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Was a Rare Book on the Hindu Religion a Source for the Book of Ether?

Students of the Book of Mormon have long noted that the brief book of Ether is quite different in its content and style than the rest of the Book of Mormon. Believers may argue that it’s because the origins of the book came from an ancient culture much different than the later Nephites, while non-believing scholars might argue that Joseph must have simply concocted it from scratch or drawn upon sources from his day that may not have been found yet.

A new publication on the roots of the book of Ether argues that it has been heavily influenced by a rather unlikely source, a rare book claiming that Hinduism has close ties to the Bible. Keri Toponce in “Book of Mormon Sources Project: What Inspired the Stories? A Focus on the Book of Ether,” proposes that an 1820 book, A Key to the Chronology of the Hindus by Alexander Hamilton—not the US Founding Father and statesman of Broadway fame, but an Englishman who had lived in India—may be a key source that Joseph Smith relied on in creating the book of Ether. The book is available at Google Books. Volume 1  is at https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Key_to_the_Chronology_of_the_Hindus/N71OIo6yRPIC?hl=en&gbpv=0 and volume 2 is at https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Key_to_the_Chronology_of_the_Hindus.html?id=T0K_2ZGL9n0C. Both of these pages allow you to download a free PDF (click on the “Free Ebook” link and get a popup menu allowing you to download the PDF by right clicking on that link and choosing “save link as…”). You can also read it or download it at HathiTrust.org, including volume 1 and volume 2.

 

A Few Highlights

Toponce claims to have found many concepts In Hamilton’s book so similar to the book of Ether that she felt “blown away.” She does not explicitly accuse Joseph Smith of plagiarism, as do others relying on her analysis. Given that there is little more than a related word or concept scattered across both texts, it is wise that she does not use that word. But her implications nonetheless are clear and others have already spoken of her work as evidence for “plagiarism.”

What are the evidences for possible sources for the book of Ether that so impressed Toponce? Hamilton’s book of over 800 pages proposes that the stories of Genesis were adapted by the Hindus for some of their mythology, so there is a great deal of discussion about themes, event, and people in Genesis. A great deal of Toponce’s alleged parallels with the Book of Mormon are actually just parallels with the Bible, such as the patriarch Jared or the concept of an ark. But Hamilton goes beyond the Bible alone and adds some additional speculation in adapting Hindu stories to Bible tales. This is where we learn that the ancient patriarch Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, was not an only child, but actually had a brother. One of the key evidences of derivation discussed in Toponce’s work is Hamilton’s discussion of a man who is called—believe it or not—the “brother of Jared.” That’s certainly interesting, and it’s used more than once, but on the other hand, it’s not like being named Jared and also having a brother is supremely rare. But if Joseph weren’t able on his own to come up with a common name and the common occurrence of having a male sibling, then turning to Hamilton certainly could have helped. The find, however, would be more interesting if the brother of Jared in Hamilton’s book were a great prophet who spoke with God and led his people on a transoceanic voyage. Instead, the man is a minor figure and Hamilton informs us that Jared’s brother was an apostate, just the opposite of what the book of Ether tells us.

What may be the most interesting parallel also stems from Hamilton’s discussion of Genesis themes, particularly Noah’s ark. In another case of going beyond the Bible alone, Hamilton or his sources in India may have been familiar with widespread ancient traditions about the use of a glowing stone to light up Noah’s ark. That concept is repeated by Hamilton. Toponce, apparently not aware of the many other sources that discuss glowing stones in the ark, sees Hamilton’s glowing stone as a smoking gun for Hamilton’s influence on the book of Ether, where the non-apostate brother of Jared has a vision, encounters the Lord, and his 16 stones he has prepared be touched by the Lord so that they may provide light for the vessels he will use to bring his people to the New World. It’s an intriguing parallel, but one that does not require Hamilton’s Chronology for somebody to be aware of that ancient Jewish concept.

Students of the Book of Mormon have long been intrigued by the relationship between the glowing stones of the Jaredite vessels and the accounts of a glowing stone in the ark, the zohar, translated as “window” in Genesis 6:1. For example, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 6/2 (1997): 99–123, DOI: 10.2307/44758823 and https://www.jstor.com/stable/44758823. Tvedtnes examined numerous linkages between the book of Ether’s stones, the Jaredite interpreters, the Urim and Thummim, and many ancient traditions, and felt that “the parallels to the Jaredite story are remarkable and suggest an ancient milieu for the book of Ether.” The glowing stones in the ark mentioned in Hamilton’s book do not provide many of the interesting connections discussed by Tvedtnes, some of which occur in other parts of the Book of Mormon. Also see a recent article on glowing stones at Book of Mormon Central in “Where did the Brother of Jared Get the Idea of Shining Stones?“ Many others have been aware of the Talmudic and other traditions about the glowing stone lighting the ark, and Hamilton also had encountered such ideas. But that hardly indicates any connection between Joseph Smith and Hamilton’s book.

Toponce goes on to argue that various pages from Hamilton were possible sources for much more than just the brother of Jared or a source of light. She points to specific words like “clouds,” precise numerical “coincidences” like both texts using the number eight, and specific concepts like people falling into apostasy, the idea of making an ark or ship and then having it experience or even be driven by “wind” and “waves” (and even face an environment with “whales”), the old Jewish notion of glowing stones in the ark, the classic Book of Mormon concept of “tender mercies” (though without the “tender,” an inconsequential gap that barely weakens the shocking parallel), unusual zoological terms like “cattle,” and a few more head-scratching similarities (as in scratching one’s head to wonder why one would feel “blown away” by such parallels). 

As one of many examples unearthed by Toponce, Book of Mormon believers may be surprised to learn that the following passage was published in Hamilton’s book (p. 5 of volume 2) a full decade before Joseph dictated the book of Ether. Can you see the uncanny parallel?

In that egg the Great Power sat incarnate, a whole year of the Creator; at the close of which, by his thought alone he caused the egg to divide itself.

And from the two divisions he framed the heaven above and the earth beneath. In the midst he placed the subtile ether, the eight regions, and the permanent receptacles of waters.

From the supreme soul he drew forth mind, existing substantially, though unperceived by sense, immaterial; and before mind or the reasoning power, he produced consciousness, the internal monitor, the ruler.

Those familiar with the Book of Mormon will immediately see the problem: there is the word “ether,” apparently (as Toponce suggests) the source for the name of the Jaredite prophet Ether and the title of a short but important book within the Book of Mormon. At this point, we’ve already accounted for one of the 27 names introduced in first chapter of Ether. Only a couple hundred pages later will we encounter the name Jared and his brother.

If Joseph were looking for help to reduce the burden of creating a bold new text, the tidbit offered by Toponce frankly don’t not seem like much of a payoff for investing time to obtain and study Hamilton’s massive two-volume text.

The word “investment” should be underscored here, for Toponce’s theory about Hamilton’s book on the Hindus serving as source for Joseph Smith may have required quite an investment –- not just an investment of time to pore over hundreds of pages to glean a few minor germs to stir his creative juices, but perhaps a great deal of effort if not money just to get a copy. It’s hard to think of why Joseph would have wanted a book on the Hindus, but if he did, we’ll see that it was not a trivial thing to find one.

 

First, the Problem of Access

When someone claims to have found a smoking gun that purportedly served as a source for the Book of Mormon (or even a portion of the Book of Mormon, as in this case), it’s fair to first ask if there is evidence that Joseph ever saw the source or at least could have seen it if he had wanted to. I’ve searched but so far have found no evidence that the book was anywhere in the United States while Joseph was alive. For example, to this day, the expansive Library of Congress still does not have Hamilton’s work in its vast halls, per a search at loc.gov:

The large Harvard Library as of 1830 apparently did not have the book, though they have a copy now. The 1830 Catalogue of the Library of Harvard University has 3 volumes (I, II, and III), so they may have had even more books than Joseph Smith’s vast frontier library (as apparently imagined by our critics based on their many claims of having found scattered sources for occasional tidbits in the Book of Mormon). But in my search of Vol. 1, there are no titles listed having the word “Hindu.” “Hindus” occurs once according to my search of Vol. 2:, but for someone else’s book:

 A search in Vol. 3 returned a couple hits for “Hindus” but not Hamilton’s. Sigh.

Nor is the book to be found in the surprisingly large Rochester City Library of 1839 nor in the library today. (I discuss the history and significance of this library in my article “The Great and Spacious Book of Mormon Arcade Game: More Curious Works from Book of Mormon Critics“ published in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 23 (2017): 161-235.)

So where is an ambitious but pious fabricator/plagiarizer to go to fetch such a promising book? Having struck out on multiple attempts to locate the book in the United States, I finally found one clue in a New Hampshire publication that tells us something about the distribution of Hamilton’s book. From Notes and Queries: A Monthly of History, Folk-Lore, Mathematics, Literature, Art, Arcane Societies, Etc., vol. 20 (1902): 35, a brief entry shown below discusses some sleuthing done in the 1870s to track down A Key to the Chronology of the Hindus and figure out the name of its originally anonymous author. A Mr. S. R. Bosanquet in England contacted numerous institutions to learn more about the book, only finding copies in the British Museum and the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Bosanquet reported that “Hamilton’s work was a limited edition, and probably that many of the books were presentation copies.” (A “presentation copy” is a book that was presented or gifted personally by the author, typically bearing the author’s signature.) The editors of Notes and Queries state in this 1902 publication that they had finally obtained a copy for themselves, apparently after advertising their interest for 20 years. We can only conclude that the book was rare in England, at least in the first few decades after publication, and that it was still rare in the United States as of 1902, as the printed book is today.

Given that the book probably was not available at all in the US by 1830 or even much later, it would seem unlikely that Joseph ever got near the book. I have found this is rarely an impediment to our critics, who often say the key thing is knowing that those ideas “were out there,” regardless of whether Joseph was exposed to those ideas or not. So perhaps Joseph’s farmer friends or local ministers were just casually quoting Hamilton (when they weren’t busy discussing details on rare European maps of Arabia that Joseph would also borrow for his amazingly plausible account of Lehi’s Trail), even though Hamilton’s book was pretty much unseen even in England and not to be found in the States. “Out there” certainly seems a fitting term for such theories.

 

Fabrication Made Harder

The most interesting thing about Toponce’s study is the theory she implicitly provides for how Joseph did his “translation” or rather, fabrication/concoction/plagiarism (my words) of the Book of Mormon based on her proposal for the book of Ether. While she feels that Hamilton provides us with the vital words and concepts Joseph may have borrowed, such as “window,” “cloud,” “records,” “kings” and “elephants,” her several dozen parallels leave one wondering how these bits and pieces account for the creation of anything. Maybe 1 or 2% of the material in the book of Ether can be related to elements scattered across over 800 pages in Hamilton. So how did his “translation” work?

When Joseph needed a name for, say, the author the book of Ether, did he pause and turn to his library, take out his rare copy of Hamilton’s obscure book, and begin reading dozens of pages until an interesting word popped up? (“Aha! Subtile ether! Oliver, we’ll call this the book of Subtile. Wait, strike that, it will be the book of Ether.”) How many consultations with books were required for each verse or story element? But so much work for one word or concept is such a perplexing way to create a book. This method would seem to make Joseph’s fraud impossibly hard, when the goal of a conman, fabricator, or plagiarizer should be to ease the burden of creative writing.

Of course, the whole notion of drawing upon numerous books to do the fabrication of the Book of Mormon is questionable on its face, for most of the Book of Mormon was done while Joseph was living in what was essentially an information vacuum in the tiny village of Harmony far from Palmyra with no local libraries or societies of literati to turn to. Further, those who were witnesses to the translation noted that he had no sources, notes or books that he drew upon, but dictated hour after hour while looking into his hat and somehow receiving revelation for the text.

 

Missed Opportunities

Toponce notes that a large fraction of the alleged borrowings comes from volume 2 of Hamilton, so let’s begin there and see how this might have worked. As we begin reading volume 2, we learn about the relationship of Hindu mythology to the Bible, with fascinating names like Rama-Swamy, Brahm, Semiramis, Narayana, Bar-Achmanes, Brachmen, Brahmen, Manaeva-Sostra, Oannes, Protogenes, Proclus, Sisuthrus, Nara, Ayana, all begging to be plagiarized (these would make wonderful names for Nephi’s siblings, for example)—and that’s just in the first five pages. We learn of concepts that I could imagine a fictional Nephi or his philosopher father would have loved to discuss, such as the First Cause (p. 2) and the relationship between “I Am” in the Bible to the Hindu “OM” (pp. 2-3), the idea that Oannes and Sisuthrus represent Noah and the Orphic egg of Proclus is the ark (p. 4), the great egg that was the “Forefather of all spirits” (p. 5), the immateriality of mind (pp. 5-6), etc. 

But from all these gems, from all this rich spiritual matter for a young fabricator to swipe, all that is plucked is one word—“ether” (p. 5) —which is a metaphysical substance, not a prophet in a cave. Ether is used two more times (2:335 and 2:398), but it’s never a name, just a noun, and doesn’t seem to give much guidance on what the themes of the book of Ether should be. But why bother turning to Hamilton for that word, when the noun was widely used in Joseph’s day, without taking advantage of all the great material that Hamilton offers? Many intriguing names and concepts in Hamilton are constantly ignored. It’s like the claim that Joseph somehow must have had access to the few rare maps of Arabia that showed the name “Nehem/Nehhm” in Yemen, thus allegedly accounting for the perfect placement of the place “Nahom” on Lehi’s Trail, a tribal name now confirmed by hard archaeological evidence in that area to have predated Lehi. But if he had access to the hundreds of details and names available on those maps, why would he neglect so much information and just pluck one obscure name when he could have added local color or plausibility by referring to more well-known names or described specific details to build in “evidence?” Using just one modified name that nobody would ever recognize was associated with a real place until almost 150 years later simply makes no sense.

Or consider the passage in Hamilton’s book where we meet the brother of Jared:

The error, of supposing them such, apparently arose from the too commonly received opinion that Osiris, or Meon, was intended for Mizraim, instead of Enoch. If we restore this prince to his proper place in chronology, all the rest follow of course. For admitting Osiris to be Enoch, Typho or Typhos, (the apostatę brother of Jared) one of the fallen giants was his uncle. But by Typho I should rather suppose the oriental Neptune to be meant: the Jupiter Marinus of the Romans, and Thor of the Goths. (2:385)

Many names and concepts are on this and adjacent pages, but all that is swiped is a common name, Jared, and the fact that he had a brother. But it’s an apostate brother, so creative transformation is needed to turn this unnamed character around and make the reference completely unrelated to the source. What good is borrowing if so little is gained and so many opportunities are lost, and radical creative transformation is always needed?

The work of turning to another source and using it for a few crumbs while ignoring the meat makes the life of fabricating a text slower, more tedious, and less fruitful: it’s plagiarism or fabrication made harder. If Hamilton were an influence for Joseph, there should be something more substantial. Let’s see what else Toponce offers.

Digging Further into Toponce’s Parallels

Some of Toponce’s parallels are particularly questionable. For example, in presenting Hamilton’s use of “the brother of Jared,” she provides this quote:

“But from the period, when Jarasandha, the apostate brother of Rama (aka Jared), formed a new dynasty at Magadha… the solar race never prosper.” vol.2 page 312 

The quotation (actually from page 2:311, not 2:312) does not mention Jared. The “aka Jared” is Toponce’s editorial insertion and while accurate, may confuse some readers. There is no need for such embellishments: though a very minor character, “the brother of Jared” occurs five times in Hamilton’s 800+ pages of text (and 44 times in the 15 chapters of the book of Ether). 

Much of what Toponce uncovers is based on clearly similar concepts and specific words, such as “windows,” “records,” “kings,” and glowing stones. But some things she recognizes may not have explicit parallels, but still “just sound Smithish”:

This just sounds Joseph Smithish- “Chryser exercised himself in words, in charms and in divinations. Ravan had recourse to magic in all his contests with Rama” vol. 1 page 202

While Joseph missed the name Chryser (apparently the inspiration for a future automobile manufacturer) and never uses the nouns “divination” or “charm” in the Book of Mormon (though charm is used once as a verb), nor mentions “contests,” nor has anyone who “exercises words” (though “exercise” is applied to justice, power, authority, and faith in the Book of Mormon), Toponce somehow recognizes that Hamilton’s passage is “Smithish” and implies that it may have influenced Joseph. One of her related parallels is that the personal name Rama is very close to the name of a Jaredite hill, Ramah. And magic is mentioned as well—definitely Smithish. If the standard for being “Smithish” does not require any meaningful relationship or any explanatory power as a potential source, but merely requires a related word or two to qualify as “Smithish,” virtually any book could fit into Toponce’s potential sources project, though it would be better to select books that at least were known to exist in the same country where Joseph resided. It will be interesting to see what the next smoking guns might be.

Now let’s consider her list of similarities beginning on p. 3 of Toponce. We’ve already discussed the first two. For the others, I’ll add brief comments (temporarily turning off the tongue-in-cheek remarks).  

1. “Both speak of a man called the brother of Jared.”

2. “Both speak of a stone that is placed in an ark/vessel to give light (vol. 2 page 28, Ether 6:2-3).”

3. “Both speak about Nimrod (mentioned several times throughout both volumes, Ether 2:1, 4 & Ether 7:22).”

Comment: Nimrod is a biblical name and Hamilton is referring to that person (“Nimrod the son of Cush” at 1:352, as in Genesis 10:8-9) as he discusses parallels between the Bible and Hindu traditions. The Valley of Nimrod in Ether 2:1,4 is named after the same Nimrod from Genesis. Much later in Ether 7:22, a king names his son Nimrod, with no connection to Hamilton. There is no reason to see Hamilton as the source for this name. 

4. “Both speak about God guiding the vessel through the storm.” 

Comment: Toponce fails to recognize that most of her parallels are from biblical material in Hamilton’s book, especially the story of Noah and the ark. God guiding Noah in the same manner as He guided Nephi’s ship and the Jaredite barges does not require anything from Hamilton, nor does it require “plagiarism” from the Bible, but certainly Book of Mormon writers were keenly aware of parallels to the Bible in divinely led journeys and other themes. That should be no surprise and does not detract from the historicity or antiquity of the Book of Mormon.

5. “Both mention records.”

Comment: No argument here. Like literally millions of books, letters, legal documents, etc., records are mentioned. No surprise there. Toponce’s observation is neither interesting nor informative, let alone novel. 

6. “Both mention the word ether (vol. 2 page 5, 335, 398, Book of Ether).”

Comment: Yes, like numerous books in Joseph’s day. But there’s an important difference between the metaphysical “subtile ether” of Hamilton and a man’s name, just as there is a difference between the food called “ham” and the biblical name. A source talking about one is not necessarily a plausible source for “plagiarism” of the other.

7. “Both mention the word windows.”

Comment: Yes, just like the Bible and countless other sources in Joseph’s day. Interestingly, Hamilton mentions the window of the ark (2:28) while in Ether, we read that the Jaredite vessels could not have windows (Ether 2:23), so at best it’s a case of some creative transformation for the use of one word rather than the easy work of plagiarizing material directly.

8. “Both mention the ark/vessel moving due to wind/waves.”

Comment: Long ago Hugh Nibley in The World of the Jaredites wrote about ancient traditions of strong winds driving the ark. Genesis 8:1 also mentions a wind going over the water near the end of Noah’s time in the ark, though not necessarily driving the ark. But the concept of ships being driven by wind and waves is not exactly a novel innovation, but one of the most basic aspects of being in a vessel of any kind on the ocean. There’s no case for influence from Hamilton here. 

9. “Number 8 is significant (8 vessels/ 8 people in ark & Noah is the 8th king / 8 corners of the world)”

Comment: This seems to be grasping at straws. On p. 7 of her paper, Toponce gives us more detail:

This quote from A Key to the Chronology of the Hindus could have definitely been the inspiration behind the eight vessels. Very similar! The description of the barges in Ether 2 also sound like they would fit the description of a crescent shaped float.

“During the churning of the milky ocean were thrown up eight great blessings.” The first is a float that is crescent shaped, is an emblem of the ark but is frequently mistaken for the moon. (vol. 2 page 22)

A phrase is found mentioning “eight blessings.” That’s supposed to “definitely” be possible evidence that Joseph Smith turned to Hamilton to get the idea of eight vessels? Is there any number between 1 and, say, 100, that is not mentioned in Hamilton’s massive work? If there had been, say, 24 or 80 vessels, could Toponce not have pointed to Hamilton at 2:63 which has “twenty-four days before the waters were dried up, and eighty days before the earth was dry” to find numbers associated with the flood story (like much of vol. 2)? What does Joseph gain by reading about and using the passage about “the churning of the milky ocean were thrown up eight great blessings”? To take the lengthy section containing this passage and to extract only the number 8, not even the idea of 8 ships, and to turn that into 8 vessels for the book of Ether seems like an exhausting way to pluck a number out of the air. Why could he possibly gain from turning to Hamilton at this point? Plagiarism made harder again.

10. “Both mention seeing God.”

Comment: Toponce might have even more success in her work if she were to spend some time reading the Bible, and then any of the thousands of books in Joseph’s day that also mention this ancient concept, one found in the Bible and many other ancient sources. More padding. 

11. “Both mention destructive serpents (vol. 2 page 105, Ether 9:31, 33).”

Comment: Again a glance at the Bible might be helpful here, and any book describing the occasional but very real problems that many parts of the world have faced from venomous snakes. Not that the Bible or any other source mentioning the trouble serpents can cause is needed to explain a tiny detail in Ether 9:31–33. An abundance of venomous serpents can be a real problem in some parts of the world, especially Mesoamerica which appears to be the most plausible candidate for the Book of Mormon. 

Further, the cited portion of Hamilton’s text has nothing that could have assisted Joseph in writing the account in Ether where large numbers of poisonous serpents begin to cause trouble for some of the Jaredites. Hamilton describes the future end of the world when “the great serpent Ananta will pour forth flames from his several mouths, for the destruction of the world; after which the universe will be re-created.” A divine serpent with multiple heads spewing fire that triggers the destruction and rebirth of the universe has absolutely nothing, apart from the word “serpent,” that could have helped Joseph write the book of Ether in any sensible way. (Google Books has a garbled page for 2:105. Instead see 2:105 at HathiTrust.org.) More grasping at straws.

12. “Lord seeing Moses/Moroni “face to face” (vol. 2 page 128, Ether 12:39).”

Comment: The Bible has several references to people encountering God face to face. Hamilton’s text is obviously referring to the biblical account of Moses seeing God “face to face.” No need for borrowing from an inaccessible English source about the Hindus if Joseph were making things up. But expressing related spiritual events in related biblical language is what we expect from the Hebrew writers of the Book of Mormon, just as New Testament writers often used language straight from the Old Testament. No surprise here and no evidence of plagiarism. 

13. “There is a veil that covers deity (vol. 2 page 84, Ether 3:6, 19-20 & Ether 12:19, 21).” 

Comment: There is a parallel here, with Hamilton speaking of a “veil of golden light” that hides the face of the “true Sun,” which is deity. The Bible also has references to sacred veils. Paul in Hebrews 9 and 10 speaks of the veil in the temple as a symbol of the veil that Christ passed though for us and that we should pass through at least symbolically to obtain redemption through His sacrifice. But the whole idea that we can’t normally see God is pervasive in the scriptures. What Hamilton lacks is the concept of humans passing through the veil (or having the veil as a barrier be removed in whole or part) to see God or be in His presence, rather than removing the veil of light that masks God in Hamilton.

14. “Man created in God’s image (vol. 2 page 90, 95, Ether 3:15).”

Comment: Again, Book of Mormon writers are said to be Hebrews who have brought Old Testament writings with them. The basic idea from Genesis 1 of being created in the image of God ought to be part of their faith. The fact that Hamilton also refers to Genesis 1 does absolutely nothing for the case of plagiarism. Senseless padding. 

15. “Elephants (vol.1 page 15, 230 & vol. 2 page 173, Ether 9:19); ‘Mr. Wilford adds, “elephants were called oxen in the west.”’“

Comment: This might be a more reasonable parallel if the book of Ether noted that elephants, “also called oxen in the west,” were among the Jaredites. Then we’d have some evidence of the kind of plagiarism that real plagiarists do, borrowing more than just a verb or a noun or two, but text that provides something creative and interesting to reduce the workload, not make more work. 

16. “Phrase ‘curious workmanship’ (vol. 2 page 16, Ether 10:27).”

Comment: Toponce is late to the dance on this one. “Curious workmanship” has already been used by various critics citing a number of references to argue that Joseph plagiarized this term. They have a lot of potential sources to choose from, I have to admit, because this was a relatively common term in Joseph’s day, but not in ours. Today we might say “fine workmanship,” but look at how the relative usage of these terms has changed over time according to the Google Ngram Viewer, which examines how frequent word groupings were over time in their database of digitized books. Here’s the result for “curious workmanship” versus “fine workmanship” (view it directly at Google Books):

So this is a matter of translating a text into the English of Joseph’s day (or even much earlier, getting back into the Early Modern English era, if you’re curious). This word choice gives no evidence of a link to Hamilton, apart from both being in English. For more on the charges made about “curious workmanship,” see my “Book of Mormon Plagiarism Theories and The Late War: Smoking Gun or Smoke and Mirrors?

17. “Negligent on [sic] worshipping [sic] God (vol. 2 page 29, Ether 2:14-15).”

Comment: The Bible and countless other books have this concept. Can you find any book advocating the worship of God that doesn’t criticize those who neglect God? Here Hamilton’s text would offer a more plausible parallel if it looked like the Book of Mormon actually used something from his text, which reads: “so little mindful were mankind of this blessing that the divine cow became totally neglected” (2:29), which does not seem like much of a source to inspire the account in Ether where a prophet is chastised by God for three hours because he “remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord.” Toponce takes a passage that mentions “neglect” and equates that basic idea with “remembering not.” Yes, it’s neglect, but as far as finding a smoking gun for plagiarism, it would have been more convincing if the book of Ether stated that the brother of Jared had “totally neglected the divine cow” or was criticized by the divine cow, giving us the kind of thing that plagiarists do. Going from “neglect” of the divine cow to “remembering not” to pray to God is a big enough transformation that one has to wonder what good plagiarism does for the plagiarizer when so much creative work is needed and so little benefit is reaped from the rare patches of text that are allegedly snatched. 

18. “Faith and good works both mentioned (vol.2 page 35, Ether 12:4).”

Comment: Yes, of course, just as you find in numerous books dealing with Christianity and the Bible. A mention of very common words or concepts does not constitute evidence for plagiarism. 

19. “Both speak about destruction/ bad things happening followed by rain (vol.2 page 36, Ether 9:30-35).”

Comment: If you think about it, just about everything that happens on this planet is eventually followed by rain, and often right away. And some of the bad things that happen are caused by rain. Hamilton’s lengthy discussions of the Flood do not create the slightest evidence for borrowing by Joseph.

20. “Praying because of mercies shown to them (vol.2 page 40, Ether 6: 12).”

Comment: Toponce still has not noticed that Hamilton’s book is all about the connections between Hindu tradition and the Bible and Christianity in particular. People praying in gratitude is not a novel idea that points to Hamilton as the necessary source. (It’s really getting hard to see how Toponce could be “blown away” by these similarities.)

21. “Confusion of tongues and Tower of Babel (vol. 1 page 380, 398, vol. 2 page 126, 308 are just some of the references; Ether 1:3, 5, 33).”

Comment: In writing his translation of Ether, Mormon is keenly aware that future readers will be aware of the record in Genesis about the tower and the confusion of languages. The Bible and numerous religious books mention this. Hamilton’s reliance on Genesis does not contribute to Toponce’s case for plagiarism. 

22. “Both speak of a “contrite heart” (vol. 2 page 188, Ether 4:15).”

Comment: Yes, as does the Bible. This is biblical language being used in the Book of Mormon, as it is in Hamilton. This does not mean Joseph had to bring a book from England to the Sates to swipe a phrase that had already become common in religious discourse. 

23. “Both speak about attacks of monsters of the sea/ocean and shark/whale (vol. 1 pages 60 and 61, Ether 6:10.”

Comment: As does the Bible and countless tales from sailing. Traversing the ocean is dangerous. No plagiarism required. 

24. “Jaredsandha’s (brother of Rama Chandra aka Jared) race didn’t prosper due to apostasy (vol.2 page 141/142).”

Comment: The Bible and many religious books tend to suggest that God blesses the righteous and that wicked apostates sooner or later face consequences. This goes back to the Torah and beyond. It’s no surprise that Hamilton would point to his apostate brother of Jared as one who was not blessed richly by the Lord, quite unlike the righteous brother of Jared in Ether. No hint that Joseph lifted anything from Hamilton here. 

25. “Both mention cattle (several times throughout both volumes, Ether 9:18) and bees (Vol. 2 page 68, Ether 2:3).”

Comment: Perhaps Toponce is being too conservative here. Why would stray mentions of cattle and bees count as evidence of derivation, when mentions of water, goats, silver, hair, hands, trees, and tents all get a pass? And what about verbs like “see,” “read,” and “eat,” or conjunctions like “and” or “or”? If a mention of cattle counts as evidence of influence, why not consider the many more English words these two texts share? Or could it be that Toponce realizes that any more of this would make readers think more clearly about the difference between borrowing/plagiarism and the inevitable random “parallels” that can occur between any two English texts?

There is one relatively more impressive parallel that Toponce missed: the idea of sacred lost books that needed to be recovered/restored. Now that’s getting closer to home, a very Book of Mormonish/Smithish concept if ever there was one. Granted, the mention of lost books of scripture is something one can find in many verses of the Bible and in other writings, but not with the pizzazz found in Hamilton’s book. From 2:31, we have another “smoking gun” for Joseph’s clever transformative plagiarism: 

Under the Matsyu Avatar he [Mr. Maurice] writes “the first incarnation of Vishnu, in the form of a fish, to recover the sacred books, lost during the deluge.” That these sacred books were emblematic of the true religion being lost in idolatry, and the period stated at the four hundred and twentieth year of the world, has been fully proved in a former Letter.

This would have been one of the more impressive parallels had Toponce noticed it, though it would be much more valuable to our critics if only Vishnu had, instead of being in the form of a fish, been a salamander. Perhaps some other lesser-known Hindu text will fill in that gap one day.

There are a few more points scored in the latter part of Toponce’s document. She mentions two “races” being destroyed. But Hamilton refers to all peoples as “races” and in the passage in question refers to the descendants of Cain and the descendants of righteous Seth as the two “races” that were destroyed in the Flood, except for one survivor descended from Jared. This has nothing to do with warring Nephites and Lamanites or the destruction of the Jaredites in a war between two armies. 

 

Not-So-Tender Mercies

One final topic Toponce raises is the seemingly impressive parallel of “tender mercies.” She raises this item with its own header, “VII. TENDER MERCIES,” to call attention to something she must want readers to see as especially important. When I got to this part of her argument, I finally thought she might have something interesting. Unlike stray mentions of cattle, windows, or the number eight, the phrase “tender mercies” is a relatively noteworthy phrase in the Book of Mormon that has not been widely used outside of our own Church literature. So if Hamilton were using it in a similar way, it would be interesting indeed, though this kind of parallel can always happen by chance. If you are going to put an adjective in front of mercy, “tender” seems like a good one and surely someone else might have used that before. Maybe Hamilton was first, but that need not mean direct transmission of influence/plagiarism. 

Here, though, I was gravely disappointed to see that the source for “tender mercies,” according to Toponce, is this:

“The first action recorded of this patriarch after the deluge, is raising an altar to the Lord, and pouring out prayers and thanksgivings for the mercies that had been shewn him, and his family.” vol. 2 pages 39-40

Here I have to cry foul. “Mercy” and “mercies” are not rare words. It’s the adjective tender that makes the phrase interesting, and Hamilton completely lacks it. It’s not just that tender is absent in the cited smoking-gun passage, but it’s not present anywhere in volume 1 or 2, according to my searches. Had it even been somewhere in volume 1, Toponce could at least have displayed “tender … mercies” in the time-honored manner of some of our most dedicated critics. To imply at all that “tender mercies” is derived from Hamilton is reckless and misleading, more so than most of the arguments presented here. She admits, of course, that the cited passage doesn’t exactly have “tender,” but people will see the header and not notice the details.

[Actually, as Robert F. Smith observed in a comment to this post, “tender mercies” occurs in the KJV Bible, such as in Psalm 25:6, 40:11, 51:1, etc., and in Proverbs 12:10, making any purported connection to Hamilton’s book all the more irrelevant. “Tender mercies” is a term that can reasonably be found in a KJV-style translation of a text from ancient Hebrew writers and does not require searching through obscure books to propose a source.]

 

More Last-Ditch Parallels

In an Appendix, Toponce provides a list of some even weaker parallels, generally without references where in Hamilton and the book of Ether these parallels occur. Some are rather vague and generally such as “Lots of talk about kings” and “Lots of talk about war.” Again, what does one expect? How many historical or even fictional works fail to mention rulers and have nothing but peace? Certainly not the Bible. 

One of the more interesting ones, at first glance, is “Three Vedas/three Nephites?” But again, disappointment follows inspection. Yes, 2:101 has the phrase “three Vedas,” but Vedas are not disciples, prophets, nor holy men. They are scriptures, sacred writings; they are inanimate objects. The number three in front of a noun occurs in millions of publications, but if plagiarism is at play, we would expect to find a passage that could help Joseph with his storyline, not just with a number between 1 and 12. For that, any poorly educated farm boy could handle the task in a jiffy without having to turn to a rare book and spending time reading about Hindu scriptures to just extract a lone “three.”

Another parallel in this list is “Lots of talk about Jupiter, astronomy, and numbers which were of interest to Joseph.” Perhaps Toponce knows more about the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon than the rest of us, but I don’t find lots of such talk in my edition of the Book of Mormon, and certainly not in the book of Ether.

“Speaks of infant baptism vol. 2 pg 79-80” is another item in the Appendix. Here Toponce forgets that the book of Ether never mentions baptism, much less baptism of infants. She may have been thinking of Mormon’s epistle on infant baptism in Moroni 8. For that, Hamilton’s book might offer an interesting parallel if it had a general or other leader railing against the practice as an evil, apostate concept, but the cited passage in Hamilton actually speaks favorably of infant baptism and alleges that the Hindus have something similar in which if an infant dies before his or her naming ceremony, the baby can’t be buried in sanctified ground. Again, for those looking to explain the Book of Mormon by finding parallels in purported sources that Joseph Smith might have used in his fabrication/plagiarism, the case becomes less impressive when the alleged source completely contradicts the Book of Mormon and has no connection at all except the use of some very common English words or widespread concepts.

Some of these alleged parallels are well-known from the Bible, such as “straight path” and “book written in letters or epistles.” Others just leave me puzzled, such as the second item on her list, “mentions King Midas and that whatever he touched turned to gold (vol.1 pages 236-237).” I honestly cannot recall anything about King Midas in the book of Ether, nor anyone else with the magical power to make gold by touching things. Perhaps what Toponce sees here is a parallel due to the mere mention of gold. Parallels based on little more than common words like “gold” are disappointing, especially when presented as if there were something interesting and specific like a King Midas figure in the book of Ether, but there may be a silver lining to all this.

 

A Silver Lining After All

While Toponce’s work may be weak in terms of its specific details, it does have value, especially for those interested in better understanding the Book of Mormon. Its real value lies not so much in trying to explain around 1% or 2% of the book of Ether, but in clarifying the mechanism of fabrication/plagiarism that is behind many modern attempts to identify various texts as sources for the Book of Mormon. If we entertain the proposal that Joseph did rely on Hamilton’s book, then Toponce’s detailed work on the origins of the book of Ether reveals a brilliant, dedicated, almost manically obsessed plagiarizer who spared no cost in time, effort, or book and travel expenses to pursue an arduous course that was vastly more difficult than just fabricating stories. Genius-level strategies were used to cover his tracks, obtaining a rare book that apparently was not available in the United States (a brilliant way to cover his tracks) and then mining its 800+ pages of treasures for just a few dainty crumbs, never the meat it offers. She reveals a young Joseph passing by all the stories, the mystique, the strange names, and after hours of study just selecting trivial tidbits like the numbers three or eight, words like “windows” and “bees,” the idea of ships facing waves, arcane concepts like praying to God, and Nephi’s memorable trademark term “tender mercies,” brilliantly hiding the plagiarism by using a book that didn’t even mention “tender” anywhere—spending hours per verse using who knows how many other books for each line, making it nearly impossible for anyone (prior to Toponce) to ever detect his borrowing/plagiarism in the book of Ether or provide a semi-coherent theory for how he did it. Plagiarism made vastly harder is the story, and a very fictional one at that.

Toponce reveals, if her theory is correct, a case of plagiarism not only made vastly harder to conduct, but also much harder to detect, largely due to the general lack of any real relationship between the texts. Logic, however, suggests that we reject the notion that Hamilton’s book had any influence at all on the book of Ether or anything else in the Book of Mormon.

In Toponce’s defense, the approach she has taken is actually quite understandable, though fatally flawed. Imagine a student of the Book of Mormon, skeptical of its origin, picking up an obscure book and suddenly finding a Book of Mormon name in it, like the brother of Jared. Then after further reading, maybe a few dozen pages later you find some philosophical concept discussed that sounds like Lehi preaching. Then you notice the book talks about fortifications, cattle, ships, prayer, and other elements. Have you found the smoking gun? It’s only when you do some tests with clearly impossible sources like the names of craters on the moon or the poetry in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that you discover just how easy it is to find random parallels and just how little of the work of writing the Book of Mormon is explained by, say, a source of 800 pages with a couple dozen vague parallels and one or two interesting ones. 

If you insist that plagiarism is behind the Book of Mormon, show us how these alleged sources would make life easier for Joseph, not vastly harder. Toponce, unfortunately, has fallen into the parallel-o-mania trap that has led many other critics of the Book of Mormon to feel they have one of Joseph’s sources, when upon closer inspection the proposal lacks merit and is likely based on random scattered parallels without a cohesive theory to connect them to the work of writing the allegedly plagiarized text. It’s understandable and many intelligent people have been misled by enticing parallels that do nothing to explain the Book of Mormon. But I agree that it can be fun to piece together an article like Toponce’s and play with the uncovered parallels, as I have done with Leaves of Grass and features of the moon.  Fun indeed, but the parallels do nothing to explain the Book of Mormon, though I don’t think any of our critics has come up with more impressive parallels than we find in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, whose only defect as a key source for Joseph’s plagiarism is its slightly late publication in 1855.

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