William Davis: Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?

Roundup: Historians' Take

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.

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....

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