First things first: I do not believe Joseph Smith was a fraud. But, IF Joseph had been a charlatan, and I were to place myself in his shoes, this article explores how I might have handled the so-called Restoration a little differently.
This is just my thought process and I am in no way claiming to prove The Book of Mormon to be true or false through my opinions here. The fact that he does or does not do the things listed below does not prove or disprove anything about him. These are just things I would have done differently if I was trying to scam the world. Playing Devil’s Advocate can reveal some interesting insights.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve got any additional thoughts!
1. First of all, I would have given up the scam when the initial persecution began at age 14
Joseph was persecuted for several years even before he was able to publish The Book of Mormon. If I was running a scam, I would have given up right when that persecution started—when I realized that nobody was taking the bait; Especially as a young teenager. There’s no way I would have persisted through that humiliation just in an attempt to scam people. I would have cut my losses, distanced myself from the scandal and tried something completely new.
(But if I had chosen to persist, I still doubt I would have continued to lie through the tar and feathering, the countless mobs, threats, some 48 criminal court cases against me [despite the fact I’d never be convicted], the death of my child due to anti-Mormon attacks and six months in Liberty jail. Yet, Joseph thought his “lie” was worth all that.)
2. I would not have defied the theology of the day
As a writer (and let’s face it, to pull off a fictional Book of Mormon, Joseph would have had to have been an expert writer, which he wasn’t) you always keep your intended audience in mind. You write to their interests. You appeal to the audience. Alienating them is a bad idea.
Yet The Book of Mormon contradicted countless essential and fundamental beliefs of Joseph’s religious contemporaries. The nature of the Godhead, baptism of little children, modern revelation, etc. If I were inventing a religion, I would have either kept those core doctrines the same or made them so vague that they didn’t appear threatening to the beliefs potential investigators already had. People like to be told they’re right. But, apparently, Joseph thought it was a good idea to do the opposite.
3. I would not have claimed to have had “golden plates”
Joseph used seer stones to translate the ancient Nephite record. Based on what we know, he didn’t even look at the plates while translating. They were under a cloth or not even in the same room as he and the scribe. The fact that they existed but that nobody could see them was surely a major turn-off for potential believers. Of course, the eleven witnesses (amongst others) did see them, and Joseph’s wife, Emma, says she felt them under a cloth, so Joseph must have had something.
In my mind, it would have been much easier to simply claim that God revealed directly into my mind the words which should be written. It would completely remove the risk of someone peeking under the cloth only to find a stack of tin foil sheets, or having the plates stolen and proven to be fake. Claiming to have a physical ancient record would have been an unnecessary risk. But maybe Joseph thought it was a good idea.
4. I would have written a much shorter book
The Book of Mormon is over 500 pages long—and Joseph didn’t even include pictures. That’s a long book. If it was a scam, it represented over 500 opportunities for critics to find damning errors. If it had been up to me, The Book of Mormon would have been a fourth of that length.
If my motivation was money, I probably would have written each book within The Book of Mormon as a stand-alone work. I would have published and sold them like a series to maximize profits. There’s no way I would have been bold enough to write a work of that length, depth, intricacy and historical detail—especially in the 65 working days that it took Joseph to do it. But maybe he thought it was a good idea.
5. I would not have instituted the Word of Wisdom
The Word of Wisdom was not as strict a law for early Saints as it is for us now, and many substances that are banned for us were still used for medicinal purposes back then. That said, there is ample evidence that Joseph both drank alcohol and tea. Maybe it was medicinal, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, if I were scamming the world I would have played it safe and would not have set myself up to be judged a hypocrite. But I guess he was OK with it.
Speaking of hypocrisy, I also would not have included Jacob 2:27 and 30, which say,
Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none…
For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.
Everyone and their dog knows that “Joseph Smith” later instituted a system of polygamy in the Church. If one of my goals in this scam were to lust after as many women as I could handle, I probably would have either made polygamy appear scripturally as acceptable as possible or I would have left the topic out altogether. But I guess he thought it would be a good idea to add that little tidbit.
6. I wouldn’t have memorized the whole Book of Mormon
All evidence points to the fact that Joseph never had any sort of reference material as he dictated the Book of Mormon to his various scribes. Joseph is often ridiculed for having largely translated the book through a seer stone which he placed in a hat, along with his face (the hat being used to block out light). So, either Joseph completely memorized large chunks of his pre-written manuscript and dictated it to his scribes, or the scribes were in on it. But I have to throw out the possibility of that second option.
Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery both served as scribes and as witnesses to the reality of The Book of Mormon. They both later left the Church and openly opposed it, yet they never denied the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon and the translation process. If they had been in on the hoax they would have had nothing to lose by confessing.
Therefore, Joseph had to have spent countless hours memorizing his manuscript. It hardly would have been the most effective means of dictating the text. Again, if I already had prepared a manuscript I would have claimed direct revelation and published it. But, if I still wanted a scribe to make an unnecessary copy I would have found a way to get my personal copy in front of me.
Nowadays I’d write it on a Google Doc. I could just stick my smartphone in a hat and voila, translation. But seeing as how that wouldn’t have been an option I might have hidden the pages under the translation table, discreetly moved them to my lap and then dictated them through a hole in the hat. There’s no way it would have worked for long (“Joseph, why is your head moving from left to right over and over again?”), but hey, it’s got a better chance than memorizing the whole thing.
7. I would not have turned to my blasphemous book of fiction for comfort in the hours before my imminent martyrdom which I knew was coming
I’ll let Elder Jeffrey R. Holland take this one. He said it better than I ever could.