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Emma, Martin Harris, and the Translation Process

Once again, I’ve continued Part 3 of the Mormon Stories interview between John Dehlin and Richard Bushman.  They discuss the actual translation process, as well as Martin Harris and Emma Smith’s role in translating the Book of Mormon.  There are some interesting dynamics as Bushman discusses Joseph’s strained relationship with Emma’s parents due to Joseph and Emma’s hurried elopement.  This transcript follows the previous discussion of Moroni’s visit.

JD, “And that’s when he and Emma—he and Emma had eloped and moved to New York, and it was while they were in New York that he got the plates.  Is that right, or had they gone back…”

Bushman interrupts, “Right.”

JD, “to Pennsylvania—they had not yet gone back to Pennsylvania to live with Emma’s parents again?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “So he gets the plates, and how long does he have the plates in New York before they go to Pennsylvania?”

Bushman, “Uh, I can’t remember exactly, but it’s that fall.  You know they’re being hassled by all their old money digging pals who get the rumor and think they have a right to some of this treasure.  So that seems to be one of the motives to going back, and I’m sure that Emma wanted to reconcile with her father if she possibly could.  I’ve got in my mind November, but it was something like that in 1827 that they headed south.”

JD, “And Emma was not allowed to see the plates right?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “Did Joseph’s family know that he had finally obtained the plates?”

Bushman,”Oh yeah.”

JD, “And did they try and get them or ask him to see them?  Where did he hide them?  Do we know?”

Bushman, “Well they, if you believe Lucy, they are all trying, they are all helping Joseph Smith to conceal the plates.  The curious ones are first off the money digging neighbors, the Chases especially Willard and Sally Chase and probably the others, and then Lucy Harris, Martin’s wife who is intensely curious about them.”

JD, “How did Martin come on the scene, Martin Harris?”

Bushman, “Well Martin Harris is in the village, they know him, they work for him.  They know he’s a source of support and there is this famous story which I suppose is true of him being open minded to the possibility of something marvelous going on, defending Joseph Smith against the people of the village who were making fun of him, and then offering to help him get out of town by paying off some of his local debts and paying for the cost of the trip.  I think that’s probably a fair account of what actually happened.”

JD, “Was he just a friend of the Smith family then, Martin Harris?”

Bushman, “Yeah, right.”

JD, “Ok, so Joseph and Emma decide they need to leave.  They borrow some money from Martin, right?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “And Martin knew that the plates existed, but he hadn’t yet really been involved in what would become the book at that point.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “Right.  He hasn’t started to translate, he hasn’t seen the plates, he just an aide.”

JD, “What do we know about Martin Harris’ spiritual and religious life before he meets Joseph.  What type of religious person/spiritual person/superstitious person is he?”

Bushman, “Well that’s very hard to determine at this point, because as soon as he—contrary to overwhelming negative public opinion in Palmyra, shows interest in Joseph Smith.  He’s immediately demeaned as a superstitious character, given to all sorts of fantastic beliefs.  So at the same time people say that he’s a stable farmer, a man of judgment and wisdom, they also make these accusations about religious instability, so how do you straighten that out?

I don’t know.  I don’t think of him as a pillar of wisdom particularly.  He seemed to be fairly astute and shrewd, but I also wouldn’t want to say that he was just—he would just tumble for any superstitious story that came along.  I don’t think we have evidence of that.”

JD, “Do we know if he was members of other churches, or if he followed other charismatic leaders prior to Joseph?  Do we know anything about that?”

Bushman, “Well, you catch me out here.  Why do I think he was a Quaker?  I’m not sure.  But I can’t tell you for sure.  I don’t think that we know of him following other leaders.  I can’t recall anything to that effect.”

JD, “Ok.  So he funds Emma and Joseph’s return to Emma’s house, the Hales, right?”

Bushman, “Uh huh.”

JD, “and how are they received?”

Bushman, “Well, with tears and rejoicing.  All is forgiven my dear.  So they, you know the father really loves her, and he didn’t want her to marry Joseph, this ne’er do well.  But he’s willing to accept them back and give them a place in his house, but then the plates get in the way, and the fact that Joseph will not show the plates to Isaac Hale is more than he can stomach, so he puts them out in a little house on the property where they can have a place of their own, and that’s where a lot of the translation then took place.”

JD, “There’s an account I’ve read of this moment of truth between Joseph and Isaac where Isaac basically calls Joseph on the carpet, Joseph is it seems like they say he’s crying and apologizing and some have even written that he confessed that he never ever saw anything with the seer stone to begin with and that it was all a hoax. Where does that come from, and is that credible in your eyes?”

Bushman, “Well I can’t remember exactly who recorded that, whether it was Isaac or someone else, but I can picture there being a scene like that.  You know Joseph doesn’t want to be at odds with his father-in-law, and he may have said that he was not going to do anything in the treasure seeking vain or magical again, even though he certainly intended to keep on with the Book of Mormon. But I would be very skeptical of an account of Joseph saying he never had anything at all, that it was all a made up story.

There’s a great tendency to want to attribute total falsity to Joseph Smith, and so people are going to take any little inclination in that direction where he’s apologizing for any offense he’s made and turn it into a confession of error and so I would want a lot of strong evidence to really accept that.”

JD, “Ok.  So in your mind, that’s speculation or slander potentially, not something that you’ve said ‘yeah he probably did acknowledge that what he was doing wasn’t really legitimate.’”

Bushman, “Right, because nothing in his after life that led in that direction.  He could have you know denied it anywhere along the line and he never did.”

JD, “Does that mean in your mind either (a) the treasure digging/spirit seeking stuff that he did prior actually did happen where he was actually seeing treasure and angels in mountains, or maybe that he just thought he was?  Those are the only two other explanations, right?  Either it was fraud or he really did see those things, or he thought he saw those things?  Is that right? Are those the three options?”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “Where do you come down?  Do you even have a—I know that we’re all just guessing, but do you have in your mind an image of which one of those was likely the case?”

Bushman, “Well I would like some evidence that he actually said, ‘I see treasure in the earth.’  It’s possible.  I can imagine a kid under pressure from his parents trying to do something and listening to little hints and thinking maybe he’s got a clue as to what’s happening, and I do think he had this knack of finding lost objects, so I’m not denying there isn’t a genuine magical strain in Joseph Smith’s mind and culture.  But I’m not sure that he said he saw caves with treasures in them.  That’s—I’ve just not seen any evidence of that as being very strong.  I could probably be persuaded otherwise if someone came up with a document, but I don’t think we have to make that decision on a pure speculation that maybe he actually claimed to have seen such things.”

JD, “So the best that you’re aware of is that maybe the people who he associated with might have written about those types of experiences, but whether Joseph was actually involved?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “Other than I guess the silver mine in Pennsylvania right, where Joseph actually did say that he saw the silver mine but it was too far underneath the ground to actually get?  That would be one where he did say he saw it, right?”

Bushman, “Yeah.  You know before I saw anything on that, I’d like to see those sources again.  I can’t—“

JD, “I know, I mean I look at your book is so huge, I can’t believe that I would even try and ask you so much detail.  It’s extremely unfair.”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “But you’re doing great, so thanks for being a good sport about it.  I’m just thinking about what comes to mind.  Anyway, ok, so he comes back, they reconcile with the Hales.  Isaac’s still not crazy about the Book of Mormon thing.  Yeah, I would think that Isaac Hale would have been really disappointed.  It would be like, ok, you promised to give up treasure digging.  Oh my gosh, now I have to deal with this book.”

Bushman, “Right, I think that’s exactly it.”

JD< “So he probably was just—had an ulcer from then on until he died.”

Bushman, “Yep.”

JD, “Because it just kept going.  Ok, well did Isaac ever come around to where he was a believer in Joseph or the church or anything?”

Bushman, “No.”

JD, “No.  What about Isaac’s wife?  Do we know anything about her?”

Bushman, “Nothing I can recall specifically, but I am pretty sure she didn’t become a Mormon.”

JD, “Ok.”

Bushman, “Some of Emma’s siblings were friendly towards the church and welcomed Joseph and Emma into their homes in Illinois, but I don’t think the parents ever really were reconciled to Joseph Smith’s Mormonism.”

JD, “Ok, real quick.  This is just a really, it’s going seem like just a base question, but why couldn’t people see the plates?  Why didn’t he just show them to people?”

Bushman, “Well it is a good question. It would certainly solve a lot of headaches for us.  Here you’re just—it’s speculation.  If people knew he actually had gold, if he actually had a pile of gold in his bedroom his life would be at risk I would think.  There would just be constant assaults upon him.  So long as it remained in the realm of rumor and possibility and fantasy, the gold diggers and going to get excited about it, but probably…”

JD, “The thieves are going to get more excited.”

Bushman, “Yeah, right, exactly, so it could be just a very practical reason to keep him out of trouble.”

JD, “And then maybe that God doesn’t want people to believe based on proof, he wants them to believe based on faith.  Maybe that’s another explanation?”

Bushman, “Something like that, but I can tell you if they did exist, and people saw them then there would still be criticisms of it.  Nothing is going to satisfy everyone, so there would be plenty of room for faith I think even so.”

JD, “Even if they had been shown because people could say oh they really didn’t see them.”

Bushman, “Or they were fakes of some kind or this or that.”

JD, “Ok, so what does he do, when does the translation—what are the early experiences or experimentations with the plates?”

Bushman, “Well we think that alright he’s got the plates, he’s got the Urim and Thummim, he looks in the crystals and sees the translation and starts dictating and that’s that.  I’m not so sure of that.  I think it was a little bit more of a struggle.  Oliver Cowdery tries to do this and he doesn’t get very far.  It may have required some kind of spiritual or moral powers that he had to learn.  I also think that it’s possible, he even after he started translating, he wasn’t absolutely sure he was getting it right, because how does he check whether or not he’s writing down the right words?  I mean there’s no dictionary he can go to.  There’s not any normal translation process, and so I’ve always had this hunch that one of the reasons for Joseph’s interest in the Anthon transcript was to check himself out to see if he was doing something right.”

JD, “Now you’re referring to the early mechanics, sort of the Martin Harris era mechanics of translation, right?”

Bushman, “Yeah, right, the very, very start—that fall when he’s dictating to Emma.  We don’t know exactly when it began, but 1827, early 1828 before Harris goes to see Anthon in February 1828.  My guess is a kind of a trial and error period there where he’s getting the hang of things.”

JD, “Your book almost gives the sense—well first of all let’s just jump back. He got the plates and you’re saying he got what is referred to as a Urim and Thummim, right?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “And you said it’s two crystals attached by some type of chain to a breastplate?”

Bushman, “I don’t know if it is a chain, but supported by a breastplate.”

JD, “Ok, the Urim and Thummim, are those the only two things he got out of the hill then: the plates and the Urim and Thummim?”

Bushman, “So far as I know, yeah.”

JD, “No sword or anything like that.”

Bushman, “No.”

JD, “Or Liahona?”

Bushman, “Nope.”

JD, “Ok, so he gets the Urim and Thummim out, he gets the plates, they go to Pennsylvania.  When he’s doing the early translation or experimenting, he’s—there’s a nail up on the wall and there’s a curtain, is that right?  And that’s always shielding—“

Bushman, “Well, that’s been conjectured, but no one knows that for sure.  There’s no description of him translating with a curtain.  We assume it would have to be if the plates were in sight, but later on we know that the plates were not in sight.  They were wrapped in a cloth on the table.  So it’s quite possible that was the way it was from the beginning.  They were wrapped in a cloth and he just looked in the Urim and Thummim.”

JD, “I remember people saying that the house where he supposedly did the translation still exists, and they actually went and saw the nail that was in the wall where the curtain hung.”

Bushman laughs, “I see.  We know this nail hole must have held up the blanket.  [he chuckles some more]  That’s a historical reconstruction if there was any.”

JD chuckles, “So you’re not one to buy that necessarily?”

Bushman, “No.”

JD, “That would be a valuable nail don’t you think?  Someone would have to yank that out and put it in the Church museum.  So we don’t know if there was a curtain you’re saying?  Well that’s news to me because I’ve always—but then I thought about the curtain.  How hard would it be for Oliver or Emma or whoever to just move the curtain and peek, right?”

Bushman, “Well, right and yeah.”

JD, “Or if Emma was dusting, there’s accounts of Emma actually lifting the plates to dust under them and stuff?  Is that right?”

Bushman, “Moving them about on the table while she dusted.”

JD, “But I think of my wife or anyone.  You’d think they would just take a little peek, don’t you think?”

Bushman, “Well…”

JD, “I mean Joseph wasn’t in the room and oh let me just make sure that this is you know, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t peek and really try hard.”

Bushman, “Well, unless you believe what Joseph said of the angel, that you were not to look in which case it would be a powerful taboo against looking.”

JD, “Potentially like an Arc of the Covenant, struck down dead kind of thing?”

Bushman, “Yeah, right.”

JD, “So maybe fear of God was what kept them from peeking?”

Bushman, “Fear of God, yeah.”

JD, “Ok.  I was reading your book, it makes it sound like when Joseph was doing some of the early experimentation, he wrote some characters down, is that right?”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “It almost sounds like, you’re wondering if he sent Martin off to find someone who might do the translation of the characters to then provide him sort of a Rosetta Stone to go on and continue the translation, that that might have been part of his motive to send Martin off with the characters.  Did I get that wrong?”

Bushman, “I didn’t mean to say that.  I meant to say he might have asked for someone to check the translation because you know one of Martin Harris’s accounts of the Anthon interview implies that there were not only the characters, but Joseph’s translations of the characters.”

JD, “Yeah, so he could check what he knew of Egyptian language with what Joseph translated it into, right?”

Bushman, “But it wasn’t a Rosetta Stone thing where’s he’s asking someone else to translate and then he would dope out what the characters meant.  I don’t think of that. I think it was just wondering, well have I got this right?  What do the learned people say?”

JD, “Ok.  Well it would be—it seems like a Rosetta Stone would be almost impossible because for the amount of words that are in the Book of Mormon, there’s not a one-to-one correlation—I imagine there’s eight times as many words in the Book of Mormon as there would have been characters on the gold plates, right?  Like way more English words than actual Egyptian characters. There’s not a one-to-one character per letter, or character per word, right?  A character in reformed Egyptian would likely represent sentences if not paragraphs?  Do we have any idea?”

Bushman, “I don’t know we have any idea, but if you try and figure out how many plates there were with characters on them, it’s not 584 pages in those characters, in those plates.  There must have been some compression.”

JD, “Yeah.  How heavy were the plates?  Do we know?”

Bushman, “Forty or Fifty pounds.”

JD, “Forty or Fifty pounds.  Ok.  What happened when Martin took the stuff to Professor Anthon then?”

Bushman, “Well of course that’s the great dispute.  He shows them materials and Anthon according to his own account, immediately saw the hoax and advised Martin Harris to extricate himself, give up this silly thing.

Harris thinks that Anthon has confirmed the validity of the characters and the translation and goes back and carries on with Joseph Smith, so frankly it’s a mystery how they could have such opposite views.  I mean we can picture Anthon being embarrassed by even giving this guy the time of day once he found out what was involved and trying to prove he wasn’t taken in for a second.  But why would Martin Harris go back and keep working for Joseph Smith if Anthon had told him it was ridiculous?  I just find it hard to bring those two together.”

JD, “So that’s a real mystery?”

Bushman, “Yeah, right.”

JD, “Ok.  But Anthon definitely denies Martin Harris’s account, right?”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “So Martin comes back energized, and then they begin the translation process full-force, is that right?”

Bushman, “Yup.”

JD, “How’s Martin’s wife feeling about this?”

Bushman, “Well she’s furious of course.  At least if we trust Lucy Smith, who had no love in her heart for Lucy Harris. Lucy Harris was something of a virago, first wanted to see the plates and then when she was denied it turned against Joseph Smith and discredited him entirely and I’m sure put a lot of pressure on Martin, so it’s hard to know exactly what kind of a character Lucy Harris was.  But I think that it would be quite reasonable for her to be concerned that Joseph Smith was trying to swindle Martin.  That was the established accusation against all of the money diggers.  Why money digging was illegal—it’s not because they thought people would steal anything, it was because they thought the people in charge of these money digging expeditions were trying to con the people who were going out with them.  So she would, I think quite naturally would think her husband was being taken for a  bath.”

JD, “Right.  So Martin begins helping out with the translation.  What do we know about the mechanics of the actual translation?”

Bushman, “Not a lot.  There are all these various theories about what’s going on.  I think what is quite evident is that Joseph Smith was not looking at the plates.  We do have a number of descriptions of him. The plates sitting on the table wrapped in a linen cloth.  He looking at his seer stone, not the Urim and Thummim, but a seer stone which is in a hat, which he uses to darken the space right around the stone, which presumes that there was some light coming from the stone, so that you had to read something that was faint and if there were other lights it would obliterate the shape of the letters, so we know that much.  There are these theories that the stone or the inspiration would plant ideas in Joseph’s head, and then he would find the words, so it’s very much his language, it‘s his story as he’s inspired to dictate it.  That’s one theory.

The other theory, which is the Royal Skousen theory now, is that the words of the translation actually appeared to Joseph Smith in the stone and he just dictated them off.  They remained there until they were written down and then they disappeared and new words came, and David Whitmer describes the process somewhat this way.

So lacking a real explanation from Joseph Smith himself, I think that we just have to leave it like that, that there are these two accounts.  We don’t know exactly which one is accurate.”

JD, “Now I was under the understanding that when Martin Harris was involved, there wasn’t a hat and that he used what we would traditionally understand as the Urim and Thummim, which is these crystals.”

Bushman, “Well there is some evidence of that.  That is true, but there—I have said this much in things I have written.  But people have looked at that evidence, scrutinized it carefully and say you don’t really have evidence that you had the Urim and Thummim because they use this word ‘interpreters’ which could refer to the seer stone as well.  Later on Joseph Smith did call the stone a Urim and Thummim, so Urim and Thummim is a type of instrument, it wasn’t necessarily that specific instrument with a stone set in a breastplates.”

JD, “So we don’t know if these crystals in the breastplate were ever used.  There’s no account of them ever being used.”

Bushman hesitantly, “I don’t think so.  No, No.”

JD, “Ok.  And also, sorry I’m just thinking.  Oh.  This begs a really interesting question and I’m sure you get this a lot.  And that is, why ask the Book of Mormon prophets to spend all this time and energy creating gold plates, writing on them, handing them down through generations, make Moroni walk all the way to Hill Cumorah from wherever he was to deposit them in the hill, have Joseph Smith go through all this pain to hide them, and then when it gets to the time to actually create the book, he doesn’t seem to use them?”

Bushman, “Yeah, that is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that carries over into the Book of Abraham.  Did he need those scrolls or not in order to translate?  I don’t really have an answer with any authority behind it at all.  It actually I think points towards the need for speculation about why, I mean let’s begin by accepting as a fact that the plates were necessary, that all that effort was not symbolic, that they had to be there with the words written on them.  Why would that have to be?

I don’t really know except that it seems to indicate some relationship between the physical and the spiritual.  If the words come into this man’s head, you needed the presence of this physical object that was laden with the efforts and thought of so many prophets preceding him.  You know I reach for analogies, and the one that comes to me is induction.  I don’t know if you know the process of induction by which if you move a magnet across a wire, you don’t have to touch it, but just pass it across the wire, it sends—makes electrons in the wire move in a certain direction, and that’s the way electricity is generated by making wires cross magnets.  In there you have some force radiating from the physical object has an effect on the electrical current.  So you know that’s just kind of a fairly lame analogy, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t have an answer to that question.”

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9 comments on “Emma, Martin Harris, and the Translation Process

  1. Too much magic is being attributed to stones and plates, they possess none. The “magic” is; Joseph has become a conduit for divine communication, it’s nothing new, here he is being trained as a Prophet to receive visual dictation not translation. I doubt there was light coming from the stone, scrying is more easily learned in dim light. Royal Skousen’s theory sounds probable to me.

  2. The only problem is that the Royal Skousen theory implies that God is terrible at grammar. The original text is pretty badly written, regardless of the strength of the underlying story.

    I think the idea that Joseph received impressions and then transformed them into his own grammar and language is far more consistent with the text.

  3. How does Royal Skousen theory imply that God is terrible at grammar?

  4. Howard, the current version includes a couple grammatical corrections. That’s consistent with Joseph Smith’s background.

  5. That was incomplete . . “the current version includes a couple thousand grammatical corrections.”

  6. Oh, I assumed some interpretation so I didn’t take it that literally.

  7. […] views of magic shouldn’t be denigrated.  This transcript follows my previous post where Bushman discusses the translation process in great detail. JD, “You know most people would be just stunned to know that there’s no real evidence that the […]

  8. […] Emma, Martin Harris, and the Translation Process […]

  9. […] I’ve finally finished the transcription of Part 3 of the Mormon Stories interview between John Dehlin and Richard Bushman (There’s a part 4 and part 5 still to go!)  In this discussion, John Dehlin questions Richard Bushman about whether the translation story should be depicted differently, and Bushman agrees that traditional paintings and tellings of the story should be changed to better reflect what happened.  Bushman also discusses that traditional views of magic shouldn’t be denigrated.  This transcript follows my previous post where Bushman discusses the translation process in great detail. […]

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