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. 

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