The LDS Church has recently published on its website, lds.org, a short article titled “Book of Mormon Translation” that lays out in greater detail than perhaps ever before in an official statement some of the lesser-known aspects of the Book of Mormon translation process, such as Joseph Smith’s use of (and even preference for) a “seer stone” that he had found years before receiving the plates and two clear stones set into a bow that he identified as “Urim and Thummim,” and how little the actual plates were used during translation, with them instead usually covered somewhere in the room while Smith sat with his face buried in a hat (to keep out light) into which he had placed his seer stone. At the same time that it alerts readers to these details, it also asserts that even though this may not be the typical way members have thought about how Smith did the translation, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon was indeed a “translation” process in which characters of a language referred to as “Reformed Egyptian” engraved on physical metal plates were rendered into English, conveying a sense of Smith as more or less a passive figure in the process, someone who read English words as they appeared on the stone(s), words that were then written down by a scribe.
In this episode, Katie Langston, John Hamer, and John-Charles Duffy join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon in a vigorous discussion of this new document. Is it a step forward for the Church to more openly recognize what historical research has long shown even as it clashes with typical narratives about the translation process, or has whatever greater openness rendered by that acknowledgment been swallowed up by the statement’s insistence upon a very narrow view of translation–that Smith conveyed exact words provided by God–that continues to force explanations and defenses of the text that are less problematic if more “conceptual” types of translation are imagined. With only unreliable sources suggesting the process involved English words appearing on the stone(s), why might those behind this statement still chosen to insist upon this revelatory model?
We hope you will listen and then share your assessments of the new document and this discussion in the comments section below!
John-Charles Duffy, “Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates–Part I: A Guide for the Perplexed,” Sunstone, October 2008
John-Charles Duffy, “Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates–Part II: Perspectives from the Sociology of Knowledge,” Sunstone, December 2008
John Hamer, “The Earliest Part of the Book of Mormon” (blogpost about his 2014 project doing a close reading of the Book of Mormon)
Katie Langston, “On Idolatry, Institutional Repentance, and Grace” (blogpost about the new LDS Church statements on difficult issues)
Dan Wotherspoon, “On the Death of Nephi,” Sunstone, March 2005
Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue, Spring 1987
Scott Dunn, “Spirit Writing: Another Look at the Book of Mormon,” June 1985
C. Jess Groesbeck, “The Book of Mormon as Symbolic History: A New Perspective on its Place in History and Religion, Sunstone, March 2004