Monday, April 29, 2024

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 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)

Oliver explained the translation process to Samuel Whitney Richards in more detail in the fall of 1848. He explained that Joseph read the plates with the Urim and Thummim. He never said or implied that Joseph put a seer stone (or spectacles) into a hat to read the words.

When Oliver stayed for two weeks with Richards, the two men got to know one another. Among other things, they discussed the translation of the Book of Mormon. 

In this account Oliver says that Joseph saw every word, down to the letter, and that he corrected Oliver's spelling.In particular, Richards refers to proper nouns. There are a few examples in the extant Original Manuscript of corrected spelling of proper nouns. This makes sense if the Urim and Thummim gave a literal translation of the characters. Joseph would have to provide a translation that made sense out of the literal translation, using his own vocabulary and terminology, but he would be able to preserve proper nouns as they appeared in the interpreters.

Richard's account also explains that Oliver did learn to translate, but as we know from D&C 9, he wasn't doing it the way the Lord wanted because he didn't study it out in his mind. Perhaps that means Oliver was reading the literal translation that didn't make sense in English? IOW, Oliver didn't use the literal translation as the basis for an articulated English expression "after the manner of [his own] language." 

(click to enlarge)

In 1907, Richards explained what Oliver said. Oliver and his wife stopped at Richards' home "before starting for the mountains int he spring to settle with the Saints, now locating in Salt Lake Valley.

Just before the time of their arrival at my home a very severe snow storm commenced, and they were very glad when they called for shelter to find they were with those of their own faith in what is called Mormonism.

The storm was severe and continued so as to stop travel, and they spent over two weeks with us at our then home.

This was not lost time to either of us. He soon learned of my past life and I of his. Our time was almost entirely spent in getting acquainted with each others past history.

I was surprised to see the bright recollection he seemed to have of his early experience with the prophet Joseph, especially in relating to the translation of the Book of Mormon, some of which I will here relate.

He [Oliver Cowdery] represents Joseph as sitting by a table with the plates before him. and he reading the record with the Urim & Thummim. 

Oliver, his scribe, sits close beside to hear and write every word as translated. This is done by holding the translators over the words of the written record, and the translation appears distinctly in the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consec[r]ated for the express purpose of translating languages. This instrument now used fully performed its Mission. 

Every word was made distinctly visible even to every letter, and if Oliver did not in writing spell the word correctly it remained in the translator until it was written correctly. This was the Mystery to Oliver, how Joseph being compar[a]tively ignorant could correct him in spelling, without seeing the word written, and he would not be satisfied until he should be permitted or have the gift to translate as well as Joseph.

To satisfy Oliver, Joseph with him went to the Lord in prayer until Oliver had the gift by which he could translate, and by so doing learned how it was that Joseph could correct him even in the spelling of words.

Any one acquainted with the Book of Mormon can well see the necessity of such a provision, as the Book is full of names of Persons, Places, and names of things entirely unused in our ordinary English language. 

After this experience Oliver was quite satisfied to write what was given him and make the corrections required. The entire record written as the Book of Mormon was thus brought forth to the world, not by the learning of man, but by the gift and power of God and is Truth.

This interview with Brother and Sister Cowdery was one of entire freedom and familiarity, although we had never med before; and his experiences in connection with the prophet Joseph, when the ministrations of Angels were present in restoring Priesthood and the Keys of Knowledge by which Man might be in future, in constant communication with God and Angel, for the establishment of an Everlasting Government upon the earth, made it all the most divinely and sacred interview to me. 

Before his leaving it was arranged that he should return in the spring in time to join the early emigration to the Valley of Salt Lake, where he had said he was going to give his time and services to the Church, and if they desire it of him he would go to the ends of the earth and tell the world of things that no other person then living could tell, of the ministrations of God to man in the early history of this great and last dispensation of God to man. 

Certainly to me his testimony was of the spiritual and abiding nature never to be forgotten.

Oliver never returned; he was taken to join the throng above--to the society of Joseph, and others of sacred memory to him."

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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...