By Eric Johnson
The following was originally printed in the January/February 2014 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
For many years the LDS Church has used staff artists to provide illustrations for its church manuals and magazines. Book of Mormon and Bible stories are commonly depicted, as well as historical church events. One favorite scene for LDS articles is Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon. For example, the front cover of the Feb. 2001 Ensign magazine shows Smith looking at the gold plates and translating them by running his finger over them.
Is this really how the Book of Mormon was translated? Not according to LDS sources, which indicate that Smith used a “seer stone” placed in a hat. Smith’s wife Emma, who was one of Smith’s scribes, stated that she “frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”(“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints Herald, Oct 1, 1879, 289.)
When interviewed for Helen Whitney’s 2007 Public Broadcasting Service documentary titled “The Mormons,” Brigham Young University professor Daniel C. Peterson noted,
“We know that Joseph didn’t translate the way that a scholar would translate . . . Actually most of the translation was done using something called a seer stone. He would put the stone in the bottom of a hat, presumably to exclude surrounding light. And then he would put his face into the hat, it’s a kind of a strange image for us.”
Whitney did not provide information about the background of those who were interviewed—including Peterson. This way the viewers were unable to judge those being interviewed. In the next days after this episode had aired, the Internet blogs and chat rooms were alive with a number of Latter-day Saints wondering who this particular “anti-Mormon” was and how he could make such an audacious claim! Little did they know that Peterson—who was accurate in his description—is one of the top LDS apologists. (For more on this, see here.)
An article titled “What’s Art Got to Do with It?” is on the FAIR-LDS website It begins,
“One of the strangest attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an assault on the Church’s art. Now and again, one hears criticism about the representational images which the Church uses in lesson manuals and magazines to illustrate some of the foundational events of Church history.”
Referring to one painting featuring Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, it continues,
“But as the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in this image:
- Oliver Cowdery did not see the plates as Joseph worked with them.
- For much of the translation of the extant Book of Mormon text, Joseph did not have the plates in front of him—they were often hidden outside the home during the translation.”
The article then gives reasons why using art that is not historically accurate can be a useful tool in communicating truth. Let’s respond to each of these points:
- “The manner of the translation is described repeatedly, for example, in the Church’s official magazine for English-speaking adults, the Ensign. Richard Lloyd Anderson discussed the ‘stone in the hat’ matter in 1977, and Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer’s account to new mission presidents in 1992… among others, B.H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God (1895) and returns somewhat to the matter in Comprehensive History of the Church (1912).Other Church sources to discuss this include The Improvement Era (1939), BYU Studies (1984, 1990) the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993),and the FARMS Review (1994). LDS authors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler also mentioned the matter in 2000.”
Response: Art has traditionally spoken louder than the written word. The Guttenberg Bible, for example, contained a number of illustrations to help illiterate readers understand what the biblical passages were saying. Just as many Mormons critiqued Daniel Peterson’s assessment of what is supposed to be a historical event, many Latter-day Saints are unaware of the history regarding the translation process used with the Book of Mormon. Consider that the FAIR article provides no source before 2000. While some Latter-day Saints may have historical works in their libraries, I highly doubt that the average Saint has access to even half of these listed sources. (If they do, I wonder how many actually read them!) This is especially true when magazine or journal articles from two decades (or more) ago are considered. No wonder so many Latter-day Saints are left with the impression that Smith ran his finger over the plates in order to translate them.
- “Why, then, does the art not match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in LDS publications? The simplest answer may be that artists simply don’t always get such matters right. The critics’ caricature to the contrary, not every aspect of such things is ‘correlated.’”
Response: While a picture or painting might not be “correlated,” shouldn’t somebody with more authority than the artist(s) approve the work, especially if it appears in official LDS publications yet doesn’t line up with church history and ends up misleading the readers?
- “Modern audiences—especially those looking to find fault—have, in a sense, been spoiled by photography. We are accustomed to having images describe how things ‘really’ were. We would be outraged if someone doctored a photo to change its content. This largely unconscious tendency may lead us to expect too much of artists, whose gifts and talents may lie in areas unrelated to textual criticism and the fine details of Church history.”
Response: Again, what right does a church artist have to take what is supposed to be a historical event and then reinterpret it? Who’s in charge of this church: the artist(s) or the First Presidency?
- “Even this does not tell the whole story. ‘Every artist,’ said Henry Ward Beecher, ‘dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.’ This is perhaps nowhere more true than in religious art, where the goal is not so much to convey facts or historical detail, as it is to convey a religious message and sentiment. A picture often is worth a thousand words, and artists often seek to have their audience identify personally with the subject. The goal of religious art is not to alienate the viewer, but to draw him or her in.”
To support the idea that artists have traditionally utilized artistic license, the article provides the example of Pierre Bruegel’s Elder’s Census of Bethlehem. After all, the painting includes snow on a mountain and skaters on a pond, even though there are no mountains and little snow in Bethlehem. A skater on an ice pond is obviously anachronistic.
Response: It is true that many artists over the centuries have depicted biblical events in inaccurate ways. Are LDS Church paintings supposed to be considered art or do they serve as illustrations? Art usually stands by itself, giving the reader the opportunity to view the interpretation of the artist. An illustration is provided with text and is generally meant to be an aid to help the reader understand the significance of what is written. Because these paintings are given in the context of the teachings of the church, I think “illustration” is the better term.
Regarding the painting that depicts Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith working together on the translation, the article asks, “What religious message(s) does the Del Parson translation picture convey?” Three points are given:
- There was no chance to hide notes or books
- The plates were real.
- The translation was not a weird, esoteric exercise.
To come up with such an “esoteric” interpretation requires some deep analysis. However, the average layperson who understands very little about the process of how the Book of Mormon was translated is left with a message that contradicts the facts. The illustration ends up only confusing, as it did those Latter-day Saints in Sweden who were part of the “Swedish Rescue.” (For more on the Swedish Rescue, see here.)
With that said, we call on the LDS Church to be more forthright with what are supposed to be historical events. Otherwise confusion will reign!
For an excellent blog post on this topic, see “Why Mormon Art Sometimes Misrpresents Church History.” Also, for more information on “Church and Culture,” click here.