Dissertation Introduction, Part 7: Joseph Smith and Learning

By September 5, 2014

Smith’s own lack of education may be an objection to the claim that Christian Platonism influenced him.  “Being in indigent circumstances [we] were obliged to labour hard,” Smith said of his childhood. “Therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education[.] Suffice it to Say I was mearly instructed in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.”[1]  His mother, Lucy, said Smith read less that her other children and his wife Emma said at the time he dictated the Book of Mormon, he “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter.”[2]  Smith’s writing skills were limited and he most often dictated what he wanted to communicate.  But Smith was not cut off from learning and literacy in his day.  His mother said he read less than her other children, not that he didn’t read at all, and both his mother’s and his wife’s statements were made in context of defending the validity of the Book of Mormon against the claim the Smith was the author.  Lucy and Emma may have been exaggerating Smith’s ignorance to bolster that claim.  Though he grew up in a small, recently settled town, print was available to him: newspapers, bookstores, and libraries.[3]  Smith also made attempts to engage intellectually with his peers by attending religious meetings and a local debating society.[4]  Furthermore, Smith continually worked at his education; Smith even attended school when he was 20 to 21.[5]  A major shift occurred when Smith founded his church.  Smith now had more free time with which to read and many of his followers had better educations than he did; he even founded a study group, the school of the prophets.  In an important sermon toward the end of his life, Smith declared after giving an exegesis of Genesis 1:1 along Christian-Platonic lines, “if you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God.”[6]

Right after calling himself learned, Smith declared “Oh ye lawyers ye doctors I want to let you know that the H[oly] G[host] knows something as well as you do,” suggesting that he felt that the Holy Ghost was the source of his knowledge.  But the revelation to Oliver Cowdery mentioned above suggested that the Holy Ghost confirmed truth.  Smith knew what was correct because of these promptings, and this process is what trumped the knowledge of the “lawyers” and  “doctors.”

At the same time, Smith not only claimed to receive a limited education in his autobiography, but he also claimed in another speech, “I am a rough stone, the sound of the hammer & chisel was never heard on me. nor never will be.  I desire the learning & wisdom of heaven alone.”[7]  But even these statements likely drew on motifs in Smith’s environment.  The story of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by the medieval Spanish Muslim Ibn Tufail had become very popular in the early modern period.  Hayy ibn Yaqdhan was shipwrecked as a baby on a desert island and his parents having been killed was raised by a gazelle.  When the gazelle died, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan used his reason to discover ultimate reality and was eventually visited by an angel who taught him the knowledge of God.  When the boy was found, the civilized people marveled at his knowledge but ultimately Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, discovering the frailties of human learning among the civilized, chose to go back to the island where he could enjoy pure knowledge apart from human corruption.[8]  The idea of the one taught solely by heaven became popular in the eighteenth century and Andrew Michael Ramsay modified this story in The Travels of Cyrus, saying that the Egyptian sage Hermes went through a similar process. [9]  Smith seemed to have applied these same motifs to himself.  Furthermore, the Philadelphians referred to their followers as “rough-hewn stones … which must be cleaned and polished before they can become the foundation of the temple of the Lord.”[10]  Smith was literate, had access to books, and had a following that included better-educated people.  With these resources, Smith was a life-long learner.

[1] Joseph Smith, History, 1832 in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 27.

[2] Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet (1853), 84, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 296; Joseph Smith III, ?Last Testimony of Sister Emma,? 1879, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:542.

[3] Quinn, Magic World View, 179-90.

[4] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 37-38.

[5] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 52; Hamilton Child, Gazetteer and Business Directory of Chenago County, NY for 1869-70, (Syracuse, 1869) p. 82-83 in Early Mormon Documents, 4:219; Josiah Stowell, Jr. to John S. Fullmer 17 February 1843, Early Mormon Documents, 4:77.

[6] Smith, April 7, 1844, Words of Joseph Smith, 351.

[7] Smith, June 11, 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 219-20.

[8] Hayy ibn Yaqdhan was translated into Latin in 1671 by Edward Pococke as Philosophus autodidactus.  It became very popular, inspiring works like Robinson Crusoe and perhaps John Locke?s Essay on Human Understanding.  G. A. Russell, “The Impact of the Philosophus autodidactus: Pocockes, John Locke and the Society of Friends,” in The ‘Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England (Leiden: Brill, 1994): 224-65.

[9] Ramsay, Travels of Cyrus, 126-29.

[10] Walker, Decline of Hell, 247.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Steve, I’m reading all of this with interest. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by WVS — September 6, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

  2. Thanks, WVS.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 8, 2014 @ 12:52 am

  3. Wow! I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction, all seven parts. I’m particularly interested in the similarities you’ve found between ideas expressed in Modern Judaism and the Book of Mormon, and also the Timaeus and Abraham 3. I assume these arguments are further fleshed out in the body of your dissertation. Which leads me to ask: is it available in PDF form anywhere? I’d love to sit down with it sometime and really dive in.
    Anyway, congratulations on finishing it. I hear it’s a very long and time-consuming process to write these things.

    Comment by Jason W — September 14, 2014 @ 10:35 am

  4. Thanks, Jason. Yes, this intro is an overview and I go into more details on those and other points in the main body. I think the dissertation will be available through ProQuest soon.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 14, 2014 @ 2:42 pm


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