First Families: BOM and Restoration

HawkgrrrlAnti-Mormon, apologetics, Asides, book of mormon, curiosity, doubt, faith, families, history, joseph, mormon, Mormon, Mormons, new order mormon, prophets, scripture, smith, testimony, theology, thought 24 Comments

There are some interesting parallels between the first family of the Book of Mormon and the first family of the Restoration (the Smiths).  Coincidence?  Or was Joseph Smith writing about his own family (vs. translating the story of another family)?

Here are a few of the parallels between Lehi’s family and Joseph Smith’s family:

  • Both had visionary fathers. In fact, according to Lucy Mack Smith’s account, both fathers had a vision that was nearly identical–the vision of the tree of life.  Is this a coincidence?  Is Lehi’s dream an archetypal religious dream that many have to illustrate the same concept (similar to dreams of your name being written in the Book of Life)?  Was Lucy Mack a little confused in attributing this dream to her husband?
  • Both families were “of goodly parents.” In both cases, the mother and father were both very committed and focused on their families also.
  • Both families went on a journey to fulfill a religious destiny. Both families left their personal belongings behind; they made a temporal sacrifice for a religious purpose.
  • Nephi and Joseph are both middle children who inherit the prophetic mantle from their father.  Both are emotionally supported by their parents.
  • Nephi and Joseph both feel deeply.  Both have low moments recorded in scripture (the “psalms of Nephi” and D&C 121).

There are some key differences:

  • Joseph’s family was supportive of his prophetic calling. There was no Laman or Lemuel in the Smith family, including in Father Smith’s vision of the tree of life.
  • Joseph and Nephi have very different personalities from one another.  Joseph is boisterous and laughs too much, while Nephi is basically a kill-joy.
  • Lehi’s family left wealth behind in Jerusalem. Joseph’s family had always been very poor and had to work hard to earn a living.
  • City slickers vs. townies. Lehi’s family were originally city dwellers, and Joseph’s family always lived in smaller agricultural communities.
  • Sariah’s role is not nearly as prominent in the BOM record as Lucy Mack’s role is in the restoration.  Lucy Mack Smith is very clearly an assertive, intelligent woman who is at the helm of decision-making.  Sariah is portrayed as mostly a supporter to her husband.
  • Joseph Sr. was by some accounts a broken man who had repeatedly failed to succeed economically but had the unwavering support of his family.  Is the portrait of Lehi Joseph’s attempt to repaint his father in a more idealized image?

Would the lost book of Lehi reveal more parallels or differences?  This is one of the arguments against BOM historicity put forward in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer, although the coincidences had occurred to me independently.

Personally, I find the comparison interesting from a literary perspective (I have made more tenuous connections than this work in some of my English papers back in the day), but ultimately unconvincing to me personally due to my own spiritual experiences with the book and the equally persuasive differences.  The Book of Mormon (to quote Richard Bushman) seems to me to be “greater than the sum of its parts.”

What do you think?  Coincidence or autobiography?  Discuss.

Comments 24

  1. Blake Ostler’s expansion theory of the Book of Mormon, for those who want to have and eat their cake, would allow Joseph to have inserted the basics of his own father’s vision as Lehi’s dream, insert his own family dynamics over the story of Lehi and sons, and yet allow belief that there was an ancient core or kernel to this story which really took place around 600 BCE.

    According to many scholars, the dictation of the Book of Mormon likely began with Mosiah (after the loss of the book of Lehi) and then the segment from 1 Nephi to Words of Mormon was the last dictated section, although without the book of Lehi for comparison, it’s impossible to know the contrasts between the two versions of Lehi’s story and how those would square with the Smith family dynamics.

    As far as the differences, one possibility is that Joseph thought of Nephi as his own idealized self, with sin and impurity removed, a rough stone made smooth. The other parallels are quite interesting.

  2. Coincidence or autobiography?

    A bit of both. Even the anti-mormon crowd wouldn’t call the book of mormon an autobiography. They would call it a work of fiction with some parts that seem to be drawn from Joseph’s experiences. Intellectual mormons, on the other hand, are likely to admit that something of Joseph is in the book–every translation shows some marks of the translator.

  3. I view the differences as far more important than the similarities – particularly the differences between Sariah/Lucy and Laman&Lemuel/?. Those differences are HUGE, imo, and they almost singlehandedly ruin my view of the book as autobiographical – especially since the small plates of Nephi is the only part that possibly could be the foundation of an autobiography. I think the parallel between the fathers is striking, as is the Sam/Hyrum connection, but they are too generic for me to read as more substantive than the differences.

  4. With the time or inclination, someone could produce a scholarly-looking treatment that places the Book of Mormon squarely in the 15th Century, or as a veiled autobiography and critique of 18th-Century Christian thought and Indian affairs by Thomas Jefferson.

    In college, one down-to-earth English professor (oxymoron?) taught a course on how you can find hidden parallels in nearly any topic and give it a scholarly spin. (Technically, the course was called “critical approaches to literature,” but she was pretty cynical about what this meant.) The ability to find and expound on trendy ideas hidden on older texts, she explained without tongue in cheek, was a necessary skill to get into graduate school and to impress your scholarly peers.

    From day one, she essentially admitted to the narcissism of literary deconstruction so that she could teach us to do it like the pros. Good thing she had tenure.

    If you can discover something just by reading a text and writing your deepest thoughts about it, there’s a good chance it’s not real scholarship. The result will tell you far more about the deconstructionist than the text he is deconstructing.

  5. I like cake, and I like eating it.

    *Sigh* The old “Joseph borrowed from father Joseph” canard…

    We must realize that Lucy Mack Smith’s account is suspect…not in terms of factuality but in the sense that the BOM was transcribed several years before she told of her recollections. Given Lucy’s established belief that Joseph was a focal point in world history, it would be reasonable to suppose that she would cast father Joseph’s dreams in terms reminiscent of Lehi. Again, we don’t know this, but that’s the point…we just don’t know how Lucy/Joseph Sr. would have described the dreams if asked in real time.

  6. Oh…and I must comment on Lorin’s post…

    HEAR, FREAKING, HEAR!! Who was your professor? I want to start a fan club in her honor…no seriously…who was she?

  7. Coincidence. imo

    The lack of Laman/Lemuel is critical since much of the book of mormon is about their children’s activities.

    But then again the doubters can look to the Community of Christ as the ‘remnant’ who will return?

  8. 7.

    It’s Donna Cheney, Weber State University. Not a shade of self-importance in her manner, and an awesome Shakespeare instructor to boot. Her husband is also an English professor there. They’re also active LDS.

    Please go ahead and build a shrine to her. And while you’re going down the hall, please try not to trip of the shrines that some of her fellow professors have built to themselves!

  9. “was Joseph Smith writing about his own family (vs. translating the story of another family)?”

    Pure speculation. Once one receives a testimony from the Holy Ghost regarding the Book of Mormon this kind of historical speculation ceases to tug at our intellect.

    Grant Palmer and company are part of the topography of the last days. They have an unintended calling, to draw away those who are allowing themselves to be deceived, thus having no oil in their lamps. Those who choose to follow Christ need to respect their agency, but it is heart rending to observe their dwindling faith, and the net it cast to snare others.

  10. I see Nephi’s first verse writing more as his own attempt to keep the commandment of honoring his father and his mother, than any real statement as to how wonderful they were. In the actual record, it seems like Lehi was a rather late convert to the words of the prophets of his day, and even later he and Sariah were shown to waver a bit.

    In the first verse of Enos’ writings a similar thing happens: “…I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man–for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord–and blessed be the name of my God for it–”

    Later, the attitude becomes much more reluctant to write very much, but still the writers acknowledge they were commanded by their fathers, brothers, or someone to keep the record so they did, even if it was only a few words worth.

    Finally Amaleki takes over in the 12th verse of Omni (the one and only chapter.) I love his writing! He is the only one in the whole book who seems to have learned how to be concise! He wastes no time or space going on about how he can’t write much because the plates are too small, nor does he write about how he is not going to write at all, blah, blah, blah. He just says what he has to say quickly and to the point without any excess repetition. Verse 26 is my favorite verse.

    Most of the rest of the Book of Mormon is Mormon’s abridgment so some of the trivial things are left out. However, when you get to the record of Zeniff (Mosiah chapter 9,) it seems to have been included as a direct quote, and he begins saying: “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites,…”

    In this regard, the Book of Mormon writers seem more closely related to each other than to Joseph Smith’s own experience.

    I also recently read a book reveiw of The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson showing similarities between that book and the Harry Potter books, enough to think that she plagiarized from J. K. Rowling, except that hers was published three years before Harry Potter came out. Now that was really coincidence! (or Rowling plagiarized Ibbotson.)

    There is also no particular surprising coincidences between things like inheriting both dreaming significant dreams and a prophetic mantle or going on a journey for a religious purpose. Those things are also reminiscent of Joseph who was sold into Egypt.

    What is more surprising is for Joseph Smith to have had such wonderful support from his whole family, particularly if he wrote the book himself and lied about having truly translated it from an ancient record.

    It would also be interesting to note if you could draw parallels between your own history and other characters in literature or history.

  11. What 3rd brother doesn’t think his older brothers are evil, and wants to be the father’s favorite? 🙂

    Laman = Alvin
    Lemuel = Hyrum
    Nephi = Joseph Smith
    Sam = Sam
    Jacob / Joseph = Joseph’s younger siblings

    Mix in some of the Abraham stories/names (Sarah, Ishmael, Laban) and it at least provides some food for thought.

  12. #13 – It’s a nitpicky detail, but Nephi is actually the 4th son, not the 3rd. In his case, Sam is his older brother.

    That fact always makes me wonder…Laman & Lemuel are bad news, but why is Sam passed up in favor of Nephi? You could almost compare them like this:

    Laman & Lemuel = nobody (because nobody in the Smith family was that negative)
    Alvin = nobody (our of the picture due to his death)
    Sam = Hyrum (older than prophet brother, yet receptive to and supportive of his message)
    Nephi = Joseph
    Jacob / Joseph = Joseph’s younger siblings

  13. Some good thoughts here. I agree with Russell that Lucy Mack’s recounting of Joseph Sr.’s dream is suspect (as are a few of her statements–she seems a little prone to wishful thinking). I also agree with the fallacy of literary deconstruction. It would be very easy to draw comparisons between many unrelated works, and deconstruction is inherently manipulative and self-serving in its handling of a text.

    Was Nephi an idealized version of Joseph? If so, that’s mighty ironic since I like Joseph way better. To me, they don’t look that similar. But then, Nephi’s character is disadvantaged by the foil provided by Laman & Lemuel. As a result, he lacks nuance, whereas Joseph seems to be brimming with nuance.

  14. I would certainly agree that some literary analysis is overworked, and have felt that way since at least the period when I attended college (in the late Middle Ages). However, as I read some of the comments in this thread, I also sense a certain amount of facile dismissal of the broader nineteenth-century context of the Book of Mormon dictation. We can win little battles in such discussions (at least as we perceive the matter) and still lose a war.

  15. Post

    I haven’t read your books, Rick, but would be interested in your perspective. Feel free to share your thoughts.

    Other 19th century BOM issues raised by Grant Palmer (as I recall) were: 1) KJV textual errors, 2) tent-revival style conversion (en masse falling on the ground to confess faith), and 3) similarities to known sermons by preachers in the area. Is there something specific you want to add to that list or elaborate? As to the first, granted, JS seemed to use the KJV he knew for those portions of the BOM. As to the second, this always seemed silly to me in the BOM as well as in tent revivals–is it evidence of fabrication? I don’t think so; it seems like a mythic way to story-tell not intended to be taken literally. On the 3rd, the connections are tenuous IMO.

  16. As Grant Palmer has pointed out, there are also some remarkable similarities between Joseph Smith’s father and Nephi’s father:

    Both had many dreams, which they believed were divinely inspired.

    Both had six sons, two with the same names (Sam and Joseph)

    The fourth son in each case assumed family leadership from his father.

    Both had difficulty procuring metal plates.

    Both made a record of their own life and included at the beginning that they were “born of goodly parents.”

    All of these similarities, admittedly, could be coincidental.

    But while translating the words of Nephi, Joseph Smith surely must have had a sense of deja vu.

  17. Thank you for your openness to my further thoughts along this thread, Hawkgrrl (#18), but the field of modern Mormon parallels is so vast that I confined my comments (#17) to broad philosophical generalities. All I really wanted to convey was that I feel most Latter-day Saints are unaware of the many nineteenth-century similarities to Mormon texts and doctrine across the board, leaving them ill-equipped to discuss such matters. In large part, this may be because Mormon background culture and parallels have not generally been presented adequately or very extensively in the past, making them easy for people who do not care for them to dismiss them prematurely.

    In the specific matter of Joseph Smith’s family and Lehi’s, I feel that there may be some meaningful correlation, at some level, but I don’t personally rank that particular parallel among the “big” ones. So I’m not trying to mess up your worthwhile topic, but only expressing my frustration on a broader plain, hoping that we will learn to ask more, and to dismiss less quickly, less simply.

  18. first of all, it could be PURELY coincidental. look at Abraham Lincolns life and John F. Kennedy.
    Abraham Lincoln John Kennedy

    Studied law Studied law
    Served in the military Served in the military
    Once was a boat captain. He briefly worked as assistant pilot of the Talisman, a Mississippi River boat Once was a boat captain. He was a naval lieutenant and skipper of PT 109
    Elected to Congress in ‘46 Elected to Congress in ‘46
    Was the runner-up for the nomination of Vice President in ’56 Was the runner-up for the nomination of Vice President in ’56
    Involved in a famous political debate – the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 Involved in a famous political debate – the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960
    Republican Convention was held in Chicago in ’60 Republican Convention was held in Chicago in ’60
    Defeated opponent was born in ’13 (Stephen Douglas) Defeated opponent was born in ’13 (Richard Nixon)
    Elected President in ‘60 Elected President in ‘60
    Won the election with less than fifty-percent of the popular vote Won the election with less than fifty-percent of the popular vote
    Thought of as one of the greatest Presidents Thought of as one of the greatest Presidents
    Elected on November 8th for the term in which they were assassinated Elected on November 8th for the term in which they were assassinated
    The legality of the election was contested The legality of the election was contested
    Directly involved with black civil rights Directly involved with black civil rights
    Made his civil rights views known in ’63 Made his civil rights views known in ’63
    Killed while serving as President Killed while serving as President
    In 1964, the book entitled Mr. Lincoln and the Negroes, by W. O. Douglas, was published In 1964, the book entitled Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, by Harry Golden, was published
    Ordered a new monetary policy that allowed the U.S. government to issue interest-free notes. Shortly after his assassination, this policy reverted back to the old policy that allowed only the Federal Reserve to issue notes. Ordered a new monetary policy that allowed the U.S. government to issue interest-free notes. Shortly after his assassination, this policy reverted back to the old policy that allowed only the Federal Reserve to issue notes.
    His portrait is engraved on a U.S. coin His portrait is engraved on a U.S. coin. An interesting note: In 1963, the seal of the Lincoln $5 bill was changed from green to red. An urban legend arose claiming that this change reflected the nation’s mourning over the assassination of Kennedy.

  19. now what does this tell you about two people’s lives being closely connected? nobody should assume anything……just deal with facts

  20. very true FIEA. its stupid for people to think there are any correlations between Js and Nephi due to the fact that they have some “similar” attributes.

  21. People are more alike than different- in the Bible there is family conflict-today there is family conflict-in the Book of Mormon there is family conflict. I dont think Jos Smith plagiarized anything.

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