Some critics of Joseph Smith mock the fact that part of the Book of Mormon translation process apparently involved dictating while looking at a stone that he’d placed within a hat.
Yet far from being damaging evidence against his claims and against the Book of Mormon, this fact may strongly support their plausibility. The Lord has said that he makes (seemingly) weak things become strong (Ether 12:27), and this seems yet another such case.
Consider a smartphone or e-reader, for instance. Their screens are very difficult to read out in the sunlight and need to be shaded. Or consider your personal computer. You probably don’t place it directly in front of a window where bright light will be streaming into your face. You need contrasting darkness so that you can see the screen without strain, and especially so if you’ll be working on it for lengthy periods. Otherwise, your eyes will tire and your head will ache.
Now consider Joseph Smith. According to those familiar with the process, he dictated the Book of Mormon from words that somehow appeared in a “seer stone” or (much the same thing) in the Urim and Thummim. He rarely if ever actually had the plates with him; he couldn’t read what was on them except through revelation anyway, and he could receive revelation (via the “interpreters”) just as easily without the plates as with them. (So why were the plates necessary? Perhaps, among other things, to reassure him and the witnesses who saw and testified of them — and, thus also, us — that he was dealing with something objectively real and external to himself.)
Evidence indicates that Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon over the course of three months (or perhaps somewhat less). His scribes needed light in order to work, but it’s quite understandable that Joseph sought to reduce the fatigue of his eyes by using a hat to exclude the ambient light.
The implications of this, however, are intriguing. A manuscript hidden in the bottom of a hat would be difficult if not impossible to read. Yet Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon — roughly 270,000 words — in somewhere between 60 and 90 days. That’s approximately 3,000 to 4,500 words each and every day, without rewrites or significant revisions. (Practiced writers will instantly recognize this as a stunning pace.) Or, to put it another way, this young man, with only about two months of schooling, dictated roughly six to nine pages of today’s printed English edition every single day for two or three months.
Had he memorized it? That seems unlikely.
Was he creating it on the spot? That would have been an astonishing achievement. And the evidence seems against it.
For example, he himself was sometimes surprised by what he read. He couldn’t pronounce many of the proper names, for example, and had to spell them out. He worried when he read about the walls of Jerusalem; he’d never seen a town surrounded by walls, and he needed his wife’s reassurance that this was true (see "David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness," Lyndon W. Cook, Grandin Book Company, 1991).
When he came to a break in the text, he had his scribe write “chapter.” This happened throughout the book of 1 Nephi, for example, and it also occurred at the end of that book. But then, when they realized that they’d now reached a break between two independent books, they crossed out the word “chapter” and replaced it with “The Book of Nephi,” marking the opening of 2 Nephi (see "The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text," edited by Royal Skousen, FARMS, 2001; and Skousen's "Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript," in "Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins," edited by Noel B. Reynolds, FARMS, 1997).
It appears, thus, that Joseph was dictating from an unfamiliar text. It also seems likely that what he was reading provided its own independent light source, such that he could read it even with ordinary light excluded, in what one historian famously called “a world lit only by fire.” That sounds very much like the translation method described by the Prophet and other witnesses to the translation, but it’s difficult to reconcile with the theories that critics typically offer.
For more detailed treatment of the relevant issues, see “What the Manuscripts and the Eyewitnesses Tell Us about the Translation of the Book of Mormon” (published in 2002).
Irrelevant but important note: The Academy for Temple Studies will host a conference at BYU in Provo on Monday, March 30, and at Utah State in Logan on Tuesday, March 31, titled “Passion and Passover: Jesus and the Temple,” featuring several eminent non-Mormon scholars. The program is virtually identical at both locations and is free, but registration is required. For details, see templestudies.org/home/2015-passion-and-passover-conference/
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.