The Book of Mormon Challenge

The Book of Mormon challenge was popularised by Hugh Nibley, and often presented to his students in a course on the Book of Mormon. Basically, the idea is that the detractors of the Book are invited to try their hand at writing a similar epic, the point presumably being that it is so difficult that it could only have come about with divine help.

It should be noted at the outset that there are several problems with the whole concept. The first is the very obvious point that this test is by no means unique. The Koran, for example, contains a very similar test within its pages.

Sura 2:23 And if you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a chapter (sura) like it and call on your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful.
Sura 10:38 Or do they say: He has forged it? Say: Then bring a chapter (sura) like this and invite whom you can besides Allah, if you are truthful.

One wonders if the Mormons have ever handed the Muslims the Book of Mormon as fulfillment of this challenge, and vice-versa.

A second problem centers around the concept of the onus of proof. Since the Mormons have claimed that the Book of Mormon has a divine origin, it is up to them to provide satisfactory evidence of this claim, something which has not been performed to date. The Challenge is actually a subtle attempt to shift the burden of proof onto the detractor, and as such should be disregarded.

By far the major problem with the Book of Mormon Challenge, however, is the simple fact that the Book itself does not meet the requirements outlined in the challenge! It will be evident that the Mormon apologist has made grandiose claims for the Book, claims which far outstrip the meagre evidence. This article will demonstrate that the Challenge is only valid if one first assumes the historical validity of the Book of Mormon, which thus results in a circular argument.

Here then are the main points of the Challenge, with comments added.

1. Write a history of ancient Tibet covering a period from 2200 B.C. to 400 A.D. Why ancient Tibet? Because you know no more about Tibet than Joseph Smith (or anyone else) knew about ancient America.

It is here assumed that the Book of Mormon is a history of ancient America. Unfortunately for the Mormon apologist, this claim is completely lacking in anything approaching proof. The earliest manuscript evidence for the Book of Mormon reaches no further than a few years before it was published in 1830. Prior to that, there is no mention whatsoever of a book of this kind in any ancient American historical archive. Further, the events and artifacts described in the Book can quite easily be shown to be anachronistic and problematic.

2. You are 23 years of age.

3. You have had no more than three years of formal school education, and have spent your life in backwoods farming communities.

This challenge has been accepted and met time and time again. The history of the world is replete with examples of people who were young and unlearned producing great works of literature. Mohammed, for example, was barely literate, which did not seem to prevent him from producing the Koran, widely regarded as a work of high literary quality.

4. Your history must be written on the basis of what you now know. There was no library that held information for Joseph Smith. You must use none. There is to be no research of any kind.

How exactly, we are forced to ask, are we to tell what Smith did or did not have access to? The only way that this statement could be remotely valid is to have access to the diary of an impartial observer who followed Smith around for every day of his life. We have no such thing. What we do know is that the books that appear to have had the greatest impact on the Book of Mormon, the King James Bible and Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews were freely available in the area in which Smith lived.

5. Your history must be 531 pages and over 300,000 words in length.

This is irrelevant. The Koran is even longer than the Book of Mormon, and was similarly produced by an unlearned man.

6. Other than a few grammatical corrections, you must have no changes in the text. The first edition as you dictate it to your secretary must stand forever.

Again, this is stretching the truth a little. The "few" grammatical and spelling corrections actually number in the thousands, and there are in fact a few changes which correct contradictions in the original, and also seem to reflect evolving doctrinal positions.

7. This record is to contain the history of two distinct and separate nations, along with histories of different contemporary nations or groups of people.

8. You must describe their religious, economic, political, and social cultures and institutions. Cover every phase of their society, including the names of their coins.

There are numerous works of fiction which describe in great detail the social life and political structures of wholly imaginary cultures. J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle (the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion et al) is a massive work which covers many thousands of years of history of Middle Earth, a place that existed only in Tolkien's vivid imagination. Tolkien even went one better, and created syntactically correct languages for a number of his imaginary subcultures.

In contrast, more than one detractor has noted that the Book of Mormon is repetitous, superificial and lacking in maturity. The great LDS historian, B.H. Roberts, had this to say about one aspect of the Book of Mormon story:

There were other Anti-Christs among the Nephites, but they were more military leaders than religious innovators... they are all of one breed and brand; so nearly alike that one mind is the author of them, and that a young and undeveloped, but piously inclined mind. The evidence I sorrowfully submit, points to Joseph Smith as their creator. It is difficult to believe that they are the product of history, that they come upon the scene separated by long periods of time, and among a race which was the ancestral race of the red man of America. (Studies of the Book of Mormon, page 271)

9. Change your style of writing many times. Many ancient authors contributed to the Book of Mormon, each with his own style.

This is very hard to sustain. A cursory examination of the Book of Mormon will show that whenever the style abruptly changes, it is inevitably due to a protracted quote from the King James Version of the Bible. LDS scholars often point to "wordprint" studies conducted at BYU (hardly an objective setting), but fail to point out that subsequent studies have contradicted the original conclusions.

10. Weave into your history the religion of Jesus Christ and the pattern of Christian living.

Completely irrelevant. This is not difficult to achieve at all.

11. You must claim that your smooth narrative is not fiction with moral value, but true and sacred history.

The claims of the author are entirely beside the point. Mohammed claimed that the Koran was dictated to him by the angel Gabriel. Are we to believe him without proof as well?

12. You must include in you book fifty-four chapters dealing with wars, twenty-one historical chapters, fifty-five chapters on visions and prophecies. Remember, when you begin to write visions and prophecies, you must have your record agree meticulously with the Bible. You must write seventy-one chapters on doctrine and exhortation, and you must check every statement with the scriptures or your will be proven a fraud. You must write twenty-one chapters on the ministry of Christ, and every thing you claim he said and every testimony you write in your book about Him must agree absolutely with the New Testament.

This is actually extremely easy to do, if one is brought up in a Christian household, and quotes voluminously from the Bible as well. Indeed, it must be said that it would be difficult to fail on this point, given the circumstances surrounding the origin of the Book of Mormon.

There is a further underlying problem here, however. The Book of Mormon, it is true, does agree in meticulous detail with one particular sect of Christianity (Protestantism), but completely fails to agree with Old Testament Judaism.

13. Many of the facts, claims, ideas, and statements given as absolute truth in your writing must be entirely inconsistent with the prevailing beliefs of the world. Some of these worldly beliefs must be the direct opposite of your claims.

It is extremely difficult to see the relevance of this point. Are we to conclude that L. Ron Hubbard was a visionary because his ideas on psychology completely contradict any scientific model of the human mind? It is very easy to dream up wild and unsubstantiated theories: it is far harder to arrive at the truth.

14. Included in your narrations will be authentic modes of travel; whether or not those ancient people used fire; description of their clothing, crops, mourning customs, and types of government. You must invent about 280 new names that will stand up under scrutiny through the years as to their proper application and derivation.

The Book of Mormon completely fails on this point. We know of no ancient American culture that made use of horses, cattle, goats, elephants, chariots, silk, linen, wheat etc.

In addition, the Book of Mormon names seem to have a far more mundane origin than is here suggested.

15. You will have to properly use figures of speech, similes, metaphors, narrations, exposition, descriptions, oratory, epic lyric, and parables.

Again, this is irrelevant. Many works of fiction display these exact qualities, many times with far greater literary power than the Book of Mormon.

16. You must invite the ablest scholars and experts to examine the text with care, and you must strive diligently to see that your book gets into the hands of those eager to prove it a forgery, and who are most competent to expose every flaw in it.

This has been done time and again with the Book of Mormon, and time and again it has been denounced as a fraud.

17. Thorough investigation, scientific and historical evidence, and archeological discovery for the next 125 years must verify its claims and prove detail after detail to be true, for many of the details you put in your history are still buried beneath the soil of Tibet.

As already noted, the Book of Mormon has failed every archeological test applied to it. This author is aware of no non-Mormon archeologist who would regard the Book of Mormon as a reliable guide to the pre-history of America.

18. You must publish it to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people declaring it to be the word of God and another witness for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Once again, the claims of the author are entirely beside the point. What matters is whether these claims can be substantiated.

19. The book must not contain any absurd, impossible, or contradictory statements. Your history must not contain any statement that will contradict any other statement elsewhere in the volume.

Ether 15:31 describes how the unfortunate Shiz, after having his head severed by a sword-stroke, struggled for breath and eventually died. In the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 21:28, King Benjamin is said to be able to interpret engravings. Unfortunately, he was dead by this time. II Nephi 19:1 puts the Red Sea beyond the Jordan, in Galilee. In fact, it is well over 250 miles to the south of Galilee, in Egypt.

20. Many theories and ideas as to its origin must arise, and after discovering and examining the facts, they must fail. You have claimed that your knowledge had come from divine origin, and this claim continues to stand as the only possible explanation. The strength of this explanation must not decrease as time passes, but actually increases to the point where it becomes the only logical explanation.

As already noted, the only people who still believe that the Book of Mormon had a divine origin are ardent Mormon believers. The rest of the world, after "examining the facts" have arrived at a far more prosaic and simple explanation of its origin.

21. Your record is to fulfil many Bible prophecies, even in the exact manner in which it shall come forth, to whom delivered, its purposes, and its accomplishments.

Since Biblical prophecy is an inexact science, to put it mildly, it is a fairly simple matter to find a Bible verse that can be re-interpreted to fit your own conclusions. The Muslims have found Bible prophecies of Mohammed; the Baha'is have found Bible prophecies of Baha'u'llah. The list is endless.

22. Call down an angel from heaven in the middle of the day and have him bear testimony to four honest, dignified citizens of your community that the record is the word of God. These witnesses must bear the angel's testimony to the world, not for profit or gain, but under great sacrifice and severe persecution, even to their death beds. You must put that testimony to the test by becoming an enemy to these men.

Firstly, what we have here is secondhand information, at best. We have no way of knowing whether these men actually saw the angel, or if they were simply mistaken, or if they were dishonest.

Secondly, the Book of Mormon is by no means the only book to contain such a testimony. A former follower of Smith, James Strang, founded his own breakaway sect of Mormonism after the death of Joseph, and produced his own 'translation' of the brass plates of Laban, known as The Book of the Law of the Lord. This book includes a testimony of seven witnesses, to the effect that they saw and handled the plates from which the book was translated. Following the logic of the LDS church regarding the power of such a testimony, they should have canonized The Book of the Law of the Lord a long time ago.

23. Thousands of great men, intellectual giants, national and international personalities, and scholars for 125 years must accept your history and its teachings even to the point of laying down their life rather than deny their testimony of it.

Again, this is true of a great many sects and faiths. The followers of Baha'u'llah, known as the Baha'is, were mercilessly persecuted by the Muslim majority in Persia about the turn of the century. The sect still thrives today, with several million members worldwide, and despite the fact that persecution still continues in Muslim countries such as Iran.

24. You must include within the record this promise: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, He will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost."

How difficult is it to include such a promise in a text?

25. Missionaries must bear record to the world for the next 125 years that they know the record to be true because they put the promise to the test and found it to be true. The truth of it was manifested to them by the power of the Holy Ghost.

26. Over 50,000 plus competent salesman must be so sold on your book that they gladly give up two or more years of their lives to take it to all parts of the world for distribution. They not only pay their own way during these years, but return bearing testimony that the time spent will remain as one of the highlights of their lives. They receive nothing in return for their efforts but the joy of having shared your book with others.

27. Your book must not only raise the standards of millions of people but do it in such a way that they become one of the great moral, ethical, and dynamic marvels of the day. They must become world renowned for this.

Once more, the missionary effort of the LDS church is by no means unique. Believers of all stripes and shapes feel compelled to share their faith, often at great personal cost. One is often reminded of the poor Jehovah's Witnesses, who faithfully pound the sidewalks every day, often greeted with nothing more than a slammed door or a harsh word.

As for the Book of Mormon raising the moral standard of its followers, this too is not unique to Mormonism. The whole point of religion is to exhort mankind to live a better life.

28. For the next 20 years you must watch those that follow and you, your family, and the dearest of your loved ones persecuted, driven time after time from their homes, beaten, tortured, starved, frozen and killed. Tens of thousands must undergo the most extreme hardships in your presence just because they believe you claims concerning the origin and content of what you have written on ancient Tibet.

This is a repetition of point 23.

29. You must gain no wealth from your work, but many time lose all that you have. Like those that believe you, you must submit yourself to the most vile persecution. And finally after 20 years of this, give your own life in a very savage and brutal manner, for your testimony concerning your history book. This must be done willingly on your part.

There are other rewards beside monetary. Joseph Smith may have suffered financially, but he posessed that which all people crave - power, and the blind respect and admiration of his followers. Many would gladly suffer personal hardship in order to gain such a following.

30. Start right now and produce this record which covers 2600 years of history, doing it, not in the peaceful atmosphere of your community, but under the most trying of circumstances which include being driven from your home several times, and receiving constant threats upon your life. Please have your book completed, talk a friend into mortgaging his farm to raise money to have it printed - all in 60 days.

The claim that the Book of Mormon was completed in sixty days is not the whole story. The actual dictation lasted from April 7, 1829 to early in July - some eighty days, give or take. However, this does not mean that Smith only had those eighty days in which to think about the narrative. He had actually begun the task more than a year earlier, first with Emma Smith, and then with Martin Harris as scribe. The result was 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, all of which were subsequently lost when Martin Harris was allowed to take the pages home to show his disbelieving family. The point is that there was nothing to stop Smith from at least thinking about the Book of Mormon story in that inbetween year. He may even have made some notes.


As we have seen, a number of these points are completely irrelevant to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, others are easily duplicated by other works of fiction, and still other points do not apply to the Book of Mormon, such as archeological accuracy. We therefore find no compelling reason to suspect that the Book of Mormon had a supernatural origin: instead we find that it fits very well with the more mundane theory - that the Book originated solely in the mind of Joseph Smith.

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