Is Mormonism Just The Byproduct Of A Great Novelist?

Over the last few years, I’ve had lots of people tell me that Mormonism is the byproduct of a genius writer and conman, namely Joseph Smith. I’ve argued that there was no way a frontier boy like Joseph Smith could have written one of the most influential books in human history. The counter argument to me was that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon and was just another J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Christopher Paolini.

So I wanted to give a fair amount of thought to the claim that Joseph Smith was just another novelist such as those who produced Harry, Voldemort, Froto,  the Shire, the mind-reading dragon, and any of the other magical creatures in modern literature.

The author of Eragon, Christopher Paolini was a homeschooled 15 year old who took a year to write a first draft, and then spent a second year refining the story and fleshing out the characters. This was pure fantasy, but no doubt a stroke of genius.

J.K. Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter one day while waiting on a 4 hour delayed train trip from Manchester to London. That idea began with the concept of sending a boy to attend wizardry school. We now know that school as Hogwarts. Rowling graduated college and was blessed with the opportunity of higher education. She was 25 when she came up with the idea. It took 7 years and a lot of life’s learning experiences before the final manuscript for the first book was done. 7 years for book one!

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Tolkien was a very accomplished writer and linguist with a lifetime of experience to back it up. It took him 10 years to write the Lord of the Rings, and that was only a small portion of what he produced throughout his lifetime. If I were a critic… I’d also throw in Tolkien’s friend and the author of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. All of these published works and many others throughout the world are literary masterpieces. When I read their books or watch the movies, I can’t help but ask myself… “How do they come up with this stuff?!”

This is the same question I ask myself on a regular basis when I read the Book of Mormon. “How the heck could Joseph Smith have come up with this stuff?” A surface comparison might lead a person to believe that if the human mind can conjure up the kind of fantasy found in an Orc attack on Middle Earth… then why not Joseph Smith? These authors were creative superstars, so… maybe Joseph was one too. Right? According to the LOTR Project, Tolkien came up with a combined 982 characters comprising the Hobbit, LOTR, and other published works. So… naturally, some people will try and diminish the monumental feat it was for there to be 337 proper names in the Book of Mormon with 188 of them being unique to the Book of Mormon. But Tolkien built his own language using the extensive experience, knowledge, and resources he had gained by operating as a linguist for many, many years. Again… he did that over a 10-year span. Joseph did it without being able to write a coherent letter, while living a demanding frontier farm life, with just 3 years of formal schooling. Then go figure that the names included in the Book of Mormon actually turn out to be Semitic in nature.

But here’s where it gets real crazy. If Joseph Smith was an author instead of a translator, now think about this, he would have had to of had some sort of secret lair somewhere that none of his brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors or family members knew about. He would have had to have spent massive amounts of private time at night under candlelight (because he would have needed to work during the day) never sleeping, pounding away at page after page of storyline perfection with unparalleled wisdom. Keep in mind he is really young at that time. Then he would have had to forge real plates for his hoax (because many people ultimately felt those plates) and then bury them on a hill with a stone box of his own make. Where was everyone else while all of this was going on?! I mean… for him to have gone through all of that… and then to take his new wife in the middle of the night to get these fabricated plates… and actually be attacked for them… did he really need to go through all of that?

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If he did write it… then he would have had to have memorized every single last word and the associated spelling of each word because he dictated the book to scribes by looking in a hat. The whole story of translation has become more of a testimony builder to me than ever before. Some people think that the whole seer stone, head buried in a dark hat, and dictation portion of the translation story is hard to talk about, strange, or detrimental to the church. I think the truth of the translation process has actually come forth and is being emphasized at this time in order to show how miraculous that book really is. Just think of it! Dictating that entire book while looking in a hat! If he was trying to dupe people, surely he would have thought of something easier than looking into a hat for hours on end. If Joseph Smith had a “writing room” in which he sat secluded, by himself, with reference materials, libraries, the internet, and a college education, for year after year, without anyone there… we might have less of a case for divine guidance. But the guy had his head in a hat… with nothing but a stone! So either he wrote the book previously and then memorized every last word in order to dictate, or… he had God helping him. Each scenario is hard to believe for people… and yet still we’ve got this book in our hands that we’ve got to deal with.

In the great novels found on the earth, there are a few timeless nuggets of wisdom here and there. Harry learning that there is good and evil in each of us and that we can choose. Tolkien had his share of wisdom as he showed what power can do to an individual. But none of them can approach the seemingly arbitrary detail that Joseph Smith provides that becomes ultimately crucial to the book from a historical and instructive point of view. None of them approach the wisdom that is found on page after page in the Book of Mormon. None of them provide a doctrinal exposition of some of the Bible’s most confusing principles. And none of them did this in 65 working days!

So yeah… J.K. Rowling… and many others were far better writers than Joseph Smith. Heck, even his wife Emma knew he wasn’t a great writer, reader, or historian. She reported that he didn’t even know there was a wall around Jerusalem. Joseph’s mom said he didn’t even really like to read books. So where did all of this information come from?

Joseph was never meant to be a writer. He was meant to be a revelator. He was meant to be a translator. He was young and ignorant, and even if he was as creative as these writers, there is not enough logic to lead me to believe that he, or anyone for that matter, could have pulled something like this off.

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    • bwv549

      Thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree that it is an interesting question as to exactly how the Book of Mormon came to be.

      After googling phrases from theological chapters in the Book of Mormon, the eminent Mormon historian Richard Bushman observed:

      The Book of Mormon has a lot of nineteenth-century Protestant material in it, both in terms of theology and of wording. I am looking for an explanation of how and why it is there.

      I’ve been doing the same thing, and I’ve been floored by how similar the religious literature of the day was to a vast number of teachings in the Book of Mormon. You can find all the source material yourself by using google’s ngram search on key phrases from each theological treatise in the BoM and look for sources published in Boston, NY, or Philadelphia (or google “bwv549 Five Key Facts” and skip to point #2 if you want to see what others have already found).