For generations, the LDS Church has promoted the inspiring story of Joseph Smith translating ancient text while diligently scrutinizing a stack of gold plates before him. Many faithful Mormons are surprised to learn that nearly every eyewitness and direct participant refutes that narrative.
The LDS Gospel Topics Essay on the translation process declares that revelation comes “in a variety of ways,” including dreams or visions. The Church 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 awkward fact that he never relied upon the plates themselves.
Though denied for generations, the Church now confirms that Joseph 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, despite it having been in its possession throughout its denials. Joseph used that very same rock to seek buried treasure for a fee, immediately prior to bringing forth the Book of Mormon. The Church 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 translation, becomes officially interchangeable with Urim and Thummim.
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. The golden plates were never present in the room during translation, much less on the table as described in Church sponsored art.
In our humble experience, the Church has been dishonest in its dealings, relying upon elaborate deception, indirect language and altered narratives to mask inconvenient facts. It would be one thing if only a few troubling items presented hurdles; but the rock in the hat merely supplements other demonstrable falsehoods manifest in LDS authority and historicity claims. Faith is for things not seen.
Archaeology was experiencing a renaissance of sorts in the early 1800s – think Indiana Jones. 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.” (Collected Works Of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 18: An Approach To The Book Of Abraham)
It seems fitting in this context, that Joseph Smith claimed that the golden plates were inscribed with an heretofore unknown Reformed Egyptian language. Not a single artifact or document containing such a language has ever been located – not in the Old World, nor the New.
The Book of Mormon begins with the story of Lehi’s family fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BC, and heavily 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 stretches the limits of credibility.
Joseph claimed that the bundle of gold plates was 7″ x 8″ x 6″, with 2/3 remaining sealed, leaving only 2″ of relatively thick metal plates available for viewing. It begs the question of how 531 double sided pages of modern typeface could possibly fit onto a couple inches of small metal plates. As it turns out, the question is moot because Joseph never used the actual plates to “translate” the Book of Mormon.
PLATES NEVER USED
This inspiring image of Joseph openly studying the golden plates represents the story most Mormons grew up with. Upon further examination, it becomes apparent that the traditional narrative involving spectacles, interpreters, bows, breastplate, Urim & Thummim and curtains deserves greater scrutiny to obtain a full understanding of who said what, when. In fact, nearly every first-hand witness described the process as Joseph burying his face in his hat, peeping into his favorite treasure digging rock, while telling a story.
This episode in particular is not what we learned in Sunday School. We invite the reader to explore original sources with an eye toward truth, even if it conflicts with what you already know.
While the statements of the earliest first-hand participants remain relatively consistent, the narrative gets confusing as new terminology, such as Urim & Thummim, became intertwined years, even decades after the fact. Most evidence supporting the 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.
After Martin Harris lost the 116 pages in June 1829, an angel supposedly took the breastplate and interpreters – instruments nobody every actually saw. Upon starting over, Smith relied exclusively on the rock in his hat method for the entirety of the Book of Mormon we know today.
- Dan Vogel provides a thorough examination of the confusing translation period in Joseph Smith’s Magic Spectacles.
Martin Harris, who served as Joseph’s scribe for a time, and became one of the Three Witnesses before financed 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. (Journal of History, vol. 8, 1910, p. 299-300)
Emma Smith, direct participant and onetime scribe, confirms that Joseph’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.” (Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma S. Pilgrim, 27 March 1870; see also Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:532)
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!” (Isaac Hale Affidavit, March 20, 1834)
“David Whitmer was repeatedly reported to have said that after the loss of the 116 pages, the Lord took both the plates and the Urim and Thummim from the Prophet, never to be returned… In their stead, David Whitmer maintained, the Prophet used an oval-shaped, chocolate-colored seer stone slightly larger than an egg.
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.” (Revelations of the Restoration, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig Ostler, p. 89-98. The authors are referring to Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 115, 157-58).
David Whitmer confirmed the 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.” (Deseret Evening News, James Hart to Editor, March 18, 1844)
Elizabeth, Oliver Cowdery’s widow and David Whitmer’s sister, was a direct witness as Joseph translated in her father’s small cabin, provided her testimony of the process. “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.” (Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery Affidavit, 15 Feb. 1870)
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.” (William McClellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872)
Nobody ever actually saw 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 Samuel Lawrence, a treasure digging associate, suggested them in 1825.
Lucy Smith (Joseph’s mom) claimed decades later to have felt the interpreters through a cloth, and that a sheet often separated Harris from Joseph during their work. This brief, early effort with Harris appears to be the only time the spectacles were suggested to have been used. Apologetic attempts to place the purported spectacles into Smith’s hat or onto a breastplate fail any standard of credibility.
Today, members are far more likely to hear church leaders refer to inspiration 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. The church is subtly attempting to change the narrative for future generations. For many faithful members who have spent their lives defending Joseph’s translation of actual plates, this represents a significant turnabout.
URIM & THUMMIM = PEEP STONE
The term “Urim and Thummim” (U&T) is anachronistic no matter what it’s referring to in Book of Mormon translation context. 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 found as a youth.
In his 1832 history, Joseph Smith merely stated “The Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book, therefore I commenced translating.” (Joseph Smith History, 1832, Letterbook 1:5, LDS ChurchHistory Library) 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.
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 after that narrative gained favor. A white seer stone, which Joseph relied upon to help translate the Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham, was also later referred to as the Urim &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 being attached to a breastplate, which may have served to further mask the the awkward fact that he actually relied upon a stone in his hat.
Lucy Smith professed to have felt an item under a cloth, but since nobody ever saw the object, any description thereof could only have been a retelling of Joseph’s story. Dan Vogel observed that Lucy’s description in her preliminary manuscript of “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”. (L. Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 61-62)
Regarding the breastplate of “extraordinary size”, 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 historian Dale Morgan’s observation, “She is the only one who ever claims to have handled this breastplate, and I am inclined to doubt that her memory is substantive.” (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, p. 100)
It appears that a good many notions inherent in the traditional LDS narrative rely upon Lucy Smith’s account, prepared decades after the martyrdom of her beloved son. Her marvelous 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 shallow box, under the hearth, even in the shed and woods.
Brigham Young demonstrated the varied and interchangeable terms early Mormons often used to describe nothing more than magic rocks. “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.” (Brigham Young, Millenial Star 26:118, Dec. 27, 1841)
- Most, if not all, of the stories involving spectacles, interpreters or breastplates originated from the same source – Joseph. Dan Vogel provides a thorough examination of the confusing translation period in Joseph Smith’s Magic Spectacles.
The Brown Rock
Multiple Mormon sources demonstrate that post 1828, Urim and Thummim (U&T) referred to a single stone. David Whitmer affirmed 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.” 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).
Orson Pratt observed “The U&T is a stone or other substance sanctified and illuminated by the Spirit of the living God.” This substitution of words is crucial evidence that by 1829 Smith was using biblical terminology to mainstream into the church narrative an instrument previously used primarily for treasure seeking. Smith referred to his stone, others said by the aid of a “glass.” (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 175)
Martin Harris provided additional confirmation that the brown peep stone was used to create the Book of Mormon, and that the rock was referred to as the Urim and Thummim. “The tablets or plates were translated by Smith, who used a small oval or kidney-shaped stone, called Urim and Thummim, that seemed endowed with the marvelous power of converting the characters on the plates, when used by Smith, into English, who would then dictate to Cowdrey what to write.” (Letter to Chicago Tribune, David Whitmer, 1881)
Mormon leaders and non-Mormon sources agree that Joseph 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.” (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 145, 173)
Although the brown stone was carried on his person fas a near constant companion 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 brown 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 true history.
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. (Wilford Woodruff journal 8, May 18, 1888) The stone remains in the LDS Church’s vault, along with at least two additional seer stones. (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 243-6)
The White Rock
Lorenzo Snow exhibited the whitish, opaque stone – the one Joseph first obtained. Despite various Church assertions that Joseph ceased using seer stones, he merely switched to the white one in later years. 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.” (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, p. 243-5)
DENIAL OF ROCKS
Many members today are experiencing severe dissonance as they encounter the peep stone reality among scattered fragments of official LDS resources. LDS authorities had long denied Smith’s use of the stones, even instructing that they were were counterfeit, inferior, or evil. Regarding this very same seer stone method of receiving revelation, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “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” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 566)
Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith denied the use of seer stones, when he shared, “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.” (Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith 3:225-226)
Peep Stones Criticized
Mormon Doctrine’s entry for peep stones instructs 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.
An instance of this copying of the true order occurred in the early days of this dispensation. Hiram Page had such a stone 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)
LDS Magazine Denies Stones
The LDS Church suggests that Whitmer and Harris should be relied upon when considering the gold plates seen only with their spiritual eyes, but they were just too darn old for their fading memories of seer stones to be credible.
“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.” (The Improvement Era, 1939)
LDS Scholars Deny Stones
Joseph Fielding McConkie, BYU Professor of Ancient Scripture and son of Bruce R. McConkie, shared, “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.” (Revelations of the Restoration, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig Ostler, p. 89-98)
Additional Denial from Joseph Fielding McConkie
“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.” (Great Doctrines of the Book of Mormon, 1991)
Imagine the faithful scholars’ disappointment when just a few years later, the Church embraced a degree of transparency, officially refuting the inspiring narrative you dedicated years to defending.
Hugh Nibley Denies Seer Stones
Hugh Nibley, in writing No Ma’am, That’s Not History, relies upon rhetorical tricks and character assassination to discredit Fawn Brodie’s account, while not denying the use of seer stones.
“Thus (p. 18) 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.”
Like so many words used in Mormonism, “translate” holds different meanings. It could mean “to remove from one place to another,” which seems to be what Joseph did. Many suggest he moved a story, sourced from well documented works and fables of the day, to a scribe and paper. The now official Church description of him peeping into his hat supports this interpretation.
While the final dictation process took about 90 days, Joseph Smith had years to develop or acquire the story. It appears that he orated an elaborate story, for at least most of the text, whose content is strikingly similar to contemporary works and ideologies of his day. There was no comparing one text with another; not a translation in any literal sense.
By comparison, the King James Bible was translated in two years and nine months, requiring 54 scholars. It took thirteen years for Martin Luther to translate the Bible, fifteen years for 32 scholars to translate the Revised Standard Version and fourteen years for 82 translators to prepare the English Revised.
As the true method of Joseph’s bringing forth the book gains awareness within the Church, leading apologists have begun to subtly shift the narrative away from the notion of an inspired translation, while offering a dictation. A prime example includes, Why Joseph Smith’s Dictation of the Book of Mormon is Simply Jaw Dropping, featured in the Nov 10, 2018 issue of LDS Living.
For faithful members who have spent their lives defending how Joseph translated actual plates, this represents a significant turnabout. Never mind that the introduction of the Book of Mormon prominently states that it was “translated by the gift and power of God.”
It has always been officially suggested, as reported by Smith himself, that the Book of Mormon was a very “tight” translation – God breathed the translation word for word, converting an ancient text to 19th Century English.
Emma Smith confirmed 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…”
As evidence compounds to illustrate how the Book of Mormon more closely resembles the abundant works and theologies of the early 1800s, as opposed to ancient Indians, the need for alternative translation theories gains traction. Perhaps if Joseph were free to choose words and phrases, even significantly expand the text beyond its original state? Thus, the notion of a “loose” translation, or perhaps some combination thereof, creates room for apologists to advance plausible explanations for a challenging narrative.
It is worth identifying how the loss of the first translation attempt, and related revelation (D&C 3), strongly reinforces the “tight” translation scenario. Joseph 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.
Not a single punctuation mark existed in the entire original Book of Mormon manuscript, which supports the multiple accounts of Joseph dictating a story from his hat. “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.” (Natural Born Seer p. 367 / John H. Gilbert, in Joe Smith: Early Life of the Mormon Prophet)
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, 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 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)
As we explored 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)
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 wordy gems 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 more like the careful inscriptions of ancient Indians, or Joseph Smith telling a story? Upon completion of the book, Joseph Smith buried the original manuscript under the cornerstone of the Nauvoo temple. It was recovered after his death; but water and mold had destroyed 72% of it.
In multiple places, the narrator appears to forget what he had previously dictated and is forced to resort to verbal circumlocution. If the words were indeed carefully abridged by Mormon, they are difficult to reconcile. 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.”
THE LOST PAGES
Lucy Harris, Martin’s wife, intensely distrusted Joseph Smith, fearing he was swindling her husband into funding various treasure digging schemes. The first pages of the translation process, which took two months to produce, were given to Martin for the purpose of convincing her of the translation’s veracity. She most likely destroyed the pages, as they were never seen again.
Joseph was so perplexed over the loss that he received his first revelation ever recorded from God, found in D&C 3. Joseph is chastised and loses his translating privileges for a season. Conveniently, just a few weeks later, Joseph received his second recorded revelation, D&C 10, restoring his translation privileges, enabling Joseph to continue right where he left off in Mosiah.
From D&C Section 10 we learn that Joseph was not to re-translate the same material because of the his enemies’ evil designs to alter the manuscript and catch Joseph in a contradiction. Apparently, God knew that Mrs. Harris was a troublemaker way back when Mormon was abridging the large plates, conveniently instructing Mormon to slip in a second set of plates, covering the very same period represented in the first 6 books of the present day Book of Mormon; i.e., 1st Nephi – Omni.
It is important to note that the Book of Mosiah was actually the first book translated in our present day Book of Mormon. (see Mosiah Priority) Joseph resumed from Mosiah to Moroni and than returned to translate 1st Nephi through Omni from the small plates of Nephi that Mormon slipped in. The lost pages represent the book of Lehi from the large plates. The last book written was the Words of Mormon; a small 2 page; 18-verse book where Mormon conveniently explains how he insert the small plates of Nephi into his larger abridgment of the large plates. Mormon further informs the reader that God instructed Nephi and latter prophets to maintain a duplicate set of plates. Problem solved!
Problems With This Story
- If Joseph was the prophet he claimed to be, translating directly from golden records with God’s direct oversight, the next word appearing in his rock only after the previous was verified, why didn’t he simply re-translate the same material again – in the same “most perfect of all books” fashion? Everything was hand written in ink, so no adversary could have altered the original manuscript without being easily discovered. Was this not a missed opportunity for Joseph to reinforce his gift of translation?
- Would God instruct the Nephite prophets to keep duplicate plates and require Mormon to labor through his abridgment of the small plates, despite the clearly stated dual challenges of engraving the plates and need for brevity, merely to accommodate a feisty housewife 1,400 years in the future?
- Is it more likely that Joseph knew he could not accurately re-narrate the story, and his conveniently timed D&C 3 revelation merely bought him time to devise a semi-plausible solution?
- Should we be concerned with Joseph’s remarkable ability to pull revelation down from heaven promptly as needed, while future generations of prophets would be denied God’s voice for generations regarding far more critical matters? What does Occam’s Razor suggest?
- Mormon Matters: Seer Stone Bringing Forth Book of Mormon
Q: Do you agree with first-hand accounts which consistently reiterate that the plates were never present during the translation of the Book of Mormon?
Q: Is it problematic that Joseph regularly, and always unsuccessfully, used his seer stone to seek buried treasure for a fee?
Q: Why do Mormons refuse to accept abundant and well-documented sources which directly refute the traditional translation narrative, while easily believing that God entrusted sacred gold plates to a teenage boy who spent spent his time searching for buried treasure?
Q: Why have Church manuals, movies, posters, magazines and websites consistently portrayed Joseph Smith earnestly studying plates on a table, when in fact he placed his favored treasure seeking stone in his hat, buried his face therein and verbally told a story?
Q: Are we to believe that the plates, which nobody every saw with physical eyes, were preserved for millennia, laboriously hauled across countless miles, buried, then restored by an angel…so Smith could peep into his hat and never even rely upon them?
Q: Why hasn’t a single set of plates like those purported in Mormonism, of any type of metal, been found in the Old or New World?
Q: If Moroni could whisk the plates away to heaven (after Martin Harris lost the first pages), return them to Joseph, then take them back again…why bother burying them in the first place?
Q: Mormon was 74 years old when he turned plates over to Moroni – not just the Book of Mormon plates, but purportedly many other plates. How exactly did he lug those around the early American wilderness?
Q: In obtaining the plates from Laban, are we to believe that God works through deception and murder instead of some other method, all things being possible?
Q: Why would Smith destroy the one and only original sacred manuscript, along with the purported original witness signatures?
Q: Does the total lack of punctuation and endless run-on sentences reinforce the notion that Joseph merely recited a story, rather than translating something real people wrote thousands of years ago?
Q: If Smith exercised special powers with his seer stone, could God not have easily directed him to the lost pages?
Q: Joseph claimed that no man could look upon the plates and not perish, yet he purports to have regularly done exactly that, while constantly worrying about others stealing them. Would they not simply have perished?
- LDS.org: A Treasured Testament (Church confirms rock/hat method)
- Joseph Smith’s Magic Spectacles, Dan Vogel
- Joseph Smith Brings The Plates Home, Dan Vogel
- Natural Born Seer, Richard Van Wagoner
- LDS Gospel Topics Essay: Book of Mormon Translation
- LDS.org, Joseph the Seer, October, 2015 (First official LDS photo of stone)
- The Friend, Golden Plates to Book of Mormon, 2017
- MormonThink: Translation of Book of Mormon
- Process of Translating the Book of Mormon, McConkie / Ostler, 2000