Summary: It’s been said by critics of the Book of Mormon that it’s a fictional story, written by a young man named Joseph Smith who claimed his book is a true history showing that the American Indians are descendants of Jews who migrated here from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. It is further alleged that the reason why Joseph wrote this book was a scheme to make money by fooling people into believing a lie. This article takes a close examination of these allegations to see how credible they are.
It’s been said that the Book of Mormon is a story about how the American Indians are Israelites who migrated here from Jerusalem somewhere around 600 B.C. It is further claimed that this is a fictional story created by a young man in his early twenties named Joseph Smith.
However, since Joseph had no formal schooling and grew up on a farm in rural frontier America in the late 1820s, if he did invent the story found in the Book of Mormon, then he would have most certainly written about the American Indians based on what he knew of them living in and around the Palmyra, New York area, and perhaps also in Vermont where he was born in 1805.
In the Book of Mormon, it tells the story of a group of people known as the Lamanite, who are described as having their “heads shaved that they were naked; and they were girded with a leathern girdle about their loins” (Mosiah 10:8). The problem with this is that the Indians who lived in upstate New York in the 1820s were the Iroquois and Algonquin and they were dressed from head to foot and had long hair.
If Joseph Smith was going to write a fictional book and claim it was actual history translated from an ancient record he found near his home, he would have made the characters in his story resemble those who were living in his area. It would make no sense for him to write about a nation of people who were totally different from what people were familiar with and then claim this was a true story.
And there was a good reason why the Iroquois and Algonquin Indians didn’t go around naked, wearing nothing but a loin cloth, and having their heads shaved. The temperature in upstate New York is cool to extremely cold for most of the year. The weather there is only warm enough to wear just a loin cloth for one, and perhaps no more than two months out of the entire year, and even then, most of the native Indians in that area would still wear more clothing than that. The Iroquois and Algonquin Indians would certainly not have gone to war wearing so little clothing as the Lamanites are described as doing.
But there’s still another reason to consider. In the winter, the temperature in upstate New York can not only be bitter cold, but that area gets a lot of snow. For this reason, the Indians would dress wearing multiple layers of clothing to stay warm, especially when working in snow.
However, there is no mention in the Book of Mormon of either cold weather or snow. Again, if Joseph Smith was writing a fictional story that was supposed to be true, to make his narrative more believable, he would have made his story resembled what people in New York were familiar with.
But the Book of Mormon speaks of two groups of people – the Lamanites and the Nephites. Whereas the Lamanites are depicted as bloodthirsty savages, the Nephites are described as civilized and refined. Concerning this group of people, we’re told that, “They did have their goods and their substances no more in common.”
Their society was divided into a lower class of poor people and an upper class who wore “costly apparel and all manner of fine pearls and of the fine things of the world” (4 Nephi 1:24,25). This included clothes made out of silk, and jewelry made out of gold and silver with “their ringlets and their bracelets, and their ornaments of gold, and all their precious things which they are ornamented with” (Alma 31:28)
But, here again, this doesn’t match with what we know of Iroquois and Algonquin history or culture. First, their society wasn’t divided into distinctly different classes of people. Except for the rulers, everyone was equal in that they all wore the same style of clothing, and there was no “rich and poor” among them. In addition to this, they didn’t wear “costly apparel [with] all manner of fine pearls and of the fine things of the world.” And they certainly didn’t wear clothes made out of silk, nor was their jewelry made out of gold and silver.
The story in the Book of Mormon also tells of how the Nephites built many large metropolitan cities, a number of which had walls around them The largest of these was the capital city of Zarahemla, but there were many other large cities such as Bountiful, Jerusalem, Manti, Jashon, Jordan, and Teancum, to mention a few.
In each of these cities there was a thriving economy based on various kinds of business, and in addition to this there were great halls of justice where judges sat to decide the guilt or innocence of people for various kinds of crimes. These were urban areas where large numbers of people lived and worked just as people do in any major city such as New York, Philadelphia, or Boston.
However, the American Indians didn’t build cities. Instead, they lived in small communities where they worked together, hunting, planting, cooking, and making needed items for their own people. There was no form of commerce, with people buying and selling things among themselves as we see in the Book of Mormon.
Again, if Joseph Smith was trying to pass off his fictional piece of literature as being the real history of the ancient American Indians, it would be counterproductive for him to describe the people in his book in ways that were completely different from the way the American Indians lived in his day.
The Nephite nation was governed by a chief judge who headed a central government, whose seat of power was located in the city of Zarahemla. In contrast, the American Indians had no central government, and each tribe was ruled over by a tribal chief. In fact, the Iroquois were not really a “nation” but were a confederacy, made up of five different tribes – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. These tribes cooperated with each other for economic and security reasons when it suited their purpose, but when it didn’t, they could sometimes be at war with one another.
The Algonquin Indians were not one group of people but rather that was the name given to a wide number of different tribes who not only lived in Palmyra, New York where Joseph lived, but in Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware and Pennsylvania. These tribes had even less association with each other than did the Iroquois confederacy. Thus, instead of there being one central government among the Iroquois and Algonquin Indians, as we see in the Book of Mormon, each of these tribes were ruled independently by a local chief.
Some might say that this is similar to how the Lamanites were governed as described in the Book of Mormon during the time when the sons of King Mosiah went to preach to the Lamanites, where each group was governed by a local king. Yet, even though the Lamanites did have many kings at that time, there was one king who ruled over all the kings, but this was not the case with the Iroquois and Algonquin Indians.
During the time when Captain Moroni was at war with the Lamanites, there seems to be only one king who ruled over all the Lamanites. Therefore, we see that the type of government the Lamanites had was very different from that of the American Indians
This then points out another flaw in the theory that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith’s imagination.
At the time when the Book of Mormon was being written, the American Revolution had happened about 50 years earlier, and that event was still very fresh in the minds of Americans. In fact, in 1830 there were still people living who had fought in that war. But what was more on the minds of all Americans was their new form of government – a constitutional republic.
Before, and even after the United States Constitution had been ratified, it was hotly debated, and as a result it led to the creation of two political parties less than 10 years after it had been adopted. These two parties were the Anti-Federalists, and the Democrat/Republican party, which Thomas Jefferson played a crucial role in establishing, and they had very different ideas about how our country should be governed.
When the Book of Mormon was written in 1829, Joseph Smith was only twenty-three years old. If he was going to invent a story, he would have been heavily influenced by the thinking of his day and would have patterned the government of the Lamanites and/or Nephites after the style of the constitutional government of the United States because that’s what was on the minds and lips of most Americans at that time.
Instead, what we see in the Book of Mormon is a very different system of government. Among the Lamanites we see a dictatorial system of kings, but among the Nephites, instead of having a legislative body who made the laws and a president who executed them, they had a chief judge who presided according to established laws that had been approved by the people through a majority vote. In addition to this, they had a system of higher and lower judges in each city who maintained justice.
This was not the kind of government Americans were used to, even when they were citizens of England, and this was certainly not the kind of government the American Indians had. If someone was writing an admitted fictional story, there would have been nothing unusual for them to invent a unique system of government and having people in that story behave in unfamiliar ways, but when writing a book that’s supposedly based on actual history of known people, it would be counterproductive to invent a story that was very different from what people were familiar with.
In addition to this, the Book of Mormon contains some very specific descriptions of what the land looked like. There was a major river called Sidon that divided the land of Zarahemla between east and west, there was a sea on both the east and west side. There was a wilderness at the southern border of the land of Zarahemla, and there was a narrow neck of land at the northern border of Zarahemla, whose width went “from the west sea, even unto the east; it being a day’s journey for a Nephite” (Helaman 4:7).
However, this geography bears no resemblance to the New York area. There is no large river running north and south such as the river Sidon, nor a narrow neck of land to the north of it, nor is there a sea on both the east and west that is relatively close to each other. America has a sea on its east and west coasts, but they are 3,000 miles apart from one another. The story in the Book of Mormon strongly infers that the distance between these two seas was no more than perhaps a hundred miles.
What all this clearly infers is that the Book of Mormon does not describe the native people who were living in the New York area, or even anywhere in the northern United States. For this reason, there are those who believe this story took place in Central America, but there are at least two problems with that theory.
The first is, if Joseph wanted people to believe his fictional book was real history, he would have used facts he was familiar with or that he could have gleaned from others living in the Palmyra area to add authenticity to his narrative. It doesn’t make sense for him to claim his book was true while writing about a part of the world that he and most others knew nothing about, and which could have been easily disproved.
If, at age twenty-three, Joseph Smith had decided to write a fictional book and claim it to be factual history, he was intelligent enough to know that he had to make his account sound authentic. And since he had never written a book before, he would have followed what all other writers of fiction did, which was to put in enough details to let his readers know where the story was taking place and then use known facts to make his story sound believable.
Instead, what we see in the Book of Mormon is that there are many details that weren’t given, that we now wish we had. However, if someone was writing their own history, there would be a lot of details left out of the narrative that the writer would assume everyone knew.
For example, if someone living in New York city in 1800 wrote a story about their life, they wouldn’t think to describe the city as being along the east coast of America, because they would assume everyone already knew that, and nor would they think to describe how the streets were paved because that would have been common knowledge to those living at that time.
When Lehi and his family arrived in the Americas they didn’t know if they had landed in New York harbor or in Guatemala off the Gulf of Mexico, or in Brazil from the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, all those who wrote about the history of the Nephites and Lamanites would have describe things in ways that everyone they knew was familiar with, which is exactly what we should expect to see in the Book of Mormon.
Some critics say that because Joseph was an uneducated farm boy, he was too ignorant to know how to write a convincing book and this is why we see the story in the Book of Mormon being so different from anything in Joseph’s life. Yet, other critics claim that Joseph was a born genius who was so brilliant that he could write a 500-page story that resembled what a biographical account should look like.
However, the critics can’t have it both ways. The fact is that even though Joseph didn’t attend any kind of schooling, yet he was not stupid. In fact, despite his lack of formal education, he was quite intelligent, as most people were during that time. However, neither was he a genius. At the time he had finished the Book of Mormon, he was as ordinary as anyone else his age.
This then leads us to consider yet another aspect of the Book of Mormon, which is Joseph’s motive for writing this book. It cost him $3,000 to have 5,000 Book of Mormons printed. Since Joseph didn’t have the money to finance his project, a man named Martin Harris put up his wealthy farm as collateral so the Book of Mormon could be published. Joseph had hoped to reimburse the printer from the sale of the books, but he ended up giving away more than were sold and was therefore never able to repay the printer.
If Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon as a money-making venture, then when it didn’t produce the expected returns, he would have abandoned the idea of claiming it was an historically accurate book. and sought for other ways to make money. However, he did just the opposite. Both he, and eleven other witnesses went to their grave testifying that the Book of Mormon was a divinely translated record of an ancient people even when there was nothing for them to gain by continuing to maintain such a belief.
When we look at the claim that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, written by an uneducated young man whose purpose was to make money by fooling people into believing a lie, we find that such an accusation can’t be supported upon closer examination.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism