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.