Translation theories summary

Before my book titled A Man that Can Translate, there were four basic approaches to the question of Book of Mormon translation.

[acronyms used in this article: U&T (Urim and Thummim) and SITH (stone in the hat)]


1)    That Joseph translated the plates with the U&T that came with the plates. This is what we have from Joseph, Oliver and Lucy in their accounts (including Joseph's claim in the Preface to the 1830 Edition that he translated the plates). These witnesses did not directly address SITH, although Oliver Cowdery's account in Letter I (Joseph Smith-History, note 1) was published in response to Mormonism Unvailed, the 1834 book that mentioned SITH and U&T as alternative explanations for the Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith--History includes not only Oliver's account, but Joseph's own explanation that he copied characters from the plates and translated them with the U&T.

2)    That SITH was used instead of U&T, with the plates covered with a cloth the entire time. The sources for this include people who were on the scene, including primarily David Whitmer and Emma Smith, although the extant written sources for these were recorded/written decades after the fact. The plates become not the source of a translation but a sort of talisman that prompted revelation through the seer stone, whether conveyed in a vision or in the form of words on the stone. In this understanding, the BoM is not a translation of an ancient text as Joseph and Oliver said, but rather a modern Koran, revealed directly into the mind of Joseph Smith the way the Koran was revealed directly to the mind of Mohammad

3)    Some blend of 1 and 2 where the seer stone is equated with the U&T. Some scholars propose that the term U&T, as used by Joseph and Oliver, referred to the seer stone as well as the U&T that came with the plates. In this scenario, Joseph used both "instruments" the same way, by placing them in a hat and reading words that appeared on the stone. However, newspaper accounts from the early 1830s, along with Mormonism Unvailed, referred to both SITH and U&T as alternatives, not synonyms. 

4)    That only U&T was used, and that all the SITH witnesses were lying (this is the Stoddards' approach in their book).

On #4, I disagree with the Stoddards on the translation. The Stoddards just reject any evidence that contradicts their theory. As a lawyer, I don't think it makes sense to reject testimony of people who were present for ideological reasons. 

But I also don't think it makes sense to reject or ignore what Joseph and Oliver taught, the way the Gospel Topics Essay on the translation does.

For that reason, I also disagree with #2, which rejects what Joseph and Oliver said, as well as what the scriptures say. 

The assertion underlying #3 that Joseph meant the seer stone when he referred to the U&T contradicts the historical evidence.  Here context is critical.  Oliver's account (in which Joseph was clearly involved, and which is now extensively noted in JS-H) followed the publication of Mormonism Unvailed, which described the two narratives (#2 and #3) as distinct alternatives (contra #4). Oliver wrote Letter I (JS-H, note 1), which emphasized that Joseph translated with the U&T, in response to Mormonism Unvailed.  

Faced with the cherry picking approach adopted by the Stoddards (#4) and the historians who either teach SITH (#2) or try to wash over the differences (#3), in A Man that Can Translate I go through the evidence in detail, both the SITH witness testimony and the manuscripts (original and printer's). I conclude that David Whitmer accurately explained that:

(i) it took Joseph 8 months to translate the plates (not the 3 months most scholars claim) and 

(ii) Joseph conducted a demonstration in the Whitmer home with SITH. 

I argue that the demonstration which gave rise to the SITH witness accounts was just that, a demonstration, and not the actual translation process, which used the U&T.  In describing the demonstration event which occurred in his home before many witnesses whose recollections would much later serve as the basis for the SITH accounts, David explained that three scribes were present, taking turns writing as they became tired when Joseph dictated. That is obviously much different from the normal translation process, which was "laborious" and occupied the entire day from sunrise to sunset. Scribes would write for days on end during the actual translation, but during the demonstration Joseph dictated so fast three scribes had to take turns. Why?

I propose it was because on that occasion, Joseph was not translating. He conducted the demonstration to resolve a dilemma and help explain what he could not otherwise show; i.e., he was forbidden from letting people see either the U&T or the plates, but his supporters wanted to know how he was translating. The evidence indicates that during the demonstration, Joseph recited some of the Isaiah passages from 2 Nephi from memory. I show the evidence of this in the text itself as well as in the eyewitness statements. 

The demonstration scenario reconciles what Joseph and Oliver (and Lucy Mack Smith) said, what the scriptures say, and what eyewitnesses say. In my view, all the evidence points to the demonstration explanation. I don't have to ignore or reject any of the evidence.

Next, I discuss the reasons why David, Emma and others focused on SITH decades later. I argue that their motivation in inflating their recollections of the SITH demonstrations into #3, was to refute the Spalding theory. If many witnesses saw "translation" using SITH, then Joseph couldn't have been reading from a hidden manuscript as per the Spalding theory.  This becomes obvious when we read their statements in context instead of as excerpts. Every other analysis I've seen has ignored the context, probably because of the modern consensus that the Spalding theory had no basis. But in the 19th century, the Spalding theory was widely accepted by unbelievers as "the" explanation for the Book of Mormon, so believers had to refute it. Unlike the Stoddards, I respect the SITH witnesses' motives, but argue that, unfortunately, their well-intended inflation of the SITH demonstration into the primary method of translation (#2) has led in our times to confusion, and explanation #3, which contradicts both the facts and the fundamental nature of what Joseph said the BoM was - a translation of a historically authentic record of ancient peoples.  (The book examines all of the primary sources in detail, but I won't get into that here.) 

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