Review of One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, by Richard Abanes

One Nation Under Gods by Richard Abanes is a massive book. It stands at 672 pages, but about a third of it consists of appendices and endnotes, which just goes to show how well Abanes documents his sources. This is a comprehensive history of Mormonism from an evangelical perspective. Understandably, Abanes repeatedly shows his bias, and it is quite evident that his underlying purpose is to discredit the Mormon church and its founders. And truth be told, there are a number of places where Abanes seems to go beyond the evidence in making speculations, drawing unwarranted inferences, and impugning the motives of certain Mormon leaders. That said, I think that Abanes generally does a good job of justifying his bias (after all, everyone has their own bias), and I would say that overall the book seems to be about 95% accurate. Abanes isn’t the first one to make his claims (he doesn’t really introduce any new, original research), but this is the first time that such a wide array of historical sources critiquing Mormonism have been brought together in one volume.

Some of the more surprising facts about Mormonism that I learned from ONUG include:

  • Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and his family were actively involved in the occultist practice of “money-digging,” which is basically treasure hunting via divination. There are multiple documented sources (including a court record) that show that Joseph was frequently hired to lead bands on magical treasure-hunting expeditions. His preferred method of searching for underground riches was to use a “seer stone” and a hat. He would place the stone in the hat, bury his face in the hat, and the stone was supposed to lead him to the treasure (spoiler: it never worked). Coincidentally, this was the same method Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon.
  • There were numerous conflicting accounts of Joseph’s “First Vision” of 1820. The official LDS version of the story is that, when Joseph was about 14, there was a large religious revival in his neighborhood, where the local townspeople joined various churches. Joseph therefore went into the woods to pray about which church to join. Miraculously, two “glorious personages” (Heavenly Father and Jesus) appeared to him and told him all the churches were corrupt, and he should join none of them. He went and told the townspeople, who subsequently persecuted him. This is the event that was supposed to establish Joseph’s authority as a prophet. But there are a few inconsistencies with this story:
    • There is no record of any religious revival having taken place in the area at that time.
    • In the earliest version of the story, Joseph said that he had concluded from his own study of Scripture that all churches were corrupt, before the First Vision. But he later said that he had no idea that all churches were corrupt until the glorious personages told him so.
    • In the earliest version, Joseph said that only Jesus appeared to him. Other times he said that Jesus and the Father appeared to him, and at least once he claimed it was Jesus, the Father, and “many angels.”
    • There is no record that Joseph faced local persecution for telling this story. In fact, there is no record that Joseph told this story publicly for ten years!
  • There were also numerous versions of Joseph’s Second Vision (1823), when the angel Moroni supposedly appeared to him and revealed to him the location of the buried golden plates that Joseph would later translate into the Book of Mormon. In the earliest versions, it seems that Joseph claimed to have seen the ghost of a bearded, bloody Spaniard who had his throat cut ear to ear. This ghost supposedly revealed to Joseph the location of a golden book that would lead him to buried treasure. The religious details of the story would only emerge in much later accounts.

There are a lot of other embarrassing facts presented in this book too. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the less than pleasant side of Mormon history. But you should also be warned, the book is full of typographical errors, which can get annoying at times.

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