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Grant Hardy
Friday, September 23 2011

Things You May Not Know about the Book of Mormon--What More Might the Ensign Have Said?

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Happy Book of Mormon Day! It was on Sept. 22, 1823 that Joseph Smith first saw the gold plates, and then he met Moroni annually on the same date for the next four years until he was finally allowed to take possession of the plates on Sept. 22, 1827

This is a continuation of an article   responding to the October special issue of the Ensign devoted to the Book of Mormon, suggesting resources for further information and study.

Joseph Smith’s Relationship to the Book of Mormon

The October Ensign includes a feature titled “The Prophet Joseph Smith: Translator of the Book of Mormon,” which consists of a series of images illustrating nine stages in his calling as a prophet and in the translation process. It is a lovely overview, but there is so much more that could have been said in an article about Joseph’s relationship with that sacred text that space may not have allowed for.

I like the fact that although he first saw the plates in 1823, he was not allowed to take them home until after he had married Emma (she may have been a stabilizing influence in his life, and in fact, she accompanied him to the Hill Cumorah the night he finally took possession of the plates). The story of Martin Harris’ loss of the 116 pages, at a time when Joseph and Emma had just lost their first child, is heartbreaking. (It is perhaps best told in Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography, which Maurine and Scot Proctor have edited with numerous illustrations in an enlarged and enhanced version

You may have noticed when we studied the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual in Priesthood and Relief Society that Joseph hardly ever quoted the Book of Mormon or referred to its prophets or its narratives in his preaching. Instead, he almost always taught from the Bible. This may seem a bit odd, especially in contrast to the way that more recent church leaders use the Book of Mormon, but it seems to me like evidence that the scripture did not originate with Joseph Smith (as an author myself, if I had ever written anything half so clever as the Book of Mormon, I would be quoting from it for the rest of my life). He did, however, work hard to spread the Book of Mormon more widely through two additional editions during his lifetime (1837 and 1840), and most tellingly, in his final evening on this earth, while in Carthage Jail, he read from the Book of Mormon with his brother Hyrum and bore testimony of its truthfulness.

You may have noticed when we studied the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual in Priesthood and Relief Society that Joseph hardly ever quoted the Book of Mormon or referred to its prophets or its narratives in his preaching. Instead, he almost always taught from the Bible. This may seem a bit odd, especially in contrast to the way that more recent church leaders use the Book of Mormon, but it seems to me like evidence that the scripture did not originate with Joseph Smith (as an author myself, if I had ever written anything half so clever as the Book of Mormon, I would be quoting from it for the rest of my life). He did, however, work hard to spread the Book of Mormon more widely through two additional editions during his lifetime (1837 and 1840), and most tellingly, in his final evening on this earth, while in Carthage Jail, he read from the Book of Mormon with his brother Hyrum and bore testimony of its truthfulness.

You may recall that Elder Holland told a similar story from the Prophet’s last days (recounted in D&C 134:4-5) in his general conference address of October 2009 (a talk that is cited on p. 77 of the October Ensign).

There are many fine articles about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon available online from the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture You should take some time to look over what they have published in the last few years. A couple of my favorites include "All My Endeavors to Preserve Them": Protecting the Plates in Palmyra, 22 September—December 1827”  by Andrew H. Hedges and “For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars” by Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter.

In addition there is a new book by Richard Turley and William Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011) that presents the latest scholarship on the origins and various editions of the Book of Mormon in a readable and visually appealing way.

Illustrations

A variety of colorful illustrations enrich the October Ensign and I was delighted to see several newer depictions of Book of Mormon events in addition to the Arnold Friberg paintings that I grew up with. (I particularly like the work of Walter Rane, which you can see on pp. 16, 17, and 18.) There is certainly room for artistic license, but in recent years there seems to have been a conscious attempt by many painters to include more accurate historical details. It is less common now to see Nephite warriors looking like Roman legionnaires, and sometimes they are even portrayed without the wristbands that Friberg taught us to associate with Book of Mormon culture. There is much more that could be done along these lines, however, as can be seen in John L. Sorenson’s Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo: FARMS, 1998).

The images from the life of Joseph Smith are also sometimes less than historically reliable. The familiar Tom Lovell painting of the angel Moroni appearing in Joseph’s room (October Ensign, pp. 8, 19, and 23) makes much less sense if you’ve ever visited the reconstructed log house in Palmyra where the Smith family lived in 1823. The family was rather large, the cabin was tiny, and there is no way that Joseph would have had his own bedroom. More than likely, there were several other children sleeping in the same bed when Moroni appeared to Joseph (as in this picture by Michael Malm, at the Church’s josephsmith.net website).

Similarly, there are illustrations on the inside cover and on pages 9, 19, and 23 all showing Joseph Smith looking pensively at the golden plates. There may have been times when he did this, particularly when he was copying some of the reformed Egyptian characters for Martin Harris to take to Charles Anthon in New York, but these images do not show him translating. As far as we know, Joseph always translated with the help of either the Nephite interpreters—described by Joseph as “two stones in silver bows” (JS-History 1:35)—or with a seer stone (both devices were later referred to with the biblical term Urim and Thummim, though that identification only came several years after the Book of Mormon was translated).

The eyewitnesses to the translation are all in agreement that Joseph would place the seer stone in a hat and then put the hat over his face (presumably to exclude extraneous light) so that he could see the stone clearly enough to dictate the words of the Book of Mormon.


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