Dialogue Book Review Roundtable: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis

May 27, 2020

Taking Seriously the Book of Mormon’s Status as a Performance 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Fenton

William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone takes as its object of study the compositional process through which Joseph Smith, Jr. “brought forth” the Book of Mormon. Rather than treating the book simply as a written text, Davis reminds us that it must be understood as “one of the longest recorded oral performances in the history of the United States.” Emphasizing the fact that this text first emerged in the nineteenth century as an extended set of speech acts allows Davis to reorient the conversation that has swirled around the Book of Mormon’s creation for nearly two centuries. Instead of interrogating its authenticity or elaborating its narrative claims, Davis situates the book within the context of antebellum sermon culture and oratorical training. Asking not, “Did Smith write the Book of Mormon?” but rather, “What practices facilitated and shaped Smith’s performance of the Book of Mormon?” Davis asks causes readers to consider the text as a complex assemblage of Christian faith and revivalism, sermon culture and folk magic, religious vision and creativity. The result is a provocative work of scholarship that not only stands as a convincing reassessment of the Book of Mormon in its own right, but also invites future investigations into the book, its myriad contexts, and its legacy.

I enjoyed reading this book. Its prose is lucid, and its arguments are fresh and compelling. From my perspective, Visions in a Seer Stone’s primary contribution to the field is its deep engagement with the sermon-writing cultures in play during Smith’s lifetime. Smith would have encountered a variety of preaching styles before engaging with the Book of Mormon, especially after his family moved to western New York and began participating in revivalist meetings there. As Davis ably shows, nineteenth-century preachers—even (or perhaps especially) when they spoke extemporaneously—did extensive preparation for their sermons, and they used a variety of standard organizational techniques in the course of that preparation. Through analysis of the Book of Mormon as well as Smith’s personal history and transcribed sermons, Davis shows that a combination of different sermon-preparation techniques is evident throughout Smith’s work. “Thus,” he writes, “while the nature of the Book of Mormon and the process of its construction may always remain contested, Smith’s personal style of composition…emerges time and again in the pages of the work.” That style, it turns out, locates Smith deep within, rather than apart from, the diverse Protestant cultures of his era.

Of specific interest to me were Davis’s detailed explanations of popular composition techniques, and I was most taken with his account of the practice of “laying down heads,” which refers to a method of previewing topics to come at the start of a sermon. Beginning with a terrific analysis of the opening lines of an unfinished 1832 manuscript history of the Church, Davis shows how Smith’s project demonstrates an application of this technique. The history begins with a list of topics to be covered in the larger work. “Smith’s method of using a preliminary outline…” Davis explains, “was a standard technique of composition in the early nineteenth century.” Tracing the “laying of heads” through Smith’s works, Davis suggests that Smith’s process involved a creative reworking of this common practice. From the previewing of topics in sermons to the composition of the chapter summaries that provide a roadmap of the Book of Mormon, introductory outlines are ubiquitous in the texts Smith produced. They even make their way into the Book of Mormon itself, as part of its action rather than merely a formal feature. Davis calls our attention to a moment in the text I never had noticed before, when Nephi commands his brother Jacob, “if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I [Jacob] should engraven the heads of them upon these plates.” Davis argues, I think rightly, that Smith’s contemporaries “would have immediately recognized Nephi’s instruction as an everyday technique of contemporary composition, expansion, and declamation.” But rather than offer a facile reading of this moment that simply locates the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century, Davis suggests that an awareness of Smith’s use of this and other techniques—from extemporaneous speaking to the use of a seer stone—reveals the rich confluence of religious cultures into and out of which the book emerged. Whatever its origins, the Book of Mormon speaks to its nineteenth-century audience in many ways, and one of those ways is in its highlighting of compositional techniques.

I wish this book had existed when I began exploring the Book of Mormon a decade ago. In addition to its fascinating, original argument, Visions in a Seer Stone provides a great deal of useful information about Smith and his family, as well as the religious and cultural circles in which they traveled. Any student of the Book of Mormon will benefit from the wealth of contexts this book clusters around Smith and the incredible book he produced. As Davis notes in his preface, different readers will draw different conclusions about the meanings of those contexts and their ramifications for belief in the Book of Mormon’s claims. I think that’s as it should be. For me, this book creates an opportunity to take seriously the Book of Mormon’s status as a performance and to meditate on the implications of its origin as such. A colleague recently remarked to me that Melville’s Moby Dick is the only American text to replicate the epic project of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Having just finished Visions in a Seer Stone, and thus having spent some time thinking about what it means to recite a religious epic, I replied, “You’re wrong. The Book of Mormon did it first.”


Joseph Smith, Sermon Culture, and Translating the Book of Mormon

Reviewed by Brian M. Hauglid

William L. Davis’s compelling read, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (hereafter Visions) explores one overarching and significant question: How could a nineteenth-century American young man in his mid-twenties produce a book over five hundred pages in length within a ninety-day period? (1) It’s a question that Mormon missionaries frequently pose to people investigating the LDS Church. Of course, the hoped-for answer, from the perspective of the faith, is that God directed an unlettered prophet to miraculously bring forth the Book of Mormon. 

In Visions, however, Davis turns the notion that Smith was illiterate on its head by placing Joseph Smith squarely within early nineteenth-century sermon culture, a culture that Davis shows very likely influenced Smith in his translation of the Book of Mormon. Davis’s careful analysis shows that Joseph Smith’s interest in and experience with early Methodism as an exhorter (minister in training) provided him with the skills and religious education to elevate him far above the level of illiteracy. In Visions we find that Smith fits in quite well with how the educated preachers in his day composed and performed their sermons. 

Not surprisingly, ministers in Smith’s day were not merely automatons conveying the word of God in a cold, lifeless, and scripted manner. On the contrary, clergy worked hard to become intimately familar with the Bible, to carefully organize and outline their sermons, and to perform their sermons with energy and vigor always trying to be open to the guidance of the spirit to meet their audience’s specific needs. Visions explores significant techniques ministers used in the early nineteenth-century to create their sermons, many of which, Davis argues Smith learned and employed to produce a large amount of narrative text in a relatively short period of time. 

Although Smith never went on to become a full-fledged Methodist minister, the religious training he would have received to compose and perform sermons, according to Davis, shines through in the Book of Mormon narrative in a host of ways. For example, Smith would have learned to “lay down heads,” or in more modern vernacular, create bullet points from which he could expand on a sermon, a common practice the preachers of his day employed. In many cases these “heads” would be concealed so as not to sound too academic to the preacher’s audience. Many ministers would create outlines of their sermons that would contain these “heads” that became for them mnemonic cues and therefore be able to preach in performative ways with little or no notes at all.

Davis prefaces his Book of Mormon analyses citing two outside examples in which Smith employed the compositional technique of “laying down heads”: the writing of his 1832 history and his 1844 Nauvoo King Follett discourse. Davis argues that these two examples also highlight two distinct ways laying down heads is used in the Book of Mormon. (1) The introductions to books in the Book of Mormon, originating from Nephi, Jacob, Alma, or Mormon, follow the 1832 history in explicitly laying down heads, while (2) the King Follet discourse follows a technique of concealing heads, common to what one might find with the pulpit sermons in Smith’s day. Like a literary surgeon, Davis identifies, highlights, and analyzes these techniques using many examples from the Book of Mormon in a stunning and compelling manner. In the end it becomes quite clear that it was possible, and perhaps likely, that Smith performed the sermons in the Book of Mormon (i.e., sermons highlighted in the book include Jacob, King Benjamin, Alma, Mormon, etc.) using the compositional techniques of creating an outline, laying down the heads, using mnemonic cues, all without a heavy reliance on notes. 

Davis also seems quite aware of the implications his study of early American sermon culture has on the question of historicity and the Book of Mormon, and most readers will see that given the scope of his evidence Davis favors the Book of Mormon as a nineteenth-century text for a nineteenth-century audience. Yet Davis is upfront about his own lapsing from the LDS faith and, in my view, makes a good-faith effort to walk the razor’s edge between a purely natural or purely divine origin for the Book of Mormon, hoping that readers will make their own conclusions. Nevertheless, Davis is not afraid to take on what he sees as “nondoctrinal theories and proposals that, for some devotees, has assumed quasi-official status,” which Davis views as “barnacles of faith,” that shut “down comprehensive discussions about the nature and origin of the Book of Mormon” (ix, 126, 130). Of course, this pejorative phrase “barnacles of faith” will invite criticism from some Book of Mormon apologists who will surely not shy away from using the phrase negatively for their own purposes in critiquing Visions.

In the epilogue Davis acknowledges that Visions is incomplete providing only a part of “the complex tapestry of nineteenth-century oral performance genres” and that there are many other avenues of research that remain open to further investigation such as exploring storytelling culture, memory and oral culture, and orality in education (193). I hope Davis will be able to produce more of his research on these kinds of topics.

Visions offers convincing support to the notion that Smith’s approach to translation involved a deeply human element in what he saw as a divine endeavor. With that in mind, Visions should be a welcome addition to conversations in Mormon Studies about Joseph Smith as a translator.

Visions in a Seer Stone and the Way Forward for Book of Mormon Studies

Reviewed by Michael Austin

William L. Davis, the author of Visions in a Seer Stone, holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of California at Los Angeles. The discipline is important; it gives Davis a set of academic lenses that nobody has ever used before in studying the Book of Mormon. And by applying these lenses to the text rigorously, Davis pulls off something that I would not have considered possible before reading the book. He makes an utterly uncontroversial observation about the Book of Mormon’s origin and uses it to support a series of insightful, original claims about the way that the Book of Mormon can and should be read.

The book’s central observation is that Joseph Smith did not write the original text of the Book of Mormon; he spoke it, and other people wrote it down. LDS children learn this in Primary, and both devout believers and strident critics accept it as historical fact. We know that  Joseph dictated the text of the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdry and several other scribes and that Cowdery created a second manuscript for the printer, who copyedited it, divided it into paragraphs, and typeset it to produce the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. Over the last 30 years, Latter-day Saint scholars led by BYU Professor Royal Skousen have painstakingly reconstructed and compared these original manuscripts to create an invaluable resource, The Book of  Mormon: The Earliest Text. Davis’s simple observation, though, reminds us that this is not quite the correct title. The earliest text of the Book of Mormon is not a manuscript at all, but an oral performance for an audience of one. 

Like some of the most significant texts in the world’s history—The Iliad, The Ramayana, Sundiata, Beowulf—The Book of Mormon began its English-language life as an oral narrative. Nobody doubts this fact, but few of us have really considered its implications the way that Davis has. Visions in a Seer Stone has the potential to change the trajectory of Book of Mormon studies in ways that no book has done since Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. Hardy changed the critical landscape by restoring to its narrators the status of actual narrators—with the same biases, shortcomings, and limited perspectives that narrators always have. Davis offers to change it by restoring the text to the oral tradition that produced it,. This has profound consequences for the way that we read the Book of Mormon and understand its place in history. Below, I will sketch three of these specific implications with, I hope, useful suggestions for how scholars of the Book of Mormon might expand on Davis’s work.

First, Visions in a Seer Stone points to a new set of texts to use for studying the Book of Mormon’s nineteenth-century context. In their recent (and excellent) edited collection Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon, Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman include at least five essays that identify the nineteenth-century context for the Book of Mormon by looking at types of texts that people today rarely encounter:  books exhumed from the earth (21-39), pseudo-biblical narratives (136-158), books by people considered prophets (184-206), arguments about the possible Hebraic origins of Native Americans (277-296), and conduct books for young men (362-390). To this intriguing list, Davis adds another set of oral genres from the 19th century that likely influenced the Book of Mormon’s initial reception–such as storytelling, public lectures, political debates, extemporaneous speeches, and, most of all, religious sermons.

As Davis explains, nineteenth-century Protestants—especially the Methodists, whom Joseph was known to favor—developed a distinctive process for creating and delivering sermons. This process included a convention known as “laying down heads,” or beginning with a brief spoken outline and then filling in extemporaneously with materials, stories, experiences, and exhortations that one has studied intently but not arranged specifically. This process allows for (and indeed some would say requires) in-the-moment inspiration. But it also requires enough study and contemplation to fill the mind with the raw materials of the eventual sermon. We know that Joseph Smith used this process in his own sermons, such as the King Follet Funeral Discourse, to which Davis devotes a full chapter. And through a rigorous close reading of the text, he demonstrates how often sermon-crafting techniques pop up throughout the Book of Mormon.

Davis’s analysis of 19th-century sermon culture as it relates to the Book of Mormon is extensive, and perhaps even exhaustive. But he leaves tantalizing hints throughout the text of other genres ripe for inquiry. How might the presentation of religious and political disagreements in the Book of Alma have been shaped by the rhetorical structure of nineteenth-century debates? Can we find elements of the Lyceum-style public lectures in the formal addresses by Jacob, King Benjamin, and Samuel the Lamanite? Does the problematic curse narrative in 2 Nephi work like etiological “tall tales” such as “How the Bear Lost His Tail?” The path-breaking work in Visions in a Seer Stone opens the whole field of nineteenth-century oral narratives to serious textual analysis by scholars of the Book of Mormon. 

Second, Davis gives us a better way to talk about the genres of the Book of Mormon. Identifying genre is vital to any meaningful reading of scripture. “Scripture” itself is not a discrete genre, and those who treat it as such tend to miss everything important about it. Careful scholars have been able to identify the major genres in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles—creation myth, wisdom dialogue, lyric poem, satirical tale, instructional letter, apocalypse, etc.—which has made it possible for us to understand something about the expectations that their original authors and readers shared. We have been much less successful in identifying genres in the Book of Mormon. For one thing, its composition is different, and the final editor (be it Mormon or Joseph Smith) imposed a fair bit of uniformity on the different parts of the text. And, let’s face it, the Book of Mormon claims to be the only artifact of a thousand years of a culture that we don’t know anything else about. This makes genre a hard nut to crack. Even if we assume nineteenth-century authorship, there aren’t a lot of things like the Book of Mormon. It doesn’t seem much like Moby Dick or Leaves of Grass or Democracy in America. So we have very few things to compare with the different parts of The Book of Mormon— unless we account for the oral culture of the early nineteenth century.

By Davis’s calculations, around 40% of the Book of Mormon consists of “sermons and orations,” including “prophecies, teachings, scripture quotations with commentaries, exhortations, and various hybrids of these and other closely-related genres” (89). And he makes a good start of identifying these passages in a list that runs from pp. 117-119. I find a valuable way to understand the text. Some passages in the Book of Mormon are independent sermons that follow rules that were understood by its 19th-century readers. Other portions are scriptural commentaries that do much the same thing. All of the genres that Davis identifies in this passage reflect the sorts of things that 19th century Protestants did in their church meetings. The original readers of the Book of Mormon understand the conventions of these oral discourses and read the text accordingly. Learning more about them helps us understand the genre expectations of different passages, thus avoiding the tendency to draw proof texts from an undifferentiated tub of self-contained one-paragraph texts.

Third (and last for now) Davis gives us a new way to understand the Book of Mormon’s translation process. “Think of how the image of Joseph Smith peering at a seerstone in a hat has been used to humiliate Mormons by those outside the faith,” writes Joanna Brooks in the cover blurb for Visions in a Seer Stone, “Davis reframes this scene as a virtuoso performance of religious creativity.” This gets to the heart of what makes this book so valuable. Davis doesn’t just frame the Book of Mormon as an ORAL performance; it frames it as an oral PERFORMANCE, with an emphasis on the performative nature of pulpit discourse in the nineteenth century.  As Brooks observes, this aspect of the work provides a solid way out of the “prophet-fraud” dichotomy—especially the weird stuff. What if the seer stone and the magic hat were neither implements of prophecy or examples of fraud? What if they were a normal and expected part of the way that sermons were performed? The implications of this possibility are profound.

In the final chapter of Visions in a Seer Stone, Davis weaves the disparate threads of his story into a theory about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Smith, he argues, probably began thinking about the Book of Mormon for six or seven years before he began translating it. He had already scoured the Bible for passages that supported the text, and he had thought deeply about the Nephites and the Lamanites that the angel Moroni described in 1823. When he began to dictate the Book of Mormon to a scribe, he was familiar enough with his material to use the extemporaneous sermon forms that he learned from the Methodists as a way to organize his performance. This model does not require divine inspiration, but it in no way disallows it. Extemporaneous sermonizing informed by study and contemplation is a perfectly legitimate way to receive divine revelation—one that Joseph Smith regularly advocated and claimed to experience.

I cannot say for sure that Visions in a Seer Stone will be a path-breaking, paradigm-busting work of scholarship. People read what they read and incorporate what they choose into their own work. But I can say that it should have an outsized impact on future endeavors. Davis’s work is original and insightful, and his scholarship is meticulous. He is equally good at close reading and context building, and his book says important things that have not been said before. I know that it will have a profound influence on anything that I say about the Book of Mormon from now on. And, who knows, I might even write some of it down.

Author Response to Dialogue Book Review Roundtable: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis