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Book of Mormon Translation: Though Questions Persist, One Thing is Clear

by Sharon Lindbloom
4 November 2020

How was the Book of Mormon translated from the Reformed Egyptian found on the gold plates into English? Despite available eyewitness accounts and an official position stated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself, Mormons don’t seem to know the answer.

The process Joseph Smith used to produce the Book of Mormon English text was discussed in the news several times during the month of October. Most recently, October 27 (2020), the topic was brought up by LDS author Jana Riess on her blog, Flunking Sainthood. Dr. Riess begins her article writing about the Gospel Topics essays published online by the LDS church. She notes that when the essays first appeared seven years ago, they were more or less kept under wraps by the church:

“The essays were not mentioned at church or General Conference; there was no splashy article in the Ensign when they debuted; there was no Public Affairs statement explaining their purpose or even acknowledging their existence. Rather, they had what Elder Steven Snow later called a ‘soft roll out,’…the church created the Gospel Topics essays, and for the longest time didn’t even make it clear that they had been approved by the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. (That has since been corrected,  after some members and even local bishops believed that the essays were anti-Mormon propaganda.)”

The reason for this “soft roll out” was the controversial nature of the topics the essays address. While the church wanted to have some sort of resource available for members who struggled with upsetting questions about the multiple versions of the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and the disconnect between the Book of Abraham and the scrolls from which it was allegedly translated (as just a few examples), they did not want those who were unaware of these problems to learn of them. Nevertheless, according to church leaders these essays were written to provide transparent information about Mormonism’s problematic history (as well as a few doctrinal issues). But according to a recently published book (The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement), the church’s essays are themselves controversial. Dr. Riess writes,

 “John-Charles Duffy makes this point in his chapter on controversies about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Many people expressed surprise that the Gospel Topics essay ‘Book of Mormon Translation’ candidly admitted that most historical accounts of translation indicate that Joseph Smith didn’t translate the plates while actually looking at the plates…The reality, as the essay makes clear, is that he ‘placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.’”

Dr. Riess notes that according to Dr. Duffy, saying that Joseph Smith merely “read aloud the English words that appeared” on the seer stone (or interpreters) “puts forward a Book of Mormon that is essentially inerrant, verbatim, just recited by Smith with no involvement on Smith’s part. …the church has newly backed itself into a corner of literalism—which is not the way to persuade doubters.” Among those doubters are church members who are troubled by the extensive errors in the Book of Mormon text.

Another discussion about the Book of Mormon translation process was in the news on October 7 (2020) when the Salt Lake Tribune posted an audio interview online. In this interview Samuel Brown, author of Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism (published in June 2020), rejects the official Book of Mormon translation process promoted by the Gospel Topics essay, saying that he does not see enough evidence to support what he calls the “teleprompter” idea.

Instead, Dr. Brown suggests a different definition for the word “translate.” Rather than the traditional understanding of expressing words/text into another language (in this case, Reformed Egyptian into English), Dr. Brown thinks Book of Mormon “translation” can be understood as Joseph Smith being changed in a way that allowed him to connect with God to then produce the text. This definition of “translate” allows for Joseph Smith’s speech to have sometimes faltered as he did his best to describe what God had allegedly revealed to him. The Book of Mormon’s “verbal missteps,” or errors in the text, are recognized as evidence of this kind of “translation.” By rejecting the official (and eyewitness) explanation of the Book of Mormon translation process, Dr. Brown rescues the Book of Mormon text from incriminating scrutiny.

A third news article regarding the Book of Mormon translation process was published by The Daily Universe (BYU) on October 15 (2020) outlining a presentation given by BYU professor Brad Wilcox at BYU Education Week. In his talk, Dr. Wilcox “discussed the power of the Book of Mormon and defended its translation process.” The Daily Universe noted,

“This unconventional translation process involved various seer stones in addition to the Urim and Thummim. One way Smith could have used these stones was by reading words in English off of them, Brother Wilcox said. While this translation process can seem strange, Brother Wilcox encouraged the audience to have faith.”

Dr. Wilcox neither affirmed nor denied the Gospel Topics essay position found in the Book of Mormon Translation essay (as far as can be determined by reading The Daily Universe article). Keeping to the middle of the road, he encouraged his audience to focus on the effect of the Book of Mormon text rather than the facts surrounding it. The Book of Mormon

“…has the power to lead people to the temple and Jesus Christ, through which they can be sealed with loved ones forever. ‘The book is correct because it corrects our course. It’s the supernatural way that the book came forth that backs us up against a wall and says, “Are you going to take a leap of faith?”’”

This is how I understand the three options outlined above:

  1. Accept the “read aloud the English” word-for-word translation idea, but avoid the Book of Mormon’s textual problems
  2. Reject the eyewitness accounts that describe Joseph Smith reading the English text off of a stone and instead adopt a creative definition for the word “translation” which allows for sidestepping problems in the Book of Mormon text
  3. Ignore both the textual problems and the unknown but clearly “unconventional” translation process; just have faith that the Book of Mormon is true

All three options ultimately require faith in Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God in order to accept the Book of Mormon as scripture. Because Joseph said the book was translated “by the gift and power of God,” however that worked, regardless of obvious errors in “the most correct of any book on earth,” the Book of Mormon has to be true. The Prophet said so.

But biblically speaking, this is a backwards way to approach the issue. Matthew 7:15-20 says followers of God will recognize a prophet by his fruit. The Book of Mormon is one piece of Joseph Smith’s prophetic “fruit.” Therefore, the Book of Mormon must be examined and weighed on its own, without a primary appeal to Joseph Smith’s claims regarding from whence it came.

Was the Book of Mormon translated by the gift and power of God? Whether produced by dictation or by visionary revelation, a look at the evidence says no. It is fraught with all kinds of mistakes, including textual errors that have required thousands of corrections. The book cannot be accepted as sacred text accurately translated by the gift and power of an all-knowing God.

Whatever Joseph Smith thought he was doing as he gazed at that stone in the bottom of his hat, the evidence reveals that he was not receiving revelation from God.

For MRM’s analysis of the Gospel Topic essay, “Book of Mormon Translation,” click here.

To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.

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