View of the Hebrews is a nonfiction work, written by a man named Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph Smith) and it was published in 1823. Ethan Smith was a United States Congregationalist minister, who argued that the Native Americans were descended from the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.
The argument that The Book of Mormon plagiarizes Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews was not first made until seventy-two years after The Book of Mormon was published. (The theory was proposed by a man named I. Woodridge Riley in his book The Founder of Mormonism.) The question then is: If the connection between both books was so obvious, why did it take critics seven decades to discover it?
Another piece of interest that I’d like to point out is that Joseph Smith himself talked about this book in his own newspaper titled Times and Seasons. On June 1, 1842, he quoted View of the Hebrews in support of The Book of Mormon when he said:
“If such may have been the fact, that a part of the Ten Tribes came over to America, in the way we have supposed, leaving the cold regions of Assareth behind them in quest of a milder climate, it would be natural to look for tokens of the presence of Jews of some sort, along countries adjacent to the Atlantic. In order to this, we shall here make an extract from an able work: written exclusively on the subject of the Ten Tribes having come from Asia by the way of the Bherings Strait, by the Rev. Ethan Smith, Pultney, Vt., who relates as follows: ‘Joseph Merrick, Esq., a highly respectable character in the church at Pittsfield, gave the following account: That in 1815, he was leaving some ground under and near an old wood shed, standing on a place of his, situated on (Indian Hill)…[Joseph then discusses the supposed phylacteries found among the Amerindians, citing View of the Hebrews p. 220, 223.]”
Why would a con man give direct attention to the work from which he supposedly derived his ideas? And why, after he did give direction attention to this work, did it take seventy-two years for these eager critics of the Church to point out their correlations?
While pointing out the similarities, Fawn Brodie also acknowledged obvious differences between the two books: “Thus, where View of the Hebrews was just bad scholarship, the Book of Mormon was highly original and imaginative fiction” [Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 48]. Tad R. Callister (a law-man and member of the Church) humorously pointed out that “Evidently, Brodie claims that in some mysterious, inexplicable way, Joseph Smith transformed a sow’s ear (View of the Hebrews) into a silk purse (The Book of Mormon), hardly a rousing endorsement for an alleged act of plagiarism” [Callister, A Case for the Book of Mormon, 23]. Despite Callister's dismissal of the book, B. H. Roberts (the man who wrote all seven volumes of The History of the Church) called it "a serious menace to Joseph Smith's story of The Book of Mormon's origin."
But, again, I am not here to argue what critics and apologists were thinking when they proposed this act of plagiarism. I am here to compare both texts and allow you to decide for yourself without you having to read both books in their entirety.
Please Note: That the Indigenous people originated from ancient Israel was a common idea in the early 1800s. When speaking of Brodie's opinion on the possibility of Joseph using View of the Hebrews as the base idea for The Book of Mormon, Hugh Nibley himself said that "It is hard to see how anyone could have avoided the Indian-Hebrew tie-up." [No Ma'am That's Not History]. While DNA evidence tells a very different story of the American Indian's ancestors, Ethan's Smith's object in writing his book was to show that they originated from Israel. The Book of Mormon has the same objective. In the Gospel Topic's Essay titled Book of Mormon and DNA Studies it reads: "The evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA" and that "Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples."
With the understanding that the "Indian-Hebrew tie-up" was common in Joseph Smith and Ethan Smith's day, I shall proceed.
Similarities Between View of the Hebrews &
The Book of Mormon
This was the first phrase that caught my attention because The Book of Mormon has nearly the exact same phrase.
Here is another phrase that is very similar. The idea is the same.
Evidently, another part of the theory that the ancient Indigenous people came from Israel, is that of the Tower of Babel. As you see here, both texts rely on the existence of such a tower and the confounding of their language (which goes against the study of linguistics). Regardless of the existence of such a tower in Babel, the theory is shared throughout the nineteenth century and is, of course, in Joseph Smith's milieu.
This outlook of scattering and gathering is prevalent throughout both books.
The idea of an immortal soul is a big part of Christianity and is shared in both books.
While these ideas in both books are very similar, by definition a High Priest is the one being who can enter the Holy of Holies (a place in the Israelite temples never mentioned in the Book of Mormon) to converse with the Lord. (Another interesting thing to note is that the "Melchizedek" and "Aaronic" priesthood is never mentioned in The Book of Mormon.)
Ethan Smith also explains this same idea on page 67 when he says that the Indians believed in “a future state of existence, and of future rewards and punishments”. He goes on to explain that the conduct of the Indians is founded on “a perfect conviction that the cultivation and observance of good and virtuous actions in this life, will in the next entitle them to the perpetual enjoyment of ease and happiness -where they will again be restored to the favour and enjoy the immediate presence, counsel and protection of the Great Spirit; while dereliction from it –will as assuredly entail on them endless afflictions.” Again, this idea is not new nor is it exclusive to either of these books. The idea of future enjoyment or future punishment is a large part of Christian beliefs, of which Ethan and Joseph both shared. I also wish to note that Ethan Smith is pointing out an Indigenous belief of a "Great Spirit"which also appears in Alma 18).
The ideas in these passages are very similar.
This teaching is also found in the New Testament in Matthew 7 where the Savior teaches the same thing. This seems to be a common theme in the Christian world and perhaps speaks more to Joseph using the Bible as he "translated" the golden plates.
The verse I pulled from The Book of Mormon might not be the best, but this teaching is taught plentifully within its pages.
A few times Ethan Smith gives an overview of his theory on the ancient history of these Native American Indians. He says, on the same page, the following:
“These partially civilized people became extinct. What account can be given of this, but that the savages extirpated them, after long and dismal wars? And nothing appears more probable than that they were the better part of the Israelites who came to this continent, who for a long time retained their knowledge of the mechanic and civil arts; while the greater part of their brethren became savage and wild. -No other hypothesis occurs to mind, which appears by any means so probable” [page 70].
And later he reiterates:
“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” [p. 173].
These paragraphs of "bad scholarship" (using Fawn Brodie's words) seem to sum up the entire backdrop for The Book of Mormon.
The passage I chose from The Book of Mormon doesn’t quite capture all that is being pulled from Ethan Smith’s book. Both books maintain that the ancient American Indians built forts, temples, altars, camps, towns, villages, etc. You'll notice that these forts are also discussed heavily in Solomon Spaulding's Manuscript Found! which appears to have been common knowledge in the 1800s.
I can see why B. H. Roberts called The View of the Hebrews "a menace" to Joseph Smith's story.
In conjunction with this, on page 107 of View of the Hebrews we find this sentence: “Whence their ideas that their ancestors once had the book of God; and then were happy; but that they lost it; and then became miserable; but that they will have this book again at some time.” This idea that the ancient Indigenous people knew of a book that was written in a different language and that it was sacred enough to preserve and then to bury, is exceptionally like that of Joseph Smith and the story of his golden bible. Ethan Smith speaks of a lost book in a different language and Joseph Smith happens to be the one who uncovers and translates it.
These two phrases are nearly word for word. Similar passages can be found in the Bible.
I first read Ethan Smith's book as an active believer and apologist for the Church. And as a believer I constructed a list of what I believed at the time (I'll admit, filled with bad logic and fallacies). I'd like to share that list now, and then give my views from what I understand today.
If Joseph Smith used View of the Hebrews to write The Book of Mormon:
Joseph would have learned from Ethan Smith that the Indians’ language was the same as the Hebrew and would have had to become, on his own, a master in the Hebrew language as The Book of Mormon is filled with complex Hebrew writing styles, none of which are found or mentioned in View of the Hebrews.
This "ancient Hebrew style" of writing (chiasms, anaphora, etc) appears in the Pearl of Great Price, The Doctrine and Covenants, and in Joseph Smith's personal letters. Each of these are all contemporary writings and are not a sign of ancient text (please see the section for The Book of Abraham and The Book of Mormon's Literary Devices). Joseph did not have to be a master in Hebrew, nor does the Book of Mormon reflect such a claim.
Joseph Smith would have had to construct a backstory that represented, in any degree, many of the aspects discussed by Ethan Smith in his book (i.e. temples, high priests, monarchy, mining copper, working metals, costly clothing, etc.).
Joseph Smith did construct a backstory for all of the parts listed that are also shared by Ethan Smith's book. Joseph could have just as likely pulled the backstory from the King James Version of the Bible (see the section Did Joseph Plagiarize from the Bible).
Joseph would have had to choose carefully which aspects from Ethan Smith’s book he did NOT wish to include (i.e. mosaic feasts, sacred arks, holy of holies, purifications with vegetables, etc.).
I'm not sure where my apologetic brain was going with this line of reasoning. One does not have to include all parts of a text for it to be considered plagiarism.
Joseph would have had to ignore every statement made in Ethan’s book about the Indians coming to this continent by way of the Bering Strait.
Just because differences exist, it does not mean that a text was not plagiarized. Additionally, would Joseph Smith have known about the Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa in 600 BC?
In a talk given by Tad R. Callister, who received his masters degree in law at the New York University, he says the following:
“I too have read View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Suffice it to say, these two books have totally different objectives and writing styles. For example, the Book of Mormon’s principal focus is to testify of Jesus Christ and His doctrine. Accordingly, the historical setting is not the focus, but it is rather the background music that gives context and emphasis to the doctrine. The principal focus, however, for View of the Hebrews is to historically connect the Native Americans to the ancient Hebrews. In addition, View of the Hebrews is a series of independent quotes and purported evidences to prove its theory. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon is a cohesive narrative- a story of families and prophets who struggled to live God’s word. The purpose and style of these two books is most disparate. Any honest reader can determine that for himself” [The Book of Mormon: Man-Made or God-Given? 2016].
In response to Tad R. Callister, I wish to say the following: That the books have "totally different objectives" is somewhat irrelevant and I'll even say false. Yes, Ethan Smith was trying to prove that the Indigenous people were indeed Jewish. But Joseph Smith's book does the same thing, never mind the fact that it is "background music." Much of what was written by Ethan Smith (as shown above) is from the Bible, much like Joseph Smith's book. To say that their writing styles are totally different is false.
Callister, as I read your quote again, a thought occurred to me. If I were trying to fabricate a book from the ideas of another, it would be much easier if I did not focus on "purported evidence" to prove the theories in my book. Instead, the simplest way to go about fabricating such a book would be to focus on "a story of families and prophets who struggled to live God's word." Right?
From Radio Free Mormon's episode 216 titled "View of the Hebrews" he points out many important things. "When you look at the meta-narrative of both books they are actually identical" [Radio Free Mormon, 216, 13:34]. The main purpose of both books is to convert the Indians. "What apologists want to do is focus on the trees and try not to look at the forest" [Radio Free Mormon, 216, 14:38]. To me, this includes the fact that it was common in 1800s literature to propose that the American Indians were ancient Jewish descendants is not new to Joseph Smith, and is not exclusive to these two books. "You don't have to copy every single element in order for it to be plagiarism" [Radio Free Mormon, 216, 37:55].
I propose that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize View of the Hebrews. In short, I don't think Joseph Smith needed to. That the indigenous people were descended from Jerusalem, was a common idea in the 1800s.
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