long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Restating the translation process

Yesterday we looked at the obvious problem that, in many places, the growth of the Church has stalled. IMO, this is due, in part, to obstacles constructed by modern intellectuals.

Today we'll look at one of the obstacles being created by revisionist Church historians. This obstacle is the new narrative about the translation process. I address all of this in far more detail in my upcoming book, but this post discusses the key issues.

Traditional depictions of the translation
Regarding the translation of the Nephite plates, there are many accounts that boil down to two lines of evidence:

1. Joseph and Oliver (and the Book of Mormon and the revelations in the D&C) always said Joseph translated the engravings on the plates by the gift and power of God, using the Urim and Thummim (also called interpreters) that Moroni put in the stone box with the original set of plates (the Harmony plates that contained the abridged record).

2. Others said that Joseph translated by reading words that appeared on a seer stone Joseph put in a hat.

Can these two separate categories be reconciled?

Here is a table in my upcoming book (which delves into this topic in detail, with an appendix containing all known statements about the translation).

Witness Category 1
Witness Category 2
Joseph translated the entire Book of Mormon from engravings on ancient metal plates. He used the Urim and Thummim—the spectacles or the Nephite interpreters—that Moroni put in the stone box
Joseph translated the entire Book of Mormon by putting his face in a hat and reading words that appeared on a seer stone that he put in a hat to block out ambient light.

For decades, Church leaders have reaffirmed what Joseph and Oliver taught; i.e., that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates, as established by Witness Category 1 (and the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants).

The evidence from Witness Category 2 was long known, but mostly ignored.

In recent years, though, some Church historians have revisited the evidence. They have sought to reconcile the two disparate categories of evidence, giving equal weight to both.

There have been three basic approaches toward reconciliation. Below I'll propose a fourth approach that I think makes the most sense.

1. Joseph and Oliver were accurate and complete; the others were wrong (lying or mistaken).
2. Joseph and Oliver were wrong (lying or mistaken); the others were right.
3. Joseph and Oliver used the term "Urim and Thummim" to refer to both the Nephite interpreters Moroni put in the stone box and the seer stone Joseph found in a well.

UT=SS - Joseph translating without
looking at the plates
Approach #3 (Urim and Thummim = Seer Stone, or UT=SS) has been widely adopted by Church historians and is now being disseminated throughout the Church as the mainstream view. It's not unreasonable, on its face. But it causes a serious problem, which is why I consider it a serious impediment to missionary and reactivation work, as I'll explain below.

UT=SS has been published in the Ensign, the Gospel Topics essay and the Saints book. It is depicted in the new Church movies about Harmony and Fayette. It is depicted at the Priesthood Restoration site and will soon be in more visitors centers, if it isn't already.

The Saints book describes it this way:

UT=SS - Joseph translating
by staring at a stone in a hat
Meanwhile, Joseph and Oliver started translating. They worked well together, weeks on end, frequently with Emma in the same room going about her daily work.24 Sometimes Joseph translated by looking through the interpreters and reading in English the characters on the plates.
Often he found a single seer stone to be more convenient. He would put the seer stone in his hat, place his face into the hat to block out the light, and peer at the stone. Light from the stone would shine in the darkness, revealing words that Joseph dictated as Oliver rapidly copied them down.25
The obvious problem with UT=SS is that it contradicts what was taught by Joseph, Oliver, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

Do you recognize that pattern?

It's the same principle taught by the M2C intellectuals; i.e., the prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah because they were ignorant (or negligent) speculators who adopted a false tradition and thereby misled the Church.

Once one accepts that principle (the "distrust the prophets" principle), it's easy to also conclude that Joseph, Oliver and the scriptures were wrong about the translation because they, too, were negligent, imprecise or just didn't want people to know the truth about the seer stone.

I consider this "distrust the prophets" principle inexcusable in both cases because it undermines faith and is not required by the evidence.

Joseph, Oliver and the scriptures all teach that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with the Nephite interpreters called the Urim and Thummim prepared for that purpose. Moroni put the interpreters in the stone box specifically so Joseph could use them to translate the plates.

For example, Joseph explained that it was Moroni himself who used the term:

He told me also of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold. I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited. He said to me the Indians were the literal decendants of Abraham. He explained many of the prophecies to me; one of which I will mention, which is in Malachi 4th chapter. Behold, the day of the Lord cometh <​(&c​> He also informed me that the Urim & Thummim was hid up with the record, and that God would give me power to translate it with the assistance of this instrument; he then gradually vanished out of my sight or the vision closed. 


Oliver explained:

These were days never to be forgotten—to <​sit​> assist under the voice sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to  write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites should have said, [“]Interpreters,”32 the history, or reccord, called “the book of Mormon.[”]


It's true that the Book of Mormon does not use the term Urim and Thummim for the interpreters, but in these quotations, Joseph and Oliver both equated the terms. Neither of them mentioned a "seer stone," let alone a seer stone that Joseph found in a well long before he removed the plates and interpreters from Moroni's stone box.

We wonder, what led the UT=SS intellectuals to conclude that Joseph, Oliver and the scriptures didn't mean what they said?

What led them to equate the Urim and Thummim with the seer stone?

The UT=SS intellectuals note that the first published use of the term "Urim and Thummim" in connection with the translation appeared in an article written by W.W. Phelps in 1833. They conclude that all other references to the "Urim and Thummim" are based on the Phelps article; i.e., that Joseph, Oliver, and the revelations in the D&C adopted Phelps' idea retroactively.

Here is the article.

1833.“The Book of Mormon… was translated by the gift and Power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim) and while it unfolds the history of the first inhabitants that settled this continent, it, at the same time, brings a oneness to scripture.” (“Book of Mormon,” The Evening and the Morning Star, Jan. 1833, 58.)

From the grammar here, it's easy to see why the UT=SS intellectuals think Phelps was the first to apply the term "Urim and Thummim" to the Nephite interpreters. They assume Joseph and Oliver were loose with the facts anyway (which is one reason why they reject the New York Cumorah), and they view everything through that filter.

There is another obvious interpretation of the Phelps article. Phelps was writing to a non-LDS audience, explaining the Book of Mormon to the world. If Phelps knew from Joseph and Oliver that Moroni had identified the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim (as Joseph claimed in the excerpt above), he would have introduced the idea to his non-LDS readers just the way he did in this article.

IOW, we can read the Phelps article to be consistent with what Joseph and Oliver taught, or to be inconsistent with what they taught.

The UT=SS intellectuals choose to interpret the article to be inconsistent with what Joseph and Oliver taught; i.e., that it was not Moroni who first described the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim, but instead it was Phelps himself who came up with the idea.

And that's fine, so far as it goes. That, by itself, does not create the impediment.

The problem is when these same UT=SS intellectuals take the next step of equating the Nephite interpreters with the seer stone.

The UT=SS intellectuals have created a narrative that is depicted in the common Internet meme shown here.

Although intended as ridicule, the meme focuses specifically on the logical endpoint of the stone-in-the-hat theory.

Imagine being a youth in the Church, or an investigator, and reading the Saints book, the Gospel Topics essay, etc.

Even if you don't know that UT=SS contradicts the plain teachings of Joseph, Oliver, and the scriptures, how could you not wonder to yourself exactly what this meme depicts?

In my view, UT=SS is a major impediment to accepting the Book of Mormon.

The idea of an angel appearing to Joseph Smith and directing him to the golden plates is difficult enough for many people to accept at first. Translating them with interpreters prepared for that task makes sense once you accept the idea of the angel and the plates.

But the idea that Joseph translated by looking at a stone in a hat undermines the credibility of the entire experience Joseph and Oliver described.

I realize there are plenty of accounts in Church history that support the stone-in-the-hat idea, which is why I propose a fourth reconciliation method (below).

UT=SS contradicts the basic narrative that the interpreters were prepared by the Lord for the translation of the plates, that Moroni put them in the box for that purpose, and that Joseph used them for that purpose.

UT=SS undermines one of the most basic foundations for the Book of Mormon itself.

I urge everyone involved to reconsider the UT=SS path because of the ramifications it is having and will continue to have in the future.

Reconciliation approach #4.

4. Joseph used the seer stone in the hat to demonstrate, but not to actually perform, the translation of the plates.

I explain this in more detail in the book, but there are two key points.

First, I think most of the people involved were simply relating what they observed. They weren't lying.

Second, I think what they observed was a demonstration, not the actual translation.

When you look at the accounts of Joseph translating by reading words off a stone in a hat, none of them relate exactly what words Joseph was dictating.

Think of the situation Joseph was in. Most of the accounts are from Fayette, where he and Oliver were translating the Fayette plates (the plates of Nephi) upstairs in the Whitmer home. The Whitmers were curious. Their neighbors were curious. People were coming by all the time asking about what was going on.

Joseph had been commanded not to show the interpreters or the plates to anyone. How could he satisfy the curiosity so he and Oliver could finish the work in peace?

Naturally, he would perform a demonstration. David Whitmer explains that they arranged chairs around a table so everyone could watch. Joseph came downstairs and showed a stone (whether it was a functioning seer stone or not doesn't matter) and put it in a hat and dictated words to a scribe (presumably Oliver Cowdery).

It would be consistent with Joseph's character to let the audience think he was translating the Book of Mormon, even without claiming he was doing so. [I give similar examples of this in the book.]

The demonstration would solve two problems: it satisfied the curious crowds, and left him and Oliver to work on the translation in relative peace.

[This also explains why Joseph gave the seer stone to Oliver when they finished the translation; he didn't need it any longer because he wouldn't need to do any further demonstrations.] 

The accounts from Martin Harris and Emma Smith have similar explanations that I don't have time to explain for now.

The bottom line: The historical evidence is consistent with Joseph Smith translating the entire Book of Mormon with the Urim and Thummim that Moroni put in the stone box.

The stone-in-the-hat meme is the product of an understandable effort by some Church historians to reconcile inconsistent accounts from Church history, but it creates impediments for missionary and reactivation work because it contradicts the teachings of the prophets and the scriptures.

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