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The Title Page of the Book of Mormon declares that it was translated “by the gift and power of God,” but what do we know about this divine process? Was it translated the way that many have assumed, or was there more to the miracle that brought forth Another Testament of Jesus Christ?
A few years ago, I was teaching a BYU Doctrine and Covenants class about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon when a student raised her hand. When I called on her, she said, “I read on the internet someone who said that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using a rock in a hat. Is that true? Do we really believe that?” This is an important question. It is a matter that our critics purposely phrase in a way to make the translation process sound silly or stupid. They do this in the hope of damaging the faith of unsuspecting Church members who often do not know much about the particulars of the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Although the Church has published a scholarly essay describing what we know about the translation of the Book of Mormon (see www.lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation), many remain unaware of how this important miracle took place. The following are a few simple principles and key statements to remember as we seek to understand and explain the translation of the Book of Mormon. (For a more expansive explanation, see From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon by Michael MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat).
It was Not Intended to Tell the World
On one occasion, Hyrum Smith requested that “the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.” Joseph Smith responded to this request by saying “that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, and also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”[i] We can only guess why Joseph Smith felt it was not intended for the world to know, but perhaps one reason is that spiritual things are “foolishness” to the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14) and Joseph did not want to offer up sacred information to those who were unprepared, knowing that it would almost certainly be mocked (Matt. 7:6). As we have already seen, critics of the Church try to make the process sound foolish.
By the Gift and Power of God
Although we do not have all the details of the translation process, one thing that the Lord has made very clear is that the Book of Mormon was translated “by the gift and power of God” (Title Page). What this means is that the original translation of the Book of Mormon was unlike typical translations today which rely on the translator’s knowledge of languages. Joseph Smith was not fluent in reformed Egyptian, the original language of the Book of Mormon. For that matter, he was not well trained in English either, having received little formal education. Of this, his wife Emma Smith reported, “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to anyone else.”[ii]
Because Joseph Smith could not rely on his own personal knowledge of languages, he had to trust in God to help him translate. Isaiah and Nephi both prophesied that the Book of Mormon would be translated by “him that is not learned” so that the Lord could show that he is “able to do [his] own work” and is a “God of miracles” (2 Nephi 27:19-23; Isaiah 29:12). Truly, the translation of the Book of Mormon was a miracle and was accomplished by miraculous means. These miraculous means included special physical instruments called seer stones which the Lord prepared and provided for Joseph Smith to assist him in the translation process.
The Urim and Thummim
The most famous seer stones that Joseph Smith received were what we commonly refer to today as the Urim and Thummim. When the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, he explained that “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates” and with it were “two stones in silver bows . . . called the Urim and Thummim” which had been prepared “for the purpose of translating the book” (JS-H 1:34-35). These two connected seer stones were often described as looking like “spectacles” or modern eyeglasses. Their role in the translation was crucial, as Joseph Smith confirmed in the Wentworth Letter when he explained, “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.”[iii]
Oliver Cowdery, the chief scribe of the Book of Mormon, also described Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates. For example, in his account of the translation found at the end of Joseph Smith- History he explained, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven . . . 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.’”[iv] On another occasion he explained, “I wrote with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 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 saw beheld the interpreters. That book is true … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.” [v]
The Seer Stone
In addition to the Urim and Thummim, other witnesses of the translation described another seer stone that Joseph Smith also used in translating the Book of Mormon. This stone was a small, brown, oval-shaped stone that Joseph had been inspired to discover earlier in his life.[vi] Apparently, this is what Alma was describing when he referred to “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” to serve as “interpreters” of ancient records (Alma 37:23-25). Those who described Joseph’s use of this single seer stone describe it functioning basically the same way as the Urim and Thummim and could be used interchangeably with it.
The Translation Process
Perhaps because the Urim and Thummim is described as two stones fastened together similar to modern eyeglasses, many assume that Joseph Smith looked through them at the characters on the plates as he translated. This is often the way it is portrayed in artwork. However, this is not the process described by the scribes and witnesses of the translation. Instead, they describe Joseph receiving revelation directly from the seer stones independent of the gold plates, which often laid covered on the table or hidden in another location for their protection. In order to perceive the message more clearly from the seer stones, many report that Joseph would shield the light using a hat (similar to how we might shield the light with our hand to see something on a cell phone outside). This is why critics mock the process by describing it as “a rock in a hat.”
Several scribes left descriptions of this translation process. For example, Emma Smith recalled that, “I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”[vii] David Whitmer also recalled that Joseph Smith “put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing … Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”[viii]
This last statement is particularly interesting because it suggests that Joseph could actually see the words in the seer stones as he translated. This would give added meaning to the Lord’s explanation that he had given Joseph “sight and power to translate” (D&C 3:12). It would also give literal meaning to his title as seer, making Joseph literally a see-er as he translated the plates.
Translation by Revelation
At first, some may be surprised to discover that Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon by examining the characters on the plates directly because we often think of translation in the more traditional way we are used to. But it is important to remember that Joseph was not translating from one language he knew to another. He did not speak the language on the plates and neither did anyone else on earth! As Moroni explained, the plates were written in “reformed Egyptian” and “none other people knoweth our language,” except the Lord who “hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:32-34). This is why it had to be a different kind of translation. Joseph Smith could not read the plates, but the Lord could and he revealed to Joseph the words that were on the plates. It was a translation by revelation.
In fact, the Lord explained this in the Doctrine and Covenants. After promising Oliver that he could translate “old records,” the Lord revealed how that translation would be accomplished: “Behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart by the Holy Ghost . . . this is the spirit of revelation” (D&C 8:1-3). Later, the Lord further explained that to translate required that “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8-9). Thus, the Book of Mormon was translated by the spirit of revelation using the seer stones. The purpose of these physical instruments was to facilitate that revelatory process and assist Joseph Smith as he struggled to receive the inspired thoughts, feelings, meanings, and words as he translated the Book of Mormon by revelation.[ix] And the purpose of having the physical gold plates in his possession was to serve as tangible evidence that the words he was dictating were from an actual record of an actual and historical people.
While we do not know everything about the method of translation, some things we do know and should make perfectly clear. The translation of the Book of Mormon was a miracle! It happened by the gift and power of God using seer stones. It was a translation by revelation, “and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true” (D&C 17:6).
[i] History of the Church 1:220; The Joseph Smith Papers, Minute Book 2 p. 13
[ii] Last Testimony of Sister Emma, Saints’ Herald 26 (1879), 290; as quoted in Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 62-63.
[iii] History of the Church 4:537; Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842, p. 707.
[iv] See Appendix to Joseph Smith—History and Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, p. 14.
[v] Reuben Miller Journal, 21 Oct. 1848 in Millet, Precept upon Precept, 46.
[vi] For a picture of this seer stone, see Ensign Oct 2015.
[vii] Emma Smith, Last Testimony of Sister Emma, Saints’ Herald 26 (1879), 290
[viii] See David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo, 1887, p. 12; as quoted in Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 62.
[ix] It is powerful to realize that, although we do not have personal seer stones, the same principles that worked for Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon will work for us as we seek for and receive revelation in our own lives. For talks that illustrate this, see Richard G. Scott, “Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2007; Bruce R. McConkie, “Agency or Inspiration –Which?,” Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year 1972-1973.