A Thought on Book of Mormon Origins

The full significance of Martin Harris’s visit to Charles Anthon has been diminished in the way Latter-day Saints typically retell the story. A consequence of that visit was an apparent fulfillment of prophecy in Isaiah 29 when the learned scholar, Charles Anthon, declared that he could not “read a sealed book,” after initially giving a favorable report to Martin Harris about the apparent ancient nature of the characters copied off the gold plates. We have since focused on the trip as fulfilling a prophecy and satisfying Martin Harris’s doubts. But the real purpose of the lengthy journey to New York City and other stops was to find someone who could translated text. Significantly, at this time, Joseph did not yet know what language the plates were written in. Harris was not looking for a translator of Egyptian or reformed Egyptian (only European scholars could have provided any hope of translation from Egyptian at that time) or even some version of Hebrew. He may have been looking for experts in Native American languages.

A valuable resource on the details of Martin Harris’s journey and its purpose is found in Michael Hubbard Mackay’s chapter, ‘”Git Them Translated’: Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 83-116. This chapter has kindly been made available by the author at Academia.edu, but please buy the book (one of my most treasured recent acquisitions, loaded with great material).

Mackay’s chapter needs to be read in combination with his new book, Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, particularly chapter 3, which adds further details pointing to Joseph’s initial desire to find a translator and showing that Joseph did not know what the characters were until he got information as a result of Harris’s journey that suggested a connection with ancient Old World languages (specifically, his brother William Smith said that it was through Harris that Joseph would first learn that the script was some form of degenerate Hebrew mixed with Egyptian).

The more we learn about the details of the origins of the Book of Mormon and the translation process, the more we see a young, uneducated man discovering step by step what the treasure was that he had before him. He did not begin with a scheme to create something allegedly in an ancient Egyptian script that the would translate by the power of God. His initial desire was to find someone to do the translation, and he did not have any idea what language the script was. He would later learn that he had to translate, and during the translation he would learn that they were written in reformed Egyptian. This is not the fruit of a carefully worked out scheme, but more and more looks exactly like the kind of thing he and his witnesses testified of: an unlearned man doing something extraordinary with a genuine ancient text, miraculously preserved and miraculously translated.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

216 thoughts on “A Thought on Book of Mormon Origins

  1. I'm falling behind in my reading for your course, here, Jeff. So I'll just use this comment to ask some questions that are probably already answered in your references. If they are, I can read them eventually, but maybe you could give me a quick sketch of what kinds of things I'll then find.

    How much do we know about who initiated Harris's mission to Anthon? Why didn't Smith go himself? Is there any chance that the earnest intention was really Harris's, and Smith simply went along with Harris's plan? That would of course fit with a theory that has only Harris being sincere. On such a theory, Smith might have felt he had no choice but to endorse Harris's trip, and supply some "caractors" to show to Anthon, because to beg off would have risked alienating Harris as a key supporter.

    Unfortunately it may be impossible to settle these questions decisively, because it's about motivations and who-said-what-when, and people's memories about that kind of detail become unreliable after the passage of time. But I'd be interested to know how much we know about this point.

  2. One thing that always bothered me about Harris's version of the story is that Anthon is supposed to have told Harris "the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian." The problem, of course, is that Charles Anthon wouldn't know whether any translation from Egyptian is correct or not. The Rosetta stone had only recently been translated in Europe. So would he have said that to Martin Harris? This is enough to cast some doubt on Harris's version of the story, but to add to it, Harris alleged that Samuel Mitchell confirmed what Anthon had said. So according to Harris, two American scholars independently confirmed something that they wouldn't have been able to confirm. I don't know whose idea it originally was to show the "caractors" to Anthon, but Martin Harris seems at least to be credulous and easily confused, or at most a charlatan in his own right.

  3. Anthony, this will ultimately be a he said / she said matter, but we do know that Harris didn't abandon the project, and he put up a significant amount of money. So Anthon and Mitchill didn't manage to dissuade him. Either Harris was content with what he discovered, or Smith's power of persuasion with words was greater. Probably the former since Harris didn't rely on mere words, but checked things, like the weight of the plates in the glass box, and the seer stone that Smith used. And Harris's witness statements are substantial and not easily overlooked. They can be dismissed only if one his ideologically predisposed to dismiss them.

  4. …Harris didn't rely on words, but checked things, like the weight of the plates in the glass box, and the seer stone that Smith used

    Right…because as long as we can be sure a glass box is filled with something heavy, we can be sure it contains exactly what Smith says it contains. And because Smith can read words out of one rick, and not another, he is therefore definitely trustworthy. After all, it is common knowledge in the scientific community that only certain rocks produce scripture.

  5. Moral of the Story:

    Harris's "checks and balances" were of a sufficient strength to appease what little skepticism he may have had without having to give up the abundance of simple credulity he, for some reason, needed to retain. In other words, he was a very good Mormon.

  6. I still haven't read the article, but by way of lowering expectations in advance: as a skeptic I may well be less convinced than any Mormon would be, simply because we come with different expectations.

    If I were to come to the account of Harris's trip with Joseph Smith framed in my mind as a strong candidate (at least) for prophethood, I might well be quite impressed by a few points of evidence that lined up well with Smith's really having been a prophet. In examining those points, I would feel that I had subjected Smith's claim to a couple of probing spot-checks, and that his claim had stood up well. I might well therefore consider that I had exercised due diligence in testing his claims, and was thereby well entitled to believe them.

    Coming to the same evidence as a skeptic, however, I would take much less account of the few checks that Smith's claim seemed to pass well, and be more concerned with all the checks that could not be done. The reason for this different attitude would be that, in my mind, the possibility that Smith was deceptive cannot be ignored.

    I expect a stage magician to show me clearly that he has nothing up his sleeves — when the rabbit is in his hat. I don't presume that he's honest, and then consider my faith confirmed by the way one particular kind of deception (his sleeves) has been ruled out. Instead I notice how cagey he's being about that hat. The proof of empty sleeves counts for practically nothing with me, because the guy who decided that it was the sleeves that would be carefully investigated was the magician himself.

    So, as Everything points out, believers and skeptics may draw different conclusions from partial evidence. A willing believer might weigh a box that is supposed to hold golden plates, find it impressively heavy, and consider this partial confirmation of the golden plates claim to be a substantial piece of weight on the evidentiary scales. A skeptic may attach no weight at all to that same weighing of a sealed box, because providing a heavy box which one may not open is exactly the kind of thing that a con man would do. "Nothing up my sleeves; not an empty box."

    The believer may well complain to the skeptic, "You're not taking the evidence seriously." But the skeptic can just as well say to the believer, "You're not taking seriously the possibility of deception."

  7. I don't have time to go into it here, but the account of Martin's visit to Charles Anthon is riddled with inconsistencies and is somewhat problematic. The fact that Joseph was dictating this account from memory after Martin had already separated himself from the Church may have something to do with the unexplainables in the story.

  8. Anthony, this will ultimately be a he said / she said matter,

    Notice that I never refer to anything said by Anthon or Mitchell. I identify the problems with Martin Harris's story. One doesn't even need to hear Anthon's side of it to have serious doubts. So it's not he said/she said.

    And Harris's witness statements are substantial and not easily overlooked.

    I'm not dismissing Harris's statements. I'm showing how they don't make sense in light of the fact that neither Mitchell nor Anthon would have the capacity to determine if the translations by Joseph were correct or not. So, this raises the possibility that Harris was confused, gullible, or dishonest. Possibly a little of each.

    and he put up a significant amount of money.
    I'm going to assume that you know somebody who has been involved in a multi level marketing scheme. The fact that somebody is willing to put a lot of money into something doesn't necessarily mean that the business opportunity is well supported by evidence. Wishful thinking enables people to suspend common sense.

    They can be dismissed only if one his ideologically predisposed to dismiss them.

    On the contrary, Harris's statements can be accepted with confidence only if one is ideologically predisposed to do so.

  9. Who cares that you didn't reference what Harris, Anthon, and Mitchill might have said. Their various statements are a matter of public record. Harris's witness statements are different from his characters statement. You conflated them to advantage your ideologically driven argument. Harris put up money without expecting a monetary return after meeting with Anthon and Mitchill, people who weren't promoting a scheme; so it wasn't like MLM. Harris's witness statements about the dictation and about the plates are supported by many other similar statements by other bona-fide witnesses.

  10. My mistake, suord. I thought you were responding to my comment when you said that it's a case of "he said/she said," when my comment had nothing to do with what anybody but Harris said. "He said/she said" refers to at least two different witnesses. Since you don't care that I wasn't referencing more than one witness, I guess you were arguing with some straw man.

    Harris's witness statements are different from his characters statement. You conflated them

    Hmm. Not sure what you're referring to here. I'm simply addressing Harris's claim that Anthon and Mitchell confirmed that the "caractors" were translated correctly, something they weren't able to do.

    to advantage your ideologically driven argument.

    I used to believe the way you do. I changed my mind based on reason and evidence. Of the two of us, I'm the one who is more willing to abandon ideology when confronted with evidence.

    Harris put up money without expecting a monetary return

    Not according to his wife.

    so it wasn't like MLM.

    The reference to MLM was simply to show that people don't always put up money for rational reasons. You can't use willingness to donate money as evidence for rational behavior. Often money is donated because people want something to be true despite poor evidence.