Return to About Mormons home

Accusatory Questions

Did Joseph Smith plagiarize from View of the Hebrews when writing the Book of Mormon?

by Jeff Lindsay

Some critics claim that Joseph Smith copied much of the structure and content of the Book of Mormon from the 1823 book View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph Smith). Ethan Smith's book proposes that the American Indians were the lost tribes of Israel and has several apparent parallels to the Book of Mormon. These parallels include long journeys that were religiously motivated; references to wars, writing, and metal work; and moral overtones such as the denouncement of pride. Also, according to View of the Hebrews, Indians talk of a "lost book" they left in Palestine. But these similarities are rather vague and general.

An examination of the two books shows that the similarities are far fewer and less significant than the differences. In fact, the Book of Mormon contradicts the View of the Hebrews on almost every major issue that the latter considers (who were the Indians, how did they get to the New World, when did they arrive, what names did they use, how did they live, etc., etc.)

Further, there is nothing in View of the Hebrews that provides the kind of evidences for authenticity that we see in the Book of Mormon - including the regular occurrence of chiasmus, an ancient form of parallelism (only recently recognized and appreciated) that is a hallmark of Semitic poetry, and correctly and precisely identifying the places Nahom and Bountiful (almost certainly Wadi Sayq) on the Arabian Peninsula, which no Western scholar could have done in the nineteenth century.

An important fact to remember is that many people in the early 1800s assumed that the Indians had some connection with the Old World, and popular theories included descent from the lost tribes of Israel. For example, Josiah Priest wrote in 1833, "The opinion that the American Indians are the descendants of the lost Ten Tribes, is now a popular one, and generally believed" (as cited by Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, p. 195). Joseph had no need to plagiarize from Ethan Smith for this view, which is probably the most "impressive" parallel between the two works. Ethan Smith's view, though developed in great detail, may not have seemed unusual or noteworthy at the time. This may be why critics of the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century saw no cause for linking the Book of Mormon to View of the Hebrews - the apparent parallels were not specific, distinct, or unusual. As far as I know, it was only around the turn of the century, when newer theories had supplanted earlier speculation about the origin of the Indians, that Ethan Smith's book began to be mentioned as a possible source for the Book of Mormon. Today, it may seem significant that Ethan Smith proposed an Israelite origin for the Indians, for that idea seems odd and unusual from our perspective, but this broad parallel apparently did not seem noteworthy to critics in the early days of the Church.

While there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever even saw a copy of Ethan Smith's work, it is still physically possible that he could have had one. I have even heard claims that Oliver Cowdery's family had a connection to Ethan Smith. (If Oliver knew of anything close to plagiarism involved in the Book of Mormon, it's interesting that he never mentioned it or denied his testimony of the divinity of that book, even during the time when he was bitterly upset with Joseph Smith and had left the Church.) If Joseph really did use View of the Hebrews as his primary source, then he must have assumed it was accurate and reasonable. If so, one would expect that he would have relied on it for important details, themes, and concepts. Instead, we find that he repeatedly contradicts its content. If Joseph plagiarized from Ethan Smith, we would expect to find that unique aspects of View of the Hebrews - ideas, names, stories that are not also found in the Bible or other sources - would have been incorporated into the Book of Mormon, but no such "fingerprints" are found. There is no real evidence of Joseph relying on that text. In fact, there are extreme differences between the two texts at every turn which seriously challenge the hypothesis that Joseph plagiarized from Ethan Smith. Consider the following anti-parallels noted by John Welch in his article "View of the Hebrews: An Unparallel" in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1992, pp. 83-87:

1. View of the Hebrews begins with a chapter on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. It has nothing to say, however, about the destruction in Lehi's day by the Babylonians.

2. View of the Hebrews tells of specific heavenly signs that marked the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Joseph Smith ignores these singular and memorable details.

3. Chapter 2 lists many prophecies about the restoration of Israel, including Deuteronomy 30; Isaiah 11, 18, 60, 65; Jeremiah 16, 23, 30-31, 35-37; Zephaniah 3; Amos 9; Hosea and Joel. These scriptures are essential to the logic and fabric of View of the Hebrews, yet, with the sole exception of Isaiah 11, none of them appear in the Book of Mormon.

4. Chapter 3 is the longest chapter in View of the Hebrews. It produces numerous "distinguished Hebraisms" as "proof" that the American Indians are Israelites. Hardly any of these points are found in the Book of Mormon, as one would expect if Joseph Smith were using View of the Hebrews or trying to make his book persuasive. For example, View of the Hebrews asserts repeatedly that the Ten Tribes came to America via the Bering Strait, which they crossed on "dry land." According to View of the Hebrews, this opinion is unquestionable, supported by all the authorities.

From there View of the Hebrews claims that the Israelites spread from north to east and then to the south at a very late date. These are critical points for View of the Hebrews, since Amos 8:11-12 prophesies that the tribes would go from the north to the east. Population migrations in the Book of Mormon, however, always move from the south to the north.

5. View of the Hebrews reports that the Indians are Israelites because they use the word "Hallelujah." Here is one of the favorite proofs of View of the Hebrews, a dead giveaway that the Indians are Israelites. Yet the word is never used in the Book of Mormon.

Furthermore, a table showing thirty-four Indian words or sentence fragments with Hebrew equivalents appears in View of the Hebrews. No reader of the book could have missed this chart. If Joseph Smith had wanted to make up names to use in the Book of Mormon that would substantiate his claim that he had found some authentic western hemisphere Hebrew words, he would have jumped at such a ready-made list! Yet not one of these thirty-four Hebrew/Indian words (e.g., Keah, Lani, Uwoh, Phale, Kurbet, etc.) has even the remotest resemblance to any of the 175 words that appear for the first time in the Book of Mormon.

6. View of the Hebrews says the Indians are Israelites because they carry small boxes with them into battle. These are to protect them against injury. They are sure signs that the Indians' ancestors knew of the Ark of the Covenant! How could Joseph Smith pass up such a distinguished and oft-attested Hebraism as this?! Yet in all Book of Mormon battle scenes, there is not one hint of any such ark, box, or bag serving as a military fetish.

7. The Indians are Israelites because the Mohawk tribe was a tribe held in great reverence by all the others, to whom tribute was paid. Obviously, to Ethan Smith, this makes the Mohawks the vestiges of the tribe of Levi, Israel's tribe of priests. If Joseph Smith believed that such a tribe or priestly remnant had survived down to his day, he forgot to provide for anything to that effect in the Book of Mormon.

8. The Indians are Israelites because they had a daily sacrifice of fat in the fire and passed their venison through the flame, cutting it into twelve pieces. This great clue of "Israelitishness" is also absent from the Book of Mormon.

9. View of the Hebrews maintains that the Indians knew "a distinguished Hebraism," namely "laying the hand on the mouth, and the mouth in the dust." Had Joseph Smith believed this, why is the Book of Mormon silent on this "sure sign of Hebraism" and dozens of others like it?

10. According to View of the Hebrews, the Indians quickly lost knowledge that they were all from the same family. The Book of Mormon tells that family and tribal affiliations were maintained for almost one thousand years.

11. View of the Hebrews claims that the righteous Indians were active "for a long time," well into recent times, and that their destruction occurred about A.D. 1400, based upon such convincing evidence as tree rings near some of the fortifications of these people. The Book of Mormon implicitly rejects this notion by reporting the destruction of the Nephites in the fourth century A.D.

12. View of the Hebrews argues that the Indians are Israelites because they knew the legends of Quetzalcoatl. But the surprise here is that View of the Hebrews proves beyond doubt that Quetzalcoatl was none other than - not Jesus - but Moses! "Who could this be but Moses, the ancient legislator in Israel?" Quetzalcoatl was white, gave laws, required penance (strict obedience), had a serpent with green plumage (brazen, fiery-flying serpent in the wilderness), pierced ears (like certain slaves under the law of Moses), appeased God's wrath (by sacrifices), was associated with a great famine (in Egypt), spoke from a volcano (Sinai), walked barefoot (removed his shoes), spawned a golden age (seven years of plenty in Egypt - which has nothing to do with Moses, by the way), etc. Besides the fact that the View of the Hebrews's explanation of Quetzalcoatl as Moses is inconsistent with the Book of Mormon, none of these hallmark details associated with Quetzalcoatl are incorporated into the account of Christ's visit to Bountiful in 3 Nephi.

The foregoing twelve points could be multiplied literally seven times over. In the face of these differences, the few vague similarities pale.

As for the apparent similarities, they are hardly startling and are far outweighed by the differences. It's important to realize that parallel between stories and documents are easy to find. There are many dozens of parallels between the story of the Pilgrim coming to the New World and the Book of Mormon. There are even parallels between the written history of man's journey to the moon and the Book of Mormon. A number of parallels occurred to me within a brief 20 minute period (with the help of an encyclopedia), resulting in the following article which may shatter the faith of some LDS people:

Man's Journey to the Moon: Inspiration for the Book of Mormon?


(The following section is just tongue in cheek, but is intended to illustrate a point. Please calm down, people! Of course I know that space exploration came after 1830. Why, it wasn't until at least 1869 that we walked on the moon.)

Numerous parallels between the history of man's voyages to the moon and the transoceanic voyages in the Book of Mormon suggest that accounts of lunar journeys may have been a primary source for Joseph Smith. Consider the following startling parallels:

I came up with those silly connections to the moon in about 20 minutes, including the time to find a chart of the moon in an encyclopedia. If I did this sort of thing for a living, perhaps I could even write an entire book: UFO's, the Moon, and Joseph Smith: Uncovering the Black Crater of the Book of Mormon. The point is that broad similarities - and even a few apparent specific ones - do not mean that one text is the source for the other. We must look for consistent, specific, and unique similarities to make a case for plagiarism. Is there any consistent relationship between the two texts to show that one was used to construct the other? Not really. Ditto for the alleged link between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Even if we assume that every apparent parallel is a genuine sign of plagiarism, View of the Hebrews would only account for a tiny fraction of the Book of Mormon, and none of the truly unique elements such as geographical locations, place names (e.h., Nahom) and human names (e.g., Alma), poetical forms, parallels to other ancient documents, accurate description of ancient warfare, accurate description of ancient olive culture practices, New Year's kingship rituals, etc., etc.

View of the Hebrews apparently was not considered as a probable source for the Book of Mormon by critics in the 1800's, and with good reason, in my opinion: it's apparent similarities are too vague and its differences too great. Now I think it's high time for the critics to seriously consider the possibility that books on the lunar voyages could have been Joseph's source. Was Nephi really Neil Armstrong? Take out the "ph" from Nephi, and you've got the "Nei" of Neil. Was the LEM (Lunar Entry Module) the source of the name LEMuel? Take out the central "rm" from "Mormon" and you've got "Moon"; take out the "r" and "i" of Moroni and you've got "Moon" again. Yikes - it's all beginning to make sense!

Hugh Nibley (The Prophetic Book of Mormon, pp. 194-202) discusses 18 specific parallels which were noted by B.H. Roberts and have been recited by critics (Hogan and Brodie in particular) as evidence of plagiarism. I'll give a few of his comments here:

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....This being the case, why would Joseph Smith need to steal them from Ethan Smith? ...

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." 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!...

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! Even Mrs. Brodie concedes that "it may never be proven that Joseph saw View of the Hebrews," 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" 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." Then gradually (6) "in process of time their savage jealousies and rage annihilated their more civilized brethren." 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." 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 Israel" (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....

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.

(See The Book of Mormon home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

All About Mormons