Hey guys, so Latter-day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is scripture, translated by Joseph Smith through the gift and power of God. As I’ve mentioned many times before, the Book of Mormon is known as the keystone of our religion. Thus, it has been in the crosshairs of skeptics for almost 200 years now, and we’ve done several episodes addressing the different theories people have come up with about where or how Joseph could have fraudulently crafted the story of the Book of Mormon all on his own. I don’t think the available evidence favors any of those theories, but even if we are to play devil’s advocate and assume that Joseph did make the whole thing up, we still have tough questions to answer.
For example, the evidence does not suggest that Joseph’s scribes were in on an intricate conspiracy, so, if Joseph was a fraud, how did he manage to pull the wool over their eyes in the moment of dictation? Is it possible that Joseph had memorized or was reading from a secret, pre-written manuscript he’d crafted over the last several years? Let’s take a look.
Alright, so here’s the deal: There’s no evidence to suggest that Joseph had any sort of pre-written secret manuscript available to him as he dictated the translation of the Book of Mormon. In fact, those who were familiar with the process affirmed that he did not have any reference material. An 1881 article from the Chicago Times reported that,
“Mr. [David] Whitmer emphatically asserts as did [Martin] Harris and [Oliver] Cowdery, that while Smith was dictating the translation he had no manuscript notes or other means of knowledge save the seer stone…”
As you know, the seer stone was the revelatory tool through which God allowed Joseph to translate the Book of Mormon. Whitmer described the process as follows: “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it close around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine.”
If this is a foreign concept to you, check out the videos we’ve done specifically on seer stones. But as weird as it may sound, it does have implications for our question because having your face in a dark hat sure would make it difficult to read from any kind of notes or pre-written manuscript. Joseph’s wife, Emma, said in a later interview,
“…I frequently wrote day by day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us … he had neither manuscript nor book to read from … if he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me … and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.”
But if Joseph did have a pre-written manuscript, he would have had to fool more than just his scribes. Joseph didn’t have his own room growing up in the tiny Smith home. How did nobody in his family notice him studiously scribbling away for months on end? Where did he get the paper to write on? Who paid for it? How did he keep the manuscript a secret all those years?
But let’s table those and get back to the dictation. Some people believe that perhaps Joseph did not have his secret manuscript present during the dictation, but instead, he tediously memorized chunks of it at a time, which he then repeated to the scribe. First of all, this isn’t a new theory.
On one occasion Martin Harris swapped out Joseph’s seer stone for another similar-looking stone. When Joseph sat down to dictate he said, “‘Martin! What’s the matter? All is as dark as Egypt!’ Martin’s countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them.”
You would think that if the stone was just for show, Joseph would have continued to repeat his memorized pages as if nothing had changed. But, he doesn’t.
The evidence also suggests that Joseph was not familiar with the material he dictated. Emma said, “When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out … even the word Sarah [probably Sariah] he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.”
This would be awfully strange for Joseph to do if he was the person who wrote the book in the first place. It’s also worth noting that there is no evidence suggesting that Joseph had a photographic memory. And on a personal note, as a former speech and debate club nerd who used to regularly memorize speeches word for word—memorizing, even in chunks, a 531-page book and then banking on being able to perfectly recite it back to a scribe would have been extremely difficult, time-consuming, and, in my opinion, unnecessarily risky. If he had already gone to the trouble of writing an entire manuscript, he could have just said, “Look! Here it is. Look what God inspired me to write.” But he doesn’t.
And for goodness sake, if you’re planning on memorizing the entire thing just so people think you’re a prophet … you don’t need to write 531 pages. Just stop after 1st or 2nd Nephi and you’d be fine. But no, instead we get this beautifully complex and detailed volume of scripture.
My personal belief is that Joseph was just telling the truth about the Book of Mormon. I see no reason to believe this 23-year-old farm boy with a 3rd-grade frontier education with no prior authorship experience could have written the Book of Mormon, and then dictated it at such a rapid pace, with no significant revisions, from memory on his first try. But of course, people can and do come to different conclusions on this, and whether you agree with me or not I trust that you’re making the best spiritual decisions for your life that you can. If you have questions, shoot us a message on one of our social channels, check out the links in the description for more info on this topic, and have a great day!
- “A Response: ‘What the Manuscripts and the Eyewitnesses Tell Us about the Translation of the Book of Mormon,’” by Daniel C. Peterson: https://bit.ly/36VRiML
- “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study,” by Brian Hales: http://bit.ly/3pLW2vE / http://bit.ly/3cxusP0
- “Editor’s Introduction, Not So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account,” by Daniel C. Peterson: https://bit.ly/2MRZTsB
- A Case for the Book of Mormon,” by Tad Callister.
- “Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon,” by FARMS.
- ”Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited,” by Noel B. Reynolds (editor).