“Francis W. Kirkham: A ‘New Witness’ for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, July 1984, 53
Francis W. Kirkham occupies a special place among those who have taken pen in hand to write of the Book of Mormon. At a time when others lacked either the opportunity or the inclination to do so, he set out to gather many early documents related to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—source materials that were still available but in jeopardy of loss or deterioration. He analyzed these sources and compiled them into a work that has had a lasting impact on our understanding of this book of scripture.
His humble beginning belies his later accomplishments and education. He was born in the small farming town of Lehi, Utah, on 6 January 1877. Brigham Young was still President of the Church, and the United States had just finished celebrating its centennial. His parents were James Kirkham and Martha Mercer; James was a farmer, storekeeper, and tithing clerk. Ninety-five years later, after a long and vigorous life, Francis died on 14 September 1972.
When Francis was eight, he wanted to have a middle name like his friends. His father told him to pick one and he could be baptized with it. He was baptized Francis Washington Kirkham, after George Washington. The choosing of his name was characteristic of him through his life: he aimed high.1
Possessing a great desire for an education, he first attended school for a few months at age eleven. This early schooling helped spark an interest in the Book of Mormon—especially one lecture on the Book of Mormon by George Reynolds. Formal education eluded him a few more years as he continued working in the family store, where he read many books and newspapers while waiting for customers.
When Francis was thirteen his father received a call to serve a mission. For the children, this was a very upsetting prospect; but their mother, who was soon going to bear her eighth child, called them to her side and explained how pleased she was for their father to be so honored. The servants of God had called her husband to the Lord’s service; therefore, she explained, they must prepare for his departure. He never left, however. There were complications when the baby was born, and in a few days Martha died.
Francis grieved over the loss of his beloved mother; but life went on, and his father’s second wife cared well for the motherless children. Still, he did feel a great responsibility to his younger brother Oscar, whom he once referred to affectionately as “a fat plump healthy boy with a voice suitable for a long eared donkey, yet he had a good heart.” Francis wrote: “How often have I guarded him against the evils that often fall unawares upon the youth & how my heart rejoices today, in seeing him a son of God, respected by all and looked upon by all as a boy of the brightest prospects.”2 In 1941, that brother, Oscar A. Kirkham, became a member of the First Council of the Seventy.
Francis’s longing for an education was partially satisfied when, at age fifteen, he went to Salt Lake City to study business for twelve weeks under the direction of James E. Talmage. He then returned to Lehi and the family business.
Finally his yearning to go to Brigham Young Academy was fulfilled. “How long and often I had longed for school and now I was to realize it,” he wrote. It was while he attended the academy that his spirituality was awakened. Smallpox struck the school, and many were taken ill and were on the brink of death. This alarmed Francis, but after much faith and prayer he received assurance from the Lord that “the disease would be stayed.” Seeing this promise fulfilled was a deep spiritual experience for him. The event caused him to reflect that it was “better to be a Deacon who merits the daily protection and guidance of the Spirit of God than he who [is] blessed a few times with gifts, straightway is overcome & is left lonely and alone.”3
At age nineteen he was called as a missionary to New Zealand, where he served for three years among the Maoris. He threw himself into his missionary work, learning the language so well that he ultimately wrote a simplified Maori grammar for new missionaries.4
Returning to Brigham Young Academy following his mission, Francis met Martha Alzina Robison. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1901 and became the parents of seven children.
After his marriage, Francis was torn between work and school. Longing for more education, he took his family to Canada to earn money to continue. In less than three years he had not only earned sufficient funds to continue his schooling, but was on the verge of becoming well to do. At this point, he abandoned his successful business and enrolled at the University of Michigan. Many of his acquaintances felt he was foolish, and they reminded him that his former salary was greater than any he would ever earn as a teacher. In his journal Francis explained why he made such a “foolish” decision:
“I tell my children in great sincerity that there was only one reason and that was the ideals of the Gospel, ‘The Glory of God is Intelligence. We are saved no faster than we gain knowledge’ and the great thing that we can do on earth is to bring souls to the knowledge of the Gospel.”5
Francis received his bachelor’s degree at Michigan and became a faculty member at Brigham Young Academy for two years. But more education beckoned. He was a member of the first graduating class at the University of Utah Law School, graduating with an LL.B. degree. For most, this would have been enough education; but not for Francis Washington Kirkham. He pursued graduate work at Stanford and was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of California in 1930.
He served in many educational positions in his lifetime, including the presidency of the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. He was chosen by the Utah State Board of Education as the first state director of vocational education. Finally he became superintendent of the Granite School District, one of the largest in Utah.
While he was superintendent of the Granite School District, his work attracted national attention. The result was publication by the U.S. Office of Education of a work by Dr. Kirkham entitled Educating All the Children of All the People. This publicity brought with it an offer in 1929 to become director of the National Child Welfare Association in New York City. He accepted.
Many of his co-workers and companions in the association were Protestant ministers. Learning that he was a Latter-day Saint, they bombarded him with many questions about the Church and the Book of Mormon. Their main question was, after all his years of advanced learning, did he still believe the Joseph Smith story? They also questioned him about the appearance of the Angel Moroni and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. They wondered what evidence he had for the reality of these events.6
Because of these encounters, Dr. Kirkham determined that he would be better able to respond to these questions by locating as much information as possible about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon from the area in which it came forth. What better source could there be, Brother Kirkham reasoned, than the newspapers published during the time and from the area where Joseph Smith resided? This set him on a quest to locate these periodicals.
Taking advantage of his location in the East, he visited many repositories of early New York newspapers. On one of his many trips to these sites he discovered a Mrs. Sanford Durfee Van Alstyne in Rochester, New York. Visiting with her at her home, he asked if she had any newspapers published in Palmyra, New York, during the period of the 1820s and 1830s. She replied that she had “all of them.”
Surprised by this discovery, he was even more startled when he looked around and realized that this valuable collection was upstairs in a two-story frame house that could easily be destroyed by fire.
He further inquired if these newspapers contained any articles on the Prophet Joseph Smith. Again to his amazement, she replied that there were many. Her husband had been curious what these newspapers might say about Joseph Smith, and he had marked those portions. Brother Kirkham gleaned much information from these important historical sources.7
He also traveled to many other locations in the East, particularly in New York and the Western Reserve in Ohio, searching out other newspaper accounts of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The result of these trips was the discovery of many newspaper articles which contained some of the first references to Joseph Smith’s early visions and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. This allowed Brother Kirkham to publish many early sources of Latter-day Saint history and enabled him to write a strong defense of the Book of Mormon, a work he entitled Source Material Concerning the Origin of the “Book of Mormon,” published in 1937.
This work was expanded when he decided to gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon. He called this later effort A New Witness for Christ in America, The Book of Mormon.8 This two-volume work is an important contribution to Book of Mormon scholarship, largely because of Brother Kirkham’s careful gathering of these early sources.
In A New Witness for Christ, Dr. Kirkham examined five explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon, showing the validity or weakness of each.
1. The first explanation came from the Prophet Joseph Smith and those who assisted him. The Prophet’s testimony of how the book came about was simple and straightforward. But its simplicity caused difficulty for many people. Joseph Smith explained that he was visited periodically by the angel Moroni during a four-year period. At the end of the four years, Moroni entrusted to him the gold plates, and the Prophet subsequently translated them by the gift and power of God.
A valuable contribution of Brother Kirkham’s books is his compilation of details about the production of the Book of Mormon as related by close associates of the Prophet. The person who recounted these events most thoroughly was Oliver Cowdery, the personal scribe of the Prophet who, as he said, wrote the entire Book of Mormon (except for a few pages) as Joseph Smith dictated. Oliver possessed a very inquisitive mind, and because of his close association with Joseph Smith, he had many opportunities to query the Prophet about Moroni’s visits and the subsequent circumstances which ultimately produced the Book of Mormon.
Oliver wrote a series of letters to W. W. Phelps concerning these events—letters that give us valuable insights not found in Joseph Smith’s history. For example, Oliver was told the location where Joseph had found the plates on the Hill Cumorah: “the west side of the hill, not far from the top.”9 He also learned the approximate time when the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph during the night of 21 September 1823. Although Joseph was not able to tell him the exact time, he said it must have been 11:00 P.M., midnight, or later, “as the noise and bustle of the family, in retiring, had long since ceased.”10 If it was that late at night, Joseph Smith must have prayed for several hours before Moroni appeared.
Oliver discussed the temptation the Prophet had on his first trip to the Hill Cumorah. There were two forces operating upon young Joseph’s mind, one urging him to obtain the plates to glorify God, and the other tempting him to seek wealth so he could live out his life in ease. (This reminds us of Jesus’ temptation when Satan offered him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. See Matt. 4:8–9.) Elder Cowdery cautioned against judging Joseph too harshly for allowing Satan’s temptation to attract him, since he was young and, like us all, his mind was easily turned from correct principles, “unless he could be favored with a certain round of experience.”11
This accounts for Joseph Smith’s failure to get the record in 1823. After reaching for the plates three times and failing, he cried out: “Why can I not obtain this book?” A voice answered immediately: “Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord.” Moroni then gave him a great vision. Joseph first saw the glory of the Lord; then Moroni said to him,
“Look!” He next saw the prince of darkness and his terrible hosts. This was shown to him, Joseph was informed, so that henceforth he never need to be deceived. Joseph Smith saw that there was nothing desirable in Satan’s program. It could not bring happiness—only misery. On the other hand, those who followed the Lord were blessed with unspeakable joy. This was an important experience for him in determining the difference between divine and satanic influence.
There was another sign by which Joseph would know the work was true. “This is the sign,” Moroni said. “When these things begin to be known … the workers of iniquity will seek your overthrow; they will circulate falsehoods to destroy your reputation, and also will seek to take your life.”12
These falsehoods have been the basis of most anti-Mormon articles and books ever since.
Brother Kirkham concluded this portion of the book by stating that members of the Church accepted Joseph Smith’s explanation of the origin of the Book of Mormon. “They were able to learn from persons who participated, including the Prophet himself, and by their study with faith and prayer in the promise of God recorded in the book, that the Book of Mormon had come forth by divine power and that it contained the teachings of the resurrected Christ to the ancient people of the American Continent.
“This, briefly, is the first explanation of the Book of Mormon. If this explanation is true, the greatest knowledge that can come to man has been revealed.” 13
2. According to Francis Kirkham, a second explanation for the coming forth of the Book of Mormon came from the residents of Palmyra, New York, where the book was published, and from others who knew of its initial publication. Their statements were circulated immediately before and after the Book of Mormon appeared in print. These people knew the time, place, and circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of the book, and they all affirmed the same thing: that Joseph Smith from his own mind dictated or wrote the Book of Mormon, and that its contents were nonsensical.
Most of those who put forth this explanation knew the Prophet personally. They felt that it was impossible for him to write a book of any consequence and rejected his claim that the book had divine origins. One account reported: “Most people entertain an idea that the whole matter is a result of a gross imposition, and a grosser superstition. It is pretended that it will be published as soon as the translation is completed.”14
There were others who spoke in even stronger terms: “Smith, its real author, as ignorant and as impudent a knave as ever wrote a book, betrays the cloven foot in basing his whole book upon a false fact, or a pretended fact, which makes God a liar.”15
3. Kirkham states that the above explanation was the only one used by opponents at first. But when many people began to accept the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, another theory was formulated to explain its authorship: Some person or persons with far greater ability than Joseph Smith must have produced the Book of Mormon.
This interpretation initially appeared in the first anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unvailed, a work published by Eber D. Howe and, most believe, authored by Philastus Hurlburt, an apostate. This hypothesis for the formulation of the Book of Mormon can best be summed up thus: “The Book of Mormon is the joint production of Solomon Spaulding and some other designing knave.” They conjectured this “knave” to be Sidney Rigdon.16
This explanation, originating in 1834, has been repeated by many anti-Mormon writers ever since. Because of this, Francis Kirkham spent a great deal of time in both volumes of A New Witness for Christ in America discussing this argument. The historical portion of the Book of Mormon, the proponents of this theory insisted, came from Solomon Spaulding’s novel, Manuscript Found. They contended that the fictionalized account became “scripture” as part of a careful scheme to defraud and deceive unthinking people. This explanation became an excuse for attacking the new religion. Brother Kirkham explained that, in addition to creating the Spaulding theory, Hurlburt gathered many affidavits from the residents of Palmyra, New York, talking of Joseph Smith’s ignorance, delusion, and superstition. This, the anti-Mormon writers believed, added additional weight to their “true” explanation of the origin of the book.
While this theory is still occasionally appealed to, most current anti-Mormon writers have abandoned this explanation. The reason is very simple. In 1884 the original of Spaulding’s Manuscript Found was discovered in Honolulu, Hawaii. When this document was then published, it very obviously bore no relation to the Book of Mormon. Significantly, the theorized link between the works of Joseph Smith and Spaulding was further discredited by Spaulding’s statement attached to the manuscript “that he did not accept the Bible as the revealed word of God to man” and that “the Bible’s only value is its ethical teachings.” Francis Kirkham pointedly proclaimed, “How could a confessed unbeliever in the Bible be the author of the Book of Mormon?”17
4. The fourth explanation of the Book of Mormon’s origin simply modified the previous theory. Obviously, the critics claimed, the manuscript found in Honolulu was not the one used by Sidney Rigdon to produce the Book of Mormon. Thus, there must have been a longer version written later. What happened to this manuscript? Of course, the theory ran, it was lost or destroyed!
Brother Kirkham quickly refuted this argument, pointing out that Solomon Spaulding’s wife and daughter both stated that the Spaulding manuscript (the only one that would have been available for Sidney Rigdon to plagiarize) had been returned to the family from the printing shop where Manuscript Found was published. Later it was examined by Philastus Hurlburt—the anti-Mormon writer—who took the manuscript and never returned it despite repeated requests by the family.18
5. Because the fourth explanation proved inadequate, Brother Kirkham stated, confusion and lack of unity among modern critics of the Book of Mormon has led to a fifth hypothesis. This theory tries to explain the Book of Mormon on various psychological grounds. I. W. Riley theorized that Joseph Smith was an epileptic. No, declared Harry Beardsley, he was “a paranoid.” Never, stated James Black; he possessed “a disassociated personality.” You are all wrong, insisted Faun Brodie; he was “a ne’er-do-well, careless youth, … a superstitious religious believer, and … a ‘myth maker of prodigious talents,’ who was able to write a fable he called the Book of Mormon.” Other modern critics state that Joseph Smith must have been the author of the book, but its contents can be explained by the environment and the knowledge common to the area in which it was produced.19
To conclude Brother Kirkham’s discussion of the five explanations of the Book of Mormon’s origins, we return to his original statement: “It is hoped that this book, which describes the attempts to prove the Book of Mormon man-made will cause the reader to ponder, Did Joseph Smith tell the truth? Are the spiritual events he describes actual, objective realities? Is the Book of Mormon a record that ‘came forth’ by divine power and was it translated by divine power, to convince all men that Jesus is the Christ, or is the book man-made? … Do we, in truth and reality have in America ‘A New Witness for Christ’? Surely the Book of Mormon is the challenge of a century!”20
And the same must be asked of the man who translated the book. Was Joseph Smith a prophet of God? Elder Kirkham believed that the fruits of the work Joseph Smith initiated and the failures of his critics in the many years since the Book of Mormon appeared make it very difficult for anyone to maintain that the Prophet was a deceiver. Neither can he be considered an “ignorant, fanatical leader of deluded followers.” According to Brother Kirkham, there are only two possible explanations of the dilemma posed by the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Was he a rare, mystic leader with ability to write the book and deceive the witnesses and thousands of followers who lived with him? Or is it possible he spoke the truth. Was he, in reality, a prophet of God?”21
With these final questions Francis W. Kirkham came to one conclusion: “To confirm to all men that Jesus is the Christ, an ancient record containing the fulness of the Gospel was brought forth and translated by divine power through the instrumentality of a man, chosen of God, who had neither the help of another nor the ability himself to write the glorious messages of the book. One hundred and twenty years [now one hundred and fifty-four] have passed since its publication. Today every earnest seeker for the truth may know for himself if the book came forth by divine power.”22
Francis Kirkham’s answer to the Book of Mormon dilemma was that the book is indeed a “New Witness for Christ in America.”