Abstract: The advent of the computer and the internet allows Joseph Smith as the “author” of the Book of Mormon to be compared to other authors and their books in ways essentially impossible even a couple of decades ago. Six criteria can demonstrate the presence of similarity or distinctiveness among writers and their literary creations: author education and experience, the book’s size and complexity, and the composition process and timeline. By comparing these characteristics, this essay investigates potentially unique characteristics of Joseph Smith and the creation of the Book of Mormon.
Historically, many critics have dismissed the Book of Mormon by classifying its creation as remarkable but not too remarkable. As naturalist Dan Vogel explains: “The Book of Mormon was a remarkable accomplishment for a farm boy …. While Smith continued to produce religious texts, the Book of Mormon remained his most creative, ambitious work in scope and originality.”1 Like Vogel, skeptics commonly assume that human creativity, ambition, and originality can produce texts like the Book of Mormon and imply that past authors have used those abilities to produce similar volumes. Despite such assumptions, no attempts to duplicate his effort or to actively compare Joseph Smith to other authors have been published.
Admittedly, devising a scheme for comparison can be tricky. Multiple variables could be chosen, each detecting a potentially useful parallel or nonparallel. This essay will compare six criteria regarding the author, the book, and the composition process:
- [Page 152]Author Age
- Author Education
- Book word count
- Book complexity
- Composition timeline
- Composition methodology
Each of these elements represents an observable characteristic that can be generally, if not specifically, measured. Other criteria, like authors’ writing experience, book genre, intended audience, language, etc. might have been included and hopefully can be explored in future analyses.
I should point out that none of these criteria seems very useful if isolated from the others. In other words, Joseph Smith recited the Book of Mormon when he was in his mid-twenties, but many other authors of similar age and younger have written impressive novels. Similarly, his schooling was minimal, but limited education has not stopped other authors from writing their manuscripts. The Book of Mormon is long, but thousands of writers have equaled or eclipsed that word count. The complexity of the Book of Mormon is not particularly singular, and many books have been written in short periods of time.
Determining whether the Book of Mormon creation was unique in any observable way requires contrasting multiple characteristics simultaneously. Diagramming all six variables at the same time is not possible, but convergences and divergences can be detected by charting several of the characteristics together.
Joseph, the Book, and the Composition Process
Before attempting any comparisons, details regarding Joseph Smith’s age and education, the Book of Mormon’s length, complexity, and the composition process must be understood.
Joseph Smith’s Age and Education
Born December 23, 1805, Joseph Smith was 23 when he dictated the Book of Mormon and 24 when it was published. Precisely how much education he had acquired by that time is controversial. In 2016, scholar William Davis wrote that Joseph Smith’s “overall estimated time … in formal education” was “equivalent of approximately seven full school years.”2 While Davis’s research is useful, his conclusions seem incomplete for several reasons. First, Davis assumes Joseph attended school without documenting that he actually did. Several reminiscences report he frequently did not show [Page 153]up for classes.3 Second, the vast majority of recollections from individuals who knew Joseph Smith described him as ignorant4 or illiterate.5 Isaac Hale recounted in 1834: “I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Jr. in November, 1825 … His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man — not very well educated.”6 Lastly, we are not told how “seven full school years” of frontier schooling might compare to modern standards. It would probably be much inferior to a seventh-grade education in the United States in the twenty-first century.
Joseph Smith’s recollection that he was “deprived of the benefit of an education” seems accurate. His statement: “I was merely instructed in reading, writing and the ground rules of arithmetic”7 would place him with about a third-grade education in modern Western schools.8
The Book of Mormon Word Count and Complexity
The 1830 Book of Mormon word count (from computer calculation) is 269,528.9 However, when used to compare to other books, this total could be justifiably modified. Twenty-six chapters in the Book of Mormon closely resemble chapters in the King James Version of the Bible.10 In all, 15,527 similar words could be subtracted, representing approximately 5.8% of the Book of Mormon total. In contrast, Joseph Smith dictated many additional words comprising the Book of Lehi, which were lost by Martin Harris as part of the 116 pages. Since the total number of missing words is unknown, the 1830 Book of Mormon word count (269,528) will be used without modification in this article.11
The complexity of the Book of Mormon can be assessed through general observations, as well as technical measurements. The text mentions the activities of more than 175 individuals and groups who existed in at least 125 different topographical locations.12 Found within the narrative are 337 proper names, of which 188 are unique to the Book of Mormon.13 The chapters reference more than 425 specific geographical movements.14 Also included are 430 identifiable chiasms, with more than thirty being six-level or greater.15 Throughout the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith used more than 100 different names for deity.16 The storyline includes complex words that BYU Professor Roger Terry finds surprising to have been in “Joseph’s ‘available vocabulary’ in 1829.”17 Examples include:
abhorrence, abridgment, affrighted, anxiety, arraigned, breastwork, cimeters, commencement, condescension, consignation, delightsome, depravity, derangement, discernible, disposition, distinguished, embassy, encompassed, enumerated, frenzied, hinderment, [Page 154]ignominious, impenetrable, iniquitous, insensibility, interposition, loftiness, management, nothingness, overbearance, petition, priestcraft, probationary, proclamation, provocation, regulation, relinquished, repugnant, scantiness, serviceable, stratagem, typifying, unquenchable, and unwearyingness.18
Measuring the Readability and Complexity of the Book of Mormon
The specific characteristics mentioned above of the Book of Mormon are essentially impossible to directly compare to other books. Yet multiple analytic calculations have been used for decades to determine text readability and complexity.19 The outcomes of such evaluations can be compared easily. Submitting the text of the 1830 Book of Mormon to the most widely used of these computerized tests reveals a span of recommended reading grades (see appendix):
|Scale||Book of Mormon|
|Score||Suggested Reading Grade|
|Coleman Liau index||7.92||8|
|Dale-Chall Adjusted Grade Level||8.4||11–12|
|Flesch Kincaid Grade Level||15.74||High School plus 2 years|
|Gunning Fog index||17.69||Post-Graduate year 1|
|Automated Readability Index (ARI)||17.50||Post-Graduate year 1|
Averaging these scores places the Book of Mormon reading level around the eleventh grade (high school junior) but with a range from the sixth to post-graduate.
An additional measure of complexity is the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, where the Book of Mormon scores 51–56, which correlates to “Fairly difficult to difficult to read.”20 To put this in context, “Low scores indicate text that is complicated to understand …. For most business writing, a score of 65 is a good target, and scores between 60 and 80 should generally be understood by 12 to 15 year olds.”21
|[Page 155]Score||School Level||Notes|
|100–90||5th grade||Very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.|
|90–80||6th grade||Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.|
|7th grade||Fairly easy to read.|
|70–60||8th & 9th grade||Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.|
|60–50||10th to 12th grade||Fairly difficult to read.|
|50–30||College||Difficult to read.|
|30–0||College graduate||Very difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.|
The most common of all complexity scales, with more than 300,000 books scored, is the “Lexile Framework for Reading.”22
The Lexile Framework for Reading is a scientific approach to measuring reading ability and the text demand of reading materials. The Lexile Framework involves a scale for measuring both reading ability of an individual and the text complexity of materials encountered. The Lexile scale is like a thermometer, except rather than measuring temperature, the Lexile Framework measures a text’s complexity and a reader’s skill level.23
|Grade||Mid-percentile||Range 25th to 75th percentile|
Since many books have been analyzed and assigned Lexile scores, these can be used when comparing authors and their books to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Other popular books with an 1150 Lexile score include Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 364,153 words), Moby Dick, (Herman Melville, 206,052 words), and Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 162,690 words).26
As discussed above, even the most optimistic historical estimates of Joseph Smith’s 1820s education assume seven years of upstate New York district schooling. When presented with this data, Don Bradley, author of a forthcoming book on the lost 116 pages, responded, “People have readily assumed the Book of Mormon was within Joseph Smith’s writing ability, when it’s actually questionable how well it was within his reading ability.”27
Several authors have calculated a productivity timeline for the full dictation of the original Book of Mormon.28 The most recent chronology is from John W. Welch, who identified five anchor dates in 182929:
- April 7, when Oliver Cowdery began scribing in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
- May 15, the day corresponding to the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood by John the Baptist (D&C 13).
- May 31, when the Title Page of the Book of Mormon was translated.
- June 11, when Joseph Smith obtained the copyright from the Library of Congress.
- June 30, the established date for completion of the translation although it might have been a day or two earlier.
Within this framework, Welch starts with the 85 days between April 7 and June 30 and shows multiple distractions would have prevented Joseph Smith from translating every day. Welch approximates that 11 days were needed for travel, with another deduction of 16 for time spent farming, Sunday observance, doing business, visiting with guests, religious activities, performing needed chores, and other distractions. Another day is subtracted to account for 13 revelations received during those weeks. These reductions support that perhaps 57 days were all that were devoted to translation and writing of the original Book of Mormon manuscript.
[Page 157]Dividing the final word count by 57 days equals about 4,700 words per day. The average adult handwriting speed using a ballpoint pen or pencil is around 68 letters or 13.8 words per minute equating to translation times of just under six hours a day.30 Several observations suggest the process could have taken much longer. Martin Harris asserted that after Joseph dictated a sentence and Martin would write it down, Martin would then say “written” before they would move on.31 In contrast, David Whitmer reported that the scribe wrote down Joseph’s words “exactly as it fell from his lips,” then “the scribe would then read the sentence written” back to Joseph to assure accuracy.32 While the details are less clear, it appears the scribe and Joseph spent addition time trying to assure the text was correctly recorded.33
Also, using a quill and ink reservoir would likely have slowed the process (as compared to handwriting speeds using a pen or pencil). Issues of fatigue for continuous writing are common and might have further slowed the overall progress.34 If breaks were taken for food and other distractions, the process could easily have extended to most of the waking hours.35
David Whitmer recalled: “It was a laborious work for the weather was very warm, and the days were long and they worked from morning till night. But they were both young and strong and were soon able to complete the work.”36 “Elsewhere Whitmer reported: “The boys, Joseph and Oliver, worked hard, early and late, while translating the plates. It was slow work, and they could write only a few pages a day.”37
Multiple witnesses declared that Joseph Smith spoke the words of the Book of Mormon rather than personally writing them.38 This observation separates him from more than 99% of all authors who ever published a book.
Historically, the composition technique taught in schools worldwide is called creative writing and comprises three general steps.
- Pre-writing: choosing a subject, creating an outline, and performing the required research.
- Writing: making the initial draft and combining sections.
- Re-writing: revising, content-editing, and all subsequent drafts.39
When dictating a book to a scribe (or stenographer), as Joseph Smith did, step one is restricted to memory, and step three is eliminated. There is no evidence Joseph engaged in step one in any discernable way, [Page 158]although mental preparations would not be detectable. The manuscript went straight to press without step three enhancements.
Dictating a book without pre-writing or re-writing might be called creative dictation. The advent of smart phones and voice-to-text apps has facilitated cell phone users today to produce long manuscripts using creative dictation and thereby attempt to replicate Joseph Smith’s efforts. The need for a scribe is removed by dictating text messages of 20 to 30 words each (the apparent word blocks Joseph spoke to his scribes40) into the app. These are received in order and copied into an expanding document. Before hitting send, grammar and spelling can be corrected, but once sent, the sequence of the sentences cannot be changed.41 The author does not consult manuscripts or books while dictating.42 Repeat this process 10,000 times until a document of roughly 270,000 words is formed that can be sent to a publisher for typesetting and printing.
Creative dictation is more difficult than creative writing because, as Louis Brandeis, who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939 explained: “There is no good writing; there is only good rewriting.”43 Popular novelist and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson concurred: “When I say writing, O, believe me, it is rewriting that I have chiefly in mind.”44 This inherent limitation of creative dictation is probably why none of the authors in the comparisons charted below elected to recite their books from memory and then send them directly to the printer. Even genius-level intellects today pre-write, write, and rewrite their books prior to completion.45
Throughout the remainder of this article, all the authors listed in the comparisons except Joseph Smith used creative writing techniques, rather than creative dictation, to produce their books. The possible significance of this distinction deserves additional study that is beyond the scope of this essay.46
A possible exception to the near universal implementation of creative writing techniques, rather than creative dictation methodology, is “automatic writing.” It occurs when authors produce their texts spontaneously through recitation or other types of communication.47 Automatic writing has two forms. Shorter writings may be induced by psychologists (generally through hypnosis) to discover feelings and memories hidden in a client’s unconscious mind. Psychologist Anita M. Muhl, author of Automatic Writing, explains: “The use of automatic writing in conjunction with psychoanalysis is invaluable in getting at unconscious processes quickly.”48 [Page 159]Naturalists may allege this process explains Joseph Smith’s ability to dictate the Book of Mormon,49 but multiple psychological studies demonstrate the unconscious mind lacks the ability to systematize memory elements or to perform complex cognitive functions.50
A second and much older form of automatic writing is also called “spirit writing” or “channeling.”51 Irving Litvag explicates: “One type of psychic activity, known as ‘automatic writing,’ began to attract attention through the activities of a group of mediums, mostly English, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Automatic writing involves the reception and transcription of various types of communications in written form. The medium claims to have no control over the writing that is produced.”52 This latter form can produce very long manuscripts even lengthier than the Book of Mormon. Their authors universally attribute the words they produce to extra-worldly sources.53
Since secular theorists disallow supernatural influences, they generally credit all the words generated by automatic writers to their unconscious minds54 or charge them with deception (including self-deception).55 No prospective scientific experiments have demonstrated that automatic writing can produce manuscripts like the Book of Mormon. All studies and conclusions are based upon retrospective analyses of existing manuscripts. Consequently, possible parallels between the Book of Mormon and automatic writings await reproducible data identifying the naturalistic methodologies ostensibly employed by the writers including Joseph Smith.
Comparing Young Writers
Throughout the remainder of this essay, the potential for one or more of the lists to be incomplete should not be ignored. Even with the information readily obtainable on the Internet, identifying all writers that are pertinent to each category below might not be possible. Acknowledging that hundreds of thousands of books have been printed in English over past centuries, the lists below compare more popular titles primarily because those are more publicly known. If any of the following compilations have missed a particular author who parallels Joseph Smith more closely, it is independent of my earnest attempts to be absolutely thorough. Scrutiny is encouraged and suggestions for expansion and modification are welcome.
Throughout recorded history, young writers have tried their quills, pencils, pens, typewriters, and keyboards at book-writing. Born [Page 160]December 16, 1775, Jane Austen began in her twenties writing novels that are still popular today.56
|Author||Education at Time of Publication||First Book Title||Age when Published||Word Count||Lexile|
|Taylor Caldwell||Public schools||The Romance of Atlantis||12||73,320||n/a|
|Zlata Filipović||Public schools||Zlata’s Diary||13||74,400||640|
|Alexandra Adornetto||Secondary school||The Shadow Thief||14||64,480||1060|
|Nancy Yi Fan||Secondary school||Swordbird||14||79,360||760|
|Flavia Bujor||Secondary school||The Prophecy of the Stones||14||124,000||830|
|Amelia Atwater-Rhodes||High school||In the Forests of the Night||15||54,560||900|
|Isamu Fukui||High school||Truancy||15||133,920||960|
|Malala Yousafzai||Private school||I Am Malala||16||114,080||1000|
|Beth Reekles||Secondary school||The Kissing Booth||16||138,880||780|
|Catherine Webb||Secondary school||Mirror Dreams||16||97,200||n/a|
|Pamela Brown||High school||The Swish of the Curtain||17||99,200||n/a|
|Gordon Korman||High school||I Want to Go Home!||18||57,040||n/a|
|Alex Harris||College||Do Hard Things||18||99,200||n/a|
|Percy Bysshe Shelley||Secondary school||Zastrozzi||18||101,600||n/a|
|Suresh Guptara||Secondary school||The Conspiracy of Calaspia||18||186,000||n/a|
|[Page 161]S.E. Hinton||High school||The Outsiders||19||69,440||750|
|Arthur Rimbaud||Secondary school||A Season in Hell||19||106,020||1080|
|Georgette Heyer||High school||The Black Moth||19||120,900||n/a|
|Christopher Paolini||High School||Eragon||19||163,680||710|
|Esther Earl||High school||This Star Won’t Go Out||20||138,800||960|
|Mary Shelley||Home tutoring||Frankenstein||21||51,460||900|
|Helen Oyeyemi||Secondary school||The Icarus Girl||21||109,120||n/a|
|Maureen Daly||High school||Seventeenth Summer||21||119,040||1130|
|Matthew Gregory Lewis||College||The Monk||21||128,960||990|
|Samantha Shannon||College||The Bone Season||22||173,600||n/a|
|Eleanor Catton||Secondary school||The Rehearsal||23||106, 160||n/a|
|Carson McCullers||College||The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter||23||114,080||760|
|F. Scott Fitzgerald||College||This Side of Paradise||24||53,940||1070|
|Zoe Sugg||College||Girl Online||24||109,120||720|
|Joseph Smith||Frontier school||Book of Mormon||24||269,528||1150|
How does the length of the Book of Mormon compare to the first books published by other young authors in the past centuries? The names of writers of 24 years and younger (whom I have been able to identify), their educations, [Page 162]books, word counts (for books of more than 50,000 words), publishing ages, and Lexile scores (when available) are charted above.57
The chart indicates that Joseph Smith’s education was less than that of any of the other authors except perhaps Mary Shelley. The word count of the Book of Mormon surpasses the next lengthy volume by more than 80,000 words, nearly a 50% increase.
While not a specific criterion, only three of the books on the chart were published before the Book of Mormon: The Monk (128,960 words) by Matthew Gregory Lewis in 1796, Zastrozzi (101,600 words) by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1810, and Frankenstein (51,460 words) by Mary Shelley in 1818. For that era, the Book of Mormon word count more than doubled the works of previous young authors.58
Also, the Lexile score of the Book of Mormon is higher, although many books have no score available. The lower Lexile scores of young writers are generally unsurprising, since writers generally draw from their own life’s experiences or from expansions of those experiences coupled with imagination. Most youthful authors will have limited and less mature material to reference. Their books are generally written for readers between grades 5–9 with science fiction, fantasy, and romance themes being common.
Prolific Young Writers
Several youthful writers, whose first books were much shorter than the Book of Mormon, immediately proceeded to write additional volumes. Their cumulative total word counts exceeded 269,528 by the time they reached 24 years, the age when Joseph Smith printed the Book of Mormon.
Catherine Webb published her first book, Mirror Dreams, by age sixteen and had almost a million words in print by age 24.59 While none of her books have been assigned a Lexile score,60 her early target audience seems to have been older elementary school children.61 On her personal website blog, she described some of her early writing experiences: “I actually won a prize for how much I used the library …. I have written sizeable chunks of novels in numerous libraries, and been shushed for typing too loud.”62
Born April 16, 1984, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes began writing her first novel in May of 1997, completing her manuscript by the end of the year. After additional revisions, the 53,680-word In the Forests of the Night was published in 1999. With a Lexile score of 770, it targeted fourth and fifth graders. By her 24th birthday, Atwater-Rhodes had published more than 600,000 words.
|[Page 163]Book||Year Published||Age||Word Count||Lexile|
|In the Forests of the Night||1999||15||53,680||770|
|Demon in My View||2000||16||58,560||820|
|Persistence of Memory||2008||24||68,320||860|
In a question-and-answer forum posted online, Atwater-Rhodes explained her early writing: “I started my first ‘novel’ in first grade …. In second grade I tried to co-write a novel called The Hope to Get Out with my best friend. Shortly after, my father allowed me the use of his computer and I began a story about people who lived on rafts …. I love to write; I tell the stories for myself, because I want to know how they go.”63
A third prolife young author, Christopher Paolini, has become more famous than the others. Born in 1983, he authored his first book, Eragon in 2002 at age nineteen, which was made into a big-budget movie in 2006 that opened to mixed reviews.
|Book||Year Published||Age||Word Count||Lexile|
Homeschooled by his parents, by the age of three Christopher was “comfortably working at a first-grade level.”64 When a teen, he entered public schools, earning his high school diploma at age 15. At that time, Reed College in Portland, Oregon, offered him a full college scholarship, but his father thought he was too young to enroll.65 Instead, Christopher tried his hand at fictional writing, publishing Eragon four years later. His biographer explains the process:
[Page 164]Paolini had ideas swimming around in his head, but he realized that he knew very little about the actual art of writing — for example, how to construct a plot line. So he set out to do some research. He studied several books on writing, including Characters and Viewpoint (1988) by Orson Scott Card and Robert McKee’s Story (1997), which helped him to sketch out a nine-page summary. Paolini then spent the next year fleshing out his story, writing sporadically at first, but then picking up the pace. The task went much more quickly after he learned how to type….
Paolini spent the bulk of 2000 reworking his first draft, smoothing out problems and fine-tuning such things as language and landscape…. By 2001 Paolini had a second draft, but he was still not satisfied, so he turned the book over to his parents for editing. They helped him streamline some of the plot sequences, clarify some of the concepts, and pare back some of what Paolini called “the bloat.” … In 2002 the Paolinis had Eragon published privately.66
In the years that followed, Paolini continued to write consistently every day from his home. He told an interviewer: “I get bolts of inspiration about once every three months … and between those bolts of inspiration the writing, while enjoyable, is definitely work. And I just treat it like a job. Every day I get up, I sit down, and I work on the book.”67 Paolini encouraged aspiring authors: “Read everything you can get your hands on …. Reading is probably the single most important skill I’ve learned in my life.”68
While the ages and literary productivity of these authors are impressive, when compared to Joseph Smith, divergences are detected regarding their levels of education, books’ complexities, and composition methods.
One Hit Wonders and Repeat Authors
As the author of only one lengthy book, Joseph Smith joined the club of one-hit-wonder authors or books that became popular but were not followed by additional books. The authors seemed satisfied with a single literary success:
|[Page 165]One-Hit Wonder Authors Compared|
|Anna Sewell||Elementary||Black Beauty||57||59,520||760|
|John Kennedy Toole||College||A Confederacy of Dunces||43||125,550||800|
|Arthur Golden||College||Memoirs of a Geisha||41||134,540||1000|
|Margaret Mitchell||College||Gone with the Wind||36||418,053||1100|
|Harper Lee||Law school||To Kill a Mockingbird||34||119,040||1120|
|Sylvia Plath||College||The Bell Jar||31||89,280||1140|
|Emily Bronte||Academy||Wuthering Heights||29||128,960||880|
|Joseph Smith||Frontier school||Book of Mormon||24||269,528||1150|
Historically, a more common pattern for authors is to start their writing careers with shorter volumes that remain less known, only to later compose a book that might be considered their magnum opus:
|Authors of Popular Books of More than 250,000 Words|
|Author||Education||First Book||Age||Words||Popular Book||Age||Words|
|George Eliot||Middle School||Adam Bede||40||213,323||Middlemarch||52||316,059|
|Vikram Seth||College||The Golden Gate||34||99,200||A Suitable Boy||41||591,554|
|Ayn Rand||College||We the Living||31||143,840||The Fountainhead||38||311,596|
|Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Academy||Poor Folk||25||54,336||Brothers Karamazov||58||364,153|
|Leo Tolstoy||College||Childhood||24||40,783||War and Peace||37||587,287|
|Larry McMurtry||College||Horseman, Pass By||24||59,520||Lonesome Dove||49||365,712|
|Joseph Smith||Frontier Schooling.||Book of Mormon||24||269,528|
As the author of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith could have written sequels or prequels. Continuing to describe Lamanite activities after 400 AD would have been a natural second volume, maybe involving an unknown Nephite population. Or he may have afterwards penned [Page 166]a narrative describing the journey of the Mulekites who left Jerusalem to come to the American continent where they were discovered by the Nephites.69 While he produced no additional Book of Mormon genre manuscripts, his early death allows only speculations on what he might have composed later in life.
Books Written in Fewer than Nine Weeks
Several online sources have compiled lists of books written in four to six weeks.70 This time span is shorter than the total translation days of the Book of Mormon of between 57 to 85 days. Even nine to 13 weeks is fast compared to the time generally required to write a lengthy manuscript. For example, Eleanor Catton related her speed in writing her 2008 debut novel, The Rehearsal (104,160 words): “I wrote the bulk of the novel in quite a short period of time – about eighty thousand words in eight months – and during that time I really immersed myself in the novel’s world.”71 She also explained her writing technique: “I spent a lot of time with my thesaurus.”72
Comparing these writers shows that in each case, they were older and more educated that Joseph Smith. With one exception, their books are generally less complicated. Even doubling the word counts to compensate for the added time needed to create the Book of Mormon does not reach Joseph’s word production.
|Books Written in Fewer than Nine Weeks|
|Elizabeth Jenkins||College||The Tortoise and the Hare||49||89,280||n/a|
|Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Academy||The Gambler||46||39,060||1050|
|Ian Fleming||College||Casino Royale||45||58,280||n/a|
|Anthony Burgess||College||A Clockwork Orange||45||66,030||1310|
|Muriel Spark||College||The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie||43||49,600||1120|
|Mickey Spillane||College||I, the Jury||39||82,604||n/a|
|John Boyne||College||The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas||37||66,650||1010|
|Jack Kerouac||College||On the Road||35||90,830||930|
|[Page 167]Graham Greene||College||The Confidential Agent||35||64,480||880|
|William Faulkner||College||As I Lay Dying||33||82,770||870|
|Charles Dickens||Academy||A Christmas Carol||31||28,944||920|
|Arthur Conan Doyle||Physician||A Study In Scarlet||28||35,340||1020|
|Joseph Smith||Frontier||Book of Mormon||24||269,528||1150|
Charting Authors’ Lifetime Productivity
An additional approach to compare authors plots their ages and productivity over time. Starting with Joseph Smith, his literary creations begin by first excluding the lost 116 pages, which are unavailable. His first written documents included two revelations, one dictated July of 1828, now Doctrine and Covenants section 3 (609 words) and possibly parts of section 10 (1937 words).73 The text of the Book of Mormon followed the next year. Then, between 1829 and 1832, came the Book of Moses, along with dozens of revelations.
The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) began in early 1831 and was mostly completed by mid-1833. Determining a word count is difficult because the Biblical revisions were recorded at different times, in different ways, and on different types of paper.74 The 1979 LDS scriptures includes Joseph’s more significant changes to the King James Bible yielding 13,976 words of JST text. For simplicity, this number (split over the years 1831–1833) will be used in this study to represent the Joseph Smith Translation.
Beyond 1832, a few revelations were dictated during the remaining twelve years of his life, but no other book-length manuscripts were seemingly anticipated or produced. Charting Joseph Smith’s published word counts (Figure 1) shows a rapid expansion of productivity between ages 23 and 24 that quickly diminished throughout the remainder of his life.
Comparing Joseph Smith to J. R. R. Tolkien
Joseph Smith has occasionally been compared to J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote the three-volume work, The Lord of the Rings.75 While not complimenting either author or book, Yale Professor Harold Bloom wrote in 1999: “Sometimes, reading Tolkien, I am reminded of the Book of Mormon.”76
Similarly, the authors of the MormonThink essay titled “Could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon?” (available online) list Tolkien’s works as a parallel in complexity: “The Book of Mormon is no more complicated than other works of fiction, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and related works.”77 So if the complexity and word counts were similar, do other parallels also exist concerning the authors’ ages and education or the composition process of the books?
Born in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien received a typical English education until age 19 when he enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford, graduating four years later. Technically, his first publication was A Middle English Vocabulary at age 30, but his first fantasy book came later after seven years of writing. The 97,364-word, The Hobbit, published in 1937 received wide acclaim.78 Years later Tolkien finished the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
|94,903||30||A Middle English Vocabulary|
|44,640||57||Farmer Giles of Ham|
|177,227||62||The Fellowship of the Ring|
|143,436||62||The Two Towers|
|134,462||63||The Return of the King|
|94,240||70||The Adventures of Tom Bombadil|
|54,560||72||Tree and Leaf|
|49,600||75||Smith of Wootton Major|
|20,770||75||The Road Goes Ever On|
|9,920||82||Bilbo’s Last Song|
J. R. R. Tolkien’s word count output over time contrasts with that of Joseph Smith, as shown in Figure 2. The chart shows that Joseph Smith’s major book-writing occurred much earlier than that of Tolkien, who composed his well-known fairy tale after years of writing experience and academic activity.79
[Page 170]Comparing Joseph Smith to William Shakespeare
Some critics reason that if Shakespeare, who started at a relatively young age, could write all the plays he did, then Joseph Smith could author the Book of Mormon. For example, the MormonThink essay also discusses “extraordinary accomplishments by others” and writes: “Shakespeare —need we say more?”80 Perhaps a more detailed comparison would be helpful to discern whether a genuine parallel between the authors actually exists.
The most accepted date for Shakespeare’s birth is April 23, 1564. Little is documented concerning his youth, but scholars believe he attended a local grammar school where he would have encountered an emphasis on memorization, writing, and the Latin classics.81 Shakespeare wrote his first two plays at age 26, Henry VI, parts II and III, with a combined word count of 49,733. For the next 22 years with one exception, he produced between 16,633 words and 63,133 words each year:
|Age||Word Count||Age||Word Count|
During his lifetime Shakespeare composed at least 38 plays and more than 150 short and long poems. His productivity and the complexity of his works are very impressive.
As demonstrated in Figure 3, Shakespeare’s play-writing abilities manifested themselves first at age 26. Then for the next two decades, new plays and poems flowed as a steady stream from his mind and imagination. At his death in 1616 (age 52), he had produced more than 850,000 words. In contrast, Joseph Smith’s lifetime literary output [Page 171]was less, approximately 420,000 words. But more than 85% of them emerged from Joseph by the time he reached his 26th birthday on December 23, 1831. In other words, the vast majority of the Prophet’s revelations, translations, and dictations were finished by the age at which Shakespeare had completed his first play.
To summarize, Joseph Smith was slightly younger, with less formal schooling, who completed most of his words in a shorter time span than Shakespeare.
Comparing Joseph Smith to J. K. Rowling
Another comparison to a more modern author would juxtapose Joseph Smith with J. K. Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter series. Rowling published her first volume, the 77,325-word Philosopher’s Stone at age 32. Other volumes soon followed. The graph of their word productions (Figure 4) shows both authors completed long complicated books, but their ages and productivity patterns differed.
Charting These Four Authors
While certainly not representing an exhaustive study, a snapshot of Joseph Smith, Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Rowling together, shown in Figure 5, shows that Joseph’s early burst of creativity without subsequent productivity contrasts the writing patterns of the other authors. They [Page 172]all started later in life with writing that continued steadily or increased over time.
Other differences can be identified in that all these writers had more education and wrote their words at a slower pace than that at which Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon text.
[Page 173]Comparing Joseph Smith to Orson Pratt
In 1835, Church leaders hired Joshua Seixas to teach Hebrew to 40 students over the course of seven weeks. In that class Joseph Smith’s intellectual abilities were put to the test. While he apparently worked very hard, he was not the top student. BYU Professor Matthew Grey explains:
Joseph Smith was proud to be in a group of advanced students that included W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, Orson Hyde, and Orson Pratt who were singled out by Seixas to receive additional instruction …. Upon completion of the initial seven-week course, Seixas issued two certificates of Hebrew proficiency to Mormon leaders, one to Joseph, and one to Orson Pratt. It is sometimes claimed that Joseph was the best student of the class, but of the two, Orson Pratt’s certificate qualified him to teach the language while Joseph Smith’s indicated that “by prosecuting the study he will be able to become proficient in Hebrew.”82
Later in life, Orson Pratt wrote several complicated books and pamphlets allowing his literary accomplishments to be compared to Joseph’s. The chart shown in Figure 6 is seemingly unremarkable but documents Pratt’s beginning his writing career later in life. While Orson’s ability to learn Hebrew surpassed Joseph Smith’s, it is impossible to discover whether he bested the Prophet intellectually in any other area.
Joseph Smith: Curiously Unique
This examination of authors and their writings attempts to identify parallels to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. By comparing authors’ ages and education, the complexity and length of their books, and their composition techniques and timelines, single, double, and even triple parallels can be found. Yet overall, it appears that if Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon from his own intellect, his efforts as an author stand out as curiously unique.
Appendix: Readability and Complexity Scores
of the Book of Mormon
While currently there are dozens of formulas to calculate complexity and readability of a text, a handful are more commonly used.83 By evaluating a document’s sentence length, word length, number of word syllables and presence of challenging words, a level of comprehension difficulty is calculated. Readability pioneer author Rudolf Flesch explains:
When you read a passage, your eyes and mind focus on successive points on the page. Each time this happens, you form a tentative judgment of what the words mean up to that point. Only when you get to a major punctuation mark — a period, a colon, a paragraph break — does your mind stop for a split second, sum up what it has taken in so far, and arrive at a final meaning of the sentence or paragraph. The longer the sentence, the more ideas your mind has to hold in suspense until its final decision on what all the words mean together. Longer sentences are more likely to be complex — more subordinate clauses, more prepositional phrases and so on. That means more mental work for the reader. So the longer a sentence, the harder it is to read.
[Page 175]Exactly the same thing is true of words. Some words are short and simple, others are long and complex. The complexity shows up in the prefixes and suffixes. Take is a simple. short word that doesn’t present much difficulty to a reader. But unmistakably has the prefixes un- and mis- and the suffixes -able and -ly and gives the mind much more to think about than take.84
Calculations derived from the text can be used to determine reading grade recommendations.85 Besides counting words and characters, some scales also employ lists of difficult words to further distinguish reading difficulty for grade school students. The following tests have been applied to the Book of Mormon.
|Scale||Book of Mormon|
|Score||Suggested Reading Grade|
|Coleman Liau index||7.92||8|
|Dale-Chall Adjusted Grade Level||8.4||11–12|
|Flesch Kincaid Grade Level||15.74||High School plus 2 years|
|Gunning Fog index||17.69||Post-Graduate year 1|
|Automated Readability Index (ARI)||17.50||Post-Graduate year 1|
Coleman Liau Index: (Book of Mormon 7.92)
Rather than working with syllables per word and sentence lengths, “The Coleman Liau Index relies on characters and uses computerized assessments to understand characters more easily and accurately.”86 The Book of Mormon’s score of 7.92 supports that a near-eighth grade education would be sufficient for understanding.
ATOS : (Book of Mormon 9.6)
ATOS is an acronym for Advantage/TASA Open Standard.87 “ATOS takes into account the most important predictors of text complexity — average sentence length, average word length, and word [Page 176]difficulty level.”88 At 9.6, the ATOS score supports an eighth-grade reading level for the Book of Mormon.
Lexile Framework for Learning: (Book of Mormon 1150)
As discussed in the text, the Lexile score measures sentence length and word frequency as overall indications of semantic and syntactic complexity.89 The proprietary system is widely used, but demands educational financial resources to implement. The Book of Mormon’s score of 1150 represents an eighth-grade reading level with a span between sixth and eleventh.
Fry Graph: (Book of Mormon 9)
The Fry Graph plots the number of sentences per 100 words (Book of Mormon is 2.56) against the number of syllables per 100 words (Book of Mormon is 131). The resulting point on the graph (see Figure 7) identifies a ninth grade reading level.
Dale-Chall Readability Formula:
(Book of Mormon adjusted 8.4)
The Dale-Chall Readability Formula employs a list of about 3000 words that would be in the vocabulary of up to 80% of fourth graders (around age 10). Words not found on that list may be considered difficult and [Page 177]are included in the formula. The Book of Mormon adjusted score is 8.4, making it understandable to the average 11th or 12th grade student.91
SMOG: (Book of Mormon 12.55)
SMOG is an acronym for “Simple Measure of Gobbledygook.” The SMOG Index estimates the years of education a person needs to comprehend a piece of writing by assessing the sentence count and the number of polysyllabic (more than three syllables) words in those sentences.92 “The grades are supposed to be those which a reader needs to ensure complete comprehension.”93 The Book of Mormon score of 12.55 correlates to the twelfth grade or having completed high school.
Flesch Kincaid Grade level: (Book of Mormon 15.74)
The Flesch Kincaid grade level readability formula is oldest and most widely used readability index. It is based upon the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. After multiplying by predetermined coefficients, the final number is the grade recommendation in the U.S. education system. According to this scale, the Book of Mormon at 15.74 would be suited to college juniors and seniors.
Gunning Fog index: (Book of Mormon 17.7)
The Gunning Fog Index is calculated based upon the numbers of words, sentences and complex words, which are defined as having three or more syllables. The Book of Mormon’s score of 17.69 suggests that a person would need at least 17 years of formal schooling in order to “comprehend a passage of text on the first reading.” “A Gunning Fox Index score of 7 or 8 is ideal,” recommends an online source “Anything higher than 12 is too complex for most people to read. Popular magazines, such as TIME and the Wall Street Journal. average Gunning Fog scores of 11, while Shakespeare has a Gunning Fog Index of about 6.”94
ARI (Automated Readability Index):
(Book of Mormon 17.50)
The ARI combines calculations of the characters per word with the number of words per sentence to generate “an estimate of the U.S. grade level necessary to comprehend a passage of text.” 95 The Book of Mormon’s score of 17.5 supports that post-graduate education might be necessary to understand it.