‘How The Book Of Mormon Came to Pass’ By Lars Nielsen

Mormons regard The Book of Mormon as a divine work literally written by ancient American prophets, which opinion, of course, is their right to have. That said, it is not antagonistic to any Mormon to state the fact that several other classes of anachronisms together with superabundant scientific evidence have already demonstrated that The Book of Mormon is not an ancient work. The most iconic of these anachronisms are steel swords, wheeled chariots, and various old-world animals (and crops) that did not exist in the New World until after 1492, to name just a few. Kircherisms likewise challenge the viability of the ancient-authorship theory; however, this book is geared more toward addressing the impact of Kircherisms on non-supernatural authorship theories. To be clear, herein I assume that a proper explanation for the creation of The Book of Mormon must be a natural one (i.e., accounts invoking the supernatural are viewed — to the extent that they might have been genuine — as reflections of an internal, subjective experience; they are taken therefore to be real in a meaningful, but not objective, sense). A priori, this work allows for (but does not assume) the idea that the entirety of The Book of Mormon could have been written by one person. Alternatively, evidence may show that a more complex composition process may have occurred, with manuscripts having been transmitted, inherited, or stolen. In other words, multiple sources and influences might have contributed in some fashion to a process that ultimately produced The Book of Mormon. This work does assume, however, that all of the above six Kircherisms were intentionally incorporated by someone at some point.

It is of course plausible that the Kircherisms are coincidental, though that is extremely improbable given their specificity and context. Nephi and Mormon are extremely rare proper nouns, and both allude to fictitious sources fabricated by Jesuit priests in the 1630s. Neither name appears in the literature (or culture) of ancient Americans, extant Native Americans, or Caucasian Americans. Neither do they appear as person names in the Bible, the Apocrypha, or any texts accessible to Joseph Smith between 1825 and 1829. Some historians have argued that Smith might have derived “Nephi” by truncating the word “Nephilim,” which does appear in the Hebrew Bible and is sometimes translated as “giants,” or by appropriating an obscure place-name from the Apocrypha. Such observations may have factored into the etymology that Kircher had in mind for his slippery rabbi, but it was not an invention of Smith. In the Supporting Information, I further explore the question of how specifically Kircher might have come up with the name of his career-making character.

In terms of the next Kircherism (i.e., the spiritually magnetic compass), it is true that the idea of being led by a spiritual force is a ubiquitous concept in works of both fiction and nonfiction. However, the incorporation of several specific details into the spiritually magnetic compass of The Book of Mormon suggests that independence is unlikely: 1) the compass is a three-dimensional sphere, not a disk, 2) it is made of brass and maybe glass, 3) it is adorned with writing on its sides, and 4) it has pointers and spindles that only function when the holder is spiritually aligned with God. That Nephi and Mormon, the bookending characters in the text, read from ancient brass plates, chisel their own story on less oxidizable golden plates, and write in reformed Egyptian strongly strengthens that dependency.

Going forward, this work takes as a fundamental premise that an author of at least one source text — which eventually became at least a part of The Book of Mormon — must have been intimately familiar with the life and works of Kircher and must have deliberately included those parallels for a specific purpose. Taking the Kircherisms as intentional, how should current authorship theories be modified? Put another way, did the specific author who introduced Kircherisms originally intend to compose fiction, nonfiction, or scripture? And how did the most original work evolve into what today presents itself as The Book of Mormon? Rest (and read) assured that not afar off, I shall reveal who precisely that specific author was and will answer the remaining questions in due course.

By all accounts, Smith was a great storyteller, and though he was not unintelligent, he was not educated enough to independently assimilate Kircherisms into his production. Nearly all Americans between 1780 and 1830 were totally ignorant of Kircher. No trace of him can be found in any of the books or libraries to which Smith was known to have been proximal before he began his dictation, which has been studied extensively. There is no evidence to suggest that Kircher was part of the cultural or literary milieu in rural, upstate New York in the years leading up to the publication of The Book of Mormon. Any assertion that Smith could have been so deeply educated on Kircher would demand some explanation as it would seem to defy testimony from Smith himself, Emma Hale Smith (his future wife), Lucy Mack Smith (his mother), and several others. Emma, for example, said that when the two were married in 1827, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter.” Mother Smith said in her memoir that Joseph “seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children.” In the introduction to The Joseph Smith Papers, Richard L. Bushman, a Mormon apologist, states that the “translations” of Smith, however one accounts for them, “exceed anything one would expect from a poorly educated rural visionary. … The origins of the translations are not easily identified to everyone’s satisfaction. Smith had little education and no history of literary experimentation. Indeed, nothing in his background prepared him either to translate or to lead a church.” Indeed, most sects of Mormonism today frame Smith as a particularly uneducated farm boy utterly incapable of having thought up, let alone composed, The Book of Mormon, which framing they use to support the idea that it must have come about through supernatural means. Though he could neither write nor spell well and almost always used a scribe, Smith was not illiterate; he possessed solid oratory skills and had an impressive talent for memorization. Because Smith’s ability to memorize and misdirect will factor into all authorship theories to be discussed, the following context is necessary upfront.

In 1987 Michael Quinn, a Mormon historian and Professor at BYU, concluded that Smith was “a talented magician” and a “necromancer” — a deduction that he supported with unprecedented detail in his book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Today, even Mormon apologists fully accept Quinn’s conclusion: “Now, most historians, Mormon or not, who work with the sources, accept as fact Joseph Smith’s career as village magician. Too many of his closest friends and family admitted as much, and some of Joseph’s own revelations support the contention.” It should be said, however, that a mystical and magical worldview was much more pervasive and integrated into the lower classes of society two centuries ago than it is today, which elementary-school textbooks covering the Salem witch trials understandably gloss over pretty quickly. Father Smith (Joseph Smith, Sr.) had been born and raised in Topsfield, one of three major towns in which arrests had been made during the trials; as it would turn out, all eight of Father Smith’s great-grandparents had lived in (or around) Salem, Massachusetts during the hysteria — and several (if not all) of those great-grandparents had been magi themselves. For generations thereafter, the Smiths were compelled to practice their sacred rites in relative secrecy. However, the Smith family did have a passed-down belief that someone in their line of descendants would emerge as a great scryer and openly restore their transmundane practices to their former glory. Father Smith had hoped that he himself could fill such shoes, but in time, he came to believe that one of his sons was that chosen scryer instead. As off-putting as midnight chants, rusty swords, magic circles, and sprinkled blood might strike many of us today, there was nothing overtly satanic or Mephistophelian about their rituals. One might say that they were more uncomely and unsightly than they were ungodly — well, most of the time.

As a scryer, Smith’s primary function was to look into the bowels of the earth to find where buried treasure had been secreted. Secondarily, it was to convince a farmer to pay him (and his father) to dig for it, “going shares” with them should any treasure be found. His activities several times put him on the wrong side of the law. In March 1826 Smith was arrested for vagrancy, glass-looking, and disorderly conduct, which was approximately two years before he would start dictating sentences to Martin Harris, his first scribe. In a preliminary hearing held in South Bainbridge, New York, witnesses testified that Smith had “laid a book open upon a white cloth and proposed looking through another stone, which was white and transparent; (he) held the stone to the candle, turned his back to (the) book, and read.” Smith apparently had memorized at least one book word-for-word and had used it as a prop to convince gullible farmers that he had the gift of “second sight,” which he could ostensibly use to locate any buried treasure that might reside on a farmer’s plot of land — for a modest fee. Not surprisingly, the Judge regarded such courtroom theatrics more as a confession than as a defense, which contributed to a guilty verdict and Smith being run out of the county on “leg bail.” Back then, leg bail meant that you agreed to “run your legs” to a different jurisdiction and dare not return for at least six months lest a warrant be issued for your arrest, thereby triggering a full trial at your own expense on the original misdemeanor and additional charges. It was a common way in the 1820s for a municipality to avoid the costs of litigation for nonresident, underage troublemakers roaming from county to county.

Smith had acquired this particular confidence trick (and several others) from Luman Walters, a notorious “tatterdemalion,” who was quite known in the region for having memorized Cicero’s Orations and for having similarly worked it into his schemes. That Smith used his seer stone and memorization skills for at least three years to deceive many a farmer (before endeavoring to publish The Book of Mormon) is finally becoming mainstream, even among Mormon apologists. Multiple accounts show that throughout his dictation to Harris in 1828, Smith would routinely place his translucent seer stone at the bottom of his stovepipe top hat ostensibly so that the ambient light would not interfere with the spiritual light in the stone. One year later, his dictation process to Oliver Cowdery, his second scribe, would be similar but with slight differences — swapping out the whitish stone for the chocolate-colored one that had become his favorite. Despite a consistent modus operandi, it does not necessarily follow that Smith deliberately and wholeheartedly deceived his scribes, his family, and his future acolytes when it came to dictating The Book of Mormon — though that, of course, is always possible. Neither does it necessarily follow that he was delusional. It is true that deception and delusion are the two most facile and commonly cited motives attributed to Smith; however, less polarizing motivations emerge in theories that do not require sole authorship.

Nevertheless, for the time being, if we were to temporarily stipulate Smith as the sole author of The Book of Mormon (for the sake of argument), then somehow, he must have been quite familiar with Kircher’s life and works. Even if we cannot identify how that could have been the case, we must ask the following critical question: why would Smith include such specific, memorable, and undermining Kircherisms in a book that he intended to present as both scripture and historical nonfiction? One (unlikely) possibility is that Smith may have originally planned to release his work as fiction. He perhaps latched onto the Kircherisms the same way that any creative writer absorbs and recycles memes from favorite sources of inspiration. Only later did he decide, as the case may (or may not) be, to recast his narrative as an authentic religious history of ancient America — peradventure to increase its marketability vis-à-vis the Bible, to establish prophetic credibility, or for some other reason. At that point, it might have been too late to remove or obscure the Kircherisms, having spoken to others about some of the details, according to multiple accounts. If Smith worried that his most educated readers might identify the Kircherisms— thereby betraying the work as fiction — he did nothing to manage that risk. On the other hand, Smith might have been confident that no one else would pick up on the Kircherisms; if so, why did he think that they wouldn’t? If Kircherisms had been accessible to Smith (again, for the sake of argument), then, especially given his lack of literary acquirements, it stands to reason that they would have been accessible to nearly everyone. And if they were so generally accessible (they weren’t), it is highly improbable that no one else would have recognized them. And if someone did, why did no one write about them in diaries, journals, or newspapers? Such a missed opportunity surely would have been exploited by one of Smith’s many detractors, especially given the volume of discrediting and disparaging statements that were made against Smith and his family.

Another possibility is that Smith might have originally planned to write something that he hoped would be taken as nonfiction for hundreds of pages so that he could more poignantly and dramatically reveal — at the climax, near the end, or perhaps in an epilogue — that the work was pure fiction all along. It could be that he wanted to mimic the detective novel, sprinkling in sufficient clues from even the very first page — “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents” — so that even the most scrupulous reader would be diverted at the big reveal. Alternatively, he might have originally decided to delay disclosing the “true story” of Nephi for many years, thereby increasing the impact of what would have been a well-meant social commentary — that gullibility was worryingly on the rise in rural America. Even more cynically, Smith may have employed Kircherisms as a way of mocking his readers and future followers for nothing more than his own amusement. Such cozenage was unfortunately not beneath him. On one occasion, Smith reportedly convinced his parents and siblings that he had a life-destroying object hidden in his frock: “for, says I, no man can see it with the naked eye and live.” Terrified, they all fled the room in fear of catching an accidental glance. “‘Now,’ said Jo, ‘I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun,’” recalled Peter Ingersoll. There are other examples, not a few, of Smith playing medium-sized mind games and mincing his words.

Notwithstanding, it does stretch the imagination to envision a scenario in which Smith might have convinced himself — after somehow learning that Kircher invented one Nephi, one spiritually magnetic compass, and one reformed Egyptian language — that an entirely unrelated ancient Nephi literally, not figuratively, sailed to America aided by a completely separate spiritually magnetic compass and wrote about it coincidentally in reformed Egyptian. If Smith did earnestly believe this, then it would seem that he must have suffered, at best, from dream-reality confusion and, at worst, from some delusional disorder. Kircherisms, again, do seem to make deception and/or delusion on the part of Smith more unavoidable under sole authorship. They also reduce the probability of the sole-authorship theory — even to the point of implausibility, as we shall see. However, that does not mean that the sole-authorship theory should be dismissed (or even discounted) just yet. The only responsible thing for an honest seeker of truth to do when confronted with new evidence is to flesh out, strengthen, and steelman all the available mechanisms (as optimally as possible) before starting to attack them.

In that spirit of truth, we must investigate the sources and influences, however improbable, that might have exposed Smith (or someone else) to the memes that eventually became Kircherisms in The Book of Mormon. We can then address the following crucial questions. How accessible were those sources to Smith and to the other candidate authors? How likely were those sources to have inspired them to the extent that they would choose to feature Kircherisms so prominently in their writing? What are all the conceivable mechanisms that could explain the origin of The Book of Mormon, and how should they be modified by this new information? Which methodologies are best suited for analyzing the body of evidence, both old and new, so that we might effectively separate the sheep from the goats? As this book will show, and I hope the reader will agree, one explanation will bear the ring of truth more than any of the others — one theory to rule them all.

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