Concealment and divine prohibition in Book of Mormon translation accounts

A common motif in eyewitness, second hand, and hearsay accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon is how others beside Joseph Smith were forbidden, prevented, or to the contrary permitted to view the gold plates, the interpreters or the translation process. How these related motifs are treated in the various accounts are indicative of broader issues, including what we think about the translation process and Joseph Smith’s use of the gold plates.

The motif of divine prohibition appears as early as 1831 in a skeptical account in the Palmyra Reflector, citing Martin Harris; “such was his fear of the Divine displeasure, that a screen (sheet) was suspended between the prophet and himself” (Welch no. 137).[1] In 1840, Harris stated “that it would arouse the most terrible divine displeasure, if he should attempt to draw near the sacred chest, or look at Smith while engaged in the work of decyphering the mysterious characters” (Welch no. 45; see also nos. 47 and 59). Oliver Cowdery stated in 1841 that “he was not permitted to look into [the interpreters…Joseph Smith] told him that he must not look into them, that he did not presume to do so lest he should tempt God and be struck dead” (Welch no. 71). (Cowdery did attest to seeing and handling the plates as one of the three witnesses [Welch no. 72], but I am limiting this analysis to accounts of the translation process itself.) Jesse Townsend, a Palmyra pastor, wrote in 1833 that “it was assumed to the uninitiated that it would be ‘immediate death’ for any except the translators to see the plates” (Welch no. 154). The next year, Townsend wrote, “The whole was done in the most secret manner. At the same time, Smith affirmed that it would be immediate death for any one to see those plates besides himself & the writers of the Book of Mormon” (Welch no. 160).

There is some tension between these reports of divine prohibition on viewing the plates or the interpreters, and the granting of Oliver Cowdery’s request to translate in 1829 (Welch nos. 4-5; D&C 6, 8), or the claim of W. R. Hine (made around 1834, published 1888) that he had personally used Joseph Smith’s “peep-stone…many times and could see in it whatever I imagined”; Hine also reported he had observed Smith, Cowdery and Harris translating at a tavern in Colesville (Welch 161). The reports of divine prohibition stand in stark contrast with Lucy Mack Smith’s statement of 1842 that she had “seen and handled the golden plates,” “seen and felt also the Urim and Thummim” and carried the breastplate in her hands (Welch no. 105).

Several accounts state that Joseph Smith’s scribes were prevented from seeing him as he translated, although without explicit mention of a divine prohibition. Charles Anthon, for example, reported in 1834 that Smith was “placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view…decyphered the characters in the book” (Welch no. 158; see also no. 165). Josiah Gilbert, the proofreader and typesetter for the first printing of the Book of Mormon, stated in 1877 that only Smith “ever saw the golden tablets or the far-seeing spectacles. He dictated the book, concealed behind a curtain” (Welch no. 177; see also nos. 98, 155, 171, 199).

Several witnesses explicitly denied that Joseph Smith was concealed from the view of his scribes, however. Elizabeth Whitmer Cowdery (sister of David Whitmer who married Oliver Cowdery in 1832) affirmed in 1870 that she “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” (Welch no. 112). John Whitmer stated in 1879 that when he acted as scribe, he was at one end of a table, and Joseph Smith at the other with the “breast-plate and Urim and Thummim” (Welch no. 101). In an 1885 interview with the Chicago Tribune, David Whitmer stated a blanket was used only to

shelter the translators and the plates from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This…was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides (Welch no. 93; see also nos. 80, 84, 86, 94, 96).

Emma Smith also, in 1879 interviews with her son Joseph Smith III, stated that “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.” Emma Smith explicitly denied than her husband had or could have had any books or manuscripts to refer to (Welch nos. 41-42). David Whitmer made the same point in an 1881 interview with the Chicago Times, stating that “while Smith was dictating the translation he had no manuscript notes or other means of knowledge save the seer stone and the characters as shown on the plates” (Welch no. 86).

In these accounts, the element of concealment is reduced to tenuous veiling only of the plates themselves. In 1883, William Smith stated that the Book of Mormon was translated with the “plates lying near by covered up” (Welch no. 108). Martin Harris is also reported to have said that “sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth” (Welch no. 59).

The motif of concealment can become so attenuated that direct sensory experience of the plates is emphasized instead. In Emma Smith’s account, the

plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metalic sound (Welch no. 41-43).

Like Emma Smith’s hefting of the plates, Martin Harris affirmed in an 1853 interview (published in 1859) that he had held the “plates on my knee an hour-and-a-half,” and “as many of the plates as Joseph Smith translated I handled with my hands, plate after plate” (Welch no. 46).

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What’s going on with these references to concealment of the plates? Some accounts place the plates, interpreters and translation process within the borders of the sacred, the violation of which would call down divine destruction. Others limit the concealment only to the plates themselves, and still others insist on only visual concealment, with tactile and auditory perception permitted, while a few deny the element of concealment altogether.

What should at least be clear is that the accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon are not independent of each other. They are, from the earliest to the latest, in conversation with each other and responding to claims and allegations both among Joseph Smith’s family and associates and among a much wider public. The various accounts are answers to specific questions: Were the plates real or imaginary? Was Joseph Smith perpetrating a hoax, or translating new scripture by the gift and power of God? Among the many eyewitness and hearsay accounts of believing and skeptical informants, there is no touchstone, no unbiased, objective reporter. Every informant is responding to a conversation already underway. Each one has their own stake in the outcome. While we might find some more convincing and others less credible (I find Emma Smith more convincing than Lucy Mack Smith; David Whitmer offers a wealth of detail, but his accounts are often inconsistent and self-contradictory), no source is beyond question. The basic problem we face is less a matter of critically appraising historical sources in order to uncover the core of essential truth, but instead something more like analyzing fairy tales or rumors. The question becomes: What narratives are the various informants creating? What elements do they consider essential, and what do they consider inconceivable? And what are our own reasons for preferring one account over another?

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Next time: what the translation accounts say about Joseph Smith’s use of the gold plates.

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[1] John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo: BYU Press, 2005).

5 comments for “Concealment and divine prohibition in Book of Mormon translation accounts

  1. Here we’re really getting down to the nitty grtty. Who claimed what about the translation process, and when, and to which audience, and in what order with other prior claims? There is basically nothing dispositive in any of these accounts, save that everyone agrees that there were some plates in existence; everything else–the hat, the Urim and Thummim, all of it–is just swirling around the waves of history.

  2. Russell, not quite everything. Lots of people refer to oversized spectacles, a seer stone, and a hat. But yeah, after that, the accounts are all over the place. My initial thought, a few months back, is that I’d just look at the sources and see what they said about the translation process. That should be straightforward, right? Now I know better.

  3. I’m especially interested in the question of our own narrative preferences today and what that means about us.

  4. Thanks, J.

    James, I’ll come back to that in part 2. Instead of asking people to read a 2500-word post, I decided to save all the interesting stuff for the second half.

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