September 28, 2009

Joseph Smith's Descriptions of the Book of Mormon Translation

There are several explanations and guesses regarding the Book of Mormon translation method, whether it was done by the gift and power of God or the cunning of men. Different theories exist among those who accept the book as an ancient record translated by revelation and among those who believe the book is some type of forgery. Moreover, it seems a solid understanding of the translation is necessary in order to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of internal evidences or anachronisms.

A good translation theory should take into account textual evidence and the many witness statements from claimed observers. Part of the confusion surrounding the translation procedure stems from differing witness accounts. Currently there is no single place to review all of the known witness explanations of the translation of the Book of Mormon.1 To remedy this situation I've started the "Translation Witness Account" (TWA) Project. I want to provide the most comprehensive source of witness statements possible in one convenient location.

This post includes eight statements from Joseph Smith describing the translation of the Book of Mormon. These are my preliminary notes so exact dates and circumstances need to be fleshed out further. In these statements Joseph didn't go into much detail:

1.
Date: 
1829-30

Quote:
"...I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon..."

Circumstances:
This is from the Introduction to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, which was evidently included to put down false reports and describe the loss of 116 pages.

Source: 
- Book of Mormon (1830)

2.
Date: 
25 October 1831

Quote:
"Br. Hyrum Smith said that he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.

Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c."

Circumstances:
During an 1831 church conference Hyrum Smith invited Joseph Smith to explain how he translated the Book of Mormon. As Ben Park pointed out to me, this occurred shortly after the publication of a statement from a critic describing a stone in the hat method. Ezra Booth, “Mormonism–No. III,” Ravenna Ohio Star, October 24, 1831 (reprinted from New York Courier and Enquirer). If the brothers were aware of this publication Hyrum may have desired to see Joseph clear up the issue.

Source:
-Minutes of general conference, 25 Oct. 1831, cited in Far West Record, p. 13, Historical Department Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT. See "Minutes of a conference at Orange, Ohio, October 25, 1831," in Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), 23.

3.
Date:
1833

Quote:
"The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians, having been found through the ministrations of an holy angel, and translated into our own language by the gift and power of God."

Circumstances:
Joseph Smith's second personally-recorded account of the process in an 1833 letter to N. E. Saxton.

Sources:
-Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 1:315. For more information on Saxton (incorrectly called "Seaton" in the History of the Church,) see "History of the Church, Vol. 1 Chapter 22," footnotes 7, 8, and 9, at BOAP.org.


4.
Date: 
1835

Quote:
"I obtained them [the plates] and translated them into the English language by the gift and power of God and have been preaching it ever since."

Circumstances:
This description occurred during a conversation with "Joshua the Jewish Minister."

Sources:
-Warren Cowdery, Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-l, pp. 121-2, LDS Church Archives. [Check version in HC.] As per Mark Ashurst-McGee, this first appears in the 1835 November 9-11 entry in Joseph Smith's second Ohio journal (1835-1836). The entry in handwriting of JS's scribe Warren Parrish. Later it is converted into the 1834-1836 history. The volume of history that was kept in was later turned over and used as the first volume in the History of the Church. So just a note that your page citation for that volume, originally the recto, is now the verso pagination.


5. 
Date: 
1 July 1838

Quote:
“Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates and thus came the Book of Mormon.”

Circumstances:
From a "question and answer" piece with Joseph Smith, published in the Elder's Journal.

Source:
-Elder's Journal 1 (July 1838): 43.

6.

Date: 
March 1842

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

Circumstances:
This statement is from the Wentworth letter. I need to check the wording to see if it is borrowed from Pratt's Interesting Account pamphlet and if so, if that in turn was borrowed from Cowdery's earlier published letters to W.W. Phelps.

Sources:
-Joseph Smith, "Church History," Times and Seasons 3 (March 1842): 707.


7.
Date: 
May 1842

Quote:
"...immediately after my arrival there [at Harmony, Pennsylvania] 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, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife's father in the month of December [1827], and the February following."

Circumstances:
The Times and Seasons 1842 serial publication of the Prophet's "history of the Church."

Sources:
-Joseph Smith, "History of Joseph Smith," Times and Seasons 3 (May 1842): 772; also in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 1:19.


8.
Date: 
13 November 1843

Quote:
"By the power of God I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics; the knowledge of which was lost to the world: in which wonderful event I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom, and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries."

Circumstances:
Letter to James Arlington Bennett.

Sources:
-Times and Seasons 4 (Nov. 1843): 373




FOOTNOTES:
Dan Vogel's Early Mormon Documents series and John Welch's Opening the Heavens are currently the two most comprehensive sources for witness statements. If you are aware of any witness statements about the Book of Mormon translation that were not included in these two collections or in this blog post, let me know.

16 comments:

WVS said...

In your number 3, the guy's name was actually Saxton, not Seaton (as it mistakenly occurs in the HC).

wvs said...

Forgot to mention, I think Ashurst-McGee's thesis may have a listing of some accounts, but I don't recall how comprehensive it is. I don't have a copy here, or I would check it out. Perhaps you already know this one.

BHodges said...

Thanks, wvs. Also, Mark's thesis is in my list of key sources.

BHodges said...

Added the name change and a reference to boap footnotes. Thanks again, WVS.

Jacob Primo said...

You seem to be missing Joseph's description of the very first time he translated any of the characters in December 1827. Predated him working with Martin Harris as a scribe.

"By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania, and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters of the plates. I copyed a considerable number of them and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife's father in the month of December, and the February following."Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 1:19.

BHodges said...

Jacob, that one is number 7. I double-checked and added your HC vol 1 p. 19 reference as well, thanks.

Jeremy said...

Interesting venture. I'll definitely be stopping by periodically to check the progress and learn from your investigation.

Do you plan on defining the "Urim and Thummim" in relation to the Nephite interpreters? From what I have seen, one major disconnect many LDS have is the liberal usage of the term Urim and Thummim when referring to the Nephite interpreters (seer stones), which were not necessarily a Urim and Thummim as defined in the OT.

BHodges said...

Jeremy, Mike Ashurst-McGee's thesis covers the U+T issue pretty well. The main thrust of the project is to gather all witness statements of the process so they can all be evaluated against the proposed timelines of translation, the methods, and things like the use of UT. (Currently I am in the camp of those who believe the seer stone was used for a majority of the translation, for instance, even though "UT" was used as the descriptor after Phelps first employed it. (He's the first I have found so far, anyway). The TWA project is going to take a long time since I'm doing work and school and a bunch of other stuff. I just wanted to get this one up to see if anyone knew of any other JS statements I might have overlooked so far.

Mark Ashurst-McGee said...

Re 4: "Warren Cowdery, Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-l, pp. 121-2, LDS Church Archives. [Check version in HC]"

This first appears in the 1835 November 9-11 entry in Joseph Smith's second Ohio journal (1835-1836). The entry in handwriting of JS's scribe Warren Parrish. Later it is converted into the 1834-1836 history. The volume that history was kept in was later turned over and used as the first volume in the History of the Church. So just a note that your page citation for that volume, originally the recto, is now the verso pagination.

BHodges said...

Awesome, thanks Mark. Also, if you see any other descriptions of the translation ostensibly from JS I would love to know.

Anonymous said...

Nice font.

Keller said...

Excellent Blair. I am glad to see some of the first fruits of the TWA project you are spearheading. Let me come out and identify myself as being a participant in this project.

Seeing these eight accounts together helps me recognizing that they need to placed high relative to most other historical accounts in terms of reliability. The text of the Book of Mormon is probably the most important source to analyze to understand the translation method. After that I would add D&C material and your 8 accounts.

You have the accounts from Joseph that have the most direct bearing on the translation method. I think the TWA should also collect first-hand accounts from Joseph that are indirect (as another category). For example, I would collect anything he said about the plates, Nephite interpreters, or seer stones pertaining to the translation period. I would also include [more of] his commentary on the Anthon incident and the loss of the 116 pages. It would also be interesting to see what he said about his relationship with various scribes and with Moroni during the translation period.

Perhaps a third Joseph Smith category would include exploring different tangents before and after the translation period. For example, what did he say about the production of other inspired texts (the various materials in the Standard works). What did he say about his use of seer stones before and after? How did he approach the study of foreign languages? What did he say about revelation in general?

I will have other thoughts later.

BHodges said...

Thanks, DK. I agree, that peripheral info bears onto the main subject of the translation.

Carson Calderwood said...

I'm very glad you started this Blair. I came across your link on the MADBoard. I even posted a thread there a year or so ago asking for a comprehensive list like this.

Having not read either of your key sources, I assume that your list covers those not included in either book. Is that correct? I assume so because you don't have a reference to David Whitmer's account of the words appearing in the hat on a parchment.

Keep up the good work!

Carson Calderwood said...

Nevermind my DW comment, I finished reading the rest of that thread.

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