Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger

Appendix 1.
Did Joseph Smith Consult Ethan Smith?

[p.183]The first non-Mormon scholar to accept the influence of View of the Hebrews on Joseph Smith was Fawn Brodie.1 Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea followed suit,2 as did others.3 In fact, a line can be drawn between George Arbaugh’s 1932 study of Mormonism and revelation and Brodie’s 1945 biography of Joseph Smith. Arbaugh knew that View of the Hebrews was one of many books advancing a theory of Hebrew/native American origins but favored the Spaulding manuscript theory of Mormon beginnings.4

Mormon consideration of the influence of Ethan Smith predates Brodie. In the 1920s B. H. Roberts identified four books possibly available to Joseph Smith but felt that realistically Smith would only have had access to works by James Adair and Ethan Smith. Roberts pointed out that no direct evidence connected Ethan Smith with Joseph Smith. The prophet had not used the theory, Roberts thus concluded, because he was too young, was not a student, and it would have been too difficult to have assimilated the knowledge of American antiquities necessary to dictate the Book of Mormon.5 Later, Roberts studied the possible connection further and drew up a list of parallels between the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews. He circulated his research among some in Utah but did not publish it.6 After Roberts’s death his son mimeographed the list and distributed it, and his studies were finally published in 1987.7

According to Roberts’s later studies, some features of View of the Hebrews are paralleled in the Book of Mormon. (1) Indians buffed a book they could no longer read. (2) A Mr. Merrick found some dark [p.184] yellow parchment leaves in “Indian Hill.” (3) Native Americans had inspired prophets and charismatic gifts, as well as (4) their own kind of Urim and Thummim and breastplate. (5) Ethan Smith produced evidence to show that ancient Mexican Indians were no strangers to Egyptian hieroglyphics. (6) An overthrown civilization in America is to be seen from its ruined monuments and forts and mounds. The barbarous tribes—barbarous because they had lost the civilized arts—greeting the Europeans were descendants of the lost civilization. (7) Chapter one of View of the Hebrews is a thirty-two-page account of the historical destruction of Jerusalem. (8) There are many references to Israel’s scattering and being “gathered” in the last days. (9) Isaiah is quoted for twenty chapters to demonstrate the restoration of Israel. In Isaiah 18 a request is made to save Israel in America. (10) The United States is asked to evangelize the native Americans. (11) Ethan Smith cited Humboldt’s New Spain to show the characteristics of Central American civilization; the same are in the Book of Mormon. (12) The legends of Quetzacoatl, the Mexican messiah, are paralleled in the Book of Mormon by Christ’s appearing in the western hemisphere. Mormon responses to these parallels have variously addressed one or more of the following questions: Did Joseph Smith know enough about native American antiquities to dictate the Book of Mormon? Did he know about the theory of the Indian-Israelite identification? Did he actually use View of the Hebrews?

One line of defense has been to assert that information about native American antiquities was unavailable to Joseph Smith. As noted, Roberts initially felt that only four works could have been available to Smith. Evan Fry of the RLDS church subsequently contended that books describing Mexican and American Indian archaeology such as Humboldt’s New Spain would not have been available to a boy in western New York before 1839.8 But Roberts came to recognize that, at least in the case of Ethan Smith’s book, such works were widely available.9

Roy Weldon and Edward Butterworth cited and dismissed six similarities between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon because Joseph Smith treated them differently than Ethan Smith.10 For example, Ethan Smith applied “the stick of Ephraim” of Ezekiel 37 to the ten lost tribes of Israel, but Joseph Smith applied it only to the tribe of Manasseh. Weldon and Butterworth reason that one usage should duplicate the other in order to establish borrowing. [p.185] They also cite contradictions between the two texts as well as suggest that Joseph Smith could have borrowed more, which by inference rule out borrowing. However, dependence cannot be dismissed because of what Joseph Smith did not use from the View of the Hebrews, or because he altered the features of resemblance between the two books, or because he contradicted some features of the earlier work.

The next line of defense was to recognize that information about early Indian life was indeed at hand but that since Joseph Smith was young and not a student, he could not have assimilated enough information to produce the Book of Mormon. However, the Book of Mormon is vague about details of ancient American geography and antiquities, enough so that no area can be specifically pin-pointed on a map. M. Wells Jakeman and Ross Christensen, anthropologists at Brigham Young University in 1959 to 1960, denied that certainty was possible regarding the Book of Mormon’s statements about America. Not enough was known about the period of time covered, about Indian origins, or about ancient America to say that the Book of Mormon had been proved scientifically or archaeologically.11 Even Hill Cumorah as the death site of the last Nephite is uncertain.

Lucy Smith’s picture of her son as a thoughtful young man filled with Indian lore indicates that he absorbed the constant flow of information about native Americans. One need only show that the ideas of the Book of Mormon were in reach of Joseph Smith.

Another line of defense has been to acknowledge that View of the Hebrews was available but that Joseph Smith did not need to consult it: the ideas were in the air.12 Hugh Nibley advanced this position to free Joseph Smith from the charge that he used Ethan Smith’s book, but in doing so Nibley undermined earlier Mormon defenses. In denying the force of Roberts’s parallels but admitting that View of the Hebrews was available to Joseph Smith, Nibley has not destroyed the possibility of Joseph Smith’s dependence on Ethan Smith.

Nibley is correct that such ideas were in the air. The Indian-Israelite identification with its many parallels between Hebrew and Indian culture and religion was offered by Mordecai M. Noah as the reason for his establishing a City of Refuge for world Jewry. The article about Professor Seyffarth discovering the Old and New Testaments in Egyptian and a Mexican manuscript in hieroglyphics [p.186] and suggesting that these were interrelated cultures offered a theme which is echoed in the Book of Mormon. Newspapers speculated about the times and places of native American origins and their routes of emigration. All of this information was available in places other than View of the Hebrews. Given the wide availability of such sources, it is difficult denying their possible influence on Joseph Smith.

Mormon writers Spencer Palmer and William Knecht tackled the reliance of both Ethan Smith and Joseph Smith on Isaiah.13 They concluded that “the book of Isaiah is a primary source for anyone dealing with the subject of the dispersion and gathering of Israel.” If Joseph Smith had not used Isaiah in common with Ethan Smith, they say, it would have appeared that he was trying “to avoid suspicion.”14 This argument acknowledges that Joseph Smith knew the work of Ethan Smith but then says the same thing as Weldon and Butterworth: one usage must duplicate the other to demonstrate borrowing, an argument which discounts the workings of human creativity. One can show hundreds of musical influences working on Beethoven, but the great composer brought forth a new kind of music.

Certainly Joseph Smith knew the Bible, Ethan Smith’s ideas, and Masonic lore well enough to have been influenced by them. Mormon attempts to downplay the Mormon prophet’s sources reverse older Mormon apologetics. Orson Pratt defended the authenticity of the Book of Mormon on the basis that Joseph Smith did not know Isaiah 29 before the Harris-Anthon consultation.15 If he did know of the passage, as it is now conceded, then the question of intention comes to the fore.

View of the Hebrews circulated widely in New York. It was also condensed in Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of Nature and Providence, one of the more widely circulated books of the Manchester rental library in 1827.16 The Rev. Anson Sha, pastor of the Manchester Baptist Church, was one of the members of the rental library. During his pastorate, one member related, Joseph Smith occasionally attended his church service. The name of Ethan Smith or at least his views could easily have been presented in a sermon meant to kick the corpse of deism.

Francis Kirkham published the table of contents of the books by Adair, Boudinot, and Ethan Smith to show how they differ in purpose and content from the Book of Mormon. That seemed to [p.187] disprove any connection, but this position is vulnerable on two counts. First, the raw materials can serve many purposes. Second, the books are not dissimilar in purpose, since both Boudinot and Ethan Smith wrote to demonstrate that the Indians have a Hebrew origin and thereby bolster the proof for biblical revelation.17

There are other parallels between the two works by Ethan and Joseph Smith besides those listed by Roberts. Additional important parallels include: the Pittsfield Parchment story (which may already have circulated in the Palmyra area as early as 1817 or 1818) with its two sets of witnesses, the visit to consult scholars about the translation to get it verified, and the belief that it proved the presence of Hebrew religion among the Indians. Many others could be mentioned. For example, both books use Ezekiel 37 (especially v. 16) and are millennially oriented.

Joseph Smith knew the theory of the Hebrew origin of native Americans and knew the Bible well enough to have used them as sources. The possibility is there and the probability is strong that he used View of the Hebrews. Still the case is circumstantial until evidence is found that ties View of the Hebrews to Joseph Smith before he produced the Book of Mormon. If no absolute connection between Ethan Smith and Joseph Smith is found, the data still indicate that the Israelite theory of native American origins was there as a source for Joseph Smith to use in defending God against the forces of deism and rationalism.


1. Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2nd ed. rev. (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1971), 46-48. Isaac Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1902), 171, referred to the Pittsfield Parchment story as part of the milieu from which Smith came. At the time her biography was first published, Brodie was a Mormon. Shortly afterwards, however, she was excommunicated from the church.

2. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).

3. Larry W. Jonas, Mormon Claims Examined (Grand Rapids: Baker Book Co., 1961); Wesley M. Jones, A Critical Study of Book of Mormon Sources (Detroit: Harlo Press, 1964).

4. George Bartholomew Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932).

[p.188]5. Brigham Henry Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1926), 3: 28-39. Later (49-50) Roberts cited the Pittsfield Parchment story as evidence for the Book of Mormon. In American Antiquities 2nd ed. rev. (Albany: Hoffman and White, 1835), 65-67, Josiah Priest used the story to prove the theory of a Hebrew origin for the Indians. In 1837 Parley P. Pratt, Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, or An Introduction to the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News Steam Printing Establishment, 1874), 103-107, used Priest’s just cited work plus the Stockbridge tradition (81) which Ethan Smith had used to clinch the argument of the Pittsfield Parchment story to show that Americana supports the Book of Mormon story of Indian civilization in early America.

6. Brodie, No Man, 47n.

7. See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, “Ethan Smith Parallels,” in Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., 1964), 418-31. Roberts’s exhaustive, private studies of the Book of Mormon were finally published by the University of Illinois Press in 1987 as Studies of the Book of Mormon, edited by Brigham D. Madsen.

8. Evan A. Fry, The Restoration Faith (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing Co., 1962), 222.

Alexander de Humboldt and Aime-Bonpland, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, During the Years 1799-1804, trans. Helen Maria Williams (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1815) was available in the Manchester rental library as accession number 119.

Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain was first published in New York in English in 1811 in two volumes with no maps. It came out in four volumes with plates, maps, plans, and tables in London during 1811-12. A second London edition came out in three volumes in 1822. In 1813 An Abridgement of Humboldt’s Statistical Essay on New Spain by a citizen of Maryland (Baltimore: Wayne and O’Reilly, 1813) appeared and was likely the work advertised in the Palmyra Register.

His Researches, Concerning the Institutions & Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America, with Descriptions & Views of Some of the Most Striking Stones in the Cordilleras, trans. Helen Maria Williams (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, J. Murray and H. Colburn, 1814) was also available in this country. This puts to rest the argument that such works were not available.

9. Roberts, New Witnesses, 2:28-39.

10. Roy E. Weldon and F. Edward Butterworth, Criticism of the Book of Mormon Answered (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1973), 14-16. Compare also Charles A. Davies, “‘View of the Hebrews’ and the Book of Mormon,” Saints’ Herald, 1 Aug. 1962, 537-39.

11. Brigham Young University Archaeological Society Newsletter 57 (25 Mar. [p.187]1959): 4; 64 (30 Jan. 1960): 3.

12. Hugh Nibley, “The Comparative Method,” in “‘Mixed Voices’: A Study in Book of Mormon Criticism,” Improvement Era 62 (Mar.-Aug., Oct.-Nov. 1959).

13. Spencer J. Palmer and William L. Knecht, “View of the Hebrews: Substitute for Inspiration?” Brigham Young University Studies 5 (Winter 1962): 105-13.

14. Ibid., 108.

15. Orson Pratt said of Smith in 1855: “Mr. Smith did not know anything about this prophecy at that time, for he was unacquainted with the contents of the Bible,” “The Ancient Prophecies,” 188. This position has been abandoned.

16. Accession number 108.

17. Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols. 3rd ed. rev. (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1951), 2:392. I made this point in “The Lost Tribes of Israel and the Book of Mormon,” Lutheran Quarterly 22 (Aug. 1970): 319-29.