A note from a wren

A note from a wren October 7, 2018


It's still legal, as of this writing.
The Boston Massachusetts Temple    (LDS Media Library)


From one of my still-incomplete manuscripts:


An anonymous correspondent for the Buffalo Spectator, recounting his alleged encounter with a Mormon missionary, a fellow-passenger in a stage coach, supplies a striking illustration of what many early nineteenth century skeptics expected to find in the Book of Mormon:

I stated that I had read the book of Mormon enough to find in [it] the terms, “gunpowder, marriner’s compass,” and several others of recent origin, introduced into a silly story of the exploits of one “Nephi,” who, it appears, was rather a conspicuous character in the affair, and the story related to events which were said to have transpired about the time of Cyrus, say seven or eight hundred years before Christ!  There are also references to pistols and other fire arms; and, what caps the climax for absurdity, we find a literal quotation from Shakspeare, in a narration of an occurrence some six or seven hundred years before the Christian era.  When I named this, the passengers burst into an involuntary laugh, and one which was something increased by the poor Mormon, who remarked, that he presumed the line to which I referred, was borrowed by Shakspeare himself from the book of Mormon!

This idea, I confess, had so much of the novel about it, that I could not help joining with them in the laugh; the poor Mormon came in last and joined most heartily, when it appeared so manifest, that both he and his scheme were perfectly alike in respect to substance—nothing but wind—that I gave it up.  Indeed, I felt a degree of shame that I had gone out to hunt so small game, that I had bent my bow and filled my hand with arrows, and gone forth to war with a wren.[1]

But there are some problems with this invaluable and deeply devastating account, which was regarded highly enough to be republished in the 5 May 1837 issue of the Christian Watchman, edited in Boston.  The “direct quotation” from Shakespeare—presumably 2 Nephi 1:14—turns out to be a parallel sentiment, and a fairly obvious one at that, rather than a “direct quotation.”  And it is paralleled by passages from ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Rome.[2]  Moreover, terms like gunpowder, pistol, mariner’s compass, and the like, simply do not appear in the text of the Book of Mormon.  Nor are there any other references to “firearms.”  The author and his uncritical editors seem merely to have been so certain that such obvious anachronisms would occur in a yarn spun out by an ignorant backwoods farm boy that they couldn’t be bothered actually to check.


[1] N.a., “Mormonism: Scene in a Stage Coach,” Christian Watchman 68/18 (5 May 1837): 1.  I am grateful to Matthew Roper for bringing this estimable piece of religious journalism to my attention.  Incidentally, Cyrus II, the Persian emperor and founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, lived in the sixth century—not the eighth or ninth—dying in 530 B.C.

[2] Nibley.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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