensations (Jaredite and Lehite), written for the benefit of a third dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times. The Book of Mormon has many purposes, but this one transcends all others.”
This testimony is predicated on the assumed reality that a resurrected Jesus appeared to the ancient descendants of Lehi as prophesied centuries before (1 Nephi 12). Mormon introduces his account of the resurrected Savior’s New World ministry by testifying that “Jesus Christ did show himself unto the people of Nephi, as the multitude were gathered together in the land Bountiful, and did minister unto them; and on this wise did he show himself unto them.” If the events described in 3 Nephi 11–30 never actually happened, then the theological power and prophetic testimony contained in this narrative is deeply weakened.
Joseph Smith himself underscored the importance of the ancient record in one of his more dramatic declarations: “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations and where is our religion? We have none.”