The first time I ever heard that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by looking at a rock in a hat was in a South Park episode. That was years before my disaffection, and it seemed strange, but I didn’t think about it much. I also wasn’t sure if it was true, because South Park isn’t normally something you would use to learn about the LDS church. Then I found the LDS essay “Book of Mormon Translation” and it turned out South Park got it right, at least on that detail. From the LDS.org essay: “According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.” As FairMormon admits, Joseph Smith used the same seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon that he used earlier in his life to try to find buried treasure. No treasure was ever found with the seer stone, but it somehow worked while translating the gold plates.
Loose or Tight Translation?
Multiple witnesses, including Emma Smith and Martin Harris, said Joseph Smith read the words directly off the rock. This implies the words were given directly to Joseph Smith from God, which would argue for a tight translation, and not loose ideas that Joseph Smith then had to put into his own words. For me, this is problematic because the 1830 Book of Mormon had many grammatical errors in it. From this study of 1830 Book of Mormon changes:
One of the most frequent mistakes in the first edition of the Book of Mormon is the use of the word was instead of the word were. The following are extracts from the first edition of the Book of Mormon in which the word was has been changed in later editions to were:
“… and also of Adam and Eve, which was our first parents …” (page 15) [1 Nephi 5:11]
“And all these things of which I have spoken, was done …” (page 23) [1 Nephi 10:1116]
“… and loosed the bands which was upon my wrists …” (page 49) [1 Nephi 18:15]
Another common mistake in the first edition of the Book of Mormon is the use of the word is when it should read are. The following are extracts from the first edition in which the word is has been changed to are in later editions:
“… the tender mercies of the Lord is over all …” (page 7) [1 Nephi 1:20]
“… and all things that in them is …” (page 64) [2 Nephi 2:14]
“But great is the promises of the Lord …” (page 85) [2 Nephi 10:21]
Changes to the Book of Mormon
There are many more errors listed in the above study. The study found there were 3,913 changes from the 1830 version to the 1964 version. Was God bad at grammar when the 1830 Book of Mormon was translated? Maybe so, since the words were given directly to Joseph Smith as per descriptions of the translation process given by scribes. Besides many grammatical errors that have since been fixed, there have been passages changed to make the Book of Mormon look less Trinitarian:
One of the most significant changes was made in 1 Nephi 13:40. It was stated in this verse that the purpose of the Nephite records was to make known that Christ is the Eternal Father. In the first edition we read as follows:
“… These last records … shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior … ” (Book of Mormon, 1830 edition, page 32)
In the 1964 edition it reads as follows:
“… These last records … shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior …” (Book of Mormon, 1964 edition, 1 Nephi 13:40)
Why Were the Plates Even Needed?
It turns out Joseph Smith never needed to look at the plates while translating. From the LDS.org essay:
Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”
Why did the Nephites meticulously carve engravings into gold plates if they weren’t used at all in the translation?
Truth in Advertising
Why does the LDS church choose to show depictions of Joseph Smith studiously looking at the plates while translating when they know he didn’t?
The picture above is found in the “Preach My Gospel” manual, which missionaries use to learn to teach about the church. Instead of using a misleading picture, why not show something accurate? And if the truth is too embarrassing, don’t use a picture at all.
LDS.org essay: Book of Mormon Translation
MormonThink.com: Translation of the Book of Mormon
CESLetter.com: Debunking FairMormon’s debunking: Book of Mormon Translation