Hey guys, so for almost 200 years now, critics of Joseph Smith have been trying to figure out how he could have possibly invented the Book of Mormon. One claim I’ve stumbled upon recently is that nobody actually saw Joseph Smith during the dictation of the Book of Mormon because he was always separated from his scribe by some kind of curtain or blanket. This leaves room for critics to suggest that Joseph could have just been reading from a pre-written manuscript or any range of materials from behind the curtain. But, is this portrayal of the translation process historically supported? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, before we get into this, we need to lay some translation timeline groundwork. Joseph recovered the golden plates in September of 1827 from a hill near his family’s home in Palmyra, New York. In December of 1827, he moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania. Now, at this point, Joseph knew the plates needed to be translated, but he didn’t know that he was going to be translating them. So, with the help of Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and probably Reuben Hale, Joseph made copies of some of the characters on the plates (probably at least several pages worth), and in February of 1828, Martin Harris took those copies to the scholar Charles Anthon to have them authenticated. Anthon couldn’t translate them, so in April of 1828 in Harmony, Joseph began translating them himself, with Emma and Martin working as his main scribes. And then, unfortunately, in June of 1828, Martin lost everything they’d written up to that point. The translation didn’t resume until April of 1829. We’ll come back to this timeline in a moment.
There are lots of sources from the 1800s claiming that Joseph only dictated the Book of Mormon from behind a curtain. Some Latter-day Saints have assumed that this was just true for the entire translation. We’ve even got artwork that portrays it this way. But we’ve also got multiple accounts that specifically deny that Joseph was separated by a curtain. So what the heck is going on here? It turns out that almost every pro-curtain account that I’ve been able to confidently trace back to someone who actually witnessed the translation traces back to the same person: Martin Harris—but none of the accounts are first-hand, almost all come from late, unfriendly sources, and there are problems with them.
For example, one pro-curtain source that repeatedly comes up is Charles Anthon, who claimed to have gotten his information from Martin Harris when he visited and showed him copies of some of the characters from the plates. The problem is that Anthon met with Harris in February of 1828 before the translation had even begun. Scholars Gerrit Dirkmaat and Michael MacKay concluded, “Much more likely, Anthon was confusing Harris’s description of how Smith copied the characters with later reports of the actual translation process. At that early stage, Smith may have divided the room with a sheet to keep the plates hidden from Martin Harris, Reuben Hale, and Emma Smith, who were all apparently involved in creating or receiving copies of the characters. While it later became a popular way to describe Joseph’s translation, it seems that Joseph only used the sheet when he had the plates exposed in front of him while he transcribed the characters from the plates in the winter of 1827.”
Now, not all scholars agree with this assessment. For example, here’s a quote from Richard Bushman that you can pause and read. But in any case, remember that Martin was only Joseph’s scribe during the dictation of a portion of the lost 116 pages. When Joseph began translating again in 1829, he did not use Martin Harris as a scribe. Thus, even if Joseph dictated part of the translation to Martin from behind a curtain—we don’t have it.
At the same time, Emma Smith scribed for perhaps as much as two-thirds of the 116 pages and also scribed after those pages were lost —and she didn’t mention any kind of separating curtain. She later recounted to her son, “In writing for your father, I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” Her son asked, “Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?” Emma responded, “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.” — “Could he not have had, and you not know it?” — “If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.”
In June of 1829, Joseph left Harmony, and the translation continued until completion at the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York. David Whitmer’s sister, Elizabeth (who later married Oliver Cowdery), wrote, “I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the Book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him.”
In 1885 the Chicago Tribune interviewed David Whitmer. David said that at some point, a blanket was hung across the room to partition off a space for the work of translation, but that was “the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides.”
So, the idea that Joseph translated from behind a curtain comes largely from Martin Harris through at least second-hand reports. But these reports probably confuse the translation method with Joseph copying down characters directly from the plates. And even if Martin did scribe from behind a curtain, all of that text was lost with the 116 pages anyway. On the other hand, multiple witnesses of the translation of the text we actually have indicate that Joseph was fully visible during the translation and had no notes or reference materials to work with.
This does not prove that Joseph was a prophet. You are certainly still free to believe he wasn’t. My goal is to make sure that either way you go, you’re basing your conclusion on good information. For example, some people are under the impression that Joseph Smith was the only person to ever see the golden plates. That’s not accurate, and if you want to learn more about the people who did claim to see them, go watch this video. Have a great day!
— “From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon,” by Gerrit Dirkmaat and Michael MacKay (available digitally on Archive.org): https://tinyurl.com/mr2mb4t6
— “What Do We Know About the ‘Anthon Transcript’?” via Book of Mormon Central: https://tinyurl.com/2s4fbtwm
— “Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” by John Welch (BYU Studies): https://tinyurl.com/2pu544zd
— “A Multiplicity of Witnesses: Women and the Translation Process,” by Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope (BYU RSC): https://tinyurl.com/29d2fzev
— If anyone is interested in seeing my chart of all of the different accounts I was able to find, please contact me on social media and I’d be happy to share that with you.