by Hugh Nibley
This article appeared in the Millennial Star 124 (November 1962): 274-77.
It is impossible to read the Book of Mormon with an “open mind.” Confronted on every page with the steady assurance that what he is reading is both holy scripture and true history, the reader is soon forced to acknowledge a prevailing mood of assent or resentment.
It was the same uncompromising “yea or nay” in the teaching of Jesus that infuriated the scribes and Pharisees against him; the claims of the Christ allowed no one the comfortable neutrality of a middle ground. Critics of the Book of Mormon have from the beginning attempted to escape the responsibility of reading it by simple appeal to the story of its miraculous origin; that is enough to discredit it without further investigation.
Thanks to its title page, the Book of Mormon “has not been universally considered by its critics,” as one of them recently wrote, “as one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.” 1 Even Eduard Meyer, who wrote an ambitious study of Mormon origins, confessed that he had never read the Book of Mormon through. 2
So it was something of an event when, not long since, an eminent German historian read enough of the strange volume to be thoroughly disturbed by it. He found in it “the expression of a mighty awakening historical consciousness” 3 and declared that “the problem of America and Europe has in fact never again been so clearly perceived and pregnantly treated as here.” 4
Clear perception? Skillful treatment? In that book? Of course the whole thing is a monstrous hoax; Professor Meinhold will not even deign to consider any alternative: in spite of the witnesses and all that, the story of its origin needs and deserves no examination; it is simply unerhort (“unheard of”), and we don’t discuss things that are unerhort. 5
Worst of all, the Book of Mormon bears such alarming resemblance to scripture that, for Meinhold, it not only undermines but threatens in a spirit of “nihilistic skepticism” to discredit the Bible altogether. 6 Since one can reject the Book of Mormon without in any way jeopardizing one’s faith in the Bible, and since no one ever can accept or ever has accepted the Book of Mormon without complete and unreserved belief in the Bible, the theory that the Book of Mormon is a fiendish attempt to undermine faith in the Bible is an argument of sheer desperation. Recently Professor Albright has noted that the Bible is first and last a historical document, and that of all the religions of the world, only Judaeo-Christianity can be said to have a completely “historical orientation.” 7
Modern scholarship has, up to recent years, steadily undermined that historical orientation and with it the authority of the Bible; but today the process is being reversed and the glory of our Judaeo-Christian tradition vindicated. “Characteristic of the compelling force of this orientation,” according to Albright, are the “marked historical tendencies” of Islam and Mormonism, the most complete expression of which is Mormonism’s “alleged historical authentication in the form of the Book of Mormon.” 8
What shocks Professor Meinhold in the Book of Mormon is the very thing that shocked the past generations of German professors in the Bible: its claims to be a genuine history. When the whole Christian world had forgotten that “historical orientation,” which was one unique distinction, the Book of Mormon alone preserved it completely intact.
It is said that John Stuart Mill, the man with the fabulous I.Q. (and little else), read the New Testament with relish until he got to the Gospel of John, when he tossed the book aside before reaching the sixth chapter with the crushing and final verdict, “This is poor stuff!” Any book is a fraud if we choose to regard it as such, but Professor Meinhold cannot be nearly so experienced or well-educated as John Stuart Mill that he can simply serve notice that this book is a laughing matter.
But why would anybody be upset by what a Harvard pedant of our own day calls “the gibberish of a crazy boy”? Because the Book of Mormon is anything but gibberish to one who takes the trouble to read it. Here is an assignment which we like to give to classes of Oriental (mostly Moslem) students studying the Book of Mormon (it is required) at the Brigham Young University:
Since Joseph Smith was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names–hundreds of them–pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 B.C.; be lavish with cultural and technical details–manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites, and traditions, include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible settings observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials. Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up–we have our little joke–but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as fiction or romance, but as a true history! After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on a par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim–they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck!
To date no student has carried out this assignment, which, of course, was not meant seriously. But why not? If anybody could write the Book of Mormon, as we have been so often assured, it is high time that somebody, some devoted and learned minister of the gospel, let us say, performed the invaluable public service of showing the world that it can be done.
Assuming that it was not Joseph Smith but somebody else who wrote it gets us nowhere. If he did not write it, Joseph Smith ran an even greater risk in claiming authorship than if he had. For the first important man among his followers to turn against him would infallibly give him away. Sidney Rigdon, full of ambition and jealous of the Prophet, never claimed authorship of the Book of Mormon (which has often been claimed for him) or any part in it, nor in all the years during which he fought Smith from outside the Church did he ever hint the possibility of any other explanation for the Book of Mormon than Joseph Smith’s own story.
Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer all turned against the Prophet at one time or another, but neither they nor any other of the early associates of Smith, no matter how embittered, ever gave the slightest indication that they knew of anybody besides Smith himself who had any part whatever in the composition of the Book of Mormon. 9 For years men searched desperately to discover some other possible candidate for authorship, making every effort to find a more plausible explanation of the sources of these scriptures.
From the first, all admitted that Joseph Smith was much too ignorant for the job. We grant that willingly, but who on earth in 1829 was not too ignorant for it? Who is up to it today? If the disproportion between the learning of Smith and the stature of the Book of Mormon is simply comical, that between the qualifications of an Anthon or a Lepsius and the production of such a book is hardly less so. We can’t get rid of Joseph Smith, but then it would do us no good if we could. Just consider the scope and variety of the work as briefly as possible.
First Nephi gives us first a clear and vivid look at the world of Lehi, a citizen of Jerusalem but much at home in the general world of the New East of 600 B.C. Then it takes us to the desert, where Lehi and his family wander for eight years, doing all the things that wandering families in the desert should do? The manner of their crossing the ocean is described, as is the first settlement and hard pioneer life in the New World dealt with in the book of Jacob and a number of short and gloomy other books. The ethnological picture becomes very complicated as we learn that the real foundations of New World civilization were not laid by Lehi’s people at all, but that there were far larger groups coming from the Middle East at about the same time (this was the greatest era of exploration and colonization in the history of the ancient world), as well as numerous survivors of archaic hunting cultures of Asiatic origin that had thousands of years before crossed the North Pacific and roamed all over the north country. 11
The book of Mosiah describes a coronation rite in all its details and presents extensive religious and political histories mixed in with a complicated background of exploration and colonization. 12 The book of Alma is marked by long eschatological discourses and a remarkably fun and circumstantial military history. 13 The main theme of the book of Helaman is the undermining of society by moral decay and criminal conspiracy; the powerful essay on crime is carried into the next book, where the ultimate dissolution of the Nephite government is described. 14
Then comes the account of the great storm and earthquakes, in which the writer, ignoring a splendid opportunity for exaggeration, has as accurately depicted the typical behavior of the elements on such occasions as if he were copying out of a modern textbook on seismology. 15 The damage was not by any means total, and soon after the catastrophe, Jesus Christ appeared to the most pious sectaries who had gathered at the temple.
The account of Christ’s visits to the earth after his resurrection are exceedingly fragmentary in the New Testament, and zealous efforts are made in early Christian apocryphal writing to eke them out; 16 his mission to the Nephites is the most remarkable part of the Book of Mormon. Can anyone now imagine the terrifying prospect of confronting the Christian world of 1830 with the very words of Christ? Professor Meinhold still shudders with horror at the presumption of it, 17 and well he might, as the work of an impudent impostor who knew a year ahead of time just what mortal peril he was risking. The project is indeed unerhort; as the work of an honest, well-meaning Christian it is equally unthinkable.
But the boldness of the thing is matched by the directness and nobility with which the preaching of the Savior and the organization of the church are described. After this comes a happy history and then the usual signs of decline and demoralization. The death-struggle of the Nephite civilization is described with due attention to all the complex factors that make up an exceedingly complicated but perfectly consistent picture of decline and fall. 18 Only one who attempts to make a full outline of Book of Mormon history can begin to appreciate its immense complexity; and never once does the author get lost (as the student repeatedly does, picking his way out of one maze after another only with the greatest effort), and never once does he contradict himself. We should be glad to learn of any other like performance in the history of literature.
The book of Ether takes us back thousands of years before Lehi’s time to the dawn of history and the first of the great world migrations. A vivid description of Volkerwanderungszeit concentrates on the migration of a particular party-a large one, moving through the years with their vast flocks and herds across central Asia (described at that time as a land of swollen inland seas), and then undertaking a terrifying crossing of the North Pacific. Totally unlike the rest of the Book of Mormon, this archaic tale conjures up the “heroic” ages, the “epic milieu” of the great migrations and the “saga time” that follows, describing in detail the customs and usages of a cultural complex that Chadwick was first to describe in our own day. 19
Here in this early epic, far beyond the reach of any checks and controls, our foolish farm-boy had unlimited opportunity to let his imagination run wild. What an invitation to the most gorgeously funny extravaganza! And instead we get a sober, factual, but completely strange and unfamiliar tale.
Even this brief and sketchy indication of thematic material should be enough to show that we are not dealing here with a typical product of American or any other modern literature. Lord Raglan has recently observed that the evolution of religions has been not from the simple to the complex, but the other way around: “The modern tendency in religion, as in language, is towards simplicity. The youngest world religion, Islam, is simpler both in ritual and dogma than its predecessors, and such modern cults as Quakerism, Baabism, Theosophy, and Christian Science are simpler still.” 20
The work of Joseph Smith completely ignores this basic tendency; whatever he is, he is not a product of the times. The mere mass, charge, and variety of Mormonism has perplexed and offended many; but it is never too much to digest. The big, ponderous, detailed plot of the Book of Mormon, for example, is no more impressive than the ease, confidence, and precision with which the material is handled. The prose is terse, condensed, and fast-moving; the writer never wanders or speculates; beginning, middle, and ending are equally powerful, with no signs of fatigue or boredom; there is no rhetoric, no purple patches, nothing lurid or melodramatic–everything is kept sober and factual.
The Book of Mormon betrays none of the marks of “fine writing” of its day; it does not view the Gorgeous East with the eyes of any American of 1830, nor does it share in the prevailing ideas of what makes great or moving literature. The grandiose, awesome, terrible, and magnificent may be indicated in these pages, but they are never described; there is no attempt to be clever or display learning; the Book of Mormon vocabulary is less than 3,000 words! There are no favorite characters, no milking of particularly colorful or romantic episodes or situations, no reveling in terror and gore.
The book starts out with a colophon telling us whose hand wrote it, what his sources were, and what it is about; the author boasts of his pious parents and good education, explaining that his background was an equal mixture of Egyptian and Jewish, and then moves into this history establishing time, place, and background; the situation at Jerusalem and the reaction of Nephi’s father to it, his misgivings, his prayers, a manifestation that came to him in the desert as he traveled on business and sent him back post-haste “to his own house at Jerusalem,” where he has a great apocalyptic vision. 21
All this and more in the first seven verses of the Book of Mormon. The writer knows exactly what he is going to say and wastes no time in saying it. Throughout the book we get the impression that it really is what its authors claim it to be, a highly condensed account from much fuller records. We can imagine our young rustic getting off to this flying start, but can we imagine him keeping up the pace for ten pages? For 588 pages the story never drags, the author never hesitates or wanders, he is never at a loss. What is really amazing is that he never contradicts himself.
Long ago Friedrich Blass laid down rules for testing any document for forgery. 22 Let us paraphrase these as rules to be followed by a successful forger and consider whether Joseph paid any attention to any of them.
1. Keep out of the range of unsympathetic critics. There is, Blass insists, no such thing as a clever forgery. No forger can escape detection if somebody really wants to expose him; all the great forgeries discovered to date have been crudely executed (for example, the Piltdown skull), depending for their success on the enthusiastic support of the public or the experts. The Book of Mormon has enjoyed no such support. From the day it appeared, important persons at the urgent demand of an impatient public did everything they could to show it a forgery. And Joseph Smith, far from keeping it out of the hands of unsympathetic critics, did everything he could to put it into those hands. Surely this is not the way of a deceiver.
2. Keep your document as short as possible. 23 The longer a forgery is the more easily it may be exposed, the danger increasing geometrically with the length of the writing. By the time he had gone ten pages, the author of the Book of Mormon knew only too well what a dangerous game he was playing if it was a hoax; yet he carries on undismayed for six hundred pages.
3. Above all, don’t write a historical document! They are by far the easiest of all to expose, being full of “things too trifling, too inconspicuous, and too troublesome” for the forger to check up on. 24
4. After you have perpetrated your forgery, go into retirement or disappear completely. For vanity, according to Blass, is the Achilles’ heel of every forger. 25 A forger is not only a cheat but also a show-off, attempting to put one over on society; he cannot resist the temptation to enjoy his triumph, and if he remains in circulation, inevitably he gives himself away. Joseph Smith ignored any opportunity of taking credit for the Book of Mormon- he took only the responsibility for it.
5. Always leave an escape door open. 26 Be vague and general, philosophize and moralize. Religious immunity has been the refuge of most eminent forgers in the past, beautiful thoughts and pious allegories, deep interpretations of scriptures, mystic communication to the initiated few, these are safe grounds for the pia fraus (“pious fraud”). But the Book of Mormon never uses them. It does not even exploit the convenient philological loophole of being a translation: as an inspired translation it claims all the authority and responsibility of the original.
Granted that any explanation is preferable to Joseph Smith’s, where is any explanation? The chances against such a book ever coming into existence are astronomical: Who would write it? Why? Trouble, danger, and unpopularity are promised its defenders in the book itself. Did someone else write it so that Joseph Smith could take all the credit? Did Smith, knowing it was somebody else’s fraud, claim authorship so that he could take all the blame?
The work involved in producing the thing was staggering, the danger terrifying; long before publication time the newspapers and clergy were howling for blood. Who would want to go on with such a suicidal project? All that trouble and danger just to fool people? But the author of this book is not trying to fool anybody: he claims no religious immunity, makes no effort to mystify, employs no rhetorical or allegorical license.
There are other things to consider too, such as the youth and inexperience of Smith when (regardless of who the author might be) he took sole responsibility for the Book of Mormon. Faced with a point-blank challenge by the learned world, any impostor would have collapsed in an instant, but Joseph Smith never weakened though the opposition quickly mounted to a roar of national indignation. Then there were the witnesses, real men who, though leaving the Church for various real or imagined offenses, never altered or retracted their testimonies of what they had seen and heard.
The fact that only one version of the Book of Mormon was ever published and that Joseph Smith’s attitude toward it never changed is also significant. After copyrighting it in the spring of 1829, he had a year to think it over before publication and yield sensibly to social pressure; after that he had the rest of his life to correct his youthful indiscretion; years later, an important public figure and a skillful writer, knowing that his book was a fraud, knowing the horrible risk he ran on every page of it, and knowing how hopelessly naive he had been when he wrote it, he should at least have soft-pedaled the Book of Mormon theme. Instead he insisted to the end of his life that it was the truest book on earth, and that a man could get nearer to God by observing its precepts than in any other way. 27
Parallelomania has recently been defined as the double process which “first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying literary connections flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.” 28 It isn’t merely that one sees parallels everywhere, but especially that one instantly concludes that there can be only one possible explanation for such. From the beginning the Book of Mormon has enjoyed the full treatment from Parallelomaniacs. Its origin has been found in the Koran, in Swedenborg, in the teachings of Old School Presbyterians, French Mystics, Methodists, Unitarians, Millerites, Baptists, Campbellites, and Quakers; in Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Gnosticism, Transcendentalism, Atheism, Deism, Owenism, Socialism, and Platonism; in the writing of Rabelais, Milton, Anselm, Joachim of Flores, Ethan Smith, and the Early Church; in Old Iranian doctrines, Brahmin mysticism, Free Masonry, and so on.
Now a person who has read only Milton, or Defoe, or Rabelais would have an easy time discovering parallels all through the Book of Mormon, or any other book he might read thereafter. It is not surprising that people who have studied only English literature are the most eager to condemn the Book of Mormon.
At a Portland Institute Symposium, Nibley subsequently gave a talk that developed several of these same themes further, along with discussing the negative reviews of Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. The main body of the talk is included in the following transcript:
There are two rigorous tests to which we can subject the Book of Mormon: There is the internal test and the external test. This is true for every document. At the time of the Renaissance, which they usually say began with the fall of Constantinople (actually that is not true–the Turks treasured those documents from ancient times), all of a sudden they discovered them, not so much in the East as in the monasteries. They discovered thousands of manuscripts from ancient times. They didn’t know what to do with them, or how to arrange them in order, or whether they were genuine or not. It became the stock assignment of scholarship to go through a great big pile of nondescript documents in quite a number of languages and decide what can they tell us about the human race–what here is authentic, what isn’t, what have they been doing. It was just a mess, and some of the great scholars devised a very efficient method for processing these documents, and also for testing them for authenticity. Their test became foolproof, not only just intuitive; they could do marvelous things. They could take documents damaged almost beyond recognition and restore them. And later, years later, they would discover a complete document, and, sure enough, the restoration was correct. They were often going on mere intuition.
The first question that you have when you get an ancient document is–is it real? That is the first question they wanted to know. They could very well be not just copies of copies, but they could be fakes. That is very common too and, well, what part of it is real? Because there is no such thing as a perfect document. There is no such thing as a flawless document–never has been, never will be. The Book of Mormon recognized this–remember in the title page: “If there are mistakes therein they are the mistakes of men.” And men do make mistakes. Well, if parts are real, what parts? What has been going on? How have they been treating the document? An interesting thing–you read the document itself without any reference to anything outside. If it is a historical document, you say, “Oh, sure, this claims to be at a certain time and place”–you can go back and check to see if this was going on. You do not have to do that. The classic work on the criticism of ancient documents is by Frederick Blass. It was written almost a hundred years ago. It is a massive work by a German. I think he is most memorable because of his equally classical work on classical rhetoric. He begins by saying (which is so typical of German scholarship), “I have never been able to get interested in classical rhetoric.” Then the great man begins to exhaust the field and the reader too. I don’t think anybody ever read it through except me, once. Well, as Blass says, you never have to go outside of a document, you never have to check from outside sources; just read the thing itself and it easily becomes clear whether it is authentic or not. Regardless of the period, regardless of how much else is known about it, regardless of what other documents go along with it, simply read it and see if it is convincing in itself.
Now today interesting things are happening on many fronts. They are dealing with things differently than they ever have before. If it looks like an elephant, call it an elephant; no matter how queer it may sound, you have to pay attention to it now. Things must be explained. You just can’t fit everything into the well-known, established patterns. Before, if anything seemed odd, strange, or weird, you just discounted it; but you can’t do that anymore. It is these things that are odd that are most significant. For example, speaking of documents, the best kind of document is the one that has fantastic mistakes in it–when you get a weird anomaly or contradiction or something impossible. That is the time to start looking; that is not the kind of thing that copyists put in. Copyists have a weakness for correcting texts they don’t understand, so they write it so they can understand. So if you have a flawless text, look out; it has been faked, doctored; the copyists have taken care of it, they have brought it up to date. But if you have one that is full of the weirdest stuff, there you have a real gem, because that stuff came from somewhere. Someone picked it up from somewhere, and you just need to look at the document itself. It is not necessary to go beyond the internal evidence, because it is impossible to fake an ancient document on two conditions, first the internal– especially if it is of any length at all (and the Book of Mormon is long) you multiply the danger, you compound it with every word you add (mathematical progression). Every time you add a word you get yourself in deeper and deeper. So keep your documents short if you want to fake one. Never write a long document-that will hang you just as sure as anything. Nobody has ever faked one successfully.
The second condition, of course, is external. Does it purport to be historical? If you are going to write a document, write one of beautiful thoughts, and no one can object. If you say it is history, then you are in trouble because it has to be checked at various points. So this first thought is going to be about internal evidence of the Book of Mormon, just the internal evidence. I’m not going to use anything outside at all. The internal evidence for the superhuman origins of the Book of Mormon is so overwhelming today that the story of the angel, as far as I am concerned, has become the least baffling explanation. If you think of other explanations, good–but they rejected the story of the angel out of hand because it was absurd. Well, Blass says (this is a very important principle) you should always begin by assuming that a document is authentic. Why not give it the benefit of the doubt? It will quickly become apparent if it isn’t. If you proceed on the grounds of authenticity, and if it isn’t, the first thing you will know you will be caught up short. So, the first thing, you begin by assuming that your document is authentic, and you say, “Well, that isn’t playing fair.” All right then, you think of a better explanation. If it isn’t a fourteenth-century document, were did it come from? If the famous Turk map of North America of pre-Columbian times isn’t authentic, then who did produce it? The more fantastic it is, the easier it is to select a substitute and alternative. Well, I can’t think of a more fantastic explanation of the Book of Mormon than the story of the angel. Think of another way to explain it. By George, it turns out that the story of the angel is the least fantastic story that you can think of–everything else is even more weird.
You are welcome to try to explain how the Book of Mormon came to exist. What would be your plausible explanation of the existence of the Book of Mormon? How would you explain its mere existence? “Well,” you say “let me give some parallel examples.” Okay, tell us of another book, anything like that at all. The only way you can do it is to reconstruct the crime yourself. How did Joseph Smith get or how did he produce this book? You ask yourself how you would go about it. Try to imagine how you would go about reproducing the book.
I tried this out at family home evening last week on some very, very literary students, some foreign students, some investigators–a very skeptical group. And since they were literature people, I asked them, “How would you do it?” Consider the problems faring you if you are undertaking to do what Joseph Smith did. Mere physical problems: he must produce a big book. All right, sit down and produce a big book. That means a lot of work, just putting it together. It means you have to find the time, you have to find the resources, you have to find the continued motivation to keep going. Just try to keep any student or anybody going on a project like that! What is the motivation, what is going to keep you going right up until the end? Again you see, immediately the internal evidence comes. Does it have an even flow, does he run out, does he peter out, does he start repeating himself, does he weaken? These are all internal evidences. The Book of Mormon starts out with a bang, a rush – it is a marvelous beginning and it never drags, things happen very rapidly. You will find that it is when people don’t know exactly what they are going to write about that they can string things out endlessly. All your big books do that. But the pace of the Book of Mormon is quite breathtaking – the number of episodes that occur, the rapidity of things that occur. You would be surprised to compare any ten pages with the next ten pages and see what happens- you are in a different world entirely. Things really keep moving, and they keep moving, so it not only starts out with a rush like a rocket, but it ends up like a rocket. It ends up with a magnificent display of fireworks. It never loses from beginning to end, and in the middle it is the most exciting of all.
So this is the test we put to our book. Remember, you are a young man struggling to make a living, tied up in such projects. Of all the things to get tied up in when you are trying to make a living! Remember, Jesse Knight’s father tells in his journal how he first met Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, and they were living in a shack translating the Book of Mormon. He said they were hungry and they didn’t have a penny, and he brought them a sack of potatoes; and it was that sack of potatoes that enabled them to survive the winter. They were that hungry doing it – he should have better things to think of than a long, long book and a very complicated book that no one was going to believe in. So you have to have the motivation just to create a big book.
You ask the people, “Can you think of any other such performance for comparison?” Who else wrote a long book like the Book of Mormon? What young fellow ever produced anything like that? We think of the great, massive, impressive works in English literature. There is Macaulay and the History of England, Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, Gibbons’ Decline and Fall; but you see how different these all are. There are plenty of big historical works, but these men were paraphrasing. They had all the records in front of them. They rearranged the chronological order and told the story. They just retold the story, and sometimes very interestingly, but they had all their materials provided them. They could do what they wanted with the materials as far as that was concerned. Joseph Smith had no such handbook. The most terrifying assignment that you can ever give students is to say, “Write on anything you want,” because that is where you give yourself away. Joseph Smith could write anything at all; no one knew about Central America in those times long ago. That is just the challenge; that is the hardest thing of all to do. Just try doing it. If you can follow a text, if you have historical records or something to follow, you are on safe ground; you can move securely, you can go step by step, you have handles. He had no such thing to go by.
Joseph Smith had to start from scratch and produce a brand new epic. Instead of making things easier for himself, he made something never seen before. Now we have epics being produced in our generation, and some of them become very popular, strangely popular. Begin with Walter Scott at the beginning of the nineteenth century producing his ponderous works, or, in our time, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, who have invented cultures and worlds all of their own. They are free to do this, but notice here they are not held to historical accuracy at all, though they still have material supplied. Walter Scott is nothing else but a story, and he read and read and read for years. He was thoroughly saturated in the literature, and so was Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He just retold old English stories. Shakespeare was the greatest creative genius of them all, but not a single plot, not a single sentiment in all of Shakespeare, is original. They are all lifted from somewhere else but fit in a real and marvelous new structure. It is like saying, “Oh, yes, he used all those words you will find in the dictionary, so there is nothing original about that.” You can say, “Bach just used the eight notes of the scale and composed this; anybody could do that if he had a piano.” No, you can’t compose like Bach. Joseph Smith does not write like that. These men have this license; they can be creative as they wish, but they are all completely saturated from material from a time and place and are just rewriting it in their imagination. The same thing with C. S. Lewis; he mixed his religion in with the theme, a sort of science fiction, and he goes off into the blue. These people were not held to historic accuracy, and their material is already provided. And then they are given a special license by the reading public and they write, and even so they are all monotonous. Nobody reads Walter Scott today. Tolkien had a big run with young people a while ago, but what do Tolkien’s characters do? They are always eating and traveling and having wars and having things in court. They just go through the regular thing of the Medieval court–hunting and feeding and traveling and fighting. That is it, the same routine. Joseph Smith isn’t going to be able to get away with anything as easy as that. C. S. Lewis always has boy meets girl on Jupiter, or boy meets girl on Mars. It is the same story, you just put it in a different setting. That is what all your science fiction people do anyway.
Well, back to Brother Joseph- you can do the same with your piece you are writing. Remember, you are writing a big book–nothing has to be trimmed–just a big book. Right there you have a terrific challenge. What am I going to do? I’ll go crazy. I can’t go on writing day after day, year after year. What is this? Won’t you give me some help, won’t you tell me what to say? Oh sure, you can go to the Bible. They tell us again and again that anyone looking at the Bible can write a Book of Mormon. It is all there after all–just try that again. You can do the same thing with our piece; you can put in anything you want to. But as soon as you start borrowing, you will give yourself away. As the scripture tells us, “My words shall be of the uprightness of my heart” (Job 33:3).
Brigham Young used to have a black leather couch in his office. A window faced the couch; when people came to see him, they would sit on the couch with Brigham Young’s back to the window, the desk between them. Brigham Young would just look at the person for three minutes, that was all. He was never fooled; he could figure them out every time. After all, they had come to see him; he didn’t ask for them. If they had anything to say, they could talk and he would say nothing. He would just let them talk, and lots of rascals came, people plotting against his life, people wanting to get money from him, all sorts of things. The man never had to talk more than three minutes. Here is your nondirect interview which is so effective to the psychologist–Brigham had it worked out completely. My grandfather said he was never wrong. After three minutes he knew his man. Well, the same way, if you sit down and write a book 600 pages long, you are going to give yourself away all over the place- what a revelation of your character. Your background will come to the fore all over the place. Enemies tried to catch Joseph Smith in this trap. There are things common to all human affairs. For example, in the Book of Mormon, people eat; well, they eat in the Bible–aha! See, he stole it from the Bible. Somebody actually used that as an argument. The problem here is to make a big book.
Secondly, the book has to have some sort of quality. You didn’t have to make your book good, but Joseph Smith had to make his book good. So it would be nice, if you are going to write a book, to write a decent one while you are at it. The book can’t be complete nonsense. You can’t waste your time and everyone else’s. You’ve got to make a book that is something. Well, now you are in real trouble, because 99 percent of the books published today are not worth the paper they are printed on. Here you are, twenty-three years old, and you must live with this book over your head the rest of your life. No matter who writes it, you are going to be wholly and completely responsible for it–Joseph Smith, author and proprietor. He had to do that for the sake of the copyright. Before the book even came out, all the scandalous stories were circulating, and in the Painesville Telegraph they made a parody of what it must be. In order to protect it against complete manipulation, the author had to copyright it under the copyright law. Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon just as James was the author of the Epistle of James. Although he could write, the author was the Lord. It was given by revelation. That would never do–we assign the authorship of the Bible to the men who wrote it, by revelation or not. Joseph Smith takes complete responsibility-no matter who wrote it; that isn’t the question. He is going to be responsible for it, and be responsible for it the rest of his life. How often he must think back, “Oh, what I did when I was a fool kid. If I could only amend that book!” It would be easy–get more inspiration and have a revised edition. The first edition was reprinted by Wilford C. Wood. It is very useful; it hasn’t been divided up into chapters and verses–Orson Pratt and Brother Talmage did that later. It is an interesting book to use. There are some mistakes, but the text is actually a better one than the 1920 edition. The point is, it was never changed, and Joseph Smith was never haunted by it. Right to the end, he kept insisting, “This is the most correct book on the earth today.” Imagine that–even more correct than a book on mathematics. Sure, I have books of mathematics that are hopelessly out of date today. They are not used today. They were when I was in school. They are not used anymore because they are hopelessly wrong. You are going to be stuck with the correctness of the book.
It should have some literary quality, don’t you think? If you are going to have to live with it the rest of your days, it should be consistent; it should hang together. You are feeling bad when you write one part, you are feeling good when you write another. The thing must drag out for years. What are the different parts going to read like? What are they going to be like? In talking or writing for 600 pages, you can’t choose but to lay bare your own soul. That is going to be exposing your mental quality and your mental bankruptcy. It will show if you have nothing but gibberish, if you are devious and scheming, if you are honest, and also the degree of education. You can see what Blass means when he says you don’t need anything but internal evidence.
You can tell whether a man is faking a book or not if it is long enough, if he gives himself enough room–and it doesn’t take much. The only successful forgeries have been very short ones, just brief inscriptions, two or three words or a half-dozen words. As soon as forgeries get long, and there have been some famous ones, it becomes easy to discover. Why do you think Blass states this as a categorical principle: “There never has been a clever forgery.” People say the Book of Mormon was a clever forgery. There never has been a clever forgery. “Well, how do you know? A really clever one would have never been discovered,” you say. “You won’t have even known he was a forger.” Such a statement can be justified on the grounds that every forgery discovered so far has not been clever but crude and very obvious. The only reason it ever got by at all is that people wanted to accept it, wanted to very badly. The Royalist boy Chatterly is an example. He was just a child when he faked a lot of Middle English poetry, and everyone was so thrilled about the discovery of old documents that they never bothered to read them with particular care. The first person who read them with any critical eye discovered they were done by a kid, and very crudely. See, when you discover a forgery, it is very obvious; the author gives himself away.
This brings up an interesting thing: When I taught at Claremont, I had a next-door neighbor who was the wife of the most famous of all American scholars. Her husband had just died the year she came to live in Claremont, and since we both rode bicycles, we got to be pretty good friends. She told me that her husband, a very conscientious, public-minded man, decided he would do the world a good deed and save a lot of people the trouble of mixing themselves up and being confused in their ignorance and hopelessness by taking a few hours off and going through the Book of Mormon (and that was all it would take, a few hours) and showing them it was a fraud. He would thereby perform a valuable service to the Mormons, too, because it was of no value to them to be led astray. If they were being fooled, they should be grateful to him to know that. So he began to do it. He thought it would take twenty minutes or so. Twenty hours, twenty days, and his work never came out. I asked her what happened to that public service–well he just dropped it, that was all.
It should be very easy under these circumstances, the Book of Mormon being produced under such conditions, to make a monkey out of Joseph Smith, because, as I say, there is no such thing as a clever forgery. You just can’t get away with it. It was many years later when he had developed a fine style of his own, yet he still proclaimed, “This is the most correct book around.”
All right, you have just the work of producing the book, and you can smell the quality all over. Then the disposal of it after you write it: What are you going to do with it? Do you really expect this to be popular? Are you crazy? In competition with the Bible? People don’t read the Bible anyway, but when they do, you now tell them there is more Bible to read! They won’t thank you for that, I’m sure. As a holy book, it is going to be kept perpetually before the public. They are going to be dogged with it, they are going to be bothered with it, you are going to wear them down with it. I was on a short-term mission here many years ago, and by that time everyone in Portland had been visited so much by the Mormons they were sick and tired of them, but they are still hearing of the Book of Mormon. This is an important thing. This book has to be kept perpetually before the public. Also, through the years literary tastes are going to change, and styles in reading are going to change. Sometimes they go for things, sometimes not. You notice the Book of Mormon is being peddled back East now. You see it in the Chicago airport, for example.
This takes us into external evidence. This is a very great risk you are taking now: you are going far beyond a book of opinion, sage remarks, the wisdom of the ages, which are always very repetitious. There is nothing original in any of those books. The expressions are sometimes very catching, the forms in which they are conveyed to us. As I said, Shakespeare was not original, but how he says it was excellent. The Jewish rabbis will tell you that there is nothing in the philosophy in the Sermon on the Mount that you won’t find in the Old Testament or in the rabbinical writings, and that is true, too. You are not going to issue this just as a book of your ideas and thoughts. It is not a book of essays, but a story of things that really happened. It has got to be reality. It has to have substance in this book. And you can expect unlimited criticism, unsparing criticism without a supporting voice, because no critic in his right mind is going to accept this book just on your say-so. And what lies at the end–what can you look forward to in this dangerous product? It is dangerous: terror not only knocks at the door, but every time you leave the house someone is waiting for you. Shots are fired in the night, and mobs come. The worst rioting and mobbing occurred before the Book of Mormon ever came out. Some of the most harrowing experiences that the Prophet Joseph ever had were caused simply by the Book of Mormon. The advance publicity brought down such a storm of denunciation that it put his life in the most imminent danger. Here is another motive. Are you going to write that kind of book? Yes, you are not in any doubt about that. You get a horrifying foretaste of what merely the process of getting it into print is going to get you into while you are dictating the book. This is no way to win friends; you are asking for trouble. Every day while writing the book, the sheer audacity of the theme is brought to you with great force.
Read the literature about Joseph Smith’s undertaking. Who were his critics from the first? They say he was writing for some gullible bumpkins, a lot of yokels that would swallow anything. No, it was the ministers and teachers. It was the establishment back East that immediately had this book in their hands and were criticizing it. It was the ministers that wanted to defend their ignorant flocks against Joseph Smith. You might be able to fool the gullible people, but they weren’t the ones who read it and they weren’t the ones Joseph Smith was concerned about, as far as that goes. What did these men protest? They protested, “Blasphemy, alias the Golden Bible.” The main protest was that in this enlightened age, in the advanced nineteenth century, in this age of science and understanding, that such a fraud should appear, such a scandal. This was the thing they couldn’t stand. It was an offense to the intellect. It was an offense to the mind of men. It wasn’t on spiritual or religious grounds that they protested. Those were the reasons they gave their flocks, the religious mobs, that it was a blasphemous work. But always the writings against the Book of Mormon were that it was an offense to intelligent people. So these were the people that criticized it.
Speaking of only internal contradictions here, historical and literary epics fairly shriek their folly to anyone who reads them. Here we have a long history. It is full of proper names and of people and places; it recounts their comings and goings and even their thoughts and prayers and their dealings with each other; their wars and their contentions and rumors of wars; their economic, social, dynastic, military, religious, and intellectual history. Now the main problem here, from an internal point of view, is how in all this human comedy can you as the author establish a ring of similitude from readers who have read a lot of stuff, who know how things are supposed to happen or how they do happen, who spent their lives immersing themselves in the doings of dynasties or families or nations? A thousand dues spring to the ear immediately of any educated practitioner: “This reads all right. This sounds pretty good. Oh, this is bad here.” And you are not educated. Do you have any idea what you are up against?
1. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 26.
2. Eduard Meyer, Ursprung and Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Niemeyer, 1912); published also as The Origin and History of the Mormons, tr. H. Rahde and E. Seaich (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1961), iii.
3. Peter Meinhold, “Die Anfange des amerikanischen Geschichtsbewusstseins,” Saeculum 5 (1954): 67.
4. Ibid., 86.
5. Ibid., 85-86.
6. Ibid., 86.
7. William F. Albright, “Archaeology and Religion,” Cross Currents 9 (1959): 112.
8. Ibid., 111.
9. More recently, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1981).
10. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1957), 47-57, 79-91; reprinted in CWHN 6:59-70, 95-108.
11. Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952); reprinted in CWHN 5.
12. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 256-70; CWHN 6:295-310.
13. Ibid., 164-89; CWHN 6:194-221.
14. Ibid., 336-50; CWHN 6:378-99.
15. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1970), 261-96; reprinted in CWHN 7:231-63.
16. Hugh W. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” Vigiliae Christianae 20 (1966): 1-24; reprinted in CWHN 4:10-44.
17. Meinhold, “Die Anfange des amerikanischen Geschichtsbewusstseins,” 76-78.
18. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 351-65; CWHN 6:416-30.
19. Hugh W. Nibley, “There Were Jaredites,” Improvement Era 59 January 1956): 30-32, 58-61; reprinted in CWHN 5:285-307, 380-94; H. Munro Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1932-40), vol. 1.
20. Lord Raglan, The Origins of Religion (London: Watts, 1949), 44.
21. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, 1-26; in CWHN 5:3-24.
22. Friedrich W. Blass, “Hermeneutik and Kritik,” Einleitende und Hilfsdisziplinen, vol. 1 of Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft (Nordlingen: Beck, 1886), 269, 271.
23. Ibid., 270.
24. Ibid., 271.
25. Ibid., 270.
26. Ibid., 269.
27. Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 194.
28. Hugh W. Nibley, “Mixed Voices: The Comparative Method,” Improvement Era (October-November 1959): 74447, 759, 848, 854, 856; see above 193-206.