Scholars turn anew to an old question: If Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, how did he do it?

Everybody loves a good whodunit, but in the case of the Book of Mormon, the mystery is more like a howhedunit.

For more than 190 years, critics of Mormon founder Joseph Smith have tried to find unimpeachable evidence that the former money-digger-turned-prophet invented the story of ancient American inhabitants who journeyed to the New World from Jerusalem.

On top of a seemingly far-fetched tale of a centuries-long fratricide, a visit by the resurrected Christ, and an apocalyptic genocide, Smith’s account of how he happened to find the record seems even more outlandish to the modern mind.

The farm boy in upstate New York said an angel directed him to a nearby hill, where he unearthed gold plates containing text written in “reformed Egyptian” — a language no scholar knows — that only Smith could translate. And when the etchings were rendered into King James English, the plates were returned to the angel.

Oh, yes, and one more detail: To translate much of the record, Smith did not look at the plates but rather into a “seer stone” in a hat and then dictated the wording to scribes. According to those assistants, he spoke the words smoothly and rapidly, as if he were reading, and never did extensive editing or revising.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) A picture of a smooth, brown, egg-sized rock is shown in the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon after a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church History Library, in Salt Lake City. The church published photos of a small sacred stone it believes founder Joseph Smith used to help translate the Book of Mormon.

The whole project by a relatively unschooled and little-known young man was completed in about three months during the spring of 1829, leaving many questions in its wake.

Was it plagiarism? Collusion with a co-author? Mental illness or auditory hallucinations? Or, as researcher Dan Vogel argues, brilliant fiction springing from Smith’s subconscious mind and childhood experiences?

There has never been a definitive naturalistic explanation for how the nearly 600-page Book of Mormon came to be.

To members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the “coming forth” of the sacred text was not natural, but supernatural. They take it on faith. It is scripture, to be read and reread by believers in more than a hundred languages.

Smith simply said he translated it by “the gift and power of God,” offering no details about what he experienced as he worked on it.

Now, some faithful Latter-day Saint scholars and respectful outside historians — laying aside the book’s historicity claims — have begun exploring Smith’s work as a translator.

They are looking not just at that keystone scripture, but also at Smith’s other projects — including the Book of Abraham, and his so-called “inspired” translation of the Bible.

“Translation was one of the distinguishing eccentricities of Joseph Smith’s prophethood,” declares preeminent Smith biographer Richard Bushman, which the Latter-day Saint prophet saw as more than “a mechanical operation.”

To Smith, it was “a divine calling,” says Bushman, author of the acclaimed “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” “embedded in the providential working of history, in which one people’s prophets instruct the people of another time and place.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Historian Richard Bushman speaks at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City in 2018.

Indeed, Mormonism’s founder saw translation as one of the spiritual gifts mentioned by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, and, though other church leaders of the time were given the titles “prophets and seers,” Smith reserved the role of “translator” for himself, according to a new book of essays, “Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity.”

In their introduction, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee and Brian M. Hauglid, explain that Smith drew a clear distinction between “revelation,” which he saw as a direct outpouring from God, and translation, “which was only used to recover the writings of ancient prophets.”

Work with such past texts was “usually associated with some kind of artifact — real or imagined — such as plates or parchment or papyri,” they write. Revelations “were delivered in the voice of the living God — often directed to a specific individual in the immediacy of present circumstances and employing familiar address. In contrast, the translations were narrated in the voice of ancient prophets and generally added an unknown audience of scripture readers somewhere off in the distant future.”

Even so, there are anachronisms in the Book of Mormon as well as many ideas common to Smith’s 19th century rather than to an era of the distant past and large chunks of the biblical book of Isaiah.

The question then becomes: How much of the holy history came from plates, how much funneled through Smith’s mind, and how much, if any, poured down directly from heaven?

Hearing and seeing

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Actor portraying the Prophet Joseph Smith in the church's 2005 movie, "Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration."

Because the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature text, is so tightly constructed with so few changes noted on the original handwritten manuscript, some Latter-day Saint scholars believe that Smith saw almost every word in the seer stone, then read them to the scribe. That is known as the “tight control” hypothesis.

Others find evidence that the process was more multifaceted.

“A handful of verbal false starts and missteps [in the text], along with their associated corrections, suggest that the Book of Mormon was primarily an oral production,” Samuel Morris Brown writes in one of the essays. “In simple terms, these missteps sound more like errors of speaking than errors of reading. They suggest that neither the scribes nor Smith was reading the English text.”

For an example of a misstep, when describing groups of pacifists, the text, in Alma Chapter 24, says, “they buried their weapons of peace,” which is followed by, “or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.”

Such mistakes would not happen if Smith were simply reading but could if he were hearing the words, notes Brown, who also has written a full-length analysis, “Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism.”

The scholar further points to the “panoramic visions” of several prophetic narrators in the Book of Mormon and speculates that Smith might have had a similar experience.

Such a visionary approach to translation would, Brown says, help explain how the young Joseph might have been familiar with the culture and customs of the Nephites who were depicted in the Book of Mormon, even before he got the plates and began translating.

In other words, the researcher says, Smith saw events and details unfolding in a “panoramic vision,” which he received from angels and spirits, rather than as a set of sentences and paragraphs on a magic rock.

Latter-day Saints believe that the Angel Moroni, the last warrior/prophet named in the Book of Mormon, visited Smith for years, starting in 1823, describing Nephite history.

William L. Davis also sees Smith’s dictation more as a verbal rather than visual skill.

“Smith actively participated as a lay exhorter among the Methodist near his home in Palmyra,” Davis writes in his book, “Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon,” “... and he frequently attended the church services and revival meetings of several denominations in his surrounding area.”

The boy became adept at memorizing stories and scriptural passages, creating a coherent outline, then weaving them together into powerful prose, the independent scholar says.

The future Latter-day Saint leader developed “a fluency in extemporaneous and semi-extemporaneous speaking, delivered in a linguistic register that interwove a heightened biblical-style English,” Davis writes. “As these cultural streams of oral performance converged in the torrential flow of the Book of Mormon text, Smith found his prophetic voice and launched his career as a prophet of God.”

A kind of trance?

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) As the only surviving Nephite, a people of the ancient Americas, Moroni finishes writing about his people’s destruction. The final words Moroni writes are to ask all people to come unto Christ. This photo comes from the faith's Book of Mormon video series.

Smith was always conscious and aware of his surroundings as he dictated, but he could have been in a kind of mystical trance, writes historian Ann Taves, who teaches religious studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.

He could have been experiencing “spirit writing,” or “automatic writing,” which has been described by others, she says, most notably by Helen Schucman in her “A Course in Miracles,” a self-help guide to mysticism the author said was dictated by Jesus.

Both Smith and Schucman had a sense that the words they heard “were not their own,” Taves says, and both created “a complex text” that followers believe their creators could not or would not have conceived on their own.

In Section 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants, another volume in the Latter-day Saint canon, God, via Smith, offers this description of how divine communication works: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.”

It suggests that the “telling,” Taves says, includes the Holy Spirit giving Smith pure knowledge into his “mind and heart.”

Schucman, who produced “A Course” in 1976, described hearing an internal voice that furiously dictated words, which she then wrote down in shorthand. She was a psychologist and educator, but followers say she couldn’t have written that book by herself due to her “intense skepticism” about the content she was churning out.

If this was how Smith did it, it shows that the Latter-day Saint prophet, Taves says, had “a highly focused awareness, a strong and immediate sense of meaning (experienced as a flow of words), a considerable degree of control over the experience, and even the ability (as needed) to shift into a visual modality in which he was able to see words spelled out.”

Like a scholar

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress) This print from 1886 depicts Moroni delivering the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith.

During the first months after Smith reported getting the plates, he said he copied characters off them and then sent one of his supporters, Martin Harris, to take them to various scholars to see if they could determine the language.

Smith, meanwhile, showed the characters to various neighbors and family members.

“Though there is no evidence that Smith ever produced a traditional translation of the characters on the plates, he originally proceeded as an academic might — as if he could discover their meaning in a scholarly fashion,” MacKay writes in “Producing Ancient Scripture,” “and participated in a network of social practices that would support his claims.”

The effort may have served, he says, as “a preliminary step in the translation process.”

In 1830, the same year the Book of Mormon was published, Smith began an extensive exploration of the Bible, and his conclusions have become known as the “inspired version,” or the Joseph Smith Translation.

The fledgling faith leader did not know the Bible’s original languages of Hebrew or Greek, but he pored over the King James text and made “corrections” or clarifications, as he believed God had directed him to do.

Smith’s reworking “dramatically expanded some passages of the Bible, especially in Genesis,” write the editors of “Producing Ancient Scripture,” but the “large majority of the changes were much smaller.”

Though Smith called what he was doing “translating,” it was not the usual meaning of the word. Rather, says Brown, his undertaking was a much bigger project.

Smith believed that the Bible “could be a conduit to the sacred past, that it had come from actual encounters between God and human ancestors,” Brown says in an interview with Kurt Manwaring. “And that you had to have a prophet to develop a living connection with those individuals through scripture.”

The Mormon founder came to believe, says the researcher, that “Protestants had missed the boat when it came to the Bible with all their sola scriptura and attachment to a static canon.”

Smith was intrigued by languages, even believing that there was a “pure language of God,” say the “Producing Ancient Scripture” editors.

In 1835, Smith bought some fragments of papyri and attempted to translate them, at the same time he had launched a study of Egyptian grammar. He later took up Hebrew. His “translation” of the papyri is part of the Latter-day Saint canon, known as the Book of Abraham.

It tells of the famed biblical patriarch but adds more details about his family life and knowledge of the creation. Egyptologists dispute Smith’s translation of the papyri, saying it did not match their own interpretations.

Even the church in its Gospel Topics essay has acknowledged that “the relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.”

Hauglid, a retired BYU professor of ancient scripture, concluded, according to the editors, that “Smith’s approach to translating the Book of Abraham involved both intellectual investigations [like his study of Egyptian grammar] and reliance on a prophetic gift.”

In an interview, Hauglid argues that some of the book came from Smith’s “own creative involvement.”

Revelation vs. translation

If Smith had written a collection about Nephites, the Book of Mormon’s main protagonists, even if he said he had received the stories directly from God, or a transcript of his conversations with the spirits of ancient prophets, scholar Grant Hardy argues it would not have had the same lasting implications for believers.

“The fact that the Book of Mormon is presented as a translation of an ancient record rather than simply a direct revelation to Joseph Smith is one of its salient features,” says Hardy, a Latter-day Saint historian who has edited “A Reader’s Edition” of the book for a general audience, “which profoundly impacts its claims, its reception, and the sorts of analytical approaches it invites.”

As a translation, the book “seems more impressive, more motivating, and more interesting than shorter revelations (of the kind compiled in the Doctrine and Covenants),” he says in his essay. “...The genre of scripture consisting of a lengthy, integrated, historical narrative translated miraculously from an ancient record is certainly much rarer.”

Muslims believe the Quran was the Prophet Muhammad’s “greatest miracle,” says Hardy, professor of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. “The same could be said of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.”

Smith “never produced anything like it again,” the researcher says. “None of the subsequent revelatory projects even comes close to the scope, inventiveness, narrative complexity, structural sophistication, and literary exuberance of the Book of Mormon.”

Without it, Hardy says, “nothing that Joseph Smith later produced would matter much at all.”