CES Reply: View of the Hebrews III: This Time, It’s Personal

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.

Today, we finish slogging through “View of the Hebrews” and its supposed “parallels” to the Book of Mormon.

Q.  Prophets, spiritually gifted men transmit generational records
Not at all, at least in the View of the Hebrews case. Ethan Smith doesn’t identify a single person among the Indian population as a prophet, except perhaps Quetzalcoatl, a rather special case that we’ll address when he shows up later in your list. Traditional Christians like Ethan Smith believe that there have been no prophets after Christ, and View of the Hebrews explicitly states on page 127 that “We are to expect no new revelation from heaven.” E. Smith’s essay covers a time period solely after 70 AD, so it makes sense that he doesn’t name any new prophets at all – maybe that’s why you add the qualifier “spiritually gifted men,” which is so broad a label as to be a meaningless distinction. Of course, the Book of Mormon is dripping with prophets before, during, and after the time of Christ.

As for the idea that these V of H dudes with spiritual gifts are “transmit[ting] generational records,” that’s just nonsense. Any records that Ethan Smith imagines being kept are also imagined as being thrown away or left behind in Jerusalem, because he posited that the Indians considered them worthless. Ethan Smith repeatedly laments the fact that no such records survive and that all the information we have about them comes from unwritten and unreliable oral histories.

R. The Gospel preached in the Americas

View of the Hebrews references the preaching of the gospel in the Americas on page 187, which I quote at length here:

It seems the Spanish missionaries found such traces of resemblance between some of the rites of the religion of the natives of Mexico, and the religion which they wished to introduce, that our author says, “They persuaded them that the gospel had in very remote times, been already preached in America. And they investigated its traces in the Aztec ritual, with the same ardour which the learned who in our days engage in the study of Sanscrit , display in discussing the analogy between the Greek mythology and that of the Ganges and the Burrampooter.” It is a noted fact that there is a far greater analogy between much of the religion of the Indians, and Christianity, than between that of any other heathen nation on earth and Christianity.

In the Book of Mormon, the actual preaching of the gospel in the Americas is recorded firsthand by the people preaching it on page after page after page. Yet Ethan Smith never records the actual preaching of the gospel; he merely looks for parallels in Native American history and ritual and explores them at length. Those supposed parallels make up the bulk of Ethan Smith’s text, but the Book of Mormon completely ignores all of them. Many critics of the Book of Mormon claim that it is actually far too Christian, as it entirely lacks the Native American flavor that would have been there had Joseph been trying to manufacture a history of the Indians consistent with Ethan Smith’s premises.

And, again, note the style and subject of the above quoted paragraph. None of it has any corollary in the Book of Mormon.

S. Quotes whole chapters of Isaiah

And yet only 8.3% of the Isaiah verses quoted in View of the Hebrews are also included in the Book of Mormon. This is silly, anyway, as Joseph already had a Bible. If he wanted to plagiarize Isaiah, why did he need to use V of H as a middleman?

View of the Hebrews quotes a lot of stuff besides Isaiah, too, specifically Deuteronomy 30; Jeremiah 16, 23, 30-31, 35-37; Zephaniah 3; Amos 9; Hosea and Joel. Why didn’t any of  those passages make their way into the Book of Mormon?

T. Good and bad are a necessary opposition
That’s the message of Star Wars, too. Should we assume George Lucas also lifted it from View of the Hebrews?

U. Pride denounced
So did View of the Hebrews lift that from Greek mythology? Because the denunciation of pride is a common theme in world literature since the beginning of the written word. In fact, I think even the Bible has a thing or two to say about it.

V. Polygamy denounced

The word “polygamy” does not appear in either text. The Book of Mormon has Jacob Chapter 2, which accurately fits this description, but the nearest I can find to a denunciation of polygamy in View of the Hebrews is on page 104, where 19th Century missionaries visit a Delaware Indian chief and record their conversation.

“Long time ago, (he added) it was a good custom among his people to take but one wife, and that for life. But now they had become so foolish, and so wicked, that they would take a number of wives at a time; and turn them away at pleasure!”

This looks to be as much a denunciation of divorce as polygamy, and the context of this is quite different in both texts. This is the expression of one modern Indian chief’s personal opinion of ancient history, not a sweeping prophetic declaration of the will of the Lord. This chief’s opinion is not cited to define doctrine but rather to illustrate parallels in Indian and Christian traditions.

W. Sacred towers and high places

View of the Hebrews used the word “tower” fifteen times, all in reference to military towers in Jerusalem at the time of the 70 A.D. siege – nothing “sacred” about them. The “sacred towers” in the Book of Mormon – King Benjamin’s tower and the Zoramite tower of Rameumptom – have no antecedent in View of the Hebrews. `

However, I must concede that both books, as well as pretty much every book ever written with any geographical information whatsoever, make reference to high places.

X. Messiah visits the Americas

Okay, this one’s a little too much fun.

It is impossible to review the history of ancient America without encountering the legend of Quetzalcoatl, who by most accounts was actually a winged serpent and not a white-bearded man. The irony is that the Book of Mormon not only doesn’t mention him at all; it makes no attempt at all to tie Christ’s visit to any of the Quetzalcoatl legends. Jesus in the Book of Mormon acts pretty much the same way as Jesus of the New Testament and not like any winged serpent. Why would a plagiarizing Joseph Smith leave the Quetzalcoatl legend entirely untouched?

You say View of the Hebrews mentions “Quetzalcoatl, the white bearded ‘Mexican Messiah.’” Why don’t you say “Jesus” instead?

Because Ethan Smith thought Quetzalcoatl was Moses. Moses, of all people!

Tying the serpent on a stick to the iconography of Quetzalcoatl, he sees the ancient legends as reference to Moses and not Christ. So should we assume Jesus the Messiah for everyone except Mexicans, because Moses gets “Mexican Messiah” duty?

Y. Idolatry and human sacrifice 

There’s one reference to human sacrifice in View of the Hebrews, found on page 101. Here it is:

This may account for the degeneracy of some Indians far to the west, reported in the journals of Mr. Giddings, in his exploring tour. He informs, “They differ greatly in their ideas of the Great Spirit; one supposes that he dwells in a buffalo, another in a wolf, another in a bear. another in a bird, another in a rattlesnake. On great occasions, such as when they go to war, and when they return, (he adds) they sacrifice a dog, and have a dance. On these occasions they formerly sacrificed a prisoner taken in the war; but through the benevolent exertions of a trader among them, they have abandoned the practice of human sacrifice.

All we know about human sacrifice in View of the Hebrews is that one tribe stopped doing it at some point. The Book of Mormon doesn’t have a lot to say about human sacrifice, either, but what it does say is entirely dissimilar to the passage here. References to idolatry are also scarce in the Book of Mormon.

The point with this item, and with many others, is that Ethan Smith is commenting and speculating on historical events in ancient America, and the Book of Mormon claims to be recounting historical events in ancient America.  By most accounts, idolatry and human sacrifice were historical events in ancient America, so we should not be surprised to find independent references to them in both works.

How many works about World War II have been written? If two of them mentioned Nazi atrocities against Jews, would you accuse one author of plagiarism?

Z. Hebrews divide into two classes, civilized and barbarous

View of the Hebrews speculates about this and provides no specifics, while the Book of Mormon is far more complex than that. In the initial division between Nephites and Lamanites, the Nephites are civilized and the Lamanites are barbarous. But these adjectives cannot be permanently applied to either group. At times, the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites, and for two hundred years there are “no manner of –ites” and everyone lives in peace. The subtleties and details of the Book of Mormon on this subject have no antecedent in View of the Hebrews.

AA. Civilized thrive in art, written language, metallurgy, navigation
Really? Where does the Book of Mormon mention any art? Why does the View of the Hebrews lament the utter loss of written language among the Indians? View of the Hebrews mentions navigation with regard to biblical prophecy, but it makes no claims that Indians were capable of it, as Ethan Smith insisted they came to America by land and not by sea.

In any case, there’s historical evidence of an ancient American civilization that produced art, written language, metallurgy, and – debatably – navigation. What’s notable is that the treatment of identified historical facts in both records is so strikingly different.

BB. Government changes from monarchy to republic

Not at all. The government in the Book of Mormon changes from a monarchy to a “reign of the judges,” which bears little or no resemblance to a republic. The judges are only chosen by the voice of the people when one dies or resigns; otherwise, judgeships are passed down hereditarily, making this a modified monarchy more than a republic. There’s no senate or congress;  judges unilaterally make and enforce laws with no public input and no accountability to voters, although their judgments can be overturned by a group of “lesser judges.” Book of Mormon government is actually quite strange and quite different from American government, and it has no antecedent whatsoever in View of the Hebrews.

CC. Civil and ecclesiastical power is united in the same person

Which person? Are we only talking about the monarchy and not the republic, a republic that doesn’t exist in the Book of Mormon? Because in monarchies, then and now, ecclesiastical authority often rests with the king. That’s not a concept that either Smith would need to  invent or plagiarize. Even today, Elizabeth II is the head of the Church of England. What’s striking is that in the Book of Mormon, this ecclesiastical authority extends to the judges once the monarchy is disbanded, as opposed to View of the Hebrews, where this is not the case.

DD. Long wars break out between the civilized and barbarous

Yes. That’s also true in Mel Gibson’s Meso-American-based movie “Apocalypto,” which he, too, must have plagiarized from View of the Hebrews. The historical evidence, then and now, suggested that in ancient America, long wars broke out between the civilized and barbarous. What would be remarkable is if any book dealing with ancient history in this region would fail to mention it.

EE. Extensive military fortifications, observations, “watch towers”
Every watchtower mentioned in View of the Hebrews is in Jerusalem of 70 AD, not in ancient America. As for military fortification and observations – yes, both books include observations, as does every book ever written – see item DD, above. Wars tend to have these sorts of things, and the idea of war is not something Joseph Smith would have had to plagiarize from Ethan Smith.

FF. Barbarous exterminate the civilized
Not in the Book of Mormon, they don’t. The Nephites who perish at the end are every bit as barbarous as the Lamanites. The complexity of who’s civilized and who’s barbarous defies easy categorization in the Book of Mormon. Again, no antecedent to this in View of the Hebrews.

GG.  Discusses the United States
Nope. The Book of Mormon makes no reference to the United States whatsoever. In fact, it doesn’t even explicitly identify its geography as being on the American continent. People, including church leaders, have interpreted many of its references to “this land” or “the land of promise” as references to the United States, but the text itself doesn’t sustain that interpretation, particularly if you accept a Mesoamerican limited geography model.

HH.  Ethan/Ether


We will sort through the “View of the Hebrews” aftermath 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!