Some critics argue that Joseph Smith received inspiration for the Book of Mormon from several books that were written to mimic the language of the KJV Bible. One of these books is “The First Book of Napoleon, the Tyrant of the Earth” (1809) written by Michael Linning under the name “Eliakim.” The First Book of Napoleon tells the story of the rise of Napoleon and the author warns its readers to beware of tyrants and wickedness. The differences between the Book of Mormon and the First Book of Napoleon, however, are so vast that any of the small number of similarities that exist can be linked to the fact that they both try to imitate King James English in the Bible. In short, there is nothing unique in the First Book of Napoleon to suggest it served as source material for the Book of Mormon. A digital version of the First Book of Napoleon can be found online here.
Fair Mormon has a small section devoted to the First Book of Napoleon, which can be found here. The purpose of my article is to go into greater detail on the similarities and differences between the Book of Mormon and the First Book of Napoleon.
The story in the First Book of Napoleon has little in common with the Book of Mormon. The First Book of Napoleon is a historical narrative about the rise of Napoleon and a prophetic warning against those who would be his allies. The table of contents on pages iii – viii provide a summary of each of the book’s chapters and shows that the overall narrative is nothing like the Book of Mormon. An evil spirit influences the people of the Gauls who worship a wicked idol. Napoleon takes over their armies, becomes their new idol, and begins expanding his empire. The people of Albanus and king Albion fight against Napoleon’s expanding empire. Eliakim sees visions and tells the readers to live righteously and resist the tyrant Napoleon. There is a parable of the Bear and the Monkey (p. 100), an oak tree symbolically claims it is superior to all the other trees of the land (p. 72), the people worship a horned idol with the words “Sedition, Privy Conspiracy, and Rebellion” written on its horns (p. 12), the author suggests that royals and noblemen are superior to their subjects (pp. 11-12), and the State is likened to a ship tossed upon the storms of wickedness (p. 90).
The Book of Mormon describes a family who flees Jerusalem in 600 B.C. with a sacred religious text, who build a ship to travel to the American continent. The book describes the organization of their government, their wars, their prophecies of Christ, a visit by the resurrected Jesus Christ, and the destruction of their civilization. While both the Book of Mormon and the First Book of Napoleon deal with themes of evil tyrants, righteous kings, and wicked peoples, these themes are also found extensively throughout the Bible and presumably thousands of other books. There is no reason to believe that the First Book of Napoleon provided any unique story beats for the Book of Mormon.
Debunking the Supposed Similarities
There are several similarities between the two works, but a closer examination shows that most of these similarities can be traced back to the Bible.
Similarity #1: Using Trees in Allegories
The first similarity is that both the Book of Mormon (Jacob 5) and the First Book of Napoleon (Chapter 2) use trees in allegories. This is where the similarity ends. The fifth chapter in the Book of Jacob recounts a 77-verse allegory of how the House of Israel is like a decaying olive tree. The Lord of the vineyard tries to preserve the natural olives by transplanting some of its branches into other parts of the vineyard, while at the same time grafting branches from wild olive trees into the original tree. The Lord’s several attempts to preserve the tree are described. The purpose of the allegory is to show the history of the scattering of Israel and how Israel will be gathered together again in the last days. This allegory utilizes language similar to Luke 13:6-9, Romans 11:16-24, and Isaiah 5:1-7. An in-depth look at the similarities in the language of Jacob 5 and the Bible can be found here.
The First Book of Napoleon, on the other hand, provides a 9 verse allegory comparing laws or state constitutions to trees in that they should “be trained and pruned by the wary hand of age and time” (p. 16) instead of being built like a human structure (Napoleon 2:7-15, p. 15-18). The “constitution of the state” (p. 16) grows in good soil and decays in bad soil. The tree is nourished by the “dew of heaven, and the sun-beams thereof…and the blood of the warriors” (p. 16). The tree that the Gauls plant after they overthrew their rulers brings forth “bad and forbidden fruit” (p. 17). The branches decay and those who eat its fruit die bloody deaths “because the sap which was in the tree, was poison” (p. 17). While this allegory and the Book of Mormon share some similarities in using words to describe the tree such as “decayed,” “pruned,” “corruption,” “good soils” and “bad soil,” there is no mention of olive trees, grafting, digging, dunging, the Lord of the Vineyard or his servant, the House of Israel, and wild and natural trees, which are featured in prominent sections of the Bible. Since the Bible already provides material that is more consistent with the language and message of the Book of Mormon, there is no reason to believe that Joseph was influenced by the First Book of Napoleon to write Jacob 5.
Similarity #2: Vision of the Angel
Lehi and Nephi have visions in which they are lifted up by an angel and prophesy. Eliakim also describes a vision in which he is guided by an angel. Eliakim has a vision in which an “angel lifted [him] up between the earth and the heavens…and put me on an high place” (Napoleon 17:3; similar language is found in Ezekiel 8:3). He sees Napoleon sitting on a throne, surrounded by his armies, and he becomes a dragon who wreaks havoc on the earth. He then sees a beautiful island where a shepherd watches his herds (symbolic of the Albions). There is a mighty bull that protects the island from the dragon.
In the Book of Mormon, Lehi (1 Nephi 8) and Nephi (1 Nephi 11-14) are also taken away by angels unto “an exceedingly high mountain” (1 Nephi 11:1). Lehi sees a vision of the tree of life and a rod of iron leading to it. Nephi sees the same vision, and sees the coming of the Savior, the destruction of his people, and the end of the days. A cursory reading of the visions in the First Book of Napoleon and the Book of Mormon show they have very different content. What is most important, however, is that heavenly visions where a prophet is guided by an angel are found in many instances in the Bible, such as Revelation 21:10, Jeremiah 1 and 24, and Ezekiel 3 and 8. An analysis of some of the common motifs found in the Book of Mormon and the Bible in Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions can be found here. This analysis, in conjunction with a reading of Eliakim’s visions, shows that the Book of Mormon visions have much more in common with Biblical visions than they do with the First Book of Napoleon. There is therefore no basis for believing that the First Book of Napoleon significantly contributed to this part of the Book of Mormon’s content.
Similarity #3: Language
The Book of Mormon and the First Book of Napoleon share many similar phrases. Most of these phrases, however, are found in the Bible. Since both books use the Bible for inspiration (the Nephites had the five books of Moses and the teachings of Jesus, and Linning wrote his book specifically to imitate the KJV Bible), it is expected that there would be similarities between the two (click this link for a list of Biblical phrases and motifs found in the Book of Mormon).
Here is a sample of some of the phrases found in all three works:
- “The latter days” = (Napoleon 1:1)/(Jeremiah 48:47)/(2 Nephi 3:5)
- “The fear of the Lord” = (Napoleon 1:3)/(Proverbs 2:5)/(Mosiah 4:1)
- “Imaginations of their hearts” = (Napoleon 1:3)/(Jeremiah 3:17)/(1 Nephi 2:11)
- “Evil spirit” = (Napoleon 1:6)/(Luke 8:2)/(Mosiah 2:32)
- “Kings and rulers” = (Napoleon 1:7)/(1 Nephi 16:38)/(Mark 13:9)
- “True and living God” = (Napoleon 1:10)/(Jeremiah 10:10)/(Alma 11:27)
- “Great and marvelous” = (Napoleon 3:2)/(Revelation 15:3)/(1 Nephi 1:14)
- “Blotted [out their names]” = (Napoleon 11:2)/(Deuteronomy 9:14)/(Mosiah 5:11)
- “Deliver into your hands” = (Napoleon 8:6)/(1 Chronicles 14:10)/(1 Nephi 3:29)
- “Fight like/Bold as lions” = (Napoleon 7:6)/(1 Chronicles 12:8)/(Psalm 17:12)/(Mosiah 20:10)
- “Gall and/of bitterness” = (Napoleon 6:13)/(Acts 8:23)/(Moroni 8:14)
- Disappear as the dew [vapor] before the sun = (Napoleon 10:15)/(Hosea 6:4)/(Mormon 4:18)
- “Chaff before the wind” = (Napoleon 10:14)/(Psalms 1:4)/(Mormon 5:16)
- “Great and terrible” = (Napoleon 19:12)/(Deuteronomy 1:19)/(1 Nephi 12:18)
- “He dreamed a dream” = (Napoleon 16:14)/(Daniel 2:3) (1 Nephi 8:2)
- “Rod of iron” = (Napoleon 20:9)/(Revelation 2:26-27)/(1 Nephi 8:19)
- Wearing modest, non-expensive clothing = (Napoleon 22:11)/(1 Timothy 2:9)/(Alma 1:27)
- “Gray hairs with sorrow to the grave” = (Napoleon 20:27)/(Genesis 42:38)/(1 Nephi 18:18)
Since a majority of the phrases found in the First Book of Napoleon and the Book of Mormon are also found in the Bible, there is no reason to believe that the First Book of Napoleon was a significant influence.
There are more Differences than Similarities
Even though the First Book of Napoleon and the Book of Mormon both try to mimic KJV language, there are in fact vast differences in style and vocabulary between the two books. The following is a list of verses that show just how far Linning’s style deviates from the Book of Mormon:
- “So the bear allowed the monkey from time to time to play and frisk around him; but it came to pass, that the monkey having scratched the bear, he thereupon raised his bristles, and threatened to hug the monkey to death” (Napoleon 16:9)
- “A tyrant’s fiat had excluded him from the sweet society of men, and from the cheering light of the sun, and had doomed him to become a prey to corruption, and the reptiles of the earth!” (Napoleon 18:22)
- “Frozen seas and rivers, and plains covered with eternal frost, are unto him as dwelling places; and the storm which chilleth other beasts, even unto death, beateth upon him as upon a rock, which is covered with furs and with skins.” (Napoleon 16:4)
- “And out of the head of the beast there arose three horns, and upon each of the horns there were written these words, Sedition, Privy, Conspiracy, and Rebellion; and on the forehead of the beast, and under the horns, there were written, in letters of blood, the words Treasons and Crimes” (Napoleon 1:12)
- “His nightly path is lighted by fiery spectres, that sport and dance along the polar sky, and play amidst the wintry star” (Napoleon 16:5)
- “And lo! the tillers of the ground, and the labourers thereof, together with mechanics, artificers, and all manner of handicraftmen, left their sundry and peaceful occupations, and became lawmakers and lawgivers, and sought to rule over their superiors” (Napoleon 2:6)
- “But, alas! In this glorious, but direful battle, there fell many valiant men, and in the midst of them, covered with glory, and crowned with victory, their brave and skillful chief, whose name now stands high in the temple of Fame” (Napoleon 9:29)
- “As the dew of heaven, and the sun-beams thereof, water and cherish the earthly tree, so also, do the spirits of the departed patriots of a land, and the blood of the warriors thereof, foster and support the political tree, or constitution of the state” (Napoleon 2:9)
- “And from each of these four great branches, there issue others, and the fruit which is produced by the tree is emblematical of religion, nobleness of birth and deed, freedom, obedience to the laws, security, wealth, and happiness” (Napoleon 5:25)
- “That the radiant and resplendent brilliancy of their great souls, may serve as a light or beacon, to direct the counsels and actions of those, who now, or in time coming, may be placed at the helm of the state” (Napoleon 10:8)
- “May not the eternal solidity of the inconceivable empire of Almighty god, and the unchangeable harmony and obedience which pervade all his wondrous works, derive as much strength from the universal adoration in which his unerring truth, his immaculate purity and holiness, and his inflexible justice are held, by created existence, as from the immensity and grandeur of his unmeasurable power?” (Napoleon 12:17)
- “The sun, who came forth in the morning like a bridegroom from his eastern chamber, arrayed in all his dazzling glories, to cheer and enlighten a benighted world, to dissipate the dreary darkness of the night, and awaken drowsy nature to joy and gladness; found this generation of bats and of owls, male and female, reveling in all manner of riot and licentiousness” (Napoleon 13:7)
- “What, O man, O guilty man, who thus insultest the orderly appointments of heaven, what would not thy consternation be, were the sun to loiter on his eastern couch, and the return of morning to be withheld but for a little while beyond its appointed time, and thus to leave the world to utter darkness and dismay?” (Napoleon 13:13)
- “Lo! many of the nations thou now seest suffering under the dragon, were worshippers of the first idol, which is called Licentiousness; and until they shall by repentance and amendment of life, have expiated the crimes which they thereby committed, the sun of liberty which thou observedst to be nearly darkened in blood, shall not rise upon them, nor until then, shall their bonds be broken asunder” (Napoleon 18:26)
Similarity #4: Condemn me not for my imperfections
Critics point out that both the Book of Mormon and the First Book of Napoleon contain prefaces that ask their readers to not condemn them for their poor writing. In Eliakim’s “Address to His Readers,” he gives a short message to several types of readers, such as the “Charitable and Gentle Reader,” “the Pious and Religious Reader,” “Readers in General,” “Napoleon,” and the “King of the Albions.” In his address to the “Pious and Religious Reader” he tells his readers “let not thy feelings be offended, and withhold thy censure, until thou shalt find in these pages a single sentiment inconsistent with the spirit and principles of that holy religion which thou professest; and condemn not the feebly imitative manner of writing therein occasionally employed, until thou canst point out a language more impressive, or more appropriate, than that in imitation whereof these chapters are framed” (p. i). In other words, he asks those who are familiar with the Bible to not criticize him too harshly in his attempts to mimic the KJV Bible.
The title page of the Book of Mormon has a similar disclaimer in which Mormon states “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ” (p. iii). Moroni provides a similar disclaimer in Ether 12:23-27. It may seem like a shocking coincidence that both books, imitating KJV English and published only 20 years apart, would contain such similar pleas from the authors in the preface of their books. The problem with this argument is that such disclaimers are in fact very common in literature before Joseph’s day and well afterwards.
For example, Victor Hugo in his preface to “Cromwell” (1827) criticizes certain poetic styles and points out that it is not the style they used that should be condemned, but the limitations of the authors in employing them: “They were mistaken. If in fact the false is predominant in the style as well as in the action of certain French tragedies, it is not the verses that should be held responsible therefore, but the versifiers. It was needful to condemn, not the form employed, but those who employed it: the workmen, not the tool.”
Another example is John Dryden’s preface to “Fables, Ancient and Modern” (1700), where he asks the reader not to condemn him for adding his own inferior fables to the volume, but instead blame his poor judgment on his old age: “I resolv’d to join them in my present work; to which I have added some original papers of my own; which, whether they are equal or inferior to my other poems, an author is the most improper judge, and therefore I leave them wholly to the mercy of the reader. I will hope the best, that they will not be condem’d; but if they should, I have the excuse of an old gentleman, who mounting on horseback before some ladies, when I was present, got up somewhat heavily, but desir’d of the fair spectators that they would count fourscore and eight before they judg’d him.”
Asking readers to attribute any errors in their work to their own human limitations is so common in academic writing that philosophers have argued over what D. C. Makinson called “The Paradox of the Preface” (Analysis, Vol. 25, No. 6, 1965, pp. 205-207), where he states “It is customary for authors of academic books to include in their prefaces statements such as this: ‘I am indebted to…for their invaluable help; however, any errors which remain are my sole responsibility.’ Occasionally an author will go further. Rather than say that if there are any mistakes then he is responsible for them, he will say that there will inevitably be some mistakes and he is responsible for them. For example, in the preface to his ‘Introduction to the Foundations of Mathematics’ (1952) R. L. Wilder writes ‘To those of my colleagues and students who have given me encouragement and stimulation, I wish to express sincere thanks. I am especially grateful to…for suggestions and criticism; but the errors and shortcomings to be found herein are not their fault, and are present only in spite of their wise counsel’” (p. 205)
It is unreasonable to argue that all of these authors first needed to read the First Book of Napoleon before they could write such prefaces, and the same standard should be applied to Joseph Smith. All of the arguments I have made suggest that there is little to no evidence in favor of the argument that the First Book of Napoleon served as inspiration for the Book of Mormon.