Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Skousen on witnesses - Part 4

This is the final part of my 4-part analysis of the preliminary version of Royal Skousen's volume on the witnesses, posted on the Interpreter here.

As always, Brother Skousen shares outstanding and detailed research. However, he makes some underlying assumptions that are questionable at best.

Skousen’s conclusion is summarized in his key sentence:

“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.”

That's an appalling statement because to reach that conclusion, Brother Skousen omits key evidence, fails to consider context, and refuses to consider other plausible interpretations--especially interpretations that support what Joseph and Oliver taught. 

In my view, the historical evidence, when considered as a whole and in context, corroborates what Joseph and Oliver claimed. Their statements are neither “only partially true” nor “intentionally misleading.” They were forthright and accurate. 

Part 4

In the next section, Skousen sets out “Testable claims.” As he correctly points out, there is no evidence in the original manuscript for most of the claims by the witnesses of the translation. I think he overlooks the evidence from the manuscript that corroborates David Whitmer’s description of the demonstration (the 3 scribes taking turns as they tired, etc.) but that’s a separate topic.


1. Here, Skousen examines what Joseph saw using the instrument.


As we’ve seen, Joseph related his translation process to two witnesses that Skousen disbelieves. We’ve also seen that Skousen admitted Joseph said he translated "by means of the Urim and Thummim,” yet here he repeats his claim that Joseph “studiously avoided saying how he translated, only that he translated “by the gift and power of God.” That phrase seems to have become a mantra, subconscious or not, that misleads readers by omitting Joseph's references to the Urim and Thummim. It would be far more intellectually honest to instead repeat what Joseph actually said--even if what Joseph said contradicts one's SITH theory.

Skousen accurately explains that David’s testimony was necessarily hearsay because he did not himself look into the instrument, but Skousen says David did claim that Joseph had told him what he saw. Did he?

In the first statement, Traughber says “I now state that he [David] does not say that Joseph Smith ever translated in his presence by aid of Urim and Thummim: but by means of one dark colored, opaque stone, called a “Seer stone.” Despite this clear distinction, Skousen introduced this section by saying “either of which [interpreters or seer stone] could be referred to as a ‘Urim and Thummim’.”

Traughber continued by writing that “a line of characters from the plates, and under it, the translation in English: at least, so Joseph said.” That’s the only suggestion that Joseph himself related this description, but Traughber doesn’t explicitly say that David claimed he was quoting Joseph directly. The wording would be the same if David had heard someone else say Joseph said this.

Notice that here we have compound hearsay: Traughber reporting what David told him that Joseph said, and even then it’s not clear whether Joseph said this to David directly or David heard it from someone else.

Obviously, we wonder how Joseph could have known that any “line of character” was from the plates if Joseph wasn’t using the plates. This looks like a conflation of different accounts. Joseph would have seen a “line of characters from the plates” if he was looking at the plates, but not if he was merely looking at a stone in the hat.

I should point out that this sounds like an explanation of the demonstration. If Joseph used SITH to demonstrate the process without exposing the plates and U&T, then he would naturally explain that when he was actually translating, he would see a line of characters from the plates in the Urim and Thummim because he would be looking on the plates (as he and Oliver related). The interpreters would relate what the symbols meant, but then Joseph would have to translate the interpretation; i.e., he would have to render the literal interpretation into understandable English, which he would then dictate.

In all of David’s statements, he never once explained what, exactly, Joseph dictated. He did not say “Joseph dictated what we find on page 13 of the Book of Mormon” or anything close to that. There is literally zero evidence that what Joseph dictated during the SITH sessions is actually in the text of the Book of Mormon. We only assume it is.

Skousen proceeds to parse David’s statements, categorizing them by date, but it’s undeniable that David provided several variations of what he assumed Joseph saw when he looked in the stone. It’s a lot of work to sort through this hearsay, and ultimately, we’re left with speculation after all.


Skousen makes a good point that it is unlikely that a single characters can stand for whole sentences. But can we really say David “had it correct” only when he related what we find believable because it aligns with our own beliefs, as Skousen does here?

I agree it’s reasonable (assuming a mysterious incognito supernatural translator, or MIST) to believe that Joseph used SITH and “saw a line of characters from the plates, with it a translation into English underneath.”

But a far more plausible explanation is that Joseph saw a line of characters from the plates when he looked on the plates through the Urim and Thummim, as he and others claimed. That’s how he copied off the characters in the first place, before he ever started dictating. What form of English translation he saw is open to debate, whether it was a literal interpretation that had to be translated into understandable English, or an ironclad pre-translated text he merely had to read.

Either way, we can’t learn much from David Whitmer’s hearsay. David’s speculation is no more evidence than what anyone else speculated.

2. How many words were viewed by Joseph Smith.

Even assuming the “instances of anticipation” in the manuscript are undeniable, but that does not necessarily (or even likely) mean that “Joseph saw up to as many as twenty words at a time.” From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for the MIST to display so many words at once. With the power to cause words to appear on a stone serving as a supernatural teleprompter, the MIST would be incompetent to display more words than a scribe could reasonably record. Such a practice would naturally lead to the types of errors Skousen has identified in the text.

It would be equally incompetent for Joseph to dictate too rapidly or too many words for his scribe to record. There’s no reason for him to do so.

The examples Skousen gives are all consistent with Joseph rephrasing a translation as he dictated. Here is the first one.

Picture Joseph dictating it this way:

“yea and how is it… how great things… no, check that. Let’s go with yea and how is it that ye have forgotten how great things the Lord hath done for us.”

Joseph could have identified the characters (symbols) for “how” “great things” followed by “forgotten” and “God did.” When he translated those interpretations, he would have to make sense of them in English. What started as a somewhat literal translation didn’t make sense, so he rearranged the word order to make sense in English.

We can see the same thing going on in all of these instances of anticipation.

Such an interpretation of the manuscript evidence is consistent with another kay point. Joseph said the Title Page was a literal translation of the last leaf of the plates. He didn’t say the rest of the text was a literal translation. Thus, we can infer that he knew the difference between a literal (semantic) translation and an idiomatic or communicative translation. A literal translation would likely have the awkward word order that Joseph corrected as he translated.

It’s also possible that in some cases, Joseph initially skipped over a particular character or set of characters and corrected himself before moving on.

3. No prompting to remind Joseph where he had left off.

Emma claimed Joseph never had to be prompted about where he had left off, so he could resume the translation after a break without asking to have the previous passage read back. From this, Skousen concludes that Joseph had to read everything off the stone because it would not reappear.

This scenario is another instance of incompetence on the part of the MIST. If the MIST could make words appear on the supernatural teleprompter once, why not a second time?

Far more plausible is the explanation that Joseph simply resumed translating the engravings on the plates where he left off during the previous session. Assuming there were no visible breaks in the engravings, and that he did not translate to the end of a particular plate, Joseph could have easily marked the characters where he stopped translating so he could resume with the next character.

In this section, Skousen refers to Alma 45:22, the portion in Joseph’s handwriting, and explains his theory that Oliver was getting sleepy and so made an inexplicable error that he immediately crossed out. Then Joseph had to complete the sentence passage before it disappeared from the stone, never to return. He doesn’t explain why the MIST would be so incompetent to either let the words vanish before being fully recorded or refrain from making them reappear.

An alternative explanation has Oliver attempting to translate. He makes the inexplicable error because he’s not sure how to interpret the characters (the stupor of thought), but then he gets a burst of clarity and completes the sentence. Then Joseph says, “Now you see why I need a scribe. Let me write it.” Oliver dictates the 28 words of verse 22 that Joseph recorded, but then Oliver cannot continue. That explanation aligns with D&C 8-9.

4. The scribe read back the text to Joseph Smith.

David Whitmer claimed that the scribes had to repeat what they had written before another character with the interpretation would appear on the stone.


This is a common experience for anyone who has dictated a document. You always have the person recording dictation read back the material, but only partly to verify accuracy. The other purpose is to hear how it sounds.

Such reading back does not require that Joseph was matching the reading to what he was supposedly seeing in the stone. 

Skousen gives examples of scribes correcting the original writing even when the original was fine, but in each case, the revision “sounds” better, such as “even insomuch that” replacing “even so much that.” These changes are not required, but it’s easy to see why Joseph (or Oliver) thought they sounded better, even if they were not consistent throughout the text. There’s no reason to infer that the MIST required such changes.

Here, Skousen insightfully points out that errors remained in the text despite being checked by reading back. This contradicts the claims of the SITH witnesses that the MIST required ironclad accuracy. Of course, none of the SITH witnesses observed the translation with the U&T, so their testimony is ultimately irrelevant about the translation. What Skousen sees as a contradiction is actually additional evidence that what the SITH witnesses observed was not the actual translation.

In other words, because the ironclad testimony from the SITH witnesses contradicts the plain evidence from the manuscript, we can tell they were not witnessing the actual production of the text (at least that part of the text where the errors occur).

The exception would be the spelling out of Book of Mormon names, which Skousen claims the witnesses observed and then erroneously assumed that every word and phrase was controlled that way.

Skousen provides a detailed section on substantive errors in the original manuscript. These examples, including those in 1 Nephi, are further evidence that the witnesses were not observing the actual translation.

After listing examples based on scribal mistakes, Skousen claims Joseph misread the text provided by the MIST on the stone.


It’s a reasonable (but not mandatory) assumption that these errors were not scribal; i.e., that the script accurately wrote what Joseph dictated. But it’s not really a reasonable assumption that Joseph misread the words on the stone, both because we would expect far more such misreadings if he misread these, and because the MIST presumably would have provided words distinctly enough to be perfectly legible.

An alternative explanation is that Joseph changed his mind about how he interpreted the characters.

In order of translation, the first example from 3 Nephi is simply a dropped word that was later supplied. The second example, cleansed to changed, are similar enough words that it’s easy to see how a particular symbol or character could mean both, and Joseph simply chose a different connotation.

The third example is interesting not only because of the word choice, but because Terryl Givens makes the term “woundedness” the centerpiece of his “all things new” version of the scriptures. The term “woundedness” is not common in the literature, but it does appear in the Masonic Mirror in an article written in the “biblical style” that was a reprint from an earlier but undated newspaper that Joseph could have seen. Of course there is no evidence that Joseph read the article, but the term was obviously in his lexicon. By claiming Joseph misread it, Skousen makes the point that the MIST would not have put the word on the stone. Again, it’s plausible that the character on the plates had multiple meanings and Joseph thought of woundedness in the context of destroying seed, as the verse mentions.

This is a surprising objective, but it explains Skousen’s SITH bias. If the objective of the critical text project is to determine what Joseph was “actually viewing in his instrument,” there is no room for Skousen to consider that Joseph was instead actually translating the plates.


After listing numerous examples of errors in the Original Manuscript, Skousen reaches what he seems to think is a definitive conclusion.


If Joseph was actually translating the engravings on the plates, we would expect exactly the types of errors Skousen notes. There was no MIST to insure ironclad accuracy, etc.

And yet, Skousen can think of only one significant possibility for the discrepancy between the SITH witnesses and the manuscript regarding ironclad control; i.e., that they observed Joseph spelling out names and inferred he spelled out everything else.

That simply makes no sense. If they didn’t hear Joseph spelling out words in addition to names, why would they claim he did so? Why wouldn’t they merely state what they observed; i.e., that Joseph spelled out a few names?

The first obvious answer is that they were relating hearsay; i.e., they related what they heard (or what someone else heard) the actual scribes say.


The second obvious answer is that what the SITH witnesses observed was not the actual translation; i.e., they witnessed a demonstration, but whatever Joseph dictated on the occasion(s), it did not produce the text we have today.


p. 48. Skousen recognizes that while Emma and David claimed Joseph corrected spelling, neither of them gave specific examples. But he infers that the correction of Coriantummer to Coriantumr “must have been done letter by letter.” Obviously, Oliver could have made that correction on his own.

Next Skousen presents the Sariah/Sarah problem. In 1856 Emma claimed Joseph could not pronounce Sariah (although one version of her statement says Sarah). She says he had to spell it and she would pronounce it for him. Martin Harris said Joseph “could not spell the word Sarah.”

Obviously, the words are easy to confuse and neither word is that difficult to spell or pronounce. The names are not misspelled in the Original Manuscript. It seems more likely that Joseph spelled them out (if he did) simply to distinguish between the two names. And this is the only specific example of Joseph spelling a word that Emma could come up with.

After listing many examples, Skousen reaches this conclusion.


I don’t have any objection to this specific conclusion, which I think corroborates the demonstration scenario (because the SITH witnesses’ testimonies contradict the evidence from the manuscript). However, I don’t think the evidence necessarily means Joseph spelled out the names according to what he saw on SITH; the scribes could have made the changes on their own or in consultation with Joseph.

To the extent the SITH witnesses claimed Joseph spelled out words, it appears they either related hearsay or they witnessed dictation that did not end up in the text.

In the section on Biblical words and names, Skousen proposes that Joseph may have spelled some of them out, but the evidence is equivocal.

p. 81.

Here, Skousen points out that Joseph may have spelled out Biblical names when he dictated 2 Nephi, but left it to his scribes to spell the names later. That’s consistent with the demonstration scenario; i.e., SITH witnesses could have observed Joseph spelling these biblical names when he was reciting Isiah from memory and then extrapolated that observation to the actual translation.



Conclusion. As I wrote at the outset, I greatly admire and respect Royal Skousen’s research. He’s meticulous and accurate when he presents the data.

However, there are multiple working hypotheses to explain the data. Skousen focuses on only one and that bias is evident throughout his analysis. I would like to see him expand his consideration to alternative explanations that may better explain the facts he presents.

The ideal outcome is having all the facts laid out for everyone to see. Everyone, regardless of bias, should be able to recognize and agree on facts. 

Any set of facts can support multiple interpretations, which I call multiple working hypotheses. 

Once the facts are known, people can develop, pursue, and embrace whatever interpretation or hypothesis they prefer. Human nature teaches us that people will seek to confirm their biases, which is fine. 

Problems arise when bias confirmation leads a proponent to omit relevant facts, as Skousen has done in his book here. This is why it's essential to first lay out all the facts, then develop an interpretation or hypothesis that best explains and reconciles the facts.

In my view, the best explanation of all the facts relating to the translation is the demonstration hypothesis. Joseph translated the engravings on the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim, but he was prohibited from displaying either the plates or the U&T to anyone until after the translation was completed. The sole known exception was Oliver, who was specifically authorized to translate the plates. Others, such as Josiah Stowell, may have seen the plates inadvertently. Mary Whitmer saw the plates because Nephi showed them to her, but that was not Joseph's doing.

Despite knowing Joseph could not display the plates or U&T, his supporters were intensely interested and curious. Joseph could verbally explain what he was doing, but a demonstration, using the SITH method they were all familiar with, was a reasonable solution. They could all observe Joseph dictating as he looked at the seer stone in the hat, but we don't know if what he dictated ended up in the text of the Book of Mormon. If so, evidence from the Original Manuscript indicates he was dictating Isaiah passages from 2 Nephi during the demonstration(s).

Later, witnesses who believed in the Book of Mormon sought to counter the Spalding theory by relating what they observed during the demonstration(s), thereby "proving" that Joseph had nothing to read from; i.e., he could not have been reading the Spalding manuscript. And yet, people knew that Joseph dictated the text from behind a screen or curtain.

The demonstration hypothesis means Joseph and Oliver were completely accurate and honest when they said Joseph translated the plates with the U&T. It reconciles the SITH statements as honest accounts of what people observed, combined with their mistaken inferences or assumptions that they were observing the actual translation.

1 comment:

  1. Brother Jonathan,

    Thank you for your insightful review.

    I do have a small, off-topic, concern, though. That is, the correlation of glyphs to words and/or sentences. The idea that a character can represent more than one letter or word, I think, should be considered. The main reason being the length of the text of the English Book of Mormon.

    For example, in the Book of Ether, Moroni recounts that he has not included all of the information to be found in the 24 plates. He stated that he omitted the history previous to the Tower of Babel, for instance. And yet, he states that he has included about a 100th of what was contained on the plates. His abridgement of the Book of Ether runs from page 488 to page 518 in the current edition. Thirty pages.

    Moroni's concern about "the placement of words" and his description of Reformed Egyptian versus Hebrew as the abridging language also suggest that glyphs might represent a word or more. Hebrew being a word-based script and Egyptian more glyphic.

    There are those who have tried to estimate the number of plates that made up the stack that Joseph brought from the Hill, but no one has ever suggested that there were hundreds and hundreds of plates (that I know of).

    Yet we have a lengthy document. What we have doesn't include the sealed portion (a third? - Sorry, I'm writing with out notes in the middle of the night, while I'm at work...).

    Of course, I haven't seen the plates. I have only seen images of the "Caracters" document. That is, at best, a poor representation of what the plates contained. It doesn't suggest how small the actual characters are, nor how densely packed the glyphs might have been.

    Still, I have a tough time thinking that each glyph only represented one word.

    Have there been any studies along these lines? That is, the number of plates vis-a-vis the length of the Book of Mormon?

    Thanks again for all you do!

    Your friend,

    Stephen D. Robison