Was Joseph Smith aware of the Documentary Hypothesis? It appears he was aware! How did that affect his translation of the Book of Mormon and revision of the Bible? Biblical scholar Colby Townsend will fill us in.
Colby: [Joseph’s] grandfather Asael Smith came over to the house one evening and was angry that Joseph Smith Sr. had been going to the Presbyterian Church with Lucy. And so, he came over to almost literally knock some sense into his son. And by almost literally I mean that he got into a very heated argument. Asael wasn’t really into established institutional religion and thought it was all priest craft and that “they’re trying to use you,” basically and “dupe you out of your money” and everything else. And so, as Asael was leaving, he turned. The door must have been open, because he turned and he hurled Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” into the house and screamed to Joseph Smith Sr., essentially saying, “Read that until you get some sense into you.” Yeah. [It was] like “Stop going to the Presbyterian Church.” It is interesting because he was actually successful. Lucy wrote later that Joseph Smith Sr. said, “We should probably stop. I don’t want this kind of stuff to come up.” So it worked. Asael was able to get it.
But for Lucy, at least in her retelling of that story a couple of decades later, in her biography of her son, Joseph Smith, Jr., that was a key part. It wasn’t just he turned and threw some book or some anti-Bible book or something because it really wasn’t anti-Bible. But he specifically threw Paine’s “Age of Reason.” That was a symbol of the problems of organized institutional religion, but also the problems with the Bible and religion that their society, they believed, hadn’t really fully grappled with yet.
Colby also discusses secret combinations.
Colby: So one of those is that after the French Revolution, in America and in Britain, there was a very large push against a Jacobin party of the French Revolution. [Maximilien] Robespierre was seen as the personification of all things horrible about the Jacobins. And so, there were in the 1790s, anti-Jacobin societies that popped up all over the states.
GT: They were all a bunch of noisy atheists, it sounds like.
Colby: Pretty much yeah. Noisy in the dark. Because it really became one and the same with like the Illuminati, and all of these other dark secret organizations and when you look at newspapers of that period, in the late 18th century, the phrase secret combination starts to pop up a lot, and in particular, against Jacobins. So, one of the documents that I looked at, in that chapter was a review of a recent history. This is in the late 1790s. There was an American review of a French history of the Jacobins. And this anonymous author said, “This is a really great history. You guys should read it.” It was I think it was like three or four volumes in length. But the author of that history doesn’t go back far enough. The real origins of the Jacobin party go much further, so not only to the Garden of Eden with Satan convincing Adam and Eve both to eat the fruit, but also in the council in heaven, where Lucifer was able to convince one third of the host of heaven, that they should democratize and that they could throw off the system of government in heaven.
And then all throughout the Book of Mormon, you have these little nods toward the secret combinations and the oath that Satan had made with Cain. So in my thesis, I essentially look at that and say, as far as anti-Jacobinism is concerned that anti-masonry is extremely important for understanding the development of the Book of Mormon. But anti-masonry didn’t just pop up. There was a much broader context, and that there was a much broader literature as well. Thirty years before the Book of Mormon was being dictated by Joseph Smith, so in the late 1790s, you already had a lot of this literature that has a lot of these similar ideas, and similar themes, similar language that you would you would find in the Book of Mormon only a couple of decades later. So that’s key. I think that’s really important that as scholars continue to go forward, and as I continue to do research, I’ll keep looking at that and looking for other really interesting connections. But even more importantly, the main argument that I make in my thesis is that The Book of Mormon, sort of just alludes to the story. It’s an extra biblical account of Cain.
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