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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVIII. Popular Bibles

§ 1. Hebraic transplantation Origin

THE BOOK OF MORMON is a curiosity of literature. It is evidently an effort to reconstruct in archaic language the Hebraic age and to project by a special process some of its characters into nineteenth-century life, as well as to place the civilization they represent in an American setting. Just as Chatterton appealed to those interested in a Gothic revival, Joseph Smith, for whom the claim is made that the Book of Mormon was revealed to him in 1827, assumed a permanence of interest in the verbalism of the Old Testament. He also appealed to those who were curious about American antiquities, speculative about the lost Ten Tribes reported by tradition to have found their way to the New World, and eager both to excavate prehistoric mounds and to decipher the picture writings of the Aborigines.

Without professing that the Book is a substitute for the Bible, such authoritative interpreters as Professor James E. Talmage, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church, does call it “a parallel volume of Scripture,” and claims that “the Nephite and the Jewish Scriptures are found to agree in all matters of tradition, history, doctrine, and prophecy upon which both the separate records treat.” It is distinctly stated that “America was settled by the Jaredites, who came direct from the scenes of Babel,” that the Aborigines also came from the East, and were followed by peoples at least closely allied to the Israelites, that the existing native races of America were born of a common stock, and that the so-called historical part of the Book of Mormon has adequate testimony to its claims.

The Jaredites, extinct by 590 B.C., are thus reported to have occupied both North and South America for about 1850 years. Then came Lehi and his company to this continent to develop into segregated nations, Nephites and Lemanites; the former disappearing about 385 A.D., the latter degenerating into the Indians of a century ago.

In consequence the Book of Mormon becomes an effort to transplant Hebraic traditions, though scholarship takes no such hegira seriously, and the volume depends for its validity on evidence and assertion presented by itself and accepted only by those convinced by the same. To “Gentiles” objecting to any new revelation beyond the Bible, the Book of Mormon, offering itself as proof that it is valid, reports Jesus as saying, “Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word?”

The Book was launched at a moment favorable to its acceptance by a certain type of the well-meaning but unschooled. The modern interpretation of the Bible had not begun. Literalism was still in the saddle. Books such as Lux Mundi had not appeared. Matthew Arnold was not yet startling the conventional with his counsel to rest heavily on some things in the Bible, on others lightly. The revisers of the King James version, were still a half century from their work which was to be followed by successive revisions until every little while sees a new translation of at least the New Testament. It is with such a background that the man of modern training approaches the Bible, and to him the Book of Mormon seems something born out of due season.