Source:Echoes:Ch10:4:Book of Mormon versus 19th century expectations about language

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Cultural setting: expectations vs. the Book of Mormon

Cultural setting: expectations vs. the Book of Mormon

The cultural setting of the Book of Mormon is markedly different from that of the Book of Pukei [a satirical newspaper series which parodied the Book of Mormon before it appeared in print], the Spaulding manuscript [a manuscript that the nineteenth critics of the Book of Mormon claimed Joseph had cribbed from to create the Book of Mormon], and View of the Hebrews [a work who claimed an Israelite connection to the Amerindians, claimed by some to have been relied upon by Joseph for the Book of Mormon's creation]. Of these four works, it is the Book of Mormon that does not reflect a nineteenth-century milieu.

The setting of both the Book of Pukei [a satirical newspaper series which parodied the Book of Mormon before it appeared in print] and "Manuscript Found" [a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding that the nineteenth critics of the Book of Mormon claimed Joseph had cribbed from to create the Book of Mormon] is a world dominated by the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire, while the setting of the Book of Mormon is dominated by the ancient Near Eastern and Mesoamerican cultures. Thus when the Book of Pukei refers to "an old book in an unknown tongue," it turns out to be "Cicero's Orations in Latin."17 Those orations constituted a common Latin school text in the nineteenth century, and mastery of it was required for university admission. Similarly, Reverend Spaulding set his novel as coming from "twenty eight sheets of parchment . . . written in an eligant [sic] hand with Roman Letters & in the Latin Language."18 This manuscript was supposed to have been written by one Fabius at the time of Constantine, who, with a group of Romans, was blown off course on a sea voyage to Britain.19 The heavy Roman bias is typical of nineteenth-century America, where the Roman Republic was consciously imitated.

Even View of the Hebrews shows the influence of Latin, for it begins with a discussion of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem based on the Bible and supplemented by Greek (Josephus) and Latin sources (Tacitus, Suetonius),20 and it includes an appeal to Scaliger, the classical scholar.21 The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, refers to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem six hundred years earlier.22

In contrast, the original cultural setting of the Book of Mormon is described in quite different terms. For example, the language is a mixture of "the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). We read, "I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came" (2 Nephi 33:8). These Jews in Lehi's group became "a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem" (Jacob 7:26). After their arrival in the New World, they began to assimilate the local environment and customs, their previous cultural patterns having been "handed down and altered" (Mormon 9:30; compare Alma 49:11).

The nineteenth-century concern with Latin and imitating its style in speech and writing is partly a product of the educational system of the time. Reverend Spaulding's manuscript reflects this penchant for Latinate expression. In Latin the term inquit, meaning "he said" or "she said," is placed after the first word of a quotation. Because Latin grammar was a model for English grammar, quotations that mimicked the inquit form became a point of good English style. Reverend Spaulding was trained in this, so it is not surprising that "Manuscript Found" typically introduces quotation in the following manner:

"I am not[,] says he, my most excellent father, I am not mistaken."23
"I am[,] quoth he to himself, honoured above all the other princes of the empire."24

The Book of Mormon, however, follows not the style esteemed in the nineteenth century but normal Hebrew syntax in introducing quotations. For example:

And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit? (Alma 18:26)

It is remarkable that, even as a nineteenth-century translation, the Book of Mormon eschews certain syntactic features common in the language of Joseph Smith's day.

Like the Book of Mormon, View of the Hebrews contains some narrative portions with dialogue.25 But any similarity between the two works in that regard ends on that general level. For example, while Ethan Smith did not use the inquit form as Spaulding did, he did follow Latin style by varying verbs when attributing quotations. Examples from View of the Hebrews include the following:

Our Lord proceeds; "And ye shall hear of wars."26
Our Saviour added; "And great earthquakes shall be in divers places."27
"Pestilences" too, the Saviour adds.28

The Book of Mormon, however, never uses the verb proceed as a verb of speaking,29 although to proceed forth from the mouth is used to refer to writing.30 The verb add is used only five times in the Book of Mormon, but never as a verb of speaking.31

Another stylistic feature of the nineteenth century noticeably absent from the Book of Mormon is the penchant for pompous language. Spaulding's manuscript [Solomon Spaulding's manuscript was claimed by nineteenth critics of the Book of Mormon to be the source that Joseph had cribbed from to create the Book of Mormon]is replete with vocabulary without parallel in the Book of Mormon. A random sample of Reverend Spaulding's text shows that 10 percent of his vocabulary is foreign to the Book of Mormon.32 Some of those words were commonly used in the nineteenth century and are found in the Doctrine and Covenants. A random sample of the vocabulary from Ethan Smith's text shows that about 14 percent of his vocabulary is not found in the Book of Mormon.33

If the Book of Mormon were a nineteenth-century book, we would expect it to contain passages like the following: "Dearest Helaman, I hardly know what I would write, but I have bad news for you, and it cannot be delayed. Imprudent as a marriage between Isabel and our poor Corianton would be, we are now anxious to be assured it has taken place, for there is but too much reason to fear they are not gone to Mulek."34 However, nothing of the sort appears.

Conspicuous stylistic features of the Book of Mormon, such as the ubiquitous it came to pass, while at home in ancient Hebrew literature, are notably absent from nineteenth-century literature,35 including Spaulding's manu-script.36 Statements like that of Henry Lake—"I well recollect telling Mr. Spaulding, that the so frequent use of the words 'And it came to pass,' 'Now it came to pass,' rendered it [Spaulding's manuscript] ridiculous"37—show that this stylistic feature was thought absurd in Joseph's day. (Incidentally, the complete absence of the phrase it came to pass from Spaulding's manuscript also shows that Mr. Lake was lying.)

This sampling of linguistic differences between the English of Joseph's day and the English translation of the Book of Mormon shows that the Book of Mormon is not the type of book one would expect to come from a nineteenth-century milieu.[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.