Monday, October 3, 2016

Translating the Book of Mormon: Some Serious Questions

A page from Brigham Young's journal where he records on 27 December 1841 that Joseph showed him his "seer stone."' Provided courtesy of the Church History Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Book of Mormon is the "keystone" to our religion as Latter-day Saints, or Mormons.  I have read it near daily since I was about seven, and learned to read from its pages during family study at four and five.  Its inspired passages have seen me through the toughest moments in my life, bound me more firmly to the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and brought me much peace and happiness.

I still have questions, however, as to how it came into being.  Big ones.  I usually like to resolve such questions before writing about it - keeping my doubts firmly to myself, as I know witnesses of knowledge and understanding come "after the trial of my faith."

But I thought this time around it might actually help me arrive at the answers I seek to write out my struggles as they are in process.  Please pardon the personal journey.

I was taught growing up that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using the "Urim & Thummim," or sacred stones attached to a breastplate and looking something like diamond glasses that were buried with the Golden Plates.  Joseph would put these on and be separated by a draped blanket from whomever acted as scribe so the plates could be kept hidden per commandment from the Angel Moroni.

Not so.  Turns out that this is how the translation began with Martin Harris and then Emma (his wife),  the first scribes, but was discontinued for many reasons.  It was, however, the myth that was told as early as Kirkland in 1836 as conveyed by Truman Coe, a Presbyterian minister who lived amidst the saints in the town.  According to him:

"The manner of translation was as wonderful as the discovery.  By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plan English on a screen placed before him.  After delivering this to his emanuensi (scribe), he would again proceed in the same manner and obtain the meaning of the next character, and so on till he came to the part of the plates which were sealed up." (Truman Coe, 'Truman Coe to Mr. Editor, Hudson Ohio Observer, August 11, 1836) in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 5 volumes (1996-2003), 1:47.

But Coe never witnessed the translation, so his source for the account was likely other Saints in town, such as Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph's mother, who told a similar story:

“My son Joseph has had revelations from God since he was a boy, and he is indeed a true prophet of Jehovah.  The angel of the Lord appeared to him fifteen years since, and shewed him the cave where the original golden plates of the book of Mormon were deposited.  He shewed him also the Urim and Thummim, by which he might understand the meaning of the inscriptions on the plates, and he shewed him the golden breastplate of the high priesthood.  My son received these precious gifts, he interpreted the holy record, and now the believers in that revelation are more than a hundred thousand in number.  I have myself seen and handled the golden plates; they are about eight inches long, and six wide; some of them are sealed together and are not to be opened, and some of them are loose.  They are all connected by a ring which passes through a hole at the end of each plate, and are covered with letters beautifully engraved.  I have seen and felt also the Urim and Thummim.  They resemble two large bright diamonds set in a bow like a pair of spectacles.  My son puts these over his eyes when he reads unknown languages, and they enable him to interpret them in English.  I have likewise carried in my hands the sacred breastplate.  It is composed of pure gold, and is made to fit the breast very exactly…”  (Lucy Smith Interview, 1842 by Henry Caswal, an Episcopalian minister from a St. Louis college gone to Nauvoo to see the Egyptian mummies, Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1: 220-221 (

However, Lucy also never witnessed the translation.  Coe and Lucy's portrayals signifies that the reimagining of history, as depicted in LDS artwork and cultural narratives, began as early as the Kirtland era of the church.  The myth continues.

(Update: I may have finally received that "witness" yesterday while watching this talk during our General Conference -hurray! Will relay below.)

What we should convey and teach is far different.  When Joseph began translating initially without a scribe, he really had to work at how to translate the plates.  According to Richard Bushman, Columbia professor and author of "Rough Stone Rolling," the preeminent biography of Joseph Smith, "Developing a method took time.  His mother said, 'Joseph was very solicitous about the work but as yet no means had come into his hands of accomplishing it.' With Emma's help, he began copying off a 'considerable number' of the intricate figure and translating 'some of them.'" (Rough Stone Rolling, 63.)

Then Martin Harris, a friend and neighbor to the Smiths from Palmyra, arrived in Harmony, where Joseph and Emma had moved.  Due to persecution in Palmyra and locals seeking to steal the plates, Joseph and Emma had fled to her parent's home in Harmony, Pennsylvania.  After Emma's father, Isaac Hale, told Joseph "If there was any thing in my house...which I could not be allowed to see, he must take it away." (Rough Stone Rolling, 63),  the couple moved to Emma's brother's home about 150 yards from the main house.  It had two rooms and a loft. Joseph eventually made the final payment to purchase the home in August 1830.  

With Martin Harris on hand to act as scribe, Joseph began. After copying characters from the plates and attempting to translate them individually, Joseph began using the Urim and Thummim to dictate.   Emma recalls:

"Now the first that my [husband] translated, [the book] was translated by the use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost.." (Emma Smith to Emma Pilgrim (wife of RLDS minister in Independence), Nauvoo March 27, 1870; From Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 1: 532-33 (1996))

Yet the Urim and Thummim was awkward and difficult to use, as recorded by William Smith, Joseph's brother, regarding the plates and the Urim and Thummim:

"He said he had hefted the plates as they lay on the table wrapped in an old frock or jacket in which Joseph [h]ad brought them home.  That he had thum[b]ed them through the cloth and ascertained that they were thin sheets of some kind of metal. …Explaining the expression as to the stones in the Urim and thummim being set in two rims of a bow he said: A silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, around over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8 much like a pair of spectacles.  That they were much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other.  By putting his head in a hat or some dark object it was not necessary to close one eye while looking through the stone with the other.  In that way sometimes when his eyes grew tires [tired] he releaved them of the strain.  He also said the Urim and Thummim was attached to the breastplate by a rod which was fastened to the outer shoulde[r] edge of the breastplate and to the end of the silver bow.  This rod was just the right length so that when the Urim and thummim was removed from before the eyes it woul[d] reac[h] to a pocked [pocket?] on the left side of the breastplate where the instrument was kept when not in use by the Seer.  I was not informed whether it was de=tacha[bl]e from the breastplate or not.  From the fact that Joseph often had it with him and sometimes when at work[,] [I] am of the opinion that it could be detached.  He also informed us that the rod served to hold it before the eyes of the Seer.”

Thus we see that using the Urim and Thummim as intended - attached to the breastplate- for long periods of time required a straining of the eyes because of their width.  To avoid the strain, Joseph presumably put the Urim and Thummim "spectacles" into a hat and peered into it to darken out other objects as he "translated."

Another eye witness, Harmony neighbor Joseph Knight, confirmed that Joseph put the Urim and Thummim into his hat and described in very interesting detail the process:

"Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkened his Eyes than he would take a sentence and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters.  Then he would tell the writer and he would write it.  Then that would go away the next sentence would Come and so on.  But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous.  That was the hol translated." (Dean Jessee, Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History, BYU Studies 1976, p. 4)

I love what we learn from Joseph Knight's account about Joseph seeing each line of text and it not going away till he had gotten it right.  We learn several other things from these eye-witness accounts to the translation: 
1) Joseph indeed put his face in a hat to translate.  This means he could not also be looking at the text.  
2) Several people were in and out of the very small home in which he lived, making it difficult to conceal the plates as required had they been out to reference the characters directly.  Presumably, there was only one table large enough to accommodate the work of translation, and this was in the front room, providing little privacy.
3) The Urim and Thummim were designed to be connected to a breastplate. 

Both William believed that the Urim and Thummim figure eight "spectacles" were detachable from the breastplate and were in the hat.  Joseph Knight just assumes that what is in the hat is the Urim and Thummim.  After all, that is what was provided by Moroni to translate.

But Emma tells a different story.  The full quote from her letter to Emma Pilgrim is as follows:

"Now the first that my [husband] translated, [the book] was translated by the use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color..." (Emma Smith to Emma Pilgrim (wife of RLDS minister in Independence), Nauvoo March 27, 1870; From Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 1: 532-33 (1996))

In interview notes prepared by her son, Joseph III, she confirms the face-in-the-hat rendition, with other significant details:

“My belief is that the B[ook] of M[ormon] 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 mss [manuscript] unless he were inspired.  For when acting as his scribe he would dictate hour after hour, when returning after mealss or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the mss [manuscript] or having any portion of it read to him.  This was a usual thing for him to do.  It would have been impossible for improbable that a learned man could do this, and for so ignorant and unlearned as he was it was simple impossible [p. 5]
“In writing for J[oseph]. S[mith]. I frequently wrote for day after day, often he sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face bu=ried in his hate, with the stone in it and dictating hour after hour, with nothing between us. He had neither mss [manuscript] nor book to read from.  If he had any=thing of the Kind he could not have concealed it from me.  The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at con=cealment, wrapped in a small linen cloth, which I had given him to fold them in.  I have felt of the plates, as they lay on the table, tracing their outline [p. 8] and shape.  They seemed to be pliable like st thick paper, and would rustle when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of the book.  O[liver]. Cowdery and J[oseph]. S[mith]. wrote in the room where I was at work.  J[oseph]. S[mith]. could not neither write nor dictate a coherent and well worded letter, let alone dictating a book like the Book of M[ormon]." (Emma Smith, Notes to Interview (1879), in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:538-539; Emma gave the information in an interview Feb. 4-10, 1879, with her son, Joseph Smith III, published in Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 289-90.)

According to Emma, the translation device in the hat was what Joseph called his "seerstone," a stone he had found in 1822 while digging a well on the Willard Chase farm in Palmyra.  Joseph found another white stone of unknown origin which he was able to use at this early date to see things others could not.  Many hired Joseph, Jr. for his gift in finding hidden things such as buried treasure, including Josiah Stowell.  (Rough Stone Rolling, p. 48-49)

The folk culture of magic Joseph and his family participated in was common to the area and time as revealed in the many affidavits later compiled to discredit Joseph.  (RSR, p. 49) Another writer who could be labeled a Mormon Apologist indicates that treasure-seeking through seerstones was a form of "Christian magic" that spanned from the Smith's time to the Old Testament, when Joseph of Egypt planted a special, "divining" golden cup in Benjamin's bag that Joseph presumably used, as others, to divine with when oil and water were poured into it (Gen. 44:5).  Christian magic had evolved and stones, not cups, were used by "seers" in England and in New England in the early 1800s, of whom Joseph was one of many.  (Brant A. Gardner, "Translating the Book of Mormon," in A Reason for Faith 22-23 (Laura Harris Hale, ed., 2016)  

Joseph kept at least the white stone with him throughout his life, and used it during the early days of the church in receiving revelations.  Eventually, he stopped using it, presumably because he realized it was he, not the stones, that was means for receiving revelation. (Gardner, p. 23; RSR, 49.) 

Yet Joseph continued to believe the white stone was his personal seerstone, and showed it to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on 27 December 1841 as relayed by both Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young:

"The Twelve or a part of them spent the day with Joseph the Seer and he unfolded unto them many glorious things of the kingdom of God, the privileges and blessings of the priesthood, etc. I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the Urim and Thummim." (Wilford Woodruff Journals Dec. 27, 1841) 

"I met with the Twelve at Bro. Joseph’s.  He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim, which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon, the interpreters.  He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it: he showed us his seer stone." (Brigham Young Journal 27 Dec 1841, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1856-1862, CR 100 150, Box 1, Folder 1, page 87, collection available at, pictured above)

Later, Wilford Woodruff consecrated Joseph's white stone on the altar of the Manti, Utah temple. (RSR, 49.)

From these accounts, Joseph obliquely acknowledges other purposes for which seerstones could be used, such as his own treasure-seeking days, calling them "wicked."  Yet for him, his gift as a seer, earlier used for "Christian magic," was certainly used in an altogether different way in translating the Book of Mormon. Bushman believes that Joseph's magical past was a preparation for what was to come as prophet, and helped the Smith family to believe in the plates. (RSR, p. 69.)

We also see from these accounts that the seerstone was often called a Urim and Thummim.  This switch in terminology occurred, according to Gardner, in the early 1830s, and stems from the early Saint's greater familiarity with the Biblical term.  The 1833 of the Book of Commandments, versus the 1835 version of the Doctrine and Covenants (same book, with added revelations and changed name) records D&C 10:1 differently to add the term with regards to the Urim and Thummim in the later version. (Gardner, 25.)

So back to the question of whether it was the seerstone/s or the Urim and Thummim "spectacles" in the hat.  Two explanations emerge.  One turns on whether the "spectacles" were, in fact, detachable from the breastplate.  I have yet to find a source to confirm that they were. The other is that the seerstone/s were called the Urim and Thummim.  It may also be that both were used in the hat.

Regardless, it seems that, for the 116 pages lost by Martin Harris, Joseph referenced the characters directly by using the Urim and Thummim as did Book of Mormon prophets (Mosiah 28:11-6).  Possibly he used the hat at this time, too.  Yet when Joseph was permitted to translate again after the loss of the 116 pages and the probationary period that followed, he set about his work differently.  Gone were the partitions presumably used to block others from seeing the plates.  Joseph also employed a means that was more comfortable and familiar to him - using his seerstones, or the Urim and Thummim as he did his seerstones, by placing them in his hat and reading the revealed text to his scribe, line by line.  The plates, as Emma and William Smith conveyed, lay on a table wrapped up in some cloth.  As the 116 pages were never incorporated into what we now call the Book of Mormon, it would seem that the entire text was "translated" without direct reference to the text on the golden plates.

Here is what I struggled (I believe I can use the past-tense now) with: why was the Urim and Thummim then provided, and why were the plates even required? The latter is of the greatest import.  Gardner believes they were necessary as physical evidence of the record, and Joseph, in earlier grappling with the characters and the confirmation by the Columbian scholar (not discussed), knew them to be of authentic origin. (Gardner, 24) The eight and three witnesses also saw the plates to confirm the existence of their reality.  

But if we want to get serious about authenticity, don't the actual words recorded matter?  Book of Mormon prophets often reference their pains in chiseling out the record for later generations - did any of that even matter?  The little installation I received on Saturday (this post has been many days in the making) is that yes, what was recorded matter immensely.  But not because Joseph would actually read the characters.  He couldn't.  But they were recorded and then revealed, line by line, to Joseph.  The record existed in actually, but also in heaven, and was literally revealed (rather than what we would now call "translated") to Joseph. Pretty amazing to think that the Book of Mormon authors' words (or that anyone's words, for that matter) were so important that they would be the source of revelation to another.  The ancient prophets received the words to be written by revelation - really what I think of as the definition of scripture - and these words were correspondingly given to Joseph Smith by revelation, in a sense providing two witnesses as to their divine origin.  Thus the Book of Mormon was not necessarily "translated" in any sense of the word as we understand it today, but revealed.  The plates merely provided a reference point, a touchstone of ancient authenticity.  I find so much power in Jesse Knight's account of line by line accuracy and what it meant about the importance of Book of Mormon authors' words.  

Seeking out and finally understanding this bit of history has certainly increased my faith in the Book of Mormon -and I am amazed at how the Lord uses us mere humans to do His work. Although I am not a prophet, knowing and understanding the historical translation of the Book of Mormon, rather than the mythicized version, increases my faith in the process and helps me believe that I perhaps can be an instrument in God's hands, too.  I certainly hope so.  

Small Wonders:
* We were going through a drive-through the other day, and after I had placed the order, G yelled from the backseat, "And no stinky diapers!" His sense of humor has grown considerably.  The other night, he sat on his large vintage train and told Lance, "I'm going to sit here and think about what I did lasterday," and then, with a suppressed grin, looked sideways to see if Lance thought he were funny.
* Esther will make faces at the breakfast table - pulling her mouth apart at the corners and sticking out her tongue while making grotesque sounds - and then point to one or another of us and say "You do it!" It results in hilarity all around, though she can be very bossy in getting her subjects to comply.
* Overheard by G: "Did you realize that you need that?" "Daddies don't do spiders." "I'm taking care of daddy." And after getting a distraught Esther up in the morning "I wipe away those tears!"
* E and G have started singing various songs together - Twinkle, Twinkle, ABCs, I Am a Child of God, A Child's Prayer, Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider
* Esther has started to like babies.  (Good thing!) She said to one while in the Adirondacks (pictured below) with friends: "Baby, you are so cute!" 
* After Lance and I carried newly recovered furniture back into the house after Scotch Garding it, Esther said, "Wow!  Good job!" She also told me that I was wearing a "cool jacket" the other day. Have no idea how she learns all of this stuff.

Camp Uncas in the Adirondacks.  JP Morgan's old digs were fab.

Our fearless captain, singing us a little song as we rowed.

My wet rowboat companions.

Lance rode his motorcycle out to Camp Uncas.  It looked pretty cool in the boathouse.

E was great hiking on this trip - here she is clinging to Seth Wheeler for the last leg.
This little one got her first professional haircut in preparation for our European trip this next week.

Farmer's Market treats.

NH Audubon society teaching a nature class in the woods.  I love my town!

"Touch a truck" event at the library - big trucks, vintage cars - what could be cooler for little people?

Conference weekend was rainy - the perfect day to go ride bikes at the church, jump in puddles, and stay in side watching prophets.

She added 10 of these snack packs before I noticed, four rows later.

Back to baby hikes!

I started my third trimester

Camels in New Hampshire!

Beech Hill Farm magic

Thanks to not being afraid of a 50 degree temps from our London days, we had the sand hill all to ourselves!



  1. Very interesting. Why do you consider some accounts "myth" but others not? I feel like it is more of an All of the Above answer.

  2. Very interesting. Why do you consider some accounts "myth" but others not? I feel like it is more of an All of the Above answer.

  3. I appreciate your initiative to research from primary sources. I did the same thing about 12 years ago. It was an incredible journey. I also wanted scientific evidence. I read many books and visited Central America. I loved the book, "The Ancient Travels of Mormon & Moroni." It brings home the concept that God is the Master Scientist and in time we will all understand the means by which he used priesthood power coupled with science to bring to pass great and marvelous works.

  4. John - Hey there! So two things - 1) The first two accounts were not eye witnesses, so we can discount those. They were not myths to the person sharing - they were in earnest, but nonetheless contained inaccurate information. 2) When I refer to a "myth" I mean that what I had been taught about the translation process - Joseph looking through the Urim and Thummim for the entire translation while tracing his fingers along the ancient reformed egyptian - is not true. He seems to have done that for the first 116 pages, but those don't constitute the Book of Mormon as we now have it. For all of what we now have, he looked into a hat (regardless of whatever was in there) and didn't even open the plates, which were tucked underneath a cloth on the table. Myths often have some seed of truth in them, as this does - he did use the Urim and Thummim for a time, and engaged with the actual characters for a time, but not for most and not for all of what we now call the Book of Mormon, thus the use of the word. Does that make more sense?