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Joseph Smith’s Education and Intellect as Described in Documentary Sources

TitleJoseph Smith’s Education and Intellect as Described in Documentary Sources
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsHales, Brian C.
JournalInterpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship
KeywordsBook of Mormon Authorship; Education; Latter-day Saint History (1820–1846); Smith, Hyrum; Smith, Joseph, Jr.

Although Joseph Smith has been credited with “approximately seven full school years” of district schooling, further research supports that his education consisted of basic instruction in “reading, writing and the ground rules of arithmetic” comprising “less than two years of formal schooling.” The actual number of terms he experienced in common schools in upstate New York is probably less critical since the curricula in district schools did not then teach creative writing, composition, or extemporaneous speaking. If Joseph Smith learned how to compose and dictate a book, extracurricular activities would likely have been the training source. Six of those can be identified: (1) private Bible studies, (2) Hyrum Smith’s possible tutoring in 1813, (3) participation in local religious activities, (4) involvement with the local juvenile debate club, (5) occasional family storytelling gatherings, and (6) brief participation as an exhorter at Methodist meetings. Three of his teachers in Kirtland in 1834–1836 recalled his impressive learning ability, but none described him as an accomplished scholar. A review of all available documentation shows that no acquaintance at that time or later called him highly educated or as capable of authoring the Book of Mormon. Despite its current popularity, the theory that Joseph Smith possessed the skills needed to create the Book of Mormon in 1829 is contradicted by dozens of eyewitness accounts and supported only by minimal historical data.