Anyone who has expressed doubts regarding the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon will probably have been met with the question, “Well if Joseph didn’t get it from the angel how do you explain the Book of Mormon?” Today the Book of Mormon does seem an unusual book that appears to have sprung from nowhere. Certainly the Mormon Church likes to present it as such, insisting that it could only have the history claimed for it because no other explanation “fits”. So our missionary friends will look at us expectantly, confident that we will not be able to meet the challenge “where did it come from?” The Book of Mormon, however, is very much a product of its age and fits neatly into the background of the early 19th Century.

Joseph Smith – Ignorant Farm Boy?

LeGrand Richards, in his book A Marvellous Work and A Wonder, after listing what he called 42 great truths revealed through Joseph Smith, makes this comment:

“Joseph Smith, or any other man, could not have obtained all this information by reading the Bible or studying all the books that have ever been written. It came from God.” (p.411)

Joseph is often cast in the role of ignorant farm boy and thoroughly incapable of writing the Book of Mormon. It is true that Joseph had little formal schooling, but intelligence is not dependent upon education. His personal letters show his depth of thought and grasp of language and he was most eloquent in his writing and speech.

At the beginning of his book LeGrand Richards quotes Jesus’ words about putting new wine into new wineskins (Mark 2:21-22) to explain why God would choose an uneducated lad – so that He could teach the lad the way He wanted, without any traditions or prejudices to get in the way. In fact, many of Joseph’s ideas can be traced to the people around him and the speculations of the day.

His father believed in dreams and visions and as early as 1811, when Joseph was only 6, contended for a return to the original church established by Jesus Christ and his apostles. His parents were both independent religious thinkers. His mother believed that all the Christian creeds were wrong – AS DID MANY PEOPLE OF THE DAY. In fact, in 1809, Alexander Campbell had come out against all Christian creeds and began his own sect (the Disciples of Christ), attempting to return to the early church. Also known as the Campbellites, they were prevalent along that part of the frontier and many later became Mormons because of the similarity of their convictions.

Even the account of Joseph’s First Vision is remarkably similar to accounts of spectacular conversion stories published in that period. In 1816 Elias Smith, a minister, claimed to have seen “The Lamb once slain” in a vision in the woods. Joseph’s local newspaper published a similar story in October 1823. Alexander Campbell himself wrote in 1824 about a revival in New York during which people had had visions, heard a voice in the woods, or seen the Saviour descending to the tops of the trees.

To people today, the idea of the Urim and Thummim stones, which enabled Joseph to translate the golden plates, is strange but peep stones were common in Joseph’s time. In March 1826 Joseph was found guilty of being “a disorderly person and an impostor.” He admitted in court that he used a peep stone to discover hidden treasures in the earth. He actually had several, including a dark stone he looked at in his hat, and a clear stone he held up to a candle or the sun.

Joseph’s mother testified to the inventive nature of his mind:

“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.” (Quoted in No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie, p.35)

The Book Of Mormon – Couldn’t Have Been Written By A Man?

In view of the above quote, it would seem that Joseph had plenty of material on which to draw for such a book. Added to which, local speculation was rife about a highly civilised race that had been wiped out in a great battle and buried in mounds.

Another story that was prevalent was that the Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. A local pastor, Ethan Smith, published a book in 1823 called View of the Hebrews; or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America. There is no proof that Joseph saw this book before writing the Book of Mormon, but the parallels between the two books are striking.

The Mormon church asserts that he could not have written such a complete book in the 60 days in which the translation took place. Yet those who acted as his scribes never actually saw him translate. It is known that there was a curtain between them and Joseph, and they never saw the plates as he translated. They also testify that his translation was fluent and he never corrected. Since even the best linguists sometimes have to rephrase their translation, Joseph must have been directly inspired by God. Another possibility, of course, is that he was reading from a previously prepared manuscript, or even from memory, considering his unique ability to “tell tales” as witnessed to by his mother. In addition, almost one third of the Book of Mormon is lifted from the Bible.

It is impossible to consider the origin of the Book of Mormon without considering Joseph Smith and the background against which he lived. The book can be explained by Joseph’s fertile mind, mastery of language, and responsiveness to the opinions around him.

The Book Of Mormon – An Ancient Document?

In 1831 Alexander Campbell wrote concerning the Book of Mormon:

“This prophet Smith…wrote…in his Book of Mormon every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies; -infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonry [sic], republican government, and the rights of man” (Millennial Harbinger, Feb.1831, p.93)

Not only does Joseph Smith tackle these great nineteenth century controversies in his Book of Mormon, but uses material from publications not in existence at the time of the Nephites. There are marked parallels between the Book of Mormon and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Joseph also appears to have drawn from popular books of his day, and even the local newspaper, to create his theological masterpiece. Even Shakespeare is quoted by Lehi, the father of Nephi, “hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs you must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveller can return (2 Nephi 1:14, c.f. Hamlet, act 3, scene 1, which contains the words “fro
m whose bourn no traveller returns…”)

Famously, the last word in the Book of Jacob is not “Reformed Egyptian” but French, “I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren adieu” (Jacob 7:27)

By far the greatest influence in the writing of the Book of Mormon, however, was the King James Bible. Large sections of the Bible are quoted in the Book of Mormon, including over eighteen chapters of Isaiah, and even the Apocrypha is pressed into service, providing names, concepts and story lines.

Nephi, for instance, is perhaps the most important name in the Book of Mormon. It is found hundreds of times in the book. Four major characters have that name; it is the name of four books, a city, a land, and a people. Mormon scholars have been to great lengths to explain the “Egyptian” origin of this very unusual name. It can be found in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 1:36).

Perhaps one of the most remarkable errors is the use of the titles Alpha and Omega. In 3 Nephi Jesus makes a post resurrection appearance in America and, in introducing himself, quotes Revelation 21:6, “I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End” (3 Nephi 9:18). Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Since Greek was used extensively throughout the Roman Empire, the New Testament was written in Greek. The Nephites, however, had left the Old World in 600 BC and would have had no knowledge of Greek. Indeed, the Book of Mormon was supposed to have been written in “Reformed Egyptian”. Jesus’ words would not have been understood by these people.

It appears that Joseph Smith did not know that these were Greek words. When he was challenged for using Greek in the Book of Mormon he wrote, in 1843:

“The error I speak of is the definition of the word MORMON. It has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek word mormo. This is not the case. There was NO GREEK or Latin upon the plates from which I…translated the Book of Mormon”.