Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon
by Dan Vogel
Confronted with the task of making a final assessment of this study, I am keenly aware of the controversial nature of the subject, especially as it pertains to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, this question once sharply divided “believer” from “non-believer,” but the division may no longer be quite as clear. For various reasons an increasing number of faithful Mormons are suggesting that it may be possible to question the Book of Mormon’s historicity and yet maintain a belief in its sacred and inspired nature.1 They have joined with non-Mormon scholars in a search for clues from Joseph Smith’s environment which might help to better understand the origin of Mormonism and its founding scripture: the Book of Mormon.
The more traditional elements of the Mormon community have tended to reject the possibility of early nineteenth-century influences on the Book of Mormon. Some maintain, for example, that cultural parallels are weak, contrived, or insignificant.2 Others claim that there were no sources at all from which Joseph Smith might have taken his ideas; in other words, for this group the Book of Mormon was unique in its time.3 Those who hold to this latter view may be the most vulnerable to the cultural evidences discussed in this book. For such a position suffers from a limited knowledge of Joseph Smith’s environment and the pre-1830 literature on the subject of Indian antiquity. I have attempted to show that the cultural and literary evidence is not only plentiful but striking.
Those who question the value of historical criticism have made unfortunate statements about the situation existing when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830. One Mormon writer, for example, claimed that Joseph’s “description of the stone box containing the golden plates stood alone for nearly a century as the only account involving ancient stone boxes.”4 Others have asserted that “there were no records on metal plates known in the Western World.”5 During the famous 1884 Braden and Kelley debate, Elder E. L. Kelley of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints expressed a claim many Mormons today would no doubt assent to when he said that “there was no understanding and no knowledge extant in the world of the grand civilization that had occupied [the American continent] …  prior to 1834.”6 And sixty years later Mormon writer Milton R. Hunter added that Joseph Smith could not have known about “white Indians.”7 As has become evident, however, these and similar statements are inaccurate. Both stone boxes and metal plates were found in the mounds prior to 1830. Knowledge of North, Central, and South American antiquities was wide spread before the publication of the Book of Mormon. And the idea that the mound builders were a white-skinned, Christian people was a common assumption in Joseph Smith’s day.
The foregoing analysis, to be sure, will not satisfy the intellectual and religious demands of everyone, and debate will of necessity continue. Realistically, the most that can be hoped for is that this work will encourage others adhering to the new school of Mormon scholarship to continue their research into the cultural-environmental aspects of the Book of Mormon. Without this, I believe, the Book of Mormon will barely be understood by its modern readers.
I have tried in this study to follow relevant historical-critical methods to discover the origin of a particular idea and to trace its change and development. Only after this can thoughtful readers determine how a work of literature fits against its cultural background. That some of the major features of the Book of Mormon’s history of ancient America originated centuries before in religiously motivated minds and subsequently proved inaccurate would seem to argue in favor of the book’s modern origin. Those readers who continue to maintain the Book of Mormon’s ancient historicity must do so in the face of what I consider to be some rather clear indications to the contrary.
I have traced the idea that the Indians came to the New World as migrant Jews from its sixteenth-century European origin to its modern demise. Even informed Mormon scholars have had to concede that the American Indians are predominately of Mongolian extraction and that their ancestors inhabited the Americas throughout Book of Mormon times.8 The theological issues which produced and supported the ten tribe and other Jewish theories no longer trouble theologians. Although some in Joseph Smith’s day correctly concluded that the Mongolians had crossed the Bering Strait, other clearly guessed wrong.
The same is true of the theory that a lost race built the mounds but were later destroyed by aboriginal Indians. Archaeologists now know that the Indians built the mounds and that mound-builder cultures still existed at the time of the European discovery of the New World. The theory originated in order to explain Indian inferiority and to justify the taking of Indian lands. The demise of this myth may be one of the most impressive challenges to the Book of Mormon’s ancient origins.
 Furthermore, I have tried to illuminate the Book of Mormon by attempting to recapture the intellectual milieu of Joseph Smith’s day through an examination of the pre-1830 literature. But I have intentionally avoided making direct connections. As I. Woodbridge Riley wrote more than eighty years ago:
How far did Joseph Smith fasten on this literary driftwood, as it floated on the current of the times? It is here unnecessary to follow the ebb and flow of the tide of speculation. In spite of a continuous stream of conjectural literature, it is as yet impossible to pick out any special document as an original source of the Book of Mormon.9
This study, I believe, has a much wider scope than simply trying to correct misconceptions regarding the Book of Mormon’s origins and history: it encourages readers to obtain a more accurate view of the Book of Mormon itself and to form some idea of the emotional climate and cultural environment in which it emerged, to unify and expand the field of vision, and to make useful investigations instead of promulgating illusory and emotional speculations concerning the unknown. The better one understands the pre-1830 environment of Joseph Smith, the better he or she will understand the Book of Mormon. This, I conclude, is the challenge facing future Book of Mormon scholarship.
1. Among those in both the LDS and RLDS churches who have publicly questioned the Book of Mormon’s historicity are Wayne Ham, “Problems in Interpreting the Book of Mormon as History,” Courage: A Journal of History, Thought and Action 1 (Sept. 1970): 15-22; William D. Russell, “A Further Inquiry into the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 7 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): 20-27; Blake Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling M. McMurrin,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Spring 1984): 25-26; and George D. Smith, “Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon,” Free Inquiry (Winter 1983-84): 21-31. In a talk given to religious education faculty at Brigham Young University, political scientist Louis Midgley acknowledged a growing trend among some Mormons to view the Book of Mormon as “inspired fiction” and to offer “naturalistic explanations” for foundational events. This trend, Midgley feared, constituted a more sophisticated, “more subtle,” and “more dangerous” threat to the Mormon faith than any previous attack by outsiders. Midgley unfortunately failed to consider seriously the challenges facing the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the strengths of a less literalistic approach. See Louis Midgley, “Some Challenges to the Foundations,” 14 Sept. 1984, copy in author’s possession.
2. For Mormon attempts at minimizing the significance of the 1830 material, see, for example, Hugh Nibley, “The Comparative Method,” Improvement Era (Oct.-Nov. 1959): 744, 848, passim; and those compiled in James D. Bales, The Book of Mormon? (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1958), 160-245. On the weakness of these attempts, especially Nibley’s apologetic, see Madison U. Sowell, “The Comparative Method Reexamined,” Sunstone 6 (May-June 1981): 44, 50-54.
3. For example, one scholar from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said it was not possible for Joseph Smith “to plagarize [sic] from other publications the wonderful information divulged in the Book of Mormon for the simple reason that there was none; at that time American archaeological investigation had scarcely begun” (in Bales, 162). For other Mormon claims, consult Chapter 14 of Bales’s book.
5. Kirk Holland Vestal and Arthur Wallace, The Firm Foundation of Mormonism (Los Angeles: LL Co., 1981), 106. Compare similar pronouncements in Paul R. Cheesman, “Ancient Writings in the Americas,” Brigham Young University Studies 13 (Autumn 1972): 83-84; Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 122; Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah: The Book of Mormon in the Modern World (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1967), 251.
6. Clark Braden, The Braden-Kelley Debate (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Co., [1884?]), 68. Kelley incorrectly assumed that Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities had first appeared in 1834; the first edition, however, appeared in 1833.