Mormonism and the Bible/Joseph Smith Translation/Plagiarism Accusations

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Accusations of Plagiarism Leveled Against the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

Summary: Some critics have accused Joseph Smith of plagiarism for the production of the Joseph Smith Translation. These articles address these accusations.


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Question: What is the Adam Clarke Commentary and what do critics of Mormonism claim about it as it regards the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible?

The Adam Clarke Commentary Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments was a 19th century commentary on the Bible.

In March 2017, Thomas Wayment, professor of Classics at Brigham Young University, published a paper in BYU’s Journal of Undergraduate Research titled “A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation”. In a summary of their research, Professor Wayment and his undergraduate research assistant Haley Wilson-Lemmón wrote:

Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible has attracted significant attention in recent decades, drawing the interest of a wide variety of academics and those who affirm its nearly canonical status in the LDS scriptural canon. More recently, in conducting new research into the origins of Smith’s Bible translation, we uncovered evidence that Smith and his associates used a readily available Bible commentary while compiling a new Bible translation, or more properly a revision of the King James Bible. The commentary, Adam Clarke’s famous Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, was a mainstay for Methodist theologians and biblical scholars alike, and was one of the most widely available commentaries in the mid-1820s and 1830s in America. Direct borrowing from this source has not previously been connected to Smith’s translation efforts, and the fundamental question of what Smith meant by the term “translation” with respect to his efforts to rework the biblical text can now be reconsidered in light of this new evidence. What is noteworthy in detailing the usage of this source is that Adam Clarke’s textual emendations come through Smith’s translation as inspired changes to the text. Moreover, the question of what Smith meant by the term translation should be broadened to include what now appears to have been an academic interest to update the text of the Bible. This new evidence effectively forces a reconsideration of Smith’s translation projects, particularly his Bible project, and how he used academic sources while simultaneously melding his own prophetic inspiration into the resulting text. In presenting the evidence for Smith’s usage of Clarke, our paper also addressed the larger question of what it means for Smith to have used an academic/theological Bible commentary in the process of producing a text that he subsequently defined as a translation. In doing so, we first presented the evidence for Smith’s reliance upon Adam Clarke to establish the nature of Smith’s usage of Clarke. Following that discussion, we engaged the question of how Smith approached the question of the quality of the King James Bible (hereafter KJV) translation that he was using in 1830 and what the term translation meant to both Smith and his close associates. Finally, we offered a suggestion as to how Smith came to use Clarke, as well as assessing the overall question of what these findings suggest regarding Smith as a translator and his various translation projects.


Our research has revealed that the number of direct parallels between Smith’s translation and Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary are simply too numerous and explicit to posit happenstance or coincidental overlap. The parallels between the two texts number into the hundreds, a number that is well beyond the limits of this paper to discuss. A few of them, however, demonstrate Smith’s open reliance upon Clarke and establish that he was inclined to lean on Clarke’s commentary for matters of history, textual questions, clarification of wording, and theological nuance. In presenting the evidence, we have attempted to both establish that Smith drew upon Clarke, likely at the urging of Rigdon, and we present here a broad categorization of the types of changes that Smith made when he used Clarke as a source.[1]

That notice in BYU's Journal of Undergraduate Research was followed by Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon publishing the most detailed account of their findings together in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (2020) edited by BYU Professor Dr. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Joseph Smith Papers researcher Dr. Mark Ashurst-McGee, and former BYU professor Dr. Brian M. Hauglid.[2] Professor Wayment then published an additional article on the subject in the July 2020 issue of the Journal of Mormon History.[3]

In Professor Wayment’s view, the claimed parallels did nothing to Joseph’s claim of revelation since the longer revisions never rely on the Clarke commentary. The similarities were allegedly shorter, 1-6 word revisions.

Professor Wayment outline in more detail what he and Haley Wilson found:

What we found, a student assistant (Hailey Wilson Lamone) and I, we discovered that in about 200 to 300 — depending on how much change is being involved — parallels where Joseph Smith has the exact same change to a verse that Adam Clarke does. They’re verbatim. Some of them are 5 to 6 words; some of them are 2 words; some of them are a single word. But in cases where that single word is fairly unique or different, it seemed pretty obvious that he’s getting this from Adam Clarke. What really changed my worldview here is now I’m looking at what appears obvious as a text person, that the prophet has used Adam Clarke. That in the process of doing the translation, he’s either read it, has it in front of him, or he reads it at night. We started to look back through the Joseph Smith History. There’s a story of his brother-in-law presenting Joseph Smith with a copy of Adam Clarke. We do not know whose copy of Adam Clarke it is, but we do know that Nathaniel Lewis gives it to the prophet and says, “I want to use the Urim and Thummim. I want to translate some of the strange characters out of Adam Clarke’s commentary.” Joseph will clearly not give him the Urim and Thummim to do that, but we know he had it in his hands. Now looking at the text, we can say that a lot of the material that happens after Genesis 24. There are no parallels to Clarke between Genesis 1–Genesis 24. But when we start to get to Matthew, it’s very clear that Adam Clarke has influenced the way he changes the Bible. It was a big moment. That article comes out in the next year. We provide appendi [sic] and documentation for some of the major changes, and we try to grapple with what this might mean.[4]

Professor Wayment addressed the accusation of plagiarism directly.

In another interview with Kurt Manwaring, Professor Wayment addressed the charge of plagiarism directly:

When news inadvertently broke that a source had been uncovered that was used in the process of creating the JST, some were quick to use that information as a point of criticism against Joseph or against the JST. Words like “plagiarism” were quickly brought forward as a reasonable explanation of what was going on. To be clear, plagiarism is a word that to me implies an overt attempt to copy the work of another person directly and intentionally without attributing any recognition to the source from which the information was taken.


To the best of my understanding, Joseph Smith used Adam Clarke as a Bible commentary to guide his mind and thought process to consider the Bible in ways that he wouldn’t have been able to do so otherwise. It may be strong to say, but Joseph didn’t have training in ancient languages or the history of the Bible, but Adam Clarke did. And Joseph appears to have appreciated Clarke’s expertise and in using Clarke as a source, Joseph at times adopted the language of that source as he revised the Bible. I think that those who are troubled by this process are largely troubled because it contradicts a certain constructed narrative about the history of the JST and about how revelation works.
The reality of what happened is inspiring.
Joseph, who applied his own prophetic authority to the Bible in the revision process, drew upon the best available scholarship to guide his prophetic instincts. Inspiration following careful study and consideration is a prophetic model that can include many members of the church.

I hope people who read the study when it comes out will pause long enough to consider the benefit of expanding the definition of the prophetic gift to include academic study as a key component before rejecting the evidence outright.[5]

Mark Ashurst-McGee, a member of the Joseph Smith Papers team, made similar points to Wayment

Dr. Mark Ashurst McGee of the Joseph Smith Papers team made similar points as those of Wayment at the 2020 FAIR Conference held in Provo:

Kent P. Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University and expert on the JST, responded to Wayment's and Wilson-Lemmon's work on October 2, 2020 with criticisms that revealed devastating weaknesses in their theory.

Kent P. Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University and expert on the JST, responded to Wayment's and Wilson-Lemmon's work on October 2, 2020 in a journal article published with Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship with criticisms that revealed devastating weaknesses in their theory. Jackson concluded that "none of the examples they provide can be traced to Clarke’s commentary, and almost all of them can be explained easily by other means." Readers are encouraged to read Dr. Jackson's paper at the link cited.[6]

Similarly, Latter-day Saint scholar Kevin L. Barney, who has published on the JST in the past,[7] wrote that the chances for the Adam Clarke commentary influencing the production of the JST are "de minimis or negligible."[8]

To be sure, neither Jackson nor Barney are opposed to the idea that there could be secondary source influence on the production of the JST. Thus, this is a faith-neutral issue for both men. Both men are simply in academic disagreement with the conclusions of Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon.

Further Reading

Notes

  1. Haley Wilson and Thomas Wayment, “A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation,” Journal of Undergraduate Research (March 2017) off-site
  2. Thomas A. Wayment and Haley Wilson-Lemmon, “A Recovered Resource: The Use of Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentary in Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 262–84.
  3. Thomas A. Wayment, “Joseph Smith, Adam Clarke, and the Making of a Bible Revision,” Journal of Mormon History 46, no. 3 (July 2020): 1–22.
  4. Transcript of Laura Harris Hales, “Joseph Smith's Use of Bible Commentaries in His Translations - Thomas A. Wayment,” LDS Perspectives, September 26, 2019, https://www.ldsperspectives.com/2017/09/26/jst-adam-clarke-commentary/.
  5. Kurt Manwaring, “10 Questions with Thomas Wayment,” From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring, January 2, 2019, https://www.fromthedesk.org/10-questions-thomas-wayment/.
  6. Kent P. Jackson, "Some Notes on Joseph Smith and Adam Clarke," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 40 (2020): 15–60.
  7. See, for instance, Kevin L. Barney, “A Commentary on Joseph Smith’s Revision of First Corinthians,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 53, no. 2 (Summer 2020): 57–105.
  8. Kevin Barney, "On Secondary Source Influence in the JST," By Common Consent, April 16, 2021, https://bycommonconsent.com/2021/04/16/on-secondary-source-infuence-in-the-jst/