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South Park; An Exegetical Examination
Annimated series reveals Mormon beliefs really belong in cartoons
“I knew a so-called intellectual who said the Church was trapped by its history. My response was that without that history we have nothing.” – Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith,” October 2002 General Conference Address
A recent episode of South Park called All About The Mormons focused on the story of Joseph Smith and the origins of the Book of Mormon. Many people who are not familiar with the Mormon Church were baffled at the story as depicted by South Park, wondering how accurate it tells the Mormon story. Most Mormons hear a far different story of Mormon origins in church than depicted in Park South Park episode #712 All About The Mormons.
A closer examination of the Mormon South Park episode shows that “truth” is stranger than fiction!
Let’s examine the South Park depiction of Mormon History and see how it compared to the real thing, as recorded by official Mormon Church records and eye-witnesses testimony.
Mormons on South Park – Part 1: The First Vision
This South Park episode has Joseph Smith as an adult walking through his hometown with his neighbors discussing that he saw and talked with God and Jesus.
One neighbor complains to Joseph Smith that he told his wife Smith’s story and she didn’t believe him. In response, Joseph Smith tells the neighbor’s wife that he was in the woods praying to know if he should be Protestant or a Catholic, when God and Jesus appeared to him and told him to start his own church because “none of the others had it right.” Suddenly the wife believes the story because, as she asks, “why would somebody make that up?”
This depiction of the Joseph Smith’s religious beginnings isn’t exactly how it happened.
To begin with, there are no contemporary accounts of Joseph Smith seeing God and Jesus. Depending on which account you read, Joseph Smith claimed to have had this vision anywhere between 1820 and 1824. However, Joseph Smith did not write about the vision until 1842 – many years after he had left his hometown of Palmyra. Read all of the “vision” accounts (all nine of them)
Mormons on South Park – Part 2: Moroni
There are no contemprary accounts of the appearance of Moroni to Joseph Smith. In fact all of the earliest accounts, which started in 1829 after publication of the Book of Mormon, describe Moroni as a spirit coming in a dream, not an angelic physical visitation. Mormon witness Martin Harris (who exhibited certain psycological behaviors suggesting he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer) was among the many who described Moroni as a spirit coming in a dream. On September 5, 1829, the Rochester Gem reported on the origins of Mormonism and quoted Book of Mormon Special Witness Martin Harris: “he states that after a third visit from the same spirit in a dream he (Smith) proceeded to the spot.”
– “A GOLDEN BIBLE” Gem, (Rochester, NY), 5 Sept. 1829. Source of reference: A New Witness for Christ in America, (Zion’s printing and Publishing, 1951)
Perhaps this explains why none of Joseph Smith’s four brothers who were sleeping in the same room with him that night ever left any accounts of such an event occurring in their bedroom. Indeed, Martin Harris never changed his testimony of the night Joseph Smith first met Moroni. In 1842 Martin Harris again testified what happened the night of September 21st, 1823: “Consequently long before the idea of a Golden Bible entered their minds, in their excursions for money-digging, which I believe usually occurred in the night, that they might conceal from others the knowledge of the place, where they struck their treasures, Joe used to be usually their guide, putting into a hat a peculiar stone he had through which he looked to decide where they should begin to dig. It was after one of these night excursions, that Joe, while he lay upon his bed, had a remarkable dream. An angel of God seemed to approach him, clad in celestial splendor.”
– Martin Harris Interview, “Testimonies of Book of Mormon Witnesses” John Clark, Gleanings (1842), p.226 For more historical accounts that describe Moroni as coming in a dream, click here
Mormons on South Park – Part 3: Finding The Plates of Gold
South Park’s portrayal of Joseph Smith finding the Golden Plates is play on history but is pretty close to how it supposedly happened. In the South Park episode, Joseph Smith runs into town to tell everyone that he’s found “another New Testament of Jesus Christ.” Joseph Smith tells everyone in town that after being visited by the Angel Moroni the night before, he “dug around all morning” and almost gave up until he stumbled upon a stone box. Inside, Joseph Smith finds two “magical seer stones” and “four gold plates.” When the townspeople ask to see the plates and the seer stones, Joseph hesitates and explains that the Angel Moroni told him not to show them to anyone. The lyrical song ends the segment singing: “nobody else ever saw the plates.”
In fact, there are several different accounts of how Joseph Smith obtained the golden plates, but all of them indicate that the Angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith the exact spot in a hill, which Moroni called the Cumorah.
Furthermore, South Park gives the impression that Joseph Smith found his seer stones buried with the golden plates. In fact, Joseph Smith had been using seer stones for many years prior to his obtaining any golden plates. According to the Official History of the Church, as early as 1822 Joseph Smith had a seer stone, which “was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum, for a Mr. Clark Chase, near Palmyra, NY.
It possessed the qualities of a Urim and Thummim, since by means of it, as well as by means of the Interpreters found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters – engraven on the [golden] plates.” History of the Church, Volume 1, Page 128
Joseph Smith did not find any of his seer stones with the golden plates, although that is what South Park depicts. Instead, he found “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones that he looked through to interpret the golden plates, just like the seer stones he was so fond of using.
Interestingly enough, the plates were found to be written in reformed Egyptian. Even today, most Mormons cannot explain why the Jews would write something on golden plates, made up of a unknown dialect of Egyptian (a culture they detested because it was given over to such excesses and indulgences abhorent to God is beyond anyone’s guess. Suffice it to say, that the Jews hated the Egyptians and would never have written anything precious about their God. Such an act by the Jews would have been considered an abominiation to God.
Mormons on South Park: – Part 4: Translating the Book of Mormon
South Park depiction of the translation of the Book of Mormon is more accurate than the most Mormons realize. It shows Joseph Smith putting two seer stones into a hat, then burying his face in the hat and dictating words to Martin Harris.
Mormon Church Apostle Russell M. Nelson explained the real translation process:
“The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. [Oliver Cowdery’s brother-in-law] David Whitmer wrote:”
‘Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe (although he started the process with Emma, his wife), and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.’ (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 12.)” – Elder Russell M. Nelson, A Treasured Testament, Ensign, July 1993, 61
So according to Book of Mormon Witness David Whitmer, Joseph Smith only used one seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon, not two as South Park shows. This fact is also corroborated by Martin Harris himself, who acted as Joseph Smith’s scribe as depicted in the South Park Episode. Martin Harris testified to Elder Edward Stevenson how he helped Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon. Elder Stevenson wrote:
“Martin Harris related an incident that occured during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone, Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say “Written,” and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”
– Deseret News, “One of the Three Witnesses,” 30 November 1881.
Again, only one seer stone was used, not two as South Park depicted. But still pretty close to the truth. As a sidenote, Joseph Smith continued to use his brown seer stone after his Book of Mormon translation work. He used the same seer stone to translate the Book of Abraham. And evidence suggests that several of the early revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants also came through this medium.
Revelations given through the seer stone at the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York, during 1829 include not only LDS Doctrine and Covenants sections 14 through 17, but also section 18. The headnote references, which were not added until the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, list sections 14-17 as having been given through “Urim and Thummim,” but David Whitmer testified that these Revelations as having come through the same brown seer stone Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.
– David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in the Book of Mormon (Richmond, MO: n.p., 1887), p. 3. Also All Believers in Christ, p. 30.
Mormons on South Park – Part 5: The Lost 116 Pages
South Park retells the crucial story of Joseph Smith and Martin Harris losing the first Book of Mormon manuscript. In the South Park version, Martin Harris takes the first 116 pages of the manuscript to his wife and explains how they plan to publish it as a book.
But Lucy Harris is skeptical. She suspects that Smith is “just making stuff up and pretending he’s translating off gold plates.” To prove her point, Lucy takes the 116 pages from Harris and tells him that if Smith really is translating from gold plates, then he should have “no problem” re-translating the plates again and coming up with a matching manuscript.
Martin Harris agrees to the test, and reassures his wife that Smith will have no problem reproducing the 116 pages.
When Harris returns to Smith and tells him the manuscript is lost, Joseph Smith receives a revelation that “the Lord is very angry at me for letting you take those pages.” The Lord is so mad, Smith explains, that the Lord will never let him translate from the same part of the golden plates. Instead, the golden plates happen to have the same story written on different plates by someone else. “So it will be the same basic story,” Smith explains, “but written a little differently.” Martin Harris concludes that “God got angry with you then you must be telling the truth.” It’s funny, but it does leave out some historical elements.
To start with, Martin Harris took the 116-page manuscript to Manchester New York and did not contact Joseph Smith who was living in Harmony Pensylvania. According to Church History, this was a critical time for Joseph Smith. His first wife, Emma, had just given birth to a stillborn baby boy that was horribly deformed. Smith was nursing Emma back to health himself, as she was still bed-ridden. Since Smith hadn’t heard from Martin Harris in two weeks, Smith was getting anxious.
Smith decided to leave Emma in Harmony and travel to Manchester, NY in order to see Martin Harris and find out what had happened. Smith started out traveling by stagecoach, but walked the last twenty miles alone in the middle of the night!
According to Smith’s mother, Lucy Smith, when Joseph reached Martin’s house, Martin broke down and told Smith the 116 pages were lost. Martin cried, “Oh I have lost my soul!” and Joseph Smith replied, “Oh my God! All is lost! Must I return to my wife with such a tale as this I dare not do it lest I should kill her at once.” (Lucy Smith History, 365-365)
Soon thereafter, Smith received his first revelation written down – now known as Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Until that point, Smith had only claimed to be the translator of an ancient record. But at that moment he took the step from translator to prophet – a man who speaks the words of God. From that point on, Smith started writing revelations, not just translations. As we see in D&C Section 3, the 116 pages were truly lost and God would not tell Smith where they were.
In another revelation regarding what to do next, Smith wrote that the Lord said “if you should bring forth the same words they will say that you have lied and that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted yourself. And, behold, they will publish this, and Satan will harden the hearts of the people to stir them up to anger against you, that they will not believe my words.” (D&C 10:31-33)
So Smith was commanded not to go back and re-translate the Book of Lehi from the gold plates, but to skip to the Plates of Nephi, which happened to be an account of the same story, but from a different person’s perspective. Thus, the Book of Mormon story could be told but it would not match the same version as the first 116-page manuscript, because it would be a translation from different plates. (See History of the Church 1:56).
For the interests of time, South Park shows Joseph Smith immediately going back to translating the Book of Mormon and with Martin Harris again acting as scribe. Nothing could be further from the truth! After the lost manuscript fiasco, Joseph Smith did not go back and start work on the Book of Mormon again for seven months. When he finally did go back to work on the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris did not act as scribe.
So as you can see, most of the elements of the South Park depiction of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are as true as they are bizaare.