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Visions in a Seer Stone

Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

By William L. Davis

264 pp., 6.125 x 9.25

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5566-6
    Published: May 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5565-9
    Published: May 2020
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5567-3
    Published: April 2020

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In this interdisciplinary work, William L. Davis examines Joseph Smith's 1829 creation of the Book of Mormon, the foundational text of the Latter Day Saint movement. Positioning the text in the history of early American oratorical techniques, sermon culture, educational practices, and the passion for self-improvement, Davis elucidates both the fascinating cultural context for the creation of the Book of Mormon and the central role of oral culture in early nineteenth-century America.

Drawing on performance studies, religious studies, literary culture, and the history of early American education, Davis analyzes Smith’s process of oral composition. How did he produce a history spanning a period of 1,000 years, filled with hundreds of distinct characters and episodes, all cohesively tied together in an overarching narrative? Eyewitnesses claimed that Smith never looked at notes, manuscripts, or books—he simply spoke the words of this American religious epic into existence. Judging the truth of this process is not Davis's interest. Rather, he reveals a kaleidoscope of practices and styles that converged around Smith's creation, with an emphasis on the evangelical preaching styles popularized by the renowned George Whitefield and John Wesley.

About the Author

William L. Davis, an independent scholar, holds a Ph.D. in theater and performance and has published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; John Bunyan Studies: A Journal of Reformation and Nonconformist Culture; Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies; Style; Text and Performance Quarterly; and Textual Cultures.
For more information about William L. Davis, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"[An] engrossing debut. . . . Readers interested in Mormon studies or mid-19th-century American religions will be enlightened by Davis's thorough analysis."--Publishers Weekly, starred review

“There is much to appreciate in Davis’s volume. Visions in a Seer Stone is the most exhaustive analysis of early America’s oral culture to be found in any published treatment of early Mormonism. . . . This is a genuinely new argument, and even if the totality of [Davis’s] thesis will not be fully persuasive [to] everyone, this level originality is rare and deserves engagement.”--Benjamin E. Park

“Davis succeeds in providing and analyzing evidence of his thesis in a scholarly fashion, while composing a readable book that can be appreciated by both believers and non-believers in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. . . . Visions in a Seer Stone is an excellent and important addition to Mormon studies.”--Association for Mormon Letters

“A provocative work of scholarship that not only stands as a convincing reassessment of the Book of Mormon in its own right, but also invites future investigations into the book, its myriad contexts, and its legacy.”--The Dialogue Journal

“Some say the Book of Mormon is an authentic historical record of ancient peoples. Some say it is a work of fiction, or even a full-blown lie. William Davis offers us a third path: a way to see the Book of Mormon as a powerful evocation of faith, desire, and vision, assembled through the cultural means available to Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century. This is why I love this book. Think of how the image of Joseph Smith peering at a seerstone in a hat has been used to humiliate Mormons by those outside the faith. Davis reframes this scene as a virtuoso performance of religious creativity, answering questions I’ve long held as an LDS person and a scholar, helping me to see the Book of Mormon in an entirely new light.”—Joanna Brooks, author of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

“A much-needed contribution to scholarship about the Book of Mormon’s creation. Davis argues that the oral mode of the period’s sermon culture and storytelling played a vital role in how Joseph Smith composed his new sacred text. Readers interested in Mormon studies and in nineteenth-century American religious culture will need to take notice of this book.”—Paul Gutjahr, author of The Book of Mormon: A Biography