Book of Mormon/Translation/Method

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Book of Mormon Translation method

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Question: Was every word of the Book of Mormon translation provided directly from God?

Witnesses to the translation each had their own view of the process

Was Joseph Smith provided with the exact wording of every sentence in the Book of Mormon? Was he simply given impressions which he then dictated within the context of his own understanding? Was it some combination of the two methods?

Joseph's wife Emma related her own experience:

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, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, "Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?" When I answered, "Yes," he replied, "Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived." He had such a limited knowledge of history at the time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.[1]

Scholars have examined and debated the issue of a "tight" versus "loose" translation method for many years. Although it is an interesting intellectual exercise, the exact process by which words and sentences were formed has no bearing upon the fact that the book was dictated by the "gift and power of God."


Question: What are the Nephite interpreters?

The Nephite interpreters are two seer stones set in a framework resembling a set of "spectacles"

The Lord provided a set of seer stones (which were formerly used by Nephite prophets) along with the plates. The term Nephite interpreters can alternatively refer to the stones themselves or the stones in conjunction with their associated paraphernalia (holding rim and breastplate). Some time after the translation, early saints noticed similarities with the seer stones and related paraphernalia used by High Priests in the Old Testament and began to use the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably with the Nephite interpreters and Joseph's other seer stones as well. The now popular use of the term Urim and Thummim has unfortunately obscured the fact that all such devices belong in the same class of consecrated revelatory aids and that more than one were used in the translation.

The manner in which the interpreters were used was never explained in detail

The Nephite interpreters were intended to assist Joseph in the initial translation process, yet the manner in which they were employed was never explained in detail. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were set in rims resembling a pair of spectacles has led some to believe that they may have been worn like a pair of glasses, with Joseph viewing the characters on the plates through them. This, however, is merely speculation that doesn't take into account that Joseph soon disassembled the fixture, the spacing between seer stones being too wide for his eyes. The accompanying breastplate also appeared to have been used by a larger man. Like its biblical counterpart (the High Priest's breastplate contained 12 gems that symbolized him acting as a mediator between God and Israel), the Nephite breastplate was apparently non-essential to the revelatory process.


Question: Did Joseph ever place the Nephite interpreters ("Urim and Thummim") into his hat?

There is evidence that indicates that Joseph did place the "Urim and Thummim" into his hat

The Church states that, "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." and "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." [2]

Contemporary accounts indicate that Joseph began the translation using the Nephite interpreters, and finished it using his own seer stone after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript. Note this account from Martin Harris:

The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should “look aught and perish.” [3]

Martin Harris said that Joseph placed the interpreters in a hat

Harris states that Joseph used the "two stones set in a bow of silver" by "placing them in the hat." He is referring to the Nephite interpreters, what we today refer to as the "Urim and Thummim". Joseph may have therefore placed the Nephite interpreters into his hat - a method of receiving revelation that he was already quite familiar with.

Based upon these accounts, it appears that Joseph began the translation process using the Nephite interpreters, and that at some point he may have used them with a hat. After the loss of the 116 pages, he may have either switched to his own seer stone or continued to use the Nephite “spectacles,” again with the hat. In fact, given the consistent reports of the use of the hat during translation, it is not possible to know with certainty whether Joseph was using the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone in the hat during this period of time. One thing seems certain based upon witness accounts—during the period of the translation process after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph sat in the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat.[4]


Question: Did Joseph Smith use the Nephite interpreters to translate? Or did he use his own seer stone?

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone, and both were called "Urim and Thummim"

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite Interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation process, yet we only hear of the "Urim and Thummim" being used for this purpose.

  1. He described the instrument as ‘spectacles’ and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim.
  2. He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed, called ‘seer stones’ because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones.
  3. Records indicate that soon after the founding of the Church in 1830, the Prophet stopped using the seer stones as a regular means of receiving revelations. Instead, he dictated the revelations after inquiring of the Lord without employing an external instrument.

Emma Smith confirmed that Joseph switched between the Nephite interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation

Emma Smith Bidamon described Joseph's use of several stones during translation to Emma Pilgrim on 27 March 1870 (original spelling retained):

Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by 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.”[5]

Joseph Smith's small, egg-shaped seer stone. Emma said that "he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color." Photograph by Welden C. Andersen and Richard E. Turley Jr. Copyright © The Church Historian's Press.


Question: Did Joseph Smith use his own seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?

Many eyewitness accounts confirm that Joseph employed his seer stone during part of the translation process

Joseph Smith translates using the seer stone placed within his hat while Martin Harris acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Religious Studies Center, BYU, Deseret Book Company (May 11, 2015)

Martin Harris states that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters and then later switched to using the seer stone "for convenience." [6] In fact, Elder Nelson refers to the use of the seer stone in his 1993 talk:

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

“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. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.) [7]


Question: Has the Church tried to hide Joseph's use of a seer stone?

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. Part of the reason for this is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name "Urim and Thummim." In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.

That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone's use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention that the process. Note the mention of the stone in the official children's magazine, The Friend (available online at lds.org):

"To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone."
—“A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sep 1974, 7 off-site

Text translated with the Nephite interpreters was lost with the 116 pages given to Martin Harris—see DC 3:. The Church's Historical Record records Joseph's use of the seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text:

As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of the 116 pages], the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated. [Note that the chronology of Joseph's acquisition of the stone is here somewhat confused. The use of the stone, however, is clearly indicated.][8]

References to the stone are not confined to the distant past. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve Apostles described the process clearly in an Ensign article:

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. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.[9]

It would be strange to try to hide something by having an apostle talk about it, and then send the account to every LDS home in the official magazine!


Question: Why were the gold plates needed at all if they weren't used directly during the translation process?

Joseph did not need the plates physically present to translate, since the translation was done by revelation

Much is made of the fact that Joseph used a seer stone, which he placed in a hat, to dictate the text of the Book of Mormon without viewing the plates directly. [10]

Joseph Smith translates using the seer stone placed within his hat while the plates are wrapped in a cloth on the table while his wife Emma acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Religious Studies Center, BYU, Deseret Book Company (May 11, 2015)

Some witness accounts suggest that Joseph was able to translate while the plates were covered, or when they were not even in the same room with him. [11] Therefore, if the plates themselves were not being used during the translation process, why was it necessary to have plates at all?

Joseph did not need the plates physically present to translate, since the translation was done by revelation. The existence of the plates was vital, however, to demonstrate that the story he was translating was literally true.

The existence of the physical plates attested to the reality of the Nephite record

If there had been no plates, and Joseph had simply received the entire Book of Mormon through revelation, there would have been no Anthon visit, nor would there have been any witnesses. The very fact that plates existed served a greater purpose, even if they were not directly viewed during all of the translation process.

The plates served a variety of purposes.

  1. They were viewed by witnesses as solid evidence that Joseph did indeed have an ancient record.
  2. Joseph's efforts to obtain them over a four year period taught him and matured him in preparation for performing the translation,
  3. Joseph's efforts to protect and preserve them helped build his character. If Joseph were perpetrating a fraud, it would have been much simpler to claim direct revelation from God and forgo the physical plates.
  4. Joseph copied characters off the plates to give to Martin Harris, which he subsequently showed to Charles Anthon. This was enough to convince Martin to assist with the production of the Book of Mormon.

The plates' existence as material artifacts eliminated the possibility that Joseph was simply honestly mistaken. Either Joseph was knowingly perpetuating a fraud, or he was a genuine prophet.

The existence of actual plates eliminates the idea that the Book of Mormon was "spiritually true," but fictional

Furthermore, the existence of actual plates eliminates the idea that the Book of Mormon was "spiritually true," but fictional. There is a great difference between an allegorical or moral fiction about Nephites, and real, literal Nephites who saw a literal Christ who was literally resurrected.


Question: Can the Book of Mormon be considered a genuine translation if the plates weren’t even used during the translation process?

Without the plates present, it is obviously impossible to physically verify if the Book of Mormon translation is “correct”

It is claimed by some that the Book of Mormon can never be viewed as any translation of an ancient record.

Without the plates present, it is obviously impossible to physically verify if the Book of Mormon translation is “correct”. A part of a Mormon theology that is important to keep in mind informs us that the plates will be returned one day before the Second Coming so that a sealed portion of the plates might be translated.

According to the October 2011 New Era:

When Moroni was finishing the Book of Mormon record, he was commanded to seal up some of the plates, and Joseph Smith was later commanded not to translate them. This sealed portion contains the complete record of the vision of the brother of Jared (see Ether 4:4–5). This vision included “all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (2 Nephi 27:10–11; see also Ether 3:25). So basically the Lord revealed to the brother of Jared the history of mankind, and the sealed portion of the plates was Moroni’s translated copy of it.

Few people have seen the sealed record—for instance, the Nephites in the land Bountiful at the Savior’s coming (see Ether 4:1–2) and Moroni (see Ether 12:24). The Lord said the sealed portion would be revealed to the world “in mine own due time” (Ether 3:27). He also said it would “not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord” (Ether 4:6; see also 2 Nephi 27:8).

According to Joseph Smith’s associates who saw the golden plates, anywhere from half to two-thirds of all the plates were in the sealed portion (see Kirk B. Henrichsen, “What Did the Golden Plates Look Like?” New Era, July 2007, 31). [12]

When the plates are returned, the reality of the plates will be attested to and we can certainly verify the translation that came therefrom

When the plates are returned, the reality of the plates will be attested to and we can certainly verify the translation that came therefrom. The translation of the plates by the hat and the interpreters/seer stone may be viewed as an attempt by God to speak to men “in their weakness, according to their language” and as a means to an end—a means by which a work could commence to prepare for greater things that would be done as the world drew closer to the second coming of the Savior Jesus Christ.


Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith say that it was not reasonable for Joseph Smith to use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?

Joseph Fielding Smith said "It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances"

Joseph Fielding Smith said the following:

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. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. 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. [13]

One critical website makes the claim: "So apparently even the 10th president of the Church thinks that using a stone to translate the Book of Mormon with 'hardly seems reasonable.'" [14] This is incorrect.

Joseph Fielding Smith did not say that it was not reasonable to use a stone to translate the Book of Mormon. After all, the Nephite interpreters were themselves comprised of two seer stones. Joseph Fielding Smith had no issue with that. What Joseph Fielding Smith thought was unreasonable was that Joseph Smith would use his own "inferior" seer stone instead of the Nephite interpreters.

Joseph Smith considered the Nephite interpreters a more powerful version of his own seer stone

When Joseph Smith first obtained the Nephite interpreters, he considered them a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed. Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph appeared to be more excited about receiving the "glasses" than the gold plates themselves.[4] After Joseph returned from retrieving the plates, Joseph Knight recalled,

After breakfast Joseph called me in to the other room and he set his foot on the bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, “Well, I am disappointed.” “Well,” say I, “I am sorry.” “Well,” says he, “I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected.” Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates for, says he, “I can see anything. They are marvelous. Now they are written in characters and I want them translated.” [15]

In the beginning, Joseph believed that the stone itself possessed some special quality

Joseph's belief that the stone or the Nephite interpreters possessed some quality that made them special was apparent:

The idea that the Nephite interpreters were a more powerful version of Joseph’s seer stone is interesting, since it implies that there was something special about the stones themselves. It is more likely, however, that it was Joseph’s own perception that the stones were superior because these stones had been consecrated by God for the purpose of seeing things.

Joseph Fielding Smith did not believe that Joseph Smith would substitute an inferior seer stone for the Nephite interpreters, which were themselves stones

However, the idea that the Nephite interpreters were superior to a common “seer stone” was accepted by twentieth-century apostle and Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith. In response to accounts that indicated that Joseph may have used his own seer stone during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Elder Smith flatly stated that he did not believe this to be true, since the stone was inferior to the Nephite interpreters.[4] </blockquote>

Joseph Fielding Smith was entitled to his opinion, and he clearly stated that it was his opinion. He based this on scripture from the Book of Ether which indicated that the interpreters had been preserved for the purpose of translation. This is certainly a reasonable conclusion. However, statements made by Joseph Smith's contemporaries clearly indicate that the seer stone was used in the translation, and that by 1833 the title "Urim and Thummim" was later applied to the seer stone in addition to the Nephite interpreters.

A compilation of published statements on the Book of Mormon translation method in both Church and non-Church publications

1829–1835

Summary: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon: 1829–1835

1836–1840

Summary: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon: 1836–1840

1841–1845

Summary: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon: 1841–1845

1846–1900

Summary: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon: 1846–1900

1900–2000

Summary: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon: 1900–2000

Which method of Book of Mormon translation is more "believable"?

Summary: Which method is more "believable"? Ultimately, one must accept or reject the idea that the text of the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith through revelation, by the "gift and power of God," regardless of the rather unbelievable details of the exact instruments and method used to achieve this.

Notes

  1. Emma Smith to Edmund C. Briggs, "A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856," Journal of History 9 (January 1916): 454.
  2. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org
  3. “Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859,” in Early Mormon Documents, 2:305.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 121-190 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Nicholson" defined multiple times with different content
  5. "Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870," Early Mormon Documents, 1:532.
  6. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:128–129. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) "[Martin Harris] said that the Prophet possessed a Seer Stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as with the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he sometimes used the Seer Stone."
  7. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign (July 1993), 61. off-site
  8. The Historical Record. Devoted Exclusively to Historical, Biographical, Chronological and Statistical Matters (LDS Church Archives), 632.
  9. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887), 12; cited in Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign (July 1993), 61.
  10. John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).
  11. Interview of Emma Smith by her son Joseph Smith III, "Interview with Joseph Smith III, 1879," in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:539.
  12. "What is the “sealed portion” of the Book of Mormon, and will we ever know what’s in it?," New Era (Oct 2011)
  13. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225–26.
  14. "Translation of the Book of Mormon," MormonThink.com.
  15. “Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscence, Circa 1835-1847,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4:15. Spelling has been modernized and formatted for readability. Original spelling and formatting is as follows: “After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he set his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says well I am Dissop[o]inted. well, say I[,] I am sorrey[.] Well, says he[,] I am grateley Dissop[o]inted, it is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates[,] and[,] said he[,] they appear to be Gold But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummem then [than] he Did of the Plates for[,] says he[,] I can see any thing[.] They are Marvelus[.] Now they are written in Caracters and I want them translated[.]" Cited in Note 40 of Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone".