Seer Stones and Grammar

Book of Mormon translation is one of those interesting subjects that is central to the ongoing Book of Mormon wars.  As well, to me, one interesting aspect about the Book of Mormon is how self-aware of its own creation it is.  For example, in Mosiah 8 (part of this week’s “Come, Follow Me” discussion), there is a discussion about seership and the use of “interpreters” that allow the owner to “look, and translate all records that are of an ancient date” (Mosiah 8:13).  In the case discussed in the scriptures, the seer is King Mosiah II and the record is the Jaradite plates that Zeniff’s colony discovered.  While it doesn’t explicitly link this to the future translation of the Book of Mormon, it is interesting to be given a glimpse into the same method that Joseph Smith said he used to produce the Book of Mormon being used within the Book of Mormon.

Ultimately, we don’t know much about the process by which the Book of Mormon was brought to us or the role of seer stones (interpreters) in that process.  There is a mountain of conflicting evidence to sift through in trying to pin down a viable theory of translation.  As Grant Hardy wrote: “There is still no consensus among LDS scholars as to how the translation process worked.  Some think that Joseph received spiritual impressions through the seer stone that he then put into his own words, while other believe—along with the early eyewitnesses—that Joseph read aloud a preexisting translation that appeared in the stone.”[1]  While the latter seems to be the more common understanding of the translation process in the Church, an early proponent of the former understanding was the influential general authority and apologist B. H. Roberts.

One of the difficulties with the idea that Joseph Smith read a word-for-word text off as though the seer stone was a kindle book is the fact that the text of the Book of Mormon has been edited and changed over the years.  Some changes are minor, resulting from the fact that there was no punctuation used in the original transcript and sometimes scribes misspelled words or mis-copied words for the printer’s manuscript.  Other changes were meant to improve the language and flow of the Book of Mormon, such as the change in Enos from “I went to hunt beasts in the forest; and the words which I had often heard my father speak, concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, and the words of my father, sunk deep into my heart” to: “I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.”[2]  Yet others are more significant in their effect on the theology of the text, such as the change from “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father” to “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father” throughout Nephi’s apocalyptic vision.[3]  While these changes are understandable and many of them were made by Joseph Smith in the 1837 or 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon, they challenge the narrative of a preexisting translation that appeared in the seer stone.  The difficulty these changes pose was summarized by one U.S. Senator involved in the Reed Smoot hearings when he asked a senior Church leader: “You mean to say, that in an inspired communication from the Almighty, the grammar was bad, was it?  You corrected the grammar of the Almighty, did you?”[4]

Elder B. H. Roberts was aware of this difficulty and became a long-term proponent of the idea that Joseph Smith received spiritual impressions through the seer stone that he then formed them into his own words.  He noted that the quip from the senator was being repeated by bemused youth in Utah, and Elder Roberts told an audience of those youth that: “In a direct revelation from the Lord, there is no imperfection, but where the Almighty uses a man as an instrument, the manner in which that revelation is imparted to may receive a certain human coloring from the prophet through whom it comes.”  He compared this to a prism, where white light passes through it and “is changed from the single white ray to the various colors of which it is composed: blue, orange, red, green, etc.”  This, according to Roberts, is what happens with revelations: “the white ray of God’s inspiration, falling upon different men … receives different colorings or expressions through them, according to their own characteristics.”  In viewing the Book of Mormon as a revelation, Elder Roberts felt that it had received some coloration from Joseph Smith.  Hence, “if it had pleased God, in his wisdom, to appoint the mission of translating the Book of Mormon to a learned man, we would have had a translation of that book without blemish, so far as grammar is concerned.”  The fact that God had not chosen a learned man and that there are imperfections in the grammar of the Book of Mormon didn’t bother Roberts, however, because “the essential thing in a revelation is the truth … [and] any imperfection in mere utterance of a truth amounts to little or nothing.”[5]  This is how B. H. Roberts understood the implications of the idea that the translation of the Book of Mormon was more a revelation than a linguistic translation.

Elder Roberts advocated this idea elsewhere, such as his multi-volume study of the Book of Mormon, New Witnesses for God, and various periodical articles.  He explicitly rejected the idea that “the Lord is responsible not only for the thought, but also for the language of [the Book of Mormon because] … the words of the translation [were] read off through stone spectacles,” stating that he “refuse to accept this statement of the case.”  His reasoning for doing so was that: “I do not believe that the Lord is responsible for any defect of language that occurs here in the Book of Mormon, or any other revelation.”[6]  He also expressed that bad grammar in English wouldn’t be the result of flaws in grammar by the original authors as recorded on the plates, since “such a thing as an absolute literal translation, or word for word bringing over from one language into another is out of the question; that for the most part such a literal translation would be meaningless.”[7]  Further, he pointed out that “English idioms [and] New York localisms” are used in the Book of Mormon, indicating that “the whole body of phraseology is of the time and place where the work of translation was done.”  He rejected the evidence used to indicate that the Book of Mormon was given word-for-word through the seer stones as being based on “having accepted too literally the necessarily second-hand accounting, given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer, of the manner in which the translation was done.”[8]  Hence, Elder Roberts felt that the idea of Joseph Smith parroting words given him directly by God was inaccurate because of blemishes in the language of the Book of Mormon, which he believed would not have resulted from God dictating the text.

Instead, Elder Roberts advocated an idea that he felt met the criticisms while still maintaining “that the translation of the Book of Mormon was made by a man inspired of God, and aided by an instrument of divine appointment.”[9]  He stated that:

It should not be supposed … that this translation though accomplished by means of the ‘”Interpreters” and “Seer Stone,” … was merely a mechanical procedure; that no faith, or mental or spiritual effort was required on the prophet’s part; that the instruments did all, while he who used them did nothing but look and repeat mechanically what he saw there reflected. … [Instead, it] required the utmost concentration of mental and spiritual force possessed by the Prophet, in order to exercise the gift of translation through the means of the sacred instruments provided for that work.[10]

As such, Roberts felt that “while Joseph Smith obtained the facts and ideas from the Nephite characters through the inspiration of God, he was left to express those facts and ideas, in the main, in such language as he could command.”[11]  Thus, Roberts asserted that the seer stone was “by no means the principal factor in the work; its place must forever be regarded as secondary; it was an aid to the prophet, not he an aid to it.”[12]

This idea has some support in the attempt Oliver Cowdery made at translating the Book of Mormon.  One revelation stated that Cowdery could have the chance to translate.  A second revelation explained that Cowdery needed to “ask with an honest heart believeing that ye Shall receive,” followed which, he would be told what to do “in your mind & in your heart by the Holy Ghost which Shall come upon you.”  This revelation also reminded Cowdery that “without faith ye can do nothing.”[13]  After making the attempt and failing, Joseph Smith sought another revelation for Cowdery to explain why he wasn’t able to translate.  The response was that:

Behold ye have not understood ye have Supposed that I would give it unto you when ye took no thought save it was to ask me but Behold I say unto you that ye must study it out in your mind then ye must ask me if it be right & if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you therefore ye shall feel that it is right but if it be not right ye shall have no such feelings but ye shall have stupor of thought.[14]

This indicates that the process involved praying, studying things out, and then seeking confirmation through the Holy Spirit.  The process described here seems more in line with B. H. Roberts’s theory of a loose translation by revelation rather than a strict translation involving specific words being displayed in the seer stone.

As mentioned at the outset, however, we really don’t have enough information to make sense of how seer stones worked in translation for Joseph Smith.  There are difficulties and problems with understanding the translation process being impressions through the seer stone that Joseph Smith then put into his own words, as proposed by B. H. Roberts, just as there are with the idea that the Prophet read aloud a preexisting translation that appeared in the stone.  That being said, I enjoy exploring Elder Roberts’s words on the subject because he was one of the great minds of Mormonism at the turn of the twentieth century who grappled with many of the difficulties with the foundational narratives of our religion that we are still grappling with today.  I also appreciate that he was able to explore and share this idea in official Church publications as a high-ranking Church leader.  Ultimately, we should probably stick to the basic statement by Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon was translated by the “gift and power of God” and that he didn’t intend “to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon,” leaving the subject open to interpretation.[15]

 

Footnotes:

Lead image from “Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829–circa January 1830,” p. 131, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 27, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/printers-manuscript-of-the-book-of-mormon-circa-august-1829-circa-january-1830/135

[1] Grant Hardy, “Brief History of the Text,” in The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ: Maxwell Institute Study Edition, ed. Grant Hardy (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2018).

[2] Compare “Book of Mormon, 1830,” p. 143, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 22, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-mormon-1830/149 to Enos 1:3, parts that were changed are bolded.

[3] Compare “Book of Mormon, 1830,” p. 25, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 22, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-mormon-1830/31 to 1 Nephi 11:21, changes bolded.

[4] Cited in B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 359-360, https://archive.org/details/improvementera0805unse/page/358/mode/2up.

[5] B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 364-365, https://archive.org/details/improvementera0805unse/page/364/mode/2up.

[6] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vol. (Vol. 1: Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons, 1895. Vol. 2 & 3: Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1903-1908), 3:410-411.

[7] Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:411-412.

[8] Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:413-414.

[9] Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:413.

[10] Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 2:110-111.

[11] B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News: 1907- 1912), 1:271-273.

[12] Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:423.

[13] “Revelation, April 1829–B [D&C 8],” p. 13, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 27, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-april-1829-b-dc-8/2

[14] “Revelation Book 1,” p. 14, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 27, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-book-1/8

[15] Preface to the Book of Mormon, 1830 edition and Minutes, Church conference, Orange, OH, Oct. 25–26, 1831, in Minute Book 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, available at josephsmithpapers.org.  Cited in “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng

16 comments for “Seer Stones and Grammar

  1. Mark B.
    April 28, 2020 at 7:39 am

    Speaking of grammar, the past tense of “sink” is “sank” so those words of Enos’s father “sank into” his heart. So nearly 200 years later the Almighty still hasn’t managed to fix it.

  2. SDS
    April 28, 2020 at 8:43 am

    Mark: Actually, both “sank” and “sunk” can serve as the past tense of “sink.” “Sunk” has been used by sources as respectable as Samuel Johnson and the King James Bible. See https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/01/honey-i-sunk-the-boat.html

  3. SDS
    April 28, 2020 at 9:54 am

    Also, really interesting and informative post, as usual.

  4. Wally
    April 28, 2020 at 10:40 am

    I’m surprised, frankly, that you don’t even mention Royal Skousen’s thirty-year Critical Text Project and the evidence he has produced and the conclusions he has reached. The textual evidence for Joseph reading the text rather than concocting it in his head from spiritual promptings is very strong. B. H. Roberts did not have the evidence Skousen has unearthed. When you look at the large amount of KJV text repeated in the BoM (including a lot from the New Testament) and a variety of Protestant teachings and verbiage, it raises lots of questions about just what this “translation” is. Skousen is convinced it is not a direct translation from whatever was on the plates but was rather a creative and cultural “translation.”

  5. Chad Nielsen
    April 28, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Thanks SDS. I appreciate it.

    Wally, I considered doing more comparing of Roberts’s theory with other theories like Skousen’s or Ostler’s explanations, but there were a couple reasons why I did not.

    First, Book of Mormon translation is a big subject and I haven’t read as much as I’d like to before I would feel comfortable covering a lot more on the topic. Admittedly, I’m aware of the Critical Text Project and recognize that Skousen’s work is important, but I’m still trying to catch up on Book of Mormon studies this year and have quite a few blind spots in my reading, including Skousen’s writings. My career is in biotech and I have a family, so even though it’s a passion of mine, the time and resources that I can devote to religious studies aren’t limitless. I was better informed on Roberts’s thoughts because of a project I started a few years ago with the intent of compiling a book to possibly submit for consideration in the “Excerpts from the Writings of …” series that Deseret Book started with the books on Talmage and Nibley (which I haven’t gotten around to ever finishing).

    Second, this is a blog post and even though it’s a longer one, I still made some efforts to keep it short. Most of the time, I try to keep my more in-depth posts as close to 2000 words as possible for the main body of text. That resulted, for better or worse, in it focusing almost exclusively on Roberts’s thoughts and cutting a few paragraphs that did discuss other theories of translation.

    My apologies for not covering more recent work on the subject as a result, but thank you for pointing out some relevant and important literature on the subject.

  6. The Other Clark
    April 28, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Fascinating topic. Definitely worth doing a series of posts. Maybe Wally can do the next one summarizing the Skousen theory.

  7. Sam Smith
    April 28, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    A third theory that has been around for a while, but is emerging more and more within believerdom is that the words are all a product of Joseph Smith’s imagination, and informed by texts, speeches, debates, and ideas in his immediate environment that both influenced and were filtered through his imaginative powers, and do not reflect any ideas, beliefs, or experiences of ancient Americans. The taboos against exploring this idea seem to be beginning to be lifted, at least in the bloggernacle. I think that it is a plausible theory with a lot of merit and evidence. However, the folks at BYU, an environment with the most resources and support to explore Book of Mormon translation theories in the most depth, have fought hard against, and will likely continue to fight hard against, the spread of this idea declaring its subscribers to be heretics and enemies. But for the question of Book of Mormon provenance to enter a larger academic discussion that is not de facto restricted to believers in the LDS church and believers in BOM historicity, the academic environment among LDS believers needs to be further strengthened to the point that it can tolerate and entertain this controversial, yet important, theory. I would like to see Skousen and Vogel, for instance, on a panel discussing respectfully two competing theories.

  8. Bryan in VA
    April 29, 2020 at 6:50 am

    Not sure there is a theological change between the phrases “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father” and “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father”. Isaiah 9:6 refers to Christ as the “Everlasting Father” and Mosiah 15:2 refers to Christ as both “the Father and the Son”. This dual role of Christ is mentioned several places in scripture.

  9. Ethan R
    April 29, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Bryan in VA, this is not the only time in the BOM that “Son of” is added to clarify the difference between God the Father and Jesus Christ. If anything, it indicates that Joseph Smith likely believed that God was one in substance and then after the publication of the Book of Mormon adopted the idea of God and Jesus Christ as separate in substance (Godhead theology) and modified the BOM to reflect his changed understanding. The 1832 First Vision account shows a similar pattern, showing Joseph Smith saw a single being.
    The 1838 account, used by missionaries to tell the Joseph Smith story to investigators, has Joseph Smith seeing two beings reflecting a separate-in-substance theology.

  10. Bryan in VA
    April 30, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    Ethan R, you refer to “one in substance” and don’t further indicate whether you’re referring to the classic doctrine of the Trinity. If you are then the “substance” would be an immaterial substance or essence, but I don’t know based on your comment. In 1830 Lucy Mack Smith wrote “the different denominations are very much opposed to us…. The Methodists also come, and they rage, for they worship a God without body or parts, and they know that our faith comes in contact with this principle.” So, it would seem odd for The Prophet’s mother in 1830 to be opposed to the doctrine of an immaterial God and then have Joseph Smith writing in 1832 that alludes to an immaterial God. Maybe you’re referring to one in a physical substance. If that’s the case, that would be a different discussion.

  11. Ethan R
    April 30, 2020 at 7:17 pm

    Bryan, thanks for the comment. I was unaware of the Lucy Mack Smith quote, so thanks for enlightening me on that point. Still, I don’t think that this quote causes me to alter my thinking from my original point. I don’t see evidence that Joseph Smith taught a distinct Godhead idea, where God the Father and Jesus are separate, until after 1832. Joseph Smith’s beliefs about the nature of God most certainly evolved over time. Early on, he teaches that God has a physical body, yes, which sets him apart from other preachers and denominations, which teach that God is non-corporeal. But both the BOM and 1832 First Vision account seem pretty clear that Joseph Smith’s view of God is closer to Trinitarianism and modalism, then sometime between 1832 and 1838 he adopts the idea that Jesus and God the Father are two different personages, and then in the Nauvoo period he promotes the idea of eternal progression with God being as man once was and man being able to become a god.

  12. Bryan in VA
    April 30, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    Ethan R, I obviously can’t convince you that Joseph Smith didn’t learn over time, after all, we all, including prophets, learn line about line, precept upon precept. But, I don’t think you understand the doctrine of the Trinity. (Most Latter-day Saints don’t as don’t many Catholics and Protestants.) Let’s examine your statements.

    1. “Early on, he teaches that God has a physical body”

    The doctrine of the Trinity is that God the Father is composed of an immaterial spirit essence, and that God preexisted everything and created everything material out of nothing. By you saying that Joseph Smith taught early on a physical aspect of God, you just put a huge distance between Joseph Smith and a Trinitarian. The Trinitarian would ask. “How can God consist of something He himself created?”

    2. “then sometime between 1832 and 1838 he adopts the idea that Jesus and God the Father are two different personages”.

    The doctrine of the Trinity in a nutshell is that of “One God, Three Persons”. Trinitarians believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are 3 separate persons, with each of these persons being aware of the other two. Yet each is the same one God. You stating that Joseph Smith adopts the idea of the Father and the Son are separate personages is the same as saying that Joseph Smith is moving from a non-Trinitarian concept to a Trinitarian concept of God.

    Perhaps you were not aware that Trinitarians believe that Jesus has two natures – both “fully God” and “fully man”. Joseph Smith refutes this in D&C 93:13 “And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness”

    I’d be highly suprised if someone were able to dig up a statement from Joseph Smith before D&C 93 stating the Trinitarian notion that Christ was fully God and fully man.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents worth…

  13. Ethan R
    May 1, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Bryan, you’re right that Joseph Smith wasn’t a Trinitarian when he dictated the Book of Mormon to his scribes, but he still appeared partial to the concept of oneness of essence, emphasized in Trinitarianism. As far as logical consistency goes, maintaining a corporeal God and the doctrine of the Trinity probably isn’t logically consistent, but Joseph Smith’s earlier understanding of God wasn’t necessarily logically consistent.

    My sense is that Joseph Smith, before the Book of Mormon, had some differences with Trinitarianism, but it took him until after the Book of Mormon and his 1832 First Vision Account to articulate those in greater detail. JS clearly had an experimental mind that thought outside the box well before the Book of Mormon. I wouldn’t expect him to be fully in line with Trinitarian teachings early on. But some elements of Trinitarian teaching clearly seemed to linger. The changes in the Book of Mormon (adding Son of) reflect Joseph Smith’s changed and evolving concept of God and are evidence that Joseph Smith injected his own beliefs and ideas into the Book of Mormon narrative. Maintaining this purist concept, that the words of the Book of Mormon were not at all Joseph Smith’s, is hard to maintain under scrutiny.

  14. Bryan in VA
    May 2, 2020 at 7:52 am

    Ethan R, I think you have a heavy lift ahead of you attempting to show Joseph Smith taught oneness of essence early on. In the Book of Mormon (1829) we have these verses showing separation of the Father and the Son:

    1 Nephi 1:8-10 talks of “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels” and then “One [Christ] descending out of the midst of heaven”

    3 Nephi 28:10 …your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fullness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am…

    And from the Pearl of Great Price (June-December 1830)

    Moses 1:6 And I [God] have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten [Christ]; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all

    Moses 6:8, 9 In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; in the image of his own body, male and female, created he them

    And just a another historical note, W. W. Phelps joined the Church in June 1831. In 1835 he wrote:

    I was not a professor at the time, nor a believer in sectarian religion, but a believer in God, and the Son of God, as two distinct characters, and a believer in sacred scripture. I had long been searching for the “old paths,” that I might find the right way and walk in it, and after a suitable time to investigate the work, and prove its truth by corresponding evidence from the old bible, and by the internal witness of the spirit, according to the rules of holiness, I embraced it for the truth’s sake, and all honest men who seek a better world, will “go and do likewise.” (W.W. Phelps, Letter No. 7,” The Latter-day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 8 [May 1835], p. 115, emphasis added)

  15. May 3, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    For some reason, since reading this I’ve thought a lot about the forest vs forests example from Enos. What if Enos really wrote forests (plural), and it was properly communicated to Joseph Smith as forests with an s, but then later when Joseph Smith was reading the Book of Mormon later, thought that sounded grammatically incorrect and changed it? I don’t think it’s doctrinally significant, and the only harm might be Enos being upset because he really wanted to emphasis his hunting in multiple forests. But since it’s doctrinally insignificant the Lord didn’t prevent Joseph Smith from changing it.
    I wonder if there was something where Joseph Smith was pondering if he should change it, but was moved upon by the spirit to not to.

  16. Blake Ostler
    May 4, 2020 at 11:54 am

    Sam Smith: there is a good reason not to address the “third theory” as a theory of translation because it is not a theory of translation at all but of writing fiction and denying how both the book and Joseph Smith presented the Book of Mormon. Everyone is well aware of the view that JS just made it all up. Indeed, it has been the view of virtually all who rejected Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon since before it even went to press and anyone had even read it. It hardly merits mention in discussion an OP on theories of translation of the Book of Mormon.

Charitable Comments Welcome. Please follow our comment policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.