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On Mark Twain's Critique of The Book of Mormon

Sometimes writers distance themselves from religious subjects. Religion is still taboo to speak about. Read about it instead.

Mark Twain the Literary Icon

The father of American literature, of course, would have an opinion on the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ since it claims a uniquely American origin. Who better to take to task the "Mormon Bible"?

As much as this article is about my estimation of the opinion of Mark Twain regarding a book of great significance in my life as a true-believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is also a cautionary tale. The brilliance of a person such as Mark Twain does not equate to any level of otherworldly understanding.

Mark Twain is prominent for his writings, but that is not how I know him. As with many American children, Disney movies and book-assigned readings in school classes introduced me to Twain's stories. Interestingly, it is not his stories that helped me feel like I know him.

I know about him due to his inclusion as a character in other fictions, fantasies woven together using his presence out of time to lend to the illusion of credibility. It worked in my case because he has since become an icon of literature personally. I love and respect his place in history as the Charles Dickens of America!

Mark Twain's Satire

Mark Twain is the persona chosen by Samuel Clemens to disseminate his satirical brand of reporting to the world. In honor of his preference, I will refer to him by his pseudonym.

Twain enjoyed reporting with satire. Satire is defined as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize differences, ineptitude, or vices of a subject (person or organization) in the context of contemporary culture and politics.

The important feature of this brand of writing is that the author compares the differences of the topic group to the majority group culturally or religiously; in this instance, to exaggerate and ridicule how foreign those differences are from commonly practiced and believed dogma.

Satire is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Sensationalism in regard to Twain's estimation of The Book of Mormon may not so chiefly apply so generously. Of course, Twain was not a fair observer. His purpose was sensationalism to sell books. He was not a news reporter.

As an admirer of Twain as the icon in American literature and a true believer in The Book of Mormon, I stand to reconcile what the man wrote about it, a piece of written sacrament of faith. I write hoping to exculpate Joseph Smith, Jr. of disparaging sentiments, at least, and expose the error of Twain at the most.

Mark Twain's assessment of the Book of Mormon was not flattering... Was he using a gross exaggeration of what he read or was he for once being direct in his estimation?

Twain's Book of Mormon (possibly)

Twain's Book of Mormon (possibly)

Twain's Estimation of Book of Mormon

Twain did not have a copy of the book as we see it printed today. There is no subtitle explaining that it is another witness of the sonship of Jesus Christ of God. It was most likely in appearance as the image above of a dark leather-bound book. After an assessment of The Book of Mormon, Twain provided that

The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel—half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet. [1]

Mark Twain's assessment of The Book of Mormon was not flattering. His estimation of the Latter-day Saints as a group was not negative, per se. He did not even declare the book a fakery in the pure sense of the word. Was he using a gross exaggeration of what he read, or was he, for once, being direct in his estimation?

The Book of Mormon musical is a modern satire of the record. It does not necessarily state things about the book that are untrue, but it does offer exaggerated takes on the Latter-day Saint culture and religious practices.

The Book of Mormon Musical

Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything; but for me... I am very far on the road to conviction

A Prosy Detail of Imaginary History

A claim that many opposers of the Latter-day Saint scriptures have made for nearly two centuries. Apparently, Twain believed that the book was fiction—made up history written in story form.

As a writer, Twain has written enough fiction to know fiction when he reads it, right? Honestly, no. That is what he called it. From what he could tell, it was modeled after the old testament so that it can appear historically based.

He was looking for an angle from which Joseph Smith, Jr. looked to enterprise on his people; however, he had to reconcile that by the time he met the Latter-day Saints, Joseph was dead. Was Joseph trying to create a spiritual legacy for himself?

Twain is not alone in this estimation. Even some faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claim that the book is no more than inspired allegory. According to this understanding, the principles in the book are the true principle of Christianity, and the stories or history are no more than containers to deliver the messages.

He never claimed that the book was false. He said it "seemed" like the prosy detail of imaginary history. It seemed false because it was new and familiar at the same time. When Twain read the introduction to the Book of Mormon, particularly the witnesses of the book at the beginning he recorded in his book:

Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything; but for me, when a man tells me that he has "seen the engravings which are upon the plates," and not only that, but an angel was there at the time, and saw him see them, and probably took his receipt for it, I am very far on the road to conviction, no matter whether I ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel, or his nationality either. Roughing It (Chapter 16)

Mark Twain was a celebrity. This does not discount his opinion, but it puts it into perspective. Twain had a grasp of the American language to turn a phrase in English, but he did not have the expertise to determine what made or did not make holy scripture. Also, he never claimed to put the book to the test and ask God if it was what it claims to be, the word of God.

My contention is that Mark Twain was inclined to believe the Book of Mormon based on the witnesses of the existence of the plates from which the book was translated alone.

Joseph Smith, Jr. Translating the Gold Plates into the Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith, Jr. Translating the Gold Plates into the Book of Mormon

Religion is under fire in society as a new generation of people seeks answers to life's questions. Taking the view that Twain took by dismissing the importance of the religious notions of Latter-day Saints, today's seekers may find answers in the very books and faith that seem tedious to a casual perusing if a thorough investigation followed instead.

Reference Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rodric Anthony


Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on October 11, 2019:

Twain was a good storyteller if nothing else. He was ahead of his time when it came to dispensing information and entertainment in my opinion.

Mark Richardson from Utah on October 10, 2019:

Good job, my brother in the gospel. I like a lot of thoughts by Mark Twain, such as on travel and on health.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 06, 2018:

I think that sums him up well. He worked hard as a young man and seemed to have a lot of empathy with his fellow-man.

Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on September 06, 2018:

Thanks so much for commenting and reading the article Ann. I like to think of him as a person who wants to get people to think. He was in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was depicted as an unsung hero with an inquisitive mind. I like that fictional version of him. I wonder if it is merited in truth.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 06, 2018:

I think that Clemens, as a satirist, wanted to make people think. To me, he is more like the Oscar Wilde of America, playing devil's advocate to many things.

This is an interesting essay.


Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on August 09, 2018:

Eric, thanks for sharing. I know from talking to Bill that people risk a lot to share religious or political views for all the world to see. Thanks you for trusting something to sacred to my comment section and answering the question.

I will always be thankful for the Book of Mormon because it converted me to Christianity. I later was contacted by missionaries and eventually joined the church.

I wonder who Lee is in reference to? I am assuming Harold B Lee, the prophet. I figure I should know.

I am not a Southwesterner by birth. I am a transplant. I will be a Southwestern American for the foreseeable future, though.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 09, 2018:

Friend I am no one to ask. I read the book on insistence of Mary Rawson. They let me into the ward. I never converted. There is this part of our new testament that says neither subtract or add to it. There are also about 10 books left out due to Nicea.

I added to the book in my mind. And I added greatly to my thought of Christ by reading the Book of Mormon. For some reason I felt it complimented our Western experience in all matters. My Godmother was the grand daughter of Lee. I have launched many a boat from his ferry. If you are a Southwestern son, you respect Smith.

Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on August 09, 2018:

Thanks for reading and commenting. Eric, I thought it was a bit long for my articles. I try to keep then at 750 words, but this one would no let me stick to that. I have thought of shortening it and producing another aricle with what I have. I might take your advice about that still.

I would be interested with you view of the Book of Mormon if you have read it. If you are inclined to share I am inclined to read.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 09, 2018:

Well this was lengthy - maybe deserving two chapters. Very interesting. I pray you only do this academically and not as apologetics. Clemons is more a writer of fiction with some interesting thought thrown in. And not a writer of fact with thought thrown in.

I just thought of it, I read it but never had a judgment on it.

Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on August 09, 2018:

Thanks for reading Bill. I must admit, Clemon's opinion did hurt my little feelings for a moment because he is one of my heroes in writing. You are right "Fame and status do not equate to wisdom."

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 09, 2018:

Opinions are like . . . everyone has one.....especially true with celebrities. It's amazing to me how much importance many people give to the opinions of celebrities. They are, after all, just people. Fame and status do not equate to wisdom. :) Thanks for the critique of the critique. Very interesting!