In the historiography of communication, orality refers to reliance on the spoken word as well as to the corresponding institutions and habits of mind, while literacy means not just the ability to read, but also the mental habits and social institutions that attend the use of writing, or more specifically the use of an alphabetic writing system, or the particular cognitive framework that has developed along with the alphabetic systems of Western Europe. The Mormon concept of a historical apostasy can be described in terms of orality and literacy. In fact, Brian Stock, an eminent historian of medieval literature, has already (if unintentionally) done just that:
When Christianity made its appearance, it did so in a world that assumed a large degree of literacy as the norm. Yet its spokesmen maintained that they were in direct dialogue with God. The Gospels are filled with metaphors that extol the Word. These expressions were deliberately contrasted with one extreme of the literate mentality in the hellenistic world, Judaism….Some centuries later, when Christianity was introduced into the largely oral Germanic culture north of the Mediterranean, a different chapter of this symbolic drama was enacted. For this oral faith had now become a scriptural religion. Not only were the gospels texts. Christianity took over the legal framework of Rome, which it transformed into canon law. In the task of converting the Germanic peoples, the authority of scripture was its chief weapon. Literacy mean legitimacy….By an irony of history, Christianity fulfilled its mission in the West by means of a grammatical, and later a theological, literalism that differed in function, but not in form, from the concern for the law that was its original complaint against Judaism. Obviously Jewish legalism and Christian literalism were not the same. But the gulf that separated them was small compared to the one that divides a literate community from a genuinely oral one. (Listening for the Text , p. 3.)
For Mormons, this account of Christianity’s adoption of literacy contains the essential elements we want to see in a Great Apostasy: an original immediacy of divine experience that contrasts both with preceding Judaism and later Christendom, and the specter of a medieval church that triumphs only by incorporating elements of Classical civilization against which it had once rebelled. The scholarly language of orality and literacy is well attuned to existing Mormon rhetoric about the Apostasy. Consider how Spencer W. Kimball described the significance of Joseph Smithâ€™s First Vision (emphasis added):
The heavens which had been closed in large measure for many centuries were now opened. The voices that had been still and subdued and unheard through many centuries now began to speak. The revelation that had been well-nigh obliterated and reasoned out of existence was again available.
Or in other words: orality was the prisoner of rational literacy until Joseph Smith set it free.
The scholarly categories of orality and literacy have acquired a considerable body of theoretical elaboration and investigation of likely pitfalls. Overly polarized and schematic accounts of orality and literacy are known to be problematic, as development from the first attempts at writing to the current day has not been a simple or uniform evolutionary process. Orality and literacy represent two (ideologically burdened) poles in a complex system, but the complexity of historical developments and the simultaneous occurrence of orality and literacy in a given society do not negate their categorical significance. A simplistic account of the Apostasy in terms of literacy might say that the early Christian church was guided via dialog with God before it fell into a literate and literalist reliance on written documents rather than inspiration, but that Joseph Smith restored the pristine orality of the original church. A more careful view would recognize that Joseph Smith perceived contradictions between New Testament descriptions of early Christian orality and the literate practices of the churches he knew; Joseph Smith’s prophetic career reshuffled the boundaries and shifted the balances between orality and literacy in ways that go to the essence of Mormonism.
Thinking about apostasy in terms of orality and literacy helps us to see connections between the pre-history, the founding events, and the present state of Mormonism. Like the early medieval preacher whose eyes saw a Latin text but whose mouth spoke vernacular words to an unlearned audience, Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon was an oral process, in contrast with the entirely literate exercises in grammar and rhetoric that comprise translation in the modern sense. Joseph Smith’s own accounts as well as later discussion of the First Vision contrast the immediacy of listening/speaking–“Hear him!”–with the learned, literate discourse of creeds; the declaration that all existing creeds were abominations is attributed to that event. How could the Nicene Creed be considered an abomination? Not by its content, perhaps, but by its existence; Mormonism has an antipathy towards written definitions of God that are placed above the experience of God, or beyond the reach of (prophetic) oral correction. Altering scripture, whether a few words of introduction or numerous passages in the Bible, is not a dilemma for Mormonism; it is rather the whole point. The multiple angelic visitations upon which Mormon claims to authority rest are also instances of direct, immediate, face-to-face and hands-to-head experience of personal presence. Still today, office and authority are conferred in speech and not in writing. We disdain any notion of authority–let alone qualification or certification–that would replace oral with literate transmission. An unprofessional clergy is not only symptomatic, but constitutive of Mormonism.
The boundaries between oral and literate in contemporary Mormonism are complex. Mormon prayers and public statements of belief are often formulaic, but never read or recited. A rote prayer would be considered not just inappropriate in a Mormon framework, but not a prayer at all. While the recording and indexing of genealogical data is the ultimate in learned literate practice, the eventual use of the information in the most central and sacred rituals of Mormonism consist of the oral transmission of knowledge for which a purely written form could never be equivalent. Do Mormons believe every word in the Bible? What a strange question. We do not believe what we read: we believe what we hear. Reading scripture is beneficial, but hearing the still small voice is essential. What makes Mormon doctrine so difficult to pin down is that as soon as it is written, it is by definition less authoritative than what a prophet might say. It is not (or not just) that words can have a different meaning in a Mormon context, but that the function and relative value of spoken and written expression are different.
The point is not to say that only Mormons are oral and everyone else is literate–which would be just as stupid as it sounds–but that orality and literacy serve different religious functions in the context of Mormonism than they do in other religions. Figuring out just what those differences and functions are is one of the keys to figuring out who we are and how we think.