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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review of Gospel Topics Essay on Translation

We agree with President Heber J. Grant's counsel:If you get on a hobby horse it will ride you right out of the Church.”

To avoid getting on a hobby horse, I always keep in mind what Joseph Smith said in 1839.

"We ought to have the building up of Zion as our greatest object."

We used to talk about the three missions of the Church. Then President Monson added a fourth. I've suggested a fifth mission that incorporates the other four. The fifth mission--the establishment of Zion--is a cause that people throughout the world aspire to. They just don't know how to do it or where to find it if it exists.

In that same 1839 sermon, Joseph said, "When wars come we shall have to flee to Zion, the cry is to make haste. The last revelation says ye shall not have time to have gone over the earth until these things come. I will come as did the cholera, war and fires, burning, earthquakes, one pestilence after another &c until the Ancient of Days come, then judgment will be given to the Saints."

That passage seems pertinent to the present day, doesn't it?

The establishment of Zion requires a firm foundation. The hymn to that effect, which was included in the 1835 hymnal, includes this stanza:

"What more can he say than to you he hath said?"

In my view, "he hath said" plenty regarding the translation and historicity of the Book of Mormon, but certain scholars, along with their employees and their followers, have largely rejected those teachings in favor of their own theories. And that is fine--everyone can believe whatever they want--so long as they don't impose their opinions on others or withhold important facts necessary to make informed decisions.

Related to the establishment of Zion, I think of an agenda item in a meeting of the High Council in Far West in 1837: "8. Shall any intelligence relative to the building up of Zion be withheld from the Council of Zion."

My purpose in writing these blogs is to compensate for the withholding of "intelligence relative to the building up of Zion." In my view, members of the Church cannot make informed decisions about the foundation of the Church--Church history and the historicity of the Book of Mormon--because critical, relevant information is being withheld.

Today I'll use the Gospel Topics Essay on Translation as an example. It is relevant to this blog because SITH--the stone in the hat theory--is the intellectual progeny of M2C, as we've discussed before.

Two quotations to frame the problem.

Old Soviet dissident saying: the future is known, it's the past that is always changing.
Unknown origin, but frequently cited

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell

Lately there has been a lot of focus on the translation. The Gospel Topics Essay is at the core, so I'll start there.

The following is my review of the Gospel Topics Essay on Translation. It's in the appendix of the second edition of my book titled A Man that Can Translate: Joseph Smith and the Nephite Interpreters. In the book I propose a revised essay, but we can't see the need for a revision until we see the problems with the existing one.

On this blog, the original essay is shown in blue. I've retained the original footnotes but renumbered them to incorporate my own footnotes. My comments are subject to revision as I get more input and information, so I welcome comments (email to lostzarahemla@gmail.com).

Appendix 2: Gospel Topics Essay Comments

This Appendix consists of my annotations to the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation found at this web page:

The essay thoughtfully tackles an issue that has no readily apparent resolution. As you read the essay, however, you will notice that although it quotes many observers and commentators, it never quotes what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught about the Urim and Thummim.

Not even once.

The essay edits the few quotations from Joseph and Oliver it does provide to omit their references to the term Urim and Thummim.

This is a strange editorial decision for an essay that is intended to educate people about this important topic.

Although the essay has undergone undocumented changes over time, the online version as of December 2019 makes speculative assumptions that lead to speculative conclusions. The essay omits important facts. It does not acknowledge, let alone discuss, alternative interpretations of the known facts. 
Except as indicated, all footnotes to the essay are original. My annotations are in brackets and bold typeface.

Book of Mormon Translation

Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any Book on earth & the keystone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other Book.”[1]

[Note: It’s good to see the original source cited here. As indicated in the footnote, this is a quotation from Wilford Woodruff’s summary of a day’s teaching, not a direct quotation of something Joseph said. Woodruff did not put the sentence in quotation marks, as he often did when recording a direct quotation. Nevertheless, Church historians converted it into a first-person quotation in History of the Church and other publications. I hope this is a first step toward correcting the misquotation that appears still today in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon[2] in every copy.]

The Book of Mormon came into the world through a series of miraculous events. Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.

[Note: Although this paragraph suggests a careful study of Joseph Smith’s statements, the essay actually omits every one of Joseph’s statements in which he used the term Urim and Thummim.]

“By the Gift and Power of God”

Joseph Smith reported that on the evening of September 21, 1823, while he prayed in the upper room of his parents’ small log home in Palmyra, New York, an angel who called himself Moroni appeared and told Joseph that “God had a work for [you] to do.”[3] 

[Note: The quotation is from what is now Joseph Smith—History 1:33. That verse identifies the angel as Moroni.

The original version was published in the Times and Seasons on 15 April 1842.[4] There, the angel who visited was identified as Nephi. Lucy Mack Smith’s history quoted the Times and Seasons, also identifying the angel as Nephi.[5]

Some have wondered why the compilers of this history would have identified the angel as “Nephi” and why Joseph, supposedly the active editor of the Times and Seasons when this account was published, would not have “corrected” the identification. One reason could be that Joseph was merely the nominal editor; i.e., someone else was the actual editor. (That’s what I think the evidence shows.) Another could be that the compilers knew Joseph interacted with both Moroni and Nephi and weren’t sure which one appeared in 1823.

Brigham Young taught that Joseph had interactions with Nephi (one of the unnamed three Nephites from 3 Nephi 28) as well as with Moroni.

One such incident can be pieced together from the historical record. Before leaving Harmony in May/June 1829, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger he later identified as “one of the Nephites.” The same messenger later showed the Fayette plates to Mary Whitmer. She said he identified himself as Brother Nephi.

The essay’s footnote discusses the identity of the angel, citing a note in the Joseph Smith Papers that in turn quotes President Oliver Cowdery’s 1835 Letter IV as authority for the identity of the angel as Moroni.]

He informed Joseph that “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.”

[The quotation is from Joseph Smith—History 1:33.]

The book could be found in a hill not far from the Smith family farm.

[Note: This is an uncredited paraphrase of President Cowdery’s 1835 Letter IV, in which Moroni tells Joseph “this history was written and deposited not far from that place [Joseph’s home near Palmyra].” Letter IV gives additional details from this visit that relate to the translation, but these details are omitted in this essay. The angel “proceeded and gave a general account of the promises made to the fathers, and also gave a history of the aborigenes of this country, and said they were literal descendants of Abraham…. He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place [Joseph’s home near Palmyra], and that it was our brother’s privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.[6]

This was no ordinary history, for it contained “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel as delivered by the Savior.”[7]

[Note: This is another quotation from Joseph Smith—History 1:34. Oddly, the next verse, 35, is never quoted or cited in the essay. That verse explains what accompanied the plates: “Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”]

The angel charged Joseph Smith to translate the book from the ancient language in which it was written.

[Note: While true, this sentence is a misleading setup for the thesis of the essay because it omits Moroni’s explanation that Joseph would translate the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. The Urim and Thummim was specifically prepared for a seer to translate the unknown language.]

The young man, however, had very little formal education and was incapable of writing a book on his own, let alone translating an ancient book written from an unknown language, known in the Book of Mormon as “reformed Egyptian.”[8] 

[Note: Joseph’s formal education was limited to three years, but he knew the many Biblical passages Moroni quoted well enough to discern that Moroni had quoted some exactly and changed the wording in other passages. Joseph was also “intimately familiar” with Christian doctrines and writings.]

Joseph’s wife Emma insisted that, at the time of translation, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”[9]

[Note: Emma purportedly related this statement to her son, Joseph Smith III, in 1879. The account was published after her death. Emma never publicly acknowledged the statement. We discussed it in Chapter 4. The full statement is in Appendix 4.]

Joseph received the plates in September 1827 and the following spring, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, began translating them in earnest, with Emma and his friend Martin Harris serving as his main scribes.

[Note: It’s not clear exactly when Emma served as a scribe, but according to her “Last Testimony” she wrote while Joseph stared at a stone in a hat, and she said he did that only after the 116 pages were lost. Joseph said she wrote for him after he received back the Urim and Thummim and the plates after the 116 pages were lost. See quotations below.]

The resulting English transcription, known as the Book of Lehi and referred to by Joseph Smith as written on 116 pages, was subsequently lost or stolen. As a result, Joseph Smith was rebuked by the Lord and lost the ability to translate for a short time.[10]

[Note: The essay doesn’t explain what “lost the ability to translate” means, but Lucy Mack Smith explained that Joseph had to give up the Urim and Thummim after losing the 116 pages.
Later, Joseph told her that “on the 22d of September [1828], I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim; and have commenced translating again, and Emma writes for me; but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust his promise will be verified. He also seemed pleased with me, when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim; and he told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.

“Soon after I received them I inquired of the Lord, and obtained the following revelation”: 

“Now, behold I say unto you, that, because <you> delivered up those writings, which you had power given you to translate, by the means of the Urim and Thummim into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them; and you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened;”[11]  

Notice how the Urim and Thummim was directly linked to Joseph’s ability to translate throughout this incident. The essay explains none of this; it merely says Joseph “lost the ability to translate for a short time.”]

Joseph began translating again in 1829, and almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June of that year.

[This contradicts Emma’s “Last Testimony,” which states “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” Separately, Emma said that “Now the first that my husband translated was translated by the use of the Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”

His chief scribe during these months was Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher from Vermont who learned about the Book of Mormon while boarding with Joseph’s parents in Palmyra. Called by God in a vision, Cowdery traveled to Harmony to meet Joseph Smith and investigate further. Of his experience as scribe, Cowdery wrote, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven.”[12]

[Note: This quotation is from President Cowdery’s Letter I, now canonized as a footnote to Joseph Smith – History 1:71.[13] The essay terminates the quotation just before the following sentence that directly pertains to the translation:

“Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’”

Oliver said the entire text was translated with the Urim and Thummim. This is consistent with Letter IV, quoted above, in which Moroni told Joseph he would “translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.” Oliver does not mention any seer stone or hat.

The essay omits other relevant passages from Joseph Smith—History. Besides JS-H 1:35 (quoted above), the essay omits these verses:

JS-H 1:42 Again, he told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed.

JS-H 1:62 By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following.]

The manuscript that Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives.[14] This manuscript corroborates Joseph Smith’s statements that the manuscript was written within a short time frame and that it was dictated from another language. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript.[15] 

[Note: Actually, there are relatively few misheard words, which suggests that Joseph and Oliver were working in relatively quiet conditions, free from distractions.]

In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.[16]

Unlike most dictated drafts, the original manuscript was considered by Joseph Smith to be, in substance, a final product. To assist in the publication of the book, Oliver Cowdery made a handwritten copy of the original manuscript. This copy is known today as the printer’s manuscript. Because Joseph Smith did not call for punctuation, such as periods, commas, or question marks as he dictated, such marks are not in the original manuscript. The typesetter later inserted punctuation marks when he prepared the text for the printer.[17] With the exceptions of punctuation, formatting, other elements of typesetting, and minor adjustments required to correct copying and scribal errors, the dictation copy became the text of the first printed edition of the book.[18]

Translation Instruments

Many accounts in the Bible show that God transmitted revelations to His prophets in a variety of ways. Elijah learned that God spoke not to him through the wind or fire or earthquake but through a “still small voice.”[19] Paul and other early apostles sometimes communicated with angels and, on occasion, with the Lord Jesus Christ.[20] At other times, revelation came in the form of dreams or visions, such as the revelation to Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, or through sacred objects like the Urim and Thummim.[21]

Joseph Smith stands out among God’s prophets, because he was called to render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages, containing doctrine that would deepen and expand the theological understanding of millions of people. For this monumental task, God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments.

Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon.

[Note: This is a misleading sentence. First, Joseph never wrote of any instrument other than the Urim and Thummim. Second, Oliver Cowdery, his main scribe for all but a few pages of the Book of Mormon we have today, never wrote of any instrument other than the Urim and Thummim. Presumably the sentence refers to Martin Harris and Emma Smith, neither of whom said Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the text we have today. But neither of them acted as scribes for the text we have today, either.]
According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English.

[Note: This sentence assumes facts not in evidence. The only person who looked into the instruments was Joseph Smith. We have no record of a direct statement by Joseph about what he saw or how he used the instruments, except that he used them to translate. No witness claimed that Joseph told them what he saw. Their statements reflect inference, assumption, and conjecture.

Furthermore, these witnesses could not have seen the actual translation because Joseph was forbidden to show them either the plates or the Urim and Thummim. Instead, the evidence suggests they merely observed a demonstration. All of their statements are consistent with having observed a demonstration, not the actual translation of the plates.]

One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.[22] 

[Joseph himself referred to the Nephite interpreters as the “Urim and Thummim,” as is plain throughout Joseph Smith—History and his other accounts of Moroni’s visit.]

Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”[23]

[Note: this is the only instrument that Oliver and Joseph ever said that Joseph used during the translation.

As indicated in the footnote, some scholars assume it was W.W. Phelps who coined the term “Urim and Thummim” for the interpreters because Phelps’ article in the 1833 Evening and Morning Star is the earliest extant published account that uses that term. However, Phelps’ article is also consistent with prior use of the term, whether verbal or printed; i.e., Phelps was providing an explanation of the term for readers who were familiar with the Bible. Besides, the first known use of the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the Nephite interpreters was reported on August 5, 1832, when Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith told an audience in Boston that the translation “was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.”[24] Of course, Orson and Samuel undoubtedly heard that from someone else—presumably Joseph or Oliver.

Letter IV portrays Moroni telling Joseph that it was his privilege “to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.” When Oliver wrote these letters, he explained he was using original documents then in their possession. He could have referred to the notebook he kept during the translation process, in which he recorded the things Joseph told him. In other words, it could have been Moroni, not W.W. Phelps, who first identified the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim.

The footnote observes that Joseph “most often used the term “Urim and Thummim,” but does not explain that we have no record of Joseph ever using the term seer stone in connection with the translation.]

The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.”[25] As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.[26] As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.[27]

[Note: The last sentence is pure speculation, portrayed here as fact. There are no historical records in which Joseph says or implies anything like this.]

Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters.

[Note: This is also pure speculation, portrayed as fact. Neither Joseph nor Oliver ever said he used one seer stone to translate the text. As I explain in Chapter 4, others observed Joseph dictating words, but none of them reported what the words were.  None quoted Joseph saying he was translating the plates during these occasions. These accounts are consistent with people who observed a demonstration and inferred it was the actual translation. But they also said Joseph did not use the Urim and Thummim or the plates, so by their own admission, they did not observe what Joseph and Oliver described about the actual translation.]

These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.[28] 

[Note: Although the essay claims Joseph and his associates “often” used the term to refer to a seer stone, the footnote gives only one example, and that example doesn’t support the claim.

On December 27, 1841, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal “The Twelve or a part of them spent the day with Joseph the seer + he unfolded unto them many glorious things of the kingdom of God the privileges + blessings of the priesthood + I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.”[29]

Woodruff does not describe the object, leaving historians to surmise he was referring to the seer stone so many people reported seeing Joseph use years previously.

If Woodruff was referring to the seer stone that many people had already seen, he doesn’t explain why it was such a privilege.

On February 19, 1842, Woodruff recorded in his journal that “the Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim Ancient records.”

Lucy Mack Smith wrote that “Joseph kept the Urim and Thummim constantly about his person.” She was writing about an event that occurred in 1827, shortly after Joseph obtained the plates, but it’s also possible that Joseph still had the Urim and Thummim in Nauvoo, having retained them when he delivered the plates. In Joseph Smith—History 1:60, he says nothing about delivering the Urim and Thummim to the messenger.

Years later, Heber C. Kimball declared in General Conference that Brigham Young had the Urim and Thummim. Some say this referred to a seer stone, which is possible. But it is also congruent with Woodruff’s journal entry to infer that what Woodruff saw and what Brigham Young possessed was the Urim and Thummim that Joseph obtained with the plates.

All of Joseph’s contemporaries and successors in Church leadership taught that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. None said or implied that he used a seer stone instead.]

In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumined.[30] Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters.

[Note: It’s true that Joseph’s contemporaries and successors all understood the term this way. The historical evidence gives them good justification for doing so.]

Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.

[Note: “Seem to have understood” is mindreading—and unsupportable historical revisionism. While it is possible that later usage developed this way, such as in D&C 130:8-10, that usage was in 1843.

In 1834, there was no confusion about the two terms. The book Mormonism Unvailed, published in October 1834, spelled out the two distinct and alternative explanations for the translation. One involved a seer or “peep” stone in a hat. The other involved the Urim and Thummim.

In response to Mormonism Unvailed, Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith declared unequivocally that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. They published Letter I (now the footnote to Joseph Smith—History 1:71 that we discussed above) in October 1834. Letter 1 makes the connection explicit: “he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called “The Book of Mormon’.”

Thereafter, Joseph and Oliver consistently taught that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. All of Joseph’s contemporaries and successors did likewise.

There are no known instances in which Joseph or Oliver used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to anything Joseph used for the translation of the Book of Mormon except the instrument Moroni put in the stone box.]

Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpentholy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.[31]

The Mechanics of Translation

In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: “I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.” When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done “by the gift and power of God”[32] and once added, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”[33]

[Note: The first statement quoted here establishes Joseph’s claim that he actually translated the ancient records. The last statement quoted here does not explicitly refer to the translation. While “the coming forth of the book of Mormon” could include the manner of translation, it does not appear to have been understood that way by those present at the meeting. David Whitmer and Martin Harris were both present, and both went on to discuss details about the translation. If Joseph meant “it is not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the translation of the Book of Mormon,” then these two men violated Joseph’s instructions. There is no record of anyone stating that Joseph told them not to talk about the mechanics of the translation.

The “coming forth of the Book of Mormon” involved more than the translation. It involved the education of Joseph Smith by divine messengers including Moroni and others (including Nephi). It involved details about the plates, the breastplate, and the interpreters. It may have referred to the details of the two sets of plates and the depository of Nephite records and other artifacts in the Hill Cumorah, a topic that we would not expect Joseph to make public because of all the treasure seekers in the area.]

Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process.

[Note: This statement assumes these witnesses saw the actual translation instead of merely a demonstration of the concept. Oliver Cowdery was the only scribe for the current text, and he always said Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate.]

Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone.

[Note: This analysis conflates the accounts. Joseph and Oliver consistently said that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim that Moroni put in the stone box. Neither ever said or implied that Joseph used a seer stone. Other observers who mentioned the seer stone in the hat may or may not have observed the translation. They did not record what words they heard Joseph dictate, so we can’t tell what parts, if any, of the text they witnessed being translated.
Dan Vogel, a critic of Joseph Smith, agrees with the anonymous authors of this essay. 

“Eyewitness testimony confirms that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the same manner that he once hunted for buried treasure: that is, with his brown-colored seer stone placed in the crown of his white top hat and his face snug to its brim. Rather than seeing treasures in the bowels of the earth, Smith claimed he saw luminous words on the stone, which he read to a scribe. In this manner the entire Book of Mormon as we have it came into existence. This fact conflicts with Joseph Smith's official history, which claims that he used magic spectacles—which he euphemistically called Urim and Thummim—attached to a breastplate.”[34]

I agree with Vogel that the stone-in-the-hat narrative conflicts with the official history—as well as every other statement made by Joseph and Oliver.

But I disagree with Vogel—and this Gospel Topics Essay—when they claim the other witnesses observed Joseph translating the Book of Mormon.]

According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.[35] 

[Note: Here again, the essay assumes the witnesses were describing the actual translation of the Book of Mormon instead of a demonstration. Witnesses who claimed Joseph read aloud English words failed to record those words so we cannot tell if they consisted of the text of the Book of Mormon. As part of the demonstration, Joseph could have spoken memorized scriptural passages or sermons—or even portions of the text that he had previously translated. None of the witnesses claimed to have observed either the plates or the Urim and Thummim that Joseph had been commanded not to show to anyone.

The essay’s footnote claims two Apostles have written accounts of the translation process, but each involve isolated quotations from the historical record, not rejections of what Joseph and Oliver taught about the Urim and Thummim.

Elder Maxwell wrote, “The Prophet Joseph alone knew the full process, and he was deliberately reluctant to describe details. We take passing notice of the words of David Whitmer, Joseph Knight, and Martin Harris, who were observers, not translators…. Oliver Cowdery is reported to have testified in court that the Urim and Thummim enabled Joseph ‘to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.’”[36]

This statement by Oliver is consistent with everything else he taught; i.e., that Joseph translated the characters with the Urim and Thummim.

Many years before becoming President of the Church, Elder Russell M. Nelson wrote, “The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights.” He then quoted David Whitmer and Emma Smith without further comment.
These statements may be “precious insights,” but the question remains: insights into what? Neither David nor Emma served as scribes for the text of the Book of Mormon we have today.]

The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”[37]

[Note: The passage in Alma (37:21-25) refers twice to “interpreters,” but that was a change made in the 1920 edition. Earlier editions, including the original 1830 edition, used the term “directors” instead. That suggests a meaning different from the “interpreters” mentioned in Ether 4:5 and Mosiah 8 and 28, to which Oliver Cowdery referred in Letter 1 (“the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters’”).

The witness accounts don’t describe the time of day when they observed the proceeding, but if Joseph used a hat, day after day, he presumably worked during the day. One wonders why he didn’t simply work at night, when a stone that would present English words that “shine forth in darkness unto light” would operate more effectively.

Perhaps the scriptural phrase doesn’t refer to shining words appearing on a stone.

Consider the other instances of the phrase “shine forth” in the scriptures. “Thou shalt shine forth” (Job 11:17). “Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth” (Psalms 80:1). “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun” (Matthew 13:43). “The King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men” (Alma 5:50). “Then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God” (Alma 40:25). “It shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness” (Mormon 8:16). “Prepare them [stones] that they may shine forth in darkness” (Ether 3:4). “Thy church may… shine forth” (D&C 109:73. “Arise and shine forth…” (D&C 115:5).

The teachings of the Book of Mormon “shine forth” regardless of the method of translation.]

The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed that Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”[38]

[Emma’s 1879 account does not specify when she acted as scribe. Other than claiming to write “day after day,” she never specified when she wrote or what portion of the text she recorded. She may have written during Joseph’s early attempts to translate before Martin Harris arrived, but that contradicts a letter she wrote in 1870, in which she stated, “Now the first that my husband translated was translated by the use of the Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”

Based on her description above, this means she must have acted act as scribe after Martin lost the 116 pages. Emma’s handwriting does not appear on the extant Original Manuscript, although we only have about 28% of it.

Oliver Cowdery said he wrote the entire manuscript, save a few pages only. There are a few pages from the Fayette translation in the handwriting of a Whitmer brother and an unknown scribe.

Lucy Mack Smith said Joseph told her that on September 22, 1828, “I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim; and have commenced translating again, and Emma writes for me; but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe.” Of course, this conflicts with Emma’s 1870 letter because she said he did not use the Urim and Thummim after he lost the 116 pages.

Emma’s claim that she wrote “day after day” raises the question of why Joseph needed Martin Harris or Oliver Cowdery to act as scribes. It is understandable that Emma would want a break, of course. Or perhaps her pregnancy in 1828 disrupted her ability to write. But according to the accounts we have, the translation could not proceed until these men showed up. Joseph said Oliver was an answer to his prayer for help.

Lucy Mack Smith wrote in her history that while Joseph and Oliver were working in Harmony, Joseph applied the Urim and Thummim to his eyes and looked on the plates. Again, this contradicts Emma’s 1879 Final Testimony.]

According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”

[Note: This statement has been taken to mean Joseph never used the plates during the translation, but that’s not what it says. If Joseph often left the plates on the table without concealment (other than the cloth), that means at other times he did conceal them. The statement is consistent with Joseph sometimes concealing the plates when he wasn’t using them, but often not bothering to conceal them. In other words, this statement is consistent with what Lucy Mack Smith said about Joseph looking upon the plates with the Urim and Thummim.]

When asked if Joseph had dictated from the Bible or from a manuscript he had prepared earlier, Emma flatly denied those possibilities: “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.” Emma told her son Joseph Smith III, “The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”[39]

Another scribe, Martin Harris sat across the table from Joseph Smith and wrote down the words Joseph dictated. Harris later related that as Joseph used the seer stone to translate, sentences appeared. Joseph read those sentences aloud, and after penning the words, Harris would say, “Written.”

[Note: After he would say “Written,” Martin claimed that “if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”

The reference to the engravings on the plates is consistent with the language of D&C 10.
Martin’s statement seems to imply a literal translation, but Joseph said only that the Title Page was a literal translation.

Martin never claimed to have seen what Joseph saw when he translated. He also didn’t claim that Joseph told him what saw. Instead, Martin apparently made this claim based on his own inference of what occurred.

This statement has led some to conclude that the translation was “tightly controlled,” but we do not have the 116 pages to see if there were misspellings and other errors of the type present in the Original Manuscript.

Martin wrote the 116 pages, so the process may have been different for the translation we have today.]

An associate who interviewed Harris recorded him saying that Joseph “possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”[40]

[Note: The essay’s footnote here points out that Martin Harris recognized the distinction between the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) and the seer stone. Like his contemporaries, Martin didn’t use the term to apply to both. Of course, Martin’s statement here contradicts Emma’s statement that Joseph used the stone after the 116 pages were lost.]

The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.”[41]

[Note: This is consistent with every statement by Joseph and Oliver about the translation, although it contradicts the stone-in-a-hat narrative.]

In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.”[42]

[Note: This report has Joseph looking on the engraving instead of having the plates resting nearby under a cloth. This is consistent with what Lucy Mack Smith wrote about how Joseph translated the plates.

The phrase “two transparent stones” is the description always given of the Nephite interpreters.]


Joseph Smith consistently testified that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” His scribes shared that testimony. The angel who brought news of an ancient record on metal plates buried in a hillside and the divine instruments prepared especially for Joseph Smith to translate were all part of what Joseph and his scribes viewed as the miracle of translation. When he sat down in 1832 to write his own history for the first time, he began by promising to include “an account of his marvelous experience.”[43] The translation of the Book of Mormon was truly marvelous.
The truth of the Book of Mormon and its divine source can be known today. God invites each of us to read the book, remember the mercies of the Lord and ponder them in our hearts, “and ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” God promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”[44]

[1] Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 28, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City., https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/remarks-28-november-1841/1.
[3] On the identity of the angel, see Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 223 n 56.
[7] Davidson et al., Joseph Smith Histories, 223; punctuation regularized; Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3 (March 1, 1842): 706-7. See also Joseph Smith—History 1:33–34.
[9] “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 290.
[10] Joseph Smith History, 1838–ca. 1841, 8–11 (draft 2), in Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 252–3; available at josephsmithpapers.orgDoctrine and Covenants 3:5–15.
[11] D&C 10:1-2; Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, online at https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1845/143
[12] Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16; Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, Sept. 7, 1834, in Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834): 14; italics in original.
[13] The essay’s footnote refers to the obscure Messenger and Advocate, but Joseph had his scribes copy Oliver’s letters into is personal history, which is available online here: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/49
[14] Most of the manuscript disintegrated or became otherwise unreadable due to water damage between 1841 and 1882, as a result of being placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in Nauvoo, Illinois. Most of the surviving pages were later archived in the historian’s office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The extant original manuscript has been published in The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). A complete copy of this original, known as the printer’s manuscript, was made by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes between August 1829 and early 1830. It was used to set the type for most of the printing in Palmyra. The printer’s manuscript is published in The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typological Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). Both the printer’s manuscript and the original manuscript will be published in future volumes of The Joseph Smith Papers. (Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, no. 3 [Spring 1970]: 261–72; Royal Skousen, “Piecing Together the Original Manuscript,” BYU Today 46, no. 3 [May 1992]: 18–24.)
[15] For example, when Joseph translated the text that is now in 1 Nephi 13:29, the scribe wrote “&” in one place where he should have written “an.” At 1 Nephi 17:48, the scribe wrote “weed” where he should have written “reed.” (See Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997], 67; see also Grant Hardy, “Introduction,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009], xv–xix.)
[16] John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon” and “Names of People: Book of Mormon,” in Geoffrey Kahn, ed., Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (Brill Online, 2013); M. Deloy Pack, “Hebraisms,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 321–25; John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 77–91; Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Donald W. Parry and others, eds., Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 155–89.
[17] On the role of the typesetter John Gilbert, see Royal Skousen, “John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” in Stephen D. Ricks and others, eds., The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 383–405.
[18] Some grammatical constructions that sound odd to English speakers were edited out of later editions of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith or others in order to render the translation into more standard current English. See Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 44–45. Approximately five-sixth of the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset from the printer’s manuscript. The other one-sixth was typeset from the original manuscript. (Royal Skousen, “Editor’s Preface,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, xxx.)
[22] Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grand Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, vol. 1 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), xxix.
[23] Mosiah 28:14–15, 20; see also Mosiah 8:13, 19; and Ether 4:5. Joseph Smith seems to have used the terms “interpreters” and “spectacles” interchangeably during the early years of the Church. Nancy Towle, an itinerant Methodist preacher, recounted Joseph Smith telling her about “a pair of ‘interpreters,’ (as he called them,) that resembled spectacles, by looking into which, he could read a writing engraven upon the plates, though to himself, in a tongue unknown.” (Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America [Charleston: James L. Burges, 1832], 138-39.) Joseph’s 1832 history referred to “spectacles.” (Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16.) In January 1833, the Latter-day Saint newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star, edited by William W. Phelps, equated “spectacles” and “interpreters” with the term “Urim and Thummim”: 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).” (“The Book of Mormon,” The Evening and the Morning Star, January 1833, [2].) By 1835 Joseph Smith most often used the term “Urim and Thummim” when speaking of translation and rarely, if ever, used the terms “interpreters” or “spectacles.” (Joseph Smith, Journal, Nov. 9-11, 1835, in Journals: Volume 1: 1832-1839, 89; Joseph Smith, History, 1834-1836, in Davidson et al., Histories, Volume 1, 116; John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., with Erick B. Carlson, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 [Provo, UT, and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Press and Deseret Book, 2005], 123-28.)
[24] “Questions Proposed to the Mormonite Preachers and Their Answers Obtained Before the Whole Assembly at Julian Hall, Sunday Evening, August 5, 1832,” Boston Investigator Vol. II, No. 20 (August 10, 1832). Online at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NE/miscne01.htm
[25] Joseph Smith probably possessed more than one seer stone; he appears to have found one of the stones while digging for a well around 1822. (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984], 69–70.)
[26] According to Martin Harris, an angel commanded Joseph Smith to stop these activities, which he did by 1826. (See Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 64–76; and Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies 24, no. 4 [Fall 1984]: 489–560.) Joseph did not hide his well-known early involvement in treasure seeking. In 1838, he published responses to questions frequently asked of him. “Was not Jo Smith a money digger,” one question read. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” (Selections from Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 43, available at josephsmithpapers.org.) For the broader cultural context, see Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 6–33.
[27] Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Master’s Thesis, Utah State University, 2000).
[28] For example, when Joseph Smith showed a seer stone to Wilford Woodruff in late 1841, Woodruff recorded in his journal: “I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.” (Wilford Woodruff journal, Dec. 27, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.) See also Doctrine and Covenants 130:10.
[30] Cornelius Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 9–26.
[32] Preface to the Book of Mormon, 1830 edition.
[33] Minutes, Church conference, Orange, OH, Oct. 25–26, 1831, in Minute Book 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, available at josephsmithpapers.org; Welch, “Miraculous Translation,”,121–9.
[35] Virtually all of the accounts of the translation process are reproduced in Welch, “Miraculous Translation.” Two accounts of the translation process, including the use of a seer stone, have been written by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and published in Church magazines. Historians have also written about the seer stone in Church publications, both in the Ensign and in The Joseph Smith Papers. (See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; and Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, xxix–xxxii.)
[38] “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90. Some outside reports describe the spectacles being placed in the hat during the translation process. A Palmyra newspaper published the earliest known account of the translation in August 1829: Jonathan Hadley, a Palmyra printer who may have spoken with Joseph Smith about translation, claimed that the plates were found with a “huge pair of Spectacles,” and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.” (“Golden Bible,” Palmyra Freeman, Aug. 11, 1829, [2].) In the winter of 1831, a Shaker in Union Village, Ohio, spoke of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” through which the translator “looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.” (Christian Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 [Spring 2011]: 143.)
[39] “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 289–90.
[40] “One of the Three Witnesses,” Deseret Evening News, Dec. 13, 1881, 4. Here Martin Harris uses the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the interpreters found with the plates.
[41] A. W. B., “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 (Apr. 19, 1831): 120.
[42] Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar,” 143. For additional accounts of translation by one of the Three Witnesses, see David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991).
[43] Joseph Smith History, ca. Summer 1832, 1, in Histories, Volume 1, 1832–1844, 10; available at josephsmithpapers.org. Spelling modernized.

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