Evidence #108 | June 1, 2023

No Notes or References

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Historical accounts agree that Joseph Smith didn’t make use of any notes or reference materials during the translation of the Book of Mormon. This is remarkable, considering the book’s length, complexity, and consistency.

During the early stages of the Book of Mormon’s translation, Emma Smith participated as Joseph Smith’s scribe. The following interview records questions asked of Emma by her son in 1879, followed by her answers:

Question: What of the truth of Mormonism?

Answer: I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the Church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father 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.

Question: Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?       

Answer: He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.       

Question: Could he not have had, and you not know it?

Answer: If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.

During the same interview, Emma gave a similar remark:

... when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any  portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do.1 

While Emma’s comments emphasize her personal experience acting as Joseph Smith’s scribe, it should be remembered that she observed the translation of the Book of Mormon at all stages of its production.2 As described by Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope, “Emma Smith was arguably more intimately involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon than any individual besides Joseph.”3 

Emma as Scribe, by Robert T. Pack

A comment from David Whitmer during his interview with the Chicago Times in 1881 helps corroborate Emma’s claim, and even indicates that Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery asserted the same thing:

Mr. [David] Whitmer emphatically asserts as did [Martin] Harris and [Oliver] Cowdery, 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, he being present and cognizant how it was done.4

In a different interview, Whitmer gave a similar statement:

We asked him the question: Had Joseph Smith any manuscripts of any kind by him at the time of translating the Book of Mormon that he could read from?

His answer was: “No Sir. We did not know anything about the Spaulding manuscript at that time.”5 

The point was reaffirmed in an interview by the St. Louis Republican:

Father Whitmer, who was present very frequently during the writing of this manuscript affirms that Joseph Smith had no book or manuscript, before him from which he could have read as is asserted by some that he did, he (Whitmer) having every opportunity to know.6

Did Joseph Smith Use a Copy of the Bible During the Translation?

It should be remembered that the Book of Mormon quotes extensively from the Bible, including numerous chapters from Isaiah, the Sermon on the Mount, and other Old and New Testament texts.7 To account for this data, we are seemingly left with three options: (1) Joseph Smith received these parts of the translation as raw ideas and then produced the quotations using his own linguistic ability and memory, (2) he simply pulled out a physical copy of the King James Bible and transcribed the content straight from there into the Nephite record, or (3) the quotations were revealed to Joseph Smith, word for word, through his translation instruments.

For most readers, the first option is simply out of the question. There are too many lengthy quotations, especially the twelve chapters dictated back-to-back in 2 Nephi 12–24, to imagine that Joseph Smith was producing all of this biblical content from memory. The translation process was rapid enough that he wouldn’t have had time to commit long sequences of biblical text to memory before each translation session. And while Joseph Smith certainly wasn’t unintelligent, there is no historical data (outside of the revelations themselves) indicating that he had anything like an eidetic or photographic memory.8

With the first option discounted, some commentators (both among those who believe and disbelieve in the Book of Mormon’s authenticity) have opted for the idea that Joseph Smith was indeed using a physical copy of the King James Bible during the translation. This second option runs into multiple problems though.

First and foremost, it is directly contradicted by multiple reported statements from the witnesses, as previously mentioned. Second, it is doubtful that Joseph Smith even owned a Bible at the time, since he asked Oliver to purchase one for him in October 1829 (several months after the translation was completed).9 Third, the system of chapter breaks found in the Book of Mormon (when multiple biblical chapters are quoted in sequential order) is different from the chapter breaks found in several biblical books, including Isaiah, Matthew, and Micah.10 Fourth, the amount of minor textual variations between the Book of Mormon content and the quoted biblical chapters seems too excessive to easily suppose Joseph was reading these passages off to a scribe.11 And fifth, it would seem like this detail about the translation (Joseph reading off words from a physical Bible) would have been both noticed and commented upon if it indeed transpired that way. This is especially so considering how many chapters or portions of chapters involve verbatim or nearly verbatim biblical quotations of considerable length.

Thus, not only is there a noticeable lack of historical evidence in favor of Joseph using a Bible during the translation, there is both direct and circumstantial evidence pushing against that assumption. Although many questions still remain about the nature and process of the translation, option three (the biblical quotations being revealed to Joseph Smith through the translation device), seems better able to account for the available historical data on this issue.

Conclusion

These reports indicate that the individuals closest to Joseph Smith during the translation—Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer—affirmed that Joseph didn’t use any notes, manuscripts, books, or other reference materials to aid him in his translation. Moreover, there is no indication from the more than 200 historical documents pertaining to the translation that Joseph did use such materials. This would be an unexpected omission if such supplemental aids were being utilized.12

Painting of Book of Mormon translation by Anthony Sweat.

This evidence plays an important role in assessing the plausibility of Joseph Smith creating the Book of Mormon using his own intellect. The Book of Mormon is a lengthy, complex text,13 and many authors, when creating such documents, rely extensively on notes and outlines to help them keep track of names, locations, dates, narrative events, and other details. The fact that Joseph didn’t need such writing aids is remarkable,14 especially when considering his limited education15 and the rapid pace of the Book of Mormon’s production.16

When looked at together, these circumstances support Joseph Smith’s claim that he produced the Book of Mormon through miraculous means. As Emma Smith once remarked, “though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to any one else.”17

John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820–1844, 2nd edition, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 79–228.

Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction—Not So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account,” FARMS Review 17, no. 2 (2005): xiii–xvi.

  • 1 Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289–290; and Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (October 1879): 50–52; cited in John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820–1844, 2nd edition, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 143–144 (doc. 41); Q&A formatting somewhat adjusted. See also, Joseph Smith III to James T. Cobb, February 14, 1879, Community of Christ Library-Archives; cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 145: “during no part of it did Joseph Smith have any Mss. [manuscripts] or Book of any kind from which to read, or dictate, except the metalic plates, which she knew he had” (editing marks silently omitted).
  • 2 See Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope, “A Multiplicity of Witnesses: Women and the Translation Process,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 133–148; Book of Mormon Central, “How Did Emma Smith Help Bring Forth the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 27:6),” KnoWhy 386 (November 30, 2017).
  • 3 Easton-Flake and Cope, “A Multiplicity of Witnesses,” 143.
  • 4 Chicago Times correspondent interview, 14 October 1881, Richmond, Missouri, Chicago Times, 17 October 1881; as cited in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991), 76.
  • 5 J. W. Chatburn interview [No date], Richmond, Missouri, The Saints’ Herald, 29, 15 June 1882; as cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 92.
  • 6 St. Louis Republican interview, Mid-July 1884, Richmond, Missouri, St. Louis Republican, 16 July 1884; as cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 139–140.
  • 7 See Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack, King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, Part 5 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2019), 289–431.
  • 8 See Brian C. Hales, “Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 39 (2020): 151–190; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith’s Limited Education,” Evidence# 0001, September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 9 See John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “‘Joseph Smith’s Use of the Apocrypha’: Shadow or Reality?” FARMS Review of Books 8, no. 2 (1996): 330–332. Too much shouldn’t be made of this point, however, because it is still possible that Joseph could have used a copy of a Bible owned by one or more individuals in the Whitmer household (assuming one was indeed present there).
  • 10 See Skousen and Carmack, King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, 85–92. The authors explain: “What is especially striking is that the original Book of Mormon chapters for the biblical quotations are based on thematic and narrative cohesiveness and they do not generally correspond with the King James chapter breaks. This result argues against the supposition that Joseph Smith used a King James Bible when he came to the long biblical quotations and copied the text from the chapters that he would have found in every printed edition of the King James Bible. It also argues against the supposition that Oliver Cowdery was given a marked-up copy of the King James Bible to copy the text into … the original Manuscript” The authors further note that “Oliver’s misspellings and mishearings for the biblical quotations in [the original manuscript] conclusively shows that the King James quotations were dictated to him, not visually copied by him” (p. 85; cf. pp. 129–131).  
  • 11  See Skousen and Carmack, King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, 182–210, 283–431. As noted by the authors in these page ranges, the assumption that Joseph Smith’s awareness of the meaning of italics in the King James Bible was a predominant factor in driving minor variations in quotations is not supported. To the contrary, changes involving italics make up a minority of the overall variations, leaving many other minor variations difficult to account for under this translation theory.
  • 12  Welch has identified 206 historical documents pertaining to the translation of the Book of Mormon. See Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 126–228.
  • 13 See, for example, Melvin J. Thorne, “Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 179–193.
  • 14 For analysis of some of the difficulties involved in orally dictating such a complex and lengthy text without notes or references materials to aid one’s memory, see Brian C. Hales, “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study,” BYU Studies Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2019): 133–140; Brian C. Hales, “Supernatural or Supernormal? Scrutinizing Secular Sources for the Book of Mormon,” 2019 FairMormon Conference Presentation, online at fairmormon.org.
  • 15  See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith’s Limited Education,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 16 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Rapid Translation,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; John W. Welch, “Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon: ‘Days [and Hours] Never to Be Forgotten’,” BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2018): 10–50.
  • 17 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 144.
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