Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress?

Taken at this level, there isn’t a lot of difference between the story in Pilgrim’s Progress and any of the martyr accounts of the New Testament or the early Christian saints. Jesus’s story could be told in the same way

Did Joseph Smith rely on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress for important elements in the Book of Mormon, In this article, including Lehi's original vision and the story of Abinadi? [1]

It’s easy to reduce stories to this over simplified telling. It’s really easy then to compare them and show how they are exactly alike. Taken at this level, there isn’t a lot of difference between the story in Pilgrim’s Progress and any of the martyr accounts of the New Testament or the early Christian saints. Jesus’s story could be told in the same way – he comes into the city (Jerusalem), raises a stir, is arrested (by the local leader), is questioned (not once but several times) by his henchmen (the Sanhedrin), refuses to speak evil of his abusers, is put on trial (before Pilate), is accused of stirring up contention (he isn’t accused of being mad – I think we would selectively edit that one out, right?), accused of slander (not the town leader in this case – who is Beelzebub the devil – but of that person’s counterpart – God), is scourged, and then killed. He seals his testimony with his blood. Jesus converts many who then depart from the city and follow him, and who enter into a covenant. You see, we have this problem when we get to this level of non-detail.

To say that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t something that I would take very seriously. And from looking at it, this isn't anything other than the parallel hunting that Lindey was so critical of. In reading both books in this way, we get to see the trees but miss the forest. Both have a morality aspect that is completely lost. You would never know from reading this summary that both texts are about Christ and salvation. All of what Bunyan and the author of Mosiah felt were important has been stripped out. And this is very deceptive because we may think in reading Davis that we understand the texts - but what he is describing is nothing at all like what we see when we take the time to look at the sources

The problem with parallels

One of the major problems with using similarity (and parallels) between books as evidence of connection is that it usually doesn’t work very well. The main reason why it is misleading is that we don’t normally compare books in this way (and if we did, we would see those kinds of parallels everywhere). This is the reason why the vast majority of plagiarism lawsuits fail in the courts. It’s very easy to see plagiarism where none exists. We don’t see it a lot these days – but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, plagiarism charges were so rampant, one prominent author advocated for laws that would automatically force those making the charges to pay damages if they could not substantiate their claims legally. Nearly half of all successful plays in the 1920s and 1930s for example were sued at least once for plagiarism. And there was a prominent law firm who had a staff that was devoted to finding potential sources (no matter how obscure) for newly published works or plays and then contacting their authors to see if they would be interested in suing. To deal with this (and to get away from the problems that this approach created), the field of literary criticism went through a stage at the beginning of the twentieth century when it largely rejected this kind of appeal – although it continues to this day. In 1952, one of the first relatively comprehensive discussions about plagiarism was written by a lawyer named Alexander Lindey. He pays some significant attention to this issue, and comes up with a list of 9 “vices” of using parallels to discuss issues of plagiarism (Alexander Lindey, Plagiarism and Originality [Greenwood Press, 1952], 60–61.) Here is that list:

  1. Any method of comparison which lists and underscores similarities and suppresses or minimizes differences is necessarily misleading.
  2. Parallels are too readily susceptible of manipulation. Superficial resemblances may be made to appear as of the essence.
  3. Parallel-hunters do not, as a rule, set out to be truthful and impartial. They are hell-bent on proving a point.
  4. Parallel-hunting is predicated on the use of lowest common denominators. Virtually all literature, even the most original, can be reduced to such terms, and thereby shown to be unoriginal. So viewed, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper plagiarizes Dickens’ David Copperfield. Both deal with England, both describe the slums of London, both see their hero exalted beyond his original station. To regard any two books in this light, however, is to ignore every factor that differentiates one man’s thoughts, reactions and literary expression from another’s.
  5. Parallel columns operate piecemeal. They wrench phrases and passages out of context. A product of the imagination is indivisible. It depends on totality of effect. To remove details from their setting is to falsify them.
  6. Parallels fail to indicate the proportion which the purportedly borrowed material bears to the sum total of the source, or to the whole of the new work. Without such information a just appraisal is impossible.
  7. The practitioners of the technique resort too often to sleight of hand. They employ language, not to record facts or to describe things accurately, but as props in a rhetorical hocus-pocus which, by describing different things in identical words, appears to make them magically alike.
  8. A double-column analysis is a dissection. An autopsy will reveal a great deal about a cadaver, but very little about the spirit of the man who once inhabited it.
  9. Most parallels rest on the assumption that if two successive things are similar, the second one was copied from the first. This assumption disregards all the other possible causes of similarity.

Whatever his vices or virtues, the parallel-hunter is a hardy species. He is destined, as someone had said, to persist until Judgment Day, when he will doubtless find resemblances in the very warrant that consigns him to the nether regions. “

The William Davis piece on the internet was actually a teaser for a book that he suggests he was planning on writing. Here are the two paragraphs:

“In Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful and Christian journey to the wicked city of Vanity Fair on their way to the Celestial Kingdom. As the pilgrims enter the city, their presence causes a disturbance among the citizens, and the travel companions are 1) bound and thrown into prison. A town leader 2) assembles a group of associates to examine the pilgrims, and the prisoners 3) are “brought before” the town leaders and put on trial. They accuse Faithful 4) of being a “madman,” 5) of stirring up contention among the people, and 6) of slandering the town leaders. Faithful 7) speaks “boldly” in his defense, but to no avail. The trial leader 8) condemns Faithful to be “slain” and “put to […] death.” Faithful is then 9) “scourged,” and finally 10) burned at the stake. Thus, Faithful 11) “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Faithful’s teachings and martyrdom 12) convert a witness, Hopeful, who becomes a major character in the story. 13) Other converts follow and depart from the city, 14) “entering into” a “covenant” to follow Christ.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Abinadi enters the now-wicked city of Lehi-Nephi and begins preaching to the people. His presence causes a great disturbance among the citizens, and Abinadi is 1) bound and thrown into prison. The leader of the city, King Noah, 2) assembles a group of false priests to examine Abinadi, and he 3) is “brought before” the leaders and put on trial. They accuse Abinadi 4) of being “mad,” 5) of stirring up contention among the people, and 6) of slandering the town leaders. Abinadi 7) speaks “boldly” in his defense, but to no avail. King Noah 8) condemns Abinadi to be “slain” and “put to death.” Abinadi is then 9) “scourged,” and finally 10) burned at the stake. Thus, Abinadi 11) “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Abinadi’s teachings and martyrdom 12) convert a witness, Alma, who becomes a main character in the story. 13) Other converts follow and depart from the city, 14) “entering into” a “covenant” to follow Christ.”

We can see the list of 14 parallels. So let’s get started. I am using for my comparison an 1820 edition available here:

The link is provided more as a reference, so that I can use page numbers and you can look up the text that I quote (something Davis avoids doing – for reasons we will see). First though, I want to discuss a little of the introduction to the parallels. And as a quick side note, parallels themselves are only part of the story. You have to examine the differences. And you have to understand how these bits and pieces are used in the larger context in which they occur.

“In Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful and Christian journey to the wicked city of Vanity Fair on their way to the Celestial Kingdom.”

The first challenge is this description. In Pilgrim’s Progress, we don’t have a “Celestial Kingdom”. What we do have is the very common notion of the “Celestial City” (p. 33 is where we first see it). This is an example of vice number 7. While the Celestial Kingdom isn’t mentioned in the Book of Mormon either (and certainly not in connection with Abinadi), it’s use here is to try and provide us with an interpretation that connects Joseph Smith to Bunyan’s work. If you do a search on books.google.com for “celestial city” (using the quote marks), and then set up a date limitation to only include books published prior to the Book of Mormon (I used 1/1/1830 for the end date – you can do this by using the search tools option and choosing a custom date), we find hundreds of examples of books talking about a “celestial city”. Many of them come back to Bunyan, but we also have Keyssler’s Travels (1757), Contemplations of the State of Man in this Life, And in Taht which is to come (1718), The Works of the Most Illustrious and Pious Armand de Bourbon Prince of Conti with A short Account of his Life (1711), A Vision of Judgement (1821), A Complete Christian Dictionary (1661), The Philosphical Principles of Natural and Revealed Religion (1749 - part 2), and many, many more.

https://www.google.com/search?q=%22celestial+city%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=CUv9UIDhFomuqQGGjICoCg&ved=0CCcQpwUoBA&source=lnt&tbs=cdr%3A1%2Ccd_min%3A1%2F1%2F1000%2Ccd_max%3A1%2F1%2F1830&tbm=bks

Why the list? The issue is that “celestial city” isn’t terribly unusual in a text. There isn’t anything in that phrase that would point us to the idea of the Celestial Kingdom (which, we are quite confident, Joseph Smith derives from Paul in the New Testament). And yet, we have, as Lindey put it, this “sleight of hand”. Davis isn’t interested in recording “facts or to describe things accurately, but as props in a rhetorical hocus-pocus which, by describing different things in identical words, appears to make them magically alike.” And here, he wants us to see the “Celestial kingdom” of Mormon theology as stemming from Bunyan’s work. The only reason to include a phrase like this, which isn't found in either text (it isn't in the Book of Mormon either) is to create a hook for LDS members who use that term regularly.

As another side note, it’s pretty clear to us as readers that Bunyan's text is a parable. The entire sequence is described as a dream. And Christian and Faithful and even the city name Vanity Fair as well as the Celestial City are all names that are meant to be plays on words. But it doesn’t stop there. We successively encounter the following characters and places Evangelist, Obstinate, City of Destruction, Pliable, Slough of Despond, Worldly-wiseman, Carnal-policy, Legality, Morality, Good-will, Beelzebub, Deliverance, Interpreter, Passion, Patience, Simple, Sloth, Presumption, and so on. (We don't actually meet Faithful until page 74). At any rate, you get the idea.

So, it’s kind of hard to describe where the parallels are coming from. Without lots of space (literally quoting the whole thing), you don’t get the full impact of what is happening. You can look through the link I give above for the whole context. But I am going to give it a go.

Parallel 1

  • Bunyan: As the pilgrims enter the city, their presence causes a disturbance among the citizens, and the travel companions are 1) bound and thrown into prison.
  • Abinadi: In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Abinadi enters the now-wicked city of Lehi-Nephi and begins preaching to the people. His presence causes a great disturbance among the citizens, and Abinadi is 1) bound and thrown into prison.

The Bunyan text he is referring to begins at around page 102. It ends at about page 115. While they enter into the town on page 102, they aren’t imprisoned until page 107, and when they are, they are placed in a cage (although we do have a reference to prison on page 115 – just before Christian leaves Vanity Fair). To try and capture the essence of what is going on, I am going to summarize the parallels (with page references and such) to show the major differences here. The primary text from the Book of Mormon is in the Book of Mosiah Chapters 11-17.

First, while Christian and Faithful are from another place and traveling through Vanity Fair on their way to the Celestial city, Abinadi is a local boy. This plays out in a couple of ways in the separate texts. First, Abinadi never leaves his city. He is originally one of them (Mosiah 11:20 – “And it came to pass that there was a man among them whose name was Abinadi; and he went forth among them, and began to prophesy, saying …” On the other hand, from page 104-5, we get this description of Christian and Faithful and their reasons for being in the city, and the reasons (which Bunyan lists) for the attention that they receive:

“Now these pilgrims, as I said, must needs go through this fair: well, so they did; but behold, even as they entered into the fair, all the people in the fair were moved, and the town itself as it were in a hubbub about them; and that for several reasons. For –

First, the pilgrims were clothed with such kind of raiment as was diverse from the raiment of any that traded in that fair. The people, therefore, of the fair made a great gazing upon them: some said they were fools; some they were lunatics; and some they are outlandish men.

Secondly: and as they wondered at their apparel, so they did likewise at their speech; for few could understand what they said. They naturally spoke the language of Canaan; but they that kept the fair were the men of this world: so that from one end of the fair to the other, they seemed barbarians each to the other. … [omitted scripture quoted from 1 Cor. 2:7-8] Thirdly: but that which did not a little amuse the merchandisers was, that these pilgrims set very light by all their wares – they cared not so much as to look upon them; and if they called upon them to buy, they would put their fingers in their ears, and cry, "Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity;" and look upwards, signifying that their trade and traffic was in heaven.”

I’ll get back to this passage in a minute. But, it’s clear from Bunyan’s text that they are strangers to this town, and just passing through. Now, perhaps part of Davis’s confusion comes in Mosiah 12. At the end of Mosiah 11, the King has announced that Abinadi needs to go to prison. And so Abinadi goes into hiding. And in Chapter 12, we read this (vs. 1): “And it came to pass that after the space of two years that Abinadi came among them in disguise, that they knew him not, and began to prophesy among them, …” In his reading, Davis has confused this with the idea that Abinadi “enters the now-wicked city of Nephi-Lehi”. Abinadi lived there, presumably (since we aren’t told otherwise) his entire life. He dies there shortly. He isn’t entering the city in any way at all like Bunyan’s pilgrims. And while the fuss that is raised by Bunyan’s pilgrims is entirely related to their nature as a foreigners, the disturbance Abinadi raises comes for entirely different reasons (vss. 2-17). Abinadi delivers a prophecy he claims is from God in which he predicts the destruction of the people of Nephi-Lehi if they do not repent. Here are a couple of highlights (vss 8-10, 12-13, 17):

“And it shall come to pass that except they repent I [God] will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth; yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them for other nations which shall possess the land; yea, even this will I do that I may discover the abominations of this people to other nations. And many things did Abinadi prophesy against this people. And it came to pass that they were angry with him; and they took him and carried him bound before the king, and said unto the king: Behold, we have brought a man before thee who has prophesied evil concerning thy people, and saith that God will destroy them. And he also prophesieth evil concerning thy life, and saith that thy life shall be as a garment in a furnace of fire. … And he pretendeth the Lord hath spoken it. And he saith all this shall come upon thee except thou repent, and this because of thine iniquities. And now, O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be acondemned of God or judged of this man? … And it came to pass that king Noah caused that Abinadi should be cast into prison; and he commanded that the priests should gather themselves together that he might hold a council with them what he should do with him.”

Finally, we have in the bit I just quoted the statement where Abinadi is cast into prison. In Bunyan’s text it is a bit different. This is from pp. 106-7:

“Now was word presently brought to the great one of the fair, who quickly came down, and deputed some of his most trusty friends to take these men into examination, about whom the fair was almost overturned. So the men were brought to examination: and they that sat upon them, asked them whence they came; whither they went; and what they did there in such an unusual garb?

The men told them that they were pilgrims and strangers in the world; and that they were going to their own country, which was the heavenly Jerusalem ; … and that they had given none occasion to the men of the town, nor yet to the merchandisers, thus to abuse them, and to let them in their journey. Except it was, for that when one asked them what they would buy, they said they would buy the truth. But they that were appointed to examine them did not believe them to be any other than lunatics and mad, or else such as came to put all things into a confusion in the fair. Therefore they took them and beat them, and besmeared them with dirt; and then put them into the cage, that they might be made a spectacle to all the men of the fair. There, therefore, they lay for some time, and were made the objects of any man's sport, or malice, or revenge; the great one of the fair laughing still at all that befell them.”

Now, this isn’t a prison in the sort of sense that we see in the Mosiah text. It isn’t even called a prison. It is a cage – much like we might expect to see at a “Fair”. They are placed in there to become a side show – a spectacle like the bearded woman, or the two faced man, or a pair of conjoined twins. The freaks of the fair.

So, yes, both the pilgrims and Abinadi raise a commotion among the people, and they are all imprisoned per se. But they are very different commotions, for very different reasons, and very different sorts of prisons. And we see in this parallel Lindey’s vices 2, 5 and 7. What is clearly a secondary part of both stories (secondary because it doesn’t even occur in the one text and in the other it has little to do with the underlying morality tale we are reading – it is instead more of a mechanic of moving the story forward) – the entrance into the city becomes highlighted as being significant and important (and yet people have to come into cities where they have never been – and we have numerous such stories – more on that in a minute). And the pages of narrative describing on the one hand the reactions of the people of Vanity Fair to these outlandish strangers with their hard to understand language and their strange clothing, and even more distressing their unwillingness to shop and spend their money, and on the other the pages of prophecy on the part of Abinadi talking to his neighbors is reduced to a great disturbance and nothing more. The entire point of both narratives is hidden in the comparison.

In addition, I think that there is another story that we ought to consider, on which at least part of Bunyan’s story is based. Jesus, entering Jerusalem. This allusion is worked carefully into the text. Note the reference that Christian gives to their final destination – the heavenly Jerusalem. He creates un uproar in the community. And they imprison him.

Parallel 2

  • Bunyan: A town leader 2) assembles a group of associates to examine the pilgrims,
  • Abinadi: The leader of the city, King Noah, 2) assembles a group of false priests to examine Abinadi,

This one is a bit shorter in terms of the text. The one major concern we have is that we are now getting these parallels out of order. In Bunyan, the examination occurs before the imprisonment. For Abinadi, its after.

From the texts:

  • Bunyan (p. 107): “Now was word presently brought to the great one of the fair, who quickly came down, and deputed some of his most trusty friends to take these men into examination”
  • Abinadi (vss 17-18): “and he commanded that the priests should gather themselves together that he might hold a council with them what he should do with him. And it came to pass that they said unto the king: Bring him hither that we may question him; and the king commanded that he should be brought before them.”

This is pretty straight forward. Other than using the language from Bunyan to describe what is going on for Abinadi (to reinforce an interpretation of the parallel), there isn’t much to see here. If you are going to have a trial of sorts (and there are several in both larger texts) then you have to have some sort of cross examination. Consider also, to continue my example, that we have Jesus being brought before the Jewish High Priest for his examination (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanhedrin_trial_of_Jesus ).

Parallel 3

  • Bunyan: and the prisoners 3) are “brought before” the town leaders and put on trial.
  • Abinadi: and he 3) is “brought before” the leaders and put on trial.

I like how we finally get some actual quotes here. It makes it easy to bring up the exact context, right? But now we see a real problem. We don’t see the phrase in the bit from Bunyan that I quoted above. What happens instead is that during the period of time while Faithful and Christian are hanging out (pun intended) in the cage for everyone to watch and abuse, a fight starts between two groups of spectators. One group believes that what is happening is inappropriate and the other group who wants the spectacle to continue. Bunyan describes it like this (p. 107):

“But the men being patient, and not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing, and giving good words for bad, and kindness for injuries done, some men in the fair that were more observing and less prejudiced than the rest, began to check and blame the baser sort for their continual abuses done by them to the men. They, therefore, in angry manner, let fly at them again: counting them as bad as the men in the cage, and telling them that they seemed confederates, and should be made partakers of their misfortunes. The other replied, that for aught they could see, the men were quiet and sober, and intended nobody any harm; and that there were many that traded in their fair that were more worthy to be put into the cage, yea, and pillory too, than were the men that they had abused. Thus after divers words had passed on both sides – the men behaving themselves all the while very wisely and soberly before them, – they fell to some blows among themselves, and did harm one to another.

Then were these two poor men brought before their examiners again, and there charged as being guilty of the late hubbub that had been in the fair. So they beat them pitifully, and hanged irons upon them, and led them in chains up and down the fair for an example and a terror to others, lest any should further speak in their behalf, or join themselves unto them.”

We can see the part Davis is quoting here – not from the examination he just referred to, but from a second examination – this time to question their being the cause of the fighting that had broken out (although, as the narrator tells us – the man who is having this dream – the real purpose is to make the dissenters afraid of the “the great one of the Fair” – elsewhere identified as Beelzebub).

So, perhaps most visibly we see in this parallel vices number 5 and 6. This gets wrenched out of context. And while the Abinadi material seems to be relatively connected. The material in Bunyan is really jumping around. Not only do we reduce the Bunyan account to more generic descriptions to make the comparison work better, we have to chop out whole sections of it to make it fit more closely together. Moving on.

Parallel 4

  • They accuse Faithful 4) of being a “madman,”
  • They accuse Abinadi 4) of being “mad,”

The first time we encounter the charge of madness in Bunyan’s text comes early on. And it’s about the clothes he is wearing (I already quoted this above):

“First, the pilgrims were clothed with such kind of raiment as was diverse from the raiment of any that traded in that fair. The people, therefore, of the fair made a great gazing upon them: some said they were fools; some they were lunatics; and some they are outlandish men.”

Later, in the first examination we read:

“But they that were appointed to examine them did not believe them to be any other than lunatics and mad, or else such as came to put all things into a confusion in the fair.”

The real problem is that the word “madman” doesn’t occur in the Bunyan text. It simply isn’t there. (You can do the search yourself on the google books website). And they aren’t referred to as being mad in the second examination so again, we have this pulled out of order and out of context in the comparison. Abinadi on the other hand refutes his questioners (Mosiah Chapter 12), and faced with his refutation, the king (and not his examiners) decides to end his life (Mosiah 13:1):

“And now when the king had heard these words, he said unto his priests: Away with this fellow, and slay him; for what have we to do with him, for he is mad.”

So, yes, both are accused of being mad (although for very different reasons), and Bunyan’s account isn’t really much of a parallel beyond this simple statement.

Now, I don’t have the space or the time to go through the next 10 more sets of parallels. But I thought one would be interesting, and that is parallel 11:

  • Bunyan: Thus, Faithful 11) “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Faithful’s teachings and martyrdom
  • Abinadi: Thus, Abinadi 11) “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Abinadi’s teachings and martyrdom

Since Davis uses quote marks, I think it’s kind of fun to put it back into context. Prior to the entire narrative – before they even get to the city (page 102), Faithful and Christian encounter again the Evangelist. They are told this:

“My sons, you have heard in the words of the truth of the Gospel, that you must "through many tribulations enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." And again, that in every city bonds and afflictions abide on you; and therefore you cannot expect that you should go long on your pilgrimage without them, in some sort or other. You have found something of the truth of these testimonies upon you already, and more will immediately follow; for now, as you see, you are almost out of this wilderness, and therefore you will soon come into a town that you will by and by see before you; and in that town you will be hardly beset with enemies, who will strain hard but they will kill you. And be you sure that one or both of you must seal the testimony which you hold with blood; but be you faithful unto death, and the King will give you a crown of life.”

From Mosiah 17:10 we read this:

“Yea, and I will suffer even until death, and I will not recall my words, and they shall stand as a testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day.”

So there we have “testimony” and “blood” – where is the “seals”? That comes in verse 20.


Notes

  1. William L. Davis, "Who really wrote the Book of Mormon?,Salon (31 October 2012). http://www.salon.com/2012/10/31/who_really_wrote_the_book_of_mormon/