John Dehlin with his podcasts and videos criticizing the Church has recently stirred up a lot of interest in the "amazing" and "historic" case of "plagiarism" against Joseph Smith based on the "groundbreaking research" of Haley Wilson-Lemmon about Joseph's "Inspired Translation of the Bible" (often called the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible or simply JST) conducted as undergraduate research with BYU Professor Thomas Wayment. John in his Mormon Stories podcast tells us that this incredible work exposing plagiarism in the JST "strikes to the heart of Mormon Church truth claims." Before the publicity Dehlin created, others were already talking about the troubling implications of the work before the details were published, before we could see what the many purported examples of plagiarism actually were.
All people had to go on until recently (as far as I can tell), was the very short paper of Haley Wilson and Thomas Wayment, "A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation," published online in the Journal of Undergraduate Research at BYU, March 16, 2017. It alleged that there were hundreds of parallels that "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." Only one example, and hardly a compelling one at that, was presented in the undergraduate paper--the first one we'll review in just a moment.
As the rumors spread, I wondered if the crown jewel of Joseph's "Inspired Translation of the Bible," the canonized Book of Moses, had clear evidence of derivation from Adam Clarke. I was working on a paper that I just presented at the "Tracing Ancient Threads of the Book of Moses Conference" in Provo, Utah on Sept. 19, and I wanted to see if some of the cases of intertextuality linking the Book of Mormon to a possible text similar to the Book of Moses on the brass plates might be related to Adam Clarke. So I looked up Adam Clarke's commentary and began searching for distinctive Book of Moses terms related to Book of Mormon concepts to see if anything interesting came from Clarke. I couldn't find any connections, though I got exhausted before exhausting the numerous interesting phrases from the Book of Moses, so I could have missed something. But I quit searching when I heard a podcast (an interview with Laura Hales for LDS Perspectives) in which Thomas Wayment explained that they had found no connections with the Book of Moses (see p. 4 and especially p. 7 of the transcript: "There are no parallels to Clarke between Genesis 1– Genesis 24"). It was only in later material, especially in the New Testament, where parallels were found (but also apparently not in the also canonized revision of Matthew 24). If the canonized Book of Moses, with its breathtaking original material, lacked influence from Clarke, I wondered why parallels elsewhere in non-canonical material that Joseph never published would be such a big deal? But whatever evidence of "plagiarism" had been found was apparently a big enough deal for Haley Wilson-Lemmon that it shattered her testimony of the Restoration. She left the Church and has become something of a hero to our critics.
Thomas Wayment, on the other hand, took what I felt was a more reasonable approach in light of the apparent parallels that he and his student thought they had found: he saw revelation at work in the Book of Moses, but as Joseph looked at other verses in his ongoing, incomplete work, he recognized the value of turning to "the best books" to help him study things out in his own mind and use suggestions from other scholars when they made sense. With that framework, the parallels, however clear and compelling they might be, could be parsed as the reasonable effort to use available knowledge in addition to seeking pure revelation on a few key issues. Those purported parallels only involve less than 5% of the JST and even if Adam Clarke was influential, should not pose a fundamental problem for cases of Joseph studying things out in his own mind to make reasonable alterations.
But there's much more to this story, now that we can see the details that so shook Wilson-Lemmon. Their long-awaited paper has been published as Thomas A. Wayment and
Haley Wilson-Lemmon, "A Recovered Resource: The Use of Adam Clarke's
Bible Commentary in Joseph Smith's Bible Translation," Chapter 11 in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, edited
by Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020). I just purchased the Kindle edition.
While the paper looks solid and fascinating at first glance, there are actually some serious gaps. Unfortunately, readers are unlikely to spot most of the problems unless they are thoroughly familiar with the details of Joseph's "Inspired Translation of the Bible" and unless they take the trouble to look at Adam Clarke's text. That text is The Holy Bible : containing the Old and New Testaments, 8 volumes (New York: Daniel Hitt and Abraham Paul, 1817). The text of an 1831 version is available at Sacred-Texts.com. Images and the text from Vol. 1 of an 1825 printing is available at Archive.org, where I did my initial searching of Genesis-related material. Fortunately, the hard work of digging into ALL of the examples in the Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon paper has just been done by Professor Kent P. Jackson in a valuable paper, "Some Notes on Joseph Smith and Adam Clarke," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 40 (2020): 15-60, which just came out yesterday. I highly recommend that you read this paper, if only to understand how misguided anti-Mormon claims can be, and how the zeal to attack the Church can lead to the unfortunate tendency of turning gems into dirt and pearls into trash, even while thinking one is acting as an objective scholar.
To be clear, I am not saying that the paper by Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon is "anti-Mormon" -- Wayment surely prepared it in good faith in spite of the now revealed major gaps in the analysis. Yes, LDS scholars like all scholars can make serious mistakes at times. But it is being used by many critics of the Church as if it provides compelling reasons to reject Joseph Smith. Those anti-Mormon claims would be misguided even if the paper were completely accurate, but upon closer inspection, the paper itself lacks any compelling evidence linking Joseph Smith to Adam Clarke. Jackson's response devastates the claims of critics. Many of them will likely ignore Jackson's work and continue to talk for years about Joseph's "plagiarism" of Adam Clarke. Some may even go on to argue that Adam Clarke was a source for the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, or other revelations, repeating perhaps the same mistakes shown here (mistakenly seeing Clarke as the source for a natural preference for "will" over "shall," etc.). As with the case for Joseph borrowing from a book about the ancient Hindus to create the Book of Ether, the topic of a recent post here, the cases for Joseph's "plagiarism" inevitably seem to fizzle upon closer inspection. When startled by new charges, stay calm and look for more information from those who have dug into the sources, as Kent P. Jackson so ably did for this case.
So let's look at a few of the examples from Jackson's thorough review. First up is the example from the 2017 publication in the BYU Journal of Undergraduate Research, presumably the most compelling single example they could offer at the time, taken from Colossians 2:20-22. First I'll show Adam Clarke's commentary from Colossians 2:20-22 from the 1831 edition at SacredTexts.com, with Clarke's relevant comment in bold:
If ye be dead with Christ - See the notes on Rom 6:3, Rom 6:5 (note).
From the rudiments of the world - Ye have renounced all hope of salvation from the observance of Jewish rites and ceremonies, which were only rudiments, first elements, or the alphabet, out of which the whole science of Christianity was composed. We have often seen that the world and this world signify the Jewish dispensation, or the rites, ceremonies, and services performed under it.
Why, as though living in the world - Why, as if ye were still under the same dispensation from which you have been already freed, are ye subject to its ordinances, performing them as if expecting salvation from this performance?
Touch not; taste not; handle not - These are forms of expression very frequent among the Jews. In Maccoth, fol. xxi. 1: "If they say to a Nazarite, Don't drink, don't drink; and he, notwithstanding, drinks; he is guilty. If they say, Don't shave, don't shave; and he shaves, notwithstanding; he is guilty. If they say, Don't put on these clothes, don't put on these clothes; and he, notwithstanding, puts on heterogeneous garments; he is guilty." See more in Schoettgen.
Which all are to perish with the using - These are not matters of eternal moment; the different kinds of meats were made for the body, and go with it into corruption: in like manner, all the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish religion now perish, having accomplished the end of their institution; namely, to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
After the commandments and doctrines of men? - These words should follow the 20th verse, of which they form a part; and it appears from them that the apostle is here speaking of the traditions of the elders, and the load of cumbrous ceremonies which they added to the significant rites prescribed by Moses.
Now here is the excerpt from Kent Jackson's article:
KJV:  why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,  (Touch not; taste not; handle not;  Which all are to perish with the using,) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
JST: why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances which are after the doctrines and commandments of men, who teach you to touch not, taste not, handle not all those things which are to perish with the using?
In this passage, Joseph Smith, among many changes, moved the second half of verse 22 to the end of verse 20. The Alexander Campbell and Rodolphus Dickinson translations reorder the verses in the same way. Clarke writes, “These words should follow the 20th verse, of which they form a part.” Without rearranging the words, the translations of Abner Kneeland and John Palfrey insert extra words in attempts to make better sense of the existing text.80 These examples show that others in Joseph Smith’s generation observed that the awkward passage was in need of repair. But had the Prophet done as Clarke advised, it would still be very awkward, and it would not look much like how he actually revised it. If there were a printed source that influenced the JST, Campbell’s translation, because it was widely available and known, would be a better candidate than Clarke’s six-volume commentary.
There is no way to tell if the Prophet was influenced by any printed source to make this revision. Campbell, Clarke, Dickinson, Kneeland, and Palfrey were not drawing from superior Greek manuscripts, nor from special academic knowledge, in wanting to revise the passage. They simply observed that in its current state — in Greek as well as in English — the text was cumbersome. The awkwardness of the text itself was sufficient to invite a change, and Joseph Smith could see this as well as anyone else. Verses 20–23 constitute a single sentence — both in Greek and in the King James translation — with a parenthetical phrase inserted in the middle that spreads over a verse and a half (verses 21–22a). The insertion interrupts the grammar of the sentence and makes the whole passage awkward and difficult to comprehend. Joseph Smith’s revision places the parenthetical phrase in a clause at the end of a sentence, and it makes the whole passage read very nicely. Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon write that “the change does little to smooth out the flow of the English translation, and nothing to clarify the meaning.”81 This is manifestly untrue, because the revision certainly does smooth out the flow and clarify the meaning, and thus it is startling that they would be so condescending about it. With several carefully selected additional words (not suggested by Clarke or Campbell), the revision creates the clearest reading of this passage that I have found. It makes the sentence grammatically whole, and the insertion of “who teach you to” changes [Page 45]the overall meaning significantly and makes sense of the “touch not, taste not, handle not” sequence. This JST revision is a gem.
Joseph Smith made other changes in the surrounding text (in verse 23, for example) that cannot be explained with reference to Clarke, suggesting even more that Clarke was not the source for any changes in this passage.
Clarke recommended reordering verses in other passages. He believed, for example, that verse 13 of Matthew 23 should come after verse 14, but Joseph Smith did not make that change. Joseph Smith, in turn, moved text in other places. He placed John 1:28 after 1:34 and Mark 14:10–11 after 14:28, moves not suggested in Clarke. He moved verse 23 of 1 Timothy 5 to after verse 25, even though Clarke (in a small mention in a large commentary on other topics) stated that the verse was in the correct place and should not be moved. The Prophet also put Philippians 1:22 in front of 1:21 and moved Hebrews 7:21 to after 7:22, changes not reflected in the commentary of Clarke. He moved a piece of Exodus 33:3 to 33:1, also not noted in Clarke. And he reversed the order of verses 49 and 50 in John 6, also not noted in Clarke. Examples like these show Joseph Smith’s independence as a reviser of the text, something readily apparent in the more dramatic changes he made in Genesis and elsewhere.
Jackson appropriately observes that Joseph's alteration goes far beyond the obvious need to move the parenthetical comments to make the passage more readable. What he does is convert a still puzzling and awkward passage into one that makes more sense than any of the numerous attempts others have made to improve the translation. Truly it is a gem. It's only commonality with Clarke can be explained by common sense. What makes the JST distinctive here is independent of Clarke. It's a gem that our critics would discard as the dirt of plagiarism.
Here are a few more of the many examples Jackson treats:
KJV: Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you
JST: Pharaoh will not hearken unto you
For linguistic reasons, Adam Clarke criticized the King James translators for their use of “shall” here instead of “will.”50
Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon suggest that Joseph Smith followed Clarke in making this change, but there is no reason to think that this is the case. The manuscripts show that the Prophet dictated both “shall” and “will” when revising texts. Prior to arriving at this verse, he had already changed “shall” to “will” in several places, including Genesis 23:9, Romans 3:30, and Revelation 19:15. In a passage similar to the one [Page 29]here, he had already changed “he shall not let the people go” to “he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). In a passage identical to this one, he had already changed “Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you” to “Pharaoh will not hearken unto you” (Exodus 7:4). Clarke suggested none of those changes, and thus, because Joseph Smith made them prior to arriving at Exodus 11, the connection that Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon make with Clarke is unfounded.
The Prophet made other significant changes in this verse and in surrounding verses, but Clarke’s commentary cannot explain any of them. This is something we shall see repeatedly.
KJV: Thou shalt not revile the gods
JST: Thou shalt not revile against God
That Adam Clarke disliked the KJV here is understandable, because its wording is indefensible. Joseph Smith’s change is different from Clarke’s paraphrase, but both replace “the gods” with “God,” as do virtually all modern translations.
Wayment suggests that the Prophet was dependent on Adam Clarke here, but there is a much better explanation.51 One of his guiding instincts in revising Bible passages was to correct errors, particularly doctrinal errors. There are no “gods,” and why would the law of Moses want to protect “the gods” from ridicule anyway? This is a common-sense revision that is predictable and consistent with many other changes Joseph Smith made.
KJV: My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times
JST: My heart breaketh, for my soul longeth after thy judgments at all times
King James’s translators rejected the sensible reading of the Geneva Bible in the first clause, “Mine heart breaketh.” Clarke does not call for a revision of the text but merely comments in the course of his discussion, “We have a similar expression: — it broke my heart — that is heart-breaking — she died of a broken heart.”
With no more evidence than that, Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon believe that those words from Clarke influenced Joseph Smith to change “soul” to “heart.”54 They have no case here, and there are other changes in the passage that cannot be attributed to Clarke. Many examples in the manuscripts and Joseph Smith’s Bible show that he viewed italicized words with suspicion. Because this verse contains a string of three italicized words, it invites a change. The unidiomatic nature of the first phrase is obvious. We do not say “My soul breaketh” in modern English, so Joseph Smith changed it sensibly to “My heart breaketh,” consistent with revisions he made to other unidiomatic phrases. But he may also have been especially sensitive about the meaning of the word “soul.” Shortly before he made this revision in Psalms, he received a revelation stating that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the [Page 31]resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul” (D&C 88:15–16). With those words in mind, the phrase “my soul breaketh” makes no sense at all.
True to his frequent pattern of preserving KJV words when changing the meaning of a verse, he saved the word “soul” and moved it to a different location in the verse, certainly not anticipated by Clarke. He revised the grammar of the sentence further by replacing the noun “longing” with a verbal phrase, “longeth after,” likewise not anticipated or desired by Clarke. The combined changes make the passage read very nicely and are a significant improvement over the KJV.
This is one of several examples in which Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon isolate one small similarity to something Clarke wrote in his commentary, but it is in a Bible passage where nothing in Clarke can account for the other changes Joseph Smith made.
Now we consider 2 Timothy 3:16. For context, below is Adam Clarke's commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16 (emphasis mine), where he offers a corrected translation that is radically different from the JST: "Every writing Divinely inspired is profitable for doctrine, etc." This is followed by Jackson's reply to Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon's treatment:
2 Timothy 3:16
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God - This sentence is not well translated; the original πασα γραφη θεοκνευστος ωφιλιμος προς διδασκαλιαν, κ. τ. λ. should be rendered: Every writing Divinely inspired is profitable for doctrine, etc. The particle και, and, is omitted by almost all the versions and many of the fathers, and certainly does not agree well with the text. The apostle is here, beyond all controversy, speaking of the writings of the Old Testament, which, because they came by Divine inspiration, he terms the Holy Scriptures, Ti2 3:15; and it is of them alone that this passage is to be understood; and although all the New Testament came by as direct an inspiration as the Old, yet, as it was not collected at that time, not indeed complete, the apostle could have no reference to it.
The doctrine of the inspiration of the sacred writings has been a subject of much discussion, and even controversy, among Christians. There are two principal opinions on the subject:
1. That every thought and word were inspired by God, and that the writer did nothing but merely write as the Spirit dictated.
2. That God gave the whole matter, leaving the inspired writers to their own language; and hence the great variety of style and different modes of expression.
But as I have treated this subject at large in my Introduction to the Four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, I must refer the reader to that work.
Is profitable for doctrine - To teach the will of God, and to point out Jesus Christ till he should come.
For reproof - To convince men of the truth; and to confound those who should deny it, particularly the Jews.
For correction - Προς επανορθωσιν· For restoring things to their proper uses and places, correcting false notions and mistaken views.
Instruction in righteousness - Προς παιδειαν την εν δικαιοσυνῃ. For communicating all initiatory religious knowledge; for schooling mankind. All this is perfectly true of the Jewish Scriptures; and let faith in Christ Jesus be added, see Ti2 3:15, and then all that is spoken in the following verse will be literally accomplished.
Now from Jackson:
2 Timothy 3:16
KJV: All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable
JST: And all scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable
Clarke states, “This sentence is not well translated,” and he renders it “Every writing divinely inspired, is profitable.” The primary issue in the English translation is whether there is an implied is before “given by inspiration of God,” as the KJV translators assumed, or whether “All scripture given by inspiration of God” is the subject of the sentence.
I can think of two reasons why Joseph Smith might have wanted to revise this verse, and neither of them suggests reliance on Adam Clarke. To begin with, the verse as it stands in the King James translation is not true. One of the Prophet’s guiding instincts was to remove errors, and it is an error to state that everything in the Bible is inspired and profitable. As we have seen, in revising the Old Testament he rejected a whole book as “not inspired,” and he later taught, “[There are] many things in the Bible which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelation of the [Page 46]Holy Ghost to me.”82 Perhaps it was the false idea expressed in this verse that led to the revision.
But there is also a textual issue here. Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon again distort the matter by not showing the italics in the KJV passage.83 They believe that Joseph Smith was “apparently persuaded by Clarke’s reading of the verse,”84 but instead the change reflects the Prophet’s instinct to focus on italicized words. This is another example in which he deleted italicized words and then adjusted the remaining words to make sense of what remained. In this case, the deletion of the first italicized word, the verb “is,” makes almost inevitable the other changes he made. Clarke argued that the “and” should be omitted, but the Prophet kept it and moved it to the beginning of the sentence. Altogether, the only words that the revisions of Joseph Smith and Adam Clarke have in common are the two words that neither of them changed. [emphasis mine]
And one more that illustrates how big the mistakes can be in mining for "plagiarism":
Clarke’s KJV: there were also two other malefactors led with him to be put to death
Joseph Smith’s KJV: there were also two others, malefactors, led with him to be put to death
JST: there were also two others, malefactors, led with him to be put to death
Adam Clarke’s edition of the King James Bible reads as noted above. He states that this verse “should certainly be translated two others, malefactors. … As it now stands in the text, it seems to intimate that our blessed Lord was also a malefactor.” Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon state, “Apparently in deference to Clarke, Smith rendered the problematic line in precisely the same way,” that is, by inserting the letter s to change “other” to “others.”70
But there is nothing here “in deference to Clarke,” and the lack of care with which Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon treat this example is troubling. Unlike Clarke’s Bible, the edition of the KJV that Joseph Smith used in preparing his revision already has “others.” Joseph Smith did not change this verse at all. He simply read it as it appeared in his Bible, and his scribe wrote it down.71 [emphasis mine]
None of these are good reasons for leaving the Church. In fact, the Book of Moses, the crown jewel of the JST project, provides some excellent reasons for deeply respecting the prophetic gifts Joseph Smith employed in his translation work, as we shall discuss in an upcoming post here related to the "Ancient Threads" conference I mentioned above. Stay tuned, and stay faithful, no matter how momentarily shocking an alleged parallel between Joseph's writings and some other text may be -- until someone digs in and reveals just how weak if not silly the case for plagiarism actually is.