The Book of Mormon and Gulliver’s Travels As Hoaxes

The New Republic just published a long article which includes a summary of LDS history.  While repeating many expected errors (why is Mormonism apparently so hard to research and fact-check?), one passage about the Book of Mormon especially stood out to me:

 By the 1820s, the jeremiad had long been a pervasive rhetorical form among American Puritans and their republican descendants. Nor was that the only connection between this supposedly timeless text and its early American context. There were references to debates over infant baptism, church government, and revivalism, allusions to fears of secret societies, and other evidence that marked the book as a product of its historical moment. 

This flavor of brusque dismissal has been around since the book was published: if some fraction of the text can be interpreted as similar to some elements of the environment at the time of publication, then it must have been written at that time.

Such a myopic approach leaves out the majority of the text, evidences in its favor, and alternate explanations.  It’s a desperate attempt to come up with an easy origin for the book—any explanation other than Joseph Smith’s will do—and then forget that the whole issue ever existed.

It’s ultimately a lazy and disingenuous endeavor, one completely divorced from intellectual honesty.

I’ll illustrate.

Imagine that after Jonathan Swift wrote his satirical masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels in the early 1720s, he took it to the American colonies and buried it instead of publishing it.  History never knew about it until today, when a New Yorker dug it up.  He typed up a copy of the manuscript, but the original was lost in the process.  There is no evidence that the original ever existed, except for the text itself.

As soon as the book is published, the critics pounce.  Of course it’s a hoax, they say.

There are a few sections describing concerns about weapons in warfare—preserving balance or being capable of annihilating rivals (part I), criticism of a European power’s imperial aggressiveness (part II), and overt fears of missiles raining down from above (part III).

Clearly, says one critic, this book is about the West’s worries in the Middle East, especially about a nuclear Iran.  The whole book was obviously written today, he says.

Another observer notes that part III of the book contains discussions of the proper application of scientific resources, as well as depictions of an aging populace abused by a society distracted by such problems.  This, he says, is obviously a reflection of America’s debates about dwindling laboratory budgets and particularly about the ethics of stem cell research.

Many other skeptics find the text written with a slant towards the kind of cynical moral relativism that has dominated post-WW II American literature, and frequent commentary on multiculturalism vs. xenophobia, another feature of that era.  This book, they confidently declare, has multiple hallmarks of the time and place in which it was published, summarily ending their investigation.

Finally, someone finds a reference in the book to the orbits of the two moons of Mars, fully 150 years before those moons had even been discovered!  The critics, already sure of their conclusions, now smirk in satisfied condescension.  Gulliver’s Travels written in the 1720s?  Nonsense, they say.  Anyone who believes that is automatically an ignorant, deluded fool.

These critics do not consider that the philosophical dilemmas underlying the issues they see in the text are, in fact, universal, and hardly limited to the present.

They do not bother to explore any other explanations for their perceptions.  They do not analyze the entire text in light of its overall structure and themes.

And they most certainly do not investigate the mounting evidence from details and style in the text itself that suggest that it truly was written by an Irishman in the early 18th century, even as new discoveries make that explanation increasingly comfortable.

The same problems, of course, apply to those who write off the Book of Mormon because of a handful of superficial parallels to the modern world.