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Missionary explains Book of Mormon 'wordprints'

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Mike Foley | University Advancement | 21 April 2007

Elder Gale Bryce, a volunteer service missionary at the Polynesian Cultural Center, explained in the heavily attended April 17 School of Computing InForm meeting how two former colleagues used "wordprint" statistical analyses to authenticate Book of Mormon authorship.

Elder Bryce — retired BYU Provo Associate Dean of the College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences and former chairman of its Statistics Department who now helps PCC with quality assurance analyses — explained wordprints are analagous to fingerprints: "They are based on the theory that an author develops subconscious habits over time in the way he or she writes." He added his colleagues, Wayne Larsen and Alvin Rencher, used statistical analysis software he partially developed to help us understand how the Book of Mormon was translated and who wrote it.

"There are a variety of attitudes of what I term as 'non-believers' as to who wrote the Book of Mormon. Some people want to claim Solomon Spaulding, some people want to claim Sidney Ridgon," Elder Bryce said. However, he pointed out the discovery of the Spaulding Manuscript [by President Joseph F. Smith in Honolulu in 1886] showed "there's no obvious relationship between the two, other than they both purport to be talking about the Hebrews or the Jews"; and "Sidney Rigdon was not even aware of the Church until well after the Book of Mormon was published."

For "non-believers" to make the argument that Joseph Smith Jr. created the Book of Mormon, "they have to come up with these weird ways he came up with the book, including everything from epileptic fits to the influence of Satan."

Church members, he stressed, believe ancient prophets in the Americas wrote the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith translated it "by the gift and power of God... Everything [else] I'm going to talk about is immaterial as far as you having a personal testimony of the reality and truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. There's only one way to gain that, and that is through putting Moroni's challenge to the test" [Moroni 10: 4-5].

Elder Bryce noted that wordprint analyses constitute "external evidence that help us understand how the book came to be; but I want to caution you that this is not the way to gain a testimony of the book."

He also pointed out that Joseph Smith's translation tended to "preserve the individual styles of the authors," and that stylometry or the statistical analysis of writing styles can help do this by looking at usage patterns of "specific words, phrases or even letters. All authors have those kinds of habits built in to what they do." He said such habits are not affected by "subject matter, the passage of time, or the literary form that's being used. They are pretty much constant for a given author... and they tend to vary from author to author."

"Larsen and Rencher started with the assumption that individual authors each have what they termed a 'wordprint'... a term coined by them, much like...a unique fingerprint. Their theory was each person has a unique wordprint. If we have enough words by a given author, we can identify the wordprint, or the distribution of usage of non-contextual words by that author."

He said among other features the two researchers determined worprints by counting the frequency of letters we all use in 38 non-contextual words — including the, and, it, with, of, that, etc. — "that have no meaning but are important for the flow of the language." They also used "rarely occurring non-contextual words" such as wherefore, until, lest, etc.

"They laboriously went through the Book of Mormon, verse by verse, and identified who was speaking," he continued, adding this was a big task because some verses contain the words of as many as four individuals.

Elder Bryce said the two ultimately limited themselves to 21 authors, because "they felt like they needed a minimum of 1,000 words to get a good estimate of the author's wordprint." He added that Mormon, with nearly 98,000 words, was the top author, Nephi had about 29,000, Alma approximately 20,000, and Enoch with just under 1,000 words "was the last author that they used. They ended up with 251 blocks of 1,000 words each to calculate wordprints."

Using three advanced statistical techniques — MANOVA or multivariate analysis of variants, cluster and discriminant analysis — the researchers determined "there's no way that book had single authorship. We can rest assured there are definitely multiple authors in the Book of Mormon." Other findings, he said, include that:

  • "The authors are readily distinguished from their wordprints."
  • "Mormon did not paraphrase, he quoted directly from the records he had in his possession."
  • "No single individual, modern or ancient, could have written the Book of Mormon. There's no way that you can emulate the wordprint of another individual."
  • "Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon was a literal translation."

"I want you to understand that I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon," Elder Bryce said, "not through what I talked about but through reading it, praying about it, studying and understanding the magnificence of that book. Do it that way, and you'll be forever blessed. Try to do it any other way, and I doubt you'll have the blessings of the Lord."

—  Photo by Mike Foley