Sidney Sperry – 1964

Perpetrated Errors

The following errors are from Answers to Book of Mormon Questions, by Sidney B. Sperry, Bookcraft, 1967, previously titled Problems of the Book of Mormon, Bookcraft, 1964.

1. Not Word-For-Word 

No responsible authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever claimed that God or an angel dictated the physical format of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, or directed what the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization of the text should be. Nor has any responsible authority of the Church, past or present, said in specific terms that the translation in the Book of Mormon was dictated word for word to Joseph Smith by divine means. (p. 183)

2. David Whitmer Not Reliable

Now, be it known that when David Whitmer issued his statement, he was not even a member of the Church (1), let alone being a responsible officer thereof (2). Moreover, the statement was issued in 1887, about fifty-seven years after the appearance of the first edition of the Book of Mormon (3).

1. It has already been established that David left the Mormon’s, he was not excommunicated.

2. David was one of the Three Witnesses of the angel, the voice of God, the glory of God, and the gold plates. He was privy to the “translation” process.

3. Time did not dim what he observed Joseph did – day in and day out – while sitting mere inches from him. Just as it did not dim his testimony of the angel encounters.

3. Martin Harris Not Trusted

David Whitmer’s account of the method of the translation makes it appear to have been nothing but a mechanical process in which Joseph Smith had little to do except to read off the God-given translation which would automatically appear under each character. (Footnote 1 from the original: Martin Harris, another of the “three witnesses,” makes a statement somewhat similar to that of David Whtimer’s, but it cannot be supposed that even he was in possession of all the facts of what went on when Joseph Smith was translating. See Millennial Star, XXIV, 86, 87.)

This footnote reveals the level of bias Sperry was incapable of controlling, to ignore yet another witness of someone who wrote for Joseph.

4. God Responsible For Errors

Whitmer’s explanation would seem to make God responsible for the faulty English grammar which appears in the 1830 edition of the Nephite record!

*** Here the crux of the matter is revealed. *** 

Instead of trusting the voice of God that said it was “translated correctly,” Sperry acquiesced to the fears of man by admitting their attacks had merit, i.e. he had to apologize for the mistakes of Joseph.

5. Just A Mechanical Process

But the Mormon people do not accept as true Whitmer’s views of a mechanical translation of the Book of Mormon.

If we assume David was right about the “translation” process, then God is at fault for the errors – this was the logic and cause for Sperry’s attacks on David. Yet nowhere did it say “God wrote” the Book of Mormon. If God did not “write” the Book of Mormon, then how can He be blamed for the “errors”?

As Sperry said, “God does not do for man what he can do for himself.” His fear was misplaced. A man engraved the plates, a man translated it into English, a man dictated the English, a man wrote the dictation, a man set the type for printing, a man chose the punctuation, and a man printed and bound the book. Each step was a “mechanical process” although the dictation was “spiritually mechanical” requiring God’s Spirit to pierce the veil.

6. Charged As A Glass Looker

In the first place, it should be noted that Joseph Smith gives us precious little first-hand information about the manner in which the Urim and Thummim were used. He even refused to tell his beloved brother Hyrum the details. Indeed, he says that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” (Footnote 2 in the original: Far West Record, p. 16, for full quotation Francis W. Kirkland, A New Witness for Christ in America, 194)

Joseph had sense not to tell the world he engaged in the same practice translating the Book of Mormon as he did treasure digging. (See,

7. Hyrum Not There

And if Hyrum was not permitted to know “all the particulars,” why should we believe that David Whitmer or anyone else was in possession of them? There are some matters that are kept sacred between a prophet and his God, and the details of the use of the Urim and Thummim are among those things known only to the seer in whose custody they are.

Hryum was not present during the dictation, thus he was unable to describe how it was done. David, Emma, and Martin (as well as others) on the other hand were, thus they were able to describe how it was done, and their testimonies were consistent.

8. D&C 8 – Regarding Prayer, Not Translation

There is another important historical event to consider which proves for all practical purpose that the translation of the Nephite records was not dictated to Joseph Smith word for word by divine power. During the course of the work of translation Oliver Cowdery, the prophet’s amanuensis, desired to have the gift of translation conferred upon him. The Lord promised him the gift under conditions that one can read at his leisure in Section 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants. However, Oliver failed to exercise the gift properly, and in a revelation to him through the prophet the Lord explains his failure:

7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it [the gift of translation] unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind [what every competent translator does]; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. 9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me. 10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now. (D&C 9:7-10, insertions his)

Briefly explained, Oliver Cowdery could have translated if he had not expected the Lord to give him the translation word for word. He was expected to exert his own faculties and attempt to express a translation in words that would convey the essential meaning of the original.

Sperry’s own inserted comments contradict his position. Oliver failed to ask for the “gift to translate,” not for “which words he should use. “Prayer is a process that requires us to “study out” what the Holy Spirit would have us pray for:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray foras we ought: (Romans 8:26)

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:3)


The process of discerning what the Spirit is telling us we should pray for is the correct interpretation.

9. D&C 8 Not Joseph’s Method

And isn’t it common sense to believe that Joseph Smith translated essentially under the same conditions set forth for Oliver Cowdery in the revelation from which we have quoted?

Since D&C 8 was about praying and not translating, it does not apply. The manuscript does not show edits, as any “competent” translator would have as they refined their language.

10. Best Language Joseph Had

True, the Lord would aid the prophet by means of the Urim and Thummim to get the ideas expressed by the characters on the God Plates, but He left it to His servant to express those ideas in the best language at his command.

“And it came to pass” was not a phrase Joseph had “at his command.” Had Joseph used his “own language” it would have been a garbled mess like his wife said, “he was unable to form a single well rounded sentence.” The fact he changed the wording in later editions is proof he was not using his own in the first one.

After twenty years of investigative work, Royal Skousen concluded that Joseph did not translate the Book of Mormon:

I began to see considerable evidence for the traditional interpretation that witnesses of the translation process claimed: (1) the text was given word for word, (2) Book of Mormon names were frequently spelled out the first time they occurred in the text, and (3) during dictation there was no rewriting of the text except to correct errors in taking down the dictation. Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language text. The evidence in the manuscripts and in the language of the text itself supports the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon was a precisely determined text. I do not consider this conclusion apologetic, but instead as one demanded by the evidence. 

The opposing viewpoint, that Joseph Smith got ideas and he translated them into his own English, cannot be supported by the manuscript and textual evidence. The only substantive argument for this alternative view has been the nonstandard nature of the text, with its implication that God would never speak ungrammatical English, so the nonstandard usage must be the result of Joseph Smith putting the ideas he received into his own language. Yet with the recent finding that the original vocabulary of the text appears to be dated from the 1500s and 1600s (not the 1800s), we now need to consider the possibility that the ungrammaticality of the original text may also date from that earlier period of time, not necessarily from Joseph’s own time and place. Joseph Smith is not the author of the Book of Mormon, nor is he actually the translator. Instead, he was the revelator: through him the Lord revealed the English-language text (by means of the interpreters, later called the Urim and Thummim, and the seer stone). Such a view is consistent, I believe, with Joseph’s use elsewhere of the verb translate to mean ‘transmit’ and the noun translation to mean ‘transmission’ (as in the eighth Article of Faith).

( See #8; also at:

Finally the witnesses are vindicated.

11. What Man Does

The Lord seldom does for man what man can do for himself.

Sometimes the “do for himself” is to submit to the will of God, something Joseph had difficulty doing, such as when he gave the 116 page manuscript to Martin Harris.

12. Little Formal Education

Consequently the Almighty is not to be held responsible for faulty grammar and diction in the First Edition of the Book of Mormon. As long as the prophet Joseph Smith was able to convey to men in understandable English, the ideas expressed in the sacred Nephite record, the Lord was satisfied. He was not too concerned with the beauty of the language. His servant was not an English scholar; he was a simple man with little formal education.

The fact Joseph was uneducated has been expressed many times, and ignored. To believe the Book of Mormon was the product of an uneducated boy may have explained the few grammatical “errors” in Sperry’s and other’s minds, but how does it explain the complexity of the rest of the text? It doesn’t.

Joseph rarely cited the Book of Mormon in his sermons, just as LDS church leaders ignored it for many years as well:

Joseph Smith did not refer to passages from the book in his writings or sermons, nor was it cited very often by early church leaders. (Grant Hardy in Royal Skousen ed., The Book of Mormon, the Earliest Text, Yale University Press, 2009, p. xxii)

Is it a wonder that church educators were duped into the view it was “full of errors” when they had so little respect for it in the first place? Or that Sperry’s response was uninspired?

13. David Whitmer Unsafe

SO WE SEE THUS FAR THAT DAVID WHITMER IS NOT A SAFE GUIDE TO FOLLOW AS FAR AS HIS MECHANICAL VIEWS OF TRANSLATION ARE CONCERNED. To sum up, we may say that God provided the key for the proper understanding of the ideas expressed on the plates of the sacred Nephite record but left it to His prophet Joseph Smith to convey those ideas to men in the best English as his command. (pp. 184-186)

Thanks to Royal Skousen, we know David’s view was spot-on, and Sperry’s was wrong.