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

18 comments for “Seer Stones and Grammar

Comments are closed.