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An Interesting but Ultimately Myopic Vision

Finished “Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon” by William L. Davis last night. The basic idea is that “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ” contains many examples of brief outlines that correspond — usually as precursors, but sometimes as summaries — to greatly expanded sermons and detailed narratives. Davis points out the similarity between this and the ubiquitous 19th-century practice of using outlines (“laying down heads”) to prepare written and oral compositions — particularly the latter, as used by revivalist preachers of the era to deliver elaborate semi-extemporaneous sermons from very spare notes.

Occasionally Davis offers an olive branch to believers, acknowledging that this formal feature does not necessarily preclude a genuine ancient history behind the text: whether as an effect of processing through Joseph’s own mind, or given to him in that form by a supernatural agency, it could have been a mode of bringing forth the ancient source that would be more intelligible to Joseph and his contemporaries — as might be expected of a spiritually useful and digestible “translation.”

Such conciliatory gestures come across as pro forma, however. Davis’ heart is clearly in a secular, naturalistic, purely 19th-century interpretation, if one that allows for Joseph’s sincere (albeit mistaken) belief that he actually was bringing forth an ancient record. He envisions Joseph, either mentally or with spare written notes, creatively generating and meticulously rehearsing the characters and genealogies and timelines and geographies and theologies and stories and interlocking narrative structures of the prospective work since 1823 (or even earlier), preparing diligently (and sub rosa!) for the climactic moment of his “virtuoso oral performance.” Memorization of outlined bullet points — or occasional clandestine reference to sparse written cues (what was Joseph really doing in those interludes in the woods?) — would have been sufficient to trigger, on the strength of deep familiarity, the semi-extemporaneous “torrential flow of the Book of Mormon text” (some 269,510 words, approaching 600 pages in its original 1830 printing) in roughly 65 working days in 1829.

As a believer, I see some merit in the “intelligible translation” option Davis grudgingly allows, and for that matter I don’t deny the possibility of Joseph gaining some familiarity with the background of the book through the heavenly tutelage of prior years; but even beyond this, I wonder if this business of “laying down heads” isn’t just a secular flip side of apologetic arguments about chiasmus and other ancient forms pointing to the antiquity of the work. Just as chiasmus is not necessarily consciously composed, or restricted to antiquity, is it not also the case that organizational outlines would be rather automatic at some level for any composition throughout human history, and not restricted to the 19th century? As seems always to be the case with evidence that can be assessed by purely rational means, it appears to be a wash in both cases. If chiasmus is no proof of antiquity, so also the use of outlines is no proof of exclusive modernity.

As usual we are left to see what we want to see in this “strange thing in the land” — apparently, by design: the revelation, to God and more importantly to ourselves, of “what we want to see,” and therefore what we are willing to obey and how we are willing to live, is the whole point. We act as if it is the Book of Mormon that is on trial when in reality it is we who are on trial. And in this trial we become our own judges, by virtue of our willingness to seek and hearken to the Lord’s voice as we respond to the book and to the corresponding prophetic authority of Joseph and his successors in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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