Rough Stone Rolling analysis
Every author writes from his/her
personal bias and motivation, but few explain their own biases as well as
Richard Bushman does in Rough Stone Rolling.
His approach is exceptional and exemplary.
In the Preface, Brother Bushman
it is unlikely there
will ever be consensus on Joseph Smith's character or his achievements... Everything about Smith matters to people
who have built their lives on his teachings. To protect their own deepest
commitments, believers want to shield their prophet's reputation. On the
other hand, people who have broken away from Mormonism-and they produce a large
amount of the scholarship-have to justify their decision to leave. They
cannot countenance evidence of divine inspiration in his teachings without
catching themselves in a disastrous error. Added to these combatants are those
suspicious of all religious authority who find in Joseph Smith a perfect target
for their fears. Given the emotional crosscurrents, agreement will never be
reached about his character, his inspiration, or his accomplishments.
A believing historian
like myself cannot hope to rise
above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as
controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible.
What I can do is to look frankly at all sides
of Joseph Smith, facing up to his
mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case. Most readers
do not believe in, nor are they interested in, perfection. Flawless characters
are neither attractive nor useful. We want to meet a real person....
Joseph Smith did not offer himself as an exemplar of virtue. He told his followers not to expect perfection. Smith called himself a rough stone, thinking of his own impetuosity and lack of polish. He was sensitive to insults and could not stand to be crossed. Twice he was brought to trial before one of his own church councils for scolding offenders too severely. He so dominated the rooms he entered that some thought him arrogant. But it was his iron will that brought the church, the cities, and the temples into existence.
If people read and consider this preface, the rest of the book makes sense. Brother Bushman does not set out to write a book that is either apologetic or critical.
"Frankly" means "open, honest, direct." That's not technically the same as "objective," but it could create a misleading implication of objectivity.
As any author must, Brother Bushman decided to include some facts and omit others. For example, he omitted some of the most direct historical statements about the Urim and Thummim.
The style of writing--framing theories as facts--can be misleading to readers who don't understand that this is interpretation of the facts, not purely reporting of the facts.
Below is Part 1 of my analysis of Rough Stone Rolling
in three steps.
(i) The original in blue
(ii) my notes in red
(iii) proposed emendations in purple.
This Part 1 focuses on the translation issues. I don’t expect any new edition of Rough Stone Rolling. Think of my analysis as a supplement you can read along with the book.
I’ve numbered the passages for ease of reference, with page numbers from the printed copy. If you have a digital version, it’s easy to search for these passages.
1. p. 71. “Day after day,” Cowdery reported in 1834, “I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim.”
This truncated quotation omits an important part of Oliver’s statement: “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.’”
Oliver described the translation instrument as the Nephite interpreters. He did not write “a Urim and Thummim” and he did not write “a seer stone.” Oliver’s statement was a direct response to the claim in Mormonism Unvailed that there were two alternative explanations for the translation, one being a “peep stone” and the other the Urim and Thummim.
Oliver also specified that Joseph translated the “history or record,” invoking Moroni’s description of the plates. During his first visit to Joseph in 1823, Moroni “gave a history of the aborigenes of this country… He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place.”
Proposed emendation: complete the full sentence in the quotation.
2. p. 71. When Martin Harris had taken dictation from Joseph, they at first hung a blanket between them to prevent Harris from inadvertently catching a glimpse of the plates, which were open on a table in the room. By the time Cowdery arrived, translator and scribe were no longer separated.
This is a reasonable inference, given that Cowdery, too, attempted to translate, which would require him to use the Urim and Thummim and the plates. But the evidence does not preclude a divider that would prevent Emma from seeing the plates and Urim and Thummim.
Proposed emendation: Replace the last sentence with this: “When Cowdery arrived, he sought and obtained permission from the Lord to translate the same as Joseph did, which eliminated the need for a blanket separating them.”
3. p. 71. Emma said she sat at the same table with Joseph, writing as he dictated, with nothing between them, and the plates wrapped in a linen cloth on the table.53
This statement paraphrases Emma's “Last Testimony,” recorded shortly before she died by her son Joseph Smith III. Emma never publicly acknowledged the statement. At the time, Joseph Smith III was corresponding with a dissident who insisted the Solomon Spalding theory was the best explanation for the Book of Mormon; hence, it was convenient for him to have his mother say "there was nothing between us" when Joseph dictated.
In fact, Emma volunteered this comment after her son asked her questions about the Spalding theory. Viewed in context, her statement is more a refutation of the Spalding theory (nothing to read from, etc.) than a description of the entirety of her role as scribe.
Notice that in this statement she gives no details about when and where she acted as a scribe, what parts of the text she recorded, anyone else who was present, etc. It seems deliberately vague. Emma’s statement is consistent with her participation in the demonstration at the Whitmer home, where people were gathered around a table and she took turns with two other scribes because Joseph was dictating so fast their hands tired.
Consider that there were several witnesses at the Fayette demonstration, including David Whitmer who spoke of it often. Like David, Emma sought to support the divine origin of the Book of Mormon. By referring to the demonstration, Emma could be truthful while also corroborating David’s account and contradicting the Spalding theory.
If, as Joseph and Oliver claimed, Joseph had translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim, Emma would have to explain that she didn’t observe that part of the translation, or that Joseph dictated from behind a curtain because she was not authorized to observe the artifacts. The same would be true for her own work in Harmony as a scribe.
Would Emma shade the truth this way to achieve a higher purpose of disproving the Spalding theory?
Her “Last Testimony” also includes what has been characterized as an adamant denial that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. Several witnesses in Utah, including Joseph’s plural wives, denounced Emma for lying. But was her statement really a clear denial?
Writing about the “Last Testimony” in Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Newell and Avery explain Emma’s equivocal answers to their six questions about plural marriage on p. 301 (2nd edition).
conflicting loyalties were to the truth and to her sons. Her answers indicate
that she chose her words in an attempt to satisfy both. Joseph [Smith III] was
either not aware of her selective terminology or he chose not to recognize it.
was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives.” Emma easily denounced
the old John Bennett term. The question had not been about “patriarchal
marriage” or the “new and everlasting covenant” or any of the other code words
for the system early church leaders instigated….
continued, “No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught,
publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had
any knowledge of.”
he not have other wives than yourself?”
had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.”
answer is partly in keeping with Emma’s view, if she believed Joseph when he
told her he would “forsake all for her.” It is also true in a legal sense, for
no plural marriage could be seen as legal in the eyes of the law.
pressed her more closely. “Did he not hold marital relations with women other
did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years earlier Emma had established that she did not pretend to have knowledge
of anything that she did not witness herself. The choice of “improper
relations” rather than “marital relations” also indicates that she may have
been sidestepping her sons’ questions very adeptly.
I agree with the analysis by Newell and Avery. Emma could have been much clearer and specific—had she chosen to do so. We can’t read her mind, but it is common human nature to protect one’s family, in this case both her husband’s reputation and her son’s image of his father.
It wasn’t all on Emma, either. The authors also point out that Joseph Smith III, as a lawyer, “knew how to ask questions that would supply him with the answer he sought. He also knew when not to cross-examine so as not to get more information than he wanted.”
While Newell and Avery apply this principle to Joseph Smith III’s understandable desire not to press his mother on the polygamy issue, it would also apply to the understandable effort to refute the Spalding theory. Better not to ask questions when you don’t know, or you think you won’t want, the answer.
I have an entire chapter on this in my book, A Man that Can Translate.
The point here is, Rough Stone Rolling takes Emma’s statement at face value.
Proposed emendation: Replace the sentence with this paragraph (or put it in a footnote).
Shortly before she died, Emma told her son Joseph Smith III that
she sat at the same table with Joseph, writing as he dictated, with nothing
between them, and the plates wrapped in a linen cloth on the table.53 The
answer is as vague as the question that prompted it. She didn’t explain where
or when she wrote, or even what she wrote. Her son had asked her questions
related to the Solomon Spalding theory, and followed her statement about the
translation with more questions related to Spalding. In this context, she may
have been referring to the demonstration in the Whitmer home, thereby telling a
truth while also evading a difficult answer (such as Joseph translating the
plates from behind a curtain).
4. p. 71. When Cowdery took up the job of scribe, he and Joseph translated in the same room where Emma was working. Joseph looked in the seerstone, and the plates lay covered on the table.54
The second sentence relates a fact, but a close reading of the sources shows it is merely an inference. Only Oliver, Joseph and Emma were present at the home in Harmony during the translation, and we have no statements from Emma regarding Oliver's service as scribe other than “Oliver Cowdery and your father wrote in the room where I was at work.” That does not preclude the use of a blanket to shield them from Emma’s view. As noted above, Emma had reason to be vague and evasive about the translation in Harmony. She would not want to explain that Joseph and Oliver worked behind a curtain.
Joseph and Oliver always said Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim, the Nephite interpreters. David, Martin and William related events at the Whitmer farm, although it's unclear what they actually observed vs. what they heard others say. David and Martin gave a variety of inconsistent statements, but overall they align with the narrative of Joseph doing a demonstration with SITH at the Whitmer farm which was not a translation. Joseph had been commanded not to show the plates or interpreters to anyone unless commanded, so a demonstration was the only feasible way to satisfy Joseph’s supporters and explain the process.
Proposed emendation: Omit the second sentence.
Note 54: The description of translation comes from Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and William Smith. Saints’ Herald, Oct 1, 1879, 289-90; May 19, 1888, 310; Neal, Oliver Cowdery’s Defence, 6; Whitmer, All Believers, 12, 30; Whitmer, Interviews, passim; Clark, Gleanings, 240; Latter-day Saints Millennial Star, Jan. 30, 1882, 78-79, 86-87; W. Smith, Mormonism, 11. Comprehensive accounts are Van Wagoner and Walker, “’Gift of Seeing,’” 48-68; and Skousen, “Original Manuscript,” 61-93. Richard Howard has pointed out that early newspaper accounts of the translation make no mention of the Urim and Thummim. The first was in the Evening and Morning Star (Independence, Mo.), Jan. 1833. Previously the instrument was called “interpreters.” Howard, Restoration Scriptures, 152-53. The descriptions of translation are compiled in Welch, “Miraculous Translation,” 118-213.
The note claims the description of translation comes from Emma, Oliver, David, Martin and William. However, there is no such description from any of these people from the time Oliver was acting as scribe in Harmony. [The source cited, Neal, Oliver Cowdery’s Defence, was a fictitious imprint.]
After Rough Stone Rolling was published, an earlier source for Urim and Thummim was discovered. The Boston Investigator in August, 1832, reported an interview with Orson Hyde and Samuel H. Smith.
what manner was the interpretation, or translation made known, and by whom was
was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and
Thummim; and was written partly by Oliver Cowdery, and partly by Martin Harris.
do you mean by Urim and Thummim?
same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed
in bows something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the
Cited in Brown, S. M. (2012). In Heaven as
it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the early Mormon conquest of death. New
York: Oxford University Press. page 327
Proposed emendation: delete the outdated Richard Howard citation,
explain that the Neal reference has been discredited, and omit Oliver as a
source to support the claim in the text.
5. p. 71. Neither Joseph nor Oliver explained how translation worked, but Joseph did not pretend to look at the "reformed Egyptian” words, the language on the plates, according to the book's own description.
"Joseph did not pretend" assumes Joseph would have been pretending had he claimed to look at the engravings on the plates. But Joseph himself said he not only looked at the plates, but he copied the characters, studied the characters, and translated the characters. As we'll see below, Joseph's mother explained that Joseph applied the U&T to his eyes and looked on the plates, but RSJ omitted that, too.
Proposed emendation: Joseph reported, “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.” (Joseph Smith—History 1:62) Beyond that, neither he nor Oliver explained how translation worked.
6. p. 71-2. The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph's head was in a hat looking at the seerstone, which by this time had replaced the interpreters.
Some witnesses reported this procedure at the Whitmer home, but whether they observed the actual translation or a demonstration is debatable. If this was the actual method of translation, the repeated injunction to Joseph to not show the plates or the Interpreters would be a nullity. Besides, this scenario contradicts what Joseph and Oliver always said.
Proposed emendation: Some witnesses reported they saw Joseph dictating with his head in a hat looking at a stone while the plates lay covered on the table. Whether they observed the translation or a demonstration is debatable; none reported details about the event or what Joseph actually translated during the session(s).
7. p. 72. The varying explanations of the perplexing process fall roughly into two categories: composition and transcription.
Translation is not even considered as a possibility, even though that's what Joseph and Oliver both said happened.
Proposed emendation. The varying explanations of the perplexing process fall roughly into three categories: composition, transcription and translation.
8. p. 72. The first holds that Joseph was the author of the book. He composed it out of knowledge and imaginings collected in his own mind, perhaps aided by inspiration. He had stuffed his head with ideas for sermons, Christian doctrine, biblical language, multiple characters, stories of adventure, social criticism, theories of Indian origins, ideas about Mesoamerican civilization, and many other matters. During translation, he composed it all into a narrative dictated over the space of three months in Harmony and Fayette.55
There is nothing in the text that suggests or implies any Mesoamerican civilization. This is surprising, actually, because Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Central America (New Spain) was well known. An English translation of his book was on sale for several years in the Palmyra bookstore, complete with illustrations of Mayan ruins.
Proposed emendation: Omit the phrase “ideas about Mesoamerican civilization.”
9. p. 72. Composition is the naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon - the way books are always written-but it is at odds with the Joseph Smith of the historical record. The accounts of the neighbors picture an unambitious, uneducated, treasure-seeking Joseph, who had never written anything and is not known to have read anything but the Bible and perhaps the newspaper. None of the neighbors noted signs of learning or intellectual interests beyond the religious discussions in a juvenile debating club. To account for the disjuncture between the Book of Mormon's complexity and Joseph's history as an uneducated rural visionary, the composition theory calls for a precocious genius of extraordinary powers who was voraciously consuming information without anyone knowing it.56
The main composition theory during Joseph's lifetime and for decades afterward was the Solomon Spalding theory, which the American media repeatedly published as fact but is omitted from RSR. The Spalding theory required no formal education or extraordinary powers; Joseph merely dictated the manuscript written by Spalding from behind a screen or curtain, as some early accounts described. To defeat the Spalding theory, David, Emma and others insisted that Joseph was not behind a curtain and had nothing to read from. That makes sense, given their desire to defend the Book of Mormon, especially because they could cite the demonstration in the Whitmer home. But statements about the seer stone contradict what Joseph and Oliver always said.
The historical record supports multiple operating hypotheses. It is true Joseph is not known for having written anything, but that’s not particularly relevant because he also did not write the Book of Mormon. He dictated it. And Joseph was known for relating the history of the ancient inhabitants of this country, as explained by his mother. He participated in the debating club, but he also served as an exhorter for preachers. He reportedly delivered over 200 sermons without notes.
Joseph wrote that he was led “to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations.” It is reasonable to infer that “intimate acquaintance” referred to ministers and/or adherents, but he mentioned only one Methodist minister, and instead of an intimate acquaintance, that minister rejected Joseph after he related his First Vision account.
Alternatively, “those” could refer to Christian authors from different denominations, including Jonathan Edwards, who used this terminology. Joseph could be saying he searched the scriptures and considered his intimate acquaintance with authors from different denominations.
Proposed emendation: Composition is the naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon - the way books are always written-but it is at odds with the Joseph Smith of the historical record. Joseph had no literary reputation; this was his first book. While he was adept at oral story telling, and he dictated the Book of Mormon, the complexity of the text led people to conclude (if it wasn’t a translation) that it had to have been written by someone. This led to the theory that Joseph secretly dictated a manuscript written by Solomon Spalding, a theory that prevailed in mainstream 19th century publications. The Spalding theory was based on vague, distant memories, however, and has been rejected by most historians both inside and outside Mormonism.
10. p. 72. The transcription theory has Joseph Smith “seeing" the Book of Mormon text in the seerstone or the Urim and Thummim. He saw the words in the stone as he had seen lost objects or treasure and dictated them to his secretary. The eyewitnesses who described translation, Joseph Knight, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, who was in the house during the last weeks of translation, understood translation as transcription. Referring to the seerstone as a Urim and Thummim, Knight said: "Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away the next sentance would come and so on.”
This is all consistent with the demonstration, but it is not consistent with D&C 1, 9 and 10, Joseph's early work in studying the characters and translating them, and his repeated claim that he translated the engravings on the plates. Of the four men listed here, only Oliver actually had permission to try to translate, and he’s the only one of the four who never said Joseph put his face in a hat to read words. Knight’s statement that Joseph saw words when he placed his face in the hat is mere hearsay.
Proposed emendation: The transcription theory has Joseph Smith “seeing" the Book of Mormon text in the seerstone or the Urim and Thummim. Eyewitnesses claim Joseph saw the words in the stone as he had seen lost objects or treasure and dictated them to his secretary. These witnesses understood translation as transcription. Referring to the seerstone as a Urim and Thummim, Knight said: "Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away the next sentance would come and so on.” Such testimony is hearsay (or assumption) because Joseph never explained how it was done. The demonstration scenario has these witnesses observing a demonstration, not a translation, and then inferring they were observing the translation.
11. p. 72. Joseph himself said almost nothing about his method but implied transcription when he said that "the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.”
As noted above, in his formal history, first published in 1842, Joseph said he copied and translated the characters. He always said he “translated” the record. The statement quoted here could imply transcription, but he didn’t say anything about reading the spectacles. The statement instead implies translation; i.e., he could read the engravings on the plates (the Book) in English.
Proposed emendation: Joseph himself said almost nothing about his method (beyond copying and translating the characters), but he implied translation when he said that "the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.”
12. Close scrutiny of the original manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription.
The believing scholar, Royal Skousen, claims Joseph Smith could not be the translator because the text is purportedly written in Early Modern English (EME) and Joseph could not have known EME. This is mere speculation, of course, supported by comparing the presumably verbatim transcript of Joseph's dictation to databases of published works. There are no verbatim transcripts of other things Joseph said prior to the dictation, nor of things his contemporaries said, so it's an apples and oranges comparison. The Book of Mormon itself would have read much differently if the typesetter, Gilbert, had not been prevented by Martin Harris from making basic grammatical corrections. No other known text deliberately evaded even cursory editing.
Consequently, the most parsimonious explanation is that the text, including elements of EME, represents Joseph's normal language, even if adapted by him to reflect "the ancient Biblical style" as was customary in his day. Linguistic and source evidence that suggests composition simultaneously suggests translation.
Proposed emendation: Close scrutiny of the original manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription, but could also reflect translation.
13. Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear. Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out.57 By any measure, transcription was a miraculous process, calling for a huge leap of faith to believe, yet, paradoxically, it is more in harmony with the young Joseph of the historical record than is composition.
A translation would take the same form; i.e., Joseph could translate a few characters into phrases, sometimes rewording them as he went (or, in other words, etc.). A transliteration would produce specific spellings as well, particularly because Joseph specifically said he translated the characters when he copied them.
Some scholars note that oral composition was not that unusual in Joseph’s day. People related long stories, and ministers preached for hours without notes, in both cases using mnemonic rhetorical devices to keep their place.
Proposed emendation: Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear. Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out. This process is consistent with transcription, composition, and translation.
14. Transcription theory gives us a Joseph with a miraculous gift that evolved naturally out of his earlier treasure-seeking. The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked in a stone and saw words.
Proposed emendation: Transcription theory gives us a Joseph with a miraculous gift that evolved naturally out of his earlier treasure-seeking. The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked in a stone and saw words.
Translation theory gives us a Joseph prepared by years of reading and listening to Christian rhetoric, which generated the anxiety that led him to God, and, ultimately, to the ancient record. After four years of tutelage he was ready to translate the engravings. He began, as he said, by translating individual characters, then progressed to longer passages. The translation was laborious, but drawing on his mental language bank, he rendered the meaning of the engravings into 19th century Christian equivalents.
15. Whatever the process, the experience thrilled Oliver Cowdery. "These were days never to be forgotten,” Cowdery reflected in 1834. “To sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!”
No emendation needed.
16. The young prophet more than fulfilled Cowdery's expectations. On the other hand, the shock of the sudden immersion in a supernatural work now and then gave Cowdery pause, and like Harris he needed further reassurance.58
This is speculative mind-reading, not reporting. Oliver never expressed shock; he deliberately sought out Joseph because of the spiritual experience he had in Palmyra, referenced in the revelation (D&C 6). The footnote references a long-discredited source that contradicts everything else known about Cowdery.
Proposed emendation: The young prophet more than fulfilled Cowdery's expectations. Shortly after commencing work with Joseph in Harmony, he sought further direction from the Lord and Joseph received a revelation telling Oliver that he, too, would have the gift of translation.
Here is the account of the trip to Fayette presented in Rough Stone Rolling:
17. p. 76. Joseph's activities had not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood. He and Cowdery said nothing publicly about the vision of John the Baptist, but people knew about the translating. “We had been threatened with being mobbed, from time to time,” Joseph said, “and this too by professors of religion.” He had won over the Hale family far enough to receive their protection, but he needed uninterrupted time to complete the translation. 70
Sometime in the latter part of May 1829, Cowdery wrote David Whitmer to ask if they could work in his father's house in Fayette. [RSR provides background information on the Whitmers here.]
In this version, it was Joseph or Oliver who came up with the idea of contacting David Whitmer. The Urim and Thummim had nothing to do with it.
Lucy Mack Smith explained the events much differently:
In the mean time Joseph was 150 miles distant and knew
naught of the matter e[x]cept an intimation that was given through the
urim and thumim for as he one morning applied the<m>
latter to his eyes to look upon the record instead of the words of the
book being given him he was commanded to write a letter to one David Whitmore
[Whitmer] this man Joseph had never seen but he was instructed to say him that
he must come with his team immediately in order to convey Joseph and his family
<Oliver [Cowdery]> back to his house which was 135 miles that they
might remain with him there untill the translation should be completed for that
an evil designing people were seeking to take away Joseph’s life in order to
prevent the work of God from going forth among the world
This is an unambiguous statement that Joseph applied the "Urim and Thummim" to his eyes to look upon the record. Nothing is mentioned about a stone or a hat. Also, the letter to David Whitmer was a commandment received through the Urim and Thummim.
Proposed emendation: Joseph's activities had not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood. He and Cowdery said nothing publicly about the vision of John the Baptist, but people knew about the translating. “We had been threatened with being mobbed, from time to time,” Joseph said, “and this too by professors of religion.” He had won over the Hale family far enough to receive their protection, but he needed uninterrupted time to complete the translation.
Sometime in the latter part of May 1829, while looking on the plates after affixing the Urim and Thummim to his eyes, Joseph received a commandment to write to David Whitmer to ask if they could work in his father's house in Fayette. [RSR provides background information on the Whitmers here.]
After a series of divine manifestations, David left his farmwork and traveled to Harmony as requested. Before leaving Harmony, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger. On the return trip, the three men encountered an older man walking along the road. David asked if he wanted a ride. The man declined, saying he was “going to Cumorah.” David had never heard the term—it was the location of the final battles described in the passages that Joseph and Oliver had just finished translating in Harmony. David inquired of Joseph. Joseph explained this was the messenger who had the plates, and that he was one of the Three Nephites who had been promised, like John the Beloved, that they wouldn’t die until Christ returned in glory.
Why the messenger was taking a detour to Cumorah remains unexplained, but some infer the messenger was returning the abridged plates to the repository in Cumorah. While there, he would pick up the original small plates of Nephi that Joseph had been instructed to translate (D&C 10) and then bring that set of plates to Fayette for translation.
18. p. 76. Joseph and Cowdery began to translate the day after they arrived at the Whitmer farm. David Whitmer thought they worked hard. “It was a laborious work for the weather was very warm, and the days were long and they worked from morning till night.” Various persons relieved Cowdery as clerk. Whitmer remembered his brother Christian and Joseph’s Emma each taking a turn. One of the hands in the manuscript of 1 Nephi looks like John Whitmer’s, and Joseph said, “John Whitmer, in particular, assisted us very much in writing during the remainder of the work.” But Cowdery did most of the transcribing.
This is a good summary but ignores two details that change the entire narrative. David said he was not present during most of the translation and the one time he was present was a significant departure from the normal process. I incorporate these details into my proposed emendation.
Proposed emendation. Joseph and Cowdery began to translate the day after they arrived at the Whitmer farm. David Whitmer thought they worked hard. “It was a laborious work for the weather was very warm, and the days were long and they worked from morning till night.” Most of the translation took place in a bedroom upstairs. A houseworker complained to Mary Whitmer about Joseph and Oliver coming downstair after a translation session with a glowing appearance.
David described a session that took place downstairs in the Whitmer home. Members of Joseph’s family and the Whitmer family were seated around the table. Rather than the normal “laborious work” that extended “from morning till night,” on this occasion Joseph dictated so fast that he had three scribes taking turns as their hands tired. Two of these were David’s brother Christian and Joseph’s Emma, although Emma did not arrive in Fayette until after Joseph and Oliver. The third, presumably, was Oliver, the principal scribe whom David would naturally not need to mention.
Assuming the dictation from this demonstration formed part of the Book of Mormon manuscript, it had to be from 2 Nephi because the surviving manuscript of 1 Nephi shows the writing of Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, and Christian Whitmer, each of whom wrote in long sessions with no trading off. Most of the Original Manuscript of 2 Nephi is no longer extant. The book consists largely of long quotations from Isaiah, raising the possibility that Joseph dictated these from memory instead of translating them; i.e., Joseph demonstrated the process but also obeyed the strict command he had received to not show the plates or the Urim and Thummim to anyone.
This demonstration scenario could resolve three loose threads: (i) the unusual rapidity of the dictation on this occasion; (ii) the odd, random variations between 2 Nephi Isaiah and the King James Isaiah; and (iii) testimony from David and others present that Joseph used a stone in a hat without referring to the plates (i.e., he dictated Isaiah from memory), while Joseph and Oliver always said Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates.