Why the Catalyst Theory is Dead on Arrival

John Dehlin 22 Comments

When Joseph Smith formed the Mormon church on April 6, 1830, he granted himself (in the name of God) the title of “Translator” along with “Prophet” and “Seer.”

Prophet…Seer…Translator.  Those are audacious titles for an uneducated farm boy.

The LDS Church’s formation was, of course, on the heels of Joseph Smith publishing the Book of Mormon, which Joseph claimed to have “translated” from golden plates written in “reformed Egyptian,” which Joseph “brought forth” on the heels of a failed career as a treasure digger, wherein Joseph claimed to have the power to locate buried treasure….a power he never really had.

Joseph Smith learned from his days as a treasure digger (and perhaps from Luman Walters and Sally Chase) that claiming to have special powers was incredibly useful in increasing popularity during an age when many were inclined to believe in the occult or supernatural.

To repeat, Joseph Smith’s early career as a treasure digger was built on obtaining power and influence by claiming to have a power that he didn’t actually have.

The ongoing success of Joseph Smith’s 1830 claim to possess the power of translation, of course, was dependent upon his “translations” never being invalidated by experts.  The safety of Joseph’s reputation as a “Translator” was conveniently aided by the fact that: 1) in the case of the Book of Mormon, the angel Moroni conveniently took the golden plates back up to heaven and 2) in the case of the Book of Abraham, no one at that time could read Egyptian.

Never did Joseph Smith actually translate something meaningful that could be verified by experts.  At least not verified while he was alive.

But make no mistake — Joseph Smith’s claim to have the power to translate ancient languages via special powers from God was core to his ability to gain followers throughout his life as a prophet, just as his power to find hidden treasure was crucial to his ability to gain followers as a young man.

Fast forwarding to 2020….as the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible have now all been demonstrated conclusively – beyond all reasonable doubt – to be non-ancient plagiarisms, the Mormon church and Mormon apologists such as Terryl Givens, Richard Bushman, Spencer Fluhman, and Patrick Mason are scrambling to foster an alternative hypothesis/narrative — most commonly referred to as the “Catalyst Theory.”

For those who don’t know, the “Catalyst Theory” is a new hypothesis maintaining that Joseph Smith did not, in fact, translate the Book of Mormon from golden plates as he always claimed – and as we were all taught, as Mormons, for over a century.  Nor did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Abraham from the Egyptian papyrus he purchased in 1835 – again, as he and God both claimed, and as all Mormons were taught for over a century.  Instead, the “Catalyst Theory” maintains that Joseph DID NOT translate either the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, but instead, God placed the plates and papyrus in Joseph Smith’s possession for the sole purpose of inspiring him to directly channel revelation from God to create the scriptures.

This is a super-convenient hypothesis, as it gets both Joseph Smith and God off the hook for all the massive errors, anachronisms, and plagiarisms that have now been found in ALL of Joseph’s produced scripture. We can now safely blame “Joseph the man” for all of the errors, anachronisms and plagiarisms in Mormon scripture, and more importantly, rescue the thoroughly disproven Book of Abraham “translation” as a “revelation,” not a translation.

In his General Conference talk entitled “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” Elder Ulisses Soares stated,

“The translation process of the Book of Mormon was also a miracle. This sacred ancient record was not “translated” in the traditional way that scholars would translate ancient texts by learning an ancient language. We ought to look at the process more like a “revelation” with the aid of physical instruments provided by the Lord, as opposed to a “translation” by one with knowledge of languages.”  – April, 2020.

This, my friends, is gaslighting.

For Mormons and non-Mormons who are genuinely seeking truth, the “Catalyst Theory” is dead on arrival for the following reasons:

  1. The “Catalyst Theory” is a transparently desperate attempt by both the Mormon church and its apologists to dismisses the MOUNTAIN of historical and scientific evidence that has been assembled over the past century to conclusively disprove the historicity of the Book of Abraham, the Book of Mormon, and the Joseph Smith Translation.  This step is crucial, as….
  2. The “Catalyst Theory” is a transparently desperate attempt to salvage Joseph Smith’s dying credibility in the Internet age.
  3. Perhaps the strongest evidence that the “Catalyst Theory” is a position born of desperation, not integrity, is that the Mormon church and its apologists have been dragged kicking and screaming over the past 100 years to arrive at the point where they could acknowledge that the Books of Mormon and Abraham are not credible as historical documents, all whilst excommunicating the courageous scholars along the way who literally forced them to this position (e.g. Fawn Brodie, Brent Metcalfe, David Wright, Grant Palmer).
  4. The “Catalyst Theory” completely contradicts what God, Joseph Smith, and the scriptures themselves told/tell us regarding what Joseph Smith was doing with the plates and papyrus.  God, the scriptures, and Joseph Smith all told us that Joseph Smith was, indeed, translating.  If God wanted to use another word to describe what Joseph Smith was doing (e.g. “revealing” or “channeling”) – God could have easily told Joseph to use those words.  If God can give Joseph words as specific as Curelom, Cumom, Zelph, and Zarahemla, he certainly could have given Joseph an alternative to the words “Translator” and “Translation.”  But he didn’t. In scripture, God himself declared Joseph Smith to be a translator, not an “inspired syncretist” as Terryl Givens, Richard Bushman, Spencer Fluhman, and Patrick Mason all want us to believe now.  God also declared the Books of Mormon and Abraham to be “Translations” – not “revelations.”
  5. Why would God go to the trouble of preserving and delivering the plates and the papyrus to the hands of Joseph Smith, if he wasn’t going actually use them in his translation?  That makes no sense.
  6. If Joseph can magically “translate” without any source documents in his hands, as he did with both the Book of Moses and with D&C Section 7, then why would Joseph need the plates or the papyrus from which to “translate” in the first place?
  7. The “Catalyst Theory” is a total “bait and switch” that makes God out to be a trickster God, and makes Joseph Smith out to be a fool who did not even understand what he was doing while he was doing it.  It requires us to believe that God let Joseph Smith think that he was translating when he wasn’t, and allowed Joseph to tell everyone – IN SCRIPTURE – that he was translating, when he really wasn’t.  This theory makes God a deceiver, and Joseph Smith a fool.  Not a good look for either.
  8. The “Catalyst Theory” contradicts the teachings of every Mormon prophet, seer, and revelator from Joseph Smith to today.  If they all can get something as fundamental as scriptural “translation” wrong, what else have they gotten wrong?
  9. Since when were Givens, Bushman, Fluhman, and Mason called to lead/educate the church with a new theory on Joseph’s powers, and on the nature of scripture? Isn’t that why we have prophets and scriptures — to lead and teach us?  Why are our “prophets, seers and revelators” relying on apologists to teach us the true nature of scripture and revelation?
  10. On a side note, if Joseph Smith failed so miserably and completely to translate Egyptian in the Book of Abraham in 1835 – as Egyptologists have consistently demonstrated since the 1850s, why in the WORLD would we think that Joseph Smith had the power to translate “reformed Egyptian” into the Book of Mormon in 1829….before he even began his efforts to learn Egyptian with the Book of Abraham?
  11. Also as a side note, if Joseph Smith could just use his seer stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon golden plates from Egyptian to English, and if he had already successfully translated the Book of Mormon from Egyptian into English, why couldn’t Joseph do the same with the papyri? Why was there even a need for him to create the Egyptian Grammer and Alphabet? Why did it take Joseph so many years to produce the Book of Abraham if he learned how to translate Egyptian with the Book of Mormon?

It. All. Is. Literally. Ridiculous.

Consequently, I hearby declare the “Catalyst Theory” to be a desperate, disingenuous, un-authoritative, silly, and illogical hypothesis….that is logically and ethically dead on arrival.

Grateful for all of you truth seekers out there.

John Dehlin

Comments 22

  1. John,

    First, a big thanks to you, Dr. Ritner and RFM for that great discussion. I believe it is akin to ‘the shot heard round the world’ in terms of importance. Thus far, the Q15 have been able to slide by relying on weaponized ambiguity with these competing interpretations by the apologists. To go full on catalyst theory would essentially amount to throwing the LDS Egyptologists and their crowd under the bus. Maybe a 2nd Annointing might help their bruised egos as a consolation prize. But I don’t see the status quo changing from within.
    When Dr. Ritner mentioned about the Egyptomania that occurred periodically throughout history and also about the catalyst theory being essentially no different than looking at the yellow pages to compose a story, I had to laugh. It reminded me of the Alan Parsons Project Album ‘Pyramid’ and some of the artwork on my Earth, Wind and Fire albums. There is one song in particular by Alan Parsons called ‘Pyramania’ that is in a strange way kind of prophetic as regards the LDS Church’s Book of Abraham problem:

    There are pyramids in my head!
    There’s one underneath my bed!
    And my lady’s getting cranky.
    Every possible location
    Has a simple explanation
    And it isn’t hanky-panky.
    I have read, somewhere in a book,
    They improve all your food and your wine.
    It’s said that everything you grow in your garden will be pretty fine,
    Instead, all I ever get is a pain in the neck and a
    Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap!
    I’ve consulted all the sages,
    I could find in the yellow pages,
    But there aren’t many of them…
    And the mayan panoramas
    On my pyramid pajamas
    Haven’t helped my little problem.
    I’ve been told someone in the know
    Can be sure that his luck is as good as gold,
    Money in the bank and you don’t even pay for it if you fold
    A dollar in the shape of the pyramid that’s printed on the back

    1. Liked the two end rhymes in the lyrics there @ “hanky panky.”

      . . . . . . Hmm. Perhaps for a fun project for myself, I’ve been coming up with definitions for alphabetized near rhymes. Such as: (A.) ancie[nt]rees – Scholars who look for ancient sources for Joseph’s spiritual work (B.) bankeries – … Whose professional standing requires not alienating devout LDS (C. ) crankeries – Yet, how any religious apologists’ belief systems are seen by other scholars who are outside their respective folds (D.) dankeries – Cultural racisms or bigotries finding their way into religious practices (especially involving those of a somewhat earlier place or time ) (E.) esch[a]kreys – Elderly folks in the pews persisting in sharing their dreams about the end times (F.) frankries – Folks like John Dehlin (G.) gran[d]kries – A future-generation’s evolving theological or cultural norms (H.) hanky[-pank]ries – What John says Joseph was up to (I.) ayes-keys – Those interpreting strict obedience to authority as paramount (J.) jankrees – Ah…hmmm: [Sorta] what those with an Argentine accent call Norte Americano L.D.S.? (K.) kankery – Allowing a subtle feeling that something is wrong with one’s belief system fester overmuch (L.) len[gth]kries – Strides taken to explain away whatever paradoxes (M.) man[ge]kries -Affectionately critical rhetorical term for the way our “pet dogs” — representational of the unexamined belief systems of our youth — look to us now {Etc. ……]

      1. The near rhymes above are being subjected to my revisions … so what I’m now getting @ “ja[ng]ries” is the mental image of whatever spirit within Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” who is dragging around chains . . . with meaning “The remnants of theological or cultural baggages still dragged about by whatever the religious tradition (say, Hinduism / untouchability; Catholicism / treatment given heretics formerly; LDS / formerly institutionalized polyamory; etc.)

  2. I wrote this on a post on Facebook and thought it might help here as well.

    Jaxon Washburn, “The “Catalyst Theory” Has Always Been at the Core of Mormonism.”

    No, the catalyst theory has not been at the core of Mormonism from the beginning. It is a modern invention of the apologists. It’s essentially a reverse engineering of the term to fit what is needed to explain away problems. It is therefore an ad hoc theory.

    Joseph Smith’s definition of translation, at least as he presented it to others, was always literal and conventional. His refusal to translate the lost 116-page manuscript implied that he could reproduce the translation exactly the same and that the only variant readings would be where his enemies had changed the manuscript. He also declared that his translation was a “literal translation” of the characters that he knew came from the first leaf and read right to left. The stone, as he claimed, worked like an interlinear translation of the Bible with the English below the characters. When JS had Anthon verify his translation of the characters Harris showed him, pronouncing it the most correct he had ever seen, he implied his translation was conventional and recognized as such by the experts.

    The Bible Revision or Joseph Smith Translation was similar. In 1843, Smith declared: “I believe the bible, as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers.” He then gave an example from his revision of the Old Testament, implying that he had corrected the text to its original reading.

    Similarly, when Cowdery had Chandler verify JS’s translation was the same in every particular as what he had received from the learned in the East, he implied that it was a conventional translation. The Valuable Discovery notebooks, Egyptian Alphabet, and the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language all exhibit a conventional mode of translation, although a make-believe one.

    1. Super Big Thanks to John!! I was going to be waiting for who knows how many years for the church to admit something. When I heard the Soares talk it sounded all the same so kind of switched off! My mistake! There it is in black and white.

      Thanks to Dan too, your knowledge of these things is the best.

      Maybe the Soares talk was what nelson was referring to last Oct 2019 when referring to the next general conf being “like no other … unforgettable” (it certainly wasn’t Covid-19). Nelson clearly knows the history: his Ensign article from July 1993 mentions the plates being wrapped in cloth (Emma) and also the Whitmer quote about the seer stone being used. I find it despicable that an ensign article like that is there, I so wish someone had pointed it out back then, I could have reclaimed 25+ years of my life!!

      Thanks again to both John and Dan, you are both Champions!! You bring mental health and joy to peoples’ lives.

    2. Dan, I am a big fan,

      In the notes to the Saints Unscripted video “Was Abraham a False Translation?” a work is cited by John Gee where he argues that it is probable that Abraham did not refer to any facsimiles in his original book. Gee claims that a careful reading of the earliest BOA manuscript shows that the reference to the facsimiles by Abraham were interliniations squeezed in to the text and thus, of nineteenth origin approved by Joseph Smith.
      Thus, Dr. Gee appears to be privy to information that no subsequent Prophet, Seer, and Revelator (or even your average Mormon) could have known.

      The notes from the same video cites Kerry Muhlstein who says that Joseph Smith never claimed to be able to read hieroglyphs and that this particular issue has not received enough scholarly attention.

      I have no problem that these clowns believe that they will be gods in the afterworld if only they could at least be honest men in this one.

      How you can study and explain the early history of the LDS Church in such a calm, reasonable manner is truly a wonder.

  3. John,
    Well said! Your podcast with Dr. Ritner was an 11 on a scale of 1-10. I remember when talk of a “seer stone” was complete and total anti-Mormon garbage. I was taught and then in turn taught on my mission how the “translation” would happen…Joseph would look through the spectacles of the Urrimm and Thummin at the gold plates and each letter/word would change from Egyptian to English.
    All Indians were Lamanites.
    Joseph never participated in polygamy.
    The hill Cumorah was “the hill Cumorah”.
    The BOM was a literal translation AND the most correct book on Earth.
    Pearl of Great Price was a TRANSLATION from the papyri.
    The list can go on…
    I watch these “teachings” slowly disappear and be denied. Gaslighting at its finest.
    Just want to shout out a big thank you for the work you do! Love Mormon Stories!

  4. I appreciate this post very much.

    Having seen something about RMN saying the BOM is more inspiration than literal translation…. wow. How can they be taken seriously after that?!

  5. Joseph Smith told us what the Book of Abraham was, that he translated it, and that it was written by the hand of Abraham. We are now asked by apologist to overlook what JS it was and harken to their works.

  6. I agree with all the gaslighing comments. This is not what we were taught in church for all these years.

    My first impression reading this was that Soares was the one giving the talk and explaination of translatiom in general conference. It reminds me of when Packard gave the talk on chasity that he really did not want to give but was “encourged’ by the senior brethern.

    For Soares being the ultimate outsider in the Q15 club, he needed to give this talk……despite of all the evidence of its fallacy……to show he is on board and part of the club.

    1. Faith I agree. Soares is clearly the super obedient junior bunny to put out the controversial message, it also proves his worth. I wonder if he was told to give the talk and it was vetted by the others, not just the Correlation committee.

      A similar move is when they go down to BYU to a friendly audience to air/spew about a ‘sensitive’ issue.

  7. I am not saying I agree with Ulisses Soares because I don’t, but the term “Gaslighting” implies deliberate manipulation. Having been a TBM in the past, I truly believed the Book of Mormon was true with all my heart. When I told people it was the the truth and an ancient document for two years on my mission, I was not attempting to gaslight or manipulate anybody. Isn’t it possible that Ulisses Soares is the same? or even everyone in the church leadership is the same?

    1. Excellent Point Richard!

      Indeed , I am grateful that you gave me the opportunity to study it out in my mind , even prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. Obviously, gaslighting as a transitive verb requires a conscious perpetrator and a victim. The question is can gaslighting occur when a conscious perpetrator delivers his message through a third party dupe to the victim? Is it still gaslighting? In that sense, I was the third party dupe on my mission showing flip charts of Joseph Smith sitting at his table with pen in one hand and index finger pointing to the hieroglyph on the golden plates (which he translated as “and it came to pass”).

  8. Richard.
    I myself was TBM and believed every word they said. Then i started to question and have my eyes opened. Especially from repeated ecclesiastical abuses.

    So, if Soares has never questioned it is possible he is not purposefully gaslighting. But… when they literally change verbage from official manuals and statements…and then it is brought to their attention…it turns to gaslighting.

    The Q15 will not see.that because for them it is antiMormon rhetoric.

    They are not 20 year old young men….they are 60+ year old men with life experience. However they are still “self dammed” at stage 2.5…and are immature in the stages of faith progression.

  9. Just think of what Joseph Smith could have done if he had a copy of the Salt Lake telephone directory to translate into Elizabethan English!

  10. The attempt to turn a truth that has been outed as fiction would require an imagination greater than that of Joseph Smith…

  11. The crazy, and probably most problematic, thing about all of this is that ridiculous peep stone. If you believe that God empowered the peep stone to allow Smith to translate/interpret/create/inspirate/reveal/etc… the golden plates, then you have to wrestle with whether Smith was actually able to see hidden treasures that slipped around in the earth with that same stone. How can the same stone Smith used to commit fraud later be used in the same manner to provide revelation from God in any form? Did God overlook Smith’s earlier fraudulent/deceptive practices using such a special, revelatory object, or is there really magic treasure hidden all over New England that no one can find because it moves around in the earth? According to the Church’s own handbook, witchcraft, magic, and the occult are all forbidden and not of God. Yet, the same church is founded on an occult practice that is defended and justified and explained using the most twisted logic. Say the Catalyst Theory has merit… It is still based on an ancient occult practice. Can they really justify that Smith’s original use and experimentation with the peep stone for fraudulent purposes was preparing him for its real and glorious purpose? He-he-he-ha. Seems the more they try, the more they get themselves into a bind.

    1. God is working overtime to make it easy to reject Mormonism and maybe just keep for himself the most childlike and credulous and gullible.

      If the glory of God is intelligence, why would God make Mormonism so vulnerable to intelligence? And to honesty and curiosity and serious study and and critical thinking? Or just to common sense? Why the keystone cops? This is farce…it’s the three stooges…it makes no sense. I cannot see any real or self-respecting god worthy of worship with this kind of m.o. It’s all so…human.

      As unbelievable and unacceptable as some of the Bible is, this Mormon stuff stoops far lower. It makes the Mormons look bad but it makes God look even worse, even the Fool.

      (John, while I agree entirely with everything said, including “Literally. Ridiculous,” etc. etc. — and am prone to snipe and snark and ridicule, myself — I wonder if there may be wisdom for the sake of decorum and civility from the owner & proprietor & moderator to tone down those last lines? From the peanut gallery, this would all be perfectly fine, but maybe not so much from you and the face of Mormon Stories. You’re actually running a pretty classy joint here, and we’ll above this…

      — “ It. All. Is. Literally. Ridiculous.”

      — “Consequently, I hearby declare the “Catalyst Theory” to be a desperate, disingenuous, un-authoritative, silly, and illogical hypothesis….that is logically and ethically dead on arrival.”

      : )

      Thanks, and great work, John. I hope MormonStories goes another 15 years or more, including to help inform and reform and improve the Mormon church.)

  12. The great thing about have God’s restored Church here on earth is that we have a 190 years of uninterrupted access to seers and revelators in our amidst. These are men who through their seerstone can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come. They can use their seerstone to where he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date. All we need to do is ask the 15 ordained seers that we have today on how they translate ancient text and compare it to key elements of the catalyst theory. Wait a minute, looking in my scripture I’m not able to find any seership taking place after JS. I’m not not able to find any talk from a church leader referring to seership that he has experinced, or that he even has a seerstone. With just a couple of exceptions, all the text that has been cannonized is committee built declarations. “What would Jesus say to these his servants that have been ordained with this seership talent?
    His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and aslothful servant, thou knewest that I breap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:
    Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with ausury.
    Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.”

    Today, were are forced not only to debate whether or not the Catalyst Theory is viable, but also even what it is because we have no contemporary examples of seership. We don’t even have seers with seerstones. While there might evidence to discuss that seerstones as explained in the BoM are not longer needed if we had evidence of contemporary seership, but we have none. Rather, all are forced to apply our present context to past events because seership no longer exists. Now looking back at our history we have overwhelming evidence that JS himself would reject all versions of the Catalyst Theory. The Catalyst Theory is DoA because JS himself kills it with his many claims that he has the ability to literally translate languages. Considering the explanation in the BoM of what seership is and how it works it is quite bizarre to learn about JS’s method used by JS to translate the BoA. The approach to BoA translation doesn’t resemble the practice of seership of the golden plates.

  13. Am I right on this? I imagine if someone had used the same words Soares used (process more like a “revelation” etc.) on their facebook 5-10 years ago they would have half the ward shooting them down. Backing it up with a reference to the nelson ensign article

    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1993/07/a-treasured-testament?lang=eng

    might have bought on more testimony bearing.

    If the person continued to fight the ignorance I imagine they would have had a meeting with the stake president with a message “Shut up”.

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