With apologies to Kevin Barney, I post here in response to a comment by Katie on Kevin’s current BCC thread publishing the testimonies of people in his ward. But I am not poaching from Kevin by writing here because what I want to say in response to Katie’s comment would have been a complete threadjack since it is not a report on people in my ward.
Katie reported on the testimonies of people in her ward and also on something her husband said to counter what people in her ward were saying:
During the week my husband and I made a pact that if people talked about the doc negatively he had to get up and say something positive. So true to his word he got up and said he loved it, and that it didn’t matter if Joseph translated the BOM with a peepstone in a hat, it was still true. A few in the congregation laughed at that, which I interpret to mean that people thought he was kidding, and of course Joseph did not use a stone.
From this comment I infer that Katie believes that people in her ward — at least those who laughed at her husband’s statement about the translation of the Book of Mormon — think that the PBS documentary on the Church is not accurate to the extent that it notes that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by means of placing a seer stone in a hat and putting his face in the hat to dictate words from the stone.
First, to the extent that the documentary implied that this was the sole means of translating the Book of Mormon, then it would be true to say that the PBS documentary was inaccurate.
Second, I applaud Katie’s and her husband’s proactive approach to dealing with negativity among Latter-day Saints resulting from the documentary: to say something positive about the documentary in response. I think that is a very useful approach, both in relation to this documentary, but also in other situations in life where criticism is being leveled that the hearer thinks might be unwarranted or unfair. If there are people who think that a PBS documentary, or the cartoon South Park, are “lying” when they report or depict Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon at least in large part with the aide of a seer stone placed in a hat, then this fact should be addressed directly. Similarly, if there are people who know that Joseph Smith used this as one method (among others) of translating the Book of Mormon and think that the Church is “covering up” this fact, then that should also be addressed directly. This post speaks to both groups, i.e. both to those whom Katie suspects of disbelieving that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in a hat as a method of translation and to Katie and her husband themselves.
An Ensign article in 1993 by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church addresses both camps. If something is discussed in the Ensign, the Church’s monthly, general distribution periodical, it is difficult to make the case that the Church is covering it up; similarly, if it is addressed in the Ensign, it is difficult for believing members to claim that it is not true when reported by an outside source, such as PBS.
In his Ensign article — material meant for the entire membership of the Church and even with the ambitious goal of having the entire world for an audience, as Latter-day Saints are wont to do — Elder Nelson addresses the translation of the Book of Mormon and the seer stone in the hat (bold added):
The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:
“Joseph Smith would 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. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. 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.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)
Emma Smith, who acted as an earlier scribe for Joseph, gave this account in 1856:
“When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.
“When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, ‘Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?’ When I answered, ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Oh! [I didn’t know.] I was afraid I had been deceived.’ He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.” (Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History, Jan. 1916, p. 454.)
On another occasion, Emma Smith recorded:
“The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.” (“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, p. 290; spelling modernized.)
Although the Prophet would polish his skills over the years, Emma acknowledged that Joseph possessed only rudimentary literacy at the time he translated the gold plates:
“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, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to any one else.” (Ibid.)
This is a fascinating account of the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon. From other sources we also learn that Joseph Smith also used the Urim and Thummim to translate portions of the Book of Mormon. I believe there are also accounts of Joseph Smith periodically translating the Book of Mormon while reading straight from the plates, although at the moment my memory is failing me on this one so don’t quote it in testimony meeting.
I do not understand why people would be more embarassed by the idea of Joseph Smith using a seer stone in a hat and pulling the hat tightly around his face to look into the seer stone than by the thought of Joseph Smith putting on the breastplate and stones of the Urim and Thummim. I suspect it has to do with the recognition that for some or much of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith did not even necessarily have the plates out in front of him on the table, although as the statements from Emma Smith above show, he did sometimes have them with him during translation.
Stated succinctly, translation of the Book of Mormon through the seer stone in the hat was a miracle — and we believe in miracles. As Latter-day Saints, we are pleased that there really is so much that is rational about the Gospel that we sometimes shy away from the miraculous or mysterious in our religion. Baptism for the Dead is an example of this: who can argue with the equity and reasonableness of the program instituted by Jesus and restored in the latter days of Baptism for the Dead — a practice which provides all people with the opportunity to accept or reject a vital ordinance, even if their circumstances in life prevented them from hearing and/or accepting the message at that time. It is an equitable doctrine that resonates with us rationally as well as spiritually. But translation through a seer stone in a hat is simply miraculous and mysterious. If we sustain Joseph Smith as a Prophet, we need to accept that God was powerful enough and that Joseph Smith was such a Prophet and Seer that he could accomplish the translation of the Book of Mormon by use of a seer stone in a hat.
The article by Elder Nelson is fair game for Sacrament Meeting talks, Gospel Doctrine classes, and Priesthood and Relief Society classes. It is an Apostle of the Church relating the eye-witness account of Joseph Smith’s scribes in the process of translating the Book of Mormon. We should all be edified by it.
This post is already too long to be of use to anyone interested in the seer stone in the hat issue. That is why DMI Dave has a rule — which he himself often does not follow — to keep blog posts down to three or four paragraphs.