The church is in the international headlines once again, this time because of the much anticipated “October Surprise” promised (threatened?) by Tom Phillips, current head of MormonThink and previous Stake President, now disaffected former Mormon, who detailed his experience with the Second Anointing ordinance when he was a church leader in the UK. While it’s 4 months late, he has grabbed headlines by suing church leader, Thomas S Monson, asserting that tithing funds were obtained from member Stephen Bloor by making misleading fraudulent claims, including:
- The Book of Abraham is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Joseph Smith.
- The Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates by Joseph Smith is the most correct book on earth and is an ancient historical record.
- Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.
- Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed as martyrs in 1844 because they would not deny their testimony of the Book of Mormon.
- The Illinois newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor had to be destroyed because it printed lies about Joseph Smith.
- There was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago.
- All humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago.
This is the best article I’ve seen on this case to date, written primarily from a US legal perspective, comparing this case to United States v. Ballard, a religious fraud case in 1944. In that case, the fraudulent claims were upheld, but one dissenting judge, Judge Jackson, made several eloquent points about the dangers of allowing this type of case.
While it will probably get thrown out, the material questions (from a legal standpoint) that I can see are: 1) can these claims be proven or demonstrated to be the church’s consistent position, and 2) can it be proven that President Monson doesn’t believe the church’s claims? I’d like to elaborate on each of these, but also conduct some informal polling among our readers on the same.
What Are the Church’s Claims?
Each of the 7 statements (above) that are supposedly church claims all have a good deal of wiggle room. For example, the Book of Abraham is usually called an inspired translation rather than a literal translation. This is one benefit to the statements the church has been putting out on Fridays (most recently, DNA and the Book of Mormon). It clarifies that the church’s stance isn’t clear! There are conflicting statements throughout the last 150 years from various Mormon leaders on all these topics. A comment on the above article by Greg1984 points to several of these flaws:
- i) The Book of Abraham is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Joseph Smith. The Church teaches that the BoA is an “inspired” translation, not a “literal” translation.
- ii) The Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates by Joseph Smith is the most correct book on earth and is an ancient historical record. The Church teaches the BoM was translated from ancient gold plates. There is both evidence for and against the claim it is an ancient historical record. Smith said it was “most correct” only in the context of helping someone get closer to God.
- iii) Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C. The Church teaches that some, not necessarily all, Native Americans are descended of Israelites.
- iv) Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed as martyrs in 1844 because they would not deny their testimony of the Book of Mormon. They were killed for many reasons. One nearly indisputable reason was their testimony of the Book of Mormon. The Smiths qualify as “martyrs” under most definitions of the word.
- v) The Illinois newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor had to be destroyed because it printed lies about Joseph Smith. The Nauvoo Expositor printed truths, half-truths, and lies about Smith. The question of “had to be destroyed” is subjective.
- vi) There was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago. Some Mormons believe this, some do not. The Church has no official stance.
- vii) All humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago. Most Mormons believe this, some do not. The Church has no official stance.
Did Pres. Monson make these specific assertions to Stephen Bloor in some side conversation? And if so, how could it be proven? Was there a recorded conversation? Or is this just a general claim taken straight out of the pages of the non-canonical Mormon Doctrine?
Does Pres. Monson Disbelieve the Church’s Claims?
It doesn’t matter whether the church’s claims are true or even credible. For fraud to occur, Pres. Monson would have to be deliberately using misinformation or misleading information to deceive others for purposes of obtaining tithing funds. To commit fraud, he has to be a non-believer. Proving what Pres. Monson does or doesn’t believe is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. As Judge Jackson pointed out in the Ballard case:
In the first place, as a matter of either practice or philosophy I do not see how we can separate an issue as to what is believed from considerations as to what is believable. The most convincing proof that one believes his statements is to show that they have been true in his experience. Likewise, that one knowingly falsified is best proved by showing that what he said happened never did happen.
How can the Government prove these persons knew something to be false which it cannot prove to be false? If we try religious sincerity severed from religious verity, we isolate the dispute from the very considerations which in common experience provide its most reliable answer.
In the second place, any inquiry into intellectual honesty in religion raises profound psychological problems. William James, who wrote on these matters as a scientist, reminds us that it is not theology and ceremonies which keep religion going. Its vitality is in the religious experiences of many people.
Pres. Monson’s talks are almost exclusively about the impact of living the gospel in his life. The seven supposed claims of Mormonism have relatively little to do with daily lived experience of the faithful or with paying tithing. Faith often goes against proof. Again, Judge Jackson says it well:
it is hard to say that they do not get what they pay for. Scores of sects flourish in this country by teaching what to me are queer notions. It is plain that there is wide variety in American religious taste. The Ballards are not alone in catering to it with a pretty dubious product.
The chief wrong which false prophets do to their following is not financial. The collections aggregate a tempting total, but individual payments are not ruinous. I doubt if the vigilance of the law is equal to making money stick by over-credulous people.
But the real harm is on the mental and spiritual plane. There are those who hunger and thirst after higher values which they feel wanting in their humdrum lives. They live in mental confusion or moral anarchy and seek vaguely for truth and beauty and moral support. When they are deluded and then disillusioned, cynicism and confusion follow.
The wrong of these things, as I see it, is not in the money the victims part with half so much as in the mental and spiritual poison they get. But that is precisely the thing the Constitution put beyond the reach of the prosecutor, for the price of freedom of religion or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish. 
Some have speculated that Tom Phillips (the claimant) is hunting for secret documents in the church’s archives regarding these seven claims. Given that the church was buying all sorts of documents in the 1980s (the Hoffman forgeries exploited this) and has a stake in the same, it’s possible there are (seemingly) materially damaging documents in the church’s secret archives. Doubtless the Catholic church’s secret archives could take ours in an arm wrestle , but it’s an interesting question, specifically about the LDS church. Even if there are damaging documents, they would have to be proven to be legitimate. The church would also have a motive to squirrel away damaging forgeries or false documents to keep them out of the public eye so that faith is not damaged. The story of the lost 116 pages is a cautionary tale in this regard, doubtless one that has been discussed whenever documents surface.
As to the outcomes, if the case actually were proven, then worst case, the UK govt could seize the church’s assets in the UK against repayment of tithes to all UK members (class action style). Chances of that happening are incredibly remote. Most likely this will just be either a black eye to the church from a publicity standpoint, or we’ll see defenders of religious freedom come out to protect us. Either way, buckle in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
 It’s not difficult to imagine the claims of others sects that could be subject to similar scrutiny if a former parishioner were so inclined. Transubstantiation is certainly an example. Even the idea of expiation for sin is unprovable. In essence, churches provide both the disease (guilt) and the cure (repentance), at least to non-believers.
 After my tour of the Vatican, I’d just like to know where they are keeping all the hacked off statue penises. In a broom closet? In a coptic jar? Does that tour cost more?