Hey guys! So Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Mormon was scripture, translated by the gift and power of God. Of course, not everyone believed him, and in the last episode, we looked at how alternative theories about the origin of the Book of Mormon have changed over time. We talked about how the prevailing naturalistic theory today is that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith’s own intellect. The challenge with this theory is that the Book of Mormon is intricate and complex, and it raises the question: is it realistic to believe that Joseph Smith had the brains to put all of this together? Just how educated was he? Let’s see what the historic record shows.
So we’re going to look at a few categories here: Formal education, nonformal education, and what Joseph’s contemporaries said about his education. Joseph definitely had some formal education, but there are also a lot of gaps in the historic record when Joseph perhaps could have attended school but there’s no actual evidence that he did. Non-Latter-day Saint scholar William Davis speculated that if you fill some of these gaps with schooling, interspersed between the ages of 4 and about 20, Joseph may have had seven years of formal education.
That said, remember that 7 years of schooling in the early 1800s would certainly not equate to a 7th-grade education by modern standards. Additionally, there are reports suggesting that the Smith kids weren’t big fans of going to school. Benjamin Pierce wrote that “the [Smith] boys grew up without desire for education … none of them Smith boys ever went to school when they could get out of it.” Pomeroy Tucker wrote that Joseph spent his time “hunting and fishing … and idly lounging around the stores and shops in the village … instead of going to school like other boys.”
Scholar Brian Hales estimated that Joseph had about the modern equivalent of a third-grade formal education, while Davis’ estimate would probably put Joseph a couple of years beyond that.
But naturally, the Smith family made at least some effort at nonformal instruction as well. Joseph Sr. even worked as a teacher for a few winters around the time Joseph was born. One neighbor of the Smiths recalled that for at least some period of time they “had school in their house, and studied the Bible.” That said, Joseph’s mother, Lucy, noted that at 18 Joseph “had never read the Bible through in his life” and that he “was less inclined to the study of books than any child we had.”
Pomeroy Tucker observed that Joseph read “dime novels,” but also described him as “uneducated and ignorant.” Joseph’s brother, William, wrote, that Joseph “was illiterate to some extent is admitted but that he was entirely unlettered is a mistake … he wrote a plain, intelligible hand.” In 1832 Joseph himself wrote that he and his siblings “were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.”
But despite what formal or non-formal opportunities he may or may not have had, what did Joseph’s contemporaries actually observe about his level of intelligence? In 1831 Joseph’s local newspaper published that “his mental powers appear to be extremely limited, and from the small opportunity he has had at school, he made little or no proficiency. …”
Joseph’s father-in-law, Isaac Hale, said, “His appearance at this time [in 1825], was that of a careless young man—not very well educated.” Orasmus Turner remembered that for a time Joseph participated in a “juvenile debating club,” though he also described Joseph as “lounging, idle … and possessed of less than ordinary intellect.”
Joseph’s brother-in-law, Michael Morse, was asked in an interview, “whether Joseph was sufficiently intelligent and talented to compose and dictate of his own ability the matter written down by the scribes. To this, Mr. Morse replied with decided emphasis, no. He said he then was not at all learned. …”
William W. Phelps wrote in a letter, “Joseph Smith is a person of very limited abilities in common learning.” Reverend John A. Clark wrote that “Jo from a boy appeared dull and utterly destitute of genius. …” In an interview, Abel Chase said that the Smith family was “poorly educated, ignorant and superstitious. …” David Whitmer said, “In his youth, Joseph Smith was quite illiterate, knew nothing of grammar composition …”
In the first anti-Latter-day Saint book, Mormonism Unveiled, E. D. Howe wrote, “That the common advantages of education were denied to our prophet, or that they were much neglected, we believe to be a fact.” As the list goes on and on you start to see a pattern:
Joseph was not a complete idiot, but whether friend or foe or even family—whether they believed in the Book of Mormon or not—the consensus among Joseph’s contemporaries was that he was not the sharpest stick in the pile. Now, ask yourself: What skills and knowledge would be necessary to dictate a long, complex book like the Book of Mormon? And then ask yourself: Does the record show that Joseph Smith had those skills?
As scholar Brian Hales recently pointed out, there seems to be a substantial gap between the skill the Book of Mormon exhibits, and the lack thereof on Joseph’s part. The question is, what bridges this gap? How do we get this from this? I’m not going to tell you how to fill the gap. Fill it with whatever makes the most sense to you. Personally, I believe Joseph was telling the truth— that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, but you’ll have to come to your own conclusions. You may want to start by actually reading and praying about the Book of Mormon. For more info on this topic check out the resources in the YouTube description of this video, including a couple of cool little infographics Brian Hales put together on this subject, and please enjoy this short montage of additional quotes about Joseph’s education that I didn’t have time to get to in this episode.
- Brain Hales infographic: https://bit.ly/3whJoYL
- “Joseph Smith’s Education,” via Evidence Central: https://bit.ly/3u9CcvX
- “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study,” by Brian Hales (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3cxusP0 / https://bit.ly/3u2FJwa
- “Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?: The Critics and Their Theories,” by Louis C. Midgley: https://bit.ly/3rBAEJw
- “A New Witness For Christ,” by Francis Kirkham (both Vol. 1 & 2). Great sources in these books.
- “Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon,” by Brian Hales (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3fsP10m
- “‘Proving to the World’: The Unique Declaration in Doctrine and Covenants Section 20,” by Brian Hales: https://bit.ly/3lZg8l2
- “Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s ‘Visions in a Seer Stone,’” by Brian Hales (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/2PzxkkV
- “Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins,” Noel B. Reynolds (editor).