What the New Computer Study Can Tell Us about the Book of Mormon

In my last post I reviewed Duane and Chris Johnson’s new computer study that purports to identify four literary influences on the Book of Mormon. As I argued there, the study’s case for literary dependence is not entirely convincing. However, leaving aside for a moment the issue of direct literary dependence, it seems to me that this study could still be very useful for situating the Book of Mormon in one or more early nineteenth-century literary or theological contexts. Whatever their usefulness for detecting influence, shared phrases should at minimum be a fairly good measure of semantic and conceptual similarity. By providing on their website a list of the 250 contemporary works with the highest proportions of shared phrases with the Book of Mormon, the Johnsons have at least supplied a fairly objective prospectus of the Book of Mormon’s closest affinities, if not its influences.

Looking at the top 100 works on the list, then, I’ve constructed five categories that bear further investigation as literary contexts for the Book of Mormon.

The first category consists of scriptural and semi-scriptural texts. The work that’s most similar to the Book of Mormon is of course the King James Bible, from which the Book of Mormon borrows lengthy verbatim passages. Also resembling the Book of Mormon, however, are the New Testament Apocrypha, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Quran. If nothing else, these texts demonstrate that nineteenth-century readers fully expected new translations of ancient scriptures to simulate the language of King James. It’s doubtful that the Book of Mormon would have been accepted as scripture if it hadn’t simulated this style.

The second category consists of modern histories written in simulated King James prose. Three of the top hundred works fall into this category—a history of the War of 1812, a biography of Napoleon, and a history of the Irish. These rather odd works are perhaps most useful as examples of King James language used in the composition of original works rather than in the translation of actual ancient texts. Do these texts make the same grammatical errors as the Book of Mormon? That is, do they misunderstand seventeenth-century grammar in the same ways? Do they contain accidental “Hebraisms” comparable to those that defenders of the Book of Mormon’s historicity have found in its pages?

The third category of texts consists of apocalyptic works proclaiming judgment on the world and calling nations and rulers to repentance. Works in this category exhibit a trend toward dispensational theology and the prophetic voice. Several such texts were authored by British prophetess Joanna Southcott; a few others by lesser-known visionaries like Nimrod Hughes. Two titles singled out the clergy as special objects of divine wrath. In addition to prophetic works, the list also includes commentaries on the biblical books of Matthew, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation, all of which have apocalyptic content. The Book of Mormon’s resemblance to such works would tend to confirm Grant Underwood’s hypothesis that apocalypticism was a primary emphasis of early Mormon theology. It also suggests that the Book of Mormon mirrored commonplace nineteenth-century linkages of apocalyptic ideas to visionary experience, anticlericalism, and the project of biblical interpretation.

A fourth category consists of scriptural commentaries and collections of sermons and epistles, mostly of a mystical or prophetic bent. The list includes an astonishing number of collections by Quakers, especially New York Quaker preacher Elias Hicks. It also contains collections by New York prophetess Rachel Baker and Muggletonian prophets John Reeve and Lodowicke Muggleton. One title pronounces “the danger of resting in” high-church sacraments and also promises “A concise history of the Anabaptists.” Such mystical, charismatic, and Anabaptist sects have long been identified by historians as important precursors to Mormonism (though this list suggests the Quakers deserve more scrutiny than they’ve heretofore received). Also on the list, however, are a few collections by Magisterial Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, which suggests that one should not overlook high-church Protestant themes like grace, sacraments, covenants, justification, and original sin in the rush to tie the Book of Mormon to charismatic and hermetic groups.

A fifth and final category consists of spiritual biographies and autobiographies, especially of saintly, visionary, and martyred persons. As a context for the Book of Mormon, this category of texts is somewhat understudied. Given the Book’s largely autobiographical format, however, it makes sense that it might draw upon the norms and language of this genre. Fruitful comparisons might be made between Book of Mormon narratives and nineteenth-century templates for narrating one’s birth, coming-of-age, apostasy, conversion, sanctification, visionary experiences, suffering, and death. Besides potentially revealing cultural influences on the Book of Mormon, such a study would also permit comparison of how the spiritual life-cycle the Book of Mormon modeled for its devotees resembled or differed from the expected life-courses of mainstream Protestants.

Perhaps, then, the most important contribution of this study is to supply a fairly objective catalog of the works that—at least by one measure—mostly closely resembled the Book of Mormon at the time of its publication. If this doesn’t necessarily tell us that these texts influenced the Book of Mormon, it should at least help us more productively contextualize the Book of Mormon—help us identify some of the most relevant ideas and literary forms that were “in the air.” Of what cultural currents might the Book of Mormon have partaken? What connections and associations would it have evoked in the minds of its first readers, and what ideas might have prepared people to be receptive to what it had to say? What needs were authors of devotional literature at that time seeking to address? How was Mormonism similar to existing religious systems and how did it differ from them? Where does the Book of Mormon fit in the religious and literary histories of America? To answer these questions, the list assembled by Duane and Chris Johnson is a great place to start. This is no small contribution, because for all the prodigious efforts of hundreds of researchers, the Book of Mormon’s literary context is vast and still largely unmapped. The Johnsons’ study offers a potentially fruitful starting point: a small enough cross-section of important texts for a single researcher to wrap his or her mind around.


What the New Computer Study Can Tell Us about the Book of Mormon — 7 Comments

  1. “Perhaps, then, the most important contribution of this study is to supply a fairly objective catalog of the works that—at least by one measure—mostly closely resembled the Book of Mormon at the time of its publication. This should help historians assess both what cultural inputs may have contributed to the composition of the Book of Mormon text and what connections and associations the Book would have evoked in the minds of its first readers.”


    Even though I still believe the BoM to be of ancient origin, I’m interested as to why particular phrases or words may have been used and/or how 19th-century readers may have understood it.

  2. Seems like there also ought to be a correlation with which, if any of those, titles were accessible at the Palmyra town or Dartmouth College libraries for Joseph Smith to have read.

  3. I guess it depends what one is trying to accomplish. If one is seeking to show direct literary dependence, then yes, you’d need to show Joseph had access to the text. But if you’re just situating the Book of Mormon in the literary zeitgeist of its time (as I’ve proposed in the above post), then that isn’t necessary. Here’s what Rick Grunder says in the introduction to Mormon Parallels:

    . . . ideas crept through the culture not only by being read, but through more subtle and often indefinable processes which occurred in art, singing, gossip, storytelling, preaching and praying, and through other aspects of a particularly active system of oral tradition which had to flourish then even more powerfully than in today’s mass-media-communicated world. And, as is still the case today, the appearance of an idea in written and printed sources generally suggested the presence of that idea already circulating orally somewhere – if not everywhere – in the environment. The books and papers which I analyze in this Bibliographic Source were thus no more causes than they were indicators: not necessarily contributing directly to the mind of Joseph Smith, but standing as evidence that the thoughts which he proclaimed were waiting in the air. These works do not presume that “Joseph Smith once read us,” so much as they insist that “we were already there.”

  4. Chris, have you seen the Israeli intellectual historian Eran Shalev’s 2010 Church History article, “”Written in the Style of Antiquity”: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Early American Republic, 1770-1830.” He published an entire monograph this year on the role of the Old Testament in American politics from the Revolutionary Era to the Civil War, “American Zion,” and expanded this essay to include a lengthy discussion of the Book of Mormon. So far I’ve only read selections from the book through google, but it seems to be a very important addition to the literature on Joseph Smith’s cultural context. In the 2010 article Shalev surveys the roots of the pseudo-biblical style in American letters as well as the role of KJV language, noting that there were numerous tracts and books mimicking biblical language and forms in order to relate contemporary American events, including recent historical processes. Hunt, it appears, was trying to court the same success as Richard Snowden’s earlier, more influnetial work, “The American Revolution.” Shalev is sceptical that either of these works was much used in schools, but amongst the adult, newspaper-readers, the biblical style was all the rage in political debates. Interestingly enough, not long after Hunt’s book, pseudo-biblical writing declined in tyle due, at least in part, to changing intellectual and cultural currents. Shalev’s work, I think, is a great starting point for further research into your second category. Hopefully someone will pursue this kind of research as it look promising for a variety of approaches to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

  5. “Nevertheless, generations of Americans reverted to [the language of the KJV] and its accompanying structures and forms to discuss their difficulties and represent their achievements, past and present…American authors and commentators used this ontologically privileged language as a means to establish their claims for truth, as well as their authority and legitimacy in public discourse.” (Shavlev, 2010, 801)