Likely Sources and Influences for the Book of Mormon

When a teacher suspects a student of plagiarism, the question of whether the student had access to the source in question or not never really arises.  If it can be demonstrated that the student’s writing is reliant on an uncredited source, then it really doesn’t matter how they came across that material, it’s just clear that they did.  Yet it seems every apologetic defense of the Book of Mormon hinges on Joseph Smith not having access to a source or being unable to have known certain information, and dodges the issue of how similar his book is to pre-existing materials.  Mormons circumvent all logic by trying to eliminate any possibility that Joseph Smith could have composed the work, and therefore it must have been an authentic, inspired scripture.  But just like how a prosecutor doesn’t have to convince a jury how a murder was committed, just by whom it was (sorry Casey Anthony, there was enough evidence to find you guilty), so I need only rest my case on these similarities.  After all, until proven otherwise, the Book of Mormon is a work that originated in the 19th century by the mouth of Joseph Smith; it’s futile to argue that he couldn’t have written it, when the only sane and rational conclusion is that whatever the means, he clearly did write it.  The simplest explanation is most likely the correct one.

The LDS church tries to present Joseph Smith as an unlearned 25-year old with a 3rd grade education and no background in scholarship, but that simply isn’t true.  Ok, so he was about 25 when he published the Book of Mormon; so was Baha’i co-founder the Bab when he composed his first scripture.  Age is a non-issue.  Despite his youth, Joseph Smith had lots of spare time from his unconventional work as a “treasure finder”, and admitted in his own autobiography that he spent a great deal of this time exploring churches and religion.  There’s no denying he was advanced in Biblical knowledge–more than his contemporaries and definitely more than people today–his career as a prophet after publishing the Book of Mormon is a testimony to that.  Immediately the same year after completion of the Book of Mormon, Joseph set out on his “inspired” translation of the Bible, he started to learn Hebrew (even hiring a tutor, which is unusual since his seer stones needed no tutor to read “reformed Egyptian”), and published his own revelations in magazine form.  These were certainly not the study habits of a typical 20-something with a 3rd grade education.  The bulk of his own writings and scriptures in Doctrines & Covenants and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible are enough to debunk the church’s myth of a semi-illiterate prophet.  Anyone who could have written these works could have also written the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith’s writing process is more transparent than possibly any other novel, because it reads like a work in progress (which it was).  The plagiarism in the Book of Mormon is so obvious, it takes willful ignorance not to be able to see it.  The most obvious sources that we can identify are:

King James Bible

We know for a fact Joseph Smith owned a King James Bible with the Apocrypha.  He shamelessly copied entire chapters word-for-word from Isaiah, Matthew, and even 1 Corinthians.  Other phrases and verses from the New Testament are lifted throughout, and even 1611 King James-specific wording from the Old Testament, which wouldn’t  have been available in 1st century America.  Isn’t it ironic that Mormons love to point out things Joseph Smith couldn’t have known to prove the book’s authenticity, but they reject this same argument when made about its alleged Hebrew authors that disproves it?  But the Bible goes beyond just being his source material, its influence is felt in the very structure of the Book of Mormon.  A good case can be made that Joseph Smith intended his book to be a structural facsimile of the Bible: a flood narrative and a gospel story both occur at about the same locations in each; plates are passed from father to son at the approximate place where there would be a genealogy; the chronicles of his kingdoms falls at about the same place as Kings and Chronicles; Paul’s epistles are quoted at length at the end; even his obvious filler-material borrowing some 20 chapters from Isaiah lands at an interesting place, since under this theory he could be seen to be skipping over the boring parts of Leviticus (Joseph Smith seems to have had no interest in the Mosaic Law, since he doesn’t really reference any particulars).

Apocrypha

It’s important to know that Joseph Smith’s Bible had the Apocrypha.  His inspiration for writing his book seems to come more from the contents that weren’t included in the canon than what was.  3 Nephi’s “gospel” account seems inspired by the closing of the Gospel of John:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  John 20:30

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. John 21:25

Evidently, Smith felt that last verse gave him a huge void to fill in.  Similar statements are echoed frequently throughout the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 6:1, 14:28, Words of Mormon 1:5, Alma 9:34, Ether 15:33, just to list a few), but the most are found in 3 Nephi (3 Nephi 5:8, 7:17, 26:6).  Joseph Smith had an apparent obsession with scripture as archeology, that is, it being only a surviving, fragmented record of what was.  Seriously, he supposedly didn’t even need to have the plates in the same room to be able to read them, and yet it’s still absolutely important for his followers to believe it came from an artifact found buried in the ground.  This obsession undoubtedly led him to the discarded Apocrypha for inspiration, the idea of writing from brass plates comes from I Maccabees 14:48-49; the in-text explanation of abridgment from II Maccabees 2:26-31; he was further influenced by 2 Esdras in his re-write of Genesis.  Although a later revelation would discredit the Apocrypha from his own canon, from the beginning Joseph Smith appeared to be deliberately writing apocryphal, pseudepigraphic literature of his own.

Protestantism

Like I mentioned, Joseph Smith was a frequent church attendee, and while he doesn’t go into many specifics, he writes that he visited ever variety of known denomination.  It’s also a little known fact that he briefly joined the Methodist church during his sabbatical from translating, after he had supposedly been told every church on earth was corrupt.  This influence cannot be underestimated, but unfortunately, it cannot be quantified either.  Even the passages that Mormons point out as original content, like King Benjamin’s sermon on beggars (Mosiah 4), or his commentaries on the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi, could very well have been borrowed from a sermon he heard that’s now lost to the ages (it would have been helpful if more people in the 19th century had kept blogs or podcasts of sermons).  The Book of Mormon is notorious for endless sermons that interrupt its narrative flow, all too coincidental coming from someone who made a partial career out of listening to sermons.  The Book of Mormon does have a lot of theology, but it has nothing that Joseph Smith couldn’t have learned while sitting in the pews.  What we do know is the Book of Mormon promotes a Protestant bias, evidenced by all of the doctrinal disputes that it seeks to clarify, such as infant baptism or immersion baptism.  Smith seemed to have been providing irrefutable support for doctrines he wanted to believe in, but felt were not supported strongly enough in the Bible.  In the book’s first edition, he even seems to be trying to provide concrete prooftexts for the Trinity, although it’s clear Joseph Smith misunderstood this doctrine as Modalism, and these were revised out by the next edition.  Since I would wager that most nominal Christians who profess to be Trinitarians are in reality Modalists (I’ve even heard preachers on multiple occasions say something to the effect of  “if only there were a verse that clearly said Jesus is the Father”), on this I rest my case that Joseph Smith acquired the theology for his book while a churchgoer.

Catholicism

Even though he clearly had a Protestant bias, there are still trace influences from Catholicism.  He referred to Mary as the “Mother of God”, although he changed it to “Mother of the Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:18) in the next edition in 1837, and every one thereafter.  Other than that, the remainder of the book has a heavy anti-Catholic bias.  His “great and abominable” whore church of 1 Nephi 14 has historically been interpreted (and always intended) to refer to the Catholic Church.  His pet word “priestcraft” (Alma 1:12) is an unmistakable criticism of the Catholic clergy.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

In fact, the word “priestcraft” is most likely on loan from 18th century deists and, most notably, the infamous critic of Christianity, Thomas Paine, whose scathing book Common Sense had a profound impact on religion in America.   Passages of the Book of Mormon can be seen as attempted rebuttals to Paine, and even later, Smith’s revised beginning to the book of Genesis would be a clear response to Pain’s criticism:

“As to the account of the creation, with which the book of Genesis opens, it has all the appearance of being a tradition which the Israelites had among them before they came into Egypt; and after their departure from that country, they put it at the head of their history, without telling, as it is most probable that they did not know, how they came by it.”

Smith’s awareness of Paine’s assessment would also shape the structure and contents of the individual books of the book of Mormon, which has an obsessive intent to provide context like authorship and even its writing materials, such as when the alleged authors repeatedly comment on the size of the plates when they claim to be short of space (Jarom 1:2, 14, Jacob 7:27).  These contextual interjections are so persistent that they are entirely uncharacteristic of any known ancient literature, which normally doesn’t bear the convenience of an author or publication date.

Manuscript Story

Not much more needs to be said about the Spalding-Rigdon theory of authorship, in which in unpublished story by a dead author allegedly reads similarly to the Book of Mormon.  It seems more than coincidental that an employee of the printing house that had this manuscript in its possession was one of the early converts to the LDS church.  The Mormon defense that Joseph Smith didn’t have the sufficient knowledge to make up such an elaborate story is useless when there was evidently a convenient source he could have borrowed it all from.  Mormons really have no way of proving conclusively that Joseph Smith didn’t know something, but just the existence of such a source is all we need to argue that he could have known it.

View of the Hebrews

As if an unpublished book weren’t enough, there was also a book published in 1826 by Ethan Smith (no relation) called View of the Hebrews, which argued that Native Americans were descended from the Hebrews.  While actually a common belief in that period, this book served not as source material, but as reference.  Ethan Smith’s view was based on a passing reference to the Lost 10 Tribes of Israel in the apocryphal 2 Esdras, so it seems to have at least directed Joseph Smith to the materials he could use.

The Last of the Mohicans.

I’m surprised more hasn’t been written about this connection.  Joseph Smith didn’t just share James Fenimore Cooper’s meandering make-it-up-as-you-go writing style, the death of the last living member of a native American tribe is something that happens not once, but twice in the Book of Mormon.  And while other books theorizing Native Americans as the Lost Tribes of Israel were etiological, Joseph Smith really had no reason to kill off every last member of his tribes, which actually raised more questions than it answered.  The Last of the Mohicans was published four years before the Book of Mormon and was hugely popular.  The Leatherstocking Tales are pretty much the literary expression of American exceptionalism, and the Book of Mormon is the religious text of American exceptionalism.  While Cooper’s novel wasn’t plagiarized by any specific passages, there are some similar motifs: a character disguising himself as a medicine man to enter a village is analogous to Nephi disguising himself as his uncle Laban to get back his family’s brass plates (1 Nephi 4) or Abinadi entering King Noah’s court in disguise (Mosiah 12); these disguise narratives have nothing in common with any in the Bible.  Smith and Cooper both wrote fictitious histories about natives who inhabited the areas around where they lived in New York; I would dare say that their similarities place them in exactly the same genre.  Even if you could prove that Joseph Smith never actually read the Last of the Mohicans, denying it was influential to him would be  as silly as saying somebody today couldn’t have been influenced by Harry Potter.

Although there were enough available sources that Joseph Smith could have written the book himself, I’m actually open to the belief that he didn’t.  The first time I ever skimmed through it, I suspected that there were three different writing styles.  Spalding-Rigdon theorists might even argue he didn’t write any of it, but regardless of who the author was, whether Joseph Smith or pseudo-Joseph Smith, its author was undeniably from the 19th century.  The question of authorship is really irrelevant, since again, the Book of Mormon did not historically exist until Joseph Smith.  It’s not enough for Mormons to try to say that he couldn’t have written it, because we already know he did; Mormons would have to prove conclusively that it was written by someone before him, which they can’t.

It amuses me that the LDS church’s greatest defense of the Book of Mormon has been to malign the skills and intellect of their own revealed prophet.  This is not even a new strategy, religious apologists have been playing this card since the time of Muhammad.  The aforementioned contemporary Baha’i prophet, the Bab, also claimed his verses were evidence of divine inspiration, as did his successor.  All Mormons would have to acknowledge that Muhammad could have written the Qur’an, the Bab could have written the Bayan, Baha’u’llah the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and so on.  If their best and only defense of the Book of Mormon is the claim that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written it, then that leaves them with nothing.

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One response to “Likely Sources and Influences for the Book of Mormon

  1. Pingback: Is the Bible Plagiarized? | seerstone

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