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Automatic Writing/Bill Davis’s Visions of Seer Stone

We’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Brian Hales on Book of Mormon authorship.  What are some naturalistic explanations are there to explain how Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon? Brian will tackle a few more theories, such as automatic writing, as well as Bill Davis recent book, “Visions in a Seer Stone.”  Are those good explanations?

Brian:  The fourth theory is really interesting. We call it the automatic writing theory. Now, automatic writing, there’s actually two flavors. Psychologists, particularly around 1920, were doing experimenting where they would take a person and what the psychologist wants to do is find things that are in a person’s unconscious. They’ve been stuffed there because they’re too hard to deal with by the individual. And if you can get them out carefully and talk about them, you can increase a person’s mental health. They’ll feel better, less anxiety and things. So, they want to get stuff out of the unconscious part of their brain. They would isolate their arms and get them kind of really relaxed, and then their arm would just spontaneously write. That’s automatic writing. That’s the most clinical version. Then, the words that are written would be used in therapy to try to help the person with things that have been stuffed into their unconscious mind.

Brian:  The next one is a storyteller theory. I have an article coming out in Interpreter that compares Joseph Smith to professional storytellers. Now, they can tell stories day after day after day, or one big, long story that could take five or six days to put together. To make a long story short, Rick, all they’re doing is memorizing formulas that are sentences with words that can be plugged in here and there. So, they memorize these and as the story goes along, they just have to plug in a word here or a word there. The rest of it’s all memorized and comes out very much as a routine for them. They’re called formula patterns, formula systems. When you write down or make a transcript of the stories that are told this way, you can see the pattern right there in the text. We look at the Book of Mormon, there are no patterns like that. I mean, there’s chiasmus and things, but the whole book isn’t out of a chiasm. And honestly, trying to create a chiasm in real time, doesn’t necessarily make it easier, I think it makes it more difficult. So, the storytelling theory hasn’t gotten a lot of traction. Bill Davis mentioned it in his Ph.D. dissertation. I mention Bill Davis because he wrote the book of Visions in a Seer Stone.

GT:  Right.

Brian:  I admire what Bill is trying to do.

GT:  Well, I was going to ask, is this pattern the same thing as laying down heads that Bill mentions in his book or is it different?

Brian:  Well, it’s interesting.  Bill is trying to give us an explanation of what’s going on in Joseph’s head. While he’s dictating the stream of words that become the Book of Mormon. Nobody else has done this. My friend, Dan Vogel, has published this 715-page biography.[1] He never once tries to tell us how Joseph was able to create all of these final draft sentences. He just assumed Joseph could do it. Bill is trying to go in and explain what is going on cognitively and what kind of thoughts Joseph was having, as he’s dictating. I admire Bill for that. In fact, in his Ph.D. dissertation, he gives us a couple of views because he does talk about professional storytellers right at the end of his book briefly, but the primary theory that he promotes—I’m sorry, in his Ph.D. dissertation. He briefly mentions professional storytellers. But, in his book, Visions in a Seer Stone, he focuses on an idea that laying down heads is how professionals, revivalist preachers, were able to tell their very long, two hour, if you will, sermons, but then they could come back the next day and give a two hour sermon and give another one, and they’re doing it by laying down heads. You know what that means, but it…

GT:  Yeah, I’ve read some of Bill’s book. The idea here, I think, is you kind of have a little bit of an outline, and then the preacher refers back to that outline.  Each of those points is called a head, and then he can just expound on a certain head until he gets to the next one, and then he follows. I know Bill, at least from what I’ve read, I’m about halfway through Bill’s book, said, basically, a lot of preachers did this. Also, with the Book of Mormon, if you look at the introduction, the original 1830 version, not our version, but it would give a summary of what was going to happen next. So, that summary was an outline that Joseph Smith followed. Am I saying that right?

Brian:  Yeah.  I think Bill brings up a pretty good point, except that he also insists in his book that this process was something that didn’t really exist until the 19th century. In a response that I wrote, a book review, it was published in Interpreter, I just went through and showed how Josephus did this. Aristotle talked about having a summary statement, and then going into the details after, which would be laying down a head and then going through. This is something that’s as old as oratory, and writing, as near as I could tell. It’s not an area of my expertise, but I just picked up my book of Josephus and then found the originals, the earliest versions of this. People were using heads anytime people were writing. Not everybody used them, but somebody would saying that it’s good to tell people what you’re going to tell them, and then you tell them, and then sometimes you go back and tell them what you told them. I mean, it’s just common oratory. So, I don’t think that’s a real strong argument. But, the real problem with this, and I call this the oral performance theory. It’s the idea that Joseph just became a really good orator, a really good revivalist preacher, kind of guy. Then he used those skills to produce the stream of words. The problem with this is that the revivalist preachers that could do that weren’t 23-year-old farmers. These were people who were well-seasoned. They’d been preaching on the circuit for a long time. They had immersed themselves in the material. They had nearly memorized the Bible, neither of which we can show Joseph having done, if we go to the historical record, and then having practiced for many times, they’re able to get up and just speak using the skills that a very well-established orator would use. We just can’t find that Joseph Smith had those skills. For that reason, this really, I don’t think, is a very strong argument. Whether somebody could just use those skills to create a 270,000-word book at all, is not something that’s been shown. But, even on a daily basis, it’s hard to say. Joseph wasn’t known to have even preached a single sermon prior to the Church being organized. This is not somebody who’s practicing in front of an audience, either using storytelling skills, or oratory skills.

GT:  I’m just reminded of my interview with Michael Quinn. He said that, especially, Sidney Rigdon, was a much more eloquent speaker, especially in the early Church, than Joseph was and a lot of people have said that Joseph’s sermons were pathetic.

[1] The book is called “Making of a Prophet” and can be purchased at https://amzn.to/3wLDFec

What do you think of Bill Davis’ theory about laying down heads?  Do you agree with Brian or Bill?  Check out our conversation….

Brian Hales tackles Bill Davis’ “Visions in a Seer Stone” to explain Book of Mormon origins.

Don’t miss our previous conversations with Brian!

573: Looking at Spaulding & Collaborator Theories (Hales)

572: Reviewing Polygamy Criticisms

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Looking at Spalding & Collaborator Theories (Part 2 of 6)

Ever since the Book of Mormon was first published, critics have tried to figure out its authorship.  Did Joseph Smith plagiarize the book from other sources, such as Solomon Spaulding or other collaborators?  Dr. Brian Hales tells more about these collaborator theories for Book of Mormon authorship.

Brian:  I’ve isolated eight different theories that people have promoted, naturalists, as possibly explaining how Joseph created the Book of Mormon. We’ve heard about the Solomon Spalding theory. In 1812, a guy named Solomon Spalding wrote a manuscript, and he shared it with his friends and neighbors. He died two years later. Then, the Book of Mormon comes out in 1830. Well, some of those friends and neighbors said, “Hey, I remember this is the same story that Solomon Spalding told me.” Well, the manuscript was lost, so you couldn’t check the two. You had the Book of Mormon in your hand, but you only had the memory of these people. So, everybody jumped on this bandwagon. For 50 years, it was by far and away the most popular theory. But, then in 1884, they found the manuscript and compared the two.

GT:  [They found it] in Hawaii, of all places.

Brian:  Right.  Well, they had it in 1834, but it wasn’t similar to the Book of Mormon.

GT:  It was E.D. Howe that had it.

Brian:  Right, and he knew there was huge dissimilarities, but it didn’t go along with the theory that he was promoting in his book. So, they just deep-sixed the thing, and it emerged 50 years later in Hawaii. I don’t know, I’m sure somebody has probably tried to trace that. It’s probably not too big a mystery.

GT:  From what I understand, there was a newspaper in Pittsburgh, and then the assets got sold and it ended up in Hawaii, which is just a weird, weird story.

Brian:  Well, I haven’t looked at it, but in 1884, when you compare the two, the names are different. There are some very general similarities on the fact that it’s a lost manuscript that’s found and there’s some talk about the origin of the Indians. But it’s about 50,000-51,000 words. The Book of Mormon is nearly 270,000. So, even if Joseph plagiarized every word, he’d still have to come up with 220,000 words on his own. So, to use it as a theory isn’t a real strong, real convincing interpretation.

GT:  Well, I’d like to go in there because I do have a lot of very vocal people who still believe the Spalding manuscript is a legit theory. My response is, “Read it.”

Brian:  Yeah, good point.

GT:  It’s so stereotypically Indian. We talk about wigwams, and squaws, and delawanucks, and just very stereotypically Indian. Plus, it takes place, I believe, in the time of Constantine. So it’s off by about 1000 years, just the story plot. It begins when the Book of Mormon ends, basically.  I’ve read it. It’s actually I think, unintentionally funny. It’s kind of like Gilligan’s Island version of the Book of Mormon, if you ask me.

Have you read “Manuscript Found”?  Do you think that Joseph collaborated with others to produce the Book of Mormon?  Check out our conversation….

Brian Hales reviews the Spalding Conspiracy and other Collaborator Theories of Book of Mormon origins.

Don’t miss our previous conversation with Brian!

572: Reviewing Polygamy Criticisms

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Reviewing Polygamy Criticisms (Part 1 of 6 Brian Hales)

I’m excited to have Dr. Brian Hales back on the show. It was 8 years ago that Brian Hales published his 3-volume set on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. How has that held up? How does Brian address critics of his work?

Brian: You know, there’s always critics. But, recently, my friend Larry Foster, and others
have said that the three volumes that Don Bradley and I put together in 2013–they’re eight
years old now.

GT: Wow.

Brian:  They do contain, really, transcripts or references to all of the pertinent documents
to the topic. I remember Don and I speaking that when we brought these out in 2013, that if in
10 years, we could look back and say we had found 90%, we’d feel pretty good about it. Well, I
honestly think we’ve got the DNA issue. Then, there’s this issue about Eliza R. Snow, perhaps
being raped in Missouri. There’s two or three kind of important things that would have been
included in the volumes, if we had had that data.

GT:  Well, let me ask you this, because I know this did come up on the Facebook group.
One of the criticisms is that you will dismiss certain arguments if they’re too late in the record.
But, if they support your arguments, then you’ll accept those arguments because they support
your interpretation. There seems to be an inconsistency on whether something is an early
record or a late record, as to how you would interpret it. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

Brian:  I’m an amateur historian, trying to become a professional historian. There’s one thing that historians do, and it’s critical source analysis; [is it] late and early? Is it firsthand, secondhand, thirdhand? When was it recorded after it occurred? All of these are factors that historians have to look at to weigh the value. There’s contradictory evidence. Absolutely, there is. But, again, I assert that the interpretations I have taken is because you have to drive a pathway through the contradictory evidences, through the ambiguities that are there and come up with an interpretation, which you think is the most valid. It’s also the same interpretation that the Church has kind of solidified in the Saints, and in the Gospel Topic essay. You’ll find there’s no contradiction in my three volumes and the material that they’re presenting in those sources, but those are from believers. When you look at people who think Joseph was a fraud, and an adulterer, they’re going to interpret the data differently, not because they’re looking at different data, it’s just they’re going in with different biases. So, it’s not necessarily what the evidence says, as much as the person’s a priori beliefs before they see the data. I don’t know how you get past that. That’s just human nature.

Do you agree?  Check out our conversation….

Brian Hales looks back on the 8 years his polygamy books have been published.

Don’t miss our previous conversations with Brian!

053: Did Hales Write the Gospel Topics Essays?

052: Emma Denied Joseph Practiced Polygamy?

051: Polygamy & the Temple Lot Case

049: Mormon Polyandry:  More Than One Husband?

050: Joseph’s Youngest Teen Brides

048: What are the Theological Justifications of Polygamy?

047: Fanny Alger Part 2:  Marriage or Adultery?

046: 1st Plural Wife Fanny Alger: Time or Eternity Polygamy?

045: Polygamy Rumors – Declaration on Marriage

044: Does D&C 132 Conflict with Genesis?

043: Canadian Polygamy – Should it be Legal?