Some Thoughts on “Writing” the Book of Mormon

I like to write stuff. While I have enjoyed it as long as I can remember, I never really wrote much until I started blogging 14 years ago. Since then, I have written on a semi-regular basis.

Between blog posts, articles, a couple novellas and some other stuff I am working on, I knocked out well over 1,000,000 words during the MMM years, and close to a million since. To put that into context, if you take ALL the original Harry Potter novels, they come in at 1,084,170 words. So, I am exactly like JK Rowling – twice – except for the fame, riches, power, movies and fandom.

My average Sunday blog entries bounce between 1,000 and 2500 words. On average, each one takes a couple hours to type. I don’t edit or proofread very hard – obviously – but 1,000 words an hour is still a pretty quick pace.

(I know, I know. You probably don’t care about this, and you are waiting for me to get to the point. Give me a minute and I’ll get there. I promise!)

In the October, 2017 General Conference, Tad R. Callister gave a masterful testimony of the divinity of Book of Mormon. In modern parlance, it was a “mic-drop” kinda talk. Here are two excerpts:

“To explain the Book of Mormon’s existence, the critics must also make the claim that Joseph was a naturally gifted writer at age 23. Otherwise, how did he interweave scores of names, places, and events into a harmonious whole without inconsistencies? How did he pen detailed war strategies, compose eloquent sermons, and coin phrases that are highlighted, memorized, quoted, and placed on refrigerator doors by millions of people, phrases such as, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17) or “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). These are messages with a heartbeat—messages that live and breathe and inspire. To suggest that Joseph Smith at age 23 possessed the skills necessary to write this monumental work in a single draft in approximately 65 working days is simply counter to the realities of life.

President Russell M. Nelson, an experienced and skilled writer, shared that he had over 40 rewrites of a recent general conference talk. Are we now to believe that Joseph Smith, on his own, dictated the entire Book of Mormon in a single draft with mainly minor grammatical changes made thereafter?

Joseph’s wife Emma confirmed the impossibility of such an undertaking: “Joseph Smith – as a young man – could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon.”2

I had heard similar arguments before. One of the best being from Elder Dallin Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon.” But that time it hit me like a bolt of lightning.

Why? Because it was the first time I had really contemplated the creation of The Book of Mormon from a writer’s perspective.

And I am in awe.

The Book of Mormon contains 268,163 words, on 531 pages. (It is not true that if you took out “And it came to pass” that the book would only be 200 pages.) That is 506 words on each page – tightly packed.

I think that the part that is toughest to get my head around is that it was written in 65 days. That works out to 4,125 words a day, every day. No breaks for research, no days for editing – because there was no research or editing. One draft: Dictated, transcribed and done.

(I have written 4,125 words in a day many times, and without distractions. I am confident that I could write 531 pages in 65 days. Also, I am confident that it would be the most awful book you have ever read in your entire life. And I mean painfully awful.)

Being a writer has further strengthened my testimony of the divinity of The Book of Mormon. It has also strengthened my testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, Jun.

Here are a few additional thoughts:

• I have a laptop, not a scribe, We talk about Joseph’s gifts, but what about Oliver’s writing cramps?

• When I write, I have spellcheck, a thesaurus, a dictionary and unlimited research at my fingertips. Joseph Smith had none of those things. I don’t know exactly how he translated, using seer stones, hats, plates, etc. But, to dictate on average 4,125 words a day, on the fly, without reading back or making corrections makes no sense. unless you account for divine intervention.

• When I write blog posts, every once in a while, I write a line that I feel is really worthwhile, and often, they are hard to come by. The Book of Mormon is replete with scriptures that are life changing – scriptures we memorize, and live by. Some of the most important theological ideas ever taught come from The Book of Mormon.

• I research like crazy to provide supporting materials to any theological ideas I present. It takes time, and resources. Sometimes reading and researching takes longer than the actual writing. Joseph Smith not only supported existing theological ideas, but surpassed all known theology with new, enlightening truths.

• It is necessary for me to re-read where I had stopped before I pick up from where I left off. Joseph did not have to do this. Crazy.

• The Book of Mormon is complicated. There is so much going on: Differing timelines, new and existing theological points, new and specific cultural issues. Joseph would have needed a giant blank wall and unlimited Post-it notes just to keep track of it all.

• I have known writers to fret for days about choosing the names of their characters. The Book of Mormon is chock full of names and locations that tie into actual geography and nomenclature that existed thousands of years earlier, but was unknown at Joseph’s time.

I am a relative novice in the world of Book of Mormon research. There are those who dedicate their lives to better understanding the language cues, patterns, and stuff that is much more complex than I even care to understand.

There are also those who dedicate their lives to tearing it down and trying to disprove it all.

“God’s fingerprints are all over the Book of Mormon, as evidenced by its majestic doctrinal truths, particularly its masterful sermons on the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” (Tad R. Callister)

However…my testimony of The Book of Mormon does not come from the complexity of the doctrines, the miraculous way it was brought to us, the geography, or even how it has held up – now approaching 200 years. All that stuff is great, but it is icing on the cake. My testimony did not even come from the process of reading, studying and living the doctrines that it teaches, although those things facilitated it. Here is the key: My testimony of The Book of Mormon came to me by the promptings of the Holy Ghost, as promised in the very book itself.

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”  (Moroni 10:4)

It took me 1300 words to get to this simple point: While it is cool that it took 65 days to translate The Book of Mormon, it is merely cool. All of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the bringing forth of The Book of Mormon are ultimately inconsequential if we don’t have a legitimate testimony given to us by the Holy Ghost. If we have received that witness, all of the attending miracles strengthen and support that testimony. The sequence matters.

As a witness of the divinity of The Book of Mormon, I share my testimony that it is true.

As a writer, and author, I testify that the coming forth of The Book of Mormon is very, very cool. I am excited to re-visit it this year in our curriculum.

To all my friends who write: I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas.  Please comment!

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  1. I’ve often thought about the miraculous events surrounding the existence of The Book of Mormon. As a writer, I marvel at how the threads of multiple narratives are woven together, Tad R. Callister’s talk had a profound effect on me too, not just because of the truths it contained, but because of the irrefutable evidence he presented. With the power and complexity of the doctrine, varied characters, and vivid settings, how can this marvelous book NOT be the result of divine guidance?

    My late sister was raised in the church, married in the temple, and active for many years. However, at some point in her fifties, she decided to leave the church and denounce its teachings. At one point, she told me she didn’t believe The Book of Mormon was true. I explained how difficult it would’ve been for a person with Joseph Smith’s education to write the book without divine help, then I asked her who she thought had written it. She said she’d never thought about it. As kindly as I could, I suggested she should think about it. As I recall, she said, “Maybe I will.”

    Thank you for your great post. I can always count on your blog to be informative and entertaining.

  2. Awesome observations! I’m not a writer, but I do translation as a side gig. Not a ton — probably a bit over 2 million words total, spread across a couple of decades — but yes, cranking out 4000 words a day for 65 days is an impressive feat, even for a decent typist on a modern computer. Joseph and Oliver doing it by hand — with an inkwell and quill pen! and no electric lights! — is mind-boggling.

  3. Excellent post, Brad. Many thanks for your thoughts and writer’s perspective on writing The Book of Mormon.

    I like to contemplate on the gargantuan task that faced Mormon – abridging literally a thousand years’ worth of prophecy, record keeping and doctrine, selecting only those parts that were the most suited to be read, studied and pondered by generations seen in vision but living in a world so very different from that which he knew. And doing so in such a way that the readers would have the doctrine and feel the spiritual power of their testimonies sufficient to counter the false doctrines, temptations and deceptions of the adversary in a time when he would be reigning with blood and horror on the earth. Talk about writing under some serious pressure!

    Oh and let’s not forget that at the time he was laboring under this Herculean task, he and his son were some of the very few remaining righteous followers of Christ and that they were continually battling with the Lamanites for their very lives. Mormon was, in fact, killed before he could complete his work. Thankfully Moroni was able to finish it and do a bit of his own abridging with the Jaredite record and some letters from his father. It’s not just a miracle in how it was translated, it’s an even more remarkable miracle in how it was originally created. How rare a possession indeed!

    In addition to Tad R. Callister’s excellent talk, I love to regularly revisit Elder Holland’s “mike drop” 2009 address on the divine nature of the Book of Mormon (link below). With eloquence perhaps unique to Elder Holland, he bears powerful witness and, with possibly a bit of cleansing-my-garments testimony, he “declare[s] to the world, in the most straightforward language [he] could summon, that the Book of Mormon is true, that it came forth the way Joseph said it came forth and was given to bring happiness and hope to the faithful in the travail of the latter days.”

    Wow. It’s one of those talks that, like the final testimony of Bruce R. McConkie, will (hopefully) always stay with me.


  4. I do not have your eloquence. But you just put on paper, my testimony of the book of Mormon! I had testimonies of it when I was in high school but it wasn’t until conference talk that Jeffrey Holland gave talking about Joseph and Hyrum Smith, losing their lives, making their wives widows, and their children orphans that it brought me to my knees, but this is true

  5. I don’t remember getting my first testimony and witness that the Book of Mormon is true, although I have had many. But I do remember when my oldest received her first witness. She was 7 years old and preparing for baptism. The missionaries asked her to read the account of Joseph Smith’s first vision, and then pray to know if that was true, if Joseph Smith was a prophet, and if the Book of Mormon is true. She went to her room alone to do that, and after awhile came dancing back out: “It IS true!” It was only the first of many witnesses for her as well, but I’ll never forget how it changed everything for her: why we study the scriptures, why we go to church, why we keep the commandments, etc. That ability to receive a personal witness is so powerful, and such a magnificent blessing from a Heavenly Father who loves us individually.

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