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MormanityView of the Hebrews as a Book of Mormon Source?
by Jeff Lindsay
Some critics claim that Joseph Smith copied much of the structure and content of the Book of Mormon from the 1823 book View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph Smith). You can read this book online at Archive.org and judge for yourself.
Ethan Smith's book proposes that the American Indians were the lost tribes of Israel and has several apparent parallels to the Book of Mormon. These parallels include long journeys that were religiously motivated; references to wars, writing, and metal work; and moral overtones such as the denouncement of pride.
Also, according to View of the Hebrews, Indians talk of a "lost book" they left in Palestine. But these similarities are rather vague and general. (For elements involving Ethan Smith's citations of Alexander von Humboldt in particular, please see my new page, Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon.)
An examination of the two books shows that the similarities are far fewer and less significant than the differences. In fact, the Book of Mormon contradicts the View of the Hebrews on almost every major issue that the latter considers (who were the Indians, how did they get to the New World, when did they arrive, what names did they use, how did they live, etc., etc.)
Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center actually publishes View of the Hebrews, allowing Latter-day Saints and the rest of the world to see for themselves how unlikely it is that Joseph Smith plagiarized from it. In fact, careful study of that book should do much to strengthen one's appreciation of the novelty of the Book of Mormon.
As Andrew Hedges explains ("View of the Hebrews," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 63-68):
"[T]hose who take the time to read Ethan Smith's oft-cited but rarely seen opus and compare it with the Book of Mormon will find the experience to be wonderfully faith promoting. This is because the further one reads in View of the Hebrews, the clearer it becomes that the Book of Mormon did not — indeed, could not — have its origin in it.
Allow me to explain. The tradition in which Ethan Smith was writing was a long and venerable one — as Richard Bushman has reminded us, English scholars were identifying the American aborigines with Jews as early as the sixteenth century [Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 136].
The idea reached American shores in the mid-1640s when John Eliot, the famous Puritan "Apostle to the Indians"; Daniel Gookin, the Massachusetts Bay Colony's Indian Superintendent; and other Puritan divines found the similarities between the Algonquin culture and ancient Israelite practices so compelling that they modified the then popular view — which held that the Indians were gentile "Tartars" from Asia.
They suggested that, at the very least, the Indians were descendants of Hebrews who had made their way to America via a land bridge from Asia and were quite likely descendants of the lost tribes who had come the same route [see the online article for extensive references].
Subsequent generations discussed and promoted the idea until 1775, when James Adair fully developed it in his History of the American Indians. Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews was just one of several books and pamphlets written on the topic in both England and America following the publication of Adair's book, all of which echoed the earlier Puritan contention that the Indians were unchurched descendants of the lost tribes who had come to America from Asia via a land bridge or, at most, "by canoes, or other craft" (p. 84) across the Bering Straits.
A close reading of View of the Hebrews suggests that, while some aspects of this reconstruction could be debated, it is generally so complex as to be quite inflexible, based as it is on a relatively conservative reading of the biblical text and a number of suppositions so interdependent that if one should prove false, the whole model would collapse.
Any modifications would have to be relatively small and insignificant, which explains why the basic outlines of the model remained virtually unchanged over the course of two centuries' worth of discussion.
For example, churchmen over the centuries could (and did) debate how much of the Mosaic law the Indians as the lost tribes had retained after arriving in America. They could do this because such debates did not alter in the least the basic structure of the paradigm, which posited a pre-Christian migration of Israelites who had some knowledge of Old Testament practices.
The churchmen did not, however, at any time debate the possibility that the Indians' ancestors knew of Christ's birth before the event, had engaged in such New Testament practices as baptism in Old Testament times, and had been visited by Christ after his resurrection.
This was because the mere suggestion of these things would have done violence to their understanding of the Bible, contemporary evidence from Indian cultures themselves, and other parts of the model.
For such a suggestion to be true in the context of early America's understanding of the Bible, for example, the Indians' ancestors would have to have been believing Christians who left the Old World after the time of Christ, since early American scholarship emphatically held that the ancient Israelites completely misunderstood their own messianic prophecies and that ordinances like baptism had not been practiced in Old Testament times.
This reconstruction would have flown in the face of all existing anthropological evidence, however — none of the practices in the native cultures studied resembled New Testament practices — and, unlike the lost tribes thesis, had no basis in scripture.
Given the parameters in which they had to work, the suggestion that the Indians' ancestors engaged in New Testament practices would have created rather than solved problems and would have required an entirely new reconstruction of events — based on a new reading of the text and other evidence — to be taken seriously.
In short, keeping with our example, either the suggestion that the Indians' ancestors practiced baptism or the model proposed by Adair, Smith, and others would have to be false; they could not both be true, nor — and this is important — could the former be considered an unimportant, inconsequential, and perfectly logical modification of the latter.
The Book of Mormon, of course, makes precisely this claim about baptism, along with several others that likewise cannot be reconciled with the nineteenth-century model explaining Indian origins. Thus it was that the further I read in View of the Hebrews, the greater the distance between it and the Book of Mormon appeared.
Superficially, of course, the two resemble each other, and it was easy to see how someone with an ax to grind against the LDS Church could, with a little creative negligence, make a case against the Book of Mormon. But as I came to understand the complexity and inflexibility of Smith's model, it became increasingly clear to me that the Book of Mormon's teachings concerning Indian origins and destinies were something entirely new on the American scene and represented far more than mere modifications of the existing explanation. They were, to borrow a phrase, a "strange thing in the land" in every respect.
As another useful resource, L. Aran Norwood's book review, "Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon” (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1990, pp. 187-204) deals with one of the most significant anti-Mormon efforts to explain the Book of Mormon. Her review of David Persuitte's Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon discusses both strengths and weaknesses of Persuitte's approach.
It also shows that Persuitte's analysis, even if unchallenged, at best accounts for less than 5% of the verses in the Book of Mormon. Further, the scattered parallels Pursuitte points to do nothing to explain away numerous elements pointing to ancient origins (things like chiasmus, Hebraisms, the accurate details from the Arabian peninsula, etc.).
As I note elsewhere on this page, parallels between unrelated books are easier to find than you might think. I believe that the parallels between the Book of Mormon and Walt Whitmans's The Leaves of Grass are more impressive than anything you'll find by reading View of the Hebrews, but that is due entirely to chance since Whitman's work came long after the Book of Mormon and obviously was not influenced by it (no, don't try to craft an argument that Whitman was secretly collaborating with Mormons to account for these chance parallels!).
The finding of parallels by itself means very little.
Less than 5% of the Book of Mormon "related" to View of the Hebrews? I bet if I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and worked hard enough, I could find 7% to be "related" to Whitman. But that's a 7% solution you don't want to drink.
A key issue in dealing with Ethan Smith or other proposed sources for the Book of Mormon is their failure to account for some of the most impressive elements pointing to ancient origins.
There is nothing in View of the Hebrews that provides the kind of evidences for authenticity that we see in the Book of Mormon such as correctly and precisely identifying the places Nahom and Bountiful on the Arabian Peninsula.
Nothing in view of the Hebrews, for example, could have given Joseph Smith any clue about the directions to follow through the Arabian Peninsula (there is no discussion of frankincense trails, or anything Arabian at all, other than a couple general references that provide no useful information), nor is there any clue about the existence of the place Bountiful in present-day Oman. The most exciting evidences of Book of Mormon authenticity have no ties to Ethan Smith.
An important fact to remember is that many people in the early 1800s assumed that the Indians had some connection with the Old World, and popular theories included descent from the lost tribes of Israel. For example, Josiah Priest wrote in 1833, "The opinion that the American Indians are the descendants of the lost Ten Tribes, is now a popular one, and generally believed" (as cited by Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, p. 195).
Joseph had no need to plagiarize from Ethan Smith for this view, which is probably the most "impressive" parallel between the two works. Ethan Smith's view, though developed in great detail, may not have seemed unusual or noteworthy at the time.
This may be why critics of the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century saw no cause for linking the Book of Mormon to View of the Hebrews — the apparent parallels were not specific, distinct, or unusual.
As far as I know, it was only around the turn of the century, when newer theories had supplanted earlier speculation about the origin of the Indians, that Ethan Smith's book began to be mentioned as a possible source for the Book of Mormon.
Today, it may seem significant that Ethan Smith proposed an Israelite origin for the Indians, for that idea seems odd and unusual from our perspective, but this broad parallel apparently did not seem noteworthy to critics in the early days of the Church.
Although there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever even saw a copy of Ethan Smith's work, it is still physically possible that he could have had one. I have heard claims that Oliver Cowdery's family had a connection to Ethan Smith. There is no proof of any such connection.
For the problems with alleged connections between Ethan and Oliver, see "Oliver Cowdery's Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism" by Larry E. Morris from BYU Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000, pp. 107-129 (the PDF file is directly available).
Of course, if Oliver knew of anything close to plagiarism involved in the Book of Mormon, it's interesting that he never mentioned it or denied his testimony of the divinity of that book, even during the time when he was bitterly upset with Joseph Smith and had left the Church.
If Joseph really did use View of the Hebrews as his primary source, then he must have assumed it was accurate and reasonable. If so, one would expect that he would have relied on it for important details, themes, and concepts. Instead, we find that he repeatedly contradicts its content.
If Joseph plagiarized from Ethan Smith, we would expect to find that unique aspects of View of the Hebrews — ideas, names, stories that are not also found in the Bible or other sources — would have been incorporated into the Book of Mormon, but no such "fingerprints" are found. There is no real evidence of Joseph relying on that text.
In fact, there are extreme differences between the two texts at every turn, which seriously challenge the hypothesis that Joseph plagiarized from Ethan Smith. Consider the following anti-parallels noted by John Welch in his article "View of the Hebrews: An Unparallel" in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1992, pp. 83-87:
View of the Hebrews begins with a chapter on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. It has nothing to say, however, about the destruction in Lehi's day by the Babylonians.
View of the Hebrews tells of specific heavenly signs that marked the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Joseph Smith ignores these singular and memorable details.
Chapter 2 lists many prophecies about the restoration of Israel, including Deuteronomy 30; Isaiah 11, 18, 60, 65; Jeremiah 16, 23, 30-31, 35-37; Zephaniah 3; Amos 9; Hosea and Joel. These scriptures are essential to the logic and fabric of View of the Hebrews, yet, with the sole exception of Isaiah 11, none of them appear in the Book of Mormon.
Chapter 3 is the longest chapter in View of the Hebrews. It produces numerous "distinguished Hebraisms" as "proof" that the American Indians are Israelites. Hardly any of these points are found in the Book of Mormon, as one would expect if Joseph Smith were using View of the Hebrews or trying to make his book persuasive.
For example, View of the Hebrews asserts repeatedly that the Ten Tribes came to America via the Bering Strait, which they crossed on "dry land." According to View of the Hebrews, this opinion is unquestionable, supported by all the authorities.
From there View of the Hebrews claims that the Israelites spread from north to east and then to the south at a very late date. These are critical points for View of the Hebrews, since Amos 8:11-12 prophesies that the tribes would go from the north to the east. Population migrations in the Book of Mormon, however, always move from the south to the north.
View of the Hebrews reports that the Indians are Israelites because they use the word "Hallelujah." Here is one of the favorite proofs of View of the Hebrews, a dead giveaway that the Indians are Israelites. Yet the word is never used in the Book of Mormon.
Furthermore, a table showing thirty-four Indian words or sentence fragments with Hebrew equivalents appears in View of the Hebrews. No reader of the book could have missed this chart.
If Joseph Smith had wanted to make up names to use in the Book of Mormon that would substantiate his claim that he had found some authentic western hemisphere Hebrew words, he would have jumped at such a ready-made list! Yet not one of these thirty-four Hebrew/Indian words (e.g., Keah, Lani, Uwoh, Phale, Kurbet, etc.) has even the remotest resemblance to any of the 175 words that appear for the first time in the Book of Mormon.
[Webmaster's note: Likewise none of the names created by Spaulding, or given by James Adair or other modern sources, are found in the Book of Mormon.]
View of the Hebrews says the Indians are Israelites because they carry small boxes with them into battle. These are to protect them against injury. They are sure signs that the Indians' ancestors knew of the Ark of the Covenant! How could Joseph Smith pass up such a distinguished and oft-attested Hebraism as this? Yet in all Book of Mormon battle scenes, there is not one hint of any such ark, box, or bag serving as a military fetish.
The Indians are Israelites because the Mohawk tribe was a tribe held in great reverence by all the others, to whom tribute was paid. Obviously, to Ethan Smith, this makes the Mohawks the vestiges of the tribe of Levi, Israel's tribe of priests. If Joseph Smith believed that such a tribe or priestly remnant had survived down to his day, he forgot to provide for anything to that effect in the Book of Mormon.
The Indians are Israelites because they had a daily sacrifice of fat in the fire and passed their venison through the flame, cutting it into twelve pieces. This great clue of "Israelitishness" is also absent from the Book of Mormon.
View of the Hebrews maintains that the Indians knew "a distinguished Hebraism," namely "laying the hand on the mouth, and the mouth in the dust." Had Joseph Smith believed this, why is the Book of Mormon silent on this "sure sign of Hebraism" and dozens of others like it?
According to View of the Hebrews, the Indians quickly lost knowledge that they were all from the same family. The Book of Mormon tells that family and tribal affiliations were maintained for almost one thousand years.
View of the Hebrews claims that the righteous Indians were active "for a long time," well into recent times, and that their destruction occurred about A.D. 1400, based upon such convincing evidence as tree rings near some of the fortifications of these people. The Book of Mormon implicitly rejects this notion by reporting the destruction of the Nephites in the fourth century A.D.
View of the Hebrews argues that the Indians are Israelites because they knew the legends of Quetzalcoatl. But the surprise here is that View of the Hebrews proves beyond doubt that Quetzalcoatl was none other than - not Jesus - but Moses! … Besides the fact that the View of the Hebrews's explanation of Quetzalcoatl as Moses is inconsistent with the Book of Mormon, none of these hallmark details associated with Quetzalcoatl are incorporated into the account of Christ's visit to Bountiful in 3 Nephi.
The foregoing twelve points could be multiplied literally seven times over. In the face of these differences, the few vague similarities pale.
As for the apparent similarities, they are hardly startling and are far outweighed by the differences. It's important to realize that parallel between stories and documents are easy to find. There are many dozens of parallels between the story of the Pilgrim coming to the New World and the Book of Mormon.
There are even parallels between the written history of man's journey to the moon and the Book of Mormon that a mildly creative person can find in just a few minutes. One of many: Special high-tech lighting elements were needed for the sealed Jaredite vessels, just like the electric light sources used by the astronauts.
One more: One group was guided by the strong arm of the Lord, while the other group was led by Neil Armstrong. Surely this is more than mere coincidence!
The point is that broad similarities — and even a few apparent specific ones — do not mean that one text is the source for the other. We must look for consistent, specific, and unique similarities to make a case for plagiarism (and they must be more widespread or impressive than the many "impressive" ones I have found in the unrelated text of Whitman).
In considering the possibility of plagiarism, one should ask if there is any consistent relationship between the two texts to show that one was used to construct the other. There is not for the candidates that critics have proposed for the Book of Mormon. There is simply no substance to the alleged link between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon.
Even if we assume that every apparent parallel is a genuine sign of plagiarism, View of the Hebrews would only account for a tiny fraction of the Book of Mormon, and would account for none of the truly unique elements such as geographical locations, place names (e.g., Nahom) and human names (e.g., Alma), poetical forms, parallels to other ancient documents, accurate description of ancient warfare, accurate description of ancient olive culture practices, New Year's kingship rituals, etc., etc.
View of the Hebrews apparently was not considered as a probable source for the Book of Mormon by critics in the 1800s, and with good reason, in my opinion: its apparent similarities are too vague and its differences too great. Rather, I propose that it's high time for the critics to seriously consider the possibility that books on the lunar voyages could have been Joseph's source, or, more plausibly (but still impossibly), Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
Finally, if Joseph had stolen material from Ethan Smith, then why on earth would Joseph ever call attention to anything that Ethan Smith had written? But this is precisely what happened in what Michael Griffith describes as a "puzzling incident" on his page, "The Book of Mormon — Ancient or Modern? Could Joseph Smith Have Written the Nephite Record?":
In the June 1 and June 15 issues of the 1842 Times and Seasons there appeared printed extracts from Josiah Priest's book, American Antiquities (1838 edition), which cites and quotes passages from VOTH [View of the Hebrews]. Priest's book was cited as evidence for the Book of Mormon. At that time, Joseph Smith was the editor of the Times and Seasons.
A natural question arises: If Joseph Smith had copied from VOTH, would he have risked drawing attention to it by publicly quoting from a book which contained extracts from it? This would have indeed been extremely puzzling behavior if the Prophet had borrowed from VOTH, especially if it had been his "foundational source"!
This is an obvious but important point, and anti-Mormons have yet to satisfactorily explain it. It is just common sense that plagiarists don't go around drawing attention to their sources, especially in a public forum!
Since it had not yet occurred to anyone to accuse Joseph Smith of borrowing from VOTH, why on earth would he have risked exposure by quoting (or allowing to be quoted) a book which contained extracts from it?
Why indeed? By calling attention to View of the Hebrews, Joseph provided additional evidence that he had not used it as a source for a deceptive fabrication. Ethan Smith simply was not a source for the Book of Mormon. (For related information on this topic, see my page, Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon.)
As a postscript, I received this e-mail from an LDS couple:
We have done a tiny bit of research (one letter) and found that the one possible source for Joseph to have read the View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith was supposed to have been in the local Palmyra library.
The Palmyra Kings Daughters Free Library, 127 Cuyler St., Palmyra, New York, 14522 is supposed to be the first library in Palmyra.
IT WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1899! As a reading room only!
This librarian wrote that the closest library in the 1820's and 1830's was perhaps in Canandiague, NY, 13 miles away. Typing on the internet for a library in that city did not even come up with a library now, so probably not in Joseph Smith's time.
I recall reading that there was another reading room in Palmyra present before 1899, but will need to check again. On the other hand, I have since found a Web page at Palmyra NY.com giving the history of Palmyra, New York, which states: "In 1899, the Palmyra King's Daughters Free Library was begun as a reading room. Two years later (1901) the library was chartered as a lending library and has remained so until the present." This is consistent with the e-mail given above.
In any case, nineteenth-century Palmyra does not appear to have been a richly developed source of scholarly information for eager young bookworms, even if Joseph had been one. Of course there were books and booksellers and perhaps even reading rooms — but how can that possibly explain the Book of Mormon, even if Joseph Smith had been interested in such things?
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