Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Topics we can't talk about

There is an obvious reality when it comes to problems: if you can't talk about them, you can't fix them.

This is the elephant-in-the-room problem.

It is classic organizational behavior to ignore problems and pretend they don't exist. Management often considers it disloyal to discuss certain problems. Here is a good example from an article in Forbes that I link to at the end of this post.

After completing a culture assessment for a major corporation I was doing my “What? So what? and Now what?” presentation to the senior management team. That’s where I describe the results, point out the implications of the findings, and make recommendations for change. One of the findings was that the CEO had a shoot-the-messenger reputation that was stifling open dialogue on key operational issues.
In sharing some of the open-ended comments from the survey, I put up a slide with a direct quote from one of the anonymous respondents: “I would love to share my ideas with [the CEO], but it’s not safe to speak your mind around here. All he seems to want is a bunch of yes-men.”
Within a nanosecond of reading that comment the CEO slammed his fist on the table and shouted “That’s ridiculous! Find out who said that and usher him out the door! We don’t have room in this organization for people who are too weak-kneed to speak up.” All the other executives sort of cowered in silence at this display of fury. Then I simply said: “I. Rest. My. Case.” After a long pause the CEO smiled, then chuckled, then broke into a hearty laugh.
The elephant in the room (the CEO’s bullying style) had been identified, and now the CEO and his team (and later others) were ready to discuss the undiscussable. They were finally on their way to taming the elephant. And taming that elephant led to identifying and taming others.

We see the elephant-in-the-room in the Church as well.

I, along with many other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, notice that there are elephants in the room that no one can talk about.

It's unfortunate because many of these elephants exist because of past mistakes, and these mistakes can be resolved fairly easily be refocusing on the teachings of the prophets instead of the teachings of modern intellectuals.

For example, there is a lot of confusion about Church history and Book of Mormon historicity that people don't feel free to discuss. The recent Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon geography  expressly prohibits discussing the topic in Church settings.

Treating these issues as elephants in the room doesn't prevent people from thinking about them. It just moves the conversation to other forums, notably the Internet. Web pages such as Mormon Stories and CES Letter thrive by focusing on these elephants in the room.

As long-time readers know, I've addressed some of these topics in my blogs and books. There is more to come.

In the meantime, there is an excellent discussion of the elephant-in-the-room problem here:


Monday, July 29, 2019

Cumorah was in New York in 1923

In 1923, Church leaders recognized that the Hill Cumorah in western New York was the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6. It was the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites, just as President Oliver Cowdery described it in Letter VII.

BYU Studies has an excellent article on the commemoration that year of the 100th anniversary of Moroni's first visit to Joseph Smith. I posted comments about it on my new blog, where I am accumulating everything relevant to Cumorah.


The question to consider: What will the 200th anniversary be like?

Unless there is a course-correction to the current trend, in 2023 any celebration at the "hill in New York" will involve only the set of plates Joseph obtained from Moroni's stone box on the hill. There will be no mention of Jaredites or Nephites having lived in that area.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Flooding along the Mississippi

Nice interactive NASA image that compares normal with flood-stage rivers in the Midwest.


Those of us who think the Book of Mormon events took place in this area think the cities sunk in 3 Nephi were destroyed and buried underneath these rivers. When we look at the map, we can see how and why that would happen.

Friday, July 12, 2019

2019 Cumorah pageant part 2

I've uploaded another video about the Hill Cumorah Pageant.


Turtle Island (North America)
In this video, we visit the Skanonh Great Law of Peace Center in Liverpool, NY (outside of Syracuse).


The guide discusses the creation story, including the formation of Turtle Island which is North America. We can compare this to 2 Ne. 10:20: we have been led to a better land, for the Lord has made the sea our path, and we are upon an isle of the sea.

Some people are confused by that, concluding that Lehi's promised land must be an island. There are several ways to interpret/understand this passage, but the Native American concept of Turtle Island fits pretty well.

Port Byron
Next we pass through Port Byron, where Brigham Young lived for a while. The town has a historical marker to that effect.

The house where some believe he lived is still standing, as we see in the video.

Peter Whitmer cabin
After that, we visit the Peter Whitmer farm where Joseph and Oliver translated the plates of Nephi that Joseph received from the messenger who brought them from the Hill Cumorah.

Finally, we end up at the first night of pageant (dress rehearsal). There were some great protesters outside. You can see them on the video. There were around 5,000 people, which is a big crowd for the rehearsal. Unfortunately, it rained pretty hard, but I didn't get that in the video.


The reconstructed cabin in the video was long thought to be built on the original foundation of the Whitmer home. This was always a little problematic because the cabin had only two small bedrooms upstairs, one of which Joseph and Oliver used to translate the plates of Nephi.

In the last year or so, Church archaeologists have found evidence of more buildings on the property. It now appears that the Whitmer home was a double cabin, twice as large as the one that was rebuilt that we walk to in the video. It's not yet clear which building(s) were the Whitmer home, but the current cabin always seemed a little small for all the events that took place there, including the organization of the Church in 1830.

This is also the home in which David Whitmer described people sitting around the table when Joseph demonstrated how he translated the plates by putting a stone in a hat and reading off words. That's much different than the actual translation, of course, for which Joseph used the Urim and Thummim and the actual plates.

Mary Whitmer and the plates
The messenger was
"Brother Nephi,"
not Moroni.
BTW, the missionaries are telling everyone the phony story of Moroni showing Mary Whitmer the plates. Mary did see the plates, but it wasn't Moroni who showed them to her. The M2C intellectuals want you to think it was Moroni because they don't want people to know about the Hill Cumorah in New York.

According to Mary, it was "Brother Nephi," one of the 3 Nephites, who showed her the plates. David said it was the same person who took the Harmony plates to Cumorah.

The phony story about Moroni was invented by Mary's grandson, but Church historians and M2C intellectuals liked it better so they incorporated it into the Saints and now we have everyone in the Church learning false history, all because the M2C intellectuals don't want people to even know about the New York Cumorah.


I've explained all of this here




and here


Have a great day! 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

new video-Cumorah pageant 2019

The latest video shows some of the set up for the 2019 Cumorah pageant and a visit to the awesome Latter-Day Harvest Bookstore in Palmyra.


Subscribers to the Moroni's America channel get automatic notifications of new videos.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The fundamentals - Church history

So often, organizations and people lose focus when they forget the fundamentals.

Those who have questions about Church history should remember this advice from twitter:

When in doubt, go back to the fundamentals. When you're sure, build on the fundamentals. When not making progress, go back to the fundamentals. When you are making progress, build on the fundamentals. The fundamentals never go away. If anything, they become more pronounced.

Fundamentals in Church history:

1. Joseph Smith obtained metal plates from a stone box on the Hill Cumorah in western New York.

2. Using the Urim and Thummim that were in the stone box, he translated the engravings on the plates into English while in Harmony, PA.

3. He returned the Harmony plates to a divine messenger who took them back to the Hill Cumorah.

4. In Fayette, NY, Joseph translated the plates of Nephi.

5. The Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is the same hill in New York from which Joseph got the plates.

Very simple.

Here's an example from football.

“This is a football.”

In his best-selling book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, author David Maraniss explains what happened when Lombardi walked into training camp in the summer of 1961.
He took nothing for granted. He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before… He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, “this is a football.”
Lombardi was coaching a group of three dozen professional athletes who, just months prior, had come within minutes of winning the biggest prize their sport could offer. And yet, he started from the very beginning.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Mormon Stories - Cultural Context

Most of the Mormon Stories articles I've read so far are rational, based on the author(s)' assumptions, but they are sometimes misleading because they reflect an unstated bias, don't make assumptions clear, and don't acknowledge alternative interpretations of the facts that are equally rational. There always seems to be enough evidence to confirm one's biases, whatever they are.

Once we know what bias is being confirmed by what facts, we can compare it with our own bias and how our bias explains the same facts. We can try to be as objective as possible. Or not.

What I hope to do in this series is offer people alternative, rational, fact-based interpretations so that undecided people can make informed choices.

Today we'll look at the Mormon Stories article titled "Cultural Context Preceding the Book of Mormon," which you can see here:


This article is pretty long but if I omit any of it, we run the risk of later changes in the original and/or claims that we're avoiding issues. You might want to scan for my comments (in red).

I summarize this article by observing that it offers evidence of both composition and translation; i.e., whether Joseph composed or translated the text, the language in the text would be the same.

In my view, Joseph Smith was prepared for his role as translator through his exposure to his environment in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York. This article discusses some of that preparation.

Whether or not the historical narrative in the text is an accurate account of actual history, the ensuing legends about the moundbuilders would be the same because the Europeans were observing the remains of the ancient inhabitants but had no records from the ancient people.

IOW, the ancient inhabitants of America had a history. They left behind evidence, but no written records. Because there are no historical records other than the Book of Mormon to explain that history, people have to decide whether the Book of Mormon is an actual record of those inhabitants or not.

The article seeks to portray the Book of Mormon as fiction. That's the same argument, articulated in the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, that Oliver Cowdery addressed in Letters VII and VIII by citing facts.

(Of course, modern LDS scholars who promote M2C make the same arguments as Mormonism Unvailed, so the analysis here addresses the M2C arguments as well.)

We have to look at other indicia to distinguish between composition and translation, a topic not covered in this article.


While Europeans grew weary of ongoing wars and economic stagnation, vanquishing Napoleon in 1815, America remained for them the land of promise and discovery. Lewis and Clark first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean in 1805; and the Erie Canal, the most significant industrial marvel of its time, would soon expand passage to the Great Lakes, bringing commerce and religious fervor to upstate New York. Immigrants from all parts of the world harbored visions of fertile land and opportunity.
The Second Great Awakening rose, in part, as a response to the industrial revolution in America and age of scientific skepticism that swept across Europe. Fear that men were becoming too secular and losing their spiritual path motivated evangelical preachers to ride on horseback throughout the western frontier, preaching spiritual rebirth and urgently warning of the end-of-times. As America expanded its borders to the west, speculation grew over the great mounds in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, leading to numerous tales of America’s ancient inhabitants and their possible connection to the Old World. Free Masonry, which once enjoyed prestige among America’s founding fathers, became increasingly scorned as secretive and anti-democratic after exposé writer William Morgan’s suspected murder in 1826. Each of these themes is prominent throughout the Book of Mormon.
This is an effective introduction because the rest of the article merely expands on this idea. The implication is that Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon to address issues he was concerned with. This is a common assertion by critics (and M2C scholars). My response is two-fold because I separate the question of themes from the question of the language in which the themes are expressed in the text.
Language. All evidence of composition (the claim that Joseph composed the Book of Mormon) is also evidence of translation (the claim that Joseph translated the ancient plates). It is axiomatic that whether we compose or translate, we can produce a text only from our individual mental language bank.  Consequently, whether Joseph composed or translated the text, and whether it was inspired or not, the text would necessarily reflect "the manner of his language." IOW, we expect Joseph to express ideas and themes using language particular to his own environment.

(Note: I don't accept the theory that Joseph didn't really translate the plates, but instead simply read words that appeared on a stone in a hat, but that's a topic for another post.)
Themes. Those who claim the text focuses on themes local to Joseph Smith's environment, such as Masonry, are reading these themes into the text. Nowhere does the text refer to Masonry. People usually see what they want to see. It's called bias confirmation. To a hammer, everything is a nail, etc. 
Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon addresses universal themes that arise in most human cultures throughout time. That's why scriptures endure through the ages.

Don't confuse terminology with underlying meaning. For example, what human civilization has not had some form of "secret combinations" (Ether 8)? Are they absent in today's America? 10th century China? Colonial Africa? Of course not. What human has no secrets? What society has no groups of people who combine to accomplish objectives? It would be far more surprising if these things were absent in the early 1800s than that they existed in Joseph Smith's environment. 
We'll look at each of these specifically below. 


Theological debates and sectarian division raged in colonial America as numerous sects jockeyed for superiority. Puritan dominance gave way to the five mainline Protestant religions: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Congregationalist. The Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 sparked waves of charismatic spiritual outpourings, while popular ministers Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone preached a return to the earliest Christian practices. On the margins of society, religious diversity increased with German Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Catholic immigration, alongside religious-economic experiments such as the Shakers and Cochranites. Rationalism and Romanticism inspired less-dogmatic movements such as Universalism and Unitarianism.
This is all true, but it was called the Second Great Awakening because it followed the Great Awakening of the 1700s. Religious debates are ubiquitous among human societies around the world. The Bible relates religious debates throughout. There are "numerous sects" among every religious tradition. While the Book of Mormon uses terminology from the 1700s and early 1800s, the principles are common to all human societies.
Joseph Smith Jr. came of age in this fertile religious environment. Richard Van Wagoner described “dissatisfaction with the existing order” as the “fertile soil from which sprang the Mormon revolution.” He continued: “Smith’s dynamism drew the displeased and disappointed to him with vivid, compelling new revelation of a better life.”[1] 
Again, religious diversity and debates are the norm. It's possible (but questionable) that the early 1800s were more "fertile" by some measures than other periods of time, but "dissatisfaction with the existing order" is an ordinary human experience (as every parent of a teenager knows).
Joseph Smith experienced the discord of religious differences within his family. His father, Joseph Sr., a practicing Free Mason who remained aloof to formal religious membership, leaned towards universalism. His mother, Lucy, raised Congregationalist, held Spiritualist views and, along with Joseph’s three eldest siblings, joined the Presbyterians in 1826. Lucy recounts young Joseph telling vivid stories of the ancient inhabitants of America to the family, conversing with an angel and using his gift as a seer to read from golden plates hidden away in a hillside that contained teachings of relevance to his family. 
This would be a good place for a citation so readers could see what she actually reported instead of this paraphrase.
Within a few years, Joseph would reportedly acquire the golden plates and begin work on a religious text that would become the cornerstone of a new religious movement.
Notice the rhetorical bias here. Lucy "recounts" but Joseph "reportedly acquires." Joseph's account of obtaining the plates is even more direct and specific than Lucy's vague statement, but the authors accept her statement as fact while questioning Joseph's.
Claimed to be written for our day, the Book of Mormon addressed many significant topics of debate during the Second Great Awakening, including questions over the nature of God, free will, infant baptism, eternal punishment, eternal progression, the state of matter and intelligence, democracy, secretive societies, and more. The Book of Mormon proposed answers to questions about the origin of America’s native people while supporting the popular legends of the day that told of a superior white race that once dwelt upon the land and built great cities and temples, but who were ruthlessly murdered by dark-skinned savages.
Anyone can see that the Book of Mormon contradicts the popular legends of the day. First, no racial element is stated or implied regarding the Jaredites, about whom there were no popular legends. Second, contrary to the legend of whites killed by dark-skinned savages, the Book of Mormon explicitly states that, whatever the racial composition prior to the visit of Christ, afterward there were no more -ites, but they were all one people. Later, they were distinguished by religious, not racial, differences. 
No legend framed the destruction in terms of wicked vs. wicked. Oliver Cowdery explained this distinction when he wrote that "It was not the wicked who overcame the righteous; far from this: it was the wicked against the wicked, and by the wicked the wicked were punished." 
Many of Smith’s contemporaries were understandably skeptical of the book’s modern tone and claimed ancient origins, questioning if pre-Columbian Indians were indeed the authors of the work. E. D. Howe, in his 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, deemed the Book of Mormon a “cursory account of the popular doctrines which have been agitated since the Reformation. To give credit to the pretense, that Nephi, living six hundred years before the christian era, could, or would, have had the name of Jesus and John revealed to any other prophet, is repugnance to common sense” (31). He continued: “Who can be credulous enough to believe, that a preacher, five hundred and fifty years before the ministry of the Savior and his apostles. . . did preach and instruct not only the same principles, but the very words and phrases were used to convey the sentiments which are found in the evangelical [New Testament] writings?” (50). “The author,” Howe concluded, “doubtless had some knowledge of the revivals of religion” (61).
This is a good example of how evidence of composition is also evidence of translation. In either capacity, Joseph would have necessarily drawn on his own mental language bank, consisting largely (but not solely) of KJV vocabulary and religious speech derived from that.
Alexander Campbell, successful preacher and Sidney Rigdon’s mentor prior to his affiliation with Joseph Smith, dismissed the Book of Mormon outright, writing: “This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in this 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 masonary, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to.” [2] 
Campbell had a motive to attack Mormonism because many of the early converts near Kirtland came from his congregation, including Sidney Rigdon. Others have pointed out that Campbell's list is both over- and under inclusive. Note (i) many of the terms he uses that are not in the text (trinity, transubstantiation, penance, masonary [sic], republican) and (ii) the topics he lists are universal in nature, although he naturally presents them in a Christian context. Infant baptism, for example, is a proxy for the universal social question of how and when infants become part of society in addition to their place in a family. All religions have something to say about the fate of the soul, etc. That these are framed in Christian terms is to be expected, whether Joseph composed or translated the text, because of his personal mental language bank. 


Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother, attended Moor’s Academy, a prep school for Dartmouth College, from 1811 to 1815.  At the time of this writing, Dartmouth’s website states that “Dartmouth’s founder, Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans.” Their website reiterates: “In 1972…Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country.” Along with many institutions, Dartmouth believed that it was Christianity’s duty to civilize and educate the Indian.
Before Hyrum’s arrival, John Smith, cousin of Asael Smith (Joseph’s Grandfather), established and ran the theology department. He became a professor of learned languages, studied exotic dialects and published Hebrew Grammar in 1803. John Smith was even a pastor of the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College until 1804. Dartmouth also established a School of the Prophets.
While at the Dartmouth campus, Hyrum Smith studied the ideology and theological questions that Mormonism would mirror. Other notable Dartmouth alumni include Solomon Spaulding (class of 1785), author of Manuscript Found, and Ethan Smith (1790), author of View of the Hebrews. Hyrum’s Dartmouth acquaintances also included Nathan Smith, the surgeon who performed Joseph Jr.’s leg operation in 1813.
This background is consistent with Joseph both as composer and translator. I have a chapter on this in my upcoming book. 


In addition to heavy immigration from Great Britain, France, and Germany, filled with impoverished families who sought a land of opportunity and freedom from political and religious exploitation, America’s borders were pushing westward. “Manifest Destiny,” a phrase later coined to describe a sense of inevitable expansion of the United States to the western ocean, was more than a political sentiment. Along with physical expansion came the expansion of Protestant ideas and values throughout Indian territory. Many Protestants believed God’s hand was at work in the expanding United States, which also gave them license to forcibly remove what they believed to be the degenerate heathen race of the America’s indigenous people. Much of this sentiment centered on the notion of American Exceptionalism, or America as “God’s chosen land” or “promised land,” given to God’s chosen prior to the Lord’s Second Coming.
As America pushed to the west, discovery of ancient mounds and earthworks that laced the Mississippi and Ohio valleys sparked public imagination. From the earliest days of colonial exploration, myths circulated about the mysterious society that built the mounds. As local tribes offered no legends or frame of reference as to their origins, many postulated that the earthworks must have been created by a great society that vanished without a trace. While some argued that migration came from the Bering Strait, connection to the Old World and the legendary lost Ten Tribes of Israel was a more popular belief. Legends abounded of a great Hebrew society that was eventually annihilated by dark-skinned savages. Puritan ministers would use the stories of the conquered people as a “Jeremiad,” which is a type of sermon calling people to repentance in order to be spared from God’s wrath. Preachers warned that God’s wrath upon them would loose the savage Indian to defile their women and murder their children. These ominous stories led to the first popular literature series to be born in America: captivity narratives.
Myths and legends about the origin of America’s first inhabitants flourished over the next two centuries. Mound expeditions were as frequent as digs for buried Spanish pirate treasure, and often employed the same crews. Early American treasure diggers remained unaware that the largest hills, such as Cumorah, were naturally occurring glacial drumlins. Unlike the treasure digs, Indian burial mound digs did often yield some artifactual results, as the custom was to bury the deceased along with their possessions, much of which came through trades with Spanish explorers centuries prior. However, without the benefit of modern science and carbon dating, many of the artifacts only further supported the belief that a great unknown society had possessed advanced metallurgy. This supported the racist theory that these ancients must have been white, and perhaps even pre-Columbian Christians.
Another variant of the great pre-Columbian society began to emerge: that the American Indians didn’t merely destroy the ancient society, but indeed were their descendants. However, through their wickedness, they had fallen into heathenism and idolatry. Christian clergy during the 1800s frequently supported the notion of the American Indian as a Lost Tribe because it not only validated the Biblical tale, it also encouraged their perceived right to colonize America and expand westward while Christianizing or relocating Native Americans.
One example of the widely-circulated theories of Indian origins is Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews: American Antiquities, Discoveries in the Westpublished in 1823, which reminded readers: “The opinion that the American Indians are descendants of the lost ten Tribes, is now a popular one, and generally believed.” Native Americans represented a fertile mission field to be harvested before Jesus could usher in his glorious return. 
LDS leader B. H. Roberts affirmed, “such common knowledge existed throughout New England and New York in relation to American Indian origins and cultures.” See Richard Van Wagoner, Natural Born Seer, (p. 376) for an extensive listing of contemporary books propagating the notion that the Indians were Hebrew, of one race, divided by savages.
Such ideology may seem misguided by modern standards, but it carried great significance in the early-nineteenth century. It served to supplant rich Native American history with a predominantly white, old world view. It also fostered the ongoing cultural genocide, as it was much easier to displace and exterminate a people who “loved murder and would drink the blood of beasts” (Jarom 1:6). For early converts to Mormonism, The Book of Mormon not only affirmed popular suspicions of American Indian origins but also supported perceptions of the Native as “led by their evil nature that they became wild, ferocious, blood thirsty…full of idolatry and filthiness…continually seeking to destroy” (Enos 1:20).
On May 26, 1830, weeks after Joseph Smith printed his book and founded his church, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing the largest Native tribes to migrate west of Mississippi. Latter-day Saints, along with most other whites, viewed their displacement as “God’s work,” fulfilling prophecy regarding their gathering. W. W. Phelps declared: “It is not only gratifying but almost marvelous to witness the gathering of the Indians. …through the instrumentality of the Government of the United States.” [3] 

This background is all consistent with both theories: Joseph as translator, and Joseph as composer. If the narrative in the Book of Mormon relates an actual and accurate history, these same legends would have arisen because, as the text explains, the Lamanites destroyed every Nephite record they could get and didn't keep records of their own. 


Through the advent of modern stereotype printing, books and ideas flowed freely across the emerging American landscape. Europeans and Americans considered themselves to be living in the age of enlightenment. Newspapers flourished and carried popular stories, histories, opinions, politics, and religious discourse across the land.
The Smiths’ Palmyra home was situated three miles from the Erie Canal, affording them access to the latest periodicals of the day. The canal even boasted of a floating library named The Encyclopedia of Albany. “It is used as a bookstore and lottery office, and contains about two thousand well selected volumes, and a quantity of stationary. It is accompanied by two wagons, for the purpose of extending their trade to those villages, which are a short distance from the canals. The owners sell for money where they can find purchasers, but they calculate that a barter for rags will be the principal part of their trade.” [4] 
When not working on labor contracts or treasure digs, Smith Sr. was also employed as a school teacher. Although learning was rudimentary and infrequent, with many students receiving only primary education, a rich culture of written and oral literature supported learning beyond the school room. Owning books was considered a luxury for poor subsistence farmers, but most families owned at least a family Bible and some works of William Shakespeare, both of which were likely passed down through generations. Cheaply-produced novels, which told daring tales of adventure, were a popular form of entertainment as were traveling Shakespearian acting troupes, variety shows, and religious revivals where ministers would preach elaborate sermons for hours on end. While Smith Jr. may have received only limited formal schooling, he was, like most, immersed in a literary culture that valued learning and public exposition. Tales of lost pirate treasure, emerging archaeological discoveries, and religious fervor regarding both the American Indian and Christ’s imminent return, further fueled Joseph Smith Jr.’s vivid imagination.

Obviously, the last sentence is argumentative mind-reading, not factual. In my view, for Joseph (or anyone) to translate an ancient record, he/she would have to be prepared by developing a mental language bank of terminology and concepts sufficient to convey the original material (the Nephite plates) into the target language (English). All the resources available to Joseph would serve as preparation whether he translated or composed the text.

In my upcoming book, I have examples of specific origins for most of the Book of Mormon and other early texts.


Lucy Smith described Joseph’s profound ability to entertain the family with fascinating stories during his teenage years:

Note the argumentative adjectives in that sentence: profound, fascinating.
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 travel, 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 among them. [5]
B. H. Roberts summarized Joseph Smith’s imagination:
In light of this evidence, there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith…an imagination it could with reason be urged…the common knowledge…supplemented by such a work as Ethan Smith’s View of Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon. …The evidence I sorrowfully submit points to Joseph Smith as their creator. [6]

The obvious logical fallacy of Roberts' statement is that Joseph's recitals could be the same whether he composed them or learned them from Moroni and/or other divine messengers. 

Joseph said that, on the night of the first visit, "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people, was [also] made known unto me."   

He went on to explain that during the ensuing 4 years, "After having received many visits from the angels of God, unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22nd of September, A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands."

One can choose to disbelieve Joseph, but his explanation fits all the known facts, including Lucy's statement.


Ethan Smith was a Minister in Poultney, Vermont, who published View of the Hebrews, which expounds upon a commonly held notion of the time of the numerous and distinct American Indian tribes having originated from Hebrew stock. View of the Hebrews enjoyed wide circulation in New England and New York, running through two editions in 1823 and 1825.
While scholars agree that Ethan’s work reads nothing like the Book of Mormon, the framework and storyline of both books are remarkably similar. View of the Hebrews begins with the destruction of Jerusalem while suggesting that the Ten Tribes came to America before dividing into two disparate groups: one barbarous, the other civilized. Ethan elaborates on robust military fortifications, forms of government, a hidden book that becomes revealed, prophets among ancient Americans, and ancient Indians as highly civilized people, while offering numerous quotes from the King James Bible version of Isaiah.
Like many other theologians of various denominations, Ethan Smith suggested that it was America’s mission to gather the remnants of the House of Israel, reiterating the legend that the stick of Joseph and Ephraim would one day be united. His book describes copper breastplates taken from the mounds, with two white buckhorn buttons fastened to the outside of each plate in resemblance to an Urim & Thummim. His book describes a prophet atop a wall in Jerusalem exhorting while the wicked unsuccessfully assail him with arrows.
Few Mormons today have heard of Ethan’s work, or how perfectly it fits into the nineteenth-century worldview that informed Joseph Smith. Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith’s third cousin and primary scribe on the Book of Mormon, was undoubtedly aware of View of the Hebrews, as he lived in Poultney for twenty-six years and his family attended Ethan’s congregation.

The logical fallacy here is the irrelevance of how many "Mormons today" have heard of View of the Hebrews. In Joseph's day, the book was known well enough to have extractions from the book published in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. The actual evidences cited by Ethan Smith support the history in the Book of Mormon, even though Ethan Smith's explanation differed.

It makes sense to me that Oliver and/or Joseph read View of the Hebrews. It seems unlikely that they would not have. But again, that's evidence of both composition and translation.  


The following excerpts are taken directly from View of the Hebrews, primarily in the order appearing in Ethan’s original book:
  • Rejection of Jesus Christ as our atoning Savior.
  • O Jerusalem! Thou that killest the prophets – destruction of Jerusalem. [p.19]
  • A prophet  ascends the walls, in tremendous voice exclaimed, ‘Wo, wo to this city, this temple, and this people!’, while arrows shot at him. [p.26]
  • The natives of our country are the outcasts of Israel – they have lost their way…bewildered in darkness. [p, vii]
  • Found themselves involved in darkness…that they would take the book which the white people call the word of God, to throw light on their path. [p, vii]
  • American Indians derive their origin from a foreign stock. [p. 159]
  • Tools of iron not being found in these works, is no sign they did not possess them. For had they been there, they would, no doubt, long since have been dissolved by rust. [p. 194]
  • After they settled in America they became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren…lost the knowledge of their having descended from the same family.
  • The more civilized part continued for many centuries; tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren, till the former became extinct. [p. 173]
  • This accounts for the ancient works…centuries before Columbus discovered America…and articles dug from old mounds in and near those fortified places. [p. 173]
  • The savage tribes prevailed…annihilated their more civilized brethren. …This accounts for their loss of the knowledge of letters, of the art of navigation, and of the use of iron. [p. 172]
  • People of Israel who came into the western continent maintained some degree of civilization for a long time…finally became extinct, at least in North America, under the rage of their more numerous savage brethren. [p. 188]
  • Situated in the midst of savage tribes from their race…degenerated…intent on the destruction of this better part of their brethren…struggling to maintain their existence and to maintain their religious traditions, they would naturally form many of the very things above enumerated, walled towns, forts, temples, altars, habitations of chieftains, watch towers. [p. 189]
  • An old Indian informed him that his fathers in this country had…a book which they had for a long time preserved. But having lost the knowledge of reading it, they concluded it would be of no further use to them; and they buried it with an Indian Chief. [p. 223]
  • They would preserve these fragments of their better days with the utmost care. Wherever they went then, they would have these with them…keep them with diligence…most precious contents…fearing these precious leaves would get lost. [p. 224]
  • It was buried; and hence was providentially transmitted to us. [p. 225]
  • Some modern Jew left it there in the situation in which it was found…on Indian Hill underground. [p. 225]
  • The account of the old Indian, that his fathers had buried, not long ago, a book which they could not read. [p. 227]
  • The prophet Isaiah to be of deep interest to America. [p. 228]
  • The great and generous Christian people, who occupy much of the land of those natives, and who are on the ground of their continent, and hence are the best prepared to ameliorate their condition, and bring them to the knowledge and order of the God of Israel, must of course be the people to whom this work is assigned. [p. 230]
  • They will be fulfilled only in the conversion of these ancient people of God to Christianity. [p. 64]
  • This address of heaven must be to our western continent; or to a hospitable people found here… the two great wings of North and South America meet. [p. 238]
  • Go thou nation highly distinguished in the last days (America), save the remnant of my people. [p. 250]
The purpose of introducing Ethan’s thesis is not to suggest that Joseph plagiarized the work, but rather to reaffirm how prevalent such notions of Native Americans were in Joseph Smith’s day, and how others were also mirroring scriptural language to express the story.

This is an important point. Confronted with the physical evidence of the mounds, their contents, and the Indian customs that included what seemed to be Hebrew elements, as well as the relevant texts of the Bible, Ethan Smith came up with his explanation. The Book of Mormon gave a different explanation for that same evidence. 

Of course, the Book of Mormon includes other details that were not known until well after the Book of Mormon was published, such as the earlier Jaredite (Adena) culture that largely disintegrated before the Nephite (Hopewell) culture.  

The point is, given the evidence Ethan Smith relied on, his book was arguably as plausible as the Book of Mormon. Subsequent scientific discoveries, however, show that Ethan Smith's explanation doesn't work, but the historical narrative in the Book of Mormon does.  


Brigham H. Roberts (B. H.) was President of the Quorum of the Seventy in the 1920s. At the request of Apostle James Talmage, B. H. conducted a thorough review of various difficulties and anachronisms within the Book of Mormon narrative. As a result, B. H. spent a great deal of time with Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews. Roberts concluded that Ethan Smith’s work provided “structural material” for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon:
It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin. [7]
Upon completing his extensive study, Roberts reported to the apostles that there was “a great probability” that Joseph Smith had a close encounter with View of the Hebrews. [8]

This is a bizarre appeal to authority that simply repeats the logical fallacy of Roberts' thinking, at least as that thinking is portrayed here. A "close encounter" with View of the Hebrews is consistent with both composition and translation.   


Charles Johnson published A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1724, recounting the exploits of the infamous Captain William KiddKidd resided in New York and was famous for leading pirate expeditions into the lawless Indian Ocean area. Shortly before his execution in 1701, a portion of what was believed to be Kidd’s treasure was discovered on Gardiner’s Island, off the coast of Long Island, New York. Numerous popular novels further told the exploits of pirates, intriguing readers with aspirations of discovering their buried treasure. Oak Island, a site of tremendous Captain Kidd treasure speculation, lies just off the coast from New York, not far from the Smith’s Palmyra roots (see the documentary “The Curse of Oak Island” chronicling the region’s rich history of buried treasure lore).
Captain Kidd novels were well known in their day, and the Smiths are documented to have enjoyed them. Palmyra resident Ann Eaton noted that Kidd was Joseph’s “hero,” whose work he “eagerly and often perused.” [9] So popular was Captain Kidd lore that even Palmyra’s tiny Wayne Sentinel reprinted “Money Diggers” from the Windsor Journal (Vermont), on Feb 16, 1825, deriding the abundance of Kidd’s treasure seekers. “We are sorry to observe,” the article reported, “even in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the marvelous. 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.”
Numerous writings about Kidd’s exploits in East India reference the Comoros Islands and their capital city Moroni as pirate hideouts. While some scholars dismiss the possibility that Smith derived Cumorah and Moroni from pirate novels, they often focus on documents that post-date the Book of Mormon, overlooking earlier Captain Kidd writings which refer to “Comore” and “Meroni.” Adding to the confusion, the original Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript spells “Camorah” once, “Cumorah” six times, and “Comorah” twice. Outside of the Kidd novels, maps detailing explorations, trade routes, and the islands of the sea were widely-circulated and popular in Smith’s time. Historian Noel Carmack wrote: “In light of Jacque-Nicolas Bellin’s widely available chart of Anjouan, the idea is arresting—if not a probability—that Joseph Smith saw the island place names on this chart, as it featured the place names ‘Comore and ‘Meroni’ together for the first time.”

Connecting the Hill Cumorah with the island Comoros (or Comore) has the obvious implausibility of a hill vs island. Connecting a capital city with a person compounds the implausibility, but implausibility is in the eye of the beholder, so we should consider the possibility of a connection.

The point of this article is that these place names were so commonly known that Joseph almost certainly saw them. But that same alleged common knowledge of Captain Kidd, Comoros Islands, and Moroni argues against Joseph adopting the same names if he was pretending to write an ancient history. IOW, the similarity would be too obvious to his own family, let alone everyone who read the Book of Mormon or heard the missionaries speak about Cumorah. I'm not aware of any of Joseph's critics making this connection until long after Joseph and his contemporaries had died off.

There are virtually infinite place names if one looks at enough maps, especially if one transliterates foreign names. There are other transliterated terms in the Book of Mormon. It's possible that Joseph transliterated Cumorah and Moroni, using the closest English terms he knew.

There are other possibilities. I've visited the Comoros Islands and its capital Moroni. The origins of the real-world names Comoros and Moroni are unknown, although there are theories based on Arabic. If we postulate that these islands were inhabited around 600 BC, of which there is currently no evidence but it would be nearly impossible to find such evidence given the volcanic nature of the island, it could have had ancient names that survived through later Arabic conquest. 

The Comoros islands are along Lehi's probable route. That means the Nephites could have acquired the name when they stopped there and then applied that name to the hill in New York. Possibly the same thing happened with the name Moroni.

All of these possibilities are pure speculation, of course. There is just enough "evidence" to confirm whatever bias one has.



The following timeline outlines key publications and events that influenced Joseph Smith’s cultural environment and shaped his worldview.
1678 – John Bunyan, one of the most prominent authors of the late seventeenth century publishes The Pilgrim’s Progress.
1699 – A portion of Captain Kidd’s treasure is discovered on Gardiner’s Island off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.
1775 – James Adair publishes History of the American Indians, which details twenty-three arguments that American Indians are descendants of Hebrews and tells of buried plates (five copper and two brass) kept by Indians.
1784 – John Glen, sailing from London, brings Emanuel Swedenborg’s popular work, Heaven and Hell to the U.S., lecturing and promoting the book. Among other things, Swedenborg argues for a three-tiered heaven.
1785 – Solomon Spalding graduates from Dartmouth.
1786 – Ethan Smith (reportedly a seminary classmate of Solomon Spalding) enters Dartmouth.
1789 – Emanuel Swedenborg reading groups form in New York, Boston, Ohio, and many other Northeastern states.
1801 – Francis Barrett’s prominent occult handbook, The Magus, published.
1802 – U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and one hundred members of Congress hear Baltimore minister John Hargrove speak on Emanuel Swedenborg’s work.
1811 – Solomon Mack, Joseph Smith’s grandfather, publishes his war/sailing adventures.
1811 – Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother, enters Moor’s Academy, a Dartmouth prep school.
1811 – Joseph Smith Sr. has a tree of life dream, according to a later report by his wife.
1812 – Napoleon invades Russia, suffers massive losses, retreat as winter sets in.
1812 – Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell is published in the U.S.
1812–1814 – Solomon Spalding brings Manuscript Found to printers Patterson & J. Harrison Lambdin. Many would later assert that the Book of Mormon shares striking similarities to one of Spalding’s lost manuscripts.
1815 – Napoleon crushed by British at Waterloo, exiled for a final time.
1816 – Smith family moves to Palmyra, NY. “The Burned-Over District” known for its evangelical fervor. Unpaid creditors seize most of their funds.
1816 – Joseph Sr. relates one of several visionary dreams.
1816 – Elias Smith publishes his vision of God in a book titled, Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith.
1816 – The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, which recounts the War of 1812 in pseudo-biblical language, is published in New York and becomes common reading in primary schools. The book contains striking similarities in language and phrasing to the Book of Mormon.
1817 – New York Daily Advertiser describes the public’s enthusiasm for Captain Kidd treasure.
July 1817 – Erie Canal construction begins.
1817 – Governor of NY describes mounds around state containing “piles of skeletons.”
Jan 1818 – Palmyra Register publishes article speculating of battles and burial mounds in the area.
May 1819 – Palmyra Register publishes speculation “this country was once inhabited by a race of people, partially civilized, exterminated by forefathers of the…tribes of Indians in this country.”
1820 – Compilation of Samuel Mitchill’s speculations on the origins of indigenous peoples published. Mitchill theorized that a white race met a dark race in bloody conflicts in upstate NY.
1823 – Ethan Smith publishes View of the Hebrews.
April 1823 – Ontario, NY repository publishes the story of Colonel Abraham Edwards’s discovery of an ancient manuscript, nobody could decipher the hieroglyphics, receives prominent press.
May 1823 – Detroit Gazette publishes an article about Edwards’s manuscript.
August 1823 – Salem Gazette reports in Albany, NY newspaper that Captain Kidd hid his loot in the region.
June 1824 – The Wayne Sentinel, a Palmyra, NY paper, publishes an announcement of The Encyclopedia of Albany, a floating library which regularly traversed the Erie Canal offering over 2,000 works.
1824 – Popular history of New York published, “relating tradition of Seneca Indians and a highly-civilized white race that was utterly destroyed, but who built fortifications against savage red Indians” (History of State of N.Y. Including its Aboriginal and Colonial Annals, 40).
1825 – Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews reprinted.
Feb 1825 – Palmyra’s Wayne Sentinel reprints “Money Diggers” from Windsor Journal (VT) on the prevalence of seeking Kidd’s treasure.
1825 – The Palmyra Register reprints an article depicting the pursuit of Captain Kidd’s treasure and adds: “A respectable gentleman in Tunbridge, in that state, was informed, through a dream, that a chest of money was buried on a small island in Agar’s brook, in Randolph. No sooner was he in possession of this valuable information, than he started off to enrich himself with treasure. After having been directed by the mineral rod where to search for the money.”
Oct 11, 1825 – The Wayne Sentinel, Smith’s hometown newspaper, publishes an article describing how Indians are “lineal descendants of the Israelites.”
1826 – There were at least twenty-three libraries surrounding the Manchester and Palmyra area.
1828 – Palmyra newspapers print anti-Masonic articles describing “secret combination,” and referring to “its secret and cut-throat oaths.”
May 1830 – Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, forcing Indians west of Mississippi. Mormons view displacement as “God’s work,” fulfilling prophecy of a literal gathering.
February 1, 1831 – The Palmyra Reflector mocks those afflicted with gold fever: “The mania of money digging soon began rapidly to diffuse itself through many parts of this country; men and women without distinction of age or sex became marvellous wise in the occult sciences, many dreamed, and others saw visions disclosing to them, deep in the bowels of the earth, rich and shining treasures.”

This is a good start to the cultural environment, but there are other elements that I consider even more significant. None of this is proof of composition, of course, because the identical elements would be essential for Joseph to translate the plates.   


The evidence presented demonstrates a cultural environment in Joseph Smith’s day that influenced the Book of Mormon and shaped his assumptions about Indian origins, buried treasure, visions, and sectarian contestation. The long-standing assumption that Smith operated in near-cultural isolation and was too ignorant to produce such a complex work as the Book of Mormon is not a tenable position. The debate among scholars over Smith’s religious innovations has begun to shift from being one without precedent to one thoroughly entwined in and reflective of nineteenth-century New England culture. The degree to which divine inspiration vs. cultural interaction is defended remains a matter of perspective and belief. Given the facts, it is reasonable to argue that the Book of Mormon is substantially, if not entirely, a product of Joseph Smith’s cultural environment, vivid imagination, and religious aspirations.

This conclusion is not unreasonable but it's incomplete. I agree with the proposition that Joseph was neither ignorant nor culturally isolated, but his own statements and those of his contemporaries made that clear all along (even though they have been misinterpreted by some, both critics and apologists). 

The conclusion is incomplete because it doesn't acknowledge that these facts support both composition and translation; i.e., for Joseph to translate the ancient records, he needed the vocabulary, cultural context, and theological understanding to render the ancient writings into the target language of English in the culture of his day. 

It is other evidence that tips the balance toward translation, a topic of another post in this series.  

[1] Natural Born Seer, p. xii.
[2] The Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 2: 93.
[3] The Indians, The Evening and The Morning Star, Dec 1832.
[4] The New-York Canals, Wayne Sentinel, June 30, 1824: 2.
[5] Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, 85.
[6] Studies of the Book of Mormon, 250.
[7] B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 240.
[8] Studies of the Book of Mormon, 243, 271.
[9] Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:148.