Literacy, Imitation, and Literary Borrowing in Early Mormon History

Recent academic discussions about the composition of the Book of Mormon and the concept of translation in Joseph Smith, Jr.’s worldview have tended to revolve around the question of what Smith meant by the use of the term translation when dictating his texts. Although most attempts to explain early Mormon concepts of translation in relation to Smith’s texts have focused on data pulled from the texts themselves, no single theory has yet to reach a consensus. Two broad theories have tended to attract the most scholars and represent the clearest divide. The first argues that Smith produced his texts in the same way as any linguistic translation occurs—including either Smith himself doing the work of translating the text or some kind of divine translation for Smith—and the second that Smith enjoyed the broader semantic possibilities of the term translation, allowing it to mean more than a 1:1 correspondence between two languages.[1]

Others have approached the question of the production of Mormonism’s texts by focusing on how outsiders portrayed Smith’s intellectual abilities.[2] Since most portrayals of Smith as “illiterate” in this literature are sometimes read as pointing to his inability to produce a text like the Book of Mormon, this argument is found most often in writing with a devotional leaning and meant rhetorically to separate him from the composition of the Book of Mormon, rather than engaging directly with the literary and historical contexts of the literature that Smith produced. The desire to defend rather than to analyze has often stifled academic exploration primarily because the main goal is to provide just enough evidence for a plausible defense rather than an attempt to understand all of the historical data.

While doing research for a related project I recently stumbled onto a newspaper article circulated during the earliest years of Mormon history, in 1831, which includes an appended correction to the article’s mischaracterization of Smith’s literacy.[3] This article suggests there is still much to discuss about early public perceptions of Smith’s involvement in the production of the Book of Mormon in the months and years soon after its publication. This also presents an opportunity for scholars in Mormon studies to more directly engage with the literature on literacy in late colonial and early national Anglo-American history. Very few publications in Mormon studies have attempted to contextualize early Mormon history with what is known about the trends in early national literacy of Smith’s youth.

An essential part of studying the history of the book in early America has been the estimation of literacy rates at different points of colonial and antebellum history. Since the Smith family was originally from New England—Smith himself was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805—New England literacy rates at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries have a direct bearing on our understanding of the younger Smith’s abilities. Literacy is defined as one’s ability to both read and write,[4] and it should be obvious that for the texts Smith produced in the late 1820s, Smith’s ability to read and engage with print culture are more relevant to his abilities and knowledge than writing. Smith relied heavily on scribes for most of his textual productions during his lifetime, a common approach to composition and publishing in early America that allowed cultural “outsiders” to engage in print culture.[5] It is also important to take his writing abilities into account as well, since they have a bearing on the question of his overall literacy (i.e. his ability to read and write). As we find in the response to the article “Mormonites” below, Smith’s “friend and relative…says that the statement made in our article which appeared in ours of week before last, that Smith could neither read or write, is untrue.” All of the historical data available to us, except for the pejorative declarations by some of his early critics who did not have firsthand knowledge, indicates that Smith could both read and write in 1829.

The first broadly successful attempt to estimate literacy rates in Anglo North America, and still the study cited most often, is Kenneth Lockridge’s Literacy in Colonial New England.[6] Lockridge focused his quantitative analysis on whether or not a person could sign their own name and this became an established approach to literacy rates in early America.[7] This has been rightly criticized as a too restrictive approach to literacy in colonial and early national America,[8] but other data points have proven helpful in buttressing the evidence of signatures depending on the demographic being studied.[9] These numbers also focus on early Americans’ abilities to write, not read, suggesting to historians that while estimates help to show that by the end of the eighteenth century at least 90 percent of white male New Englanders knew how to write, even more knew how to read. By the end of the colonial period white women had similar rates as white men.[10] Since early Americans first learned how to read before they were taught how to write, it would make sense that many more students in early Anglo-America would accomplish the first step to literacy while not as many would successfully learn the second step.[11]

What do these methods say about Smith’s literacy? First, we know that Smith could sign his own name as early as 1829 but certainly much earlier than that since his signature by then indicates years of practice.[12] Smith’s cousin, George Albert Smith, reported in 1857 in his autobiography that in the fall of 1828 Joseph Smith, Sr. sent a letter to Asael Smith and three or four of his sons (Smith, Jr.’s uncles) with “information that his son Joseph had had several remarkable visions.” Not long after, Smith, Sr. sent his letter the family received a letter from Smith, Jr. “in which he declared, that the sword of vengeance ^of from ^the the Almighty hung over this generation, & that except they repented, & obeyed the Gospel, and turned from their wicked ways, humbling themselves before the Lord, it would fall upon the wicked, & sweep them from the earth ^as with the besom of destruction.”[13] It is possible that Smith, Sr. helped Smith, Jr. to compose this letter, since his earlier letter to the family worked functionally as a primer for the one Smith, Jr. would send, but it is more likely that Smith composed the letter entirely by himself because he was already dictating new scriptural productions as early as July 1828 and forming his own prophetic voice.[14]

A key piece of evidence of Smith’s composition of the fall 1828 letter is its echo of Cicero’s Sword of Damocles, that “the sword of vengeance…hung over” them.[15] Although the wording is not the exact same, probably reflecting George Albert Smith’s memory of the letter, it is striking that George Albert Smith would remember this specific imagery. Smith, Jr. also echoed the Sword of Damocles in a revelation in March 1829, in a portion of Doctrine and Covenants 5:19 that was later edited out of the published version. This suggests that George Albert Smith’s memory of the contents of the letter is accurate and that Smith was a capable writer as early as 1828.

Later, on January 16, 1830, Smith entered into an agreement with Martin Harris that allowed Harris to try to recuperate the money he paid to have the Book of Mormon printed. Oliver Cowdery wrote out the agreement while Smith only signed the document.[16] Smith’s personal journals, which he started almost three years later in November 1832, support the notion that although he preferred having others write for him, he was perfectly capable of doing it himself. He wrote brief entries each day from November 28 until December 6, 1832, but did not write again until October 4, 1833.[17] Beginning with the October 6–12, 1833 entry, Smith wrote short parts of his journal entries and then had a scribe finish them for him,[18] but from the November 25, 1833 entry on it was almost always a scribe that wrote in his journals.[19]

Smith more than fits the academic criteria for being literate. As early as July 1828 he was already dictating complex revelations, writing letters, and producing new literature. What we learn from the following document, specifically, is significant because even though the author was under the incorrect impression that Smith could not read his name or write—and therefore he would have been completely illiterate—they still believed that his natural talent and retentive memory could have helped to assist him in the process of composing the Book of Mormon. It is a given in early American education that children were memorizing hymns, catechisms, and full chapters of the Bible.[20] It is not unlikely that Smith would have also had chapters of the New Testament committed to memory from his days in school and through his reading and engagement with Bible culture during 1810–1829. The evidence from his textual productions suggests that he was most familiar and comfortable with the gospels of Matthew and John and was able to recall portions of those books as he dictated new revelatory texts.

Introduction and Transcription

Edward D. Barber, “one of the most radical of the Anti-Masons,”[21] edited the Middlebury Free Press from 1831­–1834 and then co-edited the paper with Elam Jewett from 1834–1837.[22] In the August 3, 1831 issue Barber reprinted an article from the neighboring “Hartford (Conn.) Intelligencer[23] that provides new insight into the specific details that were being shared with the public about Mormonism in its earliest years. Scholars are used to seeing early sources claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. was uneducated and illiterate, but many have noted that these comments were more likely rhetorical invectives meant to malign Smith’s public character rather than accurately portray his abilities.[24]

Although William Davis has recently shown that Smith spent more years in common school than historians have most often assumed,[25] he was still not an educated, cultured, erudite college graduate or professional. However, historians should not allow assumptions about Smith’s education to distract from his clear compositional abilities. These are becoming clearer through the close study and analysis of his literary productions,[26] and through the discovery of new sources that help us to understand that some of our assumptions are based on second or thirdhand pejorative accounts in early Mormon history.


Middlebury Free Press, August 3, 1831

Mormonites

We have always laid it down as a maxim, “let superstition alone, and it will do no harm.” Keeping this saying in view, we have heretofore forborne to mention a sect of religious fanatics known by the name of Mormonites. But, as this new sect has been introduced to the attention of the public, through the medium of the contemporary press; and as we are personally acquainted with its history from the commencement, we have concluded to give our readers a brief account of Mormonism.

In the year 1828, one Joseph Smith, of Palmyra, Wayne county, New-York, pretended to have found a number of gold plates, from which, by assistance of a pair of spectacles found with the plates, he said he could read certain revelations from God. He said these plates contained what he termed the Book of Mormon;—which consisted of several unpublished books of the Holy Scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon; the Book of Nephi, &c. &c.

This Jo Smith was a young man, so illiterate that he could not read his own name in print.[27] But being a person of some natural talents, he could with his spectacles on, read so fluently from his plates, by placing them in his hat, and his hat over his eyes, that he succeeded in gulling an honest, wealthy farmer of Palmyra, of the name of Martin Harris, into the belief, that these plates contained a revelation from Heaven; and Jo Smith was at least a prophet, who only was “worthy to open the book.” Jo once showed one of the plates, (or said he did, but no one ever pretended to have seen them,) and the result was, he was deprived, for six months, of the power of reading them.[28]

Finally, after frequent and fervent pray- [page change] er, Jo’s spectacles were restored to sight, and he again permitted to open the book. Jo had, during his spiritual blindness, by the assistance of some one, committed several chapters of the New Testament to memory; and the better to carry on his deception with the deluded Harris, had inquired and found out the words inserted by the translators; (which are distinguished by Italics, both in the New Testament and the Old.) So, that in order to convince Harris that he could read from the plates, Jo deposites [sic] them in his hat applies spectacles, and refers Harris to a chapter in the Bible which he had learned by rote: and which he read from the plates with surprising accuracy; and what astonished Harris most was, that Jo should omit all the words in the Bible that were printed in Italic. And, if Harris attempted to correct Jo, he persisted that the plates were right, and the Bible was wrong.

Jo possessed a remarkably retentive memory; and having convinced Harris beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was commissioned by the Almighty, to reveal some hidden mysteries, he commenced translating, and Harris commenced transcribing, as Jo dictated; and to avoid mistakes, Jo required his amanuensis to read what he had written; and nothing was allowed to pass, until Jo pronounced it correct. It must go as Jo said,—sense or nonsense.

But before a translation was completed, the Lord informed Jo. (or, at least, so Jo said,) that the work must be published. As Jo was possessed of no funds, the expense, of course, must fall upon Harris; who accordingly made application to the printers in Palmyra. One*[29] of them refused to have any thing to do with the concern. The other made a charge, which Harris’ unfledged zeal could not, at first, encompass, with his purse, without too hard a stretch of the strings. But, as he grew in faith, his purse-strings became more elastic; and, in 1830, the Book of Mormon was published.”

As is usually the case with new systems, however absurd, Mormonism found quite a number of deluded followers.—Jo and Martin, of course, were the principal leaders. Jo, by some revelation from above, as he pretended, was informed that there was a ‘Promised Land’ for him and his disciples, in the West. This information was communicated to the deluded Mormonites, who immediately took up a line of march for New-Connecticut, or the Western Reserve, in the State of Ohio. There they found a tract of land which they deemed the “Land of Promise.” But some of the wicked owners refused to sell it; and thus the Mormonites were deprived of their ‘inheritance.’ They however, occupied what part of it they were able to obtain, living, and sharing all their goods in common.

Many miracles were pretended to be wrought among them. They professed to receive direct communications from the Deity. At one time, a young man gave information to his brethren, that he was about to receive a message from heaven; and specified the time and place. At the appointed time, they repaired to the spot designated; and there, they solemnly assert, a letter descended from the skies, and fell into the hands of the young man who was expecting to receive the message;—the purport of which was, to inform him that he was about to be called to preach Mormonism, and to exhort him to increase his faith.[30] The deluded Mormonites declare their most solemn belief that this letter was written in heaven, by the finger of the Almighty: and the youth who pretends to have received it, says, the writing was in a round Italian hand, and the letters were in gold;—he attempted to copy it; but, as fast as he wrote, the letters disappeared from the original, until it entirely vanished.—Some of them pretend to have received a ‘white stone, on which is written a new name, which no man knoweth save him that receiveth it.”†[31] Revelations, ii, 17. Some of them pretend to see these stones moving about in the air, and others to hear them rolling about the floor; at such times, they spring and jump about, trying to catch them,—till some one, more fortunate than the rest, succeeds. But, when one of these stones is caught, no man can see it “save him that receiveth it.”

The Mormonites have among them an African, (or, Garrison, would say, an Africo-American,)[32] who fancies he can fly.—Caesar at one time, took it into his head to try his wings: he accordingly chose the elevated bank of Lake Erie as a string place, and, spreading his pinions, he lit on a tree-top some fifty feet below, sustaining no other damage than the demolition of his faith in wings without feathers.

The land of promise in Ohio, not exactly suiting Martin Harris and Jo Smith, they have lately discovered another Promised Land in the valley of the Mississippi; whence they, together with most of their followers, some 50 or 60 in number, have Departed.

As to their Creed, it is similar to that of the Mahometans: “God is great and Jo Smith is his prophet.” They pretend to believe the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; and say the book of Mormon is but a continuation of God’s Word. They believe that they are visited by the Holy Ghost; that they are commissioned to cast out devils, and work miracles; and report such stories as those above related of them, with the most solemn asseverations of truth.

As most of the Mormonites have emi- [page change] grated to their new “Land of Promise, in the “far west,” it is to be hoped that we shall hear from them but very seldom; and, as the wilderness to which they are bound is an ample field for meditation and reflection, our earnest desire is that they may be restored to right reason.—Hartford (Conn.) Intelligencer.


The Middlebury Free Press, August 17, 1831

A friend and relative of the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith, says that the statement made in our article which appeared in ours of week before last, that Smith could neither read or write, is untrue. Let us have the truth and nothing but the truth in all cases.


[1] For examples of the former see Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 61–93; and Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 29–35. For a recent example of the latter see Jared Hickman, “‘Bringing Forth’ the Book of Mormon: Translation as the Reconfiguration of Bodies in Space-Time,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2020), 54–80.

[2] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 72f.

[3] As far as I have been able to tell this newspaper article has not yet been published or included in any previous academic treatment telling the story of the dictation of the Book of Mormon. It is not included in any of the following: Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (5 vols.; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003); Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011); Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005); Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2015); Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones (Provo: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2016).

[4] Cf. Karen A. Weyler, Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2013), 7; and E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2005), 365.

[5] Weyler, Empowering Words, 42. See also Ann Fabian, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[6] Kenneth A. Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York: Norton, 1974).

[7] Cf. Hester Blum, The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 28–29, nt. 31.

[8] Blum, The View from the Masthead, 26–32; David D. Hall, Cultures of Print: Essays in the History of the Book (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 79–96; Ross W. Beales and E. Jennifer Monaghan, “Literacy and Schoolbooks,” in A History of the Book in America, Volume On: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2000), 380–387; Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Expanded Edition; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 121–126.

[9] In her study about the place of sailors in early American literary culture, Hester Blum focuses on five sources of data in reconstructing literacy among early Anglo-American sailors: “signature estimates, charitable organization surveys, naval library records…mechanics’ library histories” and “written narratives of sailors themselves.” Blum, The View from the Masthead, 27.

[10] Beales and Monaghan, “Literacy and Schoolbooks,” 380.

[11] Cf. E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2005), 344.

[12] See “Agreement with Isaac Hale, 6 April 1829” in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, et al (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 28–34.

[13] History of George A. Smith, circa 1857–1875, page 2, George A. Smith Papers, 1834–1877, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[14] MacKay, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 6.

[15] MacKay, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 17. See Colby Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith and the Reception of Genesis 1–6 in Early America” (MA Thesis, Utah State University, 2019), 89–90.

[16] MacKay, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 104–108.

[17] Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 9–12.

[18] Jessee, Esplin, Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1, 12–19.

[19] For the cases where Smith later wrote in his journal rather than a scribe see Jessee, Esplin, and Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1, 24, 28–29, 34–37, 62–64, 135.

[20] See Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon,” 81–83.

[21] Andrew S. Barker, “Chauncey Langdon Knapp and Political Abolitionism in Vermont, 1833–1841,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sept. 2000): 449.

[22] Barker, “Chauncey Langdon Knapp and Political Abolitionism,” 449, 452.

[23] This is probably the Anti-Masonic Intelligencer published in Hartford from 1828–1831 and edited by Noble Davies Strong. See Edgar J. Wiley, Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and of Others Who Have Received Degrees, 1800–1915 (Middlebury: Published by the College, 1917), 29. The paper Strong edited was referred to colloquially as the Hartford Intelligencer. See Boston Masonic Mirror (Boston, MA), February 12, 1831, 260.

[24] See William L. Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 194–195.

[25] William Davis, “Reassessing Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Formal Education,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter 2016): 1–58.

[26] See especially Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone. Cf. Colby Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon,” 75–131.

[27] See the correction in the August 17, 1831 issue of the Middlebury Free Press transcribed below.

[28] This might be in reference to Smith allowing Harris to take the initial 1828 manuscript to his home in Palmyra in 1828 where it was then lost. Smith claimed to have had the plates and his spectacles taken from him as punishment by God.

[29] The author included the following footnote: “The editor of the Hartford Times, last week, classed the Mormonites with the Anti-masons. We therefore mention the fact, that the anti-masonic printer, in Palmyra, refused to print the Mormon Bible; and it was printed by the publisher of the Wayne Sentinel, a masonic paper.”

[30] There are thematic connections here to the earliest revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. See section 11 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Cf. Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon,” 102–107.

[31] The author included the following footnote: “The reader is here referred to the Mark Master’s degree in Freemasonry. We are of the opinion that even Gideon will confess the striking resemblances between Mormonism and Masonry. What…”

[32] According to W. Paul Reeve, this man’s name was Peter, although commonly known as “Blake Pete.” Communication with author, August 10, 2020. See Matt McBride, “Peter,” accessed September 24, 2020, https://exhibits.lib.utah.edu/s/century-of-black-mormons/page/peter#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&xywh=-2920%2C-230%2C9035%2C4595.

One Reply to “Literacy, Imitation, and Literary Borrowing in Early Mormon History”

  1. Regarding the sword of damocles, see also Christopher Smith’s article “The Swords of Damocles, Laban, and the Lord” from the Worlds Without End blog. Also note that Royal Skousen amends the text of 1 Nephi 12:18 to say “sword of justice” rather than “word of justice”.

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