Book of Mormon: The Translation Process
Our last section covered Joseph Smith retrieving the gold plates and the techniques Joseph used in the visitations along with how treasure digging played a prominent role. Now that Joseph Smith has recovered the plates, it’s time to look at the translation and production of the Book of Mormon.
When I was an investigator as a teenager, the missionaries described the translation of the Book of Mormon in a very clean and polished account: That Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni who led Joseph Smith to the gold plates. From there, Joseph Smith sat at a table with the gold plates, carefully translating each line as his scribe sat on the other side of the table.
Unfortunately, that version of the translation is simply not how the translation actually happened, and as we’ve pointed out in our annotated gospel topics essay on the Book of Mormon translation, the episode of South Park called “All About Mormons” in 2003 was more honest about the translation process than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was in their 2005 movie about Joseph Smith that was shown in every visitors center to prospective members.
Even in the year 2021, the church is still pushing an account of the translation that is not historically true to the general membership. This photo below is from the January 2021 issue of the Liahona, the magazine that replaced the church’s Ensign magazine.
The church has made some strides in conceding that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using the same stone that he claimed to see buried treasure with, but unless you’re willing to dig deep for it, they will still show you the same version they told me as a teenager as they did in the January 2021 Liahona.
In the first two sections we covered Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasure digging and how that treasure digging was embedded in the account of Joseph Smith retrieving the gold plates. Now we’re going to look at the translation process, and what role both Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasure digging and the gold plates played in them.
How the Book of Mormon was Translated
We’ve shown you the images above and I could show you so many others that you would see in your local building or in church materials, but the narrative of the Book of Mormon translation to members has been that Joseph Smith had first First Vision, was visited three years later by the Angel Moroni, visited Hill Cumorah four times until retrieving the plates in 1827, and then translated the Book of Mormon by using the golden plates on a table next to his scribe.
Even in the year 2021 the church is using artwork depicting that exact scene as we have above, and they used the narrative in videos and other materials showing Joseph Smith studiously translating the gold plates. I have been told by many apologists that they’ve “known all along” that Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon that way, but you would never have known that if you followed the church’s teachings until the internet forced them to acknowledge that, as church historian and patriarch Richard Bushman admitted, the church’s “dominant narrative is not true.”
We have multiple accounts that describe the Book of Mormon translation process, and I want to highlight them here:
David Whitmer: "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." (Address to All Believers In Christ, 1887)
Emma Smith: "I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us." (Last Testimony of Sister Emma, Saints’ Herald 26, Oct. 1, 1879)
Edward Stevenson related this account from Martin Harris: "By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say "Written," and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used." ("One of the Three Witnesses," Millennial Star, Volume 44, p 86-87)
There are of course some differences in the accounts, and Emma Smith’s testimony has issues as she denies that Joseph Smith ever engaged in polygamy, but we can see that all of the accounts give a very similar description of the translation process.
Joseph Smith would put his “seer” stone in his hat, stick his face in the hat, and then read off the characters as he claimed to see them. The scribe would repeat the words back as they were written, and if they were correct, the stone would change to the next word or line of text. If they were not written correctly, they words would stay lit up on Joseph’s stone until they were corrected.
And to be clear, when I say Joseph’s seer stone in a hat, I mean the same seer stone that Joseph Smith claimed to see buried treasure with. This is the same stone that Joseph Smith defrauded people out of their money in digs that never once yielded the promised treasure. To really further this point, I want to bring back a few quotes from the treasure digging section about how Joseph Smith would conduct his treasure digs:
Joseph Capron, 1833 (Joseph Smith would conduct a dig on Joseph Capron’s farm in 1827): “I, Joseph Capron, became acquainted with Joseph Smith Sen. in the year of our Lord, 1827... The family of Smiths held Joseph Jr. in high estimation on account of some supernatural power, which he was supposed to possess. This power he pretended to have received through the medium of a stone of peculiar quality. The stone was placed in a hat, in such a manner as to exclude all light, except that which emanated from the stone itself. This light of the stone, he pretended, enabled him to see any thing he wished.... I will mention one circumstance, by which the uninitiated may know how the company dug for treasures. The sapient Joseph discovered, north west of my house, a chest of gold watches; but, as they were in the possession of the evil spirit, it required skill and stratagem to obtain them. Accordingly, orders were given to stick a parcel of large stakes in the ground, several rods around, in a circular form. This was to be done directly over the spot where the treasures were deposited. A messenger was then sent to Palmyra to procure a polished sword: after which, Samuel F. Lawrence, with a drawn sword in his hand, marched around to guard any assault which his Satanic majesty might be disposed to make. Meantime, the rest of the company were busily employed in digging for the watches. They worked as usual till quite exhausted. But, in spite of their brave defender, Lawrence, and their bulwark of stakes, the devil came off victorious, and carried away the watches.” (Mormonism Unveiled, E.D. Howe, pgs 258-260)
William Stafford, 1833 (Joseph Smith conducted digs on Joshua Stafford’s farm between 1822-1835): “I first became acquainted with Joseph, Sen., and his family in the year 1820. They lived, at that time, in Palmyra, about one mile and a half from my residence. A great part of their time was devoted to digging for money; especially in the night time, when they said the money could be most easily obtained. I have heard them tell marvellous tales, respecting the discoveries they had made in their peculiar occupation of money digging. They would say, for instance, that in such a place, in such a hill, on a certain man's farm, there were deposited keys, barrels and hogsheads of coined silver and gold - bars of gold, golden images, brass kettles filled with gold and silver - gold candlesticks, swords, &c. &.c They would say, also, that nearly all the hills in this part of New York, were thrown up by human hands, and in them were large caves, which Joseph, Jr., could see, by placing a stone of singular appearance in his hat, in such a manner as to exclude all light; at which time they pretended he could see all things within and under the earth, - that he could see within the above mentioned caves, large gold bars and silver plates - that he could also discover the spirits in whose charge these treasures were, clothed in ancient dress.” (Mormonism Unveiled, E.D. Howe, pgs 237-239)
I want to be perfectly clear here that not only was Joseph Smith using the same stone to translate the Book of Mormon that he used on his treasure digs, but that he used the exact same method to claim to see the Book of Mormon text that he did to see buried treasure.
Not only was Joseph Smith using the same practices from treasure digging to translate the Book of Mormon, but the gold plates were never used during the production of the Book of Mormon as we have it today. Our entire last section was about the gold plates, but the reality is that they played no substantial role in the translation process as Joseph Smith used the exact same stone and method from treasure digging to dictate the text.
This led church historian and patriarch Richard Bushman to state the following:
“I will begin by saying that we still have pictures on our Ward bulletin boards of Joseph Smith with the Gold Plates in front of him. That has become an irksome point and I think it is something the church should pay attention to. Because anyone who studies the history knows that is not what happened. There is no church historian who says that is what happened and yet it is being propagated by the church and it feeds into the notion that the church is trying to cover up embarrassing episodes and is sort of prettifying its own history.
So, I think we ought to just stop that immediately. I am not sure we need a lot of pictures in our chapels of Joseph looking into his hat, but we certainly should tell our children that is how it worked... It’s weird. It’s a weird picture. It implies it’s like darkening a room when we show slides. It implies that there is an image appearing in that stone and the light would make it more difficult to see that image. So, that implies a translation that’s a reading and so gives us a little clue about the whole translation process. It also raises the strange question, ‘What in the world are the plates for? Why do we need them on the table if they are just wrapped up into a cloth while he looks into a seer stone?’” (Fair Mormon Podcast, Episode 3: Richard L. Bushman P.1, 47:25, October 2010)
This is a question I ask myself because I just spent the time doing the section on the gold plates, but the reality is that the story of the gold plates is important both in how his treasure digging directly influenced the Book of Mormon and by helping us better understand how Joseph Smith was able to convince those around him that the Book of Mormon was a true record by invoking the story of the plates.
Because a few of the apologetic rebuttals claim the above Richard Bushman quote is edited, I want to also note that Bushman did clarify a few weeks later (presumably after some blow-back to this quote being cited) during a completely separate event to say the following in response to a question about abandoning the historicity of the plates:
“What would we gain and lose [if we abandon the plates]? What we would lose would be a powerful form of the evidence that the Lord gave to Joseph Smith and to us of the actuality of these experiences and therefore the actuality of the transcendent sphere... that would be gutting some of the most gritty and appealing parts of the Mormon story." (Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, October 2010)
Even in that quote, Bushman is not denying the problem with the plates with regards to the church’s narrative, but is saying that if the church were to abandon the plates it would gutting a big part of Mormon history. It’s the same problem that the church is running into today when asked if the church needs to abandon the idea that the Book of Mormon is a historical book. We can show that it is not an ancient, historical text, but the moment you abandon that belief, there entire church crumbles with it.
This is all so much different than what I was taught as an investigator, and I can understand why the church does not want to teach this history. We will get to the apologetic responses to how to reconcile this problem, but the idea that Joseph Smith is using the same stone and method to produce the Book of Mormon that he used to defraud people out of their money in treasure/money digs is highly problematic.
The Book of Mormon “Caractors”
One of the more well known stories about the Book of Mormon’s production is Martin Harris being sent to Charles Anthon in order to receive some confirmation that Harris was not being duped by Joseph Smith. Before the visit, Joseph copied a set of characters from the Book of Mormon to take to Anthon, and Harris met with Anton leading to very different accounts of what occurred during this visit. We cover the Anthon visit and how Joseph Smith retrofitted this account and reinterprets Isaiah in another post, but I want to focus here on the Book of Mormon characters.
Above is a copy of the set of characters that Joseph Smith copied directly from the gold plates. The church has used these throughout the years and you can even see this image on their official website.
The problem, however, is that these characters in no way resemble Egyptian, but they do resemble someone who is trying to crudely modify the language they do know. Below is an image that takes all of the Book of Mormon characters and by simply rotation, creates the alphabet we are all used to.
During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, no one in his area could read Egyptian and news of the Rosetta Stone had not reached his area. We cover this in much greater detail in our Book of Abraham overview, but there is simply no Egyptian scholar that has ever heard of “Reformed Egyptian” and you will not find a single non-LDS scholar that would ever find a connection between the “caractors” and any Egyptian language beyond similarities in the most basic ones.
The Book of Mormon characters are so clearly taken from Joseph Smith’s English language that you can actually use them to write in English. This image is from Sandra and Jerald Tanner, which summarizes the problem about as bluntly as one can.
These characters are all we have from the gold plates to validate, and again shows that Joseph Smith’s fingerprints are all over the translation process. In addition to the "caractors" document, there is a 'broadside' with similar characters and a letter from Oliver Cowdery with four more characters. The church knows that this is a problem, which is why they show “Reformed Egyptian” in a much different manner in their recent videos on the gold plates and seer stones. Look below to see how the church presents “Reformed Egyptian” in 2020 to their members against the actual characters Joseph Smith created above.
If Joseph Smith’s characters from the Book of Mormon had any legitimacy whatsoever, the church would be using them in every material as a proof of the Book of Mormon’s ancient authenticity. Instead they are using made up characters in videos despite having the “Caractors” document ready to cite from. That tells you everything you need to know about the Book of Mormon characters.
The Lost 116 Pages
We will cover this in more depth in our next section, but the “Lost 116 Pages” is an important incident in the Book of Mormon translation.
When Joseph Smith began translating the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris wanted to show his wife Lucy the manuscript to calm her fears that Joseph Smith was defrauding him out of their money. Joseph Smith was denied this request by God two times, but Martin continued to plead with Joseph to let him take the manuscript back. Joseph Smith asked God a third time, and Joseph claimed that God then allowed Martin to take the manuscript back home. That, again, is the magical power of three that we’ve been referencing in magic/occult practices throughout the first few sections.
Martin Harris then lost the manuscript, which is believed to have been taken by his wife Lucy to stop his involvement in the Book of Mormon translation. Joseph Smith, who claimed to be able to view objects with his seer stone such as the gold plates when Emma was afraid they would be taken, was either unable to view the 116 pages with his stone or never tried, but it shows that the seer stone never works when the situation is out of Joseph Smith’s control.
Furthermore, Joseph Smith never replicated those pages and instead picked up translating the Book of Mormon where the 116 pages left off, with the obvious reason being that he was hoping that the manuscript might be returned. Joseph Smith dictated what is now D&C 10, claiming that:
“you shall not translate again those words which have gone forth out of your hands;
For, behold, they shall not accomplish their evil designs in lying against those words. For, behold, if you should bring forth the same words they will say that you have lied and that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted yourself.
And, behold, they will publish this, and Satan will harden the hearts of the people to stir them up to anger against you, that they will not believe my words.” (Doctrine and Covenants 10,30-32)
The “Lost 116 Pages” was an incident that could have cemented Joseph Smith’s credibility as a prophet, but instead he refused to re-translate the pages. As a believer we accept the revelation at face value, but when you look at the translation process in totality it shows that Joseph Smith knew he could not recreate his initial manuscript.
We will cover this in more detail in the next section, but the replacement text for the initial 116 pages is very careful to not contradict the original pages because Joseph Smith could never be sure that Lucy Harry was not holding onto them, and this is a very important part of the translation process to understanding how Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon.
The King James Bible in the Book of Mormon
We cover this in much greater detail in our biblical scholarship section on the King James Bible, but the Book of Mormon is literarily dependent on not just the Bible, but the King James Bible (KJV) version of the Bible that Joseph Smith studied from. To be clear, the Book of Mormon cannot exist without the KJV – there is no way around the amount of text that is pulled from the KJV into the Book of Mormon, and it shows that the author of the Book of Mormon was using the KJV as a source text.
This is a problem because all of the accounts of the translation are clear that Joseph Smith would put his head in his hat and read words off of his seer/peep stone until they were recorded exactly correct, and then would move to the next words. That would not allow for Joseph Smith to put the hat down, pull in text from Isaiah from the KJV instead of reading off the rock, and then just start back where he left off, but that is what we have to accept given the vast use of the KJV in the Book of Mormon.
Through biblical scholarship we can show where Joseph Smith included text from the King James Bible that could not have been known to the Book of Mormon people because much of it was not even written yet including not just the New Testament such as the Sermon on the Mount, but the passages taken from Deutero-Isaiah. This again puts Joseph Smith’s fingerprints all over the Book of Mormon, and is irreconcilable with the accounts of the translations from Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer.
While many apologists refer to the idea that God spoke to Joseph Smith in a language that he was familiar with, it still does not explain why translation errors were included. In other words, if we want to believe that God changed the Book of Mormon text into a style that was more palatable to Joseph Smith’s time, why would God not correct the translation errors at the same time?
Again, we cover this in much more detail on our King James Bible and the Book of Mormon overview page, but this is extremely important to showing how Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon and another way that we can date the Book of Mormon to being a 19th century production.
Apologetic Responses to the Book of Mormon Translation:
Joseph Smith Could Not Write Nor Dictate a Coherent and Well-Worded Letter
There are many apologetic explanations for Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon using the same stone and method that he claimed to see buried treasure with and I want cover a few of those here.
First, there has long been a narrative that Joseph Smith was incapable of producing the Book of Mormon by himself. The church’s Gospel Topics essay on the translation states the following:
“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.” (“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 290)
The problem with this idea that Joseph Smith was too uneducated to dictate a coherent letter, let alone the Book of Mormon is that we have accounts showing that he was actually quite an eloquent speaker. But before we do that, I want to point out some of the original Book of Mormon phrases to show that the Book of Mormon was written with someone who spoke in a folksy manner. Here are a few selections:
“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)
The point here is not to make fun of Joseph Smith for being too dumb to translate the Book of Mormon, but to make clear that the initial manuscript of the Book of Mormon does not read like the book we have today. There are still parts of the original manuscript that are extant, and you can see that they have no punctuation and are riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. If you click the image below, you can see the image in a larger size to look at how it reads without punctuations, verse breaks, etc.
The punctuation and paragraph breaks were done by a non-Mormon typesetter named John H. Gilbert, who worked for E.B. Grandin and helped to make the Book of Mormon readable for a more broad audience. John H. Gilbert said that the Book of Mormon was “closely written and legible, but not a punctuation mark from beginning to end” (Porter, Ensign July 1988).
On the other side, we have some examples where Joseph Smith was able to create quite eloquent language. The following is a letter that Joseph Smith wrote to Oliver Cowdery, and the only thing I’ve cleaned up is spelling and some punctuation, but everything else is as it was written:
“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 Olivery Cowdery)
Furthermore, here is an excerpt from Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, which was written by Joseph himself just a few years after the Book of Mormon was published. Again, the only changes here are some minor spelling and punctuation:
“...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).
Again, the point here is that Joseph Smith was not nearly as incapable of creating the stories in the Book of Mormon as the church would have you believe, and the Book of Mormon was not nearly as polished and eloquent as it appears to be today after a typesetter added punctuation, corrected spelling and grammar, and made other changes over the years.
Beyond all of the issues with Joseph Smith’s ability to write or dictate the Book of Mormon, we have an account from Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, where she recalls Joseph Smith telling the family the Book of Mormon stories before he even claimed to have the plates. From Lucy Mack Smith:
“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)
This quote tells us that not only was Joseph Smith thinking about the Book of Mormon before the translation started, but that he was so capable of telling these stories that he was able to tell these stories with such “ease” that he was able to give the most detailed descriptions of their cities, warfare, and religion. Again, these are all fingerprints on the Book of Mormon that tell us who the author is, and the totality of all of these issues is why non-LDS scholars are certain that it is not an ancient, historical text.
No One Could Produce the Book of Mormon in 90 days
One other argument we often hear is that no one could write a book such as the Book of Mormon in such a short time-span, but historian John Hamer laid out the basic math behind the translation/dictation process and it's much less impressive than it might seem on the surface.
The Book of Mormon is 273,725 words long - and that includes all of the material that has been brought in from the King James Bible, which would obviously be dictated/written down at a faster pace. With a rough estimate of 85 days of producing the Book of Mormon, that would require that about 3,200 are written down every day.
Because Joseph Smith could speak the words quicker than Oliver Cowdery could write them, we have to use dictation as a baseline. John Hamer notes that the average dictation is about 1,200 words per hour to remain clean and legible. Taking the 3,200 words a day and dividing by the 1,200 words that can be dictated per hour means that the amount of time that needs to be spent writing the Book of Mormon is about 2 hours and 40 minutes.
In other words, once you break it down the workload is not that bad at all. This would also allow for many breaks during the day, which would give Joseph time to plan out the story-line as well as possibly talk through ideas with those around him that he is thinking of incorporating.
Not only is the timeline much less impressive than it is proclaimed to be, but we have to remember that Joseph Smith already had written the first 116 pages and had been telling stories to his family for years about the Book of Mormon people. By the time the dictation process had started, Joseph Smith had been working out the story in his head for years, which would again make the process much smoother than what we are taught that it would be.
We will cover this more in a future section, but I highly recommend John Hamer's two part interview on Mormon Stories that details the creation of the Book of Mormon.
Near Eastern Language in the Book of Mormon
Again from the church’s essay on the Book of Mormon translation, they reference a common apologetic that says Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon because there are examples of Near Eastern language. From the essay:
“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.”
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 in his milieu. We can already show that the Book of Mormon is literarily dependent on the King James Bible, so this argument falls flat immediately.
Put another way, if we are to believe Joseph Smith is restoring an ancient text from the Americas, then you can’t have the vast material from the King James Bible that was not translated until 1611 embedded in its text. On the other hand, if you are willing to conclude that Joseph Smith was consulting a Bible for these sections (as FAIR Mormon has done), then the Near Eastern languages are a result of writing in the language of the Bible since we know it’s not a direct translation.
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. (Mormon Think, Hebraisms)
To be clear, I am not saying that Joseph Smith plagiarized the Late War, Solomon Spaulding’s book, or James Strang’s scriptures. What I am saying is that these writing styles were common in Joseph Smith’s day as the language of the King James Bible was how many religions spoke at the time. There is a reason that the church still uses “thou, thine, and thy” when praying, and it’s because that’s from the language of the King James Bible.
And if that’s not enough, we even have chiasmus in the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham. You can read the examples of chiasmus from the Spoiled Milks website, but it is important to understand that many of these examples of ‘Near Eastern languages’ are simply literary devices to tell a story.
God Transmits Revelations in a Variety of Ways
A current apologetic is that the Book of Mormon being translated by the seer stone is just not that weird. The recent FAIR Mormon video called ‘This is the Show’ said that
“You know what? I don't get how people act like the seer stone part of the translation process is like the deal breaker. You know what I mean? It starts off with Moroni, an ancient Native American who dies and goes to heaven and comes back as a glowing angel. That's fine, right? Literally an Indian flying through time and space to get to Palmyra in New York is okay, but once you put a rock in a hat, that's where it gets crazy.”
The church essay puts the use of a rock in a hat in a more official context, putting it this way:
“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.” Paul and other early apostles sometimes communicated with angels and, on occasion, with the Lord Jesus Christ. 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.”
This is important because we need to understand that the Urim and Thummim from the Bible is not in any way the same as Joseph Smith’s seer/peep stone.
We cover all of this a lot more in-depth in the annotated LDS essay on the Book of Mormon translation, but the Urim and Thummim did not translate anything - they were not seer stones in the way Joseph Smith claimed to use them. They worked more like a magic 8-ball, only giving you answers of yes or no. The black stone translates to 'Yes' and the white stone translates to 'No' for questions the high priests would ask. They did not have the ability to find hidden objects or to project translated words from golden plates that were not even in the room with Joseph at the time he was using the stone in a hat.
Furthermore, the term 'Urim and Thummim' was not even used to describe the "seer stone" or any translation process of the Book of Mormon until W.W. Phelps used it in 1832. Originally Joseph spoke of having Nephite Interpreters, but those were taken when Joseph Smith lost the initial 116 pages. Upon resuming translation, Joseph switched to the stone in a hat for the Book of Mormon as we have it today according to both Emma Smith and David Whitmer.
Again, the church (and those who are putting this information together here) is well aware of all of these details, but they continue to muddy the water by using the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably, even though the original Urim and Thummim in the Bible has nothing to do with translating ancient text or receiving revelations - it was merely a way to determine a yes or no answer to a question.
From the church’s recent video on seer stones, they make the following comparison:
“Seer stones are, well, stones, rocks. They are just one example of many physical objects which God has used through his spokesmen called prophets to demonstrate His power and to bless or communicate with His children. Let's look at some examples. You may remember from the Bible God commanded Moses to place a serpent made of brass on a pole to heal the children of Israel. He told Moses anyone who looketh upon it shall live. But the power to heal was not in the serpent or the pole - it was God's power. As another example, Moses used a rod, a large stick to part the Red Sea. The savior healed a woman who touched His garment and Jesus even used mud when He healed a blind man. Through examples such as these, we can see how God sometimes uses objects that people are familiar with to communicate with and bless His children.”
We just covered this above, but the stone Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon is the same one he used to defraud people out of their money by claiming to see buried treasure that would slip away just before his digging team could get to it. In order to make this comparison work, we would have to believe that Moses had claimed the rod had magical abilities for cash, never actually was able to provide any of the promised services, and then had it suddenly work later on.
It’s a ridiculous argument once you realize that Joseph Smith is not only using the same rock to translate with that he used to claim to see buried treasure, but the translation method is the exact same method he used to claim to see buried treasure in his hat.
The church’s essay does finally admit that Joseph Smith translated in this method when it states the following:
“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.” 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. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.”
This paragraph sums up the problem that we’ve been building on for the last few sections. The claim is that Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. The problem is that these people never found the buried treasure they claimed to see, including Joseph. So in order to make this paragraph work, you have to believe there is real buried treasure that can be seen with a stone in a hat, that the treasure really can slip away into the ground if the magical/occult ritual is not done properly, and that this method can then translate ancient plates that are not even being used in the translation process.
Effectively this paragraph is admitting that Joseph Smith did not even use the gold plates that were preserved by God for thousands of years along with interpreters, but instead used the same stone he claimed to see buried treasure with. Furthermore, the essay contends that Joseph Smith used his seer/peep stone “for convenience,” which also is an argument that implies that God would allow for an inferior translation incorporating King James Bible errors for Joseph Smith’s convenience.
These first three sections have now brought us to the production of the Book of Mormon, but we still more sections to go in order to evaluate the claims of the Book of Mormon being an ancient, historical record. The methods used to produce the Book of Mormon are incredibly important, because we will continue to see in the upcoming sections that they all show Joseph Smith’s fingerprints on the text and production of the Book of Mormon, and help scholars to know that it is a 19th century text that was brought forth.
Furthermore, I think it incredibly important to understand the role that treasure digging played in Joseph Smith’s life, which ultimately created the account of the gold plates and was the very manner in which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
As I said before, in order to believe that the Book of Mormon could be translated by putting the same stone in a hat that he used to claim to see buried treasure, you must believe that buried treasure is real, that is can slip away if the magic ritual is not performed correctly, and that even after Joseph Smith could never find a single treasure site that God then blessed him with the power to translate an ancient text.
While these overview topics are long, I really feel that as you layer them one on top of the other, you can see how connected they all are and what they tell us about Joseph Smith’s claims to being a prophet of God.
Our next section is going to dive deeper into the “116 Pages” that were lost by Martin Harris. This section is one that is not as commonly discussed, but crucial to showing how we can be sure that Joseph Smith was the author of the Book of Mormon, and we will go through the history of the lost pages along with what the replacement text tells us.
Next section: The Lost 116 Pages of the Book of Mormon
Thank you for reading, and please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more information and updates on future sections.
Mormon Stories 1056-1058 with Dan Vogel: How the Book of Mormon was Created
Mormon Stories 1082-1083 with John Hamer: How the Book of Mormon was Created
Dan Vogel's Book: Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Free online)