While Europeans grew weary of ongoing wars and economic stagnation, vanquishing Napoleon in 1815, America remained for them the land of promise and discovery. Lewis and Clark first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean in 1805; and the Erie Canal, the most significant industrial marvel of its time, would soon expand passage to the Great Lakes, bringing commerce and religious fervor to upstate New York. Immigrants from all parts of the world harbored visions of fertile land and opportunity.
The Second Great Awakening rose, in part, as a response to the industrial revolution in America and age of scientific skepticism that swept across Europe. Fear that men were becoming too secular and losing their spiritual path motivated evangelical preachers to ride on horseback throughout the western frontier, preaching spiritual rebirth and urgently warn of the end-of-times. As America expanded its borders to the west, speculation grew over the great mounds in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, leading to numerous tales of America’s ancient inhabitants and their possible connection to the Old World. Free Masonry, which once enjoyed prestige among America’s founding fathers, became increasingly scorned as secretive and anti-democratic after exposé writer William Morgan’s suspected murder in 1826. Each of these themes is prominent throughout the Book of Mormon.
Theological debates and sectarian division raged in colonial America as numerous sects jockeyed for superiority. Puritan dominance gave way to the five mainline Protestant religions: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalist. The Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 sparked waves of charismatic spiritual outpourings, while popular ministers Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone preached a return to the earliest Christian practices. On the margins of society, religious diversity increased with German Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Catholic immigration, alongside religious-economic experiments such as the Shakers and Cochranites. Rationalism and Romanticism inspired less-dogmatic movements such as Universalism and Unitarianism.
Joseph Smith Jr. came of age in this fertile religious environment. Richard Van Wagoner described “dissatisfaction with the existing order” as the “fertile soil from which sprang the Mormon revolution.” He continued: “Smith’s dynamism drew the displeased and disappointed to him with vivid, compelling new revelation of a better life” (Natural Born Seer, p. xii).
Joseph Smith experienced the discord of religious differences within his family. His father, Joseph Sr., a practicing Free Mason who remained aloof to formal religious membership, leaned towards universalism. His mother, Lucy, raised Congregationalist, held Spiritualist views and, along with Joseph’s three eldest siblings, joined the Presbyterians in 1826. Lucy recounts young Joseph telling vivid stories of the ancient inhabitants of America to the family, conversing with an angel and using his gift as a seer to read from golden plates hidden away in a hillside that contained teachings of relevance to his family. Within a few years, Joseph would reportedly acquire the golden plates and begin work on a religious text that would become the cornerstone of a new religious movement.
Claimed to be written for our day, the Book of Mormon addressed many significant topics of debate during the Second Great Awakening, including questions over the nature of God, free will, infant baptism, eternal punishment, eternal progression, the state of matter and intelligence, democracy, secretive societies, and more. The Book of Mormon proposed answers to questions about the origin of America’s native people while supporting the popular legends of the day that told of a superior white race that once dwelt upon the land and built great cities and temples, but who were ruthlessly murdered by dark-skinned savages.
Many of Smith’s contemporaries were understandably skeptical of the book’s modern tone and claimed ancient origins, questioning if pre-Columbian Indians were indeed the authors of the work. E. D. Howe, in his 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, deemed the Book of Mormon a “cursory account of the popular doctrines which have been agitated since the Reformation. To give credit to the pretense, that Nephi, living six hundred years before the christian era, could, or would, have had the name of Jesus and John revealed to any other prophet, is repugnance to common sense” (31). He continued: “Who can be credulous enough to believe, that a preacher, five hundred and fifty years before the ministry of the Savior and his apostles. . . 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 [New Testament] writings?” (50). “The author,” Howe concluded, “doubtless had some knowledge of the revivals of religion” (61).
Alexander Campbell, successful preacher and Sidney Rigdon’s mentor prior to his affiliation with Joseph Smith, dismissed the Book of Mormon outright, writing: “This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in this book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decided all the great controversies;—infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonary, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to” (The Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 2: 93).
Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother, attended Moor’s Academy, a prep school for Dartmouth College, from 1811 to 1815. At the time of this writing, Dartmouth’s website states that “Dartmouth’s founder, Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans.” Their website reiterates: “In 1972…Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country.” Along with many institutions, Dartmouth believed that it was Christianity’s duty to civilize and educate the Indian.
Before Hyrum’s arrival, John Smith, cousin of Asael Smith (Joseph’s Grandfather), established and ran the theology department. 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 at Dartmouth College until 1804. Dartmouth also established a School of the Prophets.
While at the Dartmouth campus, Hyrum Smith studied the ideology and theological questions that Mormonism would mirror. Other notable Dartmouth alumni include Solomon Spaulding (class of 1785), author of Manuscript Found, and Ethan Smith (1790), author of View of the Hebrews. Hyrum’s Dartmouth acquaintances also included Nathan Smith, the surgeon who performed Joseph Jr.’s leg operation in 1813.
- Richard K. Behrens, “Dartmouth Arminianism And Its Imapct on Hyrum Smith and the Smith Family,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol 26 (2006): 166–84.
MANIFEST DESTINY / AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
In addition to heavy immigration from Great Britain, France, and Germany, filled with impoverished families who sought a land of opportunity and freedom from political and religious exploitation, America’s borders were pushing westward. “Manifest Destiny,” a phrase later coined to describe a sense of inevitable expansion of the United States to the western ocean, was more than a political sentiment. Along with physical expansion came the expansion of Protestant ideas and values throughout Indian territory. Many Protestants believed God’s hand was at work in the expanding United States, which also gave them license to forcibly remove what they believed to be the degenerate heathen race of the America’s indigenous people. Much of this sentiment centered on the notion of American Exceptionalism, or America as “God’s chosen land” or “promised land,” given to God’s chosen prior to the Lord’s Second Coming.
As America pushed to the west, discovery of ancient mounds and earthworks that laced the Mississippi and Ohio valleys sparked public imagination. From the earliest days of colonial exploration, myths circulated about the mysterious society that built the mounds. As local tribes offered no legends or frame of reference as to their origins, many postulated that the earthworks must have been created by a great society that vanished without a trace. While some argued that migration came from the Bering Strait, connection to the Old World and the legendary lost Ten Tribes of Israel was a more popular belief. Legends abounded of a great Hebrew society that was eventually annihilated by dark-skinned savages. Puritan ministers would use the stories of the conquered people as a “Jeremiad,” which is a type of sermon calling people to repentance in order to be spared from God’s wrath. Preachers warned that God’s wrath upon them would loose the savage Indian to defile their women and murder their children. These ominous stories led to the first popular literature series to be born in America: captivity narratives.
Myths and legends about the origin of America’s first inhabitants flourished over the next two centuries. Mound expeditions were as frequent as digs for buried Spanish pirate treasure, and often employed the same crews. Early American treasure diggers remained unaware that the largest hills, such as Cumorah, were naturally occurring glacial drumlins. Unlike the treasure digs, Indian burial mound digs did often yield some artifactual results, as the custom was to bury the deceased along with their possessions, much of which came through trades with Spanish explorers centuries prior. However, without the benefit of modern science and carbon dating, many of the artifacts only further supported the belief that a great unknown society had possessed advanced metallurgy. This supported the racist theory that these ancients must have been white, and perhaps even pre-Columbian Christians.
Another variant of the great pre-Columbian society began to emerge: that the American Indians didn’t merely destroy the ancient society, but indeed were their descendants. However, through their wickedness, they had fallen into heathenism and idolatry. Christian clergy during the 1800s frequently supported the notion of the American Indian as a Lost Tribe because it not only validated the Biblical tale, it also encouraged their perceived right to colonize America and expand westward while Christianizing or relocating Native Americans.
One example of the widely-circulated theories of Indian origins is Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews: American Antiquities, Discoveries in the West, published in 1823, which 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.
LDS leader B. H. Roberts affirmed, “such common knowledge existed throughout New England and New York in relation to American Indian origins and cultures.” See Richard Van Wagoner, 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 modern standards, but it carried great significance in the early-nineteenth century. It served to supplant rich Native American history with a predominantly white, old world view. It also fostered the ongoing cultural genocide, as it was much easier to displace and exterminate a people who “loved murder and would drink the blood of beasts” (Jarom 1:6). For early converts to Mormonism, The Book of Mormon not only affirmed popular suspicions of American Indian origins but also supported perceptions of the Native as “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, weeks after Joseph Smith printed his book and founded his church, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing the largest Native tribes to migrate west of Mississippi. Latter-day 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 States” (“The Indians,” The Evening and The Morning Star, Dec 1832).
Through the advent of modern stereotype printing, books and ideas flowed freely across the emerging American landscape. Europeans and Americans considered themselves to be living in the age of enlightenment. Newspapers flourished and carried popular stories, histories, opinions, politics, and religious discourse across the land.
The Smiths’ Palmyra home was situated 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: 2).
When not working on labor contracts or treasure digs, Father Smith was also employed as a school teacher. Although learning was rudimentary and infrequent, with many students receiving only primary education, a rich culture of written and oral literature supported learning beyond the school room. Owning books was considered a luxury for poor subsistence farmers, but most families owned at least a family Bible and some works of William Shakespeare, both of which were likely passed down through generations. Cheaply-produced novels, which told daring tales of adventure, were a popular form of entertainment as were traveling Shakespearian acting troupes, variety shows, and religious revivals where ministers would preach elaborate sermons for hours on end. While Smith may have received only limited formal schooling, he was, like most, immersed in a literary culture that valued learning and public exposition. Tales of lost pirate treasure, emerging archaeological discoveries, and religious fervor regarding both the American Indian and Christ’s imminent return, further fueled Joseph’s vivid imagination.
- A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences, Ebenezer Sibly, Book 4, p. 1084- 85)
Lucy Smith described Joseph’s 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. (Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, 85)
B. H. Roberts summarized Joseph Smith’s imagination:
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. (Studies of the Book of Mormon, 250)
VIEW OF THE HEBREWS
Ethan Smith was a Minister in Poultney, Vermont, who published View of the Hebrews, which expounds upon a commonly held notion of the time of the numerous and distinct American Indian tribes having originated from Hebrew stock. View of the Hebrews enjoyed wide circulation in New England and New York, running through two editions in 1823 and 1825.
While scholars agree that Ethan’s work reads nothing like the Book of Mormon, the framework and storyline of both books are remarkably similar. View of the Hebrews 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 that becomes revealed, prophets among ancient Americans, and ancient Indians as highly civilized people, while offering numerous quotes from the King James Bible version of Isaiah.
Like many other theologians of various denominations, Ethan Smith 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 an 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 heard of Ethan’s work, or how perfectly it fits into the nineteenth-century worldview that informed Joseph Smith. Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith’s third cousin and primary scribe on the Book of Mormon, was undoubtedly aware of View of the Hebrews, as he lived in Poultney for twenty-six years and his family attended Ethan’s congregation.
View of The Hebrews Summary
The following excerpts are taken directly from View of the Hebrews, primarily in the order appearing in Ethan’s original book:
- Rejection of Jesus Christ as our atoning Savior.
- O 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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, watch towers. [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. 224]
- 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 prophet Isaiah to be of deep interest to America. [p. 228]
- 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]
- They will be fulfilled only in the conversion of these ancient people of God to Christianity. [p. 64]
- 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]
The purpose of introducing Ethan’s thesis is not to suggest that Joseph plagiarized the work, but rather to reaffirm how prevalent such notions of Native Americans were in Joseph Smith’s day, and how others were also mirroring scriptural language to express the story.
What Did B.H. Conclude?
Brigham H. Roberts (B. H.) was President of the Quorum of the Seventy in the 1920s. 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. Roberts concluded that Ethan Smith’s work provided “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, 240)
Upon completing his extensive study, 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, 243, 271).
THE LEGEND OF CAPTAIN KIDD
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, New York. Numerous popular novels further told the exploits of pirates, intriguing readers with aspirations of discovering their buried treasure. Oak Island, a site of tremendous Captain Kidd treasure speculation, lies just off the coast from New York, not far from the Smith’s Palmyra roots (see the documentary “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 enjoyed them. Palmyra resident Ann Eaton noted that Kidd was Joseph’s “hero,” whose work he “eagerly and often perused” (Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:148). So popular was Captain Kidd lore that 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,” the article reported, “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 writings about Kidd’s exploits in East India reference the Comoros Islands and their capital city Moroni as pirate hideouts. While some scholars dismiss the possibility that Smith derived Cumorah and Moroni from pirate novels, they often focus on documents that post-date the Book of Mormon, overlooking earlier Captain Kidd writings which refer to “Comore” and “Meroni.” Adding to the confusion, the original Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript spells “Camorah” once, “Cumorah” six times, and “Comorah” twice. Outside of the Kidd novels, maps detailing explorations, trade routes, and the islands of the sea were widely-circulated and popular in Smith’s time. Historian Noel Carmack wrote: “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.”
- Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd Lore and Treasure Seeking, Dialogue, Noel Carmack, 2013
- Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd, Cumorah, and Moroni, Grant Palmer, 2014
CULTURAL TIMELINE OF JOSEPH SMITH’S DAY
The following timeline outlines key publications and events that influenced Joseph Smith’s cultural environment and shaped his worldview.
1678 – John Bunyan, one of the most prominent authors of the late seventeenth 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 – James Adair publishes History of the American Indians, which details twenty-three arguments that American Indians are descendants of Hebrews and tells of buried plates (five copper and two brass) kept by Indians.
1784 – John Glen, sailing from London, brings Emanuel Swedenborg’s popular work, Heaven and Hell to the U.S., lecturing and promoting the book. Among other things, Swedenborg argues for a three-tiered heaven.
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.
1801 – Francis Barrett’s prominent occult handbook, The Magus, published.
1802 – U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and one hundred 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 – Joseph Smith Sr. has a tree of life dream, according to a later report by his wife.
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 is published in the U.S.
1815 – Napoleon crushed by British at Waterloo, exiled for a final time.
1816 – Smith family moves to Palmyra, NY. “The Burned-Over District” known for its evangelical fervor. Unpaid creditors seize most of their funds.
1816 – Joseph Sr. relates one of several visionary dreams.
1816 – Elias Smith publishes his vision of God in a book titled, Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith.
1816 – The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, which recounts the War of 1812 in pseudo-biblical language, is published in New York and becomes common reading in primary schools. The book contains striking similarities in language and phrasing to the Book of Mormon.
1817 – New York Daily Advertiser describes the public’s enthusiasm for Captain Kidd treasure.
July 1817 – Erie Canal construction begins.
1817 – Governor of NY describes mounds around state containing “piles of skeletons.”
Jan 1818 – Palmyra Register publishes article speculating of battles and burial mounds in the area.
May 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 the origins of indigenous peoples published. Mitchill theorized that a white race met a dark race in bloody conflicts in upstate NY.
1823 – Ethan Smith publishes View of the Hebrews.
April 1823 – Ontario, NY repository publishes the story of Colonel Abraham Edwards’s discovery of an ancient manuscript, nobody could decipher the hieroglyphics, receives prominent press.
May 1823 – Detroit Gazette publishes an article about Edwards’s manuscript.
August 1823 – Salem Gazette reports in Albany, NY newspaper that Captain Kidd hide his loot in the region.
June 1824 – The Wayne Sentinel, a Palmyra, NY paper, publishes an announcement of The Encyclopedia of Albany, a floating library which regularly traversed the Erie Canal offering over 2,000 works.
1824 – Popular history of New York published, relating tradition of Seneca Indians and a highly-civilized white race that was utterly destroyed, but who built fortifications against savage red Indians” (History of State of N.Y. Including its Aboriginal and Colonial Annals, 40).
1825 – Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews reprinted.
Feb 1825 – Palmyra’s Wayne Sentinel reprints “Money Diggers” from Windsor Journal (VT) on the prevalence of seeking Kidd’s treasure.
1825 – The Palmyra Register reprints an article depicting the pursuit of Captain Kidd’s treasure and adds: “A respectable gentleman in Tunbridge, in that state, was informed, through 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 an article describing how Indians are “lineal descendants of the Israelites.”
1826 – There were at least twenty-three libraries surrounding the Manchester and Palmyra area.
1828 – Palmyra newspapers print anti-Masonic articles describing “secret combination,” and referring to “its secret and cut-throat oaths.”
May 1830 – Congress passes the 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.”
The evidence presented demonstrates a cultural environment in Joseph Smith’s day that influenced the Book of Mormon and shaped his assumptions about Indian origins, buried treasure, visions, and sectarian contestation. The long-standing assumption that Smith operated in near-cultural isolation and was too ignorant to produce such a complex work as the Book of Mormon is not a tenable position. The debate among scholars over Smith’s religious innovations has begun to shift from being one without precedent to one thoroughly entwined in and reflective of nineteenth-century New England culture. The degree to which divine inspiration vs. cultural interaction is defended remains a matter of perspective and belief. Given the facts, it is reasonable to argue that the Book of Mormon is substantially, if not entirely, a product of Joseph Smith’s cultural environment, vivid imagination, and religious aspirations.