Sources of Inspiration and Content

The Book of Mormon is the keystone of the LDS religion. It is declared to be a literal record of the original inhabitants of the Americas, as recorded on gold plates. The thesis of the book is that the American Indians are of Hebrew origin, descended from the lost tribes of Israel. The narrative contains numerous unique stories and fantastic claims, which are increasingly being tested against well-established history and science. Accepted by Mormons today as the most important scripture, the Book of Mormon contains surprisingly little doctrine related to the LDS Church; and Joseph Smith himself seldom referred to the Book of Mormon in his countless lectures.

Few members are aware of the numerous 19th century books published prior to the Book of Mormon which bear striking resemblance to Joseph’s work. While much speculation revolves around how the story actually came to light, the critical question remains – was it actually written by literate Christian/Hebrew American Indians in an undiscovered language and location, using a method of inscription upon metal plates which also remains unknown in the New World?

Numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors produced books that bear strong resemblance to the Book of Mormon and likely influenced Joseph Smith’s production of scriptural texts. Several of the more influential writings will be discussed in this essay. The primary assertion, however, is not that Joseph Smith directly plagiarized other works beyond the Bible; rather that he synthesized religious and secular ideas from his environment and that their presence throughout the scriptures he produced demonstrate clear secular explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon. Respected LDS historian Richard Bushman stated in an interview: “there is phrasing everywhere—long phrases that if you Google them, you will find in nineteenth-century writings.”

Some defend Smith by downplaying his education, his access to the works here discussed, or his ability to create complex narratives and accurately recite therm for hours on end. For others, these cultural influences contemporary to Smith that are present in the Book of Mormon challenge the claim of a translated ancient text. Regardless of one’s position, the numerous works which precede and parallel the Book of Mormon in style and content warrant inspection.

TRUE OR FALSE?


While the Community Christ (RLDS Church) has permitted “faithful dissent” among its members regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon, emphasizing instead its value from inspirational stories, the LDS Church remains committed to a literal interpretation. Joseph Smith himself set the standard by which all should judge the Book of Mormon. In his 1842 Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith suggested, “the history of ancient America is unfolded” in the Book of Mormon.

The theme was consistently maintained into the early 1900s, such as when prominent LDS leaders like B.H.Roberts  clearly emphasized the literal nature of the work: “It is not necessary for me to suggest that maintenance of the truth of the Book of Mormon is absolutely essential to the integrity of the whole Mormon movement, for it is inconceivable that the Book of Mormon should be untrue in its origin or character and the Church be true.” [1]

Throughout the 1980s, Ezra Taft Benson emphasized, “There are three ways in which the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. It is the keystone in our witness of Christ. It is the keystone of our doctrine. It is the keystone of testimony.” [2] Well into the ’90s, LDS prophets continued to reiterate that “The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our testimony. Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon…so does our claim to priesthood keys, revelation and restored church… Either the Book of Mormon is what Joseph said it is or this Church and its founder are false, fraudulent, a deception from the first instance onward.” [3]

APOSTLE HOLLAND PRESENTS BOOK OF MORMON CHALLENGE

Continuing the trend into the late 2000s, Jeffrey Holland forcefully defended the historicity of the Book of Mormon as central to the faith. “For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied…yet still it stands. None of these pathetic answers withstand examination. There is no other answer…  if anyone is foolish enough to reject 531 pages…teeming with literary complexity…Such persons have been deceived…if they leave this Church, they must do so crawling over, under, around the Book of Mormon to make their exit.” [4]

Despite abundant opportunities to pivot from the traditional narrative, modern-day leaders continue to reiterate that the book “…recounts the history of a group of Israelites that lived in Jerusalem…contains a history of the ancient inhabitants of the Western hemisphere.” [5]

 

PSEUDO-BIBLICISM IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE


“Pseudo-Biblicism” describes a genre of literature popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that mimics Biblical language. This style of writing is found in both religious and secular newspapers, pamphlets and novels. Dozens of popular books published between 1740 and 1850 contain distinct phrases such as “and it came to pass,” “thus it was,” and verbs modified with “-eth.” Historian Eran Shalev observes: “generations of Americans reverted to that [archaic] language and its accompanying structures and forms to discuss their difficulties and represent their achievements” and “as a means to establish their claims for truth, as well as their authority and legitimacy in public discourse.” [6] 

Scholars consider the following examples of books as pseudo-biblical in style. This essay will discuss in greater detail three of these books—The Pilgrim’s Progress, The First Book of Napoleon, and The Late Great War,” the last two of which the New York school district where the Smith family lived used as standard texts.

The Chronicles of the Kings of England (1744)
A Parable Against Persecution (1755)
The American Revolution: Written in Scriptural, or, Ancient Historical Style
The First Book of Napoleon (1809)
The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain (1816)
The Chronicles of Eri (1822)
The Book of Nullification (1830)
The Healing of the Nations (1854)

The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

John Bunyan published his religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in England in 1678. Although obscure now, The Pilgrim’s Progress was reprinted in colonial America in 1681 and was widely read within Puritan colonies, becoming a cultural phenomenon for generations. As early as 1831, critics noted similarities between the Book of Mormon and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Those who defend the Book of Mormon’s ancient authenticity tend to brush aside any parallels with The Pilgrim’s Progress, labeling them as common thematic elements found in nearly any retelling of a journey. However, similarities between the two books go beyond common literary tropes.

One such example in The Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of a martyr named Faithful, which bears a striking resemblance to the story of Abinadi in the Book of Mormon. The story of Faithful combines elements from the New Testament story of Stephen the martyr and John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563). Readers familiar with the Book of Mormon’s account of Abinadi will quickly recognize these elements in The Pilgrim’s Progress story of Faithful (phrases in quotes are found in both the story of Faithful and Abinadi): Faithful and the book’s protagonist, Christian, travel to a wicked city and, upon arrival, are bound and thrown into prison. A town leader assembles a group to examine the prisoners, and the prisoners are “brought before” their leaders to stand trial. The leaders accuse Faithful of being a “madman,” and of stirring contentions among the people and slandering the leaders. Faithful speaks “boldly” in his defense but is nonetheless condemned to be “slain” and “put to . . . death.” Faithful is “scourged,” and “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Faithful’s martyrdom converts a witness named Hopeful who then becomes a major character in Pilgrim’s Progress. Other converts follow and depart from the city, “entering into” a “covenant” to follow Christ.

There are other significant parallels between The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Book of Mormon, particularly between its main protagonist, Christian, and Lehi from the Book of Mormon. Pilgrim’s Progress opens with the tale of Christian, who becomes frightened after learning in a dream vision that the city where he lives will be destroyed. He is mocked and threatened by his neighbors and attempts to persuade his family to join him in fleeing the city in search of the Celestial Kingdom. While Christian’s family initially hardens their hearts and rejects their father’s pleas (though they do join later), Lehi’s children reluctantly accept their father’s visions and follow him into the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.

The First Book of Napoleon (1809)

The First Book of Napoleon is a pseudo-biblical work authored by Michael Linning under the pen name “Eliakim the Scribe,” who described himself as “a descendant of the modern branch of the tribe of Levi.” Very few scholars deny the similarity of writing between the Book of Mormon and The First Book of Napoleon. The opening of the book provides some idea of its style:

Chapter 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 Late War Between U.S. and Great Britain  (1816)

The Late War, a narrative of the War of 1812 written in pseudo-biblical style, contains a remarkably high number of direct parallels in language, phrasing, and ideas with the Book of Mormon. Beyond language use of biblical phrases such as “and it came to pass,” parallels also include the 2,000 stripling soldiers, the unique term “curious workmanship,” and hundreds of verses and phrases that the Book of Mormon mirrors. Further, The Late War mentions a “rod of iron,” elephants in America, and a cataclysmic earthquake followed by great darkness, and further asserts that God will favor and protect America if its inhabitants remain faithful. While the sharing of a biblical writing style is expected, the numerous parallel passages suggest more than an influence on tone.

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Curious Workmanship – a uniquely 18-19th century term

View Of The Hebrews

Ethan Smith, the author of View of the Hebrews, was a Minister in Poultney, Vermont. His book expounds upon the commonly held nineteenth-century view of American Indian tribes as Hebrew descendants; and that it is God’s desire to gather these descendants unto Christ. Smith’s book enjoyed wide circulation in New England and New York, selling through two printings in 1823 and 1825.

Although not written in pseudo-biblical prose, View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon share numerous important parallels. For example, View of the Hebrews begins with the destruction of Jerusalem and proposes that remnants of the Ten Tribes came to America and divided into two disparate groups—one barbarous, the other civilized. Ethan’s tale is filled with military fortifications, forms of government, prophets among ancient Americans, ancient Indians as highly civilized people, quotes from King James version of Isaiah, and even a hidden book that was later revealed from the earth. Ethan Smith describes copper breastplates, taken from an ancient mound, with two white buckhorn buttons fastened to the outside of each plate in resemblance to an Urim & Thummim. Further, his book describes a prophet exhorting from atop a wall in Jerusalem while the wicked below unsuccessfully assail him with arrows.

Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith’s third cousin and scribe, lived in Poultney for twenty-six years and was likely aware of View of the Hebrews, as his family attended Ethan’s congregation.

The following excerpts are taken directly from View of the Hebrews, primarily in the order appearing in Ethan’s book:

  • Rejection of Jesus Christ as our atoning Savior.
  • Jerusalem! Thou that killest the prophets – destruction of Jerusalem. [p.19]
  • A prophet ascends the walls, in tremendous voice exclaimed, ‘Wo, wo to this city, this temple, and this people!’, while arrows shot at him. [p.26]
  • The natives of our country are the outcasts of Israel – they have lost their way…bewildered in darkness. [p, vii]
  • Found themselves involved in darkness…that they would take the book which the white people call the word of God, to throw light on their path. [p, vii]
  • They will be fulfilled only in the conversion of these ancient people of God to Christianity. [p. 64]
  • American Indians derive their origin from a foreign stock. [p. 159]
  • Tools of iron not being found in these works, is no sign they did not possess them. For had they been there, they would, no doubt, long since have been dissolved by rust. [p. 194]
  • After they settled in America, they became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren…lost the knowledge of their having descended from the same family.
  • The more civilized part continued for many centuries; tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren, till the former became extinct. [p. 173]
  • The savage tribes prevailed…annihilated their more civilized brethren. This accounts for their loss of the knowledge of letters, of the art of navigation, and of the use of iron. [p. 172]
  • This accounts for the ancient works…centuries before Columbus discovered America…and articles dug from old mounds in and near those fortified places. [p. 173]
  • People of Israel who came into the western continent maintained some degree of civilization for a long time…finally became extinct, at least in North America, under the rage of their more numerous savage brethren. [p. 188]
  • Situated in the midst of savage tribes from their race…degenerated…intent on the destruction of this better part of their brethren…struggling to maintain their existence and to maintain their religious traditions, they would naturally form many of the very things above enumerated, walled towns, forts, temples, altars, habitations of chieftains, watchtowers. [p. 189]
  • An old Indian informed him that his fathers in this country had…a book which they had for a long time preserved. But having lost the knowledge of reading it, they concluded it would be of no further use to them; and they buried it with an Indian Chief. [p. 223]
  • They would preserve these fragments of their better days with the utmost care. Wherever they went then, they would have these with them…keep them with diligence…most precious contents…fearing these precious leaves would get lost. [p. 225]
  • It was buried; and hence was providentially transmitted to us. [p. 225]
  • Some modern Jew left it there in the situation in which it was found…on Indian Hill underground. [p. 225]
  • The account of the old Indian, that his fathers had buried, not long ago, a book which they could not read. [p. 227]
  • The great and generous Christian people, who occupy much of the land of those natives, and who are on the ground of their continent, and hence are the best prepared to ameliorate their condition, and bring them to the knowledge and order of the God of Israel, must of course be the people to whom this work is assigned. [p. 230]
  • Found themselves involved in darkness…that they would take the book which the white people call the word of God, to throw light on their path.
  • The prophet Isaiah to be of deep interest to America. [p. 228]
  • This address of heaven must be to our western continent; or to a hospitable people found here… the two great wings of North and South America meet. [p. 238]
  • Go thou nation highly distinguished in the last days (America), save the remnant of my people. [p. 250]

Commenting on the striking parallels shared by View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon, B.H. Roberts wrote: “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.” [7] 

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B.H. ROBERTS

Brigham H. Roberts (B. H.) was President of the Seventy in the 1920s. Prompted by a letter Apostle James Talmage had received from William Riter, the First Presidency asked Roberts to develop a response to various difficulties and anachronisms within the Book of Mormon narrative.

Questions Given


  1. How could the great diversity in primitive Indian languages have occurred in such a short period after 400 A.D., while the Nephite’s Hebrew language was so highly developed and disappeared?
  2. The Book of Mormon claims that Lehi found horses upon his arrival in America, which were not in existence until Spaniards brought them.
  3. The Jews had no knowledge of steel in 600 B.C., yet Nephi reported a bow of fine steel after leaving Jerusalem.
  4. Book of Mormon speaks of “swords and scimeters“, yet the word “scimeter” does not appear in early literature before the rise of Mohammedanism, after Lehi departed Jerusalem.
  5. The Nephites knew of and used silk, yet that was unknown in America.

After vigorous investigation and introspection, Roberts presented his findings to the apostles over the course of three days. He eloquently summarized his faithful perspective when he wrote, “It is not necessary for me to suggest that maintenance of the truth of the Book of Mormon is absolutely essential to the integrity of the whole Mormon movement, for it is inconceivable that the Book of Mormon should be untrue in its origin or character and the church be true.” [8] Apparently, not everyone present was in a similarly studious mood. Richard Lyman asked, “Are they things that would help our prestige?” Roberts replied no, prompting Lyman to suggest, “Then why discuss them?”

Roberts pressed forward, reporting to the apostles that there was “a great probability” Joseph Smith had a close encounter with View of the Hebrews. “In light of this evidence,” Roberts wrote, “there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith . . . supplemented by such a work as Ethan Smith’s View of Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon.” [9] 

When Roberts reiterated that he remained stumped, the leaders all stood one by one and bore testimony to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. [10] Apostle Talmage’s journal entry following Roberts’ presentation perfectly illustrates Mormon logic in defense of closely held beliefs: “I know the Book of Mormon to be a true record…. The Book of Mormon states that Lehi and his colony found horses upon this continent when they arrived; therefore horses were here at the time.”

Troubled by what he perceived to be inadequate answers, Roberts wrote to President Grant after the meeting. “I was greatly disappointed over the net results of the discussion. There was so much said that was utterly irrelevant, and so little said, if anything at all, that was helpful in the matters at issue that I came away from the conference quite disappointed. …nothing was said that could result to our advantage at all or stand the analysis of enlightened criticism. …hoping for the development of new knowledge, and for new light to fall upon what has already been learned… I cannot be other than painfully conscious of the fact that our means of defense, should we be vigorously attacked…are very inadequate.” [11]

A committee was formed to finalize a response. Roberts reported that he had a response which was “an answer that would satisfy people that didn’t think, but a very inadequate answer to a thinking man.”

EXCERPTS FROM ROBERTS’ FINDINGS

Consumed by the dissonance, B.H. went on to independently prepare a 400 page study over the course of many years. He ultimately concluded that the discrepancies and writing style could not be adequately reconciled, further suggesting that the most plausible explanation was that Smith wrote the Book of Mormon. He slowly shifted his position from the Book of Mormon being one of strongest evidences supporting Mormonism, to the one in need of the most bolstering.

  • “And we place our revealed truths in the Book of Mormon against the alleged facts resulting from the investigations of Ethnologists and Philologists and the deductions of their science, and calmly await the vindication we feel sure that time will bring to the Book of Mormon.” “It certainly would have no effect upon the educated class throughout the world.” “What would be the effect of such an answer upon the minds of our youth? Our youth, already so willing to follow in so many other branches of learning the deductions of the sciences in their high school and college courses.”
  • “Is silence the best answer? Is silence possible in such a questioning age as ours – such an age of free inquiry? May the questions propounded to us be ignored? Would not silence be looked upon as a confession of inability to make an effective answer? Would not silence be a confession of defeat?”
  • “…I shall hold that what is here presented illustrates sufficiently the matter taken in hand…namely that they are all of one breed and brand; so nearly alike that one mind is the author of them, and that a young and undeveloped, but piously inclined mind. The evidence I sorrowfully submit points to Joseph Smith as their creator. It is difficult to believe that they are the product of history, that they come upon the scene separated by long periods of time, and among a race which was the ancestral race of the red man of America.” [12]
  • “The allusions here to absurdities of expressions and incidents in the Book of Mormon are not made for the purpose of ridiculing the book, or casting undue aspersions upon it; but they are made to indicate what may be fairly regarded as just objects of criticism under the assumption that the Book of Mormon is of human origin, and that Joseph Smith is the author. For these absurdities in expression; these miraculous incidents in warfare, those almost mock…are certainly just such absurdities and lapses as would be looked for if a person of such limitations as bounded Joseph Smith undertook to put forth a book dealing with the history and civilization of ancient peoples.” [13]

The brethren kept Roberts’ troubling findings and comprehensive study to themselves, never publishing his work. Rather, his fascinating perspectives remained unpublished until 1985, when Gerald and Sandra Tanner brought his work to light.

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THE VISIONS OF JOSEPH SMITH, SR.


Beyond literary parallels with the Book of Mormon, scholars also find elements of Joseph Smith’s family life and his father’s teachings in his scriptural writings. Smith Sr. was a spiritual man who reported at least seven significant visions throughout his life, five of which his wife Lucy later summarized in her memoirs. Two of his 1811 dreams closely parallel Lehi’s first dream and his vision of the tree of life.

Some claim that the lateness of Lucy’s writings could mean that she mistakenly recalled details from her husband’s dreams. However, since the “Tree of Life” was also a popular motif among Freemasons, and the historical record testifies of Smith Sr.’s Masonic membership, it is more likely that Lucy’s recollections of her husband’s visions were correct, and that they influenced Joseph Jr.’s introduction of Lehi’s visions in the Book of Mormon. The following excerpt comes from Lucy Smith’s recollection of her husband’s vision of the Tree of Life:

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. [14]

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KING JAMES BIBLE IN BOOK OF MORMON


The single greatest influence on the Book of Mormon was the King James Bible, the most common translation of the Bible used in Smith’s day. King James I of England sponsored this English translation of the Bible in 1604. Despite claiming to predate the King James Bible by ten centuries, The Book of Mormon contains scribal errors that are unique to the King James Bible.

In an article titled “The Book of Mormon and the King James Version,” Curt van den Huevel writes: “Although few in number, the King James Version does contain a number of undeniable incorrect translations. Again, this can sometimes be blamed on an imperfect understanding of Hebrew, but is also possibly due to the fact that the Authorised Version was basically translated by committee, with the various members having different strengths and weaknesses in the original languages.” Regarding the Book of Mormon, he continued: “Generally, we find that when the King James Version commits a translation error, the Book of Mormon usually follows.” Van den Huevel offers three examples:

  • II Nephi 12:16, a quotation from Isaiah 2:16 reads as follows “And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.” The problem here is that the word ‘pictures’ should be translated as ‘ships,’ which makes more sense in context. The New International Version reads “and every stately vessel.”
  • A more severe translation error affects Isaiah 9:1, copied into the Book of Mormon as: “and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations” (2 Nephi 19:1). The translation error in this verse of Isaiah has given the text almost reversed its meaning from the original. The phrase “did more grievously afflict” should be rendered as “honour” in English. The New International Version reads: “In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles.”
  • A third example is found in 2 Nephi 21:3, which quotes from Isaiah 11:3. The phrase “And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord” should read “and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.” The Hebrew word “rawah” in this context is correctly translated “delight in” as opposed to “quick understanding.” Subsequent Bible translations correct this error.

The LDS Church’s Gospel Topic essay, “Book of Mormon Translation,” seems to support Martin Harris’s later statement that Joseph “read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument [seer stones].” If so, how did Joseph replicate sixteenth-century errors from the King James Version of the Bible? Simply stated, KJV-specific errors in the Book of Mormon challenge Harris’s statement.

Early critics of the Book of Mormon took note of its heavy use of the KJV Bible. One contemporary writer opined: “The book [Book of Mormon] is chiefly garbled from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocraphy having contributed its share; names and phrases have been altered.” [15] 

Eber D. Howe wrote that the Book of Mormon was a “miserable attempt to imitate the style of KJV . . . that no one can be left in doubt in identifying the whole with one individual author . . . another miracle in choosing the exact language of King James’ translation, more than 2,000 years before it was arranged . . . a remarkable coincidence that the author of our book should be able to give us an exact copy of those two chapters (KJV Bible) reading them in a stone placed in a hat! We are truly inclined to accuse him of plagiarism.”

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THE ISAIAH PROBLEMS


Deutero-Isaiah” is a scholarly term that refers to the widely-held scholarly view that the book of Isiah was written over a period of two centuries by multiple writers and later compiled into a single book. BYU Religious Studies acknowledges, “The majority of biblical scholars divide the book of Isaiah into multiple authorship.” Scholars suggest Isaiah himself likely only authored the first thirty-nine chapters, and that the book of Isaiah did not exist in its current form until 515 BCE. Such chronology seriously challenges Nephi’s use of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, as it depends upon the sole authorship of Isaiah before 600 BCE. The later authors would have been writing in 550–539 BCE, a half-century after Lehi departed from Jerusalem with his brass plates.

The Book of Mormon quotes 425 verses and paraphrases many others from the book of Isaiah. A sampling of what scholars believe to be later writings in Isaiah that appear in the Book of Mormon includes:

  • Isaiah 48 (1 Nephi 20)
  • Isaiah 49 (1 Nephi 21)
  • Isaiah 53 (Mosiah 14)
  • Isaiah 54 (3 Nephi 22).

Biblical scholars are predominantly in agreement that Isaiah chapters 40–46 could not have been written before the Babylonian captivity of the Kingdom of Judah (598–538 BCE), as these chapters reflect post-captivity circumstances. For example, Isaiah 44:28 names the Persian King Cyrus who ordered the release of Israel from Babylonian Captivity in 539 BCE. The brass plates that went with Lehi and his family in 600 BCE could not have included these post-exodus chapters.

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A common argument used support a miraculous translation narrative of the Book of Mormon is that there were no eye witnesses of Joseph Smith having any texts available to him during the translation process. Some who defend the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon suggest that it would have been an impossible task for him to dictate such a complex story orally. However, regarding the extensive use of KJV Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, they then concede: “instead of translating Nephi’s quotations of Isaiah, Joseph, deferred to the KJV translation of those chapters. This may have been done to save time and to respect the quality of the KJV Bible. The chapters of Isaiah that we find in the Book of Mormon were taken largely by Joseph Smith from the KJV Bible, instead of being translated from Nephi’s version of that text.” [16] If Joseph Smith used portions of Isaiah from the KJV Bible in the Book of Mormon, which seems evident, is it impossible to suggest that he may have also used other contemporary texts available to him?

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VERNACULAR AND WRITING STYLE


Nineteenth-century Americans had a unique vernacular. Their peculiar speech and writing owed to the transition from British English into American English, a lack of standardized spelling and grammar, and lower rates of literacy. Although most grammar issues found in the first edition of the Book of Mormon were the result of transcription errors, many passages reflected the “folksy” grammar conventions of unique New England speech.

Commenting on the Book of Mormon’s style, B. H. Robert’s wrote: “Sometimes it takes on almost childish expression.” [17] Do such verses read like ancient, literate Native Americans of Hebrew descent? Or do they read like a gifted nineteenth-century orator telling a story?

While many scholars today take no issue with Joseph Smith’s speaking and writing style being present in the Book of Mormon, it nonetheless places him into a creative position with regard to its content. To put it plainly: if Joseph Smith’s folksy manner of speech exists in the Book of Mormon, which it does, then it suggests he controlled the diction of the book. A word-for-word English rendition from ancient American writers would not have resulted in passages resembling nineteenth-century New England vernacular.

Below is a sample of grammar common to nineteenth-century New England speech found in the first edition of the Book of Mormon (later modified in the 1837 edition):

  • Alma 10:7-8 – “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred . . .  as I was a going thither”
  • Mosiah 10:15 – “had arriven to the promised land”
  • Mosiah 2:12 – “have not sought gold nor silver, nor no manner of riches of you”
  • 1 Nephi 4:4 – “they was yet wroth”
  • 3 Nephi 3:5 – “I have wrote this epistle”
  • Alma 10:8 – “I was a going thither”
  • Helaman 7:8 and 13:37 – “in them days”
  • Ether 9:29 – “they done all these things”

LEARN MORE:

Stan Larson, “Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon Manuscripts
Tom Doggett, “I Was a Wonderin About Them Archaic English Forms

BIBLICAL ANACHRONISMS


An anachronism is an object or idea belonging to a different time period than the context in which it is being presented. For example, a photograph of Abraham Lincoln sitting in a Ford Model T would be anachronistic. Any such image would immediately be dismissed by historians as a hoax. The Book of Mormon contains numerous anachronistic items to pre-Colombian America, such as horses, steel swords, coins, and other objects that have no place in a pre-Columbian American setting. Many scholars of Mormonism have written extensively about these physical anachronisms. The focus of this section is on textual anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. Beyond the Isaiah chronology already discussed, the Book of Mormon shares many passages with the New Testament, which Nephite writers certainly wouldn’t have had access to. Following are four examples from both the Old Testament and New Testament of textual anachronisms in the Book of Mormon:

1 Nephi 1:4. Nephi establishes a timeframe with: “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, King of Judah . . . and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” However, by the time Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as king, the Babylonian conqueror had already destroyed Jerusalem.

1 Nephi 22:20. “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass that all those who will not hear that prophet shall be cut off from among the people.” In this verse, Nephi, writing around 580 BCE, is quoting the words of the apostle Peter around 60 CE who was paraphrasing Deuteronomy (Acts 3:22–23).

Alma 5:52. “the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire.” This verse in Alma, reportedly written around 83 BCE, is quoting John the Baptist from around 30 CE (Matthew 3:10).

2 Nephi 9:39. “to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.” Nephi, around 555 BCE, is quoting the Apostle Paul from approximately 68 CE (Romans 8:6).

The use of the word Christ” in the pre-Christian era of the Book of Mormon is also a textual anachronism. The word Christ never appears in the Hebrew Bible and is, in fact, a Greek word. “Christ” derives from Kristos or, in Latin, Christus, which roughly means Messiah. Christ is a term that Greek and Roman followers of Jesus used, not ancient Hebrews in Israel. It likewise follows that the term “anti-Christ” is Greek. The New Testament was primarily written in Greek, but having fled Jerusalem in 600 BCE, Nephite writers could not possibly have understood, much less used, the Greek language. Eber D. Howe commented: “To give credit to the pretense that Nephi, living 600 years before the Christian era, could, or would, have had the name of Jesus and John revealed  . . .  is repugnant to common sense.” [18]

Scholars who study intertextuality (a comparative study of religious texts) point out that it was common for Protestants in early America to write Christianity and the New Testament backward into the Hebrew Bible. This anachronistic phenomenon of writing New Testament terminology and ideas into an Old Testament setting is present throughout the Book of Mormon.

 

The Law of Moses burnt offerings

MOSAIC LAW OBSERVANCE


The Book of Mormon describes America’s first inhabitants as devout Hebrews who observed the Law of Moses (1Nephi 1:2, 4:15, 5:9; Mosiah 1:1-4; Alma 26:15, 3 Nephi 1:24; Ether 1:33). However, the Book of Mormon makes almost no reference to Hebrew customs. The Hebrew families of Lehi and Ishmael scarcely disembarked from their remarkable voyage to the Americas before they began expounding Protestant-style exhortations and nineteenth-century Christian doctrines.

E. D. Howe writes: “Our author being ignorant on this subject…offering sacrifices and burnt offerings to the Lord. And to cap the climax of absurdity, after preaching faith and repentance as the only way of salvation, from the very commencement of the campaign, Nephi tells us, ‘Notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the Law of Moses.’” [19] 

While there is an account of Nephi’s small tribe constructing a temple after the manner of Solomon, there are no subsequent references to the animal sacrifices, ceremonies, and festivals that were central to Hebrew culture. There is no direct mention of the annual Passover celebrations or Yom Kippur that Hebrew descendants have celebrated for millennia.

While defenders of the Book of Mormon’s antiquity, such as respected Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, have attempted to root out traditional Jewish customs from the text of the Book of Mormon, the passages they rely upon are often more in line with nineteenth-century Protestant sermons than ancient Hebrew thought. Curt van den Huevel writes:

  • I would dispute the statement that the Book of Mormon reflects Old Testament festivals. Nor is it ‘very clear’ that the Book of Mormon fits comfortably into an ancient Hebrew setting. . . .  Why is there no *explicit* mention of any Jewish Festival or Feast in the Book of Mormon? Why is it that these incidents must be inferred?

SOURCES OF INSPIRATION


This examination will conclude with a brief overview of cultural and literary influences that are present throughout the Book of Mormon. While not exhaustive, the purpose here is to create an “at-a-glance” summary of the sources that this essay and the Cultural Context essay have presented:

1, 2 Nephi:  Biblical passages dominate the text in these two books. Half of the chapters in 2 Nephi are from the Bible.

Jacob, Enos, Mosiah, Alma 1-42: Evangelical Methodist Camp Meeting rhetoric dominates the narrative, which contains terms, practices, patterns, and doctrines familiar to Smith. The eleven Book of Mormon preachers between Jacob and Alma II reflect the Second Great Awakening preachers of Smith’s era.

Alma 43-63: These war chapters mirror the strategies of the American Indian Wars and the War of 1812, particularly British/Indian fighting strategies used against the American soldiers in the War of 1812. [20]

Helaman; 3 Nephi 1-7: The writing about the Gadianton robbers reveal strong influences of the anti-Masonic rhetoric of Joseph’s day. Free Masonry was a topic of interest during the presidential election of 1828–29, with the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party in New York. Andrew Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812 and front-runner of the election, was a Freemason. Numerous newspaper articles debated whether Freemasonry was anti-democratic and speculated on what Jackson would do to the Executive and Judicial branches of government if elected. [21]

3 Nephi 11-28: Bible passages again dominate this section of the Book of Mormon, specifically the King James Version, including translation errors. Of the 490 verses in these chapters, 246, or roughly half, contain recognizable KJV quotations or phrases.

Ether: This book reads like Joseph Smith’s essay on the central message of the Book of Mormon. The first half of Ether describes what happens to the Jaredites when they follow Christ, while the second half outlines the consequences when they don’t. Ether is a synopsis of the Book of Mormon, including the annihilation of both the Jaredites and Nephites.

  • The phrase “it came to pass,” a favorite expression in pseudo-biblical writing, comprises 2% of the Book of Mormon.
  • 11% of the Book of Mormon was taken directly from the KJV Bible.
  • Nephi’s brothers are named Joseph and Samuel, two brothers in the Smith family.
  • The name Lehi is found in Judges 15:9, 14, 19.
  • The name Nephi is found in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 1:36).
  • The name Enos is found in Genesis 4:26.
  • Abinadi, similar to the biblical Daniel, deciphered handwriting on a wall.
  • Alma was converted in the exact fashion of St. Paul.
  • The daughters of Lamanites, like daughters of Shiloh, were abducted.
  • Ammon, similar to the biblical David, slew sheep-rustlers with his sling.
  • King Benjamin’s sermons are strikingly similar to Reverend Benjamin Paddocks’s camp revival sermons.

LEARN MORE:

Emanuel Swedenborg

In 1758, Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg wrote Heaven and Hell. Heaven and Hell is the common English title of a book, while the full title is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen. Swedenborg claimed numerous visions and wrote prolifically. His work describes 3 degrees of glory, even the “Celestial Kingdom” and how the three heavens correspond to the sun, moon and stars – naming them celestial, spiritual, and natural.

Michael Quinn makes a strong case that Smith became well acquainted with Swedenborg’s ideas, while also demonstrating that his book was available in Smith’s hometown library since 1817. Quinn demonstrates that “Nine miles from Smith’s farm, in 1826, the Canandaigua newspaper advertised Swedenborg’s book for sale…for as little as 37 cents.” Joseph himself is known to have received a letter from faithful member Isaac Galland in 1839 which repeatedly mentions Swedenborg’s theology and influence at the time.

Elements of Swedenborg’s philosophies include:

  • 3 levels of heaven, 3 heavens in the Celestial Kingdom
  • The 3 kingdoms are like sun, moon, stars
  • One must be married in heaven to inherit the highest heaven
  • The spirit world is a place of preparation for either heaven or perdition
  • The world of spirits is a preparation for either heaven or perdition
  • There are angels who communicate between heavens
  • The church that Christ established has passed from the Earth
  • The Lord will establish a New Church on the earth once more
  • Little children who die, Christian or not, go directly to heaven, and are not culpable
  • Opposition in all things
  • Man is not saved by faith alone but must show works from a changed heart
  • One way to qualify for perdition is to know the truth and deny it
  • Celestial beings incorporate the law of consecration into their lives
  • All things in the physical world exist due to existence of a spiritual quality
  • God is man
  • Christ redeems the world, but there is no vicarious payment for the sins of others
  • Swedenborg witnessed marriage ceremony in heaven, husband wore robes like those of Aaron, wife was arrayed as a queen

LEARN MORE:

Origin of Telestial

The word telestial exists only in Mormon theology and is not found anywhere else. Smith wrote D&C 76 in 1832 as he was exploring new theologies. Smith likely relied upon 1st Corinthians 15:41, wherein Paul speaks about the sun, moon, and stars when developing the unique Mormon doctrine of differing degrees of heavenly glory. Significantly paralleling Swedenborg’s well-known theology, Smith believed that he needed three levels of heaven but only had two.

However, even a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians 15:40 reveals that the verse has nothing to do with degrees of heaven; it merely speaks to the difference between heavenly (celestial) bodies and earthly (terrestrial) bodies. This is further evidenced by the fact that only the KJV Bible uses the words celestial and terrestrial, while every other English translation uses heavenly and earthly. There was, in fact, no need to embellish a multi-level heaven, as the Bible is simply stating that angels and mortals have different degrees of splendor.

CONCLUSION


That the Book of Mormon contains teachings and principles valued by millions of devotees for nearly two centuries is not taken for granted. In light of the mounting evidence, faithful members must seriously consider if in fact sophisticated pre-Columbian Indians recorded the story. Yet even a cursory analysis of the Book of Mormon reveals explicit use of nineteenth-century language, ideas, and writing style, as well as dependence upon the King James Bible.

These facts are not in dispute by most modern scholars of Mormonism, whether they are believers or skeptics of its claim of antiquity. What often results is a debate over how much influence Joseph Smith had over the text and narrative of the Book of Mormon. The more creative control we grant him over the creation of the Book of Mormon, the less miraculous its production becomes. Regardless of one’s religious convictions, an honest examination of the Book of Mormon in its nineteenth-century cultural setting demonstrates that secular explanations for its creation are plausible. When Church Historian Leonard Arrington was asked if there really were Lamanites, he replied “Well, let’s put it like this; that is part of the great Mormon myth that we all hold to and all benefit from.” [22]

 

[1] Studies of Book of Mormon, B. H. Roberts, 58.
[2] The Book of Mormon – Keystone of Our Religion, Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, Oct 1986.
[3] True or False, Jeffrey Holland, 1994.
[4] Safety For The Soul, Jeffrey Holland, LDS General Conference, Oct 2009.
[5] Todd Christofferson, Library of Congress, Dec 7, 2016.
[6] American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War. Eran Shalev, Yale University Press, 2013.
[7] B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 240.
[8] B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 58.
[9] B. H. Roberts, Studies of Book of the Mormon, 250.
[10] B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 20-24.
[11] B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 48-50.
[12] Studies of the Book of Mormon, 271.
[13] B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 277.
[14] Lucy Smith, Joseph Smith, The Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations.
[15] Letter from Palmyra, N.Y., Mar 12, 1831, in Dale Morgan on the Mormons: Collected Works, Part 2, 1949–1970, 210.
[16] Question: How do we explain multiple ‘Isaiahs’ and the Book of Mormon?, FairMormon.org
[17] B. H. Roberts, Studies of Book of Mormon, 263.
[18] Mormonism Unvailed, ch 3.
[19] Mormonism Unvailed, 48.
[20] See Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, 1805; and David Ramsey, History of the American Revolution, 1789.
[21] See Dan Vogel, “Mormonism’s ‘Anti-Masonick Bible,” JWHA Journal 9 (1989): 17–18.
[22] Leonard Arrington: The Writing of Mormon History, 129.