Die Boek van Mormon

On our BCC backlist, one of our permas asked whether the below meets the Snopes test.

“Die Boek van Mormon” By John M. Pontius

The account was originally posted by Pontius at his blog, but he has since taken the actual account down, although the comments remain. Therefore, I’m pasting here the account as given by Pontius:

I was searching through my books in storage a few days ago and came across a first edition of the Book of Mormon in Afrikaans. I served a mission in South Africa from 1971 to 1973. It was an interesting and challenging experience. I attended the Stake Conference in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972 when the new translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans (Die Boek van Mormon) was presented. It was an electric moment. People wept. Some had waited all of their lifetimes to read the Book of Mormon in Afrikaans. Many people had learned English for the sole purpose of reading this scripture. The Spirit was strong among us as we rejoiced. Remembering back more than 50 years, I can still remember Professor Felix Mynhardt [not a member of our church] as he spoke of his experience in translating that sacred book. I will retell it as best I can recall.

Professor Mynhardt was invited to come to the stand and speak about his experience in translating the Book of Mormon. He recounted how he had been given a gift of languages from God from his youth. He said that he was fluent in many languages, including English, Afrikaans, Hebrew and Egyptian, as well as many others. He was presently employed as a language professor. He said he had been praying that the Lord would give him some task, some divinely important task, that would justify his having this gift of language from God. He said in about 1970 that he had visited with a group of Mormon leaders, who sought to commission him to translate the Book of Mormon from English into Afrikaans. He said that he knew of the Book of Mormon from his religions studies, and his initial reaction was that he did not want to be involved in translating it. However, that evening, as he prayed upon his knees, as was his habit, he said the Spirit of the Lord convicted him. The message was something on the order of, “You asked me for a great, divinely inspired task of translation, I sent it to you in the form of translating the Book of Mormon, and you declined.”

Professor Mynhardt said he could not sleep through the night because he knew that translating the Book of Mormon would get him into trouble with his university, which was owned and operated by the Dutch Reformed Church. When morning came he telephoned Elder Clark to inform him that he would begin the translation immediately. He stood at the pulpit and described the experience. He said, “I never begin translating a book at the beginning. Writing style usually changes through a book, and becomes more consistent toward the middle. Accordingly, I opened to a random place in the middle of the Book of Mormon, and began translating.” He said, “I was startled by the obvious fact that the Book of Mormon was not authored in English. He said, “It became immediately apparent that what I was reading was a translation into English from some other language. The sentence structure was wrong for native English. The word choices were wrong, as were many phrases.” He said, “How many times has an Englishman said or written, “And it came to pass?” We all laughed, and knew he was right, of course. He continued, “When I realized this, I knew that I had to find the original language, and translate it back into the original language, or a similar language to the original, and then proceed to translate it into Afrikaans. He listed a half-dozen languages he tried, all of which did not accommodate the strange sentence structure found in the Book of Mormon. He said, “I finally tried Egyptian, and to my complete surprise, I found that the Book of Mormon translated flawlessly into Egyptian, not modern, but ancient Egyptian. I found that some nouns were missing from Egyptian, so I added Hebrew nouns where Egyptian did not provide the word or phrase. I chose Hebrew because both languages existed in the same place anciently.” “I had no idea at that time why the Book of Mormon was once written in Egyptian, but I can tell you without any doubt, that this book was at one point written entirely in Egyptian.” I heard him say this over and over. Then, he said, “Imagine my utter astonishment when I turned to chapter one, verse one and began my actual translation and came to verse two, where Nephi describes that he was writing in the language of the Egyptians, with the learning of the Jews!”

He said, “I knew by the second verse, that this was no ordinary book, that it was not the writings of Joseph Smith, but that it was of ancient origin and was in fact scripture. I could have saved myself months of work if I had just begun at the beginning. Nobody but God, working through a prophet of God, in this case Nephi, would have included a statement of the language he was writing in. Consider, how many documents written in English, include the phrase, “we are writing in English!” It is unthinkable and absolute proof of the inspired origins of this book. He paused, then noted, “I am one of the few people in the world that is fluent in ancient Egyptian. I am perhaps the only person fluent in ancient Egyptian who is also fluent in Afrikaans and English. And I know for a fact, that I am the only person alive who could have translated this book first into Egyptian, and then into Afrikaans. If your church ever needs an Egyptian translation of the Book of Mormon, it is sitting in my office as we speak.” We all laughed.

Professor Mynhardt spoke of many other things regarding the translation of this book, and then said,
“I do not know what Joseph Smith was before he translated this book, and I do not know what he was afterward, but while he translated this book, he was a prophet of God! I know he was a prophet! I testify to you that he was a prophet while he brought forth this book! He could have been nothing else! No person in 1827 could have done what he did. The science did not exist. The knowledge of ancient Egyptian did not exist. The knowledge of these ancient times and ancient peoples did not exist. The Book of Mormon is scripture. I hope you realize this. “I will keep promoting this book as scripture for the remainder of my life – simply because it is scripture, and I know it. I haven’t studied your doctrine or your history since Joseph Smith. The only thing I know about the Mormon religion is that you have authentic, ancient scripture in the Book of Mormon, that your church was begun by a living and true prophet of God, and that all of the world should embrace the Book of Mormon as scripture. It simply can’t be denied.”
——-

This was written by John Pontius, (member), about Prof. Mynhardt, not a member, who translated the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans. He was quoting some things that Mynhardt said at the conference in 1972. The words in quotes are Mynhardt’s.

Response no. 1 from the group as to whether this passes the Snopes test was as follows: “No. No it does not. And it came to pass happens all the frickin’ time in Hebrew, for instance. Also, the grammar of Egyptian is incredibly different (and still isn’t terribly well understood, even (especially) in the early 1970s) from KJE English. Also, whoever wrote this, is full of crap.”

Response no. 2: “It’s stupid. Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch. At most someone translating it would just need the English and Dutch versions at hand.”

The below is my response, which is an effort to give the Snopes treatment to this story, which as I understand it has gone viral:

I agree that as some sort of proof of the BoM, the claim is absurd. No linguist worth his salt would do an intermediate translation like that. There’s no particular virtue in translating the Greek NT into Latin and from there into English rather than directly from Greek to English. Ancient Egyptian is a dead language (unless he meant Coptic, but if a linguist meant Coptic he would have said that instead of “ancient Egyptian”), and the idea that there would be some value to translating the English BoM first into ancient Egyptian and then from ancient Egyptian into Afrikaans is preposterous. I think we all agree on that.

If, however, we want to give this the Snopes treatment we need to try to figure out what is accurate about the report. There was in fact a big meeting on May 14, 1972 at which Die Boek van Mormon translation was first presented to the Saints there. And Felix Mynhardt, a non-LDS with a facility for languages, was indeed involved in the translation. Below is a pasted quote from Lawrence E. Cummins, “The Saints in South Africa,” Ensign (March 1973), less than a year after the meeting in question:

One of the greatest single achievements of the South African Saints was the recently completed translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans. The South Africa Mission was officially classified as a foreign language mission in 1963, and missionaries going to South Africa now learn Afrikaans at the Language Training Mission at Brigham Young University.

At a meeting in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972, when the Afrikaans Boek van Mormon was introduced to the South African Saints, it was a happy and, at the same time, an emotion-packed experience for those in attendance. A missionary who attended the landmark event said that “to sit in that meeting and observe the rapt attention and subsequent tears in the eyes of the audience when the first few pages of the Boek van Mormon were read aloud was one of the greatest spiritual experiences of my mission.”

Bishop Johannes P. Brummer of the Johannesburg Second Ward, one of those who shepherded this valuable and important translation, told of the divine guidance that made its publication possible. He had translated about a third of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans, but it had been a long, tedious effort, and it was imperative that the translation be completed without further delay so that the building up of the Church in South Africa could progress with greater speed and with every possible advantage. But where could a person be found with the necessary academic excellence and sufficient spirituality to complete such a task?

One day an acquaintance of Bishop Brummer brought his friend, Felix Mynhardt, a language teacher from Pretoria, to meet him. The man not only had a consuming interest in everything related to the scriptures, but he also had been raised in a home with a spiritual atmosphere. His father, the Reverend C. F. Mynhardt, compiled the first concordance of the Afrikaans Bible.

Felix’s facility with languages was phenomenal. When he was a young boy he could read Latin text; at nine, he read Latin and Greek fluently; by sixteen, he had mastered English, Afrikaans, Aramaic, and Hebrew; then he took up other languages—German, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Finally, he gained a reading skill in Chinese.

Bishop Brummer bore testimony of divine intervention in the translation: “I can tell you that I have no doubt about this that when Felix Mynhardt made his appearance in my office on a given day, it was not just a coincidence. He was sent to us by the Lord. This has been confirmed to me on many occasions since then. You might well ask the question whether a man of such academic preeminence and authority would have the necessary humility of spirit to enable him to do work of this nature.”

Felix Mynhardt, a nonmember, provides the answer to that question himself.

During a difficult period in the translation Felix said: “It’s as though darkness seems to settle on my mind when I get down to work so that I just cannot get the translation done. On some occasions I have in absolute despair gone down onto my knees and asked the Lord to help me. I have come to you today to tell you that I think you folks are just not praying for me.”

This account has Mynhardt talking about the importance of the power of prayer in the project, but nothing about his intermediate translation into ancient Egyptian. That’s not dispositive, but if that were the big takeway testimony builder it’s odd that this Ensign editor who wrote the article doesn’t mention it.

Although Pontius was an eyewitness, his account is not contemporaneous but based on his memory–of an event that occurred 40 years ago. And your average member doesn’t have the linguistic sophistication to necessarily be able to report something like this accurately.

So one possibility is that Mynhardt made some faith-affirming statement about his experience in translating the book, and Pontius has simply not communicated it accurately.

The other possibility is that Mynhardt did indeed say something like this (Pontius claims he checked with other missionaries and they have similar recollections) and that Mynhardt was a bit of a pompous nutcase.

Either way, unless and until a convincing clarification is forthcoming, this faith promoting rumor should be placed with Sami Hanna’s comments about the Arabic character of the BoM in the circular file.

Comments

  1. Pontius appears to be mixing this up with accounts of translations from other languages in which it is claimed that a first step was to translate it into Hebrew and then into the target language. Arabic comes to mind as one example whether this faith promoting rumor sometimes surfaces.

    In other words, he probably remembers Mynhardt speaking and giving a faith promoting anecdote about the translation (and the remarkable fact of his involvement in the first place as a non-member) and then appears to have embellished (probably unintentionally) by conflating it with the Arabic faith promoting rumor and a perhaps little of the “Munich professor” faith promoting rumor (which is a story commonly told around here that apparently actually has an element of truth to it) thrown in on the side.

  2. hghardy says:

    There is a possibility for another independent confirmation, but it would involve some library work since the source is apparently not on-line. This article (mentioned in a FARMS bibliography) appeared in the Church News in 1972: “Wirsing, Whit. ‘Book of Mormon for South Africans.’ CN 42 (29 April 1972): 5. The story of how the Book of Mormon was translated into Afrikaans.” It would be interesting to see what the 1972 article said about professor Mynhardt.

  3. Jonathan Green says:

    John, everything about the Munich professor story that is based on fact and documented sources can be found here: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2008/03/gertrud-specht/
    Everything else one might hear falls outside the kernel of truth.

    Although faith-promoting stories like those about Prof. Mynhardt shouldn’t be used for faith promotion, I hope we’re not too quick to junk them. They tell us some interesting things about how memory works and about the origin of narrative and literature, and sometimes about the origin of history and doctrine as well.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    If anyone has not yet read Jonathan’s blog post about Sister Gertrud Specht, please follow the link he provides and give it a read. I first learned of her from the late Marc Schindler, and was thrilled that Jonathan took the time and made the effort to sort through the fact and fiction of her story.

  5. I was going to say that this account reads like the opening chapter of an Umberto Eco novel. Then I read Jonathan’s comment, “They tell us some interesting things about how memory works and about the origin of narrative and literature, and sometimes about the origin of history and doctrine as well,” which sounds like something I probably once wrote in a paper about an Umberto Eco novel.

    Which is all to say I think the account works better as post modern fiction than as non-fiction. Fascinating all the same.

  6. Peter LLC says:

    Interesting. Given the number of apologetic boxes Pontius has Mynhardt tick it’s difficult not to conclude that narrative took a front seat to transcript in this case.

  7. The weirdest part is that “Felix Mynhardt” is Afrikaans for “Charles Anthon.”

  8. Yes, Jonathan, thank you for linking to the Gertrud Specht information you posted a few years ago. That is exactly the “Munich professor” story I was referring to. Unfortunately, when it is told over the pulpit in my neck of the woods, it gets used to do a lot heavier apologetic lifting than what is actually justified by the small kernel of facts that are available. It is faith promoting enough as a story of a remarkable woman who converted to the Gospel (a highly educated German woman with a PhD about the German cotton industry who then became a mother, suffered through a lot — two world wars — and converted to Mormonism at age 75 after being a devout Catholic her whole life). No need to use the story outside of those confines.

    I suspect we have something similar with the Mynhardt story. It’s remarkable enough that a non-member with the relevant expertise was willing to help, felt upheld, sustained and led by the Spirit in the work and successfully completed the task through reliance on prayer. No reason to make the story do some kind of apologetic lifting that it is not suited to (e.g. claiming he translated it first into ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and then from those into Afrikaans).

  9. Thanks Jonathan! Thanks Kevin! Thanks LDS Snopes peeps! My son just opened his mission call last night and it’s South Africa Cape Town! After living in Philly, Laie, Sharjah, Dubai, Nigeria and Riyadh– we are currently in Provo so I’ll gleefully head over to FARMS with him to get the original records there. I’ll let you know if we can find out anything worth adding.

  10. The article on lds.org mentioning Mynhardt gives a list of his knowledge of languages, including Hebrew, but ancient Egyptian is missing from that list

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