Some of you may be multi-lingual and have experience in the difficult task of translating written text from one language to another. If not, then trust me, it is very hard. I am intrigued with the process Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon, which he said was done through “the gift and power of God". Unfortunately other than that rather nondescript phrase he seems to have been rather tight lipped about how he actually did it.
“Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.” (JS—H 1:34–35.)The text of the Book of Mormon talks about interpreters that were used by its prophets to translate records written in lost tongues. According to Joseph Smith those interpreters were hidden away with the gold plates to facilitate their translation. Joseph Smith didn't start calling the interpreters Urim and Thummim until a couple of years after the Book of Mormon was published (Joseph Smith History wasn't written until 1838) and the term is a mouthful so I'll stick to interpreters. I was under the impression that the interpreters were used to translate the Book of Mormon. Joseph seems to give the same impression. According to a second hand account, Oliver Cowdery described their use as follows. It is from a 1977 Ensign article.
“He represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he (Oliver) sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the ‘translators’ over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages. Every word was distinctly visible even to every letter; and if Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the ‘interpreter’ until it was copied correctly.”Oliver Cowdery was the scribe for most of the book and he was also one of the three witnesses. When the church was founded he was a presiding elder and then co-president of the new church along with Joseph Smith. He was a first hand witness of all of the seminal events of the church including the production of the Book of Mormon, priesthood restoration, church founding, and many of its revelations. So, this account should be pretty trustworthy.
At one point the Lord granted Oliver the opportunity to attempt translation. He failed. Joseph Smith received the revelation in D&C 9 explaining why. He apparently thought that the words would just magically come, but the revelation said you must first study it out in your mind and ask God if it is right. This seems like a rather unlikely method of "translation". Instead it seems to describe a method for inspired authorship. After all, with zero knowledge of the original script and language then there is nothing to study or ask about. It really sounds like the "translator" is formulating ideas in his head and then seeking divine confirmation that the words are correct. It seems at odds with the description given above where visible words appear that can then be read to the scribe. This method has another problem because the original Book of Mormon contains thousands of spelling and grammatical errors that have subsequently been corrected. The process described indicates that the translator couldn't proceed until the scribe had correctly written the words. So, either God wasn't able to correctly spell or use proper grammar or else the method described above isn't they way the translation was actually done.
However, things get even a more confusing when you read the following account. This is quoted from a talk by Mormon apostle Russell Nelson given in a seminar for new mission presidents in 1992 that was subsequently published in 1993 in the church's magazine The Ensign.
David Whitmer was another of the three witnesses and like Oliver Cowdery was a partipcant in the translation of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the church. If you're a fan of South Park and have seen their episode on Mormons then you'll recognize the rock in the hat method of translation. However, most members of the church wouldn't. In fact when I told my father about this, his response was, "I can't possibly believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a common field stone." How is it possible that he, I, and so many other members of the church were ignorant of this fact? Now, why couldn't he believe that? An apostle of the church apparently does and the David Whitmer was a firsthand witness of the translation and one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and went to his grave believing in the divine origins of the book. The above account is what he published to the world.
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.)
Mormon apologists like to point to articles like this one to point out that the church isn't hiding or concealing its history and that if members don't know about this stuff then it's their own fault. I'll partially concede the point. The church periodically does publish articles like this one about problematic historical issues, however, it often doesn't tell the rest of the story and it also doesn't incorporate quotes such as the above into lesson materials and missionary discussions. The result is that most members find out about this method of translation from anti-Mormon sources or from non-Mormons. Maybe it's because they emphasize the JSH account that refers to the interpreters in most of their materials and because most of their artwork shows Joseph Smith at a table with the gold plates beside him dictating the transaction to a scribe. In other words, they prefer to emphasize the Cowdery account because it is more consistent with the Book of Mormon itself and because the rock in a hat methods sounds a little silly.
It is a little confusing and disconcerting and inconsistent. Well, it is if you believe that the Book of Mormon is a translation. It's pretty easy to understand for most other people and anyone who has dealt with a pathological liar or con man.
Missing from the church articles is further information about the seer stone. Joseph Smith found it when he was a teenager and digging a well for a neighbor. He claimed to be able to use it to find buried treasure and apparently gained some notoriety as a seer. It's difficult to tell how involved he was in this activity, but he was at least well enough known that a farmer in Pennsylvania had heard of him and hired him to come down and help him find a lost silver mine. While there he met his future wife Emma Hale and her family. While there he was also arrested and convicted of in 1826 "glass looking" which was a crime. Apparently seers were common enough that laws had been passed to make it a crime. I guess they considered it a kind of fraud.
That, I think, is the explanation for my father's reaction to the rock in a hat story. If Joseph came to any of us and told us he could find buried treasure with his rock in a hat method we'd simply laugh at him. But Oliver Cowdery and the rest of the Mormons believed that he could. Richard Bushman in his faithful biography "Rough Stone Rolling" posits that Joseph's career as a treasure hunter was like a preparatory priesthood that prepared him for translating the Book of Mormon and also prepared a following for him who already believed in his extraordinary powers as a seer. Of course, that rationalization cuts both ways. It seems to presuppose that he could acutally see buried treasure. On the other hand, if he couldn't translate then Bushman is also right and ait was an excellent preparation in how to defraud people.
Ultimately I guess my father sides with Bushman. Or perhaps he simply accepts it as a mystery. However, I simply can't swallow this. Joseph never successfully found any treasure although he claimed to be able to do so. I don't believe in seer stones or folk magic and don't believe that there is any evidence for it. And I don't think that that stone magically started working for a holy purpose.
I count this as very, very strong evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud.
The problem for me, is that, grammar and spelling aside, the Book of Mormon is an exceptional book and quite an accomplishment. So, how can I explain how it was produced? I can't. And I don't have to. The burden of proof is not on me. But I certainly don't believe it was done using a rock in a hat.
If you want a thorough academic treatment of the translation process by the church's apologists I would highly recommend "Joseph Smith's Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text" by Royal Skousen. He explores the various accounts of how the translation was done as well as analysis of the actual manuscripts that resulted. His conclusion is, "Evidence from the original manuscript supports the traditional belief that Joseph Smith received a revealed text by means of the interpreters." I assume by interpreters he includes both the ancient ones found with the gold plates as well as Joseph's seer stone. I encourage you to read the article to see if the evidence leads you to the same conclusion. I found the evidence more consistent with either a pious fraud or outright deception on the part of the authors.
A longer manuscript was written by LDS general authority B. H. Roberts. Here is one choice quote:
"One other subject remains to be considered in this division... viz.—was Joseph Smith possessed of a sufficiently vivid and creative imagination as to produce such a work as the Book of Mormon from such materials as have been indicated in the preceding chapters... That such power of imagination would have to be of a high order is conceded; that Joseph Smith possessed such a gift of mind there can be no question....
"In the light of this evidence, there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith, the Prophet, an imagination, it could with reason be urged, which, given the suggestions that are found in the 'common knowledge' of accepted American antiquities of the times, supplemented by such a work as Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon is." (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pp. 243, 250)
"If from all that has gone before in Part 1, the view be taken that the Book of Mormon is merely of human origin... if it be assumed that he is the author of it, then it could be said there is much internal evidence in the book itself to sustain such a view.
"In the first place there is a certain lack of perspective in the things the book relates as history that points quite clearly to an undeveloped mind as their origin. The narrative proceeds in characteristic disregard of conditions necessary to its reasonableness, as if it were a tale told by a child, with utter disregard for consistency." (Ibid., page 251)
"There were other Anti-Christs among the Nephites, but they were more military leaders than religious innovators... they are all of one breed and brand; so nearly alike that one mind is the author of them, and that a young and undeveloped, but piously inclined mind. The evidence I sorrowfully submit, points to Joseph Smith as their creator. It is difficult to believe that they are the product of history, that they come upon the scene separated by long periods of time, and among a race which was the ancestral race of the red man of America." (Ibid., page 271)
This is quoted from UTLM and the emphasis is theirs. The book they quote from is an impressive analysis by B. H. Roberts and despite the above quote it's questionable that he ever lost his belief in the Book of Mormon. However, I respect the fact that he earnestly investigated a number of issues, acknowledged the problems, and honestly considered the possibility that a case could be made that it is not what it claims to be.
If you are interested, I invite you to look into the above information further and make your own judgement. But I find the evidence persuasive and rather overwhelming that the Book of Mormon is not a translation of an ancient record.