CES Reply: Glad Tidings from Captain Kidd!

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.


Off the eastern coast of Mozambique in Africa is an island country called “Comoros.” Prior to its French occupation in 1841, the islands were known by its Arabic name, “Camora.” There is an 1808 map of Africa that refers to the islands as “Camora.”

Looks a bit like “Comora” to me, but I’ll let it slide. Maybe.

The largest city and capital of Comoros (formerly “Camora”)? Moroni .

Very cool, except Moroni didn’t become the capital of Camora/Comora/Comoros until 1876 and it wasn’t on any of these maps. There’s no contemporaneous source through which Joseph could have found the name Moroni, let alone made a connection between these two names.

“Camora” and settlement “Moroni” were names in pirate and treasure hunting stories involving Captain William Kidd (a pirate and treasure hunter) which many 19th century New Englanders – especially treasure hunters – were familiar with.

No, they weren’t. If they were, those like Grant Palmer and others who lean heavily on the Captain Kidd theory for Moroni and Cumorah’s origins would be able to provide actual references from such stories to back this up, particularly if they were “common names,” which, given the obscurity of the Comora reference and the non-existent pre-1830 references to the Moroni settlement, they clearly were not. Near as I can tell, no such citations exist. (You certainly don’t provide any.) And if these really were common names in popular stories, then why do none of Joseph’s legion of critics notice supposedly obvious Kidd/Cumorah/Moroni connection during Joseph’s lifetime? Why do we have to wait until Grant Palmer comes along in the 21st Century before anyone notices it at all?
In his letters, Kidd himself makes reference to the nearby islands of Madagascar, Johanna, and Mahala, but he says nothing of Camora or Moroni. The best that Palmer can do to tie these names to Kidd and then to Joseph is to point out that Kidd operated “in the vicinity” of these two places, because Kidd makes no direct mention of them. Making the leap from being “in the vicinity” of locations Kidd never mentions to a presumption that the unmentioned locales constituted “common names” in stories about Kidd strains credulity to the breaking point. If Kidd’s exploits truly were the linguistic inspiration for the setting of the last great Nephite/Lamanite battles, we’d be much more likely to be reading about the Hill Mahala than the Hill Cumorah.

Moroni: Great Prophet, Lousy Pirate

Another thought – if we are to presume that Moroni in the Book of Mormon was inspired by the exploits of a glamorous pirate like Captain Kidd, then why is Moroni as un-Kidd-like a figure as it is possible to be? Where’s Moroni’s ship? Where’s his merry band of fellow brigands? Where are all his death-defying scrapes, dashing romances, and fantastical adventures? Moroni is a gloomy loner who wanders the empty landscape for decades without any companions at all and no enemies to face. He’s a great prophet, sure, but he makes for a pretty lousy pirate story.

In fact, the uniform spelling for Hill Cumorah in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon is spelled “Camorah.”

Which, just to nitpick, is different from “Camora,” which is the spelling of the location on the map you provide. Which, to me, still looks like “Comora.”

Pomeroy Tucker was born in Palmyra, New York in 1802, three years before Joseph Smith. He is considered to be a contemporary source. This is what he said about Joseph Smith:

“Joseph … had learned to read comprehensively … [reading] works of fiction and records of criminality, such for instance as would be classed with the ‘dime novels’ of the present day. The stories of Stephen Buroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions.”

Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p.17 

You feel it necessary to point out that Tucker was born in Palmyra three years before Joseph Smith, but you neglect to mention that “Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress” was published in 1867, twenty-three years after the prophet’s death and roughly fifty years after Joseph was allegedly poring through “works of fiction and records of criminality” with special emphasis on the stories of Buroughs and Kidd. I’m left to wonder how many people from my own childhood about whom I could confidently describe their reading habits with any degree of specificity half a century after the fact.

This would be a challenge for me if I were asked to provide such information about my closest friends, let alone someone like Tucker, who makes it clear that he had nothing but contempt for Joseph. (More on that later.) There’s no plausible reason for Tucker to take such a keen interest in Joseph’s early reading habits.

And, of course, Tucker’s opinion on this subject contradicts the entirety of contemporaneous testimony about Joseph’s literary tastes. His enemies unanimously dismissed him as illiterate and ignorant – as does Tucker elsewhere in his book, despite the obvious contradiction with the tidbit you quote – while even his own mother described him as the one of her children least inclined to reading. If Joseph truly were devouring all the dime novels he could get his hands on in order to accommodate his “expanding mental perceptions,” why did it take nearly five decades for anyone to notice?

Oh, and by the way, why doesn’t Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress say a single word about Kidd’s and Joseph’s supposed connection to the Island of Camora and the settlement of Moroni? If these were, indeed, “common names,” you’d think Tucker, of all people, would be the first to cry foul.

Some apologists say that Tucker’s Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress is anti-Mormon and thus anything in the book cannot be trusted.

“Some apologists?” Who?

If this is true, why then did LDS scholar and Church History compiler B.H. Roberts quote Tucker for background information on Joseph Smith? Also, FairMormon has an article in which they quote Tucker’s book 4 times as support for Joseph, and they even refer to Tucker as an “eyewitness” to Joseph and his family. Is Tucker’s peripheral information only useful and accurate when it shows Joseph and the Church in a positive and favorable light?

Given that you haven’t provided a link to anyone who insists that nothing in Tucker’s book can be trusted, your questions here are problematic. It’s a bit like saying, “Some people say Donald Trump eats his own children, but if that’s true, then why are so many of them still alive?” No one is under any obligation to respond to such nonsense unless we’re told who these “some people” are.  Are “some people” the same as “some apologists?” And did Donald Trump eat them?

As for Tucker’s credibility, there’s no reason to ignore any good information that can be found in his book, but there’s every reason to be skeptical of what he says about Joseph Smith.

One more, I invoke the Official Grand Poobah of Quasi-Official Mormon Apologists, none other than the late, great Hugh Nibley himself. I refer you to his penetrating and remarkably funny book The Myth Makers, which was reprinted as part of his collection Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass, available to be read in its entirety online at no charge.

The Myth Makers is written as the transcript of a mock trial, in which a “Chairman” directly questions witnesses against Joseph Smith using their published words as testimony. In the excerpts I quote here, Pomeroy Tucker is coming under withering cross examination. Once again, Nibley’s words are in dark red, the color of fire. 

Chairman: Now Mr. Tucker, I would like to ask you, first of all, just how well you knew Joseph Smith.

Tucker: Very well indeed: “he is distinctly remembered by me . . . from the age of twelve to twenty years.”

Nibley: 1, Tucker: 0

Chairman: And Smith was an important figure in Palmyra from the age of twelve to twenty years?

Tucker: Don’t make me laugh, sir. “From the age of twelve to twenty years he is distinctly remembered as a dull-eyed, flaxen haired, prevaricating boy—noted only for his indolent and vagabondish character.”

Chairman: So during all the time you knew him, Smith was noted for one thing only—being a lazy tramp. Was he much of a public figure?

Tucker: On the contrary, “taciturnity was among his characteristic idiosyncrasies, and he seldom spoke to anyone outside of his immediate associates. . . . He nevertheless evidenced the rapid development of a thinking, plodding, evil-brewing mental composition—largely given to inventions of low cunning, schemes of mischief and deception, and false and mysterious pretensions. He . . . was never known to laugh.”

Chairman: From what you say, Mr. Tucker, it is clear that you not only remember Joseph Smith distinctly, but that you knew him very well indeed—perhaps better than anyone else. It is plain that Smith was exceedingly hard to get acquainted with and that he was devilishly secretive, but even if he had been frank and open, the intimate knowledge you profess of his mental composition could only come from the closest association. Now, what was it that  induced you, a very hard-working and ambitious young man, to spend your time with a perfectly worthless vagabond four and a half years your junior? You were no child when you first met Smith.

Tucker: You don’t have to be a man’s close friend to observe his character.

Chairman: According to you, you had to get close to Smith to observe him at all, since he wouldn’t even speak to anyone “outside of his associates.” And to say immediately what any man “largely” devoted his time and energy to, and what things he “was never known” to do, requires spending a good deal of time with him—unless, of course, your famous firsthand report is only hearsay. Did you think associating with  Smith could contribute to your career? Did you perhaps find him an interesting person—even in a bad way?

Tucker: Of course not. As I told you, he was “noted only for his indolent and vagabondish character.” He was “a dull-eyed, flaxen-haired, prevaricating boy” who never spoke to anybody and “was never known to laugh.” 

Chairman: That answers my question. It would be hard to imagine duller company.

The whole exchange is well worth reading. It also turns out Tucker left Palmyra and lived thirty miles away for nearly four of the eight years during which he supposedly knew Joseph Smith, a fact he conveniently omits from his own dubiously detailed history.

In his book, he invents a great of patently false nonsense, including a massive cave on the outskirts of town in which Joseph hunkered down to translate the Book of Mormon as a cadre of armed guards stood watch, which somehow went unnoticed by anyone else, a fact Tucker attributes to the idea that this bizarre and fascinating spectacle was somehow boring and “scarcely attracted the curiosity of outsiders.”

As for your Tucker citations, how can one have an insatiable literary appetite and “expanding mental perceptions” when one is “indolent,” “vagabondish,” “dull-eyed,” and “never known to laugh,” as well as taciturn to the point of complete withdrawal from the community at large?

“We are sorry to observe, even in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the marvellous. Even the frightful stories of money being hid under the surface of the earth, and enchanted by the Devil or Robert Kidd (Captain Kidd), are received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths.” – Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra, New York, February 16, 1825 

I don’t understand why you think this quote adds anything to to your point. It comes from an unsigned article that makes no reference to Joseph Smith whatsoever. It was not written about him. Rather, it’s criticism of an unnamed “respectable gentleman in Tunbridge.” What have you got against respectable gentlemen in Tunbridge?

Notice that this is considered “prevalent” and “received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths.” The above contemporary 1825 Palmyra, New York newspaper quote was not tainted by any desire to damage Joseph Smith.

Of course, because it has nothing to do with Joseph Smith. How could it possibly “damage” him? (Just as relevant: I recently read an article about Sacha Baron Cohen trying to get OJ Simpson to confess to murder. It was not tainted by any desire to damage you or the CES Letter.)

This article provides a snapshot of the worldview of 1825 New England.

If that’s true, then it’s rather helpful to Joseph Smith. It demonstrates that he wasn’t nearly as notorious in 1825 as Tucker and others later claimed. If he were, surely his name would have been all over this, as he would sell far more papers than just another respectable gentleman in Tunbridge. And, curiously, it doesn’t seem to mention the supposedly “common names” of Camora or Moroni at all.

The Hill Cumorah and Moroni have absolutely nothing to do with Camora and Moroni from Captain Kidd stories?

Correct, because Camora and Moroni are not in any Captain Kidd stories.

Stories that Joseph and his treasure hunting family and buddies were familiar with?

They were not, because such stories do not exist. There are Captain Kidd stories, but none of them have Camora or Moroni in them. Those names can’t be found in any factual accounts about Kidd, either.

The original 1830 Book of Mormon just happens to have the uniform “Camorah” spelling?

Which, again, is different from the spelling on the 1808 map you provide – Camora – and the spelling that actually seems to be on the map – Comora.

This is all just a mere coincidence?

This barely rises to the level of incidence, let alone coincidence.

Maybe that’s unfair. Certainly Moroni and Cumorah are far more central to the Book of Mormon narrative than the tiny Canadian town of Rama that didn’t yet exist but was still somehow part of the “lands of Joseph’s youth.” Furthermore, Moroni (the man) and Cumorah are linked together, as are Moroni (the town) and Comoros (the island.) So the possible correlation here is, indeed, stronger and more noteworthy than your youthful adventures in Keokuk.

So I want to take a step back and hypothetically concede your point. That is to say, I want to imagine for a moment that Joseph found a contemporary reference to Comoros and Moroni and then decided to make one a hill and one a warrior/writer/nomad/angel in a fictional magnum religious opus about ancient Americans.

How does that explain anything about how the Book of Mormon came to be?

So much of your criticism of the Book of Mormon strains at gnats and swallows camels. Even if Joseph had lifted all these names, or carelessly copied biblical mistakes, or faked having a bunch of plates and spectacles, there’s still the issue of the Book of Mormon itself. It’s here. It exists. It had to come from somewhere. To quote my father again:

If we reject the book’s own claims, there is no clear indication as to who [wrote the Book of Mormon], but this much is clear – whoever did it had a broad background in ancient cultures and languages, Middle Eastern geography, military strategy and Biblical scholarship, and went to a great deal of painstaking effort. Such a person does not easily come to mind and coming up with a clear explanation of how a forgery this large and this complex might have been done is very difficult.

A handful of plagiarized names and bunch of Old Testament excerpts aren’t nearly enough to account for more than 265,000 words of an intergenerational and internally consistent thousand-year history that has endured over a century of scrutiny and still confounds critics and defies easy explanation. You pick two names off a map, and you still have 264,998 words to go.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said it better than I could:

If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.

UPDATE: Additional information and analysis can be found at cesletter.org/cumorah

Lots more references to Kidd there, and zero links to any stories about Kidd that mention Comoros or Moroni. Kidd without Comoros/Moroni is meaningless.

Tomorrow, we begin a long, non-plagiarized journey through “View of the Hebrews.”  In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!