Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why stylometry?

People are still asking about stylometry in connection with the Mesoamerican Times and Seasons articles. I posted a long analysis of Brother Roper's article already, but here's a shorter version.

It's a nice example of the quality of the "peer review" process the Interpreter goes through.

The proponents of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon have several big problems, but one of the biggest is that they have not found a single document that can be directly linked to Joseph Smith that even mentions Mesoamerica, Central America, or John Lloyd Stephens. Consequently, they seek to tie Joseph to the anonymous 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons

Their argument borders on irrational--and I'll let readers determine which side of that border applies. The Interpreter editors want to link Joseph to these articles not because the articles themselves are correct--they are most definitely not--but because of the errors in the articles. Their goal is to show that Joseph himself was merely speculating, that he didn't know much (if anything) about Book of Mormon geography, and that he was relying on scholarship to try to figure out the actual setting for the Book of Mormon events. IOW, the Mesoamerican proponents seek to elevate their own scholarship by eliminating the possibility that Joseph had prophetic insights into the issue. But at the same time, they seek to invoke Joseph's blessing on the Mesoamerican setting.

As if that isn't irrational enough, the Interpreter editors also reject Joseph's views on Cumorah in New York (along with the statements of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer on Cumorah).

[To be sure, some Mesoamerican proponents have agreed that Joseph had nothing to do with the Times and Seasons articles, but that's not the view promoted by the Interpreter, so I don't explore that in this blog.]

Because there is no historical evidence that Joseph had anything to do with the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, and because there is historical evidence that he didn't have anything to do with them, the Mesoamerican proponents and the Interpreter have resorted to an illusory version of "stylometry" to prove a link.

Here's a quick overview of how one can use stylometry to "prove" pretty much whatever one wants to prove. As a prime example, see the work of Brother Roper here.

1. Start with a theory you want to prove. In this case, Brother Roper and the Interpreter editors wanted to show that Joseph Smith write the 1842 Times and Seasons article on Mesoamerica, pursuant to the irrational argument I outlined above.

2. Establish a list of fake historical criteria that narrow the possible candidates to the ones that fit your narrative.

3. Conduct a secret analysis on a secret database with secret parameters so no one can replicate (or even assess) your methodology. I call this "black box" stylometry.

4. Announce that the results support the theory you wanted to prove in the first place.

[Note: When I challenged this process, Brother Roper developed a second black box stylometry analysis that excludes Joseph as a possible author, compounding the irrationality of his original argument. Needless to say, the Interpreter enthusiastically "peer reviewed" and published that one.]


Here is the summary of the historical data Brother Roper relied on, all of which is incorporated into his Interpreter article.

All seven of these are incorrect or misleading. I'll address them in order.

1. This assertion is based on a thank-you note sent to Bernhisel on 16 November 1841. No one knows who wrote the note because the handwriting is unidentified, but it was not John Taylor as Brother Roper claimed in his article. There is an entire chapter on this issue in the Second Edition of The Lost City of Zarahemla that shows it is virtually impossible for Joseph Smith to have read the Stephens books as the note claims. It's even less likely that Joseph read the other history books the note refers to. The only person we know read these books was Wilford Woodruff, who also had read many other history books, who later purchased another set of the Stephens books for John Taylor, etc. The Bernhisel note also refers to an ongoing real estate transaction between Joseph and Bernhisel. There is a prior example from 1841 of Joseph directing someone to write a note in his name about real estate, so the Bernhisel note is part of a pattern and cannot be taken as proof that Joseph actually read the Stephens books, was aware of the discoveries in Central America, or even cared about them. And yet, this short thank-you note is the only basis for assertion #1. It is contradicted by the entirety of Joseph's journal and contemporary writings by his associates, none of which mention Stephens or anything else connecting Joseph Smith with Central America in any way.

2. As mentioned in #1, the only evidence of Joseph's interest is the Bernhisel thank-you note, which contradicts all other historical evidence about Joseph's interest in Central America, so I consider this assertion false regarding Joseph. More importantly, the only "close associates" of Joseph Smith who were "very interested" in the Central American discoveries were Wilford Woodruff, Benjamin Winchester, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, John Page, W.W. Phelps, and William Smith. Like Joseph Smith, each of these accepted the Book of Mormon Cumorah being in New York, a proposition that Brother Roper and the editors of the Interpreter have soundly rejected. 

Wilford Woodruff and Orson Pratt, at least, rejected the Central American setting for Zarahemla, as shown in the 1879 footnotes in the Book of Mormon which placed Zarahemla in South America. (This would include John Taylor, but there is no direct link between him and Meosamerica anyway.) Parley presumably agreed with his brother Orson. This leaves Winchester, Phelps, Page, and Wm. Smith as the "close associates" who may have advocated Zarahemla being in Central America. I think Winchester, Phelps and Wm. Smith collaborated to write and publish the 1842 articles, which is one reason they were anonymous. Brother Roper and the Interpreter insist I'm wrong about that, but they have no historical evidence to support their position (apart from the Bernhisel letter). Winchester, Page, and Wm. Smith later apostatized. So far as I've discovered, Phelps never discussed the issue after moving to Utah. Consequently, Brother Roper and the Interpreter insist that two of the people who rejected Zarahemla in Mesoamerica (Woodruff and Taylor) collaborated with Joseph to claim Zarahemla was in Mesoamerica! This despite all the evidence that Joseph had nothing to do with these articles.

3. This assertion is based on the boilerplate at the end of each issue showing Joseph Smith as editor, but his last issue was 15 October, not 15 November. At any rate, the boilerplate doesn't mean Joseph was acting as editor. The Times and Seasons wasn't even the first newspaper to list Joseph as editor. The boilerplate on the Elders' Journal also listed Joseph as editor, but his brother Don Carlos was the acting editor. This established a precedent for Joseph to be named as editor while one of his brothers was doing the actual editing work; i.e., Joseph was the nominal editor of the Times and Seasons but William was the actual editor over the summer and through the 1 October 1842 issue.

4. There were many more people working in the printing office besides Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff. The March 15, 1842, issue lists some of the "hands in the office," including the "boys" who cleaned and organized the type, the journeymen who operated the presses, the proof reader, and the writer. And these people were needed just to print the Times and Seasons, which was published only twice a month. Starting in April, the Wasp was also printed in the same office, on a weekly basis. So there were many employees working there. In fact, there is evidence that Joseph visited the office less than once a month. There is little evidence that John Taylor worked in the printing office; Wilford Woodruff's journal notes that he worked there but doesn't mention Taylor working there at any point between March and September. Plus, there are two examples of things being published in the paper that Joseph knew nothing about until after the paper was printed, as well as a book published in the printing shop with his name on it that he didn't know about until after publication.

Besides that, most of the material published in the Times and Seasons was mailed in. There is no reason to limit the list of possible authors to people living in Nauvoo.

5. It's true that there were five articles that mentioned Stephens during 1842, but all were published after Joseph stopped acting as editor. He was merely the nominal editor when these were published. One of these articles focused mainly on Josiah Priest's book, American Antiquities. There were actually four articles about American Antiquities published in 1842, and the only person known to have owned a copy of that book in this time frame was Benjamin Winchester.

6.  This assertion is based on a brief notice Joseph wrote in the March 15, 1842, edition. He wrote it in response to a salacious wedding announcement that L.O. Littlefield had inserted into a previous edition of the paper that Joseph's critics attributed to Joseph because of the boilerplate listing Joseph as editor. Joseph disavowed the wedding announcement and signed his disavowal, which shows he did not consider the boilerplate to constitute his signature. Joseph signed only 11 articles or statements while he was the nominal editor. He was careful to expressly acknowledge material he wrote so there would be no mistaking its source, which is another reason to conclude he did not write the anonymous Mesoamerican articles.

7. The "assistance in writing" quotation is taken out of context; it has no application to the anonymous Mesoamerican articles. The "with his pen" quotation is also taken out of context; in fact, during 1842, Joseph wrote very little, if anything, with his pen. 

In June 1842, Woodruff wrote "I have never seen Joseph as full of business as of late. He hardly gets time to sign his name." Brother Roper and the Interpreter disregard this, and instead take the position that Joseph not only had time to read the 900 pages of Stephens' works so he could extract important portions, but he had time to write articles that he didn't have time to sign! They completely invert the historical record.


Conclusion. Based on these 7 items of false and misleading historical data, Brother Roper and the Interpreter concocted a secret stylometry analysis to "prove" Joseph wrote these anonymous articles, all to support their irrational argument about Mesoamerica. I include the Interpreter here because the editors claim to have "peer-reviewed" all of this. 


  1. This is a great summary of how Roper's stylometry analysis published in Mormon Interpreter is wrong and misleading. Your "long analysis" was great as well but I think people reading it (I confess I had to read portions of it several times before it "sunk in.") got lost in all the details.

  2. I am happy for this article. I've been wondering how stylometry concluded that Joseph Smith was the writer of the Times & Seasons 1842 articles. Is there a stylometric analysis that includes Benjamin Winchester as one of the possible authors?

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