More Context for the Book of Mormon

October 23, 2013

Lately, the Mormon-related backstreets of the Internet are abuzz with discussion about a study by Chris and Duane Johnson that notes remarkable similarities between the Book of Mormon and a book by Gilbert Hunt, published in 1816, entitled The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain. Hunt’s book is an account of the War of 1812 written with a conscious effort to mimic the style of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). I’m really not surprised that elsewhere several people have summarily dismissed Hunt’s book as having anything to do with the Book of Mormon, and the glee in some camps is to be expected. But even if it’s not the “smoking gun,” it is important in helping us understand the environment that produced the Book of Mormon.

Last night I was perusing some apologetic materials dealing with such obvious “bullseyes” as “bs” for “Abish,” which we are told is a nickname. It occurred to me that, from some apologists’ perspective, the book emerged in a vacuum, completely untouched by the wider culture around it, other than being translated into English and using KJV style and quotes. Therefore, the “Hebraisms” come from the book’s antiquity, not from any contemporary cultural influence. The underlying theme is that Joseph Smith was not knowledgeable or smart enough to have come up with these bullseyes on his own.

On the other side, many critics have argued that the Book of Mormon sprang from a contemporary source, from which Joseph Smith borrowed liberally, if not directly copied. The sources for the Book of Mormon, we are to understand, are the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), specifically the 1769 version the Smiths owned, and mound-builder-based romances such as View of the Hebrews and the Spaulding manuscript, which share obvious themes with the Book of Mormon. Again, such theories seem to assume that Joseph Smith couldn’t have come up with the Book of Mormon on his own. Count me as one who finds it pretty obvious that the Book of Mormon emerges out of contemporary mound-builder mythology, whether or not Joseph Smith created it himself or not. That said, I remain skeptical of theories arguing for a specific source.

In short, the two sides are looking at different areas of evidence exclusively: either the book is an ancient production more or less untainted by 19th-century culture, or it’s a 19th-century production influenced by a contemporary English-language Bible. The different “parallels” are impressive to those who are looking for them; the other team’s bullseyes are not.

Hunt’s book to me is important because it gives me a much better context for the production of the Book of Mormon. It was widely used by schoolteachers in the 1820s and, according to the preface, was intended to be used that way. It’s reasonable to believe that Oliver Cowdery, a traveling schoolteacher, would have been familiar with the book, and it’s possible that Joseph Smith may have encountered the book as a student.

Reading the book, I was struck by how much it resembles the Book of Mormon, almost as if Mormon himself had decided to abridge a history of the War of 1812. The same phrases, some in the Bible and some not, keep appearing over and over. Chris and Duane Johnson are working on a word study cataloguing the use of similar phrases in 5,000 books available in Joseph Smith’s day, and their preliminary data appears to confirm what a reader like me notices immediately: it’s the same style used in the same way.

The Hunt book is important because it shows us what a contemporary book using KJV style would look like. It’s not just that the book uses KJV style, as many other books have done so, but that the style is used for a particular purpose, as stated in the preface:

The author having adopted for the model of his style the phraseology of the best books, remarkable for its simplicity and strength, the young pupil will acquire, with the knowledge of reading, a love for the manner in which the great truths of Divine Revelation are conveyed to his understanding, and this will be an inducement to him to study the Holy Scriptures.

This style choice is endorsed by noted contemporary scholar Samuel Mitchill, also in the preface:

It seems to me one of the best attempts to imitate the biblical style; and if the perusal of it can induce young persons to relish and love the sacred books whose language you have imitated, it will be the strongest of all recommendations.

The book’s contents and themes are also instructive. Because his subject is a war, Hunt spends most of his time discussing military battles, but in a style that exalts its heroes not just as patriots but as righteous servants of God:

The men are comely and noble, and cowardice had forgot to light upon them: neither are they a superstitious people; they are peace-makers, they love the God of Israel, and worship him; and there are no idolaters amongst them.

In contrast, here’s a description of the British:

Science and learning blushed at the champions of England, who had been represented as the bulwark of religion; but who were, in reality, the supporters of idolatry; the staff of Juggernaut, the false god of India.

I don’t have time at the moment to give this a proper treatment, but, in my estimation, if you were to replace “people of Columbia” with “Nephites,” “British” with “Lamanites,” and otherwise change 1812-specific names and places to those found in the Book of Mormon, you might think you were reading the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.

Does this prove anything? Obviously not, but what it does is make the Book of Mormon seem that much more likely as a 19th-century creation. Here’s how I see it:

What would a 19th-century book about war written in KJV style and theme look like? It would look a lot like Hunt’s book.

What would a 19th-century book about war, religion, and mound-builder mythology written In KJV style and theme look like? It would look a lot like the Book of Mormon.