Joseph Smith's Pre-1830 Education

An illustration by L.A. Ramsey from the book 'From Ploughboy to Prophet,' 1912.

Did Joseph Smith[BIO] really only have a third-grade education?

Yes, probably. It's hard to compare early nineteenth-century educational grade levels to modern grade levels. Joseph was mostly homeschooled and seemed to have a good grasp of reading, a little bit of writing, and some basic arithmetic.[1]

Does this lack of education show that he couldn’t have written the Book of Mormon himself?

Yes, it does support that idea. Emma Smith said that Joseph could "neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter" at the time Joseph translated the Book of Mormon.[2] The earliest documented writing samples from Joseph are in 1831,[3] one year after the Book of Mormon was published.[4] By then he seems to have learned to write reasonably well.

But didn’t Mark Twain have a similar level of education?

Not really. Mark Twain[BIO] had obtained a fifth-grade education before he had to leave school.[5] After that, he worked in the publishing industry as a printer’s apprentice and typesetter.[6] He also didn’t write his first book until 1869,[7] when he was 34 years old and had been writing for many years.[8] Joseph worked as a farmer and manual laborer,[9] and he began translating the Book of Mormon when he was 23 years old.[10]

What about Abraham Lincoln?

Yes, Abraham Lincoln[BIO] did have a similar level of education. Lincoln attended a grade school sporadically until he was 15 years old, but he estimated his formal schooling "did not amount to one year."[11] He credits his education to studying self-education reader booklets with his older sister Sarah.[12] Unlike Joseph Smith, he never published a book, but Lincoln did obtain his law license by the age of 25 and wrote many speeches in his lifetime.[13]

Didn’t Joseph have many educated family and friends around him while growing up?

Yes, his grandmother Lydia Gates[BIO] was a school teacher,[14] and his father, Joseph Smith Sr.,[BIO] was a also schoolteacher for a time.[15] Oliver Cowdery[BIO] was also a school teacher.[16] They all had a basic education, but none of them had any experience in theology or writing books.

Didn't Joseph have a relative named John Smith that studied theology at Dartmouth College?

Yes. Joseph Smith's second cousin thrice removed, John Smith,[BIO] had a bachelor's in theology, a doctorate degree in divinity from Brown, and was a professor of ancient languages at Dartmouth.[17] John Smith was the great-grandson of Joseph Smith's great-great-great-grandfather, through a different line. John Smith died in 1809 when Joseph Smith was three years old.[18] There is no record of any involvement between John Smith and Joseph's family.

Did Joseph's brother Hyrum go to Dartmouth College? 

No. Hyrum Smith[BIO] went to a grammar school for children when he was 11 years old called Moor's Charity School.[19] Eleazar Wheelock[BIO] started the Moor's Charity School to teach Native American children.[20] Wheelock later founded Dartmouth College.[21] Aside from having a common founder, Moor's Charity School and Dartmouth College have little in common.[22]

The Facts

  • Joseph had no formal education before 1830 and was reported to have basic reading skills, but he was unable to write.

  • There are no writing samples that exist of Joseph Smith before 1831.

  • Hyrum Smith did not attend Dartmouth college.

  • Joseph had friends and family that had basic levels of education, enough to teach grade school.

  • Joseph had a second cousin thrice removed, John Smith, that had a doctorate in divinity from Brown, but he died when Joseph was three years old.

  • Joseph probably had a similar level of education to Abraham Lincoln but was much less educated than Mark Twain.

Our Take

Like a lot of things in Church history, there are different narratives about Joseph Smith and his education. Was Joseph educated enough to make up the Book of Mormon? Were his family or friends?

The historical record indicates Joseph received very little education. He had basic reading skills, poor writing skills, and basic arithmetic.

However, some of his friends and family were educated enough to teach grade school. None of Joseph's family or friends were scholars, except one distant relative who died when Joseph was three.

There are many different theories about how the Book of Mormon came to be, but Joseph Smith's poor education makes him an unlikely candidate for authorship. The simplest explanation is that the Book of Mormon came by revelation, but accepting this requires study and faith.

What's Your Take?

280 characters remaining
These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Kenton
    Being homeschooled myself, it's clear that Joseph's education was on the farm, in the home, and in the scriptures. He could read, but his writing and his ability to put words into English seemed to frustrate him until he had gained a deeper education. He was smart, not a scholar.