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Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize an 1811 book of Marco Polo's travels?
Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize an 1811 book of Marco Polo's travels?
In their book Book of Mormon: Book of Lies, researchers Meredith Sheets and Kendal Sheets claim that Joseph Smith plagiarized from an 1811 account of the travels of Marco Polo in his "composition" of the Book of Mormon. Their work has received devastating review from none other than the president of the Ex-Mormon Foundation, Richard Packham. This page will reproduce Packham’s review, published online at his website, for the convenience of readers. Links to FairMormon rebuttals will be posted to different works mentioned by Packham in his review.
Review by Richard Packham of Book of Mormon: Book of Lies
Almost since the moment that the Book of Mormon (hereafter "BoM") was published to the world in 1830, those unwilling to believe the wondrous story of its origin have tried to explain it without the miraculous events claimed by its "author and proprietor" Joseph Smith, Jr. Such reluctance may be understandable: Smith claimed that the book was a translation of an ancient record covering thousands of years of history of ancient American peoples, descended from Israelite immigrants, which he had obtained from an angel and translated by miraculous means from its original hitherto unknown language. The record had been inscribed in a book made of golden plates, which was subsequently taken away by the same angel. Following additional divine instructions, Smith founded a church, claiming to have "restored" the original church of Christ. Such a story invites skepticism. To provide some alternative explanation was not easy. The BoM was vast (588 pages in the 1830 edition), its many plots were complex, its cast of characters and its geographical locations varied, its themes intricate and appealing to an age looking for spiritual guidance. But the challenge found many takers.
One of the first critics of the book's miraculous claims was E. D. Howe, who published Mormonism Unvailed [sic] within four years of the new scripture's appearance. He claimed that Smith had plagiarized an unpublished novel of a deceased clergyman, Solomon Spalding (also spelled Spaulding), based on similarities of plot and names recognized by those familiar with Spalding's manuscript (by then missing). Later critics saw striking similarities with a popular 1825 theological work by another clergyman, Ethan Smith (no relation), A View of the Hebrews, which posited that the American Indians were actually Jewish (just as the BoM claimed). The latter view for many years was the more popular explanation of non-believers, and was even favorably analyzed by a high-ranking Mormon researcher, Brigham H. Roberts, in his posthumously published Studies in the Book of Mormon [That is actually not true]. The most recent proponent of the "View" theory was David Persuitte in his book Joseph Smith And The Origins of the Book of Mormon (2nd edition, 2000).
The Spalding theory was generally rejected by critics for many years, but was revived in recent years by Vernal Holly, Dale Broadhurst, and the extensive research of Arthur Vanick, Wayne L. Cowdrey and Howard A. Davis, published after decades of historical sleuthing in 2005 as Who Really Wrote The Book of Mormon?: The Spalding Enigma. Craig Criddle has also written extensively in support of the Spalding explanation.
Even more sources for the BoM have been suggested. Former Mormon educator Grant Palmer claimed to find similarities to the BoM in the fanciful story "Der goldene Topf [The Gold Pot]" by German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, pp. 135-174, 2002). Thomas E. Donofrio has published his research in two articles claiming that the source for much of the patriotic language and military events was the writings of American patriots of the late 18th and early 19th century. And now we have a new entry into the controversy, quite different from anything hitherto seen. After the audacious title, we read on the back cover that this book, the result of 25 years' research, "will alter the course of global religion, finance, and politics." The authors claim that this book, "for the first time ever," shows how Mormonism and its scriptures were man-made, and not divine. Astonishing claims! How well do those claims stand up under examination?
The authors (father and son) became interested in Mormonism when Meredith Sheets (the father) was visited by Mormon missionaries in 1987 and given a copy of the BoM. As he read it, he thought he noticed themes, events, and even names that he recognized from a book he had read many times in his younger years, an account of the travels in Asia of the Italian explorer Marco Polo. He searched through his copy of Polo's book and did indeed find similarities. More remarkable, in his mind, was the fact that the Polo items were located in that book at about the same relative location as the BoM items were found in the BoM. Based on that discovery, the authors began a more methodical search for similarities, calculating down to a tenth of a percentage the location in each book. For example, if something in the BoM occurs 37.7% of the way into the 588 pages (of the 1830 edition), they would search the Polo book at around 37.7% of the way into that text. Amazingly, they claim to have found dozens of similarities, in very close proximity in each book, often within a few percentage points. Again and again.
Suspecting that other travel books to exotic lands might also have been sources for the BoM, the authors collected dozens of such accounts, all published in English in the early 19th century, before 1830. Again and again they believed that they found events, personalities, similar phrases, and even names that resembled those things in the BoM. Among the books examined were Bernal Diaz's account of the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, Pizarro's conquest of Peru, travel accounts in Arabia and among the Laplanders, and others.
Based on their discoveries, and the biography of Joseph Smith Jr. written by his mother Lucy Mack Smith, the authors developed a theory, a scenario of how the BoM came to be. They say that it was a joint effort of Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph Smith Jr. Mrs. Smith reports that Smith Sr. began having religious experiences in 1811 (note the date!), when Joseph Jr. was only six years old. The authors suppose that the Smiths acquired copies of all these travel books, and carefully plagiarized them to produce their new scripture as a way of making money. The authors picture the Smiths spending years poring over the books and copying out their version of the events and personalities which they found in the travelogues.
The authors see the date 1811 as the beginning, since an early version of Marco Polo's travels appeared that year in English translation, the same year Smith Sr. "got religion." That date is so crucial that the authors self-publish their book from "1811 Press LLC" located at the same address as Kendal Sheets's law firm.
The most surprising discovery, the authors claim, was that Mrs. Smith's biography also shows extensive plagiarism from the same source books, and they suggest that it was Mother Smith's way of confessing the whole scheme and thus somehow clearing her conscience, since whoever discovered her copying would realize that she was trying to expose the true origin of the BoM. And Sheets and Sheets were clever enough to realize it.
Readers anxious to find any criticism of the LDS church or its sacred founding scripture, however far-fetched, will grab this book. But even the most ardent "anti-Mormons" should ask some fundamental questions about the authors' claims. How can any serious writer, writing on the origin of the BoM, spend 25 years on research in that area and be (apparently) completely unaware of what others have written? The Sheets seem to know nothing about other theories of its origin, even claiming that they are the "first" to present any evidence that it is not of divine origin. This is inexcusable. A knowledgeable reader is bound to expect an author to place his work in the context of other information available in the field.
Another obvious omission is the authors' apparent ignorance about a major event in the coming forth of the BoM: the loss of the first 116 pages of the manuscript by Martin Harris. Most scholars, Mormon and non-Mormon, who have examined the textual and historical evidence, say that the present first part of the BoM (replacing the lost pages) was written only after the last part had been completed. This fact alone would raise serious problems with the Sheets theory, which is based on the assumption that the BoM manuscript was started on page one and continued steadily onward.
Another part of the Sheets theory that seems unwarranted is that something appearing on page 266 of the 1830 BoM (that is, 266/588th of the way into the book) could be a copy of something 266/588th of the way into the Travels of Marco Polo. Such an assumption would require that the supposed plagiarists were being so methodical that they knew beforehand that their own manuscript would be 588 pages long, and they were measuring their own writing alongside the Polo book. Sorry, but that is quite unlikely. And plagiarists don't work that way.
But what about all the similarities that the authors actually found, using that percentage method? Those are quite impressive, although they do not prove that the method has any more validity than a simple random search. The similarity between the BoM and items in pre-1830 travelogues is indeed sometimes striking. The BoM description of the city Zarahemla is similar to Diaz's description of the Aztec capital city. The name of the divine compass which God gave Lehi (the "Liahona") is oddly similar to the Chinese words "li" (a unit of measure) and "huang-ching" (a compass), mentioned in an 1818 version of Polo. The BoM description of the Liahona is very similar to the description of an astrolabe, found in another pre-1830 travel book. The word "Irreantum" given by Lehi to the sea off the southern coast of Arabia may come from the phrase "Mare Erythraeum," a name for the Red Sea mentioned in an 1812 travel book about Arabia. But one still can be skeptical, just as we were skeptical about the recent book "The Bible Code," whose author found prophecies of present-day events in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.
The authors see a resemblance between the tiny band of Christian Spaniards fighting the dark-skinned Aztecs with Cortez and the band of "stripling warriors," the "Sons of Helaman" where neither group lost a life in a fierce battle with a larger enemy. It is odd that they did not notice a striking similarity between the first paragraphs of the BoM, where Nephi introduces himself as born of good parents, and Diaz' first paragraph, where he does the same thing. (This was pointed out to me by Steven Powell, who wrote in the 1990s a still unpublished article proposing the Diaz history as a major source for many of the battle scenes in the BoM.) Many names are found in the travel books that the authors say must have been slightly altered and then used in the BoM. Not all are convincing: was the name Zoram really derived from Polo's first name "Marco"? Yes, it is indeed Marco, spelled backwards and changing a letter and its position. Were the Smiths so hard put to invent names? One must be extra cautious from drawing conclusions based on similarities of names - an error into which both defenders and opponents of the BoM have fallen. See my critique of Samuelson's "Lehi In The Pacific," for example.
One interesting find is what the authors claim as the source for the so-called "Anthon Transcript," a slip of paper on wh¬ich was copied "Caractors" [sic] from the gold plates so that Martin Harris could show them to scholars at Columbia University to check their genuineness before investing his money in publishing the Smith book. The evidence is conflicting on what the conversation was between Harris and Professor Anthon (Harris invested in the printing of the Book of Mormon, but Anthon says he told Harris it was a hoax) [though Harris walked away more convinced than ever that the Book of Mormon was true--mortgaging his farm to fund its printing. So the evidence lands squarely in favor of defenders]. The Sheets claim to have found an illustration in a pre-1830 book by a traveler to Lapland, showing a Lapp shaman beating on a ceremonial drum which is covered with strange characters. They have matched many of the characters in the drawing to characters in the Transcript. Unfortunately they seem to be unaware of the extensive research by Richard B. Stout, published in a six-part series (2001-2002), showing a more likely source which was known to be familiar to the Smith family: the so-called "Detroit Manuscript." The Sheets also mistakenly say that the Transcript is lost; it is actually in possession of the Community of Christ (which they would have discovered with a two-minute search on the Internet).
Many pages of the Sheets book consist of parallel columns, with items from the BoM text in one column and the alleged source of a travel book in the other. Other books on this topic have used the same method of presentation, notably Roberts and Persuitte. But often the items in the two columns are so different that one is hard-pressed to see any resemblance. Three or four words or phrases may be similar, the same number may appear in both, or the same compass direction.
Many examples of parallels between BoM civilizations and Polo's accounts of customs among the Tartars of eastern Asia are given. The authors explain this by citing one pre-1830 writer who theorized that the American Indians are descended from Tartar invaders who were blown off course during an attempt to invade Japan (a historical event) and landed in America. This justified the Smiths in putting features of Tartar civilization into the BoM, as they would be "authentic." The authors do not explain how this alleged idea of the Smiths would fit in with their premise in the BoM that the American Indians are descended from Israelites, not from Tartars.
Several other questions arise that put the basic premises of the authors in doubt. They must assume that the Smiths actually had access to these many travel books over a course of several years. This implies that they owned the books. All our evidence of the Smith family situation during that time is that they were rather poor. They lost their farm for failure to make payments. They fell behind even in their subscription to the local newspaper. How could they afford to accumulate a small library of esoteric books? The authors suggest that they could have traveled to larger cities to bookstores, or that a relative who made trips to London could get them. And then one must ask what eventually became of this library of travel books? They seem to have disappeared, like the golden plates and the 116 pages of manuscript.
The lost 116 pages raises another question. Clearly, from all accounts, Joseph Jr. was devastated when Harris confessed to having lost the manuscript. Why? If Sr. and Jr. had been working on the project since 1811, they had a manuscript already, which was written in their own handwriting. The 116 lost pages were not in the Smiths' handwriting, but had been written by scribes. Why were the Smiths so concerned? If, as the Sheets suggest, the Smiths had written the whole thing, without scribes, why didn't they simply go through the dictation process again, for the lost pages? And then we must also ask, where is the real original manuscript, in the Smiths' handwriting?
Another question: why do the Sheets make no mention of Alvin Smith, the oldest Smith child? He would have to have been involved in the scheme. But apparently he played no role at all in the book's production. The authors have indeed scoured many pre-1830 travel books for items that remind them of things mentioned in the BoM, too many to list here. They provide links to complete photo reproductions of all the source books on their website at http://bookofmormonbookoflies.com/theevidence.php. Perhaps their greatest contribution is to provide a rebuttal to the frequent argument in favor of the BoM: "Joseph Smith could not have know this fact about [blank], yet it is in the BoM!" Of course such material has already been available since 2008 in Rick Grunder's monumental (and therefore expensive, and therefore not easily available) Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographical Source. [Review of that work by Latter-day Saint scholar and apologist Benjamin McGuire at the link. The review includes a second part as well.]
The authors make frequent use of photocopies of crucial sources. The copies of such text is useful. The picture of the Lapp ceremonial drum has a clear purpose. But they also give us full-page photocopies of the title pages of many of their travel books. That serves no purpose that I can see, other that to prove that the books existed.
Unfortunately, to a skeptic on either side (pro-Mormon or anti-), the majority of the similarities which the authors see as proof of plagiarism are just coincidences, and nothing more. It does not prove plagiarism if the description of a ruler's residence in two different works includes words such as "palace," "magnificent," "gold," "throne," etc. Coincidences are common, and prove nothing. Actually, is it not quite a coincidence that there are so many similarities between the story of the production of the book under review and the authors' scenario about the production of the BoM?
• Both books were written by a father and son team; • Both were originally the idea of the father; • Both took decades to put together; • Both were self-published; • Both books were claimed by their authors that they would "alter the course of global religion," but did not; • Both books claimed to be new and unique, but were not; • Both books are the same length (Sheets: 590, BoM: 588); • The son took on the major role of promoting both books: Smith Jr. founded a church and sent missionaries out; Kendal Sheets does the promoting for his book, making frequent public appearances to promote it and has hired a public relations firm (DeHart & Company) for that purpose.
The endnotes are extensive and well arranged, numbered consecutively throughout the book, which makes them easy to find. There is no index, which makes the book difficult to use as a reference, nor is there a table of BoM citations, also a handicap. No list of the plates. Such useful tools belong in any work such as this, and their omission is a major fault. Minor mistakes crop up: the authors say that Smith's church was founded by five people in Seneca, New York, whereas there were six present, in Fayette (which is in Seneca county); they have Lehi traveling west to the Red Sea from Jerusalem, when he would have had to go south. In summary, there are too many problems with this book to recommend it, even to the BoM's most fervent critics.
- Richard Packham, “Book Review - Book of Mormon: Book of Lies” Association for Mormon Letters. <http://packham.n4m.org/sheets.htm>. Accessed November 5, 2019. © 2013 Richard Packham - Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included.