Brigham H. Roberts was one of the Mormon Churchs greatest theologians and historians. He was author of the six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church, still one of the most respected works of Mormon history. He was in his time recognized as the expert Mormon apologist and in 1909 he published his chief defense of the Book of Mormon, entitled New Witnesses for God. He was a General Authority and a member of the then powerful First Council of the Seventy.
In 1921 an event occurred that forever changed Roberts life. Roberts was asked to answer a man investigating Mormonism who asked five questions (given below) about the Book of Mormon. Roberts began an investigation that would trouble him until his death in 1933. The study deeply challenged his faith in the Book of Mormon.
The depth of Roberts personal struggle over the matter is recorded in three documents he produced in the years before he died. None of these works was published during Roberts lifetime, but they are now available. (A comprehensive study of these documents is published as Studies of the Book of Mormon, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois.)
As his struggles intensified, Roberts wrote an open letter to President Herber J. Grant, to Grants counselors, to the Twelve Apostles and to the First Council of Seventy, requesting an emergency meeting with all of them to discuss the matter.
President Grant immediately assembled the brethren for two days of intense meetings at which Roberts delivered a 141-page report entitled "Book of Mormon Difficulties, A Study." Roberts asked for the collective wisdom of the brethren and the inspiration of the Lord in order to answer the questions.
Roberts had hoped to find answers at the meeting, but he came away after the two days disappointed and discouraged. As his investigation continued, he became more and more disillusioned with the Book of Mormon. Two months before his death he told a friend, Wesley P. Lloyd, former dean of the graduate school BYU, that the defense the brethren made for the Book of Mormon might "satisfy people who didnt think, but [it was] a very inadequate answer for a thinking man." Roberts told Lloyd he did not criticize the brethren for not being able to answer the questions, but said, "In a Church which claimed continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary." But it was not forthcoming. Here are the five questions the prophets could not answer.
First, linguistics. The investigator asked why, if the American Indians were all descendants of Lehi, there was such a diversity in the languages of the American Indians and why was there no indication of Hebrew in any of the Indian languages.
Second, the Book of Mormon says that Lehi found horses when he arrived in America. The horse described in the Book of Mormon did not exist here. It was imported with the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.
Third, Nephi is stated to have had a "bow of steel." Jews did not know steel at that time. And there was no iron smelted on this continent until after the Spaniard colonization.
Fourth, the Book of Mormon mentions "swords and cimeters." Scimitars are unknown until the rise of the Moslem faith, after 500 A. D.
Fifth, the Book of Mormon says the Nephites possessed silk. Silk did not exist in America in pre-Columbian times.
At first, Roberts was most concerned about the linguistic problem. But as he studied, he discovered new problems. He told Lloyd he saw literary problems in the Book of Mormon as well as geographic problems. Where were the Mayan cliffs and high mountain peaks from the Book of Mormon? The geography of the Book of Mormon looked suspiciously like the New England of Joseph Smith.
Roberts eventually concluded: That Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself, that he did not translate it from gold plates, and that he produced the Book of Mormon by drawing upon materials like Ethan Smiths View of the Hebrews, published near Josephs home a few years before the "translation" of the Book of Mormon. Roberts became convinced that View of Hebrews was "the ground plan" for the Book of Mormon.
Incredibly, Brigham Roberts, who started his career defending the Book of Mormon and became its staunchest apologist, had to admit that Joseph Smith was a plagiarist. One can sympathize with the elderly Roberts who realized he had spent a lifetime defending something he came to see as fraud. It was heartbreaking. Roberts also investigated "the imaginative mind of Joseph Smith." He concluded that Joseph could have made up most of the Book of Mormon out of his own mind. He quoted Josephs mother as she recalled how Joseph would give "amusing recitals" in which he would describe "the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship." All this Roberts acknowledged, "took place before the young prophet had received the plates of the Book of Mormon."
The Book of Mormon, he argued, must be of human origin. And if it is, so must be the rest of the work of Joseph Smith. "His revelations become merely human productions ."
Roberts suggested that Smith became caught up in spiritual "excesses" out of which he imagined prophecies and manifestations. Roberts concluded that Smiths visions were "psychological" and that the gold plates "were not objective"that is, they didnt exist.