Saints book club – ch 5-6

In these two chapters, we engage in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Martin Harris deals heavily in chapter 5. He hears about the plates, tells Joseph that he’ll pray about it, and if the story was not of God, he would fight against it. Upon praying, however, the Spirit witnessed to Martin it was true. This convinced him enough that he gave Joseph $50 to travel to Harmony PA, where there would be less risk of attacks from enemies trying to get the plates.

Still, Martin was a mixed bag. One moment hot, the next cold. He received a page of characters from the plates to take to New York City, where the well known story of Charles Anthon occurs. Given that Egyptian was not yet translated (Champollion was only then beginning his translation), Anthon proclaimed more than he really knew about the characters and their translation.

When Martin decided to go to Harmony to assist in the translation, his wife Lucy went also. She was very disruptive, searching the Hale home for the plates, until she was no longer welcome in the home. Later, not mentioned in this chapter, she would leave Martin. Wilford Woodruff would note that if his wife were like Lucy and to tell him to choose between the gospel and her, he would say, “Leave and be damned!”

Martin would continue seeking proofs, deciding that the Spirit was not sufficient. Physical proof at this time seemed to be more important, probably to stop his wife from henpecking him.

We learn that it is not good to henpeck God, either. As Martin kept bugging Joseph to let him show others the manuscript, and the Lord finally gave in on the third request. Meanwhile, Emma was having a hard pregnancy, with the child dying at birth. Still, Emma told Joseph to go to Palmyra and check on the manuscript.

In Saints, we can feel the anguish Joseph and his family felt as they waited hours for Martin to return with the manuscript, only to find he had lost it. Not in Saints, but hopefully we’ll soon hear more about it, Don Bradley is writing a book on the Lost 116 pages. He surmises that it was probably more than 116 pages, and Joseph just estimated the number of lost pages. It is very possible there are as many as 250 missing pages!

Chapter 6 begins with Moroni taking the plates away from Joseph in the summer of 1828, promising to return them on Sept 22 if he were to humble himself sufficiently. Interesting how connected Moroni is to that date, even after Joseph was able to retrieve them. In July, Moroni returned the Interpreters, so Joseph could receive revelations during this period. During this time, the Lord told Joseph that God’s work “could not be frustrated.” (D&C 3), and heavily rebuked both Joseph and Martin. I did not know that “it was the first time he had ever recorded the Lord’s word to him.”

Emma took up the work of scribe, but the Lord promised Joseph to send him another scribe.

Lucy Harris filed a complaint against Joseph, “claiming Joseph was a fraud who pretended to translate gold plates.” Martin would be pushed to testify, and would look like a fool to many of his friends if he supported Joseph. He wanted more proof that the plates were real. Joseph prayed, and the Lord would not give Martin any more proof nor advice on what to say in court (D&C 5). Martin copied the revelation and read it back to Joseph and Emma. Isaac Hale entered the room as Martin read. He asked what it was, and they responded it to be the words of Christ. “I consider the whole of it a delusion. Abandon it,” Isaac told them. Martin took his copy of the revelation back to Palmyra. Though he could not use it in court, he knew he had his answer.

At the trial, Martin testified with his “hand raised to heaven, he witnessed of the truth of the gold plates and declared that he had freely given Joseph fifty dollars to do the Lord’s work. With no evidence to prove Lucy’s accusations, the court dismissed the case.”

And still, Martin stayed with her.

The story then turns to Oliver Cowdery, a transient school teacher, who was boarded in the Smith home in Palmyra. He heard rumors about the gold plates and asked the family about it, but they were first reluctant to speak about it. By the winter, he gained their trust and told him. Oliver wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do from where he lived. In the spring of 1829, he moved to Harmony to assist Joseph. He wanted to know if his desires were right.

“Retiring to his bed, Oliver prayed privately to know if what he had heard about the gold plates was true. The Lord showed him a vision of the gold plates and Joseph’s efforts to translate them. A peaceful feeling rested over him, and he knew then that he should volunteer to be Joseph’s scribe.”

Traveling in the cold with Samuel Smith, Oliver had a frost bitten toe by the time he reached Harmony. That’s dedication!

The translation commenced. “Sometimes Joseph translated by looking through the interpreters and reading in English the characters on the plates. Often he found a single seer stone to be more convenient. He would put the seer stone in his hat, place his face into the hat to block out the light, and peer at the stone.” This is how the translation proceeded. Not in Saints, but today’s scholars tend to disagree on how the process actually worked. Some think there was a “tight translation” with Joseph seeing everything word for word. Other scholars suggest a looser translation, sometimes with actual words, but often ideas/thoughts that Joseph could then put down into his own words – which would explain the existence of some 19th century terminology and views creeping into the translation.

The Lord told Joseph not to try and retranslate the lost manuscript pages, but to continue on. Saints does not explain this, but this meant Joseph began with what is now Mosiah. It is clear that the first couple chapters of Mosiah are missing, as all the other books begin with a colophon, an introduction (I, Nephi, having been born…). The small plates of Nephi were among  the last pages translated, Mormon having found them and placed them in the back of his own writings, along with his explanation in the Words of Mormon.

Oliver had a divining rod, which he used for many years to receive simple answers from God. I would suppose it gave a yes/no answer, pointing up for yes and down for no. The Lord told him that this was his “gift of Aaron” as Moses’ brother also had a divine rod that bloomed.

Oliver was granted the ability to translate by God. However, the interpreters did not work in the same way as his divining rod, which only gave simple yes/no answers. Instead, the interpreters required doing more than just asking a simple question. It required studying the characters out in one’s mind, determine a possible answer, then ask God if it was right. (D&C 9). Saints helps us to understand better why Oliver didn’t start out translating in the same manner as Joseph, and why he failed at receiving the proper insight. The section does suggest that Oliver would later have the opportunity to do more translating, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen where that occurred (anyone know of an event where he did do more than be scribe in translation?).

Perhaps the biggest criticism I have of Saints so far is the overuse of the passive voice. You can imagine me standing in front of a crowd, saying, “Hello. My name is Gerald and I am a grammar Nazi.” 🙂   Other than that, the chapters flow well and give great insight not only in the events happening directly with Joseph, but also with those involved in his world. Great job to the Church writers for this gem!


3 thoughts on “Saints book club – ch 5-6

  1. I like the passive voice in Saints because it reminds me that what has transpired has transpired, it is history, it is in the past. We can argue about what it means, but it happened and can’t be changed. How we see history may change, but the events won’t regardless of our 20th, 21st, 22nd century sensitivities.

    For a novel – like Harry Potter or whatever – an active voice carries us through the events as they occur in ‘real time’, and that makes for a very engaging read. But for Saints, at least to me, the passive voice works.

    I am listening to it as I go about my daily driving. I am a little further ahead but it is striking to me how similar those days are to our days. Faithful members being shamed into silence by those critical to the prophet, miraculous conversions and investigators being less than impressed by the Book of Mormon or the missionaries, tough assignments and frequently feeling you are less than able to perform the task or calling required. I feel closer to those early Saints for listening to the Book. Their stories are very similar in many respects to our stories 2 centuries later.

  2. Delightful to revisit these earlier chapters of Saints!

    For me, these earlier chapters are enriched by knowing how the future will unfold. In the case of Martin Harris, it is the family of his brother, Emer, who will remain faithful to the Church of Jesus Christ. Aside from Emer, himself, we have Dennison Harris serving as an informant during the sedition’s of 1844. In our day, Dallin Harris Oaks is the senior apostle (and Jenny Oaks Baker plays a mean violin to international acclaim).

    It is heartbreaking to see the young Emma and Joseph face such terrifying opposition. In our day we know how each individual affects their own community. But in those early times, the tiny community that would become the Church of Jesus Christ was entirely dependent on the actions of each early individual.

    I don’t think I recall Saints address the opposition the believing Smiths faced from Joseph’s uncle. Nor do we get insight into the William Smith whose penchant for pride, rage, and sowing wild oats would cause such problems throughout Joseph’s lifetime.

    For what it’s worth, one of the missionaries serving in our ward mentioned that he’s on his 5th re-reading of Saints (or re-listening, as the case may be).

  3. In an EQ lesson several months ago about the BoM I mentioned that Joseph Smith likely used his interpreter stone, looking into his hat for some of the translation. Another member of the quorum came to me afterwards and told me that I was spreading anti-Mormon propaganda at church. I’m glad that in chapter 6 Saints mentions that the stone was used during at least part of the translation. I’ve resisted the un-Christlike urge to go to him and say “told you so!”
    Also, I find the discussion of tight control v loose control to be fascinating, with good reasons to believe both versions. I’ve enjoyed listening to podcasts from the Interpreter Foundation that talk about the evidence for tight control.

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