Jonathan Neville believes Joseph Smith often used words and ideas from 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Who is Jonathan Edwards? Neville claims Edwards was sort of a Billy Graham figure of his day. Neville believes that Smith used phrases like “natural man is an enemy to God” and other Edwards ideas in the Book of Mormon. Are you convinced? We’ll also talk about why Neville thinks Joseph didn’t use a seer stone, but the Urim & Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, and that the translation is a loose, rather than tight translation. Check out our conversation…
Intro to Jonathan Edwards
GT: When did he live and die? Do you have approximate dates there?
Jonathan 02:12 Okay, yeah. He was born in 1703, about 100 years before Joseph Smith,
GT 02:16 Okay.
Jonathan 02:16 And he died in 1758. When he died he was the president of Princeton University. There had been a smallpox epidemic, essentially. And so they wanted all the students and faculty to take the vaccine, and there were a lot of people were resisting it. So to show that it was safe and effective, he took it himself. But he got an overdose and died from it.
GT 02:38 So it was not safe.
Jonathan 02:40 For him it was not. But it did save a lot of other lives, of course.
GT 04:47 He was the Billy Graham of his day.
Jonathan 04:49 Billy Graham, but also he was considered a superior intellect, generally. He started off as a scientist. His first papers were naturalist papers that were published in the UK. He did some studies. Boy, now I can’t remember exactly. It seems to me it was a microbiology thing, but I’m not positive. But he spent a lot of time studying Newtonian physics and that kind of thing as well. He wrote about those topics as well. But he graduated from Yale with his master’s degree when he was 19 years old.
Jonathan 05:24 And he was fluent in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He had to defend his dissertation in Latin, both speaking and writing. And he was very well educated to say the least. His grandfather was a well known minister in Connecticut. And so he preached, I think, in New York for a while, but he ended up working with his grandfather. And when his grandfather died, he took over that church in New England, well in Connecticut. He eventually became part of the first Great Awakening with George Whitfield, primarily the two of them.
How Joseph’s Leg Surgery Helped Him
Jonathan Neville thinks Joseph Smith read a lot of books, including Jonathan Edwards while Joseph was convalescing from his leg surgery.
Jonathan 26:14 But in my view, Joseph Smith was prepared from a young age to become the Prophet and translator, and that’s why he had the leg surgery. I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before.
GT 26:25 A little bit, but let’s do it again.
Jonathan 26:26 Okay.
GT 26:28 Because you’ve got some big issues with Brian Hales. I love talking about different perspectives.
Jonathan 26:33 Yeah, sure. So well, come to think of it, but I haven’t really ever directly engaged Brian Hales on this topic. We’ve talked about other things. But anyway, so when he had the leg surgery, lots of people were getting sick. Other members of his family were getting sick, but he’s the one that got the leg infection. And it was a life-threatening situation. And he ended up having the famous leg surgery. Everybody talks about it because he refused to drink alcohol. Right?
GT 27:01 Right.
Jonathan 27:01 But to me, that was a very minor tangent, let’s say. The real reason for that leg surgery was to incapacitate Joseph Smith at a young age, to give him this near death experience. So that’s when he became a religious seeker more than the rest of his family. But also it incapacitated him for several years. He couldn’t work on the farm. His parents had to carry him around. Even when they moved to Palmyra, he was still on crutches. So he had that period of time to really ponder and become a religious seeker and start reading Christian literature. And one of the things that I came across in this process is Uncle Jesse took him to the coast down in Massachusetts near their ancestral family home.
GT 27:48 This is while he’s still injured?
Jonathan 27:50 Yeah, right, shortly after the surgery. Because they felt like, if you’re near the coast, it’s more healing, which it is. That’s why a lot of people come to my house up in Oregon. We have a lot of people who’ve retired there because of that idea that the seacoast is more healthy, and I certainly feel like it is. That’s another tangent. And we have a lot of tangents here.
GT 28:13 It’s an appropriately named show.
Jonathan 28:16 I know. It’s awesome. I love it. Then anyway, so his Uncle Jesse took him down there. And Jesse became famous later because Joseph wrote him a letter about the restoration. This is before Joseph a translated the Book of Mormon, or about that timeframe, as I recall. I don’t remember the date of it now. But it was around that early time period. And Jesse made the comment that it sounded like it was written by a prophet, this letter that Joseph wrote. When Emma had supposedly said that he couldn’t even write a well-worded letter, which was a kind of a ridiculous apologetic thing that she said. And there’s other reasons why I say that. But one of the ones that was he wrote to his Uncle Jesse, and Jesse completely rejected this restoration. Because he was a very strict Christian. I don’t know if he’s a minister.
Jonathan 29:07 So the point is, when he took Joseph Smith down to Massachusetts, I was researching, “Well, what would a boy Joseph’s age read in Massachusetts?” And I came across these four sermons for young men, written by a minister. His last name was Dean. And I read through those and there’s a lot of this non-biblical Book of Mormon language in those sermons. And they kind of come out. I don’t have time to give examples, but it gave me the idea of well, maybe Joseph was being educated by the Lord through Jesse and other people, in how to articulate this ancient Nephite record in modern Christian terminology. And so then I started thinking. I made this list of 700 words. Right? And I wanted to find all of them. Because some of them for example, Royal Skousen says we’re early modern English. Joseph wouldn’t have known him that type of thing. So that was on my mind, too. So I started looking through the Palmyra newspapers from the early or late 1820s. And sure enough, there was a lot of terminology in there. On my list of 700 words, I found maybe, let’s say 25 or 30, something like that.
Edwards Phrases in Book of Mormon
Jonathan: Intertextuality is more than just a word here and a word there. And I agree. It’s a couple of things. It’s a word. It is terminology, but it is phrases, and it is concepts that are intertextual. And I use this one, “the natural man is an enemy to God,” because that’s a really clear one that anybody can see. But there’s many others in there as well.
GT 04:59 So natural man was enemy to God. That’s Jonathan Edwards phraseology.
Jonathan 05:48 Totally, yeah. It’s an allusion to that sermon, I think anyway. “A continual scene of wickedness and abomination,” that’s a Jonathan Edwards saying. I have a long list.
GT 06:02 So just looking at the table of contents, you can see some of the Edwards phraseology. We’ve got “Infinite Goodness,” which is the title. Let’s see: natural man is the enemy to God, fire and brimstone, preparatory state. I mean, you’ve got a lot of the phrases right in there. So can you talk a little bit more about that? Well, not only that, but it seems like even the First Vision uses a lot of Edwards phraseology.
Jonathan 06:37 Yeah.
GT 06:37 So I mean, the critics are going to say, Joseph Smith’s just ripping off Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan 06:43 Yeah. Well and that’s why I mentioned earlier that Joseph didn’t adopt Edwards’ theology at all. And so, that’s a key point, I think. Because if he was ripping off, or plagiarizing, Jonathan Edwards…
GT 06:58 We’d still be trinitarians. Right?
Jonathan 07:00 Yeah. And he would have used Edwards’ theology as well.
GT 07:05 Because there’s another point of view. Dan Vogel, among others have said Joseph’s theology changed. The First Vision changed to support his newer theology, because a lot of people read the Book of Mormon and say it’s Trinitarian. Or you could even say, modalistic if you’re being technical.
Jonathan 07:30 It’s mainstream Christian.
GT 07:32 Yeah, mainstream Christian. And so let’s take the Dan Vogel argument for a minute. Book of Mormon is modalistic let’s just say, or Trinitarian, essentially, and Joseph’s theology evolves. So at the beginning, he was using Jonathan Edwards. And then he started having these other revelations and things. And then he basically discarded it. Could we argue that?
Jonathan 08:02 Yeah, well, don’t forget Brigham Young. I don’t remember the date. But as 1850s to 1870s, [Brigham] said that if the Book of Mormon was translated today, it would read much different than it did originally. And that’s because when Joseph Smith translated it, like any translator, he used his own lexicon and his own concepts to render what the Nephites had said. I don’t think the Nephites used, as I said, the phrase “natural is an enemy to God.” That was Joseph’s translation of what they actually said. And so he was limited in that sense, to what his own lexicon had. The Bible says, a Holy Ghost to bring all things to your remembrance. Right?
Jonathan 08:45 So that’s how inspiration works. The Lord draws on your own mind, in your own words, to express things to you. That’s why if you’re a member of the Church in France, and you get an answer to prayer, it is not going to be an English. Right? It’s going to be in French, because that’s what your mind is, or Chinese or whatever your language is. And so for Joseph Smith to receive revelation, or to translate a text, the Lord had to speak to him after the manner of his own language, like the Scriptures say. And so, when he was a 17-19-22-year-old, young man, his understanding of of the gospel, let’s say, or of God, was confined by the Christian context that he was living in. But as he received more revelations after that, his understanding expanded. So I think I think if he had retranslated, the Book of Mormon in 1844, it would read differently. Forget what Brigham Young said. But Brigham Young was right. I think if the Book of Mormon was translated today, it would read differently still.
Jonathan 09:49 And so Vogel’s argument was that Joseph, as I understand it anyway, was he was kind of absorbing ideas that he heard from Swedenborg or whoever, and was developing a new theology as he went. That’s one way to frame it. You can take the exact same evidence and frame it as Joseph Smith growing in spiritual understanding and having greater insights.
What do you think of Neville’s arguments? Did Joseph use Edwards phrases in Book of Mormon? Does that give you more, or less faith in the Book of Mormon?