Gospel Topics Essays do not supersede original sources


People continue to ask about the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation. 

Some people cite the essay (and the other Gospel Topics Essays) as if they were official Church doctrine, but that's not the case, as we can see in the introduction.


People who cite the Gospel Topics Essays as doctrine or statements of the First Presidency but may not have read the introduction to those essays. 

Nowhere have Church leaders stated, suggested, or implied that these essays were ever intended to replace the scriptures, the teachings of the prophets, or authentic historical documents. Furthermore, they are subject to change at any time without notice, they have been changed in the past, and they will likely be changed in the future.

Plus, the Gospel Topics Essays are not the official history of the Church. Neither are the Saints books. These are merely aids to help understand the actual history, which is contained in the Joseph Smith Papers and related archival documents (such as Wilford Woodruff's journal).

Here is the introduction to the essays:

Gospel Topics Essays
In the early 1830s, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was less than three years old, the Lord invited members of the Church to seek wisdom by study and by the exercise of faith: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

This is more than a simple exhortation to learn about the gospel. It is an invitation from the Lord to recognize that not all sources of knowledge are equally reliable. Seeking “out of the best books” does not mean seeking only one set of opinions, but it does require us to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable sources.

Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of ChurchofJesusChrist.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.

The Church places great emphasis on knowledge and on the importance of being well informed about Church history, doctrine, and practices. Ongoing historical research, revisions of the Church’s curriculum, and the use of new technologies allowing a more systematic and thorough study of scriptures have all been pursued by the Church to that end. We again encourage members to study the Gospel Topics essays cited in the links below as they “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

We can see that the intent of these essays was to "gather accurate information" into one place. The essays were never intended to change Church history or doctrine.

When considering the essays, it is essential that readers distinguish between "accurate information" and mere commentary. In this case, it's significant that the essay on translation never even fully quotes what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation. Instead, the essay inexplicably

(i) quotes an excerpt from the preface to the 1830 edition that omits the key point that he took the translation from the plates; i.e., not from a stone in a hat. "I would inform you that I translated by the gift & power of God & caused to be written one hundred & 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." 

(ii) misrepresents the question posed in the Oct. 1831 conference (note 25), which involved the "coming forth of the Book of Mormon," not the translation per se.

(iii) omits what Joseph wrote in the Wentworth letter, "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

(iv) omits what Joseph wrote in the Elders' Journal. "How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon? 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. (Elders’ Journal, July 1838)

(v) omits what Oliver Cowdery wrote about his experience. 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."

(vi) omits what Oliver related about Moroni telling Joseph it would be his “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."

(vii) omits other statements that reiterate what Joseph and Oliver always claimed


(viii) instead relies instead on statements by various SITH sayers, along with commentary by editors who have long taught SITH. 

For example, look at note 20, which cites Mark Ashurst-McGee's Master's Thesis. Mark is an employee of the Church History Department and an editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. The note supposedly supports this statement: "As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture." That is purely Mark's speculation about what Joseph was thinking. It's pure mindreading, written in the essay as fact. It's the opposite of the "accurate information" these essays were intended to gather.

People often quote the following sentences from the essay on translation. Again, the editors make statements of fact that are merely speculation:

Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. 

The first sentence is misleading because Joseph Smith never once "wrote of two instruments." Nor did Oliver Cowdery. Whether it is misleading on purpose or just poorly written doesn't matter because there are no reliable sources from Joseph or Oliver to back up that claim. Instead, the SITH proponents rely on David Whitmer, who was never a scribe, on Emma, who was a scribe but we don't know what parts of the text she wrote, and Martin Harris, who never wrote any of the Book of Mormon we have today. As we discuss in the book, Emma's testimony is inconsistent and her own son, who recorded it, later decided Joseph used the U&T instead of the seer stone. Martin's statements are consistent about the U&T with the exception of the Edward Stevenson account of stone swapping, which Stevenson related only long after Martin had died and which Martin had never told anyone else. Whitmer's statements, as a non-scribe who was never present in Harmony (where most of the Book of Mormon was translated) and who said he was not around for most of the translation even in Fayette, are numerous but inconsistent and late. Plus, David also claimed that Joseph was a fallen prophet, that there was never any restoration of Priesthood, that God only called Joseph to produce the Book of Mormon and everything else was Joseph's invention, etc. 

According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English.

There are two obvious problems here. First, no one other than Joseph could see what was on the instruments, so any such statements are hearsay at best. Second, while we can see that some of these people claimed to be witnesses of the translation, whatever they observed could not have been the actual translation because none of them were authorized to see the plates or the Interpreters.

People usually accept Emma's "Last Testimony," which was published about 6 months after she died. During her lifetime, she never attested to this document, nor did anyone witness its creation other than her son, Joseph Smith III. Her "Last Testimony" also says Joseph never had another wife, etc. After it was published, several Saints in Utah published their accounts that contradicted Emma's. Eliza R. Snow said she couldn't tell whether it was Emma or Joseph Smith III who was the liar. And, of course, Brigham Young said Emma was the biggest liar he ever knew.

It's continually amazing to me how many people take Emma's statement out of context this way. People who know about the problems with the statement and accept it anyway don't explain why they think Emma told the truth about the translation but lied about plural marriage, or why people who knew her well, including Brigham and Eliza, said she was a liar. 

Few people explain why they believe Emma instead of Joseph Smith. Emma says directly that Joseph didn't use the plates or the Urim and Thummim, but instead used a stone in a hat. Even the essay points out that Joseph found this stone long before he obtained the plates. Thus, it could not have been the U&T that came with the plates. IOW, we have a direct conflict between Emma and Joseph. Joseph published his explanations in Church newspapers during his lifetime. Emma allegedly made her statement in private, shortly before she died, 50 years after the events she describes. 

For me, it's an easy decision. And yet, it's also appropriate for the essay to include the "Last Testimony" as part of the set of facts we all have to consider. I have not seen anything from the First Presidency stating that Emma's statement was correct and Joseph and Oliver misled everyone. However, by omitting the statements from Joseph and Oliver, the essay leads people to that conclusion. 

Still, as the introduction explains, "The Church places great emphasis on knowledge and on the importance of being well informed about Church history, doctrine, and practices." Those who simply accept these essays on their face, even though they omit relevant and "accurate information" that they should include, are abdicating their personal responsibility for seeking "learning, even by study and also by faith.”  

People usually discuss the stone Zina Young obtained from Brigham's estate after he died. The only link to the seer stone Joseph actually possessed (and gave to Oliver) is that it "matches the description." However, there are three major problems with it. 

First, Emma said Joseph "used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color." That description does not fit the striated stone the Church has published. 

Second, a newspaper account quoted David Whitmer as saying “He had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates." This is consistent with Emma's statement about the color, but also does not fit the striated stone. Of course, such consistency does not preclude Emma or David influencing the other about the color of the stone. 

David later corrected the newspaper but not the description of the color of the stone. He said, "I did not say that Smith used “two small stones,” as stated nor did I call the stone “interpreters.” I stated that “he used one stone (not two) and called it a sun stone.” The “interpreters” were as I understood taken from Smith and were not used by him after losing the first 116 pages as stated. It is my understanding that the stone referred to was furnished him when he commenced translating again after losing the 116 pages."   

Of course, David's statement here directly contradicts what Joseph and Oliver said, yet the SITH proponents prefer David's statement.

The third problem is that the actual stone in the photos is a particular type of striated rock, laced with layers of iron, that geologists say exists only in Wyoming. That means it's highly unlikely that Joseph found it in New York (whether while digging a well or otherwise), and even less likely that Martin Harris could have found an identical one in the Susquehanna River. It seems far more likely that Brigham Young (or someone else) picked it up in Wyoming during the trek to Utah and Zina bought it thinking it was a seer stone.

At any rate, people are free to believe whatever they want to believe. 

But the glaring omissions and misdirection in the Gospel Topics Essay on Translation should prevent anyone from relying solely on the essay for information, and certainly should prevent anyone from concluding that the First Presidency or other Church leaders have implicitly impeached Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by the contents of the essay. 

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