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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Performing Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Creation of The Book of Mormon

  • Author(s): Davis, William
  • Advisor(s): Hackett, Michael
  • Colacurcio, Michael
  • et al.

In 1830, Joseph Smith Jr. published The Book of Mormon and subsequently founded a new American religion. According to Smith, The Book of Mormon represented the English translation of an authentic record, written in “Reformed Egyptian,” concerning ancient Israelites who migrated to the Americas in approximately 600 B.C.E. Smith’s purported translation of this sacred history, however, did not occur by traditional means. Rather than directly consulting the record and providing an English rendition, Smith employed a method of divination by placing a “seer stone” into the bottom of his hat, holding the hat to his face to shut out all light, and then he proceeded to dictate the entire text of The Book of Mormon in an extended oral performance, without the aid of notes or manuscripts. By his side, Smith’s scribes wrote down the entire text verbatim in the moment Smith uttered them. As a result, at over 500 printed pages, The Book of Mormon stands as one of the longest recorded oral performances in the history of the United States.

This dissertation aims to uncover some of the primary techniques of oral performance that Smith used in the construction of his work. Oratorical skill constituted a critical mode of public and private discourse in the culture of the early American nation; and, as I will argue, the text of The Book of Mormon reveals key characteristics of Smith’s techniques in oral performance that, in turn, reflect the oratorical training of the age. Drawing on Smith’s exposure to a kaleidoscope of cultural institutions that inculcated oratorical skills—focusing specifically on formal and informal education, Sunday school training and revivalism, folk magic practices, semi-extemporaneous Methodist preaching and exhorting, and the fireside storytelling culture of early America—this dissertation will demonstrate how these related cultural streams of oral performance converged in Smith’s production of The Book of Mormon, providing him with the necessary skills and techniques to produce and recite his massive Christian epic through the medium of the spoken word.

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