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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Curious Parallels Between the Book of Mormon and The Late War Against the United States


As a follow up to my previous post about "The Late Great War Against the Book of Mormon," there are some interesting parallels between The Late War and the Book of Mormon that have gained some attention, especially among our critics. For example, one writer, convinced that The Late War was an important source for the Book of Mormon, provides a lengthy list of parallels over at Patheos, some of which seem noteworthy. Some, though, are a bit of a stretch. Read The Late War and try explaining to me how that actually accounts for the Book of Mormon. Further analysis and responses to the charges will later be provided on my LDSFAQ page dealing with allegations of plagiarism in the Book of Mormon.

The Patheos article begins its list with this impressive parallel:

A battle at a fort where righteous white protagonists are attacked by an army made up of dark-skinned natives driven by a white military leader. The white protagonists are prepared for battle and slaughter their opponents to such an extent that they fill the trenches surrounding the fort with dead bodies. The surviving elements flee into the wilderness/forest (pp. 102-4, 29:1-23) Alma 49:10-25

As with most of the parallels, much of the content is a fairly natural description of details of war. Forts, walls, and ditches are not that unusual, though I’ll admit it was only recently that scholars recognized how important they were in ancient Mesoamerica. Further, preparing for battle, fighting, suffering casualties and fleeing--these are not very unique nor impressive. The filling of the ditch with the wounded is getting a bit more unique because it is so extreme and memorable. But is that what The Late War actually says? Pages 102-104 describe a battle at a fort with a deep ditch around it. As in many battles there are casualties, as we read in the key sentence on page 104: “And the deep ditch that surrounded the fort was strewed with their slain and their wounded.” The word “strewed” does not convey the “filling” by numerous bodies as in the Book of Mormon, but can have more of a sense of bodies scattered around the ditch, not bodies piled high. Hmm, rephrasing that as “filling” the ditch and scoring it as a strong parallel suggests we may be dealing with a less than objective approach by the author. Indeed, it may give us a taste of what is to come in the parallels that follow.

Then the defeated troops fled into the forest and straight back to their vessel. Does that really equate with the wilderness of the Book of Mormon?

The vast majority of the parallels from The Late War naturally involve war, and often the details of war, with parallels generally found in Alma’s detailed accounts of some wars the Nephites fought. While critics feel that their often contrived parallels somehow explain the authorship of the Book of Mormon based upon the cumulative impression these parallels create, mingled with bogus statistical tools, there is a severe absence of clearly plagiarized material of the kind that would make life easier for a lazy plagiarist. The Book of Mormon is “explained” by plagiarism from The Late War even less than the New Testament is “explained” as a work of plagiarism from, say, Isaiah (and in that case, we know Isaiah was actually quoted frequently).

Detailed accounts of actual war have parallels with the Book of Mormon because the Book of Mormon text has intricate details steeped in the realities of real war, something Joseph Smith was not acquainted with. The issues of recruiting, chain of command, supply chains, managing prisoners, negotiations with the enemy, deception, strategy of many kinds, the challenges of marches and terrain, the relationship between seasons and warfare, morale of the troops, weaponry, armor, fortifications, wounds, and numerous other details that we often miss provide a consistent and remarkable tapestry that speaks of authorship from someone besides Joseph Smith. There is an entire book of warfare in the Book of Mormon that only partially explores the deep war-related content of that ancient book.

While many of the realities of war apply to any setting, including the war of 1812, much of what is in the Book of Mormon has an ancient flavor that Joseph could not have fabricated. The chapter on warfare in John Sorenson’s recent Mormon’s Codex also should be read by anyone even mildly impressed with The Late War as a possible explanation for the Book of Mormon. The Mesoamerican elements consistent with the Book of Mormon, and foreign to what Joseph might have known, deserve serious consideration. But the common elements with almost all war will make for easy parallel hunting, but none of these parallels explain authorship.

Something Curious about that Book

One of the parallels that I felt was most interesting, at least initially, involves a phrase that one might think is a distinctive Book of Mormon term: “curious workmanship.” If you Google that phrase, the first page of hits will be dominated by links related to the Book of Mormon and LDS lore.  Here are the related parallels mentioned at Patheos, which definitely caught my interest:

A man builds a boat of “curious workmanship”, despite the mocking and scoffing of others. The latter are humbled when they see the completed product. (pp. 192-193, 50:2-7, 12) 1 Nephi 17:17-18; 18:1-4

A “ball” made out of “brass” of “curious work” with clocklike spindles (p. 195, 50:28) 1 Nephi 16:10

Swords of fine/curious “workmanship” (p. 42, 12:12; p. 44, 13:13; p. 58, 16:24) 1 Nephi 4:9

The Book of Mormon references are:

1 Nephi 16: 10
And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.

1 Nephi 18:1
And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

Ether 10:27
And they did make all manner of weapons of war. And they did work all manner of work of exceedingly curious workmanship.

(Note: 1 Nephi 4:9 is presented as sort of a “curious workmanship” hit at Patheos, but that verse doesn’t use the word curious. Instead, Nephi observes that “the workmanship” of Laban’s sword was fine. But Ether 10:27 refers to curious workmanship right after a mention of weapons. )

How impressive are the parallels cited at Patheos?

I’ve already noted that the last parallel cited isn’t completely fair since the Book of Mormon doesn’t use “curious workmanship” in the cited verse. But things are better in the first parallel. Here is The Late War text, pp. 192-193, featuring chapter 50, verses 2-7, 12:

2 Among these there appeared one whose ingenuity was exceedingly great inasmuch as it astonished all the inhabitants of the earth :

3 Now the name of this man was Robert, sir-named Fulton; but the cold hand of death fell upon him, and he slept with his fathers, on the twenty and third day of the second month of the eighteen hundred and fifteenth year of the Christian era.

4 However, the things which he brought into practice in his life time will be recorded, and his name spoken of by generations yet unborn.

5 Although, like other men of genius, in these days, he was spoken of but slightly at first; for the people said, Lo ! the man is beside himself! and they laughed at him; nevertheless, he exceeded their expectations.

6 For it came to pass, that (assisted by Livingston, a man of wealth, and a lover of arts and learning) lie was enabled to construct certain curious vessels, called the vernacular tongue, steam-boats.

7 Now these steam-boats were cunningly contrived and had abundance of curious workmanship therein, such as surpassed the comprehension of all the wise men of the east, from the beginning to this day.

12 But when the scoffers, the enemies of Fulton, and the gainsayers, saw that the boats moved pleasantly upon the river, they began to be ashamed of their own ignorance and stupidity, and were fain to get into the boats themselves; after which, instead of laughing, they gaped at the inventor with astonishment.

Yes, Robert Fulton built a boat alright, and some folks laughed at him. But is there anything about this story that makes it helpful to an eager plagiarist in need of material, lots of material, for his book? If this is THE SOURCE that Joseph relied on above all other sources, why is so little of the material used?

Maybe things will be more clear with the remaining “curious” parallel above, the one that looks most impactful with its kinship to the Liahona. Here is the cited text from The Late War, verse 28 of chapter 50, p. 195:



26 And now, also, the cunning and witchcraft of these Yankees, these sons of Belial, these children of Beelzebub, have invented another instrument of destruction, more subtile than all the rest :

27 Yea, these are mighty evil things, and they are called torpedoes, which may be said to signify sleeping devils ; which come, as a thief in the night, to destroy the servants of the king ; and were contrived by that arch fiend, whose name was Fulton.

28 Now these wonderful torpedoes were made partly of brass and partly of iron, and were cunningly contrived with curious works, like unto a clock; and as it were a large ball.

29 And, after they were prepared, and a great quantity of the black dust put therein, they were let down into the water, nigh unto the strong ships, with intent to destroy them;

30 And it was so, that when they struck against the bottom of the ship, the black dust in the torpedo would catch fire, and burst forth with tremendous roar, casting the vessel out of the waters and bursting her in twain.

Maybe it’s just my Mormon faith getting in the way of cognitive dissonance of something, but I’m still struggling to see the faith-demolishing power of this. It’s not even “curious workmanship,” but just “curious works.” Where is the scene of Lehi finding the ball outside his tent? Where is the device that guides them through the wilderness? Why, Gilbert Hunt’s “large ball” is nothing like the Liahona, but is, of all things, a torpedo. Now if Lehi had  found a sacred torpedo outside his tent and marched across the desert with it, the anti-Mormons would have a better case. Further, where are the promised spindles in the Liahona? Is there reference to “clock” supposed to magically provide the direction-giving spindles in a divine compass/torpedo? I guess with a little faith, all things are possible. But I’m thoroughly disappointed.

Yes, there are parallels, but scattered, weak, and not very helpful to a would-be plagiarizer. The relationship between The Late War and the Book of Mormon does not appear to offer a serious explanation for Book of Mormon origins, and not much substance and density as an alleged influencer of some kind, though the relationship may be statistically stronger than with many other books that also were not used as sources by Joseph Smith. But where does that get us actually?

But isn’t it a strange coincidence that both books repeatedly use this odd phrase, “curious workmanship”?

“Curious workmanship” is not in the Bible and is certainly not a common phrase in the English of today, but yes, there it is in both the Book of Mormon and The Late War. If you Google that word, the first page of hits are dominated by links related to the Book of Mormon, so it seems like a pretty distinctive and unusual Mormon term. Smoking gun? Well, if smoke is what you want, we’ve come to the right place. While “curious workmanship” may not be part of our modern working vocabulary, get past the first page of Google results and look at other works using that phrase. You’ll soon see a plethora of works from the 1700s and early 1800s invoking that term.

Forgottenbooks.org has a page for the bigram “curious workmanship” at http://www.forgottenbooks.org/worddata/curious_workmanship where they explore its use in books. We can see that this phrase was not exceedingly rare in Joseph’s day, and that over 1% of the books published in the years around and prior to the Book of Mormon used this phrase (some years had 4% or more of their published books incorporating the phrase). No, it was not used in most books, but it was used enough that finding it in one book does not necessarily have any bearing on issues of derivation.

“Curious workmanship” is actually part of a four-word phrase found in both texts. But don’t be too highly impressed. The other words are trivial: “of” and “and,” as in “of curious workmanship and.” In The Late War, the “and” is part of a single sentence, logically joining workmanship with other elements.  In the Book of Mormon, it’s a little different, being separated from workmanship with a semicolon or a period. Not all that impressive. What really counts is the concept of “curious workmanship,” which almost always will be preceded by “of.”

To see how “curious workmanship” was used in Joseph’s day and before, Google Books is a useful tool, as is the Google search engine. Google, of course, has a vast library of old books under its cyber belt. Just about every old book of significance and thousands of highly obscure ones seem to be there--with the apparent exception of The Late War.

In Google Books, we find the following examples, in order (no date filter was applied, but very recent books such as LDS-related books have been manually excluded), and with a touch of tongue-in-cheek commentary explaining “exactly” how these sources could have been used to fabricate the Book of Mormon. You’ll see just how easy it can be to turn random parallels into “smoking guns.” Naturally, I’ll provide some of the smoke to help things along. Let’s look at the top candidates from my initial search (renumbered after excluding modern books):

1. A history and description of the royal abbaye of Saint Denis, London: J.S. Jordan, 1795. Here the very title page of the book, much more likely to be read and noticed than anything inside, speaks of “pieces of curious workmanship and antiquity.” There is our four-word phrase in full glory, prominently displayed in a book predating The Late War. Had Joseph but glanced within, he might well have landed upon page 50, where we read of a great warrior who, like Captain Moroni, faced “enemies” with his “pious attitude,” relying on divine protection and guidance “in the day of battle” when he “led on his Knights and his armies to victory; whilst, in his councils, he ceased not to look up to them [the holy Martyrs in heaven] for their heavenly aid and influence.” Councils, armies, battle, victory, seeking divine help--that’s pretty much the Book of Mormon in a nutshell. Through such heavenly help, the hero found success in battle and, like the wounded Alma after leading his people to victory, also found “recovery of his health.” Yes, this could have been an important source that Joseph used, not through digesting hundreds of pages, but a mere glance or two, perhaps in just a few moments of wandering in his vast frontier library.

One further hint of the potential significance of this source: there is a reference to the Restoration of pure Christianity in its foreword, p. iv. After a reference to Saints and “their Church” at the top if the page, we have a revealing--or shall we say “revelatory”?--passage condemning the apostasy seen among the clergy and men of learning in France, and expressing hope for that day “When mankind shall have withdrawn from Christianity, all that they have added to it, GENUINE RELIGION ITSELF only will remain, as simple in its doctrines, as pure in its morality.”

That’s what the Restoration was all about: reversing apostasy and bringing back pure religion. Could this have been the book that sparked Joseph’s dream--and his visions? I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the many other Book of Mormon terms embedded in this book, such as Isaiah, prophet, temple, and so forth.

Of course, one must understand that the church being described was no ordinary church, but one blessed with remarkable sacred relics such as “the real tooth” of the Apostle John (p. 13) and the shoulder blade of John the Baptist (p. 16), not only serving as inspiration for the angelic visitation of those holy men as angels to Joseph Smith, but also raising difficult questions about missing elements in the possibly incomplete resurrection of those saints, if the relics have been accurately catalogued.

2. Keating's general history of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating and Dermod O'Connor, 1865, on page 487 we encounter “ten coats of mail, two cloaks richly adorned, and two pair of chess-boards of curious workmanship.” A three-word parallel! Coats of mail and chess-boards both invoke military concepts and battles, an important Book of Mormon theme. This is followed by another instance on the same page with even stronger military ties: “six swords, six shields of curious workmanship, and six scarlet cloaks.” And there you have it, all 4 words, in the context of weaponry made of metal. Nearly a perfect fit for explaining the Book of Mormon’s use of that phrase, though the slightly late publication date could give Mormon apologists some unfortunate talking points.

3. The border antiquities of England and Scotland by Sir Walter Scott, vol. 1, 1814, page 8, has two relevant instances. One occurs as “ruins of some curious workmanship” and the other is “a piece of curious workmanship, as is visible to this day, and... ” which would be a perfect four-word match were it not for a brief parenthetical remark. The context, interestingly, is that of describing a castle, or, equivalently, a great and spacious building.

Since this book does not appear on the list of books at the Manchester Library that Joseph might have had easy access to, we must assume that this book was one of the many smuggled into Joseph’s frontier library. While this book is filled with numerous themes that have relation to the Book of Mormon, we do not expect Joseph to have read and extracted them all, but perhaps only a choice page or two in his random perusing. After all, he was not a bookworm and rarely read before publishing the Book of Mormon, so his plagiarism surely must have been based upon very brief episodes of gleaning material from selected sources. Had he flipped upon Scott’s work, surely his eyes must have fallen upon page 90, where we find an astonishingly high density of Book of Mormon parallels, enough to surely settle the case the Walter Scott’s Border Antiquities was a vital Book of Mormon source. Look at the concepts, in order:
  •  “Four sons” (like Lehi!)
  •  “his castle” (defensive fortiations)
  • King John (introducing the concept of kings)
  • “pledges his fidelity” (making oaths)
  •  “joining with the barons in that holy war of patriotism”
  •  “the fickle tyrant” (King Noah and others)
  •  “his castles and lands were given to” another (as happened several times in the Book of Mormon)
  •  “In the succeeding reign, however, he obtained a restitution of them” (The Book of Mormon refers to Nephites obtaining a “restitution” of their lands from the Lamanites. Perfect match!)
  • His son Gilbert succeeded to his barony (as sons succeeded fathers to positions of leadership among the Nephites)
  • “To him succeeded a son of the same name” (a common Nephite practice: Nephi and Nephi, Alma and Alma, etc.)
  •  “endowed it with . . . land . . . for the maintenance of two chaplains to perform divine service daily”
And that is just warming up for the most relevant paragraph at the bottom of page 90. 

The present condition of this mansion remains to be described. It is guarded by an outward wall towards the Tyne, built on the brink of the cliffs, in this place not less than sixty perpendicular feet in height, above the plain which intervenes between the castle and the river. This wall, at intervals, is defended by square bastions. The entrance to the castle is from the south: when viewed from the heights, the whole structure has a very noble and formidable appearance. Mr. Hutchinson, who seems to have examined very minutely the actual state of this mansion, has given the following description of it: “The narrow neck of land,” says he, “leading to the entrance, was formerly cut through by a deep ditch, over which a drawbridge has given access to the outward gate: the water which anciently supplied the ditch is now collected by a reservoir before the gate, and serves a mill: the outward gate was originally defended by several outworks and a tower, as appears by their ruins. From the situ- {end of page 90, continues on page 91} ation in which I drew my view of this place, I could overlook the top of the first gate, and the eye penetrated the inner gateway; the superstructure of which is a lofty embattled square tower, about sixty feet high. . . . The outward wall to the left, from the inner gateway, extends to a considerable distance without any turret or bastion, over which several interior buildings, and among them, the remains of the chapel, were discovered in all the confusion of ruin . . . above all which objects, a square tower, the keep of the fortress . . . overlooked the castle. . . .
Narrow neck of land? Curious workmanship? Fortresses, walls, ditches, outworks (breastworks), towers, gates, and many more Book of Mormon concepts--all on just a page or two of one book? Could this be the smoking gun? But what, there’s even more smoke to come! Continuing onto page 91, as Joseph may well have done once page 90 captured his limited attention, we read again of a “narrow path” (as in the narrow paths the Nephite had to traverse) and walls, with a gate flanked with various structures and a tower, reminiscent of King Benjamin’s tower and the defensive works Moroni made. “This gate gives admittance to a covered way, leading to the inner gate, about 30 paces in length; a sallyport opening on each side, to flank the walls and defend the ditch.”  The ditch concept occurs again on page 92, where a ditch “guards the southern side” near a tower and walls. “Steps ascend from the area to the top of the walls in several places, which is broad enough to allow armed men of the garrison to pass each other, covered by a rampart.” So wooden structures on top of the walls further protect the armed soldiers, with a ditch outside the wall helping to defend the fortress. Eerily similar to Book of Mormon descriptions of Captain Moroni’s defensive works. The search for a smoking gun could well stop here, but there are other treasures to be mined with a little more effort.

By the way, Mormon apologists might try to dilute the shock value of this discovery by arguing that a few other works prior to 1830 also used the phrase “narrow neck of land.” (See, for example, the Google search at the shortcut http://tinyurl.com/narrowneckofland which finds 25 books with that very phrase.) In doing so, they may only shoot themselves in the foot as they offer more evidence for plagiarism. See, for example, the reference in page 67 of An Account of the expedition to Carthagena by Sir Charles Knowles which refers to military men defending themselves as they “throw up a Breast-work upon the narrow Neck of Land; Soldiers to be there posted. . . .” That is exactly how the Book of Mormon has it: soldiers “throw up” or cast up their defensive structures, and they add breastworks upon the walls that they have thrown up, and then they are posted there.


Numerous such parallels are waiting to be discovered in virtually any reference that Mormon apologists might “throw up” to create a desperate defense for the Book of Mormon under siege. As we find parallels of any kind in modern texts, we can take these as further proof that the Book of Mormon is a product of its day, written with words and phrases found scattered throughout modern English writings. We have already noted that the Book of Mormon shares 60% of its vocabulary with the Leaves of Grass. More astonishing still, over 90% of its vocabulary is shared with Noah Webster’s famous little dictionary, but that intricate story is for another day. True, Joseph’s plagiarism may been of the tedious sort, searching through vast volumes of books to come up with words and brief phrases that he gradually cobbled together to form entire verses and, slowly, whole pages of text, but that was his problem, not ours.  

4. The Memoirs of Charles-Lewis, Baron de Pollnitz by Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Pöllnitz , 1738, which was at the top of the 2nd page of basic Google results for my initial search on “curious workmanship,” has this on page 48: “Andirons being of most curious Workmanship” and then, later, this sentence: “The Prince has a magnificent Garden in the Suburb of Vienna, which has a Court before it, that is separated from the Street by an Iron Grate of very curious Workmanship.” Again, we see curious workmanship in the context of metal, as in the Book of Mormon. But we also have reference to royalty and courts, as occur in the Book of Mormon, and it is in the context of Noah’s court where we see iron being used as a precious metal in the Book of Mormon. Further, we have reference to a Garden in the suburbs of a city, where a street passes by it, associated with a prominent leader. Clearly this is a strong parallel with the account of the leader Nephi in the Book of Helaman who had a garden in a suburb of Zarahemla by the highway leading to the chief market. Certainly we cannot disregard this book as one of several possible sources for the Book of Mormon. 

5. A View of All Religions by Thomas Robbins, 1824, page 43, describes “a crucifix, in alto relievo, on the altar; which is generally of curious workmanship.” Interestingly, a sacred religious relic is the subject, as is the case in the initial instance of this three-word phrase in the Book of Mormon. That is curious enough, but then, on the same page, we find this smoking gun: “The altar is inclosed within rails generally of curious workmanship, and the whole service is conducted with solemnity and great ceremony.” Wow, not just four words, but in the context of sacred objects, of altars and prayer, of religious services and a “great ceremony”--invoking King Benjamin’s speech and other key moments in the Book of Mormon. And, yes, all done in a book on religions, much as the Book of Mormon is a book on religion. Curious and curiouser!

In fact, Robbins’ following sentence leaves other fingerprints pointing to Book of Mormon origins: “the mist of antiquity” (as in the “mists of darkness” in 3 Nephi), “ceremonies,” “vestments,” “priests” and “solemn occasions.” That paragraph goes on to again mention ceremonies, churches, “edification of the faithful,” “praying with uplifted hands, in imitation of Moses” which “mystically expresses the elevation of our thoughts to God,” and then “altars of mediation between heaven and earth.” Robbins’ work appears to provide inspiration not only for the Book of Mormon but also the LDS Temple ceremony. Please note that we find all this in a couple of adjacent paragraphs, not scattered across hundreds of pages requiring statistical analysis to fish out chance relationships.

In fact, it is known that Joseph was not a bookworm and read very few if any books, so we should expect that his sources probably came from a page or two that he casually or even accidentally glanced and digested for subsequent regurgitation. Here we are uncovering the very bars and ingots used to hammer out the gold plates, not a few gold flakes dispersed in tons of worthless ore to be gradually extracted by a statisticians’ sluice. With the level of “concept density” and direct relevance we find on pages 43 and 44 of Robbins, surely this portion of that work must rate more highly than the diluted sources previous scholars have proposed as a source for the Book of Mormon, with the exception of the impeccably researched and well-document links to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Not convinced? Then try the text that follows on the remainder of page 44, where in the next paragraph we encounter “sacred vestments,” “garments” (yes, garments!), “the offices of religion”, and then specific elements of these sacred vestments such as the “cope” or cloak, the frock, the stole, a mantle, a girdle which was a cord going around the body (apron-like one might say), “white dress,” and the “alb,” described as the “universal under garment.” In addition to the detailed description of what may be called LDS temple clothing, the author then introduces another race with darker skin as reference is made to the “Asiatics,” bringing us back to Book of Mormon themes, shortly followed by a mention of clothing made from “the fur and hair of animals,” an obvious source for the clothing of the Lamanites and also the Gadianton robbers.

Then comes another paragraph mentioning “divine service,” prayers, “holy lessons,” reading from sacred texts, clergy, “ordained,” the church, and, completing the details needed for Joseph’s temple clothing project, we encounter:

“the amice or head-cloth . . . compared to the protecting helmet of spiritual grace and salvation. The long alb, or white linen garment, was supposed to be emblematical of future glory and immortality . . . and the chasuble, dalmatic, &c. to express the yoke and burden of the gospel.”

Two pages from Robbins and a handful of pages from Whitman gives us much of what was needed for the LDS Restoration. But there are other sources that may have helped, so let us continue our brief survey.

At this point, we have gone through the relevant hits on just the first page of Google results for the book search of “curious workmanship.” One more sample:

6. Chapters in the History of Old St. Paul's by William Sparrow Simpson, 1881 (see page 64). This describes the “curious workmanship” of the monuments of “sundry persons, some of worship, and some of honour” in a cloister at Pardon Church Haugh. Ah, “curious workmanship” is used in the context of remembering and honoring righteous people of the past, aligning with the role the Book of Mormon’s curious relics, the brass plates and the Liahona.

Some of the hits further down the list in my initial search are of rather famous works that Joseph might have at least heard about, such as Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1820), vol. 5, where a single page, p. 310, not only mentions “curious workmanship” in the context of silver and gold, but also refers to “ecclesiastical writers,” barbarians who have attacked a city, a virgin, the service of the altar, conscience and awareness of sin, defense, reverential awe, a king, treasure, a consecrated plate, and “the church of the apostle.” That represents a fairly high density of potential parallels to be drawn by a slightly creative mind, arguably more interesting than many of the parallels normally found by critics in their quest to explain away the ever uncooperative Book of Mormon.

Next comes The Iliad of Homer, translated by James Morrice (1809). On page 319 we find “curious workmanship” referring to shields with “brazen folds,” associating the workmanship with metals as in the initial occurrences of curious workmanship in Book of Mormon, but also reminiscent of the curious workmanship of Moroni’s defenses. The following line has a shocker, mentioning an “orb with studded gold / Encircled shone, high polish’d, beautiful / Wrought by no common hand.” And on the same page is a mention of “two spears,” much like the “two spindles” of Nephi’s mysterious device. If you want to explain the Book of Mormon as a work of plagiarism drawn from available sources in Joseph’s day, The Iliad might be a better candidate than The Late War’s crude ballistic “balls” in “explaining” the Liahona, that metallic orb of curious workmanship definitely wrought by no common hand. And the Iliad is filled with scenes of warfare in which, surprisingly, people attack, other defend, some are killed, others are wounded, and some flea, etc., etc., all just like in the Book of Mormon. Some critics, as I recall, have even suggested The Iliad as one of the many sources Joseph may have “plagiarized.” But please, all these parallels, as interesting and sometimes curious as they are, explain nothing about the Book of Mormon and its intricacies and power other than the fact that it was written in the English language (yes, with words and even phrases used by other writers--many others!--because that was part of the language) and  has a realistic description of the details of war.

One more quick mention: next on the list is Plutarch’s Lives by Francis Wrangham, 1813, where “curious workmanship” on p. 54 of vol. 6 describes a sword, fitting in well with the Book of Mormon and Laban’s sword. Other curious parallels in that chapter are left as an exercise to the reader. Note: Plutarch’s Lives was listed in the Manchester Library that Joseph could have accessed, but the edition of the book recorded in its records wasn’t printed until 1834. But perhaps someone could have smuggled a copy into his secret frontier library.

The results above came from my initial simple search. A more efficient search strategy with Google is to search only on books of a specific time period, such as from 1500 to 1830. The following shortcut will take you to a Google search for the four-word phrase “of curious workmanship and” in books from 1500 to 1830: http://tinyurl.com/curiousbooks. You can then adjust the date and search string as you wish.  Google finds 32 books, most relatively near to Joseph’s time frame. Undoubtedly there are vastly more occurrences in magazines, speeches, and the many other publications not included in Google’s search.

Special mention is needed for of those search results near the top of this second search (at least near the top the first time I did the search--results with Google can vary depending on where, when, and even who you are). On page 275 of Robert Plot’s The natural history of Oxford-shire published in 1696, we have another reference to curious workmanship in a religious setting, but there is much more. The searched phrase occurs in this sentence: “There is an Altar-rail at All-Souls-College of curious workmanship; and to this place belongs the Tomb of St. Frideswide, still remaining at Christ-Church, and the Top whereof is Wood, and a fine old piece of Work: But not comparable to the Tomb of fair Roasamun at Godflow, in the Chapter-house of the Nuns there….” It is interesting that we have references to an altar, souls, Christ, church, etc. But vastly more significant than the weak parallels of The Late War, the page begins with this fragment of a sentence: “what Quarter the Wind blows, upon the 32 Points of the Compass, depicted on a Cylinder of Stone, was an ingenious Contrivance.” A compass, a round cylinder, an ingenious contrivance, all on the same page as “curious workmanship.” Could this old book have been the source for the entire concept of the Liahona, that cylindrical compass of curious workmanship, an ingenious contrivance, which was used to guide Nephi in sailing his ship, very much concerned about “what quarter the wind blows”? Combine this book with The Iliad and the plot certainly thickens. Perhaps it’s even a, uh, Homer run.

Yet there is more. Plot goes on to write of “many lofty spires about the Country as well as City, built of Free-stone, and of exquisite Workmanship” followed by a reference to “the Battlements where were repaired, and thus thick set with Pinnacles” and then a reference to “Towers … large and well built.” Then follows “Orders of Pillars” and “the top with well proportion’d Pinnacles.” Though taken from a single page of a 1696 work, this could well be a page out of Captain Moroni’s defensive manual. Battlements, pinnacles, towers… all that seems to be missing is a reference to timberwork.

Timberwork? Gasp! In the sentence after the description of pinnacles, which is also the sentence immediately before “curious workmanship,” we encounter this startling phrase: “Among the Curiosities in Timber-work, we may reckon …” And then on the following page, we not surprisingly encounter the word “fort,” cementing our suspicions of plagiarism. But that is still not all. In the same phrase as “fort,” we also have a reference to a “Looking-glass” (possible inspiration for the Urim and Thummin or seerstone of the Book of Mormon?) and “ancient MS” (ancient manuscript), more key Book of Mormon themes. The “looking glass” is not any ordinary object, but is described immediately thereafter in more mystic terms by the above-mentioned ancient manuscript with a Latin title, “Speculum in quo uno visu apparebunt multae imagines moventes se” or “mirror in which one sees many moving images”--a reasonable description of a seerstone. Amazingly, two sentences later we have this gem: “Take, says the Author, a deep Box, and place it in the Bottom of …” It takes but little imagination, from the perspective of a sufficiently dedicated critic, to see how this phrase could inspire Joseph to write of Moroni, author of the Book of Mormon, who took his ancient manuscript and Urim and Thummin, and placed them in a deep stone box in the bottom of a shallow pit on the Hill Cumorah.

A natural history of Oxfordshire, England would not seem like the kind of book to gather much attention in frontier New York, and I am guessing that it is even less likely that Joseph could have bumped into a copy of it or in any way been influenced by it, whereas there’s a more reasonable chance of some kind of exposure to The Late War. Yet Plot’s book on Oxfordshire offers a remarkably high density of interesting parallels on a single page. Still not worthy of being called plagiarism, and still doing nothing to explain the depth and intricacies of a distinctly ancient, not modern, Book of Mormon. Plot’s book has the advantage of a pretty concentration of intriguing parallels on one page in contrast to the widely scattered and not especially shiny nuggets ascribed to The Late War. Those chance parallels in Plot remind us, as we have learned from The Leaves of Grass, that interesting parallels can happen by chance and that caution is needed in making conclusions of derivation or influence. But if you’re duty bound to find plagiarism to fortify or justify your dislike of Mormonism, go ahead and use The Late War, but be sure to add some more interesting and fruitful sources such as Robert Plot’s delightful work on Oxfordshire, neglected far too long by anti-Mormons (but I can’t blame them for that: like The Late War, it has been neglected by nearly all Americans, both today and in Joseph’s day). And for best results, throw in some Homer, some Plutarch, some Thomas Robbins, a handful of Walter Scott’s border antiquities and certainly a dose of J.S. Hordan and his obscure history of the “royal abbaye of Saint Denis,” and please, don’t forget that poetic gem and one of the best treasures for “explaining” the Book of Mormon, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Give it your best, but don’t expect any serious cooperation from the ever uncooperative and truly ancient Book of Mormon. Good luck!

Update, Nov. 19, 2013: It's not hard to find many other curious parallels in old books, including ones that probably never came anywhere close to Joseph Smith. For example, another source to consider is the poem Soohrab, published in 1814 in Calcutta, which could easily have made it to New York by 1827, especially if someone secretly working for Joseph special ordered a shipment straight from Calcutta to be added to his mysterious frontier library. Why not? The published text mentions "curious devices" of gold (p. 72), a "standard worked with curious art" (p. 106), and on page 50, there is reference to a ball and two portions of a cut spear (spindles in the Liahona?), weapons, armor, etc. And then most startling, we find the word "stripling" several times, including--hold your breath--the full phrase "stripling warrior" not just one, not just twice, but three times! There are many more parallels, of course. Better than the parallels the critics are finding, but not good enough to mean anything, though a little fun with literature is meaning enough, n'est-ce pas?

6 comments:

Quantumleap42 said...

If you want one measure of how common a phrase is you can use Google's Ngram. You put in a word or phrase and it will search numerous books over a specific range of years to see just how common that word or phrase is compared to all the other words and phrases being used in books at the time.

Here is a link to an Ngram search for "curious workmanship". (Hopefully the spam filter won't catch my comment!) Usage of the phrase peaked in 1780 and then was steady until 1820 and then declined after that. So it was not a common phrase but not unheard of.

Interestingly enough Google's Ngram uses the same basic method of analyzing texts that the Johnsons used in making their case about the parallels between the Book of Mormon and The Late War. It should be noted that there are statistical subtleties involved with using n-grams that have to be taken into account. Some of the potential problems have already been address by Jeff and by others over at The Mormon Interpreter.

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks for the post Jeff. I've been following this debate for awhile but haven't commented yet. I would point out Ben McGuire's comment to his article over at the Interpreter where he goes into much of the same detail as you about how the comparisons by RT are not objective or strong comparisons.

As a military historian let me add my two cents as well. My impression was that these comparisons were very shallow. It is fairly easy to find people that are defeated and retreat into the wilderness for example. RT's observations remind me of something I read from Vogel a while ago, where he argued that Smith copied the BoM from what he knew about local Indian tribes. And on the military history side his argument was that they both had walls and fortifications. Again, it was so generic as to be useless for comparison.

Finally, there is a certain irony in this, as me and others have been accused of searching for ancient parallels no matter how vague, and yet here we have critics searching for contemporary parallels, not matter how vague or forced, to prove their point. Of course I think both sides can be guilty of applying a flawed methodology, but I tend to think lists like these are more persuasive than some generic items presented by RT or Vogel: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2013/09/book-review-mormons-codex.html

And: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2009/02/no-evidence.html

Thanks for letting me drop by and add my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry guys, I think you are missing the point. It doesn't matter (to me) how weak a parallel is in a side by side comparison. I have a strong testimony in the BoM, yet I take a pragmatic approach to how Joseph achieved this monumental work. Also, it seems that responses like this have a very threatened feel, as if the argument for finding legitimate parallels in a book contemporary to Joseph would actually destroy anything, let alone your testimony. This adds to the dynamic that was Joseph, and his capability as a "seer" who allowed revelation to flow through him.

Morgan Deane said...

I'm all for "dynamic" comparisons but I'm sorry, I don't see these comparisons as qualifying. If Joseph Smith was some kind of literary genius that could weave in beautiful prose drawn from the best contemporary works on top of being a prophet, that would be cool and it could enhance our understanding of the text, (as Chris Smith at Worlds Without End has discussed.) But based on my study and research, on top of the statistical models and discussions found elsewhere, these phrases that supposedly prove dependence between the texts are not convincing. I already thought they were rather generic, and this was before I read comments from people like Ben McGuire that showed more problems with them.

Additionally, I was at a conference a few years ago where I presented a paper on a generals application of a military text. And the commenter after my presentation simply asked, "where and when did the general read the text in question?" It was worthy of answering but I didn't know or have any indication that the general actually read it. I wonder the same thing about Smith. The book existing in that time period doesn't mean that Smith read it.

Mary Cate said...

Would you please expound on the Mesoamerican elements in the Book of Mormon that you elude to?

Richard Holmes said...

Just wanted to say really like your work Jeff.