Translation Process

For generations, the LDS Church has promoted the inspiring story of Joseph Smith translating ancient text while diligently scrutinizing a stack of golden plates before him. Many faithful members are surprised to learn that nearly every eyewitness and direct participant refutes that narrative so often depicted in Church-sponsored art.

In fact, the Book of Mormon translation process was performed entirely without looking at the plates, which were either out of the room or said to have been covered with a cloth. While a select few did hear Joseph refer to magical items, nobody ever saw a breastplate, spectacles, or ancient interpreter stones. First-hand participants consistently reported seeing Joseph bury his face in his hat while telling the story. Though he claimed that the words would appear to him, revealed directly by the power of God, a closer review of contemporary accounts raises many questions. 

The LDS Church has begun to change its narrative, as the historical facts have become well known and impossible to ignore. The Church has been forced to catch up to the Internet and attempt to soften the blow to members who were taught the simplistic and faith-promoting story about the translation of the gold plates in their childhoods.

OFFICIAL PUBLICATIONS

The recent LDS Gospel Topics Essay on the translation process declares that revelation comes “in a variety of ways,” including dreams or visions. The essay suggests that Joseph grew into his translator role, enabling the use of his treasure seeking stones for the translation of holy scripture for convenience sake while carefully avoiding the fact that he never relied upon the plates themselves. The Church now confirms that Joseph Smith relied upon multiple peep stones – primarily his favorite brown rock which he located at the age of 14 and regularly used to seek buried treasure – to bring forth both scripture and revelation.

Joseph the Seer, published on LDS.org in 2015, contains the Church’s first officially published image of Smith’s rock. Joseph used that very same rock to seek buried treasure for a fee immediately prior to bringing forth the Book of Mormon. Contrary to earlier narratives that seer stones were found with the gold plates in the Hill Cumorah, as directed by the angel Moroni, the Church now acknowledges that years after the fact, “Joseph Smith and his associates began using the biblical term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to any stones used to receive divine revelations, including…the single seer stone.” Thus, Joseph’s treasure seeking rock, the very same one used for the entire Book of Mormon translation, becomes officially interchangeable with Urim and Thummim. 

UNKNOWN LANGUAGE


Photo of purported Anthon Script

Archaeology was a new and exciting field in the early-1800s. All things Egyptian intrigued the distant public with tales of discovery. Hugh Nibley ironically quipped, “The air of mystery and romance that has always surrounded things Egyptian has never failed to attract swarms of crackpots, cultists, half-baked scholars, self-certified experts, and out-and-out charlatans.” [1]

It seems fitting in this context, that Joseph Smith claimed that the golden plates were inscribed with a heretofore unknown Reformed Egyptian language. No artifact or document containing such a language has ever been located in the Old World or New. Since no documents are extant to confirm what the supposed characters look like, scholars have no way of knowing whether or not the language was indeed related to Egyptian or if the phrase was simply something that Smith created whole cloth out of his imagination.

The Book of Mormon’s central narrative begins with the story of Lehi’s family fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BC and emphasizes the important records they carried with them. The work is immediately declared to be written “in the language of my father.” The various sets of plates mentioned contained the history of their people, and would have been written in their native language. The suggestion that these earliest American settlers would have relied upon some variant of the Egyptian language rather than their extremely well documented Hebrew tradition (which would have been easier to engrave upon metal plates) stretches the limits of credibility. Smith’s passion for the mysteries of Egypt, later allowed full reign in his translation of the papyrus he convinced others to buy for him, is a likely source of this claim.

PRACTICALITY CHALLENGE


A serious review of the notion of gold plates requires at least some consideration of the material details. Smith claimed in his 1842 Wentworth Letter that the bundle of gold plates was six inches wide by eight inches long and “something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed,” leaving only a portion of the metal plates available for viewing. Even if the handmade leaves were pounded extremely thin, this begs the question of how 531 double-sided pages of modern typeface could possibly fit onto a couple inches of small metal plates, less than half the size of a sheet of modern copy paper.

John Whitmer claimed that each plate was engraved on both sides, calling into question just how thin each could possibly get before becoming a jumbled mess of overlapping impressions. Being an extremely soft metal, gold would facilitate easy inscription, but that same pliability would likewise deform the plates under their own weight, and certainly while being jostled over many centuries of rough travel.

Many have questioned how heavy the gold plates were. Given the known density and weight of gold, a solid gold block of the dimensions Smith described would have weighed approximately two hundred pounds. Even if they were alloyed gold, which challenges known Pre-Columbian metallurgy techniques and contradicts some of the claims that Smith made, and if we allow for a significant weight reduction due to the likely uneven plates, the bundle would remain extremely heavy and difficult to carry around. 

PLATES NEVER USED


LDS art depicting a studious Joseph Smith

An inspiring image of Joseph Smith openly studying the golden plates openly upon a table represents the story most members of the LDS Church grew up with. Upon further examination, it becomes apparent that the traditional narrative involving spectacles, interpreters, bows, a breastplate, Urim & Thummim deserves greater scrutiny to obtain a full understanding of who said what, when. In fact, nearly every first-hand witness (the Whitmers, the Cowderys, Emma Hale Smith and her father Isaac Hale, Martin Harris and William McLellin) described the process as Joseph burying his face in his hat and peeping into his peep stone.

While the statements of the earliest first-hand participants remain largely consistent, the narrative gets confusing as new terminology, such as Urim & Thummim, was introduced and became intertwined years after the fact. Most evidence supporting the inspiring traditional translation narrative comes from second-hand sources or third-party quotes from an interviewing publication, rather than contemporary statements from the small group of original participants. This suggests that only retroactively did the Church conclude that a less supernatural narrative involving fewer magical items would be more palatable to its audience.

Martin Harris, who served as Joseph’s scribe for a time, and became one of the Three Witnesses before financing the entire printing cost of the Book of Mormon, said “I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine.” Martin Harris reported that Joseph regularly sat behind a curtain or sheet, and would sometimes sit in different room or upstairs. Other times there was nothing between anyone as Joseph stared into his hat. [2]

Looking back at the history of the Book of Mormon, it becomes clear that the translation process changed after Martin Harris lost the original manuscript pages in June 1829. An angel reportedly took the breastplate and interpreters at that time. Upon restarting his dictation, Smith relied exclusively on the rock in his hat method for the entirety of the Book of Mormon we know today.

This same translation narrative is attested to by Emma Smith, a direct participant and onetime scribe as well as wife. She  confirmed that Smith’s seer stone was used for the entire book we know today. “Now the first my <husband> [Joseph Smith] translated, [the Book] 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.” [3] Again, the method of translation after the loss of the original manuscript was different than it had previously been.

Isaac Hale [Emma’s father] provided first-hand, contemporary testimony of his witness to Joseph’s method. “The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time in the woods!” [4] It is clear that Hale’s account lacks a faithful tone, which is perhaps why the Church tends to ignore it. But he is not wrong in saying that Smith used his treasure-digging stone to translate gold plates that were nowhere in the vicinity.

David Whitmer confirmed the supernatural methodology through which a perfect translation should be expected. “…and if by any means a mistake was made in the copy, the luminous writing would remain until it was corrected. It sometimes took Oliver several trials to get the right letters to spell correctly some of the more difficult words, but when he had written them correctly, the characters and the interpretation would disappear, and be replaced by other characters and their interpretation.” [5] Such explanations lead believers to ask why it was so important that Smith have the plates at all.

David Whitmer would later affirm that “the revelations in the Book of Commandments up to June 1829, were given via the stone through which the Book of Mormon was translated.” 

Elizabeth, Oliver Cowdery’s widow and David Whitmer’s sister, provided her direct witness of the process Joseph relied upon as he translated in her father’s small cabin. “He would place the director (stone) in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then read to his scribes the words (he said) as they appeared before him.” [6] These eyewitness accounts remained so consistent regarding Smith’s reliance upon his hat and seer stone, dictating word for word, that they cannot be discounted. Clearly, this was the process that Smith related to others. 

Faithful LDS scholars similarly confirm the method by which Joseph brought forth the text. “Thus, everything we have in the Book of Mormon was translated by placing the chocolate-colored stone in a hat, into which Joseph would bury his face so as to exclude the light. While doing so he could see an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphics would appear, and below the ancient writing, the translation would be given in English. Joseph would then read this to Oliver Cowdery, who in turn would write it. If he did so correctly, the characters and the interpretation would disappear and be replaced by other characters with their interpretation.” [7]

William McLellin concluded his extensive research (conducted years later when the term Urim & Thummim term had eclipsed the seer stone) into the translation process with the following statement. “Now all LDS-isms claim that Joseph translated the book with Urim and Thummim, where he did not even have or retain the Nephite…interpreters, but translated the entire Book by means of a small stone. I have certificates to that effect from Elizabeth Cowdery (Oliver’s widow), Martin Harris and Emma Bidamon (Joseph’s wife). And I have the testimony of John and David Whitmer.” [8]

It is important to recognize that nobody ever viewed a breastplate, spectacles or interpreters; they only heard Joseph speak of them. The spectacles were not part of Smith’s story to his family in 1823 and entered the narrative only after a treasure digging associate, Samuel Lawrence, suggested Smith should vision the items in 1825. Further, none who attempted, including Oliver Cowdery, could replicate what Smith said was occuring with his stone. The only answer that Smith gave to Cowdery, after his failure, was that he had to do more work on his own, that God would not simply give it to him. 

Lucy Smith (Joseph’s mother) claimed decades later to have felt the interpreters through a cloth, and that a sheet often separated Martin Harris from Joseph during their early work. This brief, early effort with Harris appears to be the only time the spectacles were suggested to have been used. Lucy would later describe the spectacles in a detail she could not possibly have observed while feeling an object under a cloth, suggesting that she was retelling her son’s story.

Challenged by the Internet and the abundance of credible information untouched by the LDS Church, members today are far more likely to hear leaders refer to inspiration or a dictation process rather than translation. A prime example includes, Why Joseph Smith’s Dictation of the Book of Mormon is Simply Jaw Dropping, featured in the November 2018 issue of LDS Living. It seems the LDS Church is subtly attempting to shift the narrative for future generations, perhaps to “inoculate” them from the very real threat of disaffection.

URIM & THUMMIM = PEEP STONE


Turning to the question of why the narrative changed from one about a peep stone in a hat to a breastplate and stones called a “Urim and Thummim,” it is instructive to look at the case of Lucy Smith, Joseph Smith’s mother. After her son’s assassination, Lucy seemed motivated to sanitize the story of the origins of the church he founded and the scripture that he purported to translate. 

As stated above, Lucy Smith professed to have felt an item under a cloth, but no other contemporary sources stated the same. Historian Dan Vogel observed that Lucy’s description in her preliminary manuscript, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, “3 cornered diamonds set in glass and the glass was set in silver bows” was recorded in a different ink, and was likely a later addition to the text. He posits that “the added information seems inconsistent with Lucy’s original description of smooth stones.” [9] It is possible that Lucy was either attempting to bolster a less magical narrative or that she was retelling what her son had told her.

Regarding the breastplate of “extraordinary size”, found in the Hill Cumorah with the plates, supposedly handed down by the Nephite prophets themselves, and which frequently worked its way into LDS art, Vogel reminds us that, “As with the spectacles, her experience with the breastplate was unique, unconfirmed, and uncorroborated by others. Why would Joseph allow others to lift the plates through a cloth but permit only his mother to examine the breastplate and spectacles?” He relays the observation of one of the most respected historians of the American West, Dale Morgan: “She is the only one who ever claims to have handled this breastplate, and I am inclined to doubt that her memory is substantive.” [10]

Many notions inherent in the LDS translation narrative rely upon Lucy Smith’s account, prepared decades after the martyrdom of her beloved son, and long after significant embellishments had evolved to mask folk magic origins. Her descriptions in no way help resolve the logistical challenges of constantly relocating the objects to and from their various secret locations, which included a small (10″ x 12″) Ontario glass box, a barrel of beans, Eldred Smith’s too shallow box, under the hearth, even in the shed and ensconced in the woods.

As for the cumbersome term “Urim and Thummim” (U&T), it is anachronistic no matter what it’s referring to in Book of Mormon translation context, perhaps purposely so in order to make it sound more spiritual and Biblical rather than folk-magicky. It is clear that the early Church knew but two terms: “interpreters” for the Nephite spectacles purportedly used for the first translation effort, and “seer stone” for the brown rock Joseph Smith found as a youth.

In his 1832 history, Smith merely stated “The Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book, therefore I commenced translating.” [11] The term Urim and Thummim was not known within the church until 1833, when W.W. Phelps speculated that the interpreters may have been the biblical Urim and Thummim. People then began using the term to refer to the seer stone, which is odd since U&T refers to two things, while a stone is just one.

There was no reference to the U&T in the headings of the Book of Commandments (1833) or in the headings of the D&C editions prepared during Smith’s lifetime (1835 and 1844). Again, it appears that this term was introduced later and then backdated to create the perception of having been present all along. It is instructive to compare present day D&C 10:1, which mentions the Urim and Thummim, to the original Book of Commandments, which contains no such reference. This revelation was altered years after the fact, as the words “Urim and Thummim” were inserted into the D&C only after that embellished narrative gained favor. A white seer stone, which Smith relied upon to help translate the Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham, was also later referred to as the Urim and Thummim.

This alteration of scripture, one of many such examples, and the commingling of otherwise anachronistic terms and magical items, are illustrative of the difficulty surrounding the translation topic. Not until many years later did Smith introduce the notion of the spectacles attached to a breastplate. Why he did so is something upon which historians today can only speculate, but it seems to have been a part of later concerted efforts to make Smith’s power in translation seem more unique, such that others could not duplicate as he dealt with threats to his power in Nauvoo.

Years after Smith’s death, his successor Brigham Young demonstrated the varied and interchangeable terms early Mormons often used to describe the seer stone and Urim and Thummim: “I met with the Twelve at Brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters. He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it; he showed us his seer stone.” [12] This seems to bolster the idea that early on, Smith talked openly of how the translation process happened, but later recognized that it was too easy for others to duplicate with their own stones.

LEARN MORE:

  • Most, if not all, of the stories involving spectacles, interpreters or a breastplate originated from the same source – Joseph Smith. Dan Vogel provides a thorough examination of the confusing translation period in Joseph Smith’s Magic Spectacles.

SEER STONES


The Brown Rock

Joseph Smith’s favored brown Peep Stone

Mormon leaders and non-Mormon sources agree that Smith used his brown treasure-seeking stone to discover the gold plates. “He looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit.” Without the stone “he would not have obtained the book.” “It was by looking at this stone in a hat, the light excluded, that Joseph discovered the plates.” In 1877 the printer who typeset the Book of Mormon stated that Smith told him that “by the aid of his wonderful stone he found gold plates on which were inscribed the writings in hieroglyphics.” [13]

Although the brown seer stone was carried on his person for years, around the time Smith organized the Church in 1830, he ceased using the stone which had served him so well in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. According to David Whitmer, Smith gave it to Oliver Cowdery. Until his death in 1850, Cowdery kept this stone as a sacred relic. Oliver’s brother-in-law obtained the stone from Cowdery’s widow and gifted it to Brigham Young in Salt Lake. One of Young’s counselors informed a congregation that Young had “the Urim and Thummim.” By this point, the term Urim and Thummim had become fully ingrained into mainstream doctrine, with few members understanding the term’s pedigree.

Brigham Young told the apostles in 1855 that Smith had five seer stones. At the dedication of the Manti, UT temple in 1888, Wilford Woodruff consecrated the brown rock upon the altar in the temple. [14] The stone remains in the LDS Church’s vault, along with at least two additional seer stones. [15]

The White Rock

Joseph Smith relied upon multiple seer stones, including a whitish, opaque stone that Joseph obtained first as a youth. Lorenzo Snow exhibited it for a time after Smith’s death. Despite various assertions by the LDS Church that Smith ceased using seer stones in later years, he had merely shifted his reliance to the white one. On Nov 4, 1830, Smith used the white stone to dictate a revelation for Orson Pratt (D&C 34). On Oct 7, 1835, he again used the white seer stone – by this point referred to as Urim & Thummim – for blessing Newel Whitney.

Joseph also used the white stone to translate the Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham – now proven to not be what it claims. “Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith commented that these Book of Abraham references could not mean the biblical Urim and Thummim, nor the instrument found with the gold plates. He said these statements had to refer to the seer stone.” [16]

DENIAL BY LDS AUTHORITIES


While today, the LDS Church has become more open about Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, this has not always been the case. Some prominent LDS authorities had long denied Smith’s use of the stones, even instructing that they were counterfeit, inferior, or evil stories concocted by “anti-Mormons.” 

An article in The Improvement Era, a former publication of the LDS Church, denied Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, while simultaneously disparaging the reliability of the witnesses: “In the opinion of the writer, the Prophet used no seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, neither did he translate in the manner described by David Whitmer and Martin Harris. The statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them.” [17]

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie mocked the idea of seer stones, writing “In imitation of the true order of heaven whereby seers receive revelations from God through a Urim and Thummim, the devil gives his own revelations to some of his followers through peep stones or crystal balls.” [19] Indeed, it must have been nearly impossible for a man of modern times to countenance the use of such a clearly magical object to “translate” anything. One wonders how the ultra-orthodox McConkie would deal with the numerous recent concessions contained in the LDS Gospel Topics essays.

Like his son-in-law, Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith could not accept magic as an integral part of his religion. He had a personal incentive to maintain the credibility of his family heritage as the key to the restoration of the original church of Christ, free from anything close to a charlatan or conman. He declared: “While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22-24.”

“These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites…It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes.” [18]

Of course, the prominence of the stones touched by the very finger of God is an important story in the Book of Mormon, as it led to a literal illumination during a long journey in tight, closed ships by the Jaredites to the Promised Land of America. But there appears to be a reversal of cause and effect here. Rather than the stones in this story being passed to Smith, it seems more likely that Smith’s use of magical stones was the catalyst for the story’s infusion into the Book of Mormon.

Smith’s favored brown peep stone, with pouch worn around his neck.

Peep Stones Criticized 

Further proof of Smith’s need to hide the true provenance of the Book of Mormon and his own use of stones when his power and unique access to divine authority were questioned can be seen with Hiram Page. Hiram Page had a stone similar to Smith’s and was professing to have revelations for the up-building of Zion and the governing of the Church. Oliver Cowdery and others were strongly influenced thereby in consequence of which Oliver was commanded by revelation: “Thou shalt take thy brother, Hiram Page, between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him” (D&C 28:11).

Peep stones have long been an inconvenient topic in LDS history. So it is that Bruce R. McConkie wrote Mormon Doctrine’s entry for peep stones as follows: See Devil, Revelation, Urim and Thummim. In imitation of the true order of heaven whereby seers receive revelations from God through a Urim and Thummim, the devil gives his own revelations to some of his followers through peep stones, or crystal balls.

LDS Scholars Deny Stones 

The discomfort with which the true story of the peep stone translation process has been met by modern LDS scholars is perhaps best demonstrated by Joseph Fielding McConkie, BYU Professor of Ancient Scripture and son of Bruce R. McConkie. He wrote: “The testimony of David Whitmer…clearly contradicts the principles established by the Lord in this revelation [D&C 9]. It is also at odds with the testimonies of both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

In our judgment, Mr. Whitmer is not a reliable source on this matter. We are entirely respectful of and grateful for the testimony to which he appended his name as one of the three witnesses of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and its divine origin. That, however, does not make him a competent witness to the process of translation. We too, like countless others, are competent witnesses of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Our knowledge of how it was translated, however, is limited to that which has come through the channels ordained by the Lord for that purpose.

As to David Whitmer’s explanation, it should be remembered that he never looked into the Urim and Thummim nor translated anything. His testimony of how the Book of Mormon was translated is hearsay… Such an explanation is, in our judgment, simply fiction created for the purpose of demeaning Joseph Smith and to undermine the validity of the revelations he received after translating the Book of Mormon…

Finally, the testimony of David Whitmer simply does not accord with the divine pattern. If Joseph Smith translated everything that is now in the Book of Mormon without using the gold plates, we are left to wonder why the plates were necessary in the first place.” [19]

Mirroring the dissonance many faithful LDS members have experienced upon learning of Smith’s involvement with treasure digging and subsequent translation methods, Joseph Fielding McConkie struggled with accepting the historical record. “We have some accounts that are obviously not so, that that’s how Joseph translated. We have accounts by David Whitmer written some 50 years after the event which say Joseph buried his head in a hat and read the translation from a seer stone. It just could not have been! It does not accord with any revelation that we have or the testimony of the prophet.” [20]

It seems that when Whitmer testifies of something that is in accord with the current narrative of the LDS Church and the reworked image of Joseph Smith, he is to be believed. But when his narrative causes members to see the origins of the church as they were, he is to be thrown under the bus.

Similarly, prominent LDS scholar Hugh Nibley, in writing his response to Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, derided her for believing the accounts of Joseph Smith using seer stones: “Thus she flatly rejects the sworn affidavit of fifty-one of Joseph’s neighbors because their testimony does not suit her idea of the prophet’s character. We would applaud such strong-mindedness were it not that on the very next page she accepts the stories of the same witnesses regarding ‘seer stones, ghosts, magic incantations, and nocturnal excavations.’ Now scandal stories thrive notoriously well in rural settings, while the judgment of one’s neighbors regarding one’s general character over a number of years is far less likely to run into the fantastic. Yet Brodie can reject the character witnesses as prejudiced while accepting the weirdest extravagances of their local gossip.” [21] Is it Brodie who is rejecting reliable first-hand, historical testimony or is it perhaps Nibley and so many others?

EXPANSION THEORY


Moving on from the creation of the Book of Mormon using a seer stone, the book should be examined on its own merits. Is the text that is read today a likely record of an ancient people who traveled from Jerusalem to the Americas, or is it more likely that the record was produced by a gifted and imaginative man of the nineteenth century? Is it a translation or something else?

The traditional view of  the Book of Mormon is as a word-for-word (or “tight”) translation, meaning that Joseph Smith intended every word to be exactly as it was written. Emma Smith confirmed this in her first-hand experience in the translation process: “When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. . . . When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation…” Surely, if Smith was so insistent on each and every word, it must have been a very close and accurate translation.

In modern times, looking at the historical context, scholars point out that there is much in the text that  resembles the abundant works and theologies of the early 1800s, as opposed to any known ancient Indians. Apologists today often resort to introducing various definitions for “translation.” One such popular theory is that Smith saw the story unfold before him in some mystical way or was prompted by God to understand it internally, but was free to choose words and whole phrases to express these ideas or visuals on his own terms, perhaps even significantly expanding the text beyond its original state. This theory is called the “loose translation” or “expansion” theory.

But once more, this looks like an unsupported attempt to deal with what is clearly not the hand of God in the work. It is also not what Smith said about the work himself. It is worth identifying how the loss of the first translation attempt, and related revelation (D&C 3), strongly reinforces the narrative that Smith wanted his followers to believe: that the translation was directly supervised by God, every word. Further, Smith was apparently instructed not to re-translate the ancient text because of his enemies’ evil designs to alter the manuscript and catch Joseph in a contradiction. Had there been any room for “expansion,” Joseph would not have concerned himself with potentially differing wording between versions.

LEARN MORE:

ORAL STORYTELLER


Turning back to the text once more, it contains much evidence of an oral storyteller who was struggling with the constraints of the written word, including lack of punctuation, repetitive phrases, awkward wording, even places where the creator appears to have forgotten names. The modern Book of Mormon has been so thoroughly edited and changed (in substantive ways and in ways that are meant to make it more accessible to modern readers) that it can be difficult for members of the current LDS Church to notice the behind the scenes work that makes the book seem more miraculous. The following sections will help to reveal that.

NO PUNCTUATION 

Not a single punctuation mark existed in the entire original Book of Mormon manuscript, which supports the multiple accounts of Joseph orally dictating the contents. “The sentences were all run in without capitals or other marks to designate where one left off and another began.” The typesetter, John Gilbert, dedicated days to correcting and punctuating the run-on manuscript. “I have frequently to stop and read half a page to find how to punctuate it.” [22]

Apologists often argue that punctuation does not change anything important in the book, but why wouldn’t God have dictated that, as well as the exact spelling of names? If God didn’t care about punctuation, then why was it added? If the book was perfect exactly as Joseph Smith wrote it, then why is the current text not as he intended it to be? The answer seems obvious: a manuscript lacking punctuation highlights Smith’s lack of education and encourages readers to question other dubious aspects of the text.

Wordiness Problem

The Book of Mormon presents countless examples of extreme wordiness, which contradict multiple Nephite authors’ comments about economizing their narrative to save space. “I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words  upon plates.” (Jacob 4:1) Despite expressed difficulties, the Book of Mormon contains almost as many verses as the New Testament (which LDS members believe to be more imperfect than the Book of Mormon), twice the words per verse, and a greater word count. Surprisingly, there were more than 1,200 “and it came to pass” references in the original 1830 version.

Mark Twain, the famed American writer who was a contemporary of Smith’s, observed that “whenever he found his speech growing too modern – which was about every sentence or two – he ladled in a few such phrases as ‘exceedingly sore’ and ‘it came to pass’…and made things satisfactory again” (see Jarom 1:2; Mormon 9:33). Mormons often joke about these phrases reflexively, not realizing that they are seeing the problems in the scripture without the help of an anti-Mormon critic.

As we explore the Book of Mormon narrative with a greater understanding of how Joseph verbally narrated the story, we began to view such passages as, “And thus we see that…they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace” in a very different light (Alma 24:19). If an editor like Mormon was dedicating his final days to condensing the records, would he write like this?

And again, would a careful prophet scribe not have condensed this grammatical disaster: “And it came to pass that the brother of Amalickiah was appointed king over the people; and his name was Ammoron; thus King Ammoron, the brother of King Amalickiah was appointed to reign in his stead”…into this: “Ammoron, the brother of Amalickiah, was appointed as king, to reign in his stead.” 

Other examples among many include: “And four of them were the sons of Mosiah; and their names were Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner, and Himni; these were the names of the sons of Mosiah.” (Mosiah 27:34)  Also, “And behold, in the end of this book ye shall see that this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi. Behold I do not mean the end of the book of Helaman, but I mean the end of the book of Nephi, from which I have taken all the account which I have written” (Helaman 2:13-14).

Do these excerpts read like the careful inscriptions of ancient Indians, or like Joseph Smith orating a story that he is creating?

Losing Track

In multiple places, the narrator appears to forget what he had previously dictated and is forced to resort to verbal circumlocution. This makes no sense if there were days, months and years of labor put into etching symbols onto gold plates, which were then carefully abridged by Mormon. However, such lapses are easily explained by a break in dictation for the night or simply a lapse in concentration.

Alma 19:16 introduces a Lamanite woman named Abish, and informs that she “ran forth from house to house, making it known unto the people” that the power of God had come upon the king and queen. A mere twelve verses later, the narrator forgets her name and clumsily refers instead to “…the woman servant who had caused the multitude to be gathered together.”

Similarly, Alma 1 introduces an Antichrist named Nehor, who teaches false doctrine, kills a war hero named Gideon, and finally recants his unbelief before his execution for murder. In the very next chapter, the author appears to momentarily forget Nehor’s name, and introduces a new character, Amlici, as “he being after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword, who was executed according to the law.” Later, in Alma 24, the author uses the much simpler description, “after the order of Nehor.”

On the other hand, we occasionally encounter more information just a few verses after it would have flowed most easily. In Alma 17:36, narrating how Ammon defended King Lamoni’s sheep from would-be thieves, Joseph dictates that, “with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them.” Two verses later, we are informed that “six of them had fallen by the sling..but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword.” Faithful members of the LDS Church know their scriptures well, but have likely never considered why these errors are present in the most perfect book ever written.

THE LOST PAGES


Finally, let’s turn to the lost pages and how they illuminate problems with The Book of Mormon’s translation. Martin Harris became one of Joseph Smith’s earliest and most infatuated followers. He resolved a number of Smith’s financial obligations, assisted with translation efforts throughout the winter of 1827, even serving directly as Smith’s scribe from April through June of 1828. He would soon thereafter bear the entire cost of printing the Book of Mormon. Thus, when his friends and associates whose confidence he would soon lose derided Harris for abandoning “the cultivation of one of the best farms in the neighborhood,” they were speaking literally rather than figuratively. Like so many others who were involved in the beginnings of Smith’s church, he lost a great deal financially.

Lucy Harris, Martin’s wife, was familiar with Joseph Smith’s reputation as a treasure digger and remained intensely distrustful, fearing he was swindling her husband. Within days of Martin’s failure to appear at their daughter’s May wedding, Lucy moved to obtain a deed for her dowry land, arguably to secure her own future independent from her distracted husband. This seemed her only option when faced with the likelihood that the charismatic Joseph Smith would keep taking and taking until her family was destitute, which ironically is exactly where Martin would soon find himself. 

Martin desperately needed to do something to mollify his wife. Ultimately, after much pleading, Smith lent the early manuscript pages, which had taken months to produce, to Martin for the purpose of convincing Lucy and others of the translation’s veracity and her husband’s prudence. The work, which likely represented the “Book of Lehi,” was never seen again. Lucy most likely destroyed the pages, a sentiment Martin himself later echoed. [23] Lucy remained acutely aware that Martin had never seen any plates with his own eyes, and became so troubled by her husband’s credulity and fiscal disregard that she filed suit against Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith would later number the lost pages at 116, though Don Bradley’s The Lost 116 Pages elaborates on why Smith may have been estimating and how the actual page count was likely far higher. Smith was so perplexed over the loss that he declared his first recorded revelation, found in D&C 3 and well-known by members, which revoked his translation privileges for a time. Conveniently, Smith promptly delivered a second revelation, D&C 10, restoring his privileges, enabling him to continue right where he left off in Mosiah.

D&C Section 10 sheds additional light, instructing that Smith was not to re-translate the same material because of his enemies’ evil designs to alter the manuscript and catch him in a contradiction. But is this really why Smith moved onto a different part of the story? Many have questioned the likelihood of this scenario, in light of the fact that the manuscript was hand written in ink on a rather rough and porous foolscap paper. Potential alterations would be impractical and readily apparent to the naked eye, while convincingly mimicking Martin’s handwriting over such a volume of work is unthinkable. It seems far more likely that Smith learned a great deal from this early misstep and concluded that he would be better off starting all over again than trying to salvage his original work.

It is interesting to note that the Book of Mosiah was actually the first book dictated in our present day Book of Mormon. (see Mosiah Priority) Upon restarting the project, Smith resumed dictating from Mosiah and continued to Moroni, then returned to dictate 1st Nephi through Omni. The last book written was the Words of Mormon; a small 2 page; 18-verse book where Mormon conveniently explains how God foresaw the loss of the original manuscript instructed and instructed latter prophets to maintain a duplicate set of plates covering the same period represented in the first 6 books of the present day Book of Mormon.

All this evidence suggests that Joseph Smith was not “translating” in the manner in which he said he did, word by word, nor that he was receiving inspiration beyond that which any other fiction writer of the day might have merited. There are simply too many issues which are be far more easily explained by seeing Smith as the creator of the Book of Mormon. 

LEARN MORE:

 

[1] Collected Works Of Hugh Nibley, vol 18: An Approach To The Book Of Abraham.
[2] Journal of History, 1910, vol 8, 299-300.
[3] Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma S. Pilgrim, 27 March 1870; see also Early Mormon Documents 1:532.
[4] Isaac Hale Affidavit, March 20, 1834.
[5] Deseret Evening News, James Hart to Editor, March 18, 1844.
[6] Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery Affidavit, 15 Feb. 1870.
[7] Revelations of the Restoration, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig Ostler, 89-98. The authors are referring to Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 115, 157-58.
[8] William McClellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872.
[9] L. Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 61-62.
[10] Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, 100.
[11] Joseph Smith History, 1832, Letterbook 1:5, LDS Church History Library.
[12] Brigham Young, Millenial Star 26:118,  Dec. 27, 1841.
[13] Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, 145, 173.
[14] Wilford Woodruff journal 8, May 18, 1888
[15] Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, 243-6.
[16] Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, 243-5.
[17] The Improvement Era, 1939.
[18] Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith 3:225-226.
[19] Revelations of the Restoration, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig Ostler, 89-98.
[20] Great Doctrines of the Book of Mormon, 1991.
[21] No Ma’am, That’s Not History, Hugh Nibley
[22] Natural Born Seer, 367 / John H. Gilbert, in Joe Smith: Early Life of the Mormon Prophet.
[23] William Pilkington, A Dying Testimony Given by Martin Harris