Recasting the Origins of the Book of Mormon

Few texts have proven to be as controversial as the Book of Mormon. Designated the “keystone” of the LDS faith by none other than Joseph Smith, it has proven to be the “third rail” for both apologists and critics alike. As a result, many scholars who look at the Mormon tradition have steered clear of the founding text. Recently, however, there has been a growing number of academics, especially literature scholars, who have found innovative ways to approach the Book of Mormon that simultaneously provide new cultural insights while also avoiding tricky questions of historicity. Much of that interpretive move, however, has involved sidestepping the questions of the book’s origins and instead focusing on the text itself.

But those conversations can only go so far.


William Davis’s new book, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (UNC Press), makes the argument that those two issues, the book’s origins and its text, cannot be easily separated. Indeed, he posits that internal cues found within the Book of Mormon itself hint to a very different origins story than has typically been understood.

At the heart of Davis’s monograph is an investigation into the oral culture of early America. Joseph Smith was raised in a world of performance: lectures were a primary form of education, and sermons were a predominant form of worship. Davis performs a deep dive into the contemporary literature to show the different techniques that were being taught and used during the period, and even demonstrates how Smith’s later texts (like his 1832 history) and sermons (like the King Follett discourse) exemplified their methods, and serve as evidence of his knowing the general trends. Even if Smith did not receive extensive schooling, then, scholars have overlooked the extent to which the Mormon prophet was conversant with his surrounding performative culture.

Yet the real focus of Davis’s work is the Book of Mormon. As Davis highlights, whether one believes the book had divine or naturalistic origins, what everyone should agree upon was that it was originally an oral text, as Smith dictated it to his scribes. Therefore, the Book of Mormon, according to Davis, “might best be described as a script, or a transcript, of Smith’s performative process.” It would make sense, then, that the text would exemplify performative cues.

And in a deeply detailed analysis, Davis ably demonstrates these oral cues found throughout the Book of Mormon. Though he gives time to a number of different techniques, his most extensive and persuasive analysis was on the method of “laying down heads,” or introducing a skeletal structure of the story in advance, and then inserting the details and episodes as the narrator moves through the narrative. Davis also points out that 40% of the entire book is filled with sermons, which provide more chances for extemporaneous expansion. “Given the prominence of such passages,” Davis explains, “it would not be inaccurate to say that Smith preached the book of Mormon as much as he composed it.”

But what are the overall lessons from this analysis? Though he doesn’t specify them until his final chapter, Davis believes the implications of these textual and contextual cues are enormous. Most significantly, he posits two implications: first, that Smith should rightly be seen, at the very least, as the compiler of this text, a collaborator whose culture and assumptions shaped and expanded an existing narrative; and second, that there was a lot of preparatory work put into the narrative prior to the 1829 dictation. Indeed, Davis theorizes that Smith began mentally laying out the Nephite story as early as 1823, when he first reported a vision with Moroni, and then spent the next six years mapping the narrative and its lessons before finally orally performing it to scribes. This might have included written notes, which Davis reasons could have been just a handful of pages, or just a mental picture crystalized through memorization.

This argument directly challenges traditional understandings of how the Book of Mormon came to be. Believers and skeptics alike have emphasized the rapid pace with which Smith dictated the text in just a few months. But what if he had mental cues, including skeletal structures and mnemonic devises, and perhaps even notes, that helped him present the Nephite record at such a rapid pace?

Davis realizes that there are several obstacles to this theory. First, there are the firsthand accounts that Smith did not refer to any books or manuscripts while translating. But those arguments, Davis counters, are based primarily on interviews given by Emma Smith and David Whitmer five decades later, and have several problems: first, Davis argues that their “no manuscript” statements were mostly meant to oppose the Rigdon/Spaulding plagiarism theory; second, the interviews had other historical inaccuracies that represent the fallible nature of reminiscences; and third, neither Emma Smith nor David Whitmer had constant supervision over the translation process.

The second obstacle deals more with the religious politics at play. Davis is well aware that some will use this argument to discredit the Book of Mormon’s divine origins, seeing it as evidence that Smith created the text himself. Davis is therefore insistent—in many ways, much more than you’d find in most academic books—that this theory can easily be squared with believers’ understandings of the book, and constantly reaffirms that Joseph Smith genuinely believed he was translating an ancient record. He draws on the Smith family’s narratives that emphasize how the prophet learned things about Nephite civilization from Moroni in the years leading up to receiving the plates, as well as how Smith’s understanding of prophethood, revelation, and translation were expansive enough to encompass such a collaborative effort.

The extent to which Davis tries to balance these apologetic and critical arguments exemplify how Book of Mormon scholarship remains a contested battlefield. And Davis will likely be the first to say that, given the politicized lines already existent in Book of Mormon scholarship, most who trumpet the text’s historicity will not likely find this olive branch satisfying.

There is much to appreciate in Davis’s volume. Visions in a Seer Stone is the most exhaustive analysis of early America’s oral culture to be found in any published treatment of early Mormonism. However, at times it seemed like Davis was writing two separate books—the first an analysis on how early Mormons used and appropriated performative methods during their period, and the second a reexamination of the Book of Mormon’s origins. Davis will likely say that you can’t fully engage the one without the other, but I actually think the former (comprising chapters two through four) has larger implications for historians of the era, and the latter (comprising chapters five through seven) narrows the relevance to solely students of the Book of Mormon.

Will Visions in a Seer Stone settle the debates over the Book of Mormon? Of course not, as Davis himself would volunteer that those lines have already been permanently drawn, and the remaining questions will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. But I do think this book adds a lot to the dialogue. First and foremost, the framing of the original Book of Mormon text as an oral performance, and highlighting how orality was taught and practiced in 1820s America, should be at the forefront for future interpretations. And second, I think Davis persuasively demonstrates that scholars should extend the chronological scope of the Book of Mormon’s production back to 1823, even if the first word was not dictated until years later.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that it made me—someone who typically avoids debates over the origins of the Book of Mormon like a plague—interested in the topic for the first time in a while. This is a genuinely new argument, and even if the totality of his thesis will not be fully persuasive everyone, this level originality is rare and deserves engagement.