CES Reply: Slandering B.H. Roberts

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

This would be a good time to offer a view on View of the Hebrews from my favorite unofficial apologist, Hugh Nibley, once again in fiery red:

“If someone will show me how to draw a circle,” cries the youthful Joseph Smith, “I will make you a fine Swiss watch!” So Joachim or Anselm or Ethan Smith or Rabelais or somebody takes a stick and draws a circle in the sand, and forthwith the adroit and wily Joseph turns out a beautiful running mechanism that tells perfect time! This is not an exaggeration. The Book of Mormon in structure and design is every bit as complicated, involved, and ingenious as the works of a Swiss watch, and withal just as smoothly running. . . . The writer of that book brought together thousands of ideas and events and knit them together in a most marvelous unity. Yet the critics like to think they have explained the Book of Mormon completely if they can just discover where Joseph Smith might have got one of his ideas or expressions!”

Amen, Hugh! Testify, brother!

Reverend Ethan Smith was the author of View of the Hebrews. Ethan Smith was a pastor in Poultney, Vermont when he wrote and published the book. Oliver Cowdery – also a Poultney, Vermont resident – was a member of Ethan’s congregation during this time and before he went to New York to join his distant cousin Joseph Smith. As you know, Oliver Cowdery played an instrumental role in the production of the Book of Mormon.

Which is insignificant. Since the Book of Mormon text bears no resemblance to View of the Hebrews, it doesn’t matter at all whether or not Joseph or Oliver had seen it before 1830. Certainly Joseph was at least passingly familiar with the text later in life, as he cites it as evidence for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity – again, an odd thing for a supposed plagiarist of that material to do. Nobody in Joseph’s lifetime thought the two texts were similar enough to merit any accusation of plagiarism, and nobody who spends any significant time with both texts can plausibly claim that one was derived from the other.

This direct link between Joseph and Oliver and View of the Hebrews demonstrates that Joseph is very likely to have been aware of the theme and content of that book.

The fact that Joseph quoted from the book demonstrates that Joseph is very likely to have been aware of the theme and content of that book, at least after the Book of Mormon was published. That still doesn’t mean it was a source for the Book of Mormon, because the books are radically different in every important respect.

It gives weight to all the similarities described in the preceding comparison chart.

Since those aren’t really similarities at all, it would be impossible to add weight to them.

Apologists may point out that the Book of Mormon is not a direct, word-for-word plagiarism of View of the Hebrews, and indeed that is not the claim.

Indeed! Because that would be a ridiculous claim. So would a claim that Joseph borrowed anything at all from View of the Hebrews beyond the idea that Indians are Israelites, which was an idea that did not originate with either Ethan or Joseph Smith. And the case made by View of the Hebrews in support of that idea bears no resemblance whatsoever to the one made in the Book of Mormon.

Rather, the similarities should give any reader pause that two books so similar in theme and content would coincidentally be connected by Oliver Cowdery.

Except they are wildly divergent in theme and not even remotely similar in content. So what should really give your readers pause is that you, personally, have clearly never read View of the Hebrews.

I find that remarkable, and not in a good way.

You are no longer “just asking questions.” You have now chosen to devote your entire life to tearing down the faith of Latter-day Saints based on unexamined arguments that you have not bothered to investigate yourself. You have neglected firsthand study of essential primary sources and just taken whatever nasty anti-Mormon accusations come your way and thrown them up against the wall in the hopes that they stick.

That’s not just vicious; it’s lazy.

Given the amount of money you’re pulling in and the number of families you’re splitting apart, you have a profound duty to genuinely know what you’re talking about. If you had actually read View of the Hebrews, you would realize just how pathetically weak these arguments are. You would also realize that you are destroying testimonies with bad information and woefully misrepresenting B.H. Roberts’s work.

Speaking of which:

LDS General Authority and scholar Elder B.H. Roberts privately researched the link between the Book of Mormon and the View of the Hebrews, Joseph’s father having the same dream in 1811 as Lehi’s dream, and other sources that were available to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and others before the publication of the Book of Mormon. Elder Roberts’ private research was meant only for the eyes of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and was never intended to be available to the public. However, Roberts’ work was later published in 1985 as Studies of the Book of Mormon . Based upon his research, Elder B.H. Roberts came to the following conclusion on the View of the Hebrews:

No, he didn’t.

I know I haven’t posted what that supposed conclusion is yet, but it’s important to point out that you are ignoring B.H. Roberts’s own direct, firsthand explanation as to how that “conclusion” is to be interpreted. In a letter to his fellow church leaders with reference to the report he prepared, Roberts said, “Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine.” [Emphasis added. Strongly.]

The entire report, including the quote you provide, is written in the voice of a straw man critic he created, and these aren’t arguments he, himself, agreed with in real life. What I’m about to quote from your letter, therefore, is not actually BH Roberts’s conclusion, and you are irresponsible for stating that it is. 

“Did Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.”

– B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.240

This statement was supposed to be interpreted as a “devil’s advocate” brief to present the best possible argument a critic of the Book of Mormon could make. I’m not sure his heart was in it, as the arguments listed above are really flimsy.

Roberts was a fierce defender of the historicity and divine nature of the Book of Mormon until the end of his life. To cite him without offering that context is to defame a good and faithful man and attribute opinions to him that were often diametrically opposed to what he actually believed.

While this does not prove that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from the View of the Hebrews…

Of course it doesn’t. It doesn’t even assert that. Didn’t you, just a few paragraphs ago, concede that Joseph Smith did not take text from View of the Hebrews?

… it does demonstrate that key elements of the story of the Book of Mormon – i.e. Native Americans as Hebrew descendants, ancient records of natives preserved, scattering and gathering of Israel, Hebrew origin of Native American language, etc. pre-dated the Book of Mormon and were already among the ideas circulating among New England protestant Americans.

Where is that in dispute? That’s a widely accepted historical fact. Latter-day Saints have long conceded that the concept of Indians as Israelites was widely discussed prior to the Book of Mormon. What’s remarkable is how little the Book of Mormon coincides with the common theories of the time or with any of the theories advanced in View of the Hebrews.

With these ideas already existing and the previously cited issues with KJV plagiarism, errors, anachronisms, geography problems, and more issues to come, is it unreasonable to question Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon origins as Church Historian B.H. Roberts did?

Again, he didn’t, at least not in the way you’re characterizing it. But no, it is never unreasonable to ask questions. What’s unreasonable is to ignore substantive answers and refuse to listen to all points of view, which is what you have purposely done for half a decade.

Richard Bushman puts this all together. From Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 96-98:

But for readers of Ethan Smith, the Book of Mormon was a disappointment. It was not a treatise about the origins of the Indians, regardless of what early Mormons said. The Book of Mormon never used the word “Indian.” The book had a different form and purpose than the earlier works on Indian origins. The assembling of anthropological evidence was the central endeavor of View of the Hebrews and the books that preceded it. Ethan Smith and his predecessors looked for signs of a deteriorating Jewish culture in Indian society, ticking off instances such as similarities in sacrifices and feasts. The Book of Mormon gave almost no attention to Old Testament parallels; its prophets taught pure Christianity. View of the Hebrews was an anthropological treatise, combining scripture and empirical evidence to propound a theory. The Book of Mormon was a narrative, not a treatise. Anyone looking for a scientific investigation of Indian origins in its pages would have found ancient American Christianity instead.


When other authors delved into Indian origins, they were explicit about recognizable Indian practices and the location of particular tribes. Solomon Spaulding’s romance had characters traveling through a recognizable landscape from the east coast to the “Owaho” river formed by the confluence of two great rivers. There they met a people called “Kentucks” and another called “Delewans.” A reader going through Spaulding’s pages could readily locate Indian places on a modern map. Mounds in his manuscript reminded readers of modern remains. Readers easily oriented themselves in time and place on an Indian landscape.

The Book of Mormon deposited its people on some unknown shore – not even definitely identified as America – and had them live out their history in a remote place in a distant time, using names that had no connections to modern Indians… Once here, the Book of Mormon people are not given an Indian character. None of the trademark Indian items appear in the Book of Mormon’s pages. In his parody of the Book of Mormon, Cole dressed his characters in blankets and moccasins. They traveled in bark canoes and suffered from smallpox. Spaulding’s Indians lived in wigwams and and raised corn, beans, and squash. The Book of Mormon contains none of the identifying words like squash, pools, wampum, peace pipes, tepees, braids, feathers, and no canoes, moccasins, or corn. Burial mounds, supposedly a stimulus for investigation of the Indians, receive only the slightest mention. Nephites and Lamanites fought with bows and arrows, but also with swords, cimeters, slings, and shields, more like classical warriors than Native Americans…The Book of Mormon seems more focused on its own Christian message that on Indian anthropology. The book refuses to argue its own theory.


All the efforts to situate the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century are frustrated by contradictions like these. The book elusively slides off the point on one crucial issue after another. Mormons talked up the Book of Mormon as an explanation of Indian origins, but the book does little to identify its peoples with Indian culture. The Lamanites are both a cursed and a chosen people. The Indians, targets of prejudice, are also the true possessors of the lands whom the Gentiles must join or perish. The text repeatedly trespasses standard categories.

Now that’s genuine scholarship. In contrast, your shallow criticisms of the Book of Mormon barely scratch the surface of any of this, Jeremy. You’re affecting people’s lives now. You really, really have to do better than this.

UPDATE: Additional information and analysis can be found at cesletter.org/voh

UPDATE FROM JIM: That link doesn’t work.

We finally move beyond “View of the Hebrews” in our next installment.  In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!