“To what extent did Joseph Smith’s environment influence the theological developments of the Church?” Ensign, June 1992, 27–29
Larry C. Porter, professor of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University. It is true that some critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that Joseph Smith used historical, philosophical, literary, and religious ideas circulating during his lifetime to create the Book of Mormon—making it merely a reflection of western New York culture in the early nineteenth century.
By examining the various ideas that supposedly influenced the Book of Mormon, however, we can see that many of these ideas weren’t readily available to Joseph Smith and many others were only superficially similar to LDS theology and scripture. Still others simply involved topics of universal concern to all men and women, not only in Joseph Smith’s time but in our own as well. Since the Book of Mormon is directed to all of God’s children, we would expect to find these concerns addressed in that sacred volume.
The Indian Influence
Some critics argue that various publications dealing with the Indians and their Israelite-like origins were available to Joseph Smith and influenced his work on the Book of Mormon. A wide variety of books, periodicals, and newspaper articles describing aspects of Native American life did circulate during Joseph Smith’s era. Of particular interest were the prospective origins and customs of the mound-builders of northeastern America. Their style of burial sometimes included stone boxes; their fortifications might have been picketed; and they used metal implements. This information was available to the public.1
Theoretically, Joseph Smith would have had access to such publications if they were available in the local libraries in Palmyra and Manchester or among the private libraries of individuals he knew. From 1825 to 1829, he frequented the environs of Susquehanna, Broome, Chenango, and Seneca counties, and conceivably could have been exposed to materials in those localities as well. He also would have been exposed to the local folklore concerning the Indian habitation in the region.
But although a multiplicity of sources on Indian lore existed in the eastern United States during Joseph Smith’s era, it does not necessarily mean that local repositories had any or all of these resources among their holdings. Nor does it mean that Joseph even read them. His education was restricted because of demands placed on his time by farm work.2 There is no reason to question Joseph’s declaration that his only resource for translating the Book of Mormon was “the gift and power of God.”3
Philosophical and Historical Influences
Some writers have attempted to draw parallels between teachings of the Book of Mormon and philosophical and historical ideas extant in Joseph’s day. The idea that America was a destined and promised land was a popular one in the early nineteenth century. It is an idea taught many places in the Book of Mormon as well. Critics point to Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11–14 [1 Ne. 11–14] and claim that Joseph Smith simply reiterated events that had already transpired to appeal to his fellow Americans’ sense of destiny. Historical sequences such as the coming of Columbus, the arrival of the early colonists, the Revolutionary War, and the introduction of the Bible among the Indians are all recognizable themes in the Book of Mormon.
To such an argument we have the convincing testimony of the Spirit that the Book of Mormon is what it declares itself to be—a revelation to an ancient prophet of future events in America. The Lord obviously knew that such information would be of value to readers of the book in modern times. Moroni plainly said of contemporary civilizations, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” (Morm. 8:35.) President Ezra Taft Benson has reiterated that “the Book of Mormon was written for us today.”4
Through the Book of Mormon, the Lord offers inspired direction on key subjects of import not only in Joseph Smith’s time, but in our time. It is relevant to current issues of many decades, and obviously touches on some of the concerns of the early nineteenth century, as well as on our concerns today.
At one time, it was popular among critics to contend that a literary work of Joseph Smith’s day, a manuscript authored by the Reverend Solomon Spalding (also spelled Spaulding), influenced the plot of the Book of Mormon. Spalding died in 1816, but his manuscript survived and was used by Eber D. Howe to advance a “Spalding theory” in the first anti-Mormon work of note, Mormonism Unvailed, (Painesville: E. D. Howe, 1834; original spelling preserved.) Howe held that Sidney Rigdon had been responsible for taking Spalding’s manuscript from a printing establishment in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later making it available for publication through Joseph Smith.
Examination of the only Spalding manuscript known to exist shows it to have little resemblance to the Book of Mormon. It proves to be a narrative history of a band of Romans living in the time of Constantine. They are blown off course while on a voyage to “Brittain” and reach the eastern coast of North America. The manuscript bears such little resemblance to the Book of Mormon in themes, episodes, or characters that some have insisted that a second manuscript, which did correspond to the Book of Mormon, must have existed. Such a manuscript has never been found, and the whole theory is generally discounted.5
Oliver Cowdery responded to accusations of outside authorship by bearing a solemn witness: “[The Book of Mormon] is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr. Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the prophet.”6
The Influence of Contemporary Religious Thought
Some have questioned why various religious doctrines debated during Joseph Smith’s era appear (though clarified) in the Book of Mormon. The answer is quite simple. The Book of Mormon itself declares that one of its purposes is to verify and clarify the teachings of the Bible. Doctrines like the Fall and the Atonement, repentance, infant baptism, the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the gifts of the Spirit were all biblical doctrines debated by various sectarian bodies in Joseph’s time. But that was nothing new. These and other issues had been problematical for Christians for generations. It is only natural that some of the same questions that had stirred religious controversy for centuries would be addressed in the Book of Mormon, which was a book prepared for our time.
Through the pages of the Book of Mormon, the Lord sought to rectify erroneous concepts and to restore certain standard truths from ancient Christianity that had been lost.
The Influence of the Holy Ghost
Ultimately, the only convincing answer to charges made by critics of the Book of Mormon is the witness of the Holy Ghost. Those who want to know the truth about the Book of Mormon can obtain it from no other source.
President Benson has said, “We are not required to prove that the Book of Mormon is true or is an authentic record through external evidences—though there are many. … God has built in his own proof system of the Book of Mormon as found in Moroni, chapter 10 [Moro. 10], and in the testimonies of the Three and the Eight Witnesses and in various sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. We each need to get our own testimony of the Book of Mormon through the Holy Ghost.”7
God continues to administer to his children through the distinctive means of revelation to his authorized servants. This fundamental, identifying feature of Mormonism allowed Joseph Smith to restore new truths long withheld from men on earth. The Book of Mormon and other contemporary scriptures were an integral part of that revelatory process.