Coming to Terms with The Book of Mormon

One of the more interesting facets of my beliefs is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a book similar to the Bible in that it claims to tell the story of ancient worshipers of God and their interactions with Him and the people around them.

Of course, there are differences. The Bible is a collection of books gathered together by a variety of people over centuries and millennia. We have copies of some of its pages that are 2000 years old. It mentions people and places that have been corroborated through archaeological evidence (though to say that archaeology proves the Bible is a stretch).

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is largely one book, written by a handful of men. Mormon and his son Moroni, prophets and historians (or at least record keepers) wrote and collected most of it. Only one uneducated man – Joseph Smith – translated it to English, with a few others acting as scribes. Though archaeologists have found evidence of multiple civilizations across the Americas, none of them them can be tied with any certainty to the peoples mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

The other night my 6-year-old daughter asked how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. This would have been an easy question to answer once. I would have shown her a picture like this one. I would explain what I understood from my childhood: that he looked at the plates and, after thinking for a time, he would give the English translation to the person acting as his scribe. Often there was a sheet between himself and the scribe so that they could not see the plates.

Joseph Smith didn’t say much about how he translated the Book of Mormon. He simply said it was by the power of God. I’m not sure exactly how the version I described above came about. I haven’t spent a ton of time researching, but no one I have read describe translation in this manner.

The statements we have from those who helped with the translation are a little different. When Joseph Smith found the plates, he also found two stones set in a breastplate – the Urim and Thummim (verse 52 in the link). Joseph Smith was told by an angel that the Urim and Thummim were prepared for the translation of the plates. Now, this is a portion of the story I grew up reading. I remember wondering what the deal with the breastplate was. I have the idea in my mind that he may have worn the breastplate, which allowed him to translate. As before, in my brief research time I haven’t found support for this. it may be the product of my imagination.

In another account, this one supported by one of Joseph’s scribes, the stones were set in a sort of spectacle frame, so he could wear them like glasses. When he looked at the plates, the words appeared as English (see the article linked at the bottom of this post for more).

Finally, we have the mode that has provided the most fodder for the mockers: he would place the stones in a hat, then place his face inside. The words would appear in the stones and he would read them aloud.

But wait, there’s more! The Urim and Thumim were only one tool he used. Joseph Smith had found a stone years earlier that he called a seer stone. Once the translation process began, he used this stone in the hat interchangeably with the Urim and Thummim.

Does this sound ridiculous? I won’t deny that. But I would ask you to consider, how should God communicate to a prophet? Should he use methods that are more pedestrian? More normal? What exactly is normal about God speaking to a man? Is there a method which wouldn’t lead you to think the man might be a little crazy? Or at least deluded?

As I shared some of this, in a condensed version, with my 7-year-old, I didn’t know where I would go. I hadn’t learned some of this until I was in college. How did I explain it to a her? As I talked, I simply went to the conclusion I’ve come to – the way Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon isn’t that important. He may have used a variety of methods. What matters is that it was by the power of God. All of these methods show God’s hand. Only God could have done this.

If I believe that God has spoken to prophets, I don’t see a barrier to believing this is how he spoke to Joseph Smith. Is it any wilder than looking at a brass serpent to be healed? Or creating the world with a word? More far-fetched than parting the Red Sea with a rod? Or healing a blind man with dirt and spit?

Miraculous acts are part and parcel of being a Christian. I’m not sure where the boundary of “too miraculous” should be.

But, the scriptures do contain warnings that miraculous acts alone are insufficient to prove that someone is a servant of God. How do we tell if a miracle-worker is from God? We must also look at their fruits.

Here are a few teachings from the Book of Mormon that have impacted my life, and help me to believe it is from God:

  • Through faithful prayer, we can obtain forgiveness and have our hearts turned to the welfare of others. Enos.
  • We find happiness in obeying God. Mosiah 2:41.
  • Christ not only suffered for our sins, but felt every mortal pain. Alma 7:11-13.
  • Belief isn’t a one time get-it-or-don’t event. It can be nurtured and grown over time, by testing the word of God. Alma 32:28-32.
  • The Holy Ghost is a gift anyone can receive if they seek God. It will teach them truth. 1 Nephi 10:17-18.

I’ll close with my own experience that I’ve come back to as I’ve explored my faith. Moroni, the final author of the Book of Mormon, closes with an invitation: “when ye shall receive these things…ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” He promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Moroni 10:4.

I’ve prayed to know if these things are true. I have received that confirmation, largely through a feeling of peace I haven’t felt in any other way. I am also reminded of the good things the book has taught me. I believe it is true and that God’s Spirit has confirmed that belief.

Thanks for reading to the end. Here are a couple articles that I found interesting while preparing this post: