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Book Review: Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon

By David Persuitte

Reviewed by Eric Johnson 

To order this book directly from Amazon, click here: Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (2nd Edition) and also in Kindle

David Persuitte, a technical writer from Virginia, wrote the first edition of this book in 1985. Now, a decade and a half later, Persuitte has added many more facts in this, the 325-page second edition. This is extremely worthwhile reading for any serious student of Joseph Smith and the religion he founded in 1830.

Persuitte’s premise is that Smith had few original bones in his body. Of course, it is obvious that Smith knew how to plagiarise because about a fifth of the Book of Mormon is copied straight out of the King James Version Bible, including the errors made by the English translators. Anyone who is honest would have to admit that Smith really didn’t translate these words from the Book of Mormon “plates.” But Persuitte believes that Smith also stole his ideas from the sources available to him in his day, especially from Vermont minister Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (first published in 1823), which had been published only a few years before. Using numerous side-by-side comparisons throughout much of the book and tying in other 19th century works and ideas, Persuitte is able to write, “Considered as a whole, this material makes it quite clear that The Book of Mormon was a product of the early nineteenth century rather than being a ‘history’ of ancient America” (p. 3).

Now presented in paperback form and laid out in two columns across each page, the book is made up of four parts:

  1. “Angels, Peepstones, and Gold Plates,” where Persuitte’s main goal is to overview the life of Joseph Smith and how he came to write the “Gold Bible”;
  2. “Another Book of God?” where Persuitte introduces the idea that Smith stole many of his “unique” ideas from Ethan Smith (and the only place where an entirely new chapter is added, chapter 9);
  3. “The Comparisons,” where he spends eight of the 21 chapters and almost 100 pages of the 250-page book (plus 67 more pages for four appendices and notes/bibliography) meticulously detailing the numerous comparisons between the View of the Hebrews and other 19th century works with the Book of Mormon;
  4. “Turmoil in Zion,” a short two-chapter look at the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price as well as the tragic conclusion to the life of Joseph Smith.

In addition, four valuable appendices are included. They are on “The Wood Scrape” (the best summary of this incident that I have read); The Book of Mormon and Ancient America; The Spalding Theory; and The Book of Abraham. Unlike many books where the author/publisher sticks the moldy leftovers in the back of the book, don’t miss any of these appendices because they add valuable insight.

Better the Second Time Around

Persuitte has inserted whole paragraphs and even additional pages into his new work, making the second edition worth purchasing even if you already own the first. Since this is the only book that Persuitte has written (as far as I can tell), his hobby must be researching the origins of the Book of Mormon, for he seems to deal with most every angle. Although parts of Persuitte’s book are dry-especially Section 3-the author’s enthusiasm is obvious, making it worthwhile to study the research that is written in the author’s clear-cut writing style. In fact, it’s apparent that technical writing is Persuitte’s profession. He’s clear in making his points, and he doesn’t mince words because he states what he believes.

Whether or not you are a believer of his theories-certainly the Mormon who agrees with Persuitte will risk losing his testimonial belief in Smith. Persuitte has the ability to back himself up with original evidence. The strongest part of the book is the side-by-side comparisons he makes with the View of the Hebrews, which Persuitte theorizes was the impetus providing Smith “with the concepts that would get his active imagination to work on transforming the expectations of the treasure hunters into the foundations of a church” (p. 55). Theorizing that Smith must have had a helper or two in putting together the Book of Mormon narrative (on page 93 he strongly believes it could have been Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, with Martin Harris certainly as the odd man out), Persuitte theorizes how Cowdery was instrumental in helping Joseph Smith obtain copies of both View of the Hebrews and The Spaulding Manuscript. Cowdery, he points out, went to the very church pastored by none other than View of the Hebrews author Ethan Smith, and he may have very well owned a copy of The Spaulding Manuscript. Could it be possible that Cowdery was given a copy of View of the Hebrews and borrowed Ethan Smith’s copy of The Spaulding Manuscript? The possibility is quite intriguing.

Not everyone is going to agree with Persuitte. In fact, FARMS’ author L. Ara Norwood felt that the first edition was flawed when he wrote his review published in the first volume of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Fall 1992. (Although the first sentence of Norwood’s review was as unscholarly as it comes-“This is an anti-Mormon book”-he stated an admiration for Persuitte throughout the review and said other “anti-Mormon” authors should be more like him. For instance, he said that Persuitte was unlike “his anti-Mormon colleagues (because he) is very open and candid as to his motives… He separates himself from his anti-Mormon predecessors.”) While Persuitte never names his first edition’s reviewer or even make a reference to any criticism in the second volume of his work, he does make veiled remarks to show that he knows how to read what others have written about his work.

For instance, Norwood writes in the Journal on page 200, “Persuitte makes much of the fact that the first edition of the Book of Mormon has Joseph Smith’s title listed as ‘author’ rather than ‘translator’ (see pp. 11, 114). Not only has it been demonstrated that the title ‘Author and Proprietor’ conformed to the laws governing copyright in 1830, but another question must be raised: If Joseph Smith goofed by identifying himself as ‘author’-if he made a blunder of that magnitude while trying to deceive the public, could it reasonably be said that such a harlequin could produce the Book of Mormon? Would a forger be so inept as to blow his cover in such a major way in producing the Book of Mormon?”

Without naming him, Persuitte answers Norwood in a footnote to his first chapter. Just as he does in a dozen other places, Persuitte utilizes the term “Mormon apologist,” a generally despised term with FARMS’ researchers. Why this is so is truly quite silly, because generally an “apologist” should be taken as a positive reference for someone who is defending a certain position. Does Persuitte mean the term in a negative way? Perhaps, but I guess those with FARMS will have to learn to live with it. Anyway, Persuitte wrote, “Several Mormon apologists have declared that the statement ‘author and proprietor’ was required by copyright law on all books published at that time, and that Joseph was therefore required to include the statement on the title page of his book. However, if that were the case, then why did those ‘required’ words not appear on the title page of the second printing of Joseph’s book?” (p. 298) A good point!

In another section, Norwood writes, “Joseph Smith has been declared guilty regardless of the data. If there are parallels [with View of the Hebrews], then of course the only conclusion is certain plagiarism. And if there are “unparallels,” then again, the only conclusion is plagiarism. These are the only conclusions one can reasonably arrive at when one adopts Persuitte’s unreasonable governing premise” (p. 197)

Persuitte answers, “Some Mormon apologists have argued from the standpoint of what they call “unparallels” between the two books… Here the unspoken premise is that, if Joseph used View of the Hebrews as a source of material, he must have used everything found in that book… Whatever Joseph Smith was, however, he was not stupid… he was also under no obligation to use everything that Ethan Smith presented… By dwelling on the differences, Mormon apologists seem to feel that they can ignore the similarities-never mind that most of the conceptual differences between the two books are relatively minor, while many of the conceptual similarities are quite substantial.” (pp. 111-112).

Of course, Persuitte makes an excellent point. His theory does not need to insist that Smith copied View of the Hebrews in each and every point. Rather, he believes that Smith took the major ideas and then reformatted them to suit his own purposes. Persuitte makes these types of interjections occur throughout the new edition, and he is careful to not make the reader think that he owes his critic(s) an answer for each and every criticism. Sometimes, though, it appeared that a decade and a half made Persuitte a bit more touchy when defending his position. For instance, referring to Mormon 9:32-33 where the author bemoaned the fact that Hebrew was not used in the Book of Mormon plates because Hebrew characters are too large (and Egyptian is not?), Persuitte added the following in the new edition, “This is curious. And it is not only curious, it is nonsense.” Nothing like complete honesty to make your point!

The only place I disagreed with Persuitte is found on page 132. Referring to the borrowing of the ideas from View of the Hebrews, Persuitte writes, “Joseph did not plagiarize—in the technical sense of that word–View of the Hebrews. To ‘plagiarize’ means to pass off someone else’s words as one’s own. But Joseph was not so careless as to quote Ethan Smith’s book word for word.” Somehow, Persuitte apparently believes that plagiarizing can come only by directly copying. However, my dictionary defines “plagiarize” as “take and use as one’s own (the thoughts, writings, inventions, etc.) of another.”

I am a high school teacher. If someone comes to my class with a paper entitled “The Cat in the Big Hat,” with the ideas obviously coming directly from a certain “doctor,” I don’t have to see word-for-word copying to accuse the student of plagiarism. Just using the idea and calling it your own makes you guilty of this crime. In my opinion, Persuitte need not apologize for accusing Smith of plagiarizing, for this is what he claims that Smith did. I feel Persuitte does a good enough job supporting his case, so he should not feel bad to call a spade a spade. From all appearances, Smith plagiarized from other literary works, and after reading Persuitte’s book, I am fully convinced that one of his main sources for this plagiarism is View of the Hebrews.

All in all, this is a book fully worthy of reading and marking up before putting it back on the shelf for future reference. Persuitte has done a valuable service for all who want to show that Joseph Smith’s story was not his own.

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