Fact-Checking Mormon History: Could Joseph Smith have Authored the Book of Mormon?
Skeptics have put forth several theories of Book of Mormon authorship that do not require believing in golden plates delivered by angels and translated by a miracle. These range from the now-discredited Spaulding theory, to inspiration from an obscure German fairy tale called The Golden Pot, to collaboration with Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon. But the simplest and arguably most popular theory is that Joseph himself was the primary author.
Against this explanation, believers often argue that Joseph Smith was incapable of creating such a narrative himself — and therefore the Book of Mormon must be of divine origin. As Joseph’s first wife, Emma Hale, told her son in an interview for the RLDS church newspaper,
Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon.
(This is the same interview where Emma reports feeling plates “pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb” hidden under a tablecloth.)
Unfortunately, statements like this one cannot necessarily be taken at face value, even though Emma was an eyewitness to much of the translation and briefly served as Joseph’s scribe. When evaluating assertions like this, historians look at factors such as:
- Immediacy. Was the statement made with events still fresh in the witness’s mind? Memory can fade and even play tricks on us with the passage of time. Emma was speaking in 1879, fifty years after the events described.
- Was the statement self-serving? If it runs counter to the author’s natural interests then we can generally treat it as credible, but if the narrative paints the author or her friends in a flattering light, there may be other potential motives than telling the whole truth. By 1879, Emma’s children were leading the RLDS branch of Mormonism, and shoring up Joseph’s prophetic reputation and the miraculous origin of the Book of Mormon would have been important to her family.
- How trustworthy are the witness’s other statements? In Emma’s case, we know she repeatedly and categorically denied that Joseph had been involved in polygamy, in the face of overwhelming evidence that he not only instituted the practice but was also an enthusiastic participant. Emma was clearly not above twisting the truth to serve her own ends, or those of the RLDS church — which made polygamy the centerpiece of its claim that Brigham Young had corrupted the Utah church, and continued until the mid-twentieth century to deny that Joseph had instituted polygamy.
These factors don’t rule out the possibility that Emma was correct, but they do cast doubt on her reliability as a witness and suggest that we should look at other evidence to corroborate her statement.
The Education Red Herring
Emma’s assertion is supported by the fact that Joseph only had a few years of formal education. Joseph himself wrote that he was “deprived of the benefit of an education; suffice it to say I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground rules of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements.” (However, historian William Davis recently concluded that “the overall combined effect of historical sources points to a higher amount of Joseph’s formal education than is traditionally acknowledged,” “approximately seven full school years.”)
In the twenty-first century, it’s almost tautological that one learns at school, and school is where one learns. But in the nineteenth century it was more common than not to take advantage of informal tutoring as well as school attendance in the way we think of it today.
Joseph had ample opportunity for such informal tutoring. Joseph’s father worked as a schoolteacher for a time. So did Emma. And Joseph’s distant cousin Oliver Cowdery, who served as Joseph’s scribe for the majority of the Book of Mormon, also taught school.
Even if we take Joseph’s formal schooling as the only educational experience available to him, lack of education was not an insurmountable obstacle for talented authors. Mark Twain left school for good at the age of twelve. Abraham Lincoln’s total formal education may have consisted of as few as twelve months. Both of these contemporaries of Joseph Smith authored works of comparable complexity and profundity as the Book of Mormon.
Even if we restrict our comparisons to the religious domain, scripture authored or revealed in spite of poor education include:
- The Quran, dictated to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. Muhammad was orphaned at six and had no formal education at all. In an echo of Mormon debates, this is often cited by Muslims in support of their contention that Muhammad could not possibly have written the Quran himself and therefore must have received it from Gabriel as he claimed.
- The Book of the Law of the Lord, translated by James Strang from ancient plates. Strang, who organized his branch of Mormonism after the death of Joseph, had less than six months of formal schooling. His Book features Hebraic chiasmus as well as seven witnesses who testified to the truth of Strang’s account of discovery of ancient plates from which it was translated.
- The Sealed Portion of the Book of Mormon, translated by Christopher Nemelka around 1994. Nemelka, a former security guard with a high school education, alternates between claiming that he wrote it to prove that religious people are gullible, and using it as proof that he is Hyrum Smith reincarnated, God’s prophet authorized to translate the rest of the gold plates with the Urim and Thummim.
(It’s interesting that besides bringing forth original scripture, these men have one more thing in common with Joseph: all of them revealed that it was God’s will for His prophet to practice polygamy.)
Joseph’s lack of formal education thus tells us little about his ability to write something like the Book of Mormon. What he actually did write tells us more.
An Early Example
Early letters from Joseph survive that refute Emma’s claim that “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter.” One example is this one to Oliver Cowdery in October 1829, as the Book of Mormon was being prepared for publication:
Respected sir I would in form you that I arrived at home on sunday morning the 4th. after having a prosperous journy, and found all well the people are all friendly to <us> except a few who are in opposition to evry thing unless it is some thing that is axactly like themselves and two of our most formadable persacutors are now under censure and are cited to a trial in the church for crimes which if true are worse than all the Gold Book business. we do not rejoice in the affliction of our enimies but we shall be glad to have truth prevail there begins to be a great call for our books in this country the minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copy right obtained and that there is really books about to be printed…
At first glance this looks pretty rough, but it’s actually typical for nineteenth century correspondence: spelling was creative (and influenced by regional accents), punctuation was optional, and paragraphing was infrequent. But when we modernize these, it becomes quite readable:
I would inform you that I arrived at home on Sunday morning the 4th after having a prosperous journey, and found all well. The people are all friendly to us, except a few — who are in opposition to every thing unless it is something that is exactly like themselves.
Two of our most formidable persecutors are now under censure, and are cited to a trial in the church for crimes, which if true are worse than all the Gold Book business. We do not rejoice in the affliction of our enemies, but we shall be glad to have truth prevail.
There begins to be a great call for our books in this country. The minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copyright obtained and that there are really books about to be printed.
It’s important to recognize that the same kind of editorial cleanup applied here was also made for the Book of Mormon itself. Much of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon was irrecoverably damaged by water after being placed into the cornerstone of the Nauvoo temple, but about 30% of it survived. Here is the beginning of 1 Nephi 3, dictated with Oliver Cowdery as scribe:
& it came to pass that I Nephi returned from speaking with the Lord to the tent of my father & it came to pass that he spake unto me saying behold I have dreamed a dream in the which the Lord hath commanded m me that thou & thy Brethren shall return to Jerusalem for behold Laban hath the reckord of the Jews & also a genealogy of my forefathers & they are engraven upon plates of Brass wherefore the Lord hath commanded me that thou & thy Brethers should go unto the house of Laban & seek the reckords & bring them down <hither> into the wilderness & now behold thy Brethers murmur saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them but behold I have not required <it> of them but it is a commandment of the Lord therefore go my Son & thou shalt be favoured of the Lord because thou hast not murmured and it came to pass that I nephi said unto my father I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men Save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them
Compare the finished text here. Printer E.B. Grandin was able to take a stream-of-dictation manuscript, much like I did with Joseph’s letter, and turn it into a readable book with only minor changes.
Aside: Changes to the Revelations
David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, charged Joseph Smith with tampering with God’s word. Whitmer did not mean the kind of editing described here — what today we would call copy editing; editing for presentation without changing the meaning. Rather, Whitmer charged Joseph with changing the meaning of early revelations significantly, to allow Joseph more scope for personal power.
Formal training in writing and composition was not necessary for the culture of oral storytelling that Joseph grew up in, and which could have produced the Book of Mormon. In fact, a close reading demonstrates that the Book of Mormon is more consistent with this kind of oral composition than with years of careful redaction by the prophet-editor Mormon.
In multiple places the author of the text appears to forget what he had written just a few verses earlier and is forced to resort to verbal circumlocution instead. If Joseph were composing the book as he dictated it, these are easily explained by a break in dictation for the night or simply a lapse in concentration. If they were carefully composed by Mormon, they are harder to account for. (I thank Dan Wees for pointing out these examples.)
Alma 1 introduces an Antichrist named Nehor, who teaches false doctrine, kills a war hero named Gideon, and finally recants his unbelief before his execution for murder. In the very next chapter, the author appears to momentarily forget Nehor’s name, and introduces a new character, Amlici, as “he being after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword, who was executed according to the law.” Later, in Alma 24, the author uses the much simpler description, “after the order of Nehor.”
Similarly, in Alma 19:16, we are introduced to the Lamanite woman Abish, and informed that she “ran forth from house to house, making it known unto the people” that the power of God had come upon the king and queen. Just twelve verses later, the author again forgets her name and refers instead to “the woman servant who had caused the multitude to be gathered together.”
On the other hand, sometimes we get more information a few verses after it would have flowed most easily, as if the author had to quickly check his memory to make sure there were no inconsistencies before being specific. In Alma 17:36, narrating how Ammon defended King Lamoni’s sheep from would-be thieves, Joseph dictates that “with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them.” Two verses later, we are told that “six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword.”
There are also many, many examples of the Book of Mormon narrative stumbling and recovering. It’s difficult to picture Nephi or Mormon making these mistakes in the laborious process of carving characters into metal plates, but easy to see Joseph tripping slightly while dictating to a scribe. 1N 19:4: “Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words — they set him at naught.” Richard Packham has collected a list of over a hundred such passages.
A slightly more involved example that provides evidence of oral transmission comes from Dan Vogel’s The Making of a Prophet:
[The Book of Mormon tells us that when Christ visits the Nephites,] a great multitude gathers to hear the twelve disciples, who are now named as Nephi and his brother Timothy and son Jonas, Mathoni (=Matthew?) and his brother Mathonihah, Kumen, Kumenonhi, Jeremiah, Shemnon (=Simon?), Jonas, Zedekiah, and Isaiah (3 Nephi 19:4).
Interestingly, Jesus’ apostles in Palestine included two sets of brothers, and one pair, Simon Peter and Andrew, were the sons of Jonas, a name that appears twice in Smith’s list (Mk. 1:16; Jn. 21:16). Smith’s list also contains two variations of the same name: Mathoni/Mathonihah and Kumen/Kumenonhi. Four of the names — Nephi, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Zedekiah — may derive from the fact that Smith was probably beginning to think again about the lost beginning part of the Book of Mormon. While the appearance of Old Testament names might be expected, the use of Greek names, Timothy and Jonas, has caused some concern among skeptics and thoughtful apologists, the latter usually concluding that the Greek influence in Jerusalem must have predated Lehi. It remains unexplained why one does not encounter any Greek names in the text until 600 years after Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem…
Another puzzling feature is that eight of the twelve names (Timothy, Jonas [twice], Mathoni, Mathonihah, Kumen, Kumenonhi, and Shemnon) appear nowhere else in the Book of Mormon. Jeremiah, Zedekiah, and Isaiah never appear as Nephite names except in 3 Nephi 19:4. Thus, one wonders if the list was made up spontaneously and if the rapid succession of derivative names Mathoni/Mathonihah and Kumen/Kumenonhi might suggest that [the author’s] creativity was being overworked.
Finally, “How The Book of Mormon’s Dates Were Chosen: A Statistical Approach to BOM Origins” takes a more quantitative approach, demonstrating with a high degree of confidence that the author of the Book of Mormon followed the psychological tendency to anchor the day of the month, to the month itself (e.g., “ in the first month, on the fourth day of the month.”) That is, for real historical dates, days of the month will be randomly distributed across all thirty days of the month, but if the author is making up the numbers as he dictates, we would expect him to unconsciously select lower days of the month, particularly for earlier months of the year. And that is what we find in the Book of Mormon.
Now, I want to stress that these are tiny details. They are not smoking gun proof that Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon himself. Brant Gardner concludes, for instance, that Nephite culture was so thoroughly oral that even across his process of careful editing and despite the difficulty of engraving the redundant information, Mormon unconsciously preserved these oral “hiccups” in his final text.
But it is definitely relevant to the question of whether Joseph could have authored the Book of Mormon, to acknowledge that it has strong markings of being a product of oral dictation.
Long Biblical Quotations
I want to tackle the question of the content of the Book of Mormon in a separate essay, but there is some overlap with its creation when we look at the presence of large passages from Isaiah and Matthew in the text.
Emma testified specifically that “[Joseph] had neither manuscript or book to read from.” David Whitmer, in whose house most of the Book of Mormon was translated, gave one of our most detailed descriptions of how Joseph dictated the Book:
Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear.
Joseph mixed Biblical references and quotations throughout his personal and prophetic work, but we have no evidence that his talents included the kind of prodigious memorization necessary to reproduce dozens of pages nearly verbatim from the KJV. Does this mean that he must have translated it from the Nephite record?
We can actually answer that question from the text of the Book of Mormon. Careful analysis shows that the Book of Mormon depends on the KJV itself, rather than independent sources from the brass plates (for the Old) or the words of Jesus (for the New). David Wright explains in “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon”,
- Book of Mormon Isaiah reproduces the KJV text literally except for a few words or phrases here and there. If it were an independent translation, one would expect to find synonymous but not identical wording.
- There is a focus on changing words which are italicized in the KJV, which Joseph would have known indicated non-literal interpolations from the original Hebrew. Sometimes Joseph’s deleting of italicized words creates ungrammatical or unclear English.
- Book of Mormon Isaiah preserves numerous obscure, problematic, and erroneous translations of the KJV.
- Some variants in the Book of Mormon are inconsistent with and therefore show an ignorance of Hebrew language and style, and some even depend upon the ambiguity of the English language.
- The Book of Mormon portrays its Isaiah text as deriving from no later than about 600 BC, when the character Lehi left Jerusalem. Yet it cites several chapters from Second Isaiah (Isa. 40–55), which is demonstrated by overwhelming evidence to have been written around the time Cyrus conquered Babylon (539 BC).
Wright goes on to explain each point in more detail. For a similar examination of New Testament passages, see Ronald Huggins, “Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?”
Both believing and skeptical scholars accept that this evidence refutes the testimony of Emma and David Whitmer — that Joseph must have used a copy of the Bible or excerpts from it while translating, at least for the passages in question. Writing in The Ensign, Richard Anderson explains that
[T]he language in the sections of the Book of Mormon that correspond to parts of the Bible is quite regularly selected by Joseph Smith, rather than obtained through independent translation. For instance, there are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James version renders them. Summarizing the view taken by Latter-day Saint scholars on this point, Daniel H. Ludlow emphasizes the inherent variety of independent translation and concludes: “There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon.” That is simply that Joseph Smith must have opened Isaiah and tested each mentioned verse by the Spirit: “If his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” [Emphasis in the original.]
Joseph’s Early Stories
We have seen that Joseph was, in fact, quite capable of writing a coherent letter at the time he was translating the Book of Mormon, although he preferred dictating when he had a scribe available. We have also seen that the Book of Mormon bears the fingerprints of an orally composed document.
It turns out that we also have evidence that Joseph liked to tell stories about the ancestors of the American Indians before he translated the Book of Mormon. In her 1845 autobiography, Joseph’s mother Lucy wrote,
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, and their buildings, with every particular; he would describe their mode of warfare, as also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.
Elder B. H. Roberts, a President of the Seventy and one of the foremost Mormon scholars of the early twentieth century, elaborated: (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p 244)
Whence comes the young prophet’s ability to give these descriptions “with as much ease as if he had spent his whole life” with these ancient inhabitants of America? Not from the Book of Mormon, which is, as yet, a sealed book to him; and surely not from Moroni, since he had had but one day and night of interviews with him, during which there had been several interviews, it is true, but these had been occupied with other subject matter than the things enumerated by Lucy Smith. These evening recitals could come from no other source than the vivid, constructive imagination of Joseph Smith, a remarkable power which attended him through all his life. It was as strong and varied as Shakespeare’s and no more to be accounted for than the English Bard’s.
At the same time, we might well note that while Joseph’s talents were immense, they were not superhuman. The Book of Mormon does not exhibit the intricate insights into an exotic culture like J. R. R. Tolkien’s, the deep character development of Leo Tolstoy, or the social insight of Victor Hugo. One does not have to go so far as Mark Twain, who famously called it “chloroform in print,” to recognize that such complexity as is found in the Book of Mormon is due primarily to the profusion of characters as it covers two thousand years of history in leaps and bounds.
As an example, Roberts examined in detail the Book’s treatment of the Antichrists Sherem and Korihor. He notes how similar these stories are, despite being separated by hundreds of years and dealing with different cultures, heretics, prophets, and authors. (The former being translated directly from Jacob’s own account; the latter a summary of Alma’s account as edited by Mormon.) Roberts concludes, (Studies, p 271)
[I]n addition to the striking parallelism in these incidents of Anti-Christs of the Book of Mormon, with the strong implication that they have their origin in one mind, I call attention again to the fact of “rawness” in dealing with this question of unbelief, the evidence of “amateurishness” increasingly evident in this story of Korihor.
Does it not carry with it the proof that it is the work of a pious youth dealing with the very common place stock arguments clumsily put together for the belief in the existence of God, with an awkward turning from the request for a special miracle, in proof of God’s existence, to the standing miracle of the creation and an orderly universe for that truth, rather than an adult appeal and argument on the great questions involved?
Joseph translated at a rapid clip, averaging about eight pages a day during his periods of active dictation. This is sometimes summarized as completing the Book of Mormon in about sixty working days, which is true, but in such a summary we miss two important points. First, Joseph had years in which to plot out his story in his mind — at least during the four years in which he said he was being taught by Moroni, and possibly as far back as his 1820 theophany — second, that the transcription of the Book itself was frequently interrupted by breaks for weeks or months in which Joseph could recharge his creative energies.
Dan Vogel elaborates from a skeptic’s perspective:
I believe Joseph worked it out in his mind just as he said [in D&C 9], both before and during the dictation. He obviously had a good idea before he started about how and where the book would begin (the Indian-Israelite theory), and he knew how and where it was to end according to the Mound Builder Myth. He had also worked out some of the sermons in Mosiah on the Godhead and salvation as a resolution to his father’s Unitarian-Universalism. But I think a lot of it was worked out prayerfully in his mind in sections as it was being dictated. Similar to Methodists in his day, he felt inspired when the words flowed with ease — when he had great fluency…
It’s not impossible for him to have prepared a manuscript [of notes to use], but it’s not necessary. As I mentioned, he worked it out in his mind and therefore had done the editing before dictating rather than after. He held this in his mind, segment by segment, until it was finished. He averaged about 8 pages per day, which could be done in a few hours; he therefore had the rest of the day to think of what to dictate next.
He was in control of when he started and stopped. He could have started in the morning for an hour, then went out to milk the cow, ate breakfast, dictated for ten minutes, went out and skipped stones with Harris, dictated half an hour, ate lunch, said he was going to the woods to pray, came back when he was ready and dictated an hour, etc.
An examination of Joseph’s letters shows that he did have the skill to write a coherent if rough narrative, similar to the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. More important, the Book of Mormon bears evidence of being an orally composed document rather than a traditionally edited one, and Joseph is known to have been a skilled storyteller.
The evidence does not compel us to conclude that Joseph authored the Book himself, but it is consistent with the possibility that he could have.
- Brant Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. This is the most thorough work on Book of Mormon translation by a believing scholar. Like Blake Ostler, Gardner concludes that the Book has a core of authentic ancient writing, but with substantial expansion by Joseph.
- B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon. After a careful look at internal and external evidence, Roberts (Assistant Church Historian and a member of the First Council of Seventy) concludes as we have here that Joseph could have written the Book of Mormon. Also see Brigham Madsen, “B. H. Roberts's Studies of the Book of Mormon,” where Madsen, who edited the posthumous publication of Studies, responds to attempts to discredit Roberts’s work.
- Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. A modern skeptical perspective focused on Joseph’s early life and the production of the Book of Mormon.
- More by Jonathan Ellis.