Joseph Smith: A short look at his writings

Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. As a youth his family moved to Palmyra, New York looking for a new start following multiple crop failures.

Joseph had, for the most part, a regular experience growing up in that time. He worked on the farm, and picked up odd jobs with his father and older brothers. He suffered from an illness, but recovered. His family suffered loss common to that time, and were generally poor. He received a little schooling, and did some reading with the family, but did not have the opportunity for a solid formal education.

All of that “normal” disappeared once Joseph had a life changing experience in a grove of trees at age 14. The remaining 24 years of his life would be anything but normal.

Joseph was involved, in one way or another, with a significant amount of writings. He brought forth the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, he received a large number of revelations which are recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, he was interviewed by reporters, his history was recorded as it happened, and he kept a journal.

This week I had a couple of experiences that highlighted the differences in these works for me, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

The Book of Mormon is 531a)In it’s current typed format including footnotes pages long. There are 15 smaller books that comprise the Book of Mormon. Each named after a primary individual, often the author of that particular book.

The main portion of the book occurs between 600 b.c. and 421 a.d., a period of over 1,000 years. Another portion of the book occurs much earlier, probably somewhere around 2,000 b.c.

The book is largely all original material, with some quotes from the Old and New Testaments. The writing is complex. Many narratives and sub-narratives run throughout the book. Theology and history are interwoven constantly, and the book contains writings that vary from simple statements of faith to deep allegories. The book even contains the use of complex chiasumus.

The book is written by a people who originated in Jerasulem, and contains authentic Semitic constructions in it’s language.

The Book of Mormon contains hundreds of names for people and places. Some names are common, or at least already known, but many of the less familiar names have also proven to have roots in, or at least familiarity with, ancient Hebrew names.

To some the Book of Mormon seems as though it has grammatical errors and a clumsy use of language. However, new studies in linguistics have been able to show that the language in the Book of Mormon is actually much more complex than originally thought and shows evidence of English language structure that predates Joseph’s time by hundreds of years.

Initial Word Print Analysis studies have shown distinct voices associated with the various authors within the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith’s role was to translate the Book of Mormon. Understandably most people imagine Joseph engaged in a scholarly style translation where one takes the original document written in “language A” and rewrites the text in “language B”. The scholar is able to do this because of their intimate familiarity with both languages and their ability to read and write in both.

This is not, however, the type of translation Joseph performed. Joseph’s translation came by the “gift and power of God“. It is much more akin to someone receiving a revelation from God, than our traditional idea of scholarly translation.

Joseph brought forth the Book of Mormon by dictating it to scribes while he received the words, through different methods, from God. He did this in a period of 60-90 days, working on the translation for multiple hours each day. The book was produced in a single draft, with out reference material or notes, and with out going back to verify internal references, adjust narratives, match names or geography, and with out the common multiple-draft editing techniques.

With all of this in mind, remembering Joseph’s lack of formal education, and considering the fact that we haven’t even explored the complexities of the Pearl of Great Price or the Doctrine and Covenants, I come to this:

Jospeh Smith first page diary

This is Joseph’s first journal, which begins about 3 years after the translation of the Book of Mormon is complete. Joseph started his journal after being instructed by the Lord that records should be kept by the church.

The first page of the journal (shown above) reads as such:

27 November 1832  Tuesday

Joseph Smith Jrs  Record Book Baught  for to note all the  minute circumstances  that comes under my  observation
Joseph Smith Jrs  Book for Record  Baught on the 27th of  November 1832 for  the purpose to keep a  minute acount of all  things that come under  my obsevation &c- –
oh may God grant that  I may be directed in all my thaughts O bless  thy Servent Amen

The reader can clearly see Joseph struggle with his first journal entry. Crossing out his first, awkward, attempt at a title for the book.

As was common for someone in his position he uses a phonetic spelling for several words: “baught”, “acount”, “servent” “thaughts”.  He also misspells “observation”.

His sentence structure is choppy and less than eloquent. He ends the entry with a plea for help from God. This plea reveals how overwhelming writing was for Joseph.

On the second page of Joseph’s journal he misspells the names of his sister Sophronia, which Joseph spells as “Sopronia”; and his sister Katherine, which Joseph spells as “Catheri(n)”.

Subsequent entries show the same inadequacies.

Joseph eventually abandons writing his own journal entries and starts to use scribes.

Why am I delving into the details of Joseph’s writings? Because the difference between these journal entries and the translation of the Book of Mormon simply astounds me.

Joseph has trouble spelling his own sister’s name, but the Book of Mormon has hundreds of names, some quite complicated.

Joseph has a hard time coming up with a title for his journal, yet the Book of Mormon has an ongoing story line with complex narratives, intricate conflicts, complicated character interaction, long sermons, and minute details.

Joseph makes only a handful of journal entries before abandoning the practice for 10 months, yet the Book of Mormon is dictated in it’s entirety in only 2 to 3 months.

Joseph’s journal entries mostly consist of a few, short sentences, but the Book of Mormon was dictated page after page with out rest.

Joseph begs the Lord for help in writing his journal, yet he dictates the Book of Mormon for hours on end with out reference or assistance.

It is hard to ignore that as a person Joseph struggled with basic writing skills, yet as a servant of God he was able to translate one of the most significant religious texts of all time. A text that has lead to millions of converts. A text that has been translated into hundreds of languages and been distributed across the world. A text that has, as it claims it will do, bring many to a better relationship with Christ.

A text that continues to prove to be more deep and complex than we ever imagined.



*This post was inspired by a fireside given by Richard E. Turley Jr in April 2015

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Luke Hopkin

Father, wilderness addict, Mormon. I believe that we don't give the gospel of Christ the credit it deserves, it is much more effective, deep, and personal than we often realize. I believe in principles of faith, in doctrine, and in revelation. I hope to bring new insights, and a voice for truth, to the conversation. @lukevhopkin
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a. In it’s current typed format including footnotes