Three hundred years from now, a wonky scientist (perhaps bored to tears on his third orbit past the dark side of Saturn) is going to dig into his folder of recreational data chips and discover a science-fiction story written by some American high school student in the year 1988 (earth-date-CE). Our theoretical researcher won’t be much of a historian, but he will know that the first permanent extraterrestrial colonization did not commence until 1 April 2092. Yet here was a narrative in a magazine, published more than a century ahead of that event, which described—surprisingly well—theoretical life in outer space.
The mysterious young author had to be brilliant beyond his years (imagines our scientist)—clearly ahead of his time! Living in the nineteen-hundreds, he shouldn’t have known about air locks or gravity simulation or many other developments he recounted so graphically, which would not exist until the modern era. That boy had to be a genius, and he was probably inspired.
Anyone who has explored the development of ideas or the transmission of thought can guess easily what happens next in my scenario above. We know the excitement which will ensue, and the confusion—the uneasy mix of creative explanations and deep philosophies clashing against simplistic solutions or denials of the perplexing phenomena at hand. We have been there already in Mormon Studies, until sometimes the nonsense obscures a larger picture. And in the study of Mormon parallels in particular, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. As I confessed in the introduction to my own work on that subject,
When I first encountered what were, to me, unexpected little discoveries, I thought I had to tell everyone. Surely all would want to know. But I was ignorant and naive. My ignorance (getting excited about the first few examples which I found upon entering the antiquarian book trade at the beginning of 1981) was to suppose that there could not be many other works like these—to suppose that I had stumbled almost miraculously upon the few matchless sources.
My naiveté showed in presuming that hosts of Latter-day Saints and their scholars would share in my excitement. I was wrong on both counts.
I see now that the number of startling Mormon parallels which await our notice in printed, handwritten, graphic and artifact sources is almost as astronomical as Abraham’s stars and worlds in the Pearl of Great Price. I have come to realize as well that one cannot display these sources, even to the most seasoned scholars, without some explanation and preparation. When I first picked up Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, for example, I thought that a Mormon parallel book was something from which Joseph Smith or his colleagues might be accused of having copied or borrowed. Little did I imagine how this field of study, like other historiography, requires patient, disciplined research and refined interpretation.
History has given us an “American Prophet” who needs to be explained in terms of divine revelation, rational synthesis, or something in between. It really does not matter whether Joseph Smith actually read any specific manuscript or book, because an entire culture is on display. We are scarcely dealing here with issues of pointed study or conscious borrowing. No single one of these writings was essential to the work of Joseph Smith, and this Bibliographic Source hangs upon no individual concept—upon no particular text. It is, rather, the very existence of the Mormon parallels which these sources display—in such great number, distribution, and uncanny resemblance to the literary, doctrinal and social structures which Joseph formed—which may command our attention.
These 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.”
As our twenty-fourth-century scientist will eventually learn, there were lots of futuristic stories about outer space circulating in 1988. Such things were plentiful in print, on the airwaves and in moving pictures of that day. And as he will notice after critical analysis, the high school student didn’t get everything right. He drew on what he knew, synthesizing from whatever happened to come his way. His final result was in fact random, and the product was rather his own.
The hardest thing, then, for me to read in present reactions to Mormon Parallels is the notion that “Joseph Smith couldn’t have found all of these things on his own; he couldn’t have gotten it all so right except through divine revelation.” Well, he didn’t get all of it right (except by faithful definition, after the fact), and whatever he did get right was certainly subject to natural means—usually at society’s most elementary levels. I think it is really quite simple. I contend that Joseph Smith, walking along the many side-paths of life which his circumstances afforded, happened upon certain, not always predominant ideas of his environment, and whatever he liked became Mormon.
I often ask people to read my Introduction to Mormon Parallels before they reject decades of work. Here is that essay, prepared for the first time as a separate downloadable file, for Worlds Without End:
 Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source (Lafayette, N.Y.: Rick Grunder – Books, 2008; 2014), 37–38.