The Book of Mormon contains 337 proper names—188 of these are unique to the Book of Mormon and 149 are found in the Bible.1 Latter-day Saints have suggested that these ~200 new names are evidence that the Book of Mormon was generated via divine intervention, especially because they appear Hebrew in origin or have been found in other ancient non-biblical sources.2
Sandra Tanner has argued that the extra-Biblical names could be based on rearrangements of Bible names or by simply adding “hah” to existing names. Others have generated a list of possible sources for 200 of 219 Book of Mormon names3, most of which derive in some way from the Bible.
If we assume Joseph authored the book, and given what we know about creativity theory (a creator necessarily draws upon elements to which they have been exposed), then we would expect the raw elements to exist in Joseph’s environment. By his own admission, Joseph was very familiar with the Bible, so this seems like a reasonable creative source for new names. In addition, some names in the Book of Mormon seem similar to names found in Joseph Smith’s vicinity. A modern author may have drawn inspiration from one or more of the names in their own locale.
Below are place names that seem similar to Book of Mormon names in the northeastern United States and nearby Canada prepared by Mary Ann at Wheat and Tares (verbiage is hers; I have grouped the names and made some slight modifications4):
Found in the Bible
The Bible could have been the source of inspiration for names that are found within it, so invoking a place name is unnecessary for its accounting. Still, a nearby placename might increase the likelihood of its usage in the Book of Mormon. These, or a near phonetic variant, are found in the Bible
Hellam (as the city and land Helam/Helem/Helim)
Hellam Township in York County, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1739. It was named after a Hallam Township in England, and the Pennsylvania township was often spelled Hallam in the early years. This is how it appears in the 1823 New Universal Gazetter (page 310). Interestingly, a map of York County made between 1816 and 1826 shows the name as Helam. Helam is in the Bible.
Jerusalem (as the city and land Jerusalem)
Jerusalem in Yates County, New York, is the place you can best argue might have influenced Joseph Smith, though several other smaller communities in New York also used the same name. It was established around 1791 in Ontario County, before Yates County was formed. It’s only 33 miles south of Palmyra, and the 1823 New Universal Gazetteer notes it had a population of 1,610 at the time (page 359).
Jordan (as the city Jordan/Jordon)
The village of Jordan in Onondaga County, New York, was first settled around 1800 . The village became a major transportation center with the construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s. It is cited in the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 47).
Lehigh (as the land Lehi-Nephi)
The area of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, was settled in the 1700s, though the county itself, named for the Lehigh River, wasn’t established until 1812. It’s in the 1823 New Universal Gazetteer (page 401).
Rama (as the hill Ramah)
Sodom (as the land Sidom)
Many small communities in New York were called Sodom around the 1820s, though most did not retain that name. One is Mottville in Onondaga County, New York. Other candidates include Nicholville, St. Lawrence County, New York, or the Sodom hamlet in Johnsburg, Warren County, New York.
Similar to a Bible name
- Moravian Town/Moravian Village (as the city and land Morianton/Morionton) – Most early publications and maps refer to the community as Moravian Village (see this 1826 map of Canada, for example). However, the 1819 publication The Late War (a favorite among church critics) notes it as Moravian Town (page 115). Morianton is fairly similar to Moriah, which is found in the Bible.
Not in the Bible
[Still need to verify some of these that they are not in the Bible with an error tolerant search of the KJV and apocrypha]
Angola (as the city Angola/Angolah/Angelah)
A post office named Angola was established in 1822 in Taylor’s Hollow, a hamlet in the town of Collins, Erie County, New York. It was the first post office in Collins. It is cited in the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 5). Not in the Bible as Angola, Angolah, or Angelah.
Antrim (as the land Antum)
Antrim Township in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, was created in 1741. It appears in the 1823 New Universal Gazetter (page 45). There are other locations in the Great Lakes region also named Antrim by 1829. Neither Antum or Antrim are in the Bible.
Jacobsburg (as the city Jacobugath/Jacob-Ugath)
Sometimes referred to as Jacobstown in early literature, this town in Belmont County was laid out in 1815. It is cited as Jacobsburg in the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 46).
Kiskiminetas/Kishkemanetas (as the city Kishkumen)
This is a reference to the Kiskiminetas River along the border of Armstrong County and Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania. There are various spellings of this name, though the most common I’ve seen are Kishkemanetas on early maps (see it on an 1805 map of Pennsylvania) and the standardized Kiskiminetas. Although the township of the name wasn’t established until 1831, somewhere in Westmoreland County there was a post office named Kiskiminitas. It shows up in the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 49).
Mantua (as the city or land Manti)
The area of Mantua in Portage County, Ohio, was first settled just ahead of 1800, though the township of the name wasn’t formed until 1810. The community was named in honor of Napoleon, who captured Mantua, Italy, in 1796. It is cited in both the 1823 New Universal Gazetteer (page 446) and the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 56).
Monroe (as the city or land Moroni)
Sooo many cities and counties are named Monroe in the 1820s. I mapped the town in Orange County, New York, but you could probably find one closer. It (and many others of the same name) is cited in the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 60).
Oneida & Oneida Castle (as the place or hill Onidah/Oneidah)
Oneida County, New York, was created in 1798. The village of Oneida Castle was organized in 1815, though it previously held that name for many years. Both Oneida County and Oneida Castle are in the 1823 New Universal Gazetteer (page 553).
Sherbrooke (as the valley Shurr)
The town of Hyatt’s Mills in Quebec had it’s named changed to Sherbrooke in 1818. However, I haven’t found any publications or maps with the Sherbrooke name before 1829 (1831 is another matter).
Tecumseh (as the city and soldier Teancum)
Holley really wanted this to be in “the land northward,” so a Canadian option for this is Tecumseth Township in Simcoe County, Ontario. The name was given in 1821, and settlers arrived soon after. The township is depicted on an 1826 map of Canada. An American option is, of course, the city of Tecumseh in Lenawee County, Michigan. The city was established in 1824, and appears on many maps of the 1820s. The town is also cited in the 1825 version of the United States Official Postal Guide (page 92).
Mary Ann also located these places on a map:
Could Joseph have known these?
We have no direct evidence that Joseph Smith knew of these names; however, people know the names of places around where they live, to varying extents. Palmyra was somewhat of a transportation hub on the Erie canal, and the 1823 New World Gazatteer notes “The village is a place of considerable business” with a population of 3,724, so a person may have been exposed by word of mouth to news of surrounding areas. It also seems reasonable to suggest that the likelihood that Joseph had heard a given name increases with the notoriety and size of the place and diminishes with distance.
The researcher responsible for the above list suggested that “[critics] need to prove Joseph Smith had access to publications with these towns.” While this would be ideal, information was also transmitted by word of mouth, so it seems possible that Smith may have heard these place names discussed in one context or another.
What does it mean?
Probably not much. We could look for place names similar to Book of Mormon place names in any location on earth and likely find a number of near-matches across the unique 188 names.
Still, it does offer a counterpoint to the query, “where could Joseph have gotten all those names?” He could have made them up, conciously or subconciously being inspired by:
- Bible/apocrypha names he had heard
- Locations around his locale or that he had heard before
- Proper names from various name guides being sold at the time. For example:
There is no direct evidence that Joseph Smith consulted any of these, but nor would a modern author of the Book of Mormon have been working in a vacuum void of potential inspirational name material.
Acknowledgements: received valuable feedback from an early draft here especially from /u/JohnH2.
Some colloquial examples of the argument can be found in a presentation by a BYU Idaho employee in their presentation on the Book of Mormon: “Names in the Book of Mormon are Semitic, not English. Joseph Smith introduced over 200 new words, including names, in the Book of Mormon through translation by the gift and power of God.” LDS blogger Greg Trimble recently wrote: “If you’re ever having doubts about the restoration or about Joseph Smith, just read the Book of Mormon and ask your self these 11 questions …How could Joseph Smith come up with roughly 200 new names in the Book of Mormon and then have them turn out to be Semitic in nature?” And yahoo user ‘Kerry’ asks “Is this supportive evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon? The Book of Mormon introduces roughly 200 new names not found in the Bible. Many of these have been found to have genuine Semitic parallels in ancient times. For example, the name Alma. Alma was the name of two prophets in the Book of Mormon (a father and a son). In 1961, a prominent scholar in Israel, Professor Yigael Yadin, discovered an ancient document that proved to be a land deed from the time of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Palestine, placing it in the general era of the Book of Mormon. Prof. Yadin translated one of the names as “Alma the son of Judah.”(See Bar Kokhba by Yigael Yadin, Random House, New York, 1971, p. 176). …” and several answerers (LDS?) agree. ↩
Please note the general tentative nature of all these constructions and especially the tentativeness of specific examples like Moroni and Cumorah/Comoros. The author of the list stated: “Obviously, if this type of list was the only evidence against the Book of Mormon being what it claims to be (which it isn’t), it wouldn’t be a very effective argument against the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. The list is merely a possible answer to the question LDS come up with when they say, ‘If the Book of Mormon isn’t of ancient origin, where did Joseph Smith come up with all of those names?’” ↩
The list is copied with some modification and link updates from a self-described “believing member of the church” at Wheat and Tares. I have dropped or altered some information or links depending on what links I could find that were active. I have marked with “Citation needed” sources I was unable to locate. ↩