Evidence #107 | November 2, 2020

An Unfamiliar Text

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Several lines of evidence indicate that Joseph Smith was unfamiliar with the content and structure of the Book of Mormon as he dictated it to his scribes. This provides some evidence that he wasn’t responsible for its creation.

Several lines of evidence suggest that Joseph Smith most likely did not have the education or literary ability to create a text like the Book of Mormon.1 Consistent with such findings, there is reason to believe that he was unfamiliar with the content and structure of the Book of Mormon as he dictated it to his scribes. Part of this evidence comes from historical reports from those involved in the translation, and another part comes from analysis of the Book of Mormon’s earliest manuscripts.

Unfamiliar Words and Names

Several witnesses reported that Joseph Smith sometimes stumbled when trying to pronounce difficult or unfamiliar words during the translation process. When interviewed about the circumstances of the translation, Joseph’s wife Emma Smith recalled,

When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out …. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.2

Emma as Scribe, by Robert T. Pack

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, David Whitmer stated that Joseph Smith “was ofttimes compelled to spell the words out, not knowing the correct pronunciation …. Cowdery, however, being a school-teacher, rendered invaluable aid in pronouncing hard words and giving their proper definition.”3 The Chicago Times likewise reported Whitmer as saying that Joseph Smith “was utterly unable to pronounce many of the names which the magic power of the Urim and Thummim revealed, and therefore spelled them out in syllables and the more erudite scribe put them together.”4 Other sources depict David as making similar statements.5

As remembered by Reuben P. Harmon, Martin Harris once “said it was impossible for the prophet Joseph to get up the ‘Book of Mormon,’ for he could not spell the word Sarah. He had him repeat the letters of the word. He was a very illiterate man.”6 Hiram page, in an 1847 letter to William E. McLellin, wrote that it would amount to a denial of his testimony to, among other things, “say that a man of Joseph’s ability, who at that time did not know how to pronounce the word Nephi, could write a book of six hundred pages, as correct as the Book of Mormon, without supernatural power.”7

Unfamiliar Content

In addition to such reports, one particular instance of Joseph Smith’s ignorance was recalled by the witnesses.8 Emma Smith recounted,

When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, “Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When I answered “Yes,” he replied “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.” He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.9

In the Chicago Tribune interview, David Whitmer similarly recalled “the fact that at that time Smith did not even know that Jerusalem was a walled city.”10 Whitmer gave more details about this event in an interview with M. J. Hubble: “He [Whitmer] said Smith … was ignorant of the Bible that when translating he first came to where Jerusalem was spoken of as a ‘Walled City’ he stopped until they got a Bible & showed him where the fact was recorded—Smith not believing it was a walled city.”11

"Reconstruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple,” by James Tissot.

Unfamiliar Design and Structure

Analysis of the Book of Mormon’s earliest manuscripts adds another layer of evidence that Joseph Smith was unfamiliar with the contents of the Book of Mormon. Royal Skousen, the leading scholar on Book of Mormon’s critical text project, has noted,

Evidence from both the original and printer’s manuscripts shows that Joseph Smith apparently saw some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending. Although this may have been a symbol of some kind, a more likely possibility is that the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph Smith then told the scribe to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later.12

Fragment of the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon from the Wilford Wood Collection. Photograph by David W. Hawkinson. Image via Deseret News.

Yet, as Skousen demonstrates, just because Joseph and his scribe knew when a section ended, they apparently didn’t know what would follow. Evidence of their ignorance on this point comes, in part, from the fact that “the word chapter is not original to the revealed text” and that “the chapter numbers are assigned later in both manuscripts.”13 In one instance, Oliver Cowdery even made a counting error when providing chapter numbers in the book of Mosiah, which led to several chapters being off by 1 number.14

Also noteworthy is that the short books in the Small Plates (Enos, Jarom, Omni, and Words of Mormon) all have a chapter designation at their outset. But none of these books needed it because each contains only a single section or textual unit.15 In a similar bout of erroneous anticipation, Oliver Cowdery accidentally wrote the word chapter at the beginning of what is now called 2 Nephi. Skousen explains,

But when he realized that this was actually the beginning of a new book, he crossed out the whole chapter designation and inserted (with slightly weaker ink flow) “Chapter I” after the title of the book, which originally was simply designated as “The Book of Nephi.” Later he realized that there was more than one book of Nephi, which led him to also insert the word second (with considerably heavier ink flow).16

Conclusion

The above lines of evidence are hard to account for if Joseph himself was responsible for the contents of the Book of Mormon. It seems strange, for example, for Joseph to have been ignorant about Jerusalem being a walled city and yet, at the same time, so keenly aware of its prominent elevation compared to the surrounding wilderness regions—a point which is consistently and accurately described in the text.17 

Similarly, it is hard to explain how the young Prophet could be the originator or creator of names he could not even pronounce, much less his ability to keep track of them so effortlessly throughout the Book of Mormon’s already data-rich, complex narratives. The text’s apparent utilization of numerous Hebrew and Egyptian wordplays makes Joseph’s reported unfamiliarity with names especially puzzling.18

And finally, for a book as complex and consistent as the Book of Mormon is, one would expect its author to have an intimate awareness of its structure and literary units.19 And yet the manuscript points to the translators being unable to anticipate what content would follow the conclusion of each chapter.

When viewed together, the manuscript and testimonial evidence indicates that Joseph Smith indeed lacked familiarity with the content and structure of the Book of Mormon. As Daniel C. Peterson remarked, the text Joseph was dictating seems to have been “new and strange to him.”20 This is consistent with the Prophet’s steadfast claim that he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, while, at the same time, being inconsistent with the theory that he created it using his own ability and literary talent.

Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction—Not So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account,” FARMS Review 17, no. 2 (2005): xx–xxii.

Daniel C. Peterson, “A Response: ‘What the Manuscripts and the Eyewitnesses Tell Us about the Translation of the Book of Mormon’,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11, no. 2 (2002): 67–71.

Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 75–82, 85–87.

  • 1 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith’s Limited Education,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith Compared with Contemporary Authors,” November 2, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 2 Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 141–142, doc. 38.
  • 3 “The Book of Mormon,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 172, doc. 95.
  • 4 “The Golden Tables,” Chicago Times, August 7, 1875, 1. See also Blair, “Letter of W. W. Blair about Mr. Michael Morse,” 190–91; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 92.
  • 5 As found in E. C. Briggs, Letter to the editor, Saints’ Herald 31 (June 21, 1884): 396–97; cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 169, doc. 90., Whitmer declared, “When Joseph could not pronounce the words he spelled them out letter by letter.” Similarly, in an interview with James H. Hart, Whitmer explained, “Sometimes Joseph could not pronounce the words correctly, having had but little education; and if by any means a mistake was made in the copy, the luminous writing would remain until it was corrected.” James H. Hart, “About the Book of Mormon,” Deseret Evening News, March 25, 1884; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 170, doc. 91.
  • 6 Reuben P. Harmon, Statement, in Naked Truths about Mormonism 1 (April 1888): 1; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 150, doc. 54.
  • 7 Letter to William E. McLellin, 30 May 1847, Ensign of Liberty, 1 (January 1848): 63, as cited in Richard L. Anderson, “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 53.
  • 8 For a summary of this event, see Book of Mormon Central, “Did Jerusalem Have Walls Around It? (1 Nephi 4:4),” KnoWhy 7 (January 8, 2016).
  • 9 Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 142, doc. 38. In a separate interview, Emma similarly explained, “He had not read the Bible enough to know that there were walls around Jerusalem and he came and asked me if there were walls around the city of Jerusalem.” Nels Madsen, “Visit to Mrs. Emma Smith Bidamon,” 1931, Church Archives; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 142–143, doc 40.
  • 10 “The Book of Mormon,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 172, doc. 95.
  • 11 M. J. Hubble, interview, November 13, 1886; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 175, doc. 97.
  • 12 Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 85.
  • 13 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 87. Skousen further explains, “The numbers are almost always written in heavier ink and more carefully. In many cases, Oliver Cowdery added serifs to his Roman numerals. On the other hand, his Chapter is always written rapidly and with the same general ink flow as the surrounding text. In the printer’s manuscript, at the beginning of Chapter XVII in Alma (now the beginning of Alma 36), the Roman numeral XVII was written in blue ink, not the normal black ink. In this part of the printer’s manuscript, Oliver had been using this same blue ink to rule the manuscript sheets of P prior to copying. Here he also used this blue ink to assign the chapter number as well as add an s to the word Commandment in the next line. This example clearly suggests that this part of the original manuscript itself did not yet have chapter numbers assigned to it when Oliver Cowdery started to copy it, perhaps six months after it had been dictated.” (pp. 86–87).
  • 14 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 87.
  • 15 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 86. Skousen notes, however, that eventually the “compositor for the 1830 edition caught this error and penciled in the correct number for all but one of these later chapters” (p. 87).
  • 16 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 86.
  • 17 See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does Nephi Always Go Down to the Wilderness and Up to Jerusalem? (1 Nephi 3:4),” KnoWhy 6 (January 7, 2016).
  • 18 Click on the “References” tab at the bottom of the following blog post for a good sampling of such research: Five Evidence for Book of Mormon Names.
  • 19 See, for example, Melvin J. Thorne, “Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, 179–193; Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6–7.; Daniel C. Peterson, “An Apologetically Important Nonapologetic Book,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 25, no. 1 (2016): 52–75.
  • 20 Daniel C. Peterson, “A Response: ‘What the Manuscripts and the Eyewitnesses Tell Us about the Translation of the Book of Mormon’,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11, no. 2 (2002): 70.
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