Chapter 15 – Book of Mormon Scholarship

The first time we meet Mormonism we usually encounter the Book of Mormon, “a volume of holy Scripture comparable to the Bible” (BOM Introduction). The eighth article of faith of the Mormon Church tells us the comparative worth placed on the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The Book of Mormon, then, takes precedence, as is confirmed by the following statement from Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet.

“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church Vol.4, p.461 (1841)

A remarkable book that it should be more reliable than the Bible be more correct than any other, and that it should be man’s surest way to God bar none.

Correcting the “Most Correct Book”

It is common knowledge that there have been upwards of 4,000 changes made to the text of the Book of Mormon. Most have been grammar, punctuation, spelling etc. although some much more serious changes have been made. It does cause one to question the boasting of Joseph Smith in 1841, especially in light of the account of the translation work by Joseph’s scribes. In 1848 Oliver Cowdrey, chief scribe for the Book of Mormon, testified:

“I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.” (“Journal of Reuben Miller,” 21 Oct. 1848, quoted in “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)

In a letter to the Deseret News, Edward Stevenson, who is regarded as “the person who best reflects Martin Harris”, wrote:

Martin Harris related an instance that occurred during the time he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the prophet possessed a seer stone by which he was enabled to translate as follows: By aid of the seer stone , sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used.” (Quoted in “Where Does It Say That?”, Bob Witte)

A book “translated by the gift and power of God”. A book not considered “written” until every sentence was confirmed as correctly transcribed so that “the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used”.

Faced with all the changes made in the text, however, Mormon “scholars” have come up with a rather different account of how the translation work was done. They quote Doctrine and Covenants 1:24,

“These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

It is argued that God showed Joseph the meaning of the text and Joseph had to cast about within his own vocabulary, and whatever resources he had about him, to find a way of expressing this meaning “after the manner of their language”. This, it is argued, is why we find excerpts from the Westminster Confession and Shakespeare, as well popular books and the local press of the time, in the Book of Mormon.

When Lehi and his family fled Jerusalem, we are told, they took with them Laban’s brass plates, which contained “the record of the Jews” (1 Nephi 3:3-4) It is from these the Book of Mormon people quote, thus explaining the presence of so many lengthy Bible texts in the book. There are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James Version renders them. Daniel H Ludlow explains this as follows:

“There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon…if his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 141)

Commenting on this in the Ensign magazine, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote, “Thus the Old Testament passages from Isaiah display a particular choice of phraseology that suggests Joseph Smith’s general freedom throughout the Book of Mormon for optional wording.” (“By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)

There are, in other words, two conflicting accounts of how the Book of Mormon came to be translated. It was either a word-for-word “translation”, correct in every part, or it was a paraphrase “made after the manner of [Joseph’s] language”. Do we rely upon the accounts of those best placed to tell us what happened, or do we depend upon Mormon scholars to “interpret” events in light of later developments? Of course, given the growing distance in time, Mormon scholars are more able to put this disparity of accounts down to poor reporting on the part of those privileged enough to act as scribes to the prophet. However, since the scribes quoted above were also two of the three key witnesses to the Book of Mormon, it does not help the Mormon scholars to impugn their trustworthiness or their memory.

In Their Weakness

It is a curious phrase to find in a work purporting to be Scripture, “in their weakness”. It suggests room for error, allowance for human failings. There is a similar phrase in the title page of the Book of Mormon:

“And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement seat of Christ.”

It seems that Joseph Smith allowed for every eventuality in bringing forth “the most correct book of any book on earth” – just in case. Just as well! It has been observed that there can hardly be any book published in the nineteenth century that has had as many changes made to it as the Book of Mormon. There cannot be many anyway. If there are you will probably find in them a publishing history showing that what you have in your hand is not the original but a revised edition. You will find no such candid admission in the front of the Book of Mormon. The unsuspecting “investigator” will be led to believe that this
is what came “from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim”. Such equivocation shows why scholars are necessary to “explain” the Mormon message when prophets, seers and revelators are meant to be bringing the plain and unequivocal meaning of the gospel purported to have been lost in apostasy in the first century.

2 Timothy 3:16

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