The 'Uneducated' Prophet
When Joseph was six years old, a typhoid epidemic occurred in Lebanon, New Hampshire (just south of Dartmouth) where his family lived for a year in 1811. The epidemic nearly took Joseph’s life and the life of his sister, Sophronia. When Hyrum became ill, he was forced to take a year’s leave from the Moor School (part of Dartmouth). Joseph initially had a quart of pus drained from his armpit, and then later his leg below the knee had more infection drained. The leg refused to heal because the infection had migrated into the bone. Hyrum’s classmates at Dartmouth included five of the children of Dr. Nathan Smith, who came to the Smith home with a team of surgeons and saved Joseph’s leg with the novel procedure of opening the bone to allow the pus to drain. Dr. Smith then visited Joseph eighteen times in twenty days. Shortly thereafter, he established the medical school at Yale. 
In the three years that Hyrum was at Dartmouth, the twice-daily and Sunday devotionals he attended totaled more than a thousand. The subjects discussed included the Son as an advocate before the Father, millions of peopled worlds, the School of the Prophets, the Atonement, the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods, the degrees of glory, and a multitude of other familiar-sounding subjects.  Hyrum, the older brother, became Joseph’s tutor. Hyrum’s conversations after Dartmouth with his father, Joseph Smith Sr., led to his father’s many visions, most of which were on the Atonement. These visions prepared his father to support Joseph when Joseph began having visions.
Joseph’s surgery was brutal, resulting in a recovery that took over three years. To put Joseph in a better climate for healing for a time, his parents sent him to live with his uncle, Jesse Smith. Asael Smith, Jesse’s father and Joseph’s grandfather, lived ten miles north of Salem, Massachusetts. He served as assessor, selectman, and town clerk. He also served in the Massachusetts state legislature and as town meeting moderator. Jesse Smith, whom Joseph lived with, was the school chancellor in Salem. Thus, Joseph spent his days associating with some of the most educated men in Massachusetts. Although this was not education at a formal school, it was certainly an education. When his family moved to New York, Joseph was still on crutches. 
Lucy Mack Smith started writing her history of the Prophet a few months after Joseph’s martyrdom. The book is well-written. As is clear from her book, as well as from her writing, the Smith home was one in which culture, vocabulary, and education were the rule—the rule in the home of a maturing prophet-to-be.
Shortly after Joseph married Emma, they lived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and had the gold plates with them. Back in Manchester (near Palmyra), Oliver Cowdrey’s brother applied to Hyrum Smith, a district trustee, to teach at the school. Oliver’s brother got the job, but the next day he signed on instead to work for the sheriff. He brought his brother Oliver before Hyrum to take his place. Oliver got the job and lodged in the Smith home as part of his wages. Hyrum was responsible for hiring for the local school. How could that happen out of an unschooled household? 
Oliver was very impressed with the Smith family and had heard about the gold bible. He was finally able to draw the story out of the Smith family bit by bit. He then gained a testimony of the work and left to go find Joseph to assist in any way he could. Oliver was the scribe who was the key to the Book of Mormon’s finally being translated into English in a timely fashion. 
Within a few months of the publication of the Book of Mormon, the Lord gave Joseph a new assignment to translate the Bible—this time without a scribe. An “unlearned” man could not have taken on such an incredible assignment, especially in the midst of all that was going on around him at that time. He was successful in this task. Today, we have Joseph’s translation of the Bible to help us further gauge his level of comprehension and “education.” 
Other evidences of Joseph’s education could be cited. That he was not totally “uneducated” is perhaps best reflected in his ability to translate the Book of Mormon and produce the Doctrine and Covenants. Well did Isaiah write when he called the Book of Mormon, “a marvelous work and a wonder.” 
We could compare the Book of Mormon with the greatest writings of the brightest men on earth in any time. The density, complexity, interlinking story lines, and geographic and internal consistency are unparalleled. We also associate with it the presence of chiasmus, the introduction of over two hundred new names, the speed with which it was produced once Oliver arrived, authoritative scripture-like language, and word-frequency usage (“wordprints”) that show multiple authors where it says there are multiple authors. [8, 9, 10, 11, 12] And these evidences barely scratch the surface. Joseph clearly knew how to farm, knew how to work, and understood hardship. But to call him unschooled is a real disservice to our beloved Prophet. The Book of Mormon is exactly what it claims to be and does not need the artificial (and untrue) “miracle” of being produced by an uneducated man. Indeed, to get it translated, typeset, and published as he did is an impossible task to ask of any simple farm boy without significant knowledge. He was prepared for his task by all those who were placed around him for that purpose by God.
As a man who has spent most of his life in school pursuing learning, I stand in awe of Joseph’s education.
Professor of Orthopaedics, University of California, Irvine
1. Richard K. Behrens, “Dreams, Visions, and Visitations: The Genesis of Mormonism,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 27, 2007, 170–83.
2. Richard K. Behrens, “Dartmouth Arminianism and Its Impact on Hyrum Smith and the Smith Family,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26, 2006, 166–84. (See also Richard K. Behrens, “From the Connecticut Valley to the West Coast: The Role of Dartmouth College in the Building of the Nation,” Historical New Hampshire, Spring 2009, 44–66.)
3. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 14, 15, 21.
4. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958).
5. Stanley Gunn, Oliver Cowdrey, Second Elder and Scribe (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1962), 29–33.
6. The Lord made it very clear to Joseph that Joseph was required to translate the Bible. Why? That important work is and always has been barely used—and never canonized. What could the Lord have been thinking? To translate, a translator must not only read the material but also study and ponder it (see President Henry B. Erying’s address in October 2010 to the general conference priesthood session). Joseph was not very good at writing, but it is absolutely clear that the written holy words were a part of him. Translating was the best way for the Lord to get Joseph not just to read but also to ponder so that he could receive detailed instructions and understanding out of the biblical text.
8. See John Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, no. 1, 1969. Chiasmus is a form of ancient Hebrew poetry unknown in the days of Joseph Smith but present in abundance in the Book of Mormon.
9. Wayne A. Larsen, et al., “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? Analysis of Wordprints,” BYU Studies 20, 225–51. The contention is that frequency of word usage is specific to each author. There were multiple authors for the Book of Mormon on the Small Plates of Nephi, none of whom had the same wordprint as Joseph Smith.
10. As a missionary in Brazil, I read the Book of Mormon in Portuguese. I underlined each word I wasn’t familiar with and then looked up the word. With each change of authors, there were many underlinings for the first portion and practically none near the end of each author.
11. Joseph was reported by his mother to have had some difficulty with writing. Difficulty in writing does not equate to a poor education. As an illustration of this point, my last report card in junior high school had nine A’s and a D- (in spelling). I am a university professor who is grateful to live in the age of spell check.
12. As pointed out by Hugh Nibley, most of the names have Egyptian roots (as opposed to roots from Balaam). Although Nibley’s explanation is true that Lehi did trade with Egypt, I feel that the Egyptian names are more a reflection of the Plates of Brass and the Small Plates of Nephi, both being written in Egyptian. Recall that each generation of Nephites was taught Egyptian so they could read the scriptures (see Mosiah 1:4; 1 Nephi 1:2).