“A Strange Piece of Work” Poorly Explained by a Non-LDS Witness of the Book of Mormon Translation

Critics of the Book of Mormon like to dismiss the detailed accounts of Book of Mormon witnesses by saying it’s simply impossible to know today what really went on back then. Were there really plates? Did the witnesses really see or touch anything? Was the translation done with careful notes and manuscripts or really dictated verbally, from a hat? Who knows? We can’t be sure about much of anything regarding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It’s all just speculation and group-think from the faithful who may have felt compelled to save face and support the party line.

Non-LDS professor Stephen Prothero in “Revelation Revised,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2009, says this of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:

[T]he scripture that he [Joseph Smith] brought into the world (as translator, not writer,
Mormons insist) was born in an age of newspapers and before a cloud of
witnesses. In fact, before the book was typeset it was drawing defenders
and detractors alike. So we probably know more about the production of
the Book of Mormon, which is holy writ to the world’s 14 million
Mormons, than we do about any other scripture. With the Yale University
Press publication of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text last month,
we know even more.

We know extensive details pointing to the existence of the plates, the means of dictation, the dates that were involved, the obviously oral nature of the dictation exactly as Joseph and his scribes claimed (made so clear through the analysis of Royal Skousen, including his The Earliest Text), the time of completion, the seeking of the copyright registration and the seeking of a publisher. Details of what Joseph dictated, what his scribes wrote, and what printers typeset have come to light through painstaking scholarship. As Dr. Prothero said, we know more about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon than we do for any other work of scripture, including detailed, reliable accounts from many witnesses who had nothing to gain over their lifetimes by lying or twisting the truth. Several of the witnesses of the gold plates left the Church and Mormon society, yet insisted to their dying day that they had seen the plates and that they were real and divine. But some witnesses were unintentional or even non-LDS. The unintentional witnesses should also count for something.

The first unintentional witness of the plates was Josiah Stowell, who
apparently took the plates out of Joseph’s hands as he brought them
home. He hefted them and later even stated that he saw a portion of
the exposed plates. See Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible
Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” in Dennis L. Largey, et
al., The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 2015), pp. 43-59 (relevant passage at pp. 48-49), available at https://rsc.byu.edu/es/archived/coming-forth-book-mormon/hefted-and-handled-tangible-interactions-book-mormon-objects.

Another such witness was the brother-in-law of Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale. This non-LDS man, Michael Bartlett Morse (1806-1893), had no affinity for the Church, yet on multiple occasions witnessed Joseph engaged in the translation process, as related in an 1879 interview with W.W. Blair, who was then President of the Reorganized Church. The interview with Blair was published in the Saints Herald, vol. 26, no. 12 (June 15, 1879), pp. 190-91, while Morse was still living. You can read the report of the Michael Morse interview in Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 267-269, a section which fortunately can be viewed at Google Books. A key portion of the interview is shown in the screenshot below, and the text of the full report follows.

Here is the published text:

Sandwich, Illinois.

May 22nd, 1879.

Editors, Herald:

When at Amboy a few days since, I learned from Mr. Michael Morse,
brother-in-law of Joseph the Seer, (he having married a Miss Hale,
sister to Sr. Emma), some valuable facts in respect to Joseph the Seer
and his work. It should be published that Mr. Morse is not, and has
never been a believer in the prophetic mission of Joseph.

He states that he first knew Joseph when he came to Harmony, Pa., an
awkward, unlearned youth of about nineteen years of age. This was in
1825. Joseph then in the employ of a Mr. Stowell, a man of some wealth,
of mature age, and an active professor of religion. Joseph and others
were employed by him to dig for a silver deposit, said to have been made
at some time long previous. Joseph and others of the company boarded at
a Mr. Isaac Hale’s, whose daughter Emma he subsequently married. He
states that the sons of Mr. Hale seemed opposed to and at enmity with
Joseph from the first, and took occasions to annoy and vex him, and
that at one of these times, when out fishing, Joseph threw off his coat
and proposed to defend himself.

He states that Joseph told him that he found the gold plates, from
whence it is claimed the Book of Mormon was translated, in a stone box.
(Some of late have said that Joseph at first professed to have found them in an iron box).

He further states that when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon,
he, (Morse), had occasion more than once to go into his immediate
presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation.

The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph’s placing the Seer Stone in
the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to
entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then
dictating, word after word, while the scribe — Emma, John Whitmer, O.
Cowdery, or some other, wrote it down.

Bro. Caldwell enquired as to whether Joseph was sufficiently intelligent
and talented to compose and dictate of his own ability the matter
written down by the scribes. To this Mr. Morse replied with decided
emphasis, No. He said he [Morse] then was not at all learned, yet was confident
he had more learning than Joseph then had.

Bro. Caldwell enquired how he (Morse) accounted for Joseph’s dictating
the Book of Mormon in the manner he had described. To this he replied he
did not know. He said it was a strange piece of work, and he had
thought that Joseph might have found the writings of some good man and,
committing them to memory, recited them to his scribes from time to

We suggested that if this were true, Joseph must have had a prodigious
memory — a memory that could be had only by miraculous endowment. To
this Mr. Morse replied that he, of course, did not know as to how Joseph
was enabled to furnish the matter he dictated.

In speaking of Mr. Isaac Hale and his daughter Emma, he said Mr. Hale
always claimed that he was converted from deism to faith in Christ as
the Savior, by a secret prayer of Emma’s, when she was but seven or
eight years old, which he accidentally overheard when just entering into
the woods to hunt. In the course of her prayer she besought the Lord in
behalf of her father, and the force and efficacy of that prayer entered
into his heart with such power as to lead him to faith in Christ the

We are glad to be able to say that the Amboy Saints are in the faith and love of Christ. We had large and
attentive audiences to hear us, and we look for a goodly increase in that branch at no distant day.


Morse’s account supports what other witnesses of the translation process saw. His evaluation of
Joseph’s education is also worth noting, as is the shear implausibility
of the only method he can propose for how Joseph did the
dictation of the Book of Mormon. To his credit, his theory that Joseph
memorized and regurgitated large chunks of text is still frequently
relied on today, though still without a plausible explanation for where
the memorized text came from in the first place. Honestly, if the book
is a fraud from the nineteenth century, someone in that era had to come
up with intricate details like multiple Semitic wordplays or the River
Laman and Valley Lemuel three days south of the beginning of the Red
Sea, then the burial place Nahom/Nehem along a south-southeast trek, and
the existence of a miraculous Bountiful due east of Nahom–so who gave
us those gems and how? Joseph’s awesome memory regurgitating the words
of a secret manuscript writer on the frontier doesn’t get us past 1
Nephi 1.

Update, Feb. 26, 2019: Here are some details regarding Josiah Stowell as a witness, taken from Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” as cited above:

Josiah Stowell, the First Unintentional Witness

Josiah Stowell claimed he was the “first person that took the Plates
out of [Joseph Smith’s] hands the morning [he] brought them in.”[25]
Thus Josiah Stowell would have been the first witness to validate
Joseph’s claims of obtaining tangible plates. However, although
Stowell’s experience hefting the plates as they were passed to
him—feeling of their weight, mass, and shape—constitutes a witness in
itself, Josiah Stowell also claimed that he saw (albeit
unintentionally) the exposed plates as they were passed to him by
Joseph. Historians Michael MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat summarize what

In the summer of 1830, after Joseph Smith
was charged with disorderly conduct, Stowell was called by the defense
and sworn in as a witness. He 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. The printed transcript of the trial
read: “witness saw a corner of it; it resembled a stone of a greenish
caste.” Because Stowell also mentioned in his statement that the record
was made of plates of gold, it is difficult to know what he meant by
this description. He may have seen the band that sealed two-thirds of
the plates together, which may have been made of copper that had
oxidized over the years and turned green. Alternatively, he may have
seen the breastplate, which could have also been made of copper and
appeared green from oxidation. In any case, the point Stowell made to
the court was that the plates were real and that he had seen and felt

Stowell thus becomes the first unintentional witness, having an
experience somewhat like that of the formal Eight Witnesses later had as
they were allowed to heft and see the plates.

Footnote 25 cites the letter of Martha Campbell to Joseph Smith, December 19, 1843, Church History
Library, Salt Lake City. The author observes that “Because both Lucy Smith and Josiah Stowell were
present when Joseph handed the plates in at the window, perhaps they
both helped or carried them simultaneously.”

Footnote 26 cites Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), p. 13.

Update, March 12, 2019: I initially was thinking that Josiah Stowell was also non-LDS, but I apologize for forgetting that he joined the Church in 1830, though did not migrate with the Saints when
the left the New York area. He expressed a desire to go west and be
with them, but circumstances prevented that. He remained a believer in
the Book of Mormon. 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

95 thoughts on ““A Strange Piece of Work” Poorly Explained by a Non-LDS Witness of the Book of Mormon Translation

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I had never before heard of these eyewitness accounts before from those who weren't members of the Church. It seems that more and more gems are being uncovered over time as old transcripts are coming to light. If the Book of Mormon was all made up, as its critics propose, one would think that given this continual discovery and uncovering of previously forgotten manuscripts, that someone would discover some indisputable evidence to support this view, but even after almost 200 years, this is not the case.

  2. It would be interesting to know how much more we would know about other major religious scriptures if they were produced closer to modernity

  3. Michael Barlett Morse, who was married to Tyral Hale, Emma's younger sister. Michael and Tryal had 12! children.

  4. @Anon 10:00 am– wow, 12-factorial children? That's over 479 million. That Tryael Hale was one impressive woman 😉

  5. YAS – yet another strawman

    This post actually defends the critics. It is the apologist that originally resisted what the post presents. The post now concedes what the critics longed argued, that the plates were not used in the "translation" and js was inspired by a rock in his hat.

  6. Anon @2:31 sounds like you are good with the description in the article about how the Book of Mormon came about.

  7. Anon @3:05 sounds like you are good with the critic's description about how the Book of Mormon came about and Jeff was wrong to teach his children that Smith "translated" off the plates.

  8. Anon @ 5:55 PM

    You are correct. I am good with the historical documents that describe how Joseph Smith translated the plates. Why wouldn't I be?

  9. So let me get this straight. Various people spend countless hours painstakingly engraving lengthy narratives onto metal plates, and Moroni compiles them and lugs the whole weighty collection all the way from Mesoamerica to upstate New York, and then buries it in the ground, then centuries later magically appears before Joseph Smith to tell him where it was hidden so long ago, causing Smith all kinds of problems keeping them from being stolen etc. … all that trouble, just so Smith could then ignore the plates entirely and produce the Book of Mormon instead by staring into his hat and watching the words appear on a peepstone, aka a crystal ball?

    And oddly enough the resulting book rehashes the theological controversies of Smith’s own day rather than the issues that might plausibly have concerned a bunch of ancient Jews? And the book encodes that theology in the language of a 17th century Bible translation and an 1823 treatise on Native American origins?

    How very odd. How completely, utterly unbelievable.

    — OK

  10. Are you troubled by the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls or other ancient documents when you learn that the translators don't necessarily have the original documents before them and sometimes never even touch the original records, but stare into a glowing glass screen to look at an enhanced computer image before coming up with their translation?

    The existence of the plates was critical for the Restoration, providing tangible evidence for the reality of the record that would be provided to Joseph via some mechanism perhaps with a glowing device. The steps between engraving the plates and showing the translation to Joseph are unclear to us, but the text is the translation that was on the real, tangible plates, and miraculous evidence was provided that these plates were real and that the power of God was involved in the work. Whether the final translation involved Joseph holding the seerstone over the plates or in a hat to see the translation and read it to his scribes is unimportant. But it is important to know that the plates existed and that they were translated by a gift of God. It is also important to know that we will have them again one day, with much more information ready to be revealed from that miraculous but tangible source.

    The use of the hat in the translation process has been in Church publications for many decades such as the Improvement Era in 1939 and the Ensign in 1977, B.H. Robert's writings, publications from FARMS, etc. The details of the Book of Mormon translation still aren't of much interest to many people, and it's understandable that many will continue to assume that the translation was done the way any scholar would translate, by staring at the plates and working things out one line at a time. Instead, the lines were given to Joseph by revelation. If the critics have been saying that, then I'm happy to agree. But I think they've been saying that since the plates weren't said to be explicitly used for a normal translation process, the use of a hat means there was no real translation at all and no plates. But are they unable to imagine why, if the plates are real and the Book is divine, that the existence of the plates would play an important role in establishing the work of the Restoration and tangibly linking the origins of the record to the translation? Seems that way.

  11. OK, you grossly mischaracterize the 1823 View of the Hebrews. Read it yourself and try to show me how that explains any of the details in the Book of Mormon. It's an unparallel.

    You also may fail to understand the issues that did concern ancient Jews in the First Temple period. Have you read why Margaret Barker sees validation of her research into the old ways of the Jewish prophets in that era, finding 1 Nephi for example to be highly relevant to her work? It's easy to important your modern views into the text and find comfort in vague parallels to modern issues while overlooking the ancient emphasis on covenant patterns and other themes that we moderns readily miss. It's easy to see a beautiful description of an ancient covenant making ceremony and coronoation ritual and Jewish festival as little more than a modern religious revival if one is unaware of the much richer ancient parallels.

  12. re: Anonymous (10:24 PM, February 25, 2019)

    >>How very odd. How completely, utterly unbelievable.

    That is a matter of opinion. It doesn't seem odd or unbelievable to me.

  13. The detractors might be surprised by this but I was taught in my 10th grade seminary class that Joseph Smith put his seer stone in a hat to see the English translation of what was written on the plates. I probably heard about the translation process earlier than my 10th grade too, I just remember this detail from seminary.

  14. Actions (or lack of action) speaks volumes.

    Anon 10:12 – no it doesn't surprise anyone. The fact that it was only in a 10th grade special seminary class you learned of this is the whole point. Why didn't you this since you were 8 years old.

    Clinton – if it is not so unbelievable, why aren't missionaries explaining the rock in a hat method to potential converts? If the plates and translation is as important as Jeff insists, then such details are inherently necessary to share.

    Jeff – "Are you troubled by the translation" .The critics were never troubled by it, it is the apologist that were and resisted discovering what was burried deep in church publications and sharing it with their children.

  15. re: Anonymous (11:27 AM, February 26, 2019)

    >>Clinton – if it is not so unbelievable, why aren't missionaries explaining the rock in a hat method to potential converts? If the plates and translation is as important as Jeff insists, then such details are inherently necessary to share.

    Did Jeff say these details are important? I'm not sure I agree. I guess I still need to be convinced about how important these details are to share.

  16. Clinton…

    Its vitally important to share these details! Are you kidding me?! Because if you don't share these details, and continue to use language to describe the process, like the word "translate," then you are deceiving people! Even saying "translate by the power of God," isn't enough, because it is to vague. It is just "insider" language.

    Translate, to a fully initiated Mormon, no longer means "translate." But to the average person on the street, lost as he is in the darkness of his apostasy, translate" still means "translate!"

    It is a common attribute of cults to alter the definitions of words….and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't a cult, right? Or has that changed, too?


  17. RE: EBU (Anonymous, 12:27 PM, February 26, 2019)

    I'm not kidding, and I actually am having a hard time getting it. A current analogue, in my opinion, for what Joseph did is using Google Translate. If I use Google Translate to translate a 5,000 word article from German to English, (as a colleague of mine did a while ago) what word should I use to describe the process?

  18. RE: EBU (Anonymous, 12:27 PM, February 26, 2019)
    Incidentally, lots of organizations and social groups have different definitions of words from standard usage. For example, I told a chemistry class today that in chemistry, most pesticides and herbicides are organic compounds.

  19. Clinton…

    Google Translate, which starts off with one language and finishes with another language, vs a Rock, which start off with…well…..a rock, and ends with another language….

    Anyway…there is already a word for what Joseph Smith did. It's called "channeling." What's wrong with that word? It perfectly describes what he did.

    As for your example about words and definitions….not buying it. Organic compounds are a large class of substances, under which herbicides and pesticides can be classified. A better example would be saying, "In chemistry, we call herbicides and pesticides 'food.'"

    I am getting worried here…am I at the right party?


  20. Jeff, I have read View of the Hebrews (it’s quite a slog, almost as much as the Book of Mormon).

    Your claim that VotH doesn’t “explain any of the details” of the BoM is beside the point. The point is not that it explains the details but that it explains some of the broad contours, most prominently: expatriated Jews as ancestors of today’s Native Americans, the bifurcation into civilized and savage factions, the long succession of wars, the emphasis on language, the heavy reliance on Isaiah as relevant biblical source, the preaching of the gospel in precolumbian America, and the idea of Native Americans as worthy targets of conversion.

    Ethan Smith bears roughly the same relation to Joseph Smith as Holinshed does to Shakespeare. The case for Holinshed’s influence is not undermined by the fact that Shakespeare invents the details in the course of fictionalizing his nonfiction sources.

    Your focus on the details tells me you’re unwilling to confront this particular evidence honestly. B. H. Roberts was not so squeamish, and his analysis and conclusion remain as sound today as ever.

    — OK

  21. Seems to me the Restoration would have been much better served by a set of gold plates that were not taken up into heaven but remained in the Church’s possession today.

    I know, I know—then there would be no need for faith….

    But then it seems to me that the need for faith would have been much better served by foregoing the whole apologetic charade of witnesses, Early Modern English, chiasmus, etc. etc. etc.

    I mean, if the antiquity of the Book of Mormon can be demonstrated rationally by means of such evidences, then there’s no need for faith, right? And if there’s no need for faith, the plates could just as well have remained here on Earth.

    It’s all such a muddle! Almost as if LDS apologetics is just a series of ad hoc rationalizations designed to explain away the evidence and the logic.

    — OK