Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger

Chapter 2.
Translator or Author

[p.9]The Mormon Bible was communicated to him direct from heaven. If there was such a thing on earth as the author of it, then [Smith] was the author; but the idea that he wished to impress was that he had penned it as dictated by God.
—Matthew L. Davis,1 Washington, D.C., political correspondent

On a wintry 5 February 1840 political correspondent Matthew L. Davis crossed to Washington, D.C., to hear Joseph Smith expound his new faith and speak about the Book of Mormon. The report he wrote to his wife, quoted above, echoes the assumptions most modern investigators of Mormon origins bring to their task. Mormons suppose that God was involved somehow in the production of the book, even if historical understanding requires that some aspects of Mormon origins be explained differently or laid aside. They believe that the Book of Mormon defends God but add that Smith could not have written it without divine aid.

The earliest participants with Smith in the origins of Mormonism describe that divine aid as coming through a “peepstone” or “seerstone,” which Smith had used to translate most of the Book of Mormon. This was the same stone which Smith used to locate buried treasure.2 Early Mormons Martin Harris and David Whitmer told how Smith put the stone in a hat in which he then buried his face to [p.10] read the translation of the plates superimposed on the stone.3 The “Reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics appeared on the stone with the English translation beneath each character. Smith read the translation to his scribe, who then verbally repeated it to check for accuracy. If the scribe had incorrectly transcribed Smith’s dictation, the sentence image remained on the stone until the correction was made.4 Smith’s wife Emma supported Harris’s and Whitmer’s versions of the story in recalling that her husband buried his face in his hat while she was serving as his scribe.5 “Translating” for these early witnesses meant “reading.”

This is the sense of the translation process which Harris conveyed to Father John A. Clark of Palmyra’s Episcopal church. Clark wrote that Smith had found the “GOLDEN BIBLE … and two transparent stones, through which as a sort of spectacles, he could read the Bible.” Smith looked “through his spectacles … and would then write down or repeat what he saw, which, when repeated aloud, was written down by Harris.” The spectacles enabled Smith “to read the golden letters on the plates in the box … [B]y means of them he could read all the book contained.”6

However, Clark mentioned two stones rather than the single stone of the other accounts. Soon after he spoke with Clark, Harris also told Professor Charles Anthon about the “spectacles.” According to Anthon, these eye glasses were so large that Smith could look only through one of the lenses.7 There is thus some confusion about whether Smith used spectacles or a stone to translate. Smith was the ultimate source of this confusion and included both versions in the Book of Mormon.8

If Smith simply read the translation, he might be expected to repeat a section word for word. Exactly that expectation paralysed Smith when Harris lost 116 manuscript pages in 1828; he chose not to retranslate the pages. In section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants and in the foreword to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Smith explained why he did not retranslate the lost material.9 God knew that evil men who had gained possession of the lost manuscript planned to alter the words to conflict with the forthcoming translation. How they might do this was not explained, but in any case God had provided different plates with the same basic information.

After the loss of the early translation, Smith talked about the power of the eye glasses in a different way. At first they had assured an errorless translation by providing a translation to read. That was [p.11] necessary to fulfill Isaiah 29:11-12; reference to one “not learned,” assumed to be himself, meant that Smith would be equipped to “read” what the “learned” could not. When Harris pled to be allowed to show others the translation, the glasses became the medium of revelation. Smith prayed through the spectacles and received the Lord’s answer to Harris’s request.10 Following the loss of the translation, an angel took the glasses but returned them in July 1828 so that Smith could receive section 3 and possibly 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Then the angel removed both the glasses and gold plates until 22 September 1828, when he returned them to Smith.11

When Oliver Cowdery took over scribal duties in April 1829, he told Smith that he wanted to try his hand at translating the plates. He tried and faltered, thereby forcing yet another shift in the role of the glasses. Cowdery had the idea that translating was merely a matter of reading. Smith answered Cowdery’s failure with a revelation. Cowdery should have studied his proposed translation “out in his mind” (D&C 8:1-3) and his bosom would “burn” within him when he felt “that it is right.” Thus Cowdery was held responsible for his failure. Earlier Smith had told him that Christ would “tell” him in his “mind” and “heart” the knowledge concerning the engravings of old records. Now it was explained that the translation really took place within a person and not in the lenses of the glasses or in the seer stone.

It was Smith who eventually emphasized the mind and heart of the translator as the medium of translation and deemphasized the inherent power of the spectacles.12 A contemporary, Diedrich Willers, described this view of translation. He said that Smith wore the glasses and that “the Holy Ghost would by inspiration give him the translation in the English language.”13 In this same vein, Smith told E. B. Grandin that the translation was accomplished by inspiration.

Further, Smith did not need to have the plates present or the leaves open to translate. Martin Harris told John Clark that when Smith first put on the glasses the plates were in the box or chest, but he could read the plates even though the chest was closed.14 Joseph Smith, Sr., said that after the Lord removed the plates, “Joseph put on the spectacles, and saw where the Lord had hid them, among the rocks, in the mountains. Though not allowed to get them, he could by the help of the spectacles, read them where they were, as well as if they were before him.”15

Development of the Translation Process Story

Date
Joseph Smith’s Activity
Function of Medium Used
Results
1827-June 1828
Reads and translates characters. Stone and spectacles mediums of translation Open plates, stone, and spectacles needed
July 1828-
April 1829
Reads and translates characters; receives revelations. Spectacles medium or receiving translation and revelation. Mind and heart medium of translation Stone and plates not always used, but spectacles used.
April 1829
Explains why Cowdery cannot translate. Mind and heart medium of translation, revision, and revelation. Spectacles not needed, but used.
July1829-June1830 Gives plates and spectacles to angel; still receives revelations; corrects manuscript for printer. Mind and heart medium of translation Spectacles and plates gone; not needed, not used.
June 1830 on Writes Book of Moses; revises Bible; corrects and revises Book of Mormon. Mind and heart medium of translation, revision and revelation. Spectacles gone, not needed.

After completing the manuscript of the Book of Mormon in 1829, Smith handed the plates and glasses back to the angel.16 From that time the revelations he received came from his “heart” and “mind.” To produce the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, 3,000 changes were made to the 1830 edition17 from revelation and intuition, without the aid of eyeglasses, as did the parenthetical phrase which Smith added to 1 Nephi 20:1 in the 1840 edition.18 Smith began to write his revision of the Bible, the Book of Moses, in June 1830 and received it by means of a vision, not through glasses.19 All the work of revising the Bible, the founding revelations, and the making of an alphabet for Egyptian hieroglyphics was done without the glasses, solely by revelation. Smith was no longer merely a “reader.”

[p.13] For both believer and non-believer, the question of Smith as a translator, whatever his method, or simply as author of the Book of Mormon often turns on the issue of his ability and education. The fact that he was “unlearned” and yet could “read” what the “learned” could not was for Martin Harris a sign that Smith’s calling was authentic. For unbelievers who also considered Smith uneducated, an alternative theory was needed to explain the book: namely, that Sidney Rigdon, a trained and educated preacher, had guided the creation of the Book of Mormon which was based on a romance of the American Indians written at the turn of the nineteenth century by a man named Solomon Spaulding.

However, not all contemporaries found Smith too “unlearned” to have written the book. Orsamus Turner knew Smith in Palmyra, New York, and opposed the faith he headed. According to Turner, Smith was a “passable” Methodist “exhorter” after catching “a spark of religion.” He credited the Smith family with the production of the Book of Mormon and specifically dismissed the Spaulding theory.20 John Greenleaf Whittier and Josiah Quincy also gave Smith high marks as a person with ability and intelligence.21

Certainly Smith was literate. He lamented his inexperience with the written word but knew he had an impressive speaking style.22 His mother told how he held the family spellbound with Indian stories. Smith himself did some other writing during the translation process. Martin Harris told John Clark that “Smith was to prepare for the conversion of the world … by transcribing the characters from the plates.”23 Harris also told Charles Anthon that Smith “deciphered the characters in the book” and “communicated their contents in writing.”24 Mormons today credit Smith with knowing the Bible and being conversant in contemporary affairs—unlike early Mormon apologist Orson Pratt, who denied him even a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible at the time he began to produce new scripture.

Smith needed support from those around him while working on the book. Diedrich Wilber reported that the Peter Whitmer home, where Smith spent the final weeks of translating, was the eleventh place he had stayed during the translation process. Wilber also reported that inhabitants in each of the places Smith translated had seen visions or angels. Whenever Smith was at odds with his wife Emma, he was unable to continue dictating. He would go into the woods for an hour of prayer, return, and ask her forgiveness. Then [p.14] he could resume his task.25 At other times he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation.26 Or he would take time out to skip stones on the Susquehannah River to rejuvenate himself.27 Smith had dry spells like anyone working on a major, ongoing project.

Many are convinced that no twenty-four-year-old-man could produce the quantity of material in the brief time it took Smith to produce the Book of Mormon; they argue for the necessity of divine help. Smith turned out 8,800 words in eight days with Emma serving as scribe, and 266, 200 words in seventy-five days with Oliver Cowdery as scribe. The average jumped from 1,100 to 3,550 words per day. Twenty-five thousand of these words are Old Testament quotations which Smith read from the Bible. The expression “it came to pass” accounts for over 6,000 words. And the task was not accomplished without preparation. For over a year before Smith began his first try at getting the Book of Mormon on paper with Martin Harris in 1828, he was talking about the themes of the book. He had lived with those concerns for two years—possibly more—when he began dictating to Cowdery in 1829.

Still the final value judgment about Smith—as translator or author—will always remain personal. He had the ability, the motive, and the opportunity to write a brief in defense of God. In his time and place, a defense seemed needed when the book came off the press in March 1830.

Notes:

1. Ben E. Rich, Scrap Book of Mormon Literature (Chicago: Henry C. Etten & Co., n.d.), 2:404.

2. Compare Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials,” Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1974): 123-55, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., 1971), for discussions of this aspect of Smith’s career.

3. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 12; Martin Harris, in Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 6 Feb. 1882.

4. B. H. Roberts conceded that the two witnesses heard this version from Smith but the “mere mechanical process” they described was incorrect. Only after Smith had worked out the interpretation in his mind was the translation then “reflected in the sacred instrument, there to remain until correctly written by the scribe.” New Witness for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1926), 2:137-38. In Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their [p.15]Textual Development (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1969), 40, Richard Howard concludes that the Whitmer-Harris version is untenable. In contrast to Roberts, Howard dismissed the idea that Smith saw the translation of the characters “as if through some kind of visually projected medium.” Both agree that Smith used the stone. Although both hold to Smith’s working out the translation in his mind, Howard points to the text which Smith and Cowdery improved in the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon and notes that such improvement would have been unnecessary if the Whitmer-Harris version were correct.

5. She stated this in a personal interview with a committee from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1879, shortly before her death. Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saint’s Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, 220.

6. John Clark, Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia: W.J. & J. K. Simon, 1842), 224, 230, 228.

7. Charles Anthon to Eber D. Howe, 17 Feb. 1834. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 270-72. Hereafter cited as Anthon’s 1834 letter. Charles Anthon to T. W. Coit, 3 Apr. 1841, in The Church Record, 24 Apr. 1841, 231-32. It appears in Clark, Gleanings, 233-38. Cited hereafter as Anthon 1841 letter.

8. The confusion is compounded by the many statements of those who were with Smith during the translation period. Emma Smith and David Whitmer both said that after the spectacles, called Urim and Thummim, were removed from Joseph’s possession in June 1828, they were never returned, but that Smith then translated with only one stone. Many witnesses claim that Smith used one stone only in 1829. An excellent discussion of the various stories is James E. Lancaster, “‘By the Gift and Power of God’: The Method of Translation of the Book of Mormon,” Saints’ Herald, 15 Nov. 1962, 798-806, 817. The term “Urim and Thummim” was used for the single stone and the two-stone spectacles, he concludes.

The spectacles appear in the Book of Mormon in Mos. 8:13, 19; 21:27-28; 28:11-19; Om. 20-22; Al. 10:2; 37:21-26; Eth. 3:23, 28; 4:5. Note the confusion that results from Al. 37:23-24. Verse 23 reads: “And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone … that I may discover unto my people who serve me … the works of their brethren”; but verse 24 speaks of “interpreters” used for the same purpose. In Smith’s 1830 Bainbridge trial Oliver Cowdery described the spectacles as “two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows.” Reported in the Evangelical Magazine and Advocate, 9 Apr. 1831, 120. In the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, p. 328, line 8, “directors” is used instead of “interpreters” (Al. 37:31). The 1920 LDS edition was the first to change the word. Cf. Howard, Restoration Scriptures, 59.

9. This foreword was not printed in subsequent editions of the Book [p.16]of Mormon.

10. Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1927), 1:21; hereafter HC.

11. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 125-26. Smith’s mother quotes him as having said this. However, his wife Emma wrote in 1876 that Joseph had used the spectacles, the Urim and Thummim, during the 1828 session with Martin Harris but after that a small stone. Emma Bidamon to Sister Pilgrim, 27 Mar. 1876, archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri. David Whitmer also says the same thing. See Lancaster, “Gift and Power,” 799-800.

12. Howard, Restoration Scriptures, 159, summarized the progression of thought:

Section 6:

1. The “translator” must have righteous desires for heavenly treasure.
2. “Translation” ability is a gift from God.

Section 8:

1. Faith is the key to using the gift of “translation.”
2. Faith must be exercised with honesty of heart.
3. Only then will truth be perceived. Such perception is registered in the mind and heart of the “translator” by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Section 9:

1. “Translation” is not an automatic process.
3. The “translator” will know that what he is considering in his mind is either valid or invalid by the God-given impressions and intuitions and feelings born of such a studious, faithful approach.

13. Willers to L. Mayer and D. Young, 18 June 1830. In D. Michael Quinn, “The First Months of Mormonism: A Contemporary View by Rev. Dierich Willers,” New York History 54 (July 1973): 317-31.

14. Clark, Gleanings, 228.

15. Fayette Lapham, “The Mormons,” Historical Magazine (New Series), 7 (May 1870): 308. This would have to have happened after the angel returned the spectacles to Smith so that he could receive D&C 3, since the spectacles were first taken with the plates.

16. HC 1:19.

17. Howard, Restoration Scriptures, 41, states that over 2,000 changes were made in the emended manuscript, which Oliver Cowdery prepared for the printer from the dictated manuscript, in preparation for the 1837 edition, and that an additional 1,000 changes are found in the second edition.

[p.17]18. 1 Nephi 20:1 and the parenthetical phrase read: “Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called out of the waters of Judah, (or out of the waters of baptism), who swear by the name of the Lord.…” Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 151, explains that the addition is needed for the modern mind, which would not get the meaning of “waters of Judah,” although the original audiences would have understood. The translator, therefore, gave his own rendition of what he perceived to be in the mind of the author.

19. Compare the Book of Moses 1, in the Pearl of Great Price.

20. Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, 1851), 214.

21. A twentieth-century, non-Mormon scholar agrees with Whittier and Quincy. According to Jan Shipps, in “Prophet Puzzle” (p. 1), the prophet was an “extraordinarily talented individual—a genius beyond question.”

22. Smith referred to his “lack of fluency” in a letter to Moses C. Nickerson, 29 Nov. 1833 (HC 1:441-42). At a church conference on 1 November 1831, Christ notes his servant’s weakness in this regard (D&C 1:24). In a letter to W. W. Phelps, Nov. 1832, Smith wrote of language as a “narrow prison” (HC 1:299).

23. Clark, Gleanings, 228.

24. Anthon’s 1834 and 1841 letters.

25. David Whitmer, An Address, 12.

26. In William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, Readings in LDS History from Original Manuscripts, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1953), 1:51.

27. Whitmer, An Address.