The Standard of Liberty in the Book of Mormon: Just Another Anachronism and Evidence of Plagiarism?

The list of works that Joseph Smith allegedly plagiarized or drew upon to produce the Book of Mormon continues to grow. In addition to the old standards such as Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, Shakespeare, Solomon Spalding’s writings, the sermons and essays of various preachers, and James Adair’s A History of the American Indians, many more works have been identified by critics in recent years such as an obscure book on the War of 1812 (The Late War Against the United States) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Golden Pot (for some details, see my LDSFAQ page on plagiarism). Most recently someone asked me if there could possibly be any rebuttal to an attack from Thomas Donofrio, whose zealous search for parallels has yielded another group of works that Joseph must have drawn upon, with Mercy Otis Warren’s 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution being at the top of the list. Is this the smoking gun for Book of Mormon plagiarism? While there may be no evidence that Joseph ever saw this book and, like many favorite candidates for Book of Mormon plagiarism, it does not appear to have been among the books in the Manchester Library where Joseph theoretically could have borrowed books during his translation of the Book of Mormon, it was still possible for Joseph to have encountered it. So does Warren’s work succeed in explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon?

One Latter-day Saint thinker quite familiar with the details of parallels between texts explains that Donofrio actually greatly underestimates the number of parallels between the Book of Mormon and Mercy Otis Warren’s lengthy work. In fact, there are thousands of parallels, many more than Donofrio’s short list provides. See Ben McGuire’s “Parallelomania: Criticism of the Textual Parallels Theories” (2007), where we see that there are over 7,000 three-word parallels between Warren’s book and the Book of Mormon. Plus there are nearly 2,000 four-word parallels! Amazing! Or so it seems at first glance, until you do some actual analysis and explore the statistics with other texts as well, and then see that this is nothing unusual at all.

Common words and short phrases that are the building blocks of language will be used and repeated by speaker, writers, and translators, inevitably leading to numerous random parallels between texts in the same language, especially when writing about related topics such as war. Finding strings of words scattered in the text and claiming this as proof of pilfering is an exercise one can do with almost any two works, most easily with lengthy works like Warren’s three-volume book. For an example of erroneous “proof” of Book of Mormon plagiarism, see my satirical but I think instructive analysis of Walt Whitmans’ Leaves of Grass, which I suggest offers far stronger and more numerous parallels than anything Donofrio has conjured up with his sifting of texts. Until you can come up with better parallels than those random parallels, finding a few frequently used English locutions shared by Warren and the Book of Mormon is not particularly meaningful.

First note that McGuire’s initial link to Thomas Donofrio’s initial article on Book of Mormon parallels is broken, but you can see the archived form of the original article he refers to using these links: “Early American Influenceson the Book of Mormon, Parts 1 & II” and “Early American Influenceson the Book of Mormon, Part III.”

Ben McGuire understands “intertexuality” (the manifold connections between a text being studied and other texts) and is skillful in applying computer tools to analyze documents. For valuable background, see his recent and quite relevant works at the Mormon Interpreter: “The Late War Against the Book of Mormon” (2013) and, for a good foundation in the problems of parallels, see especially his “Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part One” and “Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part Two“(both 2013).

More recently, Donofrio has authored “Book of Mormon Tories” (the link takes you to a hostile “post-Mormon” website) which attempts to partially explain the Book of Mormon as a derivative of Warren’s book. (Wish it had been entitled, “No Man Knows His Tories.” Missed opportunity–oh well.) Reading that article and the dramatic response from some of the guffawing critics made me shake my head. These people are impressed with parallels such as “safety and welfare,” “[his or our] little army,” “power and gain,” “flock to their standard” and “the cause of liberty”? As if people haven’t been writing for millennia about safety, welfare, war, the use of standards and ensigns to gather and organize troops, and the too-frequent need to defend oneself from captivity?

The lead example Donofrio gives particularly left me wondering. Joseph Smith apparently had to draw upon this little gem from page 623 of Warren’s massive book:

“…they were responsible for all the additional blood that had been spilt by the addition of their weight in the scale of the enemy…”

in order to somehow regurgitate a fragment of Alma 60:16:

“…were it not for these king-men, who caused so much blood shed among ourselves…”

Plagiarism Joseph Smith-style just looks like an awful lot of work, whereas simply blaming someone for a tragedy is the kind of thing anyone can do without having to dig through volumes of other books to get one fragment of a verse at a time. In fact, it’s something that has been done for millennia. Warren’s fragment on page 623 gives nothing close to a plausible explanation for anything in Alma 60.

I find it puzzling, even bizarre, that a muddled parallel for part of Alma 60:16 would be the lead example when, with a bit of perseverance, Donofrio surely could have come up with much more interesting and even unsettling parallels similar to those that I have shown from a truly impossible Book of Mormon source, Walt Whitman. The many parallels I found illustrate the kind of things that happen due to luck and a touch of creativity from a persistent critic. Thomas, really, you could have made your Tories piece much more interesting. I suggest you contact Ben McGuire for assistance in using electronic tools to create heftier and more impressive but equally meaningless list of parallels.

Some people might find Donofrio’s parallel “the standard of liberty” to be especially meaningful, since that is a fairly well-known Book of Mormon term that we sometimes feel is “owned” by the Book of Mormon. Finding it in Warren’s book should be unsettling, no? No. You can find it in numerous sources in Joseph Smith’s day. In the English language, the phrase “standard of liberty” shows widespread use for many settings other than the Revolutionary War. See for yourself searching Google Books with a time range of, say, 1400 to 1830. The “standard” of the Book of Mormon is also hardly a modern concept. It is usually used in its military sense in the KJV also (see search results for “standard” from Standards are used in war to rally, gather, and organize. Having people gather to a standard or to an ensign is hardly a modern innovation, and rallying to protect one’s liberty from invaders or rebels is also not a modern notion. Liberty is also something one finds in the Bible and numerous other sources, not just the Revolutionary War.

You can see how the term “standard of liberty” grew and waned in popularity over time using Google’s Ngram viewer. It was definitely used more commonly in Joseph’s era than ours. Look at an example from Joseph’s era describing Greeks in a recent war, or another describing events during the Roman empire. Or consider an example describing much later events in Italy in the 14th century.

There are many examples of this phrase being used in diverse settings because it’s a part of the English language and a useful term to describe a widespread phenomenon, that of stirring people up to defend themselves from captivity. Though the words in the translation are modern, the usage is not. Donofrio and his Tories tell us nothing about the origins of the Book of Mormon, no more than random parallels in Whitmans’ writings do.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

10 thoughts on “The Standard of Liberty in the Book of Mormon: Just Another Anachronism and Evidence of Plagiarism?

  1. I came across the accusations about Alma 40:11, 12, 13, 14 and 20 being plagiarized from chapter 32 of the Westminster Confession from website FairMormon Answers. I thought their analysis very poor. In addition to the textual similarities in Alma 40:11-20, other thoughts are paraphrased into different words that don’t result in a textual match, and the matches occur in roughly the same sequence. Here is my question: What is the probability that similar significant matches (textual and semantic) between these two texts (10+), occur in the same passage in Alma 40, and in roughly the same sequence as in the Westminster Confession of Faith? It appears the matches, all in the same sequence, indicate there is a high probability this passage in the BoM was plagiarized from the WCF.

  2. Your question might better be posed this way: What are the chances that two writers, both writing about the sequence of events after mortality (death of the bodies, persistence of the soul, judgement, resurrection, etc.) will describe them in the same order, if that is the logical order to describe such a sequence? I'd put it near 80%. Actually, 100%, because it happened.

    The rough similarities can be attributed to the natural handling of similar themes, not to plagiarism. Do you really see plagiarism in the following?

    Westminster Confession, Chapter 32
    Of the State of Men after Death,
    and of the Resurrection of the Dead
    1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption:a but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them:b the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.c And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.d Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none. 2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed:e and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.f 3. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to his own glorious body.g

    Alma 40:11-18
    Now concerning the soul between death and the resurrection, Behold, it has been made known to me by an angel that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life. Then shall it come to pass that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles, and from all care, and sorrow. And then shall it come to pass that the spirits of the wicked, those who are evil-for, behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord, for, behold, they choose evil works, rather than good, therefore the spirit of the devil enters into them and takes possession of their house – shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth; and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil. Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise,until the time of their resurrection. Now there are some who have understood that this state of happiness, and this state of misery of the soul, before the resurrection, was a first resurrection. I admit it may be termed a resurrection- the raising of the spirit or the soul, and its consignation to happiness or misery- according to the words which have been spoken. And behold, again it has been spoken that there is a first resurrection- a resurrection of all those who have been, or who are, or who shall be, down to the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Now we do not suppose that this first resurrection, which is spoken of in this manner, can be the resurrection of the soul, and their consignation to happiness or misery. You cannot suppose that this is what it means. Behold, I say to you, No; but it means the reuniting of the soul with the body

  3. This is really a question that mathematics can answer in terms of probability that any two passages would match in terms of textual and semantic arguments, and have a common semantic sequence and similar length (except the BoM passage has filler text, often an indication of plagiarism by improper paraphrasing). I'll give you that the two texts could have just happened to be similar in these respects, but the odds are not 100% as you assert, it would be a probability distribution based on these factors out of all the texts written on this doctrinal topic, which make the odds very remote that the WCF was not a source for this passage in the BoM.

  4. … but I'm willing to hear arguments based on solid statistics or see counterexamples of similar significance on this topic from other sources (even from after 1835).

  5. What of the similarities between the Book of Mormon and the Late War Between the United States and Great Britain? And what about the First Book of Napoleon? How can so many works which predate the Book of Mormon and could conceivably have been accessible to Joseph and Oliver share so many similarities with the Book of Mormon? What are the chances?
    When the similarities are so close and so obvious, the onus of proof does not lie with the doubter. It lies with the one making the extraordinary claim.
    And why is Oliver always left out of the equation? Between Smith and Cowdery, any number of books could have been available to them, and obviously were, based on the overwhelming similarities.

  6. Late Great War has been discussed extensively on this site and MormonInterpreter. They are far less impressive than the obviously random parallels to Leaves of Grass. Statistically not impressive. They are the kind of parallels that occur between all sorts of books with no connection apart from language and related topics (if even that).

  7. Using the criteria of both Dowd and Haye criteria mentioned in McGuire's paper, as well as looking at the textual and semantic matches, would indicate literary reliance on the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 32 for Alma 40:11, 12, 13, 14 and 20.

    My challenge stands to find any other texts that would come anywhere near the same significance in matching (using the above criteria). I'm not arguing one way or the other – just that if it isn't plagiarism, there should be plenty of counterexamples evaluated under the same criteria (much as McGuire calls for in his paper, except he cherry picks both the criteria, method, and the samples when coming to his conclusion).

  8. I think Craig missed Jeff's point: If you are going to have a text talking about resurrection, spirits, death, etc: then of COURSE they are going to have similar semantic themes.

    A moments thought will show that your text will have to talk about 1) death 2) resurrection 3) what happens between that period to the souls of men, both the good souls and the bad.

    So indeed, there are plenty of themes that inevitably will show up. That doesn't mean it's plagiarized, just that every one that writes on this topic will have to address those three areas.

    Islam, Catholics, even the Jehovah's Witnesses talk about all three of those areas. It just so happens that the Westminster confession has much the same theology. If the Book of Mormon said only a select few were to be raised from the grave, I assume Craig would conclude that Joseph had plagiarized the latest Watchtower or something.

  9. Just as McGuire stated, any admission or discussion about intertextuality must be done so with specific criteria useful for for this purpose. Jeff and anonymous are using overly broad criteria as a red herring. Of course many texts talk about these topics, but none of them have the same significance in textual match, order, and all the other very specific criteria that elucidates intertextuality.

    Ironically McGuire's paper was directly on point when criticizing the lack of criteria and method when evaluating intertextuality. You can't have it both ways. You have to use criteria that is actually useful for determining intertextuality, then use it.

    My challenge stands. If the WCF 32 and the Alma passage are not intertextually related, either this criteria is poor in determining intertextuality, or my method is improper. I'm open to criticism on both. I'd also be happy to go into specifics on how the criteria McGuire mentions points to intertextuality in this case, if that would be helpful.

  10. @anonymous – "similar thematic themes" is not the criteria I am using to determine intertextuality. See Jeff's link to McGuire's paper above.

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