371: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation

As Richard Bushman mentions in this podcast episode, one of the very first things Joseph Smith did in announcing himself to the world was to take on the title of “translator.” What an audacious thing, especially as Mormonism associates translation with the gift of seership, even proclaiming that “a seer is greater than a prophet” (Mosiah 8:15). Since declaring himself a translator, and yet it being apparent that he knew no ancient languages, exactly what Smith meant by “translation” has been an ongoing debate both within and without the faith. Though never a particularly settled question, it has in recent years become a topic of renewed fascination within Mormon scholarly circles, and with the release in the past 18 months of images and more information of the seerstone Smith used in translating the Book of Mormon, it has caught on as a fresh area of inquiry among non-specialists as well. In addition new angles of inquiry are emerging that examine the notion of translation far beyond the confines of Book of Mormon production.

Recognizing this renewed interest and the fascination of the approaches being taken, the Utah State University religious studies program, in partnership with the Faith Matters Foundation, are convening a conference (“New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation”) on 16 March 2017 at Utah State exploring these emerging perspectives with great energy. This episode of Mormon Matters hosts three of the conference’s participants, Richard Bushman, Samuel Brown, and Philip Barlow, to tease some of the new perspectives that are finding some footing and why discussions like this are important and fascinating both to scholars and lay church members. The episode, of course, mentions the conference a lot, but even for someone not able to consider trying to attend, there are wonderful insights aplenty as Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon turns these three great thinkers loose to talk about things for which they have great passion.

We think you’ll love listening in, and after you do, we hope you’ll add your thoughts in the comments section!


Links to things discussed in this episode:

Faith Matters Foundation website (opens on page with conference information, including schedule and parking. Also sign up to receive emails from the foundation, including when video of the conference is ready for viewing)

Joseph Smith’s Use of a Seer Stone in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Matters podcast, Episodes 287-288, 10 August 2015 (featuring Ann Taves, D. Michael Quinn, and Ronald Barney)

Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton, 2016), paperback; Link to purchase Kindle edition of same book)

Selected Books and Writings by authors on this episode:

Samuel M. Brown, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple (Maxwell Institute, 2014)

Samuel M. Brown, In Heaven As It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford, 2012)

Philip A. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, 2013)

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, reprint edition (Vintage, 2007)

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (University of Illinois Press, 1987)

Richard L. Bushman, “Faithful History,” Dialogue 4, no. 4 (Winter, 1969)



5 comments for “371: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation

  1. David
    March 2, 2017 at 11:21 am

    We are definitely way ahead of the curve as intellectuals or scholarly bent, but someone needs to be at the forefront. What saddens me are a lot of EXLDS people not wanting to have a positive or faithful perspective towards nuance or different faith promoting angles from the misleading dominant narrative that we all have cherished for so long. For most it seems that it is faith shattering when the curtains are withdrawn.

    Were the brass plates just a chunk of metal hidden behind a cloth?
    At the same time isn’t it an amazing story how it all came to be through the means of a seer stone by someone looking into a hat? Were we all deceived with notions of the divine coming to earth again, along with his miracles and angels?

    It saddens me somewhat to no longer believe in these fantastic stories, at the same time what an amazing community we do have. What amazing church and structure we have all created for ourselves. Why stop supporting such an amazing history & theology and what would we really prefer having in it’s place?

    For the most part Mormonism provides a positive healthy life enhancing, Christ focused lifestyle. The mistake has been to think of it as perfect, flawless work. Our church needs to be continually improved to be fit for Christ second coming. It’s a work we must all do together.

    It’s not really clear to me that most of our leaders and general authorities are aware of the messiness of our history. It seems to me the leaders in the past did their best to hide the facts from everybody and everyone.Anyways I’m just rambling without any real footing on how to move forward in faith. Perhaps the intellectual community can provide a path forward because it seems we are just destined to apostasy without a clear direction moving forward.

    The direction forward needs to be a more healthy, positive, fair, inclusive, perspective that honors our past and enhances our future. May our faith in Christ and the divine be our guide and future moving forward.

  2. March 2, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Here are some fairly simple answers to a couple of the questions posed in the podcast:

    Why did JS choose to start his prophetic career as a translator/transmitter? It was an appeal to the authority of an ancient source. In his time period, certain cultural trends viewed the ancient as authoritative. Freemasonry and the revival of alchemy are good examples of that concept in motion. JS’ beliefs and translations fit cleanly with that ideal. Religious dependence on the Bible, something that JS was surrounded with, is consistent with this kind of thinking, as is the tradition of referencing grimoires in folk magic traditions. JS’ appeal to ancient sources continued throughout his life, so with this as a constant, it’s hardly a surprise that his prophetic career starts there.

    Why did JS use the term translate? From what I can tell, JS believed a significant and divine power resided in what he called the pure language or Adamic. For example, the Book of Mormon talks about the power of the Jaredite’s written language, which avoided corruption at the Tower of Babel. Another example is his Moses translation, another very early text in his prophethood, which addresses how Enoch’s language was powerful enough to work miracles. The Book of Moses also calls the pure language a Priesthood which will be restored in the latter days. JS’ translation efforts are shaded by JS’ underlying desire to learn the Adamic language. Hebrew and Egyptian, two constants in his prophethood, were avenues to the ancient language. He used the term translate on a practical level because he believed he was rendering one language accurately into another through the “power of God”. On some level his motivation to learn the pure language must have also led to his use of the word translate. Who else but a translator would reveal a language? His efforts with the GAEL and his subsequent use of it with the Kinderhook plates, his revelation on the Pure Language, his translations in the Questions, Answers in Hebrew document, his translation of the Jaredite word Deseret, and his translations of various Egytian words given in the the BoA are all great examples that illustrate both JS’ belief that he was achieving literal translations and his work towards the underlying goal of revealing the pure language of the priesthood.

  3. Adam Ellsworth
    March 24, 2017 at 8:13 am

    What a great lineup – but I could have stopped listening at “if it’s crude, it’s crude like a Van Gogh.” It’s such a great and expressive line, I loved it.

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