The Early Years of Mormonism, by Sandra Tanner

Uploaded by aaronshaf2006 on 13.03.2010

Joseph Smith—The Early Years
In the small farming community of Sharon, Vermont, on December 23rd of 1805, Lucy Smith
gave birth to her fifth child, Joseph Smith, Jr. While the proud parents doubtlessly had
high hopes for the son who bore his father’s name, they could hardly have imagined that
he would one day produce new books of scripture and start a church that would eventually grow
to over 13 million members. In the following I will outline three areas
of influence that helped to shape Joseph Smith’s religious career. The first one is Smith’s
religious environment, the second is the family’s involvement with Folk Magic and the third
is the public interest in the American Indians. 1. JOSEPH SMITH’S RELIGIOUS ENVIRONMENT
Many people in the New England area during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s were
turning away from organized religion, believing that most denominations had fallen into apostate
practices. It was a time in America of religious upheaval, revivals and new sects. Many Christians
were looking for a restoration of the New Testament church. Fawn Brodie described the
religious turmoil of the day: The Methodists split four ways between 1814
and 1830. The Baptists split into Reformed Baptists, Hard- Shell Baptists, Free-Will
Baptists, Seventh-Day Baptists, Footwashers, and other sects. Unfettered religious liberty
began spawning a host of new religions. Many in that day were drawn to the “Seeker”
movement and its rejection of organized churches. Historian Dan Vogel comments:
The primitive gospel movement emerged first among the “common” folk of New England,
the South, and West between the years 1790 and 1830.
Those termed “Seekers” were waiting for a new dispensation of apostolic authority.
Vogel further observed: One independent Seeker, Asa Wild, of Amsterdam,
New York, published in 1824 a short work describing his revolt against Puritanism and his conversion
to Seekerism. His work, A Short Sketch of the Religious Experience, and Spiritual Travels,
of Asa Wild, outlines the classic Seeker position and demonstrates his yearning for a restoration
and the Millennium. While both of Joseph Smith’s parents professed
Christianity, they came from families that were divided over religion.
Lucy Smith’s parents were not united in their faith. Lucy’s mother was a staunch
Congregationalist while her father, Solomon Mack , advocated Universalism which maintained
that God would save all mankind. Then in 1811 Solomon claimed to have a religious conversion
and wrote a small book detailing his new faith and return to orthodoxy. Later the Book of
Mormon would reflect elements of the Universalist debate.
In the book of Alma we read of a certain man named Nehor whose preaching echoed that of
the Universalists. He went about preaching that “all mankind should be saved at the
last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their
heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and,
in the end, all men should have eternal life.” After killing a man of God who tried to call
him to repentance, Nehor was sentenced to death. Just before he died he repented of
his false teachings. Those familiar with the revival literature
of Joseph Smith’s day recognize similar teachings in the Book of Mormon. Fawn Brodie
observed: In the speeches of the Nephite prophets one
may find the religious conflicts that were splitting the churches in the 1820’s. Alexander
Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, wrote in the first able review of the Book
of Mormon: “This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates
of Nephi, in his Book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York
for the last ten years. He decided all the great controversies: --infant baptism, ordination,
the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation,
fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the
general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of
free masonry, republican government and the rights of man. . . . But he is better skilled
in the controversies in New York than in the geography or history of Judea. He makes John
baptize in the village of Bethabara and says Jesus was born in Jerusalem.”
Curiously, while the Book of Mormon addresses many of the doctrinal disputes of Smith’s
day, it does not contain the major doctrines of Mormonism that separate it from standard
Christianity. While the Book of Mormon condemned universalism, by 1832 Smith seems to have
changed his mind. Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants teaches three levels of heaven,
with a place for practically everyone. The Book of Mormon contains no teaching on the
need for temple rituals, eternal marriage, plural gods, man's pre-mortal existence, proxy
work for the dead, three levels of heaven or eternal progression. In fact, the Book
of Mormon declares that death seals ones fate and that there is no opportunity to repent
after one dies (see Alma 34:31-35). One can easily see the similarities between
doctrines in the Book of Mormon and the revival rhetoric of the 1820’s.
Joseph Smith’s uncle Jason, Lucy’s oldest brother, “became a ‘Seeker’ and set
up a quasi-communistic society of thirty indigent families whose economic and spiritual welfare
he sought to direct.” In this environment of competing philosophies, Lucy felt undecided
about church membership. She later wrote about this period in her life:
If I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world; and if
I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error. No church
will admit that I am right, except the one with which I am associated. This makes them
witness against each other; and how can I decide in such a case as this, seeing they
are all unlike the Church of Christ, as it existed in former days!
Joseph Smith’s father came from a similar background. Dan Vogel explains:
In 1796 Lucy married a man similarly perplexed about religion, although his Primitivism stemmed
from independence more than from uncertainty. Joseph Smith, Sr., was more liberal, apparently
agreeing with Lucy’s father about universal salvation. Joseph Smith, Sr., had been raised
by a father whose curious blend of theological views was legendary in his community of Topsfield,
Massachusetts. Joseph' father, Asael, was a rationalist whose beliefs included Universalism
and Seekerism. He refused to join any of the churches “because he could not reconcile
their teachings with the scriptures and his reason.”
But by the 1820’s Lucy Smith was longing for some sort of religious affiliation. A
family disaster would complicate this search. In 1823 the Smith’s oldest son, Alvin, died
from a bowel obstruction and at the funeral the minister inferred that Alvin had gone
to hell as he was not a baptized member of a church. This cemented Joseph Smith, Sr.
in his rejection of organized religion. When Lucy Smith attended the 1824 and 1825
Palmyra revival Joseph Smith, Sr. refused to accompany her. As a result of these meetings
Lucy Smith, her sons Hyrum and Samuel, and a daughter, joined the Presbyterian Church.
This division in the home obviously impacted Joseph Smith Jr. LDS historian Richard Bushman
observed: If there was a personal motive for Joseph
Smith Jr.’s revelations, it was to satisfy his family’s religious want and, above all,
to meet the need of his oft-defeated, unmoored father.
During these years young Joseph Smith had been attending various religious meetings,
revivals, and even joined the local young people’s debating club. At times he participated
in revival meetings as an “exhorter,” one who would speak after the regular sermon
and “exhort” the audience to follow the admonitions of the preacher. When writing
about these events many years later, Joseph explained:
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great
uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof
from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion
would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and
I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife
among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was,
and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right
and who was wrong. . . . The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and
Methodists. . . Retired LDS Institute Director Grant Palmer
has pointed out the similarity between the Methodist camp meetings that Smith would have
attended and those of the Book of Mormon: We have not taken Joseph Smith seriously enough
when he stated that he had an “intimate acquaintance” with evangelical religion
and that he was “somewhat partial” to the Methodists. Protestant concepts appear
to abound in his discourses and experiences. For example, a Methodist camp meeting was
held one mile from Palmyra, New York, on 7 June 1826—a pivotal time in Joseph Smith’s
life. Preparations for a camp meeting included leasing and consecrating the ground. Thus
the “ground within the circle of the tents is considered sacred to the worship of God,
and is our chapel.” The Methodists referred to these “consecrated grounds” as their
“house of God” or temple. The Palmyra camp meeting reportedly attracted over 10,000
people. Families came from all parts of the 100-mile conference district and pitched their
tent facing the raised ‘stand” where the preachers were seated, including one named
Benjamin G. Paddock… This Large crowd heard the “valedictory” or farewell speech of
their beloved “Bishop M’kendree [who] made his appearance among us for the last
time.” . . . In his emaciated and “feeble” condition, he spoke of his love for the people
and then delivered a powerful message that covered “the whole process of personal salvation.”
Tremendous unity prevailed among the crowd, and “nearly every unconverted person on
the ground” committed oneself to Christ. . . .
This is reminiscent of King Benjamin’s speech to the Zarahemlans in the Book of Mormon,
whose chronicler describes the setting: The people gathered themselves together throughout
all the land, that they might go up to the temple to hear the [last] words which [their
beloved] king Benjamin should speak unto them … [T]hey pitched their tents round about,
every man according to his family … every man having his tent with the door thereof
towards the temple … the multitude being so great that king Benjamin … caused a towed
to be erected … [And he said from the platform,] I am about to go down to my grave … I can
no longer be your teacher … For even at this time my whole frame doth tremble exceedingly
while attempting to speak unto you (Mosiah 2:1, 5-7, 28-30).
Palmer also observed: Evangelical meetings in western New York in
the 1820s were characterized by (1) camp settings; (2) preaching that interlaced paraphrased
biblical passages with revival terminology designed to produce a powerful emotional impact;
(3) a conversion pattern characterized by a conviction of sin, intense prayer for forgiveness,
and a sweet calming assurance of being forgiven, often accompanied by trembling, tears, falling,
and other physical manifestations; (4) denunciation of Deists, Unitarians, Universalists, and
agnostics; and (5) vivid descriptions of the degenerate state of human beings. While all
five of these elements formed a pattern that was typical in Joseph Smith’s environment,
one would not expect to find them packaged together in the discourses and experiences
of ancient Americans. It is more believable that the Protestant Reformation, including
its evolving doctrines and practices down to Joseph Smith’s era, influenced these
sections of the Book of Mormon. The LDS Church has traditionally emphasized
Joseph Smith’s lack of education to establish that the Book of Mormon was beyond Smith’s
writing ability. However, Grant Palmer observed: Thus we have an image of Joseph Smith as one
“not learned” (see Isa. 29:12). While this accurately describes his formal education,
it misstates his knowledge of the Bible, of evangelical Protestantism, and of American
antiquities within his environment. He wrote in his 1832 history that his parents were
thorough in “instructing me in the christian religion” and that, from age twelve on,
he became a serious Bible student by “searching the scriptures.”
The extensive plagiarism of phrases from the King James Bible in the Book of Mormon demonstrates
Joseph Smith's familiarity with the text. Joseph Smith later claimed that it was because
of a revival in the neighborhood that he went out into the woods to pray and received his
first vision. He placed the date in 1820, however the description of the revival given
by various family members places the date in the 1824 time-frame, after part of the
family joined the Presbyterian Church. But even his claim of a vision was not an
unusual occurrence during the many revivals in New York. Joseph Smith’s 1838 account
of his first vision, published in the Pearl of Great Price, tells how in 1820 he went
into a grove to pray to know which church to join. At first a dark power overtook him,
then crying out to God, he observed a great light. Two beings appeared and told him he
was not to join any of them as they were “all wrong” and that “all their creeds were
an abomination in his sight.” He concluded "When I came to myself again, I found myself
lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength;
but soon recovering in some degree, I went home." These two beings are identified today
as God the father and Jesus Christ. Richard Bushman recounted the vision of Norris
Stearns whose 1815 story sounds very much like Joseph Smith’s account:
“One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were
a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a Cloud. . . . Below him stood
Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man.”
In 1816 a minister by the name of Elias Smith published a book in which he told of his conversion.
Notice the similarity to Joseph Smith's first account:
... I went into the woods ... a light appeared from heaven.... My mind seemed to rise in
that light to the throne of God and the Lamb.... The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding,
and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly....
It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation ...
Alexander Campbell wrote the following on March 1, 1824, concerning a revival in New
York: "Enthusiasm flourishes.... This man was regenerated when asleep, by a vision of
the night. That man heard a voice in the woods, saying, 'Thy sins be forgiven thee.' A third
saw his Savior descending to the tops of the trees at noon day."
Asa Wild claimed to have a vision which is very similar to the story Joseph Smith later
published. It was printed in the Wayne Sentinel (the paper to which the Smith family apparently
subscribed) on October 22, 1823: It seemed as if my mind ... was struck motionless,
as well as into nothing, before the awful and glorious majesty of the Great Jehovah.
He then spake ... He also told me, that every denomination of professing Christians had
become extremely corrupt.... With so many people dissatisfied with the
churches of the day and looking for some sort of restoration, it is easy to see why some
people would be attracted to Joseph Smith’s claims and the Book of Mormon, which echoed
many of the same criticisms. 2. THE SMITH FAMILY AND MAGIC
In the 1820’s many people believed in magical stones that allowed the owner to discern the
location of lost treasures. For instance, on February 16, 1825, the Wayne Sentinel,
published in Joseph Smith's neighborhood, reprinted the following from the Windsor,
(Vermont) Journal: Money digging.—We are sorry to observe even
in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the Marvellous.
Even the frightful stories of money being hid under the surface of the earth, and enchanted
by the Devil or Robert Kidd, are received by many of our respectable fellow citizens
as truths. . . . A respectable gentleman in Tunbridge, was
informed by means of a dream, that a chest of money was buried on a small island....
After having been directed by the mineral rod where to search for the money ... he and
his laborers came ... upon a chest of gold ... the chest moved off through the mud,
and has not been seen or heard of since. Another similar story was printed on December
27, 1825, in the Wayne Sentinel: Wonderful Discovery.—A few days since was
discovered in this town, by the help of a mineral stone, (which becomes transparent
when placed in a hat and the light excluded by the face of him who looks into it, provided
he is fortune's favorite,) a monstrous potash kettle in the bowels of old mother Earth,
filled with the purest bullion. . . . His Satanic Majesty, or some other invisible agent,
appears to keep it under marching orders; for no sooner is it dug on to in one place,
than it moves off like "false delusive hope," to another still more remote.
In 1822 Joseph Smith found a magic "seer stone" like the one mentioned in the newspaper while
digging a well for his neighbor, Willard Chase. In 1833 Mr. Chase gave his account of the
event: In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging
a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me; the latter of whom is now known
as the Mormon prophet. After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth,
we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to
the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his
face into the top of his hat. . . . After obtaining the stone, he began to publish abroad
what wonders he could discover by looking in it, . . .
A few years later Joseph Smith would use this same stone to translate the gold plates of
the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer described the process:
I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated.
Joseph would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely
around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would
shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing.
This is foreshadowed in the Book of Mormon: Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell
thee, O king, of a man that can atranslate the records; for he has wherewith that he
can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God.
And the things are called binterpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded,
lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded
to look in them, the same is called cseer. [Mosiah 8: 13]
In 1834 E. D. Howe published his expose titled Mormonism Unvailed and in it he printed a
number of statements by neighbors of the Smith’s recounting their involvement with magic and
money digging. Willard Stafford wrote: I first became acquainted with Joseph, Sen.,
and his family in the year 1820. They lived, at that time, in Palmyra, about one mile and
a half from my residence. A great part of their time was devoted to digging for money:
. . . I had heard them tell marvelous tales, respecting the discoveries they had made in
their peculiar occupation of money digging. They would say, for instance, that in such
an place, in such a hill, on a certain man’s farm, there were deposited kegs, barrels and
hogheads of coined silver and gold— bars of gold, golden images, brass kettles filled
with gold and silver—gold candlesticks, swords, &c, &c.
In 1825, after hearing of Smith’s powers, a man named Josiah Stowell came to Palmyra
to hire the Smiths to help him look for a silver mine in Pennsylvania. At that time
Joseph and his father entered into an agreement with those searching for the treasure, to
share anything found in the dig. Smith’s stone was to be their key to finding the silver.
Smith’s mother relates that Mr. Stowell specifically sought out Joseph Smith due to
his special powers. Lucy Smith wrote: "A short time before the house was completed
[1825], a man by the name of Josiah Stoal came from Chenango county, New York, with
the view of getting Joseph to assist him in digging for a silver mine. He came for Joseph
on account of having heard that he possessed certain means by which he could discern things
invisible to the natural eye." However, a relative of Mr. Stowell became
worried that Joseph Smith was defrauding the man and filed charges against him in 1826.
Michael Marquardt and Wesley Walters commented: While Joseph Smith was working for Josiah
Stowell, he was brought before a court on charges sworn against him by a nephew of Josiah
Stowell, Peter G. Bridgman (or Bridgeman). Apparently Bridgman became concerned that
his uncle’s money was being spent in the pursuit of elusive treasure. Accounts of these
charges corroborate Smith’s treasure hunting in southern New York and Pennsylvania.
Joseph Smith was arrested and brought before Judge Albert Neeley on March 20th of 1826.
Judge Neeley’s record refers to Smith as “the Glass looker.” At the hearing Josiah
Stowell testified “that prisoner had been at his house something
like five months; had been employed by him to work on farm part time; that he [Joseph]
pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking
through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes; once to tell him
about money buried in Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for
a salt spring; and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and did possess
the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone; . . .
There is a difference of opinion among historians if this was actually the trial or a preliminary
hearing. Regardless, it demonstrates Smith’s involvement in treasure hunting by means of
his stone. Joseph Smith would have been 20 years old at the time and was evidently allowed
to leave the county. When he later claimed to have found the gold plates containing the
Book of Mormon, the money-diggers came seeking their share of the treasure. Martin Harris
wrote: The money-diggers claimed that they had as
much right to the plates as Joseph had, as they were in company together. They claimed
that Joseph had been a traitor, and had appropriated to himself that which belonged to them. For
this reason Joseph was afraid of them, and continued concealing the plates.
While Joseph Smith was in the employ of Mr. Stowell, he met his future bride, Emma Hale,
while boarding with her family. However her father, Issac Hale, would not give his consent
to their marriage due to Smith's magic pursuits and money digging. Soon after this, in 1827,
Joseph and Emma eloped and moved to Palmyra. Later Joseph told Mr. Hale that "he had given
up what he called 'glass-looking,' and that he expected to work hard for a living." The
Smith's then moved back to the Hale's farm. Evidently the still-birth of the Smith's first
child in June of 1828 caused Joseph to seriously reconsider his religious views and he sought
membership in the Methodist Church. When Joseph Lewis, Emma's cousin, learned of this act,
he felt that "it was a disgrace to the church to have a practicing necromancer, a dealer
in enchantments and bleeding ghosts, in it." Mr. Lewis told him either to "publicly ask
to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation." Mr.
Lewis stated that Joseph Smith immediately requested his name to be taken off the class
book. (The Amboy Journal, June 11, 1879, p.1). Earlier I quoted an account from the Smith’s
local newspaper about cursed treasures that slip further into the ground when someone
tries to unearth them. This same type of phenomena is echoed in the Book of Mormon. In the thirteenth
chapter of Helaman we read: 31 And behold, the time cometh that he curseth
your riches, that they become aslippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your
poverty ye cannot retain them. . . . And then shall ye lament, and say: ... O that we had
remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would
not have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from
us. 34 Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow
it is gone; and behold, our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for
battle. 35 Yea, we have hid up our atreasures and
they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.
36 O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold
the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them.
Thus we see how Smith’s view of treasures hidden in the ground carried over into his
book of scripture. Years later when Joseph Smith’s mother,
Lucy, wrote her memoirs, she explained that the family always balanced their time between
working, magical pursuits, and their faith: I shall change my theme for the present but
let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we
stopt our labor and went trying to win the faculty
of Abrac drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business we
never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation
but whilst we worked with our hands we endeavored to remember the service of & the welfare of
our souls. Besides the use of seer stones, the Smith’s
used divining rods, sticks that were usually forked, to both look for water and to locate
treasures. A friend of the family recounted a conversation with Joseph Smith, Sr. in which
Smith explained he had “spent both time and money” searching for buried treasure
using “divining rods.” Joseph Smith’s principle scribe, Oliver
Cowdery, was also involved with folk magic. One important change Joseph Smith made in
his revelations was an obvious attempt to cover up the endorsement of Oliver Cowdery's
supposed gift from God to work with a divining rod. In the 1833 printing of Smith’s revelations,
titled Book of Commandments, was an 1829 revelation given to Oliver Cowdery that stated
"Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the
rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can
cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands...." (7:3).
However, in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants this revelation was edited to say:
"Now this is not all thy gift, for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron;
behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of
God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you" (8:6-7).
Notice that the words "working with the rod" and "rod of nature" have been changed to the
more respectable sounding “gift of Aaron.” Those who used divining rods were at times
referred to as "rodsmen." Richard P. Howard, RLDS church historian, observed:
Several writers have established that both in Vermont and in western New York in the
early 1800's, one of the many forms which enthusiastic religion took was the adaptation
of the witch hazel stick.... For example, the 'divining rod' was used effectively by
one Nathaniel Wood in Rutland County, Vermont, in 1801. Wood, Winchell, William Cowdery,
Jr., and his son, Oliver Cowdery, all had some knowledge of and associations with the
various uses, both secular and sacred, of the forked witch hazel rod. Winchell and others
used such a rod in seeking buried treasure;... when Joseph Smith met Oliver Cowdery in April,
1829, he found a man peculiarly adept in the use of the forked rod ... and against the
background of his own experiments with and uses of oracular media, Joseph Smith's April,
1829, affirmations about Cowdery's unnatural powers related to working with the rod are
quite understandable.... Mormon historians now concede the reality
of the Smith family’s involvement with magic. D. Michael Quinn, in his book, Early Mormonism
and the Magic World View, observes: "Friendly sources corroborate hostile non-Mormon
accounts. As historian Richard L. Bushman has written: ‘There had always been evidence
of it ("money-digging in the Smith family") in the hostile affidavits from the Smith’s
neighbors, evidence which Mormons dismissed as hopelessly biased. But when I got into
the sources, I found evidence from friendly contemporaries as well, Martin Harris, Joseph
Knight, Oliver Cowdery, and Lucy Mack Smith. All of these witnesses persuaded me treasure-seeking
and vernacular magic were part of the Smith family tradition, and that the hostile witnesses,
including the 1826 trial record, had to be taken seriously.’ BYU historian Marvin S.
Hill has likewise observed: ‘Now, most historians, Mormon or not, who work with the sources,
accept as fact Joseph Smith’s career as village magician.’"
In the early 1800's there was high interest in the American Indian culture and artifacts
resulting in many books and newspaper articles. The local newspapers occasionally ran stories
about the Indians. The Palmyra Register for May 26, 1819, reported that one writer
believes (and we think with good reason) that this country was once inhabited by a race
of people, at least, partially civilized, & that this race has been exterminated by
the forefathers of the present and late tribes of Indians in this country.
Furthermore, the following was published in the Smith's local newspaper, the Wayne Sentinel,
in 1825: Those who are most conversant with the public
and private economy of the Indians, are strongly of opinion that they are the lineal descendants
of the Israelites, and my own researches go far to confirm me in the same belief
Dan Vogel gave the following overview of Smith’s environment:
By 1830 knowledge of the impressive ruined cities of the Maya of Central America and
the Inca of South America was commonplace in the northeastern United States. In addition,
the inhabitants of those states were almost daily reminded of the building acumen of the
early Indians: the remnants of fortifications as well as burial mounds dotted the area.
Since most nineteenth-century Americans did not make distinctions among the various cultures
and lifestyles of the native Americans and instead thought of these disparate groups
as belonging to one race—the Indian—they also tended to see all of these ruins as coming
from one group. What must this group have been like to have engineered such structures?
The Book of Mormon tells the story of such a people and provides possible answers to
persistent questions about their history. There were a number of books printed in Joseph
Smith’s day to provide such answers. It was a common theory of the day that the American
Indians descended from Israel—the very idea put forward in the Book of Mormon.
In 1652 Menasseh Ben Israel's Hope of Israel was published in England. This Jewish rabbi
was a firm believer that remnants of the ten tribes of Israel had been discovered in the
Americas. In 1775 James Adair published The History
of the American Indians. He theorized that there were twenty-three parallels between
Indian and Jewish customs. For example, he claimed the Indians spoke a corrupt form of
Hebrew, honored the Jewish Sabbath, performed circumcision, and offered animal sacrifice.
He discussed various theories explaining Indian origins, problems of transoceanic crossing,
and the theory that the mound builders were a white group more advanced than the Indians.
A popular book of Smith's day was View of the Hebrews, by Rev. Ethan Smith, printed
in 1823, with a second edition in 1825. LDS General Authority B. H. Roberts wrote extensively
about the parallels between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Rev. Robert Hullinger
gave the following summary of B. H. Robert's parallels:
According to Roberts's later studies, some features of View of the Hebrews are paralleled
in the Book of Mormon. (1) Indians buried a book they could no longer read. (2) A Mr.
Merrick found some dark yellow parchment leaves in "Indian Hill." (3) Native Americans had
inspired prophets and charismatic gifts, as well as (4) their own kind of Urim and Thummim
and breastplate. (5) Ethan Smith produced evidence to show that ancient Mexican Indians
were no strangers to Egyptian hieroglyphics. (6) An overthrown tribes—barbarous because View of the Hebrews
is a thirty-two page account of the historical destruction of Jerusalem. (8) There are many
references to Israel's scattering and being "gathered" in the last days. (9) Isaiah is
quoted for twenty chapters to demonstrate the restoration of Israel. In Isaiah 18 a
request is made to save Israel in America. (10) The United States is asked to evangelize
the native Americans. (11) Ethan Smith cited Humboldt's New Spain to show the characteristics
of Central American civilization; the same are in the Book of Mormon. (12) The legends
of Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican messiah, are paralleled in the Book of Mormon by Christ's
appearing in the western hemisphere. . . . Roberts came to recognize that, at least
in the case of Ethan Smith's book, such works were widely available.
Dr. Simon Southerton observed: In spite of its extensive similarities with
the Book of Mormon, View of the Hebrews should not be regarded as the sole source of inspiration
for the book. The basic themes running through both publications merely reflected the most
commonly accepted myths surrounding the mounds, the Indians, and the original colonization
of America. The principal difference is that Ethan Smith’s work was open speculation,
whereas the Book of Mormon was a narrative that purported to be a literal, eyewitness
account of what happened. . . . The white man’s perceptions of Native Americans
and the Mound Builder myth, both of which permeated the New England society of Joseph
Smith’s day, became embedded in Mormon scripture. In many respects, the characteristics of the
Book of Mormon Lamanites mirror the misunderstandings that surfaced in the froth of frontier speculation.
The Mound Builder myth receives scriptural confirmation in the closing chapters of the
Book of Mormon story where the final destruction of the fair-skinned civilized Nephites occurs
at the hand of their brethren, the savage, dark-skinned Lamanites. The story must have
appeared plausible to early Americans who, for most of the nineteenth century, believed
that Native Americans were responsible for the genocide of the postulated earlier, advanced
race. The stereotypes and misunderstandings served to validate the Europeans’ theft
of native lands as an act of retribution; American Indians were themselves intruders
in a land that had belonged to an earlier race—one that was comfortingly familiar
to white colonists. That Joseph Smith was intrigued with the stories
of the earliest inhabitants of the New World can be seen in Mother Smith’s memoirs. She
noted Joseph’s story-telling ability and interest in the Indians:
During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing
recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent,
their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their
buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship.
This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.
(Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, by Lucy Smith, 1853, p. 85; reprinted under the
title Joseph Smith's History by His Mother). It should be borne in mind that the Book of
Mormon parallels the views of Smith's day; it does not parallel archaeology today. This
is one of the areas which demonstrate that the Book of Mormon was written in the 1820's,
not 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. CONCLUSION
Thus we see the disputes over religion preceding Joseph Smith’s founding of a church supplied
the ideas for his new religion. The Book of Mormon contains many of the same doctrinal
debates that were raging in Joseph Smith’s area. His first vision mirrors many others
of the day. His new church supplied the necessary means to unite his family on both doctrine
and church affiliation. His family was also immersed in the magical
world view of the day, practicing water-witching, stone gazing and appealing to the “faculty
of Abrac.” The same phenomenon of slipping treasures appears in the Book of Mormon as
it did in Smith’s environment. Joseph’s use of an object to discern the will of God
is also reflected in the Book of Mormon. The regional discussion and curiosity about
the origin of the American Indians and their possible descent from Israelites provided
a framework for Smith’s new book of scripture. From this we conclude that Joseph Smith’s
environment provided the components necessary to author the Book of Mormon and start his
new church. Just as the Methodist leaders pleaded with
Joseph Smith to renounce his unbiblical beliefs and practices, we plead with our LDS friends
to come back to Biblical Christianity. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life;
no man cometh unto the father but by me." (John 14:6)