Official LDS Essay on Book of Mormon Translation, Annotated
The following essay is the official LDS released essay entitled "Book of Mormon Translation." It was released by the church to help explain how the Book of Mormon was translated, and to explain why the true story of the translation differs so greatly from the official church narrative taught since its founding. In the below essay, all text in black is the unedited essay from the church essay, with our comments in blue. The essay below can be found on the LDS website here.
The annotated essay below is adapted from the following source, who continues to update the material for those who would like to read the original. You can view that by clicking here.
Many church leaders in the past have considered the statements in this essay to be "anti-Mormon" with some members even being ex-communicated for their research into church history. It is important to note that the rise of the internet has forced many of these issues to be addressed in these essay, but as you will see below there are a lot of problems with the translation of the Book of Mormon, and some of the issues are dealt with in ways that are akin to gaslighting.
This essay with notes is fairly long, but it is important to include all of this information. Most of the information in the essay is new to many members, and our additional notes are new to almost all members. It is absolutely imperative to get a true picture of how the Book of Mormon was translated, as this ties into issues with the Book of Abraham translation as well as the recent study of how Joseph Smith used Adam Clarke's Bible essays heavily in his translation of the Bible (which, again, we were told was inspired by the gift of God). Taken together, there are many questions as to the accuracy of the scriptures Joseph Smith is responsible for, which opens up many questions about Joseph Smith's truthfulness as a prophet.. As prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman noted, "I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change."
As President George Albert Smith said, “If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Page 216)
As with all of our material, please email us at if you have any issues with our annotated comments or suggestions to add. And without further adieu...
Book of Mormon Translation
Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any Book on earth & the keystone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other Book.”1 The Book of Mormon came into the world through a series of miraculous events. Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.
“By the Gift and Power of God”
Joseph Smith reported that on the evening of September 21, 1823, while he prayed in the upper room of his parents’ small log home in Palmyra, New York, an angel who called himself Moroni appeared and told Joseph that “God had a work for [you] to do.”2 He informed Joseph that “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.” The book could be found in a hill not far from the Smith family farm. This was no ordinary history, for it contained “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel as delivered by the Savior.”3
To understand the significance of the September 21 date, and of the major revelation that this essay will soon make about the instrument used to translate the Book of Mormon, we must take a closer look at some of the activities of Joseph Smith and his family before the Gold Plates entered the picture. This is a bit of a detour from the essay, but it’s necessary to get an accurate perspective.
First, you must understand that the actual early history and timeline of the church is not the same as what is taught in the lesson manuals, or even in Joseph Smith’s History in the Pearl of Great Price. This is something that church historians are beginning to realize and report. Richard Bushman and other LDS historians have accepted that before Joseph Smith was talking about visitations of God, Jesus, and the angel Moroni, he was engaging in magical ceremonies intended to coax guardian spirits into handing over their buried treasure. Bushman concludes that God chose folk magic as a sort of practice run to prepare Joseph for his later genuine spiritual calling (Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling).
The date on which Joseph went to the hill to retrieve the plates is a very significant day in folk magic and occult practices. It is the Autumnal equinox, when the spirits of the dead are purported to be more accessible to mortals, and when they are most easily convinced to reveal the locations of buried treasure. This concept is found in the writings of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and other occult authors who were popular in early 19th century America. But more significantly for the topic at hand, it is the date specifically encoded into magic parchments that were owned by the Joseph Smith Sr. family, and which they used to magically determine the best times for their treasure hunts.
The Smith family parchments, ceremonial dagger and Joseph's Jupiter talisman
It comes as something of a surprise to most Latter-Day Saints that the Smith Family owned and used these magic parchments, along with a ceremonial dagger and other occult paraphernalia, to perform their mystical activities. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, described their progression from casual to intensive magical pursuits thus: “we stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac drawing magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kind of business.” (Joseph Smith Papers, Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845). The “Abrac” to which Lucy refers is the magical practice of attempting to gain control over supernatural beings in the pursuit of material wealth through magical ceremonies. This typically involved two processes. First was the use of either a rodsman, who used a dowsing rod to divine the location of treasure (Oliver Cowdery did this), or a seer who located it by “glass-looking” into stone or glass object. Second was a ceremony to appease the guardian ghost by drawing a magical circle on the ground, marking it with occult symbols drawn with a ceremonial dagger, and sometimes performing an animal sacrifice before attempting to dig. The word Abrac, which Lucy uses, comes from the name of the demon Abraxas, who is associated with occult numerology and whose name is the source of the magical word “abracadabra” (Brown, S. M. Reconsidering Lucy Mack Smith’s Folk Magic Confession. Mormon Historical Studies).
Some of the Smith’s customers tell us that animals were indeed sacrificed on such occasions. One of the Smiths’ clients described it this way: “That a black sheep should be taken to the ground where the treasures were concealed – that after cutting its throat, it should be led around in a circle while bleeding. This being done, the wrath of the evil spirit would be appeased.” (Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2, pp.59-61). LDS scholar M. Wilford Poulson assures us that the animals were obtained honorably. He says that Wallace Miner reported "I once asked Stafford if Smith did steal a sheep from him. He said no, not exactly. He said, he did miss a black sheep, but soon Joseph came and admitted he took it for sacrifice but he was willing to work for it." (Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2, p. 197)
The Smiths’ magical documents are named by historians according to the writing that appears on each of them: the “Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah” parchment, the “Peter Bind Them” parchment, and the “Holiness to the Lord” parchment, from which Joseph Smith likely derived the declaration that now appears above the doors of LDS temples. The magic symbols on these documents were copied directly from occult texts, including The Magus by Francis Barrett, the New and Complete Illustration of Celestial Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, and The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. (http://www.lostmormonism.com /smith-family-magic-parchments/)
The date of September 21-22 is defined in these magical texts as the proper time to summon a treasure-guarding ghost. Joseph Smith’s interaction on 21-22 September 1823 with the spirit who we now know as Angel Moroni fits the internal dating of his family's magic parchment. This personage was not given a name in the earliest references but was called Nephi in the official Joseph Smith Testimony for forty years until 1878 when it was edited for consistency and his name was changed to Moroni (Times and Seasons Vol. III pp. 749, 753, Millennial Star, vol. 3, p.53, Pearl of Great Price, 1851 edition, page 41). The date and time of Joseph’s September 1823 visitation complied with the instructions for spirit summoning incantations recorded by Scot, Agrippa, Sibly, Barrett and other occult writers (D. M. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Chs. 1-4). Moroni/Nephi first appeared to Joseph on the night of the Autumnal equinox, between midnight and dawn, which was a date prescribed in the magical books for such encounters. Having failed to retrieve the plates on his first attempt, Joseph continued to visit the hill annually on the same date. He finally succeeded in obtaining the plates on the eve of the equinox in 1827, in the first hour after midnight. Witness accounts tell us that he finally found the correct magical prescription for success, which required him to arrive on that date and time, to bring a companion, in this case Emma, to dress in black clothing, and to ride a black horse, which he borrowed from Joseph Knight (Marquardt, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record, Ch. 5)
The angel charged Joseph Smith to translate the book from the ancient language in which it was written. The young man, however, had very little formal education and was incapable of writing a book on his own, let alone translating an ancient book written from an unknown language, known in the Book of Mormon as “reformed Egyptian.”4
The authors of this essay want to set the stage early on that Joseph was incapable of writing a book without even giving him the benefit of the doubt. I think it is fair to say that there is a vast gap between being uneducated and being stupid. Should we conclude that Abraham Lincoln could not have become president of the United States or written the Gettysburg Address because he had no formal education? Or that Michael Faraday couldn’t have discovered the principles of electromagnetism because he hadn’t attended even a single day of school? Or that Benjamin Franklin couldn’t have invented bifocals and discovered the properties of lightning, Shakespeare couldn't’ have written thirty-seven of the greatest works of English literature, Edison invented the phonograph, Mark Twain written A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or the prophet Mohammed dictated the Quran because they lacked a formal education? William McClellan said of Joseph, "He attended my high school during the winter of 1834. He attended and learned science all winter. I learned the strength of his mind as to the study and principles of science. Hence I think I knew him. And I here say that he had one of the strongest, well balanced, penetrating, and retentive minds of any man with whom I ever formed an acquaintance, among the thousands of my observation. Although when I took him into my school, he was without scientific knowledge or attainments." (De Groote, Deseret News, January 28, 2009).
Many people have done amazing things and have written great books without the benefit of a formal education. Joseph owned a library card, he participated in a debate club, he was an accomplished revival exhorter, and his father and wife were both trained school teachers. His brother Hyrum attended Moor's Academy, which was a prep school for Dartmouth college and he disseminated much of his knowledge to young Joseph. While it is in the interest of the essay to paint Joseph Smith as an ignorant farmboy, the reality is that he was clearly a brilliant person who also carried with a high amount of charm and talent. Book of Mormon apologists, such as those who wrote this essay, who try to paint Joseph Smith as an ignoramus in order to make him seem incapable of producing any kind of impressive work do him a great injustice. Witnesses to Joseph’s translation method insist that he never referred outside materials while translating. This allows only two conclusions, both of which are problematic to the standard narrative: either the witnesses are entirely unreliable, or Joseph was remarkably capable of memorizing and recalling large amounts of information. He also sought out and utilized information that was available in his environment. A 2017 BYU research project reveals that Joseph Smith plagiarized much of his inspired translation of the Bible from Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentary (http://jur.byu.edu/?p=21296)
Let’s suppose just for a moment that Joseph Smith wasn’t clueless at all, but that he was an uncommonly creative young man with a superior intellect and memory and that, in addition to his own fertile imagination, he drew upon the Bible, the apocrypha, the stories of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the sermons of burned-over district ministers, the popular myths of the moundbuilders, the works of local authors like Ethan Smith, and many other sources from his immediate environment, works that appear to have left unmistakable fingerprints in the Book of Mormon. Even if you don’t believe that Joseph could have written the Book of Mormon there is absolutely no reason to conclude that he was “incapable of writing a book on his own.” If nothing else is accomplished with this commentary, the myth that Joseph Smith was an ignorant farmboy should be dispelled. Joseph had a keen intellect and an impressive ability to think clearly and creatively far beyond the obscurity into which correlated church history tries to corner him. Personally, I think he was a genius, and he certainly was capable of writing a book given the amount of time between the first vision and the release of the Book of Mormon.
Joseph’s wife Emma insisted that, at the time of translation, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon (This quote is from an interview given to her son 50 years later, just before her death, where she also insisted that Joseph Smith never participated in polygamy).”5
We will address Emma’s comment, but first we should consider one mistake that people often make when reading historical documents, which is to confuse spelling and punctuation errors for signs of illiteracy. Spelling was far less formalized in frontier America than it is today, and punctuation was entirely optional. To understand this, all we have to do is look at the grammar and spelling in the first draft of the Book of Mormon, penned by Joseph's scribes. Besides having no punctuation, this document had thousands of grammatical and spelling errors. Here are just a few examples:
“therefore I have wrote this epistle”, (3 Nephi 3:5)
“Adam and Eve, which was our first parents" (1 Nephi 5:11)
"and this he done that he might subject them to him" (Alma 2:10)
"that they did not fight against God no more" (Alma 23:7)
“they done all these things”, (Ether 9:29)
“when they had arriven to the promised land”, (Mosiah 10:15)
“and also much horses”, (Enos 1:21)
“as I was a going thither”, (Alma 10:8)
“and this shall be your language in them days”, (Helaman 13:37)
“they were not sufpiceentle strong to meet them”, (Alma 56:23)
“whosoever will com may come & partak of the waters of life”, (Alma 42:27)
"the workmenshup thereof was exceding fine”, (145:34)
"their yuarrelings & their plunders there idoleti and their whoardoms“, (Alma 50:21)
"i also beheld a Strait and mrrough path which came”, (1 Nephi 8:20)
"after that i had truvededror the space for of menny hours”, (1 Nephi 8:8)
(R. Skousen, Grammatical-variation, interpreterfoundation.org, R. Skousen, Skousen, The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text, FARMS)
So, rather than taking someone else’s word for it, let’s look at some of Joseph’s own personal writing and judge for ourselves. Here is an excerpt from a letter that Joseph Smith wrote, in his own hand, to Oliver Cowdery in 1829, the exact time period when Emma later claimed he was unable to write, let alone dictate coherently. I have cleaned up the spelling in a few places and added some punctuation, but I have left the everything else completely untouched. Judge for yourself whether Joseph Smith could “neither write nor dictate a coherent well-worded letter.”
“I would inform you that I arrived at home on sunday morning the 4th after having a prosperous Journey, and found all well. The people are all friendly to us except a few who are in opposition to everything, unless it is something that is exactly like themselves, and two of our most formidable persecutors are now under censure and are cited to a trial in the church for crimes which, if true, are worse than all the Gold Book business. We do not rejoice in the affliction of our enemies, but we shall be glad to have truth prevail. There begins to be a great call for our books in this country. The minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copyright obtained, and that there is really book about to be printed…" (Joseph Smith Papers, Letter-to-oliver-cowdery-October-1829).
Joseph Smith’s 1829 Letter to Oliver Cowdery
And here is an excerpt from Joseph’s 1832 account of the First Vision, written in his own hand, just a couple of years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. I have added punctuation and made some very minor spelling corrections:
“...I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today and forever. that he was no respecter to persons, for he was God; for I looked upon the sun, the glorious luminary of the earth, and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beast of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty, whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous, even in the likeness of him who created them. And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, “Well hath the wise man said it is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God!” My heart exclaimed, “All, all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power; a being who maketh laws and decrees, and bindeth all things in their bounds, who filleth eternity, who was and is and will be, from all Eternity to Eternity!” (Joseph Smith Papers, History-October-1829).
All indications are that Joseph Smith was a very intelligent, articulate, and surprisingly well-educated young man who, although he preferred to use scribes to dictate scriptures (imagine trying to write with quill and inkwell while your face is pressed into the brim of a hat, as this essay will later describe), he was entirely capable of creating competent and powerful prose. And he had pretty good penmanship, too. The ignoramus farmboy dismissal of Joseph Smith was invented purely to make the Book of Mormon appear that much more miraculous. It is deceptive at best, and has always been necessary to make the history and story of the restoration work.
Joseph received the plates in September 1827 and the following spring, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, began translating them in earnest, with Emma and his friend Martin Harris serving as his main scribes. The resulting English transcription, known as the Book of Lehi and referred to by Joseph Smith as written on 116 pages, was subsequently lost or stolen. As a result, Joseph Smith was rebuked by the Lord and lost the ability to translate for a short time.6 (Joseph tells us that at this point the angel took the Nephite Interpreters from him and they were never returned. This means that the entire Book of Mormon that we have today was produced without any help from the device that our Primary teachers called the “Urim and Thummim,” This is a huge change from the dominant church narrative, and will be discussed in more detail in the coming paragraphs.).
Joseph began translating again in 1829, and almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June of that year. His chief scribe during these months was Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher from Vermont who learned about the Book of Mormon while boarding with Joseph’s parents in Palmyra. Called by God in a vision, Cowdery traveled to Harmony to meet Joseph Smith and investigate further. Of his experience as scribe, Cowdery wrote, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven.”7 (It should be noted that Oliver Cowdery’s original connection with Joseph’s family might have been through treasure hunting and folk magic going back to the Smiths’ time in Vermont. Oliver’s treasure seeking specialty was the use of dowsing rods, which is noted in official church history. (Oliver Cowdery’s Gift, History.LDS.Org).
The manuscript that Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives.8 This manuscript corroborates Joseph Smith’s statements that the manuscript was written within a short time frame and that it was dictated from another language. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript 9 (I don’t think there is any argument that the scribes might not have heard Joseph’s dictation with perfect accuracy. The Isaiah portions that were received by revelation also contain the errors of the 17th century translators of the King James Bible).
The translation time frame is another area that is greatly misunderstood and inaccurately reported. We are told that Joseph produced the Book of Mormon in just 90 days. Even so, the amount of material in the Book of Mormon could be dictated over that period of time at a rate of just 45 minutes per day, assuming Joseph already knew what he wanted to say, but we know he spent a great deal more time than that. Martin Harris tells us that on a typical day Joseph would dictate in the morning and then take a long walk by himself along the river or in the woods, after which he would return ready to dictate again. That leaves open the distinct possibility that he spent more time preparing than actually dictating.
In addition, Joseph had in essence a do-over when the 116 pages were lost. Seven or eight months passed between the acquisition of the plates and the recording the book of Lehi. When Joseph dictated the story the second time in Nephi 1 and 2 he was just telling the same story again. Another eight months passed before Oliver Cowdery showed up and the famous 90-day translation actually began. Joseph could have spent that time refining the story in his head. But there was over a year and a half before that when Joseph was translating off and on, and possibly developing the story that he would later dictate to Oliver. So now we’re looking at a couple of years to develop the narrative. But wait, there’s more. Joseph’s mother tells us that a favorite pastime of the Smith family was to sit around the fire while young Joseph told them amazing tales of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. “He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.( Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations). In other words, Joseph had been thinking about the Book of Mormon story for many years before the Gold Plates even entered the picture, and he was expert at producing impressive stories about the ancient Americans out of thin air. Then, once the Gold Plates story emerged, six years passed between the first Moroni visit and the final translation, of which the 90-day period was just the culmination.
But is Joseph Smith entirely unique in producing a book that people assumed to be beyond his capacity? It turns out that he is not. Many others have produced books that appear to be miraculous. Let’s consider just a few examples from roughly the same time period as the Book of Mormon:
Philemon Stewart was a member of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, a religious community commonly known as the Shakers. He produced the sacred text known as The Sacred Roll and Book, which he claims was dictated to him by an angel of God, and of which Martin Harris was also a witness to both the book and the angel. Part 1 of the shakers’ sacred scroll is over 400 pages long and was dictated in just 14 days, which is impressive even when compared to the 90-day claim for the Book of Mormon. Stewart disavowed all 'natural wisdom' and maintained that he 'knew naught of the subject' until it was 'opened and brought forward, word after word, by the mighty Angel.' (Stein, Inspiration, revelation, and scripture: The story of a Shaker Bible, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (Vol. 105, No. 2, p. 347). There is no question that Stewart produced an extremely impressive piece of work, especially considering that it was dictated in public, before witnesses, in just two weeks without any kind of notes.
In the early 1900s a poorly educated and otherwise unimpressive housewife named Pearl Curran suddenly began writing lengthy novels and poems without any previous writing experience, which she claimed were dictated to her by the spirit of a 17th century woman named Patience Worth. Curran would dictate lengthy and impressive novels easily, without notes, often for hours on end in front of audiences of marvelling onlookers. The renowned poet Edgar Lee Masters observed, “There is no doubt...she is producing remarkable literature.” The prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation’s best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a true “feat of literary composition.” She produced seven impressive novels, volumes of poetry, short stories, and plays that added up to nearly four million words (Diliberto, Smithsonian Magazine, September, 2010). Curran seemed to be able to write detailed histories of periods long before her time, with dialects and vocabulary that she had supposedly never heard, and descriptions of places she had never been. Besides being so mind bogglingly prolific, Curran created literature that was extremely popular at the time and garnered wide acclaim from critics, which cannot be said about the Book of Mormon.
James Strang was an early Mormon convert who claimed to have been appointed as Joseph Smith’s successor. Most members of the modern LDS church might be surprised to learn that upon Joseph’s death a large contingent of the church, numbering in the thousands, followed Strang rather than Brigham Young. These included those saints who did not want to participate in polygamy and those who still desired to follow a prophet, a calling to which Brigham initially made no claims. Strang, on the other hand, declared that he communed with angels, including Moroni, who showed him the location of buried ancient metal plates. Among those who followed Strang were Emma Smith and her children, Joseph’s Mother Lucy, Joseph’s only living brother William, all of the living members of the eight witnesses, and the Three Witnesses except for Oliver Cowdery, who moved near to the Strangite community but never officially joined. Like Joseph Smith, Strang had eleven eyewitnesses of his plates. Unlike Joseph, it was the witnesses who were told where to find the plates and who dug them up themselves. Also unlike Joseph, the plates remained in the community for decades until they were supposedly borrowed by the Salt Lake LDS church for examination but never returned. Although he had only a grade school education Strang translated the contents of two sets of plates by the “gift and power of God” and produced the Voree Record and The Book of the Law of the Lord. The resulting texts contain many of the same Hebraisms that we find in the Book of Mormon (
Joseph’s own mother, Lucy Mack Smith, is another excellent example. Despite having no formal education, but having access to the exact same resources of her son, Lucy wrote a very intelligent and complex 500-page book, which she produced by dictating to a scribe. According to this essay’s own criteria Lucy was also “incapable of writing a book.”
In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.10 (Occam's Razor would tell us that the author was carefully choosing his words to sound as much like the King James Bible as possible, which carried more credibility to being a work of God. Otherwise, why would an ancient Mayan text intended for a 19th century American audience be translated by the “gift and power of God” into 17th century King James English, rather than 19th century American English?).
Most, if not all, Book of Mormon “Hebraisms” as well as some of the book’s themes and plot points, can also be found in The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, a grade school textbook that was popular in New York at the time Joseph was attending school, and which was also written in the King James Bible language. (Grunder, History and Analysis of The Late War, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source). Many of these remarkable Hebraisms appear to be natural human literary forms and can be found just about anywhere you look for them, including in the Solomon Spaulding’s Manuscript Found, James Strang’s Book of the Law of the Lord, and other Bible-inspired 19th century pseudepigrapha. (
Unlike most dictated drafts, the original manuscript was considered by Joseph Smith to be, in substance, a final product. (In fact he called it the “the most correct of any Book on earth,” despite the fact that the current edition has approximately 5,000 changes - mostly grammatical, but some incredibly significantly contextual changes - from the original.) To assist in the publication of the book, Oliver Cowdery made a handwritten copy of the original manuscript. This copy is known today as the printer’s manuscript. Because Joseph Smith did not call for punctuation, such as periods, commas, or question marks as he dictated (just as in his own personal writing), such marks are not in the original manuscript. The typesetter later inserted punctuation marks when he prepared the text for the printer.11 (As we have done in the above examples of Joseph’s writing). With the exceptions of punctuation, formatting, other elements of typesetting, and minor adjustments required to correct copying and scribal errors, the dictation copy became the text of the first printed edition of the book 12 (Which has been edited significantly in subsequent editions (Understanding Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon, Ensign, December, 1983))
(The following statement is to prepare you for this essay’s big reveal, and to help you reassure yourself that it’s not really as weird and impossible as it sounds.)
Many accounts in the Bible show that God transmitted revelations to His prophets in a variety of ways. Elijah learned that God spoke not to him through the wind or fire or earthquake but through a “still small voice.”13 Paul and other early apostles sometimes communicated with angels and, on occasion, with the Lord Jesus Christ.14 At other times, revelation came in the form of dreams or visions, such as the revelation to Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, or through sacred objects like the Urim and Thummim.15
The Urim and Thummim in the Bible are not spectacles. They appear to be more like a pair of dice that produced a binary yes/no answer. In Samuel we read how a request was made to the sacred stones, “If the fault is in me or my son Jonathan, respond with Urim, but if the men of Israel are at fault, respond with Thummim” (Samuel 14:41). Heads Urim, tales Thummim. Old Testament scholar Cornelius Van Dam describes it this way: “In order to receive the revelation, the high priest took the diamonds [diamond dice engraved with names, i.e. the Urim and Thummim] and cast on a table or preferably the ark. From the way they were arranged after being cast, the high priest could deduce the answer according to traditional rules known to the high priest.” (The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel.)
Joseph Smith stands out among God’s prophets, because he was called to render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages, containing doctrine that would deepen and expand the theological understanding of millions of people (This is a common misstatement about the Book of Mormon, which actually contains no original doctrine, and no specific Mormon doctrine such as priesthood (except what is borrowed from the book of Hebrews), eternal marriage, temple ordinances, tithing, preexistence, Word of Wisdom, degrees of glory, eternal progression, baptism for the dead, the laying on of hands, sealings, anointings, garments, three degrees of glory... None. The Book of Mormon also does not present a godhead of three distinct beings. In fact, it is even more trinitarian than the Bible, especially if you read the first edition before changes were introduced to soften the blatantly trinitarian language, things like changing the description of Mary from the “mother of God” to the “mother of the son of God” (1 Nephi 11:18, 1837 Edition) and Jesus from “the Lamb of God, even the Eternal Father” to “the Lamb of God, even the son of the Eternal father” 1 Nephi 11:21, 1837 Edition).
It has been observed that if you created a religion based solely in the contents of the Book of Mormon you would end up with something very much like 19th century Methodism, which is the religion that Joseph Smith was most familiar with. When reading the Book of Mormon, keep note of any hints of Mormonism in it. One interesting note to further this point: Draw a diagram of the entire Plan of Salvation using only information found in the Book of Mormon. Hint: it will look something like this: Earth => Final Judgement => Heaven or Fiery Hell.)
For this monumental task, God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments.
Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.16 Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. (Note: there are contemporary descriptions of this device but NO eyewitness reports of anyone having EVER seen this instrument with their physical eyes) The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”17
The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.”18 As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.19 As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.20
This is the big revelation of this essay which had been previously considered an "anti-Mormon" lie. After so many years of people being berated for talking about the seer stone, this essay needed to be written to explain why the complete history of the translation contradicts the narrative that has been cultivated by the church for all of these years. It may be unsettling to some members to realize that not one word of the Book of Mormon was revealed through the instrument that we were taught to call the “Urim and Thummim,” but that every word of it came from a stone that Joseph found in a well, and that he used by putting it into his hat and pressing his face to the brim while never even using the gold plates. This is the true process of translation that has been actively suppressed by the church until the internet began calling more attention to the true history of Joseph Smith. Church leaders claim that they have never tried to hide any history, but it has only been mentioned a handful of times in church publications including an article published 40 years before this essay (By the Gift and Power of God, Ensign, September, 1977). The true test of their transparency is to ask yourself what you were taught in Primary and Sunday school. What did you see in the official church artwork that was commissioned by the church? What do missionaries tell investigators that have no previous knowledge of church history? Why would missionaries tell potential investigators a story about the translation that is 100% contradicted by this essay? How does that correlate with the church's own definition of honesty in their own Gospel Principles manual?
People have been disciplined by the church for writing about this - the actual translation method - and it was one of the things that got historian D. Michael Quinn excommunicated. It wasn’t until Google made this “anti-Mormon” information about Joseph’s 'seer stone' so unavoidable and undeniable that church leaders had to start retooling their approach to Book of Mormon translation amidst the onslaught of accusations that it was misleading its members. These new admissions are part of a process that is referred to by church leaders as “inoculation.” Many LDS members, including myself, were shocked to discover that the version of Mormon history that their friends and family members learned from a South Park cartoon, where Joseph is seen staring at a rock in a hat, was actually more accurate than what they were being taught in Primary and Sunday School. How is it possible that South Park was telling the story of Joseph Smith's experience translating the Book or Mormon more accurately than the church itself? I actually ignored this episode for a decade because I was under the impression it was full of anti-Mormon lies, but upon watching it I see that while it takes some jabs about the process, the translation itself is more accurate than the missionary discussions I received decades earlier.
South Park: All About the Mormons
Unable to deflect the inevitable any longer, the church released this essay which was followed up with this statement: “The stone Joseph Smith used in the Book of Mormon translation effort was often referred to as a chocolate-colored stone with an oval shape. This stone passed from Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery and then to the church through Brigham Young and others.” (Joseph the Seer, Ensign, October, 2015) This is a complete reversal from the previous denials by church-employed Book of Mormon scholars: “David Whitmer maintained the prophet used an oval-shaped, chocolate-colored seer stone slightly larger than an egg… Such an explanation is, in our judgement, simply fiction created for the purpose of demeaning Joseph Smith and to undermine the validity of the revelations he received after translation the Book of Mormon” (Bruce R McConkie, Revelations of the Restoration, Deseret Book, 2000: 89-98).
Joseph Fielding Smith, one of the most important LDS historians (and prophets of the church), had this to say about the seer stone being used in the translation process:
"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." (Joseph Fielding Smith’s, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225)
In other words, until they were forced to admit the existence of the seer stone, which the church has had in its possession all along, LDS scholars had considered it an embarrassment that threatened the validity of Joseph Smith’s claims to being a chosen prophet of God. There is no other explanation as to why they tried to keep it under wraps for a century and a half until they were finally forced to admit these "demeaning" lies were actually true. Some of us remember when rumors about people using rocks to get revelation was berated as the work of the devil, which is exactly what Joseph Smith accused Hiram Page of doing when Hiram claimed to receive revelations from his seer stone.
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie considered this method of revelation a satanic imitation of true revelation. He 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: 566).
The stone that was used to translate the entire Book of Mormon
Joseph found this particular stone while digging a well for Willard Chase. Chase’s niece Sally was also a glass-looker who got Joseph interested in the use of rocks for seeing things beneath the ground. When Willard heard Joseph’s claims that the rock found on his property had magical powers he tried without success to get Joseph to return it. (Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833).
Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. (This is a common apologetic argument, but it just makes no sense. Joseph Smith had the divine instrument that God gave him specifically for translation of the plates, but instead he used a stone in a hat, even before the angel took the Urim and Thummim from him? We know this because the first-hand eyewitness accounts speak only of the rock-and-hat method of translation. It makes you wonder why The Brother of Jared, Ether, Moroni, et. al. went to all of the trouble to bring the spectacles across an ocean and preserve them for thousands of years if a stone dug out from a neighbor’s yard could accomplish the same goal. Occam's Razor would tell us that we must at least consider the possibility that the breastplates and spectacles never actually existed, which really would be the most likely explanation for why Joseph always used a stone instead. This account also diminishes the gold plates, which were not used in any way to dictate the Book of Mormon as we know it. Again, why did God command a man to be murdered to recover plates that were not even necessary to translate the Book of Mormon?)
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.21 (In the beginning it was ONLY used to refer to the stone) In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications (By rolling them like dice as explained earlier). Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumined.22 (This endnote is a BYU masters thesis that finds examples of glowing stones in mythology and medieval tales, rather than what you are expecting as “ancient sources.” It mentions magic stones in the context of dwarves, pirates and witches. It also reminds us that, “Before assuming this role [as a prophet], Smith had used divining rods and then seer stones to find underground water, buried treasure, lost items, and stray livestock.”) Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters. Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations (and, originally, to locate buried treasure) and less as the name of a specific instrument.
The term “Urim and Thummim” was first used by William W. Phelps in 1833, years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, and the name was commonly understood to refer to any of Joseph Smith’s various seer stones. Some early saints understood that Joseph actually used a rock in a hat for his visionary and translating endeavors. In fact, some members, including David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, were disconcerted when Joseph stopped using the 'seer stone' to receive revelation. It was such an integral part of his method that when he stopped relying on the seer stone people began to fear that he had become a fallen prophet (Whitmer, 1887, An Address to All believers in Christ). The angelic spectacles that we now think of as the Urim and Thummim seem to have implanted themselves organically into the story over time and it wasn’t until after Joseph’s death that two stones in a silver bow came to be known commonly as the Urim and Thummim, and further to be accepted as the device that was used to translate the Book of Mormon. Why did the brown seer stone fall out of favor and need to be replaced with something that sounded more divine and directly from God? The earliest members of the church were all practitioners and believers of folk magic and treasure digging, which they saw as just another component of their religious worldview, but as time passed and folk magic came to be viewed with more suspicion, and with increased missionary effort to convert people who did not share those views, the church needed to distance itself from glass-looking, dowsing rods, parchments and magic daggers, and other practices that were becoming increasingly associated with witchcraft and chicanery.
The chocolate-colored stone that Joseph used to produce the Book of Mormon was the exact same stone that he used when he and his family were, as Lucy put it “trying to win the faculty of Abrac drawing magic circles or sooth saying” in an attempt to find treasure for other people to whom he charged a fee for his glass-looking services. Joseph’s primary job in these magical endeavors was to use his seer stone, the same one described in this essay as the translation instrument for the Book of Mormon, to “scry,” or magically see treasure under the ground. Joseph claimed to have located treasure on a number of occasions, but it was always either too deep to excavate or it suddenly moved deeper into the earth at the last moment, dragged away from the treasure hunters by its guardian spirit just before they reached it. This seer stone also gave Joseph a vision of Captain Kidd sailing on the Susquehanna River and burying treasure there, which Joseph later attempted to locate for a fee (Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd Lore, and Treasure-Seeking in New York and New England during the Early Republic. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 46(3), 78). Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses, was also a participant in these midnight treasure ceremonies and he described incidents in which the treasure seekers were just on the verge of retrieving the booty when the spirit suddenly moved the chest deeper into the earth. Numerous witnesses including Porter Rockwell, (as recounted by Brigham Young), Martin Harris, and members of the Josiah Stowell party told tales of Joseph leading them to treasure and watching them dig furiously for it, only to have it slip away into the ground just beyond their reach. (Journal of Discourses, vol. 19:37), (Tiffany's Monthly, 1859:165) (A New Witness For Christ In America, vol. 2:366-67). This concept of slippery treasure was later echoed in the Book of Mormon itself: “And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them.(Helaman 13:31)
In an 1826 court case recorded as “Same (meaning People) vs Joseph Smith the Glass Looker” Judge Neely Bill tried and convicted Joseph Smith for using this same brown stone to defraud people who had paid him to find buried treasure. This is the same conviction of which BYU professor and Book of Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley was speaking when he said, “...if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence against Joseph Smith.” (Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: 276) Nibley believed the court record to be mythical but, much to his dismay, it was later produced and proven to be authentic (Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties, BYU Studies, 12:225.).
Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.23
The Mechanics of Translation
In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: “I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.” When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done “by the gift and power of God”24 and once added, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”25
Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. 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.26 (It was assumed that English words appeared on the stone, apparently often in Joseph’s own frontier dialect, but since Joseph was the only witness of what he saw when his face was in the hat, there is no way to know this with certainty.) The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”27 (Again, Occam's Razor would tell us that if Joseph Smith was writing the Book of Mormon himself, he would absolutely include this in the book to give his story credibility. Joseph Smith also wrote himself into the Bible: "And that seer will I bless, and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise I give unto you, for I will remember you from generation to generation; and his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be like unto you, for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by His hand shall bring my people unto salvation.")
There were numerous eyewitnesses of the translation process and all of them told the same story: Joseph put a rock in a hat, sealed his face to the brim and dictated the impressions he received from the rock. He never looked at the plates, which were either covered with a cloth, locked in a box, or even hidden in another room or in the woods. Although a number of people described the breastplate and spectacles, no one besides Joseph Smith ever claimed to have actually seen them, apart from David Whitmer, who saw them in a vision, sitting on a table in the woods alongside a list of other artifacts including “the brass plates, the plates of the book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates” (Journal of History, Vol 3:447). He later described this vision as more of an impression than physical sight (Early Mormon Documents, 1: 603-05). In fact, the descriptions by others vary dramatically in every detail. Joseph’s mother said the breastplate and interpreters were small enough to be completely concealed from her vision when wrapped in a handkerchief (Joseph Smith Papers, Lucy Mack Smith, History). Joseph’s brother William, however, said the interpreters were designed for men of gigantic stature, and that the spectacles were so enormous the Joseph could only look through one lens at a time. (William Smith interview, Early Mormon Documents, 1:508). Lucy called the stones “three cornered diamonds set in glass” (History of Joseph Smith, Revised and Enhanced: 139), while Martin Harris said in one interview they were opaque white stones with gray streaks, but in another that they were clear. Why were the descriptions of the interpreters so different? If you saw an artifact that was preserved for thousands of years by the hand of God, would you forget the details in such a great magnitude? In fact, Harris said that Joseph was commanded to not let anyone see them “lest he should look aught and parish” (Martin Harris Interview, 1859, Early Mormon Documents, 2:305). Descriptions of the Gold Plates vary dramatically in the same way, and they also came with a penalty of death should anyone look upon them.
The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed that Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it (Again, this shows that Joseph did not need or use the gold plates or the spectacles/breastplate to translate, which begs the question as to why so much effort was made to engrave the text on gold sheets and preserve them for thousands of years if they were unnecessary to the translation process), and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”28 According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.” (Emma has a very different definition of “without attempt at concealment” than most of us. The plates were always covered, even when “hefted” by the eight witnesses because God had threatened to kill Joseph if anyone actually saw them with their physical eyes. Joseph said, “I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed” (Joseph Smith - History 1:42) Again, Occam's Razor would telll us that it is quite improbable that someone would be given physical evidence and then be commanded, under threat of death, not to show that evidence to anyone except under very carefully choreographed circumstances.)
When asked if Joseph had dictated from the Bible or from a manuscript he had prepared earlier, Emma flatly denied those possibilities: “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.” Emma told her son Joseph Smith III, “The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired (and/or had a remarkable memory); for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”29 (It is not clear why, but this endnote refers us to Alma 37 where we learn that Joseph’s rock was named Gazelem.)
Emma said this in the same interview in which she denied that Joseph ever practiced polygamy, even though another LDS Gospel Topics Essay on Nauvoo polygamy (Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, LDS.org) informs us that Emma not only knew about Joseph’s polygamy, but even approved of it for a brief time, so this interview may not be the most reliable source as clearly Emma is whitewashing history to paint Joseph in the best light possible. It also seems disingenuous for the church to use it as an authoritative source here when they know it contradicts claims they make elsewhere. The “Last Testimony of Sister Emma” was recorded in 1879, at the end of Emma’s life, by her son Joseph III in 1879, 50 years after the events described here. (Saints’ Herald 26, 1879: 289–90).
That was then… This is now
Another scribe, Martin Harris sat across the table from Joseph Smith and wrote down the words Joseph dictated. Harris later related that as Joseph used the seer stone to translate, sentences appeared. Joseph read those sentences aloud, and after penning the words, Harris would say, “Written.” An associate who interviewed Harris recorded him saying that Joseph “possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”30 (Again, this makes no sense, but it is the only rationale that can be given as to why Joseph Smith would discard the Urim and Thummim (that we have no witnesses that ever saw it), and use the 'seer stone.' It also ignores why the gold plates were never actually utilized during the translation process.)
Martin Harris is an interesting character in the Book of Mormon process. He moved around frequently between various factions of Mormonism and other religions and witnessed miraculous things in each of them. After leaving Mormonism he spent two years in the Shaker church where he was also an eyewitness of that denomination’s angel and sacred book. An acquaintance of Martin said, "Harris declared repeatedly that he had as much evidence for a Shaker book he had as for the Book of Mormon" (The Braden and Kelly Debate, p.173). Harris was also one of the officially documented Three Witnesses of Francis Gladden Bishop, another local prophet who claimed to have gold plates, the Urim and Thummim, and other ancient artifacts (Bishop, A Proclamation From the Lord to His people, scattered throughout all the Earth, 1851). Harris eventually ended up getting heavily involved in spiritualism where he participated in seances and spirit tapping before eventually moving to Utah and rejoining the Saints before his death. Martin was infamous for telling stories of ghosts and strange things he had seen. At one point he claimed that Jesus appeared to him in the form of a deer (Early Mormon Documents, 2: 271).
The witnesses eventually fell out of Joseph’s favor and in 1838, Joseph said that, "John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris are too mean to mention" (History of the Church, vol. 3, p. 232). An official letter from church leaders declared Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, “thieves, liars, and blacklegs of the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat, and defraud the saints out of their property” (Senate Document 189, February 15, 1841, pp. 6-9B). We are often told that the witnesses never withdrew their testimonies of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the relevant questions are, what exactly did they experience and how easily were they persuaded? There are really only four possible reasons why the Three Witnesses never denied their testimonies of the Book of Mormon:1) it all happened exactly as the church manuals say it did, 2) denying their witness would be an admission that they had been duped, 3) one or more of them might have been complicit and in denying the Book of Mormon would have implicated themselves, or the explanation that I believe is most likely, 4) they had no reason to deny an experience that was personally significant to them, even if it was a spiritual, rather than a literal witness.
The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraven on the plates.”31 (Oliver was testifying that he had been told of these things which he did not actually witness with his own eyes. We are often told of Oliver’s failed attempt to translate from the gold plates, but we are never told that he made this translation attempt not with the Urim and Thummim, but with his dowsing rod. (Oliver Cowdery’s Gift, history.lds.org) The original version of D&C 8, which talks about the “Rod of Aaron” originally referred to Cowdery’s “Rod of Nature” but was later changed to make it sound more credible. (Book of Commandments 7:3)) In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles through which the translator looked on the engraving.”32
This endnote cites an 1881 Deseret News article about how Martin Harris eventually made his way to Utah. All it says about Oliver Cowdery is that “in the company with Joseph Smith, the Prophet, [he] bore the same testimony,” and that “those who have honest hearts and obeyed the gospel should receive the Holy Ghost and signs would follow them.” It appears to quote Martin himself as the “village resident,” more that 50 years after the supposed statement. Another village resident in this article was said to have spoken in tongues which, although we no longer practice this in the church, is cited as further evidence of the truthfulness of the LDS church. The article also talks about the time when Harris claimed that a thicket of blackberry bushes, animated by the devil, attacked and nearly killed him to prevent him from coming west to Utah.
Second-hand descriptions of the Urim and Thummim are not proof of their existence anymore than someone repeating his uncle’s claim of any other event.There is no question that Joseph claimed at some point to have had ancient spectacles with miraculous powers - that is well documented. None of them, according to the historic record, actually saw any such device with their physical eyes, despite the fact that we have all been led to believe that they did because they gave descriptions of them. A similar problem exists for the gold plates themselves. Although some of the eight witnesses were later reported to have restated their testimony of the plates, none provided an individual contemporary first-hand account of actually seeing the plates with their physical eyes. Many have concluded that they all saw them the same way as Joseph’s brother William and others claimed to have “seen” them, always while stored in a box or wrapped in a cloth (Gold Plates and Printer’s Ink, Ensign, September, 1976). The only existing source of the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses is a document that was not written by them and has all of their names signed in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting (Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829–circa January 1830, Joseph Smith Papers). One thing that we need to understand about these witnesses is that this was a common practice that was in no way unique to the Book of Mormon. Pretty much every book that was being published in the region around that time, especially those making remarkable claims of prophecy, visions, angels and commandments from God, had a list of witnesses in the preface. The Shaker Book and Roll has over 60 witnesses of the “Testimonies of eleven mighty Angels, that attended the writing of the Roll,” and other miracles of that book’s coming forth. One of Strangite books includes the signatures of seven witnesses who describe the metal plates from which the book was produced: “We examined them with our eyes, and handled them with our hands. The engravings are beautiful antique workmanship, bearing a striking resemblance to the ancient oriental languages.” It was just what people did to give their book a sense of credibility.
The last straw for a number of early saints was when Martin Harris declared in a public meeting in Kirtland that he “never saw the plates with his natural eyes,” and that “the eight witnesses [also] never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument (testimony) for that reason, but were persuaded to do it.” (Joseph Smith Letterbook 2:64, 65). On another occasion Harris said, ”I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see any thing around me, though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.” (Early Mormon Documents 2:270). Stephen Burnett, a High Priest at the time, said that Martin admitted he “had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city throught [sic] a mountain.”(Stephen Burnett, April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2).
David Whitmer revealed that the angel who showed him the plates, "had no appearance or shape." When asked how it was that he could claim to have seen and heard an angel, Whitmer replied, "Have you never had impressions? Then you had impressions as the Quaker when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?" "Just so" (Early Mormon Documents, 1: 603-05). We see a pattern in the way artifacts like the gold plates and interpreters were experienced by the early saints, not so much by physical sight as by spiritual impression, or what they commonly called “second sight.” Whitmer also said, "If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to "separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, should it be done unto them." If we take Whitmer’s witness of the gold plates at face value then we must also accept his declarations that Joseph became a fallen prophet and the church had fallen into apostasy, since he credits both revelations to God speaking in “his own voice”(Whitmer, 1887, An Address to All believers in Christ).
There are quotes where some of the witnesses do profess to have seen the plates with their natural eyes, but are also contradicted by quotes from other points of their lives where they refer to only seeing them with their spiritual eyes. Again, it begs the question of how such a miraculous event could be remembered incorrectly on such a grand scale at various points in time by multiple witnesses - either they were seen in a physical form and hefted, or they were seen spiritually - but not both.
Joseph Smith consistently testified that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” His scribes shared that testimony. The angel who brought news of an ancient record on metal plates buried in a hillside and the divine instruments prepared especially for Joseph Smith to translate were all part of what Joseph and his scribes viewed as the miracle of translation. When he sat down in 1832 to write his own history for the first time (in his own hand, and able to write the history as he wanted it in 1832, and not necessarily how it was told previously), he began by promising to include “an account of his marvelous experience.”33 The translation of the Book of Mormon was truly marvelous.
The truth of the Book of Mormon and its divine source can be known today. God invites each of us to read the book, remember the mercies of the Lord and ponder them in our hearts, “and ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” God promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”34
The common pattern of the Gospel Topic Essays is to present you with a body of evidence as if they are actually taking an empirical approach to the problem, but then, almost as an admission of the weakness of that evidence or for members who have researched the many problems with their explanations, they ask you to abruptly stop thinking about it and rely instead on emotion-based conclusions.
If you take into account the actual method of translation, accounts regarding the plates and witnesses, time frame, outside information that was available to Joseph Smith, and Joseph’s actual capabilities, it is not too difficult to come up with a scenario for the creation of the Book of Mormon that is much less miraculous than the one we have been taught. Is it really that difficult to believe that a man who spent his life selling treasure digging services with a magical worldview could create a book that borrows heavily from the King James Bible along with other outside themes that were common to his time?
After examining these things and the many archaeological, theological, biological, linguistic, genetic, geographic, textual and other problems with the Book of Mormon, many have been led to conclude, as did LDS historian and General Authority B.H. Roberts, that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century creation and the product of a “young and underdeveloped but piously inclined mind”, and ”a wonder-tale of an immature mind, unconscious of what a test he is laying on human credulity when asking men to accept his narrative as solemn history.”(Roberts, Studies in the Book of Mormon: 271, 283).
In addition, this essay sidesteps a number of very difficult issues for Joseph Smith's credibility including:
Why did Joseph Smith use so many verses from the King James Bible with the translation errors from it? This requires a 'loose translation' theory, which is not addressed at all because it contradicts the translation method completely. Either Joseph Smith was using outside sources (which is denied in *every* account of his translation), or God was giving Joseph Smith translation errors that were not even written until long after the Book of Mormon times.
Why are verses included from Deutero-Isaiah, which were written after Lehi left and thus would not have had any access to them? It is important to note that when the Book of Mormon was written, this information was not known to Joseph Smith.
Why are these numerous anachronisms in the Book of Mormon that were from Joseph Smith's time but not from the time of the Book of Mormon? Why would God give Joseph Smith revelations of things that were not here and easily proven to not have been here years later?
Why did Joseph Smith change verses that pointed to a trinitarian view in the Book of Mormon? Apologists claim it was simply for clarification, but this fits with Joseph Smith's first account of the first vision where he only saw Jesus because at that time Joseph Smith's teachings were very trinitarian in view. Additionally, this again goes against the tight translation as presented in this essay, because if it was not translated correctly the first time, new words would not have appeared in Joseph's hat.
Why are the books that were originally the 'lost 116 pages' written in such a different manner, in a way that appears to avoid giving many specific details in case the original 116 pages were later found. We will write more on this later, but there are massive changes to details in the Book of Mormon as soon as it gets past those 116 pages, almost as if there is no longer a feeling that things have to remain vague for fear of being accused of contradictions from the original.
Why does the church continue to promote church-commissioned artwork that shows Joseph Smith translating the gold plates, when they now admit he never used the gold plates in translation? Why do missionaries continue to be trained to tell a story of the translation that is not accurate? How does this line up with the honesty chapter of the church's Gospel Principals manual?
All of this in and of itself does not necessarily demand that we conclude there could not have been divine inspiration in the creation of the Book of Mormon. It just means that the real story appears to be quite a bit different from the history the church has taught us for over a century, and one that opens up many questions about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a book of scriptures from God.
This essay leads to difficult questions and conclusions,, and as a former member of the church I am still angry that the church continues to be unwilling to tell us these truths in missionary and church lessons but instead continues to ask us to pray for answers. The reality is that the only way to get an answer that these works are from God is to go into prayer already looking for a confirmation that they are true. Taken in totality with the issues concerning the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, the evidence becomes too strong and the issues too large for there to be any reasonable way to conclude these are the works of God. The power of a spiritual witness is difficult to question, which is why the church leans so heavily on it. Unfortunately, it is also one that every church uses, and I refer you to this YouTube video which shows how other churches use it, including a polygamous splinter group from the LDS church. It is a powerful video to show how spiritual witnesses happen, and why the church continues to use it when they have no satisfactory answers about their history.
Thank you for reading this annotated essay to the end. I know it is long, and I know it is very difficult to read these things that were previously unknown to almost all LDS members. I hope that you will continue to research this issue and that you will be willing to research from both LDS and non-LDS sources to get the full picture. Beyond the translation of the Book of Mormon, there are questions that arise from the problems within the book itself as noted above. That is a painful conclusion to arrive at, but it is better to find the truth than to ignore it, as difficult as it might be at first. There are many resources to help those going through a faith crisis, so please email us if you would like any help. While the church tells us that we will be miserable without it (and "where will you go?"), the reality is that people who do learn the truth and move on are just as (if not more) happy and healthy afterwards.
Please email us with any suggestions, corrections, or if you have any sources that can provide more information that can help enhance this essay. Thank you again!
Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 28, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
On the identity of the angel, see Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 223 n 56.
Davidson et al., Joseph Smith Histories, 223; punctuation regularized; Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3 (March 1, 1842): 706-7. See also Joseph Smith—History 1:33–34.
“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 290.
Joseph Smith History, 1838–ca. 1841, 8–11 (draft 2), in Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844,vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 252–3; available at josephsmithpapers.org; Doctrine and Covenants 3:5–15.
Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16; Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, Sept. 7, 1834, in Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834): 14; italics in original.
Most of the manuscript disintegrated or became otherwise unreadable due to water damage between 1841 and 1882, as a result of being placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in Nauvoo, Illinois. Most of the surviving pages were later archived in the historian’s office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The extant original manuscript has been published in The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). A complete copy of this original, known as the printer’s manuscript, was made by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes between August 1829 and early 1830. It was used to set the type for most of the printing in Palmyra. The printer’s manuscript is published in The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typological Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). Both the printer’s manuscript and the original manuscript will be published in future volumes of The Joseph Smith Papers. (Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, no. 3 [Spring 1970]: 261–72; Royal Skousen, “Piecing Together the Original Manuscript,” BYU Today 46, no. 3 [May 1992]: 18–24.)
For example, when Joseph translated the text that is now in 1 Nephi 13:29, the scribe wrote “&” in one place where he should have written “an.” At 1 Nephi 17:48, the scribe wrote “weed” where he should have written “reed.” (See Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997], 67; see also Grant Hardy, “Introduction,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009], xv–xix.)
John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon” and “Names of People: Book of Mormon,” in Geoffrey Kahn, ed., Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (Brill Online, 2013); M. Deloy Pack, “Hebraisms,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 321–25; John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 77–91; Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Donald W. Parry and others, eds., Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 155–89.
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On the role of the typesetter John Gilbert, see Royal Skousen, “John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” in Stephen D. Ricks and others, eds., The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 383–405.
Some grammatical constructions that sound odd to English speakers were edited out of later editions of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith or others in order to render the translation into more standard current English. See Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 44–45. Approximately five-sixth of the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset from the printer’s manuscript. The other one-sixth was typeset from the original manuscript. (Royal Skousen, “Editor’s Preface,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text,xxx.)
Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grand Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, vol. 1 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), xxix.
Mosiah 28:14–15, 20; see also Mosiah 8:13, 19; and Ether 4:5. Joseph Smith seems to have used the terms “interpreters” and “spectacles” interchangeably during the early years of the Church. Nancy Towle, an itinerant Methodist preacher, recounted Joseph Smith telling her about “a pair of ‘interpreters,’ (as he called them,) that resembled spectacles, by looking into which, he could read a writing engraven upon the plates, though to himself, in a tongue unknown.” (Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America [Charleston: James L. Burges, 1832], 138-39.) Joseph’s 1832 history referred to “spectacles.” (Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16.) In January 1833, the Latter-day Saint newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star, edited by William W. Phelps, equated “spectacles” and “interpreters” with the term “Urim and Thummim”: the Book of Mormon “was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles— (known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).” (“The Book of Mormon,” The Evening and the Morning Star, January 1833, .) By 1835 Joseph Smith most often used the term “Urim and Thummim” when speaking of translation and rarely, if ever, used the terms “interpreters” or “spectacles.” (Joseph Smith, Journal, Nov. 9-11, 1835, in Journals: Volume 1: 1832-1839, 89; Joseph Smith, History, 1834-1836, in Davidson et al., Histories, Volume 1, 116; John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., with Erick B. Carlson, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 [Provo, UT, and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Press and Deseret Book, 2005], 123-28.)
Joseph Smith probably possessed more than one seer stone; he appears to have found one of the stones while digging for a well around 1822. (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984], 69–70.)
According to Martin Harris, an angel commanded Joseph Smith to stop these activities, which he did by 1826. (See Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 64–76; and Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies 24, no. 4 [Fall 1984]: 489–560.) Joseph did not hide his well-known early involvement in treasure seeking. In 1838, he published responses to questions frequently asked of him. “Was not Jo Smith a money digger,” one question read. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” (Selections from Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 43, available at josephsmithpapers.org.) For the broader cultural context, see Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 6–33.
Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, Utah State University, 2000).
For example, when Joseph Smith showed a seer stone to Wilford Woodruff in late 1841, Woodruff recorded in his journal: “I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.” (Wilford Woodruff journal, Dec. 27, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.) See also Doctrine and Covenants 130:10.
Cornelius Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 9–26.
Preface to the Book of Mormon, 1830 edition.
Minutes, Church conference, Orange, OH, Oct. 25–26, 1831, in Minute Book 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, available at josephsmithpapers.org; Welch, “Miraculous Translation,”,121–9.
Virtually all of the accounts of the translation process are reproduced in Welch, “Miraculous Translation.” Two accounts of the translation process, including the use of a seer stone, have been written by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and published in Church magazines. Historians have also written about the seer stone in Church publications, both in the Ensign and in The Joseph Smith Papers. (See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign,Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign,July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; and Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, xxix–xxxii.)
“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90. Some outside reports describe the spectacles being placed in the hat during the translation process. A Palmyra newspaper published the earliest known account of the translation in August 1829: Jonathan Hadley, a Palmyra printer who may have spoken with Joseph Smith about translation, claimed that the plates were found with a “huge pair of Spectacles,” and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.” (“Golden Bible,” Palmyra Freeman, Aug. 11, 1829, .) In the winter of 1831, a Shaker in Union Village, Ohio, spoke of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” through which the translator “looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.” (Christian Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 [Spring 2011]: 143.)
“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 289–90.
“One of the Three Witnesses,” Deseret Evening News, Dec. 13, 1881, 4. Here Martin Harris uses the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the interpreters found with the plates.
A. W. B., “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 (Apr. 19, 1831): 120.
Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar,” 143. For additional accounts of translation by one of the Three Witnesses, see David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991).
Joseph Smith History, ca. Summer 1832, 1, in Histories, Volume 1, 1832–1844, 10; available at josephsmithpapers.org. Spelling modernized.
The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.