Several reviews of William L. Davis’s impressive monograph, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), have already been written —such as Andrew Hamilton’s here and Ben Park’s here—with others still reported to be on the way. The book engages in the single-most extensive analysis of the extant text of the Book of Mormon through the lens of the 19th century, exhaustively contextualizing it within early American oral performance and sermon culture. Equally noteworthy, in my view, is Davis’s adept ability to step foot into the contested waters of Book of Mormon origins without muddying his own writing through all-too-common polemic, snark, or hostility towards individuals on either side of the fence. Davis, impressively, stays aloof from those disputes, lasering in instead to the subject of how Joseph Smith’s own environment and learned abilities factored into the creation of the text.
While others have already provided apt summaries of the contents of Visions in a Seer Stone, I want to give attention to the potential implications the book may have with respect to Mormon truth claims. Though Davis himself specifically avoided weighing-in as to whether the Book of Mormon should be considered historically representative of real peoples, places, and events in the ancient Americas, whether Joseph Smith really possessed ancient golden plates, or if God truly was behind its dictation, undoubtably the ground covered in Visions will now factor into future debates on these issues and others. Already, I have observed some resistance and skepticism about Davis’s work, stemming in part from concern over the focus of his book coupled with questions about his motives. Such classifying of scholarship on the grounds of whether it represents believing or naturalistic paradigms has been common to the field of Book of Mormon studies, with non-Mormon scholar Elizabeth Fenton recently lamenting that:
…any effort to read it within a literary or historical context that is not ancient America might be deemed an effort to discredit it, so inseparable are the text’s truth claims from its claims to ancient origins. Indeed… from the moment of its publication, efforts to prove The Book of Mormon a fraud also have been efforts to situate it within a literary context—the style of Elizabethan English, the mode of romance, or the convention of found manuscripts. But the question of legitimacy has proven tyrannical, and in many cases unproductive, in studies of The Book of Mormon. After all, whatever its origins, The Book of Mormon offers an intricate, alternative account of the original settlement of the western hemisphere.Old Canaan in a New World: Native Americans and the Lost Tribes of Israel (New York University Press, 2020) Kindle location 2252
Yet various defenders of the sacred text, while seeking to reinforce the legitimacy of its truth claims, have often sought to emphasize the ways in which the Book of Mormon runs counter to its surrounding environment—simultaneously downplaying its 19th century features. Using a similar line of reasoning, another common apologetic has been to heavily emphasize Smith’s lack of formal education, his poor writing abilities, and the rapid pace of the dictation process as evidence that he couldn’t have produced the text himself without divine aid. This is where Davis’s work may ruffle some feathers as he not only identifies elements of the extant text which bear demonstrable markings of the 19th century but directly challenges the assumption that Joseph lacked the capacity to consciously produce the text himself. Davis, through an extensive analysis of early American orality and sermon culture, firmly grounds Joseph within his surrounding environment. He identifies multiple methods Smith actively used through the course of his lifetime for his own sermon composition and oral performance. These same techniques, such as that of “laying down heads”, can be directly observed within the text of the Book of Mormon. These “heads” function as preemptive outlines or narrative skeletons for the content that follows.
By showing that Smith was familiar with this technique of sermon composition, among others, some may be inclined to argue that such is evidence of Smith’s premeditated planning of the Book of Mormon, without the need for divine assistance. This impulse toward hard naturalism in light of the identification of Smith’s own compositional abilities is likely a reactionary consequence of the overplayed apologetic seeking to distance the text from him as much as possible. It should be noted however that such aversions to considering the Book of Mormon through the lens of the 19th century, as well as treating Joseph as a product of that environment, is not a theologically required attitude for Latter-day Saints to hold. In his introduction for Royal Skousen’s groundbreaking earliest text edition of the Book of Mormon for instance, Grant Hardy, himself a believing Latter-day Saint and scholar of religion, observes that:
“Latter-day Saints have been resistant to reading the Book of Mormon in the context of the 1820s, believing that such approaches undermine the book’s religious claims, yet this type of historical-critical analysis is not inimical to faith; because the book asserts that it was edited by prophetic narrators who saw in vision the situation and needs of its modern audience, Mormons can participate in a conversation about how the book fits those needs. From any perspective, the Book of Mormon clearly spoke to men and women in Joseph Smith’s era in terms they could understand and in ways that captured the imagination of thousands.”Introduction to Royal Skousen’s “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text” (Yale University Press, 2009) xxiii-xxiv
I readily agree with Hardy here. Latter-day Saints need not shy away from the ways in which the Book of Mormon functions as a book of 19th century American scripture. To do so is to deny a valuable aspect of the work’s inherent nature and ignore the fact that—with the inability to access any previous ur-text such as the alleged plates themselves—our earliest text of the extant Book of Mormon is that which was dictated by Smith to his scribes and put to parchment in the late 1820’s. Instead, Latter-day Saints should embrace treatments of the Book of Mormon which seek to illuminate its theology, composition, stylistic features, and linguistic qualities through Americanist lenses as readily as they do those which seek to situate it in antiquity. For believers in its claims, the Book of Mormon represents a hybrid work of dual natures, ancient and modern, representing a scriptural collapse of temporal distance. This should only serve as a testament of God’s capacity to use voices “crying from the dust” (2nd Nephi 33:13) to speak to our day, and Joseph’s role in taking an imagined world from the past and translating it into the present. Whether with respect to its extensive and sophisticated intertextuality with the King James Bible, its doctrinal clarifications toward questions of proper Christian belief, ecclesiology, and praxis, or the precise kind of English vernacular it employs, Latter-day Saints should be at the forefront of studies of the Book of Mormon from modernist perspectives.
Of course, not all models explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon will prove persuasive, much less palatable, for believers. The acceptance of certain claims, such as the validity of its ancient provenance, have been regarded by the vast majority of Latter-day Saint faithful as necessary qualifiers for traditional and orthodox belief. From a general perspective, these may be understood as represented by the following categories:
While various alternative theories of how the extant text of the Book of Mormon came to pass, these have generally come at the expense of one or more of these categories, resulting in significant variations from Joseph Smith’s own claims about its origins. Changes to one or more of these “cornerstones” seem to necessitate that Smith be either an intentional charlatan, a pious fraud, or something other than an inspired prophet translating a legitimately ancient record. As Grant Hardy appropriately notes, “Because the book itself is so insistent on its historical authenticity, which becomes entwined with Joseph Smith’s claims of possessing actual physical artifacts, the idea that the text might have been inspired fiction has not been a viable option for most believers.” (Ibid. xxii) That is not to say that I personally consider it impossible to view the Book of Mormon faithfully or religiously outside of the traditional paradigm, just that such is often seen as realistically unattainable for those who place importance on the validity of the earliest claims made about its origins. I don’t fault anyone for lacking belief in the Book of Mormon on historical grounds alone given that, “one enters the LDS community by accepting the historicity of the Book of Mormon as an act of faith, one that is ideally based on personal revelation in much the same way that Nephite prophets or Joseph Smith asked for and received divine guidance.” (Ibid. xxii)
With these cornerstones of traditional orthodoxy in mind, I wish to make the case that not only is Davis’s research in Visions in a Seer Stone compatible with traditional orthodox belief in the origins of the Book of Mormon, but that believers themselves would do well to integrate Davis’s findings into their own models of translation moving forward. This is consistent with what Davis himself has wished of believers:
I invite those who believe in the historicity of the text to consider the ways in which their own religious and perceptual frameworks already provide a means to incorporate academic studies such as this one into their faith-based and faith-seeking paradigms.Visions in a Seer Stone (pp. x-xi)
I hope to take Davis up on his offer in a gesture of genuine good faith. I fully believe that his work—which was nothing but respectful to persons of faith and believing paradigms—should be seriously considered by anyone who wishes to study the dictation of the Book of Mormon and how it relates to its contemporary environment. With this in mind, I will now proceed to demonstrate how the arguments made in Visions in a Seer Stone do not inherently compromise any of the earlier “cornerstones” and thus can be seen as non-threatening to orthodox belief. Indeed, I think that contemporary studies of the Book of Mormon have reached such a point to where we need to recognize Joseph’s active role in the formation of the extant text. Before this, it would be appropriate to briefly summarize the model of translation that Davis proposes in the final chapter of his book
Translation as Inspired Co-Authorship
From what I can tell, if believers are to consider Joseph Smith an inspired co-author of the extant text—and by that I mean that he made conscious decisions on the text impacting its narrative flow, vocabulary, and structure under the inspiration of God—then that requires some distance to exist between what was dictated to his scribes and what existed on the plates themselves. Davis isn’t the first to suggest and/or demonstrate the ways in which Joseph himself influenced the extant text. Others, such as Ostler, Skousen, and Gardner have done the same to varying degrees. Where Davis differs most from previous voices on the matter is the extent to which he argues that the Book of Mormon bears evidence of premeditated planning, rather than total spontaneity during the dictation process. Davis’s hermeneutic is driven largely by the text of Doctrine and Covenants, Section 9; coupled with various anecdotes and internal textual evidence within the Book of Mormon itself.
Received at Harmony, Pennsylvania in late April of 1829, this revelation given through Joseph Smith offered an explanation to his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, as to why he had been unsuccessful in translating the records himself. Throughout his life, when pressed for greater detail as to the translation process, Joseph almost always was hesitant to provide much detail; shortly quipping instead that such had taken place “by the gift and power of God” with little more elaboration. Here in D&C 9 however, Davis argues that we have a far more detailed first-hand description of the translation process that has likely been taken for granted in the past. Of particular importance is the Lord’s chastisement of Oliver in verses 7-10, saying:
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.
Oliver failed to translate, according to the Lord, because he “supposed that [God] would give it unto [him],” rather than engaging in a process of studying it out in his mind prior and asking God if it was acceptable. While God was ultimately responsible for the sacred text, this did not require those dictating it to just be passive vessels through which it was inspired. Thus, premeditation of the Book of Mormon’s text need not be seen as an anachronistic modern theory meant to placate naturalistic impulses; such is clearly present within Mormon scripture itself! Serving as the text’s authorized translator required serious preparation in advance, likely in the form of both meditation, mental preparation, and moral refinement. Latter-day Saints already believe that such a preparatory period took place on Joseph’s part, primarily constituted by the time between Moroni’s first visitation to Smith on September 21st of 1823 (followed by his being led to the plates the next day), and his actual acquiring of the plates from the hillside exactly four years later. During this time, Joseph underwent a process of personal refinement, demonstrating his worthiness and seriousness for the task that lay in front of him.
While Latter-day Saints have been by no means unfamiliar with this preparatory period from 1823 to 1827, they have often understood it as a time of individual moral refinement, rather than active mental preparation or spiritual meditation on the Book of Mormon itself. Some theories of translation have thus struggled to adequately account for later anecdotes, such as those from Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, wherein he is described as having some level of familiarity with the Book of Mormon narrative and peoples, following his initial visit with Moroni:
From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time and every evening we gathered our children togather [together]…In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most ammusing [amusing] recitals which could be immagined [imagined]. he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their man[n]er of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship as particularly as though he had spent his life with them.from Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel (Signature Books, 1996–2003), 1:294–296. citing the 1845 manuscript of Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography.
Most believing scholars have accounted for Joseph knowledge here as coming directly from Moroni. I see no problem with expanding the source of this information to include a level of general direct revelation from God, coupled with Smith’s own private reflections. As has since been conclusively demonstrated by expert research, Joseph did not require the plates to be directly present for the majority of the dictation process for the extant text; instead burying his face in a hat in which was placed his brown seer stone. While this has raised questions by some as to why the plates were even necessary begin with, it should be recalled that Joseph did not always require a given record to be physically present in order to dictate its inspired text, such as in the case of the parchment of John translated purely from vision in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7. In Smith’s other scriptural undertakings—like that of his Bible revision project and his dictation of the Book of Moses, as well as the translation of the Book of Abraham—he was actively engaged in heightened levels of meditation, personal reflection, and varying kinds of studies. These engaged him with a variety of materials and sources of inspiration, whether consisting of Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentaries, languages like Hebrew, Greek, and German, attempts to decipher the Egyptian script present on the papyri, or the King James Bible. Given the massive scope of the Book of Mormon (269,528 words!) I believe it to be more reasonable, in light of the available evidence and the pattern Smith displayed for his significantly smaller scriptural projects, to extend room to Smith to spend those years prior to the dictation process considering how he was going to most effectively relay the histories of the peoples recorded on the plates and described to him by Moroni. This likely included, but is not limited to, mental outlining of the Book of Mormon narrative, the interweaving of biblical passages from the King James Bible, and the commitment to memory of the basic plot elements of the text.
In light of this proposed theory of translation, let’s consider how such can be considered compatible with the “cornerstones” from earlier:
As stated before, Davis deliberately avoids staking a claim in the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. He repeatedly and explicitly states that it is outside of the study he is carrying out and that he has no interest in challenging actual Latter-day Saint truth claims, distinguishing them from what he dubs “the barnacles of faith” which often manifest in the form of popular, though non-doctrinal, theories of translation. One such example that he challenges is the claim by various Mormon scholars and apologists that the 20+ book or section headings, dictated as part of the extant Book of Mormon, constitute an ancient literary technique known as colophons. Davis disagrees with this characterization, showing that such is far more reflective of the “laying down heads” technique common to Joseph’s modern literary and sermon culture, such as in the case of titles like Robinson Crusoe. Besides demonstrating that the Book of Mormon’s headings have more in common with literary techniques of the 19th century, Davis also challenges that they could be accurately considered colophons at all, arguing that,
“Colophons in ancient texts are scribal notations (not authorial summaries), usually at the end of copied texts (not original compositions), which provide largely technical information about the accompanying work, such as the name of the scribe, the date the copy was made, and the location of the work. They are not, however, tables of contents, indices, story outlines embedded within narratives, or narrative summaries like Nephi’s first-person preliminary outline.Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 125)
Some believing scholars as well, such as the late apologist John A. Tvedtnes have similarly recognized the poor fit, saying,
“For lack of a better word, I call them colophons, though technically colophons are notes or guidelines after a text.”John A. Tvedtnes, “Colophons in the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation), 32
Davis’s few minor quibbles with some apologetic arguments for historicity should not be mistaken as an explicit rejection of historicity altogether, given that believers themselves don’t always agree amongst one another on various arguments. Of course, this still leaves the question: where would historicity fit in within his translation model? It seems to me that if one allows for the extant text to be related to the records on the plates themselves, then the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon can still well be considered historical. As no specific setting within the Americas has been officially confirmed, it remains in the realm of anthropology and archeology to determine which geographic setting is the most plausible fit for the events described in the Book of Mormon. If one believes that Smith’s premeditations and eventual oral performance reflect ancient peoples and societies, then the difference between spontaneous dictation and intensive mental outlining really has no effect on the overarching historical claims themselves. This likely lends additional credence to the awkward presence of particular words in the text which are seen as anachronistic to our current understanding of the ancient Americas; reflective of Joseph’s imperfect role as translator more than a deficiency original to the plates themselves.
It is my view then, that viewing the translation of the Book of Mormon as an act of inspired, active, and premeditated co-authorship on Smith’s part does not inherently compromise one’s capacity to view its narrative as historical, so long as Joseph’s preparatory planning is also viewed within the realm of divine revelation.
Visions in a Seer Stone, while referencing the golden plates from which Smith claimed to derive the dictated text of the Book of Mormon close to fifty times, similarly does not take a position for or against their historical existence. Davis does not comment on them beyond accepting their role within the traditional narrative and the claims made by Smith and his contemporaries. Based off of how Davis discusses the plates, one may get the impression that he holds the belief that Smith had something materially representing the records, but such is beyond the scope of his study which focuses instead on the Prophet’s oral performance of the extant text. Because of this, his research does not pose any challenges to the material existence of the plates themselves, though it does negate translation theories which espouse a “tight” and especially “ironclad” relationship between them and the extant text. For Davis,
The nineteenth-century elements in the Book of Mormon do not merely present an abstract nineteenth-century style. Rather, the ubiquitous presence of the language of revivalism, the use of laying down heads to structure the narratives, the tendency of doctrinal passages to gravitate toward basic fundamental doctrinal principles, and the litany of contemporary religious controversies all reflect the specific style and focus of an early career evangelical preacher in nineteenth-century America. If Smith did not participate in the construction of the text, then God and the angels created a text that gave the appearance of being composed by Smith or someone with his same background, training, and level of experience.Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 163)
Materiality, therefore, is not implicated by his arguments, though the relationship between Smith’s dictation and the alleged ancient records certainly is.
Regarding how Visions treats the sincerity of Joseph Smith’s intentions, believers will likely take comfort to hear that Davis takes a position of trust and goodwill toward the claims made by Smith and early faithful. This isn’t simply done on the basis of taking Joseph at his word for amiability’s sake; Davis holds that the Prophet’s sincerity is strongly evidenced by the historical record.
Whatever the mental or written preparations involved, it is critical to view Smith’s process in a way that takes his own perspective and beliefs into account. Though he did not leave a record regarding the specifics of his method, the contemporaneous historical evidence—fragmentary and limited as it may be—suggests that Smith’s preparations involved what he believed to be a revelatory translation process guided by the Holy Spirit. In other words, attributing his years-long process of preparation to deceptive motives and clandestine practices does not adequately account for the full array of historical evidence, nor does it recognize the complexity of Smith’s thought or reveal the paradigms of his belief. …I imagine that Smith sincerely believed, to one extent or another, that the Book of Mormon represented an authentic history of ancient civilizations in the Americas. And using the ways and means available to his understanding and ambition, Smith engaged in a years-long project to bring that history to light.Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 165).
This, combined with Davis’s choice to not comment on the validity of the Book of Mormon’s historicity or the material existence of the golden plates, situates Davis in a space of outside engagement dissimilar to that of Dan Vogel. Unlike Vogel, Davis clearly upholds the piety of Joseph Smith while not making any arguments in favor of ultimate fraudulence. For proponents of the pious fraud theory, Davis may be seen as pulling punches in favor of staunch naturalism. According to his own words however, making ultimate arguments for or against supernatural origins of the Book of Mormon is beyond the pale of the conversation that Davis is looking to take part in. Because of this, Davis should best be considered existing in a similar space recently occupied by other non-Mormon scholars such as Ann Taves, Elizabeth Fenton, and others.
By choosing to take Joseph at his word, while simultaneously staying aloof of the debates as to whether he was actually correct, Davis offers plenty of room for believers to comfortably breathe.
Finally, after having established the compatibility of Davis’s thoughts with what may be considered the previous “cornerstones” of traditional belief about the Book of Mormon, it should come at no surprise that he similarly avoids arguing for or against the hand of God in its origins and creation. This contested facet of the Book of Mormon, and the technicalities in which it historically played out, are left to the readers to resolve and decide for themselves. He concludes,
In the end, however one chooses to understand Smith’s involvement in the production of the Book of Mormon, his method of revelatory translation complicates easy characterizations of the process. Because Smith’s approach involved meditating on narrative possibilities, while seeking spiritual confirmation about their truthfulness and historical authenticity, the work emerged from some form of dialectical process, which, nuanced according to one’s beliefs, might be understood as involving the participation of the Holy Spirit in connection with Smith’s inspired imagination or as a complex matrix of Smith’s affective and spontaneous responses to conscious narrative creations and subconscious elaborations in his mind. Whatever we may choose to believe, the historical record strongly suggests that Joseph Smith genuinely felt that his project emerged from divine inspiration and guidance.Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 191-192).
He notes further:
In a 6 February 1840 letter to his wife, Matthew L. Davis, a reporter from New York, described his experience watching Smith deliver a presentation on Mormonism to an attentive audience in Washington, DC. According to Davis, Smith offered a revealing characterization of his role in the translation of the Book of Mormon, stating that Smith claimed the work “was communicated to him, direct from heaven. If there was such a thing on earth, as the author of it, then he (Smith) was the author; but the idea that he wished to impress was, that he had penned it as dictated by God.” This idea of an “author” on earth recording a dictation “by God” in heaven thereby erodes the boundaries between mortal contributions and divine utterances. And the resulting process, involving the symbiotic exchange between a mortal man and an immortal God, reveals Smith’s understanding of the nature of divine collaboration.Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 192).
Davis was deliberate in his decision to not advocate for belief or disbelief in the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Whatever role God played in the work—and for believers it was both primary, necessary, and significant—lays outside the realm of history or the task of the historian to determine. This has long been the position of those who see God behind its pages and that of the Book of Mormon itself: that ultimately, belief and knowledge of its truthfulness is confirmed by the Holy Ghost upon the hearts of those who actively inquire. Through this, inquiring persons enter into the role of the honest seeker not unlike how Smith saw and described himself. The question of whether God was involved in the work is one of theology, not history. Davis is wise to recognize this and write accordingly.
As with historicity and materiality, Davis’s research need not be seen as threatening to the honest possibility that posits God’s divine intervention and active inspiration in the translation of the Book of Mormon and the composition of its final form.
Heading into my own reading of Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon, I did not anticipate the impact on my personal views regarding the Book of Mormon by its end. Prior to encountering Davis’s work, I considered myself rather firmly in Royal Skousen school of thought, understanding the dictated text of the Book of Mormon to be the result of Joseph Smith’s spontaneous oration while under the influence of the Holy Spirit. After taking the time to read Visions in a Seer Stone, I could no longer honestly retain this paradigm in light of the arguments and evidence presented by Davis. It was the text of D&C 9:7-9 in particular which sealed the deal for me. I await future reviews and responses to Davis’s monograph from other believing scholars involved in the study of the Book of Mormon, but I cannot help but feel that for those who may disagree, Davis has placed a monumental task before them.
I applaud Davis for both the thoroughness and depth of his research, but most importantly for me, the way in which he was able to communicate it. Never once did I ever question Davis’s commitment to civil dialogue; indeed, Visions is impressive enough in that regard alone. For a scholar, regardless of worldview, to be able to adeptly enter into the contested waters of the origins of the Book of Mormon, and avoid the polemics that are the all-too-common consequence of approaching these matters from a defender/critic binary is worth of high praise. If the standard for even-handed, accessible, and unfalteringly respectful treatment of this subject wasn’t established before, Davis may have been the one to finally do it. On top of my appreciation for his work upon finishing the book, I honestly felt that I walked away from it with a higher view of both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon for having read it. I have confidence that the field of Book of Mormon studies has taken a big step forward because of Davis’s research, and for that, I say well done.
Cover Image by Laci Gibbs via ladylacecreative.com