What about the translation process?


Joseph Smith’s status as a prophet is balanced on the Book of Mormon.  This volume was reportedly translated from the Golden Plates by the power of God.  The original language is actually an unknown language called “reformed egyptian”.  To my knowledge, no such language has ever been documented in any ancient record.  Of interest is the fact that the plates from which the translation was taken have never been produced for comparison.  We have been told that they were taken back into heaven by Moroni himself.  This is a convenient story, but I am willing to take it at face value for now.  The plates have never been studied, in fact, one can argue that they have never been seen with other than “spiritual eyes” (See The Witnesses, above).  So, we have no means of verifying that they ever existed at all. 

Joseph did have several opportunities after the Book of Mormon to prove himself as a translator.  One such is referred to as the Kinderhook incident (for a detailed discussion of the incident and aftermath, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinderhook_plates and http://www.irr.org/mit/kinderhook-plates.html). 

On April 23, 1843, six bell-shaped brass plates, covered with engravings were unearthed near Kinderhook, Illinois, 70 miles south of Nauvoo. They were discovered in an earthen mound accompanied by a human skeleton.  These plates have come to be known as the Kinderhook Plates.  Because of his fame as a translator, Joseph Smith was made aware of the plates and they were brought to him for interpretation. 

Joseph did “translate” the plates and reported reported the following in the History of the Church, May 1, 1843.

“I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike County, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. Robert Wiley and others, while excavating a large mound. They found a skeleton about six feet from the surface of the earth, which must have stood nine feet high. The plates were found on the breast of the skeleton and were covered on both sides with ancient characters.

I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the Ruler of heaven and earth.” (History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 372)

In 1879, Wilbur Fugate, one of the men who reportedly found the plates, admitted to fabricating the plates as part of a plot intended to trap the Mormon prophet.

In 1980, an LDS professor, Stanley B. Kimball, conducted a series of technical tests including use of a scanning electron microscope and an X-ray fluorescence analysis.  He concluded that, 1) the plate tested was indeed one of the plates presented to Joseph Smith, and 2) it was not of ancient origin, but rather a modern brass alloy produced in the 19th century. 

Apologists have claimed that statements attributed to Joseph Smith on the subject were in fact made by his personal secretary, William Clayton.  This may be true, but it hardly seems out of character for Joseph Smith to try to take advantage of such a “discovery”.

Another example of Joseph Smith’s attempt at “translation” is noted in the “greek psalter” incident.  For a discussion of this incident, the reader is referred to http://www.mormonthink.com/greekweb.htm .

On April 19, 1842, a Professor Henry Caswall presented Joseph Smith with a very old Greek Psalter (a volume of scripture containing the Book of Psalms dating from the Middle Ages).  The professor, of course, knew what the book was, but wanted to see what Joseph Smith would say about it.

Joseph examined the ancient document and replied that it was a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics.  Professor Caswall of course knew Joseph was wrong as this was a known Greek Psalter and definitely not Egyptian. 

Professor Caswall then informed the Prophet that it was but a plain Greek Psalter.  Joseph then left the scene.

Professor Caswall told this incident to Mormon apostle Dr. William Richards who said "Sometimes Mr. Smith speaks as mere man.  If he gave a wrong opinion respecting the book, he spoke as a mere man."

Yet another example of Joseph Smith skill as a translator can be found in the Book of Abraham.  The reader is referred to my full discussion on this point under Pearl of Great Price.  In this scenario, Joseph was presented with actual ancient papyri from Egypt.  He “interpreted” the images and text of these papyri and produced the Book of Abraham.  Portions of these papyri have been found and studied.  They represent common egyptian funerary texts and bear no resemblance to the documents produced by Joseph Smith.

Any reasonable person is left with significant questions.  If we look at these three incidents, we find that Joseph Smith is more than willing to “try” to interpret these ancient texts.  He is willing to go on record with his interpretations and leave others to try to sort out the truth of his claims.  Never does he make a retraction or try to justify himself.  And through all of this, he is proven wrong 3 out of 3 times.

Now we are left to make a determination about the Book of Mormon.  the Reader is referred to my “BOM” pages in this site for a detailed discussion of various aspects of the Book of Mormon.  But for now I refer to the following discussion of the translation process as recorded by numerous eyewitnesses.

The following is a nice discussion of the translation process by Michael White taken in its entirety from http://zarahemlacitylimits.com/essays/BookOfMormon/JShat.html

If you could go back in time and watch Joseph Smith translate the Golden Plates, what do you think the scene would look like, and how exactly did Joseph, who didn't know how to read "reformed Egyptian," go about coming up with the English text that corresponded to the foreign symbols? Ask most members of the Church that question, and you'll probably get a description along the lines of: "There would be a table, partitioned into two sections by a hanging curtain of some type, with Joseph Smith and the golden plates on one side of the curtain, and Oliver Cowdery or other scribe sitting on the other side of the curtain with a pen in hand and a sheet of paper. Joseph would be studying the symbols written on the plates, getting inspiration from Heavenly Father as to what each symbol meant, and Oliver Cowdery would be writing down what Joseph told him to write down."

According to seven eye-witnesses of the time, however, this is a highly inaccurate description of Joseph Smith's translation method. This is not how Joseph's contemporaries described his activities at all. How did today's Church membership in general come to have such an inaccurate mental image of what took place? Well, if you're over 30 years old, you've probably seen numerous paintings similar to the above description. And as we all know, a picture paints a thousand words — sometimes a thousand inaccurate words. Interestingly, many current paintings now omit the curtain. They show Oliver Cowdery across the table from Joseph Smith with the golden plates in full view. So perhaps in another ten years or so, the majority of Church members again will have a slightly altered mental image of those events which will correspond to today's paintings.

However, if you want to have the most accurate idea of what the scene may have looked like, and what Joseph's actual method was of translating the Book of Mormon, you can't beat eye-witness accounts.

Below are the statements on the subject of seven contemporaries of Joseph Smith — three of which worked as his scribes on the project (Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery):

Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith

"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." (History of the RLDS Church, 8 vols. Herald House, 1951, Volume 3, page 356, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma.")

David Whitmer, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon

"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." (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 12)

Martin Harris, one of the witnesses and scribes to the Book of Mormon

"Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone, Martin explained the translation as follows: 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." (Edward Stevenson, "One of the Three Witnesses," originally Deseret News, Nov. 30, 1881, later in the Millennial Star, Feb. 6, 1882, pp. 86-87. Stevenson would later become a member of the First Council of Seventy).

Oliver Cowdery, principal scribe for the Book of Mormon

"These were days never to be forgotten — to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, 'Interpreters,' the history, or record, called 'The book of Mormon." (Messenger and Advocate, 1834, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 14; Note that at that time among the members of the Church, the term "Urim and Thummim" was synonymous with the seer stone that Joseph worked with).

Joseph Knight, Sr., early Church member, and close friend to Joseph

"Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkened his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would appear 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. thus was the hol [whole] translated." (Joseph Knight, Sr., "Joseph Knight, Sr., Reminiscence, circa 1835-1847"; see Dan Vogel's Early Mormon Documents, Volume 4, pp. 17-18.)

Michael Morse, Emma Smith's brother-in-law

"When Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the scribes — Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down." (Saints' Herald, June 15, 1879, pp. 190-191).

Isaac Hale, father of Emma Smith

"The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods." (Affidavit of Isaac Hale, March 20, 1834, see Rodger I. Anderson's book Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined, Signature Books, pp. 126-128)

There are two important facts we glean from the above seven statements that ought to alter our common mistaken ideas about the translation process. First of all, it's clear from these eyewitnesses that the physical presence of the plates themselves were unnecessary. In fact, apparently they were never even in the room while Joseph was translating, but were "always hid in the woods," as Isaac Hale said. None of the eyewitnesses mention the plates themselves; they only mention the seer stone. They are consistent that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by putting his face in a hat and looking at a stone.

Secondly, it's becoming increasingly common in the Church to believe that Joseph studied the "reformed Egyptian" symbols out in his mind, and then got internal inspiration as to what each symbol meant, so that much of the book was simply phrased by Joseph using his own words for things. But this is clearly a modern misconception. According to the people who were there at the time, the reason that the seer stone was so important was because the English words appeared in the stone, and refused to disappear until the scribe had written the words down correctly — including the spelling of the words! So, when the Saints back then said that the Book of Mormon was the "most correct book on Earth," they were referring to their belief that each and every word that was put down on paper came directly from the seer stone that Joseph used.

Sometimes in Sunday School, Priesthood meeting, or Relief Society, there is some mention of Joseph Smith using the "Urim and Thummim," rather than a seer stone. The Urim and Thummim, as was originally described as being found with the plates, was a breastplate with two stones attached to it by a rim. Apparently this Urim and Thummim looked similar to very odd, and very large eye-glasses. There are no eyewitnesses describing Joseph Smith as translating with this device. Keep in mind, also, that this particular device was purportedly taken away from Joseph by an angel when he lost the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon's manuscript.

What Joseph Smith was left with (and what Martin Harris said he used because of the increased "convenience") was a "seer stone," or what most people of the time called a "peep stone" — a supernatural device that was commonly used by "money diggers" of the day that purportedly allowed the seer to locate hidden treasure or to divine other things of a hidden nature. Many of the early Church members mistakenly referred to this seer stone as the "Urim and Thummim."

Joseph owned at least four peep stones in his life; a green one, a sandy-colored one, an opaque-white one, and a dark brown one. It was the brown one which was used during the creation of the Book of Mormon, and it was this same stone that Emma Smith, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Michael Morse, Joseph Knight Sr., and Isaac Hale saw Joseph look at inside his hat while sitting in a chair, apparently reading off the glowing text to his scribes.

My Conclusion:

I am willing to keep an open mind, but the idea that Joseph Smith could “translate” the entire Book of Mormon in this manner seems more like a theatrical stunt than a legitimate translation process.  I will grant that I do not know the ways of God.  But I do know the ways of charlatans and frauds, and I have a hard time believing this.

Furthermore, given his track record with translation attempts after the Book of Mormon, there is no reason be believe any of his story.

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Right, a photograph of one of the six Kinderhook plates.