Book of Mormon translation theory for an inspired 19th century view
Here’s a summary of my theory on Book of Mormon translation. This post is taken from transcript of this week’s podcast episode. It’s a little sloppy for a blog post, but here it is if you don’t have time to listen.
Propose a process for Book of Mormon translation that:
- allows for inspiration from God for a faithful LDS to adopt
- incorporates the evidence that the book is a dictated text
- incorporates the evidence that the book contains extensive content creation from a modern, humanistic source
- incorporates the evidence that the book is extremely complex
- incorporates the evidence that Joseph Smith believed in his work, had pure motives, and was not completely delusional
Oliver Cowdery — Study it Out
Okay. Let’s talk about Oliver Cowdery’s divining rod for a minute. In Doctrine and Covenants section eight and section nine, Oliver Cowdery is given a revelation from God that is given through Joseph Smith. We’re going to go through the original version of this, which is from the Book of Commandments.
“You have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod behold. It has told you things. Behold, there is no other power save God that can cause this rod of nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God. And therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that I will grant to you. Oliver Cowdery’s gift of working with the rod of nature, this is referring to Oliver Cowdery’s divining rod.
Oliver Cowdery had a divining rod. A divining rod was an object similar to a seer stone that kind of had magical elements to it. But people in Joseph Smith’s day believed they were legitimate and that certain people had a competency with a divining rod. This is another thing the church is being more open about.
There’s an article on the church’s website, where you can read all about this and they acknowledge that this is referring to Oliver Cowder’s divining rod, and in the gospel doctrine manual teachers are encouraged to go to this revelations in context article, to give more context about this section in the doctrine and covenants. So it’s not anything we’re trying to hide anymore. Okay, let’s go on.
Behold, you have not understood. You have supposed that I would give it unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
Oliver Cowdery was commanded to take a shot at translating the Book of Mormon using his divining rod. And then he has chastised. And the reason he’s chastised is that he kind of just waited for an answer from God. He didn’t push anything out.
Behold, you have not understood. You have supposes that I would give it unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
Unlike brother of Jared, he just sat there and waited for something. He just sat there and waited for a revelation. Brother. Jared came up with the solution. He presented the Lord with the stones and said, here’s what I want you to do. Oliver Cowdery: nothing. He didn’t have anything to translate. He had no words that he was going for. And so he was chastised by God.
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 not be right, you shall have no such feelings. But you shall have a stupor of thought that you shall cause that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong.
And I think this is great pragmatic advice in a church’s true pragmatic gospel kind of thing. Listen to yourself. Listen to the Holy Ghost inside you. And when your ideas are right, they’re confirmed. And when they’re not, you kind of get that stupor of thought, but in this specific context, this was specific instructions to Oliver Cowdery on how to translate the Book of Mormon. And I think this probably gives us the most important insight into the translation process. If you think about it, what would it mean to study it out? What would it mean to study out a Book of Mormon translation in your mind? And then what would it mean to ask God if it’s right. And if you think about a divining rod, that is kind of how it works. A divining rod is only a yes or no thing. It jumps when you get to the water and then it’s still when there’s no water. So the divining rod would be a binary on, off feedback loop.
This is also some really messy history and it really blows your mind to think about it because I think it’s so different than the traditional. View, but I think this has done most important insight that we have into the translation process.
William Davis — Visions in a Seer Stone
One more piece of research before I get to my theory. And that’s from William Davis who published a book Visions in a Seer Stone this year. In this, his main point is that Joseph Smith dictated the text of the book of Mormon. He talks about this same study it out process that I talked about before. And he sees that Joseph Smith is doing a long study it out process and that he essentially memorized most of what he was going to do through the seer stone. And then he used this technique called heads where you come to a new section and then you start your section with identifying seven or eight heads or headers that you’re going to come to next. And then you kind of blow out each of these heads in detail. It’s basically a memorization technique for preaching long sermons and being able to provide the content that you organized. And I kind of wish that I did my podcast before this book came out, because now it’s going to feel like I’m stealing William Davis’s theory because it’s largely what I’ve come to as my own theory, except for this new head’s memorization concept.
Okay. So here’s how I see it. I think Joseph Smith coming out of the First Vision believed he had a duty and an important work to do. And part of that was to bring forth ancient scripture. I think he had a dream in 1823, that was a real spiritual experience to him where he received information on what he needed to do.
And then I think he went to the Hill Cumorah and had spiritual interactions with the angel Moroni in a way that Joseph Smith viewed this at the beginning as a treasure seeker, treasure guardian kind of thing, where angel Moroni might’ve been more of an antagonist than a helper. Because it’s coming out of his treasure seeking folklore.
And then I think over time that he kind of grew out of that and spiritually matured and viewed the angel Moroni more as the ancient Nephite prophet-angel, instead of a treasure guardian and started viewing the gold plates as strictly a spiritual record and not something that he might profit from. I think that he believes that just like Ann Taves said that obtaining the record was an action that he had to do, that he had responsibility for.
Study it Out — guided by the Holy Ghost
I think he started studying out the message, just like God commanded Oliver Cowdery, I think Joseph had a similar kind of revelation where he believed that God was telling him he needed to study out this story and the Book of Mormon before it’s time to reveal it. I think the seer stone gave Joseph’s spiritual confidence that when he was looking into the seer stone, he was truly getting a message from God.
And I think that’s something that evolved over time from the treasure seeking con method to a spiritual process. So Joseph Smith has got the Book of Mormon worked out in his head. He’s worked on it for years and years. He’s maybe done a lot of this inter-textuality and studied it with the Bible out and worked on it in his head.
Dictation — guided by the Holy Ghost
And now he’s ready to dictate. And I think he viewed dictation as kind of a test to see if he was getting it right. So he would put his head in the hat and look in the seer stone. And now it’s go time. That’s when the Holy Ghost is working through him and he is revealing the word of God through this dictation process.
He’s revealing about 20 minutes of text a day. So about a sacrament talk a day, and you’ve given a sacrament talk where you’ve prepared a ton for it, and then you get up and, but then when you speak, maybe different words come out, the Holy Ghost takes over and different words come out. Or maybe you say it a little bit differently.
Many of us have had this experience giving talks in church where you felt like the Holy Ghost really guided you to say something that was above you. Joseph had many years to study it out. And then when he’s doing the dictation process those 90 days he’s maybe dictating four or five hours a day. And then maybe he’s doing a study it out process, maybe even with Oliver for six or seven hours a day, they’re getting it ready. And then when he’s ready, he puts his head in the seer stone. And now this is the time that the Holy Ghost is revealing the actual text of the book of Mormon.
Theory works for God very involved or not as much involved
And I think this theory works from a very faithful perspective to a more critical perspective. How much do you think that God is inspiring those words and how much spiritual value do you attach to those words? Even if God is not directly providing the words for Joseph.
And I’m doing two things with this podcast and with my blog material. One is I’m sharing my specific view of how I do the restoration and what my testimony is, what I believe in how I see things very clearly. My take. Then another thing that I’m doing is that I’m broadly explaining a paradigm that someone else could take. And then you have a spectrum. Let’s imagine how much God is involved with religion, how much God is involved in inspiring the Book of Mormon. You could go from a lot to a little to not at all.
Answering challenge from Brian Hales
And it all fits my paradigm. And so I’d like to address the Brian Hales argument. Brian Hales is addressing different critical theories of the Book of Mormon conspiracy theory. Joseph Smith was some kind of mentally unhealthy savant. The Book of Mormon was an automatic writing thing. None of these are very compelling.
But the most compelling one is that Joseph did this all through his own intellect. And that’s what Brian Hales addresses with most of his material. And that’s what Tad Callister is addressing. And a lot of apologists are kind of addressing the same. This Book of Mormon is so complex and Joseph Smith is not educated and he dictated it in such a short time period. It’s just impossible. And where they go is that if Joseph Smith couldn’t have done this with his own intellect, then it must be a translation of a historical record.
My response to that is I’m going to put two hats on here. The first hat is someone who takes the inspired, but non-historical 19th century viewpoint, but also believes that God is very involved leading Joseph Smith by the Holy Ghost and putting words in the seer stone. Maybe Joseph is putting a lot of those words himself. But let’s say that the Holy Ghost is overriding them and making them more perfect a large percentage of the time to ensure that the Book of Mormon is exactly what God wants. It’s not historical, but it’s inspired and it’s truly above Joseph’s intellect. That’s my hat number one.
Through this viewpoint, I agree. It’s impossible. He didn’t do it. It’s impossible for him to do it. He’s not smart enough. The Holy Ghost did guide him and consecrate his effort and fix some of those words and phrases to be more perfect in the seer stone.
And then you might ask, well, why would God put a non-historical record in the seer stone? And not tell him and not explain it? And that’s a good question, but honestly, there are a lot of those good questions in the restoration, right? I don’t want to sound more critical than I mean to right now, but there are a dozen of those questions. Why would God do this? Why would God do that about the restoration?
Why Would God inspire a non-historical Book of Mormon?
That question: Why would God do that? That’s frankly, what moved me from a literal believing paradigm into a metaphorical paradigm where God takes a more deist approach and is allowing free agency of humans to manage religion. Those questions over and over again is what moved me into that paradigm. But if you’re speaking from a more literalistic paradigm where God is involved, I don’t think it’s fair to ask that question, in regards to this Book of Mormon translation.
Then on the other side of the spectrum, there’s my viewpoint, which may be that God didn’t directly guide those words in a God-breathed way. And that his inspiration may be something more like a nudge in the general direction. And in that case, that’s a fair question to ask me, how did Joseph Smith do it? And I don’t know, it’s mysterious. Humans are capable of doing a lot of things. Anytime a first is done in the human history, it has no precedent. And there’s probably no precedent for what Joseph Smith did. And it’s brilliant and it’s genius. I do think that it’s within the human experience, what he did. But if you disagree, I’m open to that it could be inspired to be above Joseph’s level. So, if we get down to the nitty gritty and we’re arguing about whether or not it’s possible, I’m fine to just concede that and say, it’s not possible. In some ways, the Spirit consecrated his efforts and made the final output truly above his level.
But my larger message to Brother Callister and Brian Hales is that I think we’re a lot more alike than we are different. Let’s be on the same team. We’re on God’s side and we’re on Joseph Smith’s side and on the Book of Mormon’s side. Please don’t call faithful LDS who love the book of Mormon and call it scripture. Please don’t call us critics because we don’t believe it’s historical.
Richard Bushman on inspired non-historical Book of Mormon
Richard Bushman said:
Some years ago if someone told me the book of Mormon wasn’t historically accurate that it was some kind of modern creation, I would have thought they were heretical. I wouldn’t say that anymore. I think there are faithful Mormons who are unwilling to take a stand on the historicity. I disagree with them. I think it is a historical book, but I recognize that a person can be committed to the gospel in every way. And still have questions about the book of Mormon.
I think there are a lot of faithful LDS who view this in a similar way as me. I’m asking you to address me and address those other people as though we were not critics of the restoration, because we believe that we’re faithful. Boy, I sounded a little bit too much martyr and victim, like right there. Let’s get back on topic.
Is it humanly possible?
So is this humanly possible is what Joseph Smith did humanly possible? You probably saw the documentary Free Solo where the guy’s rock climbing and he goes to attempt this and he’s like falling each time and your heart just stops each time.
He kind of makes us jump any falls. And you’re thinking, dude, how are you going to do this? How are you going to do this for real? When you take the ropes off, you’re going to die. But he says he just gets in this mode when he’s doing it for real, where it just feels like an out of body experience where he just goes.
And he just nails each movement, hand, hand, foot, foot, hand, foot, knee, and he’s climbing it in the perfect way. And what to do next is just jumping into his mind and his fingers are just almost moving outside of his control. And you might think that’s a spiritual process that a human couldn’t do. I think that’s a reasonable take.
Humans do things that are incredible. So this is two ways to take it. You can take it as God, truly directing Joseph Smith, even though it’s not historical, even though Joseph Smith did this study out process and, and it’s coming through him, God is improving it. And the Holy Ghost is consecrating it above Joseph’s ability.
Or you can take this maybe a little bit more humanistic approach where Joseph, Joseph studies it out in his mind. And then he goes to the seer stone and then he’s really connected spiritually and he’s taken to a higher level, but it’s still through the mind of Joseph Smith in a humanistic process.
Was Joseph deluded or fraudulent?
So now all these questions, was he deluded? Was he a fraud? What’s going on? I’m just going to get my own personal view. I think that there was probably some level of pious fraud involved. Pious fraud is when someone does things for the right reasons, but does things maybe not completely above board.
Our scriptures are full of pious fraud. The Old Testament is full of it. The New Testament is full of it. And even in the Doctrine and Covenants, God himself is pulling a little bit of a pious fraud. We’ll go over that one in our book of Abraham episode. I think Joseph had an important work to do. I think he didn’t know how to pull it off, exactly.
I think he made mistakes because of his human weakness, doubting himself and not having confidence that he could pull this off without fudging things a little bit in a pious fraud way.
I also think maybe you could say there’s a little bit of a deluded element where from the Anne Taves model, he believed that God was consecrating this, and maybe that his words actually were Ancient American teachings.
I think there’s probably something to that. He believed in himself. I think maybe he knew he was fudging things a little bit. I think he believed in the gist of what he was doing. I think he probably did believe that there was a true, historical ancient core to what he was doing. Paul says whether out of the body or in the body, he doesn’t know. And I think there’s an element of that where Joseph Smith is wrapped up into the spiritual world so tightly, and it’s so real to him that the differences between the spiritual world and the physical world, sometimes the lines are blurred.
I also think another element of this is that a lot of these clean versions of these stories are produced many, many years later, more than a decade later. And I think sometimes the memory is blurred and you’re misremembering some things. And I think that’s the reason that some of these original stories get blurred over time.
I also think one more element of this is that other people are writing his story and maybe he allows that to happen and lets the fire grow without putting it down. Or sometimes these stories are created and the official versions are cemented and become official after he’s dead. He’s obviously not responsible for that. And people that do make these things official are so far removed from the actual history that they’re not doing things fraudulently, they’re doing things how they see them.
So all of these things have contributed into us misunderstanding our own history. Now it’s our job as the church to make it right. And we’re in the process of that. It’s going to be a tough process. It’s going to take a generation, maybe a couple of generations, but we’re moving along and we’re doing it.
Authentic religious experience
And what I want to make clear also is that I believe that this is an authentic religious experience. That is no different from any other religious experience we have in any of our scriptures, old Testament, new Testament, or any other religious tradition. I don’t see anything wrong with the Joseph Smith story that invalidates our religion or invalidates his experience or the book of Mormon.
Don Bradley — history is messy but shows Joseph’s sincerity
Don Bradley is an LDS scholar who left the church. He resigned from the church over these historical problems. He felt like Joseph Smith was a fraud and that it was all not true. And he did not want to be a part of it and resigned. He then continued to study Joseph Smith and then eventually regained a testimony of Joseph Smith. And it was rebaptized and he’s still doing great research and he has a very nuanced testimony.
But what he says is that the more he studies Joseph, the more pure he sees his motives, the more sincere he looks. And it’s messy. Like the more you study it, the messier it gets, there’s no end to the messiness. But in each instance, you see the sincerity and you see that Joseph was having an authentic religious experience.
I think Don Bradley has posted on this Ann Taves materialization theory. I think he does not believe that the gold plates are ancient. I’m not sure where he stands on Mormon historicity, but I know that he has some very nuanced views on the book of Mormon. He didn’t come back to his old, dominant narrative, fundamentalistic, literalistic testimony, but he came back into the church with this new reconstructed, but very vibrant and deep testimony of the restoration.
And I’m no Don Bradley, but I look at this and I have the same feelings. Initially, it might take you to a dark place and it looks like Joseph Smith is a fraud and it looks like this whole thing is just BS, but the more you study, there’s some light in there.
And the more you study it, the light comes out and you see that he’s having an authentic religious experience. And he’s trying to get his people to catch that vision. Maybe he’s not always doing it perfect.
Greg Prince says that Joseph Smith had spiritual experience. And then he created symbols that were very effective in helping his followers have that same spiritual, religious experience.
And we are a benefits of that today. And those symbols don’t always make sense in a scientific, secular world when we really shine a light on them, but that’s okay. We have a beautiful religion because of it.