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Literary Dependence in the Book of Mormon: Two Studies

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Literary Dependence in the Book of Mormon: Two Studies

Literary Dependence on Nineteenth Century Events — Part 2b



Secret Signs and Words

And it came to pass that they did have their signs, yea, their secret signs, and their secret words; and this that they might distinguish a brother who had entered into the covenant, that whatsoever wickedness his brother should do he should not be injured by his brother, nor by those who did belong to his band, who had taken this covenant (Hel. 6:22).

As the signs, due-guards, grips, words, pass-words, and their several names comprise pretty much all the secrets of Masonry (William Morgan, Illustrations of Masonry, 55).

to protect their brethren from the lash of the civil laws ... whether guilty or not guilty, treason and murder not excepted; and although they may be obliged to swear falsely to clear the guilty brother, they must do it, or incur the penalty of secret death (William W. Phelps, ed., The Ontario Phoenix 1 [17 Sept. 1828]:2, Canandaigua, NY).

Masonic oaths were intended to screen criminal masons and enable them to elude public justice. The expectations of escaping the strong arm of the law, emboldens them to the commission of the most daring deeds of iniquity. The life of every Freemason is awfully pledged in defence of the brotherhood and the mysteries of the order. Hence it is extremely difficult to bring criminal masons to justice (Republican Monitor 6 [23 Nov. 1828]:1).

Contrary to the Laws of God and Country

And thus they might murder, and plunder, and steal, and commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness, contrary to the laws of their country and also the laws of their God (Hel. 6:23).

Masonry is a murderous institution. It is based on laws which require murder. Those laws which support the system, demand and take the life of a fellow creature, without any reference to the laws of God or the land ... Who then does not see, that the very principles, spirit, and essence, of this ancient fraternity, are murderous! (John G. Stearns, An Inquiry into the Nature and Tendency of Speculative Free-Masonry, 1829 ed., 76).

that dark and treasonable plot, formed against the lives of our citizens and the laws of our country (The Morgan Investigator 1 [29 Mar. 1827]:2).

Origin of the American Indians

The Book of Mormon asserts that Indians are of Hebrew descent, specifically from one of the lost tribes (Joseph), and uses the Old Testament to support this.25 However, the idea that the American Indians were descendants of the Hebrews was a common one in early America before the Book of Mormon was published. Since the discovery of America, many people had published various theories about the origins of the native Indians. The idea that their ancestors were of Hebrew origin was widely published in both Europe and America. The following works were among the most popular expressing the Hebrew origin of the Indians at the period before the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830:

Thomas Thorowgood. Jews in America, or, Probabilities that the Americans are of that Race. London, 1650.

James Adair. The History of the American Indians. London, 1775.

Charles Crawford. An Essay upon the Propagation of the Gospel, in which there are facts to prove that many of the Indians in America are descended from the Ten Tribes. Philadelphia, 1799.

Elias Boudinot. A Star in the West; or, a Humble Attempt to Discover the Long Lost Tribes of Israel. Trenton, NJ: Published by D. Fenton, S. Hutchinson, and J. Dunham, 1816.

Ethan Smith. View of the Hebrews. Poultney, VT: Printed and Published by Smith & Shute, 1823.

___________. View of the Hebrews; or, The Tribes of Israel in America. Poultney, VT: Published and Printed by Smith & Shute, 1825, 2d ed.

Josiah Priest. The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed. Albany, NY, 1825.

Some writers argued that the Indians descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel because of similarities between customs and languages. Others saw Christian ideas among the American Indians and believed that Christianity had been taught to them since the first century of the Christian Era.26

The idea was so important that writers of that period published lengthy books on the topic. Indeed, it was one of the most popular views at the time the Book of Mormon came off the press.27 The Book of Mormon reflects events in the life of Joseph Smith.

Christian Churches are Corrupt

Joseph Smith wrote the following about his youth: "by searching the scriptures I found that <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament."28 This view finds expression in the Book of Mormon.

And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor. And there are many churches built up which cause envyings, and strifes, and malice (2 Ne. 26:20-21).

For it shall come to pass in that day that the churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord, when the one shall say unto the other: Behold, I, I am the Lord's; and the others shall say: I, I am the Lord's; and thus shall every one say that hath built up churches, and not unto the Lord — And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance .... Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted. Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up (2 Ne. 28:3-4, 11-12).

Joseph Smith was personally familiar with such religious controversies from his own active participation in his youth. His early history mentions his quest for religious knowledge and "my intimate acquaintance with those different denominations."29

Treasure Seeking and Slippery Treasures

Joseph Smith believed in and was a leading participant in treasure seeking. His examination before Justice Albert Neely showed that this had been part of his early development in life. Jonathan Thompson testified in 1826 that Smith helped find a trunk full of treasure, but it kept "settling away" and they never could get it: "the board which he struck his spade upon was probably the chest, but on account of an enchantment the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging; that notwithstanding they continued constantly removing the dirt, yet the trunk kept about the same distance from them."30 This idea of treasures slipping into the earth is reflected in the Book of Mormon.

whoso shall hide up treasures in the earth shall find them again no more, because of the great curse of the land, save he be a righteous man and shall hide it up unto the Lord. For I will, saith the Lord, that they shall hide up their treasures unto me; and cursed be they who hide not up their treasures unto me; for none hideth up their treasures unto me save it be the righteous (Hel. 13:18-19)

And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them .... Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land. O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them. Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls (Hel. 13:31, 35-37).

the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again (Mormon 1:18).

Visit to Charles Anthon by Martin Harris in 1828

Not only is Joseph Smith's treasure digging reflected in the Book of Mormon, but other events in which Joseph was involved show up there, after the events had already taken place. The following account of Martin Harris's visit to Charles Anthon of New York City was reportedly told by Harris to Joseph Smith. This trip to Anthon occurred about February 1828.

I went to the City of New York and presented the Characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor <Charles> Anthony [Anthon] a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments .... [he said] that if I would bring the plates to him, he would translate them. <I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. he replied "I can not read a sealed book".>31

This trip is discussed very clearly in the Book of Mormon, though some of its features are different. 2 Nephi 27:15-20 contains an expanded commentary on Isaiah 29, and in relation to this specific event expands Isaiah 29:11-12 as follows:

But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them .... And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed. Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it. Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned (2 Ne. 27:15, 17-19).

These changes in Isaiah 29 prophesy of an event that had already occurred to Martin Harris. There is no ancient text of Isaiah, either Hebrew (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) or in any ancient translation, that supports Joseph Smith's changes that make the passage fit the incident that occurred early in 1828.32

This example of Martin Harris's adventure being described in prophesy is an additional example of a current event being included in the Book of Mormon text.

Three Witnesses in 1829

In March 1829, while working on the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith stated there would be three special witnesses to the book. In a revelation for Joseph and Martin Harris received in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Smith was told:

this Generation they shall have my word yea & the testimony of three of my servants shall go forth with my word unto this Generation yea three shall know of a surety that those things are true for I will give them power that they may Behold & view those things as they are & to none else will I grant this power among this Generation & the testimony of three Witnesses will I send forth33

When Joseph Smith recommenced his dictation he included in the text references to three witnesses who would testify of the Book of Mormon.

Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein. And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God ... (2 Ne. 27:12-13).

In one place instructions in the text inform him that he may "show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work."

And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work; And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record - and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day (Ether 5:2-4).

The three witnesses chosen to view the gold plates were Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Cowdery had seen the plates in a vision before meeting Joseph Smith.34 In June 1829 they were told that by faith they would see them, even as Joseph Smith had seen them.35 The testimony of the three witnesses, as published in the Book of Mormon, said that they saw an angel and engravings on the plates.

Martin Harris, the oldest witness, emphasized that his experience of seeing the plates was through the eye of faith, as the 1829 revelation stated. John Gilbert recorded, "Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses, - (Harris - Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him, - 'Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?' Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, 'No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.' "36

David Whitmer wrote, "Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time."37 Oliver Cowdery reportedly handled the plates, "I beheld with my eyes And handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated."38

Besides the three witnesses, eight other witnesses said Joseph Smith showed them the plates. Their statement records that they handled and lifted the plates. John Whitmer for instance wrote, "I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates."39 Three years later he was reported as saying, "I handled those plates there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them ... they were shown to me by a supernatural power."40 The testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon said that they saw an angel and viewed or handled the plates by faith.

No Other Gift

The March 1829 revelation to Harris said of Joseph Smith, "he has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift."41 Smith's only gift was to translate the Book of Mormon. Like the previous examples, this restriction was made part of the Book of Mormon text.

And I will give unto him a commandment that he shall do none other work, save the work which I shall command him. And I will make him great in mine eyes; for he shall do my work (2 Ne. 3:8).

Smith was to "do none other work" but produce the Book of Mormon, which he did by dictating words to scribes. After the publication of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith commenced to revise the Bible. This would be considered a gift but going beyond his initial commandment.

Seer to be Named Joseph

Joseph Smith was named after his father and included his own name in the text of the Book of Mormon. In a prophecy attributed to the biblical Joseph, who was sold into Egypt, it reports that a choice seer would be called in the last days:

And thus prophesied Joseph, saying: Behold, that seer will the Lord bless; and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded ... And his name shall be called after me [Joseph of Egypt]; and it shall be after the name of his father [Joseph Smith, Sr.] (2 Ne. 3:14-15).

Lucius Fenn wrote a letter in February 1830 and told what he had heard about the Book of Mormon and the man that is to find it is named Joseph. Fenn stated:

[T]hey are a printing it in Palmyra[.] it is expected that it <will> come out soon so that we can see it[.] it speaks of the Millenniam [sic] day and tells when it is going to take plais [place] and it tells that the man that is to find this bible his name as [is] Joseph and his father[']s name is Joseph.42

The Book of Mormon reflect events that had already occurred before the time of its publication, some of which Joseph Smith was directly involved in. Its stand on theological controversies of the 1820s made it an appealing bid as a revelation illuminating the Bible.43 However, it also contains ideas on America, Masonry, the proper name of the Christian church, and events connected with Joseph Smith's life. These and other contemporary events and ideas prevalent at the time of its production are found in its pages.44 The Book of Mormon evidences a nineteenth-century origin and can be identified as an example of early American religious fiction.


25. Those scholars who have studied the Solomon Spalding manuscript have noticed similarity in style and wording on some religious issues and sections relating to wars in that manuscript and in the Book of Mormon. See Vernal Holley, Book of Mormon Authorship: A Closer Look (Roy, UT: author, 1989, 2nd edition), which utilizes this material.

Though of a different nature, Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews includes topics that occur in the Book of Mormon. We should not be surprised that similar ideas are contained in a written document produced about the same time. At the time these writings were recorded it was widely believed that Native Americans were descendants of Israel. Over the years we have learned that there is no solid evidence of Hebrew origin of the Indians. See the writings of B. H. Roberts in Brigham D. Madsen, ed., Studies of the Book of Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

26. In 1816 Elias Boudinot claimed that the ancestors of the Native Americans had at least part of the Bible, "that the book which the white people have was once theirs" (Elias Boudinot, A Star in the West; or, a Humble Attempt to Discover the Long Lost Tribes of Israel [Trenton, NJ: Published by D. Fenton, S. Hutchinson, and J. Dunham, 1816], 110). In this same year Boudinot founded the American Bible Society.

27. On books published prior to 1830 on the origin of the Indians, see George Weiner, "America's Jewish Braves," Mankind 4 (Oct. 1974):56-64; David A. Palmer, "A Survey of Pre-1830 Historical Sources Relating to the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Autumn 1976):101-07, and Dan Vogel, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986).

28. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 1:5. Original spelling with word above the line appear is indicated by angled brackets <>. See Gordon S. Wood, "Evangelical America and Early Mormonism," New York History 61 (Oct. 1980):359-86.

For studies relating to the Joseph Smith family see H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record ([San Francisco:] Smith Research Associates, 1994) and Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents Volume 1 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996).


30. Charles Marshall, "The Original Prophet. By a Visitor to Salt Lake City," Fraser's Magazine 7 (Feb. 1873):230. See Marquardt and Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record, 73-74. According to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was instructed to hide up the book unto the Lord (see 2 Ne. 27:22; 30:3-5).

31. Manuscript History Book A-1, 9, LDS archives; JS-H 1:64-65, PGP; Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith 1:285. Words that appear above the line are indicated by angled brackets <>.


33. Manuscript in Newel K. Whitney Collection, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. See Book of Commandments 4:4; LDS D&C 5:11-15; RLDS D&C 5:3a-e. Joseph Smith was instructed, "when thou hast translated a few more pages, thou shalt stop for a season, even until I command thee again: then thou mayest translate again" (BC 4:10). See H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 27-28.

34. Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith 1:10.

35. "Kirtland Revelations" Book, 119-20, LDS archives. This revelation was not included in the Book of Commandments but was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants 42. See LDS D&C 17; RLDS D&C 15, the revelation was given previous to "having a view of the plates &c." The "Manuscript History of Joseph Smith" mentions the circumstances of two visions relating to the three witnesses viewing the plates (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith 1:236-37, 295-97). See Marquardt, Joseph Smith Revelations, 49.

36. Memorandum of John H. Gilbert, 8 Sept. 1892, introductory pages of Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press for Wilford C. Wood, 1958). In 1838 Martin Harris stated that he "never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination" (Letter of Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838, Joseph Smith Letterbook 2:64, LDS archives).

37. David Whitmer to Anthony Metcalf, 2 Apr. 1887, in A. Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad City, ID, 1888), 74; also in Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Co., 1991), 247.

38. Reuben Miller Journal, 21 Oct. 1848, LDS archives.

39. Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2 (March 1836):286-87, Kirtland, Ohio.

40. Theodore Turley's memoranda, under date of 4 Apr. 1839, handwriting of Thomas Bullock (1845), LDS archives; copied into Manuscript History Book C-1, 913, under date of 5 Apr. 1839. See History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1959), 3:307.

41. Book of Commandments 4:2; LDS D&C 5:4; RLDS D&C 5:1d. See Marquardt, Joseph Smith Revelations, 26-31.

42. Lucius Fenn to Birdseye Bronson, 12 Feb. 1830, William Robertson Coe Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. See William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), 28.

43. See Timothy L. Smith, "The Book of Mormon in a Biblical Culture," Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980):3-21, and Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 113-22.

44. For additional pre-1830 published and contemporary ideas that are a background to the religious thoughts of this period, see Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels (Ithaca, N.Y.: Rick Grunder Books, 1987).