One of the older criticisms of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith is that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized, or at least inspired, by the 1825 book View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith…hey, they’ve even both got the last name! One more suspicious circumstance…
View of the Hebrews is an 1823 book written by Ethan Smith which argues that Native Americans were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes, a not uncommon view in the nineteenth century. Numerous commentators on Mormon history, from LDS Church general authority B. H. Roberts to Fawn M. Brodie, biographer of Joseph Smith, have noted similarities in content between this and the subsequent Book of Mormon, first published in 1830. Mormons believe the Book of Mormon was translated from ancient golden plates, as recounted by their prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. in the text.
I’ve heard this for years but never looked into it much. But I finally sat down and figured instead of listening to what both sides have to say about it, why not just read the book and decide for myself? You can read View of the Hebrews online for free thanks to Google. That’s what I did.
My initial response: Please, are you serious?! Ok, maybe my expectations were off. I figured View of the Hebrews was going to be a book at least somewhat like the Book of Mormon. You know, stories, characters, etc. It’s none of that. It’s an “academic” look at modern-day (meaning the early 1800s) Judaism and it the author speculates a bit about the possibility that the American Indians are the lost 10 Tribes of Israel. No characters, no stories. So if anyone says Joseph Smith or Sidney Rigdon or anyone else plagiarized the Book of Mormon from View of the Hebrews that’s just ridiculous. I don’t think any serious anti-Mormon would do that, but who knows.
Now, the claim that the Book of Mormon was inspired by View of the Hebrews would immediately be 100 times more credible than the idea that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from View of the Hebrews. And yet my firsthand reading of View of the Hebrews still leaves me saying “Really? Really?!” It seems like quite a stretch. First of all, if the Book of Mormon was inspired by View of the Hebrews, it was only inspired in a bare handful of any meaningful details and a similar number of very broad and basic ideas.
Imagine I sat down and gave you a 5-minute summary of View of Hebrews, and then told you “Now go and write a 400-page book based on what I just told you.” For Joseph Smith or anyone else to have written the Book of Mormon, based on such a small amount of input, would be 99% as miraculous as Joseph Smith writing the book on his own without that external input about View of the Hebrews. Even if one reads View of the Hebrews and believes it was the inspiration for the Book of Mormon, there are so few parts that match up one must still ask “But where did all the other stuff come from?” The Bible, you say? Remove any passage that matches up with the Bible as well and you still have hundreds of pages of unique content that cannot be traced back to either the View of the Hebrews nor the Bible.
Now, in 1922 LDS apostle B.H. Roberts produced a confidential report that summarized eighteen points of similarity between the two works. Also from Wikipedia:
“all the brethren herein addressed becoming familiar with these Book of Mormon problems, and finding the answer for them, as it is a matter that will concern the faith of the Youth of the Church now as also in the future, as well as such casual inquirers as may come to us from the outside world.”
Roberts’ list of parallels included:
- extensive quotation from the prophecies of Isaiah in the Old Testament;
- the Israelite origin of the American Indian;
- the future gathering of Israel and restoration of the Ten Lost Tribes;
- the peopling of the New World from the Old via a long journey northward which encountered “seas” of “many waters;”
- a religious motive for the migration;
- the division of the migrants into civilized and uncivilized groups with long wars between them and the eventual destruction of the civilized by the uncivilized;
- the assumption that all native peoples were descended from Israelites and their languages from Hebrew;
- the burial of a “lost book” with “yellow leaves;”
- the description of extensive military fortifications with military observatories or “watch towers” overlooking them;
- a change from monarchy to republican forms of government; and
- the preaching of the gospel in ancient America.
Roberts continued to affirm his faith in the divine origins of the Book of Mormon until his death in 1933.
Personally I think Roberts took the threat of View of the Hebrews too seriously. For example, the burial of a “lost book” with “yellow leaves;”. When one reads this passage in View of the Hebrews, that is, in context, one is challenged to figure out how Joseph Smith or anyone else could have read this before the Book of Mormon existed, and have come up with the story surrounding the discovery of the Book of Mormon. It is only in the absence of context, when our minds start filling in the blanks, that such claims have any credulity whatsoever. Go read the relevant parts, you’ll see what I mean.
I think Roberts did one service to the faith in that he created criticisms based on View of the Hebrews beyond what the most creative anti-Mormons ever could, thus depriving them of being able to “discover” anything other than what he had. On the other hand, he did such a good job that his own criticisms seem to bear weight until one looks deeper into the matter.
In summary, I tend to agree with the apologists Wikipedia refers to, “that the parallels between the works are weak, over-emphasized, or non-existent.”
If you really need convincing, I recommend you read Jeff Lindsay’s spoof, in which he claims that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Nevermind that Leaves of Grass wasn’t published until 20 years after the Book of Mormon, Jeff does a much, much better job “proving” that Leaves of Grass is indeed the source of the Book of Mormon than anyone has done with View of the Hebrews.
Curiously, while critics of the Book of Mormon claim any school child could write it, no one has ever done a convincing job of trying to produce their own “Book of Mormon.” And yet Jeff here shows that producing a fake criticism of the Book of Mormon is not hard at all, and in fact that he can do it quite a bit better than most professional critics.