Hales provides a thorough account of Joseph Smith’s educational attainments and intellectual abilities, concluding that there is little evidence that either would have given him the skills needed to fabricate the Book of Mormon in 1829.
In this article, Brian C. Hales reviews historical accounts related to the education and intellect of Joseph Smith. Given Joseph’s lack of prior writing experience, these factors are of direct relevance to critics’ theories of how the Book of Mormon was produced. Hales thus focuses on how Joseph’s education could account for the content of the book, as well as Joseph’s ability to dictate a lengthy and extraordinary text.
Overall, Joseph’s education appears to have been limited, and includes potential tutoring from Hyrum, as well as infrequent attendance at district schools. Joseph is reported to have spent considerable time with Hyrum while healing from his leg injury as a child. During this time, Hyrum might have shared with Joseph what he was learning at a local academy. Additionally, there are records of Joseph attending at least five half-year sessions at local common schools, with speculation that he could have attended as many as 22 terms. Those attending with him reported that Joseph would go “hunting and fishing” instead of going to school whenever they had the opportunity. These one-room schools featured teachers with little if any formal training, and had a basic curriculum that generally lacked assignments in written composition.
It’s generally recognized that practice is the key to developing strong oratorical capacity, but the evidence that Joseph had such practice is mixed. Though Lucy Mack Smith famously described Joseph occasionally telling stories to his family, no one else in the family recalled these tales, and no one outside the family reports similar rehearsals. Joseph may have gained some experience extemporizing at camp meetings or other gatherings, and was described as a “good talker,” but would’ve received little or no formal training. As a member of a debate club, Joseph was seen as competent debater, but with an intellect that “shone out…feebly.” Many of the references to Joseph’s public speaking skills in the historical record are less than complimentary, and comments on his education and intellect take a similar tone.
Though the pre-1829 record is silent on Joseph’s aptitude for learning, those who instructed him after the publication of the Book of Mormon recalled a voracious learner who rapidly retained facts. The record also suggests that Joseph was an avid reader, though his reading appears to have been focused on dime novels in addition to the Bible. As a student, however, he was surpassed by Orson Pratt] (link to “In contrast, the”; page 23), perhaps indicating that his memory was not photographic, as is often claimed. As such, Joseph’s contemporaries had little choice but to look beyond Joseph for an explanation for the Book of Mormon.
Hales’ work tends to frame a balanced view of Joseph’s education and intellect—the historical record presents him as intelligent and literate, but not as someone innately capable of producing the Book of Mormon. As Hales concludes:
“Ironically, the popularity of Joseph Smith’s intellect theory continues among many observers today despite the lack of historical data supporting it. Whether evidentiary transparency can expose its weaknesses enough to impact its acceptance by skeptics remains to be seen.”
I very much appreciate Hales’ work in this space. In fact, I wish I had it a couple years ago when I was putting together a related analysis. As Hales indicates, there’s a great deal of speculation as to what Joseph was capable of, with critics generally happy to impute whatever skill is convenient to suit their theories, and some of the faithful implying that he had trouble stringing two words together. Speculation is unavoidable in any case, but working within the confines of the historical record is probably the wisest course.
Even in that context, I imagine it will be easy enough for critics to construct whatever Joseph they wish using the available data. A Joseph armed with Captain Kidd and a debate club trophy will be a sufficient foil for any would-be speculator. But I happen to know my fair share of debate-oriented fiction enthusiasts—I happen to be one myself—and none of them strike me as capable of dictating the Book of Mormon, even with the benefits of a modern public-school education. I generally see the book as out of reach for anyone in the nineteenth century, no matter their intellect. But the view of Joseph that Hales places before us nevertheless gives us a window into the man—simultaneously imperfect and extraordinary—that God called to restore his church in the latter days.