The origin of the Book of Mormon is a fascinating subject as there is clear evidence that its source was not divine, but was actually conjured up in the imagination of Joseph Smith, inspired by similar stories circulating around his time.
It’s precisely because the Book of Mormon was drafted by Joseph Smith (a “poor farm boy” as Mormons like to refer to him) and not divinely inspired, that we’re not surprised to see the almost 4,000 changes, alterations, and corrections to the Book of Mormon since its first publication.
And it doesn’t shock us that many parts of the Book of Mormon are simply plagiarisms from the King James Version of the Bible, including the use of King James English long before there was King James English (just one of the many anachronisms found in the Book of Mormon).
And we’re not stunned that absolutely none of the huge cities and civilizations described in the Book of Mormon have ever been found.
And we’re not astounded that there’s no historical, archeological, or anthropological support for the claims of the Book of Mormon.
And we aren’t astonished that DNA science has actually proven the claims of the Book of Mormon to be false.
And we aren’t beside ourselves that there’s not even one ancient manuscript to support the validity of the Book of Mormon (like the over 25,000 ancient manuscripts that support the Bible).
These are some of the many problems that we’d expect to see from a book created by finite man, not from an inspired work by an infinite God.
So where did this “poor farm boy” get his ideas and inspiration for the Book of Mormon?
History tells us that there were many theories about the origins of the American Indians circulating during the time of Joseph Smith preceding the publication of the Book of Mormon; theories that found themselves on the pages of this supposedly ancient book written on gold plates.
Regarding the many similarities between the Book of Mormon and other writings that were available to Joseph Smith at the time (specifically, View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith), Mormon apologist, historian, and member of the LDS general authority, B. H. Roberts, wrote of his concerns about this matter in two of his own works, Book of Mormon Difficulties and Book of Mormon Study. Roberts concedes:
Did Ethan Smith’s ‘View of the Hebrews’ furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.
For more on Roberts’ candid observations, I recommend Joel B. Groat’s article A Mormon General Authority’s Doubts About the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon as well as 5 Years to Plan the Mormon Story from Bible Topics.
It is apparent that Joseph Smith took what was a popular theory of his day and capitalized on it.
The following is from 20 Truths:
Ethan Smith was a minister of a Congregational Church in Poultney, Vermont from 1821 to 1826 when he wrote View of the Hebrews. It was first published in 1823 (the Book of Mormon was published 6 years later in 1829). Interestingly, Oliver Cowdery, scribe, and later witness of the Book of Mormon, lived in Poultney for 22 years until 1825. Cowdery’s stepmother and three of his sisters were members of Ethan Smith’s congregation. No direct evidence exists that would prove or disprove Joseph Smith had read View of the Hebrews. Another book, The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed, was in the local Manchester Library (five miles from Joseph Smith’s home) and extant records show that it was reportedly checked out during the years 1826 to 1828. This book includes a long selection from Ethan Smith’s book and attempts to establish a Hebrew origin for Native Americans.
Ethan Smith’s theory of the origin of the Indian mounds was exactly the same as that which formed the heart of the Book of Mormon story:
‘Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long laboured to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequently savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them, and all in these northern regions!’ (View of the Hebrews, p. 184)
And finally, your understanding of this blow to the foundations of Mormonism would not be complete without reading the following from Sandra Tanner (from the May 2010, UTLM newsletter):
In the early 1800’s there was high interest in the American Indian culture and artifacts resulting in many books and newspaper articles. The local newspapers occasionally ran stories about the Indians. The Palmyra Register for May 26, 1819, reported that one writer
believes (and we think with good reason) that this country was once inhabited by a race of people, at least, partially civilized, & that this race has been exterminated by the forefathers of the present and late tribes of Indians in this country.
Furthermore, the following was published in the Smiths’ local newspaper, the Wayne Sentinel, in 1825:
Those who are most conversant with the public and private economy of the Indians, are strongly of opinion that they are the lineal descendants of the Israelites, and my own researches go far to confirm me in the same belief.
Dan Vogel gave the following overview of Smith’s environment:
By 1830 knowledge of the impressive ruined cities of the Maya of Central America and the Inca of South America was commonplace in the northeastern United States. In addition, the inhabitants of those states were almost daily reminded of the building acumen of the early Indians: the remnants of fortifications as well as burial mounds dotted the area. Since most nineteenth-century Americans did not make distinctions among the various cultures and lifestyles of the native Americans and instead thought of these disparate groups as belonging to one race—the Indian—they also tended to see all of these ruins as coming from one group. What must this group have been like to have engineered such structures? The Book of Mormon tells the story of such a people and provides possible answers to persistent questions about their history.
There were a number of books printed in Joseph Smith’s day to provide such answers. It was a common theory that the American Indians descended from Israel—the very idea put forward in the Book of Mormon.
In 1652 Menasseh Ben Israel’s Hope of Israel [online] was published in England. This Jewish rabbi was a firm believer that remnants of the ten tribes of Israel had been discovered in the Americas.
In 1775 James Adair published The History of the American Indians [online]. He theorized that there were twenty-three parallels between Indian and Jewish customs. For example, he claimed the Indians spoke a corrupt form of Hebrew, honored the Jewish Sabbath, performed circumcision, and offered animal sacrifice. He discussed various theories explaining Indian origins, problems of transoceanic crossing, and the theory that the mound builders were a white group more advanced than the Indians.
A popular book of Smith’s day was View of the Hebrews, by Rev. Ethan Smith, printed in 1823, with a second edition in 1825. LDS General Authority B. H. Roberts wrote extensively about the parallels between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Rev. Robert Hullinger gave the following summary of B. H. Robert’s parallels:
According to Roberts’s later studies, some features of View of the Hebrews are paralleled in the Book of Mormon. (1) Indians buried a book they could no longer read. (2) A Mr. Merrick found some dark yellow parchment leaves in “Indian Hill.” (3) Native Americans had inspired prophets and charismatic gifts, as well as (4) their own kind of Urim and Thummim and breastplate. (5) Ethan Smith produced evidence to show that ancient Mexican Indians were no strangers to Egyptian hieroglyphics. (6) An overthrown civilization in America is to be seen from its ruined monuments and forts and mounds. The barbarous tribes—barbarous because they had lost the civilized arts—greeting the Europeans were descendants of the lost civilization. (7) Chapter one of View of the Hebrews is a thirty-two page account of the historical destruction of Jerusalem. (8) There are many references to Israel’s scattering and being “gathered” in the last days. (9) Isaiah is quoted for twenty chapters to demonstrate the restoration of Israel. In Isaiah 18 a request is made to save Israel in America. (10) The United States is asked to evangelize the native Americans. (11) Ethan Smith cited Humboldt’s New Spain to show the characteristics of Central American civilization; the same are in the Book of Mormon. (12) The legends of Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican messiah, are paralleled in the Book of Mormon by Christ’s appearing in the western hemisphere. . . . Roberts came to recognize that, at least in the case of Ethan Smith’s book, such works were widely available.
Researcher and author Simon Southerton observed:
In spite of its extensive similarities with the Book of Mormon, View of the Hebrews should not be regarded as the sole source of inspiration for the book. The basic themes running through both publications merely reflected the most commonly accepted myths surrounding the mounds, the Indians, and the original colonization of America. The principal difference is that Ethan Smith’s work was open speculation, whereas the Book of Mormon was a narrative that purported to be a literal, eyewitness account of what happened. . . .
The white man’s perceptions of Native Americans and the Mound Builder myth, both of which permeated the New England society of Joseph Smith’s day, became embedded in Mormon scripture. In many respects, the characteristics of the Book of Mormon Lamanites mirror the misunderstandings that surfaced in the froth of frontier speculation. The Mound Builder myth receives scriptural confirmation in the closing chapters of the Book of Mormon story where the final destruction of the fair-skinned civilized Nephites occurs at the hand of their brethren, the savage, dark-skinned Lamanites. The story must have appeared plausible to early Americans who, for most of the nineteenth century, believed that Native Americans were responsible for the genocide of the postulated earlier, advanced race. The stereotypes and misunderstandings served to validate the Europeans’ theft of native lands as an act of retribution; American Indians were themselves intruders in a land that had belonged to an earlier race—one that was comfortingly familiar to white colonists.
That Joseph Smith was intrigued with the stories of the earliest inhabitants of the New World can be seen in Lucy Smith’s memoirs. She noted Joseph’s storytelling ability and interest in the Indians:
During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.
It should be borne in mind that the Book of Mormon parallels the views of Smith’s day; it does not parallel archaeology today. This is one of the areas which demonstrate that the Book of Mormon was written in the 1820’s, not 600 B.C. to 421 A.D.
In 1996 the Smithsonian Institute stated:
The physical type of the American Indian is basically Mongoloid, being most closely related to that of the peoples of eastern, central, and northeastern Asia. . . .
One of the main lines of evidence supporting the scientific finding that contacts with Old World civilizations if indeed they occurred at all, were of very little significance for the development of American Indian civilizations, is the fact that none of the principal Old World domesticated food plants or animals (except the dog) occurred in the New World in pre-Columbian times. American Indians had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels before 1492. (Camels and horses were in the Americas, along with the bison, mammoth, and mastodon, but all these animals became extinct around 10,000 B.C. at the time when the early big game hunters spread across the Americas.)
Iron, steel, glass, and silk were not used in the New World before 1492 (except for occasional use of unsmelted meteoric iron). Native copper was worked in various locations in pre-Columbian times, but true metallurgy was limited to southern Mexico and the Andean region, where its occurrence in late prehistoric times involved gold, silver, copper, and their alloys, but not iron. . . .
Reports of findings of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World writings in the New World in pre-Columbian contexts have frequently appeared in newspapers, magazines, and sensational books. None of these claims has stood up to examination by reputable scholars. No inscriptions using Old World forms of writing have been shown to have occurred in any part of the Americas before 1492 except for a few Norse rune stones which have been found in Greenland.
Thus we see the disputes over religion preceding Joseph Smith’s founding of a church supplied the ideas for his new religion. The Book of Mormon contains many of the same doctrinal debates that were raging in Joseph Smith’s area. His first vision mirrors many others of the day. His new religion supplied the necessary means to unite his family on both doctrine and church affiliation.
His family was also immersed in the magical world view of the day, practicing water-witching, stone gazing and appealing to the “faculty of Abrac.” The same phenomenon of slipping treasures appears in the Book of Mormon as it did in Smith’s money-digging. Joseph’s use of an object to discern the will of God is also reflected in the Book of Mormon.
The regional discussion and curiosity about the origin of the American Indians and their possible descent from Israelites provided a framework for Smith’s new book of scripture.
From this we conclude that Joseph Smith’s environment provided the components necessary to author the Book of Mormon and start his new church.
Just as the Methodist leaders pleaded with Joseph Smith to renounce his unbiblical beliefs and practices, we plead with our LDS friends to come back to Biblical Christianity. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the father but by me” (John 14:6).