Hey guys, so, as you already know and as we’ve discussed in other videos, Joseph Smith translated the ancient Book of Mormon metal plates predominantly by using two tools: his own personal seer stone, and two Nephite seer stones called interpreters or also known as an Urim and Thummim, which he discovered with the plates. When he used his personal seer stone, he would put the stone in a hat, and bring his face close to the hat to block out light, and would then dictate text to his scribe.
In other words, apparently, Joseph didn’t actually need to have the gold-colored metal plates open in front of him in order to translate them. This has led some people, like this guy from Quora, to wonder, “what is the point of Moroni lugging those plates all through America to hill Cumorah, then telling Joseph to dig them up year after year, then have the plates be a major burden on the smith family, all so he could look in his hat? That makes no sense.” And there is a fair question in there. If the plates weren’t needed for the translation, why were they needed at all? What purpose did they serve? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, so the fact is that we don’t know a whole lot about the process or mechanics of the translation of the Book of Mormon record. In 1831, when Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, asked him to explain in a meeting how the translation happened, Joseph said that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”
On several occasions he simply said that he translated the record, “by the gift and power of God,” and he left it at that. So, since we don’t know what role the plates played in the translation process, it’s hard to dogmatically state whether or not they were needed in that process. For example, some evidence has led scholar Don Bradley to assert, “While translating from the seer stone allowed Joseph to leave the plates wrapped up or in a distant hiding-place, translating through the interpreters required the plates to be physically present and uncovered.”
If that was in fact that case, then Joseph did indeed need the plates in order to translate under some circumstances. There’s just a lot we don’t know about how the translation process worked. But even if the plates weren’t needed for the translation at all, that doesn’t by any means render them useless.
For example, it took Joseph years before he was permitted by the angel Moroni to remove the plates from the hillside. The plates served as motivation for Joseph to strive to be worthy of his prophetic calling. And once he was able to receive the plates, he then became directly accountable and responsible for them. And if the historic record is accurate, that was a challenging thing. People tried to take them by force multiple times. The existence of the plates helped shape Joseph’s character and instilled in him the seriousness of his calling.
But they served another purpose as well: The existence of the plates, if they were authentic, confirms that the people the Book of Mormon talks about were actually real. The plates were an actual ancient Nephite artifact.
There are some today that suggest that the Book of Mormon is only metaphorically true — that it doesn’t record events that actually happened — It’s a book of inspired, but fictional, parables.
The existence of the plates, in my opinion, removes that option from the table. Daniel Peterson described the plates as “an indigestible lump in the throats of people … who contend that there were no Nephites but that Joseph Smith was nonetheless an inspired prophet. If the plates really existed, somebody made them. And if no Nephites existed to make them, then either Joseph Smith, or God, or somebody else seems to have been engaged in simple fraud. The testimony of the witnesses exists, I think, to force a dichotomous choice: true or false?”
And to be perfectly frank, the plates also might have served as a physical reminder to Joseph himself that he wasn’t cuckoo for cocoa puffs. And they were evidence for the witnesses of the plates as well that Joseph wasn’t crazy. In fact, after the 3 witnesses were shown the plates by an angel, Joseph threw himself down by his parents and said,
“Father, mother, you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.”
Now, obtaining the physical plates was meaningful in yet another way that we’ll get more into in our next episode. But by way of teasing next week’s topic, the golden plates were found in a stone box along with a few other ancient Nephite relics. This golden record found in a stone box with its accompanying relics seems to mirror a stone record kept in a golden box, along with its important ancient relics. It looks a lot like this Nephite time capsule was in fact a Nephite ark of the covenant. That’s all I’m going to say about that for now.
At the end of the day, even though Joseph may not always have needed to have the golden plates open in front of him in order to translate, they still served and continue to serve multiple important purposes. If you want to dive deeper into this subject, check out the resources in the YouTube description, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- From those fantastic scholars over at Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3lIeuFk
- Some additional information to consider: https://bit.ly/3ICbvbF
- “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon” by Stephen Smoot in Interpreter Journal: https://bit.ly/3HzmqRt
- “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship” by Brett Holbrook, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: https://bit.ly/3Gmg5bN
- “Book of Mormon Evidence: The Nephite Ark” via Evidence Central: https://bit.ly/3EB28pW
- Some thoughts from “AskGramps”: https://bit.ly/3rP2yp4