Monday, July 18, 2022

From Darkness Unto Light--omitting sources to revise history


A little over five years ago I discussed this book, From Darkness unto Light

I pointed out there that the book omits important historical references that contradict the authors' theories. 

Now, five years later, people are still citing and quoting the book as authoritative. People who rely on this book, or the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation, have no idea about what Joseph and Oliver actually taught about the translation.

In a time when so many are confused by the stone-in-the-hat (SITH) theory, this is a good time to revisit the book.

The first time I read the book, I thought it was insightful and offered some new interpretations based on original documents from Church history. After all, the authors are two of the editors of Volume 1 of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers. They are even cited in note 16 in the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation.

Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grand Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, vol. 1 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013)

With this pedigree, we might expect the book to be an open-minded analysis of the relevant historical documents. However, as we'll see here, it is less a book about history than an argument for the authors' interpretation of history (basically SITH), bolstered by their penchant for ignoring important historical references.  


This book was published in 2015 and, so far as I know, has never been revised. I'm continually amazed that any current scholars would cite this book now that the authors' omissions are so obvious and well known.

The authors set out their thesis as fact in this sentence at the end of Chapter 4.

With the “gift and power of God” Joseph read the translated words that appeared on the seer stones and his scribes recorded them as the text of the Book of Mormon, a concept that will be further elaborated upon in following chapters.

Notice how the authors present their theory (their "concept") as a statement of fact, without qualification.

Now let's read that sentence in the context of the entire paragraph, with commentary.

Joseph declared throughout the remainder of his life that he translated by the power of God. 

This sentence is technically accurate but misleading by omission because the authors omitted Joseph's declaration that he translated by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, as we'll see below. 

Beginning in the preface of the Book of Mormon, he wrote, “I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God.” 

This is another example of misleading by omission; i.e., the authors simply deleted the rest of Joseph's sentence without even using an ellipsis to inform readers. The reason why becomes apparent when we read the complete sentence:

"I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon."

Here, Joseph explained that he translated 116 pages that he "took from the Book of Lehi." By declaring the source of the translation--the Book of Lehi which was on the plates--Joseph contradicted rumors that he had not used the plates or that he had merely read words that appeared on a seer stone.

The authors of From Darkness Unto Light were familiar with the entire sentence; they quoted in in note 58 of Chapter 5 in a discussion of how many pages Martin Harris actually lost. But they don't explain why they truncated Joseph's sentence in the passage above.

If they had an argument against the plain language Joseph provided in this Preface, they should have made it instead of misleading readers by omitting it.  

The paragraph continues.

That statement [from the preface] was distributed with the first five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon, and Joseph reiterated it in 1842 when he declared, “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.”58 (emphasis added)

Note 58 cites the Wentworth letter, the source of this quotation, which anyone can read here:

While the authors accurately observe that Joseph reiterated his claim that he "translated the record by the gift and power of God," they fail to discuss the important clarification Joseph provided--again, because it contradicts their thesis.

Recall that Joseph wrote the letter at the request of Mr. Wentworth, who was asking on behalf of his publisher friend Mr. Bastow. Joseph explained, "As Mr. Bastow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information all that I shall ask at his hands, is, that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation." (Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842, III.9:706 ¶5)

The "correct information" Joseph provided here includes his specific claim that he translated the records (the plates) "through the medium of the Urim and Thummim" which he found "with the records." 

Thus, there is no room in Joseph's statement for a seer stone he found in a well.

Surprisingly, the authors do not explain how they reconcile their claim about the seer stone with this key point about the origin, name and use of the Urim and Thummim. Nor do they quote or discuss this passage anywhere else in their book. 

The authors entirely omitted two additional important statements by Joseph about the translation. 

First, they forgot to tell readers that the Wentworth letter was later republished in 1844 as "Latter Day Saints" with some modifications, but the paragraph about the translation remained unchanged except for omitting the final comma.

With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim on a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God.

Second, they forgot to quote and cite what Joseph explained when he answered a question in the 1838 Elders' Journal. Here, he reaffirmed that he translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates:

Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon? 
Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.

Continuing with the excerpt :

As the Book of Mormon prophesied, the word of God “shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”59 

When read in context, the passage refers to a stone: "And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations." (Alma 37:23)

The authors refer to "Gazelem" seven times in their book, stating at one point that "it is likely that the brown stone was the one referred to as Gazelem, which the Book of Mormon prophesied had been prepared to help translate ancient Nephite records like the Book of Mormon." 

Whether that is a "likely" interpretation is subjective, but there are two problems with the claim. 

First, as we saw above, in words as plain as words can be, Joseph clarified that he translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. He didn't qualify his statements by saying he translated some of the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, or that he used two or more different instruments.

Second, the passage in Alma goes on to explain that the prophecy in verse 23 was already fulfilled: "And now, my son, we see that they did not repent; therefore they have been destroyed, and thus far the word of God has been fulfilled; yea, their secret abominations have been brought out of darkness and made known unto us." (Alma 37:26) 

There is no statement, suggestion or implication that this stone would be used in the future.

[Some have been confused by the term "interpreters" in verses 21 and 24; e.g., "And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:" (Alma 37:24) In the original text, the term used in this passage was "directors." The term was changed for the 1920 LDS edition but the RLDS/Community of Christ edition retains the original reading. Thus, when Oliver said Joseph "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), he was not referring to Alma 37.]

By the way, here's how the authors deal with Oliver's statement, which they partially quote twice in their book.

They truncate the quotation after "Interpreters" to omit Oliver's statement that Joseph "translated... the history or record called the 'Book of Mormon'." Unsuspecting readers would not realize that Oliver actually said Joseph translated the history or record, which is much different from saying Joseph read words off a stone. [Later, in note 44 of chapter 7, they provide the entire quotation without comment.]

Nevertheless, after quoting the truncated passage from JS-H, note 1, they write, "Whether he was using the spectacles or an individual stone, Joseph apparently used either instrument by placing it in the bottom of a hat in order to block out the ambient light so he could read the words that appeared on the stone." [672 of 1233]

Obviously, nothing in Oliver's statement states, suggests or implies any such practice. 

This leads to another important historical source that the authors omitted from their book. Oliver reiterated his first-person testimony when he rejoined the Church in 1848.

I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr. Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.

Here again, nothing in Oliver's statement states, suggests or implies that Joseph used a stone he found in a well and placed in a hat. This 1848 statement is all the more meaningful because on that occasion, Oliver possessed the brown stone that Joseph supposedly used. But he neither referenced it nor displayed it. Instead, he referred to the interpreters and the plates. 


Now we return to the authors' thesis:

With the “gift and power of God” Joseph read the translated words that appeared on the seer stones and his scribes recorded them as the text of the Book of Mormon, a concept that will be further elaborated upon in following chapters.

The authors elaborate upon this "concept" by invoking a variety of sources, which is fine. But they simply omit the sources that disprove their thesis.

Readers should at least be alerted that the historical record includes sources that support and corroborate what Joseph, Oliver, and their successors in Church leadership have always taught about the translation.

the end

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