“Joseph Smith as a Book of Mormon Storyteller”

“Joseph Smith as a Book of Mormon Storyteller” August 13, 2021


The FP and 12 in Rome
President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors in the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are President M. Russell Ballard, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Elder David A. Bednar, Elder Quentin L. Cook, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Elder Neil L. Andersen, Elder Ronald A. Rasband, Elder Gary E. Stevenson, Elder Dale G. Renlund, Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Elder Ulisses Soares. This iconic photograph was taken in the Visitor Center on the grounds of the Rome Italy Temple.




A new article — this one by Brian C. Hales — has appeared in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship:


“Joseph Smith as a Book of Mormon Storyteller”

Abstract: For nearly 200 years, skeptics have promoted different naturalistic explanations to describe how Joseph Smith generated all the words of the Book of Mormon. The more popular theories include plagiarism (e.g. of the Solomon Spaulding manuscript), collaboration (with Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, etc.), mental illness (bipolar, dissociative, or narcissistic personality disorders) and automatic writing, also called “spirit writing, “trance writing,” or “channeling.” A fifth and currently the most popular theory posits that Joseph Smith possessed all the intellectual abilities needed to complete the task. A variation on this last explanation proposes that he used the methods of professional storytellers. For millennia, bards and minstrels have entertained their audiences with tales that extended over many hours and over several days. This article explores their techniques to assess whether Joseph Smith might have adopted such methodologies during the three-month dictation of the Book of Mormon. Through extensive fieldwork and research, the secrets of the Serbo-Croatian storytellers’ abilities to dictate polished stories in real time have been identified. Their technique, also found with modification among bards throughout the world, involves the memorization of formulaic language organized into formula systems in order to minimize the number of mental choices the tale-teller must make while wordsmithing each phrase. These formulas are evident in the meter, syntax, or lexical combinations employed in the storyteller’s sentences. Professional bards train for many years to learn the patterns and commit them to memory. When compared to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, the historical record fails to support that he had trained in the use of formula systems prior to 1829 or that his dictation employed a rhythmic delivery of the phrases. Neither are formula patterns detected in the printed 1830 Book of Mormon. Apparently, Smith did not adopt this traditional storyteller’s methodology to dictate the Book of Mormon.




I’ve been somewhat discouraged lately as I’ve seen religiously conservative Latter-day Saints — people who often deride politically liberal Latter-day Saints as unfaithful, even apostate — who have been openly critical of the men they’ve sustained as apostles and prophets because those Church leaders have gone against, or seem to have gone against, the political ideology favored by these members.


I’m reminded of a very hardcore Latter-day Saint — a young-earth creationist and scriptural literalist who considered hot chocolate a violation of the Word of Wisdom — who was my senior home teaching companion for a time when I was a very young holder of the Aaronic Priesthood in southern California.  One night, following a visit to a  semi-active family, he confided to me that President Hugh B. Brown, who was at the time serving as first counselor to President David O. McKay, was a Communist agent determined to destroy the Church.  I can still remember where I was standing when he told me this.  I was shocked.  Stunned.  Not at what I had learned about President Brown, but at what I had just discovered about my home teaching companion.


For a period of about a year or so, I occasionally received phone calls from an elderly self-identified high priest in the Church who would rail against me in the strongest terms for my sympathetic attitude toward Muhammad and Islam.  He told me that, in contrast to my support for “that mass-murdering pedophile and false prophet,” he stood with the apostles and prophets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  One evening, I called his attention to the First Presidency’s 1978 statement on, among others, Muhammad.  He listened as I summarized what they had said, and then informed me that President Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors had been deceived by Satan.  I found that a rather odd way of standing with the apostles and prophets of the Church.  I, whom he had branded as favoring Muhammad over the leaders of the Restored Church, would never have said such a thing about them.  Ever.  Worlds without end.  Never.  More recently, a few wrote similar things to me about President Russell M. Nelson when my article on “Understanding Islam” was published in the April 2018 issue of the Ensign.


I’m seeing similar responses — only, if anything, more vehement and more widespread — to yesterday’s official First Presidency statement regarding anti-COVID vaccinations:


“Wear masks and get the vaccine, say top LDS leaders, even as more wards return to face coverings: “We can win this war,” says First Presidency, “if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.””


Some are declaring this the last straw.  They’re leaving the Church.


I can’t help thinking, in that light, of a passage in President Ezra Taft Benson’s famous 1981 speech “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet”:


Seventh: The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.

“Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear,” complained Nephi’s brethren. But Nephi answered by saying, “The guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:1, 3). Or, to put it in another prophet’s words, “Hit pigeons flutter.”

Said President Harold B. Lee:

“You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. … Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow. … Let’s keep our eye on the President of the Church.” [In Conference Report, October 1970, p. 152–153]

But it is the living prophet who really upsets the world. “Even in the Church,” said President Kimball, “many are prone to garnish the sepulchres of yesterday’s prophets and mentally stone the living ones” (Instructor, 95:257).

Why? Because the living prophet gets at what we need to know now, and the world prefers that prophets either be dead or mind their own business. Some so-called experts of political science want the prophet to keep still on politics. Some would-be authorities on evolution want the prophet to keep still on evolution. And so the list goes on and on.

How we respond to the words of a living prophet when he tells us what we need to know, but would rather not hear, is a test of our faithfulness.

Said President Marion G. Romney, “It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets.” And then he gives this illustration:

“One day when President Grant was living, I sat in my office across the street following a general conference. A man came over to see me, an elderly man. He was very upset about what had been said in this conference by some of the Brethren, including myself. I could tell from his speech that he came from a foreign land. After I had quieted him enough so he would listen, I said, ‘Why did you come to America?’ ‘I am here because a prophet of God told me to come.’ ‘Who was the prophet,’ I continued. ‘Wilford Woodruff.’ ‘Do you believe Wilford Woodruff was a prophet of God?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Do you believe that President Joseph F. Smith was a prophet of God?’ ‘Yes, sir.’

“Then came the sixty-four dollar question. ‘Do you believe that Heber J. Grant is a prophet of God?’ His answer, ‘I think he ought to keep his mouth shut about old age assistance.’

“Now I tell you that a man in his position is on the way to apostasy. He is forfeiting his chances for eternal life. So is everyone who cannot follow the living Prophet of God.” [In Conference Report, April 1953, p. 125]


Are we free to disagree with Church leaders?  Yes.  Of course.  I have my own opinions, myself.  But there’s abundant scriptural precedent for dissenting from the Lord’s prophets.  The Book of Mormon, for example, is chock full of examples of such rejection.  Scripturally, though, it doesn’t often end well.


President Benson’s warning is worth keeping very much in mind.  I’m convinced that we all — myself included — need to reflect continually on where we stand with respect to those whom we claim to revere as prophets and apostles.


Posted from Cedar City, Utah



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