Hey guys, so for almost 200 years now, critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been trying to figure out how Joseph Smith could have possibly fraudulently produced the Book of Mormon. Some critics assert that Joseph drew inspiration for the Book of Mormon from a variety of other books that existed before the Book of Mormon was published. About a decade ago, brothers Chris and Duane Johnson conducted a computer analysis comparing the 1830 Book of Mormon to over 100,000 other contemporary books. They found that the Book of Mormon and The First Book of Napoleon, the Tyrant of the Earth, share similar language and phraseology. They concluded that this book must have served as inspiration for Joseph as he fraudulently wrote the Book of Mormon, and this continues to be a talking point among critics today. So let’s talk about it.
Alright, so The First Book of Napoleon was published in 1809. You can read it for free on Archive.org. It’s 146 pages or 22,500 words long, which is about 12 times shorter than the Book of Mormon’s word count. It’s about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The book was written under the biblical pen name Eliakim the Scribe. Now, in the 1850s and 60s, there was a guy named Modeste Gruau who wrote under the pen name Eliakim. Thus, some people believe Gruau is the true author of The First Book of Napoleon. When Chris Johnson presented on this topic at a 2013 conference for former members of the Church, he pointed out (to the audience’s delight) that Gruau would have authored a relatively sophisticated book at a very young age. This is, of course, a jab at Latter-day Saints who find it improbable that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon at 24 years old.
Interestingly, in a comments section only 10 days after the presentation, Johnson seems to agree with the idea that Gruau probably wasn’t the author after all. And as it turns out, a pre-publication manuscript of The First Book of Napoleon exists, which indicates that the true author is actually a guy named Michael Linning. Quick thank-you to the lovely folks over at the State Library of New South Wales for sending me images of that manuscript. Michael Linning would have been 35 years old when the book was published. He was a graduate of Glasgow College and a member of the Society of Writers to His Majesty’s Signet.
But how similar is the wording between the two books? One antagonistic document called the CES Letter compares these two sets of phrases from, quote, “the beginning portion of the Book of Mormon with the same order in the beginning portion of The First Book of Napoleon.” At first glance, these parallels might give you the impression that Joseph just copied straight from the First Book of Napoleon. But when you do your homework, you’ll notice a few things.
First, to say these phrases all appear in the same order is misleading. Some of these phrases appear multiple times in their respective books, which gives you leeway to artificially order some elements the way you want by picking and choosing which instances of each phrase you want to include on your list. But even if we are selective about which instances of each phrase we use, the ordering still isn’t perfect. And if you look at the actual first instance of each of these phrases in each book, then the ordering is quite different. It may or may not be a coincidence, but interestingly, the Spanish translation of this same antagonistic document leaves out the detail about the ordering of these phrases.
The next detail we need to look at is the ellipses between phrases. In the 1830 Book of Mormon, these phrases are scattered across the first 10 pages of the text. In the First Book of Napoleon, they’re scattered throughout the first 21 pages.
Personally, I have a really hard time getting on board with the idea that Joseph was reading this book and taking mental notes of seemingly random phrases like “condemn not the,” “the land,” or “Jerusalem.” It feels like a massive, unnecessary stretch.
There are some longer phrases that match, even beyond the phrases we’ve looked at, but I don’t find them particularly impressive either. By way of comparison, Latter-day Saint researcher Jeff Lindsay found that the Book of Mormon uses a ton of the same phrases we find in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The only problem is that Leaves of Grass was published 25 years after the Book of Mormon. There’s no connection between the two. Just because two books share some phraseology does not mean one inspired the other.
Some critics make the argument that if you just read the First Book of Napoleon, you’ll find that it just has the same scriptural feel as the Book of Mormon. Well, yeah, because both books clearly use biblical-style language. If you read the Bible, you’ll find that it also has a similar scriptural feel. At the end of the day, there’s no evidence that Joseph Smith ever owned, accessed, or even heard about the First Book of Napoleon. Even Chris Johnson struggled to connect Joseph with this book.
Now, I do recognize that critics are not claiming that the First Book of Napoleon was the only source of inspiration. Critics have not been able to agree on just one book that explains how the Book of Mormon exists. Many critics, if not most, believe Joseph used a variety of books as inspiration. I actually keep an informal running list of the various sources that different critics have claimed Joseph gleaned information from. View of the Hebrews, the Late War, the Septuagint, the Pilgrim’s Progress, the Golden Pot, the Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed, the unpublished Spaulding Manuscript, the Travels of Marco Polo, the First Book of Napoleon… the list goes on. And at least in my mind, the longer and more complicated you have to make your list to explain away the Book of Mormon without good evidence, the more contrived and unlikely the authorship theory actually becomes. Of course, as always, you’re certainly free to disagree and come to your own conclusions. If you want to learn more about some of the other authorship theories floating around, this episode might be a fun one for ya. Have a great day!
TikTok snippet: Long story short, I don’t find the First Book of Napoleon to be a convincing source of inspiration for the Book of Mormon. There’s no evidence Joseph Smith ever even knew that book existed. Both works have a similar scriptural feel, not because one inspired the other but rather because both works use King James Bible-style language. Sharing some similar phraseology also does not indicate that one work inspired the other. For example, the Book of Mormon and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass share similar phraseology, despite the latter having been published 25 years after the Book of Mormon. Watch the full episode for more info.
— “The First Book of Napoleon, the Tyrant of the Earth,” by Eliakim the Scribe: https://tinyurl.com/yu5dsyfz
— “CES Letter 15 to 17 Late War,” via The CES Letter A Closer Look: https://tinyurl.com/ym88tvnh
— “Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?” by Jeff Lindsay: https://tinyurl.com/2t368bve
— “The First Book of Napoleon,” via The CES Letter A Closer Look: https://tinyurl.com/387azfud
— “Michael Linning: Napoleon, the tyrant of the earth, Book 1 by Eliahim [i.e., Eliakim] the scribe, 1809,” via the State Library of New South Wales (Sydney, AU): https://tinyurl.com/4drd38en (see also: https://tinyurl.com/2p948wvf )