One of the pillars of disbelief for critics of the Book of Mormon is the notion that Joseph Smith was well known as an imaginative story teller. He was allegedly telling wild stories about the ancient peoples of the Americas years before be began the “translation” of the Book of Mormon — that pretty much is all we need to know to explain the origins of the Book of Mormon.
This mischief begins with a puzzling statement from Lucy Mack Smith that is endlessly used and abused by Book of Mormon critics, and often accepted at face value by Latter-day Saints. But there are enough oddities in her account and a lack of support from Joseph’s peers for her statement, as we discuss below, that a little more skepticism might be healthy. It is hardly the kind of evidence that one can hang one’s hat on. Here is the statement from her 1853 autobiography:
From this time forth [after the initial visits from Moroni], Joseph continued to receive instructions from the
Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening, for
the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same. I
presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever
lived upon the face of the earth, all seated in a circle, father,
mother, sons, and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a
boy, eighteen years of age, who had never read the Bible through in his
life: he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of
the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep
study. We were now confirmed in the opinion that God was about to bring
to light something upon which we could stay our minds, or that would
give us a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation and the
redemption of the human family. This caused us greatly to rejoice, the
sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house, and tranquillity
reigned in our midst. [p.85] During our evening conversations, Joseph
would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could
be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this
continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which
they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their
mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with
as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them. [emphasis added]
This is used not only by Book of Mormon critics to suggest that Joseph’s story telling skills were remarkable and predated the production of the Book of Mormon, but is also used by some factions within Mormonism who claim that Joseph of course knew all about the details of Nephite civilization and where they were located, so various statements inferring a North American setting must be taken as prophetic certainty, in sharp contrast to what the record really shows about Joseph’s evolving views on where the Book of Mormon scenes in the Americas might have taken place.
The abuse of Lucy’s quote includes episodes when some critics misuse her statement to imply that Joseph had long been interested in the ancient Americas and was telling stories of life in ancient America before he encountered Moroni and the gold plates. Lucy’s statement in context clearly indicates that the occasionally “amusing recitals” were usually quite serious and inspiring, and only began after Joseph was introduced to the Book of Mormon by Moroni, not before. But the way the statement has been edited by the Tanners has caused some confusion in readers. Below is a passage from Mormonism–Shadow or Reality? by Gerald and Sandra Tanner, p. 81, as discussed in a fascinating report by Robert Vukich in “An Incident Concerning Page 81 of Mormonism–Shadow or Reality?” from the 2000 FAIRMormon Conference:
The fact that Joseph Smith had a great interest in the ancient
inhabitants of the land prior to his “translation” of the Book of Mormon
is no secret to those who have read the History of Joseph Smith by his
Mother. Mrs. Smith said: “I presume our family presented an aspect as
singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth–all seated in
a circle, father, mother, sons and daughters, and giving the most
profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, …During our evening
conversations, JOSEPH would occasionally give us some of the most
amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ANCIENT
INHABITANTS of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the
animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every
particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship.
This he would do with EASE, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life
among them.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 1954 Edition,
Lucy’s statement in context is the voice of a witness seeing a miracle taking place through Joseph’s encounter with Moroni and the Book of Mormon, but the serious and inspiring flavor of her statement becomes a focus on amusing tales from an entertaining story teller who was skilled at making stuff up, thus explaining away Book of Mormon origins as the work of Joseph’s imagination. As edited and presented, that’s not exactly true to what Lucy’s statement really indicates.
Vukich shares his correspondence with the Tanners as he questions their motives and accuracy in their editing of Lucy Mack Smith’s quote. It is an interesting exchange that reminds us that some critics in spite of their proclaimed commitment to truth and accuracy might take a few shortcuts that can be questioned.
The abuse of Lucy Mack Smith’s statement to turn the Book of Mormon into the easily explained fruit of an entertaining story teller has been replayed in many forms. A recent example is in a seemingly scholarly work that is unable to get past the author’s personal biases to confront the Book of Mormon seriously. The work is Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies in the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), as reviewed by Kevin Christensen in “Playing to an Audience: A Review of Revelatory Events,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 28 (2018): 65-114. Christensen offers some significant analysis regarding Lucy Mack Smith’s statement that should be considered the next time someone rattles it off as if it helped explain the origins of the Book of Mormon, or as if it takes away from the miracle of what Joseph dictated from a hat while housed in the information vacuum of Harmony, Pennsylvania (a village that essentially no longer exists and wasn’t much in Joseph’s day wither), without the aid of manuscripts, a Bible, reference materials, or a technical advisory team scouting the world for Hebraisms, maps of Arabia, details about the ancient Americas, etc.
In response to Taves’ excessive reliance on Luck Mack Smith’s statement, Kevin Christensen offers the following analysis in his review:
There are some unexamined oddities about the Lucy Smith quote.
Before I would take it as an interpretive foundation, I must consider
that, even though a first-hand account, it is not an autograph account,
and it is late, dating to an 1844 dictation in Nauvoo to the non-LDS, 24-year old Martha
Jane Coray regarding events in Palmyra 1823 and then not published
until 1853. That is, the quote is six years older than Joseph Smith’s
official history from 1838, which Taves takes notable interest in
dissecting and comparing with earlier sources. In her discussion of
method and sources for Mormonism, she observes:
Apart from the 1825 agreement with Josiah Stowell and the 1826
court record, both of which are preserved in later versions, we have no
real-time access to events until July 1828, when D&C 3 — the
first real-time recorded revelation — opens a window in the wake of the
loss of the first 116 pages of the manuscript. Chapter 1 thus opens
with an in-depth analysis of D&C 3, read as a window on that moment
rather than as it was interpreted and reinterpreted in later accounts.
The Lucy Smith quote, aside from being a late account, rather than
early and contemporary (not “real time access,” not a direct “window
on the moment”), turns out to be notably odd and unique with respect to
Joseph Smith, rather than well supported from a range of sources.
Certainly much in Lucy’s biography is well supported, but let us
recognize the anomaly here. Odd accounts do occur in history, yes, but
the account raises questions that should be faced and mentioned before
building one’s structure there. First of all, the Book of Mormon we
have has no descriptions of people riding animals in over 500 pages
that include several major migrations and 100 distinct wars. It
provides no notably detailed descriptions of clothing (other than
armor) and no detailed descriptions of the structure of later
buildings. The most detail we get involves descriptions of
fortifications with palisaded walls and ditches.
Then there is the unasked question as to why — if Joseph Smith as a
youth was capable of this kind of detailed, immersive,
evening-filling recital on the everyday particulars of Book of Mormon
peoples and culture — do we have no further record anywhere of his
performing the same service as an adult? Perhaps the closest
circumstance on this topic involves the Zelph story on Zion’s Camp, but
in that case the notable differences in the details recorded by the
different people who reported it, even those writing close to the
event, should give pause to a person trying
to build an interpretive foundation on an isolated, late, anomalous
account related to far longer and complex narrative than the Zelph
gossip. It bears mentioning that if Joseph Smith had been telling stories
about the Book of Mormon peoples, animals, clothing, and culture, such
stories should have had an obvious influence on Abner Cole’s 1830
parody version, the Book of Pukei, which “tells in mocking fashion about the sorts of things that Joseph’s neighbors expected to find in the Book of Mormon.” Yet the most notable thing about the Book of Pukei is how utterly different it is from the actual Book of Mormon. The book Joseph Smith produced was emphatically not what his neighbors expected.
It is true the Book of Mormon does contain abundant details about
“their religious worship” and their “modes of warfare,” but we have no
other accounts of Joseph Smith’s filling anyone’s evening or afternoon
with amusing or serious recitals on those topics either. Again, why
not? This is not a frivolous question but one addressed to a foundation
stone upon which Taves chooses to build.
The one notable discussion of ancient buildings from Joseph Smith
comes as his surprised and delighted review of John Lloyd Stephen’s Incidents of Travels Central America as expressed in two articles in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. I find Michael Coe’s report of Joseph Smith’s encounter with the Stephen’s book particularly telling:
In 1841 — after the Book of Mormon, actually — there was a
publication in New York and London of a wonderful two volume work
called Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan
by John Lloyd Stephens, an American diplomat, and his
artist-companion, the British topographical artist Frederick
Catherwood, with wonderful illustrations by Catherwood of the Maya
ruins. This was the beginning of Maya archaeology, … and we who worked
with the Maya civilization consider Stephens and Catherwood the kind of patron saints of the whole thing.
Well, Joseph Smith read these two volumes, and he was
flabbergasted, because what he had dictated about the ancient his mind,
these were the ancient cities that he was talking about. They weren’t
in South America, as he originally thought; they were in Central
America and neighboring Mexico.
It happens that there are over 500 passages with geographic details
for the New World portions of the Book of Mormon, and they have a
remarkable internal consistency. But they are not at all consistent with any location in South America,
and more particularly, there is no way to fit the internal travel
accounts required to a New York Cumorah and a Land South that includes
South America. Coe doesn’t bother to explain how Joseph managed to
describe in detail and at length something so very different than he
originally imagined, or more accurately, what Coe imagines Joseph
imagined. Taves avoids these issues the same way Coe does: by not
exploring the Book of Mormon text or Joseph Smith’s history or
believing Mormon scholarship in enough detail to encounter or generate
such problems. In her account, the Book of Mormon is Biblical sounding,
has a bit of distinctive language in chiasmus, and has a story of
“shining stones” and divine rebuke she reads as analogous to Joseph
Smith and the plates. But for purposes of her discussion, it can be
defined simply as “large” and “complex,” just as The Big Book of AA is, and as Schucman’s A Course in Miracles
is, and as a range of other automatic writings are. Personally, I find
the superficiality of her approach to the Book of Mormon to be
astonishing in a book that purports to authoritatively account for its
existence. And this is true even considering the comment of another
sympathetic Catholic scholar, Thomas O’Dea, who famously observed, “The
Book of Mormon is not one of those books that one must read in order
to have an opinion of it.” [references omitted]
Lucy’s statement is an oddity. Certainly Joseph discussed things that he learned from revelation with his family, but there is no reason to believe that what he would encounter and dictate in the translation process was already part of a worked out collection of stories or from a manuscript he was already familiar with. Joseph the remarkable teller of Indian stories is not the Joseph that anyone seems to have known. After the Book of Mormon came out, he didn’t tell such stories, either. From his sermons, we don’t see evidence that he was all that familiar with Book of Mormon peoples and details. We don’t see that in the statements of others closely associated with him. Lucy’s lone statement long after the Book of Mormon was published does not form a solid foundation for understanding the origins of the Book of Mormon.
By the way, an important point overlooked by the Tanners and other critics in their use of Lucy mack Smith’s (edited) statement is that Joseph’s family believed him. They believed that this young man had seen an angel and been directed to ancient plates with a sacred record. Daniel Peterson underscores this important point from several angles on his post at Sic et Non, “Father and mother believed him; why should not the children?” He quotes, for example, the 1875 testimony of Joseph’s younger brother, William Smith:
Joseph Smith, at the age of
seventeen years, with the moral training he had received from strictly
pious and religious parents, could not have conceived the idea in his
mind of palming off a fabulous story, such as seeing angels, etc. . . .
There was not a single
member of the family of sufficient age to know right from wrong but what
had implicit confidence in the statements made by my brother Joseph
concerning his vision and the knowledge he thereby obtained concerning
Father and mother believed him;
why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories
about other things, we might have doubted his word about the plates, but
Joseph was a truthful boy. That father and mother believed his report
and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful.
And again in 1884:
All believed it was true,
father, mother, brothers and sisters. You can tell what a child is.
Parents know whether their children are truthful or not. . . . Father
knew his child was telling the truth.
His parents knew. His family knew. And millions who give the Book of Mormon a chance have also come to know that Joseph was telling the truth.