December 29, 2008
Despite the church’s claims, the roots of Mormonism, rather than being ancient and Old World, are often instead nineteenth century and very American.
The Book of Mormon is no exception. Believers testify it is a ancient record but comparing the book with sources contemporary to Joseph Smith places the book squarely in the 1820-30s Burned Over District. Perhaps the most well known of these sources is View of the Hebrews, a book written in 1823. The author, Ethan Smith—a Congregationalist clergyman in Vermont, believed (as did many others of his time) the Native American populations living near him were descendants of the Israelite diaspora that emigrated to the New World. Specifically Pastor Smith believed they descended from the lost 10 Tribes which had traveled to the Western Hemisphere and eventually populated both North and South America. More specifically this Israelite “branch” after coming to the new world split in to 2 factions— one that was industrious and civilized and another that was uncivilized. The two groups battled for many years with the uncivilized group eventually destroying the more civilized. Pastor Smith believed the Native Americans that encountered in the 1820s were the descendants of the same uncivilized group.
So obviously the plot line of View of the Hebrews is extremely similar to that of the Book of Mormon. There are additional parallels between the books that suggest Joseph Smith drew on Ethan Smith’s book for content and story line, which I will not detail. (Check out the links at the end of the post for more information.)
Despite apologists dismissing the parallels as superficial some LDS who have acknowledged their significance. B.H. Roberts, LDS General Authority and Assistant Church Historian in his Studies of the Book of Mormon posed a number of questions about the Book of Mormon and it’s origins— some of which dealt with View of the Hebrews. Specifically, Roberts looked for parallels between VotH and the BoM and found enough similarity to ask:
“Can such numerous and startling points of resemblance and suggestive contact be merely coincidence?” (B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, (University of Illinois Press, 1985), p. 242)
Some have questioned whether Joseph Smith even knew of Pastor Smith’s book before the Book of Mormon was published and there are a number of facts that make it extremely likely he did. Evidence shows that View of the Hebrews was very successful, being first printed in 1823 and then a second edition in 1825 and was distributed all over the Burned Out District where Joseph Smith lived. Ethan Smith even traveled promoting his book, stopping in Palmyra, Joseph’s hometown, in 1826. But even more importantly, Ethan Smith resided in Poultney, Vermont where Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith’s distant cousin and primary scribe lived. Smith was pastor at the church where members of Cowdery’s family attended between 1821 and 1826— the time that he was writing the View of the Hebrews. Cowdery almost certainly had knowledge of the book when he began to scribe for Joseph on the Book of Mormon in 1829.
Although Joseph did not directly quote the Book of Mormon from Ethan Smith— the evidence suggests that he borrowed much of the plot and larger ideas/themes. That said, View of the Hebrews was itself reflecting a number of ideas that were common in Ethan Smith’s world. In fact, Hugh Nibley argued exactly that in making the case that the Mormon prophet didn’t borrow from VotH but rather the ideas were “in the air” for both Joseph and Ethan. In either case, the Book of Mormon is, in the end, a nineteenth century book talking about nineteenth century ideas.
Books discussing View of the Hebrews:
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