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Joseph Smith was a 'great writer'

The first thing the Mormon missionaries gave Arthur Henry King was a pamphlet on Joseph Smith's First Vision.

"The style of the Joseph Smith story immediately struck me," King later said. "He spoke to me, as soon as I read his testimony, as a great writer, transparently sincere and matter-of-fact. That is what endeared him to me — so matter-of-fact."

King was uniquely positioned to make an unbiased scholarly judgment on Joseph's sincerity and writing style. In 1966, he was investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he also had a keenly trained mind.

His education had taken him from Cambridge University to Lund University in Sweden, where his dissertation on the language of renaissance playwright Ben Jonson was, as BYU philosophy professor C. Terry Warner described it, "a singular contribution to scholarship."

King's analytical method held that people's language — their use of words, references and other stylistic choices — reveals their character. Cynthia L. Hallen, a former research assistant of King's and currently an associate professor of linguistics at BYU, said, "Even the sentence structures that we choose can reveal whether we are self forgetful and pure in heart or whether we are full of flattery and selfishness and even dishonesty."There is a style of writing that is termed "sermo humilis," according to Hallen. King translated this phrase as "plain style." It is when somebody speaks the truth with love. The style doesn't call attention to itself. "It doesn't mean that Joseph Smith's conversion story is infantile, or that it lacks eloquence, or that it's rustic or uneducated. It means that it is straightforward and the language that Joseph Smith chose is pointing towards the truth that he is trying to share, it's not pointing to himself to enhance his ego. Or, it's not just playing with language gymnastically to show off."

King knew from his training in stylistics that Joseph was not trying to manipulate him, Hallen said. "Our attempts to cover a lie reveal the lie," Hallen said. "We can't hide who we really are."

"When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith's story," King wrote, "I was deeply impressed. I wasn't inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing."

King compared Joseph's account to visions described by mystics: "They don't compare with Joseph Smith. They attitudinize; they get into postures, contortions of mind, in expressing themselves. Not so Joseph Smith."

King wrote that Joseph's writing didn't try to persuade or work up feelings. "He may make us feel as a result of what he tells us, but he doesn't make an effort to make us feel. He does not attempt to do other than describe what happened, including how he felt," he wrote. "In Joseph Smith, we have a man who is impetuous, generous-minded, sensitive and tender."

According to King, it took Joseph Smith years to get his account of the First Vision right. "Certainly, the boy of 14 had no full appreciation of that experience, but the young man 10 years later was beginning to have a full appreciation of it, and 10 years later than that, his appreciation was at the full. Joseph brooded for years over those experiences and visions that he had in his teens. Inspiration may strike in a flash, but inspiration may not be fully felt or understood for many years."

Joseph's 1838 account of the vision was not trying to persuade the reader, King thought. "He doesn't feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him. … He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth."

King favorably compared Joseph's writing to 19th-century critic and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for his poems "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." "That is not saying a little," King wrote. "Coleridge was perhaps the best English prose writer of that time."

To really appreciate Joseph's account of his vision, King encouraged people to read it aloud. There is a "superb rhythm" with short and long sentences "much better than Samuel Johnson could write." In whole, it was "a piece of prose better than anything Coleridge ever wrote."

Joseph may have complained at times about the difficulty of writing, but his focus in his writing was on telling the truth. "It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it like it is, who is bending all his faculties to expressing the truth and not thinking about anything else — and above all, though (he is) writing about Joseph Smith, (he is) not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself," King wrote.

King was baptized in 1966 by LeRoy Buckmiller, president of the London Temple — a position King would fill decades later. "I am in this church because of the Joseph Smith story; my fundamental act of faith was to accept this as a remarkable document," King wrote. He died in January 2000, just short of his 90th birthday.

"I am asked sometimes, 'Why don't we have any great literature now?' " King wrote. "And we don't, you know; we may kid ourselves or other people may try to kid us that we do, but we don't. There were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe; and there it seems to have stopped. There seems to have been no supreme figure since then. But I tell you there was one: Joseph Smith."