Measuring Style in the Book of Mormon


About 15 years ago John Hilton spoke to my senior religion seminar for science majors about his statistical analysis of Book of Mormon authorship. It was exciting to see non-contextual word methods explained and graphs showing that Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and others had different stylistic signatures from Nephi and Alma. It was exciting that this could be shown with seemingly objective methods that didn’t rely on the highly subjective, literary types of analysis typically used in sorting out questions of biblical authorship. Hilton showed how the same methods he employed were used to identify authors on the Federalist Papers, and how the results were very convincing compared to those obtained by other statistical authorship attribution methods. In particular, he criticized the vocabulary richness methods used by David Holmes in attributing Book of Mormon authorship entirely to Joseph Smith. He showed that Holmes’s methods were unable to distinguish among known authors on things like the Federalist Papers, and mentioned that, in later projects, Holmes had opted to use the same non-contextual word analysis techniques favored by Hilton and his colleagues. Hilton also showed us how non-contextual word methods could distinguish between an author’s own writings and that same author’s translations of other works. We saw convincing, multidimensional graphs showing that the Doctrine and Covenants had a different signal from Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s personal writings, suggesting a different revelatory voice for Joseph Smith (and still different from the Book of Mormon).

Hilton also explained a number of pitfalls in stylometric (statistical analyses of word use) studies. Apparently, it is well documented that changes in genre can drastically change word use. For example, when we speak we use a smaller vocabulary than when we write, and we also use non-contextual words (words like “a,” “the,” and “unto” that appear frequently in different contexts) at significantly different rates. So, it is very important to compare similar genres when doing stylometric analyses, if the results are to be reliable.

I basically fell in love with Hilton’s work and took away from it a (somewhat misguided) disdain for Holmes’s study. In 2008, another stylometric analysis of the Book of Mormon came out. I found out about it in early 2013, I think. It wasn’t easily accessible, but a couple of reviews and some explanations of new stylometric analyses were published in the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture, so I read those. Those articles pointed out what seemed like obvious, fatal flaws in the 2008 study, so I never got very interested in looking at the original. Then I got more involved with internet Mormonism and a couple of things happened. I discovered that a number of thoughtful Mormons are automatically suspicious of anything that comes out of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute–the source of the reviews of the 2008 study. I also had a chance encounter with Craig Criddle, the primary investigator on the study. He and I didn’t hit it off (he was intent on pushing a Spaulding/Rigdon hypothesis for Book of Mormon authorship, while I am totally confident in the, at least primarily, ancient origins of the Book of Mormon), but I was able to listen a little and get a better perspective on the work he was involved with.

Now I come to why I’m writing this series of posts. Few of my internet Mormon friends find Hilton’s work as convincing as I do. I think an interpretation of Hilton’s work, limited to his strongest conclusions, is quite compelling. I have felt no qualms about claiming the Book of Mormon contains at least two authors who were not among the proposed 19th-century authors. I’ve stated that any critic of Book of Mormon antiquity needs to deal with this objective fact. But, apparently, this conclusion is either not as obvious, not as accessible, or not as accurate as I had believed. The typical approach employed for judging the data is this: Two opposing views are considered. LDS critical authors Holmes, Criddle, and their coworkers claim to have found dominant, single or collaborative, authorship signatures from 19th-century authors. Hilton, Larsen, Schaalje, and their coworkers at BYU and the Maxwell Institute claim to have found evidence of multiple authorship and that the authors were not the proposed 19th-century authors. People then either conclude that one group is right and the other biased, or that you can find whatever you want through stylometry. But if stylometry is as useful and objective as the growing field seems to indicate, we ought to be able to make better judgments than this.

I decided to get all of the original papers and try to understand them myself. I’m not going to go into all of the statistics–we’re going to trust that the authors and reviewers got the technical parts right. We’re going to look at the figures and tables and see if we can draw our own conclusions from the data presented. I’ll also take you aside into stylometric studies not applied to the Book of Mormon so that we can see how these methods are used and understood in some less controversial contexts.

I intend to look for the clearest, strongest results from each of the stylometric studies, and to see if there is any way to integrate these results into a coherent, non-contradictory whole. Where it is not possible, I hope to explain my reasons for choosing one result over another. I will also add some personal analyses and questions as I go. If you are interested, be prepared to look at a lot of graphs. I will try to summarize my conclusions at the beginning and end of each post, since some of them might be a bit long. I will mostly skip discussing historical evidence of Book of Mormon authorship. The vast majority (and maybe all) of first- and second-hand, contemporary evidence is that Joseph Smith dictated the vast majority of the book to Oliver Cowdery over a period of a couple of months. He referred to no other texts. Everything else is, to my mind, speculation and invention. That doesn’t imply that the speculations are false, only highly subjective. I will try to avoid any claims about how the words got into Joseph Smith’s head before coming out of his mouth, although this is, of course, the question most of us want answered. I don’t think we will answer it, but hopefully we can narrow down the possibilities in a more objective way.

Here is a partial list of the papers I’ll be working through:

A Stylometric Analysis of Mormon Scripture and Related Texts

D. I. Holmes

On Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship

John L. Hilton

Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints

Wayne A. Larsen and Alvin C. Rencher

At the following website, you can find pre-publication copies of two articles:

Jockers, Matthew L. “Testing Authorship in the Personal Writings of Joseph Smith Using NSC Classification.” Literary and Linguistic Computing. 28.3, (2013): 371-381

Jockers, Matthew L., Daniela M. Witten, and Craig S. Criddle. “Reassessing Authorship of the Book of Mormon Using Delta and Nearest Shrunken Centroid Classification.” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 23.4 (2008): 465 – 492.

Stylometric Analyses of the Book of Mormon: A Short History

Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and G. Bruce Schaalje

Examining a Misapplication of Nearest Shrunken Centroid Classification to Investigate Book of Mormon Authorship

Reviewed by Paul J. Fields, G. Bruce Schaalje, and Matthew Roper

The following are not freely available online. I have personal copies which I should be able to share with individuals upon request. You may also be able to access them through a university library.

Extended nearest shrunken centroid classification: A new method for open-set authorship attribution of texts of varying sizes

G. Bruce Schaalje and Paul J. Fields (not free)

Open-Set Nearest Shrunken Centroid Classification

G. Bruce Schaalje and Paul J. Fields

Next Post >

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Exploring Sainthood!