"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
March 7, 2014
Mercy Otis Warren and the Standard of Liberty in the Book of Mormon: Evidence of Plagiarism?
by Jeff Lindsay

The list of works that Joseph Smith allegedly plagiarized or drew upon to produce the Book of Mormon continues to grow.

In addition to the old standards such as Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, Shakespeare, Solomon Spalding's writings, the sermons and essays of various preachers, and James Adair's A History of the American Indians, many more works have been identified by critics in recent years such as an obscure book on the War of 1812 (The Late War Against the United States) and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Golden Pot (for some details, see my LDSFAQ page on plagiarism).

Most recently someone asked me if there could possibly be any rebuttal to an attack from Thomas Donofrio, whose zealous search for parallels has yielded another group of works that Joseph allegedly must have drawn upon, with Mercy Otis Warren's 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution being at the top of the list.

Is this the smoking gun for Book of Mormon plagiarism?

While there may be no evidence that Joseph ever saw this book and, like many favorite candidates for Book of Mormon plagiarism, it does not appear to have been among the books in the Manchester Library where Joseph theoretically could have borrowed books during his translation of the Book of Mormon, it was still possible for Joseph to have encountered it.

So does Warren's work succeed in explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon? It may be difficult to see a connection if you just read her book. That’s the approach of a novice. It takes skillful sifting to find the threads that can be woven together (or rather glued together) to fabricate this particular tale of plagiarism and deceit.

One Latter-day Saint thinker quite familiar with the details of parallels between texts explains that Donofrio actually greatly underestimates the number of parallels between the Book of Mormon and Mercy Otis Warren's lengthy work. In fact, there are thousands of parallels, many more than Donofrio's short list provides.

See Ben McGuire's "Parallelomania: Criticism of the Textual Parallels Theories" (2007), where we see that there are more than 7,000 three-word parallels between Warren's book and the Book of Mormon. Plus there are nearly 2,000 four-word parallels! Amazing!

Or so it seems at first glance, until you do some actual analysis and explore the statistics with other texts as well, and then see that this is nothing unusual at all.

Common words and short phrases that are the building blocks of language will be used and repeated by speaker, writers, and translators, inevitably leading to numerous random parallels between texts in the same language, especially when writing about related topics such as war.

Finding strings of words scattered in the text and claiming this as proof of pilfering is an exercise one can do with almost any two works, most easily with lengthy works like Warren's three-volume book.

For an example of erroneous "proof" of Book of Mormon plagiarism, see my old satirical but I think instructive analysis of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I suggest offers far stronger and more numerous parallels than anything Donofrio has conjured up with his sifting of texts.

Until you can come up with better parallels than those random parallels, finding a few frequently used English locutions shared by Warren and the Book of Mormon is not particularly meaningful.

First note that McGuire's initial link to Thomas Donofrio's initial article on Book of Mormon parallels is broken, but you can see the archived form of the original article he refers to using these links: "Early American Influences on the Book of Mormon, Parts 1 & II" and "Early American Influences on the Book of Mormon, Part III."

Ben McGuire understands "intertexuality" (the manifold connections between a text being studied and other texts) and is skillful in applying computer tools to analyze documents.

For valuable background, see his recent and quite relevant works at the Mormon Interpreter: "The Late War Against the Book of Mormon" (2013) and, for a good foundation in the problems of parallels, see especially his "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part One" and "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part Two"(both 2013).

More recently, Donofrio has authored "Book of Mormon Tories" (the link takes you to a hostile "post-Mormon" website) which attempts to partially explain the Book of Mormon as a derivative of Warren's book. (Wish it had been entitled, "No Man Knows His Tories." Missed opportunity — oh well.)

Reading that article and the dramatic response from some of the guffawing critics made me shake my head. These people are impressed with parallels such as "safety and welfare," "[his or our] little army," "power and gain," "flock to their standard" and "the cause of liberty"?

As if people haven't been writing for millennia about safety, welfare, war, the use of standards and ensigns to gather and organize troops, and the too-frequent need to defend oneself from captivity?

The lead example Donofrio gives particularly left me wondering. Joseph Smith apparently had to draw upon this little gem from page 623 of Warren's massive book:

...they were responsible for all the additional blood that had been spilt by the addition of their weight in the scale of the enemy…

in order to somehow regurgitate a fragment of Alma 60:16:

...were it not for these king-men, who caused so much blood shed among ourselves...

Plagiarism Joseph Smith-style just looks like an awful lot of work, whereas simply blaming someone for a tragedy is the kind of thing anyone can do without having to dig through volumes of other books to get one fragment of a verse at a time. In fact, it's something that has been done for millennia.

Warren's fragment on page 623 gives nothing close to a plausible explanation for anything in Alma 60.

I find it puzzling, even bizarre, that a muddled parallel for part of Alma 60:16 would be the lead example when, with a bit of perseverance, Donofrio surely could have come up with much more interesting and even unsettling parallels similar to those that I have shown from a truly impossible Book of Mormon source, Walt Whitman. The many parallels I found illustrate the kind of things that happen due to luck and a touch of creativity from a persistent critic.

Thomas, really, you could have made your Tories piece much more interesting. I suggest you contact Ben McGuire for assistance in using electronic tools to create heftier and more impressive but equally meaningless list of parallels.

Some people might find Donofrio's parallel "the standard of liberty" to be especially meaningful, since that is a fairly well-known Book of Mormon term that we sometimes feel is "owned" by the Book of Mormon. Finding it in Warren's book should be unsettling, no?

No. You can find it in numerous sources in Joseph Smith's day. In the English language, the phrase "standard of liberty" shows widespread use for many settings other than the Revolutionary War. See for yourself searching Google Books with a time range of, say, 1400 to 1830.

The "standard" of the Book of Mormon is also hardly a modern concept. It is usually used in its military sense in the KJV also (see search results for "standard" from BibleGateway.com).

Standards are used in war to rally, gather, and organize. Having people gather to a standard or to an ensign is hardly a modern innovation, and rallying to protect one's liberty from invaders or rebels is also not a modern notion. Liberty is also something one finds in the Bible and numerous other sources, not just the Revolutionary War.

You can see how the term "standard of liberty" grew and waned in popularity over time using Google's Ngram viewer. It was definitely used more commonly in Joseph's era than ours. Look at an example from Joseph's era describing Greeks in a recent war, or another describing events during the Roman empire. Or consider an example describing much later events in Italy in the 14th Century.

There are many examples of this phrase being used in diverse settings because it's a part of the English language and a useful term to describe a widespread phenomenon, that of stirring people up to defend themselves from captivity. Though the words in the translation are modern, the usage is not.

Donofrio and his Tories tell us nothing about the origins of the Book of Mormon, no more than random parallels in Whitman’s writings do.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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