Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Public forum to discuss questions about Mormon history and doctrine.
Joni
Posts: 558
Joined: 22 Nov 2013, 08:36

Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by Joni » 23 Jul 2016, 09:12

From my husband's BYU alumni magazine: "Why do you suppose God chose an untutored farm buy to translate the Book of Mormon?" That jumped out at me, because it's an assertion that we've heard again and again. Joseph Smith's lack of formal education is proof of his awesome prophetic abilities and shows that he was foreordained by God to restore the church.

Two questions:

1) Was Joseph Smith really all that uneducated by the standards of the time? Free public education didn't exist yet. If your parents couldn't afford to send you to school, or if you lived too far from town, or if you didn't live in a town large enough to support a school, or if your parents didn't believe in the value of education, you didn't go to school. It's often been touted that JS only had something like ten days of formal schooling. But that isn't really proof of his ignorance, either. His family appears to have been highly literate, and he was clearly able to read the King James Bible, which is no mean feat. It seems to me that having less access to formal education, but more access to literacy in the home, means that JS averaged out in terms of education level.

2) Is this simply evidence of our ability to put a faith-promoting spin on anything, even directly contradictory ideas? (For example, JS dying young = he was a prophet = the Church is true; TSM living a long time = he is a prophet = the Church is true.) If Joseph Smith had been unusually well-educated for his place and time, wouldn't we brag about how amazing that means he was, and how that's proof that the Church is true? I mean, we certainly do that now - we like to point to a Q12 filled with heart surgeons and lawyers and pilots as proof of how awesome we are.

User avatar
LookingHard
Posts: 2914
Joined: 20 Oct 2014, 12:11

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by LookingHard » 23 Jul 2016, 13:15

Joni - I am starting to worry that you are reading my thoughts! Just about 2 weeks ago I thought about this. Much of his very early life we learn from a history written from his mom. I read that book just before I started realizing there was a rabbit hole to look and go down. Now I see the narrative as anything as objective as I did. What mother wouldn't have a somewhat positively over inflated perspective of their child? The more I have read about how the human brain works, I think that when Lucy Mack Smith wrote the book I read in her later life she absolutely thought she was telling the truth. By this time she had reviewed these narratives/history countless times. Memories will change as we recount them over and over (see several versions of the first vision as an example).

User avatar
mom3
Posts: 3986
Joined: 02 Apr 2011, 14:11

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by mom3 » 23 Jul 2016, 13:34

This one tends to give me less worry than other things. Just look at the baby Jesus narrative, talk about mind blowing. I still love the idea of the nativity story even as I scratch my head at the wonderment of it all.

The uneducated part also fit Abraham Lincoln's narrative, and dove tails transcendentalism. Joseph was less educated then many of the Founding Fathers. He was a homespun farm boy. Ignorant, No. Broadly read and studied, No.

Going back to the Jesus narrative - he is both of royal birth and impoverished. Which is it? He was the long awaited Messiah, who was rejected by his own people? Religion thrives on paradox.

The one I wish we could focus on, are the many people of that time 1820's and 1830's who also had manifestations about starting new religions. That is an area where we might serve the world better if we acknowledged that Joseph was one of many. To me it's an inspiring idea that God was trying to talk to his children.
"I stayed because it was God and Jesus Christ that I wanted to follow and be like, not individual human beings." Chieko Okazaki Dialogue interview

"I am coming to envision a new persona for the Church as humble followers of Jesus Christ....Joseph and his early followers came forth with lots of triumphalist rhetoric, but I think we need a new voice, one of humility, friendship and service. We should teach people to believe in God because it will soften their hearts and make them more willing to serve." - Richard Bushman

nibbler
Posts: 4149
Joined: 14 Nov 2013, 07:34
Location: Ten miles west of the exact centre of the universe

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by nibbler » 23 Jul 2016, 13:41

Random thoughts:

1) Joseph Smith likely had a more formal education than Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, etc. If the ancient American prophets could have written it, why not Joseph?

2) People tend to present the facts that support the point they want to make, often times contradicting themselves based on the point they want to make and the audience. That goes for everything, not just religion. We often do it without even realizing it.

3) In recent general conferences much has been said about only being able to understand spiritual truths via the spirit. How do we interpret that? Maybe some hear "ignore your reason based conclusions after reading the CES letter" but the teaching can apply in both directions. If we shouldn't let logic and reason talk us into determining that the BoM is false then we shouldn't be using logic and reason to talk us into determining the BoM is true.

User avatar
DarkJedi
Posts: 6718
Joined: 24 Aug 2013, 20:53

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by DarkJedi » 24 Jul 2016, 13:47

Back in college we had to take a course called "History and Philosophy of Education" as part of the major. Our professor tried to make it as interesting as possible and met with some limited success. You're absolutely right, Joni - in Joseph's day he was probably about as educated as his peers. He was probably taught to read using the KJV, another very common practice and likely the only book owned by most families. The uneducated farmboy thing has never really flown with me, and I have used the argument of Biblical and BoM prophets as being less educated than JS. Granted, it does not appear that any of them singularly wrote a volume like the BoM - but if we believe the narrative, neither did JS. Without the influence of books (which he actually did appear to have some access to), TV, and video games is it possible an active imagination could have made up the BoM? In my mind absolutely. Just because the translation process only took a few months is not an indicator of whether or not it's made up - he had his whole life until that point (about 25 years) to have developed the stories in his mind.

Just to be clear, I am not saying JS did make up the BoM, but I am not dismissing the possibility. My belief and hope is that the BoM was inspired of God.
In the absence of knowledge or faith there is always hope.

Once there was a gentile...who came before Hillel. He said "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

My Introduction

User avatar
On Own Now
Posts: 1736
Joined: 18 Jan 2012, 12:45

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by On Own Now » 25 Jul 2016, 07:52

DarkJedi wrote:he was probably about as educated as his peers.
I agree with this, but before we let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, I think it's worth asking "who where his peers?". JS was raised in a frontier farm family, and the son of a man (JSsr) who was a financial failure and who maybe liked the bottle a little too much. By the time JSjr came around, the boys had to be hired out to neighbors for manual labor just to keep up the payments on the rented farm. While JSjr was literate and obviously intelligent, he was a far cry from wealthy, non-frontiersman, who studied at places like Harvard to become professional religious leaders.

In all likelihood, he was no where close to the education level of the average child of the same age in the US today.

I agree that it's an exaggeration to call him an 'uneducated' farmboy, but it's closer to the truth than calling him 'educated'.
"Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another." --Romans 14:13

User avatar
DarkJedi
Posts: 6718
Joined: 24 Aug 2013, 20:53

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by DarkJedi » 25 Jul 2016, 08:28

On Own Now wrote:
DarkJedi wrote:he was probably about as educated as his peers.
I agree with this, but before we let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, I think it's worth asking "who where his peers?". JS was raised in a frontier farm family, and the son of a man (JSsr) who was a financial failure and who maybe liked the bottle a little too much. By the time JSjr came around, the boys had to be hired out to neighbors for manual labor just to keep up the payments on the rented farm. While JSjr was literate and obviously intelligent, he was a far cry from wealthy, non-frontiersman, who studied at places like Harvard to become professional religious leaders.

In all likelihood, he was no where close to the education level of the average child of the same age in the US today.

I agree that it's an exaggeration to call him an 'uneducated' farmboy, but it's closer to the truth than calling him 'educated'.
Yeah, I could have been more clear about who I think his peers were and I agree with your assessment. His peers were similar poor, rural farm boys who likely didn't have access to a school and probably didn't have time to go anyway because farming in those days before modern machinery was a full time full family occupation.Uneducated? Maybe. Poorly educated? Maybe. Less educated than similar poor farm kids of the time? Probably not, and depending on the efforts and abilities of his family he could have been more educated than his peers.
In the absence of knowledge or faith there is always hope.

Once there was a gentile...who came before Hillel. He said "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

My Introduction

User avatar
mom3
Posts: 3986
Joined: 02 Apr 2011, 14:11

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by mom3 » 25 Jul 2016, 09:59

I also think the uneducated part his mother may have been alluding to was religious education. Just like he didn't attend Harvard or even the local school, he also wasn't steeped strongly in any religious way. Yes the bible was a foundational book for many people. Clearly his mother's religious use of it prevailed. But it wasn't until he created the school of the Prophets and the Kirtland Temple did he become any sort of scholar.

Sadly as I church I think we have overlooked his yearning for knowledge. He wanted to learn languages, medicines, sciences. Yes some of them may look like hocus pocus now, but again we are looking a frontier church, largely made of lower class families. Some had a little more education than others, but our beginnings were not created by theologians or Ph.D.'s - Uneducated in that sense also works.
"I stayed because it was God and Jesus Christ that I wanted to follow and be like, not individual human beings." Chieko Okazaki Dialogue interview

"I am coming to envision a new persona for the Church as humble followers of Jesus Christ....Joseph and his early followers came forth with lots of triumphalist rhetoric, but I think we need a new voice, one of humility, friendship and service. We should teach people to believe in God because it will soften their hearts and make them more willing to serve." - Richard Bushman

User avatar
MockingJay
Posts: 208
Joined: 14 Nov 2013, 06:56
Location: US Southeast

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by MockingJay » 07 Aug 2016, 08:14

DJ wrote:
Just because the translation process only took a few months is not an indicator of whether or not it's made up - he had his whole life until that point (about 25 years) to have developed the stories in his mind.
I know this isn't directly what the OP is about, but in strict technical terms, the BOM translation may have taken about 3 months, but that was broken up over the course of about 18 months. It also involved at least 3 different places and many more people than I'd been taught. I learned this information this past summer on a church history tour with DH. He was a little surprised at how long the translation took given that we're always taught it was 3 months. The publication took about 2 years after that if I'm remembering correctly.

I bring this up because everyone uses the 3 months + uneducated farm boy = JS couldn't have written the BOM. Not disputing that, just making sure everyone has correct info to base that statement off of.

amateurparent
Posts: 953
Joined: 19 Jan 2014, 20:43

Re: Joseph the uneducated farmboy

Post by amateurparent » 07 Aug 2016, 08:41

The below link is about Universalism and the ties that Joseph Smith SR had the the movement.

BTW .. Joseph Smith SR had worked as a school teacher at one point. It would make sense that he and his wife would put literacy of their children as a family priority.

http://www.universalist-herald.org/history6.html
I have no advance degrees in parenting. No national credentials. I am an amateur parent. I read, study, and learn all I can to be the best parent possible. Every time I think I have reached expert status with one child for one stage in their life, something changes and I am back to amateur status again. Now when I really mess up, I just apologize to my child, and explain that I am indeed an amateur .. I'm still learning how to do this right.

Post Reply