“Lies – Darned Lies and Statistics…”

Can stylometry statistics prove that Joseph Smith endorsed any of the unsigned newspaper articles that extrapolate from John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America?

W. Vincent Coon (MS Physics)

Joseph Smith tends to write long sentences. Are his long sentences and vocabulary enough to prove that he endorsed any of the unsigned Times and Seasons articles printed in the fall of 1842? Among these, were several well-meaning, but inaccurate newspaper articles which endeavored to pair "wonderful ruins" described in Stephens' 1841 bestseller with the Book of Mormon (published 1830).

It just so happens, that Apostle John Taylor also writes long sentences. In the fall of 1842, John Taylor stepped in as acting editor of the Times and Seasons, during the prophet's public absence. This explains the change at the end of the newspaper: The words, "Edited by Joseph Smith" were no longer explicitly printed at the end of the paper. See for instance the end of the September 15th edition and compare this with say, the earlier June 15th edition which was personally edited by Joseph Smith:

"The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first and fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH." (T & S, September 15th , 1842)

"The Times and Seasons, is Edited by Joseph Smith. Printed and published about the first and fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by Joseph Smith." (T & S, June 15th , 1842)

Joseph Smith had "left" the printing business to others who published the paper in his name. (D&C 127:1) There is no account in Joseph Smith's journal (kept by clerks) of his entering the printing establishment during the time period of his public absence. There is no mention in his Journal of the great adventurer John Lloyd Stephens or of any of the unsigned articles that dote on Stephens' work. The prophet's signed letter to the Church, which he wrote in hiding, dated September 6th, 1842 (see LDS D&C 128) is recorded in his journal - More on the importance of this later!  The fact is, Joseph Smith did not feel secure hiding at home, and was prepared to leave town quickly, leaving others in charge of his business concerns. (Wilford Woodruff's Journal, November 12th, 1842)

You may have heard an adage, that goes something like this: There arelies, darned lies and statistics”!

It has been insinuated that statistics can prove that Joseph Smith authored (endorsed) the unsigned Times and Seasons articles. This has come to underlie an l. ds Mesoamerican setting defense. Joseph Smith's statements are a stumbling block to the business of Mesoamerican setting theorists. If it could be shown that Joseph Smith speculated about the location of a Book of Mormon land or city, some would seize upon this to claim that Joseph did not know or reveal any more than other men on the subject of Book of Mormon covenant lands. To be sure, it is a rather Gentile minded argument; in light of the fact that we are not just talking about geography here, but covenant lands - lands which the God of Israel would surely have his covenant people know. Nevertheless, there is this effort which focuses on dubious unsigned newspaper articles while trying to marginalize statements which Joseph Smith definitely made and endorsed - statements which conflict with a Mesoamerican geography. In short, there are those who pit statements that they want to attribute to Joseph Smith, against statements that he definitely made or endorsed, in an effort to dilute his statements altogether, making themselves out to be the better authorities on "Book of Mormon geography". (See De Groote, Michael, “Book of Mormon geography article by Joseph Smith?”, MORMON TIMES, Oct. 30, 2009; Toone, Trent, “FAIR Conference: Roper’s take on Book of Mormon geography”, MORMON TIMES, 06 August, 2010)

The truth is, no amount of statistical analysis can tell the extent to which Joseph Smith approved those anonymous and contradictory articles. In other words, there is no statistical substitute for Joseph’s signed “ED”. Why? Allow me to demonstrate:

I took Joseph Smith’s signed editorial on Josiah Priest’s “Traits of the Mosiac History, Found among the Azteca Nations” (a chapter from American Antiquities editorialized in the June 15, 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons). I recorded the number of words in each sentence of the commentary, excluding lengthy quotations from Josiah Priest and scripture. I started with the sentence that begins: “A tradition of the same fact, the deluge, is also found among the Indians of the Northwest…”, and continued recording words per sentence to the end of the article.

Josiah Priest and the noted naturalist and traveler Alexander Von Humboldt believed that ancestors of North America’s Mound-Builders arrived in “the lake country of America” (the region of the Great Lakes). They believed that peoples related to the Mound-Builders eventually migrated as far south as Mexico and Central America. (Priest, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West, pp. 192, 198, 202) Joseph Smith accepts this view, identifying Book of Mormon peoples with the Mound-Builders of his own country. Joseph indicates that the Jaredites, in fact, arrived in “the lake country of America” (region of Lake Ontario).

Jaredite barge

Joseph Smith actually tells us in an article signed by him, where in America the Jaredites arrived. He describes the location as “the lake country of America” near Lake Ontario. (Times and Seasons, June 15, 1842, pp. 818 – 820) Mesoamerican setting theorists would have us believe that because the Olmec civilization dates to about the time period of the Book of Mormon Jaredites, that this proves that the lands of the Book of Mormon must be in Mexico and Central America. Less talked about are the Great Lakes copper working societies that existed at about the same time - if not earlier. Moreover, the respected Mexican historian Don Mariano Veytia, records that ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America migrated by land and water from northern America. Before that, they came from the Tower of Babel. (Ancient America Rediscovered, Translated by Ronda Cunningham, Compiled by David W. and W. David Hemmingway, 2000, pp. 40, 51, 138) Veytia claims to base his History of Mexico on the legends of the native people. Modern mainstream archaeologists recognize that certain mound builders of North America built grand and impressive cities before the rise of Olmec civilization - "... 'doing Olmec' before the Olmecs,". (Archeologist Robert Connelly, quoted by Peter N. Spotts, “Dirt Mounds Yield Clues to Antiquity”; Peter N. Spotts is Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, September 19,1997)

Now suppose that someone with good intentions were to take Joseph Smith’s article and edit it in a few places, modifying the specifics of where the Jaredites arrived - like this:

“…Again, those nations, of families, embodied themselves together and traveled they know not where, but at length arrived in the country of Aztalan, of the lake country of America on the coast of Central America. The Book of Mormon says, that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord, that he would give them another land; the Lord heard him, and told him to go to a certain place, "and there I will meet thee and go before thee into a land which is choice above all the land of the earth." This it further speaks implies is the land of America must be the country of Mexico. The coincidence is so striking that further comment is unnecessary.-ED.”

Can statistics catch all these edits and tell us who edited what in the article?  In other words, statistically speaking, how does the altered article compare with the article that Joseph actually signed?

Let’s see:

Here is the data comparing the original and altered article:

article data for T test

Next are the analysis results:

normalized data T test results

I performed this test using a statistical program called Minitab. The log of the data was found to be “normally distributed”. This allowed me to subject the data to what is called a “two sample T test”. The average sentence lengths of the two articles are practically identical! According to these results the two articles are about 98.6% indistinguishable – yet one of the articles we know Joseph Smith endorsed while the other is altered (by me) in what some would consider a significant way. It is important to emphasize that the altered article is not significantly changing in sentence length compared to the original!

Next let’s take a letter written and signed by Joseph Smith while in hiding (September 6, 1842), and compare this with a sample of John Taylor’s writing (from his work The Gospel Kingdom, pp. 65-69). By the way, Joseph’s signed and canonized epistle, “the word of the Lord” according to LDS D&C 127:10, reveals the Finger Lakes location of the Book of Mormon land Cumorah. (Joseph's epistle is canonized as LDS D&C 128:20)

Source of John Taylor's writing sample

Above: The source of the John Taylor writing sample

Here is the data. We can be confident that Joseph wrote and signed the epistle that became the 128th section of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, and that John Taylor wrote the arbitrary sample included in the test.

writing samples from Joseph Smith and John Taylor

Here are the results of the statistical test:

Writings of Joseph Smith and John Taylor compared

The interesting thing is that both writing samples show roughly the same average number of words per sentence (28 to 31 words per sentence on average). Joseph Smith's average word length is a little higher. The scatter (or standard deviation) is different between the two writings. Overall, on the basis of sentence length and its variance, John Taylor’s writing sample is about 97% indistinguishable from Joseph Smith’s! How could anyone ever completely sort out who wrote what in an anonymous short piece, potentially edited by John Taylor and others, if all they had to go on is average sentence length and its variance? Even if an article were found to contain an expression unique to Joseph Smith, this would not prove that he endorsed all the edits by other potential contributors. The unsigned "ZARAHEMLA" article (T&S, October 1, 1842) in fact uses the first person plural: "Since our 'Extract' was published... we have found...so we make another EXTRACT..." One cannot catch all the possible edits and alterations with statistics!

Finally, let’s compare the average sentence length of the unsigned “ZARAHEMLA” piece, with other Times and Seasons articles that touch on the subject of Book of Mormon lands. Other articles, that is, actually signed by Joseph Smith.

Here is the data:

ZARAHEMLA article vs ED articles data 

Here are the results:

ZARAHEMLA article vs. signed articles test results 

So, was the exuberant “ZARAHEMLA” piece composed by the same contributors as the articles signed with Joseph Smith's "ED"? The statistical answer is, maybe, maybe not! It is not certain! The important thing to focus on, is the fact that no amount of statistics can tell us the extent to which Joseph Smith approved the conclusions of the unsigned “ZARAHEMLA” piece. There simply is no statistical substitute for Joseph Smith’s signature; which is precisely what this inordinately touted newspaper article lacks.

Joseph Smith had made known that at least some Book of Mormon events took place in his own country. Beyond this he allowed the brethren to form and express divergent opinions - which they did. But not one of the early brethren questioned the location of Cumorah given in scripture. For this reason, none of the speculative Times and Seasons articles suggest that all Book of Mormon lands reside in Mesoamerica. Instead, the brethren developed a variety of far flung settings all recognizing the Finger Lakes location of Cumorah. Had they been more cognizant of Book of Mormon details, and more willing to let go of John Lloyd Stephens, they may have realized that other Nephite lands could not possibly be thousands of miles distant from Cumorah.

A mansion of erudition built on a faulty foundation is the stuff of parable. Can we trust D&C 128:20 as the key to the whereabouts of the genuine land Cumorah? Yes. The epistle to the Church appearing in the October 1, 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons was signed - Joseph Smith. The unsigned and inconsistent newspaper articles, on the otherhand, are little more than speculative sand - not suitable for identifying a Promised Land. Joseph Smith never sought to endorse their contents with his signature.


2010 W. Vincent Coon

For an overview of articles signed by Joseph Smith vs. unsigned

Book of Mormon Lands and the Times & Seasons Newspaper  

Back to Home Page