Arts & Humanities

How Did Joseph Smith Actually 'Translate' Sacred Mormon Texts?

Richard Bushman will be among the presenters at a March 16 conference, "New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation."

Joseph Smith, the dynamic 19th-century founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is renowned for many things.

Perhaps the most crucial and controversial, however, is Smith’s “translation” of the Book of Mormon, a sacred text believed by church members to be a record of ancient people who lived in what is now the Americas.

According to Mormon understanding, Smith translated the Book of Mormon, dictating to a scribe hundreds of pages of an English-language narrative taken from centuries-old gold plates inscribed in “reformed Egyptian.”

In 2015, the LDS Church released photos of a “seer stone,” reportedly used by Smith as a “spiritual tool” for his translation.

Smith did not translate as a scholar does, but, as he proclaimed, “by the gift and power of God.”   What does evidence disclose about the processes behind Smith’s revelations? That question will be taken up at an upcoming day-long conference featuring writers and scholars whom history professor Philip Barlow describes as “some of Mormon Studies’ leading minds.”

“New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation” will run from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16, in the Perry Pavilion, fourth floor of the Jon Huntsman School of Business. It is free and open to community members.

“There is a good deal of new, fruitful thinking about the nature of Joseph Smith and translation,” said Barlow, a professor of religious studies in USU’s Department of History, where he holds the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture.

“There are many topics that need exploration, but none of them is more important to understanding Joseph Smith’s project and the launch of a new religious tradition than Smith’s translation enterprise,” he said.

The four scholars presenting formal remarks are:

  • Richard Bushman: professor of history emeritus at Columbia University and formerly the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
  • Terryl Givens: professor of English literature and religion at the University of Richmond, where he holds the James A. Bostwick Chair in English.
  • Jared Hickman: assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. He researches the historical intersections of literature, religion and race in the United States
  • Samuel Brown: the author of In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford). He's an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Utah Intermountain Medical Center.

Question and discussion sessions will be led by prominent LDS writers and commentators Rosalynd Welsh and Jana Riess.

Barlow will direct the conference and offer concluding remarks. A full schedule of the day is at http://chass.usu.edu/stay-connected/news/translation-conference.

The event is sponsored by USU’s Religious Studies Program and the Faith Matters Foundation, a non-profit organization that encourages discussion about Mormon topics.

Conference speakers will touch on all of the varied documents translated by Joseph Smith, including the books of Abraham and Moses in the Pearl of Great Price and his “new translation” of portions of the Old and New Testaments.

Barlow said his goal is to bring to a wider audience a topic that’s often debated only in academic books and journals.

“The strongest scholarship has often been an internal discussion among scholars,” he said. The conference’s presenters, however, will “introduce new conceptual thrusts to a much wider audience of thoughtful people beyond the small handful of experts who have had these conversations.”

The event’s unusual structure will include a morning session in which each of four speakers will summarize a longer paper into 15 minutes, followed by discussion among the presenters. Rather than formal presentations, the afternoon session will feature three blocks of conversation in which panelists respond to a moderator’s questions.

“We want a conversation, a real give and take among these experts in which they talk and ask each other, ‘Yeah, but what about this or that evidence?’” said Barlow. “The audience can see these informed and exceptional minds pulling the core issues apart and can observe for themselves where the differences and agreements are.”

A limited time has been set aside before lunch and at the end of the day for the audience to pose questions.

Related links:
New Perspectives on Joseph Smith Translation
Faith Matters 

Contact and writer: Janelle Hyatt, 435-797-0289, Janelle.hyatt@usu.edu

Terryl Givens, professor of English literature and religion at the University of Richmond, where he holds the James A. Bostwick Chair in English, will also present.

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