The Grab Bag
How does the Book of Mormon critic of today go about his work? His point of departure is an article of faith: “Painstaking research can uncover the sources of all [Joseph Smith’s] ideas.”1 Actually this statement of Mrs. Brodie’s is nonsense, since no research can ever uncover the indisputable source of any man’s ideas, let alone those of a man whose world, with all the myriad sights and sounds that might conceivably have given him those ideas, has passed away over a century ago. Armed with this naive credo and a determination to “uncover” something, the critic looks about him for something in the Book of Mormon, and as soon as he has found it announces to the world that he has at last discovered the indubitable source of the Book of Mormon.
Silly as it sounds, this is exactly how the critics operate.2 They begin by declaring the book a typical product of its times; but if it is typical, it must be of a type—there must be other books like it. Where were they? Search as they would, the scholars could find nothing closer to the Book of Mormon than, of all things, the Koran, a writing about as far from Smith’s time, place, and culture as it is possible to get.3 The most casual reading will show, moreover, that it would be hard to name two writings less alike than those two. Many Moslems, for example, have rejected the popular nineteenth sura (chapter) of the Koran because it contains in the story of Joseph and his brethren an episode of human history: “It is entirely worldly history [they protest]; and it is unthinkable that this physical history should ever be part of the holy Book revealed by God.”4 The reader can soon convince himself that the Koran really is remarkably innocent of “physical history,” while the Book of Mormon purports to contain whole books of it. That alone should indicate how much the two books have in common.
But while some saw in Smith “another Mohammed preparing another Koran,” 5 others found in his work typical “Swedenborgian illusions,”6 a writer in Hastings Encyclopedia even discovering in the Book of Mormon “references to Swedenborgianism with its three heavens.” The fact that there is no such doctrine mentioned in the book does not deter this investigator, who finds in the same source traces of “the ‘Washingtonian‘ movement for total abstinence.” 7 Though religious men in every age have abstained from strong drink, yet the Mormons can only have got the Word of Wisdom (not mentioned in the Book of Mormon!) from the Washingtonians, because they happened to be active at the time. These two instances illustrate how the critics operate.
“The theological ideas of the Book of Mormon,” according to J. H. Snowden, “are also easily traced to their sources; . . . the [Nephites] were Old School Presbyterians.”8 Since that is such an easy and obvious conclusion, it is strange that Mr. John Hyde in a very thorough attack on the Book of Mormon comes to the opposite conclusion, that in the book “Calvinism repels him [Smith], and he opposes it,” while actually “Universalism affects his sympathies.”9 Yet E. D. Howe insists that Universalism is not the hero but the villain of the book,10 which shows strong influence of the seventeenth century French Mystics.11 According to the same authority, in the Book of Mormon “the Arian doctrine is denied” ;12 yet the Rev. H. Mattison insists that “the Mormons are strong advocates of Arianism.” 13 Others find that ” ‘free grace’ abounds in the Book of Mormon” and can flatly declare: “The Mormons are Wesleyans.”14 But Charles Francis Adams, who visited Joseph Smith in 1844, just as flatly declares, “His theological system is very nearly Christian Unitarianism.”15 Today, however, Mr. Davis tells us that “it opposed deism, evangelism, and the Arminianism of Methodists and Unitarians.”16 Mr. Beers and others see in the Book of Mormon a rehash of Millerism, ignoring the fact that “Miller . . . began his lectures in 1831,” after the book was well on its way.17 Dr. Biederwolf insists that the new Church was nothing but a Baptist community,18 while the Baptists themselves insist that the Mormons were Campbellites, though Campbell for his part classed them with the first Quakers.19 At the other extreme scholars not only charge Smith with toying with Catholicism,20 but even insist that “the Church of the Latter-Day Saints . . . is in connection with the Church of Rome, and is even daughter to that great scarlet whore of Babylon.” 21 With equal confidence others accuse the Book of Mormon of being an anti-Catholic book.22 “The doctrine of the book is whole-heartedly and completely Arminian,” 23 according to Dr. O’Dea, while Davis counters by describing Mormonism as the antithesis of Arminianism, especially in its rejection of “the omnipresent, inscrutable, ‘Buddhistic’ God of modern Arminian religions.”24 A German encyclopedia, the Grosse Brockhaus, sees predominant Gnostic elements in both Mormonism and the Book of Mormon,25 while a learned journal of fifty years ago found their doctrine “formed on Buddhistic principles.”26 The astute Gunnison thought Mormonism was strongly influenced by the teachings of the Transcendentalists and that Joseph Smith “and his followers have fallen in with the spiritual philosophy of the day, and added the doctrine of affinities of minds and the sympathy of souls.”27 Others argued that the Book of Mormon “must have been written by an atheist,” as a sort of practical joke, the work of “a fearless infidel” undertaken as “a ridicule upon the Holy Bible.”28 With the charges of atheism went those of “Deism, Owenism, Socialism.”29 Chesterton sees the Mormon Church “soaking itself solely in the Hebrew Scriptures.”30
“Mormonism borrowed most of its ideas from the ‘Campbellite,’ or Disciples of Christ Church,” according to the new Arbaugh, who proceeds to describe the basic Campbellite doctrines in a way that makes it clear that nothing could be less like Mormonism.31 Certainly none was better qualified to speak for Campbellism than the elder Campbell, who in denouncing “the infernal Book of Mormon” stated as the basic proposition of his own faith “the all-sufficiency and alone-sufficiency of the . . . Bible,” which makes the Book of Mormon the embodied antithesis of Campbellism.32 The Campbellites accused the Baptists of trying to fob off Mormonism on them and the latter returned the charge.33 This is an amusing game of hot potato that the sects played among themselves, tossing the Book of Mormon at each other as a deadly missile. It is still going on, for in 1956 a Jesuit writer described Mormonism as “derived from the Reformation principle of religious freedom carried to the extreme.”34 Mr. Davis, on the contrary, informs us that the Mormons were actually “opposed to individualism of any kind.”35 And while one school of thought sees in the new religion “a reaction against stern New England Calvinism,” the same Mr. Davis assures us that the very opposite was the case: it was rather a reaction against the “rising tide of liberalism and individualism.” 36
This business of capitalizing on chance resemblances of detail to explain the Book of Mormon reaches the consummation of absurdity in the recent revival of the theory that the book was simply a steal from the writings of a thirteenth-century monk, the Abbot Joachim of Flora, because Joachim uses the expression “the everlasting Gospel” which is found in the Bible but not in the Book of Mormon!37 It seems that the Book of Mormon incorporates “many of the almost forgotten tales of the monk Cyril and the Abbot Joachim,”38 though Smith could only have found out about them from Mosheim, whose work did not appear in English until 1839, who quotes none of the “forgotten tales” in his unflattering paragraph on Joachim, who never mentions Cyril.39
One expert confidently assures us that it was the great French satirist Rabelais who inspired the Book of Mormon, for in his Gargantua Rabelais tells of “a man digging in the earth, and suddenly alighting upon a brazen tomb, in which were deposited nine gold flagons, upon which were engraved innumerable Egyptian hieroglyphics, and with them a large pair of golden spectacles, by the employ of which the said man was enabled to decipher the said mysterious characters. With this fancy of the Frenchman Smith had become acquainted; and being full of craft and cunning, at once appropriated it to his deceptive purposes, and out of it concocted the story of his golden bible and spectacles.”40
Others have pointed to suspicious doctrinal parallels between the Book of Mormon and the writings of St. Anselm—though they are unwilling to read the one and unable to read the other. Even so, these scholars have missed the really striking resemblance between Joseph Smith and Anselm, for the latter “as a simple, innocent boy” firmly believed and “publicly asserted before others” that he had climbed the mountains near his home one day and seen God face to face.41 Isn’t that Joseph Smith all over?
If you want parallels we can give you dozens of them. In the book An Approach to the Book of Mormon, we quoted a long passage from Solon of Athens that might have come right out of the Book of Mormon—why not take that as proof positive that the book is simply a steal from the Greeks? The evidence is just as good as any other.42 The old cycle, prosperity, pride, sin, and destruction, is found again and again in Greek and other literature, ancient and modern; there is no need for Dr. O’Dea to brand it Arminianism when it occurs in the Book of Mormon—it would be just as accurate to label it by any of a dozen other names.
The Book of Mormon critics have made an art of explaining a very big whole by a very small part. The game is to look for some mysterious person or document from which Joseph Smith might have got the few simple and obvious ideas and then cry triumphantly, “At last we have it! Now we know where the Book of Mormon came from!”
“If someone will only show me how to draw a circle,” cries the youthful Joseph Smith, “I will make you a fine Swiss watch!” So Joachim or Anselm or Ethan Smith or Rabelais or somebody takes a stick and draws a circle in the sand, and forthwith the adroit and wily Joseph turns out a beautifully running mechanism that tells perfect time!
This is not an exaggeration. The Book of Mormon in structure and design is every bit as complicated, involved, and ingenious as the works of a Swiss watch, and withal just as smoothly running. With no model to follow and no instruction of any kind (Where was the model? Who could instruct?), the writer of that book brought together thousands of ideas and events and knit them together in a most marvelous unity. Yet the critics like to think they have explained the Book of Mormon completely if they can just discover where Joseph Smith might have got one of his ideas or expressions!
It does not relieve the absurdity of the situation very much to point to more than one possible source for the Book of Mormon. “The ecclesiastical student will not fail to remark that Mormonism is an eclectic religious philosophy, drawn from Brahmin mysticism in the dependence of God, the Platonic and Gnostic notion of Eons, . . . Mohammedan sensualism, and the fanaticism of the sects of the early church; and there is the good and evil of Ahrimaism, with the convenient idea of the transmigration of souls, from the Persian.”43 It is all as easy as that—the student “will not fail to remark” these parallels. Why a feeling of dependence on God must come from the Brahmins instead of Schleiermacher, or what resemblance there is between Gnostic aeons and Mormon dispensations, or why anthropomorphism is identical with sensualism, or when and where any Mormon has ever preached transmigration of souls, our authority does not explain. An eminent encyclopedia of religion can tell us that in the Book of Mormon “Calvinism, Universalism, Methodism, chiliasm, Catholicism, deism, and freemasonry are discussed, . . . not by name,” of course, but “in a manner that strikingly corresponds to Smith’s relations to these systems,”44 thereby proving the Book of Mormon a fraud. But just where will one find out exactly what Smith’s “relations to these systems” were, in order to make the “striking” comparison? Why, in the Book of Mormon, naturally, since there is no other source!
The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia informs us that in the Book of Mormon “there are passages also which betray a dependence upon other books, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Methodist Discipline.”45 Since the passages in question are quite short, one wonders why our authority does not produce them; the reason for the omission is quite plain: the passages actually “betray a dependence” no greater than any two texts chosen at random on the same subject would betray.46 Yet another religious encyclopedia, taking up where the Schaff-Herzog leaves off, informs an unsuspecting world that “the speech of Nephi [which speech?] contains quotations from the Westminster Confession of Faith.”47 With such a fine start, a contemporary treatise takes up the cry: “Nephi, who purports to be a pre-Christian prophet, uses verbatim quotations from the seventeenth-century Westminster Confession of Faith.” 48
Finally, Father Rumble assures us that “Mormon managed . . . to engrave on his golden plates quotations word for word from the Westminster Confessions.” 49 What started out as passages that “betray a dependence” of one text on another—a purely subjective judgment—finally emerge after passing from hand to hand, with no checking of original sources, as nothing less than word-for-word quotations. This is a highly characteristic procedure in Book of Mormon criticism, converting cautious speculation to damning certitude by the simple process of whispering from ear to ear.
To prove that Campbellite teaching “pervades the Mormon Bible,” one critic has only to point out that to both “great emphasis on the efficacy of baptism . . . [and] expectation of the coming and millennial reign of Christ, are unequivocally reproduced.”50 Of course these things have been basic in Jewish and Christian eschatology from the beginning—but Joseph Smith could only have got them from the Campbellites, because this particular writer wants it that way. One seminarist has sought to demonstrate that “in its theological positions and coloring the Book of Mormon is a volume of Disciple theology.” Only to support his thesis he must argue that the book underwent “two several [sic] redactions” which cleverly conceal the fact.51 Mormons have no right to resent such tricks, however, since the Bible is treated with the same perfect liberty by the same critics: “Every scholar goes his own way, and according to his private predilection chooses what is genuine and what is secondary in the book.”52 “Private predilection” is the key to the grab-bag method.
* This article first appeared in the Improvement Era (July 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. See Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York: Knopf, 1946), 67.
2. The method is discussed by Solomon Zeitlin, “The Hebrew Scrolls and the Status of Biblical Scholarship,” Jewish Quarterly Review 42 (1952): 150–52, 189–90, who notes generally that one can always find for one’s purpose ideas parallel with those in ancient writings, or modern.
3. “The parallel between Joseph Smith and Mohammed was frequently noted even by contemporaries of the Mormon prophet,” writes Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Niemeyer, 1912), 67. A recent reflection on this is worth quoting: it is George B. Arbaugh’s remark, in Gods, Sex and Saints: The Mormon Story (Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana, 1957), 10, that Mormonism “in fundamental respects is more alien to Christianity than is Islam,” i.e., modern Christianity is closer to Islam than Mormonism is. How true!
4. Ignaz Goldziher, Vorlesungen über den Islam (Heidelberg: Winter, 1925), 194.
5. T. W. Young, Mormonism: Its Origin, Doctrines and Dangers (Ann Arbor: George Wahr, 1900), 7–8.
6. Charles W. Ferguson, The Confusion of Tongues, A Review of Modern Isms (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1929), 369.
7. James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 vols. (New York: Scribner’s, 1951), 11:85.
8. James H. Snowden, The Truth about Mormonism (New York: Doran, 1926), 112–13. Snowden quotes I. W. Riley concerning “Old School Presbyterians.”
9. John Hyde, Mormonism, Its Leaders and Designs (New York: Fetridge, 1857), 281.
10. E. D. Howe, History of Mormonism (Painesville: Printed by the Author, 1840), 70.
11. E. D. Howe, Painesville Telegraph (15 February 1831), in Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols. (Independence, Mo.: Zion’s, 1951), 2:57–58.
12. Howe, History of Mormonism, 40.
13. Hiram Mattison, A Scriptural Defence of the Doctrine of the Trinity, or a Check to Modern Arianism, 4th ed. (New York: Colby, 1850), v.
14. Hyde, Mormonism, Its Leaders and Designs, 281. Editor of Galaxy Magazine 2 (New York, 1866): 356. The Encyclopedia Illustrada in its article on Mormons, p. 1126, describes the Book of Mormon as a mixture of the Spaulding manuscripts “and Joseph Smith’s fanatical Wesleyan ideas.”
15. Henry Adams, “Charles Francis Adams Visits the Mormons in 1844,” Proceedings of the Massachussetts Historical Society 68 (October 1944–May 1947; reprinted Boston, 1952), 286. Quotation is found on p. 22 of reprint.
16. David B. Davis, “The New England Origins of Mormonism,” New England Quarterly 26 (1953): 158.
17. Robert W. Beers, The Mormon Puzzle and How to Solve It (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1887), 34: “Millerism in particular was attracting great attention at that time, and so they incorporated into the ‘Book of Mormon’ its leading tenets.” The remark as to the date of Miller’s teaching, which began when “the Mormon church was only a year old,” is from John D. Kingsbury, Mormonism (New York: Congregational Home Missionary Society, n.d.), 7.
18. William E. Biederwolf, Mormonism under the Searchlight (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 3: “The first 2,000 converts came, nearly every one of them, out of the Baptist churches of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.” This is strictly untrue. The article in Galaxy Magazine 2:356 calls the Mormons “Wesleyan Baptists.”
19. Thomas Campbell, quoted in Painesville Telegraph (15 February 1831); Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:93.
20. Jules Remy, A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, 2 vols. (London: Jeffs, 1861), 1:231–32.
21. J. Theobald, Mormonism Harpooned (London: Horsell, 1855), 24.
22. Thus Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 59–60.
23. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 28.
24. Davis, “The New England Origins of Mormonism,” 155.
25. Der Grosse Brockhaus, 14 vols. (Wiesbaden: Brockhaus, 1952–63), s.v. “Mormonen.”
26. Editor in Knowledge, A Weekly Magazine (New York), 1, no. 9 (2 August 1890): 186.
27. John W. Gunnison, The Mormons or Latter-day Saints (Philadelphia: Lippincot, 1856), 61.
28. Howe, History of Mormonism, 54, 19 (emphasis added); this is actually a quotation from David Marks. Cf. J. B. Turner, Mormonism in All Ages (New York: Platt and Peters, 1842), 8: “Atheism and Romanism [are] its natural allies.”
29. John Theobald, The Overthrow of Infidel Mormonism (London: Horsell, 1850), 18. The charge was a common one.
30. G. K. Chesteron, The Uses of Diversity (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1921), 189.
31. Arbaugh, Gods, Sex, and Saints, 9–10 (emphasis added).
32. See Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:89, 92, quoting the Painesville Telegraph (15 February 1831). A Campbellite preacher refused to occupy a pulpit in which a Mormon had been invited to speak, protesting that “the man proclaimed another gospel written in another book.” Ibid., 2:113. Campbellites do not believe there ever was a great apostasy, that the Holy Ghost was ever had among any but the original apostles, that rebaptism is necessary, that a definite organization is required for the church, etc., to name only a few of the fundamental differences listed by Campbell, Painesville Telegraph (15 February 1831).
33. David I. Burnett, a Campbellite leader, discusses this (7 April 1831), in Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:113.
34. John A. Hardon, The Protestant Churches of America (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1956), 179.
35. Davis, “The New England Origins of Mormonism,” 163.
36. Ibid., 148, 154.
37. Daniel H. C. Bartlett, The Mormons or, Latter-Day Saints, Whence Came They? (Liverpool: Thompson, 1911), 9.
38. A. M. Redwood, “Mormonism,” in William C. Irvine, ed., Heresies Exposed, 28th printing (New York: Loizeaux, 1955), 129.
39. Redwood suggests, “Mormonism,” 128, 130, that Rigdon’s copy (hypothetical) of Mosheim was used. John Mosheim, in his Ecclesiastical History, (1839), 2:312–14; (1842), 1:356, describes the teaching of Joachim as Franciscan mysticism, maintaining that after two imperfect ages “the true and eternal Gospel” was finally taught by St. Francis, who was the angel mentioned in Revelation 14:6, and “that the Gospel of Christ would be abrogated in the year 1260,” etc. And this is supposed to be the source of the Book of Mormon!
40. William S. Parrott, The Veil Uplifted; or the Religious Conspirators of the Latter-Day Exposed (Bristol: Taylor, 1865), 13.
41. Eadmer, Vita Anselmi, 2, in PL 158:50–51. The scholars in question refer to the doctrine of atonement in Anselm’s Cur Deus homo?, oblivious of its remarkably feudalistic and chivalric quality.
42. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1957), 42; reprinted in CWHN 6:50–51.
43. Gunnison, The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, 61.
44. Schaff-Herzog Encylopedia of Religious Knowledge, 15 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), 8:13.
45. Ibid., 8:12.
46. The passage in the Confession of Faith, ch. 32–33, reads: “After death the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments, reserved to the judgment of the great day. In which day all persons shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words and deeds, and to receive according to that which they have done in the body, whether good or evil. The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of His justice. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, but the wicked shall be cast into eternal torments.” Quoted in I. Woodbridge Riley, Founder of Mormonism (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1902), 132–33. It would be hard to find a more thoroughly standardized statement of biblical teachings regarding the last judgment. The official Catholic teaching is the same, Bernhard Bartmann, Manuale de Teologia Dogmatica 3 (Alba: Edizioni Paoline, 1949): 430–33. Indeed, this is one of the few Christian doctrines on which nearly all churches, as well as the Jewish doctors, agree, and it could hardly be otherwise, since it is all set forth so clearly in the scriptures. The last judgment is a favorite theme of churchmen, ancient, medieval, and modern, who never tire of repeating over and over again almost word for word the story quoted above. “If the speech of Nephi, to his brethren, be compared with the Westminster Standards,” writes Riley, Founder of Mormonism, 132, “a close parallelism will be disclosed.” But no closer than with a hundred other sources.
47. Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 11:86.
48. Horton Davies, Christian Deviations (London: SCM, 1954), 80 (emphasis added).
49. L. Rumble, Mormons or Latter-Day Saints (tract) (St. Paul, 1950), reprinted in Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:304 (emphasis added).
50. Henry C. Sheldon, A Fourfold Test of Mormonism (New York: Abingdon, 1914), 43–44. Cf. Daniel P. Kidder, Mormonism and the Mormons (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1842), 337; Hyde, Mormonism, Its Leaders and Designs, 281.
51. William H. Whitsitt, Concise Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, ed. Samuel M. Jackson (New York: Christian Literature, 1891), 616.
52. William A. Irwin, “Ezekiel Research Since 1943,” Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953): 61, speaking of research on Ezekiel.