There are 23 thoughts on “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance: An Update”.

  1. The assertion that God intended to have the gold plates translated into 15th-16th century English rather than nineteenth century English to prove that Joseph Smith didn’t/couldn’t have written the Book of Mormon makes about as much sense to me as the argument that God (or Satan) planted fossils in the earth to test (or destroy) people’s belief in the the literal biblical story of creation. If Carmack is right, then I propose we look for some more believable explanation. I have no trouble with miracles or mystery, but they have to make some sense. I say this as someone who is convinced that the Book of Mormon is a history of actual New-world peoples. The linguistic and rhetorical composition of the Book of Mormon is a subject that needs more research. I’m not saying I can’t be convinced, only that the evidence about the nature of the Book of Mormon English and the argument about translation that it seems to lead to so far leave me unconvinced.

  2. To clarify my above statement…it is more of an observation of my personal experience during my reading and reflection of these articles. I think when it comes to faith and doubt the experience and results will vary with each person.

  3. This is a response to several recent postings regarding my article “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and the American Renaissance: An Update”
    Steve Martin sets up a dichotomy between “those who seek [to understand the Book of Mormon] with faith” and “those who seek with doubt ,” but many seekers don’t begin from a settled position; rather they are open to the possibilities without expecting a specific outcome. This is certainly true of many investigators who hear about the Book of Mormon for the first time. It is a curiosity for them about which they consider the book’s claims from a neutral position. In their quest, some apply rational processes and some apply spiritual or non-rational processes and others apply both. Some of those seeking to come to terms with the Book of Mormon are not simply “doubters” (especially in the more negative associations with that word common among Mormons) but “seekers” who may have legitimate questions about the book’s authenticity. As Grant Hardy says, “This is a book designed to polarize readers” (Understanding the Book of Mormon, 9). It is also true that some who begin from a position of doubt transition to a position of faith and vice versa.
    Brett DeLange argues, “Actually, there is evidence” and cites the scholarship of Gardner and Sorenson” as well as “the decades of scholarly, archeological, literary, cultural, linguistic and other papers” that contradict my statement about evidence. But not everyone agrees on what constitutes evidence and not everyone is persuaded by the kind of evidence DeLange cites. The volume of scholarship on the Book of Mormon over the past century demonstrates that what some consider “evidence” is not universally seen as such, which is why there is a vigorous dialogue (as well as debate and even acrimonious disagreement) about such evidence. What I was referring to is some discovery (archeological, linguistic, literary, etc.) that would be persuasive to believers and non-believers alike (as well as to those with a dispassionate attitude toward the book) that the Nephites were an actual Old World people who immigrated to the New World from the Middle East. Based on all that I know, I believe that they were, but as a scholar I remain open to any evidence or argument that challenges my scholarly conclusions as well as my belief.
    The questions I put to non-believers is: “If scientists were to discover verifiable metal plates that included the names ‘Nephi.’ ‘Jared,’ and ‘Mormon’ as well as an account of Christ’s visit to ancient America, would you be persuaded that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text?” I present the same challenge to believers: “Were someone to discover a verifiable eighteenth-century novel in the British Museum that included the names ‘Nephi,’ ‘Jared,’ and ‘Mormon’ as well as an account of Christ’s visit to ancient America, would you be open to the possibility that the Book of Mormon could be based on a modern text?” In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (2010), Katheryn Schulz demonstrates how difficult it is for all of us to be open to the possibility that we may be wrong. As a synopsis of her book states:
    “In Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes our relationships—whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations. Along the way, she takes us on a fascinating tour of human fallibility, from wrongful convictions to no-fault divorce, medical mistakes to misadventures at sea, failed prophecies to false memories, “I told you so!” to “Mistakes were made.” Drawing on thinkers as varied as Augustine, Darwin, Freud, Gertrude Stein, Alan Greenspan, and Groucho Marx, she proposes a new way of looking at wrongness. In this view, error is both a given and a gift – one that can transform our worldviews, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves” (http://beingwrongbook.com/synopsis).
    DeLange also asserts, “And the greater evidence to my mind is that in the decades of time since the Book of Mormon was published, individuals from every nation kindred tongue and people have actually read, pondered and prayed about the Book and received a revelation that it was translated by the gift and power of God and that it is the word of God. Some of those laid down their lives as a result of such witness.” While I too find this kind of personal confirmation impressive, I also know that most of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world make a similar argument about the Qu’uran.
    “Central Texan” asserts, “I am not seeing Joseph Smith’s imagination in the text.” What I had in mind in not a narrow definition of imagination having to do with invention or fiction but rather one that goes back to the Latin imaginari—“to form a mental picture,” I think it is safe to say that from the first visit of Moroni, Joseph began picturing in his mind the subject of the gold plates as described by Moroni—“He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.” It is difficult to imagine that, upon seeing the words that form the basis of the Book of Mormon, however they came to him, Joseph did not imagine scenes that such words would have awakened in his consciousness.
    I have been reading the Book of Mormon for over sixty-five years and studying it seriously for over fifty. I find it an amazingly complex and profound book, one that stimulates my intellect, challenges my mind, and awakens my imagination. Certain passages also delight my heart and touch my soul. But I know many good people, including people of faith, who do not regard it with the same reverence that I do. I want to listen to what they have to say, consider their ideas, and not judge them as being ignorant or unfaithful. I refuse to be dogmatic about the book’s provenance and I continue to try and be open to what it has to teach me. One of the most important things it teaches me is to be loving to others who differ from me—and to help persuade them that it is a book that has important messages about God’s love. As I said in an essay published many years ago, “It has opened my heart wide to receive God’s love,”

    • I appreciate your original article and your comments above. My assertion regarding “evidence” was a reply to the statement by the commenter Exhiled that there “isn’t any evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.” I think that statement is in error. Assuming the normal definition of evidence (facts or observations in support of an assertion), there is “evidence” of the historicity of the Book of Mormon and I described some of that evidence. I fully understand that some, perhaps many, will not consider this evidence as proof (I don’t) or even persuasive as to the Book of Mormon’s historicity, but that makes it no less evidence to my mind. It is evidence to be weighed, considered and reflected upon.
      In any event, my statement was not in response to your point nor should it be taken as asserting that the evidence to date is proof of the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness. I agree with you that we all should remain open minded and seeking further understanding.
      I hope this clarifies by above post.

    • You posed the question, Bob: “Were someone to discover a verifiable eighteenth-century novel in the British Museum that included the names ‘Nephi,’ ‘Jared,’ and ‘Mormon’ as well as an account of Christ’s visit to ancient America, would you be open to the possibility that the Book of Mormon could be based on a modern text?”
      Whether 18th or 16th century, I would be very intrigued, since, as you know, Stanford Carmack & Royal Skousen have demonstrated the strong likelihood that the Book of Mormon was translated or produced in Early Modern English centuries before the time of Joseph Smith, so that the appearance of any manuscript of that sort in the British Museum Library would be extremely important. I would want to see a detailed scholarly report before passing judgment.

      • Robert,
        Thanks for this. I am familiar with Carmack’s and Skousen’s scholarship but I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation as to why the Book of Mormon would have been translated into Early Modern English “centuries before the time of Joseph Smith.” That is not only perplexing (if true) but downright illogical or certainly mysterious. Has anyone come up with a logical explanation for this?

          • Brett, we already know that Joseph didn’t write the Book of Mormon. There is ample evidence for that without removing Joseph as translator. However, if someone else translated we not only re-open every possible question about how the translation occurred and how it related to what was on the plates, but we add additional mysteries of who, where, and why. How did that translator have access to the plates, and how did that person learn the language of the plates? Did that person use a bi-lingual dictionary? Was that person somehow fluent in the plate language, but still manage to create a translation that strongly suggests that the translator was not completely intimate with the people and culture described on the plates? We are trading an understandable mystery in Joseph as translator for much larger and inexplicable mysteries of the unfathomable “other” translator.

          • Brant, thanks for your note. While I agree Joseph did not write the Book of Mormon, there are a lot of people out there who assert just that. What Carmack and Skousen are finding sure seems to refute that notion. I do not see how this somehow undercuts or defeats Joseph as being the translator. If we accept that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God and did so in Early Modern English, how does that eliminate him as the translator? It would be no less remarkable than if he had translated the Book of Mormon, again by the power of God, into French or Japanese, yes? With God all things are possible, of course, and one can at least consider the possibility that having Joseph translate the Book of Mormon into Early Modern English takes away (or at least diminishes) the contention of some that Joseph somehow wrote this Book.

        • Robert, I’m with you. It does seem illogical for a translation to happen prior to Joseph’s time.
          I do have a plausible naturalistic hypothesis for how Early Modern English predating the King James Bible could have made into Joseph Smith’s translation. As is well known, Joseph was a treasure hunter, however less commonly discussed is that treasure hunters referenced texts on the occult to aid in the supernatural aspects of their hunt. According to Owen Davies, their were at least two English texts present in America that contained explicit advice on treasure hunting. These are Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft and Henry Cornelius Aggrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosphy. Scot’s Discoverie was published in 1584 and contains quotations of prayers and enchantments commonly used in various folk magic rituals (including treasure hunting). Not being a linguist, or having any in depth knowledge of Early Modern English, it’s impossible for me to date these quotations/cited materials.
          Michael Quinn connects Joseph Smith to this volume in connection with a Magical Dagger, which has been contested if it can actually be connected to the Smith family via Hyrum reliably. However, according to Owen Davies, of various magical texts this is the most likely one Joseph Smith could have read or interacted with, and like I mentioned earlier, their is evidence that treasure hunter’s were using this volume in 19th century America. William Hamblin had argued that it was unlikely JS could have seen Discoverie and that it wasn’t being used for learning magic, but Owen Davies refutes this by saying that Discoverie was the cheap and common in England and present in America, and he demonstrates that a common use of Discoverie in England was for learning magic. He cites this evidence in support of the plausibility that JS could have done the same.
          Whether or not JS would have used this book for learning Magic is besides the point to my argument. My central question is did this book with it’s Early Modern English inform the grammar of JS’ translation of the Book of Mormon. Contextually, it seems plausible. JS was a treasure hunter and he was involved early on in at least some folk magic practices.
          Evidence from Discoverie itself also suggests that JS interacted with it. Book VIII chapters I, II, and III have the headings, “That miracles are ceased,” “That the gift of prophesy is ceased,” and “That Oracles are ceased.” Chapter VII picks up with the same theme on the cessation of miracles and explains that Christ’s true miracles were the last and true signs of the divinity. Book of Mormon themes refuting these very ideas in Mormon 9 and Moroni 7 and using some similar langauge suggest that these chapters could have been a foil for the translation of those BOM discourses.
          Chapter V of Book VIII discusses the Urim and Thummim. It describes it, “so as the preests by the brightnes of the twelve pretious stones conteined therein, could prognosticate or expound anie thing.” This certainly recalls Joseph’s excited description of the Urim and Thummim to Joseph Knight, “I can see anything.”
          It also recalls Joseph Carpon’s description of Joseph’s seer stone and hat. He describes it, “The light of the stone, he pretended, enabled him to see anything he wished.”
          Finally a couple of the chapter headings recall Mormonish language. Book X chapter VII is titled “The times and seasons to exercise augarie…” Chapter VIII is titled, “Upon what signes and tokens augorors did porgnosticate…” The content of these is very foriegn to Mormonism but the language is very familiar.
          I’ve just barely started looking into these connections, but there is enough to suggest a potentially strong link between Joseph Smith and this text. That being so, it seems a likely source for pre-King James 1612 Early Modern English. Now, whether it is sufficient source, that’s another question entirely, but it’s at least a beginning for seeing a plausible and practical way in which Early Modern English found its way into Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon.

          • Ben,
            Thanks for your suggestion that there may be a source or sources for the 15th-16th century English in the Book of Mormon. I agree that Joseph’s reading likely included a range of English styles, from the 15th to the 19th centuries (after all, the Book of Mormon isn’t all or predominantly written in the earlier style). It doesn’t make sense to me that someone translated some of the Book into 15th-16th century English and some into 17th-19th century English. If deliberate and intentional, what could possibly be the rationale for that, except to confuse modern readers? It hardly seems plausible that it was designed to show that Joseph could not have been the writer of the Book of Mormon since there is an abundance of clearer, more logical, more persuasive evidence that he couldn’t have been the author. Also, it seems strange, as some argue, to make Moroni the translator into English. Why would he use some English that was 200-300 years old at the time of his delivery of the plates to Joseph and also use English that was standard during Joseph’s time? And if the plates were written in such English (that Joseph could understand) why was it necessary for him to use the Urim and Thummin–and later the seer stone?
            Joseph clearly states that he was the translator so it seems most logical to me that the English of the book can be traced to his acquaintance with English,which, after all, was highly eclectic on the American frontier and influenced by various immigrant communities from Great Britain as well as the ubiquitous KJV and the availability of other texts from earlier periods. H.L, Mencken in his book, The American Language, states, “‘Our ancestors,’ said James Russell Lowell, ‘unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare’s.’ Shakespeare died in 1616; the Pilgrims landed four years later; Jamestown was founded in 1607. As we have seen, the colonists, saving a few superior leaders, were men of small sensitiveness to the refinements of life and speech: soldiers of fortune, amateur theologians, younger sons, neighbouhood ‘advanced thinkers,’ bankrupts, jobless workmen, decayed gentry, and other such fugitives from culture…There were no grammarians in that day; there were no purists that anyone listened to; it was a case of saying your say in the easiest and most satisfying way. In remote parts of the United States there are still direct and almost pure-blooded descendants of those seventeenth century colonists. Go among them, and you will hear more words from the Shakespearean vocabulary, still alive and in common service, than anywhere else in the world, and more of the loose and brilliant syntax of that time, and more of its gipsy phrases.”
            Clearly, this is a subject that needs more study, especially of the spoken language Joseph would have heard in his environs and that which was spoken in his home. The differences in the various dialects he would have heard might not have been discernible to the casual hearer–as they certainly have not been to the casual reader. As Mark Twain explained in the preface to Huckleberry Finn, “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap- hazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”

          • An eclectic exposure to English on JS part makes a lot of sense to me too.
            I’ve heard people talk about dialects and preservation of older grammar and forms, and hopefully someone picks that up and runs with it.
            The beauty of the Scot’s Discoverie is it’s a plausible source of pre King James English that also employs formal thee/thou grammar, and it also possibly contains texts that are older than it’s late 16th century publication date. Also, I apparently understated the evidence that links the Smith family to the book as one of their purported magic parchments contains symbols only found in print in the 1665 edition of Discoverie, which edition also just happens to be the one to contain instructions on magic circles, a device employed by JS in treasure hunts. In fact the magic parchment in question and accompanying symbols are associated with treasure hunting as well (this is all from D Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the magic world view). Anyways, a closer investigation of Discoverie’s grammar and comparing it to Carmack’s work is in order at the very least.

  4. Eyewitnesses to the translation process don’t allow for Joseph Smith to be fumbling for his own wording or formulating his own phraseology on the fly. Modern studies of the original text of the Book of Mormon (published here in the Interpreter) show the so-called awkward grammar or word usages to be consistent with earlier forms of written English. I am not seeing Joseph Smith’s imagination in the text.

    • Agreed. eye witness accounts make it all sound very mechanical, which means if Joseph’s influence of any kind made it into the text, be it word choice, imaginative, or anything else, it would most likely need to occur prior to the dictation process.

  5. The more and more I read the Friday addition to the Interpreter the more I am convinced that in regards to the Book of Mormon what ye seek ye will find and for those who seek with faith will find it to be a Marvelous Work and Wonder. For those who seek with doubt will find plenty of things to doubt.
    Between these article and Book of Mormon Central, it has been very enlightening to me to see there was an extremely intelligent mind behinds its creation. There is more and more to it. I think the complexity and mystery was done with a purpose to get people to return often to the book to read. While they are searching to prove or disprove the book they will read “Keep the commandments and prosper and disobey the commandments and perish” and “Jesus Christ is the Messiah and through his atonement you will be saved”

  6. Whether or not JS was smart, brilliant, or a simple farm boy, there still isn’t any evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. If someone found some evidence of nephites in America, then I could look closer at the above. However, there simply isn’t any. Also, is the author using the original edition or the heavily edited current edition to make his judgments? The original looks more like what a farm boy would do.

    • Actually, there is evidence. One need only read the comprehensive works of Gardner or Sorenson, or the decades of scholarly archeological, literary, cultural, linguistic and other papers to realize the error of your statement. And the greater evidence to my mind is that in the decades of time since the Book of Mormon was published, individuals from every nation kindred tongue and people have actually read, pondered and prayed about the Book and received a revelation that it was translated by the gift and power of God and that it is the word of God. Some of those laid down their lives as a result of such witness.

  7. An excellent and important piece. I marvel at how blithely many people try to dismiss or explain away the profound difficulties in creating a massive complex work like the Book of Mormon. Note that Nephi[1] spent a decade putting together just 1 Nephi 1 through 2 Nephi 5 (cf. 2 Nephi 5:28-34). It’s less clear how long Mormon worked on his abridgment, but it appears to be somewhere between 25 and 50 years.
    I actually made a full-time living as a writer about 25-30 years ago; I’ve got four books and about 150 articles under my belt. Yet last summer, while stuck in traffic in the Bay Area on business, I decided to use the voice memo function on my smartphone to dictate some portion of a chapter of a novel I was working on. It was awful: lots of starts and stops, long pauses, and some pretty wretched prose. For me, the idea that Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon through ‘automatic writing’ or by memorize vast quantities of text and reciting it later require a vastly greater leap of faith than the idea that an angel led him to gold plates and that he translated them by the power of God.

  8. There is evidence that Joseph Smith had a creative mind. His outlets were primarily spiritual and experiential as opposed to intellectual and literary. His role in treasure hunting, where he identified guardians, treasures, stipulations, locations, and back stories, helps us to understand his active mind. Many modern saints would consider all of that a product of his imagination. Does this mean he was capable of writing the Book of Mormon? In my opinion, no way, but it does help inform our understanding of how the Book of Mormon came to be.
    By that I mean creativity could be seen as important to revelation generally. Though some wouldn’t be comfortable with this notion, it’s possible that God generally reveals to our minds things we are capable of conceiving ourselves. That could be why the creation account in Genesis fits so closely to other ancient near eastern creation accounts that predate it and are foreign to Israel. It could also be why Joseph’s discovery of the plates seem to fit a typical treasure hunting scheme. Maybe that’s why the BOM text fits at least one common 19th century idea, that the Native peoples were lost Israelites. If God commonly communicates via the human mind than there must be some natural limitations to what he can say and how he can say it.
    Joseph shows potential for his role in bringing the BOM to light in other ways also. He may not have had education, but he did have immersion in religion and likely in the Bible. I believe Bushman estimates his search for truth pre-first vision as lasting a couple of years. Then post vision he continued feeding his religious habit, only more independently as his mother indicates (bible in the woods comment). The Book of Mormon then addresses many of the very ideas he likely pondered including the apostasy, personal and continuing revelation, and the role of a religious seer.
    It should also be pointed out that some facets of the BOM text indicate that it was tailored to JS’s circumstances in real time. For example, the end of the words of Mormon include a few verses that connect to our first chapter of Mosiah. However, our first chapter is not the actual opening content of Mosiah. That was lost in the 116 pages meaning these verses would have likely been extremely redundant and entirely unneeded if we had those original opening pages of Mosiah. It seems most likely that those connective verses in the Words of Mormon represent some kind of addition made in modern times. Mormon so clearly informed us of the redundancy of the small plates. Ironically, that’s why we have the Words of Mormon in the first place. Then he seemingly randomly created unneeded redundancy? That seems unlikely, and the whole situation seems to demonstrate a flexibility in the text.
    All of this is to demonstrate that not only was Joseph incapable of writing the text, his thoughts, circumstances, and culture likely contributed to the text making it a much more conplicated texts than either what the traditional narrative claims or what critics typically claim.

    • I quite agree that the imagination plays a role (sometimes and important one) in revelation and even in translation since the words (from God or ancient authors via metal plates or some other tangible record) to some degree pass through the consciousness of the person receiving the revelation or engaged in translation. Another way to put this is that the imagination may be the greatest unused gift of the Spirit. In my introduction to Eugene England’s and my Reader’s Book of Mormon (Signature Books, 2008), I quote Gene as saying, “I think I understand the book [of Mormon] better and am more convinced of two paradoxical things, that it is based on genuine ancient peoples and manuscripts and that there is a lot of Joseph Smith in it, and one marvelous thing, that it is a remarkably important and helpful book spiritually” (vol. 1, x-xi). We tend to distrust the imagination, forgetting that the gods imagined the world before they created it and that Christ had the most fecund and expansive imagination in history, giving him the ability to imagine each one of us as redeemable.
      Joseph Smith was also blessed with expansive imaginative abilities, but all the evidence available to us does not lead to the conclusion that he could have imagined the history of the Nephites. But there is no question but that that actual history as it flowed through his mind and imagination by the power of the Holy Ghost awakened his imagination to other glorious truths and possibilities of the Restoration. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

      • I appreciate the sentiment of the quote you shared here. I think it’s accurate to say the BOM draws on a lot of different sources: authentic ancient sources, apocryphal sources (history of the Rechabites, 2nd Esdras according to Paul Owen’s JBM studies articles), sources contemporary w/ Joseph, and Joseph’s mind. It’s a complex, mysterious, and most importantly inspired/inspiring text to be sure.

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