These are the notes from which I will create my Sunday School lesson. It is not a Sunday School lesson, unless your ward has Sunday School for five hours and a high tolerance for rabbit trails that happened to catch my interest.
1. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion.
From the introduction to the Book of Mormon:
“The Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.’”
I sometimes find it interesting to see what Webster’s 1828 dictionary has to say about a word Joseph Smith used, as it is one of the dictionaries closest in time and place to Smith’s use of language. (Now, it isn’t perfect–it was more prescriptive than descriptive–but I still like to take a look.) Here is its definition of keystone: “The stone on the top or middle of an arch or vault, which being wider at the top than at the bottom, enters like a wedge and binds the work; properly, the fastening-stone.” Does this definition give you any more insight into what he meant by calling the BoM the keystone of our religion?
Jim F. wrote, “The keystone holds an arch together, distributing the weight that bears down evenly to the two sides of the arch, and preventing the two sides from toppling under the sideways pressure on them.” Does this explanation of a keystone give you any more insight into what Joseph meant?
Is this keystone a bridge? An arch? A doorway? What might that symbolize?
What was Joseph Smith trying to convey about the Book of Mormon when he called it the keystone?
How might you respond to a non-member friend who reads the introduction to the BoM and asks, “Really? The BoM is the keystone? Shouldn’t Jesus Christ be the keystone? Or families? Or your temples? Or the Holy Ghost? Or the scriptures?”
My boys have this Roman arch puzzle. I brought it to an institute class I was teaching, hoping that a physical, visual arch might spur their thinking about what a keystone is. I carefully assembled it before class (you have to place the base on its side, with a printed guide beneath it that shows the proper placement of the stones, insert the stones–which isn’t as easy as it sounds, since many are similar but not identical–and then rotate the whole thing so it stands up) and put it on a table behind me. At the appropriate moment in the lesson, I turned to pick it up, bumped it, and the entire thing fell on the floor. For a second, I thought about quickly reassembling it but then remembered that this isn’t something you can do in a second. I learned something important about keystones that day: they show planning, forethought, and preparation!
I think sometimes this keystone concept is used to beat over the head with an ultimatum people who have questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But consider this statement from Elder Holland:
I think you’d be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. … We would say: “This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” … We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.
I love that his approach isn’t “smug,” rather it is inviting. We should be sure that we are using our knowledge of the BoM to invite, not incite.
Perhaps with the “keystone” statement Joseph Smith was also commenting on what is not the keystone: polygamy, the Kirtland Safety Society, Zelph, anything any prophet in 1880 or 1940 or 2010 said that made you cringe, etc. It should help us focus our attention on what is most important.
Joseph Smith also called the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book.” Note that Joseph Smith did not say that the BoM was without fault. This is, I think, particularly interesting given that the Book of Mormon itself seems very concerned with the possibility of its own faults (from the Title Page: “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men;” see also 3 Nephi 8:2 [“if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time”], Mormon 8:17 [“And if there be faults they be the faults of a man.”]) This is an awareness of possible fallibility completely missing from the Bible.
As our own Nate Oman explored in this post, the Book of Mormon is also quick to tell us how to respond to its possible faults: the mention of possible errors in the Title Page is followed by this: “wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” (Mormon 8:17 is similar.)
This raises, I think, some interesting questions about the translation process for the Book of Mormon.
Royal Skousen described the translation process:
During the translation process, the witnesses were able to observe, in an open setting, the following:
•Joseph Smith placing the interpreters (either the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone) in a hat and placing his face into the hat;
•Joseph dictating for long periods of time without reference to any books, papers, manuscripts, or even the plates themselves;
•Joseph spelling out unfamiliar Book of Mormon names;
•after each dictated sequence, the scribe reading back to Joseph what was written so that Joseph could check the correctness of the manuscript;
•Joseph starting a dictation session without prompting from the scribe about where the previous session had ended.
The translation process that these witnesses observed was an open one—that is, others in the room could observe the dictation from Joseph Smith to the scribe. But early on in the translation, from late 1827 to early 1828, it appears that Joseph used a different process while translating. During this early period, Joseph would first copy some of the characters directly from the plates onto sheets of paper, from which sheets he would then translate his transcribed characters into English by means of the Urim and Thummim. During such a process, the plates were uncovered while Joseph translated (or at least while he copied the characters from the plates to paper); and since no one was permitted to see the plates until later, Joseph took precautions to prevent anyone from seeing him working directly with the plates. Martin Harris, in a couple of early statements, said that a blanket or curtain separated Joseph from him at the time he (Martin) obtained a sample transcript and translation to take to Professor Anthon in New York City.
In place of this early procedure, Joseph Smith soon turned to a method of translation that depended directly on the interpreters alone, so that the plates did not have to be viewed, and thus the translation could be done openly. All witnesses that refer either to the translation of the lost 116 pages or to our own current Book of Mormon (Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and members of the Whitmer family) openly observed this translation process—one without a curtain or blanket separating Joseph from his scribe. In fact, according to Emma, the plates were wrapped up and not directly used.
Grant Hardy describes it thus:
This somewhat cumbersome physical process also explains why he always needed scribes to write for him. For example, if the quotation from Emma Smith that appears on pp. 8-9 had started a couple paragraphs earlier, it would have included this description of the mechanics of the translation: “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour and hour with nothing between us.” There are many such accounts. Or as Richard Turley and William Slaughter explain in their recent How We Got the Book of Mormon (published by Deseret Book): “Several people . . . said he looked into the interpreters or another seer stone, blocking out external light, such as by placing the interpreters in his hat and putting his face down into it.
Sometimes there is extreme squeamishness about the role that seer stones played in the process; consider this from the introductory materials in Verse by Verse: The Book of Mormon:
We do not know exactly how Joseph Smith’s work of translation proceeded. All of the witnesses to the process thought that the Prophet somehow saw words and dictated them to his scribes. The witnesses are also unanimous that Joseph did not have any helps or prompts with him during the translation process–no books of manuscripts or papers. And there was no great secrecy, pretense, or flowery display of spiritual power exhibited during the period of translation(p6).
Verse by Verse seems to obfuscate to the point of misleading. Why is this such a common position for LDS? And then, oddly, you can search for “seer stones” on lds.org and find a bunch of hits in . . . The Friend. Do not D & C 10:1 and JS-H 1:35 make clear that seer stones were used in the translation, and yet, as I think the Verse by Verse quote shows, we do not like to talk about seer stones and hats. (This is purely anecdotal, but this topic seems to be the one that most trips up people who are raised in the Church, encounter this idea in later life, and feel that they have been “lied to” or “misled” about church history.) OK, end rant.
Regardless, the translation process raises (at least) two questions for me:
(1) If (at least some of) the translation was performed with seer stones in a hat and Joseph Smith’s face in said hat, what was the point of having plates in the first place? (Had I been one of the Nephites who had labored under great difficulty to create the plates, write on them, preserve them, and then watched Joseph translate without looking at them, I would have been ticked! I would have totally gone Old-World-grandmother on the PTB: “All that work for nothing! Wasted!”)
(2) How “tight” or “loose” was the translation process? (“Tight” meaning Joseph Smith saw specific words and spoke them precisely as given; “loose” meaning that the English BoM is more impressionistic and has more of Smith’s personal stamp on it.) LDS have taken a variety of positions on this matter:
Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. Citation.
Orson Scott Card:
But it’s no surprise that the translator repeatedly errs, because this is not his natural speaking voice. No one speaks this kind of language around him. He doesn’t understand the grammar, and so grammatical errors are thick on the ground. Those who believe, like David Whitmer, that the translation appeared word for word on the Urim and Thummum, are ripe for disillusionment — or else they are accusing God of some really embarrassing grammatical errors. This is ultimately why David Whitmer ended up outside the Church — he refused to accept the idea that Joseph Smith could edit revelations previously given, precisely because Whitmer believed God gave them to him word for word. But Whitmer’s view of translation was wrong. However the process of inspiration worked, it could only produce language that already existed in Joseph Smith’s mind. Whether the Book of Mormon is a fraud or a genuine translated book, it will reflect Joseph Smith’s language. Citation.
There’s a lot of evidence that the translated text of the Book of Mormon was controlled down to the very word, in fact, to the very letter (at least for the spelling of Book of Mormon names). Citation.
I do not know why the Lord saw fit to reveal The Book of Mormon in a non-standard grammatical form, but that’s what happened, and Joseph Smith himself smoothed out much of the language in the 1837 and 1840 editions (he even deleted 46 instances of “it came to pass”!). Citation.
Grant (I think Hardy but perhaps some other person named Grant who comments on the BoM in a freakishly articulate way.)
The Lord’s instructions about translation specifically and revelation in general (“you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right”) have always seemed to me to point to non-tight control. If the Lord is sending the English text, tightly controlled, for Joseph to read from the seer stone, why would he prescribe to Oliver a different way to translate? But the reason Oliver thought that he could translate without taking any “thought save it was to ask” was that he saw Joseph dictating the Book of Mormon, apparently neither taking thought nor asking, i.e., by dictating the tightly controlled text from the interpreters or the seer stone. Tight control seems to account for Oliver’s expectations but is inconsistent with the Lord’s instructions to Oliver. Citation; see comment #19.
This is a good summary of mss. history.
2. Many witnesses have testified of the Book of Mormon.
We always talk about “the three” and “the eight;” today, I’d like to talk about other witnesses to the BoM.
On p. 77, [Oct 2011 Ensign] in answer to the question “Who else saw the golden plates?”, the editors state, “In addition to Joseph Smith, several other men and women saw the plates and testified of their existence.” They go on to briefly describe the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, but readers might reasonably ask, “Can you tell us a little more about the women who saw the plates?”
Although I’m not exactly sure who the editors had in mind when they wrote their answer, we know of several women who saw or even held the Nephite record wrapped in cloth. Joseph’s younger sister Katherine reported that when he first brought home the golden plates, after being attacked by several unknown assailants on the way, she took the package containing the plates from him and laid it on a table until he could catch his breath again.
His wife Emma, in an interview with their son Joseph III in 1879, described her own experiences with the plates as follows:
Q. Are you sure that [Joseph] had the plates at the time you were writing for him?
A. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edged were moved by the thumb, as one does sometime thumb the edges of a book. [Another except from this same interview appears in the October Ensign, pp. 8-9.]
In 1842, a visitor to Nauvoo wrote about a conversation with Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, in which she affirmed: “I have myself seen and handled the golden plates; they are about eight inches long, and six wide; some of them are sealed together and are not to be opened and some of them are loose. They are all connected by a ring which passes through a hole at the end of each plate, and are covered with letters beautifully engraved.”
We are not sure whether he was embellishing a bit (he goes on to say that Lucy had also seen the breastplate with the interpreters, when we know by her own first-hand account that she had only felt them through the cloth that covered them), or perhaps Lucy was referring to an otherwise unknown event, but in any case there a report of another woman who definitely saw the plates directly.
When Joseph, Emma, and Oliver moved in with the Whitmer family to finish the translation, the mother there, Mary Musselman Whitmer, found that her workload had significantly increased. Her grandson told the story this way:
My grandmother in having so many extra persons to care for, besides her own large household, was often overloaded with work to such an extent that she felt it to be quite a burden. One evening, when (after having done her usual day’s work in the house) she went to the barn to milk the cows, she met a stranger [identified in another version as Moroni] carrying something on his back that looked like knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone, and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with inexpressible joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witness to the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end. The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell. From that moment my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard.
I quite like the striking contrast between Mary Whitmer’s miraculous account and Emma Smith’s matter-of-fact reporting (at another time Emma said that she used to lift and move the covered plates while she was dusting). Both are impressive testimonies in their own way, much like the contrast between the Three Witnesses who saw an angel show them the plates, and the Eight Witnesses who handled and turned the pages themselves, with no divine intervention at all.
. . . The story of Mary Whitmer is a little harder to find (it appears in my Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon on pp. 639-640), but it was originally published in official Church publications in the 1880s and then was made into a BYU movie titled The Fourth Witness: The Mary Whitmer Story in 1997. Citation.
When I joined the church, it was kind of a fad for members to write their testimony in the BoM, include a family picture, and share it with others. But this shouldn’t be just a fad! The BoM was never intended to have just 3 or 8 witnesses–but lots! All of us! We should be witnesses to the BoM. Any experiences that you have had with sharing your witness of the BoM that you would like to share? Any unique ideas for sharing that witness? Anyone had the experience of developing or strengthening a witness in order to share it?
3. The Book of Mormon was written for our day.
Orson Scott Card wrote,
A few years ago, I was called upon by the Brethren to rewrite the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They told me to ignore the existing script, and instead to go back to the Book of Mormon and find a way to shape a clear and coherent story that would present the book’s most important themes for an audience of nonmembers.
What is the theme of the BoM?
Grant Hardy says Terryl Givens identifies the following themes in the Book of Mormon: “1) personal revelation, 2) a focus on Jesus Christ, 3) wilderness and varieties of Zion, 4) new configurations of scripture, and 5) the centrality of family.” He then suggests this list: covenants, house of Israel, prophecy and fulfillment, moral government, obedience, social justice, church, coming to Christ, mercy, belief and skepticism, deliverance. He explores the list here (Note that I think Hardy had some editing problems here–if you read through, you see that the lists don’t add up.).
Do you agree with that list? (You might want to put this list of themes on the board before class.) Ask if anything is missing or should be removed. Imagine getting the assignment to present the themes of the BoM to a huge audience, like Card did. Or, if a nonmember friends asked you what the theme of the BoM was, what would you say? What do you see as the main one or two themes, and what does the BoM have to say about those themes? I personally think “family” is a stretch, although there is a good bit about fathers and sons. Why is there so little about families in the BoM if it was written for our day? Are there any other themes that you might have expected that aren’t there?
4. The Book of Mormon can bring us nearer to God.
President Ezra Taft Benson:
The moment you begin a serious study of [the Book of Mormon, you] will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. … When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance (in Conference Report, Oct. 1986, 6; or Ensign, Nov. 1986, 7).
How do you understand this promise? I can think of at least two mechanisms by which it might work:
(1) Doctrinal: By seriously studying the BoM, you will learn new things from the text that will help you live more abundantly. Do you have any personal experiences with this?
(2) Covenental: By showing your obedience to the counsel to study the BoM, you will be taught through the Spirit. Has this happened to you?
(3) Other ??
Note that President Benson didn’t say “let your eyes skim a few verses before you fall asleep,” but rather “serious study.” Some thoughts on how to study the BoM:
Pres. Benson: “We should constantly ask ourselves, ‘Why did the Lord inspire Mormon (or Moroni or Alma) to include that in his record?’” This is an excellent question to ask yourself!
As I read this statement from Grant Hardy, consider what obstacles he identifies to studying the BoM and what we might be able to do to overcome them:
English-speaking Latter-day Saints who desire a thorough understanding of the Book of Mormon face a considerable challenge—the text is written in English. As a result, it is too easy to read. That is to say, it is too easy to get the gist of what is being communicated without actually taking the time to analyze every verb form, every pronoun, and every conjunction to determine exactly how the words fit together and the ideas unfold. We grasp the general message, but we also miss many of the details. In fact, the people who know the Book of Mormon best may be those who have translated it into another language or who as nonnative speakers are trying to read it in English.
Latter-day Saints who have studied Greek or Hebrew know that it is not difficult to spend 20 minutes or more on a single verse of the Bible—working out the possible meanings of the words, making sure all the grammatical parts fit together, and trying to figure out how a slightly different construction might change the meaning. This level of scrutiny is simply not possible for someone reading the Book of Mormon as if it were a sacrament meeting talk. (Another analogy would be the difference between listening to a piece of music and actually learning to play it.)
If you have not taken the opportunity before, look at the Anchor Bible commentary. There is usually one volume for each book in the Bible, and most public libraries have at least a few of these on their shelves. Each volume consists of new translations of short passages of scripture followed by two commentaries, one of which focuses on the actual words and the other on the main ideas. The level of attention to individual words in the notes section is often breathtaking, perhaps reflecting the seriousness of religious traditions that view scripture rather than modern revelation as the primary avenue to understanding God’s will. By contrast, most commentaries on the Book of Mormon move rather quickly from the details of the text to larger theological issues. We just assume that we have all the words we need and that we know what they mean. Citation.
So consider reading the BoM in a second language. Consider closely studying each word. Other ideas?
The October Ensign (p. 79) reminds us that the present chapters and verses were added later in the history of the text (in 1879 to be exact; Joseph Smith only read The Book of Mormon in paragraphs). It is also worth noting that the punctuation was introduced by John Gilbert, the non-Mormon typesetter for the 1830 edition. This means that the divisions into clauses and sentences were not part of the original revelation.
Sometimes this can make a difference in how we read. For example, Elder Andersen observes on p. 43 that in The Book of Mormon, “the specific roles of women and daughters are to some extent unmentioned,” which is why we treasure those few verses where they are highlighted, and why the praise of the young stripling warriors for their mothers is quoted not once, but twice in the special issue (pp. 45 and 46): “”We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 56:47). This is intelligible — it indicates that the young men were sure that their mothers had testimonies — but Royal Skousen has argued that it would make more sense if there was some sort of punctuation break between the words doubt and our: “We do not doubt; our mothers knew it.” Or, in other words, “We do not doubt [that God will deliver us; after all,] our mothers knew it” — a sentiment that fits the context a little better (and still honors mothers). Ultimately, their faith was in God, not in their mothers, but the two elements were certainly closely related. Citation.
So consider ignoring the chapter visions, verse divisions, chapter headings, and punctuation and see what you come up with.
What have been some successful techniques in your own study of the BoM? What have you always wanted to try but haven’t?
What have you learned from the Book of Mormon about Jesus Christ?
5. Misc. notes.
The Title Page
Jim F.: “How does the Book of Mormon convince people that Jesus is the Christ? “
“I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general.*” [The asterisk directs the reader to a note that says, “*That is, from right to left.”] Joseph Smith Jr.
Would your experience of the title page and of reading the Book of Mormon as a whole be any different if you read this last?
Interesting that this is all “interpretation” and not “translation.” Should that shape how we view what Joseph did? Does it imply a looser translation process?
The word “gift” interests me. We give gifts to everyone; they only gave gifts to kings and to God. So if the BoM is a gift, then God is treating us like royalty.
Jim F. : “Though we might expect an ancient book of scripture to divide the world into Israel (or Jew) and Gentile, its division is Lamanites, on the one hand, and Jews and Gentiles, on the other. “
Sidney Sperry argues that the title page was written in two stages.
Note the repetition:
Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed—To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof—
Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God
What are we to make of the repetition?
Testimony of the Three Witnesses
“And it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Quoting Ps 118:23 here–related to rejected stone becoming conerstone. What does that language mean here?
“The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible.”
In what ways is the BoM similar to and different from the Bible?
See here for thoughts on an answer: I could have quoted the entire article because that’s how awesome it is, but didn’t for copyright reasons. Please go read it.
Consider the characteristics of Old Testament narrators as described by Shimon Bar-Efrat, formerly of Hebrew University at Jerusalem:
“The narrator in most biblical narratives appears to be omniscient”
“Biblical narrators do not usually mention themselves”
“Biblical narrators [generally] make no reference to their activity in writing the narratives”
“The narrators do not . . . address their audience directly”
“Outside the books of Kings there are very few instances in which the narrator passes judgment”
How many of these statements are true of the Book of Mormon? None of them.
The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith
I like the fact that although he first saw the plates in 1823, he was not allowed to take them home until after he had married Emma (she may have been a stabilizing influence in his life, and in fact, she accompanied him to the Hill Cumorah the night he finally took possession of the plates). The story of Martin Harris’ loss of the 116 pages, at a time when Joseph and Emma had just lost their first child, is heartbreaking.
You may have noticed when we studied the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual in Priesthood and Relief Society that Joseph hardly ever quoted the Book of Mormon or referred to its prophets or its narratives in his preaching. Instead, he almost always taught from the Bible. This may seem a bit odd, especially in contrast to the way that more recent church leaders use the Book of Mormon, but it seems to me like evidence that the scripture did not originate with Joseph Smith (as an author myself, if I had ever written anything half so clever as the Book of Mormon, I would be quoting from it for the rest of my life). He did, however, work hard to spread the Book of Mormon more widely through two additional editions during his lifetime (1837 and 1840), and most tellingly, in his final evening on this earth, while in Carthage Jail, he read from the Book of Mormon with his brother Hyrum and bore testimony of its truthfulness. Citation.
One final thing: you need to read these.