It Depends on What the Meaning of “It” Is: Reconsidering the “Burning in the Bosom” and “Studying It Out” in Doctrine & Covenants 9

For years many of us have read about the “burning in the bosom” in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9 and interpreted it to mean that Oliver Cowdery, in a failed attempt to perform translation of the Book of Mormon, was being told that he needed to first apply himself to study and work out a tentative translation on his own before getting a “yes, that’s right” answer via the “burning in the bosom.” It’s a model that has been used for decades to explain how revelation works, but is one that may be based on a misreading of scripture and one that might not provide a useful description of how most people experience revelation in their lives. The concept of studying and doing our part in seeking divine guidance is certainly reasonable, but there may be significant gaps in how many understand the context and primary message of Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9. Of particular importance to me is what this passage probably doesn’t say about how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done.

Stan Spencer offers careful analysis of the revelation in question to help us answer critical questions about revelation (yikes — there I go, accidentally showing that chiasmus can show up by accident, but that’s another story). Leading with a gentle, understated abstract, Stan Spencer begins a vitally important essay in “The Faith to See: Burning in the Bosom and Translating the Book of Mormon in Doctrine and Covenants 9,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 219-232:

Abstract: Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9 is conventionally interpreted as the Lord’s description of the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated. A close reading of the entire revelation, however, suggests that the Lord was not telling Oliver Cowdery how to translate but rather how to know whether it was right for him to translate and how to obtain the faith necessary to do so. Faith would have enabled Oliver Cowdery to overcome his fear and translate, just as it would have enabled Peter (in Matthew 14) to overcome his fear and walk on water.

Spencer’s mention of faith is based in part on verses in the preceding section, where we learn of Oliver’s desire to also translate the Book of Mormon. In response, the Lord tells him this:

Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate … and according to your faith shall it be done unto you. (Doctrine and Covenants 8:10–11).

Oliver is being told to ask in faith if he wishes to be able to translate. That may be an important precursor to understanding the Lord’s response to Oliver’s failure in some kind of translation attempt, a response given in Doctrine and Covenants 9, where we read that he “began to translate” (vs. 5) but failed. Then comes additional instructions, shown here with emphasis from Spencer:

7. Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

8. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it be 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.

Spencer argues that a critical question for understanding this passage is what “it” refers to. He notes that traditionally, Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage to describe how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done, suggesting that one had to study the plates and come up with a proposed translation, then verify it with a burning in the bosom experience. But that is clearly not how Joseph did the translation, based on every account from various witnesses. The plates were not open and exposed during the translation. He was not poring over the text and figuring out what the characters meant, but looking into a seerstone (or into the Urim and Thummim early in the process),  to see something, using a hat to shut out extraneous light, and then based on whatever he saw or experienced, he dictated text to his scribes. This process was rapid, giving us the large text of the Book of Mormon over a remarkably brief period of time. It did not seem to involve the slow, tedious practice of trying to figure out each character one by one and seeking confirmation for proposed translations. So what is meant by “study it out” in Doctrine and Covenants 9:8?

Spencer explains that “Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 indicates the need to ‘study it out’ and ask ‘if it be right,’ but there is no obvious antecedent for the pronoun it in the revelation that is consistent with the conventional theory.” Through analysis of the context of this verse, Spencer offers and evaluated an alternate interpretation:

A more conservative interpretation of verses 7–9 would be in accordance with the predominant theme of the entire revelation — namely, whether and when it is right for Oliver Cowdery to translate. Perhaps, in these verses, the Lord is telling Oliver Cowdery that before he asks for the privilege to translate, he must find out if translating is the right thing for him to be doing at the time.

In other words, “it” refers to the privilege of translating, and is not meant to say anything about the way the translation was actually done.

I can’t imagine how Joseph would have worked out a proposed translation of anything on the gold plates by himself. The translation, if indeed through the power of God, surely must involve information being delivered to Joseph.

Now there are still two schools of thought that can contend over how this happened, one holding that what was delivered was an impression about the meaning that Joseph had to formulate in his own words, while another view is that actual words may have been delivered that Joseph could read or dictate directly.

The first view, the “loose translation” school, is what many of us have assumed for years, but increasingly, in my opinion, analysis of the dictated language suggests it was not Joseph’s words nor in his Yankee dialect. Further, the tight textual relationships within diverse portions of the Book of Mormon and its extreme intertextuality with the Bible also suggest some form of tight control in verbiage rather than Joseph constantly looking for his own words to express impressions. These are issues we’ve addressed elsewhere here, but for now what I wish to emphasize is that the most plausible meaning of “it” in Doctrine and Covenants 9 leads away from the widely repeated assumption that it is telling us something about how Joseph did the translation, or how Oliver should have done it.

If Joseph was indeed seeing text and not just getting impressions, this helps explain the rapid pace of dictation, the distance between his language and the language of the dictated text, the tendency for highly precise allusions and citations within the Book of Mormon and relative to the Bible, and the ability of many intricate word plays and Hebraisms such as chiasmus to survive the translation. What was dictated was an incredible miracle, done without manuscripts or notes or even a Bible to cite, and it was done right before our eyes (or rather, the eyes of multiple witnesses), with evidence that remains visible right before our eyes today.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

37 thoughts on “It Depends on What the Meaning of “It” Is: Reconsidering the “Burning in the Bosom” and “Studying It Out” in Doctrine & Covenants 9

  1. So you managed to pull the curtain divider back and "it was done right before our eyes", but you still don't know if he was seeing text or just getting impressions. Your spiritual eyes might need glasses. Once you get that prescription filled you will really be a glass looker.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. In the past few years, when reading D&C 9, I have come to the exact same conclusions. It's nice to see that some insightful members are reading it the same way 🙂 Hopefully this interpretation of D&C 9 will be accepted more universally in teaching situations in the church. I have never felt comfortable with the old interpretation that the Lord was counseling Oliver to study out in his mind and pray during the actual translation process itself. It makes much more sense to be study and pray over the actual need for him to translate, and this is much more applicable to our own normal life decisions of importance.

  3. Also, I agree that during translation, Joseph was actually seeing the text appear to him on the stone(s) visually. It is a much better fit based on all the reasons and evidences that you pointed out.

  4. The critics have long hypothesized that Joseph was reading from text hidden in the hat. So it sounds like the apologist now agree.

  5. Wow, some "evidence!" Convincing information like his must be while people are lining up… TO LEAVE the LDS church!

  6. Thanks, Jeff, for your thoughtful explanation of my article.

    Shortly after the article was published, I was told that this interpretation of D&C 9 was used as the basis for a well-received high priest group lesson/discussion on faith, prayer, and miracles.

  7. Thanks for the insightful post, Mr./Brother Lindsay. The Book of Mormon continually intrigues me and I appreciate the thoughtfulness you and others put into examining the intersections of faith and academic rigor. Please keep up the great work!

  8. My interest in the book's origin is due to my profound interest in our scriptures, which are crucial in understanding and evaluating the claims of the Restoration. My "fixation" is equally matched if not exceeded by our vocal critics in their attempts to denounce the Book and dissuade people from having an interest in the Church. If nothing else, there is a need to address their critiques and show that there are reasons to move past the barriers they raise.

  9. No, actual the book has nothing to do with the restoration of priesthood. In fact, the book actual emphasis authority coming from scripture, not an uninterrupted chain of laying on of hands. In fact for the first three years of the Church, being new members knew nothing of the priesthood "restoration", they were not required to believe in the restoration.

    When the critics encourage people to get all the facts and overcome the confessed suppression of them, that is not dissuading interest, it actual increases it, a reality the apologist have accepted by admitting that the critics have gifted them simple and better learning.

    But the fact you state the critics only attempt to "denounce the book" and "dissuade people" shows you, a decent person at your natural self, have only been made worse by your religion and filled with hate. You are a living, breathing testimony that the Church is not true, because it has taken you, an otherwise decent person, further from Christ.

  10. Anon,

    If you think that “the book actual emphasis authority coming from scripture,” then you are not familiar with it at all. Although it doesn’t mention priesthood as an authority, per se, neither does it emphasize scripture as a source of authority. Most callings in the Book of Mormon claim to come directly from God, though few enter into the details of how they receive the calling or the authority.

    As for Jeff being filled with hate, you’ve made another claim that is completely off base. Though Jeff has his faults and blind spots in relation to his faith, hatred is not a character trait I have observed in anything he has posted on this Blog. If anything, he is beyond gracious, and almost overly patient with those who disagree with his point of view.

    Also, the truth of one’s faith isn’t dependent on those who attempt to live it.

  11. This interpretation of what the Lord is referring to in D&C 9 makes sense. Given what we know about how the translation was given to Joseph, including the evidence that the object labguage is primarily Early Modern English from the early 1500s, making surmises about how a script not readable by any contemporary human should be rendered into English would be a formidable task. Joseph and Oliver did not even know which order the characters were written in. Hebrew, for example, is read right to left.

    Nevertheless,Section 9 still offers one model for reaching a decision with inspiration from the spirit,so the principle taught in lessons using Section 9 is still valid.

  12. One or more comments from "Anonymous" deny the reality of revelation from God. Apparently they lack the experience of receiving personal revelation that is satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. Yet I and literally milliond of my fellow Latter-day Saints can attest that we have received revelation, and that it has proven to be a reliable guide in our lives.

    Having read most of the scholarly anslysis of the Book of Mormon over the past half century, the trend of scholsrly findings is clear, that the only rational explanation for the contents of the text of the Book of Mormon is what Josrph and the 11 witnesses say it was. No other explanation can explain how two centuries of scholarship has revealed tgat the Book of Mormon is packed with knowledge from the ancient world that was unknown to anyone in 1829. The more evidence that accumulates, the more accurate the Book of Mormon is sern to be.

    A century ago,Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity. Over the course of that century, observations of the universe have repeatedly affirmed the accuracy of that story of how the world works. This includes the first observation, in 2015, of gravity waves generated by two supermassive colliding blsck holes a billion light years away.

    Just so, the evidence for the accuracy of the Book of Mormon continues to build up. In 1829, critics of the Book of Mormon claim to be written on golden plates, and to include excerpts from a copy of much of the Old Testament, was ridiculed as prims facie unreasonable. Yet in the past two centuries the number of ancient religious writings on bronze and other metals has grown each year.

  13. Anon 4:32 PM, December 15, 2018 –

    You first confuse what the book actually says with Mormon interpretation, then you confuse Mormon interpretation, showing that you are familiar with both, recognizing the contradictions, but stubbornly refuse to state them as such, and then you concede the point with "few enter into the details of how they receive the calling or the authority". Attacking people who are clearly familiar with the nuances as "not familiar with it at all", is exactly the type of hate referred to, and it takes you further from Christ also. Just as coltakashi's claim that "One or more comments from "Anonymous" deny the reality of revelation from God" is a hate derived claim. No where above do I see any anonymous deny revelation from God exists.

  14. Anon 3:41

    May I remind you that your claim was that "the book actual emphasis authority coming from scripture," which contradicts what is commonly understood from those familiar with the text (and would indicate a lack of familiarity on your part). If you would like to make such a grandiose claim, and be taken seriously, a little evidence from the text and elucidation by you would be in order.

    To address your idea of hate, keep in mind that hate requires intent–it's an active, not a passive, thing. Also know that disagreement and hate are not mutually exclusive. This seems to be something many in our society are forgetting. Just because I disagree with you, doesn't mean I hate you, or even the ideas you have put forth. Also, words, in-and-of-themselves, are not inherently good, bad, or otherwise. The use of a word or phrase without some intent to harm on the part of the user, is not "hate speech." That it is automatically labeled as such is a projection of feelings from the receiver, not necessarily a sign of intent from the giver. To bring this full circle, the whole idea of Jeff's post was the interpretation of language based on intent. :^)

  15. Anon 9:53 AM, December 16, 2018,

    Congratulations, now you are understanding. Yes, it does contradict the common Mormon interpretation. May I remind you that was never disputed. As all those familiar with the text know, the entire theme of the book and story behind it, is the preservation of scripture as the keystone of the religion. No where near a grandiose idea. Demanding evidence for such a basic part of the narrative proves you are not at all concerned with being taken seriously.

    Posters here clearly intend to harm by inventing false disagreements and assigning false intentions to critics in order to assuage the pain of their own internal logical inconsistencies. Even if operating under the best defense is a strong offense theory, it is still a from hate. The apologist's false projections of disagreements and intentions to the critics is derived from fear and anger, as evidence by your demand for evidence for such a basic part of the BoM narrative, one you are clearly familiar with, but are playing dumb, insincerely pretending you do not know. Your opening salvo of "then you are not familiar with it at all" is nothing more than ad hominem, which is an expression of hate.
    Obviously uncomfortable with your hate, your solution is to pretend there is no such thing as hate.

    intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury
    extreme dislike or disgust
    a systematic and especially politically exploited expression of hatred

    Again, the book and the book's origin have zero to do with the theological differentiation of Mormonism from Christianity. That is, John the Baptist reset an laying of hands derived authority, not Layman Wright.

  16. 🙂

    Bearyb, I must ad an addendum to my comments as to why I’m here. If I’m honest, another reason to visit Jeff’s blog is the entertainment it provides watching the unhinged defend their unhinge-itude.

  17. This blog's unhinged nature is indeed the entertainment, and the truly unhinged here are unapologetic for their delusions, providing the bulk of the entertainment.

  18. It has been quite entertaining to watch Jeff twist himself into knots over the years. This book of so-called scripture does nothing to answer even the most simple requirements of evidence, yet armchair apologists see quite the opposite. Never mind the fact that these arguments do nothing but sow confusion and contention and backwards logic and obfuscation. Some fruits these are! No simple honest answers are to be found. Only wishy-washy "search your feelings, Luke" nonsense. No hard evidence. Only what-ifs and could-bes and endless fumfering among the already converted.
    Like I said: quite entertaining. I'd be crying for you if it wasn't so fun to watch!

  19. Anon 4:32 PM, December 15, 2018 –

    "Also, the truth of one’s faith isn’t dependent on those who attempt to live it." – Says a person who claims to be familiar with Mormon-speak in a dishonest attempt to refute someone who accurately used Mormon-speak.

  20. Yep, ??? , is pretty much the logo of the apologist. Most of them know it is not true, so the bulk of what they do is play dumb, pretending they don't understand the arguments against it, when they know full well.

  21. I don’t usually have to play at being dumb—it just comes naturally. Also, I’m not an apologist but I do like to attempt to right intellectual wrongs when I see them occurring.

    I’m not sure what, in your estimation, would be an appropriate response to a statement that was confusing to me? I often have to remind my writing students that just because you know what you are trying to convey, doesn’t mean everyone else does.

    If you’re just here to point fingers and call names and not have a debate, then so be it—I’m rubber and you’re glue, yada, yada, yada.

  22. "just here to point fingers and call names and not have a debate"

    That is exactly what you are doing, so if you are interested in righting intellectual wrongs, start there. Then, as you now admit the statement is no longer confusing to you, practice your writing and write back the meaning of the statement in your own words. Since you are so interested in righting intellectual wrongs, explain how you errored in using the phrase familiar with the text, then explain the difference between blog chat writing and expositional essays.

    Of course, if you don't do these things then we have proven you were never truly interested in righting intellectual wrongs but we're only here to point fingers and falsely insult as you did from the very first sentence.

    1. I accept your challenge. You outlined a lot of steps, so pardon me if I miss one.

      Step 1)

      “Then, as you now admit the statement is no longer confusing to you, practice your writing and write back the meaning of the statement in your own words.”

      Thanks to a sudden flash of insight into your way of thinking, I’m no longer confused, and, concurrently, the following is your statement in my own words:

      "Also, the truth of one’s faith isn’t dependent on those who attempt to live it." – Stated by an individual purporting to know [insert a derogatory term that I think is clever describing how I think a certain group talks] untruthfully trying to argue against a person fluent in [insert a derogatory term that I think is clever describing how I think a certain group talks].
      . . .Just an editorial note—not sure this helped my understanding.

      Step 2

      “explain how you errored in using the phrase familiar with the text”

      I’m skipping this step based on a technicality—errored isn’t a word. I think someone erred in using it.

      Step 3

      “explain the difference between blog chat writing and expositional essays.”

      Now this is a prompt for at least a three page essay. I’ll try to keep my response contained to much less, since this is in a blog and not an essay. Hey, that’s one difference right there.

      Any good writing, be it a blog response, or an essay, considers 4 key elements: writer, subject, audience, and the writing situation. Writer: who am I as a writer, and how do I want to portray myself to my readers? For example, I could choose to portray myself as intelligent, measured, and educated, or I could portray myself as an ignorant d-bag who is just looking for a fight. The words you use and your tone determine how you are perceived as a writer. Subject: what am I writing about? How should I treat my subject? Do I have disdain for it or do I truly want to analyze it and pick it apart? Audience: who will be reading my writing? Will it be someone who will criticize it for errors? Maybe it will be an educated audience, or perhaps an unwashed mob. If I’m aware of who my audience is, I can choose my language and how I approach my subject accordingly. Writing situation: this is the brass tacks of the matter. Am I writing an expository essay? Am I responding in a blog? The writing situation really informs the other three elements, but doesn’t necessarily limit them. I may be less formal in a blog response than an essay, and more concise, since I’m usually responding to someone else, but who my audience is, my subject matter, and importantly, how I want to portray myself come into play. Blog responses tend to be short and to the point. The essay, as the name implies, is an attempt—an attempt to explore, or explain a subject. They tend to be longer and more drawn out than a blog response because they explore their subject from multiple angles. They often include research and citations to help bolster their claims, although a blog response may include research as well if, say, someone wants to make a claim that contradicts common knowledge about a subject and doesn’t want to be seen as a crackpot hack, for example.

      Whew—that was quite a workout. I think I completed all of the required steps. Hopefully I’ve proven to you and the rest of my readers that I really was here to right intellectual wrongs, and not here to point fingers and falsely insult (I’m not sure how an insult can be true or false—it just is.).

  23. Thank u for correcting your intellectual wrongs and admitting u r only here "just here to point fingers and call names and not have a debate".

  24. Sorry you feel "Mormonspeak" is derogatory. An anon apologist early had this to say, "Also, words, in-and-of-themselves, are not inherently good, bad, or otherwise …. That it is automatically labeled as such is a projection of feelings from the receiver, not necessarily a sign of intent from the giver." I am sure in this case the giver would gladly use an alternative that expresses the same thing if you offered it. The American Heritage Dictionary merely says Mormon Church when referencing Mormonspeak in definitions, for example, lookup gentile.

    As you are obviously familiar with, "The Church is true" is a common phrase used in various Mormon situations. As you are no doubt also familiar, this is frequently objected to my Mormon critics, who rarely hesitate to point out that a Church cannot be true or false. As anyone remotely familiar with Mormondom knows, Mormons will readily say the positive outcomes of an individual "just shows the Church is true". So to be consistent, the negative outcomes of following "the Church" must show it is false.

    Your baseless and weak finger pointing show you are familiar with these aspects. You further demonstrate your familiarity by your deliberate changing Church to faith with "truth of one’s faith isn’t dependent on those who attempt to live it." A comment that essentially placed you agreeing with the critics and South Park. Your statement was the entire punchline of the South Park episode.

    While errored for erred was a mobile device speed error, you nonetheless again demonstrate the point by recognizing you fully understood what was being communicated, but not at all interested in sincerely addressing it. However, "falsely insult" was deliberate, just to see you if you would take the bait. As you appear to admit, you chose to portray yourself "as an ignorant d-bag who is just looking for a fight", so naturally you took the bait.

  25. Things are getting really weird here, Jeff. I'm not sure I understand what's going on, why you allow it to continue, and what these people think they're accomplishing. I do know anon @ 3:59 is a master shitposter and kind of a dick.

  26. Bearyb –

    The fixation with the book and its origin has always been with the apologist. For example, it was the apologist who started by claiming the book proves anything, and then moving on to stylometry studies, etc. Apologist only exposed the critics for their disingenuous “research” and conclusions. The critics were successfully retorting the apologist bogus claims. So much so, that people like you get frustrated with the critics success and attempt to retort it by falsely accusing the critics of being the ones fixated. It is a deceitful claim to argue that there are “weighty matters to consider, especially if it’s true”, because “proper priesthood authority” is the theological differentiation of the religion.  Whether or not the book is a miracle, is irrelevant, after all Pharoah’s priests could turn a staff into a snake also.

    When apologist lie and say things like the book’s origin is “crucial in understanding and evaluating the claims of the Restoration” it is near complete deceit in order to trick people with smoke and mirrors and pull the wool over their eyes. It is awful and disgusting behavior by people who swore an oath to God not to behave that way. The “restoration” is all about rejecting the other’s Christians priesthood and has little to do with the book or its origin. 

  27. Critics attempts to “dissuade people from having an interest in the Church.”  This is irony coming from a Mormon, given that Mormonism is based on dissuading people from having an interest in other Christian Churches.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.