Question: Did Joseph Smith produce the Book of Mormon by using a Methodist homiletic composition technique known as “laying down heads”?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith produce the Book of Mormon by using the Methodist preaching device known as “laying down heads”?

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Introduction to Criticism

Author William L. Davis (PhD. UCLA, Theater and Performance Studies) in his book Visions in a Seer Stone (2020) alleges that Joseph Smith may have been able to produce the text of the Book of Mormon by using, among other similar methods, a Methodist homiletic composition technique known as “laying down heads.”

The process involves coming up with a basic list of points (perhaps on a paper or in his/her memory) that a person would like to address within a given sermon. Then, throughout the course of his/her sermon, the preacher extemporaneously connects those heads into the most coherent and powerful homily possible.

Davis alleges that Joseph Smith came up with such "heads" prior to the dictation of the Book of Mormon and then, at the time of alleged creation of the book during translation, interlaced them with his own extemporaneous creation of text that we today have as the Book of Mormon. As he writes in the introduction:

The focus of this study is the oral performance techniques that Smith used to dictate the Book of Mormon, with specific attention to the methods of preaching in Smith’s contemporary sermon culture. Thus, the central issues revolve around the methods of oral composition, rather than narrative content. As such, this study will only address matters of content—the stories, the messages, and the theology of the Book of Mormon—when they illuminate techniques of oral production. Abundant evidence throughout the work indicates that Smith made use of several techniques that facilitated the process of oral composition, including such methods as the semi-extemporaneous amplification of skeletal narrative outlines, the use of formulaic language in biblical and pseudobiblical registers, rhetorical devices common in oral traditions, and various forms of repetition (e.g., recycled narrative patterns), among other traditional compositional strategies. Viewing the Book of Mormon within the context of nineteenth-century oratorical training and techniques therefore offers a performance-based approach to understanding the text.


In the early nineteenth century children and young adults encountered many of these techniques, either by conscious study or direct exposure, through a variety of social venues: domestic worship and daily family Bible reading, domestic education, Sunday schools, church attendance, revivals, introductory composition lessons in common schools, and a variety of voluntary societies for self-improvement, such as juvenile literary and debate societies. Such skills were further reinforced within a culture that relied heavily on various forms of oral performance in social interactions, including household fireside storytelling practices, public orations at civic events, classroom recitation exercises, school exhibitions, exhortations and sermons in churches, and camp meeting revivals. Within this kaleidoscope of oral performances, Smith’s exposure to the sermon cultures within his contemporary evangelical churches offers particularly important and relevant insights. Smith actively participated as a lay exhorter among the Methodists near his home in the Palmyra/Manchester region of Western New York, and he frequently attended the church services and revival meetings of several denominations in his surrounding area, including Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. For young adults like Smith, who aspired to exhort and preach, exposure to the informal training among such evangelical groups involved the instruction in and regular practice of a robust set of oral performance techniques that figured prominently in the ambitious development of semi-extemporaneous oratorical skills.

A comprehensive study addressing all of these areas of influence lies well beyond the scope of a single monograph. Many of the oral techniques mentioned, for example, were integral components of introductory writing instruction in common schools, with lessons involving the composition of “themes,” various imitation exercises, and a variety of short and expanded essays. As such, a thorough discussion on the topic of oral performance in early nineteenth-century education would, by itself, require a separate study. Even so, I have addressed some of these issues in greater detail in two preliminary works: “Performing Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Creation of the Book of Mormon” (2016), and “Reassessing Joseph Smith Jr.’s Formal Education” (2016). This present study contains material drawn from these two sources, which I have often silently revised and included in this work. Nevertheless, because Smith’s own sermonizing and compositional styles follow common practices found among contemporary evangelical preachers, this study will focus on the relationship between Smith’s works and contemporary sermon culture as the central topic of exploration.

Davis is very sympathetic to Latter-day Saints and welcomes ways in which the faithful might make sense of the data that he provides in his book. As he writes in the preface:

Regardless of what one believes about the origin of the work, the Book of Mormon contains an enormous amount of nineteenth-century material that permeates both the content and structure of the work. These contemporary influences, however, do not (or should not) pose a problem for believers. Within the community of faith, several theories regarding Smith’s translation process help to explain the presence of such modern elements. Some Mormon scholars, for example, propose that Smith did not actually translate the Book of Mormon but rather transcribed the text by peering into a “seer stone”—a stone used in crystal-gazing and folk magic—which provided a ready-made, preexisting English translation, either by projecting glowing letters on the surface of the stone or else catalyzing a vision of a written text (a theory referred to as “tight control”). In this view, according to Grant Hardy’s formulation, “Joseph would have been using the seer stone to gain access to a previously existing translation, perhaps one done by God himself or by appointed angels.” For those who believe that the translation appeared on the surface of the seer stone or in a vision of the text, without Smith’s input, the nineteenth-century anachronisms in the Book of Mormon can then be framed as God’s alterations to the ancient record, which He transmitted to Smith via the seer stone or as a seer-stone-inspired vision in order to make the final text more accessible to Smith’s nineteenth-century audience.

Alternatively, some believing scholars argue that Smith did, in fact, actually translate a text. In other words, through some process of visionary imagery, mental impressions, and divine inspiration, Smith produced the Book of Mormon by making use of his own vocabulary, frames of reference, training, and life experiences to articulate the work. Thus, for those who believe that Smith actively participated in a literal translation, the nineteenth-century elements can be understood as Smith’s personal contributions to the translation project (a theory often described as “loose control”). How much or how little Smith contributed to the construction of the Book of Mormon is therefore left to the reader’s personal determinations. Without commenting on the merits or failings of these competing theories, I invite those who believe in the historicity of the text to consider the ways in which their own religious and perceptual frameworks already provide a means to incorporate academic studies such as this one into their faith-based and faith-seeking paradigms.

Moreover, I would also encourage believing scholars and readers to recognize that this study addresses a readership that extends beyond the religious boundaries of the various denominations within the Latter Day Saint movement to include those who do not embrace the Book of Mormon as an inspired or authentic ancient text. This study represents an academic project, governed by evidence-based explorations of the connections between the Book of Mormon and the nineteenth-century environment in which it emerged. As such, I will be speaking about some of those specific nineteenth-century elements in the work as the product of Smith’s compositional skill and creative imagination. Likewise, in order to avoid bogging down the work with constant clarifications of the differences between nineteenth-century textual elements attributable to Smith and elements that believing scholars attribute to ancient Book of Mormon authors, I will often streamline the discussion by referring to the work as the result of Smith’s individual creative efforts.

Two thorough, informed, and charitable responses have appeared in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship from Brant A. Gardner and Brian C. Hales. These will be summarized as this FairMormon page is edited later. For now readers can be informed by and enjoy the reviews themselves from Interpreter.

Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, "Oral Creation and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon"

Brant A. Gardner,  Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, (September 4, 2020)
Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon introduces a new perspective in the examination of the construction of the Book of Mormon. With an important introduction to the elements of early American extemporaneous speaking, Davis applies some of those concepts to the Book of Mormon and suggests that there are elements of the organizational principles of extemporaneous preaching that can be seen in the Book of Mormon. This, therefore, suggests that the Book of Mormon was the result of extensive background work that was presented to the scribe as an extended oral performance.

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Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, "Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone"

Brian C. Hales,  Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, (September 4, 2020)
Within the genre of Book of Mormon studies, William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone presents readers with an innovative message that reports how Joseph Smith was able to produce the words of the Book of Mormon without supernatural assistance. Using oral performance skills that Smith ostensibly gained prior to 1829, his three-month “prodigious flow of verbal art and narrative creation” (7) became the Book of Mormon. Davis’s theory describes a two-part literary pattern in the Book of Mormon where summary outlines (called “heads) in the text are consistently expanded in subsequent sections of the narrative. Termed “laying down heads,” Davis insists that such literary devices are anachronistic to Book of Mormon era and constitute strong evidence that Joseph Smith contributed heavily, if not solely, to the publication. The primary weaknesses of the theory involve the type and quantity of assumptions routinely accepted throughout the book. The assumptions include beliefs that the historical record does not support or even contradicts (e.g. Smith’s 1829 superior intelligence, advanced composition abilities, and exceptional memorization proficiency) and those that describe Smith using oral performance skills beyond those previously demonstrated as humanly possible (e.g. the ability to dictate thousands of first-draft phrases that are also refined final-draft sentences). Visions in a Seer Stone will be most useful to individuals who, like the author, are willing to accept these assumptions. To more skeptical readers, the theory presented regarding the origin of the Book of Mormon will be classified as incomplete or inadequate.

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Notes