Yorgason quotes from David Whitmer’s An Address to All Believers in Christ, a story relating how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Would he have used, with equal acceptance, some of the other stories told in Whitmer’s pamphlet that contradict Joseph Smith’s own account?
The Whitmer account is supported by another attributed to Martin Harris, though it is actually secondhand. According to these accounts, during the translation of the Book of Mormon an English sentence would appear written in the stone. Joseph would read it for his scribe. When correctly written down, the sentence would disappear, to be replaced by another. Yorgason invokes this account to claim that the English recorded by Joseph’s scribes is a completely exact, perfect transcription.
Though long told among Latter-day Saints, the story does not ring true. The first problem is that of identifying “sentences” in the Book of Mormon. The original manuscript had very little punctuation, and sentences had to be determined by the printer, as Yorgason notes in another place. This punctuation was corrected in several later additions, but is still woefully inadequate in our current Book of Mormon. Scribal errors found in the original manuscript and corrected by Joseph Smith are perhaps the best evidence that the story of the disappearing sentences is untrue. Words may have appeared to Joseph as he rendered his translation, but the idea that they were verified as perfect before disappearing seems contradicted by the fact that Joseph made further corrections in the 1837 and 1840 editions. Prudence requires one to remain cautious when speaking about the means and methods used by Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon. (John A. Tvedtnes, “Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon” in FARMS Review: Volume – 2, Issue – 1, pp. 258-59, A review of Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon by Brenton G. Yorgason, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1990)
Yorgason may have gone too far in how he described the text of the Book of Mormon, but Tvedtnes appears to delight in disparaging the witness of Whitmer, Harris and others claiming Joseph wasn’t using his own words. Thanks to the work of Dr. Royal Skousen, we know their statements are true. That human error occurred in no way diminishes the fact “Joseph spoke what he saw.” For what purpose was his stone/urim and thummim used if not to “see” another dimension by the “gift and power of God.”
Human error could enter the following steps of the “translation” process:
- The translator into English
- The monitor of Joseph’s scribes
- The scribe
- The copyist
- The typesetter
- Future editions
Included of course is the uninspired punctuation and versification, which Tvedtnes forgot to include. The placing of verses has in some places caused more harm than punctuation or later edits by the LDS church.
Suffice to say, Joseph’s later actions of editing the text is not proof those were his words and he was allowed to change them as he thought best. Joseph changed many revelations at the consternation of David and others, which act bespeaks a deeper more troubling dynamic LDS/RLDS leaders are reluctant to address.