Friday, December 10, 2021

June 1835: foolish reports in circulation

An important explanation of the translation of the Book of Mormon took place on June 6, 1835, when around 20 elders "representing several little branches of the church" assembled at New Portage (now Baberton, Ohio, southwest of Akron) for a conference. 

During the conference, John Whitmer "gave a short relation of the facts connected with the translation of the book of Mormon." No further details were given in the report, but the reporter (presumably Warren Cowdery) made this observation:

On reflecting how many foolish reports are in circulation on this subject, and how many there are who are vain enough to believe them, I could not but wish that such were present, while Elder [John] Whitmer was delivering his address. 

We can all wish we were present when John Whitmer delivered his address. Presumably he corroborated what Oliver Cowdery said about the translation, which Joseph Smith himself also later corroborated multiple times. Oliver was the presiding officer at the meeting and spoke before and after John Whitmer did. 

In the context of the times, the "foolish reports" undoubtedly referred to those published in October 1834 in Mormonism Unvailed, which related the stone-in-the-hat theory (SITH) and a garbled version of the Urim and Thummim account that, like SITH, portrayed Joseph as not even referring to the plates. Mormonism Unvailed added the observation that any testimony from witnesses of the plates was pointless if Joseph didn't use the plates.

The gist of Mormonism Unvailed was speculating what was behind the "vail" when Joseph dictated the text. It was common knowledge that Joseph had not shown the plates or U&T during the translation. He dictated from behind a curtain or screen. Mormonism Unvailed proposed that Joseph was reading from a manuscript originally written by Solomon Spalding.

The book set up a Catch 22 problem. If Joseph was dictating from behind a "vail" or curtain, it was anyone's guess what he was reading from. But if Joseph was dictating within the view of others by reading from a stone (or the U&T) that he put in a hat, then he wasn't actually translating the plates and the plates were not evidence of what he was dictating.

To counter the arguments in Mormonism Unvailed, Oliver Cowdery published his unambiguous account the same month Mormonism Unvailed was published. 

These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’

(Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

The plates themselves constituted the "history or record." Oliver related that when Moroni first met Joseph, he said that "this history was written and deposited not far from that place [Joseph's home], and that it was our brother’s privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record."  

When read in historical context, Oliver's account expressly repudiated both prongs of the Mormonism Unvailed Catch 22. While Joseph did dictate the text from behind a "vail" (and did not merely read words off a stone in a hat), he was using both the plates and the Urim and Thummim; i.e., he did not read the Solomon Spalding manuscript.

Although the report of the New Portage conference did not detail what John Whitmer said--did not itemize his "short relation of the fact connected with the translation of the book of Mormon" there--John was one of the Eight Witnesses and, in later years, John testified that Joseph used the U&T and breastplate while translating the plates of Nephi in Fayette.

Zenas Gurley reported that John Whitmer told him “When the work of translation was going on he [John] sat at one table with his writing material and Joseph at another with the breast-plate and Urim and Thummim. The latter were attached to the breast-plate and were two crystals or glasses, into which he looked and saw the words of the book. The words remained in sight till correctly written, and mistakes of the scribe in spelling the names were corrected by the seer without diverting his gaze from the Urim and Thummim.” In S. F. Walker, "Synopsis of a Discourse by Zenas H. Gurley," The Saints Herald (December 15, 1879, vol 26, issue 24), pp. 369 – 371, at p. 370, available at .

Unfortunately, this is not a verbatim transcript of Gurley's discourse, so we have to look carefully at what the account says.

Joseph and his scribe sat at two separate tables (contrary to the demonstration David Whitmer described that took place at the large table downstairs in the Whitmer home). Also contrary to David Whitmer's account, John relates that Joseph used the breastplate and the Urim and Thummim, which he describes much as other witnesses of the Urim and Thummim did. 

IOW, according to John Whitmer, Joseph did not use SITH while translating the plates at the Whitmer home. This is another indication that what David described was a demonstration, not a translation.

The statement is an interesting example of hearsay combined with direct observation. John could not see what Joseph's saw in the U&T. When he claimed that "the words remained in sight till correctly written," he made an inference or related what Joseph told him (hearsay). Because he didn't specify how he knew, it's also possible he related hearsay from someone else. 

In the same sentence, John related his direct observation that the seer corrected his spelling "without diverting his gaze from the Urim and Thummim." That would be a direct observation that enhances John's credibility. 

Of course, it's possible this, too, was hearsay or assumption; i.e., Joseph could have been dictating from behind a screen and John merely assumed Joseph didn't divert his gaze. Perhaps he could observe the top of Joseph's head. Or maybe he could observe Joseph looking into the U&T, but could not see what Joseph was looking at because the screen protected the plates. 

At any rate, John's account to Gurley corroborates Oliver's testimony, which is exactly what we would expect at a conference presided over by Oliver. Thus, the only two scribes whose handwriting is on the Original Manuscript directly explained that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim and not with a stone in a hat.  


Here is the report of the conference that was published in the Messenger and Advocate, June 1835, Vol. 1, 9:142, available on WordCruncher and at this website:

Excerpts from the report:


Oliver Cowdery “New Portage Conference,” M&A 1 (Jun 1835)

This meeting of the elders and brethren was a joyous one—the number of elders I do not recollect, but there were some eighteen or twenty, representing several little branches of the church.   The brethren from a distance were in good spirits, and manifested an unshaken confidence in the gospel which they had embraced. The church at New Portage numbers one hundred and more, many, or the most of whom, were present at the meeting on the Sabbath. ...

On Saturday the 6th, the elders assembled in conference, in a large and convenient room, furnished by elder A. Palmer, the presiding elder of that church. Elder O. [Oliver] Cowdery was unanimously called to preside, and elder W. [Warren] A. COWDERY, from Freedom, N. Y. chosen Secretary. ...

After an able and fervent address to the throne of grace, elder O. [Oliver] Cowdery delivered an interesting discourse upon the plan and order of heaven in the salvation of the human family, followed by elders P. [Phineas] H. Young, Z. [Zebedee] Coltrin, & A. [Andrew] J. Squiers; after which Elder [Ambrose] Palmer gave an invitation to those who desired, to be baptized, when three came forward and were buried in the liquid grave. This was an interesting season, and many of the by- standers were, apparently, touched with a sense of the importance of that moment when an individual steps forward, in the presence of this world and the heavenly hosts, and covenants to follow the Lamb of God who takes away his sins.

Elder John Whitmer took the lead in the services of the afternoon, and gave a short relation of the facts connected with the translation of the book of Mormon. On reflecting how many foolish reports are in circulation on this subject, and how many there are who are vain enough to believe them, I could not but wish that such were present, while Elder [John] Whitmer was delivering his address. 

A thousand things may be conjectured, but when a man declares openly, candidly, and seriously, of what he has seen, hefted and handled with his own hands, and that in the presence of a God who sees and knows the secrets of the heart, no man possessed of common reason and common sense, can doubt, or will be so vain as to dispute. 

Such is the fact that a record of that description does exist, for it has been seen, and such is the fact, that the Lord himself bears witness of it, for thousands testify of the same—there is neither lack of human or divine testimony: Then who so blind as not to see? And who so deaf as not to hear?

Elder [John] Whitmer was followed by several elders, and the meeting closed with a few remarks from elder O. [Oliver] Cowdery upon the further truth of the book of Mormon. The meeting was continued till quite late, after which one more came forward and was baptized.

(Messenger and Advocate I.9:142-3 )

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Translating ancient texts

Because I believe Joseph Smith translated the ancient Nephite plates, I've been curious how he could or would have done it. 

Joseph wrote that he had an "intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations." He also once said that the Restoration began about the time he had leg surgery at age 6 or 7. I think his three years of recuperation enabled him to read Christian publications at a young age, a practice he continued throughout his life. The text of the Book of Mormon reflects his "intimate acquaintance" with these writers. The narrative of Joseph as an ignorant, illiterate "blank slate" was created after the fact to bolster they supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon.

His history reports that "By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I 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." (Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

The specifics in that statement lend credibility and reliability to its veracity. By contrast, those who spoke or wrote about SITH (the stone-in-the-hat) were usually vague or ambiguous, except for David Whitmer's description of the demonstration in the Whitmer family room downstairs.


Joseph said the Title Page was a literal translation from the last leaf of the plates, but he never said the rest of the text was a literal translation. That leads me to infer that the bulk of the translation was not literal, nor was it word-for-word.

Anyone who has studied ancient languages knows there are lots of ways to translate any given passage. Experts have translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into numerous different English editions, even when they use early English translations as a guide for some degree of consistency and continuity.

I have studied Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages. The older the language, the more primitive it is. By that I mean, older languages have smaller vocabularies so they are less descriptive. They communicate by suggesting information rather than by explaining things in detail. This requires active readers who must infer what the text means from the context.

One example familiar to every reader of the King James Bible is the use of italics to indicate words that are not in the original texts.

For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:21)

Hebrew presumably would have provided an original text as specific at the Bible, but Mormon and Moroni didn't write in Hebrew because they didn't have enough space and the metal plates were difficult to create. This means the text was even more basic than a Hebrew text would have been. 

When he abridged the plates, Mormon undoubtedly didn't spend a lot of time and space to elaborate on each topic. Consequently, Joseph had to render the ancient words into understandable English. I assume he  had to expand the text, which is what we learn from Ether 3: "these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write." (Ether 3:24)

Joseph didn't specify which things he dictated were literal and which were inferences, but we can see several times when he offered an alternative translation or an explanation, such as when he dictated "or in other words." That nonbiblical phrase appears 13 times in the Book of Mormon, 23 times in the D&C, and once in the Book of Abraham. 

Here is an example of a "different view" of a translation. Joseph wrote "Now, the nature of this ordinance consists in the power of the priesthood, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, wherein it is granted that whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Or, in other words, taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; 
(Doctrine and Covenants 128:8)

Here is an example of an explanation. "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36)

We could infer that it was Nephi who chose an alternative explanation of what he initially wrote, but it is consistent with his other work to infer it was Joseph who provided "a different view" of the translation, such as here:

"And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision." (1 Nephi 8:2)

There are many other indicia of translation in the text of the Book of Mormon.

Another good example of the challenges of translating ancient languages is the Rosetta stone.

The link below shows the Rosetta stone in detail. It has just the type of primitive, vague language that I think the plates had, where you have to make a lot of inferences to convey it in English.

Go to the image and it will highlight the corresponding passages from each of the 3 languages.

Here's a good example:

[Update: the website has some problems so here are screen captures to show what it looks like. Click to enlarge them.]

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Harper vs Vogel on historians' biases

Steven Harper, currently editor of BYU Studies, had a significant interview with Gospel Tangents in which he discussed the way a historian's worldview affects his/her interpretation of the evidence.

Here's a portion of the transcript from the website:

The conversation involved the way different people interpret the identical facts differently. Original in blue, my comments in red.

GT: So, that’s your biggest issue: you’re a believer. They’re not. We’re going to look at facts differently, just based on our point of view. Is that right?

Steven: Yeah. I wouldn’t call it an issue. That’s just the way it is. 

I infer he means it's not an issue (i.e., an important topic or problem for debate or discussion) because the differences cannot be resolved. People rarely change their points of view. Our mental filters determine the way we perceive the truth, and it's very difficult to change filters. We can and should recognize the different points of view, but there's nothing to debate in the sense of seeking agreement.

The question might be asked, “Well, why do to people who know the same facts and study the same historical records come to such dramatically different conclusions? It’s because historians aren’t endowed with some godlike capability of knowing. They only know the same facts that anyone else can know. Then, they just interpret the facts. 

Here, Harper seems to assume an objective reality about facts, but there is a subjective element to history that goes beyond just interpretation. Whether everyone can know the same facts is not the same as everyone agreeing on what the facts are. The adage that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence always comes into play, as it does here.   

Their interpretations are necessarily dependent on their biases and prejudices and choices, faith commitments, or lack thereof. Some people are under the impression that it’s the facts of the matter that turn the tide. No, it isn’t. 

Here, Harper recognizes the subjective nature of facts. We all see facts through our mental filters.

The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers are believers. They know all the facts. Dan Vogel, Sandra Tanner, they know the facts. Everybody invested in this knows the facts. [We are all] reading the same documents and the same evidence. I’ve had really wonderful exchanges with Ann Taves, who knows the facts well. She studies them really carefully and arrives at different interpretations than I do. 

It’s not that one of us knows the evidence better than the other. It’s that we just make different choices about what the evidence means.

If everyone agreed to all the evidence as a starting point, there would still be different choices about what the evidence means. But as the brief exchange in this comment thread shows, even if Vogel and Harper know the identical facts, they talk past one another. 

In the interview, Harper emphasized that we can't know there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820, only that we have no known record of it. 

Vogel says, "I recognize that Walters was right about the revival." The term "recognize" connotes acknowledging an objective truth, like the speed of light, but that's not the type of fact we're dealing with here. At most, Vogel can only choose to agree with Walters' interpretation of the known facts, but he frames it as "recognizing" to confer a sense of objectivity to his subjective interpretation.  


This brief example illustrates why faith is simply a choice.

27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

4 Behold, here is wisdom, and let every man choose for himself until I come. Even so. Amen.

(Doctrine and Covenants 37:4)

2 And as for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it. Judge ye for yourselves. God knoweth all these things, whether it be good or bad.
(Doctrine and Covenants 127:2)

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
(Moses 3:17)

33 Say unto this people: Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you.
(Moses 6:33)

33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;
(Moses 7:33)

Oliver Cowdery and the translation

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery published his famous account of the trsanslation: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a...