Facts supporting the truth of the Book of Mormon

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Translating the Book of Mormon

Michael R. Ash, “Translating the Book of Mormon” Meridian Magazine, June 27,2013

Michael R. Ash

Michael R. Ash

Golden Plates

How did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon? Joseph didn’t share many details of the translation process other than the fact that he received the translation by the gift and power of God. In order to develop any theories on how it was done we must to turn to clues from those who witnessed the events. When we examine those details we quickly discover that the translation process may not have been like what many members have envisioned.

As I began to write this article (based on my promise in the last installment) a friend of mine coincidentally published a detailed discussion of this topic in the new Interpreter on-line journal so I’ll provide a link at the end of this article for those who want more depth on this fascinating subject.

The average member’s mental image of Joseph translating the plates is generally formed from artwork in Church magazines and comments from Sunday school teachers rather than from a critical examination of the historical evidence.

Unfortunately most artists are not historians and may produce beautiful drawings and paintings that are based on misassumptions. Some wonderful LDS artwork, for example, depicts Caucasian-looking Nephites with romance-novel cover-model physiques wielding broadswords and Viking-like helmets—none of which fits the actual images that could be created for how early American warriors would have looked or the weapons they would have utilized.

The average painting of the Savior typically falls victim to similar problems with features generally based on the cultural or theological perspectives of the artist rather than on historical accuracy.[i] Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” for example, depicts European-looking men sitting at a regular table instead of Middle Eastern men reclining at the low tables of Jesus’ day. An Italian Renaissance portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus has a Renaissance castle and town in the background, and the 1569 “Census of Bethlehem” by a Belgian artist depicts snow and ice-skaters in what appears to be a Renaissance Belgium village.[ii]

Some Church art of the Book of Mormon translation shows Joseph studiously looking at the plates with one finger on the engraved letters as if he could actually read what each character said. Some show Joseph reading the characters to his scribe Oliver Cowdery with the plates exposed in full view of them both. Other images show Joseph dictating to a scribe sitting on the opposite side of a curtain. A few images show Joseph looking at the plates through the Nephite Interpreters. All of these images are incorrect.

First, while a curtain may have been used between Joseph and Martin Harris (the first Book of Mormon scribe) the majority of the text was translated in the open while the plates were covered with a cloth. The plates were never in open view and were only exposed to others as instructed by the Lord when they were shown to witnesses. A curtain or blanket appears to have been draped across the entry to the living room at the Whitmer house (where much of the translation took place) in order to give Joseph and his scribe privacy from curious on-lookers while they worked.[iii] This curtain was apparently not present all of the time, however, because other Whitmer family members were witnesses to the translation process.

While some LDS artwork doesn’t depict any translating tools, most informed members are aware of the Nephite “Interpreters” that Moroni put in the stone box with the plates so Joseph would have a tool for translating. According to those who handled the Interpreters they were like large spectacles with stones or crystals in place of lenses.

Many of the details on the Book of Mormon translation method become lost or muddied over time. Part of this confusion was the result of the fact that some early Latter-day Saints began referring to the Interpreters as the “Urim and Thummim”—a reference to a device in the Old Testament that was associated with the High Priest’s breastplate and used for divination or for receiving answers from God (see Exodus 28:30).The early Saints didn’t think that the Nephite Interpreters were the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Bible but were another Urim and Thummim given for translating the plates.

Unfortunately the Interpreters didn’t come with instructions and Joseph was apparently left on his own as to how to use them. This is when his cultural background came in handy.

It’s important first to return to D&C 1:24 which tells us that God speaks to His children (including the prophets) in “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Our “language” includes more than words, but also how we understand the world around us. My “language” is different than the language of Joseph Smith, or Moses, or Gandhi. In Abraham’s day it was believed that the disc-shaped earth was covered with an inverted heavenly bowl that contained a heavenly ocean. Windows would open periodically to let out the rains.

In Joseph Smith’s day many of the frontiersmen in his vicinity believed that divining rods and seer stones could be used to find water, lost objects, and treasures. The ability to divine was generally considered to be a God-given gift and was practiced by devoutly religious men and women.

Long prior to acquiring the plates the young Joseph Smith was a believer in divination. In fact, he and his friends and family believed that he had the God-given gift to find lost objects by way of a seer stone. Seer stones were thought to be special stones in which one could see the location of the object for which one was divining. The seer stones were related to crystal balls or the practice of looking into pools of water or mirrors to divine information (such as the Queen’s magic mirror in the Snow White tale).

While this seems strange in modern times, in Joseph’s day many intelligent, educated, and religious people believed that such real powers existed in the forces of nature. Well into the nineteenth-century, for instance, a number of people believed in alchemy—the belief that baser metals could be turned into gold. Some of New England’s practicing alchemists were graduates from Yale and Harvard and one alchemist was the Chief Justice of Massachusetts.[iv]

In order to see inside of the stone, it was sometimes placed between one’s eye and the flicker of a candle, or into something dark—such as an upside down hat—to shield out all light. It was believed that in such an environment a seer (someone who “sees”) could stare into the stone for the information one was seeking.

When Joseph first acquired the Nephite Interpreters he also tried placing them into a hat to shield the light. Although he apparently managed to translate the 116 lost pages by this method he complained that he had a hard time fitting the spectacles into the hat and that the two lenses were set too far apart—and were apparently made for someone with a broader face. It gave him eyestrain when he stared into the lenses.

After Joseph lost the first 116 pages, the Interpreters and his gift to translate were temporarily taken away. Eventually, after repenting, Joseph’s gift was returned but instead of using the Nephite Interpreters Joseph was allowed to use his seer stone to finish the translating process. In Joseph’s “language” the seer stone had the same properties as the Interpreters and was therefore also a Urim and Thummin. So when many early records speak of Joseph translating by way of the Urim and Thummim they are generally referring to the seer stone and not the Interpreters. Unfortunately, through time, members had forgotten about the seer stone (as divination become less accepted by society) and eventually most members assumed that the only Urim and Thummim Joseph used was the Interpreters.

The seer stone made the translating process much easier and we read that Joseph would sit for hours, his face in the hat—to obscure the light—while he saw the English translation of the Book of Mormon text that he dictated to his scribes.

While such an image may shock modern members, we have to remember that the Lord works through the culture of His children and speaks to them in language (words, symbols, and methods) through which they can understand. If one can accept that Nephite Interpreters could be used to translate an ancient document, is it really a wonder that God might have prepared Joseph with the cultural belief in seer stones so that he would be receptive to the workings of the Interpreters or that he believed that his seer stone was a Urim and Thummin like the Interpreters.

In reality the major difference between the average-member-view of the Book of Mormon translation (Joseph looked into the crystals in the Interpreters) vs the historical view (Joseph looked into a seer stone in a hat) is the “hat”—one is a stone or crystal out of the hat; the other is in a hat.

Joseph, of course, was not alone in believing in unscientific things in a world that didn’t have today’s advantages of scientific knowledge. The Bible records several instances or forms of divining as practiced by the righteous followers of God. We read that Aaron had a magical rod (Exodus 7:9–12). Jacob also used magical rods to cause Laban’s cattle to produce spotted and speckled offspring (see Genesis 30:37–39). In Numbers 5 we read about a magical test for adultery in which the priest would give the suspect a potion to drink. If the woman was guilty, her thigh would swell (v. 11–13, 21). The Old Testament records that the Joseph had a silver cup by which “he divineth” (Genesis 44:2, 5). This convention, known as hydromancy, was also practiced by the surrounding pagans. The casting of lots (sortilege) to choose a new Apostle (see Acts 1:26) was known and practiced by the pagans of Jesus’ day. Even some of Christ’s miracles were similar to the magic of surrounding pagans. Jesus’ healing of the deaf man by putting his fingers in his ears (Mark 7:33–35) and Jesus’ healing of the blind man by touching his eyes with spittle and clay were also common pagan practices.

Although the historical picture of the Book of Mormon translation process is not as commonly known to some members as it perhaps should be, despite the cries of critics the Church hasn’t been hiding this information. It has been mentioned for instance in the Ensign,[v] (one instance in which the talk was originally given to Mission Presidents[vi]), the Friend,[vii] as well as other LDS-targeted publications.

As we continue our discussion of scriptures and translation in subsequent installments it’s important to note that from the historical record we also learn that Joseph translated in plain sight of other witnesses and that, because his face was buried in a hat to exclude light, it would have been impossible for him to be reading the text of another document while he dictated the translation.

For those who would like to read a much more detailed paper on this topic I recommend Roger Nicholson’s new Interpreter article, “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation” as well as Brant Gardner’s award winning book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon.

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org

[ii] http://en.fairmormon.org

[iii] “David Whitmer Interview with Chicago Tribune, 15 December 1885,” in Early Mormon Documents, ed., Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2003), 5:153.

[iv] Cited in Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, 2nd ed. (Redding CA: FAIR, 2013), 282.

[v] Richard Lloyd Anderson, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign (September 1977), 80; Gerrit Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous are the Revelations of God,” Ensign (January 2013), 46 (while Dirkmaat doesn’t mention the hat, he does explain that Joseph sometimes used a seer stone [also referred to as a Urim and Thummim] to receive revelation.)

[vi] Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign (July 1993). (Like Anderson [above] Nelson does mention both the seer stone and hat).

[vii] “A Peaceful Heart,” Friend (September 1974). (This article doesn’t mention the hat but does mention the “egg-shaped, brown rock… called a seer stone.”)

Book of Mormon’s consistency, complexity still amaze

Dan Peterson, “Book of Mormon’s consistency, complexity still amaze” Deseret News, Oct. 27, 2011

Even setting aside its doctrinal richness and its vital importance as a second witness for the Savior Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon is a strikingly complex document — far more so, probably, than most of its readers realize.

It features hundreds of individual characters, many of them bearing quite uncommon names, who belong to a multitude of groups, subgroups and small factions. It describes three migrations from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western Hemisphere. It employs at least three distinct dating systems.

Yet, amazingly — and particularly so for a book that was dictated within a remarkably short time, at high speed (roughly nine to 11 pages of the English printed edition per day) — it’s internally consistent. It doesn’t contradict itself.

It both presupposes and reflects a complicated geographical backdrop to its stories, involving scores of place names and topographical indicators. Yet places maintain their proper relationships to each other even when they’re mentioned only a few times over hundreds of pages.

Furthermore, the book itself, as a work of literature, is structurally complex.

For instance, many important sections of the book are prefaced by statements that give readers a forecast of what’s coming — and are then followed by summaries of what has just been read.

It seems unlikely that a semiliterate young farmer could, while dictating at such speed, recall what he had promised in his prefaces and then remember to finish off such sections with appropriate summaries.

And this is to say nothing of the extended chiasms throughout the book. It’s to leave unmentioned the way in which the book’s purported ancient authors sometimes quote from each other (e.g. in 1 Nephi 1:8 and Alma 36:22, passages dictated orally many days apart). Nor does it take account of other subtle literary features that modern scholars have only recently begun to recognize and to study in the Book of Mormon.

Some critics, understandably challenged by the book’s consistency within complexity, have sought to dismiss it, pointing out that, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, too, is both complicated and consistent.

This is, in its way, a very high, though entirely unintended, compliment. I’m a devoted admirer of Tolkien’s writing and have been one for many years; I regard it as perhaps the greatest sustained achievement in 20th-century English letters. But Professor Tolkien, an Oxford-trained linguist and medievalist who eventually occupied the chair of English literature at Merton College, Oxford, meticulously crafted Middle Earth over a period extending from 1914 to at least 1949, when the last volume of "The Lord of the Rings" appeared. (He actually kept tinkering with it until his death in late 1973; his "Silmarillion" was published posthumously.)

Joseph Smith, by contrast, a Yankee farm boy with only a few weeks of formal education, dictated the Book of Mormon in slightly more than two months, and published it without significant revision.

To those who don’t find this impressive, I say: Dictate an original manuscript of approximately a quarter of a million words between now and New Year’s Day, and then get back to me. (I’m being generous. According to one count, the English Book of Mormon actually contains 268,163 words.) And anybody who attempts this feat, don’t forget, will almost certainly be far better educated than Joseph Smith was.

The intricate structure and detailed complexity of the Book of Mormon seem far better explained as the work of several ancient writers using various written sources over the space of centuries than exploding suddenly from the mind of a barely educated manual laborer on the American frontier.

A good brief statement on this topic, from which I’ve drawn for this column, is Melvin J. Thorne’s 1997 article "Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities," which is available online.

"It is too complex," says Dr. Thorne of the Book of Mormon, "to have been written by Joseph in the manner and in the amount of time described by witnesses. Indeed, it is too complex to have been written by Joseph in the manner hypothesized by his enemies or critics. Ultimately, it appears to be too complex to have been written by Joseph or any of his contemporaries in the early nineteenth century under any conceivable set of circumstances other than the one Joseph describes — the translation by miraculous means of an authentically ancient document."

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

© 2011 Deseret News Publishing Company | All rights reserved

The Book of Mormon and the Manuscripts

Grant Hardy, "The Book of Mormon and the Manuscripts", Meridian Magazine, Nov. 16, 2010grant_hardy_article


When the King James Bible was first published in 1611, it was based on the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that were available to the translators.  In the four centuries since then, thousands of biblical manuscripts and fragments have been discovered.  Perhaps the most exciting of these new finds were the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were nearly a thousand years older than anything that scholars had ever seen before.  Because these early manuscripts were copied by hand, they all differed slightly from each other, and in some cases they preserved readings that were superior to those that underlie the King James Version.  Most of the differences are rather minor, but there are gems among them (though one has to consult modern translations to gain access to them).

Here are four quick examples:

2 Samuel 13:21-22.  The story of Absalom killing his brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar is grim in any version, but the KJV simply has, “when king David heard of all these things, he was very wroth.  And Absalom spake unto his brother Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had forced his sister Tamar.”  But notice the key narrative element added by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation), and various manuscripts: “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon . . .” (New Revised Standard Version).  Sometimes, as David tragically learned, looking upon sin with leniency only leads to further, more serious problems.

Psalms 145:13.  The KJV, following 15th century Hebrew texts, reads “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.”  The Dead Sea Scrolls has the same reading, but it adds another sentence, so that the complete verse is: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.  The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made” (New International Version).  There are no new doctrines taught in this recently recovered sentence, but to those who love the word of God, every line of scripture is precious.  (Similarly, the NSRV includes at the end of 1 Sam. 10 an entire paragraph from the Dead Sea Scrolls that was lost from the later texts on which the KJV was based.)

Matthew 5:22.  Modern translations delete the phrase “without a cause” from this verse (KJV: “I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment”), because it does not occur in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts.  It is similarly absent in the Book of Mormon version of the Sermon on the Mount (3 Ne. 12:22), thus providing a remarkable witness of the authenticity of that text.

1 John 4:19.  In the KJV, John teaches that because Christ, in performing the atonement, took the first step toward reconciliation, we can respond to his freely offered love and love him in return: “We love him, because he first loved us.”  Modern translations all follow better Greek manuscripts which universalize the first phrase: “We love, because he first loved us.”  In other words, the power of the atonement allows us to love not just God, but everyone else too.

The reconstruction of more accurate base texts for the Bible is one of the great scholarly achievements of the past century.  In fact, scholars at BYU have been involved in analyzing the Dead Sea Scrolls and one professor there, Donald Parry, has been invited to participate in creating the next edition of the Biblia Hebraica—the standard scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible that is used by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants alike.  For Latter-day Saints who, along with Joseph Smith, “believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (HC 6:57), this is thrilling stuff.

It is also exciting that the Book of Mormon has begun to receive the same sort of scholarly attention in the work of Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics at BYU.  For the last two decades he has been working on the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon (a critical text is one that is based on the analysis of manuscripts).  Unlike the Bible, for which there are thousands of manuscript fragments, the Book of Mormon is based on just two handwritten copies: the original manuscript, which was primarily written by Oliver Cowdery as Joseph Smith dictated the words of the Nephite record by revelation, and the printer’s manuscript, a copy that was made in order to keep the original safe during the typesetting process.  As is always the case, a few errors were introduced in the course of taking dictation, copying, and typesetting,

Recovering the earliest readings would be relatively easy if we still possessed the original manuscript intact, but Joseph put it in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in 1841.  When it was taken out some forty years later, it had suffered considerable water damage and only 28% has survived.  By contrast, the entire printer’s manuscript has been preserved by the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church), so it is often possible to reconstruct what was in the original manuscript even for those parts that are now missing.  Skousen’s analysis has also demonstrated that the last sixth of the 1830 edition (Helaman 13:17 through Moroni 10:34) was set from the original manuscript, which means that for that portion of the text, the printer’s manuscript and the 1830 edition are equal witnesses for what was written in the original manuscript.

In 2001, FARMS published Skousen’s meticulous transcription of the extant original manuscript and the printer’s manuscript, and then from 2004 to 2009 they released six large volumes of textual analysis in which he considered over 5000 variations in the manuscripts and twenty printed editions.  Just last year, Skousen published his scholarly reconstruction of the earliest text of the Book of Mormon with Yale University Press—which is an indication of how important this project is not just to Latter-day Saints, but to historians and scholars of religion.

The Yale edition of the Book of Mormon contains several hundred readings that have never appeared in any previous editions, including 216 that were found only in the original manuscript, 187 from the printer’s manuscript (where the original is not extant), and 88 that were in both the original and printer’s manuscripts.  Most of these are simple variations of word choice or grammar or spelling that do not make a difference in the meaning (for instance, it appears that the chief judge Pahoran’s name was originally spelled as Parhoran), and none of them affect basic doctrine, but there are nevertheless some gems among them that add to our understanding of this sacred text.

Let me give you a dozen examples:

1 Nephi 12:18.  The current text reads “yea even the word of the justice of the Eternal God” while the original manuscript had “yea even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God”—which not only makes a little more sense but also connects to the tree of life imagery in the chapter (see Gen.


1 Nephi 15:16.  In similar fashion, the Book of Mormon today has “they shall be rememberedagain among the house of Israel, even though the original manuscript read “they shall benumbered again among the house of Israel.”  Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, it is taught that repentant Gentiles in the last days will be adopted into the house of Israel, and this verse, at least originally, had the same message.

2 Nephi 1:5.  Careful examination of the original manuscript shows that it read “the Lord hath consecrated this land unto me” rather than the current “the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me.”  The words have similar meanings, but they are not exactly the same, and in this case the earliest reading of verse 5 matches that of verse 7 – “this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring.”

2 Nephi 4:26.  Here the difference of just one letter shifts the focus from a general observation to a very personal experience of Nephi’s.  Today we read “if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow.”  But the printer’s manuscript (the earliest extant text) has “if the Lord . . . hath visited me in so much mercy . . .”  Clearly, Nephi is speaking in this passage from his own direct knowledge.

Jacob 7:26.  In the current text, Jacob laments that his people have been “born in tribulation in a wilderness,” but both the original and printer’s manuscripts have an additional word: “born in tribulation in a wild wilderness.”  The 1830 typesetter omitted “wild,” perhaps inadvertently, or because he felt it was redundant, but I quite like the emphatic repetition, and there may even be a subtle distinction in the words, so that the final phrase means something like “an untamed, desolate region.”

Mosiah 26:9.  In copying, it is easy to miss small but important words.  Thus the present edition, speaking of unbelievers who were encouraging church members to sin, has “Alma did not knowconcerning them, but there were many witnesses.”  The earliest reading, however (from the printer’s manuscript) has almost the opposite: “Alma did know concerning them, for there were many witnesses.”

Alma 2:30.  Currently, Alma prays to the Lord and asks him to “have mercy and spare my life that I may be an instrument in thy hands to save and preserve this people.”  In the earliest manuscripts, however, he asks for a chance to “save and protect this people.”  The wordspreserve and protect may look similar (hence the copying error), but their meanings are somewhat different, with the latter being a more active, assertive verb.

Alma 24:20.  Another subtle shift, which perhaps makes a difference in the story, occurs in this verse, which in its current form tells us that the Lamanites “came up to the land of Nephi for the purpose of destroying the king.”  The original manuscript, however, uses a more specific verb: “for the purpose of dethroning the king.”

Alma 33:21.  It is sometimes easy to see where copying errors may have been introduced.  Originally this verse read “that ye might behold,” but the scribe for the printer’s manuscript mistakenly copied this as “that ye might be healed,” which is the way it still reads today.

Alma 39:13.  This is one of my favorite recoveries of the original text.  As it reads today, Alma is urging his youngest son, Corianton, to “acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done.”  But in the original manuscript, another step of repentance is included when his advice is to “acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done.”  The crucial word “repair” was lost because of an inkblot in the original manuscript.

3 Nephi 2:18.  Sometimes two similar words in quick succession will cause a mistake.  The earliest version has “they did come forth again against the people of Nephi” where the current edition shortens this to “they did come forth against the people of Nephi.”  The repetitive nature of the invasion apparently mattered to Mormon, the historian, though it has been lost in the transmission of the text.

3 Nephi 10:4.  Here an entire line has dropped out.  The present text has “how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,” but originally Jesus’ statement began with “O ye people of the house of Israel, how oft have I gathered you . . .” (the scribe was thrown off by a similar phrase that preceded the omitted words).

As you can see, most of these differences are not tremendously consequential—the basic meaning still comes through—but there are nevertheless additional insights to be gained, and for those who view the Book of Mormon as a gift from God, every word matters.  It is exciting to get as close as we can to the original moment of revelation, when Joseph first dictated the words of the Book of Mormon to Oliver.

Will the Church eventually adopt these more accurate readings into future official editions of the Book of Mormon?  Probably someday.  After all, the current edition, from 1981, incorporated several changes based on the original and printer’s manuscripts.  Yet it is a weighty and sacred responsibility to determine the specific words of canonized scripture that will be authoritative for Latter-day Saints around the world, so any modifications will undoubtedly be made very deliberately and slowly.

In the meantime, interested readers can consult Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, that is, the Yale edition, where he lists over 700 significant changes in the history of the text.  This type of reading, which focuses our attention on exact wording and nuances of meaning, can help us better understand the writings of ancient prophets and the message of this additional testament of Jesus Christ.

GRANT HARDY is an associate professor and chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  He is the author of several books includingUnderstanding the Book of Mormon.

Smell of the Lamp, Smell of Engraving

Gary C. Lawrence, “Smell of the Lamp, Smell of Engraving” Meridian Magazine, November 2,2010





The speeches of Demosthenes were so well crafted that his fellow orator Pytheas said they “smelled of the lamp,” meaning that the tight logic, the precise words, and the elegant phrasing could not have been dashed off in a day.  Demosthenes had to have worked into the night … by the lamp.

How did Pytheas know?  Did he look through a window and actually see old Demo burning midnight oil?  Doubtful; Demosthenes lived in a cave.  No, the evidence of his diligence and skill was internal and obvious in the final product itself.

Imagine … judging a written work by internal evidence.  How quaint.

It is well established that the complexity and intricacy of the Book of Mormon already give it the smell of the lamp, but does it have another smell – specifically, are there any internal indicators that suggest the Book of Mormon was engraved on plates, as Joseph Smith claims, before it was written on paper?

Does it have the smell of engraving?

A Test

We are presented with a clean comparison between two explanations of how the Book of Mormon came to be:


Both sides agree that Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon to scribes, but what was he looking at as he did?  Would there be anything unusual in the text if the source material had been engraved on plates rather than written on paper?

The key is how the original author(s) in each explanation would have handled mistakes, and what comes through in the finished product.

If Joseph’s explanation is correct and one of the original authors made a mistake on metal centuries ago, he would not very likely throw away the plate and engrave the correction on a new one.  Rather, he would scratch it out or engrave a follow-on clarification.  Joseph would have dutifully translated the text exactly as written.

But if the alternate explanation is correct and the author made a mistake on paper in the 1820s, he could throw away that sheet and write the correct phrase on a new one.  Or he could erase it (Benjamin Franklin was selling pencils with erasers as early as 1729, an exact century before) or scratch it out knowing that Joseph as the supposed fraudster would smooth out the narration as he dictated.  Given the ease of these options, it makes no sense that a con man would keep in the mistake and write a follow-on clarification.

So the question:  Are there any phrases, words, sentence structures, etc. in the Book of Mormon that would be consistent with stylus on metal but not with pencil or pen on paper?

Here are the keys:

If dictated from an engraving, one is more likely to find both the mistake and the correction – the statement and the restatement.

If dictated from paper, one is likely to read only the correct version of what the author intended, but not the mistaken writing that immediately preceded it.

A Few Examples

With that in mind, consider these scriptures in which the author reverses or clarifies a mistake.  Bracketed notes in italics are my observations.


And there are many more.[i]

The “weapons of peace” mistake in the first example has been a source of mocking humor against Mormons for decades.  As one critic put it, “What is a weapon of peace?  Is it a material object so it can be buried?  Can a weapon of peace be like a weapon of war?”   Ha ha ha.  Yet the very verses critics laugh at are indicators that Joseph Smith did not dictate the Book of Mormon from text written on paper.

If Joseph Smith or some other 19th century person had written the Book of Mormon with intent to defraud, he would have eliminated (or not even allowed in the first place) any statement-restatement patterns in the text that he read to the scribes.  A con man would not admit in his writings that he had stated something not quite right and then had to correct it.

No such phrasing would have been allowed into the final text.  After all, since he’s claiming it to be a work from God, it had to be perfect with no room for oops-let’s-begin-again errors.

The Smell of Engraving

Moroni writes on the title page of the Book of Mormon, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men…” which almost guarantees that one will find mistakes.  This coincides with Moroni’s lament in Ether 12 that the Lord made his generation mighty in speaking, but not in writing, in contrast to the skills of the brother of Jared some 2600 years prior.  He further notes that “when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words….”

The examples shown above may indeed be the “mistakes” Moroni was referring to, but at the very least are mistakes that lend the book the authenticity and smell of engraving.  Do these statement-restatements prove that the source material was engraved on metal plates?  Of course not; that testimony comes only from God through sincere study and prayer.  But their appearance in the Book of Mormon would surely make less sense if they had originally been written in English on paper.

The mistakes authenticate the mode of its creation.

How Gold were the Golden Plates?

Michael De Groote, “How Gold were the Golden Plates?” mormon tmes.com, July 7,2010

“For we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates.” (From “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.”)

Thud. If you dropped the golden plates, they would have made a pretty big dent in the floor — or worse, they probably would have crushed your foot. Joseph Smith carried them around, hid them in a log, a bean barrel, boxes and under hearthstones. They were picked up and fingers flipped through the metallic leaves, frrrrrrp! Emma Smith had to move them out of her way occasionally while doing housework.

The golden plates were just so — tangible, physical and, well, real. But just how big were they? How much did they weigh? How many plates were there? What were they made of?

Joseph Smith wrote in the Wentworth Letter that the plates were “six inches by eight inches long.” Martin Harris and David Whitmer remembered 7 by 8 inches. Joseph Smith wrote that the plates were “something near six inches in thickness.” Harris remembered it being about four inches.

Take Joseph Smith’s estimate (sorry, Martin) of 6 inches by 8 inches by 6 inches, and that gives us 288 cubic inches. Metallurgist Read H. Putnam, in an Improvement Era article in September 1966, wrote that a “solid block of gold totaling 288 cubic inches would weigh a little over 200 pounds.” But, of course, the plates were not a solid block.

The individual plates were not perfectly shaped. “The unevenness left by the hammering and air spaces between the separate plates would reduce the weight to probably less than 50 percent of the solid block,” Putnam wrote.

That gives us about 100 pounds. Not impossible to move around, but still pretty heavy.

But the plates were not likely made of pure gold. The Book of Mormon merely says they were made of “ore” 1 Nephi 19:1. (See also Mormon 8:5.)

The Eight Witnesses described them as having “the appearance of gold.”

Pure gold would be too soft to use anyway.

“The metal would need to be soft enough at the surface to accept the engraver’s tool, yet firm enough in the center to keep the plate from distortion under the pressure; it would also have to be smooth enough for the lines and figures to retain their proportions,” Putnam wrote. In other words, the plates, if they were to match their description, had to be an alloy.

As it turns out, ancient Americans used an alloy of gold and copper — the two colored metals. The Spaniards called this metal alloy “tumbaga.” Properly made, a plate of this alloy would have the right properties for engraving and would also look like ordinary gold. But it would also weigh less. Putnam estimated a solid block of the ideal engraving-friendly copper/gold alloy would weigh about 107 pounds. Take half of that away to account for air between the plates and “the weight of the stack of plates would be about 53 pounds.”

Putnam wrote that the weight would be higher as the ratio of gold to copper went up.

Just for contrast, a block of sand that size would be about 17 pounds, a solid block of granite about 29 pounds.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that witnesses put the weight of the plates at about 60 pounds. Harris said “from forty to sixty lbs.” William Smith said “about sixty pounds.”

William Smith also said the plates were “a mixture of gold and copper” — the precise alloy that Putnam found was used by ancient Americans.

Putnam calculated that each plate could have been .02 inches thick (average copier paper is five times thinner or about .004 inches thick). Emma Smith said, “They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”

By judging how much space a plate would take in a stack, Putnam deduced it would be about 20 plates to the inch. “The unsealed portion (one-third of the whole) would then consist of 40 plates or 80 sides.”

Only 80 sides for the whole Book of Mormon — plus the lost Book of Lehi? In an April 1923 issue of the “Improvement Era,” Janne M. Sjodahl proved that 14 pages of the Book of Mormon could be written in Hebrew in a space that was only 7 by 8 inches. “That is to say, the entire Book of Mormon … could be written on 40 3/7 pages — 21 plates in all.”

John Gee, senior research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, reexamined Sjodahl’s article in 2001 and concluded that the small characters used in Sjodahl’s experiment are similar in size to actual Hebrew characters engraved on ancient objects found in Israel.

When you take into consideration that the plates were engraved in space-saving reformed Egyptian, because, as Moroni wrote, “if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew,” there appears to be room to spare (See Mormon 9:33).

Just don’t drop them on your foot.

In addition to the articles mentioned in the text, this column was based on information found in “Journal of Book of Mormon Studies,” Volume 10, Number 1.

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