Friday, June 28, 2024

Joseph Smith as a writer

Although we have relatively few examples of Joseph Smith's own writing, we do have some. This doesn't mean that Joseph rarely wrote anything; to the contrary, his handwriting was good enough that he must have had considerable practice in his early years.

Nevertheless, some apologists think it is better to portray Joseph as ignorant and uneducated, with no natural abilities.

For example, not long ago someone sent me a link to a blog that made this claim:

Joseph Smith's personal journal demonstrates the veracity of Emma's oft-cited comment "Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon...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." Saints' Herald 26 (1 October 1879) pp. 289-90. 

Emma's statement about Joseph's writing ability (from her so-called "Last Testimony") is questionable at best, but the evidence cited in this blog hardly supports Emma's statement.

Let's look at the evidence cited. 

The blog supported its claim by providing a transcript of Joseph's journal from 1832, along with this image from 27 November 1832.

First, we notice that the penmanship is clear. It is cursive. It is legible even today. It is fairly straight and orderly (apparently the original lines on the paper have faded). This is evidence of skill and practice--the direct opposite of what Emma claimed 50 years later.

Second, we notice that the journal is small, 5⅞ × 3¾ × ¼ inches. That doesn't leave a lot of space for writing, yet the writing is not cramped.

Third, when we compare Joseph's handwriting to that of Sidney Rigdon on the same page, Joseph's appears more fluid, clear, and controlled.

(click to enlarge)

None of this should be surprising because earlier that year, Joseph wrote several pages in another journal the demonstrate the same level of competency in writing in cursive.

(click to enlarge)

Here we can compare the handwriting of Joseph Smith with that of Frederick G. Williams and see that they are comparable. Williams was one of Joseph's scribes.

There is only one known writing sample from Joseph Smith that predates these samples from 1832. That is the short passage from Alma 45 in the Original Manuscript. It's the relatively dark writing in the center of this page. 

(click to enlarge)


Joseph wrote this during the translation of the Book of Mormon. Scholars speculate that perhaps Oliver tired or had a hand cramp, or maybe this was a passage Oliver dictated when he tried to translate.

Either way, we can see that in April/May of 1829, Joseph had perfectly fine cursive handwriting.

This level of penmanship does not occur naturally or without practice and training. 

We can also read the articulate, well-written letter Joseph wrote to Oliver Cowdery shortly after completing the translation of the plates:


Those of us who believe and accept what Joseph claimed should not make apologetic claims about his ignorance and inability to write. Such claims defy the evidence we have and undermine our credibility.

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