The Provenance of the world’s major religions is clearly of generic interest, but the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon has reasonably raised interest among the general populace about the tenets and background of that religion in particular.  As the first Mormon presidential candidate for a major party, he has broken new ground, and as one of the elders in that church, hotel magnate J.W. Marriott. has said, Romney’s candidacy—he has been, after all, a Bishop in the church—is bringing Mormonism into the mainstream

For a religion coming into the mainstream, it is surprising to me how little its general origins and tenets are openly discussed in popular media.  Many do know, and remain dubious about, the claims that Joseph Smith actually discovered Golden plates buried under a tree in upstate New York which an angel of God helped him translate, that Jesus visited North America, or that a lost tribe of Israel actually settled the Americas in the absence of any direct archaeological evidence.

However, as difficult as it may be for a skeptical outsider to buy into these claims, it must be admitted that they are no more fantastical than the scriptural tales in the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.  Nor are they any more falsifiable. 

Other doctrines of the church have been added through “Revelations” over the years, and recently I wrote about the interesting claim that good Mormons can, after death, ascend to a higher plane of existence, and approach Godlike characters that may shepherd civilizations on other worlds either in our plane of existence or another. Following the publication of that piece, a group of ex-Mormons, including two ex-bishops, contacted me, asking to meet and clarify and correct some of the details of my discussion.  While the gods and other planets claim is more subtle than I argued, based on statements by Spencer Kimball, a former Latter-day Saints president, the publicly available information they led me to was much more surprising, and in the end, more damning. 

We cannot claim that Joseph Smith fraudulently created the Book of Mormon because we have no access to the original source, the golden PLATES.  However there is another scriptural text revered in the Mormon faith—the book of Abraham. This text came to Joseph Smith not through an angel, but via an Irishman named Michael Chandler, who brought it, or rather a series of Egyptian papyri to Kirtland, Ohio, then the home of the Mormons, in 1835.  Smith examined them and quickly discovered that one of the scrolls was written by the biblical prophet Abraham, and another by Joseph of Egypt. The members of the church pooled their resources and bought the papyri and four mummies for $2,400.  Over the next seven years, Joseph Smith translated the first book, but was killed before he could translate the second.

For Smith and the Mormon Church, not only were facsimiles of the scrolls made and kept for posterity, but some of the actual scrolls themselves were discovered to exist in 1966 in the vault room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Equally unfortunate for them, but fortunate for the rest of the world, in the 1830s unbeknownst to Smith, translations of the Rosetta Stone were published, providing a definitive method for translating Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek, allowing scholars to decipher many ancient scrolls.  

Egyptologists who have examined both the facsimiles, and the original documents, including scholars from the MET in New York and from the University of Chicago, agree on one thing. The book of Abraham has nothing to do with Abraham, was written 2,000 years after he purportedly lived, and describes burial rituals and chants to be recited by the spirit of the corpse after burial.  Every single aspect of Joseph Smith’s translation was fabricated. According to the experts, Smiths’s grasp of Egyptian Hieroglyphics themselves was flawed, as his reconstructed facsimiles of the Papyri confused such things as the head of a jackal with the head of Abraham, and even at least one later Mormon Scholar admitted that Smith clearly had no skill in Hieroglyphics.

This doesn’t prove that Joseph Smith didn’t have mysterious golden tablets that later disappeared, or that an Angel of God didn’t appear to him and help him translate them. IT does raise a question of whether he deliberately fabricated or deluded himself into believing that he was correctly translating one of the fundamental scriptures of the Mormon religion.  

While all the world’s religions rely on dubious claims in writings of uncertain provenance, only those of the Mormon religion involve ones that are manifestly falsifiable, and in the case of the Book of Abraham, apparently manifestly false.  So singling out Mormonism for special attention as it “comes into the mainstream,” is appropriate.

Beyond the original scriptures the Mormon Church relies on ‘Revelations’ from Church leaders to determine doctrine.  There is one such more modern Revelation that is sufficiently relevant to the current Presidential Campaign that I would love for Mr. Romney to address it.

Black people were traditionally denied membership in the church at the level of priests from its inception until a revelation in 1978.  That awkward and racist practice is now over, but it is interesting to note that the basis of the church’s leadership’s decision at the time does not appear, from the writings of its President at least, to have involved human rights, but rather expediency

The exclusion of blacks was justified by the church on the basis of the claim that their skin color represented the “mark of Cain,”.  Therefore they could not be accepted into the priesthood until a Revelation revealed that God was ready to forgive them.  In 1978, that apparently occurred.  But the church President in his written report of his revelation never repudiated the notion that their skin color did reflect such original sin. It would be worth hearing Romney’s perspective on this now. 

When viewed under the harsh light of modern reality, perhaps Mormonism has more to lose by being brought into the mainstream than it has to gain.   

Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.  His most recent book is A Universe from Nothing.