The core of Emma’s testimony as it relates to the Book of Mormon1 is summarized in condensed form below (emphasis added):
- “[I] wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him [Joseph], he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us … [with] neither manuscript nor book to read from … [which] he could not have concealed … from me.”
- “[Question] Where did father and Oliver Cowdery write? [Answer] … in the room where I was at work.”
- “My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity - I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.”
- “[Question] Could not father have dictated [it from a written manuscript]? [Answer] Joseph Smith … could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me … as much so as to anyone else.”
In summary, Emma claims:
- To have been present and in close proximity during much/most of the translation process, acting both as scribe and as witness when Cowdery was scribe.
- Joseph could not have concealed a manuscript or book from which to read from.
- Joseph could not dictate a coherent or well-worded letter and so was especially incapable of dictating (i.e., orally composing) or writing the Book of Mormon.
- Joseph did not consult the dictated manuscript when he returned—he picked up where he left off during the translation process.
Reasons to question aspects of Emma’s witness
Many witnesses corroborate that Joseph dictated with his face in a hat containing a seer stone, but there are some reasons to question every other aspect (i.e., #’s 1–4 above) of her testimony.
Denied Joseph Smith’s polygamy
As explained in greater detail here, Emma’s witness of the Book of Mormon follows directly after her testimony on polygamy. In the same interview, she claims that Joseph never practiced polygamy, but overwhelming evidence suggests that he did.2 If Joseph was practicing polygamy then we can conclude that Emma was either lying about his polygamy or she was naive about the actions of her husband,3 either of which weaken our confidence in any given assertation about the translation.
Many of Emma’s children had livelihood’s intertwined with the success of the RLDS Church (whose truth-claims at the time still depended on a defense of Joseph’s prophethood), so Emma may have been motivated to cast Joseph and the translation in the best possible light.
Renewed interest in the Spaulding theory
Emma’s last testimony occurred in the wake of renewed interest4 in the Spaulding manuscript theory since “Manuscript Story” had just been discovered in 1884 and published by the RLDS Church in 1885. Both the interviewer (Joseph Smith III) and interviewee (Emma) likely had this manuscript in mind. Over half a century had lapsed since the translation/dictation occurred, so it seems possible that in her haste to discount the Spaulding manuscript theory Emma misremembered or embellished aspects.
Could not write or dictate a coherent and well-worded letter?
Emma claims that Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”
- Joseph wrote (or dictated?) the preface to the Book of Mormon and dictated (?) a letter to Oliver Cowdery shortly after completing the Book of Mormon. When punctuation and grammar corrected like the Book of Mormon, the documents appear to be both coherent and well-worded. A reading comprehension analysis of the letter to Oliver Cowdery shows it to be near the average of all the individual chapters of the Book of Mormon (see preliminary work here and here), suggesting that the letter Joseph dictated to Cowdery is consistent in basic complexity measures with Book of Mormon material.
- Joseph Smith’s 1830 letters to the Colesville Saints (first and second) are coherent, well-worded, and packed full of allusion to Biblical passages.
- Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, recalls Joseph giving “some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined … with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.”5
- Joseph continued producing well-written material in the years following (e.g., Letter to Emma 1832 and his 1832 history)
- As a youth, Joseph was, according to his own account, steeped in the religious conversations of his day.
- Within just a few years since the translation of the Book of Mormon Joseph was consulting Clarke’s commentary, a sophisticated Bible commentary, and incorporating it in “hundreds” of instances into his Joseph Smith Translation of the bible.
- Joseph had an extraordinary intellect.
Emma claimed that Joseph “could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.” This seems less remarkable when we consider all the instances that the narrator appears to have lost track of the narrative flow and had to backtrack.6
Emma may not have been present when sources were consulted
Emma likely only served as scribe for a small portion of what is considered the Book of Mormon today,7 so most of her scribal work is not available for inspection.
Emma does mention observing Oliver and Joseph during dictation,8 but:
- We cannot imagine that Emma sat and observed the entire process (i.e., was she always home? Was she always in the same room?)
- We know that Emma was separated from Joseph and Oliver for at least brief periods of time during the translation period.
- The last month of translation occured in the upstairs room of Peter Whitmer’s home. Based on the Mosiah Priority, this month likely included the dictation of 1st and 2nd Nephi, both of which contain large blocks of Isaiah that may have been copied directly from the 1769 KJV Bible.9 Witness statements place Emma downstairs during the day and the translators upstairs.10
- Could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon at MormonThink
I solicited feedback on an early draft of this document in this forum. I acknowledge the intellectual contributions of all those who commented generally, and especially ImTheMarmotKing, NotTerriblyHelpful, achilles52309, Paradox-Socratic, JohnH2, DanAliveandDead, japanesepiano, warnerfranklin, and churchistrue.
Emma also emphasized that the plates physically existed: “The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb …” Since the plates were not directly involved in the creation of the Book of Mormon and both Latter-day Saint scholars (for example) and non-LDS scholars (for example) affirm their existence on some level, I will not address the topic here. ↩
The LDS Church recently published an essay attempting to explain and contextualize Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, even going so far as to suggest that Emma approved of some other marriages/sealings for at least a time. In general, solid contemporary evidence exists supporting Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. ↩
Emma may have been in the dark about some/many of Joseph’s polygamous relationships either because she was merely naive (i.e., did not pay close attention or scrutinize his actions) or because Joseph was adept at hiding his actions (or some combination). Joseph’s handwritten letter to the Whitneys in August of 1842 asks them to burn the communication and keep his actions hidden from Emma, so there is some direct support for the latter. ↩
Non-member scholars differ with believing scholars as to the genesis of Joseph’s source material for these stories. Believing scholars would say that the source material was derived from visitations with Moroni. Non-members would suggest that the material was indicative of Joseph’s forethought on the topic. Regardless, few if any scholars question the general accuracy of the account of Joseph being capable of such recitals. ↩
The narrator of the Book of Mormon seems to have lost track of their position in multiple instances. As explained by Mike Brown in the ‘Losing Track’ section of his Mormon Stories essay on the translation:
In multiple places, the narrator appears to forget what he had previously dictated and is forced to resort to verbal circumlocution. If the words were indeed carefully abridged by Mormon, they are difficult to reconcile. However, such lapses are easily explained by a break in dictation for the night or simply a lapse in concentration.
Alma 19:16 introduces a Lamanite woman named Abish, and informs that she “ran forth from house to house, making it known unto the people” that the power of God had come upon the king and queen. A mere twelve verses later, the narrator forgets her name and clumsily refers instead to “…the woman servant who had caused the multitude to be gathered together.”
Similarly, Alma 1 introduces an Antichrist named Nehor, who teaches false doctrine, kills a war hero named Gideon, and finally recants his unbelief before his execution for murder. In the very next chapter, the author appears to momentarily forget Nehor’s name, and introduces a new character, Amlici, as “he being after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword, who was executed according to the law.” Later, in Alma 24, the author uses the much simpler description, “after the order of Nehor.”
On the other hand, we occasionally encounter more information just a few verses after it would have flowed most easily. In Alma 17:36, narrating how Ammon defended King Lamoni’s sheep from would-be thieves, Joseph dictates that, “with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them.” Two verses later, we are informed that “six of them had fallen by the sling..but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword.”
Emma and Martin Harris’s first efforts were the lost 116 pages and initial efforts afterwards were “slow and sporadic.”. Finally, Cowdery stated in his returning address, “I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God.” ↩
Besides Emma, David Whitmer is the only other witness to clarify that Smith did not refer to any notes or manuscript. A Chicago Times interviewer in 1881 stated: “Mr. Whitmer emphatically asserts as did Harris and Cowdery, that while Smith was dictating the translation he had no manuscript notes or other means of knowledge save the seer stone and the characters as shown on the plates, he being present and cognizant how it was done.” However, Whitmer’s claims about the translation process were not particularly consistent, and (like Emma) he made this particular claim about no notes over 50 years after the fact. Finally, these observations regarding Emma’s claim of no notes or manuscript apply equally well to Whitmer’s claim. ↩
To deal with deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, FairMormon hypothesizes that Joseph consulted the KJV Bible directly instead of the ancient manuscript (emphasis added): “As Joseph was translating the text of the Book of Mormon, he would find himself translating something that he recognized as being roughly similar to texts from the Bible. This would occur most prominently when Nephi quotes from Isaiah. Instead of translating Nephi’s quotations of Isaiah, Joseph, deferred to the KJV translation of those chapters. This may have been done to save time and to respect the quality of the KJV Bible. The chapters of Isaiah that we find in the Book of Mormon were taken largely by Joseph Smith from the KJV Bible, instead of being translated from Nephi’s version of that text. In other words, why reinvent the wheel when the work has already been done?” ↩
In an interview, David Whitmer describes how (emphasis added): “[Joseph] went downstairs, out into the orchard and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour—came back to the house, and asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came upstairs where we were and the translation went on all right” ↩