My research interests include the above topics, the American Civil War, the application of military theory, ancient warfare, and medieval warfare.. Currently I teach history at Trine Univeristy and I’m studying Chinese in preparation for a PhD program in East Asian history.
There are many things wrong with the natural explanation of the Book of Mormon’s origin. However a relatively undeveloped theme is the correlation, or lack thereof, between the military themes in the Book of Mormon and Smith’s life. This post briefly addresses the topic while calling for greater research into this theme.
A brief perusal of warfare in the Book of Mormon should give you an indication of the myriad military themes the Book of Mormon contains. The list of topics include strategy, tactics, Western military theorists, Classical Chinese military theorists, army composition, naval warfare, and logistics. Under the natural explanation for the rise of the Book of Mormon we must conclude that Joseph Smith made up these many military themes based on his extensive frontier library, (including an untranslated Karl Von Clausewitz). According to one theory, Joseph Smith had enough knowledge to borrow snippets from: Caesar, Frontinus, Procupus, multiple Irish Legends, The Venerable Bede, Jonathon Swift, Vegetius, Sunzi, Wu Chi, Emperor Maurice, Moorish Legend, the Irish Book of Invasions, The Aeneid by Virgil, Roman Legend, Plutarch, Polybius, Livy, Cincinnatus, Josephus, Pliny the Elder, Augustine, Eusebius, Tacitus, The Illiad by Homer, Sallust, Thuycdides, and Herodatus. Please see this link for more and this for a much needed reality check on that theory. But assuming Joseph did accomplish that much plagiarism from his extensive library, he then failed to show it the rest of his life. My question is, why would a military mind of the kind that could include material in the above topics, suddenly go blank when faced with real life military issues, and command of a militia?
If Joseph Smith had the military mind to produce the martial narrative in the Book of Mormon we should see it all over his life: in impromptu day dreaming, his writings, and his speeches. But when we examine the major military events in Smith’s life, that kind of military genius is sorely lacking. There are three areas that we would especially expect to see Smith’s military mind break free. One could argue that Joseph was a disciplined con man that knew when to “lay low” or not seem militant. But there are several places where conflict found him. 1. Zion’s Camp in 1834. 2. The Mormon War in 1838. 3. The Nauvoo period of 1843-1846.
1. Zion’s Camp: This is where Joseph raised an “army” and marched from Ohio to Missouri in order to aid the Mormon settler’s there. Here was Smith’s chance. Did he discuss tactics? Did he plan any strategy? Did he drill he troops? For a military mind that could include marvelous and detailed military narratives here was his chance to shine in real life. Smith stayed a prophet though. He was more concerned with their spiritual health and basic organization than any detailed thoughts on strategy. And when he got there, he received a “revelation” that called them back before they could fight. If Smith was a fraud with an active military imagination and delusions of grandeur, he surely did not act as though he cared about strategy, physically fighting, or the glory of battle. In short, this was a strange way for the author of the Book of Mormon to act in real life.
2. The Missouri War 1838: Again, here was Smith’s chance to really shine. His people were out numbered and blood was running high. The active military mind of the Book of Mormon would have attempted stratagems to lure their enemies. The military mind would have extensively discussed strategy and tactics. The extent of Smith’s actions was organizing neighborhood militias. He was dubiously tied to an organization reminiscent of the Gadianton Robbers. And Richard Bushman said that Joseph Smith faded from the forefront in contrast to his more militant counselors.(372)
Except for some local raids more in the American frontier style than the military tactics in the Book of Mormon there is nothing, no written records, no battle plans, no grand strategy to suggest the Book of Mormon was a guide or prevalent in Smith’s thinking. Again, from the mind the produced the military maneuvers in the Book of Mormon this is inconsistent.
3. The Nauvoo Period. To the shallow scholar this is the most promising field. Joseph Smith was a general in the Nauvoo militia that numbered one of the largest in the state. But assuming Smith had a complex military mind because of his role in the militia is like saying that the President is a major league baseball player because he throws the first pitch at a baseball game. Like the first pitch, commanding the militia, taking part in parades, and participating in mock battles was a form of civic duty and largely ceremonial.
Most modern Americans associate militia with being a radical. For the large part of American history being in a militia was a sign of respectability and often required of politicians to show their patriotism. Many members of militia in established areas and large cities were simply there for show as a member of the upper class. As mayor of Nauvoo Smith tried to increase the respectability of himself and the society of church members he was trying to lead. He established a University (reopening this fall btw). He established a militia. He made plans for a hotel. So what turns out to be a centerpiece of Smith’s military ambition is really a reflection of his humble upbringing.
Now some might argue about Smith’s proposal to raise an army to conquer the west. Again, the militia was often used to augment the active duty forces, and Smith’s offer seems little more than an attempt at further respectability. If this offer were matched with intensive discussion of strategy or his fixation with battle tactics it may seem to be consistent with the military mind of the Book of Mormon. But its not and stands as an isolated and unconvincing example of Smith’s militarism and military mind.
Conclusion: Smith raised an army…but then compared it to migration led by Moses and backed down before fighting. He ordered raids…but these raids bear no semblance to the complex tactical actions in the Book of Mormon. And he was a general in a very large militia…but took part in only ceremonial functions equivalent to the President throwing the first pitch at a baseball game.
In Joseph Smith’s writing there is no discussion of tactics. No discussion of strategy. No grand strategy for conquering…anything. What we find is a religious man continually referring to spiritual matters. If he created the Book of Mormon out of a fertile mix of plagiarism and imagination he NEVER showed it again in his lifetime. And in many cases he acted in contradiction to what the Book of Mormon indicated action would be. The lack of military thought coming from Joseph Smith would argue heavily against the Book of Mormon being a plagiarized fiction.