After church on the first Sunday of 2016, I was enjoying dinner with my wife Lisa and our two children David, 8, and Rachel, 5. As is typical around many dinner tables, we asked our kids, “What did you learn at church today?”
Our children’s response to that question sparked an important, unplanned teaching moment about Joseph Smith, who restored The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the translation of the Book of Mormon.
I’m hopeful that, because we taught our children at a young age the process God used with Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon, our children will know Joseph Smith to be a prophet of God and the Book of Mormon the word of God.
Parents: What did you learn at church today?
Kids: We learned that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God.
Parents: Do you know what that means?
Parents: Let’s explain it. First, a question. (We put Taylor’s Hebrew Bible in front of the kids.) How would you translate this book?
Kids: We’d have to study and learn the foreign language, open the book, get a dictionary and translate the words into English.
Parents: Right. Mom and Dad have both studied several languages. It was a lot of work. It took years sometimes to learn languages. After a lot of work and effort, we can translate from foreign languages into English, with the help of dictionaries. Next question. (We covered the Hebrew Bible with a cloth.) Do you think Dad can translate the Hebrew Bible?
Kids: Yes, if he took the cloth off the book and opened it.
Parents: What if Dad left the cloth on the book. Could Dad translate it?
Kids: No, because he wouldn’t see what was inside the book!
Parents: What if God helped Dad see what was inside the book without opening the book? Could God do that?
Parents: But is that how Dad or other scholars typically translate books? By covering them with a cloth and asking God to reveal the content inside?
Parents: Exactly. But this is how Joseph Smith translated. The Book of Mormon plates were typically covered with a cloth.
Kids: So God helped him to know what was inside the book?
Parents: Yes. Now, was Joseph Smith a scholar? Did he know lots of foreign languages?
Parents: So how did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon if he didn’t know or understand the language it was written in?
Kids: God helped him?
Parents: Right, but how?
Kids: We don’t know.
Parents: Remember when you said “by the gift and power of God”? We’ll explain it. God gave Joseph Smith a special stone called the seer stone as well as two other special stones called the Urim and Thummim. These stones would shine with light, showing the words of the Book of Mormon in English. Urim and Thummim mean "light and truth" in Hebrew, a perfect name for stones that shine words of light and truth. If you were trying to read words of light, what would you do?
Kids: Maybe cover my head with a towel to block out the light so I could see the lighted words more easily.
Parents: OK. Back in Joseph Smith’s day, most people wore hats.
Kids: I could put the stone into a hat to more easily see the words of light. We do the same thing when we are trying to look at pictures on your smartphone outside in the sunlight. We try to create darkness around the phone with our hands or baseball cap so that we can see the picture.
We then showed them an artistic rendition of Joseph Smith preparing to translate, created by Anthony Sweat, a Brigham Young University Church History and Doctrine professor and juried artist.
Parents: This picture shows how Joseph Smith brought forth the words of the Book of Mormon (we typically call it “translation”). Now, is this how Dad translates the Hebrew Bible? Is this how scholars ever translate? Is this how you’ll be taught to translate when you learn a foreign language?
Kids: (Laughing) No!
Parents: So why did Joseph Smith translate that way?
Kids: (Thinking) Because Joseph Smith couldn’t translate in the normal way, and God wanted to prove that he made the Book of Mormon translation happen.
Parents: Good. Now another question. How hard would it be to translate a book from a foreign language that you didn’t know, and all you had to do was to read the words that appeared in English on a stone?
Kids: Not too hard.
Parents: That is essentially what God had Joseph Smith do, read words of light in English from the seer stone. But it was a lot of work spiritually for Joseph. He had to exercise righteousness and faith and trust in God. There was spiritual work and effort involved in the translation. God did a marvelous work and wonder to help Joseph Smith, who brought forth the Book of Mormon by reading words of light from specially prepared stones.
Parents: We know people who, when they learn that Joseph Smith was looking at a stone in a hat to translate, they don't believe it. They say things like, “That’s a silly way to translate. If that is what Joseph Smith did, I’m not going to believe that he is a prophet or that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God.” Some of these people even stop believing in Jesus and Heavenly Father because of this. Remember when Nephi built his boat to go to the Promised Land?
Parents: Did Nephi make his boat to impress ship builders or to make his brothers proud or to prove how amazing he was at making a boat?
Parents: Right. Nephi made the boat according to the designs God gave him. Nephi said “but I did build (the boat) after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men” (1 Nephi 18:2). God wanted Nephi and his family to rely on and trust in him. So, too, with the Book of Mormon translation. The translation was not done “after the manner of men” in the format of translation that we all understand and expect. Instead, God used his own approach because he wants us to show faith in him.
Just as God miraculously brought forth his people out of Egypt with signs and miracles, so too God brought forth his ancient word in these days through miraculous means. God will do his work, not after the manner of men, and it will be marvelous in the eyes of his people.
For an excellent review of the history of the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon see "From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon" by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. Also, see the LDS Church's essay on the "Book of Mormon Translation" on lds.org.
Taylor Halverson (PhDs: Biblical Studies; Instructional Technology) is a BYU Teaching & Learning Consultant. http://taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.