Skeptics have sometimes compared the Book of Mormon to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, including his epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. If, they reason, Tolkien could create an entire imaginary world, with a large and detailed geography and a complex history that involves multiple ethnic groups, wars, and intricate subplots, it’s surely not impossible to imagine that Joseph Smith might have done the same.
Of course, there are some differences between them. For example, Joseph Smith was a marginally literate frontier farmer who dictated the Book of Mormon in less than three months and always insisted that it represented genuinely ancient history.
By contrast, Tolkien, who created his Middle Earth over the course of many decades and never claimed it was other than fiction, was an accomplished philologist and translator. He taught at Oxford University as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.
However, a new comparison of the Book of Mormon to the works of Tolkien is well worth considering. In their intriguing article “Comparing Book of Mormon Names with Those Found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works: An Exploratory Study,” four Brigham Young University professors — Brad Wilcox (ancient scripture), Wendy Baker-Smemoe (linguistics), Bruce L. Brown (psychology, with specialization in the psychology of language), and Sharon Black (education, with a focus on writing and editing) — look specifically at the unusual names found within both Tolkien’s books and the Book of Mormon. (It’s published on mormoninterpreter.com, of which I am the chairman and president.)
They focus on “phonemes,” the smallest units of sound, using a hypothetical construct that they term a “sound print” or “phonoprint.” This is a pattern of sound that — rather like the individual “wordprint” seems to characterize different writers or like the fingerprints that are used to identify and specify the perpetrators of criminal acts — appears to be distinctively characteristic of individual authors and could, therefore, serve to differentiate one writer from another.
“Traditionally,” say the authors of this new study, “words have been seen as the smallest building blocks over which authors have some freedom to choose. This new line of research expands the fundamental unit of text into phonemes and proposes the possibility that we could produce a phonoprint that would differ from author to author. Despite that authors have fewer sounds with which to create words than they have words with which to create prose and poetry, there is some evidence that authors favor certain sounds over others when choosing or inventing names.”
Using this fresh and unusual research approach in an “exploratory” fashion, the authors examine the dwarf, elvish, hobbit, and human names created by Tolkien, as well as the Jaredite, Nephite, Mulekite, and Lamanite names found in the Book of Mormon. Although Joseph Smith always maintained that he had translated the Book of Mormon from an ancient record, his critics have frequently claimed that he wrote it himself, just as any ordinary writer composes a fictional narrative. Presumably, if those critics are right, he would have chosen the names for his imaginary world, or created them, just as other writers of fiction do.
Their summary of their findings is worth quoting:
“Results suggest that Tolkien had a phonoprint he was unable to entirely escape when creating character names, even when he claimed he based them on distinct languages. In contrast, in Book of Mormon names, a single author’s phonoprint did not emerge. Names varied by group in the way one would expect authentic names from different cultures to vary. . . . Thus the Book of Mormon name groups were significantly more diverse than Tolkien’s. . . . If the Book of Mormon names were created by an individual, they were created by a very different process or based on languages more different from each other and consistent within themselves than those created by Tolkien.”
For Tolkien, the invention of fictional languages was a lifelong hobby that contributed substantially to his creation of Middle Earth. He began developing “Elvish” in his late teens, for example, and was still working on its history and grammar at age 81 when he died in 1973.
It seems highly unlikely that Joseph Smith was better at inventing fictional languages than Tolkien was.
In this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews scholar Nicholas (Nick) J. Frederick about New Testament intertextuality in the Book of Mormon.
As an undergraduate classics major at BYU, Frederick became interested in studying Book of Mormon intertextuality. He wanted to discuss with other scholars what he was finding but encountered resistance from those who thought he was attacking the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Further frustration came as he realized that the few resources on the topic were primarily written by critics of the Book of Mormon arguing against historicity. Their research was overreaching and didn’t address how these New Testament elements were functioning within the text.
Frederick, who has since written a dissertation, book, and articles on the topic, hopes to expand the discussion of the New Testament elements in the Book of Mormon beyond that of simply whether they speak to historicity. That the New Testament can be found in the Book of Mormon is undeniable, but some might struggle with the notion of the New Testament as an antecedent text. Frederick suggests that we negotiate this roadblock by untethering the gold plates from the 19th century English document that we call the Book of Mormon because they are “two different texts that are related through translation.” Moving past the issue of why these passages are in the Book of Mormon to how the Book of Mormon affirms, comments on, corrects, and reimagines the New Testament is an important and fascinating discussion.
Unfortunately identifying common phrases isn’t as simple as it would seem. Sometimes there are direct quotations, such as from the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi—though even there Frederick discusses the fascinating influence of John’s gospel on quotations from Matthew. But the presence of the New Testament is often subtle. He explains that the Book of Mormon will “carefully weave these New Testament passages into the larger text,” so the interdependence does not readily stand out to the casual reader. The Book of Mormon seems to masterfully deconstruct and reconstruct New Testament concepts and phrases for its own purposes.
In an attempt to broaden the discussion, Frederick proposes a methodology for determining the probability of intertextuality, which goes beyond simply identifying common phrases. He adds four additional criteria to solidify connections. Through multiple examples, Dr. Frederick shows us how intertextual studies can enrich our study of the Book of Mormon.
About Our Guest: Nicholas J. Frederick served a mission in Brussels, Belgium, then attended BYU where he received his BA in classics and his MA in comparative studies. He then attended Claremont Graduate University, where he completed a PhD in the history of Christianity with an emphasis in Mormon studies, after which he returned to work at BYU. His research focuses primarily on the intertextual relationship between the text of the Bible and Mormon scripture. He enjoys teaching courses on the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul and the Book of Revelation.
“The words dictated by Joseph Smith between April 7 and June 30, 1829, were published with few alterations. However, Joseph intervened in the 1837 and 1840 printings to make multiple changes in the previously published wordings. Other emendations have been authorized by subsequent Church leaders.
Several authors have documented different tallies of alternations made in the various versions of the Book of Mormon (see below). Understanding the quantity and quality of these emendations may be helpful in understanding how Joseph Smith created the text in the first place.
Two critics took the time to count the changes. Turns out, they underestimated when compared to the digital work done by LDS scholar, Royal Skousen:
Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s 1965 publication, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, has probably had a greater influence. Much like Lamoni Call’s approach in the 1890s, Jerald Tanner sat down eighty years later with an 1830 edition and a 1964 edition of the Book of Mormon and annotated all changes he could identify. His count almost doubled Call’s. In their introduction, the Tanners also allege a conspiracy by Church leaders to conceal the changes: “The changes made in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s revelations have apparently caused the Mormon Church leaders some concern, for they fear that their people will find out about them.”12
In the last two decades, digitalization of the texts has allowed a much more nuanced analysis of the words and word substitutions by a team of scholars in the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project led by BYU professor Royal Skousen.13 When he was asked, “How many changes are there in the Book of Mormon text?” Skousen replied:
I don’t know for sure, and I’ll tell you why it’s hard to count them. In my computerized collation of the two manuscripts and 20 significant editions of the Book of Mormon, I can count the number of places of variation. These are places where there’s a textual variant. The variant itself can involve spelling, punctuation, words missing or added, a grammatical change, and so on. In all, there are about 105,000 places of variation in the computerized collation.14
Critics claim no errors at all should be present. But the translation at least partly involved Joseph. And the original didn’t include punctuation, headings, columns, etc.
Different camps of believing Latter-day Saint scholars believe Joseph exercised what have been called tight or loose control.
There is evidence for both camps, tight and loose control. Joseph spelled out proper nouns, but seemed to have freedom to speak (loose control), using words he knew, and playing a role in the transmission.
Others, such as Martin Harris and David Whitmer, reported that Joseph literally saw a scroll with Egyptian characters with English below. That is the view of tight control.
“Joseph Smith left no description of how the words came to him as he dictated. At a Church conference in 1831, Hyrum Smith invited the Prophet to explain how the Book of Mormon came forth. Joseph’s response was that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and … it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”24 His only answer was that it came “by the gift and power of God.”25
That Joseph contributed to the process in an undefined but necessary way was demonstrated in 1829 when Oliver Cowdery attempted to translate but failed. The Lord explained why: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask.” (D&C 9:7–8). It appears that translating involved more than mimicking a court recorder reading back previous testimony.”
Brian Hales identifies and categorizes the changes and variants below:
Understanding the “Changes” and “Variants”
The Book of Mormon is “a literary feat for the ages,” writes Huffington Post blogger Jack Kelly. That Joseph Smith “dictated most of it in a period of less than three months and did not revise a single word before its initial printing is even more jaw-dropping.”29 So Joseph did not revise the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon before it went to print, but as Lamoni Call and the Tanners have documented, changes were made in subsequent printings.
If numerous revisions, rewritings, edits, and modifications were needed in a second edition, then the question is why? Did the original Book of Mormon manuscript contain many errors that needed correction like the early draft of most books that are eventually printed? If so, its creation might not have required divine intervention or have been significantly different from other publications. But if the changes constituted minor letter and word substitutions to upgrade the dialect and grammar without changing the primary story line or message, then Joseph’s creation would retain an important uniqueness.
Royal Skousen has recently published “all of the cases of grammatical variation in the history of the Book of Mormon text.”30 His study identifies 106,508 “accidentals” in the different versions of the Book of Mormon.31
Skousen’s research supports that none of the general categories of changes indicates the presence of glaring problems within the Book of Mormon narrative.
The two major (Tanner) claims related to adding “Son of” to God in four places in the Book of Mormon. And changing Benjamin to Mosiah in two positions. Hardly major changes. Only editing changes for clarity.
“In Joseph’s early teachings, Christ was both God and the son of God, so either rendition was accurate.42 It could be reasoned that this highlighted change did not alter any doctrine or teaching, but the additional words served to more clearly distinguish the teaching from Trinitarian views popular in other religious traditions. Skousen speculates, “Perhaps he didn’t like the Catholic sounding expression” and that the addition was simply a “clarification.”43
It appears that of all the possibilities, these two emendations were the most significant changes the Tanners could identify. If more important historical or doctrinal alterations had been encountered in their research, it is probable those would have been mentioned first.
The significance of all the changes will likely remain controversial, but a couple of observations can be made. First, these two do not seem to represent an attempt to correct sweeping contradictions or blunders in the text but rather provide clarification to potential ambiguities. Second, if these are the most egregious changes critics can identify, the Book of Mormon narrative, as it fell from Joseph’s lips, was remarkably free from significant errors.
Book of Mormon Changes Do Not
Represent Revising or Rewriting
As discussed above, the changes identified by Skousen and Carmack do not refer to major modifications or corrections to sections of the Book of Mormon’s original wording.
(LDS critic) historian Dan Vogel acknowledged, “Smith’s method of dictation did not allow for rewriting. It was a more-or-less stream-of-consciousness composition,” adding, “It is not that the manuscript went through a major rewrite.”44
Normal content editing, which involves revising and reworking parts of the text, did not occur in the original or in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon.
Many naturalists consider Joseph Smith to have been a first-time novelist in 1829 as he created the Book of Mormon, so the lack of revisions is unexpected.45
Professional writers and instructors generally emphasize the need for rewriting in order to create a finished manuscript. Betty Mattix Dietsch, author of Reasoning & Writing Well, addresses the plight of first-time novelists: “Some inexperienced writers seem to think they have hit the jackpot on their first draft. They evade the fact that every exploratory draft needs more work.”46
Note: image above is from the 9th edition.
“I usually write about ten more or less complete drafts” confides Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, “each one usually though not always closer to the final thing.”47 In her college [Page 62]textbook, Steps to Writing Well, Jean Wyrick emphasizes the importance of rewriting:
The absolute necessity of revision cannot be overemphasized. All good writers rethink, rearrange, and rewrite large portions of their prose. … Revision is a thinking process that occurs any time you are working on a writing project. It means looking at your writing with a “fresh eye”—that is, reseeing your writing in ways that will enable you to make more effective choices throughout your essay. … Revision means making important decisions about the best ways to focus, organize, develop, clarify, and emphasize your ideas. … Virtually all writers revise after “reseeing” a draft in its entirety.48
Louis Brandeis, who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, coined a common maxim for authors: “There is no good writing; there is only good rewriting.”
That changes have been made in the Book of Mormon text should not be confused with the idea that revisions or rewriting occurred. They did not, which is surprising for a frontier-schooled twenty-three-year-old farm boy who is listed as “author.”49
A review of critical literature regarding the Book of Mormon identifies two classes of critics. There are those who tell their audiences that many changes have been made and provide examples (like the Tanners). There are others who report “upwards of 4,000” changes without any further discussion.50
On the surface, voices that stress the thousands of emendations could easily generate a mental picture of a book that underwent significant revisions and rewriting after its first edition. If the overall insignificance of the changes is not disclosed, the number of 2,000 or 3,913 changes could be used by critics to mislead their audiences, as propaganda is designed to do.
Jerald and Sandra Tanners have sold many copies of their book 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, since first released in 1965. The title of the book is technically accurate. But how many unsuspecting observers have read (and continue to read) the title and assume the Book of Mormon manuscript required thousands of corrections to compensate for significant mistakes in Joseph Smith’s dictation?
The perception created by the title might be misleading because readers may impute more significance to the word “changes” than actually justified. If transparency is sought, then adding a subtitle might be useful: 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon: But None are Really Significant.
Royal Skousen summarized his research: “Errors have crept into the text, but no errors significantly interfere with either the message of the book or its doctrine. … Ultimately, all of this worry over the number of changes is specious.”51
Reid Moon, a 1985 BYU grad, shows the first five editions of the Book of Mormon printed in Joseph’s lifetime.
By Royal Skousen at FAIR, published in 2015. Royal discusses several minor emendations. Nobody knows more about the Book of Mormon manuscripts and the Book of Mormon changes than Royal Skousen.
The Book of Mormon is a marvel. The translation was a matchless feat. It contains the restored Gospel.
“Stylometry examines the styles of writing in a text by identifying word-use patterns. It is “also known as computational stylistics [and] is a method of authorship attribution that uses …statistical techniques to infer the authorship of texts based on writing patterns. It tries to describe an author’s conscious and unconscious creative actions with quantifiable measures such as the frequency with which an author uses certain words or groupings of words. Stylometric analysis is based on the fundamental premise that authors write with distinctive, repeated patterns of word use.”1
Comparison of the Book of Mormon to Novelists of the Same Time Period
In the past, Roper and Fields had used stylometry to show a consistency of authorship in Isaiah and the Pauline Epistles. But in this presentation, they chose to compare two novels each from Jane Austin, Charles Dickens,James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain with the Book of Mormon. Together these eight volumes have about the same number of words as the Book of Mormon, but contrast in voice, character development, and other aspects.
Using a 3-D computer model, they showed a unity of authorship in each book written by contemporary authors along with the characters they each developed. They showed how these authors did not come close to the 119 characters developed in the Book of Mormon. That book shows four major authors or abridgers, who among them go on include many more writing styles from other Book of Mormon contributors.
For example, Mormon as a writer contributed about 36% of the words in the Book of Mormon with a central theme around war. Nephi is the next most prolific writer with a theme around family. He is followed by Alma with a theme of faith and Moroni with themes of ordinances and governance. In each of these themes, the writer of abridger developed 24 more writing styles with 24 other sentiments. This is far too many for Joesph Smith to keep track of and many more than the selected contemporary authors of the prophet. In the same light, the 119 Book of Mormon characters shows narrative voices that eclipse any of the other contemporaries chosen.
Together this was supposed to help the audience consider the impossibility of someone of Joseph Smith’s age and limited experience working with Oliver Cowdery over 60 working days to compose anything so complicated as the Book of Mormon. It worked for me and others in the audience.”
Fascinating study. Check out the entire article above!