Hey guys! So when you learn something new, you start with the basics. But usually, you’re aware in your mind that once you master the basics there will be more complex things to learn in the future. In a past episode, we talked about a framework that can help us move from simplicity through complexity to the settled simplicity on the other side of complexity. And if this sounds new to you, go watch this episode where we talked all about it. This process applies to human relationships, math, cooking, art, writing, and even religion. In another past episode, we explored an example of complexity in the text of the Bible. Today I’m going to introduce you to a bit of complexity within the Book of Mormon and Church history, and we’ll look at some ways we might be able to work through it. Let’s do it!
Alright, let’s jump right in: Within the 531-page Book of Mormon, there are few pages where Nephi describes and interprets a dream that his father, Lehi, had of the Tree of Life. You know the one: The great and spacious building, the iron rod, mists of darkness, etc. If you haven’t read it, go check out 1 Nephi, chapters 8 and 11. As it turns out, in about 1811 when Joseph Smith was about 5 years old, his father, Joseph Smith Sr., apparently had a dream that was extremely similar to the dream described in 1 Nephi.
If you’d like, feel free to pause here to read the account of his dream. If you’re familiar with Lehi’s dream, you’ll notice a variety of pretty obvious parallels. Some critics point to this and draw the conclusion that Joseph Smith simply made up Lehi’s Dream, basing it on Joseph Sr.’s dream. The wider argument being that, therefore, the Book of Mormon must be false. If this is the route you want to go, you can. But let’s dig into the history here and look at what options are on the table:
While Joseph Sr. apparently had this dream in about 1811, before the Book of Mormon was published, the only record of it that we have is from the mid-1840s, in the book, “History of Joseph Smith by His Mother,” by Lucy Mack Smith, written long after the Book of Mormon was published. That I am aware of, nobody else in the Smith family even so much as mentions this dream, ever.
Technically, it wasn’t even Lucy who physically wrote the book — it was her scribes, Martha and Howard Coray. So, based on the available evidence, we’re not reading what Joseph Sr. said about his dream, we’re reading what Lucy’s scribes wrote that Lucy said about her husband’s dream — at a time when Joseph Sr. wasn’t around to verify it’s accuracy. Joseph Sr. died in 1840, while Lucy’s book wasn’t written until between 1844 and 1845 when Lucy would have been about 70 years old. We also don’t know when Joseph Sr. told Lucy about this dream. It could have been the morning after it happened more than 30 years prior in 1811, or he could have read 1 Nephi 8 years later and said, “Hey Lucy, this sort of reminds me of a dream I once had.” We don’t know how accurate Lucy’s recollection was, how accurate Joseph Sr.’s recollection was, or how true the Coray’s final product was to Lucy’s original recollection.
Speaking generally it’s also important to recognize that the production of “History of Joseph Smith by His Mother” is not as simple as we’d like to sometimes think. Church Archivist Sharalyn Howcroft argues that the complex history behind this book “should cause historians to begin using Lucy’s history with caution …. her history was shaped by memory and recitation, as well as several personal documents that were, as Lucy stated, ‘adapted to my purpose’ …. Lucy’s history is the result of complex and somewhat unknown processes that historical sources do not explicate. The history was far from the result of a simple narration.”
For example, Lucy recalls that her husband had a total of 7 significant dreams, 5 of which are included in the published text. “… there’s one of them [not the Lehi’s Dream one — a different one] … that switches from third-person to first-person narrative. And so you have to ask yourself … Who’s telling these visions? Is it Joseph Smith Sr.? Or is it Lucy Mack Smith? … when we have that flipping of third person to first person, you become very much aware that there’s a filter here. And the filter is Lucy. There’s a sense that as much as we want to believe that this is kind of an authentic experience of Joseph Smith Sr., you’ve got that filter of Lucy there… .”
And for someone recalling someone else’s dream, Lucy’s description sure is full of an incredible amount of detail and language that is oddly similar to the Book of Mormon. For example, one line from Lucy’s description says, “… it was the pure love of God shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him …” This sounds awfully similar to 1 Nephi 11:22, “It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.”
While some might wonder if Joseph Sr.’s dream influenced the text of the Book of Mormon, it’s also totally valid to wonder if it was really the text of the Book of Mormon influencing Lucy’s recollection of Joseph Sr.’s dream. But as much as we’d like to, we just don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle here. There’s some ambiguity. Welcome to the world of complexity. When people run into this information, usually they go for one of the following 3 conclusions:
Option 1: Lucy’s recollection of Joseph Sr.’s dream is accurate, and Joseph Jr. just made up Lehi’s dream based on Joseph Sr.’s dream. This route is popular among critics of our faith.
Option 2: Lucy’s recollection is accurate, and the two men simply had similar dreams. It can happen. Nephi and the apostle John both saw the same vision. When ancient prophets were called, many of them shared similar visions of God on his throne. You could go that route.
And then there’s Option 3: Lucy’s recollection is questionable, and it’s probably an example of the Book of Mormon influencing the record of this dream, instead of the dream influencing the Book of Mormon. Personally, I think Option 3 makes the most sense, but I’m obviously biassed, and you’re certainly free to grapple with this complexity and come to your own conclusions. As you do so, feel free to check out the resources in the description for more info on this topic, and have a great day!
- “Why Are There So Many Similarities between the Dreams of Lehi and Joseph Smith, Sr.?” by Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3jGJLGW
- “A Textual and Archival Reexamination of Lucy Mack Smith’s History,” by Sharalyn D. Howcroft: https://bit.ly/3izT7F8
- Extant “fair copy” of Lucy Mack’s history (Joseph Smith Papers Project): https://bit.ly/3jx3loU (this link will take you directly to where the dream is question appears)
- Extant “rough draft” of Lucy Mack’s history (Joseph Smith Papers Project): https://bit.ly/3CvXSYm (this link will take you directly to Joseph Sr.’s first dream. If you read a couple of pages, you’ll notice that the rough draft skips over dream #2 right to dream #3).