John Milton, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon
This daily feature is the introduction to a full article by Robert A. Rees which was published in our newest issue, 54:3. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.
In my Introduction to Mormonism class at Graduate Theological Union in 2013, among other topics we discussed the Book of Mormon and its possible provenances. The assignments for the class included my article "Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance," in which I compare Joseph Smith with his illustrious contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman in terms of their respective literary imagination, talent, authorial maturity, education, cultural milieu, knowledge base, and intellectual sophistication. In that article, I attempted to demonstrate that each of these authors enjoyed a much greater advantage in all of these categories in comparison with Joseph Smith at the time he published the Book of Mormon. Further, I argued that even if Joseph had been blessed with all of the advantages of his contemporary authors, the time, conditions, and circumstances under which the Book of Mormon was produced were insufficient for the composition of such a lengthy, complex, and elaborate narrative as the history of the Nephites and Jaredites. In a follow-up article, I took the comparison one step further by examining each of these writers' magnum opus and all of the study, preliminary drafts, critical responses, and written works that preceded them. That is, the major work of each of these writers has a history, one that allows us to trace its evolution from inception to completion.
One of my students, Ryan Eikenbary, who had significant experience studying and analyzing John Milton's Paradise Lost, argued that a more plausible comparison with Joseph Smith in terms of authorial composition was not writers of the American Renaissance but rather John Milton, who dictated his great epic poem in some ways similar to Joseph Smith's dictation of the Book of Mormon. Eikenbary's thesis was that just as Milton had absorbed an enormous amount of material through his education and his informational and cultural environment that allowed him to dictate his masterful epic, so Joseph Smith did the same in mentally and imaginatively preparing for and then composing and dictating the Nephite-Jaredite narrative. This paper examines the validity of that comparison.