The Indefensible Book of Mormon

Book of MormonEvangelical professor and author Philip Jenkins, in addition to teaching and authoring books, blogs at The Anxious Bench. He has published an interesting series of articles over the past few months that examine the Book of Mormon as a historical text. The series began when he used the Book of Mormon as an illustration of previous posts discussing “fringe and mainstream ideas in scholarship.” In his May 17 blog he wrote,

“If I look at the Book of Mormon as a historical text, as opposed to a spiritual document, it is simply not factually correct in any particular. In some controversial exchanges, I have been surprised to find how many clearly educated and literate Mormons think that the work can be defended as a work of history and archaeology. It can’t. The reason mainstream historians and scholars do not point out that fact more often is either that they are unaware of the book’s claims, or that they simply see no need to waste time on something so blatantly fictitious. This really is not debatable.

“Let me begin with a basic principle of using evidence. I have no obligation to disprove the Book of Mormon, or indeed any religious text, because logically, nobody can prove a negative. I do not need to pick through the book and highlight every anachronism or error, sparking trench warfare with apologists who have built up elaborate defenses against every charge and cavil. Rather, it is up to anyone who believes in that Book to justify its authenticity, by producing positive arguments in its favor. If you are basing statements on the evidence of mystical gold plates that are not available for scholarly examination because they were taken up to Heaven, then you are making utterly extraordinary claims that demand extraordinary evidence. I am open to the concept of miracle, but the burden of proof clearly rests with the person making the claims.”

In subsequent posts Dr. Jenkins covers a lot of ground, addressing such things as:

  • “Does the Book [of Mormon] contain a statement or idea about the New World that Joseph Smith could not have known at the time, but which has subsequently been validated by archaeological or historical research?” (No.)
  • Will the fact that “the Book of Mormon does not contain literal historical truth” impact the growth of the Mormon Church? (No.)
  • “What about Nahom” as a “verifiable Book of Mormon site”? (It’s not.)
  • Is there “genetic evidence” to support the Book of Mormon’s “claims to literal historicity”? (No.)
  • “Can anyone cite any single credible fact, object, site, or inscription from the New World that supports any one story found in the Book of Mormon?” (No.)
  • “Without such positive, objective, verifiable evidence” are there any “grounds to support or advocate the historicity of the Book of Mormon other than religious faith”? (No.)
  • Though Mormons “can’t produce a word of concrete evidence for the Book of Mormon,” isn’t it true that “the same issues apply to the Bible as well”? (No.)

Dr. Jenkins provides detailed and sound reasoning for the positions he affirms, making his series of articles well worth the time it takes to read them.

Much of the series has been driven by challenges coming from Mormon apologists. I must admit that I have not read these opposing Mormon blogs (even though Dr. Jenkins urges readers to do so), but I have read Daniel Peterson’s related “Defending the Faith” column that appeared in Deseret News on July 16, “Book of Mormon apologetics and scholarship.” Here Dr. Peterson seemingly replies to Dr. Jenkins though he doesn’t name him, instead citing unidentified “critics of the Book of Mormon” who

“demand its advocates provide the strongest single piece of archaeological evidence — or that they name, say, the top three pieces of such evidence. That, in the judgment of those critics, should prove its historical authenticity to an unbiased observer.”

It could be that Dr. Peterson has other critics in mind, but given the fact that he published his column immediately following Dr. Jenkins’ repeated requests for “one single piece of credible evidence that might confirm the Book of Mormon’s account of the New World,” it seems reasonable to frame Dr. Peterson’s column in that context. And if we do that, some interesting things emerge.

BOM HistoryIn his first paragraph, Dr. Peterson addresses his apologetic to a critic’s demand for evidence that “proves” the Book of Mormon’s “historical authenticity to an unbiased observer.” He broadens the nature of that “demand” in the following paragraph when he suggests Book of Mormon advocates are asked to prove the antiquity of the book “beyond a reasonable doubt, to the satisfaction of everyone.” This, of course, is not at all what Dr. Jenkins has asked for. Reiterating what he has requested over the course of his blog series, Dr. Jenkins wrote on July 12,

“…if you want to claim truth for a single word of the Book of Mormon, then prove it. Don’t try and prove the whole thing, obviously, that’s an impossible task. But go ahead and give me one piece of credible evidence that at some point before Columbus, the New World was home to some people, who were derived from the Middle East, who were either Semitic or Semitic-derived. Show me one piece of evidence (not rooted in religious faith) for the existence of such ethnicities, nations, cultures or languages in the New World.

“Particularly, show me one piece of worthwhile evidence for this thing about them keeping up some form of Israelite religion…

“…let me set the bar really low. Don’t bother trying to track down an individual or a name or a specific place, just show me anything suggesting the mere existence of that Middle Eastern linked community in the New World. For just one village, one family, one group.”

This seems like a reasonable request given the historical claims made by the Book of Mormon (and Mormon apologists), but Dr. Peterson doesn’t think so. He says Mormons aren’t about that. Instead, they are

“patiently engaged in amassing a cumulative case that will show the Book of Mormon congruent with what mainstream scholarship is disclosing about the ancient Near Eastern environment from which the Jaredites, Lehites and Mulekites are said to have emerged and about the pre-Columbian American environment in which they lived out their histories.

“…But no single piece of evidence is, or is likely to be, decisive by itself. Nor will three or five or 10 such pieces likely ‘prove’ the Book of Mormon true, overcoming all resistance.”

So now, rather than asking for one piece of physical evidence that suggests the mere existence of “that Middle Eastern linked community in the New World,” Dr. Peterson claims critics want proof for the Book of Mormon that will satisfy “an unbiased observer,” “beyond a reasonable doubt, to the satisfaction of everyone,” that will “overcome all resistance.” In fact, what Dr. Peterson is saying (in a round about way) is that no piece of credible physical evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon exists. Which is exactly what Dr. Jenkins has been arguing.

Dr. Peterson goes on to unwittingly agree with Dr. Jenkins on another point when he argues that Mormons have “nonarchaeological evidence for taking seriously [the Book of Mormon’s] claim to antiquity.” For this, Dr. Peterson cites the claims the book makes for itself (“That, in itself, doesn’t prove that it actually was, but it certainly provides a reason to consider the idea.”); statements from “seemingly sane, honest, reliable witnesses” that “attest to the existence of purportedly ancient golden plates” (“They were produced by somebody.”); and the “characteristics of the book” that “seem to place its creation beyond the capacity of any 19th century person who’s been plausibly suggested as its author.” Dr. Peterson cannot provide any archeological evidence, so he falls back on “nonarchaeological evidence,” which has its root in his religious faith. Dr. Peterson’s argument supports Dr. Jenkins’ stated position:

“The Book is a product of religious faith, and must be received on the basis of religious faith. It has nothing to do with scholarship.”

The Bible and the Book of MormonDr. Jenkins has found that Mormons don’t want to accept his conclusion, so they argue the point with all sorts of diversions. To Dr. Peterson’s credit, he did not use one rhetorical tactic that Dr. Jenkins has faced from other Mormon apologists. Dr. Jenkins explains this tactic:

“…he can’t produce a word of concrete evidence for the Book of Mormon, but (he claims) the same issues apply to the Bible as well! Christian claims depend just as much on faith as does the Book of Mormon! This has the rhetorical bonus of trying to divert the discussion from the Book of Mormon, where his views are completely untenable and indefensible, and off to the Bible, where the real, serious literature is immense. This art of diversion and obfuscation is a principal goal of ‘Ancient Book of Mormon Studies’ if not its chief raison d’etre.

“Let me explain why his Biblical analogy is wholly bogus.”

Dr. Jenkins goes on in this blog post to present fact after fact that supports the historicity of the Bible (you really should read it). He demonstrates that the Mormon apologetic analogy is “Night and day, black and white, apples and oranges.”

Some Mormons think God designed true religion as something that needs to be embraced in the absence of evidence — because the presence of evidence removes the need for faith. But Jesus Himself modeled the value of physical evidence when He presented His followers with “many proofs” of His resurrection (Acts 1:3). Christians do have faith; Christians also have evidences that support and inform their faith. The two are not mutually exclusive; God designed them to work together. But in Mormonism, faith and evidence are very often hostile to one another. Evidence (or the lack thereof) speaks against the Book of Mormon, not for it. Truly, the Book of Mormon as a historical text is indefensible.

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.

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14 Responses to The Indefensible Book of Mormon

  1. falcon says:

    There’s a reason that the BoM sites as “truth” the feeling that can be generated by reading the (BoM). The CoC Mormon sect is no longer that into the BoM. It’s membership is given the flexibility of seeing it as “spiritual” rather than “historical”. I talked to a young man at the CoC center in Nauvoo and he told me he couldn’t remember the last time the BoM was used in a worship service in his congregation. I’ve recently been having some very intense discussions with a young LDS man and it’s amazing the stubbornness with which he holds on to the LDS cause. It’s like he’s fighting for his very life. But then think about it. This young man attends a small congregation where he has some status, a community and friends. He believes he has spiritual power through the priesthood and that some day he will become a god. Added to this is the fact that he is on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale in terms of “status” and it’s no wonder he clings to Mormonism.
    For many, Mormonism is their reason for being; their sense of purpose is wrapped up in it. To discover it isn’t true via the BoM debunking would be devastating.

  2. falcon says:

    When something is confirmed by a feeling that is supposedly coming from God as a revelation, evidence is seen as counter-intuitive. So it’s not only the “feeling” but the super-spiritual status that comes from it. So why in the world would any true believer be interested in fact based evidence bolstered by solid research? Talk about a major buzz kill. There’s status in having spiritual visions, dreams, impressions and revelations. Evidence is a faith killer. So what’s better the feelings that come with believing in something that’s not true or having to face the stark reality of a faux spiritual experience.
    It’s absolutely no fun for a true believer to have his fantasy tampered with. Think of all of the people who groove on conspiracy theories of every sort. From the assassination of JFK, to UFOs to the Ti-lateral commission and the Illuminati, it’s all just way too much fun. I knew a middle-school kid one time who believed everything in the National Inquirer.

  3. falcon says:

    I guess it’s because I’ve had some intense “discussions” with a young LDS man lately, but my sense of the level of deceit within the hardcore believer has been intensified.
    I suppose if I lived in an area where Mormonism dominates the culture I’d be more tuned into why these folks hold so tightly to their faith in the religion. If you take someone who is maybe on the down-side of the socioeconomic scale and provide him with status of the “power” of the priesthood, a believing and supporting community and the promise of becoming a “god” in the after life, that’s pretty heady stuff. Who’d want to risk losing that especially when there’s the motivation of a forever family and the motivation of the spouse becoming a goddess. Man that’s like every woman getting to be homecoming queen.
    There isn’t anyone outside of the Mormon religion that believes in the historicity of the BoM. There is a whole cottage industry made-up of true believers who provide the rest of the faithful with all sorts of fanciful “evidence” that the BoM is true. The TBM population is a waiting, ready and willing bunch who will accept any explanation that reinforces what they desire to believe in. However there is also a group that while still buying into the program, are a little more nuanced in their thinking.
    None-the-less the result is the same as far as sticking with the LDS system.

  4. falcon says:

    I’ve talked previously about liking to watch videos of former Mormons giving their testimonies or “out” stories. Lee Baker, who was a bishop and hyper-active in the LDS program, says that it took him five years to exit. Former bishop Earl Erskine says much the same thing. And now they discuss how people ask them why in the world it took them so long to figure it out and leave. They talk about the embarrassing thing is that the information was all there, hiding in plain sight. But, they add, they didn’t know what questions to ask because they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
    I might add that there often has to be a precipitating event to get someone to move into the “contemplative stage” as former MC poster Jack Garcia use to say. I’m not talking about “sin” or “being offended”. It’s complicated for these true believers.
    So if your LDS faith is based on the “truth” of the BoM, you are on thin ice. I spoke with a young man tour guide at the CoC Visitor’s Center in Nauvoo and I can truly say, he was a different breed of cat. Actually, it was quite refreshing. He got it! If there is a continuum from “chapel Mormon” to “internet Mormon”, this guy was no where on the Lickert Scale. Mormonism to this guy, I think, was simply a part of the history of CoC.
    It becomes clear that the Community of Christ no longer defends the Book of Mormon as a necessary keystone of their religion, especially in contrast to the position of the LDS Church which shares its roots. At the 2007 Community of Christ World Conference, President Stephen M. Veazey ruled as out of order a resolution to “reaffirm the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired record”. In so doing he stated:

    “While the Church affirms the Book of Mormon as scripture, and makes it available for study and use in various languages, we do not attempt to mandate the degree of belief or use.”

    So think about that. When we look at the various sects of Mormonism, we see conflicting views of the BoM and also fundamental doctrine. So what is the restored gospel built on, in terms of it’s foundation? If the BoM is a true history, the whole program falls apart.

  5. Mike R says:

    falcon,

    Ever wonder why Mormon leaders push the Book of Mormon much more than their other “scriptures” i.e. the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C ) or Pearl of Great Price (PGP ) ?
    Their whole Missionary effort is to place a Book of Mormon (BM) in people’s hands . Traveling through Idaho and Utah years ago we found a BM in the Motel room along side a Gideon Bible — never the D&C or PGP or a Ensign magazine . I think the reason for the BM taking a priority role in their Missionary efforts is obvious , and it’s because the BM contains hundreds of Bible verses . So many people trust the Bible and so why not trust the BM ? That’s a clever tactic used by Mormon leaders , and sadly people today have been fooled by it and end up believing the Mormon church is Jesus’ one true church with the only true gospel of salvation .

  6. falcon says:

    Mike,
    What bothers me is that the LDS people believe this book is an authentic history. That blows my mind. No wonder it has to be sold on the basis of a feeling. Do I think it’s possible for people to get a “feeling” when reading the BoM? Absolutely! So then, our LDS friends might ask, then how can you deny that it’s true? A couple of answers to that question could be offered. One is that I get feelings reading works of fiction all of the time. Secondly, there is some truth in the BoM. It’s the parts that JS copied from the KJB.
    I would simply ask, “Can the LDS find any outside credible source that would identify the BoM as an actual history?”

  7. Mike R says:

    Falcon,

    Mormon scholars have gone to great lengths to try and provide “evidence” that the Book of Mormon (BM) is a authentic history , there’s always a scrap of some drawing or some artifact they find in a Central America cave that is tauted as evidence for it . It’s hard keeping up with all the speculation turned into books offered in defense of the Book of Mormon . Added to all this guessing is the question : do Mormon scholars agree on the hill Cumorah in New York State being the same one in the BM ? Some Mormon researchers even have a testimony and believe the Great Lakes area is BM geography . So all in all , while I personally believe that there is not enough physical evidence proving the BM as a history , I’ll let the “experts ” deal with that particular issue .

    When I consider the BM I just don’t see it as something I need in order to better my life . I certainly don’t see it as proof that the Mormon church today is Jesus’ true church with His gospel of salvation and that failing to join the Mormon church means I will not be forgiven of my sins nor receive the gift of eternal life . In short , Mormonism is not what it claims to be , and the Book of Mormon even if true does little to alter that fact . In reality Mormon leaders have succumbed to a similar behavior that they claim men after the deaths of Jesus apostles succumbed to namely , they drifted from the standard of sound scriptural teaching by mixing in man made teachings to what the apostles taught about important doctrines . Now the Bible contains Paul’s warning in Gal 1:8 of being aware of future altering of the apostles teachings ; and in the Book of Mormon Jacob 4:14 mentions men can drift into error by running ahead and going outside the boundary/ standard . Joseph Smith commenced to drifting away from the Bible and even the BM late in his life and Brigham Young accelerated it . The result of their personal apostasy is the Bible and BM have been relegated to mere “dead prophets ” by Brigham’s and his subsequent colleagues ‘ role as ” living prophets ” with their new doctrinal innovations .
    While the Bible and BM are still used nowadays to glean some spiritual truths from ,
    they are anemic to provide today enough truths to embrace which are required for LDS to receive eternal life — according to Mormonism .

    The Bible contains the true gospel of salvation , it was preached by Jesus’ apostles ( Rom 1:16 ) and to those who believed and accepted it the gift of eternal life was given to them by God . That same gospel which saved sinners 2,000 years ago is still saving sinners today .
    No need for the Book of Mormon and especially the latter days prophets of Mormonism , given their behavior — Matt 24:11

  8. tanja says:

    I just have to ask you. Have you read the Book of Mormon with a sincere and open mind? The book, in and of itself, standing alone without the story behind it, is a fantastic piece of literature and those reading it, and I mean sincerely reading, not to find fault, but to learn if it could possibly be true, find themselves encouraged in their relationship to God and the world, feel prompted to do good to others, feel the strength to carry on during hard times, and learn what the true meaning of charity really is. No 3rd grade educated farm boy could ever come up with this stuff. It is evidence for itself. No other support needed. It is not a dangerous thing to do, to read the book with a humble and sincere and open mind. It won’t make you are bad person or harm you, but you will know for sure for yourself. I encourage you to read it cover to cover and then see how you feel afterward.

  9. falcon says:

    Mike,
    The case of Thomas Stuart Ferguson and his quest to prove the BoM from archaeology is very interesting.

    From all that we can learn, Thomas Stuart Ferguson was a dedicated believer in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon at the time he founded the New World Archaeology Foundation. He really believed that archaeology would prove the Book of Mormon. In a letter dated April 23, 1952, Mr. Ferguson said the “the archeological data now available is entirely inadequate” for testing the Book of Mormon. He predicted, however, that the “next ten years of excavations in Mexico and Guatemala should enable us to make the archeological tests.” For a number of years he was very excited about the progress of the work and seemed certain that the Book of Mormon would be vindicated soon. In his book, One Fold And One Shepherd, p. 263, he stated: “The important thing now is to continue the digging at an accelerated pace in order to find more inscriptions dating to Book-of-Mormon times. Eventually we should find decipherable inscriptions… referring to some unique person, place or event in the Book of Mormon.” In 1962 Mr. Ferguson said that “Powerful evidences sustaining the book are accumulating.”

  10. falcon says:

    ………………..and so how did this intense search, time, money and effort end? Not real well in terms of sustaining Mr. Ferguson’s faith.

    “…Mormonism is probably the best conceived myth-fraternity to which one can belong…. Joseph Smith tried so hard he put himself out on a limb with the Book of Abraham, and also with the Book of Mormon. He can be refuted – but why bother… It would be like wiping out placebos in medicine, and that would make no sense when they do lots of good….

    “Why not say the right things and keep your membership in the great fraternity, enjoying the good things you like and discarding the ones you can’t swallow (and keeping your mouth shut)? Hypocritical? Maybe…. thousands of members have done, and are doing, what I suggest you consider doing. Silence is golden – etc…. So why try to be heroic and fight the myths – the Mormon one or any other that does more good than ill?

    “Perhaps you and I have been spoofed by Joseph Smith. Now that we have the inside dope – why not spoof a little back and stay aboard? Please consider this letter confidential – for obvious reasons. I want to stay aboard the good ship, Mormonism – for various reasons that I think valid. First, several of my dearly loved family members want desperately to believe and do believe it and they each need it. It does them far more good than harm. Belonging, with my eyes wide open is actually fun, less expensive than formerly, and no strain at all…. I never get up and bear testimony… You might give my suggestions a trial run – and if you find you have to burn all the bridges between yourselves and the Church, then go ahead and ask for excommunication. (The day will probably come – but it is far off – when the leadership of the Church will change the excommunication rules and delete as grounds non-belief in the 2 books mentioned and in Joseph Smith as a prophet etc.., but if you wait for that day, you probably will have died. It is a long way off – tithing would drop too much for one thing….
    http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no69.htm

  11. falcon says:

    I’ve recently been reminded how angry Mormons can get when exposed to the truth of not only the BoM but any other fact based evidence that challenges their testimony. I think everything we say or write sounds like shouting.
    Micah Wilder talks about how angry he was when he stalked out of the Baptist’s pastors office after the (pastor) destroyed everything he believed in regarding salvation; using the Bible. Micah had gone into a Sunday night service with his MM partner to convert the entire congregation. The pastor said he would listen to Micah’s presentation but then wanted an opportunity to speak when they finished. Micah says, “In ten minutes he destroyed everything I ever believed in.” The pastor wasn’t aggressive or mean in his presentation or manner. However this is the way LDS interpret challenges. Thankfully Micah took the pastors advice and began to read the NT as a child would read it. After about nine months of intensive reading, Micah gave his life to Christ. Eventually his whole family left the LDS church as did his girl friend, now wife. Of course he got booted off of his mission.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIsKyogVtio
    I’m sensing that while we may not realize it, a good portion of what we do in defending the gospel of Jesus Christ, is to inform Christians and others, what Mormonism is all about. Mormons have a very alluring way of pulling people into the fold by precisely not telling them the things that eventually lead people to leave the LDS church.

  12. Mike R says:

    tanja, welcome .

    The reasons you give to accept the Book of Mormon (BM) are not going to show a person that it what Mormons claim it to be — which is much more than a self help manual on how to live a happy moral lifestyle . Reading the Bible has given me the very same principles you cite as the reason the Book of Mormon has enhanced your life in a positive way .

    It may surprise you to learn that there are people who believe in the BM and live moral lives as well as you , and yet according to your leaders those people are lost having no forgiveness of sins all because they were not baptized by your Missionaries . You see tanja the real point here is not the BM , rather it’s today’s Mormon church . The BM is simply the bait that people are fooled by into joining the Mormon church . Yet it’s clear from looking at Mormon history that Joseph Smith , Brigham Young succumbed to the error mentioned in Jacob 4:14 — they drifted into doctrinal error, and by doing so left the BM and the Bible behind as containing the requirements to receive eternal life . See also Gal 1:8 .and 2 Nephi 28:31 ( the “precepts of men” ) That being the case a person would be wise to not join the Mormon Church today even if they believed the BM was true .

    If you are concerned about taking seriously Jesus’ warning about false prophets arising in the latter days ( Matt 24:11 ) you need to test your prophets ( 1 Jn 4:1 ) . MRM has some relevant information for you to consider . Hope you find the time to look into that .
    Take care .

  13. falcon says:

    tanja,
    Thank you very much for participating in our discussion here. I can tell you are a sincere person who believes very strongly in the BoM. I can appreciate your feelings.
    Let me ask you a question. What if I pray and read the BoM with a sincere, humble and open heart and God tells me it isn’t true? Would you accept that revelation that God has given to me? I’ll answer for you. You wouldn’t accept that from me. You’d tell me to keep reading the BoM until I believed it is true. You see the only acceptable answer for an LDS is that the BoM is true.
    You seem like a very sweet person and if you receive encouragement from the BoM, that’s fine. Can you tell me what I can learn from the BoM about the nature of God, of Jesus and of God’s plan of salvation for mankind? What does the BoM say about how someone is saved? Finally, what edition of the BoM is the one that holds the truth?
    You’ll appreciate this 33 minute video. Let me know what you think.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVeU03R025I

  14. Mike R says:

    Something for Mormons like tanja to think about:

    Christians do’nt need the Book of Mormon , and a Mormon prophet inadvertently admitted as much.
    Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley in his book ” Standing for Something — 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal our Hearts and Homes.” ( pub 2000) .

    Pres Hinckley shares the great problem of moral decay facing our country which has destroyed individuals and families . He says, ” Today we face challenges our Founding Fathers could not have imagined…” ( p xviii)

    The cure for our problems is to “look back” : ” The time has come to look back on the virtues and values that made America great….. We would do well to emphasize the kinds of virtues celebrated by the apostle Paul ” ( he then quotes Phil 4:8-9 ) .

    The whole point he makes in his book is that the values that made America great and the virtues and Godly principles that will heal individual hearts and homes comes from where America’s founding father’s found them — the Bible ! (This was before Mormonism appeared on the scene ).

    It’s important to note that he does not quote one verse from the Book of Mormon . The subtitle of his book says : ” 10 Neglected Virtues that Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes “.
    All 10 of these virtues can be found in the Bible .

    The Bible is God’s Word . In it’s pages is the information on how mankind can receive complete forgiveness of sin and be reconciled to God thus receiving a right relationship with Him and eternal life . There is simply no need to join the Mormon church or submit to the latter days prophets of
    Mormonism .

    We pray that God will open the eyes of the Mormon people to discover this great truth ,and dismiss their leaders from their lives . Mormonism is not the answer .

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