Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Friday, September 3, 2021

Skousen on Witnesses - Part 3

This is part 3 of my peer review of Royal Skousen's preliminary manuscript on the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Part 4 is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept 7th.

This part includes Skousen's memorable claim:

“Joseph Smith’s claim that he used the Urim and Thummim is only partially true; and Oliver Cowdery’s statements that Joseph used the original instrument while he, Oliver, was the scribe appear to be intentionally misleading.”

Part 3

Page 16. The next section is titled “Characteristics of the second method.” Skousen lists three characteristics, based on the SITH witnesses.

-       The plates were not directly used

-   There was no curtain or blanket between Joseph Smith and his scribe

-       There were no notes, manuscripts or books

This is a fair summary of the SITH statements. The fallacy is assuming that SITH is a second method of translating the Book of Mormon. SITH was a second method, for sure, but it was not a method of translating. It was a method of demonstrating.

These characteristics are the same points that Mormonism Unvailed made in 1834; i.e., that the SITH narrative renders the plates and Urim and Thummim superfluous. That’s why the book ridiculed the SITH narrative.

This should be as obvious now as it was in 1834.

It should also be obvious that these accounts could not possibly be relating the actual translation because Oliver and Joseph repeatedly emphasized that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim.

Later in his manuscript, Skousen spends a lot of time pointing out the discrepancy between what the witnesses said they observed and what the Original Manuscript shows (regarding Joseph spelling out words and correcting errors).

Yet, it never seems to dawn on him that the discrepancy is easily resolved once we realize Joseph conducted an open demonstration that was not the actual translation.

The demonstration explanation reconciles all the accounts and the documentary evidence.

The author(s) of Mormonism Unvailed understood this. The whole point of the book was to reveal who was behind the “vail” when Joseph was dictating. It was common knowledge at the time that Joseph dictated from behind the screen. And yet, that book was entirely premised on the widely held understanding that Joseph dictated from behind a curtain or screen.

We’ll discuss this point more when we get to the section of Skousen’s book on the discrepancies between the SITH witnesses and the Original Manuscript.


Page 19. Problematic accounts. Skousen labels the following statements as "problematic" and discounts them as credible and reliable. Let’s look at why.

1. Joseph Smith, purportedly heard by Truman Coe, published 11 August 1836 as a letter to the editor, Ohio Observer.

“By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him. After delivering this to his emaneunsi, he would again proceed in the same manner and obtain the meaning of the next character, and so on till he came to a part of the plates which were sealed up, and there was commanded to desist: and he says he has a promise from God that in due time he will enable him to translate the remainder. This is the relation as given by Smith.”

At first glance, that description pretty well tracks what Joseph, Oliver and Lucy Mack Smith related. Published in 1836, it is both concurrent with the Joseph’s and Oliver’s lifetimes, and much earlier than the SITH accounts. Plus, it directly attributes the statement to Joseph Smith.

Now, let’s see why Skousen rejects this evidence.

Framing this interview as “highly unusual” is a misnomer. The only example Skousen gives of Joseph “refusing” to give this kind of detailed account is the 1831 conference that involved not the translation per se but instead “the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” 

We’ve already seen that Joseph related some details about the translation to Nancy Towle in 1831 that is consistent with this 1836 Coe statement.

We’ve also seen that Joseph consistently said he translated “by means of the Urim and Thummim,” which Skousen omits from his justification for rejecting the Coe evidence.

Next, Skousen objects because there would have to be a blanket or curtain and the statement doesn’t mention such. However, there is no reason for Joseph to mention a screen because he was describing how he, Joseph, translated. This was not an account from an outside observer, who naturally would have mentioned the screen. 

This objection underscores the overall fallacy of assuming there was no screen during the translation of the plates just because the SITH observers emphasized there was no screen. We’re dealing with two separate topics: the translation of the plates, and the demonstration with SITH.

Skousen creates a straw man by claiming “a single character corresponding to an entire thought… seems to be impossible.” We don’t know the language, but Joseph expressly explained that he copied characters off the plates and translated some of them. To “translate” a “character” that character must have a meaning. These were not letters because you don't translate a letter by itself. Besides, an “entire thought” could consist of a noun or verb, a common enough experience in several languages.

Finally, Skousen objects that the statement has Joseph translating until he came to “a part of the plates which were sealed up, and there was commanded to desist.” Skousen claims this contradicts Joseph’s own account because he “was told in advance not to touch the sealed portion.” Skousen misreads the Coe statement. It says “there was commanded to desist;” it does not say “then was commanded to desist.” 

It may have been more grammatically precise for Coe to say “there had been commanded to desist,” but it’s not incorrect or unclear as written, and it does not contradict Joseph having been given a prior commandment not to translate the sealed portion.

Finally, Skousen objects that Coe was not a firsthand witness. But not one of the witnesses Skousen accepts was a firsthand witness, either; none of them actually saw what Joseph saw or actually translated anything. It’s all hearsay. And no one (except possibly Oliver) ever observed what took place behind the screen because no one was allowed to see the plates or the Urim and Thummim.

The witnesses Skousen accepts did testify that they observed SITH at an unspecified time and place (except for the demonstration downstairs in the Whitmer home), but as we’ve seen, we have no way of knowing whether what they observed was actually a translation, and if so, what part of the Book of Mormon text Joseph dictated on the occasion(s).

Overall, the Coe statement is the most credible regarding the actual translation because (i) it is a direct witness of what Joseph said, (ii) it is relatively near in time and published during the lifetime of Joseph and Oliver (who could have disputed it if it was wrong), and most importantly, (iii) it corroborates what Joseph, Oliver and Lucy Mack Smith related.

Really, the only justification for rejecting the Coe statement is because it contradicts the SITH narrative that Skousen has embraced. 

Let's be clear: the Coe statement does not contradict what the SITH witnesses testified about what they observed because what they observed was not the translation. The Coe statement does contradict the idea that SITH was the actual translation, which is what the witnesses inferred or assumed (and what Skousen and other SITH believers have accepted). 

Once we separate what the SITH witnesses inferred (assumed) from what they specifically observed, the difference is clear.

2. David Whitmer, Mullin interview, 1874. Skousen points out that this account is confusing and contradictory, but Mullin insists David said Joseph had the Urim and Thummim and they looked like spectacles. 

3. David Whitmer, Chicago Times. Skousen points out that this account, too, mixes up different ideas. 

I agree with Skousen's assessment of both of these David Whitmer statements, although not for exactly the same reasons, but it's not worth more discussion at this point.

4. Oliver Cowdery, interviewed by Samuel W. Richards during the winter of 1848-49, recorded in 1907. Of course, the fact that Richards wrote this in 1907 does not mean he had not written or related it previously. He remembers a lot of details about context, including the snow storm that prompted Oliver and his wife to stay with them for two weeks. Richards made corrections to the document, indicating he re-read it carefully.

The Richards statement both corroborates what Oliver, Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith reported elsewhere, and provides additional important details that only Oliver could have known.

You can see the original document here:

“He represents Joseph as sitting by a table with the plates before him, and he reading the record with the Urim & Thummim. Oliver, his scribe, sits close beside to hear and write every word as translated. This is done by holding the translators over the words of the written record, and the translation appears distinctly in the instrument which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages. This instrument now used fully performed its Mission. Every word was distinctly visible even to every letter, and if Oliver did not in writing spell the word correctly it remained in the translator until it was written correctly. This was the mystery to Oliver, how Joseph being comparatively ignorant could correct him in spelling without seeing the word written, and he would not be satisfied until he should be permitted or have the gift to translate as well as Joseph. To satisfy Oliver Joseph with him went to the Lord in prayer until Oliver had the gift by which he could translate, and by so doing learned how it was that Joseph could correct him even in the spelling of words."

Inexplicably, though, Skousen omits the next part of Richards' statement, which makes all the difference.

"Anyone acquainted with the Book of Mormon can well see the necessity of such a provision, as the Book is full of names of Persons, Places, and names of things entirely unused in our ordinary English language. After this experience Oliver was quite satisfied to write what was given him and make the corrections required."

This account is consistent with everything Joseph, Oliver and Lucy Mack Smith reported. Oliver spent several days with Richards and had plenty of opportunity to relate these details. Richards even wrote "I was surprised to see the bright recollection he seemed to have of his early experience with the prophet Joseph, especially relating to the translation of the Book of Mormon."

Here is Skousen’s rational for rejecting the statement.


First, Skousen claims Oliver had not yet seen the plates, but D&C 8 and 9 explain that Oliver was permitted to translate the plates. The headings to D&C 6 and 7 indicate that Joseph and Oliver were both using the Urim and Thummim. The Richards statement explains that Oliver (i) obtained the gift to translate and (ii) learned how Joseph could correct the spelling.

With Oliver actually seeing what Joseph saw in the Urim and Thummim, there would be no need for Joseph to translate behind a screen to block Oliver’s view, but such a screen would be necessary to exclude others.

Second, Skousen claims Richards invoked an ironclad interpretation, but that's not really what he wrote. To be sure, one could understand Richards' first comments to describe an ironclad scenario, but later (in the section Skousen omitted) Richards clarified that it was proper nouns (names, places and transliterated terms) that Joseph spelled out. 

This is consistent with what Joseph said about the characters when he copied and translated them. We all understand the distinction between interpretation (the literal meaning of a character) and translation (rendering the literal meaning in understandable English). 

After all, the Nephite instrument was called "interpreters" and Joseph said he "translated" the plates. I see this as akin to the translation of the Rosetta stone, where symbols can be interpreted literally but must be put into English sentences by a translator. Joseph could spell out the proper nouns corresponding to the characters as interpreted by the interpreters, but the rest he translated and dictated from his own lexicon.

This is an important point because, as Skousen has pointed out, there are many "misspelled" words in the Original Manuscript (assuming there was only one proper spelling in 1829) as well as variable spellings of the same words. Thus, the interpreters could not have provided an "ironclad" text for Joseph to read (unless the interpreters themselves were faulty). 

However, Skousen does offer examples of proper nouns that were corrected. He points out (on p. 51) that "the scribe first wrote out the name in some phonetic fashion, then crossed it out and wrote the correct spelling." That's exactly what Richards says Oliver told him.

There are other possibilities to consider. Maybe Oliver used a separate sheet of paper to spell out proper nouns that he didn’t understand, so any corrections made there would appear as final writing on the manuscript. On page 56, Skousen explains that "the normal situation in [the Original Manuscript] was that when a Book of Mormon name occurred for the first time, the scribe must have waited for Joseph Smith to spell out the name, which then allowed the scribe to get the name down without error right from the start."

I realize the manuscript appears to be a continuous flow, but that doesn’t mean there was no preliminary discussion between Joseph and Oliver. 

Additionally, it seems likely that some misspellings were less important than others; hence the uncorrected misspellings.

Finally, Skousen objects that Oliver never translated anything, contrary to what Richards said. We do have the short passage in Alma 45:22 in Joseph’s handwriting that Oliver could have translated. (I realize Skousen thinks this was Joseph completing a thought when Oliver tired, but that is conjecture we'll discuss later in this review.) Much of the Original Manuscript is missing so we can’t know if Joseph wrote Oliver’s translation elsewhere.

D&C 9:5 indicates that Oliver did translate some, but did not continue. “And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.” Even a brief experience translating would educate Oliver about how Joseph did it, just as Richards reported.

Bottom line: What Skousen claims to be “full of error” consists only of his own different interpretation of the facts. He might have adjusted his opinion had he read the next paragraph in the Richards statement. At any rate, he should address that paragraph instead of simply omitting it.

In my view, the Richards statement ought to be treated as direct evidence of what Oliver said about the translation, mitigated by the late date, the possibility of conflation with other accounts, Richards' own bias, etc. 

5. David Whitmer, Nathan Tanner interview 1886. Tanner mentioned a blanket separating Joseph from his scribe, distinguished between the U&T and the stone, and said Joseph put the "manuscript beneath the stone or Urim, and the characters would appear in English."

Skousen points out that Tanner related this interview in a letter dated 1909, 23 years after the fact, and that Tanner’s diary lacks the information in the letter. Tanner even inserted the qualifier "as I remember," a tell for a  witness' uncertainty about his recollection.

Tanner’s claim that Joseph translated and dictated one word at a time is not credible, either, for the same reasons we discussed regarding the Richards statement, unless he meant proper nouns. Tanner seems to have conflated other known accounts with whatever David told him.


p. 22. In the next section, Generic Accounts from Joseph Smith and Oliver CowderySkousen claims Oliver and Joseph gave statements that were “only partially true” and appear to be “intentionally misleading.”

That's the take away from this entire document that will be cited and quoted everywhere by critics and M2C/SITH scholars alike.

This section explains why the demonstration scenario is so important. Let’s look at Skousen’s conclusions.

First, Skousen finally admits that Joseph and Oliver “both explicitly claim that Joseph made the translation using the Urim and Thummim.” That statement should replace the Gospel Topics Essay on Translation, which never once quotes what Joseph and Oliver said about the Urim and Thummim.

Skousen claims that “in no case did they give any details,” but we’ve seen already how Skousen simply rejected two witness statements who related what Joseph told them about the translation process.

Next, Skousen observes that Joseph and Oliver never mentioned the seer stone. He proceeds to assert that their statements “purposely avoid mentioning the stone in the hat.” Skousen’s bias blinds him to the obvious point that if Joseph used SITH only for demonstration purposes, neither Joseph nor Oliver would mention SITH in connection with the translation.

Skousen points out that “there is no firsthand witness who confirms their [the interpreters’] use after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript.” Yet just a few sentences earlier, Skousen admitted that both Joseph and Oliver “explicitly” claimed Joseph used the U&T.

Finally, based on his outcome-oriented analysis of the evidence, Skousen concludes that “Joseph Smith’s claim that he used the Urim and Thummim is only partially true; and Oliver Cowdery’s statements that Joseph used the original instrument while he, Oliver, was the scribe appear to be intentionally misleading.”

Naturally, many believers will have a visceral reaction to this declaration, while unbelievers will quote it repeatedly. Skousen’s conclusion will be featured triumphantly and prominently in Mormon Stories, CES Letter, etc.

But there’s no need to respond emotionally, one way or another. A calm, rational, evidence-based analysis shows that Skousen has simply overlooked the most parsimonious explanation—that Joseph did, indeed, translate the plates only with the Urim and Thummim, but separately used SITH for demonstration purposes.


Skousen next provides some of the same statements from Joseph and Oliver that I quoted earlier, such as the Wentworth letter and the Elders’ Journal Q&A. He adds Oliver’s statement, recorded by Reuben Miller in 1848 when Oliver rejoined the Church, but he includes only a brief excerpt. Consequently, readers don’t understand the full context of Oliver’s statement.

When Oliver reiterated his testimony that Joseph “translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim,” he also specifically refuted the Spalding theory by declaring that neither Sidney Rigdon nor Solomon Spalding wrote the text. This is critical to understanding the context of all the testimonies about the translation, as I’ve discussed above.

The second element of context is that when Oliver made this statement, he was in possession of the seer stone. It could have even been in his pocket. Yet he did not produce the stone as evidence or even refer to it. Skousen would have us believe that Oliver was intentionally misleading his audience, but the other way to understand this is that Oliver knew Joseph never used the stone to translate.

In this section, Skousen also quoted Oliver’s Letter I, but he forgot to mention that Letter I was republished, at Joseph’s direction or with his permission, in the Times and Seasons, the Gospel Reflector, the Millennial Star, and The Prophet, and that Joseph had his scribes copy it into his journal as part of his life story. This was by far the most widely known account of the translation during Joseph’s lifetime, and remains the best-known today by virtue of its canonization in the Pearl of Great Price.

The translation by the Urim and Thummim is not only foundational, it is not contradicted at all by the SITH testimony, once we understand that SITH was used only for demonstration purposes.


In the next section, Other claims, Skousen does an excellent job collating the various accounts based on themes.

1. Joseph Smith was ignorant of the walls of Jerusalem.

The first thing to notice is that Emma’s alleged observation was published in 1916, based on an interview by Briggs that took place in 1856. The earliest published account of the Jerusalem walls story was in 1875 (David Whitmer interview with the Chicago Times), which presents both the “late memory” problem and the likelihood of mixed (or collaborated) memories on the part of Emma, David, Martin, and the people who recorded their statements.

For example, there are two different versions of the Briggs interview. In one, Emma (or Briggs) comments that “He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.”

That brings up the substantive problem with this story. The question was not whether Jerusalem had walls, but whether Jerusalem had walls around 600 BC when Lehi left and his sons had to return to the city.

Does the Bible say there were walls around Jerusalem when Lehi left Jerusalem? The Book of Mormon refers to the "first year of the reign of Zedekiah." This is in 2 Kings 24. There's nothing in the Bible about walls around Jerusalem in that year. Asking about walls around Jerusalem at this time was a reasonable question.

2 Kings 25:1 skips to the ninth year of Zedekiah's reign, after Lehi had left. That chapter does discuss walls, but not when they were built. The 2 Chronicles 36:19 version of the history says the Chaldeans brake down the wall of Jerusalem, but again, that was several years after Lehi left.

It's not a big deal, but I think it's a stretch to say Joseph didn't know the Bible because he didn't know if there were walls around Jerusalem when Lehi left the city. Emma’s perfunctory answer does not reflect superior knowledge of the Bible, but it does play into the narrative that Joseph was too ignorant to have composed the Book of Mormon, an apologetic narrative that developed over time.

Skousen opines that this event would have taken place in early 1828 when Joseph dictated the book of Lehi to Emma. That’s a reasonable inference even though we don’t have the 116 pages, based on the presumably parallel account in 1 Nephi. However, David Whitmer “recalls the fact that at the time Smith did not even know that Jerusalem was a walled city.” He said “they got a Bible & showed him where the fact was recorded.” For Whitmer to have remembered these details from personal experience, the event could only have happened in Fayette during the translation of 1 Nephi. In her statement, Emma also mentioned Sarah, who is mentioned only in 2 Nephi 8:2, a quotation from Isaiah that may or may not have been in the book of Lehi.

Overall, the holes and inconsistencies of the Jerusalem walls story are typical of urban legends. By waiting until after Joseph was dead to relate the story, the witnesses never gave Joseph a chance to explain or contest the story. But the accounts do demonstrate the way mythology develops in a coordinated fashion, one person’s memory building on and incorporating another’s memory.  

2. Working long periods of time. Here, Skousen assumes the 74-day translation scenario, according to Welch’s timeline. He notes Hunter’s replication of the dictation process that takes about half an hour to do one page of the 1830 edition, which works out to about 4 hours a day of dictation.

Skousen quotes only the accounts from Elizabeth Cowdery and Emma Smith. David Whitmer’s observation should be included here:

 In regard to the translation,” said Mr. Whitmer, “it was a laborious work for the weather was very warm, and the days were long and they worked from morning till night. But they were both young and strong and were soon able to complete the work.

 Obviously, David’s account is inconsistent with the rapid translation Skousen and Welch assume. That makes David’s account of the demonstration all the more significant, when he reported that Joseph dictated so fast he needed three scribes to take turns as they tired.

 Also relevant is David’s statement that it took Joseph eight months to do the translation, which is corroborated by what Joseph told his mother. All of this means the actual translation was difficult and time-consuming, while the demonstration was not.

 This section should also include Joseph’s explanation. “During the month of April [1829] I continued to translate, and he [Oliver] to write, with little cessation, during which time we received several revelations.” History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, IL) 15 July 1842, vol. 3, no. 18, pp. 847–862.

 3. Joseph Smith had to be in the right spirit. David Whitmer gave two versions of his claim that Joseph couldn’t translate until he obtained Emma’s forgiveness for an argument. That seems like ordinary human experience, no matter what one is trying to do.


Part 4 to follow

No comments:

Post a Comment