Some of you may be unfamiliar with View of the Hebrews and its relevance to the Book of Mormon, in which case you can’t fully appreciate the humor in this ‘Fakebook’ activity. So I’m going to briefly discuss the issues to which the image alludes.
In 1823, pastor Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph Smith) wrote View of the Hebrews. The book espoused what was then a popular theory: that Native Americans are of Hebrew descent—a lost tribe of Israel. You’ll note that the same thesis is central to the Book of Mormon, but this is just the first of many parallels between Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews and Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon.
B. H. Roberts, an LDS general authority and historian in the early 20th century, identified 26 parallels between the two books. Among them:
Both describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of Israel.
Both foretell the gathering of Israel and the restoration of the ten tribes.
Both quote extensively from Isaiah (though often different chapters).
Both detail the divisions and incessant warfare among ancient American peoples.
Both mention an instrument, called the Urim and Thummim, fastened to a breastplate.
And both draw a connection between Native American writing and Egyptian.
This list of course ignores the ‘unparallels’ between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon, but the parallels that do exist are numerous and compelling enough to raise the question of dependency.
What makes the case for a relationship between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon stronger is that Joseph Smith was likely aware of Ethan Smith’s work. Oliver Cowdery, the principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, lived in the Vermont town where Ethan Smith preached. In fact, Cowdery’s family attended Ethan Smith’s congregation at the time he was writing View of the Hebrews.
Joseph Smith even cited the View of the Hebrews in an 1842 Times and Seasons article.
If such may have been the fact, that a part of the Ten Tribes came over to America, in the way we have supposed, leaving the cold regions of Assareth behind them in quest of a milder climate, it would be natural to look for tokens of the presence of Jews of some sort, along countries adjacent to the Atlantic. In order to this, we shall here make an extract from an able work: written exclusively on the subject of the Ten Tribes having come from Asia by the way of Bherings Strait, by the Rev. Ethan Smith, Pultney, Vt., who relates as follows: “Joseph Merrick, Esq., a highly respectable character in the church at Pittsfield, gave the following account: That in 1815, he was leveling some ground under and near an old wood shed, standing on a place of his, situated on (Indian Hill)… [Joseph then discusses the supposed phylacteries found among Amerindians, citing View of the Hebrews p. 220, 223.]
This demonstrates that Joseph at least knew of View of the Hebrews after the Book of Mormon’s publication. However, that Joseph would explicitly reference View of the Hebrews undermines the argument that he directly plagiarized from it. Why would you direct people to the source of your plagiarism?
But it is nonetheless plausible, and I think probable, that the ideas found in View of the Hebrews and elsewhere influenced the Book of Mormon. Again, the notion that Native Americans are degraded descendants of Hebrews was popular in 19th-century America. Speculations about ancient American peoples were especially pervasive in the frontier, where settlers would come in contact with Native American tribes and ancient American ruins like the mounds that dotted western New York. In her book No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie notes one such speculation.
It was a common legend that western New York and Ohio had once been the site of a terrible slaughter and that the mounds were the cemeteries of an entire race. In 1821, a Palmyra newspaper stated that diggers on the Erie Canal had unearthed “several brass plates” along with skeletons and fragments of pottery. (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pp. 35-36)
Whether Joseph Smith directly plagiarized from View of the Hebrews is not important to me. Plagiarism or no, View of the Hebrews alone cannot adequately explain the Book of Mormon and its relative complexity. This post, like my others on the Book of Mormon, is just one thread in a tapestry of evidence that strongly suggests the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith’s imagination and his 19th-century environment.
After a lifelong study of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, here is what B. H. Roberts concluded:
“[T]here can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith, the Prophet, an imagination, it could with reason be urged, which, given the suggestions that are found in the ‘common knowledge’ of accepted American antiquities of the times, supplemented by such a work as Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, it would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon is.” (B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 243)
By most accounts, Roberts—despite his doubts—retained a testimony of the Book of Mormon until his death in 1933. But his admission that Joseph Smith could have written it should give Mormons cause to critically examine and investigate their beliefs as Roberts did.