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I am not sure why some arbitrarily limit the development of Joseph’s “story” to 59 days or even two years. I realize that Smith’s history records that he “received” the plates in September 1827 and that the dictation was finalized in June 1829 (i.e., just over 21 months). It has also been well discussed that the “dictation” of the 1830 edition of his book took between 2-3 months. Smith’s development of such story (or at least an outline) could have begun as early as September 1823 (at the age of 17) when he told his father of the plates. This seems to be the earliest recorded time when the seeds of his ideas could have germinated and predates any discussion recorded by (or for) his mother. Thus, the total time — to frame and finish his opus — was at least 69 months. The dictation would have been merely a regurgitation of the prior 66-67 months of thought, organization, research, telling and retelling, reading and integrating source material, and possibly writing and rewriting. The 2-3 month experience with his scribe(s) is comparably minimal.
A few observations;
First,if Joseph was the literal author of the BoM, then he was also the literal author of the BoA and the Book of Moses, which would not allow him to be a one hit wonder, and if it was God who was the author, and Joseph just the translator, well, he was not a author at all, which, seems to be Brian’s overall point
The second is that Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard would be a great comparison in that it was written is a short amount of time, with more words if I remember correctly, and both serve as the standard for an American born religion.
I would also note in regards to writing, it is a gift so to speak, very few educated people have the gift, as do very few uneducated folks. Joseph was a story teller, as are most writers in heart, while education may certainly allow one to relay your story on paper much easier, it does not give you the gift of story telling.
I don’t see you addressing this. There were less than 100 actual translation days but those days were spread out over almost TWO years, in which time Joseph could easily have refined the story.
It feels disingenuous to say he did this in less than 90 days because it makes it sound like he sat down and made the BofM continuously for 90 days.
Can you address this?
Not to preclude Brian addressing this, Randall, but you may be interested in this article:
Joseph received the plates in September 1827, translated 116 pages (those subsequently lost) between April and June 1828, had the plates taken away between June and September 1828, and translated a few pages in March 1829. The majority of the translating occurred when Oliver Cowdery started helping in April 1829 and was finished in June 1829.
In the words of Jack Welch (from the above-cited article), “nearly all the 590 pages printed in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon were translated, dictated, and written within an extremely short and intensely busy period of time, from April 7 to the last week of June 1829.”
The assumption that Joseph “spread out” the actual translation days over two years is just that–an assumption. It is not borne out by the historical record.
Jack also recently updated his research in this area; see the updated article, available here:
There was also a Book of Mormon Central KnoWhy produced on this topic, which you can see here:
I hope that helps in some way.
Thank you for this. However, without looking at this apologetically but from a strictly analytical perspective, it is entirely possible to write and dictate the BofM in a short period of time if, over the course of his life he has been telling stories of ancient inhabitants of America. His mother recounts him telling detailed stories of what the inhabitants ate, wore, what animals they rode, etc. (although there is no proof that indiginous Americans rode animals during the timeframe of the BofM, but I digress). Between adding chucks of Isaiah, Joseph Smith Sr’s tree of life dream and having around 2 or more years to develop a story line to mesh together stories he had been telling since youth, the easiest way to explain the BofM is that of a creation by JS. Inspired fiction even. There is still value in the BofM without it being literal and ancient.
I would absolutely love to have Brian Hales and John Hamer sit down and have a serious long discussion about these matters. History, without apologetics, is so much easier to explain in my humble opinion. The mental gymnastics are exhausting to me sometimes. Maybe Brian can prove me wrong.
Excellent article. Certainly gives some context as to what we are dealing with in regard to the Book of Mormon.
Brian: This is really a great and compelling piece of work, although I don’t know how many will truly grasp the significance of it.
I’m a guy forced to dictate a lot. I have a J.D. degree and work at a high level of law practice. It is extraordinarily hard to dictate, even from an outline. The mistakes are overwhelming. The only advantage to dictation is to have a person with a lower billing rate spend time with the document. Dictation requires a lot of after-the-fact editing to get things right. I see no evidence that Joseph Smith ever did anything like that. Sure, there were some corrections (Benjamin/Mosiah) but they are extremely rare.
I have racked my brain to try to identify an easily understood way of describing the challenges of “creative dictation” (the methodology JS employed in producing the 269,318 words).
The simplest observation I’ve identified (to date) is noting how JS didn’t rearrange any of the sentences (out of 7,000 to 10,000 depending on the punctuation). Most people can relate to that as challenging. Still, it doesn’t seem to be very impressive to some.
Any other thoughts?
Here’s the thing: it’s completely obvious that Joseph had a preexisting text, either written down or precomposed. The intricate details of the several sermons, which show great skill and polish in their composition clearly are not something dictated off the cuff, so to speak. King Benjamin’s address is clearly carefully composed.
Yet it was written down in one day, with no editing to speak of. It had to have been precomposed somehow. I just don’t see how anyone can, on the spot and spur of the moment, dictate a chiastic sermon over 5 chapters.
Right? That’s like impossible, isn’t it?
Not only that, but things like the sacrament prayers in Moroni that clearly relate back, word for word, to Christ’s messages in 3 Nephi… how can anyone do that on the spur of the moment? Joseph Smith would have had to at least ask for 3 Nephi to be read back, wouldn’t he, in order to extract the sacrament prayers from it? He shows no signs of an eidetic memory, and Mormon and Ether were both composed and written down in between Christ’s words and Moroni’s stuff.
Yet he didn’t get anything read back to him. Simply impossible, I think, to dictate this on the spot.
The style of punctuation imposed on a text can make quite a difference:
The 1830 first edition has 6,852 full stops in 269,318 words = 39.3 words per sentence OR 2.54 sentences per 100 words. It is over-punctuated by our standards in terms of commas: 24,852. (The JSP transcription has a few dozen issues, which analysts should be aware of; a much more reliable and scholarly version is available in WordCruncher.)
The critical text has 10,441 full stops in 269,518 words = 25.8 words per sentence OR 3.88 sentences per 100 words. (“Only” 13,780 commas.) This is the best text to use for scholarly study and analysis of the Book of Mormon.
I liked Figure 5, and the vocabulary list presented was interesting to see. As Widtsoe observed in the early 1950s, the range of lexical usage is different from what we expect Joseph would have produced from his knowledge base in 1829. Most remarkable, of course, is the obsolete lexis (see Skousen, The Nature of the Original Language, 2018), by which is meant vocabulary, some grammatical forms, and expressions.
For some reason, Grant Hardy wants to leave the impression that there are only a few of these in the text: “there are a few words that make more sense if they are read with obsolete meanings” (BYU Studies 57.1: 176). But Skousen’s careful work indicates that there are potentially 80 instances of extrabiblical (archaic) lexical usage, including “at least 39 specific words with archaic meanings” (BYU Studies 57.3: 92).
The Book of Mormon’s archaic lexis, the grammar—both good and bad—which wasn’t Joseph’s, a very large amount of extrabiblical (archaic) synta, and all the unfamiliar names clearly indicate that Joseph didn’t word the text from revealed ideas. These things constitute strong evidence pointing to the Book of Mormon as curiously unique.
Thanks to Stanford Carmack for the comments and his amazing research.
I’ve encountered several different word counts for the BofM including mine at 269,528 and Stanford lists 269,518 and I think Jack Welch uses 269,510. I’m happy to acquiesce to a more accurate number and perhaps it would be good for us to agree as we move forward.
Brian, the current word counts I have for the three different versions are as follows (excluding the witness statements):
Critical text (Yale): 269,518
1830 first edition: 269,318
Current LDS text: 268,422
Editing has shortened the text. (Chapter words are not counted, since only a section mark was used in the original manuscript.)
The JSP transcription currently has a number of errors. Some of these are as follows.
There are eight eoln strings that copy as single words; a space at the linebreak character is missing:
shallbe 32, 31 (page, line)
mineenemy 70, 29
blessyou 158, 4
neverending 160, 1
forredemption 258, 36
yehope 315, 2
insomuchthat 362, 8
foundthat 365, 15
Internal textual comparison indicates that the following four words should be transcribed with hard eoln hyphens:
byword 51, 39
selfsame 311, 40
headplates 408, 29
candlestick 480, 14
At least seven words involve known in-press changes:
this 275, 19; This
does 393, 4; do
becaus 400, 32; because
Paharon 400, 32; Pahoran
is in/ 507, 26; is/
elder priest 575, 18; elder or priest
to the baptism 576, 14; to baptism
So they’re correctly transcribed according to the JSP page images, but many copies do not have these typos.
Ten words are missing at 577, 30–31:
“cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain”
There are 17 other potential transcription errors, which may incorrectly add four words total to the word count. Also, sometimes typos are corrected like this: chi[l]d; and sometimes like this: plaees [places]. So removing brackets globally adds words in some cases (after carefully dealing with page brackets [marked variably]).
So impressive and helpful!
So in the future, I should list the 1830 BofM word count as 269,318. Will do.
Thanks so much!
I should add that if we count the first instance of “me thought” as two words (18, 41; the second is spelled as one word) and the second instance of “for/asmuch” as two words (111, 32; no hyphen; the first is spelled as one word), then we get 269,320 words.
If Joseph only “occasionally” told stories about the Nephite people, and if details of dress, buildings, animals on which they rode were what Lucy thought to tell, it does not sound as if Joseph Smith is developing a story outline to later deliver to a scribe. And according to Emma, Joseph would come across parts of the story he was telling that were a surprise to him, such as whether Jerusalem had walls. Also, other topics would come up, such as baptism and so forth that would cause Joseph and Oliver to inquire of the Lord in prayer. This is evidence Joseph was not delivering a story he had previously developed.
Related to the walls of Jerusalem, note that Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” begins with a grand description of Jerusalem with repeated mention of its walls. For Joseph Smith being accused of plagiarizing Ethan Smith’s book, Joseph does not seem familiar with it.
I love this essay, which shows how different Joseph Smith’s publication of the Book of Mormon is such an anomaly when compared to other writers and their published works. Another interesting topic would be to compare Joseph Smith’s material production to other religious writings and writers.
I’m a novelist and there are some things to add to what’s above.
SPEAKING, NOT WRITING
First of all, Joseph was dictating. His skill as a writer or reader is probably irrelevant. What’s important is his skill as a storyteller. His skill in talking. My wife teaches 7th and 8th grade language arts. And her classes are full of kids who can talk with great fluency and tell all sorts of anecdotes. But they struggle a bit when capturing that on the page. Now some of them do have a strong vernacular, and it shows up in their papers. Bad conjugations, the works. “He come down” etc. So I think a better comparison would have to be in the difference between his vernacular and what we see in the text and between him and others who dictate or tell stories.
Next, the structure of the Book of Mormon is very unlike any modern novel. In fact, it’s unlike early novels. It makes it very hard to compare. It’s episodic. And shot through with sermons. It’s almost all in narrative summary. Not the narrative detail of scenes that we see today. So it’s a very different task. I think it might be harder than a single narrative thread.
USE OF AN OUTLINE
Third, you’ll notice that the BOM gives a summary of the whole book in 1 Nephi 12. As an author, I work from an outline. I’m not saying Joseph did. I believe the BOM is what it claims to be. It’s a prophecy. But those arguing for Joseph’s authorship could point to it and suggest he was using an outline.
• Nephi sees wars and rumors of wars.
• Many generations and cities
• Mist of darkness, a vapor, come upon the land and a huge earthquake. Many cities burned. Others sunk.
• Christ visits
• Calls 12 others
• 3 generations pass away in righteousness
• Many of 4th pass away in righteousness
• Multitudes of earth gathered together—his seed and the seed of his brothers
• Because of pride and temptations, his seed overcome
• Brothers seed go forth in multitudes upon the land. Wars and rumors of wars. They become a dark and loathsome and filthy people full of idleness and abomination.
Next, as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I do a lot of world building. The reason Tolkien took so long with his books is that he built so much of the world, including a huge focus on the language. Heck, he developed languages for his world.
Something that’s interesting is Lucy Mack’s description of what happened after Joseph’s first attempt to obtain the plates failed.
“From this time forth, Joseph continued to receive instructions
from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every
evening, for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation
of the same. I presume our family presented’ an aspect as
singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth — all
seated in a circle, father, mother, sons and daughters, and giving
the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, who
had never read the Bible through in his life: he seemed much less
inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our chil-
dren, but far more given to meditation and deep study.
We were now confirmed in the opinion that God was about to
bring to light something upon which we could stay our minds, or
that would give us a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salva-
tion and the redemption of the human family. This caused us
greatly to rejoice, the sweetest union and happiness pervaded our
house, and tranquility reigned in our midst.
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, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of
warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with
as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among
Someone could claim that all those years before he dictated the book he was world building, devising and coming up with sketches of what he’d put in the book later. It’s like me telling stories on the fly to my kids when they were little and developing a whole series that way. Many authors have done that. The Hobbit was originally a story Tolkien told to his children.
Writing isn’t about the writing. The the lesser part. It’s the development of the story that’s the big part. And you can develop a story and then tell bits and pieces aloud just as easily as you can write it. In fact, sometimes it’s easier. So someone familiar with story development could look at what Joseph’s mother said and claim that Joseph spent the years from from 1823 up through the final dictation of the book developing and telling the story. So instead of it being a task of a few months. It was something he developed over 7 years.
None of that proves Joseph wrote the…
I took a closer look at the famous Lucy Mack Smith quote about Joseph Smith’s story telling in “Playing to an Audience”:
There are some unexamined oddities about the Lucy Smith quote. Before I would take it as an interpretive foundation, I must consider that, even though a first-hand account, it is not an autograph account, and it is late,12 dating to an 1844 dictation in Nauvoo to the … 24-year old Martha Jane Coray regarding events in Palmyra 1823 and then not published until 1853. That is, the quote is six years older than Joseph Smith’s official history from 1838, which Taves takes notable interest in dissecting and comparing with earlier sources. In her discussion of method and sources for Mormonism, she observes:
“Apart from the 1825 agreement with Josiah Stowell and the 1826 court record, both of which are preserved in later versions, we have no real-time access to events until July 1828, when D&C 3 — the first real-time recorded revelation — opens a window in the wake of the loss of the first 116 pages of the manuscript. Chapter 1 thus opens with an in-depth analysis of D&C 3, read as a window on that moment rather than as it was interpreted and reinterpreted in later accounts. (21)”
The Lucy Smith quote, aside from being a late account, rather than early and contemporary (not “real time access,” not a direct “window on the moment”), turns out to be notably odd and unique with respect to Joseph Smith, rather than well supported from a range of sources. Certainly much in Lucy’s biography is well supported, but let us recognize the anomaly here. Odd accounts do occur in history, yes, but the account raises questions that should be faced and mentioned before building one’s structure there. First of all, the Book of Mormon we have has no descriptions of people riding animals in over 500 pages that include several major migrations and 100 distinct wars. It provides no notably detailed descriptions of clothing (other than armor) and no detailed descriptions of the structure of later buildings. The most detail we get involves descriptions of fortifications with palisaded walls and ditches.
Then there is the unasked question as to why — if Joseph Smith as a youth was capable of this kind of detailed, immersive, evening-filling recital on the everyday particulars of Book of Mormon peoples and culture — do we have no further record anywhere of his performing the same service as an adult? Perhaps the closest circumstance on this topic involves the Zelph story on Zion’s Camp, but in that case the notable differences in the details recorded by the different people who reported it, even those writing close to the event, should give pause to a person trying to build an interpretive foundation on an isolated, late, anomalous account related to far longer and complex narrative than the Zelph gossip.13 It bears mentioning that if Joseph Smith had been telling stories about the Book of Mormon peoples, animals, clothing, and culture, such stories should have had an obvious influence on Abner Cole’s 1830 parody version, the Book of Pukei, which “tells in mocking fashion about the sorts of things that Joseph’s neighbors expected to find in the Book of Mormon.”14 Yet the most notable thing about the Book of Pukei is how utterly different it is from the actual Book of Mormon.15 The book Joseph Smith produced was emphatically not what his neighbors expected.”
I think you bring up some good points. As I say in the article, the fact that JS dictated the text (I call the process CREATIVE DICTATION) rather than composing it through CREATIVE WRITING needs to be further explored. Even if someone has a preformed outline (in memory), I think CREATIVE DICTATION is exponentially more difficult than CREATIVE WRITING.
Some storytellers have a knack for producing vivid tales on the fly. Was JS a storyteller? Lucy Mack Smith’s recollection, which you quoted above, is probably the most quoted paragraph in all of her memoirs. Yes JS told stories “occasionally” to family members in 1823. What does that mean? An extreme view is that over the next five years he developed an expert-level storytelling skill set that allowed him to dictate the BofM.
The curious thing is as Richard Bushman observed. Joseph Smith “is not known to have preached a sermon before the Church is organized in 1830. He had no reputation as a preacher.” If JS was developing storytelling or preaching skills in the 1820s, no one mentioned it beyond Lucy’s statement.
The question is also whether storytelling skills would be sufficient to allow JS to do what he did? Perhaps some of the most impressive of storytellers ever studied were found in Yugoslavia in the 1950s. Called “sulars,” they could recount stories of over 100K words over many days (usually singing the words rather than reciting). Avdo Mededovic is such a sular, whose stories have been recorded and translated into English.
Yet comparing a 23 year old farm boy to such professionals seems to emphasize JS’s uniqueness, rather than explain how he recited the words. He was not practiced in storytelling (according to the historical record), he generated a fully new text—most sulars just embellish pre-existing storylines, the BofM is much more comple, and longer than even the most lengthy storytellers’ stories.
I encourage you or others to expand on these comparisons, but my preliminary research does not find a parallel in storytelling lore, their methodologies, or the accomplishments of their most skilled bards. But we should all keep looking!
Thanks again for the observations!
I think this is an important observation. Speaking is related to writing only in that what is spoken may be recorded, but the process of creation and organization can happen quite differently. I think remembering that Joseph was reluctant to write, but dictated the Book of Mormon and later revelations, tells us that he was most comfortable with the oral process. That should caution us in the ways we understand the things we have from Joseph that are written, but not holographs.
I also agree that understanding Joseph better doesn’t alter the issue of how the Book of Mormon was created, how it was structured, or how it relates to a time and place. Positing Joseph as a great storyteller rather than a special writer is an academic issue that really continues to fall short of explaining the whole of the Book of Mormon.
I notice that you do not cite a source for those four paragraphs attributed to Lucy Mach. To begin to make your case, should you not consider how long after Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon to scribes and also whether those were really her exact words or perhaps embellishments of someone else?
Very informative article.
One thing to consider might be the research of Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen in demonstrating that the Book of Mormon is primarily an Early Modern English book, and that it could not have been composed by Joseph Smith Jr.
If the English Book of Mormon came to Joseph already written, and all he needed to do was read it to his scribes, then that explains a lot about the uniqueness of it.
Absolutely excellent article! Very clever. However, I do have one bone to pick…
“Born in 1983, he authored his first book, Eragon in 2002 at age nineteen, which was made into a big-budget movie in 2006 that opened to mixed reviews.”
That “mixed reviews” bit may be the one and only truly and absolutely false thing this fine journal has ever let slip past its editors! 16% on Rotten Tomatoes and a first-time director who never made another film again after this universally panned debacle can hardly be characterized as a movie whose reviews were “mixed.”
Aside from that rather minuscule error, great work! 🙂
When I first saw the movie, I liked the movie and probably would have given it a thumbs up. So maybe there’s the “mix” 🙂
I recently watched it again (as I was writing this essay) and could better detect the critique-worthy elements, which were plentiful.
I bought Paoloini’s trilogy, but I just can’t seem to slog through it. It doesn’t seem (in my mind) to be of the same sophistication found in the BofM.
I am very impressed with this essay. And I am wondering if Brian would be willing to explain what suggested this study to him, and also how long it took him to do the study and also to draft his essay?
I also wonder about dealing with the sentence length in the Book of Mormon. Why? It seems, does it not, that the scribes just wrote down the words dictated in short bursts, and that this resulted in a manuscript that had very little punctuation. Hence, it seems that Joseph Smith did not provide the punctuation with which we are now familiar.
I looked up my first draft, which was just under two years ago.
This paper, however, is just part of an larger research project that attempts to look at the critics’ responses to the Book of Mormon in ways that haven’t been published before. With a little luck, I will have several other article published here and elsewhere in the future.
I don’t expect these observations to impress unbelievers, but I’m hopeful they could represent a tangible validation of faith-based beliefs for those of us who hold JS as a true prophet.
I didn’t mention sentence length. I have addressed that here: http://www.ldsliving.com/Why-Joseph-Smiths-Dictation-of-the-Book-of-Mormon-Is-Simply-Jaw-Dropping/s/89568
You are right that the Printer’s Manuscript had no punctuation. The Book of Mormon was typeset to almost 7000 sentences–on average of 40 words each (2-3 times longer than normally found in novels).
The remarkable thing is that Joseph Smith didn’t rearrange the order of a single one after dictating them. It is an observation that secularists might want to explain.
Enjoyable article. However, I think that it failed to consider the Book of Abraham. What we have is a short work, true, but apparently Joseph translated a very long manuscript indeed, that took at least two hours to read. That was somewhat later in life.
I wish we had the full thing rather than the small bit we have now. Still, does the longer Book of Abraham change any of this analysis?
I included the Book of Abraham as 6231 words in 1842. We know he translated some in 1835, but I waited until it was published to date the word count.
I don’t know if that actually responds to your comment, but the Book of Abraham was included in the graph.
Thanks. What I was asking is that a lot of your analysis is based on the facts that Joseph wrote a large book early in life and then tapered off as it were, unlike other authors.
However, the Book of Abraham story suggests that in fact he produced another large work later on; we just don’t have it. Does that later, large work mess up anything in your theory?