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Translation of the Book of Mormon

The translation of the Book of Mormon is a key event in the history of the church. Take a minute and think about what the church teaches and portrays as to the actual translation process. Have a picture in your head of Joseph Smith with the plates in front of him, hard at work translating directly from them? Perhaps there is a scribe there at the table in full view of the plates. Maybe the plates are covered with a cloth or the scribe is separated from them and Joseph by a sheet. Sometimes the Urim and Thumimm are involved. These are likely the most common images that come to mind.

Almost all of the tales from church leaders, in church lessons, in missionary materials, and even in religion classes at BYU tell that same story. The same set of pictures are hanging on the walls in church buildings, appearing in church magazines and literature, and adorning church websites. Surely the church would not be feeding a fake story about the translation of its most important book of scriptures to its members, right?


What does history tell us?

While Joseph Smith himself never talked on record about the translation process, there are numerous accounts from his family, friends and associates. Joseph found a rock at the bottom of a well during his years as a treasure seeker, long before he knew about the plates. Outside of the 116 lost pages, that stone found in the well was used. Joseph would place the stone in a hat, place the hat over his face, and dictate to his scribe. The plates were not consulted and were often not even in the same room.

Emma Smith, Joseph’s first scribe, in an account to her son:

“In writing for your father 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.”

David Whitmer, in whose home most of the translation work was done:

“I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. 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. I, as well as all of my father’s family, Smith’s wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation… . He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation”

There are plenty of other accounts detailing the same method. Even Richard Bushman, the LDS historian, admitted in Rough Stone Rolling:

“…Joseph did not pretend to look at the “reformed Egyptian” words, the language on the plates, according to the book’s own description. The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph’s head was in a hat looking at the seerstone…”

Interestingly, it was almost the exact same method of discernment that got Joseph brought up and found guilty of the charge of being a “glass looker” in 1826, after the First Vision and before the translation of the Book of Mormon. Apologists for a long time denied that the trial existed. In 1971 though, they were mostly silenced by the discovery of an actual court document from 1826.

Why lie about it?

So why would the church, in almost all of its text and media, portray a false account of the translation process? Perhaps because it doesn’t sound like a translation at all, but bears more resemblance to Joseph’s treasure seeking days. Is that why the original edition of the Book of Mormon had Joseph Smith as the “author” before subsequent editions changed it to “translator”? Or perhaps because the now semi-official version of the translation process is more convincing and less like a bad magic show. The church has talked occasionally about the head in the hat translation, but it’s quite rare. Elder Nelson did briefly mentioned it in a 1993 Ensign article.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. It’s not evidence that the translation process didn’t really occur, just that it wasn’t a translation process at all. It’s not evidence that the Book of Mormon is false or that Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet of God. But it is evidence that the church manipulates its own history and portrays a false story about one of the most key events in the restoration.

Next Step: Polygamy Before Brigham Young

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