The Interpreter has recently published two reviews of William L. Davis’ Visions in a Seer Stone. The two reviews, by Brant Gardner and Brian Hales, exemplify what I think are positive trends in Latter-day Saint contributions to Mormon Studies. I’ve enjoyed reading through back issues of the old FARMS journals, but some of the older reviews are exhaustive critiques of stupid books. Rather than a point-by-point rebuttal or an eye-glazing meta-discussion of the philosophy of science, it should be enough in many cases to note: this book or article (such as the recent proposal that Joseph Smith’s early visions were enabled by psychedelic substances) is a stupid idea based on slim or no evidence and not worth a detailed response. It’s more productive for everyone to confidently engage with serious books.
Both Gardner and Hales compliment Visions in a Seer Stone as a serious and original contribution to the study of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, even as they disagree with many of its points. If I’ve understood correctly, Davis contends that the Book of Mormon shows the hallmarks of nineteenth-century oral composition techniques, in particular “laying down heads,” or starting out with a summary and then expanding on it; Joseph Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon was a virtuoso oral performance of a complex text from memory; his considerable rhetorical skill was honed by his prior experience; and he prepared the text extensively in the years prior to 1829. A key passage for Davis is Jacob 1:4, “And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, [Nephi commanded me] that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates.”
Gardner and Hales each point to a number of problems with this argument. As a compositional technique, expanding on an initial summary is not unique to the nineteenth century or anachronistic in an ancient text; “laying down heads” fails to explain most of the text of the Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith was not known for having remarkable intellectual abilities in the 1820s; evidence for his training in oratory or composition is lacking; and there is no evidence for Joseph Smith’s spending years in careful preparation of a scriptural text that (as Davis acknowledges) required considerable planning. It’s an interesting discussion with potential for future developments—and perhaps a small degree of rapprochement between devotional and secular approaches to the Book of Mormon—and all the contributions are worth reading.
If I can make one substantive contribution to the discussion: there was in fact a technological device readily available to Joseph Smith that would have enabled him to perform seemingly supernatural feats of memorization and oral performance. This technological marvel is known as a “book” and was widely known to citizens of Palmyra and elsewhere on the frontier in 1829. Some eyewitness accounts place just such a device—the gold plates—within arm’s reach as Joseph Smith dictated his translation. And as Jacob 1:4 indicates, it is precisely there, on the plates, that the “heads” of the text were to be found.
We moderns are accustomed to think of books as containers filled with information, but in earlier centuries, it would have been more accurate to think of books as instruction manuals for oral performance. Page numbers and indices and other apparatus for information retrieval don’t become widespread until the high Middle Ages. A book’s informational content or textual narrative was often already known to the reader. It was in this sense that Gregory the Great could talk of images as books for the unlearned: it was not that the images conveyed information to illiterate readers, but that the stories became activated in their memory, became “read,” when they viewed the visual depiction of a story with which they were already familiar.
If Lucy Mack Smith’s account that Joseph Smith began describing “the ancient inhabitants of this continent” in 1823 is correct, it suggests that at least some elements of what he translated in 1829 were already known to him and that the translation process at least occasionally involved some aspects of memory. If his months-long complex oral performance (albeit for an extremely limited audience) was remarkable, the question is not how he had trained his memory to superhuman capacity in the meantime, but more likely: how did he access the book that was lying on the table in front of him? (Davis accepts that Joseph Smith made little direct use of the plates while translating. I think this not uncommon view is an oversimplification of the tenuous and contradictory evidence, although that’s a topic for another time.)
There’s even an answer to the question of how Joseph Smith accessed the plates—by the gift and power of God, and aided by a hat and various seer stones—but some continue to be dissatisfied by it. If I were looking for an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith’s remarkable oral performance, I would focus not on memorization and extemporaneous composition, but on how he used the etchings on the gold plates for dictating the text of the Book of Mormon. The plates are the key to understanding the visions seen in a seer stone.
 Jonathan Green, Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 93.
 William L. Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 177.