Ask a Mormon missionary how anyone can know that Mormonism is true, and he'll refer you to the following statement:
"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4).
This calls for a number of comments:
i) A Christian is only at liberty to pray a Christian prayer—a Trinitarian prayer. Any other prayer is idolatrous. Although this prayer is formally Christian, inasmuch as it makes use of traditional terminology, Mormon theology defines the persons very differently than does the Bible.
ii) This prayer is question-begging. To what "God" would we be praying? Only the true God could truthfully answer this prayer, so unless we know in advance that this prayer is addressed to the true God, it assumes what it needs to prove.
iii) Not everything is open to prayer. I don't have the right to ask God if it's okay for me to have an affair with another man's wife. Praying over the matter does not confer any moral warrant on adultery. The Bible does not authorize prayer as a short-cut to verify what I believe or justify what I do.
There is, however, a deeper objection to this appeal. For the Mormon missionary is giving a different answer to verify Mormonism that Joseph Smith himself has given. Now, if Joseph Smith is indeed a true prophet of God who restored the lost Gospel, it only seems fair to judge Mormonism by its founder's own methodology. So let us measure Mr. Smith by his own yardstick.
This can be found in a little work entitled "Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet." I have a copy of this, bound with The Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price, published by the LDS (1978).
Smith begins by explaining his perplexity over doctrinal diversity. "Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist" (2:5).
"So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong" (2:8).
"Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?" (2:10).
"Unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible" (2:12).
Now, this reaction is perfectly understandable, but it calls for a few comments:
i) By his own admission, Smith was confused because he was young and ignorant. But the solution to that is not private revelation, but education.
ii) Doctrinal diversity is nothing new. In 1C Judaism you had Pharisees and Sadducees, Hillelites and Shamaites, Zealots, Essenes, and Philonic Platonists, to name a few.
Yet that doesn't prevent Jesus and the Apostles from adjudicating a question by direct appeal to Scripture. They did this all the time in debate with various Jewish groups and schools of that. Some interpretations make more sense than others. It's as simple as that. You study both sides of a debate and decide for yourself which side makes the best case for its position. Which side has the better of the argument? Not all reasons are equally good.
iii) Who said that we have to be equally certain about everything? After all, everything is not equally important. There are degrees of certainty and doubt.
iv) Moreover, the Mormonism has had its own history of internal strife. After Joseph Smith was killed in a shootout, there was a fight over succession, resulting in a split between those who followed his son and those who followed Brigham Young. Then you have a number of breakaway polygamist sects. And you also have a liberal/conservative divide within LDS ranks. So there are plenty of splitter-groups that all lay claim to be true to Mormonism.
Joseph Smith then appeals to Jas 1:5 to break out of this hermeneutical circle (2:11). But there are two things wrong with this appeal:
i) If, according to Smith, questions cannot be settled by direct appeal to Scripture, due to the diversity of interpretations, then how can Smith appeal to Jas 1:5 to justify his own action?
Why is it valid for him to appeal to Scripture, but invalid for the Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian to do the same? What warrant does Mr. Smith have for such a double standard?
ii) If you read the way in which James describes the nature of wisdom, he is not talking about private revelation, but sanctified common sense (Jas 3:13,17).
He then tells us about an angelic apparition, during which all the Christian denominations were condemned as "corrupt" and "abominable" (2:19). But why should the reader believe that Mr. Smith was ever privy to this apparition? Why take his word for it? He had no witnesses. And it is not as though he was a man of sterling character. Rather, he had a reputation as a dabbler in the occult—in particular, a crystal-gazer. This is exactly what we'd expect of a religious charlatan.
But, assuming, for the sake of argument, the apparition was genuine, why assume that it was divine rather than diabolical? The Devil appeared to Adam and Eve. The Devil appeared to Jesus. Zechariah had visions of the Devil, as did John the Revelator.
Moving ahead, Mr. Smith records a later angelic apparition, in which he is informed, with respect to Joel 2:28, "that this was not yet fulfilled, but was soon to be." But according to Acts 2, this prophecy was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.
Finally, Mr. Smith describes his "translation" of the Book of Abraham from the original Egyptian:
"I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters, which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Prof. Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian…He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct" (2:64).
Let us be crystal clear on what this claim amounts to: (i) Smith made an "accurate" translation of the Book of Abraham from the original Egyptian text; (ii) Smith had this translation verified by Prof. Anthon, the orientalist at Columbia University.
Thus, Joseph Smith is staking his own veracity on the confirmation and corrobortion of Prof. Anthon. This is the evidence he is giving the reader to credit his prophetic claims. But when Prof. Anthon got wind of this appeal, he wrote a debunking the appeal in toto:
New York, Feb. 17, 1834
Dear Sir –
I received this morning your favor of the 9th instant, and lose no time in making a reply. The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be "reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics" is perfectly false. Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax. When I asked the person, who brought it, how he obtained the writing, he gave me, as far as I can now recollect, the following account: A "gold book," consisting of a number of plates of gold, fastened together in the shape of a book by wires of the same metal, had been dug up in the northern part of the state of New York, and along with the book an enormous pair of "gold spectacles"! These spectacles were so large, that, if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would have to be turned towards one of the glasses merely, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the breadth of the human face. Whoever examined the plates through the spectacles, was enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning. All this knowledge, however, was confined at that time to a young man, who had the trunk containing the book and spectacles in his sole possession. This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book, and, having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain, to those who stood on the outside. Not a word, however, was said about the plates having been decyphered "by the gift of God." Every thing, in this way, was effected by the large pair of spectacles. The farmer added, that he had been requested to contribute a sum of money towards the publication of the "golden book," the contents of which would, as he had been assured, produce an entire change in the world and save it from ruin. So urgent had been these solicitations, that he intended selling his farm and handing over the amount received to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, however, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and, instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving, and he then took his leave carrying the paper with him. This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived. I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with my friends on the subject, since the Mormonite excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but "Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Some time after, the same farmer paid me a second visit. He brought with him the golden book in print, and offered it to me for sale. I declined purchasing. He then asked permission to leave the book with me for examination. I declined receiving it, although his manner was strangely urgent. I adverted once more to the roguery which had been in my opinion practised upon him, and asked him what had become of the gold plates. He informed me that they were in a trunk with the large pair of spectacles. I advised him to go to a magistrate and have the trunk examined. He said the "curse of God" would come upon him should he do this. On my pressing him, however, to pursue the course which I had recommended, he told me that he would open the trunk, if I would take the "curse of God" upon myself. I replied that I would do so with the greatest willingness, and would incur every risk of that nature, provided I could only extricate him from the grasp of rogues. He then left me.
I have thus given you a full statement of all that I know respecting the origin of Mormonism, and must beg you, as a personal favor, to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.
Yours respectfully, CHAS. ANTHON.
On these grounds alone, Joseph Smith is a false prophet by his own chosen standard of reference. He is the one who volunteered this evidence in substantiation of his prophetic claims. If, therefore, Prof. Anthon expressly contravened that very claim, then the evidence is falsified by Mr. Smith's stated rules of evidence. This is, all by itself, sufficient to prove him an outright fraud.
But even that is not the end of the story. For since that time, a number of Egyptologists, have had occasion to compare the Book of Abraham against facsimiles of the Egyptian original. As Gleason Archer, who is, himself, a student of the language, has expressed the state of scholarly opinion, "Their finding was that not a single word of Joseph Smith's alleged translation bore any resemblance to the contents of this document," A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Moody 1994), 555. Cf. C. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids 1992).
So Joseph Smith has been weighed in a scale of his own choosing, and found to be sadly and wholly wanting. He has furnished both the evidence and the rules of evidence for his own indictment and conviction. It remains for us to pass sentence.