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.