Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor

Chapter 5
A Sealed Book

[p.277] It was not without some misgiving that Joseph Smith returned to the Hale home in Pennsylvania in December 1827. Amid the difficulties and dangers of his situation in Palmyra, the very name of Harmony had fallen sweetly upon his ear, but the angle of view changed as soon as Joseph got safe out of Palmyra with his wife. It was impossible for him to abide by the agreement Emma’s father supposed they had reached in August, and to put a good face upon the altered circumstances might tax all his ingenuity. Joseph may have hoped his father-in-law would be sufficiently mollified with his promise that there should be no more peeping for moneydiggers, no more flitting about the hills in the dark of the moon. Perhaps, even, though this bordered on wishful thinking in view of Isaac Hale’s skeptical case of mind, Joseph had hoped that the old man could be convinced of the reality of his golden plates. There was this in Joseph’s favor, at least: the scars of Hale’s first estrangement from his daughter were not yet healed, and he would be slow to alienate her forever.

That such considerations sustained Joseph through the awkward explanations which followed his arrival at Harmony can hardly be doubted. Isaac has said that Joseph made the effort to convert him to the wonderful tale of the golden plates. By way of convincing the old man that the story was not mere moonshine, Joseph took him into his chamber and exhibited the glass-box brought from Palmyra. This, he declared, contained the marvel. If Hale had any doubts, he might heft the box and satisfy himself in the matter.

Joseph’s impenetrable self-assurance was enough to give anyone pause, and Isaac Hale must have been tempted to accept this tale at full value, for if Joseph actually had come up with something from out of the earth, it put a very different face on his past history, and to be able to respect Emma’s young man meant a great deal to him. But the sharp-eyed old bear-hunter was no swallower of marvels after the order of Martin Harris, and this business had too much the aspect of a piece of legerdemain. Who, the old man demanded, would be the first person permitted to view these mysterious plates? When Joseph replied in his opaque way that this privilege had been reserved to his own unborn son, Hale snorted his disbelief. If anything of the kind was to be kept in his house, he said bluntly, he should certainly [p.278] examine it. From that time the plates were understood to be hidden in the woods.1

Notwithstanding, Isaac Hale set off to Joseph a 13 1/2-acre tract at the northeastern corner of his farm and provided a dwelling for good measure, an unfinished building he had been using to dress deerskins2 But until this structure could be hauled into place and transformed into a home, Joseph and Emma would stay on under his own roof.

Thus it happened that Joseph began his translation of the golden plates in a garret of the Hale home. Of this extraordinary undertaking his autobiography says only that immediately after his arrival at Harmony he 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, and the February following.”3 More interesting and illuminating are the recollections of these months preserved by others.

The memorable labor of translation commenced in December 1827. From the very beginning it was attended by the same elaborate mystification that had so long characterized Joseph’s practice as a seer in peepstones, and this was to be expected, for the translation of the golden plates was a culmination of, rather than a break with, Joseph’s highly flavored past. That the Book of Mormon constituted a new beginning—itself the author of a prophet, seer, and revelator—was not understood at once, and the unabashed hocus-pocus in which Joseph indulged himself, the sustained sleight-of-hand performance he put on through the next eighteen months, was inherent in the situation, for his book had to be a marvel greater than any with which he had ever favored his following.

To this time, in all his peeping, Joseph had required only his stone, his battered white hat, and proper deference in those who besought him to exercise his gift. Eventually he would learn that the first two even of these could be dispensed with. But to produce his greatest marvel, the seer added to his stage properties not only a book of golden plates but a magic set of spectacles, articles elegant in conception and imposing in effect, if somewhat of a kind with the surpassing fine clothes created for the king in the fairy tale. Joseph was to demonstrate that he could conjure with plates and spectacles as the tailor with the clothes of the king. But not on the day-to-day level, and certainly not at once.

He commenced, therefore, by nailing up a blanket in the Hale garret. His scribes, the troubled but compliant Emma and her awestruck younger brother Reuben, Joseph seated at a table on one side of the blanket, while on the other side he carried forward the mysterious labors of the translation, pronouncing aloud the sense his magic contrivance, the Urim and Thummim, made of the strange characters in which the golden plates were inscribed.4 As he gained confidence and improved in facility, Joseph was able to dispense with the blanket, and the greater part of the Book of Mormon was [p.279] dictated without benefit of the privacy it afforded. But when he gave up the blanket, he had to give up golden plates and Urim and Thummim too. During the first few weeks his magical apparatus was essential to the impression he was concerned to make.

Although Joseph later returned to his stone, burying his face in his hat and dictating without regard to the absence or presence of the golden plates, his concept of the Urim and Thummim remains a significant point of departure in his history, one of the earliest examples of a gift that would be of prime importance to him, the ability to seize upon biblical ideas and shape them to his needs. All that was known from the Bible with respect to the Urim and Thummim was that they constituted a means of communication with God, who had required Aaron, before coming in to him, to gird himself in a “breastplate of judgment” in which he should place “the Urim and Thummim.”5 The concensus of biblical scholars, that the Urim and Thummim were two stones which by some alteration in brilliancy reflected the mind and will of the Lord, was one to delight every peepstone seer, and Joseph had no qualms about filling up the gaps in Divine Writ with the homely details. The Urim and Thummim, he explained, was a device made up of two stones set in silver bows and fastened to a breastplate. Seers in ancient or former times had owed their powers to possession of this instrument, and God had prepared it for the express purpose of translating the golden plates.6

Joseph’s Urim and Thummim has always been characterized as a kind of spectacles, but the descriptions that owe to Martin Harris make it evident that the instrument could not have been employed as such. The whitish stone lenses, Harris tells us, were approximately the size of ordinary spectacle lenses, but the bow which joined them, being some four inches in length, made it impossible to look into more than one stone at a time; with one lens held to the eye, the other would have projected well beyond the opposite ear.7 Functionally the Urim and Thummim served no purpose that was not served equally well by Joseph’s seer stone, but the device was justified in Joseph’s eyes by the effect it produced on his disciples. “I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat,” Harris said of these magical stones more than thirty years later, “because Moses said that ‘no man could see God and live; and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And besides, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should ‘look aught and perish.'”8

Notwithstanding the magical apparatus at his disposal, Joseph found the road to authorship as rocky as it has generally proved to be for writers less fortunately equipped. For all his declaiming before the Palmyra debating society and his leading out in the Methodist class-meetings, for all his discourses to the Smith family on the lives and times of the ancients, dictating a book that could be received as living history was an undertaking close to the limits of his abilities. Even getting started was desperately hard, as is suggested by the [p.280] curious language of Joseph’s autobiography. Between December 1827 and February 1828, this account says, he copied a considerable number of the characters off the plates, and by means of the Urim and Thummim “translated some of them.”9 More than once, it would appear, Joseph despaired of ever being able to produce the work on which so much depended, and there is some evidence of a passive resistance in Emma which must have contributed to the general bleakness of his mood. On one occasion he went to Emma’s uncle, Nathaniel Lewis, to ask whether he should keep on with the translation; though still insisting that God had commanded him to translate the record, he was, he said, afraid of the people.10 Lewis declined to advise him in so delicate a matter, but as late as February, when Martin Harris came to Harmony to see how the translation was progressing, Joseph was prepared to abandon the whole project. After listening to the prospective “Author and Translator” plead his justification, the opposition of his wife and others, Harris waved such frivolities aside. “I have not come down here for nothing,” he said shortly, “and we will go on with it.”11 Perhaps as much as anything, Joseph had needed to have someone else assume the moral responsibility for going ahead. But it may be that the look Harris bent upon him made Joseph realize for the first time the extent of his own involvement in his legend. It came down to this: He had to produce a book that would satisfy Harris or sooner or later he would answer to a magistrate for obtaining money under false pretenses. No matter how good or how bad the book, from this moment Joseph did not lack incentive to write it.

For all his brave words, Martin Harris could not but have been shaken to find in Joseph such little constancy to the great cause, while he himself was prepared to mortgage his farm to finance publication of the book. Swift to retrieve his mistake, Joseph proposed that Harris carry to New York a sheet of characters transcribed from the golden plates, and secure opinions on them from the foremost scholars of the day. This was a means of dealing with his followers Joseph would find useful to the end of his life. In a perilous situation, set people to doing something: It kept them occupied, enlisted their loyalties, and served to identify their interests with his own.

Although in the weeks since he had left Palmyra Joseph might have made conspicuous progress with the translation, he had at any rate acquired a fund of fascinating information about his golden plates. They were made, as Joseph explained to the rapt Harris, of a sealed and an unsealed portion. The contents of the sealed plates were not to be revealed to the world until some time expedient in the judgment of God; the other part of the record had been given to Joseph to translate. The unsealed portion recounted the history of Lehi, a Hebrew prophet in Jerusalem, and his family who had been warned by the Lord to flee the Holy City just before its fall six centuries before Christ. In America the descendants of these wanderers had split into two warring peoples, a white-skinned and delightsome folk, the Nephites, and a savage race, the Lamanites, cursed by the [p.281] Lord with a dark skin. The Nephites were the authors of those great moments of American antiquity which for so long had baffled the learned and engrossed the common folk. But they had fallen into evil ways; the Lord had turned his face from them; and after a thousand years they had been exterminated in a series of mighty battles. By the thousand and the ten thousand their armies had been given up to slaughter, their battlefields still marked by great mounds the length and breadth of the Mississippi Valley where the dead had been heaped high and covered by the victors with a shallow blanket of earth. The last remnant of this once great people had been brought to bay in western New York where the scene of final doom had been enacted.

Foreseeing the fate of the stubbornly iniquitous Nephites, their last great leader, the prophet-general Mormon, had prepared the golden plates upon which the story of his people might be preserved, and these plates had been hidden away by Mormon’s son, Moroni, the last survivor of his race, about the year 420 A.D. The spirit who had finally delivered this remarkable record into Joseph’s hands was none other than the Angel Moroni. And it was Joseph’s great privilege, with Harris’s backing, to translate and publish to the world this fabulous history, a work which resolved the mysteries of American antiquity and would be found equal in authority with the Bible.

The characters transcribed from the golden plates Joseph gave to Harris had not, surprising as it might seem in view of the history Joseph was writing, the slightest resemblance to Hebrew. The language, Joseph explained, was a “reformed Egyptian;” being small, the plates were better suited to the compact characters of this language than to the mother tongue. Had Harris been disposed to find flaws in this logic, Joseph could have pointed out that no longer ago than last summer the Palmyra paper had printed a story reporting that affinities had been found between the Egyptians and the ancient Mexicans, clear evidence of the persistence of Egyptian cultural influences in the New World.12

It is probable, however, that Harris was charmed to learn that Joseph’s golden plates were inscribed in Egyptian, “reformed” or otherwise, for investigations being carried on in the Egyptian antiquities just then had excited the interest of the whole civilized world. To describe his characters as “reformed Egyptian” was, however, prudent of Joseph, for, as he must have been aware, Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion had lately worked out an alphabet from the Rosetta Stone and were on the verge of opening up the dustiest recesses of Egyptian antiquity.13 Joseph might have been more circumspect still had he been scholar enough to know that until well after the time of Christ Hebrew had had a consonantal alphabet and could be written quite as compactly as any form of Egyptian.

Gratified to have a part in bringing such a marvel before the world, and no doubt still more gratified at the prospect of obtaining ammunition to silence his wife and the neighbors who for three months had made him a butt of their wit, Harris set off to lay siege [p.282] to the savants of New York. Arriving in the metropolis, he went to see Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, vice-president of Rutgers Medical College, whose learning spilled over into so many fields as to have given him the reputation of a living encyclopedia. Not less than Mitchill’s eminence as a scholar, it must have been the doctor’s well known interest in the American antiquities which brought Harris rapping on his door; Mitchill had espoused the theory that the fortifications, mounds, and other ancient structures of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes area had been raised by colonies of Australasians or Malays who had landed on the west coast of North America and penetrated across the continent; this people, he conjectured, had later been all but exterminated by ferocious hordes of Tartars who had crossed over into America from northeastern Asia.14 The doctor received Harris courteously but, “chaos of knowledge” though he was, could make nothing of the strange characters shown him.15 The good doctor politely sent Harris on to his friend, Charles Anthon, a member of the faculty of Columbia College, who was to achieve distinction as a Greek and Latin scholar and whose linguistic interests at this time evidently extended to all the antiquities.

Anthon said later that the transcript brought him by this “plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer” consisted of “all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender by Humboldt.”16 What has been preserved among the Saints as the “Anthon transcript” does not conform to this description, nor is the evidence satisfactory that the extant transcript is that which was taken to Anthon. But there is no reason to suppose that the sheet of “Caractors” usually referred to as the “Anthon transcript” was not prepared by Joseph Smith as a representation of the characters found on the plates, and it may be critically discussed in this light.17

Precisely what took place between Harris and Anthon has vexed Mormon history from the moment Anthon showed his visitor to the door. The substance of the discussion, as first given out among Joseph Smith’s followers, was that Anthon thought the characters very curious, but admitted his inability to decipher them, so that Harris came home with the joyful intelligence that none but Joseph himself “was learned enough to English them.”18 Harris’s version, as related second hand by Joseph Smith fourteen years later, was that Anthon pronounced the characters to be “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyric, and Arabic,” and stated that the translation was correct, “more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian,” after which he wrote out a certificate “certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct.”19 As Harris [p.283] was leaving, according to Joseph’s account, Anthon bethought himself to inquire how the young man who wrought this translation had found the golden plates. On being informed that an angel of God had made known their existence, Anthon tore up the certificate, saying that there was no longer such a thing as ministering by angels. He then told Harris to bring in the plates, and he would translate them himself. When Harris replied that part of the plates were sealed, and that he was forbidden to bring them, Anthon put an end to the interview, saying shortly, “I cannot read a sealed book.”20

Later, when the Mormons began to use his name in contending for the truth of the Book of Mormon, the annoyed Anthon branded the story that he had pronounced the characters to be “reformed Egyptian” perfectly false. Anthon’s account of the interview is interesting not only in itself but for what it reveals of Joseph’s conception at a stage in its evolution still very early:

Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simply-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper which the farmer would hand me…. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick—perhaps a hoax. When I asked the person, who brought it, how he obtained the writing, he gave me the following account: A “gold book,” consisting of a number of plates of gold, fastened together…by wires of the same metal, had been dug up in the northern part of the state of New York, and along with it an enormous pair of “gold spectacles.” These spectacles were so large, that, if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would have to be turned towards one of the glasses merely, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the breadth of the human face. Whoever examined the plates through the spectacles was enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning. All this knowledge, however, was confined at that time to a young man, who had the trunk containing the book and spectacles in his sole possession. This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farmhouse, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book, and, having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain, to those who stood on the outside. Not a word, however, was said about the plates having been decyphered “by the gift of God.” Every thing, in this way, was effected by the large pair of spectacles. The farmer added, that he had been requested to contribute a sum of money toward the publication of the “golden book,” the contents of which would, as he had been assured, produce an entire change in the world and save it from ruin. So urgent had been these solicitations, that he intended selling his farm and handing over the amount [p.284] received to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, however, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving, and he then took his leave, carrying the paper with him.21

In a letter published some years later, Anthon gave substantially the same account, with one major discrepancy, however. He said on being requested to give an opinion of the transcript in writing, he “did so without any hesitation, partly for the man’s sake, and partly to let the individual ‘behind the curtain’ see that his trick was discovered. The import of what I wrote was, as far as I can now recollect, simply this, that the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters, and had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them. The countryman then took his leave, with many thanks, and with the express declaration that he would in no shape part with his farm or embark in the speculation of printing the golden book.”22

Whatever the details of the interview, Harris returned home with his faith in Joseph’s golden book fully established. A scholar like Anthon had admitted that he could not translate the characters, whereas Joseph could. Clearly, it was presumptuous of Anthon to seek to dissuade Harris of the fruits of a promising speculation, to say nothing of what might come of the plates themselves. Most significant of all was Anthon’s abrupt remark that he could not read a sealed book. For in the twenty-ninth chapter of Isaiah, Harris could find a passage written as if for his special benefit: “And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed. And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.”

Not less than Harris, Joseph was impressed with this remarkable coincidence, and he took pains to improve upon the scripture when he incorporated it with many other borrowings into his Book of Mormon; from a simple figure the passage became explicit prophecy:

it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may [p.285] show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them….And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed. Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it. Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned. Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.23

In later years, after the Book of Mormon had been published, Harris visited Anthon again, pressing upon him a copy of the new scripture with an insistence that affronted the scholar.24 No doubt Harris anticipated that Anthon would be impressed with their joint participation in the fulfillment of prophecy. As for himself, he had become the perfect believer. Of Joseph’s commission, he told John A. Clark after returning to Palmyra, he had no more doubt than of the divine commission of the apostles. The very fact that Joseph was an obscure and illiterate man showed that he must be acting under divine impulses, and he proposed to sustain him though it consumed the whole of his earthly substance.25 As soon as he could arrange his affairs, Harris set out for Harmony, arriving early in April prepared to serve as Joseph’s scribe until the great book should be completed.26

Relieved though Joseph may have been to have Harris return in such a frame of mind, his coming was not happiness unalloyed, for Lucy Harris had badgered her husband into bringing her with him. No sooner had she reached Harmony than she announced that she had come to see the plates and would never leave until she had done so. She began ransacking every nook and corner, chests, trunks, and cupboards, and when she had finished with the house, she extended her search to the surrounding woods, all the while assuring the neighbors that Joseph was an impostor who had no other object than to strip her and her husband of all the property they possessed.27 When, after two weeks, she gave up the search and returned to Palmyra, the peace that settled on Joseph’s domicile must have been like waking from a nightmare.

The writing now commenced in earnest. How much of the book had been written between December and April there is no way of knowing, but between April and June 1828, Harris filled no less than 116 foolscap pages with Joseph’s dictated words. Isaac Hale thought the whole performance fantastic nonsense, for the manner in which Joseph “pretended to read and interpret,” he said later, “was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates was at the same time hid in the woods!”28 Even Joseph’s scribes had moments when they wondered if they had taken leave of their [p.286] senses. Yet the seer’s imperturbable mien and the grave flow of his language, setting forth a story they could not believe him capable of creating out of whole cloth, were deeply impressive. Not only Harris but Joseph’s own wife became persuaded of the reality of what they were about.

Emma said later that the first 116 pages of the manuscript were translated with the aid of the Urim and Thummim, the remainder of the book—which is to say, virtually all that was finally published—being translated through the medium of the seerstone.29 It is the stone, however, rather than the Urim and Thummim, which figures in the reminiscences of Emma and Martin Harris; it may be that the Urim and Thummim, like the plates themselves, were understood to be hidden in the woods. Emma remembered how she wrote for her husband, 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.”30 Harris recalled that occasionally, when the labor of translation became irksome, he and Joseph would relax by strolling down to the bank of the Susquehanna and throwing stones into the river. Once, he says, he found a stone resembling Joseph’s seerstone, and substituted it for the genuine article. But when they resumed their labor, Joseph was silent, “unusually and intently gazing in darkness,” until at last he cried, “Martin! What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt!” Betrayed by his countenance, Harris explained what he had done, and why—”to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them.” The seer-stone, as Harris insists, “differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates.”31

Joseph’s increasing assurance and mastery of his medium was evidenced in the independence he now displayed of the blanket, essential as it had been to him in the beginning. The independence was not absolute, however, for Harris is quoted as having said that at times Joseph “would sit in a different room, or up stairs, while the Lord was communicating to him the contents of the plates,” and at least once the presence of the Lord was so great that a screen had to be hung up between the translator and his scribe.32 E. D. Howe nevertheless struck upon an important point when, six years later, he commented: “The plates…which had been so much talked of, were found to be of no manner of use. After all, the Lord showed and communicated to him every word and letter of the Book. Instead of looking at the characters inscribed upon the plates, the prophet was obliged to resort to the old ‘peep stone’ which he formerly used in money-digging. This he placed in a hat, or box, into which he also thrust his face. Through the stone he could then discover a single word at a time, which he repeated aloud to his amanuensis, who committed it to paper, when another word would immediately appear, and thus the performance continued to the end of the book.”33

[p.287] The mode of translation as Howe pictures it is also the way it was described by two of Joseph’s special witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and it is evident that Joseph gave his associates to understand that when he had placed his stone in his hat and clapped his hat to his face, sentences appeared before his eyes which he read aloud to his scribes. Martin Harris reports that when he had taken down the dictated words, he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear from before Joseph’s eyes, another appearing in its place; if not, the sentence remained until corrected.34 David Whitmer, speaking of a later stage in the writing, similarly comments that Joseph “would cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment, on which would appear the translation, in English, which Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistake had been made the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected, when they faded from sight to be replaced by another line.”35 Thus Joseph’s, early converts were persuaded that there was no possible mistake in translation, a grave liability of the Bible; the Book of Mormon was the pure word of God set down in all its plainness and power.

This conviction afforded great comfort to the early converts to the church, but criticism leveled against the Book of Mormon over the years with respect to its borrowings from the King James Bible, its defects in style and grammar, and the revisions made in it after publication, which could not be explained away as mere correction of typographical error, eventually led the church to jettison these claims and the stories owing to Joseph’s intimates.36 The defects of the book having to be admitted, it was argued that the translation could not have been a merely mechanical process, but required “the utmost concentration of mental and spiritual force possessed by the prophet, in order to exercise the gift of translation through the means of the sacred instruments provided for that work,” but beyond this, the book had to be written “in such language as the prophet could command, in such phraseology as he was master of and common to the time and locality where he lived…. This view of the translation of the Nephite record accounts for the fact that the Book of Mormon, though a translation of an ancient record, is, nevertheless, given in English idiom of the period and locality in which the prophet lived; and in the faulty English, moreover, both as to composition, phraseology, and grammar, of a person of Joseph Smith’s limited education; and also accounts for the sameness of phraseology and literary style which runs through the whole volume.”37

These admissions, both as to the imperfections of the book and their peculiarly personal character, were not made by Joseph Smith or by others during his lifetime. Indeed, he always declared the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any book on earth” and never formally acknowledged that anything but the power of God [p.288] had entered into the writing. Not understanding the phenomena of translation, his early believers attributed any faults in the published book to defects in the original record, and although between first and second editions Joseph corrected certain deficiencies as to grammar and diction, he left his followers to infer that such changes were mere correction of typographical error rather than any failing on his part. If the Book of Mormon were to be the most correct of any book, then, it followed, Joseph’s translation would have to be of equal stature.38 [p.289]


1. See Isaac Hale’s statement in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio), p. 264. With respect to the role Joseph’s son was expected to play in the affair of the golden plates, as also some of the curious tales told before Joseph hit upon this explanation of his refusal to show the plates, see Palmyra Reflector, March 19, 1831; Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 236, 245, 247, 264, 267-69; Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, 1867), pp. 31-32; Lippincott’s Magazine, 26 (Aug. 1880): 201; John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia, 1842), p. 226.

2. Many years later Emma said that Joseph bought her uncle Jesse Hale’s place, adjoining her father’s farm ( Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879), but the instrument by which the property was formally conveyed from Isaac Hale to Joseph Smith is still preserved in the Susquehanna County Recorder’s Office at Montrose, Pennsylvania. It has been asserted that although Joseph purchased the farm of his father-in-law, he gave it so little attention through the whole period of his residence that it is difficult to conceive what he could have used for money. See also Frederick G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine, 26 (Aug. 1880): 201; and Emily C. Blackman, History of Susquehanna County (Philadelphia, 1873), p. 500.

3. History of the Church, 1:19.

4. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 270-71; Clark, Gleanings by the Way, p. 234; Lippincott’s Magazine, 26 (Aug. 1880): 201; and compare Palyrnra Reflector, March 19, 1831.

5. Exodus 28:30. See Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:21; Deuteronomy 33:8; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; and I Samuel 28:6. The words “Urim” and “Thummim” are translated as light (or revelation) and truth, and in the Hebrew may be seen in the Yale University seal.”

6. History of the Church, 1:12. This view Joseph incorporated into the Book of Mormon; see Mosiah 8:13, 19; 28:20; Alma 37:21, 24; Ether 3:28. In Mormon usage the Urim and Thummim have been considered not as separate entities but as a whole, hence “Urim and Thummim.”

7. See Harris’s description of this “enormous pair of spectacles” to Charles Anthon, Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 270-71; Clark, Gleanings by the Way, p. 234. Down through the years, Joseph’s followers have speculated that the proportions of the Urim and Thummim indicated that there once existed a species of men and women much larger than any now known.

8. Tiffany’s Monthly, 5 (July 1859): 166. With Harris as its apparent source, the Wayne County Inquirer of Bethany, Pennsylvania, reported m 1830, “Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had a white stone, and pretend to read from it, while his coadjutor transcribed.” Wayne County Inquirer, quoted in the Cincinnati Advertiser and Ohio Phoenix, June 2, 1830. Harris’s language in reference to the Urim and Thummim makes it obvious that his thought was shaped by Joseph’s seerstone. There could have been no question of placing the awkwardly proportioned Urim and Thurnmim in a hat. If the stones were detachable from their mounting, they were only seerstones anyway. In his autobiography, William Smith declared: “The manner in which [the translation] was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God.” William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, 1883), p. 11. In this connection, it is significant that when, on December 27, 1841, Joseph Smith exhibited his seerstone to the Twelve, Wilford Woodruff referred to it as being “the Urim and Thummim” (see M. F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff [Salt Lake City, 1909], p. 157).

9. History of the Church, 1:19.

10. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 266.

11. Harris told this story to Ezra Booth in the summer of 1831. See Booth’s letter of Oct. 2, 1831, in the Ravenna Ohio Star, Oct. 20, 1831. Booth did not give the date of the colloquy between Joseph and Harris, but there is little question about it. Compare the language of Joseph’s first revelation in July 1828 when God rebukes Joseph, “Behold, you…have gone on in the persuasions of men…behold, you should not have feared man more than God” (Book of Commandments, Chapter 2).

12. Wayne Sentinel, June 1, 1827. A German scholar working in the Vatican Library declared that he had found evidence that the Mexicans and Egyptians had had intercourse with one another from remotest antiquity, and at the same time he claimed to have found examples of biblical texts written in two different Egyptian dialects, the Sefitic and the Memphitic.

13. The progress which had been made in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics was summed up in the Edinburgh Review, 45 (Dec. 1826 and March 1827): 95-147, 528-39, accompanied by a facsimile giving demotic and hieroglyphic equivalents for the Greek alphabet. These articles were remarked in Niles’ Register, 33 (Dec. 1, 1827): 218, and it would be unlikely if Joseph’s attention was not called to the article in the widely read Register.

14. Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society, 1 (Worcester, 1820): 324-25, 340-43.

15. Concerning Harris’s interview with Mitchill, a writer in the New York Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, Sept. 1, 1831, relates: “Harris says that the Doctor received him very ‘purlitely; looked at his engravings—made a learned dissertation on them—compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered by Champollion in Egypt—and set them more as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more.” Some writers have placed the visit of Harris to Mitchill subsequent to the visit to Anthon, but as Mitchill had by far the greater celebrity and as Anthon himself firmly says that Harris originally come to him with a note of introduction from Mitchill, it must be supposed that the visit to Anthon followed that to Mitchill. The latter died in 1831 and left no account of the incident. In his letter of Jan. 15, 1831, to E. D. Howe, W. W. Phelps remarks that the transcript was taken to Utica, Albany, and New York, and that in the latter city Mitchill referred Harris to Anthon. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 273.

16. Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, Feb. 17, 1834, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 270-72. Anthon again described the transcript in these terms in a letter of April 3, 1841, to Rev. T W. Coit, printed in the Church Record, 1841, and reprinted in Clark, Gleanings by the Way, pp. 233-38.

17. The seven-line transcript which has become known as the “Anthon transcript” was preserved by David Whitmer with the secondary manuscript of the Book of Mormon which came to him at Oliver Cowdery’s death in 1850, and like that manuscript is now owned by the Reorganized LDS church. The first three lines of the transcript were reproduced in facsimile in The Prophet, Dec. 21, 1844, and identified at that time as a representation of the characters taken by Harris to Anthon. A minor puzzle is how and when this three-line transcript was made, for Cowdery had been estranged since 1838.

18. See the New York Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, Sept. 1, 1831, and the Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, Aug. 31, 1829. Clark, Gleanings by the Way, p. 229, says that shortly after Harris’s return from New York he “told me that, the book was written very remarkably, but he could not decide exactly what language they belonged to.” On the other hand, W. W. Phelps wrote E. D. Howe from Canandaigua, New York, Jan. 15, 1831, that Anthon had “translated and declared them [the characters] to be the ancient shorthand Egyptian.” Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 273.

19. Much was made of these remarks by the early Mormons, but modern scholars within the church acknowledge that Anthon could have had no background, knowledge of Egyptian being what it was, which would have enabled him to pass upon the correctness or otherwise of the “translation” brought him. An alphabet had been worked out by Champollion, but not yet a grammar or a dictionary.”

20. History of the Church, 1:20. There is no independent account of this interview which comes from Harris himself, other than a recital preserved by Edward Stevenson in Millennial Star, 44 (1882): 79, but one detail of Joseph’s own account is supported in Harris’s interview in Tiffany’s Monthly, 5 (July 1859).

21. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 270-71. What appears to be a photographic reproduction of the original of Anthon’s letter of 1834 is in the library of the Reorganized LDS church.

22. Clark, Gleanings by the Way, pp. 235-36.

23. See Isaiah 29:11-12 and, in the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 27:15-20. Joseph thought so well of this improvement upon Isaiah that he subsequently incorporated it into his revision of the Bible; see his Holy Scriptures, Isaiah 29:20-22. Since it was Joseph’s rule in the Book of Mormon to prophesy only about what had already taken place, this passage is the best possible evidence that some byplay about a sealed book actually occurred in Harris’s interview with Anthon.”

24. In both of the letters cited in Note 16, Anthon alludes to this second visit from Harris.

25. Clark, Gleanings by the Way, pp. 229-30.

26. History of the Church, 1:20.

27. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches (Liverpool, 18531, pp. 115-16.

28. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 264.

29. See her letter to Mrs. Charles Pilgrim, Nauvoo, March 27, 1871, in the Reorganized LDS church library, and compare Ezra Booth’s letter in the Ravenna Ohio Star: “These treasures [in the earth at Palmyra] were discovered several years since by means of the dark glass, the same with which Smith says he translated the most of the Book of Mormon.”

30. Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879.

31. Deseret Evening News, Sept. 5, 1870; and see Millennial Star, 44 (1882): 86-7; 48 (1886): 389-91.

32. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 14.

33. Ibid., p. 18. Howe also remarks that another account the Mormons gave of the translation was that “it was performed with the big spectacles before mentioned, and which were in fact, the identical Urim and Thummim mentioned in Exodus 28-30, and were brought away from Jerusalem by the heroes of the book, handed down from one generation to another, and finally buried up in Ontario county, some fifteen centuries since, to enable Smith to translate the plates without looking at them!”

34. See Note 30.

35. Interview in Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881; David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Missouri), p. 12.

36. The church, faced with the difficulty of accounting for the stories told by Harris and Whitmer, if it is assumed that their information came from Joseph himself, has evaded this awkward question by adopting the position that no one but Joseph was competent to describe the method of translation, and as he, over his own signature, said only that through “the medium of the Urim and Thummim” he translated the record “by the gift and power of God,” it is fruitless to pursue the matter further.”

37. B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City, 1907), pp. 260, 265, and his Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:132-33.

38. See the preface to the edition of the Book of Mormon published at Kirtland in 1837. The second copy of the Book of Mormon manuscript in the possession of the Reorganized LDS church exhibits in holograph many of the changes made in the text after the first edition. These do not affect the sense. Lamoni Call, 2,000 Changes in the Book of Mormon (Bountiful, Utah, 1897), examines these in some detail.