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Did Joseph Smith Translate From the Plates?
Did Joseph Smith Translate From the Plates?
by Woody Brison

Often Said: Joseph Smith looked in the Urim and Thummim and a piece of parchment would appear with a character written on it, and under it was the interpretation in English. The plates weren't even in the room when he translated the Book of Mormon. I've listed this in the Catalog of Accusations, but it's more of an urban legend. It's often repeated by members of the Church, even astute scholars.

This idea originated with David Whitmer. It's found in his 1887 An Address to All Believers in Christ.

Whitmer's description of the translation process (at right) sounds like God did all the translating (or the angel did), the angel presented it so it appeared in the U&T, and all Joseph did was to read it to his scribe, who wrote it down.

This doesn't correlate with a revelation Joseph received, also at the right, which says that the translator had to study it out first, with his own mental powers, try to figure out the meaning; then he could get revelation to confirm or deny the meaning he'd arrived at.

It also doesn't figure next to a lot of other things. Why did Mormon go to all the trouble of making the plates and engraving the text on them (there may have been over 100 plates) if Joseph could just get it by revelation? Why did Moroni go to all the trouble of lugging the plates around for 35 years? Why did he bury them, and guard them for 1400 years, if all that was needed was the U&T? He could have just handed it to Joseph.

David Whitmer: "I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. ... [In the Urim and Thummim, 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." An Address to All Believers in Christ, para.26

DC 9:8-9) But, behold, I say unto you, 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. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

And the one that I really like: why was the translation in backwoods American English? (It's been slowly cleaned up over the years.) If God or an Angel translated it, I'd expect a little more educated dialect. It was exactly the kind of language used on the American frontier - exactly what Joseph Smith and everyone around him spoke.

Also, when Michael Chandler brought the Book of Abraham papyri to Kirtland six years later, Joseph Smith could interpret some of the Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as any of the scholars Chandler had talked to, exactly as if he'd learned some written language closely related to Egyptian.

Some alternate scenarios could be imagined. First, maybe David Whitmer didn't know what went on, was guessing or repeating something he'd heard, and just making it sound like he was certain.

It seems that, like the plates, no one saw the U&T. If Whitmer didn't see the U&T being used, how did he know how they were used?
Second, maybe David was lying - making up stuff. It's clear that he lied about some things which he desired to urge in his Address.

Third, when Joseph would receive a new revelation – separate from the Book of Mormon – it often came via the U&T. Examples: DC 3, DC 7, DC 11, DC 14, DC 17. In those sessions, Joseph used the U&T, and the plates didn't need to be in the room; he wasn't translating it at the time.

There are two other points we might consider:
  • How clear was David's memory, at age 82, almost 60 years after the events?
  • David Whitmer does not say where he got his information about what Joseph saw in the U&T.
  • David Whitmer was appointed president of the church in Missouri (stake president basically, before stakes were organized under that name.) He started spending time with apostates, stopped coming to the church meetings, and being entrusted with large church funds, he lost them and would not admit it. He was deposed as president, and later excommunicated. He tried to assert that no one had the authority to do this, since he was the President! Then, he developed the theory that Joseph was a fallen prophet, which he pushes in his Address. All to cover his own mistakes!

    _________________

    There is an easier way to reconcile David's statement. Consider what Joseph was looking at. If you're looking at 400,000 little symbols on metal plates, in a foreign language, one that doesn't have that much affinity with English, where do you start?

    I'd start with some symbol that looked like the start of the text. I'd stare at it a while, then I'd ask God what it meant. I'd say "I tried to study it out, but I haven't the slightest idea what it means." I would need to be given the meaning of that first symbol. And doubtless the second, third, maybe quite a few to start with. When I had, say, 5 or 6 symbols understood, I might start to understand what they meant together, and ask if that was right.

    When I got a vocabulary of a few dozen symbols learned, there would doubtless begin to be a few repetitions; I wouldn't need to ask again what those meant.

    After a couple of pages, maybe I could read right along. Sometimes I'd be able to guess the meaning of new symbols from context, or if not, I could ask about them and get the answers thru the U&T.

    If this was the way it worked, then we could say the U&T was used like a dictionary lookup. I think this is what David Whitmer was describing.

    There's no record that Joseph himself ever discussed the details of how the translation was done. He just said it was done thru the gift and power of God. I think he translated the book by working at it; but was able to get it right with divine help. The "gift and power of God" consisted of:

  • the U&T
  • the "dictionary lookup" procedure
  • probably, a hightened ability to percieve the intent of the authors
  • confirming revelation
  • protection from enemies and other material assistance




  • Consider what Joseph was looking at.

    These things enabled him to produce a translation that accurately reflected the authors' intent. It's a simple point, but that doesn't disqualify it from being miraculous and of great significance.

    DC 17:6) And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.

    Notes

    1. Woody Brison is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but this website is not affiliated with the church. It may be thought of as an additional, somewhat independent witness.

    2. I want this page to be as accurate as I can make it. If you have a correction, please email me.

    Copyright 2013 Woody Brison. All rights reserved, including images.