Mormonism and the Bible/Joseph Smith Translation/Plagiarism Accusations

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Accusations of Plagiarism Leveled Against the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

Summary: Some critics have accused Joseph Smith of plagiarism for the production of the Joseph Smith Translation. These articles address these accusations.

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Question: What is the Adam Clarke Commentary and what do critics of Mormonism claim about it as it regards the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible?

The Adam Clarke Commentary Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments was a 19th century commentary on the Bible.

In March 2017, Thomas Wayment, professor of Classics at Brigham Young University, published a paper in BYU’s Journal of Undergraduate Research titled “A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation”. In a summary of their research, Professor Wayment and his undergraduate research assistant Haley Wilson wrote:

Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible has attracted significant attention in recent decades, drawing the interest of a wide variety of academics and those who affirm its nearly canonical status in the LDS scriptural canon. More recently, in conducting new research into the origins of Smith’s Bible translation, we uncovered evidence that Smith and his associates used a readily available Bible commentary while compiling a new Bible translation, or more properly a revision of the King James Bible. The commentary, Adam Clarke’s famous Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, was a mainstay for Methodist theologians and biblical scholars alike, and was one of the most widely available commentaries in the mid-1820s and 1830s in America. Direct borrowing from this source has not previously been connected to Smith’s translation efforts, and the fundamental question of what Smith meant by the term “translation” with respect to his efforts to rework the biblical text can now be reconsidered in light of this new evidence. What is noteworthy in detailing the usage of this source is that Adam Clarke’s textual emendations come through Smith’s translation as inspired changes to the text. Moreover, the question of what Smith meant by the term translation should be broadened to include what now appears to have been an academic interest to update the text of the Bible. This new evidence effectively forces a reconsideration of Smith’s translation projects, particularly his Bible project, and how he used academic sources while simultaneously melding his own prophetic inspiration into the resulting text. In presenting the evidence for Smith’s usage of Clarke, our paper also addressed the larger question of what it means for Smith to have used an academic/theological Bible commentary in the process of producing a text that he subsequently defined as a translation. In doing so, we first presented the evidence for Smith’s reliance upon Adam Clarke to establish the nature of Smith’s usage of Clarke. Following that discussion, we engaged the question of how Smith approached the question of the quality of the King James Bible (hereafter KJV) translation that he was using in 1830 and what the term translation meant to both Smith and his close associates. Finally, we offered a suggestion as to how Smith came to use Clarke, as well as assessing the overall question of what these findings suggest regarding Smith as a translator and his various translation projects.


Our research has revealed that the number of direct parallels between Smith’s translation and Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary are simply too numerous and explicit to posit happenstance or coincidental overlap. The parallels between the two texts number into the hundreds, a number that is well beyond the limits of this paper to discuss. A few of them, however, 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. In presenting the evidence, we have attempted to both establish that Smith drew upon Clarke, likely at the urging of Rigdon, and we present here a broad categorization of the types of changes that Smith made when he used Clarke as a source.[1]

With the publication of the new narrative history of the Church Saints, the Church produced a short Church History Topic essay on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible in which it is stated:

Joseph Smith did not employ Hebrew and Greek sources, lexicons, or a knowledge of biblical languages to render a new English text. Rather, he used a copy of the King James Bible as the starting point for his translation, dictating inspired changes and additions to scribes who recorded them first on paper and later as notes in the margins of the Bible itself. His revisions fall into several categories. His early work on the translation resulted in long revealed passages that Joseph dictated to his scribes, much as he did when receiving the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. These passages sometimes dramatically expanded the biblical text. The best-known example of this type of revision is found today in the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price. Joseph Smith also made many smaller changes that improved grammar, modernized language, corrected points of doctrine, or alleviated inconsistencies. As he worked on these changes, he appears in many instances to have consulted respected commentaries by biblical scholars, studying them out in his mind as a part of the revelatory process.[2]

The paper written by Professor Wayment and Haley Wilson is cited in connection to the claim in bold.

In Professor Wayment’s view, the claimed parallels do nothing to Joseph’s claim of revelation since the longer revisions never rely on the Clarke commentary. The similarities are shorter, 1-6 word revisions.

Professor Wayment outline in more detail what he and Haley Wilson found:

What we found, a student assistant (Hailey Wilson Lamone) and I, we discovered that in about 200 to 300 — depending on how much change is being involved — parallels where Joseph Smith has the exact same change to a verse that Adam Clarke does. They’re verbatim. Some of them are 5 to 6 words; some of them are 2 words; some of them are a single word. But in cases where that single word is fairly unique or different, it seemed pretty obvious that he’s getting this from Adam Clarke. What really changed my worldview here is now I’m looking at what appears obvious as a text person, that the prophet has used Adam Clarke. That in the process of doing the translation, he’s either read it, has it in front of him, or he reads it at night. We started to look back through the Joseph Smith History. There’s a story of his brother-in-law presenting Joseph Smith with a copy of Adam Clarke. We do not know whose copy of Adam Clarke it is, but we do know that Nathaniel Lewis gives it to the prophet and says, “I want to use the Urim and Thummim. I want to translate some of the strange characters out of Adam Clarke’s commentary.” Joseph will clearly not give him the Urim and Thummim to do that, but we know he had it in his hands. Now looking at the text, we can say that a lot of the material that happens after Genesis 24. There are no parallels to Clarke between Genesis 1–Genesis 24. But when we start to get to Matthew, it’s very clear that Adam Clarke has influenced the way he changes the Bible. It was a big moment. That article comes out in the next year. We provide appendi [sic] and documentation for some of the major changes, and we try to grapple with what this might mean.[3]

Professor Wayment has addressed the accusation of plagiarism directly.

In another interview with Kurt Manwaring, Professor Wayment addressed the charge of plagiarism directly:

When news inadvertently broke that a source had been uncovered that was used in the process of creating the JST, some were quick to use that information as a point of criticism against Joseph or against the JST. Words like “plagiarism” were quickly brought forward as a reasonable explanation of what was going on. To be clear, plagiarism is a word that to me implies an overt attempt to copy the work of another person directly and intentionally without attributing any recognition to the source from which the information was taken.


To the best of my understanding, Joseph Smith used Adam Clarke as a Bible commentary to guide his mind and thought process to consider the Bible in ways that he wouldn’t have been able to do so otherwise. It may be strong to say, but Joseph didn’t have training in ancient languages or the history of the Bible, but Adam Clarke did. And Joseph appears to have appreciated Clarke’s expertise and in using Clarke as a source, Joseph at times adopted the language of that source as he revised the Bible. I think that those who are troubled by this process are largely troubled because it contradicts a certain constructed narrative about the history of the JST and about how revelation works.
The reality of what happened is inspiring.
Joseph, who applied his own prophetic authority to the Bible in the revision process, drew upon the best available scholarship to guide his prophetic instincts. Inspiration following careful study and consideration is a prophetic model that can include many members of the church.

I hope people who read the study when it comes out will pause long enough to consider the benefit of expanding the definition of the prophetic gift to include academic study as a key component before rejecting the evidence outright.[4]

What does all of this mean for Joseph’s other translations?

Some critics may still ask, “What does this mean for Joseph’s other translations? He used a commentary given to him in his other scriptural productions. Couldn’t the same thing happen for the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, or the Doctrine and Covenants?”

First, this is the composition fallacy, which states that it is an error in logic to assume that if something is true of a part it is true of the whole. In this case the critic assumes that if it is true of the Joseph Smith Translation that he relied on someone else’s work in part to produce scripture, then he has to have done it for the rest. Just because something like this takes place for the Joseph Smith Translation, does not mean that he did it for the rest.

Additionally, this is not a simple act of plagiarism. Joseph was in control of the project for most of the time and only referred to Clarke for a fraction of the revisions he made.

Finally, as Professor Wayment has elaborated, it can provide a framework through which we may approach revelation--through study and faith. This nexus of study and faith is something that the prophet emphasized at several times in his career (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9; 88:77-79, 118). This does not mean that this was the process of composition for all of his scriptural productions, only that there is nothing wrong with him approaching this particular project in this way.

Further Reading

Notes

  1. Haley Wilson and Thomas Wayment, “A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation,” Journal of Undergraduate Research (March 2017) off-site
  2. Church History Topics, "Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible," Church History Topics (accessed 23 June 2019).
  3. Transcript of Laura Harris Hales “Joseph Smith's Use of Bible Commentaries in His Translations - Thomas A. Wayment,” <https://www.ldsperspectives.com/2017/09/26/jst-adam-clarke-commentary/> (accessed 23 June 2019).
  4. Kurt Manwaring, “10 Questions with Thomas Wayment,” <https://www.fromthedesk.org/10-questions-thomas-wayment/> (accessed 23 June 2019).