Adam Clarke’s Commentary and the Book of Mormon

In his most recent podcast episode, Radio Free Mormon spent an hour and a half exploring the possibility of the influence of Adam Clarke’s early nineteenth century Bible commentary on the Book of Mormon. In the wake of the publication of an important new essay by Thomas Wayment and Haley Wilson-Lemmón, showing that Smith made hundreds of revisions to the New Testament based on his reading of Clarke’s commentary, it is possible now to explore further the breadth and depth of the influence of Clarke’s commentary on Joseph Smith, Jr.’s textual productions.

Radio Free Mormon’s new episode aims to do just that. He explores the possibility that Smith used Clarke’s commentary not only in the production of his revision of the Bible but in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as well. Near the end of the episode he mentions that there is a scholar who is currently working on a paper that explores the extent of the influence of Clarke’s commentary on the Book of Mormon. When I first listened to the episode at the recommendation of a close friend I was surprised to learn this.

Last fall I was working full time as the administrative assistant for a division in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah and taking the introductory course for the PhD program in English there as well (as a non-matriculated student in the hopes of getting accepted to the program). I had finished my master’s degree at Utah State University in the spring and filled out applications for PhD programs in the fall. At some point during the hectic semester I was analyzing the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon based on a critical text that I had created using the 1830 text of the Book of Mormon, of all the lengthy block quotations. The critical text includes an apparatus that brings together in one place all of the variants between the earliest textual sources—O (original manuscript), P (printer’s manuscript), 1830 (the first printing of the Book of Mormon), and S (Skousen’s Yale edition to see what he thinks is the earliest text)—to get a better idea of what Smith might have been dictating to his scribe in 1829.

After creating the text I went through and highlighted in light gray every word or letter that was the exact same as the KJV of the corresponding quotation. This allows the reader to better see where the text of the Book of Mormon varies from its biblical source. I had created this text for a larger project to more closely analyze the way that the Bible is used in the Book of Mormon and understand what makes its appearance in the book unique. I have long thought that the evidence is more than clear that Smith was reading the text of the biblical quotations from a copy of the Bible, a conclusion that Mormon scholars accepted for most of the twentieth century until sometime in the late 1970s, and was preparing my notes for a paper arguing that scholars in Mormon studies should return to the earlier consensus held by Sidney Sperry, H. Grant Vest, Daniel Ludlow, and others. In doing so I started to tally up the variants found in the block quotations in 1 Nephi 20. For example, my first notes went like this:

“1 – Added “Hearken and”/subtracted “ye”
Added “yet they swear” to replace “but” – I
Subtracted “in”

2 – Added “Nevertheless”
Added “but they do not” to replace “and”
Added “which is the Lord of hosts; yea”

A part of the goal of the project was to see if the variants agreed with any of the printed editions of the Bible (a study I have repeated multiple times over the last seven years or so) or available commentaries. At the same time I was keeping these notes I was comparing them with commentaries written by Adam Clarke, Thomas Scott, Matthew Henry, William Lowth, Robert Lowth, John Wesley, and versions of early nineteenth century commentaries where multiple commentators’ notes were combined. One of the commentaries stood out almost immediately: Adam Clarke. The inventory of variants I had compiled increasingly showed that there were clear connections to Clarke’s commentary unlike anything from the other commentators.

Unfortunately the semester was too busy to continue a systematic treatment of the subject and I had to set the project aside for the rest of the semester. Once I had completed my class a few months later I remembered that I had found tentative evidence that Smith likely used Clarke’s commentary in his dictation of at least large sections of the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. I say this because it is probable that Smith did not use Clarke in the Malachi quotation. After finding my notebook I began a full systematic study of the variants and continued to compare them to all of the sources I mentioned above. In the end I discovered roughly sixty or so variants that might have been influenced by Clarke’s commentary, with many clearly coming from that source.

Once I had a list of the strongest connections I went on a search for those specific phrases in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. As outlined in my paper, the evidence supports the argument that the phrases found in many of the variants in the block quotations of the KJV in the Book of Mormon come from Clarke’s commentary. Both the specificity of the phrases and the quantity of the connections makes it just as likely that Smith was using Clarke’s commentary during the dictation process of the Book of Mormon as the evidence found by Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón for Smith’s revision of the New Testament, and it is likewise found in both the quotations from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament.

So, why was I surprised to learn from Radio Free Mormon’s podcast that there was a scholar working on this project? I had only told a small group of close friends and academics about what I had found and planned to only announce the project once the manuscript had been accepted at and published in a journal. I immediately wondered if there was someone else working on the same project that had found some of the same connections I had or if Radio Free Mormon somehow knew about my research. I found out from one of my friends I had spoken with about the project and Radio Free Mormon that Radio Free Mormon had planned on doing an episode on the possibility of Smith’s use of Clarke in the Book of Mormon. My friend mentioned to him that he was aware of my project but didn’t share any details about it or who I was.

At this point in the process I am getting closer to a full draft of the paper but it is not yet ready to be submitted to a journal. It seemed like this was probably the time to more formally announce the discovery and identify myself as the author of the paper Radio Free Mormon had mentioned in his podcast. Like I mentioned earlier, this paper is one piece to the larger puzzle of understanding why the biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon vary from the KJV, and each of those variants need to be closely examined individually. This discovery, though, is one step closer to understanding the larger picture of how Smith dictated the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. There is far more research to be done and papers to be published.


Adam Clarke’s Commentary and the Book of Mormon — 12 Comments

  1. Colby, I’m really glad that you posted this announcement about your forthcoming work. From our own private conversations, I know that you have been working on this project for a very long time. So, I would like to see you get the appropriate credit for your work.

    Some people out there, who just heard about this topic, might rush out with some arbitrary parallels in hasty and amateurish comparisons. But I know that your work will be grounded in careful, high quality scholarship — and that’s the kind of work that really counts. I look forward to your paper. Everything else is noise.

  2. Struggling, I have listened to it of course but I have also known Haley for more than eight years now, we are good friends.

  3. Methodist circuit riders carried the the gospel by horseback throughout early nineteenth century America. They were often tenacious and throughough. Many were unmarried—too busy. They were mostly formally uneducated for the minstry. When the waether was terrible, there used to be a saying: “No one is out tonight but the crows and the Methodist circuit riders.” Methodism grew enormosuly because of their work. They had to travel light. In their saddle bags they typically carried three works with them: the Bible, Wesley’s Sermons and Clarke’s commentaries to every village in the wilderness and to every village. Clarke’s commentaries were not the most widely read in 19th centiury America. Thomas Scott was published in American more than all other commentaries combined. But he was a Calvinist. Clarke was a Methodist with typical Arminian theology of the universal availability of salvation to all who sought it. Yet according to early Methodist theology all were thoroiughly evil sinners due to the fall. All good comes from God and humans were incapable of good—the natural man. Yet at birth each was given the light of Christ as a gift that allowed them ability to choose good. Hence all good is from Godm still. That is what you get in Wesley and Clarke. Throughout the 19th century both Arminians and Calvinist became more and more optimistic about human nature. The Book of Mormon is thoroughly Arminian in its view of human nature—-in the vein of Clarke and Wesley.

  4. One correction in my last comment. I should have said that Thomas Scott was published more than any other commentaries of the Bible combined between 1800 and 1830. That is the only period that I have examined on the frequency of publications of Bible commentaries in America.

  5. Colby, Here are 2 quick counter examples indicating that Jospeh Smith was in dialogue with other commentaries other than Clarke in his renditions of the Bible. These two just come to mind right now. I haven’t examoined this possible wider influence of commentyaries in the Book of Mormon.

    1-Isaiah 35:8—And a highway shall be there, and a way,
    and it shall be called, The way of holiness ;
    the unclean shall not pass over it;
    but it shall be for those : the wayfaring men,
    though fools, shall not err therein.

    Jospeh Smith Version adds:
    “for a way shall be cast up.” Both John Gill and Thoms Scott use the same phrse in ther commentaries “cast up.” Clarke does not.

    2-Isaiah 62:4. thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah,
    and thy land Beulah :

    Both of these names were adequately explained in nineteenth century commentaries. Hephzi-bah is the new feminine Hebrew name for Jerusalem promised in verse 2. It was also the name of the mother of king Manasseh. (2 Kings 21:1) It means, “I delight in her.” In the JSV, Joseph Smith exchanges the Hebrew word in the KJV with the word “Delightful.” Beulah means “Married” in Hebrew. The JSV replaces Beulah with “Union.” This is not the literal meaning of the word in Hebrew. Apparently Joseph Smith understood Beulah as a metaphor, as did Swedenborg and Blake before him. Swedenborg saw the word Beulah as a metaphor for the “union” of church and Christ. (The word “union” is used by Swedenborg in his commentary.) The prophet/poet William Blake saw the word Beulah more generally as a metaphor for the “union” of humanity and Christ. Here the Prophet seems to be influenced by prophetic figures in woirng gthe Bible, not commentaries.

    Now, this may or may not apply to the Book of Mormon. What it does show is that Jospeh Smith reworded the Bible with influences and commentaries broader than just Clarke, at least after 1830.

  6. Thanks for this, Colby. When you can, give us your take on the recent Kent Jackson essay regarding Wayment and Lemmon’s work.

  7. I found Kent Jackson’s detailed treatment of Wayment’s chapter to be rather compelling. Any discussion of Adam Clarke’s influence on Joseph needs to carefully consider Jackson’s analysis.

  8. Jackson’s article is well worth reading. But it shows a strange bias that gives me pause. He presents several invalid arguments. For example, in Jackson’s words in the article, “Indeed, if Joseph Smith borrowed from Adam Clarke, the evidence would be obvious. There would be direct, recognizable uses of distinctive words of Clarke, and there would be a clear and repeated pattern of them.” Jackson is confusing subtle influence with gross plagerism. He is disvtating that there is only one way that the Prophet COULD have borrowed from Clarke, which is of cource blatant nonsense. Jackson claims that Jospeh Smith would never stoop to being influnced by Clarke. Jackson states the Prophet had too big an ego. The evidence suggests otherwise. Smith admitted to influnce from others and in obvious ways. In Nauvoo, he gloried in his borrowing and admitted that the first fundamental principle of Mormonism was to access truth regardless of where it came from. These are just a few invalid arguments by Jackson. Jackson’s article has some serious logical flaws. Nevertheless, he raises important issues that seriously undermine some of the details of Wayment’s thesis. More work needs to be done here. I am hoping Colby will address Jackson’s artilce at least superficially in his article.