The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men's spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion. - Jonathan Edwards “The Book of Mormon does not supplant the Bible. It expands, extends, clarifies, and amplifies our knowledge of the Savior. Surely, this second witness should be cause for great rejoicing by all Christians.” - Joseph B. Wirthlin

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Reaching consensus with incomplete facts?

One way to reach consensus should be to at least have everyone deal with the same facts, including all the relevant facts, so we can all make informed decisions. That seems axiomatic, but it's not the situation we face.

It's one thing to consider alternative interpretations of the facts, but it's entirely different to consider alternative interpretations based on different facts. It's difficult, if not impossible, to reach consensus on any topic when we can't all use the same facts. 

For example, on the issue of Cumorah, most Latter-day Saints don't even know that Lucy Mack Smith reported that during his first visit to Joseph Smith, Moroni identified the hill where the plates were as "Cumorah." This explains all the other references to Cumorah in early Church history. But people don't know about it because our scholars have decided that Cumorah should be erased from the historical record, as it was in the Saints book, volume 1.

We have a similar situation with the translation issue. It continues to amaze me that the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon translation has not been corrected.

The contrast with another essay, written in 1996 by Delbert D. Smith (link below), is stark.

The Gospel Topics Essay concludes that Joseph didn't really translate anything but just read words that appeared on a stone in a hat. 

The other essay, which actually quotes what Joseph and Oliver said, concludes Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim.

See for yourself.


The Gospel Topics Essay is found here:

Book of Mormon Translation (

The essay doesn't even quote what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation. Instead, it quotes and cites everyone else, including the scholars who apparently wrote the essay.

For example, the essay quotes from Joseph Smith-History, Note 1, here:

Of his experience as scribe, Cowdery wrote, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven.”7

That fits with the theory that Joseph never actually translated anything, but instead merely read words that appeared on the seer stone in the hat (or that he saw in vision).

Now, look at what the essay omits (the part in bold below).

“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.’

(Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

By omitting Oliver's specific statement that Joseph "translated with the Urim and Thummim," the essay misleads readers into concluding Joseph never actually translated anything but merely read words off a seer stone.

Worse, the essay proceeds to falsely attribute to Joseph Smith the claim that he produced the Book of Mormon with a seer stone.

Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. 

The essay gives no example (and I know of none) of Joseph "writing" of "two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon." Nor are there any such statements from Oliver Cowdery or John or Christian Whitmer, the only people whose handwriting appears on the part of the Original Manuscript we now have.

Every statement we do have from Joseph and Oliver affirm that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. But none of those statements are quoted in the essay.

Instead of quoting Joseph and his scribes, as promised, the essay quotes "witnesses of the translation." But these are people who were not scribes for the Book of Mormon we have now (except probably Emma, assuming she wrote part or all of Mosiah and part of 2 Nephi, for which the Original Manuscript does not exist).

According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.16 

The only basis for claiming that these people were "witnesses of the translation" was their own claim that they witnessed a translation. None of them recorded what Joseph actually dictated during the event. None of them quoted Joseph saying he was translation. 

The evidence leads me to conclude that they witnessed a demonstration, not the actual translation, but that's not the point here.

The point: this "Gospel Topics Essay" doesn't quote what Joseph and Oliver said, let alone accept what they said.

Here's an incredible example:

As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.19 As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.20

This states as fact the mere speculations of scholars, as you can see in the footnotes. Assuming Joseph wrote the answer in the Elder's Journal, he said he was paid to dig for money, not that he "used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure."

Then, look at this passage in the essay:

Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. 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.21

The word "apparently" applies only to "for convenience" and "interchangeable," as if it is a given fact that "Joseph often translated with the single seer stone." 

Then, look at this one:

Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters. Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.

"Seem to have understood" is pure academic speculation that contradicts the plain words Joseph and Oliver used. Plus, it contradicts the narrative in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. None of these passages are quoted in the essay.

those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim (Doctrine and Covenants 10:1)

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book. (Joseph Smith—History 1:35)

immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them,
(Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

If anything, Latter-day Saints later came to understand the term to apply to both instruments purely because modern revisionist historians have interpreted the evidence that way. But when Oliver wrote the essay that is excerpted in Joseph Smith-History, Note 1, he was responding to Mormonism Unvailed, which clearly distinguished between the "peep stone" and the Urim and Thummim as alternative explanations for the Book of Mormon. 

To now say that Oliver meant to say that Joseph used both the "peep stone" and the Nephite interpreters defies the plain language he and Joseph always used.

Look at this paragraph:

In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: “I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.” When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done “by the gift and power of God”24 and once added, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”25

You might wonder why they quoted the preface to the 1830 edition that was deleted from subsequent editions. That's because Joseph didn't mention the Urim and Thummim on that one occasion. 

Other times when he or Oliver wrote or spoke about the translation, they did mention the Urim and Thummim, but you would never know that from this essay (or from the Saints book, volume 1). You can see these examples in the Delbert Smith essay below, but here's an example from the well-known Wentworth letter:

"Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God."

An editorial in the Times and Seasons mentioned what an LDS missionary taught in 1842. "the Book of Mormon had come forth as an “ensign to the nations,” containing an account of the gospel in much plainness, being translated by the gift and power of God by the use of the Urim and Thummim, that had come forth with the plates that contain the record."

Fortunately, the essay does at least include two accounts of what Oliver taught.

The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.”31 In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.”32

Both of those describe the Urim and Thummim, although the essay doesn't acknowledge that. 

However, omitting the relevant portion from Joseph Smith-History, Note 1, as well as Oliver's testimony when he returned to the Church, leaves readers ignorant of what Oliver actually taught about the Urim and Thummim.


By contrast, here's an analysis of the translation that focuses on what Joseph and Oliver actually said. It concludes that Joseph actually translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

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