Is the Book of Mormon a translation, or complete fiction? Heartland expert Jonathan Neville says that evidence of composition is evidence of translation. What does that mean exactly?
Jonathan: But what you’re leading into, though, is a really important point, maybe this is the last one we have time for. And that is any evidence of Joseph as having composed the Book of Mormon is also evidence that he translated it. And this is such a basic point. Any evidence of composition is evidence of translation. The reason I say that is, a translator can only use his own lexicon, you know, like this little book here. This is my African illustrated Church History book. We translated it into French and Spanish. You can get it in French and Spanish now. I did some of the translation because I speak French pretty fluently. But I only could use terms and syntax that I knew already from my ability to speak French. So, Joseph Smith, one of the debates on this is did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon, or was it given to him on a stone in the hat? I completely reject the stone hat. I have a long explanation.
GT: Oh, wow.
Jonathan: One hundred percent. I think all he did was, when he was in Fayette, everybody was so adamant about understanding the translation that he did a demonstration for them.
Jonathan: All that analysis boils down to, I think Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. I’m a heretic for saying that in some places. But, related to that is, I was interested in the non-biblical language, because certainly there are some pseudo books, The Late War of 1812, and the First Book of Napoleon, those other ones that have similar lines to the Book of Mormon. You’ve probably seen all that. Well, obviously, Joseph had read The Late War. I mean, it was about the War of 1812. It’d be like someone today not knowing about the Twin Towers and 9/11, only it was even more proximate to Joseph than that was. So, I think, obviously, he read that book. It was part of his syntax and his culture.
GT: Well, you’re contradicting Brian Hales, big, there.
Jonathan: I know. I think Brian Hales. I can’t figure out Brian Hales frankly. I’d love to have a discussion with him. But, what he’s writes, I’ve read his stuff, and it doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t even imagine where he’s coming from, except he believes the stone in the hat stuff as near as I can tell. He fights this naturalistic idea. But, like I said, before, he just..
GT: So do you think Joseph read a lot of books?
Jonathan: Oh, yeah, totally. Think about it.
GT: So he read Jonathan Edwards, Adam Clarke.
Jonathan: Yes, and think about it this way. First of all, he got is leg not amputated, but surgically repaired.
Jonathan: He was laid out for three years. What’s a kid going to do for three years? He was on crutches even three years later when they went to Palmyra. He’s still on crutches. So, he said his mother had to carry him around. So, what’s he going to do all day long? He can’t do the farm work. He can’t help in the kitchen. What’s he going to do other than read?
GT: He couldn’t compose a well worded letter, according to Emma.
Jonathan: That was Emma. That is demonstrably ridiculous when she said that, because we have a letter that he wrote Oliver Cowdery shortly after they finished the Book of Mormon. It’s very articulate and well composed. See this whole thing that Joseph was ignorant, couldn’t compose a letter and all that, that was all in response to this Spalding problem. You’ll see. If you re-read her stuff in context, to see she was trying to defeat the Spalding [theory.]
Do you think Joseph was well-read? Could he compose a well-worded letter? did Joseph use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
Jonathan Edwards was an early preacher in Joseph Smith’s Day, kind of like a Billy Graham of the time. Jonathan Neville has discovered passages in the Book of Mormon that are found in the Book of Mormon. Is this evidence of plagiarism, or is there a faithful explanation?
Jonathan: So, in my interpretation of all this, and I went through the non-biblical language, I made a list of all the non-biblical words and phrases. I have something like 1400 non-biblical Book of Mormon phrases, and almost all of them, upwards of 90%, you can find right in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Some of them are phrases like, “A continual scene of wickedness…”
GT: Who was Jonathan Edwards, really quickly?
Jonathan: Jonathan Edwards was the preeminent theologian in America. He lived from, I think, 1705 to 1753, something like that. He was…
GT: He was the Billy Graham of his day.
Jonathan: Yeah, he was part of the first awakening for sure.
Jonathan: There’s a place in the Bible that talks about natural man, another one talks about enemy of God, but nowhere does it say the natural man is an enemy to God. But Edwards did an entire sermon on specifically that: how natural men are God’s enemies. If you read Edward’s sermon, then King Benjamin’s address makes perfect sense. But, because we didn’t look at Jonathan Edwards–this phrase from Mosiah, “natural man is an enemy to God” is in the top 10, all-time, quoted Book of Mormon phrases in General Conference. There have been books and articles written trying to speculate about what it means. I can almost say it’s nonsense. It’s all profound, inspirational, but it’s not accurate, because they don’t know what Joseph Smith was alluding to when he wrote that, when he translated whatever Mosiah or King Benjamin said. When he translated it, he put it into Jonathan Edwards terminology.
What are your thoughts about Jonathan Edwards words being in the Book of Mormon? Had you heard this before?
Jonathan Neville is a big-tent proponent when it comes to Book of Mormon beliefs. Part of that likely stems from Heartland being shut out of groups like Book of Mormon Central. But Jonathan is also wants to keep the tent open for people who believe in a non-historical Book of Mormon. To hear the conclusion, sign up for our free newsletter at https://Gospeltangents.com/newsletter and I will send you a secret link to hear the conclusion of our conversation….
Non-Historical Book of Mormon?
Jonathan: I don’t even care if people believe the Book of Mormon is a literal history. I don’t think that’s essential to salvation. I think what we have to agree on is Zion is a big tent. There are stakes all over, every stake is different. Every individual is different. What unites us is our devotion to Christ, and our desire to build Zion. And short of that, we can all believe whatever we want. But what I don’t want to have happen, and this happened. I could give you plenty of anecdotes of this. I don’t want people abandoning the ship Zion, because they lose faith either in the Mesoamerican or the abstract map that Tyler Griffin is teaching. And kids do. They look at that they say that Mesoamerica doesn’t make any sense, and the prophets taught this anyway, so, why are we saying they were wrong? They related to that is the translation. If people want to believe…
GT: So, you’d be totally fine with somebody that said, “The Book of Mormon is ahistorical. I love the spiritual message.”
Jonathan: That’s right, that’s fine with me. I’ve talked about this a lot, but I don’t know if my perspective has gotten through. Moroni 10:3-5 talks about, read this ask the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost manifests the truth to you. Everybody interprets that is meaning you have to have a spiritual witness. But, that’s not what Moroni said. The next few verses, he warns us against thinking that. He says, “There’s lots of different ways the Holy Ghost works.” He talks about the gifts of the Spirit, one of those was the gift of wisdom and the gift of knowledge. Those are not the same as a spiritual impression, and those are gifts of the Spirit. Some people have a gift of knowledge, where they can learn things, and that’s how they learn the truth is through this gift of knowledge. Others have a gift of wisdom, which is kind of a nuance, but it’s related to that. Others have a gift of healing or whatever. Someone could experience the gift of healing, like these evangelicals. They could experience a gift of healing. I’ve talked to some that have had miraculous healings, and that’s their testimony to them from the Holy Ghost, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not, you know, I read the Book of Mormon, I get a warm feeling. Some people have that. Moroni says, “Some people have a gift of great faith.” That’s what that weren’t feeling is. But I’ve talked to people, sincere people who’ve read the Book of Mormon, and they do not get that response when they pray about it. That’s because they have a different spiritual gift. And we’re not opening the door to these other spiritual gifts for people who have them. That’s why I think the Heartland is so crucial. Because if you are a person that has the gift of knowledge, you need to have access to the knowledge in order for that gift to become effective. And part of that knowledge is the actual Church History. And what did Joseph and Oliver actually teach? It has to do with the translation and the geography, both.
What do you think of Jonathan’s position on big-tent Mormonism? Are you surprised?
1. It may indeed be true that it is not essential to our salvation that the BOM is a literal history of a literal people. But it’s also true that it is essential to any trust in Prophets (with a capital P)that the BOM be literal since that’s what Joseph Smith up to RMN have claimed.
2. The fact that apologists are debating in a very Clintonian (the definition of “is” is) fashion the definition of the word “translation” is shameful. We were told there were plates in Reformed Egyptian translated into a manuscript in English. No rock in a hat. No putting phrases together in his own words. It was a translation of the plates. This is not essential to our salvation either but it’s essential to our trust.
For a senior citizen this is all a bit much. In the 1960’s as a missionary in France, we gave out BoMs that indicated that it was a history of the American Indians. We showed investigators an illustration of JS translating from golden plates. ETB said the BoM was the most perfect book ever.
Then with DNA evidence, Church scholars proposed a limited geography model. But they can’t seem to find the ideal location: Mesoamerica or Heartland. Neither is a good fit. And now JS translated by looking at a stone in a hat.
And currently, the most plausible explanation for the book seems to be inspired fiction. But my question then becomes: aren’t there more inspiring books out there than the BoM?
It would be really cool if Joseph’s 1820 library card were to turn up. I mean he must have had one to have read so many books, right?
I think that Joseph Smith had an extraordinary imagination, memory, and ability to dictate prose. He didn’t need to hear or look at a book too long to internalize and even memorize what it said. He was naturally gifted. He easily impressed people in his environment: his family, Josiah Stowell, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, the Whitmers, etc. The Doctrine and Covenants is pure evidence of his capacity to dictate doctrinal ideas at length. Heck, how else do you think he founded a church that has gained millions of followers in less than 200 years?
I’ve never heard the Jonathan Edwards theory. Thanks for sharing this, I’ll have to check this out in greater detail. I see that Neville has written a whole book on this available at Deseret Book.
I really think that Jonathan Neville is making a false equivalence when comparing his translation of a book from English into French and Joseph Smith’s alleged translation of the Book of Mormon from Reformed Egyptian into English. For one, Neville is translating from his native language into one that he has learned, according to him, almost fluently. If Joseph Smith had translated from a book from English, his native language, to Reformed Egyptian, which had learned fluently as an L2 language, then that would be a fair comparison. But it didn’t happen that way. The other way in which this is a false equivalence: Neville learned French (through years of study and interaction with native French speakers, I’m presuming). Joseph Smith, by contrast, never learned Reformed Egyptian. How could he translate something into English from a language he had never learned? Did Joseph Smith spend years learning Reformed Egyptian from teachers of that language and from textbooks and hundreds of hours of interaction with Reformed Egyptian texts, speakers, and people who knew the language? No.
The idea that composition = translation is utter nonsense. If Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon, that means that he generated the content from the workings of his own mind. But Joseph Smith and his followers claimed and continue to claim that the Book of Mormon is NOT a product of Joseph Smith’s mind, but the minds of several pre-Columbian Christians. Here, Neville’s argument is completely incoherent.
So, let’s see if I get this: Joseph Smith took two phrases that never appear together in the bible but which had been combined by Jonathan Edwards and used that language in the BoM, and somehow that is evidence of his having composed the BoM, which also means that he translated it? Absent some kind of spiritual belief that Joseph Smith was translating a book about real people, the use of Edward’s language suggests more strongly that he composed the book himself using local influences without there being any kind of translation or revelation process. We end up the same place as always: The BoM is true because I believe it is true and have constructed this elaborate scaffolding around it to support my belief, despite the lack of any evidence.
I heard Neville’s name mentioned by Rod Meldrum in his interminable conversation with John Dehlin. I’m going to assume he is one of the amateurs backing the heartland model by, at least in part, insisting that all of geology and carbon dating is wrong. Outside the largely elderly attendees at Meldrum’s presentations–he conceded that most of his attendees are older–that argument should gain few adherents.
Josh h, I actually agree with the apologists that 1) “translation” has multiple meanings and 2) that Joseph Smith, if you look over every instance of him saying “translation,” used the term in a variety of connotations. My agreement with them ends there, however. For Joseph Smith, in word and action, overwhelmingly signaled that he was rendering a translation of ancient documents in the sense of “mi nombre es Juan” being a translation of “my name is John” from Spanish into English. Leaders since Joseph Smith have promoted the “mi nombre es Juan” connotation of translation, not just overwhelmingly, but almost exclusively. It is only weasel apologists who have introduced Mormondom to the barely tenable idea that translation of the Book of Mormon is something other than “mi nombre es Juan” translations. Of course, apologists almost entirely engage in doublethink on the issue of Book of Mormon translation. Where it suits their argument that the Book of Mormon is historical, they seize on a “mi nombre es Juan” view of “translation.” And where such a connotation of “translation” is inconvenient to a historicity argument, well then they shape-shift and claim some other connotation of “translation.” A smarmy bunch they are.
This surprises me very much, in that Neville seems so obsessed with location of the Hill Cumorah that it seems to be the core of his faith. To see he accepts those who reject BoM historicity is oddly encouraging.
From my perspective the B of M is nothing more than faith based fan fiction; and reading it IS NOT required for Salvation.