In their new book “From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon” (BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, $24.99), historians Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat take a fresh look, enabled by their work with the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers Project, at a story that most active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already know fairly well. Some readers may therefore imagine there’s nothing new to be learned about the familiar narratives of the early Restoration, covering the years 1827-1830.
However, I think they’ll be surprised. I was.
E. B. Grandin, for example, who printed the first edition of the Book of Mormon, emerges as both more hostile to the project than I’d realized and, frankly, more greedy. And the sheet supposedly suspended between the Prophet and his scribes while he dictated turns out to have little support in the sources.
The authors also provide fascinating details about the breastplate given to Joseph Smith, as well as about the “spectacles” that aided in the translation process. (They proved so cumbersome that Joseph eventually replaced them with a single seerstone.) The complex relationship between Lucy and Martin Harris, and between both of them and the Book of Mormon, is also depicted more fully than I’ve seen before.
Moreover, the motivation for Martin Harris’ trip to New York City, during which he famously met with Professor Charles Anthon, is substantially transformed: Pointing out that Joseph likely didn’t yet know about “reformed Egyptian,” the authors persuasively argue that Joseph sought expertise not on Egyptian or Hebrew but on Native American languages; that, because of his expertise, Samuel Mitchell rather than Anthon was the crucial person in the original story, and that — as I independently but privately surmised a few years ago — Joseph at first wanted someone else to translate the plates, unaware that he himself was to be the translator.
The book also offers new information about the stone box in the Hill Cumorah that had once contained the plates and what subsequently happened to it. Many in the area, it seems, knew of the box or at least of the hole in which it had once rested.
“Ironically,” the authors comment, “while the detractors of Joseph Smith spent the remainder of his life claiming that he had never found any gold plates, had any visitations from angels, or received any visions, Joseph’s initial problems with his enemies in 1827 were precisely because they were certain that he had in fact obtained some golden treasure from the hill, and therefore they wanted to take it from him, forcibly if they had no other choice. Those who were most acquainted with Joseph Smith in Palmyra did not doubt he had received the plates but instead took steps to obtain them for themselves or at the very least find remnants of the buried treasure possibly still lying in the hill.”
Numerous statements from multiple sources support the literal materiality of the contents of that box. “Most of Joseph’s closest friends and family,” write MacKay and Dirkmaat, “testified to touching, hefting, or seeing the plates.”
Another significant step forward is the authors’ entirely unembarrassed description of a translation process for which Joseph Smith used a stone placed at the bottom of a hat. Related to this is an appendix by Anthony Sweat, who teaches LDS Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and who, equipped with a degree in art, contributed the book’s illustrations. He offers a helpful perspective on the fact that artwork illustrating events in LDS Church (and other) history is often historically inaccurate. Some critics have used such artistic inaccuracies as weapons against the church and the confidence of the Saints. I’ve actually argued, though, that Joseph’s use of the rock in the hat, properly understood, is strongly faith-affirming (see the column "Joseph, the stone and the hat: Why it all matters," published March 26).
For me, the most surprising piece of new information in the book involves Josiah Stowell (or “Stoal”; see Joseph Smith-History 1:56-58). He was apparently “the first person other than Joseph to feel and heft the plates.” Later, though, Stowell actually “testified under oath that he saw the plates the day Joseph first brought them home. As Joseph passed them through the window, Stowell caught a glimpse of the plates as a portion of the linen was pulled back. Stowell gave the court the dimensions of the plates and explained that they consisted of gold leaves with characters written on each sheet.”
Thus, Josiah Stowell can now be included with the other eyewitnesses to the Book of Mormon plates.
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.