Was Joseph Smith intellectually and educationally capable of authoring the Book of Mormon?
A variety of theories for the creation of the Book of Mormon have been advanced in the past, but most modern scholars believe Joseph was primarily responsible for the book (e.g., Dan Vogel and William Davis).
Latter-day Saints tend to focus on Joseph Smith’s lack of significant formal education.1 Was Joseph Smith capable of such a feat? This document advances historical evidence which supports Joseph’s potential ability to compose such a work.
The case for Joseph’s potential capability
Religious and educational environment
- Joseph Smith’s father had “been a merchant and a teacher.” (Ensign 1971).
- Hyrum attended Moor’s Indian Charity School which was co-located with Dartmouth College. Students attended “daily chapel services at the White Church on campus” and Hyrum may have been exposed to the teachings of Professor John Smith who had recently died after 23 years as Hanover’s minister and influential Dartmouth professor.2
- Joseph’s grandmother had been a schoolteacher and had taught Joseph’s mother. (source)
- Joseph Smith had 3 years of “formal” education. Compare that with other prolific authors of his era:
- Andrew Jackson Davis: claimed 5 months—dictated the 320,000 word volume “The Principles of Nature” at the age of 20.
- Jane Austen: about 2.5 to 3 years of formal education3—completed First Impressions (published as Pride and Prejudice) at the age of 21.
- Abraham Lincoln: about 1 year of “formal” education
- Walt Whitman: 6 years
- Mark Twain 5 years
- Herman Melville 6 years
Each of the above had similar levels of formal education and it goes without saying that they were able to compose works of outstanding literary quality.
- A recent analysis of Joseph’s education puts the number of years at possibly closer to seven (Reassessing Joseph Smith Jr.’s Formal Education in the Winter 2016 Dialogue).
- In Joseph Smith’s time it was commonplace to downplay “a person’s education in order to accentuate the miraculous nature of his or her accomplishments.” (see pgs 62–65 of William Davis’s Dissertation for many examples)
- Palmyra was rich in books, generally.
Self described religious immersion
In his earliest history, Joseph Smith wrote (emphasis added):
I was born in the town of Charon [Sharon] in the State of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the christian religion. at the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Seignior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constituted my whole literary acquirements. **At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divisions the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world …
So, while Joseph clearly emphasizes that he had little formal schooling, he also emphasizes in several places how familiar he was with the scriptures and the religious arguments of the day. If Joseph continued that trajectory of interest in scripture and religion, then we can put an upper bound on his intense scripture/religion searching at 11 years.
Biblical allusion in the Colesville Letters
BYU scholar Nicholas Frederick tenatively attributes the first and second Colesville letters of 1830 to Joseph Smith. Both letters are rich with Biblical allusion and with the first “[nearly] every sentence contains at least one biblical quotation, allusion, or echo, with many of them containing more than one.”
Accounts emphasizing meditation or reading
Joseph Smith Sr., in a patriarchal blessing given to Joseph stated:
… thou hast sought to know his ways, and from thy childhood thou hast meditated much upon the great things of his law. …
Pomeroy Tucker, a Palmyra bookseller, noted4:
Joseph … as he grew in years, had learned to read comprehensively [i.e., Smith read on every available topic], in which qualification he was far in advance of his elder brother, and even of his father; and this talent was assiduously devoted, as he quitted or modified his idle habits, to the perusal of works of fiction and records of criminality, such for instance as would be classed with the ‘dime novels’ or the present day. The story of Stephen Burroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions. As he further advanced in reading and knowledge, he assumed a spiritual or religious turn of mind, and frequently perused the bible, becoming quite familiar with portions thereof, both of the Old and New Testaments; selected texts from which he quoted and discussed with great assurance when in the presence of his superstitious acquaintances. The Prophecies and Revelations were his special forte. His interpretations of scriptural passages were always original and unique, and his deductions and conclusions often disgustingly blasphemous, according to the common apprehension of Christian people.
In a late reminiscence, a Rochester paper store clerk, identified by Vogel as William Alling noted (as cited by Vogel, from here):
It may be of interest in this connection to know that one of the early customers of Mr. Alling was a man who became famous as the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. He used to come in on Mondays from his home in Palmyra and spend hours reading and selecting books and talking theology. It was at this time that he was engaged in writing his “Book of Mormon,” but the present firm disclaims all responsibility for Mr. Smith’s religious conclusions, even if he did buy his books and writing paper from their store.
Accounts including an oral component
In her history, Joseph’s mother Lucy recalled5:
During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.
Her 1845 manuscript provides additional details6:
Now said he[,] Father and Mother the angel of the Lord says that we must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad For we do not any of us know the wickedness of the world which is so sinful that when we get the plates they will want to kill us for the sake of the gold if they know we
had them...by sunset [we] were ready to be seated and give our attenundivided attention to Josephs recitals...From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time and every evening we gathered our children togather [together]...In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most ammusing [amusing] recitals which could be immagined [imagined]. he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their man[n]er of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship as particularly as though he had spent his life with them... The angel informed him at one time that he might make an effort to obtain the plates the <22nd of the> ensueing september....
Orasmus Turner wrote in 18517:
But Joseph had a little ambition, and some very laudable aspirations; the mother’s intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly, especially when he used to help us to solve some portentous questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating club, which we moved down to the old red school-house on Durfee street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics that used to drop in upon us in the village; amid, subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings. (emphasis added)
Pomeroy Tucker’s reminiscence (quoted more completely above) includes an oral component:
… he assumed a spiritual or religious turn of mind, and frequently perused the bible, becoming quite familiar with portions thereof, both of the Old and New Testaments; selected texts from which he quoted and discussed with great assurance when in the presence of his superstitious acquaintances. …
And the Rochester paper store clerk (quoted more completely above) also noted an oral component to Joseph’s reading:
… He used to come in on Mondays from his home in Palmyra and spend hours reading and selecting books and talking theology … (emphasis added)
Lifelong pattern of reading and meditation
Joseph left no records of his life before the dictation of the Book of Mormon, but his journal entries in the years following the dictation Book of Mormon suggest he was a man comfortable spending hours reading and meditating.
In a letter to Emma in 18328:
I prefer reading and praying and holding communeion with the holy spirit and writing to you then walking the streets and beholding the distraction of man.
Joseph recorded in his journal for November 28th, 1832:
this day I have [spent?] in reading and writing this Evening my mind is calm and serene …
Journal entry of October 5, 1835:
… spent the remainder of the day in reading and meditation …
Journal entry of October 6, 1835:
… spent the rest of the day in reading and meditation
Journal entry of November 21, 1835:
Saturday 21st at home, spent the day in examining my books and studying the
Journal entry of December 11, 1835:
Spent the day in reading and instructing those who called for advice.
Journal entry of December 12, 1835:
Saturday Morning 12th. Spent the forenoon in reading.
John Taylor said of him (emphasis added):
He was ignorant of letters as the world has it, but the most profoundly learned and intelligent man that I ever met in my life, and I have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, been on different continents and mingled among all classes and creeds of people, yet I have never met a man so intelligent as he was.
As an adult he attended some high school. His teacher, William E. McLellin, described the experience (emphasis added):
He attended my High school during the winter of 1834. He attended my school and learned science all winter. I learned the strength of his mind as the study and principles of science. Hence I think I knew him. And I here say that he had one of strongest, well balanced, penetrating, and retentive minds of any with which I ever formed an acquaintance, among the thousands of my observation. Although when I took him into my school, he was without scientific knowledge or attainments.
Emma’s last testimony
The most frequent testimony advanced to suggest that Joseph was not be capable of composing the Book of Mormon was delivered by his wife, Emma. Her last testimony reads (emphasis added):
Question. Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book?
Answer. Joseph Smith (and for the first time she used his name direct, having usually used the words, “your father” or “my husband”) could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to anyone else.
However, there are good reasons to discount aspects of Emma’s testimony.
The case against Joseph’s potential capability
The most up-to-date arguements against Joseph’s abilities to compose the Book of Mormon have been made in response to William Davis’s recent book Visions in a seer stone:
- Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone (Brian C. Hales)
- Oral Creation and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon (Brant A. Gardner)
Other arguments relevant to an argument against Joseph’s capabilities:
- Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon (Brian C. Hales)
- Changing Critics’ Criticisms of Book of Mormon Changes (Brian C. Hales)
Despite lacking extensive formal training, Joseph was raised in a rich educational, religious, and scriptural environment, and he immersed himself in that environment for some time, at least. Furthermore, some of those who associated with him intimately and in educational settings ascribed to him an extraordinarily powerful intellect. On the other hand, the argument can be made that many did not attribute great intellectual powers to Joseph, and that he lacked the necessary education or prepartion in order to be able to compose a book like the Book of Mormon, especially under the circumstances witnessed.
Joseph Smith’s lack of education has been frequently emphasized. For instance, Gordon Hinckley characterized him: “In the eyes of those who knew him, he was simply a poor, unlearned farm boy.” LeGrand Richards stated, in allusion to Isaiah 29: “Joseph Smith was that unlearned man, at that time in his life.” Tad Callister described him as “a 23-yearold farm boy with limited education.” Louis Midgley wrote that Christians “objected to the audacious enlargement of the canon of sacred scripture by an unlearned farm boy.” Jeff Lindsay writes “If the Book of Mormon were just a pathetic fraud from an ignorant farm boy in 1820 …” Truman Madsen, in emphasizing the understanding Joseph Smith would attain, wrote “It will not do if one is speaking of him in his maturity to say that Joseph was ‘an ignorant farm boy.’” ↩
Hyrum Smith’s time at Moor’s School, along with substantiation of all the above-mentioned points may be found here ↩
Jane Austen’s wikipedia page describes her education at Oxford by Mrs. Ann Cawley between 1783 and “autumn” of the same year (so, roughly 0.75 of the calendar year). Then, she attended boarding school from “early in 1785” and concluding “before December 1786” (so, roughly 1.75 calendar years). Depending on how school years are tallied, that puts her education between 2.5 and 3 years. Some biographies report less (for example, “Aside from one year of formal schooling, she was educated at home.”). ↩
Richard Lloyd Anderson invokes Pomeroy Tucker’s testimony in establishing circumstantial evidence for the first vision. Lloyds analysis of Tucker’s testimony suggests caution in dismissing all of Tucker’s observations as unfounded or biased (emphasis added):
From the point of view of history Tucker’s Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism is a disappointing performance. With access to the generation that remembered the establishment of the Prophet’s work, the experienced editor is content to quote the Hurlburt-Howe affidavits, to repeat common gossip, to quote extensive portions of the Book of Mormon and articles about Brigham Young for the bulk of the book. Although but weakly living up to the subtitle (“Personal Remembrances and Historical Collections Hitherto Unwritten”), Tucker does relate much valuable information concerning the period of the publication of the Book of Mormon. He also claims knowledge of the Smiths “since their removal to Palmyra from Vermont in 1816, and during their continuance there and in the adjoining town of Manchester.” There is no reason to question this firsthand contact provided one is on guard not to take his western New York prejudice for fact. It is to his credit that he could at least distinguish between the two. He repeats tattered stories about Joseph Smith’s dishonesty only to admit in “common fairness” that such allegations were “not within the remembrance of the writer.” Although Tucker is content to repeat the armchair observations about the laziness of the Smiths, every one of his specific descriptions proves the opposite. Most of Tucker’s unattributed particulars of the Smith’s early Palmyra life are probably based on his observation. His negative material from Palmyra is generally traceable to known statements and the “hitherto unwritten” incidents are typically details of human interest. The descriptions of the Smiths in Palmyra prior to 1820 tend to belong to this category
From Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:296. citing Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 36-173. As quoted by Fairmormon here.
LDS scholars argue that Joseph’s ability to recite these things were a direct result of his interactions with the angel Moroni. Regardless, putting to the side a discussion of the impact that a heavenly messenger might have had on his source material, this account and Lucy’s 1845 manuscript account establish that Joseph was able to perform multiple “amusing recitals” of a significant number of details “as though he had spent his life with [his subject].” Under any explanatory model of the Book of Mormon translation, these accounts suggest a significant level of mental acuity and an ability to convey orally copious details of some previously established mental model with some flair. ↩
From Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:294–296. citing the 1845 manuscript of Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography. As quoted by Fairmormon here. ↩
In his preface to Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman writes: He was not an eloquent preacher ; he is not known to have preached a single sermon before organizing the church in 1830.” The associated footnote states: “One early acquaintance who knew Joseph before 1821 (when he was fifteen or younger) did say he was a ‘very passable exhorter’ in Methodist meetings. Turner, History, 2014.” I note that Bushman provides no substantiation that Joseph was not an eloquent preacher. The phrase a “very passable exhorter” is open to a range of interpretation, anywhere from “quite good” to “barely passable.” ↩
The instances from 1832 and beyond where Joseph is recorded to have been engaged in reading for the day, along with other first hand accounts of Joseph’s reading, were first brought to my attention in reading William Davis’s PhD dissertation. ↩