You are here

The Human Origins of the Book of Mormon — Part 1

Printer-friendly version

The Human Origins of the Book of Mormon — Part 1

Wesley P. Walters

Two unpublished manuscripts surfaced in 1979 in Salt Lake City, Utah, written by the noted Mormon historian, Brigham H. Roberts, and surprisingly proposing that Joseph Smith, Jr., could have composed the Book of Mormon himself. Written between 1922 and the time of Roberts’ death in 1933, they are undoubtedly the most objective look at the origins of the Book of Mormon ever made by a General Authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Roberts now admits that the Book of Mormon is in conflict with what is now known about the early inhabitants of America from twentieth-century archeological investigation. He argues that Joseph Smith, Jr. could have produced the book himself, given his highly imaginative mind and the "common knowledge" about the American aborigines current in his day, and he sets forth an abundance of evidence that the book is a product of the early nineteenth-century intellectual climate.

"One Mormon professor, after reading the manuscripts, remarked, 'B. H. Roberts came about as near calling Joseph Smith, Jr. a fraud and a deceiver as the polite language of a religious man would permit.' "

Whether Roberts wrote these works to summarize some of the main objections to the Book of Mormon’s divinity seems difficult to determine. The letters that accompany the manuscripts suggest the former, but the manuscripts themselves give the decided impression that Roberts had come to doubt the book’s divine origin. One Mormon professor, after reading the manuscripts, remarked, "B. H. Roberts came about as near calling Joseph Smith, Jr. a fraud and a deceiver as the polite language of a religious man would permit." Whatever the motive, the manuscripts deserve consideration on their own merit and present one of the strongest statements ever set forth by a recognized Mormon authority questioning the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.

Mr. Roberts’ study was begun in response to questions asked by a certain Mr. Couch of Washington, D.C., who saw conflicts between Book of Mormon statements and findings of recent scientific investigation. Mr. Couch had raised questions about attributing to the ancient Americans such items as the horse, steel, scimitars and silk, items unknown in ancient America. He further observed that the diverse language stocks of the New World, which show very little relationship with one another, could not all have originated from the highly developed Hebrew language attributed to the Book of Mormon people; nor was the time period envisioned in the Book of Mormon long enough to allow for such development. Indeed, the "diversity in the nature and grammatical construction of the Indian tongues," Mr. Couch noted, "indicates that the division of the Indians into separate [languages] stocks occurred long before their language was developed beyond the most primitive kind of articulations." The Book of Mormon, with its short time-span and its claim that the early inhabitants spoke a highly developed form of Hebrew with an accompanying written body of literature, does not provide a sufficient ground to account for the known linguistic developments of the early Americans.

Book of Mormon Difficulties

Mr. Couch’s inquiries were turned over by Apostle James E. Talmage (apparently on behalf of the Presidency and the Apostles) for church apologist and Assistant Church Historian Brigham H. Roberts to deal with. Mr. Roberts’ report ran to 141 pages and was entitled "Book of Mormon Difficulties" (hereafter BMD). Rather than solve Mr. Couch’s problems, Roberts enlarged upon them, commenting that Mr. Couch’s inquiry "understates rather than overstates the Book of Mormon difficulties" (BMD I, pp.1f.). Only two of the original three chapters Roberts wrote in this report are in the manuscript preserved by the Roberts family (chapters I and III). The missing chapter (II) must have been 35 pages in length and probably dealt with the Book of Mormon assertions that the horse, steel, etc., were present in the New World. In effect, Roberts dropped the matter back into the lap of the higher authorities in a more serious form than he had received it from them, hoping that their "greater learning" could answer the difficulties that his scholarship had merely magnified.


In the first chapter of his report B.H. Roberts reviews the Book of Mormon material about the linguistic background of the early inhabitants of America. For purposes of analysis Roberts separates the question of linguistic origins from that of racial and cultural origins, the latter being dealt with in chapter III, but in Mr. Roberts’ thinking, as in the Book of Mormon itself, the two facts are really interrelated. For example, the first Book of Mormon inhabitants of the New World, the Jaredites, are depicted in that book as coming "into that quarter where there never had man been", that is, to an uninhabited land (Ether 2:5; cf. BMD, III, 2f.), and fighting to complete extinction. Therefore any language developments that might be postulated as having taken place among them had no influence on the later races in the New World. In the same manner, the Hebrew-speaking Nephite colony, pictured as leaving for the New World about 600 B.C., is also depicted as coming to an uninhabited land "kept from all other nations" (2 Ne. 1:9-11). They were followed about eleven years later by a second Hebrew-speaking colony from Jerusalem led by Mulek. This implies that all the languages on the American continent "originated from two small Hebrew colonies, leaving Jerusalem about 600 years B.C., speaking a highly developed Hebrew language" (BMD I, 8). The Mormon scripture represents the Nephites and the more savage Lamanites as exchanging correspondence until the time of the Nephite destruction (Moro. 6:2f.). Thus they "perpetuated written language as well as spoken Hebrew" down to A.D. 420, with only such modifications as might occur over their thousand-year history (BMD I, 8). This means, Roberts points out, that all linguistic development, including the primitive forms of language found in the Americas, must be accounted for either by a diversification and degeneration during the thousand years between A.D. 420 and the arrival of the white man in America, or by assuming some sort of massive migrations to the New World during that same thousand-year period.

Having summarized the Book of Mormon’s picture of American origins, Roberts turns to the facts about the early inhabitants of this continent as gathered from scientific investigations of his day. He notes that in the previous century or two a popular theory about the origin of the early inhabitants of America regarded them as being Hebrews from the "ten lost tribes," a view nearly identical with that of the Book of Mormon. However, he points out that this theory "is altogether discredited by later writers" (BMD I, 14). Recent scientific studies had concluded that "with the exception of the Basque [language], the structure of all the Old World languages has little in common with the Amerind [= contraction of ‘American Indian’]" (Id. 18). Indeed, Roberts points out that all the more recent writers on American linguistics agree that the languages of the Americas form a world-group by themselves, with no known connections with the languages of the Old World (Id. 19f.). Clark Wissler, whose work (1917) is generally regarded as "most excellent," points out that "no evidence has come to hand that would identify a single New World language with an Old World stock," except for the Eskimo spoken also in a small area of Siberia (Id., 21).

Not only is the Book of Mormon in conflict with these scientific findings, the book also does not allow sufficient time for all the diversification of languages found in the New World, even if a linkage with a Hebrew base could be discovered. Anthropologists of Roberts’ day had identified 56 divergent language stocks in the U.S. and Canada, 29 in Mexico and Central America, and 84 in South America, with each of each stocks containing numerous dialects. How does one derive these 169 stocks with all their varying dialects from a single Nephite form of Hebrew existing in A.D. 420? (BMD I, 26). Hebrew, "the Book of Mormon compels us to believe was the language brought to America... and which, so far as we are informed by that record, was the only source of American languages" (Id., 23). Roberts points up the problem with a specific example:

If ... the difference between the Cakchiquel and Maya dialects could not have arisen in less than 2,000 years, how many thousand years would it require to produce language stocks - which are so much more widely divergent than dialects? And from the Book of Mormon standpoint, it should be remembered, all these stocks came into existence since the Nephite debacle at Cumorah 400 A.D. (MBD I, 36).

Linguistically, then, the conflict between the Book of Mormon and the findings of scientific studies is:

  1. that there are a large number of separate language stocks "that show very little relationship to each other - not more than that between English and German";
  2. that development of such dialects and stocks, if conceived as arising from a common source, would take a much longer time than previously recognized;
  3. that "there is no connection" between American languages and those of the Old World;
  4. that the time limits in the Book of Mormon "which represent the people of America as speaking and writing one language down to as late a period as 400 A.D.," are not sufficient to allow for such development as actually exists; and
  5. one would have to postulate massive migrations in the period following A.D. 400 to account for the existing linguistic developments and diversification’s found on the American continent (BMD I, 53f.).

Historian Roberts sees only four possible courses open to Mormons in the face of the dilemma. The first would be to imagine that the Book of Mormon people occupied a very much more restricted area than previously supposed, "much more limited, I fear, than the Book of Mormon would admit of our assuming" (BMD I, 56). This, incidentally, has been the course adopted by a number of Mormon writers who have recently specialized in the field of American archeology and anthropology. To make this position tenable, however, one must move the location of Cumorah from western New York to Central America, and then explain how the gold plates managed to be transported the thousands of miles to western New York. General Authority Roberts at a later point (Book of Mormon Study, Pt. II, IV, 10f.) recognizes western New York as the correct identification for Cumorah and quotes the early Mormon authorities in substantiation of this identification. The weight of this evidence, therefore, is clearly one of the reasons that leads him to reject a more limited geographical area as the setting for the Book of Mormon story. A second course would be to insist that the period from A.D. 40 to the coming of Columbus was sufficient to allow for the infusion of many migrants from other lands. Such a stance, Roberts observes, would have to be made in the face of all the authorities and without any evidence for such a large-scale migration. The third course would be to defiantly maintain that all New World languages came from the Nephite Hebrew, despite what the authorities said. This would surely "only excite ridicule" from the educated, Roberts warns. Finally, one might remain silent on the matter, but this would seem like a "confession of inability to make an effective answer." Apologist Roberts is not satisfied with any of the options, and he concludes his chapter with an appeal that if there is any other answer than those four, he would "hail it with very great satisfaction" (BMD I, 58).

"Races and Their Culture"

Roberts, in chapter III, next turns to issues that had not been raised by Mr. Couch, but which he sees as related to them — the origin of the American races themselves, and their culture and civilization. He thus adds four new problems to those already raised by Mr. Couch.

First, he notes the growing evidence that demands a great antiquity for man in America, to allow for the complex picture of racial developments seen on this continent. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, has both the Jaredites and Nephites coming rather recently to an uninhabited continent. If one were to account for the complexity of races in America by postulating an infusion into the American continent of other peoples not mentioned in the Book of Mormon, Roberts observes, "such infusion, so far as the Book of Mormon is concerned, must have been subsequent to 420 A.D." (BMD III, 6). The possibility of so late an infusion stands in conflict with the body of scholarly material that argues for the great antiquity of man in the New World.

Secondly, B.H. Roberts notes that the culture of both the Jaredites (who purportedly came here directly from the Tower of Babel) and the Nephites (who arrived shortly after 600 B.C.) was that of an Iron Age civilization, and both had a written literature that chronicled their history (BMD III, 3, 5f.). Archeological investigation, on the other hand, had shown that at the time of its discovery by the white man, America was everywhere in the polished Stone Age, and had not reached that of metals (Id. III, 16). Not even the pottery wheel or glazing had yet been employed, while their boats had no oars, sails, or rudders. Historian Roberts points out that on the matter of boats the Book of Mormon is in striking conflict with this cultural feature. The book’s figures of speech imply a knowledge of both sail and rudders (Mormon 5:18), and at times they conduct shipbuilding and carry on trade by navigation (BMD III, 17; cf. Hela. 3:10, 14), an accomplishment virtually impossible without a rudder and sail-power. Thus the cultural picture given of the early Americans in the Book of Mormon is invalidated by that which emerges from actual archeological investigation. We might add, this is still one of the most frustrating problems today, even for those why try to localize the Book of Mormon people to a small portion of Central America. The culture patterns found there still apparently do not harmonize with the advanced state of culture depicted in the Book of Mormon. The problem has not eased since Roberts highlighted it over half a century ago. Related to this is still a third problem, namely, that there is no evidence that the New World culture was carried into this continent from the Old (Id. III, 21). Thus the Book of Mormon is in conflict with the situation as it is found to have existed by actual scientific investigation.

The final problem Roberts discusses is the popular fallacy that in early America there had once existed a "civilized pre-Indian population." This belief, he notes, had been encouraged by a superficial examination of the monumental remains of the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley. They were thought to have reached a high state of culture and to have disappeared completely as a race. This idea, he reports, persisted in spite of the fact that post-Columbian articles of European origin were found in the Mound Builders site (BMD III, 28f.). The existence of such a pre-Indian civilization is precisely the view of the Book of Mormon. In the face of such mounting evidence, Roberts asks, "how shall we answer the questions that arise from these considerations of American archeology?" He continues:

Can we successfully overturn the evidences presented by archeologists for the great antiquity of man in America, and his continuous occupancy of it, and the fact of his stone age culture, not an iron and steel culture? Can we successfully maintain the Book of Mormon’s comparatively recent advent of man in America and the existence of his iron and steel and domestic animal, and written language stage of culture against the deductions of our late American writers upon these themes? (Id. III, 47f).

He then concludes, "The recent accepted authoritative writers leave us, so far as I can at present see, no ground of appeal of defense — the new knowledge seems to be against us" (Id. III, 48). Nevertheless, he submits these unresolved conflicts to the main authorities of the church since "in the meantime there may have occurred to your more enlightened minds a solution to all these problems, that will cause all our difficulties to disappear. Mostly humbly I pray it be so..." (Id.).

A Book of Mormon Study

Historian Roberts’ inquiring mind was not content to end the matter with his examination of the conflict between the Book of Mormon and the newer scientific information about the early inhabitants of America. During this time he saw further difficulties, and he set them down in a 291-page manuscript, entitled, "A Book of Mormon Study" (hereafter as BMS), collecting such evidence as he could find against the divine origin of the Book of Mormon. Although a copy of a letter kept with this manuscript shows that Roberts saw that such an investigation "would very greatly increase our difficulties," he determined to pursue it steadfastly and concluded his letter by pointing out:

It is not necessary for me to suggest that the maintenance of the truth of the Book of Mormon is absolutely essential to the integrity of the whole Mormon movement, for it is inconceivable that the Book of Mormon should be untrue in its origin or character and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints be a true Church. (Letter to President Heber J. Grant and Council and Quorum of Twelve Apostles, March [date torn off].)

"A Ground Plan For The Book of Mormon"

It is truly amazing to see the unrelenting manner in which Roberts continues to pursue the problems connected with the origin of the Book of Mormon. In most of Part I of his study he sets forth the material which the Book of Mormon had in common with the supposed "knowledge" of Joseph Smith’s day about the early inhabitants of America. Since a good deal of this "knowledge," in light of more careful investigation, is now known to have been misinformation, the Book of Mormon’s agreement with it argues that the work is simply a nineteenth-century fictional production (what Roberts later speaks of as a "wonder-tale") and not an authentic work from ancient America.

The Same Idea: The Indians Are Really Israelites

Roberts had previously dismissed the idea of human origin for the Book of Mormon when he wrote his New Witnesses for God (1909), but he confesses that at the time he had never really looked at the Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1st ed. 1823, 2nd ed. 1825) and did not know of Josiah Priest’s Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed, published at Rochester, "some twenty miles" from the Smith home, which present ideas startlingly similar to the Book of Mormon. The latter work quotes about 40 writers, "half of whom are American, who advocate in one way or another, that the American Indians are Israelites." This led Roberts to reevaluate Priest’s American Antiquities (published 1833, three years after the Book of Mormon) and to see in it a summary of much material that was available before 1830 (BMS, Pt. I, I, 3ff.). Roberts further expresses the firm conviction that the works of Josiah Priest and Ethan Smith "were either possessed by Joseph Smith or certainly known by him, for they were surely available to him" (BMS, Pt. I, I, 5f.). At one point Roberts tries to support Joseph’s knowledge of the Ethan Smith book by observing that Ethan had published his book in Vermont, which was Joseph’s home. Joseph, however, had left Vermont nearly ten years before Ethan’s book was put into print, and Roberts must be charged here with overstating his case. Nevertheless, there is a strong probability that Joseph had access to both books. Oliver Cowdery, a cousin of Joseph’s and his associate in the production of the Book of Mormon, lived in Poultney, Vermont, at the time the Rev. Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews was published, and his step-mother was a member of Rev. Smith’s congregation. Cowdery could easily have supplied Joseph with the family copy of the work. Furthermore, Priest’s Wonders was one of the volumes contained in the Manchester rental library, some five miles from Joseph’s home, and the circulation records show it was repeatedly charged out from 1826 to 1828. This fact shows that the topics in Priest’s book were certainly known in Joseph’s neighborhood. This reinforces Mr. Roberts’ point that even without these works being directly available to Joseph Smith, Jr., the ideas in those books were a part of a fund of "common knowledge," or what was thought to be "knowledge," that circulated at social gatherings, the general store, the post office, and similar public places. We might add that the local Palmyra newspaper, to which the Smiths subscribed, also published articles on the topic of the Hebrew origin of the Indians and employed many of the same arguments to support the idea as those found in "almost hand-book form" in the Rev. Ethan Smith’s work.

With this background material on the "common knowledge" available to Joseph Smith, Jr., on the origin of the American aborigines, Roberts sets forth the prospectus of his ensuing pages.

It will appear in what is to follow that such "common knowledge" did exist in New England; that Joseph Smith was in contact with it, that one book, at least, with which he was mostly likely acquainted, could well have furnished structural outlines for the Book of Mormon; and that Joseph Smith was possessed of such creative imaginative powers as would make it quite within the lines of possibility that the Book of Mormon could have been produced in that way (BMS, Pt. I, I, 8).

Having made this announcement, Roberts plunges into a 149-page exposition (chapters II to XIII) of the parallels that exist between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. These parallels were later condensed to eighteen typed pages and were listed under eighteen headings with quotations from the two works appearing side-by-side. This latter document, with a few omissions, was finally put into print in 1956. However, the first printing of the parallels by themselves without historian Roberts’ skilled analysis and reasoned discussion seems quite barren.

The Same Features: The Indians Once Knowledgeable In Literature, Culture and Religion

General Authority Roberts opens his discussion by reiterating the indebtedness the Smith family must have had to the Hebrew origins idea:

This study supposes that it is more than likely that the Smith family possessed a copy of this book by Ethan Smith, that either by reading it, or hearing it read, and its contents frequently discussed, Joseph Smith became acquainted with its contents. The date of the publication of the second edition would even make this possible... Contact with it, and knowledge of its contents, by the Smiths, is in every way a great probability. And even if that were not so, as to this particular book — if the Smiths never owned the book, never read it, or saw it, still its contents — the materials of which it was composed — would be, under all the circumstances, a matter of "common knowledge" throughout the whole region where the Smiths lived from the birth of Joseph Smith in 1805, to the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1829-1830.

I say this with great confidence because Ethan Smith’s book is constructed of material that was largely of community knowledge and discussion before collected and published in Ethan’s book (BMS, Pt. I, II, 1ff.).

Roberts substantiates this last remark by reviewing the contents of the book and noting the printed sources used by the Rev. Smith in compiling his work. Furthermore, the Preface to the second edition shows that the work had circulated throughout New York state, where the Smiths had relocated. Thus, so far as the idea of the Hebrew origin of American Indians is concerned, "the book by Ethan Smith might readily have supplied that suggestion, and the evidence of it is incontrovertible from the contents of the book itself" (Id., 11). Roberts correctly points out, however, that if Ethan’s book only suggested the theory of Indian origin, it would scarcely be worthy of consideration. This same idea was set forth in many publications of that day, including the local Palmyra newspaper, as noted above.

but in many ways, and at many points, as we shall see, Book of Mormon traits, in language, culture, the knowledge of and use of metals, traditions, religion and even in the structure of the Book of Mormon — the material compiled in Ethan Smith’s book, might well be taken as suggesting many things in the Book of Mormon (BMS, Pt. I, II, 12).

Then in a hand-written note to himself Roberts writes, "add also, it would suggest the lost book buried in a Hill, by prophet and High Priest" (Id.). Thus Roberts indicates that the parallels are not just superficial similarities, but provide material that enters into the very structure of the Book of Mormon — its "ground plan," to use his term. Given this structural material along with strong imaginative powers of mind, he maintains, one could readily have produced a book such as the Book of Mormon.

To illustrate how closely the two works are related he felt it was first essential "to set forth, in outline, the main features of the Book of Mormon in structure and subject matter, in order that the contents of the two books may be better compared" (Id.). He begins by listing (chapter III) six main Book of Mormon structural features: the origin of its people, their migration, their divisions after arrival in America, the fate of their civilization, their religion, and finally the future of these people, as set forth in divine promise and prophecies (BMS, Pt. I, III, 1). After sketching briefly the story of the three Book of Mormon groups migrating to America (the Jaredite, Nephite, and colony of Mulek), Roberts reports that "the barbarous entirely overcame the civilized, and destroyed them, as we shall have occasion to see later, and which event is very remarkably set forth in Ethan Smith’s book as being an event which likely happened among his lost tribes in America" (BMS, Pt. I, III, 10). Finally, the remaining outstanding features of the Book of Mormon’s people are set forth briefly as being: a knowledge of their scattering, future restoration and glory; prophetic knowledge of Messiah’s coming along with a knowledge of the signs to accompany his coming in the flesh and his resurrection. Christ’s visit to this continent and the ensuing era of peace; and the final overthrow and extinction of the Nephites, leaving triumphant only the Lamanites in their savage state (Id., 13). Following this, in the next ten chapters (IV to XIII), the LDS historian develops a detailed comparison of the two works in which he establishes that nearly every one of these features of the Book of Mormon has been anticipated in the Rev. Ethan Smith’s book on the Hebrew origin of the American Indians.

The Same Emphasis: Isaiah and the Restoration of Israel

In chapter IV Roberts begins his lengthy comparison (running to ten chapters and 124 pages), intended to demonstrate that the View of the Hebrews could well have provided "The Ground-Plan of the Book of Mormon." Both Ethan Smith and the Book of Mormon, he notices, begin with the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of Israel. He also observes that in the Rev. Smith’s second chapter the New England preacher deals with the certainty of the restoration of Judah and Israel, as does the Book of Mormon in its opening portion (1 Ne. 10:3, 14; 22:3; 2 Ne. 6:11; 10:6; 25:15). Indeed, Roberts draws attention to the lengthy sections devoted to this theme in the Book of Mormon as well as to the extended quotations from Isaiah, "twenty one chapters" in the "phraseology of the authorized version of the English Bible!" (BMS, Pt. I, IV, 5) a feature paralleling Ethan Smith’s work. Since the Nephites are represented as having a collection of Old Testament literature "larger in volume than the Old Testament prophetically seen circulating among the Jews and gentiles (1 Nephi 13:20-23)," B. H. Roberts raises the question of why Isaiah should be singled out for quotation by the Nephites rather than other Old Testament passages. He continues,

But may not this be accounted for by the fact that Mr. Ethan Smith practically does the same thing in his "View of the Hebrews"? That is, he quotes chiefly from Isaiah in support of his views concerning Israel, their dispersion, their restoration and their glorification — and the author of the Book of Mormon following him does the same thing (BMS, Pt. I, IV, 6, emphasis Roberts’).

Roberts further notes that in the Book of Mormon "even the Christ when referring to the Old Testament quotes chiefly from Isaiah." Is there not significance, he asks, in "the fact that Ethan Smith had a like preference for Isaiah, and quoted him about the same proportion of preponderance as the author of the Book of Mormon does? And many passages quoted by Ethan Smith are identical with passages from Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon" (Id., IV, 7).

The Same Viewpoint: Americans Prophetically Called to Evangelize the Indians

In his next chapter (V) the Mormon leader observes that the restoration of Israel, as Ethan Smith understood it, was to involve the American people. Ethan interpreted the reference in Isaiah 18 to the "land shadowing with wings" as having reference to the continents of North and South America. From this viewpoint the passage became for the Rev. Smith a call to the Gentiles in America and particularly in the United States to evangelize the American Indians, who are viewed as the Israelites to whom God’s promises were made (BMS, Pt. I, V, 1-7). Although the Book of Mormon nowhere quotes Isaiah 18, Roberts regards the Rev. Smith’s exposition of the passage as a call to the American Gentiles as important "because this is the very mission assigned by the Book of Mormon prophets to the Christian people of the United States" (Id., 7, emphasis Roberts’), and he cites the Book of Mormon Preface as well as Mormon 4:12-15; 2 Ne. 10:7-18; 1 Ne. 21:22, 23; and 3 Ne. 16:8-16 to illustrate his point. In fact, in regard to this topic the Book of Mormon, just like Ethan Smith, even raises the question of whether such prophecies of restoration should be taken spiritually or literally (View, p. 64; 1 Ne. 22:2-8), and both books argue for the literal interpretation (BMS, Pt. I, V, 8-10). The only difference which Roberts detects between Ethan Smith and the Book of Mormon on the matter of restoration is that the Book of Mormon sees the converted Indians in closer union with the Gentile Christians than Ethan Smith contemplates (Id., 12, 15), while the Book of Mormon has terrible "judgments denounced against them" if they fail to evangelize the Indians (Id., 14). Those judgments are a threatened overflow and slaughter of the Americans by the Indians. Such a threat seemed a real possibility in the early decades of the nineteenth century, Roberts observes, but "all reasonable expectation of such an event has passed" (Id., 16). The result is that either one must view the Gentiles as having fulfilled their part in evangelizing the red sons of Israel, or that the prophecies "are no true prophecies, and the book containing them no true scripture . . . (Deut. 18:22)" (Id., 17).

The Same Migration Route: Long Journey Northward, Encountering "Many Waters"

Continuing the parallels, Roberts points out (chap. VI) that both books bring their people to the New World by migrations from the Old. Building on a passage from the apocryphal 2 Esdras 13, Ethan Smith notices that, after conferring together, the migration of the lost tribes was northward and across the Bering Strait. Their arrival was into a country "where never man dwelt" (Esdras), and Ethan adds, "since the flood." Similarly, in the Book of Mormon the Jaredites, after also conferring together, take off in the same northward direction, cross "the great sea which divideth the lands" and come "into that quarter where there never had man been" (Ether 2:5). Historian Roberts acknowledges that the Jaredites are viewed as departing directly after the division of languages at the Tower of Babel, while Ethan’s "lost tribes" do not migrate until the seventh century B.C., and the two situations are not parallel in that respect. "But," he continues, "let us here be reminded that what is sought in this study is not absolute identity of incidents . . . but one thing here and another there, that may suggest another but similar thing in such a way as to make one a product of the other, as in the above parallel between the journey of the Jaredites and Ethan Smith’s Israelites" (BMS, Pt. I, VI, 6). Then he concludes:

Where such striking parallels as these obtain, it is not unreasonable to hold that where one account precedes the other, and if the one constructing the later account has had opportunity of contact with the first account, then it is not impossible that the first account could have suggested the second; and if the points of resemblance and possible suggestion are frequent and striking, then it would have to be conceded that the first might even have supplied the ground plan of the second (Id., 6f.).

The Same Fate: Division into Civilized and Savage Groups, With the Civilized Finally Annihilated

Once the migratory groups reached the New World, both books view them as having separated into two groups — the civilized and the barbarous. The Rev. Smith adopts this position to account for the uncivilized state in which Indians were found at the time of the white man’s arrival. He writes (as quoted by Mr. Roberts), "the savage tribes prevailed; and in process of time their savage jealousies and rage 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" (BMS, Pt. I, VII, 3, emphasis Roberts’). The New England clergyman furthermore interpreted the whole process of the degeneration of the one group and the annihilation of the other as an action of vindictive Providence to fulfill God’s predicted denunciation that those tribes would be left "in an ‘outcast’ savage state." This degeneracy, as Mr. Smith expressed it, "took place under a vindictive Providence ... to accomplish divine judgments denounced against the idolatrous ten tribes of Israel" (Id., emphasis Roberts’). The civilized part, according to Rev. Smith, "became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren ... the more civilized part continued for many centuries; ... tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren till the former became extinct" (View, pp. 171ff., emphasis Roberts’). The Rev. Smith draws support for the existence of such a civilized segment from the ruins of mounds in Ohio, with their extensive fortifications and "no small degree of refinement in the knowledge of the mechanic arts." Historian Roberts observes that "One acquainted with Book of Mormon historical events, will recognize in all this an outline of Book of Mormon ‘history,’ what else there is would be merely detail" (BMS, Pt. I, VII, 2).

To illustrate his point he traces this outline in the Book of Mormon. Lehi’s two sons, Nephi and Laman, divide the colony into opposing groups, separate and become two great nations. The Nephites preserve the mechanical and literary arts, while the Lamanites become "an idle people" given to a life of hunting, just as in Ethan’s description. The Lamanites, Nephi was informed, should become a "scourge" to the Nephites if ever the latter group forsook the Lord, and they would "scourge them even unto destruction" (2 Ne. 5:25, emphasis Roberts’). After frequent and devastating wars the Lamanites do just that, recalling Ethan’s vindictive Providence fulfilling God’s threats. "Could an investigator of the Book of Mormon be much blamed," Roberts asks, "if he were to decide that Ethan Smith’s book ... led to the fashioning of these same chief things in the Book of Mormon?" (Id., 9f.).

The Same Culture: Ancient Americans Supposedly an Iron Age People

Unfortunately Ethan Smith’s theory runs into serious trouble with the more recent "skilled research" regarding the cultural items attributed to the "civilized" part of the ancient Americans. Roberts emphasizes that no features among modern scholars "are more unanimously agreed upon than the matter of the absence of the knowledge of, and hence the non-use of, iron or steel among the natives of America" (BMS, Pt. I, VIII, 7). To find, along with iron and steel, the same cultural elements enumerated by Ethan Smith (navigation, metallurgy, swords with their "hilts," breast plates, numerous cities with thousands of inhabitants — View, pp. 195-199) incorporated into the Book of Mormon leads Roberts to ask, "Could it be that the author of the Book of Mormon...proceeded arbitrarily to thrust into his alleged history the mention of these materials and the art of using them among his Nephites in order to comply with the supposed knowledge outlined in Ethan Smith’s book?" (Id., 6f.). The Mormon historian uses the word "thrust" because he senses just that nature about the mention of such items in Alma 63:6-9; Hela. 2;10f.; 2 Ne. 5:15f.; Jarom 1:8; Alma 1:29; Hela. 6:29; and Ether 10:22f. "They are just intruded into the narrative, and do not seem to rise from it." In fact, since the Jaredite and Nephite use of "iron and steel" (2 Ne. 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Ether 10:23-27) seems to reflect the same error Ethan Smith made (View, pp. 190, 196), Roberts remarks, "Could it be that Ethan Smith, influenced and misled by the reported discovery of the evidence of iron and its use among the native Americans in ancient times, was innocently followed into this error by the author of the Book of Mormon?" (BMS, Pt. I, VIII, 7, emphasis mine). Since Ethan Smith catalogues his list of artifacts in two or three pages of descriptive matter about ancient mounds, and this included the suggestion that the abundance of bones found in some of these were "supposed to be the remains of men slain in some great battle" (View, p. 195), Roberts further wonders whether those very pages may have inspired the description of Mosiah 8:8-11, where the same features appear. The whole affair leaves him reflecting, "did the author of the Book of Mormon innocently follow Ethan Smith in to the error of supposing that the civilized part of the ancient inhabitants of America has an ‘iron and steel culture’...and emphasize both its existence and its extent?" (emphasis Roberts’). Indeed, did the author "innocently follow Ethan Smith in relation to the whole category of civilized traits" attributed by Ethan Smith to the early American? (BMS, Pt. I, VIII, 12).


Part 2