As noted repeatedly in various sections of this book, Joseph—like all prophets—was, in part, a product of his milieu. His worldview, environment, and education no doubt influenced his interpretation of scripture, how it related to his surroundings, his understanding of past and future prophecies, and his interpretation of historical events. It also likely impacted his choices of verbiage and phraseology when he translated scriptures or dictated revelation. Such an acknowledgment does not, however, suggest that LDS doctrines or scriptures were plagiarized from environmental sources. The critics … claim that Joseph created the Book of Mormon by borrowing from either Solomon Spalding’s unpublished novel or that he sponged information from a variety of available sources. Those sources might have included Ethan Smith’s (no relation) and James Adair’s historical musings on the origin of the Indians, as well as newspaper articles or the speculation, rumors, and oral traditions that existed among his friends, neighbors, and other contemporaries.
Spalding Sometime between 1809 and 1812 (about twenty years before the Book of Mormon came to press) a Reverend Solomon Spalding (also spelled Spaulding) wrote a novel about a group of ancient Roman sailors who were blown off course and landed in America. Spalding died in 1816 and his manuscript was never published. In 1833, Dr. Philastus Hurlbut, who had recently been excommunicated from the LDS Church for unchristian-like conduct toward some young ladies, heard of this manuscript and endeavored to show that Joseph Smith had plagiarized Spalding’s work by turning it into the Book of Mormon. Originally, Hurlbut wanted to publish the manuscript in order to prove that the Book of Mormon was fraudulent, but when he read the manuscript he did not find the hoped-for parallels. Discouraged, he passed the project on to another anti-Mormon, E.D. Howe. Howe, in turn, published an anti-Mormon book claiming that the Book of Mormon plagiarized Spalding’s novel. According to so-called “witnesses” who had read the manuscript, Spalding had written about Nephi, Lehi, the Lamanites, and Nephites nearly twenty years before the publication of the Book of Mormon. The critics claimed that Sidney Rigdon, a convert to the Church, copied the manuscript and gave it to Joseph Smith who turned it into the Book of Mormon. Rigdon, however, had never heard of the Book of Mormon or its contents until he became a Mormon after 1830, and he had not even been in the vicinity of Spalding’s home until after Spalding had died. Even many years later, after Rigdon had apostatized from the Church, he denied ever having seen the Book of Mormon until it was introduced to him by the Mormon missionary Parley P. Pratt. Somehow the Spalding manuscript was lost and then resurfaced in 1884 in a pile of papers belonging to a man who had bought Howe’s business. Examining Spalding’s actual novel proved that the Mormons had been right all along; any similarities between the manuscript and the Book of Mormon were superficial.
In 1775 James Adair published A History of the American Indians, and in 1823 Ethan Smith published View of the Hebrews. Both books claimed to provide evidence that the Indians were remnants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. By the time Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, some people of the day believed that the Indians were descendants of the lost tribes. Critics note numerous parallels between phrases in the Book of Mormon and phrases in the books by Ethan Smith and James Adair. According to the critics, some of these word phrases appear in the same order and are grouped with other word phrases identical to that of the Book of Mormon. Because Ethan Smith’s and James Adair’s books were printed before Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, the critics claim that the similarity in phraseology proves that Joseph borrowed information from these books. Such a conclusion, however, commits the post hoc (or “coincidental correlation”) logical fallacy. This fallacy is expressed as: “Event A occurred before event B. Therefore, A must have caused B.” A rooster who believes that his crowing causes the sun to rise each morning is the classic illustration of this fallacy. Similarities do not prove dependence. Just because two documents have similar phrases does not mean that one is dependent on the other. Generally, all people in a given society use similar phrases to express ideas and elucidate concepts. Joseph would have used the phrases and terminology of his day to translate or convey the meaning of what was on the plates.
The alleged similarities between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon, however, go beyond phraseology. Among the critics’ list of similarities are the discovery of a lost Hebrew book among the Indians, Indians who had contact with Egyptian hieroglyphics, a barbarous people who overthrew a civilized people, the destruction of Jerusalem, large civilizations in America, lengthy quotes from Isaiah, that the American Gentile nation would become the savior of Israel in America, polygamy, and Quetzalcoatl—a white, bearded prophet who visited the early Americans.i At first blush, some of these parallels sound intriguing. The problem is, however, that if Joseph was familiar with Ethan Smith’s historical speculations and his attempts to prove that the Indians were descendants of the ten lost tribes, then Joseph would not have blatantly contradicted some of the “evidences” proposed by Ethan’s book. Ethan’s book, for instance, begins with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (which occurred after Christ’s ascension). The Book of Mormon, of course, begins with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonians, 600 years before Christ. The two similarities are not similar at all and must be counted as the coincidental mention of the city, Jerusalem. View of the Hebrews lists many Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel including those contained in Isaiah 11. While these scriptures are essential to Ethan’s argument, none of them—with the sole exception of those in Isaiah 11—are found in the Book of Mormon.
The longest chapter in Ethan’s book lists numerous proofs for the Hebrew lineage among the Indians, but virtually none of these proofs are found in the Book of Mormon. Ethan claims that all experts believe that the Hebrew-Indians came across the Bering Strait, yet the Book of Mormon claims that Book of Mormon peoples came by boat. One of Ethan’s favorite proofs that the Indians were Israelites is their use of the word “Hallelujah,” yet this word is never found in the Book of Mormon. Other words listed by Ethan that supposedly imply proof of Israelite dependency find not even the remotest equivalency to any of the names in the Book of Mormon. According to Ethan, one of the surest signs that the Indians are Israelites is his claim that the Indians would carry small boxes into battle to protect them from injury—just like the Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant. How could Joseph have missed this wonderful evidence? If Joseph had read Ethan’s book or if he was at least familiar enough with its contents to plagiarize or sponge the ideas proposed in Ethan’s book, it would make sense that Joseph would have utilized this fabulous story of Indian battle boxes. Keep in mind that Ethan was not writing fiction; he was claiming that, according to his research and the opinions of other experts, his proofs supported the belief that the Indians were Israelites. Why would Joseph miss an opportunity to bolster the Book of Mormon’s claim to be an authentic ancient text? With Ethan’s book Joseph had some of the best and brightest propositions of his day to support his interpretation of the Book of Mormon’s general thesis (that the Indians were descended from Israelites). Why did he not use them? Other missed opportunities include Ethan’s claim that the Israelite Indians would offer a daily sacrifice by passing venison through a fire and cutting it into twelve pieces. Once again, this is not found in the Book of Mormon. Ethan equates the white-bearded God, Quetzalcoatl, with Moses. The Book of Mormon never mentions Quetzalcoatl or any of Ethan’s details of Quetzalcoatl’s Indian traditions—such as bare feet, pierced ears, fiery-flying serpents, green plumage, and more. The pinnacle event in the Book of Mormon is a visitation from Christ, Himself. Many Mormons—perhaps following the tradition of people like Ethan Smith—believe that the legends of a white-bearded prophet (sometimes called Quetzalcoatl and sometimes known by other names) refer to Christ. Some modern LDS scholars, however, believe that the Quetzalcoatl traditions (as relating to a white-bearded god/prophet who promised to return) were created by the Spaniards and have no bearing on Christ’s visitation to the New World.ii
If Joseph plagiarized Ethan’s View of the Hebrews he missed many opportunities to support the Book of Mormon with the information of his day. In fact, much of the information included in the Book of Mormon was contrary to what was known in 1830 about the ancient Old and New Worlds. It does not seem likely that Joseph would write a book—a book that he hoped people would believe—that would contradict what the best information of his day suggested about the ancient worlds. The “parallels” between the View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon are actually so tenuous that in 1996 the Religious Studies Center at BYU reprinted Ethan’s 1825 book, making it readily available for anyone to see the differences for themselves. According to the critics, however, Joseph was able to sponge all kinds of things from his environment—stories of Indian origins, magic worldviews, Kabalistic traditions, apocryphal legends, archaic names, and more.
If we take the sponge theory seriously, then it seems logical that Joseph would have relied on the latest knowledge of his day when fabricating his Book of Mormon. We find, however, that Joseph’s new scripture was at odds with nineteenth-century theories about the origin of New World inhabitants as well as what the “scholars” of his day believed about the ancient Old and New Worlds. In Joseph’s day, what most people knew about the Native Americans came from discoveries in local vicinities. It was not until 1842 (a dozen years after the Book of Mormon was published) that John Lloyd Stephens first brought to light the findings of his expeditions among Mesoamerican ruins.iii Also, as pointed out in Chapter 6, over 80% of items mentioned in the Book of Mormon (such as barley, cement, thrones, and more) had no New World archaeological support in 1830. That means that Joseph included things in the Book of Mormon that were contrary to what was known about the Indians during his lifetime. Today, 75% of those same items have been confirmed to at least some degree by New World archaeology.iv
We find the same thing in the ancient Old World. As the late Eugene England has shown, there was a dearth of accurate information about the ancient Near East in Joseph Smith’s day. Information on ancient Arabia that was available was often wrong, and almost consistently described Arabia as a barren wasteland. Some books claimed that it was so hot in Arabia that animals were roasted on the plains and birds in mid-air. The southern coastline was described as a rocky wall, so dismal and barren that there was not even a blade of grass. The Book of Mormon, however, tells a different story. Nephi, for example, tells us about a system of wadis (valleys of seasonal riverbeds) now known to have existed in ancient Arabia, but not mentioned in the books of Joseph’s day. Very few books mentioned any fertile regions in Arabia, and those that did got the information wrong as well—describing fertile regions as producing rice, maize, and tropical fruits. So inaccurate were the experts of 1830 America, that if Joseph had sponged the information of his day, he would have produced a book full of errors. Most of what we Westerners know about ancient Arabia has come within the last few decades.
This is aptly demonstrated in the comments of one twentieth-century critic (who claims a Ph.D. in biology): First Nephi 17:5 is a interesting description of Arabia which is “called Bountiful because of its much fruit and also wild honey.” Arabia is bountiful in sunshine, certain insects, petroleum, sand, heat, clear skies, and fresh air, but certainly not in “much fruit and also wild honey,” nor has it been in over 4,000 years. …First Nephi 18:1 indicates that the Jews made a ship from ample timber of Arabia. The same objection above applies here. Arabia had and has no significant timber forests.v Current research, however, demonstrates that the early chapters of the Book of Mormon relate real-world information about ancient Arabia during the seventh century B.C. (just as described by Nephi in their flight from Jerusalem). Details of the trip have a high degree of confirmation from archaeology and Old World studies. These include descriptions of terrain, difficulties, vegetation, ore, trails, and, of course Nahom (as noted in Chapter 6). In southern Arabia, east of NHM, is tiny coastal inlet known as Khor Kharfot. It is not only located exactly where Nephi found “Bountiful” but it matches the Book of Mormon description of Bountiful, detail for detail—including the existence (both anciently and modernly) of “much fruit and also wild honey” as well as ship-building timber. Significantly, no other place in Arabia matches all of the details of Bountiful other than Khor Kharfot.vi As with the growing support for the Book of Mormon from New World archaeology, the discoveries of the ancient Old World tend to confirm the book as well—all contrary to the information Joseph might have sponged from his nineteenth-century New England environment.
i B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 321–344.
ii Brant A. Gardner, “The Christianization of Quetzalcoatl: History of a Metamorphisis,” Sunstone (August 1986) v55, 6-10.
iii T. Patrick Culbert, “Maya-Treasures of an Ancient Civilization,” Archaeology (March/April 1985), 60.
iv Clark, “Debating the Foundations of Mormonism.”
v Thomas D.S. Key, A Biologist Examines the Book of Mormon, 14th ed. (Marlow, Oklahoma: Utah Missions, Inc., 1995), 19–20.
vi Warren P. Aston, “Across Arabia With Lehi and Sariah: ‘Truth Shall Spring Out of the Earth,’” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (2006) 15:2, 17–20.