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Why Is Jacob’s Distinctive Voice Significant?

KnoWhy #725 | April 18, 2024

“Wherefore I, Jacob, gave unto them these words as I taught them in the temple, having first obtained mine errand from the Lord.”

Jacob 1:17

Know

The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, is a compendium of inspired text written by several authors over centuries. Thus, although Mormon is the primary compiler and although the book’s text was received in modern days through inspired translation, the book includes the distinct voices of dozens of individuals. Even though God spoke through all these prophets, the linguistic identities and personalities of each remain to a considerable extent intact, unique, and recognizable to readers of the Book of Mormon.1

These unique voices in the Book of Mormon have been analyzed by linguistic methods known as stylometry (also called wordprint studies).2 These same techniques have been called upon to identify unknown authors of books, letters, and other literature and even to apprehend criminals like the Unabomber.3 Stylometric studies have demonstrated that Book of Mormon was written by multiple authors who exhibit an impressive differentiation of style compared to fictional characters in nineteenth century literature.4

Various scholars, including John Hilton III and John S. Tanner, have noted that the prophet Jacob, the second author of the small plates, particularly stands out as a unique voice among Book of Mormon authors.5 Although his words account for only about 3 percent of the Book of Mormon text, Jacob is the seventh “most frequently heard voice” in the Book of Mormon.6 Particularly noteworthy are (1) his uses of God’s name, (2) his emotional language, and (3) his unique phrases.

The name Christ was revealed to Jacob by an angel, and he was thus probably intentional about his use of divine names.7 Hilton, drawing on John W. Welch, has noted some of the titles Jacob uses and emphasizes.8 Jacob uses Creator more than any author and accounts for a third of the usages of Maker. Welch suggests that Jacob’s emphasis on God’s creative role and topics of uncleanness, guilt, and robes of righteousness could be a result of his priestly involvement with the temple and its implicit Creation imagery.9 Jacob also uses the divine title Holy One of Israel more than any other Book of Mormon author, and he uses the title God instead of Lord significantly more than Nephi does.10 These patterns help distinguish Jacob’s priestly voice and show his consistency of style when compared to other authors’ writings.

Another aspect of Jacob’s voice that is apparent to the reader is his strong emotional vocabulary.11 Hilton has noted, “Jacob’s varied experiences may connect with a duality in his voice, which is stern yet tender, boldly rebuking while lovingly testifying and inviting.”12 His use of the words anxiety, delicate, contempt, dread, sobbings, grieve, and lonesome all illustrate his emotional vocabulary, as do his uses of wound, pierce, and daggers in an emotional and spiritual sense.13

The distinctiveness of Jacob’s voice can be seen in his theological discussion, as “Jacob’s writing is also consistently focused on several favorite themes.”14 His tender and stern nature comes through in this area. And beyond having favorite themes, Jacob also has favorite phrases that show up repeatedly in his writings, notably in some of his stern sayings. Jacob provides more than half of the Book of Mormon’s ten usages of fire and brimstone, half of the six usages of endless torment, and half of the six mentions of the devil’s angels.15 He uses the word awful or derivatives of it (awful consequences, awfulness of yielding, awful monster of sin and death, and especially awful guilt) thirteen of the Book of Mormon’s forty-nine times.16

Jacob’s vivid descriptors of afterlife punishment emphasize the positive importance of Christ’s Atonement and of Jacob’s desires to save others from such suffering.17 He uses the phrase beloved brethren more than the other authors, always emphasizing his love for his audience.18 Three times he uses the phrase power of the resurrection and also refers to what it cost Jesus to bring it about: His great condescensions and the shame of the cross.19 “Jacob was a powerful personal witness of the anticipated Redeemer, which was his most prominent theme.”20 Knowing of Jesus’s sacrifice for us in this light becomes pleasing, which is a word used six times by Jacob in describing the word of God and even the judgment bar of God.21

Why

Recognizing the stylistic fingerprint of Jacob serves modern-day readers in many ways. John Hilton has observed that the consistency of Jacob’s voice is especially impressive because of the twenty-three chapters that stand between Jacob’s speech in 2 Nephi 6–10 and the beginning of the book of Jacob. These transitions of voice testify to the reality of a historical Jacob, a historical Book of Mormon, and the reality of Book of Mormon doctrine:

It is particularly noteworthy when patterns for Jacob’s words hold across his speech in 2 Nephi 6, 9–10 and the book that bears his name. Because nearly forty pages of text separate 2 Nephi 10 from Jacob 1, we might expect the text from 2 Nephi 6, 9–10 to be closer to Nephi’s voice in 2 Nephi 4–5, 11 than to the book of Jacob. However, in several instances Jacob’s distinctive voice can be heard in both pericopes, suggesting that in fact Jacob was a separate author from Nephi.22

John Tanner similarly concluded, “It is inconceivable to me that Joseph Smith could have invented such a subtle difference of style for Jacob and then remembered to use it so many chapters later as he rapidly dictated the translation.”23

Moreover, hearing Jacob’s voice also enhances the narrative richness of Jacob’s life and personality. His distinctive use of expressions “bears out the portrait of the man that emerges from the narrative. Story, style, and subject matter all reveal Jacob, Lehi’s child of tribulation, to have become a sensitive and effective poet-prophet, preacher, writer, and powerful witness of Jesus Christ.”24

It especially becomes easier for readers to see why Jacob spoke the way he did and to feel the power of what he spoke about when looking at the challenges he faced.25 Jacob was born during the wilderness travels of his family, endured abuse from his brothers while only an infant, and keenly felt his identity as an exiled Israelite. He significantly outlived his brother Nephi and had to endure and withstand the greed, lust, and anti-Christ falsehoods of the Nephites. He witnessed wars. His father Lehi aptly gave him a father’s blessing about opposition, something with which Jacob would be familiar his whole life.

Tanner has noted that “long affliction seems to have rendered Jacob all the more spiritually sensitive.”26 Yet spiritual softening through trials is by no means automatic; after the wars in Alma, “because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God” (Alma 62:41; emphasis added).

Thus, Jacob’s sensitivity may have endured because he chose to embrace it as valuable despite his sufferings rather than becoming brash or cold. He said, “It grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God” (Jacob 2:7; emphasis added). Readers today can strive to likewise remain tenderhearted despite opposition, helping themselves and those around them retain their spiritual and emotional sensitivity and never growing “past feeling” (1 Nephi 17:45; Moroni 9:20).

Jacob’s repeated expressions of his strong feelings and anxieties also help reveal the universal experience of mental health challenges.27 Even the prophet Ammon reported being depressed (Alma 26:27). Difficulties with mental and emotional health are a ubiquitous experience throughout human history, even among God’s chosen prophets.28 The emotional honesty of authors like Jacob helps us connect to them and understand them as real individuals; the emotional reality of their human experiences makes their testimony and teachings all the more powerful. C. Terry Warner said, “From what we do know [of Jacob], a picture emerges of a shepherd of his people who also loved us, the Saints of future years, and who by that love calls forth our love for him.”29 As Hilton has summarized,

Ultimately, the power of identifying Jacob’s distinctive voice may not be in its apologetic value but rather in its portrait of a faithful prophet. He knew both agony and abuse. … He knew what it was like to hurt, to pray, to work, and to heal. He knew, in part, what many of us experience today. Jacob’s voice speaks to those who have suffered and points to the Savior as the source of healing.30

Further Reading

John Hilton III, Voices in the Book of Mormon: Discovering Distinctive Witnesses of Jesus Christ (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2024), 25–40, 131–150.

John Hilton III, “Jacob: A Distinctive Book of Mormon Author,” in Jacob: Faith and Great Anxiety, ed. Avram R. Shannon and George A. Pierce (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2024), 1–18.

John S. Tanner, “Jacob, Son of Lehi,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 2:713–14., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 2:713–14.

 

  • 1. John S. Tanner, “Literary Reflections on Jacob and His Descendants,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1990), 253: “I do not believe that God’s co-authorship normally eradicates an individual’s voice, since the Lord speaks through his servants ‘in their weakness, after the manner of their language’ (D&C 1:24). Hence, we can distinguish the inspired discourse of Jeremiah from Hosea’s, Matthew’s from Mark’s, Peter’s from Paul’s, and one General Authority’s from another’s.”
  • 2. John Hilton III, Voices in the Book of Mormon: Discovering Distinctive Witnesses of Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2024), 5–10. The first wordprint analysis of the Book of Mormon was Wayne A. Larsen, Alvin C. Rencher, and Tim Layton, “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints,” BYU Studies Quarterly 20, no. 3 (1980): 225–251. For a review of these studies, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Stylometry,” Evidence #0272 (November 22, 2021).
  • 3. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 6, recounts the story of how his grandfather used stylistic analysis to assist in apprehending the Unabomber. For an interview, see “This FBI Investigation May Prove Joseph Smith Didn’t WRITE the Book of Mormon | John Hilton III,” interview by Stephen Jones, Let’s Get Real, video and MP3 audio, 57:20, February 1, 2024.
  • 4. 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); Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Stylometry,” Evidence #0272 (November 22, 2021).
  • 5. John S. Tanner, “Jacob, Son of Lehi,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 2:713–714; John S. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 1991), 52–66; Tanner, “Literary Reflections,” 251–269; Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 25–40, 131–150; John Hilton III, “Jacob: A Distinctive Book of Mormon Author,” in Jacob: Faith and Great Anxiety, ed. Avram R. Shannon and George A. Pierce (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2024), 1–18.
  • 6. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 26, 29.
  • 7. Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does an Angel Reveal the Name of Christ to Jacob? (2 Nephi 10:3),” KnoWhy 36 (February 18, 2016).
  • 8. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 29–31; John W. Welch, “Ten Testimonies of Jesus Christ from the Book of Mormon,” A Book of Mormon Treasury: Gospel Insights from General Authorities and Religious Educators (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 320–321, 325–327. For useful graphics that visualize Jacob’s usage of these titles compared to that of other Book of Mormon authors, see John W. Welch and Greg Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), charts 4-44, 4-45, 4-46, and 4-47.
  • 9. Welch, “Ten Testimonies,” 326–327. He also suggests that Jacob’s use of King of Heaven, like Alma’s, could have “antimonarchical leanings.”
  • 10. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 29–30. The term Holy One of Israel (קְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל) is used thirty-four times in the Old Testament, twenty-eight of which are in Isaiah. Welch suggests that the name may have lost favor with later Nephite writers because of their removal from their Israelite homeland. Welch, “Ten Testimonies,” 326–337. While Nephi used Lord more than God (271:203 ratio), Jacob opts for God significantly more than Lord (107:50 ratio). Although Jacob 5 is a parable with a “Lord” of the vineyard and thus doesn‘t necessarily directly impute the title of deity, that chapter does not use God at all, suggesting that Zenos and Jacob were different authors as well. Though the difference between these terms is slight and such conclusions are certainly tenuous, Jacob’s preference for God, Creator, and Maker could be emphasizing God’s omnipotence over nature and all things rather than the more specific name Lord (probably the Hebrew YHWH/Jehovah).
  • 11. Hilton gives a list of scholars who have written on this in Voices in the Book of Mormon, 26–27. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” 58, says: “Jacob’s style is unique among Book of Mormon authors. He simply sounds different. He used a more personal vocabulary than most and took a more intimate approach to his audience.” Marilyn Arnold, “Unlocking the Sacred Text,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 52: “Although Jacob is gifted in language and solid in his testimony, to me he seems unusually tender, even a bit fragile, in his emotional makeup.”
  • 12. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 26.
  • 13. 2 Nephi 6:3; Jacob 1:5; 2:3, 6–7, 9, 35; 3:10; 4:3, 18; 6:13; 7:26. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 27; Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” 58–60; Tanner, “Jacob, Son of Lehi,” 2:714.
  • 14. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants,” 60: “One of his favorites, probably because of his own experience living in exile, was scattered Israel's preservation,” For a discussion of Jacob’s treatment of exile, see Book of Mormon Central, “﷟How Did Jacob’s and Ezekiel’s Peoples Each Respond to Exile? (2 Nephi 10:20),” KnoWhy 719 (February 20, 2024). Roger R. Keller, Book of Mormon Authors: Their Words and Messages (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1996), 19, studied differences between Book of Mormon authors by grouping Book of Mormon words into thematic clusters, finding that Jacob’s most commonly used words relate to trouble, eschatology, the ancient Near East, ethics, revelation, prophecy, evil, and Christology.
  • 15. 2 Nephi 9:7, 9, 16, 19, 26; Jacob 3:11; 6:10. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 32–33.
  • 16. 2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26–27, 39, 46–47; Jacob 3:12; 6:9, 13. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 34.
  • 17. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 40: “Although some of his words could be seen as severe or strict … Jacob also offers tender words of hope. … The undercurrent of Jacob’s words is one of hope and empowerment: God will keep his promises to his children and it is within our power to keep our promises to him and live.”
  • 18. 2 Nephi 6:2; 9:1, 3, 39–41, 44–45, 52; 10:1, 18, 20, 24; Jacob 2:2; 4:2–3, 11, 18; 6:5, 11. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 35–36.
  • 19. 2 Nephi 9:12, 18, 53; Jacob 1:8; 4:7, 11; 6:9. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 35–36.
  • 20. Tanner, “Jacob, Son of Lehi,” 2:714.
  • 21. Jacob 2:8–9; 3:2; 6:13. It has been debated whether “pleasing” in Jacob 6:13 and Moroni 10:34 could be misreadings of what should have been “pleading.” See Royal Skousen, “The Pleading Bar of God,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 21–36, originally published in “To Seek the Law of the Lord”: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 413–428. This proposed emendation of the text is not universally accepted, however. See John S. Welch, “Keep the Old Wine in Old Wineskins: The Pleasing (Not Pleading) Bar of God,” FARMS Review 18, no. 1 (2006): 139–147. Jacob’s strong and frequent use of the word pleasing reduces the likelihood that the proposed misreading could have happened twice (in both Moroni 10:34 and Jacob 6:13).
  • 22. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 29.
  • 23. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” 60.
  • 24. Tanner, “Jacob, Son of Lehi,” 2:714.
  • 25. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 25: “There were some differences that likely shaped who he was and the voice he had. Jacob never experienced the comfortable life in Jerusalem. Born in a desert to a mother who lived off raw meat and God’s grace, Jacob experienced challenging formative years. His initial social circle consisted of only his at-times troubled nuclear and extended family. At a young age he sailed across the ocean; on this voyage he witnessed his parents ‘brought down … near to be cast with sorrow into a watery grave’ and was ‘grieved because of the afflictions of [his] mother’ (1 Nephi 18:18–19). In his ‘childhood [he] suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of [his brothers]’ (2 Nephi 2:1). At the same time, Jacob knew ‘the greatness of God’ and ‘beheld in [his] youth’ the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Nephi 2:2, 4).”
  • 26. Tanner, “Jacob, Son of Lehi,” 2:713.
  • 27. See Jared M. Halverson, “‘Because of Faith and Great Anxiety’: Jacob and the Challenges of Mental Health,” in Jacob: Faith and Great Anxiety, 273–307.
  • 28. One inspiring example of this is President George Albert Smith (1870–1951). “Throughout his apostolic service, Elder Smith suffered from depression and anxiety, which at some points left him shattered and physically weakened. Shortly after pleading with God to let him die, he had several remarkable spiritual experiences that restored his confidence and gave him strength to endure. After taking rest and recuperation in 1909, he resumed his duties in 1912. Depression never fully left him despite his hard-won improvements, but he pressed on to fulfill duties and care for his family.” Church History Topics, “George Albert Smith.”
  • 29. C. Terry Warner, “Jacob,” Ensign, October 1976.
  • 30. Hilton, Voices in the Book of Mormon, 40.
Book of Mormon Authorship
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2 Nephi
Stylometry

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