Was every word of the Book of Mormon translation provided directly from God?
Joseph’s view of revelation is nuanced in this regard
Some readers of the Book of Mormon and other students of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have become concerned with issues that might, in their view, preclude the view that the translation of the Book of Mormon was given word-for-word, directly by God such as the presence of language from the King James Bible in the text. Such a view (that the translation was given word-for word) was expressed by early witnesses to the translation; but Joseph’s own view of revelation appears to more nuanced and allow for some flexibility in this regard.
We read in Doctrine and Covenants 1:24:
24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
Key phrases in this verse include “in their weakness” and “after the manner of their language.” While the translation of the Book of Mormon may come directly from God, this does not preclude the role that Joseph would play in adapting the language of the Book of Mormon to a cultural and linguistic framework that would both establish that the text was authentic and inspired while also communicating the Book’s message clearly. Thus Joseph’s model of revelation is one in which God could use things such as King James language as the means to the end of establishing his everlasting covenant and calling his children to repentance. This theology of translation may feel strange to some Latter-day Saints that might only accept the view that a translation provided by God can only be a formally equivalent (word-for-word) rendering of the Reformed Egyptian into English. Though, this view might build our conviction of the reality of God’s love and the truth that we are all God’s children and thus gods in embryo given that God, using this instance as an example, recognized the divine potential of Joseph Smith and chose to respect his agency. He worked in cooperation with Joseph (instead of merely subjecting his mind to the revelation) to get his message out to his children. He exalted the human. “Exalting the human” should feel right at home to Latter-day Saints whose theology sees divinity as the fullest expression of humanity.
What are the Nephite interpreters?
The Nephite interpreters are two seer stones set in a framework resembling a set of “spectacles”
The Lord provided a set of seer stones (which were formerly used by Nephite prophets) along with the plates. The term Nephite interpreters can alternatively refer to the stones themselves or the stones in conjunction with their associated paraphernalia (holding rim and breastplate). Some time after the translation, early saints noticed similarities with the seer stones and related paraphernalia used by High Priests in the Old Testament and began to use the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably with the Nephite interpreters and Joseph’s other seer stones as well. The now popular use of the term Urim and Thummim has unfortunately obscured the fact that all such devices belong in the same class of consecrated revelatory aids and that more than one were used in the translation.
The manner in which the interpreters were used was never explained in detail
The Nephite interpreters were intended to assist Joseph in the initial translation process, yet the manner in which they were employed was never explained in detail. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were set in rims resembling a pair of spectacles has led some to believe that they may have been worn like a pair of glasses, with Joseph viewing the characters on the plates through them. This, however, is merely speculation that doesn’t take into account that Joseph soon disassembled the fixture, the spacing between seer stones being too wide for his eyes. The accompanying breastplate also appeared to have been used by a larger man. Like its biblical counterpart (the High Priest’s breastplate contained 12 gems that symbolized him acting as a mediator between God and Israel), the Nephite breastplate was apparently non-essential to the revelatory process.
Did Joseph ever place the Nephite interpreters (“Urim and Thummim”) into his hat?
There is evidence that indicates that Joseph did place the “Urim and Thummim” into his hat
The Church states that, “These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.” and “According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”
Contemporary accounts indicate that Joseph began the translation using the Nephite interpreters, and finished it using his own seer stone after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript. Note this account from Martin Harris:
The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should “look aught and perish.”
Martin Harris said that Joseph placed the interpreters in a hat
Harris states that Joseph used the “two stones set in a bow of silver” by “placing them in the hat.” He is referring to the Nephite interpreters, what we today refer to as the “Urim and Thummim”. Joseph may have therefore placed the Nephite interpreters into his hat – a method of receiving revelation that he was already quite familiar with.
Based upon these accounts, it appears that Joseph began the translation process using the Nephite interpreters, and that at some point he may have used them with a hat. After the loss of the 116 pages, he may have either switched to his own seer stone or continued to use the Nephite “spectacles,” again with the hat. In fact, given the consistent reports of the use of the hat during translation, it is not possible to know with certainty whether Joseph was using the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone in the hat during this period of time. One thing seems certain based upon witness accounts—during the period of the translation process after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph sat in the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat.
Did Joseph Smith use the Nephite interpreters to translate? Or did he use his own seer stone?
Joseph Smith used both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone, and both were called “Urim and Thummim”
Joseph Smith used both the Nephite Interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation process, yet we only hear of the “Urim and Thummim” being used for this purpose.
- He described the instrument as ‘spectacles’ and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim.
- He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed, called ‘seer stones’ because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones.
- Records indicate that soon after the founding of the Church in 1830, the Prophet stopped using the seer stones as a regular means of receiving revelations. Instead, he dictated the revelations after inquiring of the Lord without employing an external instrument.
Emma Smith confirmed that Joseph switched between the Nephite interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation
Emma Smith Bidamon described Joseph’s use of several stones during translation to Emma Pilgrim on 27 March 1870 (original spelling retained):
Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”
Did Joseph Smith use his own seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
Many eyewitness accounts confirm that Joseph employed his seer stone during part of the translation process
Martin Harris states that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters and then later switched to using the seer stone “for convenience.” In fact, Elder Nelson refers to the use of the seer stone in his 1993 talk:
The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:
“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)
Has the Church tried to hide Joseph's use of a seer stone?
The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School
The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. Part of the reason for this is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name “Urim and Thummim.” In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.
That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone’s use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention that the process. Note the mention of the stone in the official children’s magazine, The Friend (available online at lds.org):
”To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone.”
—“A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sep 1974, 7
Text translated with the Nephite interpreters was lost with the 116 pages given to Martin Harris—see DC 3:. The Church’s Historical Record records Joseph’s use of the seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text:
As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of the 116 pages], the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated. [Note that the chronology of Joseph’s acquisition of the stone is here somewhat confused. The use of the stone, however, is clearly indicated.]
References to the stone are not confined to the distant past. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve Apostles described the process clearly in an Ensign article:
Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.
It would be strange to try to hide something by having an apostle talk about it, and then send the account to every LDS home in the official magazine!
Why have the stone and hat not received more mentions in popular Church History works?
We already know that Joseph Smith was reluctant to describe the translation process in detail. Brigham Young University professor Stephen Ricks feels that Joseph’s “reticence was probably well justified and may have been due to the inordinate interest which some of the early Saints had shown in the seer stone or to the negative and sometimes bitter reactions he encountered when he had reported some of his sacred experiences to others.” Thus, Joseph never discussed the details regarding which translation instrument he used to both translate the Book of Mormon and to receive revelation. Joseph simply told people that he received his early revelations through the “Urim and Thummim.”
During the 1930s, Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to “gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon.” Many of these articles were obtained from newspaper collections located in the New York area and have recently been made available in an online database hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
As we have seen, many of these news accounts refer to the use of the spectacles or stone together with a hat, consistent with the late statements of Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, in the October 1939 Improvement Era, quoted the accounts of the stone and the hat given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, however, did not accept the eyewitness accounts that Joseph actually used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, concluding that “the statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them.” In his 1951 book A New Witness For Christ in America, Kirkham believed that “it may not have been expedient for the Prophet to try and explain the method of translation for the reason his hearers would lack the capacity to understand. It seemed sufficient to them at that time to know that the translation had been made by the gift and power of God.” Kirkham goes on to say that, “After a lapse of forty years of time, both David Whitmer and Martin Harris attempted to give the method of the translation. Evidently the Prophet did not tell them the method.” Despite the fact that elements of Harris’s and Whitmer’s story were consistent with each other, Kirkham simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth.
In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith knew of the seer stone (and acknowledged that the Church had the stone in its possession), but did not believe that Joseph actually used it during the translation of the Book of Mormon.
SEER STONE NOT USED IN BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION. We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were returned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church. Statements of translations by the Urim and Thummim after that date are evidently errors.
Like Kirkham, Joseph Fielding Smith simply refused to accept accounts of Joseph having utilized his seer stone for the purpose of translation as having any validity. In his opinion, such accounts were simply erroneous due to the fact that he believed they were hearsay and that Ether 3:22-24 states that the Urim and Thummim were preserved for the act of translation. Since the Book of Mormon does not mention the seer stone, the seer stone was evidently inferior to him.
During the twentieth century, the story of Joseph translating behind a curtain while employing the Nephite interpreters as the Urim and Thummim remained firmly established and generally uncontested among the general Church membership. Latter-day Saint scholars, however, continued to research the stories of Joseph’s use of the seer stone. Such references never made it into the general Church curriculum or the awareness of the general Church membership. If you were a scholar, then you knew that Joseph used a seer stone. If you were a regular Church member, then you knew that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters. Discussions of Joseph’s use of “seer stones” or the practice of “treasure seeking” remained primarily in the realm of LDS scholars. During the tenure of Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington, from 1972 and 1982, some attempts were made to make certain elements of Latter-day Saint history more accessible to the average member. One 1976 book produced during this period, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, noted in a straightforward manner Joseph’s acquisition of his seer stone and its use in the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Sometime around 1822, before his first visit from the angel Moroni, Joseph was digging a well with Willard Chase, not far from the Smith home, and he discovered a smooth, dark-colored stone, about the size of an egg, that he called a seerstone. He later used it to “help in the translation of the Book of Mormon and also in receiving certain revelations.”
The visibility of these issues among the general Church membership began to change significantly in the early 1980s as the result of a very unusual and tragic event: the exposure of the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Suddenly, newspapers were talking about salamanders and treasure guardians in association with some of the Church’s founding events.
Mark Hofmann was a member of the Church who became involved with the acquisition and sale of historic documents during the early 1980s. He seemed to have a knack for acquiring missing documents that were alluded to by other documents related to Church history. For example, Hofmann claimed to have located a blessing in which Joseph Smith III was allegedly promised that he would be the next prophet of the Church. Hofmann also produced what he claimed was the Anthon transcript, which matched a description of the document provided by Charles Anthon himself. The most famous document in the collection of Hofmann forgeries was the Salamander Letter, which was purportedly written by Martin Harris. Hofmann’s documents were so well crafted that they fooled a number of experts in the field, and they were all considered genuine for a period of time. During that period of time, a new wave of Latter-day Saint historical works were produced, taking into account the “magical” aspects emphasized in the Salamander Letter. There was also an effort to reconcile and integrate the new information with existing accounts.
Some of Hofmann’s documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and to some extent simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents. Although the Hofmann forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general Church membership. Joseph’s early involvement with treasure seeking, beyond what had long been documented in Church publications regarding his efforts with Josiah Stowell, became more well known. Elder Dallin Oaks emphasized that this in no way diminished Joseph’s standing as the Prophet of the Restoration.
Some sources close to Joseph Smith claim that in his youth, during his spiritual immaturity prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure. Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties, especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the Prophet of the Restoration.
Why were the gold plates needed at all if they weren't used directly during the translation process?
Joseph did not need the plates physically present to translate, since the translation was done by revelation
Much is made of the fact that Joseph used a seer stone, which he placed in a hat, to dictate the text of the Book of Mormon without viewing the plates directly.
Some witness accounts suggest that Joseph was able to translate while the plates were covered, or when they were not even in the same room with him. Therefore, if the plates themselves were not being used during the translation process, why was it necessary to have plates at all?
Joseph did not need the plates physically present to translate, since the translation was done by revelation. The existence of the plates was vital, however, to demonstrate that the story he was translating was literally true.
The existence of the physical plates attested to the reality of the Nephite record
If there had been no plates, and Joseph had simply received the entire Book of Mormon through revelation, there would have been no Anthon visit, nor would there have been any witnesses. The very fact that plates existed served a greater purpose, even if they were not directly viewed during all of the translation process.
The plates served a variety of purposes.
- They were viewed by witnesses as solid evidence that Joseph did indeed have an ancient record.
- Joseph’s efforts to obtain them over a four year period taught him and matured him in preparation for performing the translation,
- Joseph’s efforts to protect and preserve them helped build his character. If Joseph were perpetrating a fraud, it would have been much simpler to claim direct revelation from God and forgo the physical plates.
- Joseph copied characters off the plates to give to Martin Harris, which he subsequently showed to Charles Anthon. This was enough to convince Martin to assist with the production of the Book of Mormon.
The plates’ existence as material artifacts eliminated the possibility that Joseph was simply honestly mistaken. Either Joseph was knowingly perpetuating a fraud, or he was a genuine prophet.
The existence of actual plates eliminates the idea that the Book of Mormon was “spiritually true,” but fictional
Furthermore, the existence of actual plates eliminates the idea that the Book of Mormon was “spiritually true,” but fictional. There is a great difference between an allegorical or moral fiction about Nephites, and real, literal Nephites who saw a literal Christ who was literally resurrected.
Can the Book of Mormon be considered a genuine translation if the plates weren’t even used during the translation process?
Without the plates present, it is obviously impossible to physically verify if the Book of Mormon translation is “correct”
It is claimed by some that the Book of Mormon can never be viewed as any translation of an ancient record.
Without the plates present, it is obviously impossible to physically verify if the Book of Mormon translation is “correct”. A part of a Mormon theology that is important to keep in mind informs us that the plates will be returned one day before the Second Coming so that a sealed portion of the plates might be translated.
According to the October 2011 New Era:
When Moroni was finishing the Book of Mormon record, he was commanded to seal up some of the plates, and Joseph Smith was later commanded not to translate them. This sealed portion contains the complete record of the vision of the brother of Jared (see Ether 4:4–5). This vision included “all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (2 Nephi 27:10–11; see also Ether 3:25). So basically the Lord revealed to the brother of Jared the history of mankind, and the sealed portion of the plates was Moroni’s translated copy of it.
Few people have seen the sealed record—for instance, the Nephites in the land Bountiful at the Savior’s coming (see Ether 4:1–2) and Moroni (see Ether 12:24). The Lord said the sealed portion would be revealed to the world “in mine own due time” (Ether 3:27). He also said it would “not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord” (Ether 4:6; see also 2 Nephi 27:8).
According to Joseph Smith’s associates who saw the golden plates, anywhere from half to two-thirds of all the plates were in the sealed portion (see Kirk B. Henrichsen, “What Did the Golden Plates Look Like?” New Era, July 2007, 31).
When the plates are returned, the reality of the plates will be attested to and we can certainly verify the translation that came therefrom
When the plates are returned, the reality of the plates will be attested to and we can certainly verify the translation that came therefrom. The translation of the plates by the hat and the interpreters/seer stone may be viewed as an attempt by God to speak to men “in their weakness, according to their language” and as a means to an end—a means by which a work could commence to prepare for greater things that would be done as the world drew closer to the second coming of the Savior Jesus Christ.
Did Joseph Fielding Smith say that it was not reasonable for Joseph Smith to use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
Joseph Fielding Smith said “It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances”
Joseph Fielding Smith said the following:
While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22–24. These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes.
One critical website makes the claim: “So apparently even the 10th president of the Church thinks that using a stone to translate the Book of Mormon with ‘hardly seems reasonable.’” This is incorrect.
Joseph Fielding Smith did not say that it was not reasonable to use a stone to translate the Book of Mormon. After all, the Nephite interpreters were themselves comprised of two seer stones. Joseph Fielding Smith had no issue with that. What Joseph Fielding Smith thought was unreasonable was that Joseph Smith would use his own “inferior” seer stone instead of the Nephite interpreters.
Joseph Smith considered the Nephite interpreters a more powerful version of his own seer stone
When Joseph Smith first obtained the Nephite interpreters, he considered them a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed. Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph appeared to be more excited about receiving the “glasses” than the gold plates themselves. After Joseph returned from retrieving the plates, Joseph Knight recalled,
After breakfast Joseph called me in to the other room and he set his foot on the bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, “Well, I am disappointed.” “Well,” say I, “I am sorry.” “Well,” says he, “I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected.” Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates for, says he, “I can see anything. They are marvelous. Now they are written in characters and I want them translated.”
In the beginning, Joseph believed that the stone itself possessed some special quality
Joseph’s belief that the stone or the Nephite interpreters possessed some quality that made them special was apparent:
The idea that the Nephite interpreters were a more powerful version of Joseph’s seer stone is interesting, since it implies that there was something special about the stones themselves. It is more likely, however, that it was Joseph’s own perception that the stones were superior because these stones had been consecrated by God for the purpose of seeing things.
Joseph Fielding Smith did not believe that Joseph Smith would substitute an inferior seer stone for the Nephite interpreters, which were themselves stones
However, the idea that the Nephite interpreters were superior to a common “seer stone” was accepted by twentieth-century apostle and Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith. In response to accounts that indicated that Joseph may have used his own seer stone during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Elder Smith flatly stated that he did not believe this to be true, since the stone was inferior to the Nephite interpreters.
Joseph Fielding Smith was entitled to his opinion, and he clearly stated that it was his opinion. He based this on scripture from the Book of Ether which indicated that the interpreters had been preserved for the purpose of translation. This is certainly a reasonable conclusion. However, statements made by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries clearly indicate that the seer stone was used in the translation, and that by 1833 the title “Urim and Thummim” was later applied to the seer stone in addition to the Nephite interpreters.
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