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Magic and The Book of Mormon

September 1, 2008

In an article entitled How to Get Personal Revelation, Mormon elder and apostle Bruce R. McConkie suggested a formula for obtaining personal revelation from God. He listed 3 things a person must do to become “personally involved with God”: 1) search the scriptures, 2) keep the commandments, 3) ask in faith… In sum, he stated, “We need to do what the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “gaze five minutes into heaven.”

I would like to compare McConkie’s formula for receiving personal revelation to the one used by Joseph Smith in the translation of The Book of Mormon to see if Joseph Smith was really in a position to receive revelation from God.

The internet is a helpful resource for documentation of Joseph Smith’s occult activities as well as his conviction in Bainbridge, New York, on March 20, 1826, for swindling an employer by claiming he could find buried treasure with his seer stone. What is significant about this court record is the timing of the conviction. Joseph Smith was convicted after he supposedly had a vision of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the angel Moroni, but before the translation of The Book of Mormon.

This court record sheds new light on the possible motivations behind Joseph Smith’s decision to translate The Book of Mormon. Another possible motivation may have been the disapproval of Emma Hale’s father to their marriage. Isaac Hale did not want his daughter married to someone who was employed in the business of treasure-seeking so Joseph Smith promised his father-in-law he would end this form of employment. One month later he announced that he had found the gold plates…

The translation process for The Book of Mormon is also well-documented on the internet. In contrast with the limited information provided to members or investigators of the LDS church, the details of the translation process can now be found with a couple clicks of the mouse so that the method of translation is no longer a disputed fact between the LDS and non-LDS (although the responses to this information still vary considerably).

While LDS publications portray the gold plates available during the translation process, the actual witnesses describe the process much differently:

Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale Smith, gave her testimony to her son Joseph Smith III: “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 after hour with nothing between us” (8 vols. (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1951), “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 3:356 as cited on irr.org)

David Whitmer, one of the 3 witnesses of The Book of Mormon translation process, stated: “I, as well as all of my father’s family, Smith’s wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation …. He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation” ( David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Missouri: n.p., 1887, p. 12)

Isaac Hale, the father of Emma Hale Smith, stated in an 1834 affidavit: “The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods” ( Affidavit of Isaac Hale dated March 20, 1834, cited in Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990, pp. 126-128 as cited on irr.org).

According to the historical research of members of the LDS church, Joseph Smith would never give details about his process of translating The Book of Mormon. He would only say that he did it by the ‘gift and power of God’. In October 1831, at a general conference of the church in Orange, Ohio, Hyrum Smith asked his brother to give details of the BOM translation method. Joseph replied that “it was not expedient for him to tell more than had already been told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and it was not well that any greater details be provided.”

In considering the occultic methods used in the formation of The Book of Mormon (according to the eye-witnesses), I am of course skeptical (and rightfully so!) of the final product. The Scriptures say:

There shall not be found among you any one that…useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch… (Deuteronomy 18:10).

Then the LORD said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart (Jeremiah 14:14).

Even The Book of Mormon identifies magic and sorceries with the work of the evil one (Mormon 1:19, Mormon 2:18).

How am I to understand that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God and not one of the false prophets Jesus warned us would come (Matthew 24:11, 24-26)?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2008 1:47 pm

    I remember being told by kids in my school that Joseph translated the BoM by putting his head in a hat and I thought they were crazy for suggesting such a thing. When I read the personal accounts (some of which you have used) for myself, I could not believe they were right. How could these Baptists know more than me about my own religion? Why was I not taught this and why did I teach something so different to people while on my mission? I have come to the conclusion that it is because no one would take it seriously if they knew the truth upfront.

  2. Royalton permalink
    January 8, 2009 10:13 pm

    First a note about the internet. You say it is a great place to learn the “facts” about things like Joseph Smith’s translation process. It is also a great place to learn about all the aliens landing on earth to exterminate our planet. Point- not everything you read on the internet is reality. Everybody has bias, but few acknowledge it.

    Now- about the translation of the Book of Mormon- we do not know for sure all the details. You don’t quote Oliver Cowdery the primary scribe who penned the majority of Joseph’s words. It is important to note that none of the witnesses of the Gold Plates or scribes ever denied their testimonies of that experience.

    While we do not know for sure the details of translation, we do know the Urim and Thummim and seerstone were inolved- we don’t know how much either of them, or both of them were used through the whole process.

    My opinion, based on everything I read, is that initially, Joseph was totally unfamiliar with Reformed Egyptian and relied heavily if not totally on these tools. As time went on and he learned the language, he was able to translate without the seerstone or U&T.

    It is interesing that critics make a big deal of his using a hat. In reality, these descriptions of Joseph needing a dark room or under cover of hat/blanket are consistent with ancient descriptions of the Urim and Thummim. Ancient legends and texts describe such stones as radiating messages and words from God. I find no problem with Joseph using a hat to read words on a seerstone. There is actually ancient precedent for such a thing!

  3. January 9, 2009 5:33 am

    As soon as an Evangelical is willing to make fun of Jesus for spitting in the mud and putting it on someone’s eyes, I will be willing to make fun of Joseph for sticking his head in a hat.

  4. January 9, 2009 7:20 pm

    Okay, so if it’s truly no big deal to Mormons why don’t they use the picture of Joseph with his head in his hat rather than this one on lds.org? It appears just plain deceptive to me. Do you know of any eyewitness accounts that describe that Joseph used the plates this way? As far as I know there are none. The eyewitnesses all described the plates as being hidden during the translation process. David Whitmer claims he saw the plates once “through the eyes of faith.” Royalton mentioned that there is a quote from Cowdery. I would be interested in seeing that. I am not aware that Cowdery saw Joseph translating with the plates.

  5. royalton permalink
    January 12, 2009 5:06 am

    JessicaAshley,

    You seem to place the most weight on the selected statements from Emma, Martin Harris, or Whitmer. What about Oliver Cowdery, the primary scribe?

    Oliver’s own words as published in Messenger and Advocate, vol 1, pp 14-16:

    “These were days never to be forgotten- to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day and day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim…”

    Oliver Cowdery gave him the following description of the translation of the Book of Mormon to Samuel Richards:

    “He represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he (Oliver) sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the “translators” over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages. Every word was distinctly visible even to every letter; and if Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the “interpreter” until it was copied correctly.(Personal statement of Samuel W. Richards, 25 May 1907, in Harold B. Lee Library, BYU, Special Collections)

    Given that Oliver was the primary scribe for the bulk of the Book of Mormon, I would place the most weight upon these statements. The church’s representations are perfectly warranted.

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