How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

When Joseph Smith began the Book of Mormon translation, he acted in his capacity as a treasure seer and used the tools of that trade. But beginning about 1827–28, Smith and his followers began to change how they talked about the translation process, transforming it from magical treasure lore into Christian epic. What follows is my reconstruction of the different stages of the story’s evolution, including how the seer stone and spectacles came to be all but erased from the official narrative.[1]

Stage 1: Obscuring the Spectacles’ Magical Origin (ca. 1828)

As I explained in a previous post, the idea that “spectacles” were buried with the gold plates seems to have been first proposed by treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence.[2] When Joseph obtained the plates on September 22, 1827, he also obtained the spectacles. When he reported on his success to Joseph Knight Sr. , he “seamed to think more of the glasses . . . then he Did of the Plates for[,] says he[,] I can see any thing[;] they are Marvelus[.]”[3]

Continue reading “How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time” »

Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone: A Historiographical Glimpse

The recently released images of Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone in the Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 3: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon and forthcoming article in the Ensign titled “Joseph the Seer” discussing Smith’s method of translation has become a bona fide social media event. Many are decrying, perhaps rightly, that the church has been less than forthcoming in the past about Smith’s use of seer stones for translating and receiving revelation. Others are critiquing those who were surprised by this information, pointing out a handful of articles in the Ensign and Friend magazines over the past three decades as evidence of transparency.[1] These few articles notwithstanding, it is disingenuous to claim that the church widely accepted and taught Joseph Smith’s method of translation through seer stones.

Taking a brief look at the following officially-sanctioned histories yields mixed results. Furthermore, the historiographical treatment has been to preferentially emphasize the Urim and Thummim over the seer stone as Smith’s method of translation, with the former providing a legitimizing narrative based on scriptural precedent rather than folk-magic. Continue reading “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone: A Historiographical Glimpse” »

Magical Artifacts and Book of Mormon Translation

snapJoseph Smith initially told the story of the golden plates in the language of folk-magic and treasure-digging culture.[1]

In the 1820s Joseph possessed at least three seer stones, which he used to locate buried treasures.[2] However, the treasures tended to be protected by guardian spirits. Joseph negotiated with these spirits or tried magical means to control them, usually without success.[3]

In 1823 the spirit of an ancient Nephite appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him about a set of golden plates buried in a nearby hill.[4] Joseph negotiated with the spirit for years, fulfilling magical requirements such as that he come to the hill on the autumnal equinox, wear all black, and bring a specific person with him. After four years and several failed attempts, Joseph finally obtained the plates in 1827.[5]

Later tellings of this story would transform the spirit into an angel and drop all references to magical requirements.[6] But originally, Joseph’s discovery of the gold plates fit seamlessly into his career as a treasure-seeker.

So did his translation of them.

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Church Unveils Joseph Smith Seer Stone in Drive toward Historical Transparency

At a press conference yesterday the LDS Church released photographs of the chocolate-colored, egg-shaped seer stone that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. For decades the stone has resided in the restricted First Presidency vault, and visitors have rarely seen it.

Until recently the Church also restricted access to sensitive archival documents and occasionally punished historians who publicized problematic Church history. Around the turn of the century the Church began a drive to shed its reputation for secrecy. The mainspring of this effort has been its critically acclaimed Joseph Smith Papers Project, which seeks to publish “Everything of a written nature Joseph Smith generated, or over which he had oversight.”

But while the Church has relaxed its restrictions on archival access, the First Presidency vault has remained closed. For some detractors this has signified a continuing lack of historical transparency. The seer stone’s unveiling is changing all that.

As historian Dan Vogel wrote to me about yesterday’s announcement, “Several months ago when I made [a YouTube video] on the translation process I said I wouldn’t consider the church truly open on the translation issue until they published photos of the stone. I guess I got my wish.” Continue reading “Church Unveils Joseph Smith Seer Stone in Drive toward Historical Transparency” »

Family Breakdown, the Welfare State, and the Family Proclamation: An Alternative History*

Laura Compton at Rational Faiths has an enlightening and informative post on the origins of the Family Proclamation. She effectively demonstrates that the controversy surrounding Baehr v. Lewin–the first major victory for same-sex marriage proponents–gave birth to the quasi-canonical document. I do not dispute the influence of this legal case in the creation of the Proclamation. However, I do think there are other possible influences and contexts that helped mold its final shape. I hope to explore one of these possibilities below. And since she began with a time traveler, I will too. So please step into the blue box…

Continue reading “Family Breakdown, the Welfare State, and the Family Proclamation: An Alternative History*” »

Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy for the Unsettled Latter-day Saint

Title: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding
Authors: Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Religion
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 204
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-723-6
Price $19.95

Reviewed by: Cheryl L. Bruno

Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

Quoting a familiar nonsense rhyme, Samuel W. Taylor described the condition of post-Manifesto Mormons with regard to the once-crucial principle of plural marriage:

Yesterday upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish that man would go away.

Although Brian C. Hales and, more recently his wife Laura H. Hales cannot make the issue of Mormon polygamy disappear, they have done everything in their power to make it more palatable for faithful members of the Church.

Continue reading “Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy for the Unsettled Latter-day Saint” »

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology: Presidency

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology (Part VI): November 10, 1985 to 2014 (President of the Church)


Ezra Taft Benson became the 13th President of the LDS church in 1985 after the death of Spencer W. Kimball. His first address began a recurring theme of his presidency – calling on members of the church to read the Book of Mormon. Conspiracies described in the Book of Mormon to overthrow God’s plan – rang true to Benson, who saw similar conspiracies in his time. He compared his call to read the Book of Mormon – to that of Lorenzo Snow’s call to pay tithing. “The Lord has revealed [this, in order] to get the Church … out from under condemnation”.

Upon his ascension to the presidency, non-Mormon journalists noted that his anti-communist politics had “antagonized numerous members of the church, leading to fears of a major schism if he became president.” But the political passion of the 50s and 60s had retreated and the John Birch Society had lost much of its relevancy. He became president in the middle of America’s conservative “Reagan Revolution”, and he largely abandoned his ultra-conservative evangelism, but never-the-less promoted “Birchism” to an extent, such as buying subscriptions to a Birch publication for his new counselors.

During his administration, the Church established a relationship with the communist German Democratic Republic. First, missionaries were first allowed into the country. Then the church was allowed build a temple. And later, the Berlin Wall came down. Also during Benson’s administration, Russia granted the church official recognition. These events seem to be poetic justice for Benson’s earlier anti-communist efforts. Continue reading “Ezra Taft Benson Chronology: Presidency” »

Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: Julie Smith and Reading the New Testament Anew

This is how I spend most of Sunday School.

I used to have a ritual headache every Sunday I didn’t have to work. I used to think it was due to hunger based on weird church hours that cut into lunch. Or possibly a lack of caffeine since I don’t buy Cokes (or anything else for that matter) on Sunday. But I think I’ve resigned myself to blaming Sunday School and Elders Quorum and the amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to make it through them. I’m even more convinced of this hypothesis since I haven’t had a headache ever since I was called to ward finance clerk and get to skip out on at least one of them. Most of the time, it isn’t the teacher’s fault (I personally like my Gospel Doctrine teacher a lot). The comments, however, are another story. When they are not self-serving and utterly shaming, they are often devoid of any historical or cultural context regarding the text. And this is why I wish more people could have attended Julie M. Smith’s April presentation at the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. Her book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels is an amazing and thought-provoking commentary (at least, I think that’s what you’d call it); one that I wish every Gospel Doctrine teacher had on their bookshelf. In her presentation, she listed six tips for more fulfilling scripture study:

  1. Read the Gospels separately.
  2. Pay attention to literary structure.
  3. Pay attention to women’s stories.
  4. Look for Old Testament allusions.
  5. Beware of traditions.
  6. Use other translations.

Let’s take a look at each one:

Continue reading “Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: Julie Smith and Reading the New Testament Anew” »

Race and the Mormon Struggle to Revise Whiteness

Mormonism’s nineteenth-century white Protestant critics often cast the Latter-day Saints as racially degenerate—a tragic decline into non-white barbarism. Anxious about the lack of obvious physical markers of this degeneracy, critics constructed fantasies of distinctive Mormon bodies: red, black, yellow, and otherwise malformed.

Mormons responded with a counter-image of themselves as the very paragons of white racial progress. And indeed, after a long “struggle for whiteness,” Mormons in the early twentieth century did finally succeed in passing as white. But with the advent of the mid-century civil rights movement, Mormons came to be seen as too white. They had achieved snow-whiteness just as the fashion for it was on its way out.

Such, at least, is the contention of W. Paul Reeve’s new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Reeve’s book has been met with great critical acclaim, and for good reason. He writes with rare verve and real insight. I began the book with the expectation that racialization of Mormons would be fairly subtle and evident only upon close reading of the sources. So I was surprised to learn that nineteenth-century critics spoke quite explicitly of Mormons as a “new race,” even going so far as to offer elaborate scientific analyses of their supposed distinctive racial characteristics. Reeve packs all his best evidence for this into his first chapter, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Another standout chapter is Chapter 4, where Reeve examines how the politics of slavery and fear of “amalgamation” shaped early anti-Mormon sentiment. Reeve does a particularly good job contextualizing the Mormons’ 1833 expulsion from Jackson County. In a decade when “at least 165 antiabolitionist riots convulsed the North,” the expulsion appears as “an early salvo in a violent, riot-filled anti-abolitionist backlash” that climaxed with the Civil War (114–15). For instance, abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy had his printing press destroyed by angry mobs four times—once in Missouri and thrice in Illinois—before his 1837 assassination. So when Jackson County citizens destroyed the Evening and Morning Star’s printing press and drove Mormons from the county, they followed a fairly typical pattern for dealing with perceived abolitionists. Continue reading “Race and the Mormon Struggle to Revise Whiteness” »

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology during the Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball administrations

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology (Part V): January 23, 1970 to November 10, 1985 (Apostle, President of the Quorum of the Twelve)

Ezra Taft Benson

Ezra Taft Benson

Under the presidencies of Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson’s promotion of ultra-conservative politics went into decline, in part due to more assertive presidents who were opposed to Benson’s politics, and also due to the demise of the threat of communism. Some of his public pronouncements were considered inappropriate and met with a gentle rebuke, or with clarifying statements from the First Presidency. Other correctives were more direct. Kimball was more lenient towards Benson than Smith and Lee.

Some ultra-conservative members of the church were unhappy that Benson’s pronouncements had been restricted. For example, in the 1970 General Priesthood meeting, Harold B. Lee denounced a mass mailing to local LDS leadership calling for a “a dissenting vote against the liberal factions” of “the First Presidency with its social-democrat thinking.” In 1976, a 3rd proposal was made to have Elder Benson run as part of a presidential bid, but he declined the offer as impractical.

Benson felt gospel teachings trumped secular ideas, and he declared “false” the theories of men like Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. He also forwarded materials to President Kimball that he felt were too liberal, or critical of the church. Later, he (and other apostles) directed reading assignments to monitor and flag potentially objectionable materials. Benson also forwarded to President Kimball materials expressing the concerns of ultra-conservatives about the subversion of democracy.

Benson was concerned about some materials being published by the professionally staffed church history department. Upon the publication of a book on the history of the church, Elders Benson, Peterson and Packer took issue with it, and it was pulled from the shelves of Deseret Book, as well as removed from the Institute of Religion’s reading list. He warned CES personal about subscribing to, or owning “apostate” materials, and instructed that they should publish faith-promoting articles only. In the early 1980s, a multi-volume history of the church was cancelled and the church history department was reorganized with the church historian being quietly released. Newsweek subsequently covered tensions between historians and conservative apostles.

Ezra Taft Benson organized efforts to have LDS women attend the International Women’s Year conference in Utah. He encouraged bishops to meet or exceed per-ward quotas of attendees. Conservative groups such as the John Birch Society and Eagle Forum held information meetings suggesting the conference had an extreme feminist agenda, and encouraged LDS women to follow their lead at the conference. Attendance far exceeded expectations, and a polarized atmosphere prevailed. Common sense resolutions such as better enforcement of child support, and equal pay for equal work were voted down along with liberal issues such as abortion rights and government funded sex education. LDS women were also mobilized in six other states to participate in this conference.

In 1977, another BYU spy-ring was organized by Elder Benson, and ran by William O. Nelson, a secretary to Benson. It was uncovered when a report intended for Benson ended up on Elder Peterson’s desk. BYU President Dallin Oaks referred to it as “that Birch Mafia that surrounds ETB.” President Kimball personally ended this spy-ring.

President Kimball expressed (before the revelation on blacks and the priesthood) that if he didn’t give priesthood to black members of the church, “my successor won’t.” When the revelation was received, Elder Benson recorded: “Following the prayer, we experienced the sweetest spirit of unity and conviction that I have ever experienced. . . . Our bosoms burned with the righteousness of the decision we had made.” He also said he “had never experienced anything of such spiritual magnitude and power.”

As president of the Quorum of Twelve during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, Benson worked to streamline church policies and procedures. He guided the Quorum effectively in dealing with various issues, helping the church move into the modern era and accommodating international needs. Reflecting his past humanitarian mission to post-WWII Europe, Brigham Young University honored him by establishing the Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute.

Elder Benson gave a talk called the “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophets.” It may have been in response to a full page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune taken out by the professional anti-Mormons Gerald and Sandra Tanner. Their book, promoted by the ad, called into question consistent prophetic declaration. But Benson’s talk was interpreted by many as a precursor to own ascendency as prophet of the church, he being next in line. President Kimball apparently asked Benson to issue an apology to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and then to a meeting of all general authorities. Continue reading “Ezra Taft Benson Chronology during the Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball administrations” »