This is a discussion of the library materials available to Joseph Smith.  Recently a Book of Mormon critic declared that the Prophet Joseph Smith had access to several important documents on southern Arabia before he published the Book of Mormon.  Apparently, the critic recognizes that Book of Mormon describes places in southern Arabia, but wants to credit this to Joseph Smith’s knowledge of the literature available at the Dartmouth College library, not divine revelation.  We appreciate S. Kent Brown’s response to this ascertain, and for giving the Nephi Project permission to post his discussion on the documents in question.

S. Kent Brown

Chairman, Department of Ancient Studies, BYU

Niebuhr Response 

The claim that there are three copies of Robert Heron’s English translation of Carsten Niebuhr’s first two volumes of Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien in the Dartmouth College library, and the implication that this library acquired at least one them before late in the year of 1813, the time when seven-year-old Joseph Smith and his family departed Lebanon, New Hampshire, must rest on a misunderstanding. One of the three entries in the current electronic catalogue of the Dartmouth College library is that of the French translation of Niebuhr’s volumes. The Dartmouth library acquired this translation for its collection on September 17, 1985 (Thorkild Hansen, who wrote about Niebuhr, calls this translation a “botched job”). The other two current electonic entries for Heron’s two-volume English translation are duplicates of one another. Dartmouth library owns only one copy of the two English volumes and they were acquired in December 1937. 

A view that the Dartmouth College library had acquired any of the works produced by Jean Baptiste d’Anville by the year 1813, the year that Joseph Smith’s family moved from the area, fails. John Horsley’s 1814 two-volume translation of d’Anville’s geographical work was not acquired until 1823 when it came as a gift to the library from members of the class of 1823. By then, the Smith family had been living in western New York for seven years. The copy of d’Anville’s forty maps, which the Dartmouth library also owns, did not come to the library until December 1936. In addition, the first printing of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes (1776-1788) was not acquired by the Dartmouth library until 1944. Furthermore, the 1804-1805 reprint of Gibbon’s work did not come to this library until 1930 and the 1820 reprint was acquired only in 1983. 

Any hypothesis that these kinds of works were widely available in private hands for consultation has to reckon with one of the few sources by which a researcher can trace their distribution. That source consists of library acquisition records. In the case of Heron’s 1792 English translation of Niebuhr’s two volumes, the Dartmouth library did not acquire its copy until 145 years after the publication. In the case of Horsley’s 1914 translation of d’Anville’s work, the time lag between publication and the acquisition by the Dartmouth library was nine years. While that length of time is much less than a century and one half, it is still a significant gap and does not support a hypothesis for a wide and almost immediate distribution of these kinds of works in private hands. In a related vein, one has to reckon with the fact that the copy of Horsley’s English translation of d’Anville’s Géographie owned by the Dartmouth library does not have d’Anville’s maps. Thus, it is evident that, even though Horsley’s translation came to this library nine years after publication, the maps — which were sold separately — did not accompany Horsley’s work. 

— S. Kent Brown

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