Golden Plates Not Used in Translation?

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In a recent Mormon Stories podcast, historian Grant Palmer made the claim that there are no eyewitness accounts that Joseph Smith ever had the golden plates in front of him while dictating the Book of Mormon to his scribes. He also made the claim that there are at least 20 first-hand accounts of persons saying he did not have the plates in front of him.

This is interesting given the way the translation process has been presented in the past.

18 thoughts on “Golden Plates Not Used in Translation?

  1. I’ve heard and read this also. It seems that Joseph used the Urim and Thummin (Seer Stone) to “translate” without the use of the plates. I don’t think I have read an original source that says Joseph was reading the plates and dictating a translation, as is so commonly illustrated in church magazines.

    I haven’t studied this for a few years, but after listening to the same podcast episode, I want to review the latest evidence. I think I’ll start with Bushman’s RSS.

  2. That’s right; there’s no really credible contemporary evidence that the plates were used in the translation process. In fact, for most of the Book of Mormon project, the plates weren’t even in the same house with Joseph Smith.

    With respect to the actual mode of translation, some sources claim that Joseph used the seer stones buried with the plates through the first part of the project, switching for the last part of the project to the seer stone that he’d been using for treasure digging since his early teenage years. Both the stone buried with the plates and Joseph’s treasure-digging stone are referred to with the label “Urim and Thummim.”

    Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling doesn’t really go beyond the 1982 Van Wagoner and Walker Dialogue article on the mode of translation, so I guess that’s still the state of the art. You can read it for free online here; just click on “Joseph Smith – The Gift of Seeing” on the little menu on the left.

  3. Note that–while not nearly as comprehensive or clear as the Van Wagoner and Walker article–Elder Russell M. Nelson also described, in a talk reprinted in the Ensign, the mode of translation. Nelson quotes David Whitmer to the point that the translation involved Joseph Smith putting a seer stone in a hat and looking at it. Nelson also quotes Emma Smith about the plates not being used–in her case, they were on the table but wrapped in a cloth during the translation process.

  4. It’s instinctive for us to assume Joseph used the plates in some way, because otherwise we have to wonder why he had the plates at all. Having them was a horrible burden and caused great danger to him and his family. Yet possessing the plates themselves appears to have been absolutely necessary to the work of translation. If not, there would have been no reason to write them, preserve and protect them, bury them, and deliver them to Joseph through miraculous means.

  5. Itbugaf, I’m not sure that your argument quite works. When Joseph Smith produced the text of John’s parchment which now comprises D&C 7, it seems not to have been an obstacle that he didn’t actually possess the parchment. But this small translation project was undertaken in 1829, during the course of the Book of Mormon translation project. Furthermore, the John’s parchment translation project used the same means (seer stone in a hat, often described these days as “Urim and Thummim”) as the Book of Mormon translation. So, by comparison, we see that possession of the source text is actually irrelevant to Joseph Smith’s divine ability to produce a translated text. We are lead to conclude that the plates are, as the eyewitnesses attested, beside the point.

    Your questions about why the plates would have been written and preserved, at great risk and effort, when they were not used in the translation are valid and deserve a satisfactory answer. Van Wagoner and Walker propose that the plates were intended only as an aid to belief for the 11 witnesses. If that isn’t a satisfactory answer, then this may be something we’d best treat as a pending question.

  6. “intended only as an aid to belief for the 11 witnesses”

    …even if they only saw the plates with ‘spiritual eyes’?

    It’s odd to me that the word spiritual would be used if they indeed required some physical proof.

    It’s seems the golden plates are largely irrelevant to the translation process, as well as not really being required by any of the participants to bolster any sort of belief in the process.

    Which begs the question, I suppose, what was the actual purpose of the plates, and why did Joseph have to retrieve them at all?

  7. I distinctively remember hearing that over the course of the Book of Mormon translation project, the work of translation got progressively easier for Joseph Smith as he got more familiar with the text and characters contained on the Gold Plates.

    I’ve always assumed that he had them open.

  8. Roland, a lot of people make that assumption. But the accounts of first-hand witnesses attest that he didn’t have the Gold Plates open. There wasn’t a curtain or any separation between Joseph and the scribes most of the time, and Joseph had his face buried in the hat where the seer stone was–so it would have been impossible for him to see the plates while translating in any case.

  9. Re: #9, I don’t say that Joseph couldn’t reveal a text without having the original in hand. What I say is that a lot of people went to a huge amount of trouble and danger in order for Joseph to have the plates. He must have had them for a very important reason, and I have a hard time believing that they weren’t needed for the translation.

    Rick, in #10 you’re misinterpreting the word “spiritual” in the term “spiritual eyes.” A man can’t be in the presence of some holy things without being transformed—becoming “spiritual” in a very specific sense. When the Three Witnesses saw the plates, they did so by the power of God. In other words, they did so “spritually.” The Eight Witnesses, on the other hand, saw the plates in a very ordinary way, with their everyday eyesight.

    The descriptions of the translation cited in these comments come from Emma Smith and from at least one other witness, who saw some of what he did, but certainly not all of it. He used more than one method for translating. We know, at the very least, that he used two separate instruments—the Urim & Thummim and the Seerstone—and that he also translated without the use any such instruments. Since we know the methods varied, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he used the plates at some times and not at others.

  10. This doesn’t happen often (well, ok, probably more often than I think) but I agree with ltbugaf (first paragraph #9). I believe the plates were needed in translation, though I don’t know if he used them constantly (for example, I don’t know how the Urim & Thummim were used, so maybe the words appeared in them? I can’t say for sure).

  11. By the way, Tomatoes, I certainly agree that it’s a “pending question”—as are almost all the questions posed on this ‘blog.

  12. “Since we know the methods varied, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he used the plates at some times and not at others.”

    It’s possible. It’s just odd that we reportedly have several accounts of him translating without them and not a single one of him translating with them.

  13. ltbugaf, you’ve made a common mistake in terminology; the “Urim and Thummim” and the seer stone are different words for the same thing. The phrase “Urim and Thummim” was used to describe the translator that came with the plates, and also to refer to Joseph Smith’s seer stone from his treasure-digging days. The Book of Mormon as we currently have it was (according to Martin Harris) entirely produced with Joseph Smith’s earlier seer stone; Joseph evidently lost the stone that came with the plates when the 116 pages were lost, and subsequently had to translate using his older stone, which was dug out of a well on the property of a neighbor in Palmyra.

    Beyond that, the descriptions of the translation as involving the seer stone in a hat and no direct use of the plates come from Oliver Cowdrey, Martin Harris, Peter Whitmer, David Whitmer, Emma Hale Smith, and Emma’s family. Nearly everyone involved in the translation project has given us at least one statement of description of the mode of translation and the earliest statements are essentially unanimous about the mode of translation and about the fact that the plates weren’t directly used in the translation project.

    The question of how the Book of Mormon was produced isn’t really pending. Joseph Smith translated it by putting a seer stone or Urim and Thummim in a hat and burying his face in the hat. The people who did the translation work with Joseph have told us that this is the only way it was done. The pending question is why the plates had to be preserved in light of the historical fact–from the people closest to the translation project–that they weren’t used in the translation. Denying this fact doesn’t solve the problem. It just makes the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon and others close to Joseph Smith into liars.

  14. Tomatoes, if you think what I’ve said above is “denying facts” then I think you’re seeing what isn’t there. Nothing in my statement impugns the honesty of the witnesses who described what they saw. All I say is that there are probably things they didn’t see, and events they didn’t describe. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they didn’t translate the plates—Joseph did. He, as far as I know, was silent on whether or how the plates may have played a role in their translation. The fact that he had them present while translating doesn’t seem insignificant to me. We know that he used the hat method sometimes, using one of his translating devices. We just don’t know what he did ALL of the time.

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