A Potent Representation of How The Book of Mormon Follows Popular (But Ultimately Falsified) Early 19th Century Beliefs About the Native Americans (And a Possible Direct Source of Influence For Some Specific Book of Mormon Content)
In 1922 LDS leader BH Roberts stated the following:
“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.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pg. 240)
“The material in Ethan Smith’s book is of a character and quantity to make a ground plan for the Book of Mormon …Can such numerous and startling points of resemblance and suggestive contact be merely coincidence?” (pg. 242)
For more on BH Robert’s concerns in this regard you can see my post HERE. After reading View of the Hebrews and becoming familiar with the environment from which this book emerged, I too found myself with significant concerns. Those whom I had seen speak to the issue had only refuted a caricature or “straw-man” version of the issues that troubled me. They talked about “plagiarism” and cited the differences between the books as if my concern was that this book was some sort of lost manuscript that did the significant work of actually creating the Book of Mormon, or something that someone actively or consciously referenced while creating the Book of Mormon. But those weren’t my concerns.
Here’s the thing. I would have found this book troubling even if we had definitive proof that Joseph never encountered it. Why? Because above all else this book served as a potent representation of the fact that the Book of Mormon’s very self-conception and foundational narrative seem to be based on the popular—but false and ultimately abandoned—early 19th century views of the Native Americans. When I learned about the common beliefs of the day regarding the Native Americans, and came to understand how and why these beliefs had developed, it suddenly became very difficult for me to see the book as anything but a product of its time—a book with its very foundations built upon false ideas of its time.
I don’t think Joseph was consciously “plagiarizing” this book. I don’t think it would have crossed his mind that he was “plagiarizing” it. I don’t think he was actively referencing this book during the creation of the Book of Mormon. However, I do feel that Joseph almost certainly encountered this book, and that his exposure to this book’s ideas and content very likely “influenced” the Book of Mormon in many respects—and perhaps even helped formulate the Book of Mormon’s big picture narrative and self conception. Decide for yourself. But let’s again be clear: That issue is very much secondary to the one stated in the previous paragraph. It is certainly true that Joseph could have encountered the general thrust of this book’s ideas in other sources, and could have reached conclusions similar to those in View of the Hebrews. On the other hand, some foundational concepts of the Book of Mormon do seem to be uniquely exemplified in View of the Hebrews. Either way, exploring View of the Hebrews made it hard for me not to see the Book of Mormon as a product of its time—concerns that only deepened when I sought further answers in early church history.
Even if you ultimately believe the Book of Mormon is based on a legitimate historical document, perhaps this writeup will help you begin to accurately understand just one of the issues that leads others to different conclusions.
A full PDF of View of the Hebrews can be found HERE, and it is the source of the page number references in this document.
IMPORTANT BACKGROUND INFO
Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” was first published in 1823 in Poultney, Vermont. Ethan Smith was Oliver Cowdery’s pastor. The book was popular enough that a second edition was published in 1825.
In summary, the book first thoroughly reviews for readers the “scattering of Israel,” and then the prophesied “gathering of Israel” in the last days (which he repeatedly insists must be understood as a “literal” gathering). It quotes a lot of scripture regarding these issues—especially Isaiah. It then proceeds to quote all kinds of sources in support of the notion that the Native Americans are “lost Israelites” (although ultimately proven wrong, it was a widely accepted belief at the time). Along the way he proposes a basic narrative of how he believes the Israelites likely arrived in America—though his proposal differs from that of the Book of Mormon in that he believes they came 100 years earlier, and via the Bering Strait rather than by boat. The key overarching goal and theme of the book is to awaken Christians to their duty to help “gather” and “Christianize” the Native Americans, and to help them understand their “true” identity as Israelites.
A bit of background regarding the “common knowledge” of Joseph’s day regarding the Native Americans will be crucial in helping people to fully appreciate the significance of this book. Like so many others of the time, Ethan Smith accepted two very common (but ultimately proven false) assumptions prior to creating it. First, although the idea was ultimately abandoned and eventually even disproven by DNA, it was the norm in Joseph’s day to identify the Native Americans as “lost Israelites.” It made perfect sense to them due to their belief in a literal flood which would have wiped out any previous inhabitants, as well as their biblical interpretations regarding “scattered Israel.” See HERE for my quick introduction to how common these beliefs were at the time.
Second, in Joseph’s day it was also “common knowledge” that there must have previously been another more civilized (and most also believed more “white”) group of natives who had been exterminated by the supposedly “savage,” “lazy,” and “dumb” natives who remained. For them it was the only reasonable way to explain the impressive “Indian Mounds” and other complex works being discovered in the Americas. I feel it is very important for readers to have at least a brief introduction to how these ideas were so commonly expressed at that time, so to streamline that effort I’ve provided a brief sampling of quotes HERE. Of course, the “Mound Builder Myth” of a “lost race” was debunked by about 1890 when archeologists found that it was in fact the “Indians” who had built the Indian Mounds. It was about that time when John Wesley Powell wrote a piece called “The Indians Are The Moundbuilders.” But of course this false “common knowledge” of Joseph’s time fits quite nicely with the concepts of the Nephites and Lamanites—and it is notable that Joseph once recounted in a letter to Emma that he was…
“…wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord.”
But if the “Mound Builder Myth” didn’t spell out the foundational (but false) concepts of the Book of Mormon clearly enough, Ethan Smith’s book spelled them out even more explicitly.
THE MAJOR PARALLELS BETWEEN THE TWO BOOKS:
From View of the Hebrews…
“It is highly probable that the more civilized part of the tribes of Israel, after they settled in America, became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren; that the latter lost the knowledge of their having descended from the same family with themselves; that the more civilized part continued for many centuries; that tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren, till the former became extinct. This hypothesis accounts for the ancient works, forts, mounts, and vast enclosures as well as tokens of a good degree of civil improvement, which are manifestly ancient…” (pg 72)
“These partially civilized people became extinct. What account can be given of this, but that the savages extirpated them after long and dismal wars? …. No other hypothesis occurs to mind, which appears by any means so probable. The degrees of improvement, demonstrated to have existed among the authors of these works, and relics, who have ceased to exist, far exceed all that could have been furnished from the north-east of Asia, in those ancient times. But however vindictive the savages must have been; however cruel and horrid in extirpating their more civilized brethren; yet it is a fact that there are many excellent traits in their original character. There is in the minds of the native Americans a quality far superior to what is found in the minds of most other heathen on earth; and such as might have been expected from the descendants of the ancient Israel of God…” (pg 72)
“…Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long labored to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequent savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them, and all in these northern regions!” (note: the final battles in the Book of Mormon also took place in “the land Northward”) (pg 77)
“But the savage tribes prevailed; and in time their savage jealousies and rage annihilated their more civilized brethren.” (pg 72)
“Of some of these I shall give a concise view, as additional arguments in favor of my theory, that some of the people of Israel who came into the western continent maintained some degree of civilization for a long time; but that the better part of the outcast tribes of Israel here finally became extinct, at least in North America, under the rage of their more numerous savage brethren.” (pg 78)
“Look at the origin of those degraded natives of your continent, and fly to their relief…Teach them the story of their ancestors; the economy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….showing them what has been done for their nation; and what is yet to be done by the God of their fathers, in the line of his promise. Teach them their ancient history; their former blessings; their being cast away…and the promise of their return….” (pg 102)
I don’t think I need to point out the very obvious and foundational parallels between the Book of Mormon and the text above. It is hard for me to view it as a coincidence that both books would just happen to contain these popular concepts of the time period which happen to have ultimately been abandoned and shown to be false. Whether Joseph encountered these concepts in View of the Hebrews or just in the general environment around him isn’t all that important to me. In either case it makes it hard for me to view the Book of Mormon as anything but a 19th century creation.
Although I do find the parallels above to be particularly significant and foundational, there are many others worth exploration. As BH Roberts noted, the number of parallels and their “cumulative force” should also be considered. There are far more of them than I care to try to present here. Obviously they will all vary in significance, and I certainly wouldn’t insist that they all definitely influenced the Book of Mormon, but below I’m going to highlight some that I feel are worth noting and exploring.
ADDITIONAL PARALLELS WORTH EXPLORING
Some Natives Were Imagined to Have Had A “Urim and Thummim” Which Included a “Breastplate”
In this portion of the book Ethan Smith is actually quoting James Adair’s work—a very popular resource at the time for information regarding the Native Americans.
“In resemblance of the Urim and Thummim, the American Archimagus wears a breast plate made of a white conch-shell with two holes bored in the middle of it, through which he puts the ends of an otter skin strap, and fastens a buck horn white button to the outside of each, as if in imitation of the precious stones of the Urim.” (pg 63)
Numerous References to the Native American God as “The Great Spirit”
I stopped counting the number of these references when I got to 50. Possibly an inspiration for the same term in Alma 18, 19, and 22?
References to Native American “Fortifications” that Sound Very Much Like Those In The Book of Mormon
Quoting the “Archaeologia Americana,” View of the Hebrews describes these fortifications as “these military works—these walls and ditches,” which “owe their origin to a people far more civilized than our Indians.” (pg 78)
Perhaps coincidence, but “walls and ditches” sound like the fortifications in the Book of Mormon. To further illustrate the point, the popular resource by James Adair called “History of the American Indians” (which is often quoted in View of the Hebrews) also describes the fortifications in a way that is strikingly similar to the Book of Mormon:
“Through the whole continent… are traces of their ancient warlike disposition…We frequently met with great mounds of earth…having a strong breast-work at a distance around them, made of the clay which had been dug up in forming the ditch on the inner side of the inclosed ground, and these were their forts of security against an enemy.”
Another description was given as follows: “A broad deep ditch inclosed those two fortresses, and there they raised an high breastwork, to secure their houses from the invading enemy.”
The Native Americans Are Said To Be Part of the “Stick of Ephraim” Referenced In Ezekiel 37:15-17
Ethan Smith argued that this prophecy had not yet been fulfilled, and includes the Native Americans as part of the 10 tribes who are the “stick of Ephraim”:
“The reunion of the two branches of that people follows, by the figure of the two sticks taken by the prophet. Of the one he writes, ‘For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions.” Upon the other, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions’…. it is here expressed that the Jews and those Israelites, their companions, were symbolized by one stick; and Ephraim, all the house of Israel, (the whole ten tribes,) by the other stick. These sticks miraculously become one in the prophet’s hand.” (pg. 24)
“The ten tribes, as well as the Jews, belong to the ‘nation scattered and peeled, and terrible from the beginning.’ Yes, the stick of Ephraim is to become one in the hand of the prophet, with the stick of the Jews; Ezek 37:15.—If it is a fact, that the aborigines of this ‘land shadowing with wings,’ are the tribes of Israel; we perceive at once what can be done to fulfill the noted demand of God, as it relates to them.” (pg. 101)
As a bit of a sidenote, the text also explicitly reviews the concept of a great “apostasy,” specifically referencing Amos 8:11-12, and 2 Thessalonians 2:3. Perhaps coincidence, but these are all very important verses in LDS thought and teaching.
The Legend of Quetzalcoatl is Discussed
The legend is described in the text as one of a “white and bearded man” whom the Great Spirit gave “immortality.” It is said that “he appeased by his penance divine wrath.” He is offered “the reigns of the government.” He “dwelt twenty years among them.” He “ordered fasts.” He “preached peace to men, and would permit no other offerings to the Divinity than the first fruits of the harvests.” He “disappeared, after he had declared to the Cholulans that he would return and govern them again, and renew their happiness.” (see pg 85). Interestingly, Ethan Smith proposes this was all a remnant of ancient tradition of Moses that was brought from the old world—though many modern LDS folks believe it describes Christ’s visit to the Americas, and Joseph certainly could have thought the same (though I’ll note that even LDS scholars of Mesoamerica such as Brant Gardner and Mark Wright say there can be no real connection between Jesus Christ and Quetzalcoatl. See HERE for one example).
The Text Proposes That Some Natives Had Changed Their Government From a Monarchy to a Republic—a Theme That Arises in the Book of Mormon
“‘But the Mexican small colonies, wearied of tyranny, gave themselves republican constitutions.’ Now it is only after long popular struggles that these free constitutions can be formed. The existence of a republic does not indicate a very recent civilization. Here, like a wise politician, he was showing that the Mexicans from ancient date, were a civilized people, at least, in good degree.” (pg 76)
The Text Is EXTREMELY Heavy on the Importance of a Prophesied “Literal Gathering” or “Restoration” of the Lost Tribes of Israel
Interesting that a concept that was such a prominent issue among early 19th century Christians happens to have also been a key concern of the Book of Mormon and the early church. A debated issue of the day was whether the “gathering” of Israel was to be literal or figurative. In fact a key section outlined in the Table of Contents of View of the Hebrews is “Arguments in favor of a literal restoration,” which is followed by an outline of 5 reasons that it should be “expected to be literal.” Of course the Book of Mormon just happens to have explicitly settled this debate. Speaking of the gathering of Israel, Nephi of course asks the question:
“Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh? …Wherefore, the things of which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual;…” (1 Nephi 22:1,3)
Here is one brief taste of such themes in the book (it truly is all throughout):
“so it is to have a kind of literal fulfillment, upon a much greater scale, in the missions, which shall recover the ten tribes from the vast wilderness of America… as the wilderness of Judea in a small degree rejoiced and blossomed as the rose, when John the Baptist performed his ministry in it; so the wilderness and solitary place of our vast continent, containing the lost tribes of the house of Israel, will, on a most enlarged scale, rejoice and blossom as the rose, when the long lost tribes shall be found there and shall be gathered to Zion…. (pg 106-107).
Joseph of course connected the “blossoming as a rose” with the Lamanites as well (D&C 49:24). One final interesting tidbit is that the book specifically suggests that biblical prophecy about even those on the “isles afar off” being gathered had reference to the Native Americans. “Where can these ‘isles afar off’…. where can they be so naturally found as in America?” (pg 95). Nephi happens to have specifically identified his people as being one of those referred to as being on an “isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20-21)
The Book’s Key Purpose Is To Awaken Christians to Their Duty to “Gather” or “Christianize” the Natives
The book’s readers are to:
“Look at the origin of those degraded natives of your continent, and fly to their relief… Teach them the story of their ancestors; the economy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…. showing them what has been done for their nation; and what is yet to be done by the God of their fathers, in the line of his promise. Teach them their ancient history; their former blessings; their being cast away…and the promise of their return…. Tell them what their ancient fathers the prophets were inspired to predict in their behalf; and the charge here given for their restoration…. That the Great Spirit above the clouds now calls them by you to come and receive his grace by Christ… to whom the people must be gathered. Inform them that by embracing this true seed of Abraham, you and multitudes of other Gentiles, have become the children of the ancient patriarch… Go, though nation highly distinguished in the last days; save the remnant of my people…” (pg 102)
Compare to the Book of Mormon and D&C which repeatedly declare that the Book of Mormon is supposed to come forth to the “remnant of our seed” so they’ll “be restored unto the knowledge of their forefathers,” and “know that they are of the house of Israel,” and know that they are “descendants of the Jews.” It says they are a “remnant of the house of Joseph.” It says “so that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers.” (2 Ne 30:3-6; 1 Ne 15:14; D&C 3:16-20)
The Text Discusses Perceived Anointing of the Indian “High Priests” and The Placement of the Holy Garments Upon Them
“As the high priest in Israel was inducted into office by various ceremonies, and by anointing; so is the Indian high priest by purification, and by anointing. When the holy garments are put upon him, bear’s oil is poured on his head. And it is stated that the high priest have their resemblances of the various ornaments worn by the ancient high priests; and even a resemblance of the breast plate.” (pg 51)
The Text Suggests Evidence that the Gospel of Jesus Christ Had Long Ago Been Preached In the Americas
From the book:
“They persuaded them that the gospel had in very remote times, been already preached in America. And they investigated its traces in Aztec ritual… It is a noted fact that there is a far greater analogy between much of the religion of the Indians, and Christianity, than between that of any other heathen nation on earth and Christianity.”
This was an idea that was held by many of the time. In their “History of New York,” John Yates and Joseph Moulton claimed the Natives were “Retaining some ceremonies of Christian worship.” Jeremy Belnap stated: “If the gospel was designed for an universal benefit to mankind, why was it not brought by the Apostles to America? To solve this difficulty it has been alleged that America was known to the ancients; and that it was enlightened by the personal ministry of the Apostles.” But this sort of belief goes back much further. Thomas Thorowgood proposed it in his 1650 book. In 1727 Samuel Sewell suggested that the Bible verses about Jesus preaching to “the spirits in prison” were about the “going of Jesus Christ into America” to preach to them. He suggests the “other sheep” in John 10:16 were the “sheep belonging to this American fold.” Previous to that, many Spanish and Portuguese priests had (mistakenly) attributed Christian motifs to the Natives–for example, many mistakenly saw the sacred tree of the Maya as a Christian cross.
All this being the case, it would be perfectly fitting for Joseph’s narrative to propose his own mechanism for the arrival of Christianity in ancient America.
The Text Extensively Suggests The Presence of Metallurgy Among the Native Americans
Many pages (79-82) are dedicated to discussing how much metallurgy the natives supposedly had—proposing that only Israelites could have had such technology. Perhaps this influenced Joseph to include metallurgy in the Book of Mormon even though no metallurgy whatsoever has been found in Mesoamerica prior to about 700 AD (not even gold work).
The Text Proposes That The Native Americans Had Once Believed in the Trinity
Despite the fact that a fully developed concept of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is not only completely absent from all pre-Christian Israelite records, but also wasn’t even fully developed among the earliest Christians, the Book of Mormon presents it as a belief held even by ancient pre-Christian Native Americans. View of the Hebrews proposes that the Natives once had the same knowledge, and that remnants could still be seen of their belief in “one God”—who was also simultaneously understood to be “triune” (a trinitarian concept of one God but three persons). From View of the Hebrews:
“One more argument I will adduce from facts furnished in the Archaeology, to show that the American natives are from the tribes of Israel. The argument is a tradition of a trinity in their Great Spirit… An Indian article called by this writer a “triune vessel,” and noted as a religious article, and an emblem of their gods, was found… But this triune vessel is one entire thing. It must rather then have been designed to represent one god with something like three facts, or characters…. The numerous ancient inhabitants on the Mississippi were the same race with those of Mexico and Peru. And the latter have exhibited similar ideas of the triune God…. And the writer of the Archeology speaks of the native South Americans as having three principal gods…. But who does not discover also, that what the writer calls the three principal gods of the South Americans, is truly but one God?… And it has been universally testified of the great body of the Indians of America, that they hold to but one God, there is something in him threefold…. No rational account can be given of these various and distinct triune emblems of their Great Spirit, but that they were derived from ancient revelation in Israel, which did throughout present the one God of Israel as God; the Lord; and the Spirit of the Lord.” (pg 87-89)
Interestingly, the Book of Mormon is surprisingly Trinitarian in its language. See for example Alma 11:38-39, Mosiah 15:1-4, Ether 3:14-15, Mosiah 16:15, 2 Nephi 31:21. More significantly, the 1830 version was even more explicitly trinitarian in its language, but some passages have been changed in our current edition. Compare 1 Nephi 11:21 and 1 Nephi 13:40 to the original version in “Skousen’s Earliest Text.” This is more significant given that Joseph’s accounts of the first vision don’t mention 2 personages until his 1838 account, and that his earliest account only mentions seeing “the Lord.”
Other Broad Considerations
I have no intention of trying to cover all the parallels in this summary, but the book repeats all the same “evidences” that were put forth in so many other sources of the time that suggested the natives must be Israelites. The book heavily quotes James Adair and numerous others. Claiming for example that: Their “language appears clearly to be Hebrew.” That they practiced circumcision and other mosaic rituals. That they told stories of the flood and the confounding of languages. That all the natives are believed to “have one origin” in terms of their ancestry, and so on… Given all of these common (but mistaken) claims of the time, one can understand why non-believers would feel that the Book of Mormon is simply wrongly attributing all these same sorts of things to ancient Native Americans, and feel that the book is simply a product of the early 19th century.
I have to ask the same question as B.H. Roberts:
“Can such numerous and startling points of resemblance and suggestive contact be merely coincidence?
Perhaps the evidence will lead you to feel (as BH Roberts did) that it is very reasonable to suggest this book as something that “could well have furnished structural outlines for the book of Mormon.” He proposed that:
“it could with reason be urged, which, given the suggestions that are to be found in the ‘common knowledge’ of accepted American antiquities of the times, supplemented by such a work, as Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon is… and a person of vivid and constructive imaginative power in contact with it, there is little room for doubt that it might be possible for Joseph Smith to construct a theory of origin for his Book of Mormon in harmony with these prevailing notions; and more especially since this ‘common knowledge’ is set forth in almost handbook form in the little work of Ethan Smith…” (pg 152-154, Studies of the Book of Mormon)
Or perhaps you’ll feel as believer Blake T. Ostler that these were most likely two independent reflections of early 19th century thought:
“The prophecies of America and the role of a gentile nation in the Book of Mormon can most reasonably be explained, in my opinion, as popular nineteenth-century concepts inserted in the text by Joseph Smith (1 Ne. 13:10-20). In short, similarities between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon do not require the dependance of one upon the other but are most easily explained as two reflections of common nineteenth-century assumptions about the American Indians.” (pg. 70 HERE)
Although it is certainly true that Joseph would have encountered the general thrust of these ideas in countless other sources of the time, my personal feeling is that some foundational concepts of the Book of Mormon do seem to be uniquely exemplified in View of the Hebrews—making a direct connection seem more likely. However, although this is an interesting question worth some consideration, in the end it really isn’t that important to me whether Joseph encountered these concepts in View of the Hebrews or just in the general environment around him. First and foremost, I found this book significant for Book of Mormon studies because it awoke me to the fact that the Book of Mormon’s very self-conception and foundational narrative seem to be based on the popular early 19th century views of the Native Americans. Am I to believe that it was just by chance that the Book of Mormon’s foundational narrative happens to so aptly follow the popular (but false and ultimately abandoned!) ideas of the day regarding Native American origins? Ultimately it was just one consideration among many, but it was a significant factor that caused me to begin suspecting the book was a non-historical product of its time.
As seen in quotes above, LDS scholars such as Blake Ostler and Brant Gardner attempt to account for the prevalent 19th century material in the Book of Mormon by classifying these things as Joseph’s unconscious “expansions” or extremely loose translations of a legitimate historical text. I appreciate that they acknowledge that much of the Book of Mormon text cannot reasonably be considered ancient in nature, and must be identified as modern “expansions” by Joseph. There are certainly some aspects of the Book of Mormon that could be reasonably accounted for in this way while preserving the possibility of an underlying ancient text. As for myself, I tried desperately for some time to be comfortable with such an approach, but for me it simply couldn’t account for the depth of the issues. In my view the 19th century content is in many cases too foundational to even the book’s very self-conception and big picture narrative to be accounted for as “expansions” or products of a “loose translation.” And in other cases, when I tried to account for various claimed “expansions” during translation, I was left having a really hard time trying to imagine what any legitimate underlying ancient text could have possibly looked like if those “expansions” were removed, because those issues were often so integral to the stories and narratives that surround them.
In any case, I propose that View of the Hebrews is an extremely important book for those seriously interested in Book of Mormon studies.