The translation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith has very important consequences for Latter-day Saints. There has been much controversy, and a lot of careful scholarship devoted to this subject. The amount of information available to shed light on the process is very limited. There are several witnesses, some of whom were scribes, others who watched the process, and some who got their information from those who witnessed the process. In addition, part of the original manuscript is available, the rest being destroyed by water while it reposed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. Any proposed details of the translation process should take into account this evidence. This paper presents a methodology that agrees with all the evidence.
Finding the statements of the various witnesses to the translation took some searching of the Internet, and the appendix lists the accounts of translating the plates that are pertinent. Since then, some departments of Brigham Young University have produced a book, Opening the Heavens, Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, BYU Press, 2005, and all of the statements are included in that volume. At the end of the paper are listed the desired statements with the source of each as given in the above mentioned book.
Emma Smith and David Whitmer gave quite detailed accounts of the translation process, and Martin Harris and several others also gave good statements. Unfortunately, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery declined to make any detailed account of the process, limiting their explanation to “the gift and power of God”
The witnesses quoted are:
Emma Hale Smith, wife of the prophet Joseph Smith
Isaac Hale, the father of Emma
Michael Morse, Emma Smith's brother-in-law
David Whitmer, son of Peter Whitmer, and one of the 3 witnesses of the Book of Mormon. He played an important part in the church until 1838, when he was excommunicated. He gave the most extensive testimony of the translation. He was instrumental in bringing Joseph and Emma from her fathers place to Peter Whitmers home, about June 1, 1829. The translation had begun about April 1, 1829, and was completed about June 30, 1829, so about one third of the translation time was in the Whitmer home. David did not do any of the translation, but accounts of the setting indicate that the family was in the same area as the translation so they were first hand witnesses.
Martin Harris. He acted as scribe for the first 116 pages that he borrowed and lost. He was one of the 3 witnesses, and provided the money for printing the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Knight, an intimate friend of Joseph, who provided paper and supplies to enable the translation to go forth. He may not have personally witnessed the translation, but was well acquainted with those who did.
Oliver Cowdery was the principle scribe, and he also did some translating. His statement is in the words of one who interviewed him, but there is no indication of any errors.
The following table summarizes the important points of each statement.
|Statements of witnesses||Emma||David W||Martin H||J Knight||Oliver C|
|Urim & Thummim/Stone||S||S||S||UT||UT|
|Stone in hat||X||X||X||X|
|Egyptian characters shown||X|
|English characters shown||X||X||X||X|
|JS unable to see scribe||X||X|
|Resume without read back||X|
|Bible not present||X|
|Not acquainted with Bible||X|
Isaac Hale and his son-in-law Michael Morse both spoke of the stone in the hat.
According to the evidence, Joseph Smith read from the seer stone or the Urim and Thummim a group of words, not a phrase or sentence. Royal Skousen, from examination of the original copy of the translation, concluded that 20 to 30 words were dictated at once. These words were written without punctuation, which was added by the printer. If there was a misspelled word, Joseph would make the correction without looking at the scribe’s writing. This ability so impressed the witnesses that nearly every one of them talked about it. Joseph Knight remarked that “it was marvelous”, which sentiment seems to be part of each witness’s testimony. Most of the witnesses also talked of Joseph reading in English characters, and some mentioned Egyptian characters (or characters from the plates) showing up above the English letters.
In Oliver Cowdery’s description of the translation, he commented that Joseph could not see what he was writing to catch misspellings, and even if he could, Joseph’s spelling was too poor to recognize errors. Emma concurred, both in Joseph’s inability to see her writing and in his lack of learning. All but Oliver Cowdery described Joseph putting his head in his hat to exclude the light so that he could read the faint writing, so obviously he would have been unable to see anything the scribes were writing.
Joseph Knight and Oliver Cowdery both mentioned the Urim and Thummim rather than the seerstone. Both accounts were made after 1833, which is significant as I found out. W W Phelps suggested in 1833 that the 'Nephite Interpreters' could be the Urim and Thummim. Evidently the different name was accepted by most all church leaders. One evidence: The Book of Commandments of 1833, Chapter IX:1 reads, Now, behold I say unto you, that because you delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, [*] into the hands of ...
The D&C 1835 edition adds at the [*] the phrase 'by the means of the Urim and Thummim'. This is also according to our current D&C.
Joseph Smith commented that he was not going to describe the process of translation, and after 1833 in numerous quotes he just stated that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God by the Urim and Thummim. Oliver Cowdery evidently agreed with that decision, so his Winter Quarters statement reflected that choice. Joseph Knight evidently wrote his statement after 1833, but he added that the Urim and Thummim was placed in the hat, just like the rest of the witnesses described the process with the seer stone. This information explains why the Urim and Thummim was mentioned by Oliver Cowdery, when Martin Harris plainly testified that the translation was done with the seer stone, and he was the first scribe.
Some witnesses testified of the translation many years after it was done, and fading memory is always a concern, but one interviewer specifically mentioned the bright recollection of Oliver of the process. The impression the translation process made on the scribes has already been mentioned, which would be indelibly recorded on their memory. The correction of spelling seemed to be particularly noteworthy, and nearly all the participants described that process.
The scribes entertained doubts, as would be expected. The accounts reflect the points that seemed important confirmations to the scribes.
Emma recalled the spelling corrections, and you can almost hear the wonder in her statement. She noted that after a break of any length in the writing, Joseph resumed translation without any read back or hesitation, and we know from the original manuscript that breaks were not at sentence divisions. Ink flow, handwriting style, pattern of corrections - Royal Skousen used this type of evidence in making his determinations. Most people dictating need some read back of the written document to establish their place.
She recalled one incident that must have impressed her, when the translation mentioned the wall around Jerusalem. Joseph was not aware that Jerusalem had a wall, and was very much agitated until he was reassured that was correct. In addition to her assurance, a bible was obtained and the presence of walls was verified. This incident also shows that no bible was present during the translation, and that Joseph had a limited acquaintance with the bible at this time. Joseph and Emma obtained their personal copy of the bible at Grandins printing establishment while the Book of Mormon was being printed.
Martin Harris described the breaks he and Joseph took between writing session. He found a stone that looked like the seer stone on one of these breaks, and switched stones when they came back to resume translating. After a time of puzzled silence, Joseph complained that it was as “dark as Egypt.” Martin’s face betrayed him, and Joseph asked him why he had done it. Martin said, to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them.
Oliver wondered how Joseph could correct the spelling, and “he did not rest satisfied until he himself obtained the gift to translate also. … The Lord bestowed on Oliver the gift by which he was enabled to translate; and thus he learned how it was that Joseph could correct him even to the spelling of words”. D&C 9:1 indicates that Oliver had translated, but then went back to write for Joseph.
The translation process evidently changed as it went along. One witness mentioned that the scribe read back what had been written, another said “done”, and others talked like there was no confirmation from the scribe at all. It could be that after Joseph and the scribe realized that the spelling was being corrected without their intervention, they decided that they could concentrate on dictating and writing. Most of the witnesses indicated that when the scribe had the dictation written correctly the next group of words would appear.