Friday, November 15, 2013

"Everything is a Remix": The Book of Mormon and Pre-1830s Publications

Since I had watched the bulk of the October 2013 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought it only fair this year to watch a portion of the proceedings of the Exmormon Foundation 2013 Conference, which was held a couple weeks later.  Perhaps the biggest stir was created by a presentation given in the late afternoon (early evening for me here in the eastern United States) of 19 October 2013 by one Chris Johnson, a presentation titled "How the Book of Mormon Destroyed Mormonism".  (Chris Johnson has since posted a summary of his findings on his website in a post titled "Hidden in Plain Sight".)  In it, he offered the fruits of a computerized analysis he and his brother Duane Johnson did of 4-grams (four-word phrases) in the Book of Mormon when compared to a vast plethora of books available at the time the Book of Mormon was published (1830).  Their findings revealed some rather unexpected results, and thankfully the footage of the presentation is now available:

In short, while the work of Solomon Spaulding did not register as a real possible influence, and the 1823 book View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith (Oliver Cowdery's pastor) registered as a mildly significant possible influence, there were two unanticipated works that appeared to be significant possible influences on the Book of Mormon.  (There was actually a third as well: an 1822 translation of the Qur'an.  Various writings of Joanna Southcott also factored.)  First is the 1809 pseudonymous book The First Book of Napoleon, the Tyrant of the Earth, which might - Chris Johnson suggests - have been written by a young man ('Eliakim the Scribe') close to Joseph Smith's age.  This work was divided into chapter and verse, and this is the beginning of it:
And behold it came to pass, in these latter days, that an evil spirit arose on the face of the earth, and greatly troubled the sons of men.  And this spirit seized upon, and spread amongst the people who dwell in the land of Gaul.  Now, in this people the fear of the Lord had not been for many generations, and they had become a corrupt and perverse people; and their chief priests, and the nobles of the land, and the learned men thereof, had become wicked in the imaginations of their hearts, and in the practices of their lives.  And the evil spirit went abroad amongst the people, and they raged like unto the heathen, and they rose up against their lawful king, and slew him, and his queen also, and the prince their son; yea, verily, with a cruel and bloody death.  And they moreover smote, with mighty wrath, the king's guards, and banished the priests, and nobles of the land, and seized upon, and took unto themselves, their inheritances, their gold and silver, corn and oil, and whatsoever belonged unto them.  Now it came to pass, that the nation of the Gauls continued to be sorely troubled and vexed, and the evil spirit whispered unto the people, even unto the meanest and vilest thereof, that all men being born equal, were free to act, each one according to the imaginations and devices of his own heart, without the fear of GOD, or the controul of the lawful rulers of the land.  (1:1-6)
For an instance of the sort of parallels being identified, compare, for instance, First Book of Napoleon 1:5, "their inheritances, their gold and silver", to 1 Nephi 2:4, "the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things".  Second is Gilbert J. Hunt's 1816 book The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, which was an account of the War of 1812 framed in pseudo-biblical language and thought patterns.  In a later printing, it was actually used as a historical reader for schoolboys in New York during the teenage years of Joseph Smith and some of his early associates.  The following is the beginning section:
Now it came to pass, in the one thousand eight hundred and twelfth year of the christian era, and in the thirty and sixth year after the people of the provinces of Columbia had declared themselves independent of all the kingdoms of the earth; that in the sixth month of the same year, on the first day of the month, the chief Governor, whom the people had chosen to rule over the land of Columbia; even JAMES, whose sur-name was MADISON, delivered a written paper to the GREAT SANHEDRIM of the people who were assembled together. (1:1-3)
Needless to say, there has been a small firestorm in the wake of this presentation, with the lion's share of attention being given to the latter work.  This is actually not the first time that parallels between the works have been drawn, as can be seen in a 2008 piece from Rick Grunder and also the writings of Jerald and Sandra Tanner.  More recently, the LDS-themed blog Faith-Promoting Rumor gave some coverage to the matter in a post titled "The Book of Mormon and the Late War: Direct Literary Dependence?", arguing that Joseph Smith was not directly using the Late War when writing the Book of Mormon but rather that, having been familiar with it some time previously, it did indirectly shape the creation of the Book of Mormon.  (For instance, compare Late War 20:11-16 with Ether 9:17-19, as Johnson highlights.)  Christopher Smith, writing two posts at the Worlds Without End blog ("New Computer Study Purports to Detect Literary Influences on the Book of Mormon"; "What the New Computer Study Can Tell Us About the Book of Mormon"), also disputes to some extent whether the Johnson and Johnson study has actually made a strong case for literary dependence; but, in my view, Smith's critical assessment still seems rather less persuasive than the actual study. 

The opening words of the Book of Mormon text in 1 Nephi 1:1 ("I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents...") even seem to parallel somewhat the opening words of the introduction to another book identified in Johnson's analysis, David Willson's 1815 book The Rights of Christ, According to the Principles and Doctrines of the Children of Peace ("I, the writer, was born of Presbyterian parents...").  It seems, furthermore, that some (perhaps many) of the features that LDS apologists have previously pointed to as 'unexplainable' Hebraic features of the Book of Mormon, can also be found in these books, such as the use of 'with+noun' in place of adverbial forms (compare Jacob 4:3 to Late War 8:4, both using "with joy" rather than "joyfully" or "joyously"). This is particularly emphasized by the recent coverage at Mormonism Research Ministry's Mormon Coffee blog ("The Late War and the Book of Mormon"), which focuses on the way this is fostering further discussion in the LDS apologetics community.

Also needless to say, the actual significance of these findings will continue to be debated between LDS scholars and non-LDS scholars.  Most probably would not say that this conclusively proves that the Book of Mormon has a nineteenth-century origin; but most would probably agree that it does at least severely mitigate what minimal case had previously been made for an ancient origin, particularly on the basis of semantic features.  I don't profess to know what precisely this analysis can and cannot demonstrate just yet.  I look forward to further studies exploring this angle. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

"A Small Spark of Deity": An 1846 Poem from John Taylor

I recently found a poem that I think is a particularly beautiful one.  It was written by John Taylor (later the third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) for and to a New York City woman named Abby Jane Hart.  The poem ("Lines, Written in the Album of Miss Abby Jane Hart, of New York City") is dated 5 September 1846, and it was printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 8/11 (19 December 1846): 178-179.  The poem is as follows, and I think it illustrates some interesting tendencies in Latter-day Saint thought:

Abby: Knowest thou whence thou camest? Thine
Origin? Who thou art? What? and whither
Thou art bound? A crysolis of yesterday:
To-day a gaudy fluttering butterfly –
A moth; to-morrow crushed, and then an end
Of thee. Is this so? And must thou perish
Thus, and die ingloriously without a
          Ah, no; thou'rt no such thing. Thou in the
Bosom of thy Father bask'd, and liv'd, and
Mov'd thousands of years ago. Yes, e'er this
Mundane sphere from chaos sprung, or sun, or
Moon, or stars, or world was fram'd: before the
Sons of God for joy did shout, or e'er the
Morning stars together sung – thou liv'dst.
          Thou liv'dst to live again. Ah, no! thou liv'd
But to continue life eternal – to
Live, and move, and act eternally. Yes;
Long as a spirit, God, or world exists;
From everlasting, eternal, without end.
And whilst thou dwelt in thy paternal home,
And with thy brethren shar'd extatic bliss,
All that a spirit could not cloth'd in flesh,
Thou through the vista of unnumbered years
Saw'st through the glimmering veil that thou would'st
Dwell in flesh – just as the Gods.
                                              Tread in the
Footsteps of thine elder brother, Jesus –
The “Prince of Peace,” for whom a body was
             Thou heard; thou look'd; thou long'd; thou pray'd;
Thou hop'd for this. At length it came; and thou
Appear'd on this terraqueous ball,
Body and spirit; a living soul, forth
From the hands of Eloheim – eternal
As himself – part of thy God. A small spark
Of Deity struck from the fire of his
Eternal blaze.
                 Thou came! thou came to live! Of life thou art
A living monument; to it thou still
Dost cling eternal life. To thee all else
Are straw, and chaff, and bubbles light as air;
And will be all, until thou gain once more
Thy Father's breast; rais'd, quicken'd, immortal;
Body, spirit, all: a God among the
Gods forever blest.
                          Abby: and hast thou dared to launch thy
Fragile barque on truth's tempestuous sea;
To meet the pelting storm, and proudly brave
The dangers of the raging main; and through
The rocks, and shoals, and yawning gulphs, pursue
The nearest way to life, in hopes that thou
Would'st speedy gain a seat among the Gods?
          Seest thou the multitudes who sail in
Gilded barques, and gently float along the
Silvery stream? Downward they go with sweet
Luxurious ease, and scarce a zephyr moves
The tranquil bosom of the placid stream.
Unconscious of the greatness of the prize
They might obtain, they glide along in peace;
And as they never soar aloft, nor mount
On eagle's wings, nor draw aside the veil
Of other worlds, they know none else than this –
No other joys. They dream away their life,
And die forgot. Just as the butterfly
They gaily flutter on: to-day they live –
To-morrow are no more.
                                  And though, like thee,
In them is the eternal spark; thousands
Of weary years must roll along e'er they
Regain the prize they might with thee have shar'd.
Regain it? Never! No! They may come where
Thou wert, but never can they with thee share
Extatic bliss.
                  For whilst in heaven's progressive
Science skill'd, thou soard'st from world to world, clad
In the robes of bright seraphic light; and
With thy God, eternal – onward goest, a
Priestess and a queen – reigning and ruling in
The realms of light. Unlike the imbeciles
Who dared not brook the scorn of men, and knew not
How to prize eternal life.
                         Abby: the cup's within thy reach; drink thou
The vital balm and live.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Long-Awaited Return

Awaited by me, at least, even if not by anyone else.  Although the last post on this blog was made nearly a year ago (and even the last several months were purely automated), I've decided that I can no longer resist the lure to return to blogging here.

So, what have I been doing over the time I've been absent?  Well, I've continued my seminary education and should be receiving my MDiv this coming spring, after which - God willing - I will begin pastoring a church, most probably in my home state.  The educational experience has been an interesting one, and I'm greatly pleased by the opportunities that I have had.  I've gotten to mingle with theologians, philosophers, Old Testament scholars, New Testament scholars...  I've gotten to meet, however briefly, C. S. Lewis' stepson...  I've gotten to do missionary work in Kenya, to meet with Christian leaders there, to see life on the savannah and life in the villages and life in the slums.  It was, I earnestly pray, truly life-changing.  I hope that I have opportunities to draw on those experiences here on this blog at some point.

I have also kept up my interest in the LDS faith, in spite of my lack of blogging on the subject.  I've been meeting with several pairs of missionaries at their initiation.  I've been using the opportunity to confirm or deny the prior spiritual witness that I received urging me that the LDS faith is not true.  (So far, that witness is mildly re-confirmed, but I gave my word to the current pair of sister-missionaries that I would not make hasty prejudgments before December, the deadline I opted to set.  I keep my word and am intent on following through in genuine sincerity, even if the missionaries tend to focus more on the 'script' than on taking into account my actual view of my actual concerns.)  I'm still a frequent presence to the local ward, as I'm a consistent attendee of the Elders Quorum meetings.  I've continued following news items of LDS interest online, and I've continued reading, of course.  Here are a few of the most directly relevant books that I've read since the start of 2012:
  • the remaining volumes of Wilford Woodruff's journals
  • Early Mormonism and the Magical World View by D. Michael Quinn
  • The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy by Terryl L. Givens
  • Achieving a Celestial Marriage: Student Manual  (1976 Church manual)
  • William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview, edited by Lyndon W. Cook
  • On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life by J. Reuben Clark, Jr.
  • Doctrines of Salvation (3 vols.) by Joseph Fielding Smith 
  • From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer, edited by Bruce N. Westergren
  • Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage by B. Carmon Hardy
  • However Long and Hard the Road by Jeffrey R. Holland
  • The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball
  • The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen
  • Elias: An Epic of the Ages by Orson F. Whitney
  • Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897, edited by Richard N. Holzapfel
  • A Mormon Chronicle: The Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876 (2 vols.), edited by Robert Cleland and Juanita Brooks
  • Hearing the Voice of the Lord: Principles and Patterns of Personal Revelation by Gerald N. Lund
  • A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel  (1952/1955 LDS missionary manual)
  • A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators  (1961 LDS missionary manual)
  • The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000: A Documentary History, edited by Devery S. Anderson
  • The Master's Church: Course A  (1969 LDS Sunday School manual)
  • Mormons and Evangelicals: Reasons for Faith by David E. Smith
  • Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, compiled by H. Michael Marquardt
  • The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis by Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish
  • In the President's Office: The Diaries of L. John Nuttall, 1879-1892, edited by Jedediah S. Rogers
I've also seen two of my LDS friends leave the LDS movement for mainstream Christianity, though I cannot be sure what role I might have played in at least the first case.  (As for the other, she was baptized yesterday at a Foursquare congregation.  Sadly, she has been on the receiving end of a considerable degree of accusatory hate mail from many of her LDS former 'friends', and so prayers for her would of course be appreciated.)  I have also continued writing a paper giving my testimony and engaging with LDS thought, which I've titled A Testimony and an Exhortation; it stands now at 83 pages, and I expect to eventually post some extracts here, and hope to get some feedback.  In the meantime, I am eager to see this blog get back up and running - perhaps not with quite so aggressive a frequency as I had before, but we'll play it by ear. I hope that you all are well.  God bless you all!