Many LDS members argue that the Book of Mormon could not have been created by a man and is a miracle. They’ve challenged people to come up with a naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon. It turns out that Dr. William Davis has answered that challenge. He is the author of Visions of a Seer Stone. We’ll talk about his book, and how he thinks Joseph Smith may have used oral methods to construct the Book of Mormon. He says this explanation is compatible for people of faith or without faith, but it seems some faithful members are threatened by his explanation. Check out our conversation…
From Shakespeare’s Chiasmus to Sermon Culture
William 06:38 The book, then, it took that really broad swath of ideas, and I narrowed it down to focus almost exclusively on sermon culture. So, I had to leave out a lot. I decided I would just go deep on the one, because that seemed to be one of the most prominent–sermon culture seemed to be one of the most prominent areas where what you’re seeing in the text of the Book of Mormon has a lot of things that are related to sermon culture at the same time. And that’s in terms of the mechanics of production, the way that the text is produced. I didn’t hardly work on content at all, at that time. It was just techniques about speaking and dictating a text.
GT 07:27 So, did this relate to your Shakespeare training at all?William 07:32 Only in a broad sense. I would say where there is a relationship, and part of what –the one thread of interest that brought me over to looking at the Book of Mormon from Shakespeare is Shakespeare uses complex chiasmus. It’s everywhere in his works, as small as one to two phrases, to where it expands up to where it’s the shaping of entire plays, and everything in between, long speeches, scenes, and whatnot. So, I’d been working with that. Some of my early publications were on Shakespeare’s use of complex chiasmus, but then, also, in terms of how he used it, in ways that he incorporated devices from classical rhetoric. So, when I started looking at the Book of Mormon, a part of it was because it had that interest in chiasmus, as well. I had been studying chiasmus before. I first heard about it when I was on my mission. So, it always kind of stuck with me.
Oral vs Written Chiasms-Tight vs Loose Translation
William 29:40 I would say that, yeah. I would say, yes. Because what happens when you’re dealing with the type of technique that I’m talking about here, so say, we’re Joseph Smith. Right? And we’re translating, and, this is where we’re going to talk about the two different camps of translation. Now, some people say that translation, they believe that Joseph Smith was doing nothing more than reading the words off the seer stone, or else having some kind of vision that the seer stone helped induce, where he got everything word for word. The other side of the coin that you find in LDS theorizing is that Joseph Smith participated in the process, so that through visions of seeing past events, through using the seer stone, and whatever the process was, that he was experiencing the stories of the Book of Mormon that his own language was where the source of the words were, as he tried to express what he was experiencing.
GT 30:40 This is know as loose translation, and the former was tight translation, right?
William 30:43 Yeah, so that’s tight versus loose translation. So, when we’re talking about the translation of the Book of Mormon, and coming back to the 116 pages, and what the text really shows again and again, is that there’s this process of oral production of words, in an effort to articulate whatever he’s experiencing through vision or the seer stone or both. So, what’s happening then is if you don’t have this word for word, perfect script, so you’ve done the 116 pages, and then they’re gone. There’s a very good chance that Joseph Smith could have gone back, and then done all that translation again. But, more than likely, a lot of the words that he used to express those ideas would have been different. So, the concern was that someone would have this text and come along and say, “Well, it might be the same story, but it’s told in two different ways, so, this is fraudulent.”
GT 31:45 So, this really casts a lot of doubt on the tight translation, because, well, if he got it word for word, he should have gotten it word for word again, right?
William 31:54 Yeah, and that’s what the concern was at that time. Because that was one way to say, oh, there’s variants. And if it’s word for word tight then–and if someone were really trying to do that, they could have tried to find some other way to alter it, yet further again. So I think, ultimately, scrapping the 116 pages, not trying to do them, again, turned out to be just the best way to try to circumvent all the potential problems that might have come up. But yeah, so…
GT 32:29 So, you’re definitely in the loose translation camp.
William 32:32 Absolutely.
GT 32:33 I think that’s where most people are. I think Royal Skousen is in the tight. There are some other people that are in the tight camp, but from my experience, it seems like most people are in the loose translation category. Would you agree with that?
William 32:48 Well, my impression is that, that is the case. It does seem to me that there are more people who are kind of gravitating to that position. But, then again, that’s just the circle of people that I interact with and read about. So, I don’t know what’s going on in the wider population and popular Mormon thought.
GT 33:07 My experience is most people are going with loose. The reason why is because if you’re going to go with tight translation, how do you explain horses and steel and wheat and all the so-called anachronisms? Those are more easily explained with, “Oh, well, Joseph was using his own vocabulary, not that the word steel was on the rock.”
William 33:34 Yeah. I think, for me, it’s not so much those anachronisms, or getting around the anachronisms, that’s the real issue.
GT 33:44 That’s not a big deal to you?
William 33:45 No. but, and again, I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone who would be believing in the Book of Mormon as an actual historical record, then, it seems to me that loose translation, like what you just described, that Joseph Smith is seeing things and he’s trying to articulate what he’s seeing within his own experience, his own vocabulary, his own frameworks of reference, that that goes a long way to explain a lot of the anachronisms that are in the text. William 34:18 I’m a little surprised that people are actually so gung ho about this tight translation, that Joseph Smith wasn’t even participating, because it seems to contradict, not only the textual evidence itself, but even the descriptions of how the process took place from someone actually doing it, as opposed to someone who is an outside observer. Then, plus, from an apologist point of view, it’s so much easier to explain some of those difficulties. It just seems that the tight control creates more problems than the benefits.
We also talk about the Catalyst theory of the Book of Abraham in Part 1, and how William views that as problematic, especially if applied to the Book of Mormon. In Part 2 of our conversation, we covered several other topics.
Re-evaluating Translation Timeline for Book of Mormon
William 1:04:32 So, what I’m proposing in the book is when you go back, and you look at the history, from the moment in 1823, in September, when Joseph Smith, told the family, “This angel appeared to me with these plates, and told me about these plates, and said that there’s this history of ancient Americans and that, eventually, I’m going to be translating them.” That’s the point when we know that Joseph Smith was aware of these ancient people and that there are stories. Then, when you look at what Moroni said to him, even in in the accounts where it’s really brief, apparently the Angel Moroni gave him this overall arc of the story. [Moroni told him] that there was a righteous nation where they came from. They went wicked, and they fell apart and they died. So, you have this kind of general outline about the story.
GT 1:05:23 And this is as early as 1823, right?
William 1:05:24 [Yes,] 1823.
GT 1:05:27 So, Joseph knew what was in the Book of Mormon in 1823.
William 1:05:31 In 1823, yes. But, let’s go into more detail, because I know that when we talk about this issue, a lot of times what will come up is Lucy Mack Smith. [Lucy,] she was talking about how Joseph Smith, after he had this vision, all of a sudden, he came at night, and he was telling us stories about the ancient inhabitants in the Americas. We were all just sitting with bated breath on the edge of our seats, listening to him. And she said what a sight this was with the whole family sitting around this young man just listening to him tell stories.
Joseph’s Training as Methodist Exhorter
GT 1:41:20 Very interesting. I was curious if you could talk a little bit about, you mentioned it earlier in the conversation that Joseph spent some time as a Methodist exhorter. In your book, you mentioned that they were expected to study certain things. So, first question, how long did he spend doing that and what are the types of things he would have studied?
William 1:41:44 Okay, Methodist exhorter–now, that’s kind of hard, because when you get into the Methodist class meetings, I mean, they had some general things in common that they tried to do. There were some rules and regulations on…
GT 1:41:57 They weren’t correlated. Is that what you’re saying?
William 1:41:59 It was not correlated like it is [in our church] yeah, no. There was a lot of freedom. A lot of it depended on who was in the class, how sophisticated or unsophisticated were they? Or how familiar were they with all the doctrines? How long had they been a member of Methodism? There’s just so much. Anyway, so Joseph Smith, he joined a class meeting. This is when they were living in the Palmyra/Manchester area. He’s getting older. He participates in the class meeting.
GT 1:42:36 Do we know approximately what year, 1825?
William 1:42:38 He was a teenager, I would say. But I don’t think we’re given a specific date. The people who reference it just talked about him going, and joining the class meeting, but not giving us details about when exactly that took place. I suspect it would have been when he’s 15 to 17 years oldish.
GT 1:43:04 So, as early as 1821 , maybe.
William 1:43:05 Yeah. But that’s a guess, a total guess on that, because the historical record doesn’t really tell us. But what would happen is you would join this class meeting, and they have the texts called the doctrines and discipline. That was, essentially, like, here’s how we run the Methodist connection, what they called it. This is what we believe. Then, in that time period, you would go over that text. You would read from that text, virtually every week, because that was basically to give people an idea of what is the Methodist culture. What are the rules? How do we do things here? Then, and then also during the class meetings is when people would also share stories. It’s almost like a mini testimony meeting, you might think about it. People would share their conversions and their conversion stories or the conversion narratives. So, people would talk about their experience of being touched by the Spirit. Oftentimes, in, especially in Methodists, there’s kind of a before and after type thing. So they say, “Oh, my life, I was just horrible. I was rotten. I was terrible. Then, all of a sudden, Christ came down, and wow, I was just, you know, life turned around, and then I’m just feeling all this love and joy.”
We also discussed laying down heads, criticism of Bill’s work, and Joseph’s education, which Bill says was more extensive than most people allege. What are your thoughts? Have you read Bill’s book?