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Michael R. Ash
Thursday, June 27 2013

Translating the Book of Mormon

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How did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon? Joseph didn’t share many details of the translation process other than the fact that he received the translation by the gift and power of God. In order to develop any theories on how it was done we must to turn to clues from those who witnessed the events. When we examine those details we quickly discover that the translation process may not have been like what many members have envisioned.

As I began to write this article (based on my promise in the last installment) a friend of mine coincidentally published a detailed discussion of this topic in the new Interpreter on-line journal so I’ll provide a link at the end of this article for those who want more depth on this fascinating subject.

The average member’s mental image of Joseph translating the plates is generally formed from artwork in Church magazines and comments from Sunday school teachers rather than from a critical examination of the historical evidence.

Unfortunately most artists are not historians and may produce beautiful drawings and paintings that are based on misassumptions. Some wonderful LDS artwork, for example, depicts Caucasian-looking Nephites with romance-novel cover-model physiques wielding broadswords and Viking-like helmets—none of which fits the actual images that could be created for how early American warriors would have looked or the weapons they would have utilized.

The average painting of the Savior typically falls victim to similar problems with features generally based on the cultural or theological perspectives of the artist rather than on historical accuracy.[i] Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” for example, depicts European-looking men sitting at a regular table instead of Middle Eastern men reclining at the low tables of Jesus’ day. An Italian Renaissance portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus has a Renaissance castle and town in the background, and the 1569 “Census of Bethlehem” by a Belgian artist depicts snow and ice-skaters in what appears to be a Renaissance Belgium village.[ii]

Some Church art of the Book of Mormon translation shows Joseph studiously looking at the plates with one finger on the engraved letters as if he could actually read what each character said. Some show Joseph reading the characters to his scribe Oliver Cowdery with the plates exposed in full view of them both. Other images show Joseph dictating to a scribe sitting on the opposite side of a curtain. A few images show Joseph looking at the plates through the Nephite Interpreters. All of these images are incorrect.

First, while a curtain may have been used between Joseph and Martin Harris (the first Book of Mormon scribe) the majority of the text was translated in the open while the plates were covered with a cloth. The plates were never in open view and were only exposed to others as instructed by the Lord when they were shown to witnesses. A curtain or blanket appears to have been draped across the entry to the living room at the Whitmer house (where much of the translation took place) in order to give Joseph and his scribe privacy from curious on-lookers while they worked.[iii] This curtain was apparently not present all of the time, however, because other Whitmer family members were witnesses to the translation process.

While some LDS artwork doesn’t depict any translating tools, most informed members are aware of the Nephite “Interpreters” that Moroni put in the stone box with the plates so Joseph would have a tool for translating. According to those who handled the Interpreters they were like large spectacles with stones or crystals in place of lenses.

Many of the details on the Book of Mormon translation method become lost or muddied over time. Part of this confusion was the result of the fact that some early Latter-day Saints began referring to the Interpreters as the “Urim and Thummim”—a reference to a device in the Old Testament that was associated with the High Priest’s breastplate and used for divination or for receiving answers from God (see Exodus 28:30).The early Saints didn’t think that the Nephite Interpreters were the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Bible but were another Urim and Thummim given for translating the plates.

Unfortunately the Interpreters didn’t come with instructions and Joseph was apparently left on his own as to how to use them. This is when his cultural background came in handy.

It’s important first to return to D&C 1:24 which tells us that God speaks to His children (including the prophets) in “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Our “language” includes more than words, but also how we understand the world around us. My “language” is different than the language of Joseph Smith, or Moses, or Gandhi. In Abraham’s day it was believed that the disc-shaped earth was covered with an inverted heavenly bowl that contained a heavenly ocean. Windows would open periodically to let out the rains.

In Joseph Smith’s day many of the frontiersmen in his vicinity believed that divining rods and seer stones could be used to find water, lost objects, and treasures. The ability to divine was generally considered to be a God-given gift and was practiced by devoutly religious men and women.

Long prior to acquiring the plates the young Joseph Smith was a believer in divination. In fact, he and his friends and family believed that he had the God-given gift to find lost objects by way of a seer stone. Seer stones were thought to be special stones in which one could see the location of the object for which one was divining. The seer stones were related to crystal balls or the practice of looking into pools of water or mirrors to divine information (such as the Queen’s magic mirror in the Snow White tale).

While this seems strange in modern times, in Joseph’s day many intelligent, educated, and religious people believed that such real powers existed in the forces of nature.


  1. people who dont believe spend their time staring into their little black plastic and glass ipads and get all sorts of things translated?? how come no one discusses the translation process and in context with the information with which moroni gave him in his yearly interviews. Perhaps he was given information how to process all the information and knew some of the stories and character from moronis own mouth so he knew also what he was looking for so when he inquired of God he had something specific to ask
  2. thought you would enjoy
  3. I have a sincere question which I hope you can answer. Why would Joseph Smith even need the gold plates if he used a seer stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon?
  4. What? No details about how he supposedly translated the Book of Mormon? You're really showing a lack of information or deception by leaving out reading out of his hat!
  5. Great article Mike! Keep up the good work!
  6. Good Article. This is a very accurate description of the accounts and fits well with the known facts. Thank you for your research and accuracy.
  7. It really doesn't make any difference which method Joseph used to translate the B of M. It had to be by the power of God. I would like the Author to give his analysis of how the number of B of M copies were printed in such a short time?
  8. David Hinton has it right. Before the advent of cell phones, iPod, iTouch and iPads having your own seer stone seemed passing strange. Now not so much. Most of us in US now peep every few minutes at our plastic or brushed aluminum communication and storage devices to receive communications from all over the world. Perhaps we need a little patience and a little faith...
  9. I published an article on the same subject. Martin Harris clearly described using the seer stone in his translation. I welcome discussion on this topic.
  10. For H. Murray: Without the plates Joseph could have just been another religious orator. The plates help cement his calling to something tangible for both his followers then and now, as well as all of those who hear his story. There are really only two possibilities (since the plates were handled by other witnesses). Either he created the plates himself, or they really were ancient. Real plates have stuck in the craw of critics from day one and they continue to come up with fanciful theories to try to brush them under the rug. The testimony of the many witnesses is powerful evidence for the veracity of JS story. Without the plates, we would not have such witnesses.
  11. The term "translation" is completely wrong and should be abandoned. Joseph received the Book of Mormon text through revelation via the stone(s). There was really no "translation" involved, in any common sense of the word.
  12. H Murray, we don't know that Joseph actually DID need the plates to make the translation -- only that they were present. It is possible that they were there as a "backup copy." It is also possible that he studied the plates, then, with the images in his mind, those images were explained to him as he pondered the Urim and Thummim. The divining may have been a form of meditation which opened his mind to what the Lord wanted to tell him, and as he became more attuned, he was able to learn without those tools (such as in the writing of the D&C). The bottom line is that WE DON'T UNDERSTAND exactly how the translation was done. We have statements made by Joseph and by witnesses, but this doesn't tell us the details. This is, of course, by design -- we're supposed to walk by FAITH, not by KNOWLEDGE.
  13. Thanks for these insights. Several of these comments helped me to understand better. Regarding cell phones, it is hard to see what is written on them if we are out in the sunlight. Maybe the same thing came into play with the seer stones. Our cell phones can be compared to the Liahona or the Urim and Thummin in several ways too. There is a GPS function (a sort of compass telling us which way to go,) "new messages" (texting), and although God doesn't use our cell phones to communicate with us directly, we can download the scriptures onto our phones--(word of God), and receive communication in that way. I have also heard that some cell phones can translate things into other languages. Interesting parallels...
  14. On the Title Page of The Book of Mormon it says, "Translated by Joseph Smith, Jr." The language used in the the text of the title page does not use the words translate or translation, but uses interpretation by the gift an power of God. Anyone that has studied another language knows that ideas often do not "translate" literally but are subject to "interpretation" in order to give them meaning. I really see no problem with using the term translate. The process of translation or interpretation of the plates, however it was accomplished, involved effort and much faith on Joseph's part. Whether believer or doubter, the results are truly amazing.
  15. I second Bro. Ash's recommendation of Brant Gardner's book "The Gift and Power", along with Grant Hardy's "Understanding the Book of Mormon". Those two books are among the most important studies ever published on the Book of Mormon and provide a welcome understanding of its complexity, richness, and miraculous nature.
  16. Re: Your 4th paragraph on the complexion of Israelites. The author makes a common mistake that because 'middle easterners' in today's world are dark that they were so in ancient times. This is not so. The Jewish historian Maimonides states that some had 'blonde or red hair' and that Simeon, Levi and Joseph were 'as pink as a rose' and that Joseph looked like Germani or like someone from the North. See article at
  17. In addition to Garner's and Hardy's books, another one is "In Heaven As It Is On Earth" by Samuel M. Brown. Dr. Brown discusses Joseph Smith as a seer and clearly defines the difference in a seer and a prophet. It is also interesting to note that divining rods can be purchased on Amazon today. They still use them in rural farming areas to search for water.
  18. Can you provide a reference where Joseph said he had difficulty fitting the original spectacle Urim & thummim into a hat?
  19. Thank you for clearing the air on this subject. As an LDS artist, I have been frustrated by the incorrect portrayals of this important work. A couple of insights that are important. 1. Joseph studied the Nephite language using the interpreters and revelation. Even copying them down on paper to practice before he began translating. Like studying other languages, Joseph learned how to read "Nephite." Both Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery describe this. References can be found in the book "Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew" by Rhett James. 2. The Urim and Thummim/seerstone were used to open the eyes of Joseph's understanding. He was then able to look at the plates and understand the characters and the intent of the authors in their meaning. Thus giving us an inspired translation, not just a scholarly one. Thus the UT/Seerstone was a tool to help Joseph understand the plates and later in the translation process, he didn't even need to use the UT/Seerstone at all because he understood and had learned the language and no longer needed that assistance. Rather than the UT/Seerstone being all he needed and the plates unnecessary, they were used to understand the plates and THEY eventually became unnecessary (for translation). 4. The Seerstone Joseph used was used for more than translating, and was used to check the plates when hidden, and to warn Joseph of danger and hidden plots. Often when he was using his stone inside the hat etc, it was for one of these other purposes, and thus didn't require the plates. 5. The Whitmer account of Joseph seeing English characters appear on a parchment was not confirmed by anyone else and was given many many years after the David Whitmer left the church. Since no one else describe it this way, not even Joseph, we have to question whether his understanding was accurate. 6. Also, most detailed description of the UT/Seerstone comes from William Smith (who was often estranged from Joseph), who we have no record of his having ever seen them, but who's account seems to be given high consideration. Again, we must always consider the quality of the account before accepting it as fact.
  20. The cell phone argument is strange. We know how those work. I find hard to understand why people think that Joseph Smith needed this superstitious worldview to help him with translation. As I understand the official story, the translation took place after Joseph Smith would have seen God and Jesus Christ, and after a handful of direct encounters with Moroni. If he had come to terms with those events, why would he need to believe in folk magic to assist him in translating. Furthermore, this argument lends credibility to folk magic, which is dangerous territory I think, for defending the restoration which was supposed to be accompanied by the restoration of the Priesthood. Lastly, while it is safe to say that superstition was more prevalent, it is historically inaccurate to suggest that folk practices, such as glass-looking, were seen as acceptable behaviors by the mainstream public. Joseph Smith went to trial for violating a law which specifically prohibited the selling of folk magic, simply because it was seen as a fraudulent business practice designed to take advantage of the gullible. Issac Hale objected to Joseph's courtship to Emma precisely because he was bothered by Joseph's occupation as a glass-looker. He felt it was a fraudulent practice as well. In other words, it wasn't a socially acceptable thing, but rather a controversial issue, with acceptance only among the fringe.
  21. Danny, you can find more info on this in Nicholson's article (link in my article).
  22. Foolish article. Not needed. All we need is the Book and a testimony that it is true and that Joseph was a prophet. The rest is a waste of time and effort.
  23. I'm sorry, I don't understand the parallel between smartphones and the seerstone. Smartphones are commonplace now. Seerstones were far enough outside the norm in Joseph's time and place that use of such was a criminal activity.
  24. Re: Erick. The Lord chose Joseph Smith for some of those exact reasons. (IMHO). He was raised in an environment where mystical knowledge was practiced. Yes, he had skills and from all accounts and reference he was very good at it, hence the reason the Lord chose him. When he went to see the plates for the first time he was forbidden to touch the plates. It took four years of instruction and repeated visits for him as he made that transition from mystical to spiritual and was allowed to remove the plates. That is what all of those visits from the heavenly visitors were for. Once you start focusing on the spiritual aspect of how the plates came about you can start to understand that he was taught so much during those visits that he may have known a lot of the book before he started. He even used to gather the family and tell stories of the past. (remember a seer can tell the past, a prophet can tell the future). As for the cellphone....someday we will know exactly how the 'liahona' worked. - The mathematics and physics of a triangulation system will be pretty much the same. Only the medium will be different.
  25. God is not the author of confusion. I am so grateful that my eyes were finally opened after 40 years of being in the church. EVERY historicity issue has to have some some crazy long, drawn-out, obscure rationalization in order to make it fit into a true believing Mormon's life. The comparison of Joseph's use of the occult magic and our modern cell phones is the most REDICULOUS argument I've ever heard. Luckily, the good Lord made Prozac for all the Congative Dissonance that Mormon's have to deal with! Good luck with that. ;)
  26. Re: Eric, it seems to be the tendency of modern man, in every age, to assume that the current time is more advanced in every way than a former time - and thus they relegate any "mythical" power of the past as mere superstition. It seems to me this is your mistake when it comes to the use of seer stones, divining sticks, etc.. These things are part of the earth's system of intelligence, which we will find is available to all who seek such benefits in faith. I believe the possession of personal seer stones will be far more common when this earth passes into its terrestrial, or millennial glory. Seer stones are, in my opinion, a technology that actually belongs to that order, but is available to all within this lower order can manifest the faith to obtain it.

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