Hiding in Plain Sight: The Origins of the Book of Mormon

By William L. DavisOctober 30, 2012

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Origins of the Book of Mormon

WHO WROTE THE BOOK OF MORMON? For nearly two centuries, faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) have claimed that Joseph Smith translated the text from the writings of ancient prophets, while critics have endlessly recycled inadequate theories of plagiarism or co-authorship. What has rarely been addressed is that for much of his language and narrative structure, Smith turned to the most read and memorized author of the late seventeenth century, John Bunyan. He did so in such imaginative ways that the resulting work transcends any easy charge of plagiarism and calls upon us to reimagine the rich oral traditions of early America.

Parallels between Bunyan’s The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and the Book of Mormon have not gone entirely unnoticed. As early as 1831, Eber Howe, in his anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed, noted the use of names — “Desolation” and “Bountiful” from Pilgrim’s Progress reappear in the Book of Mormon — but most observations have been similarly limited in scope or suffered from lack of a systematic methodology. Bunyan wrote upwards of 60 books, tracts, and pamphlets, including Grace Abounding, A Few Sighs from Hell, Holy War and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, and these texts provide extensive narrative parallels to the Book of Mormon, often containing unique characteristics shared only by Bunyan and Smith.

For decades, LDS Church leaders have worked to mainstream the LDS faith, and with the nation on the verge of potentially electing the first Mormon president, coupled with the rising influence of the church in the cultural and political landscape of America, some have dubbed this period the “Mormon Moment.” Universities have even experienced a burgeoning interest in Mormon Studies. Such attention, however, is a doubled-edged sword, forcing the LDS Church to respond to controversial issues from its past, such as its history of polygamy, denying priesthood authority to black males until 1978, and the on-going debate about Mormonism’s status as a traditional Christian faith. Predating all of these controversies, however, is the debate about the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon itself.

To the LDS faithful, the Book of Mormon is the true historical account of a group of ancient Israelites who fled Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian captivity (600 B.C.E.) and later journeyed to the Americas to establish a new civilization. Mormons claim that in 1823 an angel named Moroni revealed to Joseph Smith the location of a set of gold plates – which recorded that sacred history – buried in a hill south of Palmyra in upstate New York, known today as the Hill Cumorah. Six years later, at the age of 24, Joseph translated this ancient record, which he claimed was written in “Reformed Egyptian,” into English by “the gift and power of God.”  

Detractors, on the other hand, assume the Book of Mormon to be Smith’s invention, pointing not just to the improbability of the story, but to the lack of any linguistic, archeological, or DNA evidence tying any tribe of Native Americans to ancient Israelites. Several theories of the origin of the text have emerged, but they lack solid evidence and require leaps of speculation. The wider academic community steered clear of the debate, leaving serious inquiry into the Book of Mormon to a small group of scholars and enthusiasts. Some Mormon scholars, like Grant Hardy, who wrote Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, have attempted to move the discussion away from polemics to an appreciation for the book’s narrative complexities. As with most scripture, however, claims to historical authenticity remain a central issue. Joseph Smith stated that the Book of Mormon was “the keystone of our religion,” to which the former LDS Prophet Ezra Taft Benson added, “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.” Thus the stakes regarding authenticity are high, and the suggestion that Joseph Smith looked extensively to John Bunyan for inspiration to write the Book of Mormon is fraught not only for Mormon scholarship but for the religion as a whole.


When Bunyan composed his stories in the late seventeenth century, he did so by cobbling together narrative elements, concepts and ideas from multiple biblical and literary sources (along with his vivid imagination and events from his own life). His characteristic patchwork of old and new story elements resulted in recognizable narrative patterns that act as “fingerprints” in the text, identifying Bunyan’s unique alterations to the scriptural and secular tales he recombined.

Several of Bunyan’s distinctive narrative patterns repeatedly appear in the Book of Mormon. One of the most prominent examples is the template that forms the narrative foundation for both the story of Faithful, a Christian martyr in Pilgrim’s Progress, and the story of the Prophet Abinadi in the Book of Mormon.

When Bunyan composed the story of Faithful’s martyrdom (and Hopeful’s subsequent conversion), he began by adapting and conflating two New Testament stories: the stoning of Stephen (the first Christian martyr) and the conversion of Paul (Acts 7 – 9). Bunyan did not, however, simply lift the New Testament narrative patterns; he reconjured the relationship between Stephen’s martyrdom and Paul’s subsequent conversion.

In the book of Acts, Paul, unfazed by Stephen’s death, continues to persecute Christians until Jesus intervenes on the road to Damascus. In Pilgrim’s Progress, however, Bunyan removes Jesus’ miraculous intervention and reformulates the narrative so that Faithful’s martyrdom (based on Stephen’s) becomes the catalyst that converts Hopeful (based on Paul), forming a new narrative template, collapsing two adjacent New Testament narratives into a single cause-and-effect story. Bunyan also enlarged the original narrative of Stephen (which originally only consisted of a council of judgment, a theological discussion and a stoning), adding an expanded dramatization of the court scene, imprisonment and torture, the martyr being portrayed as a “madman” by detractors, accusations of sedition, the martyr’s “bold” defense of his beliefs, a judge pronouncing a formal death sentence, the martyr being scourged and burned at the stake, and, finally, the declaration that the martyr “sealed the truth of his testimony with his blood.”

Bunyan’s additions were not random. He borrowed many of these elements – often using the same or similar phraseology – from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (better known as the Book of Martyrs), a massive sixteenth-century publication that related the history of Christian martyrs from a Protestant perspective. Bunyan’s cribbings from these two texts were then cemented using original material specific to the world of Christian and his journey to the Celestial Kingdom. The result is a “clustering” of old and new narrative building blocks to form a unique pattern, one that shares no less than fourteen distinctive narrative elements with the story of Abinadi in the Book of Mormon.

In Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful and Christian journey to the wicked city of Vanity Fair on their way to the Celestial Kingdom. As the pilgrims enter the city, their presence causes a disturbance among the citizens, and the travel companions are 1) bound and thrown into prison. A town leader 2) assembles a group of associates to examine the pilgrims, and the prisoners 3) are “brought before” the town leaders and put on trial. They accuse Faithful 4) of being a “madman,” 5) of stirring up contention among the people, and 6) of slandering the town leaders. Faithful 7) speaks “boldly” in his defense, but to no avail. The trial leader 8) condemns Faithful to be “slain” and “put to […] death.” Faithful is then 9) “scourged,” and finally 10) burned at the stake. Thus, Faithful 11) “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Faithful’s teachings and martyrdom 12) convert a witness, Hopeful, who becomes a major character in the story. 13) Other converts follow and depart from the city, 14) “entering into” a “covenant” to follow Christ.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Abinadi enters the now-wicked city of Lehi-Nephi and begins preaching to the people. His presence causes a great disturbance among the citizens, and Abinadi is 1) bound and thrown into prison. The leader of the city, King Noah, 2) assembles a group of false priests to examine Abinadi, and he 3) is “brought before” the leaders and put on trial. They accuse Abinadi 4) of being “mad,” 5) of stirring up contention among the people, and 6) of slandering the town leaders. Abinadi 7) speaks “boldly” in his defense, but to no avail. King Noah 8) condemns Abinadi to be “slain” and “put to death.” Abinadi is then 9) “scourged,” and finally 10) burned at the stake. Thus, Abinadi 11) “seals” his “testimony” with his “blood.” Abinadi’s teachings and martyrdom 12) convert a witness, Alma, who becomes a main character in the story. 13) Other converts follow and depart from the city, 14) “entering into” a “covenant” to follow Christ.

While martyrdom narratives are common in the Christian tradition (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs attests), no other narrative follows Bunyan’s variation of the story in all of these fourteen elements as closely as Smith’s account of Abinadi. Furthermore, the parallels tying the stories together occur on multiple levels, both in the underlying structural framework and in the specific language used to express ideas and events (which accounts for the unusual appearance of a sixteenth-century, Protestant reconfiguration of traditional martyr narratives in the year 148 B.C.E., the time of the Prophet Abinadi’s purported martyrdom in the Book of Mormon). In comparative terms, the stories of Abinadi and Faithful are far more similar to each other, both in content and expression, than, say, West Side Story is to its narrative source in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

While the story of Abinadi demonstrates few structural departures from Bunyan’s narrative template, Smith’s mode of appropriation often involves a more complex level of narrative conflation and reorganization than the similarities just noted might suggest. Smith’s text reveals an active, creative engagement with the stories; even as Bunyan pulled from multiple sources to construct his unique narrative formulations, so too did Smith absorb and rework these narrative templates into new configurations, but even in such instances, Smith’s forms nevertheless remain indebted to Bunyan.

Smith’s complex mode of conflation and adaption can be observed in the story of Lehi in the Book of Mormon, which forms the book’s opening narrative. The story is linked, both through language and structure, with two narrative episodes in Pilgrim’s Progress: the opening scene introducing Christian to the reader and a later scene from the House of the Interpreter.

In the first of the two passages, Bunyan the narrator is having a dream about Christian, the main character of the story, who lives in the City of Destruction. The dream opens with Christian reading a book that causes him to weep and tremble. He is frightened because the city where he is living is about to be destroyed. He returns home in distress and goes to bed, but he cannot sleep. He tells his family about the imminent destruction of the city, but they become hardened and refuse to believe him. Christian finally decides he must leave the city. His neighbors mock and threaten him, his relatives think he has gone mad with “frenzy distemper” in his head, and even his family refuses to go with him on his journey (in Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2, his family does follow him). Christian then departs the city alone in search of his inheritance, the Celestial kingdom.

In the second of the two passages, Christian is at the House of the Interpreter. In this episode, Christian is ushered through a series of allegories, presented with living dioramas, of various conditions of sin and righteousness. He observes a man shaking and trembling after rising from bed following a dream (Job 4:14). The man informs Christian that in his dream he saw a man (God, Christ or the “Ancient of Days”) sitting on a cloud, surrounded by a multitude of heavenly beings. Books are then opened, and the divine man bids the multitudes read them (Daniel 7:9-10; Rev. 5:1-7), and then the Final Judgment occurs.

Both passages describe a troubled man who cannot sleep at night, so fearful that he trembles. The stories are slightly different: Christian does not have a vision when he goes to bed; he merely lies awake “in sighs and tears.” In the Book of Mormon, Christian’s story and that of the man in the House of the Interpreter are interwoven to create a single narrative: Lehi’s story.

Lehi, a prophet in Jerusalem, has a vision in which he sees a pillar of fire and learns about the imminent destruction of his city. The vision causes him to “quake and tremble,” whereupon he returns home and “cast[s] himself upon his bed.” He is then “carried away in a vision,” in which “the heavens open,” and he sees “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels.” He is then given a book to read, which tells of the destruction of Jerusalem. Later, he preaches to the people of Jerusalem, but the people “mock him” and threaten to kill him. Then the Lord commands Lehi to take his family and flee Jerusalem. In the process, two of his sons become “hardened” and refuse to listen to him, accusing him of following the foolish imaginations of his heart. Even so, Lehi’s family continues its journey in search of a new home on the American continent.

Many of Bunyan’s other works play a significant role in the Book of Mormon, including Grace Abounding, Pilgrim’s Progress (Part 2), The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, Holy War, and several others. In fact, based on my years of extensive research and discoveries, Holy War provides what may be the most comprehensive collection of parallel narratives bridging the Book of Mormon to Bunyan’s texts: battles between light- and dark-skinned combatants to the point of annihilation, siege warfare and battle strategies, seditious factions and civil strife, secret cabals attempting to seize government control, righteous men who are heroic captains of war, and even a personal visitation of Jesus Christ and his establishment of a righteous society. The parallel narratives are ubiquitous and systemic, appearing with sustained consistency throughout the entire narrative of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, reading the Book of Mormon is tantamount to reading John Bunyan’s many works condensed into a single volume.

When Smith produced the Book of Mormon, he did not sit down and carefully compose and revise his narratives the way most authors do. Adapting a practice from folk magic, he placed a seer stone in the bottom of an upturned hat, held his face to the hat to block out light, and then proceeded to dictate the Book of Mormon to a scribe, without reference to texts or notes. In approximately sixty working days, he completed the Book of Mormon – a work in excess of 500 printed pages – and did not return to revise the text, beyond minor adjustments (mostly spelling and punctuation). Yet, the work contains a highly complex and powerful narrative structure that remains internally cohesive. The significance of the work, in literary terms, is that the text of the Book of Mormon represents a first draft – one with little revision to Smith’s original stream of narrative creation. Few authors have ever attempted a comparable feat.

The work is, then, no matter how much the product of literary reading, not itself a literary production; it is the record of an extended oral performance – comparable in length and magnitude to the classic oral epics, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – and the failure of scholarship to recognize the nature and significance of the work is a result of literary principles being misapplied to the medium of oral production. As a result, Joseph Smith’s contribution to the history of American creativity has been neglected. And the Book of Mormon, the product of a semi-educated, upstate New York farmboy’s genius, remains one of the extraordinary artifacts of the American heritage. The Angel Moroni told Smith his name “should be had for good and evil among all nations” — one prophecy, at least, that has certainly come true.


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LARB Contributor

William Davis is a PhD student at UCLA. He was raised in Utah in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He is working on a book about the origins of the Book of Mormon.


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