Inaccurate Presentations of Mormon History Persist

By Sharon Lindbloom
16 May 2017

On Sunday (7 May 2017), LDS General Authority Kim B. Clark of the Seventy addressed young adult members of the Mormon Church in a Worldwide Devotional. Within his talk, Elder Clark spoke a great deal about the history surrounding the Book of Mormon translation. To augment his talk, Elder Clark introduced dramatic video clips, saying, “Let’s watch how the translation process worked.”

The Book of Mormon translation process as portrayed in the video had Joseph Smith sitting across a small table from his principle scribe, Oliver Cowdery. Joseph would look intently down at something on the table that was outside of the camera’s view, while Oliver sat with pen in hand, repeating and writing the words Joseph provided. Meanwhile, Joseph’s wife, Emma, bustled about in the sunny room. In a later scene, Joseph placed the gold plates (a heavy object wrapped in cloth) onto the table as he and Oliver prepared to begin another translation session.

I suppose Elder Clark wanted to employ a video to make his talk more interesting – perhaps also more touching as the love between Joseph and Emma was likely to tug at LDS heartstrings. But what ended up happening was a misrepresentation of LDS history. Still and again.

The LDS Church, in its stated determination to be more transparent, has published controversial information about the Book of Mormon translation process. An essay at lds.org explains,

“Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. …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. Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. …The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or ‘seer stone.’ 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. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture. Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters.”

Furthermore, according to the lds.org essay,

“Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she ‘frequently wrote day after day’ at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph ‘sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.’ According to Emma, the plates ‘often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.’”

The video presented by Elder Clark included a small table as well as plates wrapped in a linen cloth, but neither the two-stone divinely-provided spectacles nor the single seer-stone-in-a-hat were in evidence. Instead, Joseph was portrayed as one would expect a translator to be portrayed: as a studious person reading from a foreign text.

This inaccurate portrayal in the video raises a question. From what was Joseph Smith supposed to have been reading? According to Emma’s eye-witness account included in the lds.org essay, Joseph didn’t utilize the plates — he looked at a seer stone in a hat. But even if he hadn’t had his face buried in a hat, the plates were wrapped in a cloth, concealing the very text Joseph was meant to translate.

Up until the publication of lds.org’s “Book of Mormon Translation” essay (actually, even still today), a great majority of Mormons believed the book’s translation process was much like that depicted in Elder Clark’s video. Church publications never portrayed the translation in a way that was historically accurate, thereby giving people a false perception of Joseph Smith as translator.

When the LDS Church finally publicly admitted Joseph Smith’s seer-stone translation method, and expressed its desire to provide “accurate and transparent” information regarding the Church’s doctrine and history, many hoped it was a new day dawning for Mormonism.

But really, since then, nothing has changed. When an LDS General Authority irresponsibly misrepresents Mormon history before a world-wide audience while insisting, “The story I have told you…is true,” he’s being neither accurate nor transparent. Instead, he’s continuing the LDS Church’s long-lived and dishonorable policy of cultivating faith-promoting propaganda. Two years ago I wrote about the Church’s inaccurate visual portrayal of the Book of Mormon translation process:

“The Church wants to communicate Joseph Smith as a godly man receiving revelation from God – leaving people feeling as though he were a true prophet — rather than the historically accurate picture of Joseph Smith engaged in the occult practice commonly called ‘scrying.’ In other words, knowing that, as Dr. [Anthony] Sweat says, ‘images often shape our perceptions of history as much as, or perhaps more than, many of the scholarly works about history,’ the Mormon Church purposefully achieves a sort of ‘historical rewrite’ of the Book of Mormon translation process by continually representing the historical event using a non-historical image that communicates a different idea…”

Indeed, with respect to the LDS Church’s use of inaccurate images to ‘rewrite’ its faith-challenging history, nothing has changed.