A Response to Strange Theories Regarding the Translation of the Book of Mormon

Figure 1[1]

One of the earliest theories to the Book of Mormon coming forth was that Joseph Smith had conned his scribes by memorizing portions of a preconceived story in advance and tricking them by reciting this portion little by little. Not only is this theory impossible to prove true, but it also flies false in the face of historical firsthand sources regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Unfortunately, critics of the Church are neither smart nor creative, and every so often the same theory gets repackaged to make it appear like some brand new “shocking” discovery that throws a whole new light on what Latter-day Saints believe. And every time, those theories are disproven again and again.

This latest incident comes from a critic of the Church I have addressed three times already. Jonathan Neville recently did an interview with the YouTube channel “Mormon Book Reviews,” published in two parts. The host of this channel is an Evangelical who is interested in reading anything he can about the Church, and has had a few authors come in to his show. He has become friends with Neville, but unfortunately he does not seem to be aware of Neville’s more troubling and non-orthodox viewpoints.

In the second part to his interview, after briefly discussing his theory that Jonathan Edwards’ writings influenced Joseph Smith’s translation, he moves on at the prompt of the interviewer to discuss Joseph’s use of seer stones in the translation – or rather, according to Neville, his lack of use of seer stones – and why President Nelson actively teaches that Joseph used a seer stone, even as late as last year.

Did Joseph Smith Read Jonathan Edwards' Writings in Depth?

Neville, for his recitation and demonstration theory to make sense, first has to make of Joseph something that Joseph clearly was not, namely, a boy genius. For the first fifteen minutes of the interview, Neville discusses what Joseph meant by “translation” and how Jonathan Edwards influenced Joseph Smith’s translation.

Neville’s forthcoming book Infinite Goodness attempts to explore the connections between early American minister Jonathan Edwards’ writings and the translation of the Book of Mormon and how Edwardian language is found in the Book of Mormon. Neville has found that all eight volumes of his collected works was sold in the Palmyra bookstore in the early 1800’s, which would put a clear link to Joseph Smith.

However, while Neville implies that Joseph avidly read as much Jonathan Edwards as possible, that caricature doesn’t match what Joseph’s own mother said about him. Even at the age of nineteen, he “had never read the Bible through by course in his life for Joseph was less inclined to the study of books than [the other Smith children].”[2] To put this into context, the year would be about 1825. Joseph is still two years out before he receives the plates, and still had not been given to the study of books – not the description of someone adamantly obsessed with Edwards’ theological claims.

The next two years also proved to be busy for Joseph Smith – he met and married Emma Smith, was taken to trial for his use of seer stones, worked with Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight, etc. – which would not discount the possibility of him reading Edwards’ books, but even by the time Joseph began translating.

Emma Smith remembered of Joseph that he “could neither write nor dictate a well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon.”[3] To Emma, who knew Joseph more intimately than any other contemporary, such a feat as Joseph reading and comprehending a “well-worded” book was simply impossible at that time. It would come later, but not as an unlearned translator.

Any Edwardian language in the Book of Mormon could easily be explained as the Book of Mormon was revealed according to Joseph’s language which had been influenced by the many congregations he visited during his search for truth, and these priests potentially had the ability and knowledge to read these eight volumes and incorporate a well-known American preacher’s language into their own sermons. However, I have not looked into this possibility, nor have I read Neville’s currently unpublished manuscript on the matter to see what else Neville may have to say regarding any potential connections, and so only offer this as a tentative possibility that deserves investigation. Implying Joseph had read Jonathan Edwards’ works, however, was a large stretch for Neville to make, which does not hold up to historical sources and scrutiny.

What Did Joseph Mean by the Word "Translate"?

As a brief side note before we move on, Neville also claims that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in a scholarly manner rather than a divine transmission of knowledge – a theory to aggrandize Joseph’s knowledge and paint him to be a boy genius, which helps the next part of Neville’s theory make any sense.

It is no surprise to many to hear that Joseph’s definition of translation was much looser than many people try to make it. Regarding the Book of Mormon, Joseph took a record engraven in one language and produced the text of those engravings in another language – a translation. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Joseph learned Reformed Egyptian and could easily translate it – even in 1835 when viewing Egyptian papyri, some sources claim Joseph had to inquire through the “Urim and Thummim” – a reference to Joseph’s seer stone, as the Nephite interpreters had been returned by this time.[4]

Had Joseph known how to read and translate these characters, no divine tool would be necessary, not even for the translation of the Book of Mormon. And had it been a scholarly translation, it would not account for the speed by which Joseph translated for a first draft ready for publication – any one who has attempted any translation of any text can agree.

This word “translation” would also be used in regard to Joseph’s correction of the Bible, even though Hebrew and Greek texts were not drawn on, showing that Joseph didn’t view this word strictly as a scholar would. Even we today have to translate difficult words of one language into simpler terms in the same language. Translation does not have to mean what we always want it to mean, as Joseph shows throughout his prophetic career.

Again, a theory of Neville’s that flies in the face of reason.

Was Joseph's Use of a Seer Stone Simply a "Demonstration" to the Whitmers?

Finally, how does Neville’s Joseph and seer stone narrative (his “demonstration hypothesis” mentioned earlier) hold up?

The only way I can imagine Neville creating this theory is simple. He started off with a theological claim “Joseph didn’t use a seer stone because I don’t like the implications of what that might mean.” Unable to reconcile the fact that the term Urim and Thummim was first used in 1832 by W.W. Phelps to show that Joseph’s use of divine instruments such as stones was biblical and the term likely was a blanket statement used by Joseph and his contemporaries, he believes the term Urim and Thummim can only refer to the Nephite interpreters.

Next, he has to explain away the sources contradicting his theory. For Neville, he has taken up a “demonstration” model after he learned that the sources involving seer stones can’t be explained away as just writings of apostates (because, unfortunately for him, they weren’t). While some witnesses to the seer stone never came west or had a falling out with Joseph, others did come west and did not have a falling out with Joseph. And even those who never came west such as Emma Smith or David Whitmer surely do not merit the blanket statement “apostate,” because it takes them out of the circumstances of their lives while ignoring that they were extremely faithful to what they did know to be true. Others from that time do deserve that categorization; they, however, do not.

For this “demonstration” model to work, it requires all sense to be thrown out the window. It also requires Joseph Smith to be a blatant liar.

According to this theory, Joseph Smith translated with Oliver Cowdery using only the Nephite interpreters. However, the Whitmers kept bugging them to see how Joseph translated, so, to appease the Whitmers, he covered the plates, grabbed a hat, threw his seer stone in said hat, and said “See, this is what it looks like.” Appeased, the family went their way, and Joseph and Oliver could continue their translation efforts. No matter how this is looked at, demonstrating something false and declaring it to be factual is a lie. While Neville makes Joseph a pinnacle of scholarly knowledge as a young boy to see him in a better light, he robs Joseph of morality, it would seem, at least when it comes to his close friends.

Unfortunately, as with other crack theories, it takes more and more explanation and twisting the sources to get it to work when other sources are presented to the theorist. Why do sources claim that people actually wrote things down as Joseph had the stone in the hat for instance?

Well, it’s simple – Joseph Smith was a boy genius.

Not only did he read much of if not all of Edwards’ works, not only did he learn Reformed Egyptian to give a literal translation, but Joseph had memorized at least five chapters of Isaiah and recited them from memory while “translating.” Thus this theory is once again pulled out of the critics’ hat of tricks and presented in new packaging with the hopes of convincing some few.

Beginning at the 24-minute mark in the video, Neville discusses Joseph’s use of seer stones – or rather lack of use of seer stones – in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Regarding the seer stone, Neville says:

He realized he could just do a demonstration of the process by just reciting Isaiah from memory. So he went downstairs, put the stone in the hat, recited Isaiah, and the three scribes wrote it as fast as they could to keep up… On this one occasion, the demonstration, he was dictating so fast that he had three scribes and they were getting tired and had to take turns, which is not the normal manner of translation. That’s why I propose, anyway, that he was reciting from memory looking at the stone in the hat.

The reason for this demonstration is that Joseph could not show the plates or interpreters to anyone, and because the Whitmers were familiar with this concept Joseph decided to use this as a teaching model (even though, as Neville says Joseph would say “This is the manner in which I translate,” it would be a false manner and a lie).

Neville continues:

The interesting thing there is nobody quotes him as saying he was doing a ‘translation.’ Nobody wrote down the words that he actually said, other than the scribes, and we don’t have that part of the original manuscript from 2 Nephi, so we can’t tell for sure who the scribes were. But it’s consistent with his lifelong pattern of letting people make inferences.

In some of the Isaiah chapters in 1 Nephi and a few of them in 2 Nephi, there are substantive changes – Joseph would add a complete verse, he would move verses around and restructure it, and so on. And to me, that sounds like translation. But there’s four or five chapters of Isaiah in 2 Nephi that are inexplicable. They have a dropped word here, maybe an inverted word or two here, and a missing line… nothing that makes sense in terms of a translation. But it does make sense in terms of someone reciting from memory… So that’s why I think it was recited from memory.

Hence, it is possible to say that Joseph translated via the Urim and Thummim while rejected the idea Joseph used a seer stone – he just recited it from memory!

First, he assumes that because Joseph never explicitly said, “Oh, by the way, all of the chapters of 2 Nephi were directly inspired translations and I did not recite them at all,” it is impossible to disprove.

The fact remans that Joseph called the whole Book of Mormon a translation throughout his life. All of his scribes called it a translation, and no evidence suggests they wrote on the original manuscript saying “This is a translation beginning at this date and time,” but rather only wrote the words they heard Joseph hear as he translated. No evidence suggests anyone –Joseph included – ever called it anything other than a translation.

Neville also says Joseph let people make inferences, which is true, but there was also a limit to that aspect of Joseph’s life. If someone taught or wrote something that Joseph did not agree with doctrinally or factually – such as if Joseph translated the Book of Mormon or recited it from some other source – he was quick to let people know – a fact that Neville is quick to point out when it comes to some sources, but quick to overlook when it suits his argument.

Next, despite Neville’s claims, these missing words or lines of Isaiah are perfectly reasonable in terms of a translation. If those words were not in the text Joseph was translating, or if a few words were in inverted order, then it would be reasonable to assume that those words would be left out of the translated version of that text. Neville is simply mischaracterizing the opposing viewpoint here as something that “doesn’t make sense” without actually responding to the fact that not all of the Isaiah chapters absolutely had to be textually different than the version we find in the King James Bible.

Another old argument Neville uses against a seer stone is the fact that Joseph claimed the Title Page was on the last leaf of the plates. How could Joseph know that if he only used a seer stone? Doesn’t that disprove that theory? Well, there are multiple explanations – he was, after all, the man who had the most access and knowledge about the plates and divine access to information regarding them – yet fails to see how this question he raises can be used against his own recitation model. How, it might be asked, did Joseph know when to stop reciting from memory? Doesn’t that by itself disprove that option? If he will respond to this hypocrisy he demonstrates remains yet to be seen.

What Did Eyewitnesses to the Translation Say About the Seer Stones?

As Neville has said, this whole theory depends on five chapters of Isaiah being recited from memory, highly at odds with the boy who “had never read the Bible through by course in his life” according to Lucy Mack Smith or who “had not read the Bible enough to know there were walls around Jerusalem” according to Emma Smith (which is a fact mentioned in Isaiah 62).[5]

However, eyewitnesses (including Emma Smith) do not paint it as a quick five-chapter recitation of a few chapters before he put the seer stone away for good. According to Emma Smith:

I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the Church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father [speaking to her son, Joseph Smith III] 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.[6]

Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery similarly testified:

Richmond, Ray Co., Mo. Feb 15, 1870⸻I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him.[7]

David Whitmer gave many such testimonies throughout his life, of which this is one:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.[8]

Note that the “power of man” would certainly include the ability of Joseph to memorize and recite portions of Isaiah while translating – something David Whitmer clearly argues against.

Martin Harris even testified that Joseph had used a seer stone in a hat during his own tenure as scribe. Occasionally Joseph would even take a seer stone out of the Nephite interpreters to place them in a hat:

The two stones set in a bow of silver [here referring to the Nephite Interpreters] were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; [sic] but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should “look aught and perish”[9]

On another occasion later recounted by Edward Stevenson, who assisted Martin in coming to Utah after many years of alienation from the body of the Church,

[Martin Harris] said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone... [After replacing the seer stone with the regular stone Martin had found] he said that the Prophet remained silent unusually long and intently gaining in darkness, no trace of the usual sentence appearing. Much surprised Joseph exclaimed: “Martin! What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt.” Martin’s countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them, etc.”[10]

Not only did Martin testify that the seer stone was a divine tool, but he also testified that Joseph was unable to say anything, and that he had not memorized any words to recite while using the seer stone and gazing into it for sentences to appear, directly contradicting all of Neville’s claims to using historical data correctly in assuming the opposite.

Neville’s claims do not match with historical sources saying Joseph would use the seer stone hours and even days at a time, and that the Book of Mormon came forth by the power of God and not of man, including the ability to learn sentences and merely repeat them when merely convenient.

President Russell M. Nelson and Joseph's Seer Stones

President Russell M. Nelson has repeatedly taught that Joseph used a seer stone, the most famous example of which was only last year. In a video produced by the Church at the Whitmer household, at about the 3:30 mark, President Nelson says this:

We have a lot of suggestions about how it [the translation of the Book of Mormon] was done. We know that they [Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery] had a table like this. We know they had the golden plates, covered usually, and Joseph used these—the Urim and Thummim, seer stones—in the hat, and it was easier for him to see the light [from the stones] when he’d take that position [placing the hat to his face].

Not only does President Nelson teach about how Joseph used a seer stone in translating, he demonstrated it as well.

To justify his position, Neville had this to say about the incident in this interview:

President Nelson was demonstrating the stone in the hat thing, which is consistent with the historical evidence of this demonstration. President Nelson could not demonstrate the Urim and Thummim, because we don’t have the Urim and Thummim. He couldn’t demonstrate the plates because we don’t have the actual plates. But he could demonstrate, or show, in this example you’re referring to [addressing the interviewer] the stone in the hat demonstration.

Note, however, that nowhere did President Nelson call it a “demonstration of what might have been shown to the Whitmers on one or two occasions” as Neville tries to paint this incident.  He instead says “We know” Joseph and his scribes undertook the translation by placing the “seer stones” (which he also sees no problem in calling the Urim and Thummim as well) “in the hat” for convenience. President Nelson’s description of the events lines up much greater with the historical sources than does Neville’s interpretation of events, because in addition to being a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, President Nelson actually cares enough to get an accurate and faithful depiction of his predecessor and his prophetic ability.


I have said three times before that I have said enough on my blog about Jonathan Neville and his antics. And three times now, I have found the need to address his antics yet again as he grows more and more of a critic of the Church with his own pseudo-history and pseudo-theology. I cannot make any promise I will not address such critics of the Church another time down the road. In fact, there remains one claim Neville made regarding the Book of Mormon and its role in missionary work in this interview that I have yet to address – so there will be a “Part Two” to this post soon.

I can, however, promise this.

Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the Lord. He divinely translated the Book of Mormon through no ability of his own. It is an inspired document meant for us – a great tool to gather in the House of Israel and teach the doctrine of Christ in its fulness. He could not have come up with any part of that text on his own accord. He was a Prophet and his fruits bear witness to that fact.

Because he was a Prophet, he had Priesthood authority. President Russell M. Nelson has that authority today. He too is a Prophet of God, and desires us to be active learners like he is so that we can come to know and appreciate and love the Book of Mormon in its fulness as well. He leads us today, and we would do well to listen to his counsel and live by his words.

[1] Pictured is Jonathan Neville in his interview with Mormon Book Reviews YouTube channel regarding his forthcoming book Infinite Goodness.

[2] "Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, Page [1], bk. 4," p. [1], bk. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 15, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/43.

[3] Emma Smith, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 290. Emphasis mine.

[4] Both Wilford Woodruff and Parley P. Pratt mention the Urim and Thummim being used to translate the Book of Abraham. See  Wilford Woodruff journal, February 19, 1842, and Parley P. Pratt, “Editorial Remarks,” Millennial Star 3 (July 1842): 47.

[5] Nels Madsen, “Visit to Mrs. Emma Smith Bidamon,” 1931, Church Archives; transcribed in John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens, 130 (document 40).

[6] “The Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 289. Emphasis mine.

[7] William E. McClellan to "My Dear Friends," February 1879, Miscellaneous Papers and Documents, Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence, MO. Cited in Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ: Maxwell Institute Study Edition (2018), 619. Emphasis added.

[8] David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo. 1887), p. 12. Emphasis mine.

[9] “Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859,” in Early Mormon Documents, 2:305. Cited in  Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 121-190. Emphasis mine. The two scriptures Martin Harris appear to be quoting are Exodus 33:20 and Mosiah 8:13, respectively.

[10] Edward Stevenson to Deseret News Editor, November 20, 1881, published as “One of the Three Witnesses. Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris,” Deseret Evening News, December 13, 1881.


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