Source:Echoes:Ch10:7:View of the Hebrews versus the Book of Mormon

New World culture: Nineteenth century expectations in Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews

New World culture: Nineteenth century expectations in Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews

Ethan Smith [in his work View of the Hebrews attempted to prove "that the American Indians are the ten tribes of Israel"78 by means of various arguments in which he cited supposed parallels between the ancient Israelites and the Native Americans. For example, in View of the Hebrews he argued that (1) the American natives had one origin, (2) their language appears to have been Hebrew, (3) they had their imitation of ancient Israel's ark of the covenant, (4) they practiced circumcision, (5) they acknowledged only one God, (6) the celebrated William Penn's accounts of the natives of Pennsylvania corroborate Ethan Smith's thesis, (7) the Indians had a tribe that answered in various respects to the tribe of Levi, (8) prophesied Hebrew character traits accurately apply to the aborigines of America, (9) the Indians belonged to tribes, each with its own name and leader, and (10) apparent parallels to the Israelites' ancient cities of refuge indicate the Indians' Israelite extraction.79

Each of Ethan Smith's ten claims deserves to be analyzed against any statements on the same subject from the Book of Mormon.

  1. In opposition to Ethan Smith, the Book of Mormon does not claim that all the American natives had one origin. In fact, the Book of Mormon reports at least three different migrations from the Old World (Nephite, Mulekite, and Jaredite) and expressly allows that there were others "who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord" (2 Nephi 1:5). Additionally, a careful reading of the Book of Mormon indicates that there may have been other peoples present in the land when the Nephites arrived.80
  2. Ethan Smith argues that the original Native American language appears to have been Hebrew. Although the Book of Mormon started out, Nephi reports, as "a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2), nearly a thousand years later, Moroni writes, "We have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us [the Nephites] the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech" (Mormon 9:32). Even though the language may have been based on Hebrew, Moroni acknowledges that "the Hebrew hath been altered by us also" (Mormon 9:33). Book of Mormon writers also acknowledge, regarding other groups that presumably started out speaking Hebrew or a related language, that "their language had become corrupted; . . . and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them" (Omni 1:17).
  3. Although Ethan Smith claims that the Native Americans had an object resembling the ark of the covenant,81 the Book of Mormon never mentions such a relic. The only ark mentioned in the Book of Mormon is the ark of Noah (see Ether 6:7).
  4. Ethan Smith argues that circumcision was widespread among the Native Americans.82 The Book of Mormon mentions it only once, in a letter of Mormon saying that the practice has been "done away" (Moroni 8:8).
  5. Ethan Smith argues that the Native Americans were some sort of monotheists because "they have acknowledged one and only one God."83 This trait is not diagnostic, because it has been argued that many disparate cultures are monotheistic (whether or not they technically are). Acknowledging one and only one God does not prove that Native Americans were part of the lost ten tribes any more than it proves that Muslims or Egypt under Akhenaten was part of the lost ten tribes.
  6. The descriptions by William Penn that Ethan Smith refers to deal with "dress and trinkets" and ceremonies.84 As we have seen, the Book of Mormon does not describe the dress, and ceremonies are mentioned only obliquely and without detail (see Mosiah 19:24).
  7. Ethan Smith claims that the Native Americans had a tribe like the Levites, but the Book of Mormon has no such tribe. The only mention of the tribe of Levi in the Book of Mormon is when Jesus quotes Malachi to the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 24:3).
  8. What Ethan Smith means by seeing in the Native Americans "prophetic traits of character given of the Hebrews" is that the former were inclined to get drunk and they adorned themselves with "tinkling ornaments."85 These two traits are too widespread to be diagnostic of any civilization.
  9. Ethan Smith argues that the mention of various animals in Jacob's blessing of his sons (see Genesis 49) is a "trait of character . . . not wanting among the natives of this land."86 The Book of Mormon, however, mentions no animals as "emblems of their tribes."87
  10. Ethan Smith argues that the Native Americans had cities of refuge,88 but such cities are not mentioned at all in the Book of Mormon.[1]


  1. John Gee, "The Wrong Type of Book," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 10, references silently removed—consult original for citations.