“Proving to the World”: The Unique Declaration in Doctrine and Covenants Section 20

By Brian C. Hales

This week’s lesson deals with Doctrine and Covenants sections 20–22. These sections contain important messages regarding the restored Church, the performance of sacred ordinances, and the blessings of the priesthood in the lives of individuals and families.

Also tucked within these sections is a divine declaration that is unique to Latter-day Saint scripture. The first ten verses of section 20 present evidence that is proof that God lives and that he calls prophets on earth today. Verse 11 observes that something discussed earlier in the section is “proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old” (D&C 20:11). Nowhere else in scripture does God refer to evidences that are “proving to the world” anything specific. The declaration is unparalleled.

The word “proving” in verse eleven is a strong affirmation. Proving involves establishing the truth or validity of a claim by evidence or logic.[1] Readers may wonder what evidence is presented before verse 11 that could establish the truth of God’s reality?

Section 20 is a compilation of several separate revelations. One continuous revelation appears in verses 5–12:[2]

5 After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world;

6 But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness;

7 And gave unto him commandments which inspired him;

8 And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon;

9 Which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also;

10 Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them–

11 Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;

12 Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen. (Italics added.)

This revelation refers to six events: (1) Joseph Smith’s entanglement in vanities, (2) his repentance, (3) an angelic appearance, (4) giving commandments, (5) the testimonies of the Three Witnesses, and (6) the Book of Mormon translation by inspiration. Since the first five are verbal reports without tangible supportive data, they may be less convincing. But the sixth—the translation of the Book of Mormon—is an event that produced physical evidence of its reality. A book was published, and it is a volume we can hold in our hands.

So what aspect of the translation of the Book of Mormon could be “proving to the world” that God exists and calls modern prophets? The most likely candidate is the gap between Joseph Smith’s intellectual capabilities in 1829 and the Book of Mormon’s complexity and composition process.

The Book of Mormon is a Complex Book

To understand the complexity of the Book of Mormon and to estimate the literary challenges an author would confront while creating it requires familiarity with its textual and stylistic characteristics. When listed, they reveal the sophistication of the scripture that Joseph Smith produced. Below is a partial breakdown of the Book of Mormon’s structure:

  • Word count: 269,320
  • Number of sentences: 6,852
  • Average sentence length: 39.3 words
  • Reading level: eighth grade
  • Dialect: Early English
  • Punctuation: none
  • Unique words: 5,903
  • College level vocabulary words (not found in the Bible): dozens
  • Invented proper nouns: 170
  • Parallel phraseology— chiasms: 430
  • Parallel phraseology—alternates: 473[3]
  • Stylometric consistencies: at least 4 different authors
  • Bible intertextuality: 100s of similar phrases and integrations
  • Named characters: 208
  • Socio-geographic groups: 45
  • Genealogies greater than twenty generations: 2
  • Names for primary protagonist: over 100
  • Geographical references (Old World): at least 15
  • Geographical locations described (Promised Land): over 150
  • Geographical references (Promised Land): over 400
  • Ecological references: 2,065
  • Monetary system weights: 12 distinct values
  • Chronological references: over 100
  • Storylines: 77 major plus more minor
  • Flashbacks and embedded storylines: 5
  • Sermons: 68 major, more minor.
  • Sermon topics: dozens
  • Sermon commentary: often intricate and multifaceted
  • Formal headings to chapters and books: 21
  • Editorial promises: at least 121
  • Internal historical sources quoted: at least 24
  • Subjects discussed with precision: at least 3 (e.g. olive tree husbandry, biblical law, and warfare tactics)

The existence of these characteristics within the Book of Mormon is a matter of record.

The Work of Composition

How much work would be required to produce a book with the qualities listed above? To answer that question, it may be helpful to examine the work of another young author who published an impressive book.

Fantasy fiction author Christopher Paolini authored his first book in 2002 at age nineteen. His 163,680-word Eragon was adapted into a big-budget movie in 2006 that opened to mixed reviews. A child prodigy, Paolini earned his high school diploma at age fifteen and immediately began writing Eragon. His biographer explains the process he followed to compose his bestselling book:

Paolini had ideas swimming around in his head, but he realized that he knew very little about the actual art of writing—for example, how to construct a plot line. So he set out to do some research. He studied several books on writing, including Characters and Viewpoint (1988) by Orson Scott Card and Robert McKee’s Story (1997), which helped him to sketch out a nine-page summary. Paolini then spent the next year fleshing out his story, writing sporadically at first, but then picking up the pace. The task went much more quickly after he learned how to type. …

Paolini spent the bulk of 2000 reworking his first draft, smoothing out problems and fine-tuning such things as language and landscape. … By 2001 Paolini had a second draft, but he was still not satisfied, so he turned the book over to his parents for editing. They helped him streamline some of the plot sequences, clarify some of the concepts, and pare back some of what Paolini called “the bloat.” … In 2002 the Paolinis had Eragon published privately.[4]

While Eragon is shorter, written at a fourth-grade reading level, and employs a simpler storyline than the Book of Mormon, Paolini’s writing process follows the same steps described in college creative writing courses that begin with ideas and outlines, then writing a first version, and finally rewriting and editing until the manuscript arrives at the final draft. This process contrasts the historical record’s portrayal of Joseph Smith’s authoring the Book of Mormon.

Detailing the Translation Process

According to multiple eyewitness accounts, Joseph Smith dictated the entire Book of Mormon text while viewing a seer stone that had been placed in hat to occlude outside light. Other details provide a fuller picture:[5]

  • The entire dictation required less than 85 days and possibly as few as 57.[6]
  • The number of words produced per day would have varied between about 2700 and 4700.
  • The number of words in the dictated blocks typically involved at least twenty to thirty.
  • Joseph Smith and his scribes checked the accuracy of the recorded text.
  • Some proper names and difficult words were spelled out.
  • According to eyewitnesses, no preexisting manuscripts or books were used.
  • Many onlookers (followers and skeptics) were permitted to view Joseph Smith as he dictated to his scribes.
  • After breaks, Joseph would start where he left off without reading back the previous portion.
  • Multiple scribes (followers and skeptics) participated.

Most of the literary characteristics found in the Book of Mormon would have required mental preparation prior to the dictation. Complex content like geographies, plotlines, sermons, named characters, socio-geographic groups, ecologies, and timelines, would be difficult to produce in real time without previous groundwork and planning.

The most challenging production elements in Joseph Smith’s word stream would have been the customized phrases that required on-the-spot formation. For those portions, anything less than a verbatim text embedded in memory would have required extemporaneous composition. Those dictated features included dialect, patterned phraseology (chiasmus and alternates), stylometry, Bible intertextuality, and the creation of sentences that were so precisely wordsmithed that none required re-sequencing in order to maintain coherency throughout all 269,320 words of narration.

The average length of the sentences in the 1830 Book of Mormon of 39.3 words is nearly double that found in popular literature.[7]

If performed naturally, reciting nearly 7000 lengthy sentences without punctuation while simultaneously maintaining the high level of sentence refinement that existed in the original dictation of the Book of Mormon could have been the most difficult intellectual achievement Joseph ever completed. As literary scholar Robert A. Rees observes, “If Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon out of his imagination and in the manner in which his scribes said he did (and we have no reason to disbelieve them), he is the only writer in human history to have accomplished such a feat.”[8]

Joseph Smith’s 1829 Education and Composition Experience

While the historical record does not include all the data researchers desire, available manuscripts show that Joseph Smith was twenty-three years old with a probable third grade education (by modern standards) when he dictated the Book of Mormon.[9] His district school training would not have included composition, but his brother William remembered that “he wrote a plain intelligible hand.”[10]

While Joseph Smith read the Bible as a youth, eyewitnesses recalled that his understanding of the Bible in 1829 was quite limited.[11] No recollections of him practicing oratory or storytelling have been identified. Neither are their reports that Joseph frequently visited local libraries and bookstores. A very late account from Philetus B. Spear reported that Joseph possessed a few novels and had a “copy of the ‘Arabian Nights.”[12] In 1867, Joseph’s Palmyra acquaintance Pomeroy Tucker remembered he would read “dime novels” and that “the stories of Stephen Burroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions.”[13] Tucker also wrote that Smith was “uneducated and ignorant.”[14]

In an 1851 publication, Orsamus Turner, who also knew the Smith family in the 1820s, referred to Joseph’s involvement with the “juvenile debating club” and as a Methodist “exhorter,” but Turner also described him as “possessed of less than ordinary intellect.”[15]

Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography reported that in 1823, “Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined,”[16] but no other family member or acquaintance recalled such gatherings. Lucy’s book also noted that she remembered Joseph “seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.”[17]

Consistent with Tucker and Turner’s remarks above, virtually all available reports from personal acquaintances referring to Joseph Smith’s 1829 intellectual abilities classify him as less educated and lacking the genius that would allow him to accomplish a feat unattainable for those with far more education.

Isaac Hale, Emma Hale Smith’s father, recounted in 1834 that “I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith Jr. in November, 1825. … His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man—not very well educated.”[18] Similarly, John H. Gilbert, who typeset the Book of Mormon in 1830, remembered: “We had a great deal of trouble with it [the Book of Mormon manuscript]. It was not punctuated at all. They [Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery] did not know anything about punctuation.” When asked, “Was he [Joseph Smith] educated?” he responded, “Oh, not at all then.”[19]

In summary, the historical record describes a 23-year-old Joseph Smith who possessed no remarkable cognitive, oratory, storytelling, rhetorical, or writing abilities. He may have acquired rudimentary proficiencies in some of these areas, but the compositional skills needed to produce a long complex book and the oral performance expertise needed to dictate a 269,320-word narrative are entirely missing from all descriptions of Smith’s capabilities in 1829.

The Gap as Proof?

The apparent gap between Joseph Smith’s natural abilities and his accomplishment may be at least part of the proof referenced in D&C 20:11. The act of proving the validity of a conclusion involves the agency of the observer. In reality, one cannot prove anything to anyone. D&C 20:11 talks of “proving” something “to the world,” but God can only present evidences to mortals because proof is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, people viewing selected evidences may be entirely unconvinced while others use the same data to influence long-standing paradigms of personal belief.

While the debate will undoubtedly continue, a chasm between the intellectual skills needed to dictate the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s 1829 cognitive skillset will be, for some, easy to detect. For others, a disconnect will be less obvious, and for many more, it will simply be unimportant.

Skeptics may try to close the gap with stories of how authoring a book like the Book of Mormon would not be that difficult or with rationales affirming that the oratory talent required to dictate the entire text would not be too remarkable.[20] A third strategy attempts to elevate Joseph Smith’s twenty-three-year-old aptitudes beyond anything the historical record can support. To date, studies in human performance and historical evidences provide minimal support for such arguments.

Even if the “world” does not find proof of God’s reality or the calling of modern prophets in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saints are promised that “signs follow those that believe” (D&C 63:9; see also 35:8). Sometimes these signs may be as tangible as the mysterious Book of Mormon that seems to have arrived out of literary thin air.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.

[1] See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/proving.

[2] The original dictation was expanded by Joseph Smith between the printing of the 1833 Book of Commandments and publishing the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (emphasis added):

The original wording of the revelation did not include the phrase, “proving to the world,” but instead stated, “to the gentiles and also to the Jews, proving unto them.” Everyone in the world would fall into one of those categories. Since the Book of Mormon is a second witness of Jesus Christ, members may consider that it is “proving” that “the holy scriptures are true,” specifically to the Jews (as stated in the original phraseology), as well as to the gentiles and the world.

[3] Alternates are another subtle form of parallelism, which do not repeat backwards, instead restating the ideas again during the second half of the section:

Idea 1

Idea 2

Idea 3

Idea 4

Idea 1

Idea 2

Idea 3

Idea 4

For example:

A Therefore, ask,

B and ye shall receive;

C knock,

D and it shall be opened unto you;

A for he that asketh,

B receiveth;

C and unto him that knocketh,

D it shall be opened (3 Nephi 27:29)

BYU professor James T. Duke has identified 473 alternates in the Book of Mormon:[3]

                Alternates Occurrences in Book of Mormon
ab ab 298
ab ab ab 37
ab ab ab ab 6
ab ab ab ab ab 1
ab ab ab ab ab ab 1
ab ab ab ab ab ab ab 1
abc abc 74
abc abc abc 3
abc abc abc abc 1
abcd abcd 28
abcd abcd abcd 2
abcde acde 12
abcdef abcdef 7
abcdef abcdef abcdef abcdef abcdef 1
abcdefg abcdefg 1


[4] “Christopher Paolini Biography” in Encyclopedia of World Biography, accessed August 18, 2017,  http://www.notablebiographies.com/news/Ow-Sh/Paolini-Christopher.html.

[5] John W. Welch, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820–1844 (Provo, UT/Salt Lake City: BYU Press/Deseret Book, 2005), 118–213.

[6] John W. Welch, “Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon: ‘Days [and Hours] Never to Be Forgotten,’” BYU Studies 57, no. 4 (2019): 16–30.

[7] Books in chart: Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (London: by the author, 1811); Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London: Chapman and Hall, 1859); J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (London: : ‎George Allen & Unwin‎, 1937); C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950); Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: American Publishing Company, 1876); Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880); and J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury, 1997).

[8] Robert A. Rees, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance,” Dialogue 35, no. 3 (2002): 102.

[9] In his article, “Reassessing Joseph Smith Jr.’s Formal Education,” (Dialogue, 49, no. 4, (Winter 2016), 1-58), William L. Davis presents research regarding Joseph Smith’s educational opportunities. He concludes Smith received the “equivalent of approximately seven full school years” (46). Unfortunately, Davis does not contextual his conclusions within the near universal assessments from friends and critics declaring him to have very limited education. Neither does Davis attempt to equate “seven full years” of frontier district instruction to modern school grade advancements.

[10] William Smith, “Notes Written on `Chamber’s Life of Joseph Smith,'” circa 1875. Church History Library; text modernized.

[11] Emma Smith in Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (Octo­ber 1916): 454; David Whitmer in M. J. Hubble, interview, November 13, 1886, Missouri State His­torical Society, Columbia, MO; cited in Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 210–11. See also Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches or Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (London: S. W. Richards, 1853), 84.

[12] Philetus B. Spear, “Joseph Smith and Mormonism Which Started 100 Years Ago,” Marion Enterprise [Newark, New York] 43 (28 September 1923): 1. Another Palmyra resident recollected in 1876 that Joseph Smith was a “notorious loafer … reading bad novels.” Palmyra Resident Reminiscences circa 1876 in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols., 3:132.

[13] Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton, 1867), 17, see also 13–14.

[14] Tucker, Mormonism, 120–21.

[15] Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement (Rochester: William Alling, 1851), 213.

[16] Smith, Biographical Sketches, 85. Lucy reports these activities occurred after September 22, 1823.

[17] Smith, Biographical Sketches, 85.

[18] Isaac Hale quoted in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: Or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 262–3.

[19] John H. Gilbert, quoted in “The Hill Cumorah and the Book of Mormon,” The Saints’ Herald 28 (June 1, 1881):165–6.

[20] See Brian C. Hales, “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study 58, no. 3 (2019): 105–48


Brian C. Hales is the author or co-author of seven books dealing with plural marriage—most notably the three-volume, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2013) He and his wife Laura are the current webmasters of JosephSmithsPolygamy.org. Presently, Brian is working on two book-length manuscripts dealing with Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking and the authorship of the Book of Mormon. He served a mission to Venezuela for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for fourteen years. Brian is also past president of the Utah Medical Association (2013) and the John Whitmer Historical Association (2015).

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