Review: Producing Ancient Scripture

I’ve been intrigued with what seem to be esoteric[1] influences flowing into Joseph Smith, and esoteric elements flowing out of him — into Mormonism.  And as I consider how he fits into the larger scheme of esoteric-Christianity, I see the concepts of an original, powerful language, and the ability to “see” and “translate” ancient scriptural texts — as major manifestations of his esoteric production.  What can we know about the beginnings and subsequent development of a “Pure” language in his revelations and translations, his use of a folk-magic seerstone to see and translate buried texts, his work to develop an “alphabet and grammar” for the yet uncracked[2] Egyptian language, and the general sense of the esoteric as both an influence on Smith, as well what flowed out of him. 

With this in mind, I was happy to see the new book Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity [3] – which takes a scholarly look at the topics related to Joseph’s use of language and translation.

The authors explore questions like:

  • What was the relationship between revelation and translation?
  • How does traditional translation differ from Joseph Smith’s translation?
  • What were the roles of women in the translation process?
  • How does his translations compare to Helen Schuman’s translation: A Course in Miracles?
  • What contemporary sources influenced his translations, and how?
  • How do seerstones, forgeries, magic, and Freemasonry tie into his translations?

Because of my interests, I jumped first to David Golding’s thought-provoking chapter: ‘“Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens”: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project’. Golding overviews European/American esotericism, focusing on earlier speculations of an original language of God and the idea that the mysterious, untranslated Egyptian language held hidden truths.  Joseph Smith fits nicely within this context with his flirtations with a Pure/Adamic language, his Egyptian translations (Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham), and his Egyptian language project (“Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”).

Secondly, I pursued David Grua and William Smith’s solid treatment of the translation of the buried parchment of John as laid out in D&C 7. However, part way through the chapter, one realizes it may not have been a translation, there may not have been a parchment, and that it is unclear if it had to do with John. Their research incorporates a variety of disciplines including contextualization, textual history, Biblical criticism, Christian history, theological implications, theological influences, publication history, and more.

These are two of seventeen chapters from Producing Ancient Scripture. Nineteen authors address four main areas: the context and beginnings of Smith’s translations; translation of the Book of Mormon; translation of the Bible; and projects that began later (“Pure Language,” the Book of Abraham, and the Kinderhook Plates).

The editors are to be congratulated on pulling together an excellent collection of articles by seasoned historians, laying a new, higher foundation for a thorough understanding of Joseph Smith’s translations. This book is essential reading for those interested in an in-depth exploration of Joseph Smiths language and translation projects.

[1] Esoteric: obscure, private, secret, hidden, inner, mysterious, mystical, mystic, occult, arcane, cryptic, inscrutable, abstruse, recondite, cabbalistic. esoteric. (n.d.) Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. (1995, 2002). Retrieved September 14 2020 from

[2] Initial success in understanding Egyptian characters occurred in the 1820s but a full understanding would not develop until the 1850s.

[3] Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, Michael Hubbard MacKay (Editor), Mark Ashurst-McGee (Editor), Brian M. Hauglid (Editor), University of Utah Press, 2020.

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Adam Clarke’s Commentary and the Book of Mormon

In his most recent podcast episode, Radio Free Mormon spent an hour and a half exploring the possibility of the influence of Adam Clarke’s early nineteenth century Bible commentary on the Book of Mormon. In the wake of the publication of an important new essay by Thomas Wayment and Haley Wilson-Lemmón, showing that Smith made hundreds of revisions to the New Testament based on his reading of Clarke’s commentary, it is possible now to explore further the breadth and depth of the influence of Clarke’s commentary on Joseph Smith, Jr.’s textual productions.

Radio Free Mormon’s new episode aims to do just that. He explores the possibility that Smith used Clarke’s commentary not only in the production of his revision of the Bible but in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as well. Near the end of the episode he mentions that there is a scholar who is currently working on a paper that explores the extent of the influence of Clarke’s commentary on the Book of Mormon. When I first listened to the episode at the recommendation of a close friend I was surprised to learn this.

Last fall I was working full time as the administrative assistant for a division in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah and taking the introductory course for the PhD program in English there as well (as a non-matriculated student in the hopes of getting accepted to the program). I had finished my master’s degree at Utah State University in the spring and filled out applications for PhD programs in the fall. At some point during the hectic semester I was analyzing the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon based on a critical text that I had created using the 1830 text of the Book of Mormon, of all the lengthy block quotations. The critical text includes an apparatus that brings together in one place all of the variants between the earliest textual sources—O (original manuscript), P (printer’s manuscript), 1830 (the first printing of the Book of Mormon), and S (Skousen’s Yale edition to see what he thinks is the earliest text)—to get a better idea of what Smith might have been dictating to his scribe in 1829.

After creating the text I went through and highlighted in light gray every word or letter that was the exact same as the KJV of the corresponding quotation. This allows the reader to better see where the text of the Book of Mormon varies from its biblical source. I had created this text for a larger project to more closely analyze the way that the Bible is used in the Book of Mormon and understand what makes its appearance in the book unique. I have long thought that the evidence is more than clear that Smith was reading the text of the biblical quotations from a copy of the Bible, a conclusion that Mormon scholars accepted for most of the twentieth century until sometime in the late 1970s, and was preparing my notes for a paper arguing that scholars in Mormon studies should return to the earlier consensus held by Sidney Sperry, H. Grant Vest, Daniel Ludlow, and others. In doing so I started to tally up the variants found in the block quotations in 1 Nephi 20. For example, my first notes went like this:

“1 – Added “Hearken and”/subtracted “ye”
Added “yet they swear” to replace “but” – I
Subtracted “in”

2 – Added “Nevertheless”
Added “but they do not” to replace “and”
Added “which is the Lord of hosts; yea”

A part of the goal of the project was to see if the variants agreed with any of the printed editions of the Bible (a study I have repeated multiple times over the last seven years or so) or available commentaries. At the same time I was keeping these notes I was comparing them with commentaries written by Adam Clarke, Thomas Scott, Matthew Henry, William Lowth, Robert Lowth, John Wesley, and versions of early nineteenth century commentaries where multiple commentators’ notes were combined. One of the commentaries stood out almost immediately: Adam Clarke. The inventory of variants I had compiled increasingly showed that there were clear connections to Clarke’s commentary unlike anything from the other commentators.

Unfortunately the semester was too busy to continue a systematic treatment of the subject and I had to set the project aside for the rest of the semester. Once I had completed my class a few months later I remembered that I had found tentative evidence that Smith likely used Clarke’s commentary in his dictation of at least large sections of the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. I say this because it is probable that Smith did not use Clarke in the Malachi quotation. After finding my notebook I began a full systematic study of the variants and continued to compare them to all of the sources I mentioned above. In the end I discovered roughly sixty or so variants that might have been influenced by Clarke’s commentary, with many clearly coming from that source.

Once I had a list of the strongest connections I went on a search for those specific phrases in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. As outlined in my paper, the evidence supports the argument that the phrases found in many of the variants in the block quotations of the KJV in the Book of Mormon come from Clarke’s commentary. Both the specificity of the phrases and the quantity of the connections makes it just as likely that Smith was using Clarke’s commentary during the dictation process of the Book of Mormon as the evidence found by Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón for Smith’s revision of the New Testament, and it is likewise found in both the quotations from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament.

So, why was I surprised to learn from Radio Free Mormon’s podcast that there was a scholar working on this project? I had only told a small group of close friends and academics about what I had found and planned to only announce the project once the manuscript had been accepted at and published in a journal. I immediately wondered if there was someone else working on the same project that had found some of the same connections I had or if Radio Free Mormon somehow knew about my research. I found out from one of my friends I had spoken with about the project and Radio Free Mormon that Radio Free Mormon had planned on doing an episode on the possibility of Smith’s use of Clarke in the Book of Mormon. My friend mentioned to him that he was aware of my project but didn’t share any details about it or who I was.

At this point in the process I am getting closer to a full draft of the paper but it is not yet ready to be submitted to a journal. It seemed like this was probably the time to more formally announce the discovery and identify myself as the author of the paper Radio Free Mormon had mentioned in his podcast. Like I mentioned earlier, this paper is one piece to the larger puzzle of understanding why the biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon vary from the KJV, and each of those variants need to be closely examined individually. This discovery, though, is one step closer to understanding the larger picture of how Smith dictated the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. There is far more research to be done and papers to be published.

“Writing Mormon History” is an emotional roller coaster ride

A review of Joseph W. Geisner, ed., Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2020).

Writing Mormon History, edited by Joseph W. Geisner, is a collection of essays by prominent historians of Mormonism about the process of writing some of the field’s most important books. Some of the authors focus on personal narrative, some on writing and research process, and some on the most interesting and important findings from their books. In all cases, I felt that I really got to know the authors—even the ones I’ve never actually met in real life. I was particularly struck by how avocational Mormon history is. It seems that most of us are working on our books as side projects, often on shoestring budgets, frequently with no credentials or acquiring credentials along the way.

Several authors encountered difficulty accessing documents necessary to their research. D. Michael Quinn’s chapter, in particular, reveals that the “Camelot” era of “openness” under Leonard Arrington as Church historian wasn’t actually that open at all. Quinn worked closely with Arrington and saw firsthand how the Church historians systematically censored themselves for fear of a crackdown by Church leaders. Arrington strongly encouraged Quinn to censor his work and resented when Quinn resisted (244).

Several authors also encountered bad-faith resistance to their work from the institutional Church. In addition to the well-known story of Quinn’s excommunication as one of the “September Six,” we also read that a Church representative lied to get access to documents used by Will Bagley (52), and that “unnamed church officials” asked BYU’s Mary Jane Woodger to write a faith-promoting biography of David O. McKay that could be published prior to Greg Prince’s (234-35). For Daniel P. Stone, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), a request not to publish pending apostolic review came from the apostles of that Church (367-78).

Particularly heartbreaking was the story of Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell, whose work on an Emma Smith biography challenged both their marriages and their Church memberships. Val’s husband was jealous of the project’s success and received secret instructions from a Church leader to control his wife, which he attempted to do. Val eventually left both the Church and the marriage (179-80). Linda’s husband had to overcome some resentment about her becoming a “professional woman,” but ultimately he was more supportive than Val’s husband, and their marriage survived (182). Their Church participation didn’t. Church leaders acted in bad faith and sent “an unmistakable message: to protect the church’s authority and its official interpretation of Joseph Smith, Val and I were expendable” (200). Most of her family quit attending, and book sales boomed due to the publicity generated by the Church’s suppression efforts (205-206).

And then there were those moments that all of us historians live for: the breath-taking moments of discovery, as when Greg Price lifted a blanket off a pallet of books and found dozens of David O. McKay diaries, or when Mike Quinn found a bunch of uncataloged boxes in a dusty corner of the Church archives, or when Daniel Stone discovered the original records of the Bickertonite church in a private archive in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Those of us who love historical research live for these moments, and I felt a deep kinship with these authors as they described their awe.

Writing Mormon history emerges, by the end of this volume, as an extremely difficult but ultimately rewarding process. The LDS authors describe having their faith challenged and in some cases destroyed, and conservative LDS readers should beware: they may experience similar disillusionment as they read this book. Yet these authors have also arrived at profound insights, about life as well as history and writing books. Linda King Newell quotes a sign she saw on Alma Blair’s office wall that sums it up well: “The truth shall make you free, but first it hurts like heck” (178).

Review: The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois

The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois Edited by: Richard G Moore Published by: Kofford Books, June 2020Genre: Documentary History Pages: 340 Binding: Cloth  ISBN: 978-1-58958-762-5Price: 38.95 In 1981, my parents took me … Continue reading

Book Review: Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church

Title: Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church, by: Lavina Fielding Anderson, Published by: Signature Books, Published in: 2020. Genre: Faith, Personal EssaysPages: 277 Binding: Paper ISBN: 978-1-56085-283-4 Price: 18.95 Jana Riess begins her brief foreword to Mercy Without … Continue reading

Book Review: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

Title: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis, Published by the University of North Carolina PressGenre: HistoryYear Published: 2020Pages: 250Binding: Cloth, Paper, eBook ISBN: Cloth, 978-1-4696-5565-9; Paper, 978-1-4696-5566-6; eBook, … Continue reading

Book Review: Kingdom of Nauvoo

Title: Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier Author: Ben Park Published by: Liveright   Genre: History Year Published: 2020Number of Pages: 324Available in : Cloth & Digital ISBN: 978-1-613149-486-4 Price: Cloth, 28.95; … Continue reading

Mormon Political Trilogy: A Brief Book Review

Utah, the Murder Hornet, err, Beehive State! It was not a planned, coordinated effort (I think), and the books were released out of order, but along with fires, plagues, and murder hornets, the last year has given the world of … Continue reading

REVIEW: Pacific Apostle: The 1920-21 Diary of David O. McKay in the Latter-day Saint Island Missions

Pacific Apostle: The 1920-21 Diary of David O. McKay in the Latter-day Saint Island Missions, Edited by: Reid Neilson and Carson Teuscher, Published by: University of Illinois Press Genre: Documentary History Year Published: 2020 Number of Pages: 314 Binding: Cloth, … Continue reading