Chapter 8:
The Comparative Method

The comparative method as such is neither good nor bad. It can be abused (what tool can not?), and to condemn it outright because of its imperfections would put an end to all scholarship.

The fundamental rule of the comparative method is that if things resemble each other there must be some connection between them, and the closer the resemblance the closer the connection. For example, if anyone were to argue that the Book of Mormon was obviously stolen from Solomon Spaulding’s Manuscript Story (the document now at Oberlin College) because the word “and” is found to occur frequently in both texts, we would simply laugh at him. If he brought forth as evidence the fact that kings are mentioned in both books, he might not appear quite so ridiculous. But if the Manuscript Story actually referred by name to “cureloms and cumoms” we would be quite sure of a possible borrowing (though even then we would not have proven a direct borrowing). The hypothetical case illustrates the fact that there are degrees of significance in parallels. Recently a Protestant minister pointed to seventy-five resemblances between the Book of Mormon and the Manuscript Story: None of them alone is worth anything, but his position is that there are so many that taken altogether they must be significant.1 The trouble is that it would be very easy to find seventy-five equally good parallels between the Book of Mormon and any other book you can name. As an actual example, to prove that the Book of Mormon and the Manuscript Story are related, this investigator shrewdly notes that in both books “men arise and make addresses,” “both [books] pronounce woe unto the wicked mortals,” “both mention milk,” in both “adultery was a crime,” “both had counsellors,” and so on. What kind of “parallels” are these? Seventy-five or seven hundred fifty, it is all the same—such stuff adds up to nothing.2

But the most publicized list of parallels of the Book of Mormon and another work is B. H. Roberts’s comparison of that book with Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews.3 Commenting on this, Mrs. Brodie wrote: “The scholarly Mormon historian B. H. Roberts once made a careful and impressive list of parallels between the View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon, but for obvious reasons it was never published.”4 The most obvious reason for not publishing it would be, to any textual critic as it was to Elder Roberts, that the “careful and impressive list of parallels” is quite worthless either to prove or disprove the Book of Mormon.

In the first place, only eighteen parallels are listed, and neither Mrs. Brodie nor Mr. Hogan adds anything to the list. This, then, is the best we can do for Ethan Smith’s parallels. If there were only eighteen ideas in all the Book of Mormon and about the same number in Ethan Smith’s book, then the eighteen parallels would be indeed suspicious. But there are not only eighteen ideas in the Book of Mormon—there are hundreds! So if we are going to use such a tiny handful as evidence, they had better be good. But when we consider the Roberts parallels, we find that they are not only very few but without exception all perfectly ordinary. In fact, Mr. Hogan in his recent treatment of the subject has unwittingly robbed the eighteen parallels of any significance by going to considerable pains to point out in his introduction that the ideas shared by Ethan and Joseph Smith were not original to either of them but were as common in the world they lived in as the name Smith itself. He would agree with Mr. Cross that “neither Solomon Spaulding, for whom some have claimed authorship of a manuscript which became the basis of the Book of Mormon, nor Joseph Smith required any originality to speculate in this direction.”5 No originality was required in these matters because these things were public property. This being the case, why would Joseph Smith need to steal them from Ethan Smith?

Take Parallels Numbers 2 and 4 in Roberts’s list for example: Both claim a Hebraic origin for the Indian. But so did everybody else. In 1833 Josiah Priest wrote, “The opinion that the American Indians are the descendants of the lost Ten Tribes, is now a popular one, and generally believed.”6 In that case Joseph Smith must have known as much about it as Ethan Smith—no need for pilfering.

No. 5, the idea of a lost or buried book, is found in both documents. Again, what could be commoner? This is Mr. Hogan’s prize exhibit and parting shot: Ethan Smith had suggested that the best evidence for a connection between the Indians and the ancient Hebrews would be the finding of an actual inscription “on some durable substance in evident Hebrew language and character.” 7 Of course it would: inscriptions in ancient languages on durable material (they could hardly be in modern languages on perishable materials) have been throughout history the best-known link between ancient and living civilizations. Yet Ethan Smith’s idea that a Hebrew inscription would be the best tie-up between the Jews and the Indians is presented here as a brilliant and novel idea, the provocation that set Joseph Smith on the high road to forgery, according to Mr. Hogan, who concludes his study with the weighty words: “If an enterprising and imaginative writer needed any final provocation, this would seem to be it.” 8 As if “an energetic and imaginative writer,” of all people, needed to be told that it is ancient writings that tell about ancient people.

No. 14. In Ethan Smith’s book is reported that an Indian chief once said that “he knew it to be wrong, if a poor man came to his door hungry and naked, to turn him away empty. For he believed God loved the poorest of men better than he did proud rich men.”9 Again, would Joseph Smith or any Christian have to go to Ethan Smith’s book to learn this? If the Indian’s words were quoted in the Book of Mormon, it would be a different thing: but what compassionate human being, Christian or not, has not held this philosophy? Here is another version of the same thing:

No. 16. An early trader quoted by Ethan Smith tells of some Indians who were “loving and affectionate to their wives and relations.”10 The Book of Mormon reports indirectly that the Nephites also loved their children. And this, believe it or not, is taken as strong proof that the Book of Mormon was stolen from the View of the Hebrews.

No. 15. It is the same with polygamy: in Ethan Smith’s book a Delaware chief deplores the recently adopted practice in his tribe of picking up a number of wives and casting them off as soon as one grew tired of them. The fact that the Indian recognizes such a practice as immoral can only indicate, according to Ethan Smith, the influence of “Israelitish tradition . . . as taught by the Old Testament,”11 as if mankind had no other source of morality. Yet here his naive reasoning is sounder than the proposition that the prohibition of more than one wife to the Nephites must have come from this particular source. Actually, this is no parallel at all since there is no resemblance between the practices described.

A number of parallels in the list are attributed to Joseph Smith’s stealing from the View of the Hebrews, when he could more easily have found the same material in the Bible. This reaches the point of absurdity in parallel No. 12, where Joseph Smith gets the idea of quoting Isaiah from Ethan since the latter “quotes copiously and chiefly from Isaiah in relation to the scattering and gathering of Israel.”12 This is the equivalent of accusing one scholar of stealing from another because they both quote “copiously and chiefly” from Homer in their studies of Troy. Since ancient times, Isaiah has been the source for information on the scattering and gathering of Israel. Any student writing a term paper on that subject would deserve to be flunked if he failed to quote from that prophet without ever having heard of Ethan Smith!

Parallel No. 11 is a related case: “The view of the Hebrews has many references to both the scattering and the gathering of Israel ‘in the last days.’ The second chapter . . . is entitled ‘The Certain Restoration of Judah and Israel’ and in this section is quoted nearly all the references to Isaiah that are referred to, but quoted more fully, in the Book of Mormon.”13 Which would Joseph Smith be more likely to go to in treating this subject, Mr. Ethan Smith or the Bible? Obviously the Bible is the more likely source. But would Joseph need Ethan to tell him to consult the Bible in the first place?

Again, No. 10, the first chapter of the Views of the Hebrews is devoted to the destruction of Jerusalem. Since the book claims to be searching out the lost ten tribes, it is hard to conceive how it could begin otherwise. There have been many dispersions from Jerusalem, as the Book of Mormon tells us, and many destructions: the one told of in the Book of Mormon is a totally different one from that described by Ethan Smith, which took place hundreds of years before it. It is hardly likely that the Bible-reading Smiths first discovered that Jerusalem was destroyed by perusing the pages of Ethan’s book. Neither did Joseph need Ethan Smith to tell him that God’s people anciently had inspired prophets and heavenly gifts (No. 6). This has always been a conspicuous part of Indian tradition, but given the popular belief that the ancient Americans were of Israel, Joseph Smith would have no choice but to attribute to them the divine gifts possessed by God’s people. Among these divine gifts was the Urim and Thummim (No. 7) described in the Bible, and only dimly and indirectly hinted at by Ethan Smith in describing an article of clothing worn by medicine men—quite a different article from the Urim and Thummim of either the Book of Mormon or the Bible.

The trouble with this last parallel is that it is not a parallel at all, but only something that is made into one by egregiously taking the part for the whole. The same faulty reasoning characterizes the first of the parallels in the list. No. 1: the place of origin of the two works. Ethan Smith’s book was written in Vermont, and Joseph Smith was born in Vermont. That would be a very suspicious coincidence were it not that Joseph Smith left Vermont as a child at least eight years before the View of the Hebrews was published. The time scale which invalidates the argument of place of origin is actually given as another parallel between the two books. No. 3: the time of production—it is held to be most significant that the publication of Ethan Smith’s first edition and the appearance of the Angel Moroni occurred in the same year. We must confess our failure to detect anything in Ethan Smith’s book that might have suggested the Angel Moroni. All that is proved by the dates is that the View of the Hebrews came out first, so that Joseph Smith could have used it. Of course, if View of the Hebrews had appeared after the Book of Mormon there would be no case—though Mrs. Brodie tries very hard to hint that Joseph Smith covered his tracks by later referring to Josiah Priest, whose book did not appear until 1833!14 Even Mrs. Brodie concedes that “it may never be proven that Joseph saw View of the Hebrews,”15 but even if he had seen it, that would prove nothing unless we could discover something in the Book of Mormon that could not possibly come from any other source.

What the critics seem to consider the most devastating of all the parallels in the list, the one most often mentioned and on which B. H. Roberts concentrates most of his attention, is No. 9, which deals with the general relations of the ancient Americans to each other. The most obvious and immediate objection to the popular theory that the Indians were the ten tribes was that the ten tribes were civilized and the Indians were not. Since colonial times there were two things that everybody knew about aboriginal America: (1) that it was full of savages, and (2) that it was full of ruins left by people who were not savages. If the Indians were from the ten tribes, then they must have fallen from a higher estate, and that estate was mutely witnessed by the ruins. Using these general speculations as his starting point, Ethan Smith, like any intelligent man, goes on with his own surmises: When the civilized ten tribes arrived in the New World, they found themselves in a wilderness teeming with game, (1) “inviting them to the chase; most of them (2) fell into a wandering idle hunt-life,” while the “more sensible parts of this people”16 continued in their civilized ways and left behind them the ruins that fill the land. “It is highly probable,” Ethan Smith continues to speculate, “that the more civilized part of the tribes of Israel, after they settled in America, became (3) wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren; that the latter (4) lost the knowledge of their having descended from the same family with themselves; that the more civilized part continued for many centuries; that (5) tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren.” 17 Then gradually (6) “in process of time their savage jealousies and rage annihilated their more civilized brethren.”18 No other explanation is possible, he thinks: “What account can be given of this, but that the savages extirpated them, after (7) long and dismal wars.”19 As to the state of the savages, “We cannot so well account for their evident degeneracy in any way” except the Bible way: “as that it took place under a vindictive Providence, as has been noted, to accomplish (8) divine judgments denounced against the idolatrous ten tribes of Israel20 (emphasis added).

Now consider the eight points from the viewpoint of the Book of Mormon. (1) It was not the joy of the chase that led the Lamanites into the wilderness—the greatest hunters in the Book of Mormon are Nephites. (2) The less civilized group did not upon arriving in America “fall into a wandering . . . life.” They were wanderers when they got here, and so were their brethren. (3) In the Book of Mormon “the more civilized part” of the people never becomes “wholly separated . . . from their brethren,” the two remaining always in contact. (4) The more savage element never “lost the knowledge” of their descent: The Lamanites always claimed, in fact, that the Nephites had stolen their birthright. (5) The wars were neither tremendous nor frequent—they are almost all in the nature of sudden raids; they involved small numbers of people, and, except for the last great war, they are relatively brief. (6) It was not the savage jealousy and rage of an inferior civilization that destroyed the higher civilization—that higher civilization had broken up completely before the last war by its own corruption, and at the time of their destruction the Nephites were as debased as their rivals. (7) It was not a process of gradual extermination but of a quick and violent end. (8) Finally, the downgrading of the Lamanites is not the fulfillment of prophecies about the ten tribes after the pattern of the destruction of God’s people (that would be the Nephites); their degeneracy is given a unique explanation that cannot be found in either Ethan Smith or the Bible.

To establish any connection at all between the books of the two Smiths, it is absolutely imperative to find something perfectly unique and peculiar in both of them. Yet there is not one single thing in common between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon that is not also found in the Bible. Parallel No. 9, discussed above, promises to be the exception to this, containing as it does significant details that are not found in the Bible; yet it is in these very details that the two books are in complete disagreement! Another false parallel is No. 10, the destruction of Jerusalem: Ethan Smith speaks of one destruction, the Book of Mormon of another, but the Bible speaks of both. Here the parallel is not between the two Smiths at all—they are talking of wholly different events—but between them and the Bible only. Again there is no indirect reference to American hieroglyphics in Ethan Smith, which leads to parallel No. 8 with the query: “Was this sufficient to suggest the strange manner of writing in the Book of Mormon in the ‘learning of the Jews and language of the Egyptians’ but in altered Egyptian?”21 In other words, the two sources have the mention of Egyptian hieroglyphics in common—only the word Egyptian does not appear in Ethan Smith; and the word hieroglyphics does not appear in the Book of Mormon; but if you put the two together, what do you get? Egyptian hieroglyphics! In the same way, Ethan Smith contains a brief mention of Quetzalcoatl, though nothing could be farther from his mind than to suggest that Quetzalcoatl might be Christ, while the Book of Mormon contains mention of Christ without the slightest hint that he might be Quetzalcoatl: put them together, and you have parallel No. 18: The common teaching of both books that Christ was Quetzalcoatl! Again, because Joseph Smith (not the Book of Mormon) and Ethan Smith both mention Ezekiel 37, our critics are convinced that the former is stealing from the latter, though their interpretations of the celebrated passage are entirely different: it is suspicious for Joseph Smith even to mention a universally discussed chapter of the Bible if Ethan Smith has already mentioned it.

Finally parallel No. 13: Granted that the Indians are the descendants of the lost ten tribes, as everyone believed in 1830, what Christian would not feel an obligation toward them? Ethan Smith’s view that “the American Gentile nation [the United States]” should “become the Savior of Israel in America” is a perfectly natural one, and is assumed to offer another parallel to the teaching of the Book of Mormon. Nothing could be further from the mark: the Book of Mormon never looks to the United States government, the American people, or Christian civilization to save the Indians—it tells a very different story of what is to happen.

So after all Ethan Smith turns in a perfect score; not a single blemish mars the target. In every case where the Book of Mormon might have borrowed from him, it might much more easily have borrowed from the Bible or prevailing popular beliefs. In the few cases where he deals in common with the Book of Mormon with matters not treated in those other sources, the two books are completely at variance.

Grab-bag Research

Any conscientious student likes to find support for his own theories and ideas in the writings of others, and when he comes upon a particularly helpful or enlightening passage joyfully quotes it. Yet if Joseph Smith says there was once a great civilization in Central America, and quotes Josiah Stout to back him up, it is plain that Smith is stealing from Stout—even though Stout’s book came out three years later than his! Plagiarists conceal the sources of their information; they do not shout them from the housetops; but if a Mormon leader is so careless as to quote a non-Mormon writer by way of illustrating or supporting a Mormon teaching, he has given everything away; he has openly declared the true source of Mormon revelation. “Sidney Rigdon quoted openly from [a book by Thomas] Dick” on one occasion. This proves to Mrs. Brodie that he had read the book22—therefore Joseph Smith had read it or heard of it—therefore Smith got his cosmology from it—therefore Mr. Davis now tells us that Mormon leaders “drew in ideas at random from local preachers, pseudo-scientific books, and ‘philosophers’ like Thomas Dick.”23 And this statement is bred of nothing more than an airy word from Mrs. Brodie.24

If we were to ask an IBM machine, a super-electronic memorizer, associator, and classifier of data, to tell us which cultural, historical, and intellectual influences are most prominent in the Book of Mormon, we would consider the machine’s response utterly worthless unless we had first stocked it with ten thousand times more facts than any human mind contains. Yet every Book of Mormon critic thinks he can answer the question by referring to whatever tiny patch of knowledge he happens to sit on. What do we trust in the critics? Certainly it cannot be their knowledge—it must be instinct. Today we are asked to accept mystic explanations of the Book of Mormon which, lacking any solid foundation, rest their case on Joseph Smith’s reactions to “latent facets” of Puritanism (O’Dea) or to “historic responses” of the Reformation (Davis). All the prevailing environmental theories of Mormonism and the Book of Mormon insist that both were the product of an intensely local setting, suited to the extremely limited intellectual horizon of Smith and his followers. Yet Mr. Cross and Dr. O’Dea tell us that it was not Mr. Davis’s old New Englanders to whose thoughts Joseph Smith gave such welcome expression but a very different stock, the “Yorkers.” Mr. Armytage, however, shows us that Mormonism was exactly and peculiarly what the sturdy north-country farmers and artisans of England wanted to hear,25 while the same holds true for Welsh miners, Scandinavian fishermen, prosperous Swiss burghers, and South Pacific Islanders. Davis’s “fourteen-year-old ragamuffin” certainly had a knack: “Why should the gibberish of a crazy boy,” he asks, “send thousands of people trekking off to establish a theocracy beyond the Rocky Mountains?”26 The question is admirably put, and he can find but one possible answer for it: It was because the crazy boy told all those people exactly what they wanted to hear, giving them doctrine so perfectly suited to their taste that they would undergo any toil or danger for it. One hundred years ago Monsieur Remy accounted for the success of Joseph Smith by observing that he had simply combined all that was most enticing in all religions into one religion. Look what our crazy boy Joseph is doing! What we want to know is how he does it. After all, what the latest explanations of Smith and his book amount to is the profound discovery that he succeeded where others failed because he always happened to do just the right thing.

The vast depth and breadth of the grab-bag guarantee that our Book of Mormon investigators will never run out of parallels and analogies which they may hail as significant or not as they choose. But it also guarantees that none of them will ever have the last word. To the end, their ideas about the Book of Mormon remain strictly their own, and they are welcome to them. But any pretense to scientific or scholarly finality under the circumstances is but an illusion. Our poorly trained scholars, satisfied that modern science has emancipated them from old methods and chores, are quite unaware that the critics of an earlier day were just as well-educated and emancipated as they, and that they are only repeating in their shallow researches what has already been done by men of greater diligence and authority—and duly marked off as wasted effort.


*   This article first appeared in two parts, published in the Improvement Era (October and November 1959). The article was part of a series of five articles, published in nine parts under the title ” ‘Mixed Voices’: A Study on Book of Mormon Criticism.”

1.   James D. Bales, The Book of Mormon? (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths, 1958), 142–46. Even to work out the small number of seventy-five parallels, Bales had to pad heavily. Thus, both the Book of Mormon and the Spaulding Manuscript talk about great civilizations, as what history does not? This parallel is broken down into such inevitable points of resemblance as “both [books] refer to great cities,” ‘both . . . represented as having some scientific knowledge,” “both knew something of mechanical arts,” “both used iron,” “both used coins” (the words “coin” and “coins,” however, are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon), “both constructed fortifications,” “both exceeded the present Indians in works of art and ingenuity,” etc. Now all these things are inevitable accompaniments of any civilization; they are not separate and distinct points of resemblance at all. One might as well argue that since both books mention people, both imply that people have hands, hands have fingers, etc., and thus accumulate “parallels” by the score.

2.   Ibid.

3.   Mervin B. Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel’: A Matter of Chance Versus Coincidence,” Rocky Mountain Mason (January 1956): 17–31. Elder Roberts’s manuscript is still in manuscript form. [It has recently been published in Brigham D. Madsen, ed., B. H. Roberts: Studies of the Book of Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1985), 323–44–ed.]

4.   Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York: Knopf, 1946), 47, n. 2.

5.   Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950), 81.

6.   Josiah Priest, American Antiquities, 5th ed. (Albany: Hoffman and White, 1835), 75–76.

7.   Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel,’ ” 30; citing Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews: Or the Tribes of Israel in America (Poultney, VT: Smith and Shute, 1823), 167.

8.   Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel,’ ” 30.

9.   Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel,’ ” 28; citing Smith, View of the Hebrews, 2nd ed., 104.

10.   Ibid., 29; citing Smith, View of the Hebrews, 2nd ed., 175.

11.   Smith, View of the Hebrews, 2nd ed., 104.

12.   Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel,’ ” 25.

13.   Ibid. (emphasis added).

14.   Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 47.

15.   Ibid., 47.

16.   Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel,’ ” 23; citing Smith, View of the Hebrews, 2nd ed., 172–73.

17.   Ibid.

18.   Ibid.

19.   Ibid.

20.   Smith, View of the Hebrews, 2nd ed., 172.

21.   Hogan, ” ‘A Parallel,’ ” 22.

22.   Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 171.

23.   David B. Davis, “The New England Origins of Mormonism,” New England Quarterly 26 (1953): 167.

24.   Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 69, asserts that “the book can best be explained . . . by his responsiveness to the provincial opinions of his time.”

25.   W. H. G. Armytage, “Liverpool, Gateway to Zion,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 48 (1957): 39–40. For sheer misinformation, Mr. Armytage’s article sets a record even among anti-Mormon writers.

26.   Davis, “The New England Origins of Mormonism,” 167.