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Uriah Smith and the Charge of Plagiarism

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Uriah Smith and the Charge of Plagiarism

Merwin R. Thurber

By MERWIN R. THURBER, Secretary of the "D. and R." Revision Committee

 

Plagiarism is a queer crime, easily charged to anyone we wish to discredit, but difficult of exact definition. The charge of plagiarism is usually intended to impugn someone's honesty. The dictionary defines plagiarism as the act of. stealing, or purloining, and passing off as one's own the ideas, words, or writings of another. But that definition is subject to various interpretations. Modern psychologists assure us that the mind, sub­consciously at least, remembers everything it has ever seen or heard or felt—even those things which have not reached the consciousness. The mind often wanders into byways of thought which we fondly imagine are original with us, but which are merely the memories of things we have ac­quired through the sense channels.

Original thoughts are few and far between. Just one original thought is sufficient to set a man apart from his fellows. Most of us, most of the time, are bound to repeat that which we have ac­quired from others. Someone has facetiously re­marked that copying from one man is plagiarism, but copying from three men is research.

Daniel and the Revelation, by Uriah Smith, be­cause of the very nature of its composition, has been as much subject to the charge of plagiarism as any book published by the denomination. The motives behind the charge have been various and need not be discussed here, but the impression is conveyed that the author was dishonest, reprehen­sible, and unworthy of the confidence of his brethren.

When this valuable book was being revised re­cently, the whole subject of plagiarism was inves­tigated thoroughly by the committee appointed to undertake the work of revision. Since I was sec­retary of the committee and was asked to do the research on this subject, perhaps I may be per­mitted to stand in defense of a stalwart pioneer of the movement. In this case a defense needs sim­ply a recounting of the facts, with perhaps a re­minder that conditions in the literary world were different one hundred years ago from what they are today.

The book Daniel and the Revelation has an in­teresting history. "Thoughts on Revelation" first appeared in the Review and Herald as editorials from June 3, 1862, to February 3, 1863. James White was editor of the paper. According to a note in the issue of June 3, Uriah Smith was teaching a Sabbath school class in the Battle Creek church. The class had chosen to study the book of Revelation and had just completed the book. They had found the study so spiritually up­lifting that a decision was reached to restudy the book. James White proposed to follow the class study in his editorials under the title "Thoughts on Revelation." The class agreed to study some­thing else if he found it necessary to be away on any Sabbath.

By the time the class had finished Revelation 9, Elder White found that his busy program would not allow him to finish his self-appointed task, and he asked Uriah Smith to finish the series on Reve­lation. His editorials had brought him up to the beginning of the seven trumpets, but he did not attempt an exposition of this line of prophecy. He merely recommended the reader to the booklet on the subject, already published by the Review and Herald. We mention this here because it has a bearing on what happened later, and is very closely connected with the charge of plagiarism.

The book Thoughts on Daniel was first written as a series of editorials in the Review, with several interruptions, from January 6, 1869, to May 16, 1871. During the time of the writing Uriah Smith was editor. As far as we know, there seems to have been no connection with a Sabbath school class.

In 1865 the Review and Herald published Uriah Smith's editorials on Revelation in book form. Those on Daniel were published in 1873. It was an established practice in those days to reprint in book form the more substantial doctrinal material which had first appeared in the paper. Naturally, Elder Smith worked over his old articles, improv­ing them where he saw fit. He must have rewrit­ten entirely the first nine chapters on Revelation, for while he follows the line of thought in Elder White's editorials, the wording is substantially different. He could have quite consistently used the material verbatim if he had wished, for he had been teacher of the class, and the convictions ex­pressed by Elder White were equally his.

When we reach the exposition on the seven trumpets, we come to a different problem. The paper had published a series, "The Sounding of the Seven Trumpets," July 8-29, 1858, without giving anyone as the author. It was not an editorial, but the material is not difficult to trace. It is taken practically word for word from Josiah Litch's two-volume Prophetic Exposition, published in 1842. However, Litch's interpretations were not original. He had copied the key to the interpretation, the joining of the two periods of the fifth and sixth trumpets, from William Miller. Practically all the rest of it was taken from older interpreters, Bishop Newton, for instance. He also quoted at length from Keith, a contemporary English writer.

This exposition of the seven trumpets was in­corporated practically verbatim into Uriah Smith's Thoughts on Revelation. The question naturally arises, Whose property was it? The correct an­swer may go a long way to an understanding of the serious charge laid at the door of Elder Smith.

The genesis of our publishing work sheds light on the problem. In inaugurating the Advent Re­view James White proposed to review the posi­tions of the advent movement. Many articles of pre-1844 Adventists were republished and dis­cussed, some of them more than once. Crosier's article on the sanctuary appeared several times, until something better could be obtained. Litch's exposition of the seven trumpets appeared in the Review and in two editions of a tract before it found its way into Thoughts on Revelation.

Most of the leading writers in the 1844 move­ment did not follow on into the third angel's mes­sage but repudiated their former positions. Josiah Litch is an outstanding example of this. He even published a book of repudiation. If the men who had contributed truth to the body of belief gave it up, surely it belonged to the people who still held fast their confidence. Small wonder, then, that Adventists felt free to publish Litch's exposition of the trumpets without giving him credit as au­thor. It was their belief, not his.

The same thing could be said for other exposi­tions which Smith followed in writing his book. Truth knows no owners; discoverers of prophetic application hold no copyright. It should be said in Smith's favor that he often acknowledged his debt to others. In his exposition of Revelation ii he followed George Storrs and gave him credit, though he did not use quotation marks for the part he took verbatim. (Review and Herald, Oct. 31, 1854, p. 93.) In a large section of Daniel ii, Smith followed Litch quite closely, though he so changed the wording that very little could have been enclosed in quotation marks. Since Litch himself was following Bishop Newton and others, it would hardly have been fair to give him credit.

Thus far we have been dealing largely with the story of the writing of the book Daniel and the Revelation. The real facts in that story do not depict the author as other than a sincere contender for truth. An understanding of the literary at­mosphere of his times will place him in even bet­ter light.

Should we not adopt the principle that we may not judge men of another generation by the stand­ards of our own? Uriah Smith lived in a differ­ent world from that in which we live today. Lit­erary standards and practices were not the same as they are now. Men everywhere appropriated the literary efforts of others. Even our beloved Mrs. White was unjustly criticized in regard to this very thing as the standards of the world about her changed in the dawning of a new lit­erary . day. She revised the form of her state­ments to meet the new standards.

Mrs. White stated freely that she used material from other writers without enclosing it in quota­tion marks. Many of the well-known Bible com­mentators have done the same thing. For instance, John Wesley, in the preface to his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, remarks regard­ing the material he had taken from other writers:

"It was a doubt with me for some time whether I should not sub-join to every note I received from them [other writers] the name of the author from whom it was taken; especially considering I had transcribed some, and abridged many more, almost in the words of the author. But upon further consideration, I resolved to name none, that nothing might divert the mind of the reader from keeping close to the point in view, and re­ceiving what was spoken only according to its own in­trinsic value."—Pages iv, v.

In the light of these considera­tions we believe, therefore, that we are on safe ground in denying that Uriah Smith may justly be charged with plagiarism in the modern mean­ing of the term. We believe he did nothing reprehensible. He was in line with the customs of his time and did only what his contemporaries thought it entirely proper to do. In his defense it should be said that he gave frequent recognition to other authors for thoughts copied.

It cannot and must not be denied that he copied from other men's works, but that is something entirely different from calling him a plagiarist in our modern language, with all its implications of dishonesty. Uriah Smith was a man of God, and deserves all the honors heaped upon our pioneers. Nevertheless, in order to remove the stigma cast upon this practice by many in our modern world, the revision committee felt that every effort should be made to raise the book above reproach in this matter.

Accordingly, every place in Daniel and the Rev­elation in which it was discovered that Uriah Smith had used the words of others, quotation marks were inserted and credit was given the original author. If it is discovered later that instances of such copying were overlooked, the same procedure can be followed in future editions. Surely if Elder Smith, a sincere and conscientious writer, were alive today, he would do as much in order to meet the literary standards of a new age.

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