Gospel Doctrine Lesson #4: “Remember the New Covenant, Even the Book of Mormon”

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.

 The Book of Mormon is as important closed as it is open. Its power and meaningfulness derive as much from its origin story as it does from the content of the book itself. As a result, it behooves us to look at this origin story as closely as we can.

The complexity of the historical context of the period can lead is in many directions, but a 1988 Ensign article (‘A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon‘ by Kenneth W. Godfrey) provides detail and comes from a source with which class members will be comfortable. (If you want to get into details about the process of translating, ‘“By the Gift and Power of God”‘ by Richard Lloyd Anderson (1977) goes into hats and seer stones and all of that.)

There’s a lot to talk about, so I’ll hit the bits I found most interesting:

Moroni’s visitations

The Joseph Smith–History gives a bit of information about Joseph Smith’s coming of age

‘…I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.’

He provides this information to set up his need for repentance which directly leads to the first visitation of Moroni, but this little addition is curious:

But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament.

What did people who were close to Joseph Smith think of him? How did he bridge the credibility gap between how he was perceived and what he was claiming to have done and what he was about to do? We tend to apply the stick-pulling/leg-wrestling motif here — just a bit of harmless fun — but I wonder if there wasn’t something more fundamental being alluded to here. I don’t know enough about the context in which Joseph Smith–History was written and edited, but I think everyone involved in the process knew Smith personally, and it’s interesting that it was considered important enough to make the final cut.

It’s also interesting that repentance leads to the visit of Moroni. It has certainly been my experience that spiritual growth and clarity comes most readily in moments of repentance and rather than moments of self-congratulation or pious judgement of others.

When Moroni arrives, he does some serious Bible quoting, establishing his legitimacy to Joseph in that context. (Except for the changes he makes to the texts — is this inspiration for further ‘translations?’) It might be interesting to go through all of them and see how Moroni was contextualizing the Book of Mormon. Malachi 4:5-6 is especially interesting as we now read that verse in light of temple work, but what did it mean to Smith and others in the years before the temple had that function? Protestant Bible commentaries focus on the warning more than the family aspects and as a reference to John the Baptist, a parallel to Smith in a millennial sense. I cannot say what Moroni’s intentions were, but it seems likely that early readers would have read these verses differently than we do today.

The Godfrey article tells us more about Joseph Smith’s difficulty in obtaining the plates: ‘Apparently the thought of the gold had severely tempted the youth, and the actual sight of the plates moved Joseph to thoughts of riches.’ I recommend his summary of the different accounts of this issue. Godfrey also mentions the treasure hunting trial, which adds to the complexity of Joseph Smith’s attitude about the plates at this point. While this might make some members uncomfortable, I believe this raises some important questions about prophethood and discipleship.

the translation

I’m quite interested in this myself, and of course there has been lots written about it. Here’s Godfrey again:

The scriptures indicate that translation involved sight, power, transcription of the characters, the Urim and Thummim or a seerstone, study, and prayer. David Whitmer and Martin Harris testify that if the Prophet made the proper preparation, sentences would appear, which he dictated to his scribe. If the scribe wrote them correctly, the words would disappear, and others would take their place.

The contrast with modern Mormonism is pronounced here, and I find that very curious, although I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with that in a lesson. At any rate, the word ‘translation’ as we use it generally does not really explain what was happening very well.

The wacky misadventures of Martin Harris

The traditional reading of this is so familiar (and clearly developed by the leading questions in the manual). I might take a different approach, seeing if we can understand him a little better. Harris deserves better than being a mere morality tale. Given his role in the community, what would have motivated Harris to be so involved in the Book of Mormon project?

The Wikipedia page for Martin Harris offers this: ‘Harris’s neighbors considered him both an honest and superstitious man.’ Please go through the footnotes on that page. Harris was not just a nice, rich farmer: he was a see-er of visions in his own right. Considering that his experiences and religious world view must have been crucial in motivating his interest in the Book of Mormon, I wonder how we as modern Mormons think about them, especially considering that all three of the Three Witnesses had similar experiences before meeting Smith. Martin Harris would have been considered a nut in 21st century Mormonism (and maybe 1840s Mormonism — I don’t know), but that nuttiness seems to be a fairly essential to getting the book published.

One of the questions I have about the entire period: are the experiences of Joseph Smith — with visions and visitations, translations and revelations — are these essentially the same as our modern experiences with revelation and inspiration but much more intense? Or are they a completely different thing altogether?

There’s lots more to the lesson, and I would love to dig into the three witnesses as well, but as so often happens in these classes, I have run out of time.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    It’s also interesting that repentance leads to the visit of Moroni. It has certainly been my experience that spiritual growth and clarity comes most readily in moments of repentance and rather than moments of self-congratulation or pious judgement of others.


    I think at least introducing seer stones and the hat is probably a good idea, just so no one is later caught off guard.

  2. thank you for this continuing series. today went well for me. i copied the 1832 and 1835 account of the vision from Harper’s book and we read the visitation portion of the accounts as a class. the class was pretty quiet, but responsive to short discussion about each. we then moved on to joseph smith history and finished on more familiar ground.

    thank you for the Godfrey ensign article reference. i may have all those with ipads download that article and refer to it together this week during the lesson.

  3. It might be fun to spend some time with sections 3 and 10 in terms of their dating and meaning. (Here’s a bit on section 10.)

  4. “The Book of Mormon is as important closed as it is open.”

    Don’t know if I would put it exactly that way, but I think you’re right.

  5. We had a lesson where a class member started talking about seeing stones and a peeping hat. Then later on he went on to saw that Heavenly Father was crucified because Jesus only did what he saw his Father do. I’d prefer it if we stick to the lesson :)

    Neither comment added much to the lesson, other than to remind us to be charitable.

    As far as translating, I think it’s a mistake to assume completely that one purported source regarding the method of translation is more definitive than another. Otherwise, what do we do with D&C9:
    8:But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
    9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
    10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated;

    I don’t really see how all the different observations/recollections square with that. So rather than rely on the hat, or the plates and the curtain, etc. I think it’s fair enough to say, we really don’t know how it was done.

  6. I don’t see how the hat and the stones are inconsistent with D&C 9. The U&T and seer stones are a method of seeing something, but spiritual preparation and inspiration are still part of the process.

  7. kaphor, I may be wrong, but was not this revelation to Oliver Cowdrey? Assuming it applies to JS seems like it might be an inference without a solid basis. Further the revelation suggests that the translation method described is to be used for other records. In short, I am not sure that we can say anything concrete from this passage about JS’s translation of the BoM.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    I think that the generally accepted context for that section is that it applies to Oliver Cowdery, and that he didn’t use seer stones to translate (i.e., he used other means), and that the language of that section isn’t applicable to JS’s translation efforts (at least those using seer stones).

  9. Norbert, you could use Elder Nelson’s 1993 Ensign article about the miraculous translation to get the use of the seer stone out there from an “official” source. I think the best evidence indicates that the U&T were used in the translation of the 116 pages but then virtually all of the Book of Mormon that was produced after those pages were lost resulted from the translation process described by Whitmer (and Emma), i.e. using the seer stone in the hat, both recounted in Elder Nelson’s 1993 Ensign article.

  10. Peep stones in a hat.

    Bushman quotes Joseph Knight that Joseph Smith placed the U&T in a hat and darkened his eyes. I think it is appropriate to discuss what we know from the historical record. With all the caveats that come from the reliability of the sources.

  11. Thanks, Norbert. If class members want a more recent discussion of Joseph’s use of seer stones, this month’s Ensign issue has an article by JSP volume editor Gerrit Dirkmaat that discusses the use of stones in the reception of revelation.

  12. My understanding from Joseph McConkie, is that Joseph Smith did not use a hat to look into. The record of the hat was given 50 years later. Translation is quite a bit more complex than simply looking into a hat. He also commented that as Joseph grew into his part, he no longer used the U&T, but relied on revelation. I tend to agree with this. We just don’t know what was done to get the translation completed, but are we not happy that it was complete? A resounding, yes! It is a miracle!

  13. Karell, I know that many people would agree with you, but regardless of what Joseph McConkie asserts, it is a historically untenable position to claim that a hat was not involved in the process. Yes, David Whitmer’s account is later. Yes, Emma Smith’s account is later. However, be sure to note that McConkie and others who reject the usage of the hat and words on the stone are more than willing to accept all of the other portions of the Whitmer and Emma accounts to prove their other points (i.e. Emma saying Joseph didn’t know there were walls around Jerusalem, etc.) The Palmyra Freeman in August 1829, before the Book of Mormon printing had even begun, gives an explanation of the translation process that it says it got from Joseph Smith himself that the spectacles were placed into a hat in order for Joseph Smith to translate. Its an 1829 source and cannot be explained away by being a late source or by quoting another source. There was at the time not a single other published record about how the book was being translated. So for someone to argue from a historical perspective that there was not a hat involved they would have to reject the testimony of one of the Three Witnesses, David Whitmer, one of the scribes for likely over 50 pages, Emma, and benefactor and early aide to Joseph in the process Joseph Knight Sr. (his story by the way was only a few years later not 50 and cooberates both Emma and Whitmer very well). But more than that, they would have to reject Emma’s testimony about translation, by saying that Joseph never used a hat and that Emma even though she was a scribe, decided to fabricate that part of the story by quoting from the account given by the 1829 Palmyra Freeman that was deriding her husband as being a false prophet. David Whitmer and Joseph Knight Sr. would be in the same camp, using an atagonistic article against Joseph to explain how it happened. Why? To what end? That is not just a stretch, its not tenable historically in any way. Yes, the translation was miraculous, but that was the miracle. God put words on the stones, and the stones shone in darkness into light. In order to read what was on the stones, Joseph had to darken the area. And so he put them in a hat. Its not a magic hat, its not Frosty the Snowman’s hat, its just a hat, a way of making the area dark. Why is it that God writing words on a stone for Joseph is not a miracle, but writing changing words on the Liahona is a miracle? Instead of trying make our idea of what translation is fit into the process, the things that make us feel comfortable today, we should instead try to understand things as they actually happened. If someone doesn’t want to think of Joseph translating in that way, fine, but they cannot claim they are doing so for historically accurate reasons. They are doing so because they emotionally don’t want to think of translation in that way, and that is not the same thing.

  14. RE: G and Karell Bingham

    The “blood of the prophets” flows in Joseph Fielding McConkie’s veins, but not the prophetic mantle. He is a contentious dogmatist, not a careful historian. Him and his co-author, Craig Ostler, have done the Mormon community an absolute disservice by not actually doing their research. The powerful wave of ignorance has swept across the Mormon sphere blinding many to one the most faith promoting miracles in Mormon history. There is unanimity in the sources, from Jonathan Hadley’s conversation with Joseph Smith in the summer of 1829, to Emma’s interview with newspapermen in 1831, to E. B. Howe’s summation of witnesses in 1833–Smith used a hat to hold the seer stones (brown, white, or the BoM interpreters) and to darken the environment to see the light shine forth, as Joseph Knight Sr. stated as early as 1835. Cowdery left records about the process in his first mission to Native Americans and both David Whitmer and Martin Harris are recorded as describing the hat as witnesses of the Plates. The hat was a practical object like the breastplate, but more conveniently, it could be adjusted easier and it enabled Smith to exclude outside light. Furthermore, if one believes in the Book of Mormon one must believe that God uses instruments like the Liahona, King Mosiah’s seer stones, and the Jaredite interpreters! We must not forget that the text of revelation appeared on the Liahona, according to the Book of Mormon.

  15. Elder Nelson does not agree with McConkie or Ostler: see his 1993 Ensign article that quotes David Whitmer!!!!!!

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