I’m excited to have Dr. Brian Hales back on the show. It was 8 years ago that Brian Hales published his 3-volume set on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. How has that held up? How does Brian address critics of his work?
Brian: You know, there’s always critics. But, recently, my friend Larry Foster, and others
have said that the three volumes that Don Bradley and I put together in 2013–they’re eight
years old now.
Brian: They do contain, really, transcripts or references to all of the pertinent documents
to the topic. I remember Don and I speaking that when we brought these out in 2013, that if in
10 years, we could look back and say we had found 90%, we’d feel pretty good about it. Well, I
honestly think we’ve got the DNA issue. Then, there’s this issue about Eliza R. Snow, perhaps
being raped in Missouri. There’s two or three kind of important things that would have been
included in the volumes, if we had had that data.
GT: Well, let me ask you this, because I know this did come up on the Facebook group.
One of the criticisms is that you will dismiss certain arguments if they’re too late in the record.
But, if they support your arguments, then you’ll accept those arguments because they support
your interpretation. There seems to be an inconsistency on whether something is an early
record or a late record, as to how you would interpret it. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
Brian: I’m an amateur historian, trying to become a professional historian. There’s one thing that historians do, and it’s critical source analysis; [is it] late and early? Is it firsthand, secondhand, thirdhand? When was it recorded after it occurred? All of these are factors that historians have to look at to weigh the value. There’s contradictory evidence. Absolutely, there is. But, again, I assert that the interpretations I have taken is because you have to drive a pathway through the contradictory evidences, through the ambiguities that are there and come up with an interpretation, which you think is the most valid. It’s also the same interpretation that the Church has kind of solidified in the Saints, and in the Gospel Topic essay. You’ll find there’s no contradiction in my three volumes and the material that they’re presenting in those sources, but those are from believers. When you look at people who think Joseph was a fraud, and an adulterer, they’re going to interpret the data differently, not because they’re looking at different data, it’s just they’re going in with different biases. So, it’s not necessarily what the evidence says, as much as the person’s a priori beliefs before they see the data. I don’t know how you get past that. That’s just human nature.
Do you agree?
Ever since the Book of Mormon was first published, critics have tried to figure out its authorship. Did Joseph Smith plagiarize the book from other sources, such as Solomon Spaulding or other collaborators? Dr. Brian Hales tells more about these collaborator theories for Book of Mormon authorship.
Brian: I’ve isolated eight different theories that people have promoted, naturalists, as possibly explaining how Joseph created the Book of Mormon. We’ve heard about the Solomon Spalding theory. In 1812, a guy named Solomon Spalding wrote a manuscript, and he shared it with his friends and neighbors. He died two years later. Then, the Book of Mormon comes out in 1830. Well, some of those friends and neighbors said, “Hey, I remember this is the same story that Solomon Spalding told me.” Well, the manuscript was lost, so you couldn’t check the two. You had the Book of Mormon in your hand, but you only had the memory of these people. So, everybody jumped on this bandwagon. For 50 years, it was by far and away the most popular theory. But, then in 1884, they found the manuscript and compared the two.
GT: [They found it] in Hawaii, of all places.
Brian: Right. Well, they had it in 1834, but it wasn’t similar to the Book of Mormon.
GT: It was E.D. Howe that had it.
Brian: Right, and he knew there was huge dissimilarities, but it didn’t go along with the theory that he was promoting in his book. So, they just deep-sixed the thing, and it emerged 50 years later in Hawaii. I don’t know, I’m sure somebody has probably tried to trace that. It’s probably not too big a mystery.
GT: From what I understand, there was a newspaper in Pittsburgh, and then the assets got sold and it ended up in Hawaii, which is just a weird, weird story.
Brian: Well, I haven’t looked at it, but in 1884, when you compare the two, the names are different. There are some very general similarities on the fact that it’s a lost manuscript that’s found and there’s some talk about the origin of the Indians. But it’s about 50,000-51,000 words. The Book of Mormon is nearly 270,000. So, even if Joseph plagiarized every word, he’d still have to come up with 220,000 words on his own. So, to use it as a theory isn’t a real strong, real convincing interpretation.
GT: Well, I’d like to go in there because I do have a lot of very vocal people who still believe the Spalding manuscript is a legit theory. My response is, “Read it.”
Brian: Yeah, good point.
GT: It’s so stereotypically Indian. We talk about wigwams, and squaws, and delawanucks, and just very stereotypically Indian. Plus, it takes place, I believe, in the time of Constantine. So it’s off by about 1000 years, just the story plot. It begins when the Book of Mormon ends, basically. I’ve read it. It’s actually I think, unintentionally funny. It’s kind of like Gilligan’s Island version of the Book of Mormon, if you ask me.
Have you read “Manuscript Found”? Do you think that Joseph collaborated with others to produce the Book of Mormon?
It is a common refrain for apologists to say that Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon by himself. I can respect that opinion, but it is often accompanied by misleading details, like the notion that it was written in a mere X number of days, even though Joseph Smith talked about the plates for years before the translation was finished. It appears to be an attempt to shift the burden of proof to the non believer to try to come up with a way he could have done it. Frequently the secular historians (or hobbyists) respond with theories with scanty evidence.
I don’t think there is any need for anyone to try to prove how the Book of Mormon could have been written without translation. It’s an interesting topic of conversation, to be sure, to discuss whether such-and-such person or book could have influenced or helped it, but I don’t think that there is any burden of proof on historians to provide a secular explanation for how it was written.
I haven’t read view of the Hebrews. I don’t know anyone currently that still suggests that it was copied to write the Book of Mormon, except perhaps some very high level plot points. What I have heard people argue is that it demonstrates that the idea that the Native Americans had some relation to Israel was not unique to Joseph Smith; that idea already existed within the cultural milieu.
Why the constant bringing up of polygamy?
The claim that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself is typically dismissed as too extraordinary. I agree that such a feat is extraordinary. However, all of the other theories of Book of Mormon provenance propose far more extraordinary phenomena. The idea that a proto-Christian group of people existed in the Americas before Jesus was born, who talked about Jesus and actually saw him visit them, seems to me to be leaps and bounds more extraordinary than the idea that Joseph Smith simply wrote the book. Less extraordinary, but still far-fetched, is the idea that Rigdon had a role in the construction of the Book of Mormon and that he conspired with a teenage boy named Joseph Smith to create this second Bible by cribbing off of a manuscript written by Solomon Spalding, and then create this new religion out of what both Rigdon and Smith knew to be a complete fabrication. Hales as well as all other apologists are right to dismiss the Spalding-Rigdon hypothesis as rather ridiculous and unsubstantiated.
My view on controversial matters is to go with Occam’s Razor: what is probably true is the idea with the fewest assumptions, the fewest jumps to conclusions, and the idea that is the least extraordinary in light of existing evidence. Reality can seem very strange and extraordinary, indeed. But extraordinary ideas require extraordinary evidence. And those pushing the idea that the BOM is evidence of ancient American Hebrews witnessing Jesus Christ cannot supply the mounds of evidence that would be needed to support such a proposition. “Joseph Smith couldn’t have possibly written it” falls far short as a piece of strong evidence. I can just as easily use as evidence of 19th-century origins the claim that “Jesus Christ couldn’t have possibly appeared to ancient Americans” or that “ancient Americans couldn’t have possibly known about Jesus Christ.”
Ivy, if there’s one thing any random person knows about Mormonism, it’s the connection to polygamy, and the largest branch of Mormonism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, still struggles to come to terms with where it fits in doctrine and how to teach enough of the history of it that no one can claim the leadership is whitewashing history while not being so explicit that it destroys faith. Top that off with the church continuing to seal men to more than one woman resulting in a lot of heartache about what life will be like in the world to come.
To respond to the question about Brian’s take on historians, I think his statement on bias is pretty unremarkable. Both Mormon and non-Mormon historians come with biases and that includes whether to be open to miraculous explanations for things. If you already believe God doesn’t exist or at least not in a way that would account for Joseph and the Book of Mormon, that is certainly going to drive you to look at the evidence in a way that is quite different from an historian who already believes God was leading Joseph by the hand every step of the way.
If the assertion is that View of the Hebrews was JS’s template for the BoM, it becomes pretty easy to knock it down. But what if it were not a template? What if it were simply an inspiration, along with the frequent mention in Smith’s time of the assumption that the mounds dotting the landscape were the product of a more sophisticated group who originated in the Holy Land? At this point, I think we have little doubt as to JS’s intelligence, even if he was a bit rough around the edges. John W hits it on the head–that a guy wrote a book no one thought him capable of is FAR less outrageous a proposition than just about anything in the BoM creation story and the book itself.
Also, I can’t buy that a professional historian views events through the prism of belief. That would be a church historian. Also, if there is contradictory evidence, but there are no contradictions in Hales’ work because he’s using believing sources (only?) as he drives a past through the contradiction to reach a conclusion, is he adequately considering all the evidence? I’m not saying he doesn’t but the statement seems contradictory.
Saying that Joseph Smith copied or plagiarized View of the Hebrews is the ultimate Mormon strawman. Nobody credible is saying that. What we are saying is that he used VoH and other works contemporary to him as source material to write, not translate, the BOM. There are too many differences in these two books to say he copied or plagiarized. There are too many similarities in these two to say that he was not influenced by them.
So just for the sake of argument let’s agree that he was influenced by VoH, The Late War, the KJV Bible, etc. How in the world is that the same as translating from the Gold Plates (translation 1.0) or dictating from his face in the hat (translation 2.0)? And yet his claim is that he translated by the gift and power of God. Seems to me his claim is false and therefore he is false. But I am NOT saying he copied or plagiarized.
“Saying that Joseph Smith copied or plagiarized View of the Hebrews is the ultimate Mormon strawman. Nobody credible is saying that.”
Substitute “Solomon Spaulding” for “View of the Hebrews,” and there are lots of people, from E.D. Howe & Doctor Philastus Hurlbut in the 1830s to Mathew Jockers, Daniela Witten, and Craig Criddle of Stanford University in 2010 who claim plagiarism. One can argue about whether these people are credible, but they are certainly not “nobody.” And I get lots of non-credible nobodies that claim Spaulding/Rigdon were the real authors of the BoM. I hear very few that promote View of the Hebrews (which may be the most boring book ever written. At least Spaulding was unintentionally entertaining!)
But even if one wants to soften their stance to say that VoH or Spalding or KJV or preachers of the day, or a multitude of other sources influenced Joseph, ok, that’s likely true. But synthesizing all of that information into the Book of Mormon is still quite an intellectual feat. Do we accuse other writers of the same?
“But synthesizing all of that information into the Book of Mormon is still quite an intellectual feat. Do we accuse other writers of the same?”
Of course we do, that is a major focus in the field of literary studies, and when applied to other authors it isn’t an accusation. But here you have the argument backwards. Mormons are the one’s saying that it isn’t an intellectual feat, that it was impossible for Joseph to have written it. Most careful and responsible critics are happy to ascribe genius to Joseph. From what I have read, it is usually contemporary Mormons, like Hales, that double down on the Joseph was a country bumpkin incapable of such an act of genius. For Mormons, the appreciation of Joseph’s writerly genius is, as you say, an accusation.
Do we accuse other writers of achieving an intellectual feat? I should think we do. What Tolkien achieved is remarkable, and God had nothing directly to do with it. But let’s compare apples with apples. Mohammed wrote the Koran, which I have not read but which many believe is a beautiful and remarkable work. Muslims believe he did so by the power of Allah, but Christians certainly do not, so did he just pull off a remarkable intellectual feat? Is the Bhagavad Gita a remarkable intellectual feat or the work of humans with intervention from the divine? If one faith’s holy work is an intellectual feat, don’t they all have to be?
What seems clear to me is that JS consumed and compiled information voraciously. He had years to play over in his head the scenarios that ended up in the BoM, so Nibley’s challenge to create something comparable in 90 days starting from scratch is a deception. And, honestly, it’s just not that impressive a work. The characters are made of cardboard, women are just about nonexistent, and many of the words used to describe creatures or objects are just non-sensical. It makes Dan Brown look like Shakespeare.
FWIW I think there are plenty of plausible explanations for Joseph Smith authoring (not translating) the BoM that don’t involve outright plagiarism. Dan Vogel and Grant Palmer both offer interesting commentary on this. More recently, William Davis offers the perspective that the BoM should be viewed as an oral performance, not a written text, that follows a well-established pattern used by preachers contemporaneous with Joseph Smith. And, as has been noted, Joseph Smith had many years to plan the book even if the actual dictation was during a more compressed time period.
Not saying any one of those individuals has the definitive explanation of the book or that is has zero divine origins, but agree that it does no good to set up straw men (like plagiarism) or to present a white-washed set of facts (like the “he did this in 60 days”).
When it comes to plagiarism and the Book of Mormon, we need not look further than the KJV itself. For it is astounding just how much of the Book of Mormon verbiage and ideas are taken directly from the KJV. And not just the obvious passages from Isaiah and Matthew in 2 Nephi and 3 Nephi respectively. The whole text of the Book of Mormon is shot through with verbatim KJV text. From a young age, Joseph Smith, like many in his environment, was obsessed with the Bible and the correct interpretation of it. He listened to people read the Bible. He read the Bible himself. He memorized Bible passages. He tried to figure out reality in the context of the Bible. He tried to figure out how Native Americans were related to the Biblical narrative since, after all, the common belief was that human history did not predate 6,000 years. And Joseph Smith certainly wasn’t the only one proposing that Native Americans were descendants of Hebrews. It was common belief in the Northern US in the early 1800s, A View of the Hebrews being a testament to how widespread such a belief was.
Regarding why we still talk about polygamy. To my mind, it’s because the contention that God commanded polygamy is probably the most off-putting doctrine the church presents to the world. I don’t think transcripts and documents and DNA make any difference. People who can’t believe in a God who commands it aren’t going to be persuaded by a stack of “evidence.”
I look at the Hales volumes and just shrug. The long, intricate stories of people who lived polygamy are not, and can’t ever be, proof of God’s involvement. He would probably say, of course they aren’t . It’s ultimately a matter of faith and obedience. And my faith is in a loving God who didn’t countenance LDS polygamy then, FLDS polygamy now, and any other polygamy treating women like commodities.
My belief on how/who wrote the BoM has changed so much over the last decade. But I can say that absent some statement or proof to the contrary, I think we will be putting forth guesses, hypotheses, strong or weak assumptions for the rest of our lives. JS was an extremely complex and controversial person by any generation’s standards, and the BoM has its flaws, strengths, obvious errors, inspiring stories, etc. We likely won’t ever reconcile these issues.
And the part I find most interesting is that this book is alleged to be the most correct, the most doctrinally pure book containing the gospel of Christ, and the keystone of the only true and living church. If those statements and propositions are true, why is there so much controversy, so much contradiction, so much evidence to discredit the book? I can see only a few options: 1) God has intentionally crafted or allowed this scenario for some purpose, 2) the BoM is in fact not scripture but was written by man/men who either intended to deceive for gain or acted with pious fraud, 3) God is not really who/what we think (not so directly involved in human affairs) so there’s a level of mixed inspiration based on higher principles (love, redemption, eternal existence, community) and human creativity, 4) we are missing some obvious proof that it is true, etc. I am sure there are several other options I cannot think of right now. I’d love to hear others’ take on this, I may be totally off in my thinking.
So my point in stating the above, is that given it is highly unlikely that we will ever truly know the historical truths behind the book’s creation and authorship, I am somewhat indifferent to any theory or scholarship attempting to explain it. Because there will always be something to discredit or call into question the author(s), the book’s narrative and origin, and its teachings. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate Brian Hales or other’s contributions. It’s just become a series of conversations without any conclusions. Like talking about where to eat dinner for an hour, discussing all the options, pros/cons, cost-benefit, and by the end of it you just say “Forget it, I’m not hungry anymore.”
The best I can do with the book right now is try to take it as I find it, extract some principles and moral lessons, discard the portion that doesn’t offer me value at that time, and allow God to speak to my mind if that’s what is supposed to be happening. I am content to criticize, marvel, believe, disbelieve, embrace, or discard any prophet or story in the book. And I am fine to reverse course and change my mind. It’s how we operate as humans when presented a complex mystery. Historicity and authorship don’t matter to me as much as they used to.
@counselor, this is *totally* how I feel about a lot of discussions about “doctrine” (and frankly why a lot of other blogs in the bloggernaccle are way too boring for me now):
“Like talking about where to eat dinner for an hour, discussing all the options, pros/cons, cost-benefit, and by the end of it you just say “Forget it, I’m not hungry anymore.””
Agree with a lot of the rest of your comment too.
John W, you might consider reading John Sorenson’s ‘Mormon’s Codex’. It presents mounds of circumstantial, if not convincing evidence that corroborates the Book of Mormon on many specifics. It is an extraordinary book that Professor Sorenson put together. Additionally, how would you explain the locations of Nahom and Bountiful in the Old World that are geographic bullseyes in that they line up to their ‘real world’ locations as described in the Book of Mormon? There was no vast western New York frontier library back then as far I know where Joseph (or whoever) could have realistically gotten these ideas. Keep in mind, when the Book of Mormon was published the archaeology of the day corroborated none of the anachronistic claims of the Book of Mormon. However, today, the evidence keeps mounting to keep the critics from ‘having a field day’ (to quote Neal A. Maxwell).
“Plagiarism is the representation of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions as one’s own original work. In educational contexts, there are differing definitions of plagiarism depending on the institution. Plagiarism is considered a violation of academic integrity and a breach of journalistic ethics.” Wikipedia
Most folks define plagiarism too narrowly as “copying words”. Any of the sources cited in the OP and comments are potential sources to be plagiarized and many likely were.
Joseph was a religious genius and developed a fascinating theology – even if it were one that he felt free to change as the need arose.
My opinion: he made it all up, from the Book of Mormon to everything else. Our challenge is to extract beauty and useful truths. Just like the Bible that originated from the minds of the “Josephs” in other places and times.
Observer, I’m aware of John Sorenson and his publications. There has long been a lot more money and job positions for people defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon than for those debunking these claims. Of all the experts on Ancient American and Near Eastern history there are in the world, Sorenson is in an extreme minority of people claiming that Jesus visited ancient Americans. Most scholars reject these claims and don’t address them because they see them as too far-fetched to even bother. Sorenson’s audience is the Mormon community, not the larger scholarly community. His work wouldn’t pass muster among the latter. He knows that.
On NHM and Bountiful, I would direct you to the posts of Phillip Jenkins on Patheos who handily debunks the NHM nonsense. My general reaction to these matters of NHM and Bountiful is that they aren’t terribly important since the main claim of the Book of Mormon isn’t that a person named Ishmael was buried at Nahom and Joseph Smith couldn’t have known about that (I’m willing to accept this as insignificant and mere coincidence), rather; the main claim of the BOM is that there was a group of Christians in the ancient Americas who interacted with Jesus, which is a very extraordinary and far-fetched claim that no expert on the ancient Americas accepts as true with the exception of a select few scholars who were raised in the Mormon tradition and whose motivations are clearly religion-based and not purely philological.
As for the idea that evidence keeps mounting. No. No it does not. In fact, it appears that old school Mormon apologetics are falling out of favor with the church leaders and the rising generation of Mormon academes. The church leaders are losing confidence in the idea that they can prove the BOM’s historicity and in New church manuals are emphasizing different non-historicity angles through which the BOM can be understood as “true”. Rising Mormon scholars are emphasizing the metaphorical truth value of the BOM far more than trying to find corroborating archaeological evidence, which they know isn’t there. The John Sorenson approach is a thing of the past. Too easily and quickly debunkable with the ease of doing scholarship that the internet provides.
From what I understand of proponents of the Spaulding theory, they actually argue for another lost manuscript that has yet to be recovered as the source, arguing that Spauding wrote two stories, only one of which has been recovered.
I am not aware of a single piece of evidence supporting this assertion of a second lost manuscript. It seems like they fall into the camp of “Joseph couldn’t have written it,” so they stretch to find alternative sources.
Somewhere out there I think there’s a wordprint analysis that matched the BoM to Spaulding, but beyond the problems with the reliability of these types of studies, there is really not any evidence to support that Joseph even had access to Spaulding, let alone utilized this mysterious unknown manuscript to write the BoM.
Proponents have to argue for the existence of the second lost manuscript and also create a case out of whole cloth for Joseph meeting Rigdon prior to writing the BoM. It becomes a big convoluted conspiracy theory that I have a hard time understanding how thoughtful minds take it seriously.
The real mystery is how someone can comb through all those contradictory sources, pick out the ones that align with their foredrawn conclusion, lay them out in a path, then happily walk that path whistling “Praise to the Man.”
There’s way too much of Joseph Smith in the BoM for anyone but Joseph Smith to have written it.
JS was a guy named Joseph whose father was also named Joseph—which makes it easy to write a retroactive prophesy about a guy named Joseph whose dad was also named Joseph. 2 Nephi 3:15
JS was a middle child with a limp and a depressed, alcoholic, visionary dad—say hello to Nephi the middle child who was compensating for something with his huge stature and physical prowess who ruled over his other siblings and became the spiritual leader of his family to help redeem his depressed visionary dad.
JS was a patriotic American—so you get American Nationalism in Nephi’s vision, right down to a veneration of Columbus. You also get the nationalist quasi-Biblical language of the Late War substituting Nephite heroes for heroes of the Revolution and also borrowing their battle tactics.
JS was a Protestant—so you get anti-catholicism in a book about an ancient people who shouldn’t have had any conception of Catholicism or infant baptism.
JS was a man in a patriarchal society—so you get an incredibly consistent lack of named female characters throughout a book supposedly authored by multiple people.
JS was white in a white supremacist society—“And behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof.” 3 Nephi 19:25
JS was a man who spent a lot of energy in his life trying to justify polygamy as a legitimate excuse for his adultery—and he was clearly thinking about it as early as the publication of the BoM in which Jacob sneaks in a “it’s totally cool under certain circumstances” clause in his anti-polygamy speech. Jacob 2:30
Last one. JS was a poor itinerant farmer with limited education whose main literary influence was the KJV Bible—so you get a book chock full of run-on sentences, misspelled words, and other poor grammatical constructions, smattered with Biblical turns of phrase and huge passages copied directly from the KJV.
Honestly, who needs Solomon Spaulding?
Regardless of the source of the “spin” placed on “the need and purpose of historical polygamy” I personally believe that the practice of polygamy is one of the great cancers within Mormonism. I don’t believe this practice was ever (or will ever) be of God. The thought of a loving Heavenly Father, doing this to even one of his daughters is unthinkable and “makes reason stare”. It needs to be condemned on every level. (I stand with Carol Lynn Pearson on this one!)
D&C 132 was not the revelation Joseph received, and was altered before publication. The original does not exist. We have a purported copy from a store clerk, Joseph Kingsbury, who never acted as scribe for Joseph.
The Nauvoo High Council had the original read to them, and they reported it had nothing to do with modern practice, but was only related to explaining ancient events.
Your first paragraph has some truth to it, but the second paragraph is completely wrong. I will have a future interview with Mark tensmeyer to address this specific point