Book of Mormon: Surrounding Influences
In our previous sections on the Book of Mormon, we’ve looked at how the Book of Mormon was produced and the many issues that biblical scholarship presents for its claims of being an ancient, historical record.
Our last section on DNA was a long one, but it helped to cover why the belief in Joseph Smith's time that the Native Americans were originally from Israel is simply not true. This section is to look at what ideas and beliefs around Joseph Smith helped to shape the narrative of the Book of Mormon, and how those influences place the Book of Mormon as a 19th century text. Where I think this section will diverge from other critical overviews is that I do not believe that Joseph Smith plagiarized or copied from other books of his time, but rather that those books all came out of the same worldview which Joseph Smith was a part of.
That’s a very important element that I believe is overlooked when we look at issues with the Book of Mormon – treasure digging influenced every aspect of the production of the Book of Mormon, and it was because that was the worldview that Joseph Smith was embedded in.
The King James Bible
We’ve already discussed how the Bible, and more specifically the King James translation of the Bible, influenced the Book of Mormon so we really do not need to cover that in any detail here. If you have not read our sections on biblical scholarship, I highly recommend that you go back and read them.
The sections on biblical scholarship show that not only could the Book of Mormon not have been written until after 1611 (and likely after 1769 as that was the version that was in Joseph Smith’s time), but that Joseph Smith also made assumptions about the literalness of these biblical stories which we now know are simply not true. But because Joseph Smith brought them into the Book of Mormon as literal stories, we can show that the Book of Mormon is not a true, historical record.
Mound Builder Myth
The most important influence to the Book of Mormon is also largely shaped by the biblical beliefs of Joseph Smith’s time and that is the Moundbuilders myth.
The Moundbuilders myth originated when European settlers came to the Americas and saw all sorts of “mounds” that had been built up. When the settlers arrived, they believed the Native Americans to be a wild, savage race and therefore could not possibly imagine that they could have built these mounds and civilizations, and instead attributed the mounds to a lost, superior race of white people just like themselves.
In the mounds were the buried remains of Native Americans, but since it was just bones inside, the white European settlers created a myth that these are the remains of these lost civilizations, and that they had been exterminated by the dark, savage Indians. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Moundbuilders myth largely mirrors the Book of Mormon’s narrative.
Here is a poem from William Cullen Bryant called “The Prairies” that I going to pull some sections of below, but you can read the entire poem here.
“Let the mighty mounds
That overlook the rivers, or that rise
In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,
Answer. A race, that long has passed away,
Built them;—a disciplined and populous race…
In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
From instruments of unremembered form,
Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth….
All is gone;
All—save the piles of earth that hold their bones,
The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods,
The barriers which they builded from the soil
To keep the foe at bay—till o’er the walls
The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,
The strongholds of the plain were forced, and heaped
With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood
Flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres,
And sat unscared and silent at their feast.
Haply some solitary fugitive,
Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense
Of desolation and of fear became
Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.
This poem is giving an overview of what white settlers believed about the Moundbuilders –they were a superior race that was killed off by the dark skinned Indians. In this poem it discusses how this happened through wars and that a single person survived and lurked in the Earth until he yielded himself to die. That is effectively the story of the Book of Mormon.
A lot of these mounds have since been destroyed by the settlers who overtook the land, but we do have photos of some that remain. Below is a map of all of the many mounds that were discovered along with a photo of an Indian mound still intact in Georgia.
Some of the belief in the Moundbuilders myth was that there must have been an ancient, white race that lived in the Americas that was destroyed by the Indians, which was a way for settlers to claim that the lands were rightfully theirs.
William Henry Harrison, who was famously a president for just 30 days, wrote the following:
"If a man visited the Ohio River valley prior to white settlement, “his eye might have rested on some stupendous mound, or lengthened line of ramparts… which proved that the country had once been possessed by a numerous and laborious people. But he would’ve seen, also, indubitable evidences that centuries had passed away since these remains had been occupied by those for whose use they had been reared… He would not fail to arrive at the conclusion that their departure… must have been a matter of necessity. For no people at any state of civilization, would have willingly abandoned such a country…
We learn first, from the extensive country covered by their remains, that they were a numerous people. Secondly, that they were congregated in considerable cities… confirm the fact that they had a national religion; in the celebration of which, all that was pompous, gorgeous, and imposing, that a semi-barbarous nation could devise was brought into occasional display. That there were a numerous priesthood, and altars often smoking with hecatombs of victims… This much do these ancient remains furnish us, as to the condition and character of the people who erected them…
We refer again to the works they have left us, to gain what knowledge we can of the cause and manner of their leaving the Ohio valley. For the reasons formerly stated, I assume the fact that they were compelled to fly from a more numerous or a more gallant people. No doubt the contest was long and bloody, and that the country, so long their residence, was not abandoned to their rivals until their numbers were too much reduced to continue the contest. Taking into consideration all the circumstances, ... I have come to the conclusion that these people were assailed both from their northern and their southern frontier; made to recede from both directions, and that their last effort at resistance was made on the banks of the Ohio.” (The mound-builders: a reconstruction of the life of a prehistoric American race, through exploration and interpretation of their earth mounds, their burials, and their cultural remains.)
This is a long quote, but again it shows that in Joseph Smith’s time the prevailing view was that these mounds were proof of an ancient race that was killed off by the dark skinned Indians. I know I keep repeating this, but it is so important to understanding not just how the Book of Mormon was created, but why there were many around Joseph Smith that accepted the stories within it.
Furthermore, once the Native Americans began losing their lands and people to war, disease, and famine, this myth allowed the settlers to justify that the Native Americans could not possibly have been this evolved and advanced as a civilization, which further proved the Moundbuilder myth in their worldview.
This allowed the myth to grow, and these settlers then told stories of this ancient race that attempted to fight off these savage intruders using these fortified mounds until they were exterminated by them.
Again, this is why the Book of Mormon’s text was accepted by so many people in the 19th century – it was the belief that the Native Americans did originate from an ancient white race that was overtaken by the ‘red Indians.’
The problem, of course, is that this was simply a myth created by these settlers to explain the Native Americans and to provide a justification for removing the Native Americans from their lands and to slaughter and decimate their populations.
As we covered in our last section on DNA and the Book of Mormon, the Americas were populated by people coming from Asia as much as 25,000 years ago, and they were not in any way originated from a white race.
This is yet another area where you can show that the Book of Mormon is a product of the 19th century, because the Moundbuilders myth had been largely debunked by the late 1800s. As Mormon scholar John Hamer pointed out, even in 1963 there was a movie called “Kings of the Sun” which worked off of this idea. (Mormon Stories, John Hamer, The Book of Mormon's 19th Century Context)
In this movie, the character Balam, prince of a more civilized (and whiter) people who arrive in North America by boat, begin building a city with great earthworks and immediately run into trouble with the more savage (and redder) natives led by Chief Black Eagle.
I am spending a lot of time on the Moundbuilder myth because it really informs us of how people thought in Joseph Smith’s time. This will be important as we look as the View of the Hebrews below, because many critics claim that Joseph Smith stole the ideas from the View of the Hebrews, when in reality both books were drawing upon ideas that were heavily discussed in the 1820s.
Furthermore we now have the ability to read the Mayan script, and it has no mention of anything to do with the Book of Mormon or a white race that they overtook through wars. The Moundbuilder myth was white European settlers imposing their beliefs on the identity of Native Americans on them as a way to dehumanize them just as the Book of Mormon has taken the identity of Native Americans and Polynesians away with a book that is simply not historical or true.
Besides the King James Bible, this is the most direct influence to the Book of Mormon because the surrounding worldview of the Moundbuilders myth is effectively the entire premise of the Book of Mormon – explaining how the Native Americans came to populate the Americans when the settlers all believed the superior civilization and race must have been “white and delightsome.”
As mentioned above, one goal of the Moundbuilder myth was to dehumanize the Native Americans as a justification to take over the land. If you could create a myth that the Native Americans had already exterminated a white, civilized race, it becomes much easier to convince others that you have rights to the land and if you don’t take it back now, the Native Americans would do to you what they did to the Moundbuilders. From Archaeologist Bradley Lepper:
“Prior to the Revolutionary War, the fact that the mounds had been built by American Indians was “so well-established that it required neither explanation nor defense.” By the time Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, however, that idea had become an inconvenient truth.
In his efforts to remove American Indian tribes from their lands in the Eastern United States, Jackson claimed that the mounds had been built by an “unknown people” who were exterminated by the “existing savage tribes.” Therefore, the United States government was perfectly justified in removing those tribes from the lands they had stolen from the supposedly more civilized lost race of Mound Builders.” (Ohio Dispatch, April 26 2020)
While the Moundbuilder myth is indeed just that – a myth – it was still incredibly influential in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and the Book of Mormon is product of that belief. And the Moundbuilder myth is a great example of an etiological myth, which we discussed in our biblical scholarship sections.
View of the Hebrews
Many critics cite the book called View of the Hebrews as a source that Joseph Smith stole from when composing the Book of Mormon. There are many similarities between the book just as there are many differences, and it was even cited by the church run newspaper Times and Seasons as proof of the Book of Mormon:
“If such may have been the fact, that a part of the Ten Tribes came over to America, in the way we have supposed, leaving the cold regions of Assareth behind them in quest of a milder climate, it would be natural to look for tokens of the presence of Jews of some sort, along countries adjacent to the Atlantic. In order to this, we shall here make an extract from an able work: written exclusively on the subject of the Ten Tribes having come from Asia by the way of Bherings Strait, by the Rev. Ethan Smith, Pultney, Vt., who relates as follows:…
That in 1815, he was leveling some ground under and near an old wood shed, standing on a place of his, situated on Indian Hill.
He ploughed [plowed] and conveyed away old chips and earth to some depth. After the work was done, walking over the place, he discovered, near where the earth had been dug the deepest, a black strap as it appeared, about six inches in length, and one and a half in breadth, and about the thickness of a leather trace to a harness.
He perceived it had at each end a loop of some hard substance, probably for the purpose of carrying it… They were of a dark yellow hue, and contained some kind of writing. The neighbors coming in to see the strange discovery, tore one of the pieces to atoms, in the true Hun and Vandal style. The other three pieces Mr. Merrick saved, and sent them to Cambridge,-where they where examined, and discovered to have been written with a pen in Hebrew, plain and legible.
The writing on the three remaining pieces of parchment, was quotation from the Old Testament. See Deut. vi. chap. from the 4th to the 9th verse, inclusive-also, xi. chap. 13-21, and Exodus, chap. 13-13-11,-16 inclusive, to which the reader can refer, if he has the curiosity to read this most interesting discovery…
Dr. West of Stockbridge, relates that an old Indian informed him, that his fathers in this country had not long since, been in the possession of a book, which they had for a long time, carried with them, but having lost the knowledge of reading it, they buried it with an Indian chief-View of the Hebrews, Pg. 223.
It had been handed down from family to family, or from chief to chief as a most precious relic, if not as an amulet, charm, or talisman, for it is not to be supposed, that a distinct knowledge of what was contained in the strap could have long continued among them, in their wandering condition, amid woods and forests.
It is said by Calmet, that the above texts are the very passages of Scripture, which the Jews used to write on the leaves of their phylacteries. These phylacteries were little rolls of parchment whereon were written certain words of the law. These they wore upon their forehead, and upon the wrist of the left arm."-Smith's view of the Hebrews). Pg. 220.” (Times and Seasons Vol 3, No 15, June 1842)
This definitely sounds very similar to the Book of Mormon coming forth, and the connection between Oliver Cowdery, Joseph’s main scribe for the Book of Mormon as we have it today, and the author of View of the Hebrew’s, Ethan Smith is noteworthy.
Ethan Smith was the pastor of a church in Poultney, VT that Oliver Cowdery attended through the time when View of the Hebrews was published. Cowdery then met Joseph Smith in 1829, and as Joseph Smith writes in his history:
“Two days after the arrival of Mr. Cowdery (being the 7th of April) I commenced to translate the Book of Mormon, and he began to write for me.” (Pearl of Great Price 1:67)
If that wasn’t enough, in 1927 LDS historian and General Authority B.H. Roberts undertook a project to answer problems for the Book of Mormon’s claims to being an ancient, historical document. Throughout his studies, he noted many of the similarities between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Among some of the quotes from Roberts regarding the View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon:
“For years such materials as were then found and discussed, theories as to the origin of the American Indians, including "the ten lost tribes" theory of Hebrew infusion into the American race, together with frequent mention of cultural traits favorable to this supposed Hebrew infusion-all this was matter of common speculation in the literature of America, before the publication of either Priest's American Antiquities or the Book of Mormon.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.152)
“It is often represented by Mormon speakers and writers, that the Book of Mormon was first to represent the American Indians as descendants of the Hebrews: holding that the Book of Mormon is unique in this. The claim is sometimes still ignorantly made.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.323)
“It is altogether probable that these two books—Priest's Wonders of Nature and Providence, 1824; and Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews 1st edition 1823, and the 2nd edition 1825—were either possessed by Joseph Smith or certainly known by him, for they were surely available to him.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.153)
“Did Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith's story of the Book of Mormon's origin.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.240)
Roberts highlighted the similarities between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon in a document titled “A Parallel” that was given to top church leaders. From the amazingly detailed thesis paper on BH Roberts titled “The Secret Mormon Meetings of 1922” by Shannon Caldwell Montez:
“Related to the second document was a third one called “A Parallel.” It was created by Roberts in 1927 as a way to summarize a portion of the second paper as he wrestled with whether or not to present his second study to church officials. It was eighteen typed pages showing the uncanny similarities between The Book of Mormon and A View of the Hebrews. A few of the mentioned similarities include the migration of a group of Jewish people from Jerusalem to the uninhabited American continent by boat, a single common (Hebrew) linguistic and ancestral origin for all Native Americans, a division of those people into civilized and uncivilized groups, inspired prophets teaching a monotheistic religion, wars between the two groups resulting in the total annihilation of the civilized portion, and a buried book telling their history written in a form of Egyptian hieroglyphics. (The Secret Mormon Meetings of 1922, p. 11)
On a side note, I highly recommend reading the thesis paper by Montez as well as listening to her interviews on Mormon Stories going over B.H. Roberts’ study of the Book of Mormon as he attempted to answer questions that had been presented to him. It is a fascinating read and listen, and contains so much information about how his works were received by the leaders of the church.
The apologetic response to B.H. Roberts’ writings about View of the Hebrews was that he was merely playing a ‘devil’s advocate,’ and never actually believed these parallels to be problematic for the Book of Mormon. FAIR Mormon insists that “Roberts was an able scholar, and he was not afraid to play 'devil's advocate' to strengthen the Church's defenses against its enemies” in their response to the CES Letter.
While B.H. Roberts never publicly claimed to lose his testimony in the Book of Mormon, there is a lot of information in the thesis by Montez that undercuts that B.H. Roberts was simply playing devil’s advocate and was never bothered by the problems with the Book of Mormon.
B.H. Roberts was the mission president for Wesley Parkinson Lloyd, and discussed the meetings that he had with top leadership about these problems with Lloyd in 1933. This citation is slightly long, but important to understanding the history of both why Roberts was researching the Book of Mormon, and what it possibly did to shape his understanding of the Book of Mormon as a true, historical record. From Lloyd’s journal:
“The conversation then drifted to the Book of Mormon and this surprising story he related to me. That while he was Pres. of the Eastern States Mission a Logan man by the name of Riter persuaded a scholarly friend who was a student in Washington to read through and to criticize the Book of Mormon. The criticism that the student made was that at the time of the discovery of America there were fifty eight distinct languages in existence among the American Indians, not dialects but languages as different as English is from Spanish and that all human knowledge indicates that fundamental languages change very slowly whereas at the time of the Book of Mormon the people were supposed to have been speaking all one tongue. The student asked Riter to explain that proposition. Riter sent the letter to Dr. Talmage who studied it over and during a trip east asked Brother Roberts to make a careful investigation and study and to get an answer for the letter.
Roberts went to work and investigated it from every angle but could not answer it satisfactorily to himself. At his request Pres. Grant called a meeting of the Twelve Apostles and Bro. Roberts presented the matter, told them frankly that he was stumped and ask for their aid in the explanation. In answer, they merely one by one stood up and bore testimony to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. George Albert Smith in tears testified that his faith in the Book had not been shaken by the question. Pres. Ivins, the man most likely to be able to answer a question on that subject was unable to provide the solution. No answer was available. Bro. Roberts could not criticize them for not being able to answer it or to assist him, but said that in a Church which claimed continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary.
After the meeting, he wrote Pres. Grant expressing his disappointment at the failure of Pres. Ivins to contribute to the problem. It was mentioned at the meeting by Bro Roberts that there were other Book of Mormon problems that needed special attention. Richard R. Lyman spoke up and ask if they were things that would help our prestige and when Bro Roberts answered no, he said then why discuss them. This attitude was too much for the historically minded Roberts. There was however a committee appointed to study this problem, consisting of Bros Talmage, Ballard, Roberts, and one other Apostle. They met and looked vacantly at one and other, but none seemed to know what to do about it. Finally, Bro Roberts mentioned that he had at least attempted an answer and he had it in his drawer. That it was an answer that would satisfy people that didn’t think, but a very inadequate answer to a thinking man. They asked him to read it and after hearing it they adopted it by vote and said that was about the best they could do. After this Bro Roberts made a special Book of Mormon study…
He swings to a psychological explanation of the Book of Mormon and shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith. That his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective. He explained certain literary difficulties in the Book such as the miraculous incident of the entire nation of the Jaredites, the dramatic story of one man being left on each side, and one of them finally being slain, also the New England flat hill surroundings of a great civilization of another part of the country. We see none of the cliffs of the Mayas or the high mountain peaks or other geographical environments of early American civilization that the entire story laid in a New England flat hill surrounding. These are some of the things which have made Bro Roberts shift his base on the Book of Mormon. Instead of regarding it as the strongest evidence we have of the Church Divinity, he regards it as the one which needs the more bolstering. His greatest claim for the divinity of the Prophet Joseph lies in the Doctrine and Covenants.” (Wesley Parkinson Lloyd Collection, August 7, 1933)
Apologists will rightly point out that nowhere in the journal entry does Roberts deny faith or belief in the Book of Mormon, and they are correct, but this journal entry also shows that Roberts understands that the Book of Mormon’s claims are tenuous and not backed by the evidence as we have shown in the overview topics so far.
From a FAIR Mormon article about B.H. Roberts and the Lloyd journal, the author uses the following reason to dismiss this journal entry regarding the plates and Urim and Thummim not being objective:
“As for Lloyd stating that in their conversation, Roberts “shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith. That his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective,” the very language Lloyd uses to describe what Roberts said closely parallels I. Woodbridge Riley’s “psychological” theory of the Book of Mormon’s origin.40 “Roberts had already rejected the ‘subjective’ psychological explanation in 1909”41 in New Witnesses for God and A Defense of the Faith and the Saints, and using similar language to describe this explanation of Book of Mormon origins to Wesley Lloyd indicates, not that he now believed this view, but that he explained to Lloyd the challenges refuting such a view might potentially pose. There is no evidence to suggest that Roberts believed at the end of his life the arguments he had refuted throughout his life.” (FAIR Mormon, Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony)
This argument is saying that since Roberts wrote in 1909 dismissing the subjective nature of the gold plates that he could not possibly have believed what he then said in 1922. However, what the author here is not realizing is that B.H. Roberts had not undertaken this in-depth research into the Book of Mormon at that point.
In other words, this would be like saying that since I was a believing member as a convert and because I am still a member of record that I can’t possibly believe what I’m typing now after researching church history and the Book of Mormon.
If nothing else, this is a great example of how being willing to honestly and openly accept new evidence and information can change your opinion. That’s not to say that Roberts lost faith in the church – his public statements do not back that up, although it is incredibly difficult to publicly walk away from a church that has been your life and career - but rather to say that Roberts likely shifted his paradigm to try and make sense of the evidence that he knew contradicted the truth claims of the church.
If this feels like a tangent from this overview, I apologize, but I wanted to highlight where critics and apologists typically take the View of the Hebrews similarities with the Book of Mormon before I state what I believe to be the most important takeaway.
It’s not that Joseph Smith plagiarized View of the Hebrews for the Book of Mormon. I do not believe there is any reason to believe Joseph Smith plagiarized any other book beyond copying large sections of the King James Bible which I detailed in the biblical scholarship sections on the KJV, Sermon on the Mount, and Deutero-Isaiah.
But what is clear is that the Moundbuilder myth was very strong in Joseph Smith’s time and place, and this led to many authors writing books to try and fill in the history of the Native Americans to fit their own beliefs and conclusions.
In other words, I believe the similarities between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon are due to both Ethan Smith and Joseph Smith working from the Moundbuilders myth, and that they were both trying to work through the idea of an ancient, superior race that was wiped out by the (dark skinned) Native Americans.
It is quite possible that Joseph Smith read View of the Hebrews and took some general ideas from it, but those ideas were already present in his milieu. Just as the authors of Matthew and Luke worked from Mark’s original Gospel, it’s possible that Joseph Smith wanted to build on some ideas and correct others, but there’s simply no reason to make that leap given what we can discern from the Book of Mormon and the influences surrounding Joseph Smith.
View of the Hebrews doesn’t show plagiarism, but that these ideas were so prevalent in Joseph Smith’s time that you would expect these kinds of stories to be written. As I’ve tried to show through these sections, the Book of Mormon literally could not have been written in any time but Joseph Smith’s lifetime. The Book of Mormon is pulling from the King James Bible that was written in 1611 (and Joseph Smith’s edition was likely a 1769 version) and then incorporates ideas that were not created until the 18th and 19th centuries in the Moundbuilders myth as well as the other influences we will get to below.
So I do apologize for focusing on B.H. Roberts so much in this section, but I think it’s important because it shows that Roberts was both concerned and aware of the many parallels to View of the Hebrews, did admit that Joseph Smith could have been influenced by View of the Hebrews, and appeared to have at least shifted his paradigm because of the honest research he was willing to undertake. I think those are all important points when trying to understand not just that Joseph Smith is the author of the Book of Mormon, but that he was more than capable of pulling from the ideas around him to create it.
The First Book of Napoleon and the Late War
These two books are sometimes cited by critics of Joseph Smith as proof that he plagiarized their works when making the Book of Mormon, but much like View of the Hebrews the importance is in the style itself.
Of course there are similarities in these books to the Book of Mormon, and you can look no further than the beginning of the First Book of Napoleon to see that:
“1. And behold it came to pass, in these latter days, that an evil spirit arose on the face of the earth, and greatly troubled the sons of men.
2. And this spirit seized upon, and spread amongst the people who dwell in the land of Gaul.
3. Now, in this people the fear of the Lord had not been for many generations, and they had become a corrupt and perverse people; and their chief priests, and the nobles of the land, and the learned men thereof, had become wicked in the imaginations of their hearts, and in the practices of their lives.” (The First Book of Napoleon)
Doesn’t this remind you of the Book of Mormon? Of course, but as we stated above these ideas were part of the milieu around Joseph Smith. It should not surprise anyone that many books were created with these themes, because these authors were working off the questions and stories of their time.
And, just like the Late War, both books have a lot of similarities in their writing style to the Book of Mormon. From the Late War:
“the fourth day of the seventh month, which is the birth day of Columbian Liberty and Independence,”
“... near Moravian Town ... And it came to pass ... the army ... were under ... a chief warrior, whom they called Tecumseh [...] smote their chief warrior [Tecumseh], and slew him ... he fell to the earth.”
“two thousand hardy men, who ... fought freely for their country ... Now the men of war ... were ... men of dauntless courage.” (The Late War)
Now I want to be clear that I do not believe that Joseph Smith plagiarized either book as some critics contend. The point in citing these three passages from the Late War is to show that the style of speaking in the style of King James English, which was very prevalent in Joseph Smith’s time and place. From the Late War:
“And it came to pass, in the one thousand eight hundred and fifteenth year of the Christian era, in the first month of the year, and on the eighth day of the month, Being on the Sabbath day, (which, as it is written in the scriptures, Thou shalt remember and keep HOLY,) That the mighty army of the king, which had moved out of the strong ships of Britain, came, in their strength, to make conquest of the territory of Columbia, which lieth to the south”
It was very common in Joseph Smith’s day for preachers to speak in King James language just as it was common for books to written that emulated the language. While I do not believe Joseph Smith plagiarized these books, I do believe that these ideas influenced the Book of Mormon as he produced it, and I think he emulated the voice of scripture to give the Book of Mormon more credibility and authenticity as an ancient record.
Personal Influences and Events
In addition to the Moundbuilder myth and the King James Bible, Joseph Smith was heavily influenced by the events around him as the Book of Mormon was produced. This is reflected in the text in various spots, and we’re going to cover some of them here to show how Joseph Smith was incorporating stories and events around him directly into to the text of the Book of Mormon.
As we covered in the first three overview topics on Joseph Smith’s involvement with treasure digging, the gold plates, and the translation, elements of treasure digging are also embedded in the Book of Mormon’s text.
Both Helaman and Mormon discuss the idea of “slippery” treasure, which was a common theme of Joseph Smith’s treasure digs. Whenever the “seer” would see treasure on his stone in a hat and the diggers would get close, the “seer” would then claim the treasure became slippery and was pulled deeper into the ground. From the Book of Mormon:
Helaman 13:31,34-36: “31 And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them.
34 Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone; and behold, our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for battle.
35 Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.
36 O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them.”
Mormon 1:18: “18 And these Gadianton robbers, who were among the Lamanites, did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again.”
In order to believe these texts are ancient, you have to believe that treasure digging is a real practice that leads to discoveries of riches, and that they did the same practices in the time of the ancient Americas as well. We’ve covered this in the treasure digging section, but there is simply nothing to indicate that this is true, yet it shows up in the Book of Mormon as this was a large influence on Joseph Smith’s magical worldview.
A Seer is Greater Than a Prophet
Joseph Smith then uses the treasure digging language of being a "seer" to further elevate his gifts and to illustrate the translation process in Mosiah 8:
“9 And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.
10 And behold, also, they have brought breastplates, which are large, and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound.
11 And again, they have brought swords, the hilts thereof have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust; and there is no one in the land that is able to interpret the language or the engravings that are on the plates. Therefore I said unto thee: Canst thou translate?
12 And I say unto thee again: Knowest thou of any one that can translate? For I am desirous that these records should be translated into our language; for, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of a remnant of the people who have been destroyed, from whence these records came; or, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed; and I am desirous to know the cause of their destruction.
13 Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.
14 And behold, the king of the people who are in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and who has this high gift from God.
15 And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.
16 And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.
17 But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.
18 Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.”
What is really interesting here is that Joseph Smith begins the translation of the Book of Mormon in Mosiah due to the loss of the ‘116 pages,’ which means that this is the beginning of Joseph Smith translating with Oliver Cowdery.
In this section of Mosiah, Joseph Smith is effectively telling Oliver Cowdery of the translation process and uses this section to establish himself as not just the “seer” of his treasure digging days, but one so powerful that he is “greater than a prophet.” Every part of this section could also describe the Book of Mormon being translated by Joseph Smith, which I believe is the authorial intent of this section.
Again, this is directly tied into treasure digging ideas of being called the seer, and is being written into the Book of Mormon at the exact time that Oliver Cowdery joins as scribe and they are at the beginning of translating the Book of Mormon following the loss of the 116 pages.
Joseph, Son of Joseph
It is long talked about by both critics and believers that the Book of Mormon contains a prophecy of Joseph Smith, and this passage in the Book of Mormon is definitely an area where Joseph Smith appears to take some liberties to write a prophecy he will himself be fulfilling. From 2 Nephi:
“14 And thus prophesied Joseph, saying: Behold, that seer will the Lord bless; and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise, which I have obtained of the Lord, of the fruit of my loins, shall be fulfilled. Behold, I am sure of the fulfilling of this promise;
15 And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation.”
Again, we can see the fingerprints of Joseph Smith all over the Book of Mormon as we have shown in these overview topics, and this will only continue as we move forward. While a faithful interpretation of these verses is that the Book of Mormon people received revelation about Joseph Smith, the one that every non-LDS scholar and reader sees is Joseph Smith writing himself into the Book of Mormon as a prophecy that he can then claim to fulfill.
The Martin Harris and Charles Anthon Visit
When Martin Harris was asked to finance the Book of Mormon, he wanted Joseph Smith to give him an assurance that the plates were real since Joseph Smith claimed that no one could see them. Joseph Smith copied the characters directly from the gold plates and Martin Harris took them to Charles Anthon to verify their authenticity.
The accounts of the visit are very different between Harris and Anthon, and I cover this in more detail in a post about how the history of this account was retrofitted by Joseph Smith after Harris had been excommunicated from the church.
But what is important for the Book of Mormon is that Joseph Smith writes this account directly into the text as a way to fulfill his own prophecy. From Joseph Smith’s 1832 history:
“Because of his faith, the Lord appeared unto (Martin Harris) in a vision and showed unto him his marvelous work which he was about to do. He immediately came to Susquehanna and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to New York City with some of the characters, so we proceeded to copy some of them.
And he took his journey to the Eastern Cities and to the learned, saying, “Read this, I pray thee.” And the learned said, “I cannot, but if he would bring the plates they would read it.” But the Lord had forbid it, and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate.
And I said “I cannot, for I am not learned.” But the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book; therefore I commenced translating the characters, and thus the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which is written in the 29 chapter concerning the book.” (Joseph Smith 1832 Account)
Now compare that account to 2 Nephi, written in 1829 after the Anthon visit:
15 But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them.
16 And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God.
17 And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed.
18 Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it.
19 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned.
As we cover in the write-up on the Anthon visit, Joseph Smith is attempting to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 29 with these verses. Unfortunately, Joseph Smith is misinterpreting Isaiah in order to fulfill his own prophecy, which is using the idea of a sealed book to refer to a literal, sealed book as opposed to the interpretation of biblical scholars that Isaiah is referring to spiritual blindness. Beyond our write-up of this event, there is a great article about this prophecy in Dialogue written by David Wright.
The point is that Joseph Smith knew of the Charles Anthon visit and as he was writing the Book of Mormon used that event to fulfill prophecy as the Anthon event had already occurred. This story influenced at least this portion of 2 Nephi, and as we cover in our write-up, Joseph Smith further alters the 1832 account to fit the prophecy in both the Book of Mormon and Isaiah even more clearly, which is a practice of Joseph Smith that we will see even more as we cover the First Vision and priesthood restoration overviews.
Martin Harris Losing the 116 Pages
We covered this in much more detail in our ‘Lost 116 Pages’ overview, but the Book of Mormon writes the lost pages into the Book of Mormon due to necessity in replacing the text.
As we’ve covered in multiple areas, the Book of Mormon dictation begins in Mosiah after the ‘116 pages’ were lost by Martin Harris. Some scholars also believe that a small portion of Mosiah had been included in the original translation but not lost, and as such Joseph Smith picked up at that spot. This is also confirmed by D&C 10 which states:
“41 Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained”
While it cannot be positively identified where Mosiah originally left off, in Mosiah 4 we have this verse from King Benjamin:
“28 And I would that ye should remember, that whosoever among you borroweth of his neighbor should return the thing that he borroweth, according as he doth agree, or else thou shalt commit sin; and perhaps thou shalt cause thy neighbor to commit sin also.”
This appears to be a fairly direct reference to the 116 pages being lost, which we know Joseph Smith claimed from God was a sin on both Martin Harris for losing them and Joseph Smith for not listening to God’s refusal to allow Martin to take them the first two times.
If you don’t look at that verse as a reference to Martin Harris and the 116 pages, why in the world would King Benjamin state that a neighbor not returning something they borrowed “shalt cause thy neighbor to commit sin also?”
Again, this is a minor thing, but it’s another instance where we can show the fingerprints of the author, and in these overviews I am trying to show many different examples of why that author has to be Joseph Smith.
Fears of Masonry and Secret Combinations
As we will discuss in a later overview, Joseph Smith will become very involved with masonry after moving into Nauvoo which leads to the creation of the endowment ceremony weeks later, but the Book of Mormon itself is very much against the idea of Masonry and “secret combinations.”
Prominent historian of Joseph Smith and Mormonism Dan Vogel outlines how the fear of the Masons influenced the book of Mormon, leading Martin Harris to declare that the Book of Mormon is “the anti-masonick Bible, and that all those who do not believe in it will be damned.” (Geauga Gazette, March 15 1831)
It wasn’t just the church’s early members who realized the Book of Mormon was anti-Masonic either. The Ohio Star wrote that “The Book of Mormon is anti-masonic and it is a singular truth that every one of its followers, so far as we are to ascertain, are anti-masons.” (Ohio Star, March 24 1831)
In 1826, the disappearance of William Morgan was a major story in western New York. Morgan was a “disaffected Mason who had just finished writing an expose of the secret rituals of Freemasonry” and was believed to have “fallen victim to Masonic vengeance.” (Vogel, page 5)
On a side note, William Morgan’s widow, Lucinda Pendleton Morgan, would later marry George Washington Harris and the couple would then live with Joseph Smith. In 1838, Joseph Smith would take Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris as a polyandrous wife while living with her and her husband. We will cover this more in our sections on polygamy, but definitely an interesting twist to this story. (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith)
After Morgan’s disappearance, the anti-masonic sentiment was growing in Joseph Smith’s home area of western New York. From Dan Vogel:
“Only six weeks after Morgan’s disappearance, the citizens of Le Roy resolved to withhold votes from “any candidate for public office, who is any way has aided, assisted, or approved of those late outrages, and does not publicly condemn them.” After wondering, “Is it the result of accident that the Masons hold all the offices – govern the presses – and control the administration of justice?” The Batavia Advocate concluded: “We must resort to the polls of election.”
With Andrew Jackson, who was a Mason, running for president in 1828, these feelings in western New York continued to escalate. Again from Dan Vogel’s research:
“On November 17, 1828, the anti-Jackson, anti-Masonic Palmyra Freeman declared that Masonry was “a secret combination to destroy Liberty and Religion.” With Masonry, the Freeman continued, “public confidence is destroyed, and the laws of the land set at defiance, and the liberties of the people put in jeopardy.” On December 2, the Freeman warned what would happen should Masonry get the upper hand in the elections:
"And what will the people of this country think of themselves ten or twenty years hence, if they should suffer themselves to be duped, and do not [now?] unite hand and heart, to put down a secret society, which, if again suffered to get fairly the ascendancy will crush them and their liberties together… the Jackson ticket in Ohio has prevailed by a majority of about 4,000. The cause of this unexpected result should be immediately made known to the public. It is suspected that masons have had done much behind the curtain. They act in a secret manner, and exert a powerful influence in all our elections.""
These feelings were all around Joseph Smith, and they most prominently make their way into the Book of Mormon in the use of “secret combinations.” But it goes beyond just secret combinations as Dan Vogel notes in his paper:
“The Book of Mormon thus combines the following favorite anti-Masonic elements in its description of the decline and fall of the Jaredite and Nephite nations: (1) the ascendancy of “secret combinations,” (2) the rejection of religious leadership, (3) the loss of social and political equality, and (4) the fragmentation of a centralized government.”
Vogel then details how the Book of Mormon weaves these four issues throughout its text, and I highly recommend reading the article in full to understand just how influential the Masons were to Joseph Smith’s milieu, which then found its way into the Book of Mormon.
One apologetic response is that the use of “secret combinations” wasn’t only regarding the Masons in Joseph Smith’s time. In the Interpreter, Gregory Smith defends Daniel Peterson’s prediction that we would eventually find references to secret combinations beyond just masonry.
They then provide a few examples that come from court records, legal documents, and legislative materials that show that “secret combinations” was not exclusively used for Masons as a proof that it was not the influence on Joseph Smith that Dan Vogel and others have believed.
I know I’ve detailed this in other sections, but finding outliers does not prove the case. If you’re looking for a reason to dismiss Masonry’s influence on the Book of Mormon, finding obscure trial records certainly could provide you with a reason to do so, but it still is not explaining how the Masonic influence is woven through the Book of Mormon to the point where Martin Harris labeled it the “anti-Masonick Bible” and local newspapers reported the same.
In a lot of ways, the Interpreter response is similar to the DNA argument, where apologists attempt to find one tiny discovery that they believe can provide a “so you’re saying there’s a chance” moment. The problem, however, is that you still have to explain the rest of the picture which is very clearly telling us that Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon and that it simply cannot be an ancient, historical record.
Lehi’s Dream and Joseph Smith Sr.’s Dream on the Tree of Life
I think it’s fair to say that Lehi’s dream is one of the more famous Book of Mormon stories. Even as a convert I heard many references to the iron rod – especially from parents who were telling their children that they needed to stay active and believing in the church by holding onto that iron rod even when they had doubts or struggles.
What’s amazing is that Lehi’s dream is adapted from a dream that Joseph Smith’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., had prior to the Book of Mormon’s production.
First, from 1 Nephi:
5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
9 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
12 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
13 And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.
19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron,
26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
Now compare to Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream as told by his wife, Lucy Mack Smith:
“In the meantime we had a son, whom we called Joseph, after his father; he was born December 23, 1805. In 1811, we moved from Royalton, Vermont, to the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Soon after arriving here, my husband [Joseph Smith Sr.] received another very singular vision, which I will relate:
“I thought, I was traveling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing, before I went any further. So I asked myself, ‘What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?’ My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, ‘This is the desolate world; but travel on.’ The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it; for, said I to myself, ‘Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and straight is the gate that leads to everlasting’ life, and few there be that go in thereat.
Traveling a short distance farther, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the termination; but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I can not eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.
While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded. I presently turned to my guide, and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.’ Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children, standing some distance off. I immediately went to them, and brought them to the tree; upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees, and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls. After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building, which I saw. He replied, ‘It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.’ I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy.” (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet)
Now take a quick look at the similarities between the two accounts below, put together by Missed In Sunday School:
It is undeniable that the two accounts are incredibly similar, but what makes this really interesting is that Joseph Smith Sr. was a universalist who believed that everyone would be saved. That is why he did not join any religions in his time, and that caused tension in the family as Lucy Mack Smith preferred the Methodist church.
What historian Dan Vogel points out, is that Joseph Smith makes a very interesting change in Lehi’s dream. In Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream, the water is pure and was endless, which makes sense with a universalist belief that everyone would be saved.
Yet in Nephi 15, Nephi actually corrects the vision of Lehi in verses 26-29:
“26 And they said unto me: What meaneth the river of water which our father saw?
27 And I said unto them that the water which my father saw was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water.
28 And I said unto them that it was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God.
29 And I said unto them that it was a representation of that awful hell, which the angel said unto me was prepared for the wicked.”
Not only is the Book of Mormon incorporating Joseph Smith Sr.’s ‘Tree of Life’ dream, but Nephi, via Joseph Smith, is correcting Joseph Smith Sr.’s interpretation of the dream. Joseph Smith is using the ‘Tree of Life’ vision in the Book of Mormon to correct his dad’s interpretation of his own dream to convince him that not everyone will be saved.
The parallel is pretty striking: Nephi is reinterpreting Lehi’s dream (Nephi’s father, which parallels Joseph Smith correcting Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream) by telling him that not everyone would be saved, and that he did not notice that the stream was actually filthy and was separating the wicked as a representation of hell.
This is another area where we can see Joseph Smith’s fingerprints on the text, as surrounding influences are embedded into the text of the Book of Mormon.
The most common apologetic response to the competing visions is that Lucy Mack Smith was incorporating the Book of Mormon into her retelling of Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream because Lucy Mack Smith did not write her account until 1845, after the Book of Mormon was produced.
And that’s a fair point, because by 1845 Lucy Mack Smith would know both Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream and the Book of Mormon version of the dream, but it seems unlikely that Lucy Mack Smith would copy the Book of Mormon story and yet not change the part about the water, and that she would retell the dream with a rope instead of an iron rod.
In other words, while there might be some phrases that are not as originally told – and how could we not have some variations as it wasn’t written down for a long time after it was told - the premise of the story does not seem to be in dispute. Furthermore, if we want to dismiss stories because they were not written down until years later, apologists are going to run into some problems very soon as we discuss the First Vision, priesthood restoration, changes to revelations, and many other areas of Joseph Smith’s history.
This section is now as long as the DNA overview, which means it is long past time to wrap it up.
These overview topics are meant to work together in that I think it is very important to take all of these issues in totality to get a clearer picture of how the Book of Mormon was produced and where Joseph Smith was pulling from, and when you see these all together the pieces fit together in a way that does not require apologetics to fit a square peg in a circle hole.
As we outlined at the beginning, Joseph Smith was heavily involved in treasure digging which impacted both the story of the gold plates as well as the translation process itself. We can further see elements of treasure digging in the Book of Mormon text as cited above, which is a good indicator that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon unless you believe that the ancient Americas practiced treasure digging exactly as Joseph Smith did.
Our sections on biblical scholarship provide very clear examples that the Book of Mormon is literarily dependent on the King James Bible, which again shows that it could not have been written prior to 1611, and more likely 1769 as that would be the edition Joseph Smith was almost certainly studying from.
But beyond our previous sections, it is crucial to understand the Moundbuilders myth, which was not just a theory of Joseph Smith’s time, but the predominant one. White settlers wanted to make sense of how there were dark skinned “red Indians” that lived here before they arrived, and needed to create an etiological myth to understand their origins as well as what must have happened to those who built the mounds and great civilizations before them.
The Moundbuilder myth was so embedded in Joseph Smith’s time that we can cite poems, books, and presidents from Joseph Smith’s milieu, and those quotes cited above are effectively the foundation of the Book of Mormon story. In a lot of ways that is what made the Book of Mormon so believable at the time – this is what was being discussed as it was written. In 1811 Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York said this about the mounds:
“There is every reason to believe, that previous to the occupancy of this country by the progenitors of the present nations of Indians, it was inhabited by a race of men, much more populous, and much further advanced in civilization. The numerous remains of ancient fortifications, which are found in this country, … demonstrates a population far exceeding that of the Indians when this country was first settled.” (DeWitt Clinton, Discourse Delivered before the New-York Historical Society (New York, 1812), 53)
The Moundbuilder myth is one that still survives to a much smaller degree today. Even in 2020, there are many who believe in this myth, possibly in part because of the Book of Mormon. Archaeologist Bradley Lepper recently wrote the following:
“It seems I can no longer give a public program about Ohio’s amazing ancient American Indian mounds without someone in the audience asking me about giants, or the lost tribes of Israel — or even aliens.
I try to address these questions politely and explain that there is no hard evidence that any of these things had anything to do with Ohio’s mounds. Occasionally, if the person asking the question is a true believer, they’ll accuse me of lying and hiding the evidence that would prove me wrong.
Some people actually believe that the Ohio History Connection (along with the Smithsonian Institution) has skeletons of giant humans in our collections that we keep hidden from the public.” (Ohio Dispatch, April 26 2020)
I know this might feel like piling on, but these are important details in understanding the worldview that Joseph Smith lived in, and why the Moundbuilder myth was so influential in Joseph Smith’s writing of the Book of Mormon.
While we look at the Book of Mormon today and think that the story is unique, it was in fact a very common belief in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. That is something that allows us to not just date the writing of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith’s life, but to show all of the areas where we can see influences that are incorporated into its text.
Furthermore, this is why I do not believe for a moment that Joseph Smith was directly plagiarizing surrounding books such as View of the Hebrews, the Late War, or the First Book of Napoleon, but rather incorporating the same writing styles and ideas that led to those books being written around the same time.
Beyond the Moundbuilders myth, it is important to understand that many preachers spoke in King James English, which is why Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in the same style. The Quakers spoke in King James English, and it was very common for people in this time to use thee, thou, and thy in religious settings, which is why that is still common practice in Mormonism today.
After these more general ideas and themes in Joseph Smith’s milieu, we can highlight many areas where the events directly around Joseph Smith are making their way into the Book of Mormon including the Martin Harris visit to Charles Anthon, the loss of the 116 pages, and Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream of the tree of life.
All of these elements are proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century text, which is why we’ve shown quotes from scholars who not only accept that, but have no doubt of it. Even church history Richard Bushman concedes that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century work as we’ve quote before.
While one might argue that Joseph Smith was using a ‘loose translation method’ which allowed him to incorporate his own ideas and words into the text, it simply does not work with the translation accounts that we do have, and is further complicated by the anachronisms that are found in almost every chapter of the Book of Mormon. And that is what our next overview will cover: Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon along with a look at what should be in the Book of Mormon if it was a literal, historical writing.
Next Section: Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon
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Mormon Stories with John Hamer: The Book of Mormon's 19th Century Context
Mormon Stories with Dan Vogel: How the Book of Mormon was Created
"I Cannot Read a Sealed Book:" - An Overview of the Martin Harris visit to Charles Anthon