Cultural Context Preceding the Book of Mormon

The Church of Christ and related bringing forth of the Book of Mormon emerged during a fascinating period of national and religious fervor. The combination of events did not occur in isolation. Richard Van Wagoner succinctly described the cultural fervor of the early 1800s. “Dissatisfaction with the existing order was the fertile soil from which sprang the Mormon revolution, Smith’s dynamism drew the displeased and disappointed to him with vivid, compelling new revelation of a better life.” (Natural Born Seer, p. xii)

Europe had grown weary of ongoing wars and economic stagnation, finally vanquishing Napoleon in 1815, while America remained a land of promise and discovery. Lewis and Clark had only first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean in 1805, and the Erie Canal would soon expand passage to the Great Lakes. Immigrants from all parts of the world harbored visions of fertile land and opportunity.

The Church’s Millennial Star summarized the grim situation of the underclass in 1842 England. “In the midst of the general distress which prevails in this country, on account of want of employment, the high price of provisions, the oppression, priestcraft, and iniquity of the land, it is pleasing to the household of faith to contemplate a country reserved by the Almighty as a sure asylum for the poor and the oppressed, a country every way adapted to their wants and conditions, and still more pleasing to think that thousands of the Saints have already made their escape from this country, from all its abuses and distress and that they have found a home where by preserving industry, they may enjoy the blessings of liberty, peace and plenty. Several of our ships have been chartered by the Saints during the present fall and winter, and have been filled with emigrants who have gone forth with songs of joy. Some of them have already arrived safely in the Promised Land, while others are doubtlessly still tossing upon the ocean. Who that has a heart to feel or soul to rejoice will not be glad at so glorious a plan of deliverance. Who will not hail the messengers of the Latter-day Saints as the friends of humanity—the benefactors of mankind?” 


Theological debates and sectarian division raged in colonial America, as numerous sects jockeyed for superiority. Joseph Jr. experienced the discord of religious difference within his family, as Joseph Sr. embraced Universalism, while Lucy and her three oldest children joined the Presbyterians in the fall of 1824.

Joseph Smith’s doctrine would conveniently address every issue, including infant baptism, eternal punishment, the sacrament and nature of God, free agency, eternal progression, the state of matter and intelligence, etc. Historian Dan Vogel observed “That the Book of Mormon confronts Universalism was noticed by friend and foe.” The Book of Mormon closely mirrors 19th century understanding of the Hebrew bible, as Protestants saw Christ everywhere within the Old Testament.

E. D. Howe’s 1834 Mormonism Unvailed deemed the Book of Mormon a “cursory account of the popular doctrines which have been agitated since the Reformation… Who can be credulous enough to believe, that a preacher, 550 years before the ministry of the Savior…did preach and instruct not only the same principles, but the very words and phrases were used to convey the sentiments which are found in the evangelical writings? …The author doubtless had some knowledge of the revivals of religion, in the different churches; for he represents the whole congregation prostrated, crying for mercy through the atoning blood of Christ.”

Some suggest that such uniquely Christian fervor is unlikely to have occurred in Pre-Columbian Indian cultures. Alexander Campbell, Sidney Rigdon’s mentor immediately prior to his affiliation with Joseph Smith, dismissed the Book of Mormon, recognizing how it “decides all the great controversies” of the day. Of the secret combinations throughout Helaman, he observed that “Masonry was invented about this time.” (Millennial Harbinger, Feb 1831)

“Nephi, together with sundry other prophets, had the whole Christian system developed to them, many centuries before the twelve apostles…and preaching it to a set of Jews… There are the many contemporary insertions. Are we to believe that pre-Columbian American Indians struggled with infant baptisms (more aptly aligns with popular anti-Catholic sentiments of Josephs day). The Title of Liberty better fits late American patriotism. “Realities are no longer a subject worthy his attention…he is guided by the whims of his imagination.” (Mormonism Unvailed)



Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother, attended Moor’s Academy, a prep school for Dartmouth College, from 1811 to 1815.  The Dartmouth website today instructs that, “Dartmouth’s founder, Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans.” It reiterates, “In 1972…Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country.” The organization believed that it was Christianity’s duty to both civilize and educate the Indian.

John Smith, the cousin of Asael Smith (Joseph’s Grandfather) established and ran the theology department prior to Hyrum’s arrival. He became a professor of learned languages, studied exotic dialects and published Hebrew Grammar in 1803. John Smith was even a pastor of the Church of Christ – the same name Joseph used to found his church – at Dartmouth College until 1804. Dartmouth had a School of the Prophets, just like Joseph would later establish.

While at the Dartmouth campus, Hyrum Smith studied the very curriculum, ideology and theological questions which Mormonism would soon mirror. Hyrum’s relationships led to the school’s pioneering surgeon, Dr. Nathan Smith, participating in Joseph’s leg operation in 1813.


Christian clergy frequently supported the notion of the American Indian as a Lost Tribe during the 1800s because it not only validated the Biblical tale, it encouraged their perceived right to colonize America while Christianizing or relocating Native Americans.

The theory was widely circulated during the era, not just within Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews. American Antiquities, Discoveries in the West, published in 1833, reminded readers, “The opinion that the American Indians are descendants of the lost ten Tribes, is now a popular one, and generally believed.” Native Americans represented a fertile mission field to be harvested before Jesus could usher in his glorious return. 

B.H. Roberts said, “Such common knowledge existed throughout New England and New York in relation to American Indian origins and cultures.” (see Natural Born Seer p. 376 for an extensive listing of contemporary books propagating the notion that the Indians were Hebrew, of one race, divided by savages.)

Such ideology may seem misguided by todays standards, but it carried great significance in the 1800s; it served to supplant rich history of Native American history with a predominantly white, old world view. It also fostered the ongoing cultural genocide, as it was much easier to kill and displace a people that “loved murder and would drink the blood of beasts.” (Jarom 1:6) The Book of Mormon fostered the colonial perception of Indians “led by their evil nature that they became wild, ferocious, blood thirsty…full of idolatry and filthiness…continually seeking to destroy…” (Enos 1:20)

On May 26, 1830, mere weeks after Joseph Smith printed his book and founded his church, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing all Native Americans west of Mississippi. LDS Saints, along with most other whites, viewed their displacement as “God’s work,” fulfilling prophecy regarding their gathering. W. W. Phelps declared, “It is not only gratifying, but almost marvelous to witness the gathering of the Indians. …through the instrumentality of the Government of the United Stated.” (The Evening and The Morning Star, Dec 1832)


Though the Internet obviously didn’t exist in Smith’s day, books and ideas flowed freely across the emerging American landscape. Europeans and Americans considered themselves to be living in the Age of Enlightenment, as reason slowly triumphed over centuries of tradition and institutionalized ignorance.

Solomon Mack, Joseph Smith Jr.’s maternal grandfather, published his memoir in 1811, recounting his adventures as a privateer on the high seas.This would have been during the same time that young Joseph Smith Jr. lived on the property.

The Smiths’ Palmyra home was a mere three miles from the Erie Canal, affording them access to the latest periodicals of the day. The canal even boasted of a floating library named The Encyclopedia of Albany. “It is used as a bookstore and lottery office, and contains about two thousand well selected volumes, and a quantity of stationary. It is accompanied by two wagons, for the purpose of extending their trade to those villages, which are a short distance from the canals. The owners sell for money where they can find purchasers, but they calculate that a barter for rags will be the principal part of their trade.” (The New-York Canals, Wayne Sentinel, June 30, 1824, p. 2)



Ethan Smith was a Minister in Poultney, Vermont, who publishedView of the Hebrews. The book expounds upon a commonly held view of the era, that the numerous and distinct American Indian tribes originated from Hebrew stock. The thesis became common knowledge in the region and enjoyed wide circulation in New England and New York, running through two editions in 1823 and 1825.

Ethan’s work reads nothing like the Book of Mormon, yet provides the entire framework and storyline. The book begins with the destruction of Jerusalem, while suggesting that the Ten Tribes came to America before dividing into two disparate groups, one barbarous, the other civilized. Ethan elaborates on robust military fortifications, forms of government, a hidden book revealed, prophets among ancient Americans, ancient Indians as highly civilized people, while offering copious quotes from King James version Isaiah.

Ethan Smith, and many other theologians of various denominations, suggested that it was America’s mission to gather the remnants of the House of Israel, reiterating the legend that the stick of Joseph and Ephraim would one day be united. His book describes copper breastplates taken from the mounds, with two white buckhorn buttons fastened to the outside of each plate – in resemblance to a Urim & Thummim. His book describes a prophet atop a wall in Jerusalem, exhorting, while the wicked unsuccessfully assail him with arrows.

Few Mormons today have ever heard of Ethan’s work, or how perfectly it fit into Joseph Smith’s 19th Century world view. Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith’s 3rd cousin and soon to be scribe of Joseph Smith, certainly knew, as he lived in Poultney, VT for 26 years. Oliver’s family attended Ethan’s congregation.

Thesis Summary

The following excerpts are taken directly from View of the Hebrews, primarily in the order appearing in Ethan’s original book. Does it provide the 19th Century ideology and framework for the Book of Mormon story?

  • Rejection of Jesus Christ as our atoning Savior.
  • O Jerusalem! Thou that killest the prophets – destruction of Jerusalem.
  • A prophet  ascends the walls, in tremendous voice exclaimed, ‘Wo, wo to this city, this temple, and this people!’, while arrows shot at him.
  • The natives of our country are the outcasts of Israel – they have lost their way…bewildered in darkness.
  • The prophet Isaiah to be of deep interest to America.
  • American Indians derive their origin from a foreign stock.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • This accounts for the ancient works…centuries before Columbus discovered America…and articles dug from old mounds in and near those fortified places.
  • 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, watch towers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It was buried; and hence was providentially transmitted to us.
  • Some modern Jew left it there in the situation in which it was found…on Indian Hill underground.
  • The account of the old Indian, that his fathers had buried, not long ago, a book which they could not read.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • They will be fulfilled only in the conversion of these ancient people of God to Christianity.
  • 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.
  • Go thou nation highly distinguished in the last days (America), save the remnant of my people.

The purpose of introducing Ethan’s thesis is not to suggest that Joseph plagiarized the work itself; though many other works reflect Joseph’s “direct borrowing.” The point is to understand how prevalent such notions of Native Americans were in Joseph Smith’s day, and how others were mirroring scriptural language to express the story.

In June 1842, as Editor of the official Church periodical, Smith reprinted a section from Josiah Priest’s 1833 American Antiquities to support the notion that the Ten Tribes came over to America. Priest’s book, in turn, was quoting from and commenting on Ethan’s 1825 View of the Hebrews. (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 269)

What Did B.H. Conclude?

Brigham H. Roberts (B. H.) was President of The Seventy in the 1920s, took three polygamous wives and was a true believing LDS General Authority. At the request of Apostle James Talmage, B.H. conducted a thorough review of various difficulties and anachronisms within the Book of Mormon narrative. As a result, B. H. spent a great deal of time with Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews.

Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews as “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.” (B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 240)

Upon completing his extensive study, faithful B. H. Roberts reported to the Apostles that there was “a great probability” that Joseph Smith had a close encounter with View of the Hebrews. (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 243, 271)


The introduction of buried treasure into Mormon history is certainly not breaking new ground. What most members don’t fully recognize, however, is the degree to which tales of lost gold entertained segments of the population, infatuating others. 

Charles Johnson published A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1724, recounting the exploits of the infamous Captain William Kidd. Kidd resided in New York and was famous for leading pirate expeditions into the lawless Indian Ocean area. Shortly before his execution in 1701, a portion of what was believed to be Kidd’s treasure was discovered on Gardiner’s Island, off the coast of Long Island. Numerous “dime novels” further perpetuated the exploits of pirates, intriguing readers with notions of discovering their buried treasure.

Oak Island, the site of tremendous Captain Kidd treasure speculation, lies just off the coast from New York, not far from the Smith’s Palmyra roots. The History Channel produced “The Curse of Oak Island”, chronicling the region’s rich history of buried treasure lore.

Captain Kidd novels were well known in their day, and the Smiths are documented to have loved them. Palmyra resident Ann Eaton added that Kidd was Joseph’s “hero”, whose work he “eagerly and often perused.” (Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:148) FairMormon acknowledges, “Knowing that Joseph was involved in treasure seeking, and that the great motivation for much of the treasure seeking being performed at the time was the result of a common belief that Captain Kidd had hidden treasure somewhere on the east coast of the United States, it is not unreasonable to assume that Joseph was familiar with the stories.”

It would not be a stretch to “assume” Smith remained acutely aware of buried treasure lore. Even Palmyra’s tiny Wayne Sentinel reprinted “Money Diggers” from the Windsor Journal (Vermont), on Feb 16, 1825, deriding the abundance of Kidd’s treasure seekers. “We are sorry to observe, even in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the marvelous. Even the frightful stories of money being hid under the surface of the earth, and enchanted by the Devil or Robert Kidd, are received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths.”

Numerous works on Kidd’s exploits in East India reference the Comoros Islands as a frequent pirate hideout. Some have observed the striking similarity of Book of Mormon terms “Cumorah” and “Moroni” to actual place-names on maps of the area.

Attempts to dismiss the notion that Smith may have been inspired by his favored pirate novels often focus only on documents or the spelling of locations which post-date the Book of Mormon. Yet the facts remain that Joseph had access to ample books and maps of the day; he demonstrated far greater interest in reading and learning than the traditional uneducated farm boy narrative implies; and early works involving Captain Kidd do identify “Comore” and “Meroni” locations.

Other attempts to downplay the possibility focus on the late arrival of statements alleging Joseph’s affection for pirate lore. However, disregarding evidence solely because it lacks contemporary corroboration, or stems from a second-hand source, is a slippery slope wise apologists avoid. Many an LDS narrative is upheld with equally aged recollections, and far fewer corroborating facts on the ground.

Adding to the confusion, is the fact that the original Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript spells “Camorah” once, “Cumorah” six times, and “Comorah” twice. While each iteration of these very unique words sounds phonetically the same, such an outcome contradicts the contemporary statements of those most directly involved in Smith’s “most perfect” translation process. The original 1830 Book of Mormon spells each reference “Cumorah”, and the capital of Comoros is today spelled “Moroni.”

Noel Carmack concluded, “In light of Jacque-Nicolas Bellin’s widely available chart of Anjouan, the idea is arresting—if not a probability—that Joseph Smith saw the island place names on this chart, as it featured the place names ‘Comore and ‘Meroni’ together for the first time.”



Tales of lost pirate booty, emerging archaeological discoveries and religious fervor regarding both the American Indian and Christ’s imminent return, likely merged to fuel Joseph’s vivid imagination.

Joseph’s mother described his profound ability to entertain the family with fascinating stories during his teenage years. “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travel, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, p. 85)

Although we now know that various small hills in the upstate New York area are glacial drumlins, ordinary sedimentary deposits created eons ago, they were believed to be Indian burial mounds in Joseph Smith’s day. Many tales speak of buried objects within such hills. Such folklore no doubt contributed to Smith’s elaborate 1834 monologue about Zelph, the white Lamanite, when encountering a real Indian burial mound in Illinois.

Perhaps B. H. Roberts best summarized the situation a century ago. “In light of this evidence, there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith…an imagination it could with reason be urged…the common knowledge…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. …The evidence I sorrowfully submit points to Joseph Smith as their creator.”


1678 – John Bunyan, who became one of the most prominent authors of the late 17th century,  publishes The Pilgrim’s Progress.

1699 – A portion of Captain Kidd’s treasure is discovered on Gardiner’s Island, off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.

1775 – History of the American Indians, James Adair published.  Provides 23 arguments that Indians are descendants of Hebrews, tells of buried plates (5 copper and 2 brass) kept by Indians.

1778 – Emanuel Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell first translated into English.

1784 – John Glen, sailing from London, brings Emanuel Swedenborg ‘s popular work, Heaven and Hell to the U.S., lecturing and promoting the book.

1785 – Solomon Spalding graduates from Dartmouth.

1786 – Ethan Smith (reportedly a Seminary classmate of Solomon Spalding) enters Dartmouth

1789 – Emanuel Swedenborg reading groups form in New York, Boston, Ohio and many other Northeastern states, as his philosophical works become more widely known.

1801 – Francis Barrett’s prominent occult handbook,The Magus, published.

1802 – U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and 100 members of Congress hear Baltimore minister John Hargrove speak on Emanuel Swedenborg’s work.

1811 – Solomon Mack, Joseph Smith’s grandfather publishes his war/sailing adventures.

1811 – Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother, enters Moor’s Academy, a Dartmouth prep school.

1811 – Lucy Mack Smith reported that Joseph Smith Sr. had the tree of life dream.

1812-1814 – Solomon Spalding brings Manuscript Found to printers Patterson & J. Harrison Lambdin.

1812 – Napoleon invades Russia, suffers massive losses, retreat as winter sets in.

1812 – Emanuel Swedenborg ‘s Heaven and Hell published in U.S.  His philosophies elaborate upon “Three heavens…distinct from each other,” Highest heaven is “the Celestial Kingdom,” degrees correspond to sun, moon and stars.

June 18, 1815 – Napoleon crushed by British at Waterloo, exiled for final time.

1816 – Smith family moves to Palmyra, NY – “The Burned-Over District” known for extreme evangelical fervor. Unpaid creditors seize most of their funds.

1816 – Joseph Sr. relates one of several prominent visionary dreams. (Lucy’s Book 266, 319)

1816 – Elias Smith published his vision.

1816 – The Late War published in New York, becomes required reading in schools.

1817 – New York Daily Advertiser describes the public’s enthusiasm for Captain Kidd treasure.

July 1817 – Erie Canal construction begins, largest economic project in the nation.

1817 – Governor of N.Y. describes mounds around state containing “piles of skeletons.” (see Natural Born Seer p. 376)

Jan 21, 1818 – Palmyra Register publishes article speculating of battles and burial mounds in area.

May 26, 1819 – Palmyra Register publishes speculation “this country was once inhabited by a race of people, partially civilized, exterminated by forefathers of the…tribes of Indians in this country.”

1820 – Compilation of Samuel Mitchill’s speculations on origins of indigenous peoples published. Mitchill theorized that a white race met a dark race in bloody conflicts in upstate NY.

1823 – View of the Hebrews, Ethan Smith published.

April 15, 1823 – Ontario (New York) Repository publishes story of Colonel Abraham Edwards’s discovery of ancient manuscript, nobody could decipher the hieroglyphics, receives prominent press.

May 16, 1823 – Detroit Gazette publishes article about same ancient manuscript.

August 15, 1823 – Salem Gazette reports in Albany, N.Y. newspaper that Captain Kidd hide his loot in the region.

June 23, 1824  – The Wayne Sentinel, a Palmyra, N.Y. paper, publishes an announcement of The Encyclopedia of Albany, a floating library which regularly traversed the Erie Canal, offering over 2,000 works. The boat would “move up and down the canal, bearing the riches of science as well as the gifts of fortune…”

June 30, 1824 – The Palmyra Register also reports on The Encyclopedia of Albany. The Smiths’ Palmyra home was approximately 3 miles from the canal.

1824 – Popular history of New York published, relating tradition of Seneca Indians, highly civilized white race totally destroyed, built fortifications against savage red Indians.” (History of State of N.Y. Including its Aboriginal and Colonial Annals, p.40)

1825 – Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews reprinted.

Feb 16, 1825 – Palmyra’s Wayne Sentinel reprints “Money Diggers” from Windsor Journal (Vermont), on the prevalence of seeking Kidd’s treasure. “We are sorry to observe, even in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the marvelous. Even the frightful stories of money being hid under the surface of the earth, and enchanted by the Devil or Robert Kidd, are received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths.”

1825 – The Palmyra Register reprints an article depicting the pursuit of Captain Kidd’s treasure. “A respectable gentleman in Tunbridge, in that state, was informed, by means of a dream, that a chest of money was buried on a small island in Agar’s brook, in Randolph. No sooner was he in possession of this valuable information, than he started off to enrich himself with treasure. After having been directed by the mineral rod where to search for the money…”

Oct 11, 1825 – The Wayne Sentinel, Smith’s hometown newspaper, publishes article describing how Indians are “lineal descendants of the Israelites.”

1826 – There were at least 23 libraries surrounding Manchester / Palmyra.

1828 – Palmyra newspapers print anti-Masonic articles describing “secret combination”, referring to “its secret and cut-throat oaths.”

May 26, 1830 – Congress passes Indian Removal Act, forcing Indians west of Mississippi. Mormons view displacement as “God’s work”, fulfilling prophecy of a literal gathering.

February 1, 1831 – The Palmyra Reflector mocks those afflicted with gold fever. “The mania of money digging soon began rapidly to diffuse itself through many parts of this country; men and women without distinction of age or sex became marvellous wise in the occult sciences, many dreamed, and others saw visions disclosing to them, deep in the bowels of the earth, rich and shining treasures.”