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Joseph Smith’s Gift

by Sharon Lindbloom
11 March 2021

In a virtual devotional earlier this week (on 7 March 2021), LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland spoke to young adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As he encouraged these young adults to get involved in the church’s Institute, a religious education program for college-aged Latter-day Saints, Mr. Holland recounted a story from his own Institute days when his class studied Doctrine and Covenants section 5. According to the preface of this revelation, it was “given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, March 1829.” Mr. Holland explained that, “In this section of scripture, the Lord is giving instruction to Joseph Smith about bringing forth the Book of Mormon to the public.” Mr. Holland continued,

“Just think of what was entailed in restoring everything that pertained to the kingdom of God. He [Joseph Smith] had to be the agent for restoring the church itself with its apostles and prophets and officers and priesthoods. He had to receive revelation regarding tithing and missions and the word of wisdom and church governance. He had to teach principles of self-reliance, organize the relief society, build temples. He had to make plans for the new Jerusalem and to send missionaries to the four corners of the earth…all of this and more lay ahead of him in the spring of 1829. But here’s what the Lord said. ‘Joseph, you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will not grant unto you any other gift until it is finished.’” (Young Adult Europe, and Africa Area Devotional with Elder Holland, 22:16ff. Mr. Holland did not quote the last part of the verse (D&C 5:4) verbatim, but the original meaning was retained.)

Something that is interesting about Mr. Holland’s use of D&C 5:4 is that the original text of the revelation, purportedly given in 1829 and then printed in the church’s 1833 Book of Commandments, differs significantly from the way the revelation reads today; so much so that the original meaning has been turned on its head. The revelation as printed in the 1833 Book of Commandments (then designated section 4 verse 2) read,

“…and he has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift.”

The idea that Joseph Smith would be granted additional gifts once the Book of Mormon was finished showed up in LDS scripture in 1835; at that time the revelation was altered by adding over 20 words to the original 30-word verse. Mr. Holland’s long list of tasks that Joseph had ahead of him in 1829 for “restoring everything that pertained to the kingdom of God” was not in the picture at all when the revelation was given. In fact, according to Joseph God told him that he should pretend no other gift.

But he did pretend other gifts. For example, he pretended that it was ok to change what he claimed was the very words of God.

Early Mormon leader David Whitmer was deeply concerned over what Joseph had done. In his book An Address To All Believers In Christ, Mr. Whitmer wrote, “The way the revelation has been changed, twenty two words being added to it, it would appear that God had broken His word after giving His word in plainness; commanding Brother Joseph to pretend to no other gift but to translate the Book of Mormon, and then the Lord had changed and concluded to grant Joseph the gift of a Seer to the Church…” (58)

If Joseph Smith had claimed he was granted other gifts via a different revelation rather than by altering an existing revelation, this might not be such a big deal. But that’s not what happened. Joseph took words that he claimed came right from the mouth of God and added to them to suit his current needs; he made the revelation say the opposite of what it originally said as it (so it is claimed) was pronounced by God Himself.

In the virtual devotional, Mr. Holland didn’t tell his audience that the revelation he was quoting had been changed. Printed editions of Doctrine and Covenants don’t give any indication to readers that the revelation has been changed. Few people, in the grand scheme of things, have any idea that LDS scripture has undergone the massive alterations it has.

This is the sort of thing, something Joseph Smith did over and over and over again, that leads to the kind of thinking that Andrew James Myers expressed in his recent review of the Netflix true crime documentary series, Murder Among the Mormons.

The documentary is about LDS forger, Mark Hofmann, who created fake documents in the 1980s that centered around early LDS church history (among other things). The LDS church bought or otherwise acquired 48 of Hofmann’s forged documents before Hofmann was exposed. As one Mormon historian noted, he “fooled the FBI, the Library of Congress, and a few prophets, seers, and revelators” (Linda Sillitoe, “Off the Record: Telling the Rest of the Truth,” Sunstone Magazine, December 1990, 23).

In his review of the documentary, Mr. Myers suggested that the Netflix series was purposefully crafted to communicate this message: “Joseph Smith was the Mark Hofmann of his day.”

I’m not sure the creators of Murder Among the Mormons would agree with Mr. Myers; nevertheless, what of the idea itself, that Joseph Smith was the Mark Hofmann of his day?

There’s no objective way to check Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the Book of Mormon because, according to LDS history, the original text was taken from the earth (although the content of the Book of Mormon can be tested objectively). But Joseph’s revelations can be compared against their first public printings, and many of these are found to have been altered by Joseph Smith and are now no longer in their original form. Some of his writings as found in the LDS scripture book Pearl of Great Price—for example the Book of Abraham—can be objectively tested by looking at the originals; and that reveals that Joseph’s translation does not match the translations of modern-day scholars. His “correction” of the biblical text, published as the Joseph Smith Translation, can be objectively tested by going back to the earliest biblical manuscripts; again, Joseph’s corrections are found to have no textual support. Even so, over 16 million people today claim allegiance to Joseph Smith and his restored church. Why? Because Joseph himself essentially said, “Trust me. Follow the instructions I wrote in the book that I gave you and you will know the truth.”

Does any of this evoke comparison with Mark Hofmann?

The Bible is in a different class than Joseph Smith’s scriptures. It was written by 40 different authors, spanning 3 continents, and employing 3 different languages. While no original autographs of the text are known to exist, the New Testament alone is attested to by 5,800 ancient Greek manuscripts, some dating as far back as the 2nd century AD. The discipline of textual criticism allows for the original text to be reconstructed even without access to the original autographs. The biblical text is therefore deemed highly trustworthy.

It’s in this trustworthy Bible that we are urged, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

We human beings are easily deceived. Mark Hofmann’s forgeries were accepted as authentic, even by prophets, seers, and revelators. His friends continued to defend him and deny his guilt even while the truth was being exposed. Hofmann explained it this way: “People tend to ignore anything that does not fit within their own beliefs. They reject the facts because it means giving up their beliefs for which they’ve sacrificed so much.”

Was Joseph Smith the Mark Hofmann of his day? May God grant each of us the courage and the wisdom to test Joseph Smith, the self-proclaimed Prophet, and find the truth.

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