Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is frequently advanced by Latter-day Saint scholars as evidence favoring an ancient origin of the book (for example).

Various naturalistic mechanisms for the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon may be contemplated,1 but recently William Davis has advanced evidence and arguments suggesting that the Book of Mormon exhibits patterns common to oral performance generally (Oral Formulaic Theory) and also patterns specific to the early 1800s (e.g., laying down heads).

Oral Formulaic Theory may help make some sense of a few observations, especially the length of some chiastic structures (like Alma 36) and the fact that Joseph never pointed out the chiasms and parallelisms in the Book of Mormon. If Joseph was the author of the Book of Mormon and Joseph naturally employed these structures as part of the process of orally composing the Book of Mormon, then—to extend Davis’s hypothesis a bit—we might expect Joseph to spontaneously utilize repetition (including inversion and ring structures) as he composes other similar works orally, too, at least to some extent.

Some efforts have been made to identify chiasmus in other compositions which Joseph was responsible for including an 1838 letter to Emma and within the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Abraham (see the study “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” in BYU Studies 43:2, 2004, 118-123). According to the authors of the 2004 BYU Studies analysis, potential examples outside the Book of Mormon were deemed statistically insignificant and hence somewhat likely to have occurred by chance alone.

I recently happened upon an 1833 letter from Joseph Smith to a newspaper editor that, at first glance, seemed somewhat reminiscent to me of the Book of Mormon in tone and style. Joseph appears to have assumed a prophetic or quasi-prophetic role during the letter (e.g., “I am prepared to say by the authority of Jesus Christ”), and so, while the letter seems to have been composed in his own voice, it also seems like elevated, quasi-scriptural discourse compared to less formal communication contained in some other letters. I reasoned that such a composition could provide a useful test of the hypothesis of whether Joseph Smith might be spontaneously and naturally inclined to producing the kinds of repetition that are similar to the structures observed in the Book of Mormon when composing works orally and especially while working in a scripture-like register.

Formatting text containing elements of repetition into putative poetic structures is intrinsically subjective,2 and others have highlighted the dubious nature of some of these kinds of constructions imposed on Book of Mormon text, particularly Alma 36 (see, for example, Wunderli and Davis). Freely acknowledging the highly subjective nature of the task, I nonetheless set out to identify parallelistic structures with some basis in the repetition of phrases and themes inherent to one of Joseph Smith’s oral compositions from relatively near in time to his dictation of the Book of Mormon, his January 1833 letter to Noah Saxton, a copy of which was made shortly after its composition and is found in Letterbook 1.3

The Letter Formatted

Letter to Noah C. Saxton, 4 January 1833 in Letterbook 1 (Joseph Smith Papers)

My notes use double brackets ([[]]).

Mr. Editor Sir,

A Considering the Liberal prisciples [principles] upon which your
  interesting and valuable paper is published

    B and myself being a subscriber

        C and feeling a deep intrist [interest] in the cause of Zion and in
          the happiness of my brethren of mankind I cheerfully take up my pen to
          contribute my mite at this every [very] interesting and important

            D For some length of time

                E I have been car[e]fully viewing the state of things as
                  now appear throug[h]out our christian Land

                    F and have looked at it with feelings of the most painful

                        G while upon the one hand

                            H beholding the manifested withdrawal of Gods
                              holy Spirit

                                I and the vail of stupidity

                                I' which seems to be drawn

                            H over the hearts of the people

                        G' and upon the other hand

                    F' beholding the Judgments of God that have swept and
                       are still sweeping hundreds and thousands of our race 
                       (and I fear unprepared) down to the shades of death 

                E' with this solemn and alarming fact before me I am led to
                   exclaim [“]O that my head were waters and mine ey[e]s a
                   fountain of tears

            D' that I might weep day and night &c.”

        C' I think that it is high time 

    B' for a christian world to awake out of sleep and cry mightely to that
       God day and night

A' whose anger we have Justly incured.

A Are not these things a sufficient stimulant to arouse the faculties

    B and call forth the energies of evry man woman and child that poseses
     feeling of sympathy for his fellow[s]

        C or that is in any degree endeared to the bud[d]ing cause of our
          glorious Lord;

            D I leave an inteligent community to answer this important
              question with a confession that this is what has caused me to
              overlook my own inability and expose my weakness to a learned

                E but trusting in that God who has said these things are hid
                  from the wise and prudent

                    F and reve[a]led unto babes

                        G I step forth into the field to tell you what the
                          Lord is doing and what you must do to enjoy the
                          smiles of your saviour in these last day[s]— 

                            H The time has at last come arived

                                I when the God of Abraham of Isaac and of
                                  Jacob has set his hand again the seccond
                                  time to recover the remnants of his people

                                    J which have been left
                                        from Assyria,
                                        and from Egypt
                                        and from Pathros &.c.
                                        and from the Islands of the sea 

                                    J' and with them to bring in the fulness
                                       of the Gentiles

                                I' and establish that covenant with them

                            H' which was promised when their sins should be
                               taken away. (See Romans 11. 25, 26, & 27 and
                               also Jeremiah 31. 31, 32, & 33,)

                        G' This covenant has never been established with the
                           house of Isreal nor with the house of Judah for it
                           requires two parties to make a covenant and those
                           two parties must be agreed or no covenant can be

                    F' Christ in the days of his flesh proposed to make a
                       covenant with them

                E' but they rejected him and his proposals and in
                   consequence thereof they were broken off and no covenant
                   was made with them at that time

            D' but their unbelief has not rendered the promise of God of none

        C' no, for there was another day limited in David which was the day of
         his power and then his people Isreal, should be a willing people

    B' and he would write his laws in their hearts and print them in their
       thoughts their sins

A' and their eniquities he would remember no more,

A Thus after this chosen family had rejected Christ and his proposals

    B the heralds of salvation said to them “lo I we turn unto the gentiles,”
      and the gentiles received the covenant

        C and were grafted in from whence the chosen family were broken off

            D but the Gentiles have not continued in the goodness of God

                E but have departed from the faith

                    F that was once delivered to the saints 

                    F' and have broken the everlasting covenant

                E' in which their fathers were established (see Isaiah 24th 5th) 

            D' and have become high minded and have not feared therefore

        C' but few of them will be gathered with the chosen family

    B Has not the pride highmindedness and unbelief of the Gentiles

A' provoked the holy one of Israel to withdraw his holy spirit from them and
send forth his Judgments to scourge them for their wickedness; 

this is certianly the case, Christ said to his deciples Mark 16, 17 & 18 that

        these signs should follow them that believe;
        In my name shall they cast out Devils 
        they shall speak with new tongues
        they shall take up serpants
        and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them
        they shall lay hands on the sick
        and they shall recover,

        [[Exact quotation of Mark 16:17--18 except missing the leading "And"]]

and also in connection with this read 1 Corinthians 12 Chapt,

A By the foregoing testamonies or through the glass of the foregoing testamonies

    B we may look at the Christian world

        C and see the apostacy there has been

        C' from the Apostolic platform,

    B' and who can look at this,

A' and and not exclaim in the language of Isaiah,

    [“]the earth is defiled under the inhabitants thereof
    because they have
        transgressed the Laws,
        changed the ordinances
        and broken the everlasting covenant”

    [[Isaiah 24:5, KJV: The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof;
    because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance[s], broken
    the everlasting covenant.]]

A The plain fact is this,

    B the power of God

        C begins to fall upon the Nations,

            D and the light of the latter day glory

                E begins to break forth through the dark atmosphere of
                  sectarian wickedness

                    F and their iniquity rools [rolls] up into view

                    F' and the Nations of the Gentiles are like the waves of
                       the sea

                E' casting up mire and dirt or all in commotion

            D' and they hastily are preparing to act the part allotted them

        C' when the Lord rebukes the nations,

    B' when he shall rule them with a rod of iron & break them in peaces

A' like a potters vessel,

A The Lord has declared to his servants some Eighteen months since

    B that he was then  withdrawing his spirit from the earth,

        C and we can see that such is the fact for not only the churches a
          dwindling away,

            D but there are no conversions,

            D' or but very few, 

        C and this is not all, the governments of the earth are thrown into
          confusion & division, and distruction

    B' to the eye of the spiritual beholder seemes to be writen 

A' by the finger of an invisable hand in Large capitals upon almost evry thing
   we behold——

A And now what remains to be done under circumstan[c]es like these,

    B' I will proce[e]d to tell you what the Lord requires of all people

        C high and low,

            D rich and poor,

            D' male and female,

        C' ministers & people professors of religion, and nonproffessors

    B' in order that they may enjoy the holy spirit of God to a fulness,

A' and escape the Judgments of God which are almost ready to burst upon the
   nations of the earth—

[[the structure below is weak]]

A Repent of all your sins

    B and be baptized in water for the remission of them,

      in the name of the father,
      and of the son,
      and of the Holy Ghost,

        C and receive the ordinance of the laying on of the hands

        C' of him who is ordained

    B' and sealed unto this power,

A' that ye may receive the holy spirit of God,

[[the structure below is also weak]]

A and this according to the holy scriptures,

    B and of the Book of Mormon;

        C and the only way that man can enter into the Celestial kingdom.

    B' These are the requesitions of the new Covenant

A' or first principles of of the Gospel of Christ;

    then add to you[r] faith virtue
    and to virtue knowledge
    and to knowledge temperance,
    and to temperance patience,
    and to patience,
    brotherly kindness
    and to brotherly kindness
    charity (or Love) 
    and if these things be in you and abound,
    they make you to be neither baran
    nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ——

    [[a close—but not exact—quotation of 2 Peter 1:5–8]]

A The Book of Mormon

    B is a record

        C of the forefathers

            D of our western Tribes of Indians,

                E having been found through the ministration of an holy Angel

                    F translated into our own Language by the gift and power of

                        G after having been hid up in the earth for the last
                          fourteen hundred years

                    F' containing the word of God,

                E' which was delivered unto them,

            D' By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians

        C are desendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt,

    B' and that the land of America is a promised land unto them, and unto it
       all the tribes of Israel will come. with as many of the gentiles as shall
       comply with the requesitions of

A' the new co[v]enant.

A But the tribe of Judah will return to old Jerusalem.

    B The City, of Zion, spoken of by David in the 102 Psalm will be built
      upon the Land of America and

        C the ransomed of the Lord

            D shall return

            D' and come to it

        C' with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads,

    B' and then they will be delivered from the overflowing scourge that shall
       pass through the Land

A' But Judah shall obtain deliverence at Jerusalem
   (see Joel 2. 32. Isaiah 26, 20 & 21, Jer. 31, 12, Psalm 50. 5, Ezekiel 34,
   11. 12 & 13,)

A These are testamonies that the good Shepherd will put forth his own sheep

    B and Lead them out from all nations

        C where they have been scattered

        C' in a cloudy and dark day,

    B' to Zion and to Jerusalem

A' beside many more testamonies which might be brought——

A And now I am prepared to say by the authority of Jesus Christ,

    B that not many years shall pass away

        C before the United States shall present such a scene of
          bloodshed as has not a parallel in the hystory of our nation

            D pestalence hail famine and earthquake will sweep the wicked off
              this generation from off the face of this Land

                E to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost
                  tribes of Israel from the north country— 

                    F The people of the Lord, those who have complied with the
                      requsitions of the new covenant have already
                      commenced gathering togethe[r] to Zion which is in the
                      State of Missouri.

                        G Therefore I declare unto you the warning which the
                          Lord has commanded me to declare unto this generation, 

                            H rem[em]bering

                                that the eyes of my maker are upon me

                                and that to him I am accountable for every
                                word I say

                                wishing nothing worse to my fellow men then
                                their eternal salvation

                        G' therefore fear God, and give glory to him for the
                           hour of his Judgment is come.

                    F' <Repent ye >Repent, ye and imbrace the everlasting
                       Covenant and flee to Zion

                E' before the overflowing scourge overtake you,

            D' For there are those now living upon the earth whose eyes shall
               not be closed in death until they see all these things which I
               have spoken fulfilled

        C Rem[em]ber these things, call upon the Lord while he is near and seek him

    B' while he may be found

A' is the exhortation of your unworthy servant

Joseph Smith Jr


Joseph’s January 1833 letter contains a generous amount of repetition and it is not particularly difficult to arrange the repetition into chiastic patterns of varying strength. The exercise suggests that Joseph naturally employed repetition, including copious inversions, in at least this one composition.

  1. I have outlined various potential explanations for how chiastic structure might appear in an early 1800s composition like the Book of Mormon in this document. Explanations include: 1) appearance by chance alone; 2) the author somehow gleaned the technique from one or more of the two popular Bible commentaries of that time which described inverted parallelism; 3) the author received commonplace training in rhetorical methods of the time such as anastrophe (inversion); or 4) the structures are a feature of oral composition, as might be predicted by Oral Formulaic Theory. 

  2. I am not a literary expert, but I have studied chiastic structures as an amateur. For instance, at one time or another I have read most of John (aka Jack) Welch’s publications on the topic, and I have read and studied Parry’s “The Book of Mormon text Reformatted according to Parallelistic Patterns” more than once. Parry’s book is reviewed here, and a second edition of Parry’s work from 2007, entitled “Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon” may be found here.

    Welch has defined criteria to measure the strength of a chiastic structure, but nonetheless there is some element of subjectivity in choosing parallels from any text (for instance, consider critiques of the structuring of Alma 36 by Earl Wunderli and William Davis).

    I acknowledge that the emphasis of particular themes among various portions of the text (aka “cherry-picking”) grants a formatter some liberty in structuring the text. Still, my efforts do not seem wildly disproportionate to the effort of LDS scholars to tease out chiastic structure among multiple possible inherent structures.

    My proposed phrase/element pairings clearly differ in strength. For instance, some phrases are virtually identical (“upon the one hand” and “upon the other hand”) while others possess only modest thematic resonance (e.g., “Look at the Christian world” vs. “look at this”, and in some cases the pairings were even more tenuous (i.e., “compatibility” instead of “equivalence”) and driven primarily by the drive to couple other similar phrases to produce a satisfying structure overall. The tenuousness of some pairs means it it is possible to construct somewhat different structures from the same text. Still, most of the structures I identified seem to have some grounding in thematic or phrase repetition that seems intrinsic to the text itself (only a few chiasms seemed especially tenuous on the whole to me). While the validity of any particular structure and many of the pairings may rightfully be questioned, the fact that significant repetition lends itself to the generation of several putative poetic structures with reasonable coherence seems to be a property intrinsic to Joseph Smith’s composition and not a characteristic completely imagined by myself. 

  3. Saxton would only publish the last two paragraphs in the February 2, 1833 7:6 edition of The American Revivalist and Rochester Observer. In 1844, the entire letter was published as part of Joseph Smith’s History in the Times and Seasons, vol 5, pg 707