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

June 7, 2020

The Future of Book of Mormon Studies: A Response to Dialogue’s Book Review Roundtable for Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

by William L. Davis

I am deeply grateful to Elizabeth Fenton, Brian Hauglid, and Michael Austin for their thoughtful analyses of my book and for their long commitment to scholarship that seeks to expand our knowledge of Joseph’s Smith’s life and the cultural contexts in which he performed his works.  Elizabeth Fenton’s observation that my work contributes to our understanding of the sermon cultures in Joseph’s environment captures the central focus of my study, and it was particularly gratifying to read that she wished my book had been available when she started researching the Book of Mormon a decade ago.  Brian Hauglid’s acknowledgment that my work challenges the notion that Joseph was an illiterate farmer also highlights an important theme in my research.  I believe that Joseph’s early efforts in self-education and self-improvement have been overlooked, and I often find myself in the unusual position of defending the young prophet’s skills, knowledge, and capabilities against dismissals by people who otherwise stand among his most ardent followers.  I also appreciate Hauglid’s recognition that I frame Joseph’s translation as a project involving “a deeply human element in what he saw as a divine endeavor,” which, in turn, offers a safe space for believers and non-believers alike to appreciate Joseph’s efforts, without being encumbered by judgments about the validity of his claims.  In turn, Michael Austin highlights another central focus of my research: the importance of recognizing the insistent and pervasive markers of orality within the Book of Mormon, and how a deeper appreciation of oral genres offers us better and more precise ways to talk about the nature of sacred texts, the processes involved in their construction, and the ramifications for interpretation.  Though I cannot yet know how my research will affect future studies, I do indeed hope that Austin’s prediction will come true that my work “should have an outsized impact on future endeavors.”  All in all, receiving such praise from such prominent scholars, whose work I have greatly admired for years, has been both gratifying and humbling.

In writing this response, I am keenly aware that the majority of Dialogue’s readership likely consists of people with deep personal connections to one or more of the several cultural and religious heritages that have sprung from Joseph Smith’s original movement.  That being the case, I want to comment further on an additional observation that all three of these reviewers share: that is, how analyzing the text as an oral performance opens up fresh possibilities for research, and how those expanded perspectives offer new implications for serious consideration.  I believe that such a focus offers ways to understand how Joseph’s cultural context influenced the structure of the Book of Mormon and his process of translation.  As I noted at the end of the book, Joseph’s exposure to contemporary sermon cultures involves only one of several strands of early nineteenth-century oratorical culture that could have influenced his performance techniques.  I had hoped to include more information about the numerous other ways that people in the nineteenth century developed oratorical skills, but such a comprehensive treatise would have required a multi-volume work.  Nevertheless, such avenues of research remain important in terms of understanding Joseph’s translation project and his level of participation in it.

In the course of preparing my work, for example, I removed a substantial amount of information detailing the curricula found in New York common schools and how oral performance techniques formed the foundation of such educational instruction.  A detailed chapter on the role of memory and contemporary mnemonic techniques, both in educational settings and popular culture, also fell by the wayside.  In my discussion on Joseph’s use of biblical-style headings, summaries, and the alleged use of colophons in the Book of Mormon, I presented a salient contemporary comparison with one of Adam Clarke’s biblical chapter summaries and a brief commentary on the formal features of ancient colophons. Yet, space did not allow for a detailed comparative analysis or genealogical survey of such paratextual features in ancient and modern texts.  Were there world enough and time (and no limitations on word count), I would have included copious examples of ancient colophons, along with representative examples tracing the development of textual features (headings, chapters, summaries, etc.), extending from early antiquity to Hellenistic Greek and Roman practices, as well as examples found in early Christian writings and modern biblical texts.  Concrete examples offer a level of clarity that overrides malleable definitions and abstract categories, and side-by-side comparisons reveal how the extended chapter summaries and lengthy headings in the Book of Mormon represent a fundamentally different feature from ancient formulations (Greek, Roman, or Hebraic), falling firmly and decisively within the tradition of Christian paratextual apparatuses for scriptural works.  Howsoever one chooses to interpret the origin of such structures, the formal features in the Book of Mormon were clearly Christian in origin and designed for a nineteenth-century audience.

Considering Joseph as an active translator, rather than a passive instrument reading words off a seer stone, also encourages scholars to discover further information about his background.  The presence of non-biblical, late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century language, for example, has captured the attention of researchers.  How would such language find its way into the Book of Mormon, particularly if it originated from a nineteenth-century translator?  The role of oral performance offers clues.  Children growing up in religious households—especially in families like the Smiths, who participated in domestic worship—were regularly exposed to family members reading aloud the scriptures and other religious texts (e.g., sermons, theological treatises).  Such oral practices exposed children to the vocabulary, syntax, and phraseology of biblical-style language, imprinting such structures in their minds before they could even read and at the same time that they were in their most active period of first language acquisition, creating a fluency in a biblical register that modern observers often fail to appreciate.  Moreover, the Bible was not the only source for such archaic language.

In the early nineteenth century, the works of several seventeenth-century religious authors remained popular in the homes of farmers and artisans.  These included such writers as Richard Baxter (1615–1691), John Bunyan (1628–1688), John Flavel (ca. 1627–1691), John Milton, (1608–1674), and Isaac Watts (1674–1748).  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), for example, was an enormously popular work, and parents and Sunday school teachers often used the book as a beginner’s “bible” to teach children how to read.  As such, the amalgamation of archaic and biblical-sounding language from the Bible itself, combined with related seventeenth-century reading material and the language of revivalism—all shared and expressed through the oral performances of communal reading and religious oratorical expressions—could instill fluency in a spiritual linguistic register that nineteenth-century Americans took for granted and commonly described as “scripture language” or “bible language.”  Many evangelical preachers in Joseph’s time would preach in such a register, switching effortlessly from their everyday colloquial speech into a heightened biblical-sounding style.  In light of this ingrained oratorical phenomenon, future studies exploring the connections between the language of the Book of Mormon and the writings of late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century authors may well reveal some of the specific material that the Smith family read at home, as well as provide further discoveries related to the origins of Joseph’s translation style.

Incorporating the role of oral performance into research on the nature of the Book of Mormon text extends the possible topics of study well beyond these few examples.  Such new directions offer exciting possibilities.  And as I read the reviews by Fenton, Hauglid, and Austin, I was deeply appreciative of their recognition that my research does not attempt to offer final answers to longstanding questions, but rather proposes a new starting point for future studies.  For nearly two hundred years, the Book of Mormon has stood as a significant sacred text, and yet we still find ourselves confronted with many unanswered questions.  Perhaps the next two hundred years will offer new answers to some of the longstanding questions and intricate puzzles presented by Joseph’s “visions in a seer stone.”