Let’s start this essay with a confession: although I am a professional writer and have spent most of my adult life training myself, and others, to put thoughts down on paper, I have delayed writing this piece until the last possible moment. I’ve hemmed, I’ve hawed, and I’ve avoided the blinking cursor on my computer screen for one simple reason.
Writing is hard.
This is not a controversial opinion. Most people don’t relish the thought of composing a cover letter or writing a research paper. Yet some are surprised to learn that those of us who write for a living can still find the process daunting. I assure you, though, that most of my writer friends would find the following words, penned by Joseph Smith in a letter to William W. Phelps in 1832, strikingly apt. “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison,” Joseph wrote, metaphorically describing the limitations of the written word, “almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”1
Joseph Smith was many things—an agile thinker, a dynamic teacher, and a powerful religious leader—but he was not a well-trained or particularly skilled writer. When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, 24-year-old Joseph had received little formal education. His wife, Emma, was asked later in her life by her son whether Joseph would have been capable of writing the Book of Mormon himself. She did not mince words in her response.
“Joseph Smith . . . could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon,” Emma said. She went on to explain that even though she was an active participant in the translation of the plates, she could describe the coming forth of the Book of Mormon only by using the language of miracles. “It is marvelous to me,” she said, “‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to anyone else.”2
My personal testimony of the gospel, as found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is multifaceted. Experiences ranging from private spiritual witnesses to reminders of the practical benefits of Church membership have helped me “stay in the boat,” as President M. Russell Ballard has urged us, even when I grapple with difficult questions or trials of my faith.3 But one vital, foundational aspect of my testimony is the Book of Mormon itself. Not only do I find deep meaning in the spiritual message of the book, but, like Emma, I find the very fact of its existence a “marvel and a wonder” I cannot ignore.
The manuscript that Joseph Smith delivered to publisher Egbert B. Grandin for printing in the summer of 1829 tells an epic story, spanning a thousand years, of the rise and fall of a great civilization. It features hundreds of named characters and geographical locations; a complicated narrative style that includes digressions, flash-forwards, and multiple narrators; and a sophisticated exploration of religious ideas. Joseph dictated that manuscript, which soon became a 588-page book, in three months’ time.4
It would be astonishing for any 24-year-old farm boy with a haphazard education to produce the Book of Mormon in the way that I, and other writers, typically produce our manuscripts: we research, take notes, think, pace, create an outline, write the first five chapters before hitting a wall, lay awake at night full of existential dread, muster the energy to gird one’s loins and begin again, write, write, cut, cut, rewrite, rewrite, send it to a trusted reader or editor, rewrite again, and so on until it is published. For a book the length and complexity of the Book of Mormon, this process almost always takes years.
Not only did Joseph produce the Book of Mormon in three months—he dictated it. Let’s return again to Emma’s description of Joseph’s translation method: “Your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. . . . It would have been improbable for a learned man to do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.”5
Joseph himself did not talk much about how he translated the Book of Mormon, other than to say it was done by the “gift and power of God.”6 But several eyewitnesses, including scribes like Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, described the process in much the same way as Emma did. They said that Joseph dictated the text as it came to him, with the aid of a seer stone or the Nephite interpreters that he found buried with the plates, later known as the Urim and Thummim. The manuscript that resulted does not appear to have been edited or revised beyond corrections, like fixing spelling errors, that Joseph’s scribes made during a dictation session. By all available accounts, the completed text was delivered to the printer just as it was dictated: a massive stream of words that went on, page after page, without any punctuation. The typesetter would later add the commas, apostrophes, and periods that made the prose readable.7
During my master’s program in creative writing, I shared the classroom with many people in their mid-20s, just like Joseph was in 1829, who had aspirations to write their own epic novels, some of them taking place in imagined locations with a complex cast of characters spanning multiple generations. Again and again, my classmates and I found the first drafts of these novels to be convoluted, confusing, or at least in need of a good deal of work. I was more interested in writing short stories than epic novels, but my first drafts, too, had plot holes, point of view problems, and scores of other issues. My classmates and I did not worry too much about these initial, messy attempts, however. First drafts are called “rough drafts” for a reason—getting our words down on paper was just the first step of many steps in the writing process.
As a student, writer, editor, and teacher, I have read thousands of initial attempts at fiction writing. But the Book of Mormon, the ultimate “first draft,” does not fall prey to the problems that so many of these manuscripts contain. Yes, sometimes the prose of the Book of Mormon is a little clunky, but inelegant sentence structure is usually one of the last things a writer is concerned about when she is trying to wrestle an unwieldy novel into submission. The biggest problems in a first draft are usually structural: the point of view is not stable (is the narrator writing the story at the time it happens or 20 years in the future?); the writer has lost track of time and place (wasn’t the main character supposed to be in London last Christmas?); important plot points are introduced that are never resolved (what happened to the gun Patricia hid in her nightstand?). Many writers even have a hard time staying in a stable verb tense, as the story shifts from past tense to present tense and back again.
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Then we have the Book of Mormon. If, as Joseph Smith maintained, it is a record of an ancient people that he translated by the gift and power of God, its style, structure, and means of production make sense, albeit a kind of sense that requires a person to believe in miracles. But if, as some of Joseph’s critics have alleged, the book is a product of Joseph’s imagination—a fictional “novel” that he dictated, line after line, and did not revise—its lack of major structural issues is so astounding that its existence borders on the miraculous as well.
Take, for example, the book of Mosiah. The book begins in 124 BC with the reign of King Benjamin in Zarahemla, but after a few chapters it flashes back to around 200 BC to tell the story of Zeniff, who left Zarahemla to reclaim the land of Lehi-Nephi. A “story-within-a-story” like this is hard enough for a writer to pull off smoothly in a first draft, but Zeniff’s narrative is just one of several in the book of Mosiah. There are so many characters, places, and zigs and zags through time that I am probably not the only one to Google “book of Mosiah timeline chart” in order to feel prepared to teach a Sunday School class of 14-year-olds. Yet somehow, Joseph kept all these characters, places, and overlapping narratives straight. According to Emma’s account, Joseph did not have a book or manuscript to read from as he dictated,8 let alone a color-coded timeline cheat sheet.
Among other examples, I am also impressed by the fact that this book features three major narrators—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—each with a particular voice, style, and purpose in writing. The ability to create a distinctive narrative voice that is maintained throughout a long piece is one of the hallmarks of a talented, experienced fiction writer. Whether Joseph was a talented writer can be debated, but he was certainly inexperienced. To me, the reason Nephi’s, Mormon’s, and Moroni’s narrative voices are so consistent is because their portions of the book were in fact written by three separate people.9
Joseph Smith would probably not use the word “writer” to describe himself, but he had no trouble calling himself “prophet.” Those who participated in the translation of the Book of Mormon were also convinced they had witnessed God working through man.
“My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt about it,” Emma said.10
As I work to conclude this essay—going back to my notes, typing then deleting, reading my words aloud to hear what I should change and what I should keep—I find that I have to agree.
Angela Hallstrom works for the Church History Department as a writer and literary editor on the Saints project.
Lead image: Shutterstock
This collection of short essays will help close this gap and bring insights into Joseph to Latter-day saints, both those who are struggling with questions about Joseph and those who simply want to understand the founding Prophet of the Restoration better. These essays look at Joseph Smith's life, character, personality, and relationships with others. Know Brother Joseph, is an accessible and faith-promoting look at Joseph Smith, his life, and its relevance to us in our daily walk. Available now at DeseretBook.com and at Deseret Book stores.
- “Letter to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832,” josephsmithpapers.org.
- Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 289–90.
- M. Russell Ballard, “Stay in the Boat and Hold On!” Ensign, Nov. 2014, 89.
- For a detailed timeline of the translation of the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005).
- Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 290.
- Preface to the Book of Mormon, 1830 edition.
- See “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, ChurchofJesusChrist.org; and Historical Introduction to “Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829–circa January 1830,” josephsmithpapers.org.
- Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 289.
- See Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’sGuide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 290.