Joseph Smith’s Actual and Verifiable Words as a Supreme Source for Book of Mormon Geography
Joseph Smith’s Actual and Verifiable Words as a Supreme Source for Book of Mormon Geography
by John L. Lund
Defining Joseph Smith’s Authorship of Actual and Verifiable Words
Joseph Smith’s authorship is defined as those writings which he personally wrote, dictated, or assigned to be written and were subsequently approved for publication by him. For our purposes a very strict standard was applied to any statements attributed to Joseph Smith. During his lifetime was the statement or document attributed to Joseph subject to review and correction by Joseph?
In order to qualify as a “Supreme Source” one of two realities must exist. The first or “actual” reality includes the holographic [personally handwritten] writings of Joseph and the dictated words of Joseph recorded by a scribe and subsequently read and approved of by Joseph. The second or “verifiable” reality would be an article written by assignment under Joseph’s authority by another but signed by Joseph as having his approval.
Examples of documents that were read and approved of by Joseph included the first three editions of the Book of Mormon. There were hundreds of changes and corrections made from the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon in the 1837 Kirtland, second edition of the Book of Mormon. How do we know whether those changes in the scriptures were approved of by Joseph Smith? In the preface of the 1837 second edition the following statement assures the reader that:
…..the whole has been carefully re-examined and compared with the original manuscripts, by elder Joseph Smith, Jr. (Preface p. v).
There were additional changes and corrections made from the 1837 edition in the 1840 Nauvoo third edition of the Book of Mormon. It was the 1840 edition that Joseph made specific reference to when he said the Book of Mormon was:
…..the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book (H.C. 4:461, November 28, 1841).
Were the changes made in the Nauvoo edition approved of by Joseph Smith? Absolutely; as evidenced on page “3,” the frontal page, which carried the following declaration:
The Book of Mormon, Translated by Joseph Smith Jr., Third Edition, Carefully Revised By The Translator, Nauvoo, Ill., Printed by Robinson and Smith…1840 (emphasis added).
This means that the reader can have confidence that whatever changes made in the 1840 edition by the printers or scribes were “carefully revised” and approved of by Joseph. These are examples of Joseph Smith’s actual or verifiable approved of words. This is what qualifies as a “Supreme Source.”
Another way to establish that the words were the actual words of Joseph is through a competent and replicable author identification study. Such a study was completed in 2012 on editorials attributed to Joseph Smith written in the Times and Seasons, an early Church newspaper published in Nauvoo, Illinois. In these editorials Joseph identified the City of Zarahemla as being in the Guatemalan boundaries of 1842.1 He also identified the “Small or Narrow Neck” of land to be in Central America.2 The Book of Mormon land of Desolation is located north of the “Small or Narrow Neck” of land which separates a Sea East from a Sea West (Alma 22:27-32). The land of Zarahemla is located southward of the “Small or Narrow Neck” of land (Ether 10:31). Once Zarahemla or the “small neck” of land has been identified, one has found the axis mundi of the lands of the Jaredites, Mulekites, and the children of Lehi. From the land of Zarahemla and those lands which immediately surround it, the descendants migrated, intermarried with many others who were brought to this land by the hand of the Lord (2 Nephi 1:5-6), and filled the continent from sea to sea.
The Importance of Identifying Joseph Smith’s Actual and Verifiable Words as a
Supreme Source from Unverifiable Statements Attributed to Joseph
The issue is this: what words and writings can we prove that Joseph actually said versus what someone else reported that Joseph said? Most of the confusion and argument about Book of Mormon geography comes from conflicting lesser sources claiming something that Joseph supposedly said. Because there are conflicting reports about what Joseph said, what he wrote, what he dictated and approved, it is vital to separate the verifiable from the unverifiable. The unverifiable source may be a true account. The point is that “maybe” is an unreliable lesser source.
Tremendous confusion ensues as one proclaims that my “lesser sources” are better than your “lesser sources.” As it relates to the geography of the Book of Mormon, all lesser sources are trumped by the supreme sources of the Book of Mormon and what Joseph actually said or approved that was subject to his review and correction.
The Problem with Lesser Sources
The problems with lesser sources are just that—they are lesser sources. By definition a lesser source will be any statement attributed to Joseph Smith that was not subject to his review and correction and approved by him. Historians know that secondary sources are inherently problematic. What someone said in their writings or journals that Joseph said is always filtered through the biasness of the source. Even firsthand accounts of what someone said they heard Joseph say are suspect. Many of these firsthand and secondary sources, including reports from prominent Church leaders, were recorded years after the event. Most historians understand and are skeptical of memory of primary and firsthand events recalled after a number of years. It is not a matter of calling the person a liar or of impugning the sincerity of the one giving the report. All historical events are interpreted through the eyes of those who experienced them.
What You Heard is Not What I Said!
How often have you heard someone say, “That is not what I meant? It is very common in our everyday communications to be misunderstood. To avoid endless bickering about secondary sources and Book of Mormon geography, the problem of “who said what” can be solved by determining the authorship of the actual and verifiable words of Joseph Smith.
There is a hierarchy of evaluating a source. The supreme or highest standard is the actual and verifiable words of the person. It is also important that the words describing the event be as close to the time period of the event as possible. Ideally, during the lifetime of the speaker, the words were subject to the speakers review and correction. Generally historians are a skeptical lot whose creed is “Believe nothing and doubt everything.” Two historians will yield three firm opinions.
There is a Role for Lesser Sources That Support Supreme Sources
Can lesser sources play a role in better understanding the geography of the Book of Mormon? Sometimes they can and do. However, the current debate by different groups advocating for Zarahemla to be north or south of the Rio Grande has become clouded because of lesser sources. As it relates to the geography of the Book of Mormon each group advocating for Zarahemla to be in their favored location can quote from the journal of “whomsoever.” Joseph said “this” or I was there when Joseph said “that.” The story of Zelph is a classic example of why even firsthand accounts of others had to be “read and revised” by Joseph Smith.
The Zelph story is explained in detail in Addendum I. Dr. Ken W. Godfrey, a Church history scholar, has compiled all of the known firsthand accounts of Zelph. The essence of the Zelph story involves several prominent and faithful brethren. They discovered the ancient bones of a man, while on the Zion’s Camp march in a mound near Griggsville, Illinois, on the west bank of the Illinois River. The discovery was made on June 2, 1834.
Willard Richards was a scribe for Joseph Smith and an early Church Historian. However Willard Richards was not at the Zelph site. He compiled the Zelph story eight years later from the firsthand witnesses who were there. The Willard Richard’s account was written in 1842. The various accounts of what everyone claimed that Joseph said were subject to review and correction by Joseph. We know the Zelph account was edited after it had been compiled. An example of Joseph’s editing his person history was recorded on the 24th of December in 1842. Joseph had Willard Richards write the following, “read & revised history” (JSP-Journal I: 193).3 Do we know that it was the Zelph story revised on that day? No, but we do know that Joseph read and revised the first forty-two pages of the “Manuscript History” of the Church before he was martyred.4 We also know that the Willard Richard’s account was edited and subject to Joseph’s correction. What were the controversial edited out parts of the Zelph letter? Here are some excerpts from the Willard Richards’ 1842 account of Zelph:
“We visited several of the mounds … of this country,
Nephites, Lamanites &c…”
“He was a warrior and chieftain under the prophet Omandagus, who was known from the
Hill Cumorah, orEastern Sea to the Rocky Mountains.
He was killed in battle…during
thea lastgreat struggle with the Lamanites and Nephites.
When a firsthand experience was attributed to Joseph, can the claim be supported by evidence of Joseph’s review and correction? Remember these several different Zelph stories were all the firsthand accounts by highly respected brethren and yet their statements of what they believe they heard Joseph say qualify only as lesser sources. The entire Zelph story was included in the Manuscript History of the Church with the crossed out words. Zelph is a perfect example of why it was important for Joseph to “read and revise” his personal history. The Zelph story also underscores the importance of separating a supreme source of Joseph’s actual and verifiable words, that were subject to Joseph’s review and correction, from unverifiable firsthand accounts of what others thought that Joseph said.
When There Are Conflicting Reports on What Joseph Said
When there is a conflict between Joseph’s actual or verifiable words that were subject to Joseph’s review and correction and a different firsthand account of what someone thought they heard Joseph Smith say, the “Supreme Source” of Joseph’s verifiable words has to take precedence. Agreeing to a lesser standard invites unnecessary conflict.
Why are Joseph’s Opinions Superior and Infinitely More Significant than the Opinions
of Others as it Relates to the Geography of the Book of Mormon?
For the Latter-day Saint, the actual and verifiable teachings and writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith cannot be dismissed with impunity. President Gordon B. Hinckley said
The Book of Mormon is here. It must be explained. It can be explained only as the translator himself explained its origin” (Ensign, February 2004, p. 6, emphasis added).
In addition to being the translator of the Book of Mormon, what qualified the opinions of the Prophet Joseph to be a Supreme Source for the geography of the Book of Mormon? Ammon answered this question when he taught King Limhi “that a seer is greater than a prophet” (Mosiah 8:15).
Angelic visitations and the visions of the geography of the Book of Mormon given to the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator
Joseph Smith qualified him as a first-person prophetic witness to the geography of the Book of Mormon
Because of these many visions of the lands of the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings become defining external evidence in the quest for understanding the geography of the Book of Mormon. His “vision after vision” of the geography, the buildings, and cultures that once occupied this continent made Joseph Smith uniquely qualified to identify where the primary Book of Mormon events in America occurred.
There are, and will be, sincere LDS scholars who disagree with the basic premise that Joseph Smith was an unimpeachable source and that his words are a “Supreme Source.” Some have taken a point of view that a prophet is only a prophet when he is speaking as a prophet and unless he says, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ his words, though respected, are nonetheless his opinion. However, Ezra Taft Benson said, “The prophet does not have to say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ to give us scripture.”5
Joseph Smith is an unimpeachable source for most Latter-day Saints. Independent of being a Prophet, he was a Seer, and the head of the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times. He was shown by angelic visitation and panoramic visions the original inhabitants of this continent and the geographical lands upon which they dwelt (JS–H 1:33-50; T&S 3:707).
Joseph’s credentials are more than adequate to qualify his statements and opinions about Book of Mormon geography to be held in higher esteem and given greater weight than the opinion of even the most ardent scholar of the Book of Mormon. This is why Joseph’s verified statements as a supreme source take precedence over what other lesser sources reported they believed that Joseph said.6 It is beyond reason and arrogance to set aside the testimony of the Dispensational Prophet of God. Therefore, I have taken the position that the actual and verifiable statements made by Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni will have preeminence over the sincere opinions of others.7
Joseph’s actual and verifiable dictated words are a narrow, but necessary, definition to avoid endless bickering about what is or isn’t a reliable source. For the Latter-day Saint, the teachings and writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith relative to Book of Mormon geography are a window into the visions shown to Joseph. Among the historical-geographical issues of greatest interest to many are answers about the what Joseph saw and later taught about the geography of the Book of Mormon.
What Geographical Sites Were Shown to Joseph Smith in the Many Visions
He Received Before and During the Translation of the Book of Mormon?
Joseph Smith’s earliest lesson about the geography of the Book of Mormon occurred when he was seventeen years old. It was during the evening of the 21st of September in 1823, that Joseph was introduced to the angel Moroni. Joseph was informed about many future and past events and shown a vision of the geography of the American continent and of the people in the Book of Mormon that once dwelt upon this land:
I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me: I was also told where there was deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgement of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent. The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things.
After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22nd of September A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands (The Wentworth Letter as published in T&S 3:707)
It is important to note that Joseph was “informed” and “told” about future as well as past events. He saw in vision the geography of the Book of Mormon before he translated one word of what is now the Book of Mormon.
Following is an example of how a lesser source can support a supreme source. The mother of Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, reported on some of the pre-translation visions, which Joseph shared with his immediate family. The visions included specific and detailed geographical information about Book of Mormon lands, buildings, and structures:
In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some…recitals… He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, their manner of travel… the cities that were built by them, the structure of their buildings, with every particular of their mode of warfare, their religious worship as particularly as though he had spent his life with them.8
Joseph’s numerous visions included picture-perfect scenes of geographical places. Joseph recorded,
[Moroni] told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited; he said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.9 (Emphasis added.)
So clearly was Joseph shown the geography of where the plates of gold lay hidden in the Hill Cumorah that Joseph dictated the following:
While he [Moroni] was conversing with me about the plates, the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it (Joseph Smith—History 1:42).
Imagine the Angel Moroni Narrating on the History Channel on Television
The vision process involved the angel Moroni revealing information verbally and Joseph seeing a vision of the very events and the geographical settings about which Moroni was speaking. It would be similar to watching the “History Channel” on television while the angel Moroni provided the narration. Look at how specific Joseph was in describing the geography of the hill Cumorah.
On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box. This stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all around was covered with earth (JS─H 1:51)
I could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it (Joseph Smith—History 1:42).
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Geographical and Historical Visions Were Similar to Those of Moses and Enoch
Joseph’s vision-journey through history and geography was common among prophets in all dispensations of time. The scriptures recorded that Moses was given a comprehensive lesson in the geography of the earth:
And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle [geography] of it which he did not behold…(Moses 1:27, emphasis added).
The striking similarity of seeing the geography while the voice was “still speaking” was precisely the experience of the Prophet Joseph. The great Prophet Enoch, who “walked with God,” recounted the vision of the people and the specific places he saw as he “journeyed from the land of Cainan” (Moses 6:42). Enoch witnessed “the Son of Man lifted up on the cross” (Moses 7:55) and the events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ. Included among the geographical features that Enoch saw were the earth’s oceans: “he also saw the sea” (Moses 7:66).
The Prophet-Historian Mormon was also shown a vision of our day when the Book of Mormon would “come forth among you” (Mormon 8:34). Mormon described the “wearing of very fine apparel” (Mormon 8:36) and the buildings, “churches,” and topographical settings of the “earthquakes in divers places” (Mormon 8:30). To fully appreciate the extent of the geographical details of these visions, one need only read the account of Nephi in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 11-14). The interaction between the messenger of God and the narration he gave to Nephi was similar to that given to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Nephi was shown the clothing and “fine-twined linen” the people wore (1 Nephi 13:7). He saw the geographical and topographical features of the “many waters” and the “land” upon which they were driven and scattered (1 Nephi 13:13-14). Joseph Smith was given similar details in the several visions he received about the geography of the Book of Mormon.
The events shown to Joseph Smith and the other prophets did not take place in a vacuum. They were visions of real people who wore fine apparel, lived in real buildings, and walked on real roads. Joseph wasn’t shown a generic Hill Cumorah where the plates were buried. It was the actual Hill Cumorah in New York, in its true geographical setting. The topographical features of rocks and trees and the geographical environs were vividly impressed on the mind of the Prophet.
Those Who Want to Relegate Joseph Smith’s Vision Experiences with the Geography of the Book of Mormon to “Just His Opinion” are Grossly Underestimating the Basis of Joseph Smith’s Opinion.
One of the great scholars of the life of Joseph Smith was Truman Madsen. He identified twenty-three visits between the angel Moroni and Joseph, some of which involved geographical visions. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports that the angel Moroni met with Joseph in instructional sessions “at least twenty times” from 1823 to 1829. George Q. Cannon reported,
Moroni, in the beginning, as you know, to prepare him [Joseph] for his mission, came and ministered and talked to him from time to time, and he had vision after vision…
Many of the recorded visions that Joseph received about the geography of the Book of Mormon were prior to the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Most of Joseph Smith’s Documents Were Dictated—Even the Book of Mormon Was a Dictated Document
Dean Jessee quoted Joseph Smith as saying that "a prophet cannot be his own scribe” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 3:1345):
Friday, July 5, 1839—I was dictating history, I say dictating, for I seldom use the pen myself. I always dictate all my communications, but employ a scribe to write them (HC 4:1).10
Most members of the Church are not aware the extent to which Joseph used scribes. On the 13th of December 1841, Willard Richards began serving as “Scribe for the private office of the President.”11 Willard Richards would remain the primary scribe for Joseph until the Prophet’s death in 1844. When Richards was unable or not present with Joseph, other scribes were used. William Clayton was also a principal scribe for Joseph during the Nauvoo Period. Eliza R. Snow and Erastus Derby assisted William Clayton in copying correspondence.12 Including Emma, there were at least twenty scribes that recorded Joseph’s dictations and even kept Joseph’s personal diaries.13
The Book of Mormon was both a translated and dictated document. Joseph used scribes and dictated nearly all of his history, letters, and documents. Howard C. Searle pointed out that
There are only thirty-five holographic pages in Joseph Smith's [in his personal handwriting] diaries, representing only two percent of the content of his eight separate diaries.14
In addition to Joseph’s diaries and the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants is primarily a compilation of Joseph’s dictated documents. All of these documents were subject to Joseph’s review and correction. Emma records a rather unique testimony about her experience receiving dictation from Joseph:
The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, [Joseph] would dictate to me hour after hour;… It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.15
Because Joseph was very particular and yet dependent on scribes, he was careful to review and correct his dictated words. This was true for all of Joseph’s scribes. Regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon, with others than Emma, Joseph required them to read the transcribed portion back to him. David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses reported that
Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistake had been made, the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected.16
William Clayton, who acted as a scribe for Joseph, reported,
After the whole was written, Joseph asked me to read it through slowly and carefully, which I did, and he pronounced it correct.17
Joseph used several different scribes to record his dictation during the Nauvoo Period. This encompassed the time of Joseph’s editorship of the Times and Seasons between March 1, 1842, and October 15, 1842:
For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said; therefore my enemies cannot charge me with any day, time, or place, but what I have written testimony to prove my actions; and my enemies cannot prove anything against me (HC 6:409).
As Dean Jessee reported, Joseph was very careful to review and correct his dictated words (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1345). There were numerous examples of Joseph crossing out words and correcting his dictated “History of Joseph Smith,” personal correspondence, and editorials. Joseph corrected the first forty-two pages of the Manuscript History of the Church before his demise.18 On the 18th of January in 1834, Joseph recorded, “Reviewed and corrected the minutes of the organization of the High Council” (HC 2:31). Joseph also made corrections in the 1837 and the 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon and was going through additional corrections in the Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Version of the Bible before he died. The point being, Joseph was very serious about correcting mistakes and “getting things right.” Another insight about Joseph’s “intense concern” about accurate record keeping comes from Dean Jessee, who pointed out that when the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, there was a revelation given on that date that deeply impressed Joseph and cause sincere consternation; “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you (D&C 21:1).”
The writing of his history was a subject of intense concern during the remaining years of his life… The Prophet added: "There are but few subjects that I have felt a greater anxiety about than my history which has been a very difficult task." On another occasion he told William Phelps that "the history must go ahead before anything else." The records created as a result of this concern for history constitute the prime sources for the life of Joseph Smith and for early Mormon history.19
John Taylor was asked to write a synoptic article upon which Joseph had discoursed. It dealt with the Ancient of Days, keys of the Priesthood, and the dispensations of the Gospel. John Taylor reported,
I found it a very difficult thing to do. He [Joseph] had to correct me several times… said he, “That is not right.” I wrote it again, and again he said it was not right. It was very difficult…20
Persnickety and obsessive may be too harsh of words to describe Joseph’s overseeing that his scribes “got it right.” Whatever word one would choose to characterize Joseph’s serious attitude toward his responsibility as an editor or historian, casual or negligent wouldn’t apply.
When editorials are questioned as to their authorship, it is appropriate to ask if Joseph approved it. Dean Jessee, in his “Preface” to the Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, stated,
In general, it matters very little whether or not a person writes his own diaries, letters, and speeches or delegates others to write for him, because as H.C. Hockett has pointed out, if the one whose name appears on a work is the responsible source of the ideas set forth, he is the real author even if the writing is that of another (PWJS xiii).
This specifically applies to the first three Book of Mormon editions, the Doctrine and Covenants, the first forty-two pages of the Manuscript History of the Church, the personal writings and letters signed by Joseph, and the Times and Seasons newspaper during Joseph’s editorship. All of these documents were subject to Joseph’s review and correction. When there are statements made by Joseph himself that are verifiable, turning to any other source to contradict Joseph or to equate a secondary source with Joseph’s actual words is beyond poor scholarship.