Evidence #1 | September 19, 2020

Joseph Smith's Education

Post contributed by

 

Scripture Central

Abstract

Several lines of evidence indicate that Joseph Smith had a limited education and only rudimentary literary abilities when he translated the Book of Mormon in 1829. This is at odds with the text’s complexity and sophistication.

Early critics of the Book of Mormon tended to characterize it as a mundane and poorly written book, one which clearly reflected its having been composed by an unskilled author, which was typically assumed to be Joseph Smith himself.1 In recent decades, however, numerous studies have demonstrated that the book is much more complex, sophisticated, and believably ancient than early critics (or believers, for that matter) ever seemed to notice. This article reexamines whether the twenty-three-year-old Joseph Smith likely had the skills and ability in 1829 to fabricate a text like the Book of Mormon,2 as we understand it today.

Joseph Smith’s Education

"An Obscure Boy," by Joseph Brickey

The historical record of Joseph Smith’s schooling opportunities is patchy and difficult to calculate. One scholar has estimated that Joseph likely obtained more education than is commonly believed, perhaps as many as seven years of formal academic instruction.3 Yet even if he could possibly have attended that many years of school (the calculation is only an estimate), it is impossible to demonstrate whether or not he actually did attend during those years. Several historical reports indicate that Joseph was involved in activities that conflicted with his schooling.4

It should also be remembered that rural educators in early 19th-century America often had little education or ability beyond the subject or grade level that they were teaching.5 So Joseph’s formal years of schooling, however many they were, would likely not measure up to the quality and standards expected by most modern education systems.

Joseph’s non-formal educational opportunities should also be taken into account. He apparently read the family Bible with at least some diligence,6 attended Sunday school, participated in a debate club, and was possibly instructed by parents and siblings who had better educational backgrounds.7 Yet, as demonstrated in the following statements, whatever advancements these informal learning opportunities offered, in addition to his limited formal education, they weren’t enough to overshadow Joseph’s relative ignorance.

Testimonial Evidence from Believers

In 1832 Joseph Smith wrote with his own hand that he was “deprived of the bennifit [sic] of an education suffice it to say I was mearly [sic] instructtid [sic] in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic [sic] which constituted my whole literary acquirements.”8 Reports from Joseph’s family members and close acquaintances are consistent with this claim.

Lucy Mack Smith. Image via history.churchofjesuschrist.org

Joseph’s mother remembered that he was “less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children” and said that at “eighteen years of age” he had “never read the Bible through in his life.”9 His wife, Emma, explained that at the time of the translation, he “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon.”10 

Martin Harris similarly declared that Joseph was “a poor writer, and could not even draw up a note of hand as his education was so limited.”11 David Whitmer described him as “illiterate,”12 a “man of limited education,” and “ignorant of the Bible.”13 The story of Joseph’s surprise at learning that Jerusalem was a walled city shows up in several accounts as an example of his relative ignorance.14 Other accounts state that during the translation, he sometimes stumbled when trying to correctly pronounce difficult words or names.15

Testimonial Evidence from Non-believers

Let one assume that such reports were only given by believers to promote their cause, there are records of critics and neutral observers alike remarking upon Joseph’s lack of refinement. In 1834 Isaac Hale, Joseph Smith’s father-in-law, recalled his first impressions of Joseph: “I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith Jr. in November, 1825. … His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man—not very well educated.”16 

When asked if Joseph was educated at the time of the translation, John H. Gilbert, who typeset the Book of Mormon, replied, “Oh, not at all then.”17 Michael Morse, Joseph’s brother-in-law, stated “that he first knew Joseph when he came to Harmony, Pa., an awkward, unlearned youth of about nineteen years of age.”18 When asked whether Joseph was “sufficiently intelligent and talented to compose and dictate of his own ability the [Book of Mormon] written down by the scribes,” Morse responded in the negative, explaining that “he was confident that he [Morse] had more learning than Joseph then had.”19 

Joseph Smith apparently attended William E. McLellin’s high school in 1834. Concerning Joseph’s mental capacity, McLellin remarked, “he had one of the strongest, well balanced, penetrating, and retentive minds of any whom I ever formed an acquaintance.” Nevertheless, McLellin further noted that “when I took [Joseph] into my school, he was without scientific knowledge or attainments.”20

Eber D. Howe. Image via findagrave.com.

Eber D. Howe, a well-known critic of Joseph Smith stated in 1834 that he believed “it to be a fact” that “the common advantages of education were denied to [Joseph Smith], or that they were much neglected.”21 The Palmyra Reflector remarked in 1831 that Joseph’s “mental powers appear to be extremely limited, and from the small opportunity he has had at school, he made little or no proficiency.”22 Many more such descriptions could be cited.

Textual and Manuscript Evidence

We have few examples of Joseph Smith’s personal writings that date close to the publication of the Book of Mormon, but what we do have is consistent with the above lines of evidence.23 For example, as assessed by literary scholar Robert A. Rees,

[Joseph’s] handwritten account of the First Vision written in 1832 is ungrammatical, is written with little sense of punctuation or compositional structure, and, though sincere and authentic, shows little evidence of stylistic or compositional competence or confidence. Certainly there is evidence of the beginnings of an eloquent voice, but that voice is tentative and immature.24

Joseph’s 1832 account of his history was produced a few years after he had translated the Book of Mormon, completed significant portions of his inspired translation of the Bible, and received many other revelations.25 So it seems reasonable to suppose that if he was literarily unrefined in 1832, he was likely more so in April of 1829 when he began translating the portions of the Book of Mormon that we have today. Even after Joseph “gained more confidence as a writer,” notes Reese, “he continued to rely on the words and rhetorical styles of others more than on his own.”26

Excerpt from Joseph Smith's 1832 account in Joseph's own handwriting. Image via josephsmithpapers.org. 

Conclusion

No matter how many years (or seasons) Joseph Smith attended school, or how helpful his supplemental educational opportunities may have been, or how quick he was as a learner, or how sharp his memory, or how creative his imagination, it doesn’t change the fact that he and those around him—both friend and foe—considered him as being relatively unlearned at the time of the Book of Mormon’s translation. These historical reports are consistent with the limited data available concerning his educational opportunities. They are also supported by textual and manuscript analysis of his early writing. Together, the evidence strongly points to his having a limited education and only rudimentary literary abilities when he translated the Book of Mormon in 1829.

This situation has proven to be a stumbling block for theories which cast Joseph as the primary author of the Book of Mormon. One early detractor described the text as “mostly a blind mass of words, interwoven with scriptural language and quotations, without much of a leading plan or design. It is in fact such a production as might be expected from a person of Smith’s abilities and turn of mind.”27 Such views were still held even into the 20th century. In 1930 another commentator described the Book of Mormon as “a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless, and inconceivably absurd.”28 Yet such critiques backfire in light of 20th- and 21st-century textual studies, which demonstrate the Book of Mormon is anything but jumbled or unintentional.

As assessed by Melvin J. Thorne,

The Book of Mormon deals with hundreds of individual characters, at least three dating systems, three migrations from the Old World to the New, and a number of subgroups and splinter groups, all without contradiction. It presents complex geographical data that is internally consistent, so that places are always in the same relationship with each other. The book itself is structurally complex; for example, there are complicated sets of prefaces and summaries before and after a large number of significant sections, in which the editor gives the reader a forecast of what is coming and then summarizes what has been read. … In addition to this structural complexity, the Book of Mormon presents detailed sets of religious doctrines that are expressed in a variety of historical settings, sometimes with different emphases and different terminology but with remarkable consistency.29

Historian and literary scholar Grant Hardy offers a similar summary in his careful analysis of the text:

Not only are there more than a thousand years of history involving some two hundred named individuals and nearly a hundred distinct places, but the narrative itself is presented as the work of three primary editor/historians—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. These figures, in turn, claim to have based their accounts on dozens of preexisting records. The result is a complex mix that incorporates multiple genres ranging from straightforward narration to inserted sermons and letters to scriptural commentary and poetry. It requires considerable patience to work out all the details of chronology, geography, genealogy, and source records, but the Book of Mormon is remarkably consistent on all this. The chronology is handled virtually without glitches, despite several flashbacks and temporally overlapping narratives; there are only two potential geographical discrepancies (at Alma 51:26 and 53:6); and the narrators keep straight both the order and family connections among the twenty-six Nephite record keepers and forty-one Jaredite kings (including rival lines).30

Can these types of complex features really be ascribed to Joseph Smith’s creative literary talent in 1829? Daniel C. Peterson thinks not. “The intricate structure and detailed complexity of the Book of Mormon,” he argues, “seem far better explained as the work of several ancient writers using various written sources over the space of centuries than exploding suddenly from the mind of a barely educated manual laborer on the American frontier.”31

While some may understandably doubt the miraculous story of the Book of Mormon’s translation, skeptical readers have been hard-pressed to come up with an alternative explanation for its authorship and origins. This is largely because the available historical documentation overwhelmingly indicates that Joseph himself dictated the entire text to his scribes between April 7 and June 30, 1829.32 All efforts to confidently pin the text’s authorship on others have come up empty-handed.33 

Joseph Smith Translating the Book of Mormon. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org

Perhaps someone will someday provide a historically supportable alternative theory. Until that day, readers are left with only Joseph Smith himself and a text that was almost undoubtedly beyond his natural ability to create, especially under the circumstances described by the witnesses.34 This situation invites belief in Joseph’s repeated claim that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God,”35 rather than by his own literary talents.

Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith’s Education and Intellect as Described in Documentary Sources,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 59 (2023): 1–32.

Brian C. Hales, “Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 39 (2020): 151–190.

Brian C. Hales, “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study,” BYU Studies Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2019): 105–148.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Early Preparation of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Ensign, December 2005, online at churchofjesuschrist.org.

2 Nephi 27:19–20

2 Nephi 27:19–20

  • 1 See Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: ‘In the Hope That Something Will Stick’: Changing Explanations for the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 16, no. 2 (2004): xi–xv.
  • 2 It should be noted that Joseph Smith later did become better educated. See, for example, Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges, eds., Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 3–22, 249–330, 331–355. Brian L. Smith, “Joseph Smith: Gifted Learner, Master Teacher, Prophetic Seer,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1993), 169–181.
  • 3 See William Davis, “Reassessing Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Formal Education,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 49, no. 4 (2016): 46.
  • 4 Pomery Tucker, for example, claimed that “instead of going to school like other boys” Joseph led his family members in endeavors such as “hunting and fishing, trapping muskrats, … digging out woodchucks from their holes and idly lounging around the stores and shops in the village.” Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 14–15. Perry Benjamin Pierce similarly remembered, “The boys grew up without desire for education; if they were sent to school, their days were passed in the woods with guns and dogs.” Perry Benjamin Pierce, “The Origin of the ‘Book of Mormon,’” American Anthropologist 1 (1899): 677. Pierce also remarked that a local farmer he had talked to said, “None of them Smith boys ever went to school when they could get out of it” (p. 680). Joseph’s own recollection ascribes his lack of education to the fact that his family was both large and poor: “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.” Letterbook 1, p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 17, 2020, online at josephsmithpapers.org; original spelling retained. Whether Joseph’s non-educational activities were due to his engaging in work or play, or perhaps some of both, there is good reason to suspect that he did not always utilize the academic opportunities that were available to him.
  • 5 See James G. Carter, Essays upon Popular Education Containing a particular Examination of Schools of Massachusetts, and an Outline Institution for the Education of Teachers (Boston, MA: Bowles and Dearborn, 1826), 36; Clifton Johnson, Old-Time Schools and School Books (London: The MacMillan Company, 1904), 129, 133. R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin, History of Education in American Culture (New York, NY: Holt, 1953), 286; “1815–1850: Education: Overview,” online at encyclopedia.com. See also, Brian C. Hales, “Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 39 (2020): 169–170.
  • 6 Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, once reported that Joseph told her: “I can take my Bible and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should attend all the time.” “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” p. 94, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 16, 2020. Richard Bushman has noted that “a neighbor remembered the Smiths holding school in their house and studying the Bible.” Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Vintage, 2005), 42; citing Joseph Smith Jr., The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols., ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989–1992), 1:275. Joseph was led to the sacred grove by reading verses from the Bible, and the angel Moroni quoted verses from the Bible to him in their first encounters (see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–13, 36–41). So there is reason to believe that he was somewhat acquainted—although not necessarily intimately familiar—with the Bible. See also, Royal Skousen, “Critical Methodology and the Text of the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1 (1994): 129–132
  • 7 See Davis, “Reassessing Joseph Smith,” 3–6, 46–47; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Early Preparation of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Ensign, December 2005, online at churchofjesuschrist.org.
  • 8 Letterbook 1, p. 1, accessed August 8, 2020, online at josephsmithpapers.org.
  • 9 “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” p. 86, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 16, 2020, online at josephsmithpapers.org.
  • 10 Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289–90; Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (October 1879): 50–52; as cited in John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820–1844, 2nd edition, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 144, doc. 41.
  • 11 Simon Smith to the editor, April 30, 1884, Saints’ Herald 31 (May 24, 1884): 324; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 149–150, doc. 53. A “note of hand” was likely a promissory note, which was an agreement specifying the details of a financial transaction. See Robert A. Rees, “John Milton, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2015): 14.
  • 12 “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.
  • 13 M. J. Hubble, interview, November 13, 1886; cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 174–175, doc. 97.
  • 14 See Book of Mormon Central, “Did Jerusalem Have Walls Around It? (1 Nephi 4:4),” KnoWhy 7 (January 8, 2016); Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 142 (doc. 38), 172 (doc. 95), 175 (doc. 97).
  • 15 See Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 141–142 (doc. 38), 150 (doc. 54), 169 (doc. 90),  170 (doc. 91), 172 (doc. 95). See also, 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: “To 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 … would be treating the God of heaven with contempt to deny these testimonies.”
  • 16 Isaac Hale as quoted in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 263.
  • 17 John H. Gilbert, quoted in “The Hill Cumorah and the Book of Mormon,” The Saints’ Herald, vol. 28, (1881): 165–166.
  • 18 Michael Morse quoted in William W. Blair to Editors, 22 May 1879, Saints’ Herald 26 (15 June 1879): 190–191. It is noted in the interview that Morse “is not, and has never been a believer in the prophetic mission of Joseph.”
  • 19 Michael Morse quoted in William W. Blair to Editors, 22 May 1879, Saints’ Herald 26 (15 June 1879): 190–191.
  • 20 Mitchell K. Schaefer, ed., Willliam E. McLellin’s Lost Manuscript (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2012), 175–176. See also, Michael De Groote, “Inside the lost McLellin notebook,” Deseret News, January, 28, 2009, accessed September 16, 2020, online at deseret.com.
  • 21 Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 12.
  • 22 “Golden Bible, No. 3Palmyra Reflector, 1 February 1831.
  • 23 A list of documents that Joseph Smith dictated or produced in the early years of his ministry has been helpfully compiled here: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/the-papers/documents/pre1830.
  • 24 Robert A. Rees, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance: An Update,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 13.
  • 25 Larry E. Morris has remarked, “In terms of allowing Joseph Smith to speak for himself, no document is more crucial than his 1832 history.” Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 6.
  • 26 Rees, “Joseph Smith,” 13.
  • 27 John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical Collections of the State of New York (New York, NY: Tuttle, 1841), 581.
  • 28 Bernard DeVoto, “The Centennial of Mormonism,” American Mercury 19, no. 5 (January 1930): 5.
  • 29 Melvin J. Thorne, “Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 181.
  • 30 Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6–7. For a helpful review of Hardy’s book in relation to this discussion, see Daniel C. Peterson, “An Apologetically Important Nonapologetic Book,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 25, no. 1 (2016): 52–75.
  • 31 Daniel C. Peterson, “Book of Mormon's consistency, complexity still amaze,” Deseret News, October 27, 2011, online at deseret.com.
  • 32 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 79–228 provides more than 200 historical documents regarding the Book of Mormon’s translation. These documents overwhelmingly support the proposition that Joseph Smith dictated the text in the presences of multiple scribes and witnesses. For historical corroboration pertaining to the timing of the translation, see John W. Welch, “Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon: ‘Days [and Hours] Never to Be Forgotten’,” BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2018): 10–50.
  • 33 See Brian C. Hales, “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study,” BYU Studies Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2019): 105–148; Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: ‘In the Hope That Something Will Stick’,” xi-xxxv; Daniel C. Peterson, “The Divine Source of the Book of Mormon in the Face of Alternative Theories Advocated by LDS Critics,” 2001 FairMormon Conference Presentation, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org; Louis Midgley, “Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Critics and Their Theories,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 101–139. For an overview of stylometric studies involved in the authorship debate, see Book of Mormon Central, “What Can Stylometry Tell Us about Book of Mormon Authorship? (Jacob 4:4),” KnoWhy 389 (December 12, 2017); Book of Mormon Central, “Is It Possible That a Single Author Wrote the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 27:13),” KnoWhy 399 (January 16, 2018).  
  • 34 See Peterson, “A Response,” 67–70, Hales, “Naturalistic Explanations,” 125–137.
  • 35 Book of Mormon, 1830, p. iii, online at josephsmithpapers.org. See also Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, “Firsthand Witness Accounts of the Translation Process,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 63.
Translation
Book of Mormon

© 2024 Scripture Central: A Non-Profit Organization. All rights reserved. Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-5294264