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A Pre-Print of
A Discussion of the Book of Mormon Witnesses
by Royal Skousen

Updated March 22, 2021: “I’ve done a thorough proofing of my witness chapter, and I am attaching a clean version of it for the Interpreter blog. This time there are no major differences, only me cleaning up my earlier version(s) to make them as accurate as possible.

— In appreciation, Royal

We have already posted pre-prints of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack’s revised discussion of

(a) apparently archaic vocabulary at,

(b) seemingly archaic phrases at,

(c) apparently archaic grammar at,

and (d) seemingly archaic expressions at

In what follows — a pre-print of material that will appear in part 7 of volume 3 of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project — Skousen surveys evidence regarding witnesses to both the plates themselves and the translation process. Here is his own summary of the highlights:

In this chapter, I first briefly discuss those who saw the plates (besides Joseph Smith, of course): the three witnesses (a spiritual or visionary viewing), the eight witnesses (a physical viewing, handling, and hefting), and Mary Whitmer, the first one besides Joseph to see the plates. I present my findings from the Christian Whitmer line that Mary Whitmer was shown the plates not because she was working too much, but because she was about to have Joseph, Oliver, and Emma evicted because Joseph and Oliver weren’t helping with the chores. I also list all those – quite a few actually – who handled and hefted the plates while wrapped up in cloth or enclosed in a box. But these people never actually saw the plates, except Martin Harris later on.

Then I turn to the witnesses of the Book of Mormon translation. I emphasize here the firsthand accounts, although a few secondhand accounts are included. Basically, there were two translation methods: (1) the use of the Nephite interpreters or spectacles that came with the plates, and (2) the use of the seer stone in the hat. In the first case, the instrument was apparently held over the characters (either as they appeared on the plates themselves or as copied characters) and an English translation would appear to Joseph’s view. This method was used, it is said, to translate part of the initial 116 pages that were later lost, but accounts from Martin Harris (via John Clark and Charles Anthon) imply that this method was used only in the very beginning, when Martin was provided characters and (perhaps) a translation of them to take to the scholars in New York. In using this first method, the plates were out in the open; thus a large blanket or curtain was required since no one was allowed to see the plates at that time. As a result, no one except Joseph Smith himself ever fully observed this method in translation.

In contrast, there is the second method, the stone in the hat, with nothing else except sometimes the plates were nearby but wrapped up. This second method allowed witnesses to see the entire translation process. We now know of eight (8) independent firsthand accounts of this second method, three of which come from non-Mormons (who never became anti-Mormons, which is important): there’s Michael Morse, brother-in-law to Emma Smith, plus two teenagers who saw the process very early on, when Reuben Hale was the scribe. One of the teenagers was Elizabeth Lewis (McKune) when she was a servant in the Hale and Smith homes in Harmony; the other was Joseph Fowler McKune, a student at a local school. So when Martin Harris said that Joseph could use either the interpreters or the seer stone in translating the 116 pages, the two teenagers show Joseph using it very early, probably in January or February 1828 (when Reuben Hale was the scribe). I also list the witnesses who describe the shift from the interpreters to the seer stone, but they incorrectly say it occurred when Joseph lost the 116 pages; it was obviously earlier. One of Emma’s accounts places her acting as scribe early on in 1828, and in that account Joseph is using the seer stone.

I next cover some of the problematic accounts that typically mix up these two methods, including a couple newspaper interviews of David Whitmer that he has to correct. I also discuss the bizarre account by Truman Coe in 1836, as well as two very late accounts, from Samuel Richards in 1907 and Nathan Tanner in 1909 that mix in the folklore that had developed about the translation – and which is still with us. I also add here some generic statements that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery made about the translation process; these statements completely avoid any mention of the seer stone.

I then go over some of the specific claims made by the firsthand witnesses of the stone in the hat: (1) Joseph Smith was ignorant of the walls of Jerusalem (which clearly shows that Joseph was not the ‘author’ of the Book of Mormon); (2) Joseph and his scribe worked for long periods of time, necessary to get the translation done in the 74-day period that Jack Welch proposes; and (3) Joseph Smith had to be in the right spirit or he couldn’t see anything using the seer stone.

I also consider a fourth claim based on hearsay evidence from David Whitmer that describes what Joseph Smith was viewing using his instrument: a piece of parchment with a line of the plates’ characters on top and the English translation underneath, with David in his earliest account saying ‘at least, so Joseph said’. Note, it is a ‘line of characters’, but over time David gradually changes this to ‘a single character’, which is definitely wrong and shows his memory failing him. I lay out all of the relevant David Whitmer accounts, showing his transition from a line of characters to a single character. The latter is absurd for any given language we know of, whether logographic, syllabic, consonantal, or alphabetic. What Joseph told David (and others, apparently) was that there was a line of characters, which makes sense. Also, the characters and the translation appear on a piece of parchment, so the view is visionary and not in the seer stone itself.

It should be pointed out that the original manuscript, as we have it, provides no evidence for any of the forgoing claims. In particular, we cannot tell if any portion was done with the interpreters or the seer stone. Nor do we have Joseph Smith ever telling us what he himself saw. We have only these secondhand accounts from David Whitmer (and one contributing account from Joseph Knight).

The most important part of this chapter is the evidence in the original manuscript that allows us to evaluate additional claims about the stone in the hat method: (1) we can determine how many English words were viewed by Joseph Smith at a time (at least 20, perhaps as much as 30 or more); (2) there is supporting evidence in the manuscript that Joseph did not have to be prompted about where he had left off when he started up his translating again; and (3) there is supporting evidence that the scribe read back the text to Joseph Smith, and that this was the basic method they used for checking whether the scribe got it down correctly (besides the spelling out of names).

On the other hand, there is one final claim from many of the witnesses, that the scribe was not permitted to make any errors: no substantive errors for sure, but also none in the spelling, even of common English words. Joseph Knight, Emma Smith, and David Whitmer all indicated that the instrument itself would not go on if there was any error. This is the theory of ironclad control over the text, and it is definitely wrong.

In the last part of this chapter, I provide the evidence against this claim: first, a very long list of all the substantive errors in the original manuscript, ones that were never caught by Joseph, his scribe, or the instrument! I include here errors in homophonic spellings (such as strait versus straight), as well as three errors that apparently resulted from Joseph himself misreading the text he was viewing with the instrument. I also give long lists of common biblical names misspelled as well as all the long misspelled words of English in the original manuscript (three or more syllables in length). There’s only one word which Joseph might have spelled out to Christian Whitmer, genealogy. And at the end, I show Oliver Cowdery varying his spelling of common English words in the original manuscript, and in fact sometimes switching from the correct spelling to an incorrect one, but nothing stopping him.

So where did this notion of ironclad control come from? It apparently came from the spelling out of the Book of Mormon names (the first time they occurred) and also probably the spelling out of infrequent biblical names, as in the Isaiah quotations. I first list the statements by the witnesses that the strange Book of Mormon names were spelled out, plus the difficulty Joseph had with the name Sariah when he was taking down dictation for the 116 pages and Emma was the scribe. He kept pronouncing it as Sarah, but to get it right he had to spell it out letter for letter, according to Emma and Martin Harris, the two main scribes for the 116 pages. Then I list nine (9) instances in the original manuscript where a Book of Mormon name was clearly spelled out the first time it occurred. The two most dramatic examples are Zenoch and Coriantumr, where the correction was immediate and inline. From all these cases of spelling out names, the witnesses made the incorrect inference that every word was being controlled for.

This last point argues that we must check what the witnesses claimed. And where we can, we are generally able to find supporting evidence for their claims, at least for the witnesses whose accounts are firsthand. But there is one major exception: there is no evidence for inerrancy in the transmission of the text.

The Interpreter Foundation is honored to be associated with this very important effort, and we’re very pleased to be able to offer our readers a preview of its research results.

— Dan Peterson


NOTE: This is a pre-print of material that will appear in part 7 of Volume III: The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon. As such, we have not made it available for downloading or printing. Please refrain from bypassing these restrictions.


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