Joseph Smith Translation Q&A with Mark Ashurst-McGee and Michael Hubbard MacKay

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Producing Ancient Scripture is a landmark volume about Joseph Smith’s translation activities, including the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation, and the Book of Abraham. The volume is co-edited by Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian Hauglid.

Who is Michael Hubbard MacKay?

Michael Hubbard MacKay: I am a coauthor of Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones and From Darkness unto Light, book-length studies addressing the translation of the Book of Mormon, and the author of Prophetic Authority, which addresses Restoration narratives from within the historical context of antebellum America.

I was a historian for several years at the Joseph Smith Papers Project and I’m now an associate professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. I teach Church history and scripture and I’m always excited to explore new ideas and research about these topics.

Mark is one of the best documentary historians in Mormon studies and one of the foremost experts on Joseph Smith and his translations, so it was great to work with him.

Who is Mark Ashurst-McGee?

Mark Ashurst McGee: I have been with the Joseph Smith Papers Project since 2002. I’m now serving there as the Senior Research and Review Editor, and I also serve a special function there as an expert on documentary editing methodology and document analysis.

I’ve been interested in Joseph Smith’s translation methods and projects for many years now (my 2000 MS thesis was on Smith’s use of seerstones in the 1820s, culminating with the Book of Mormon translation).

When Mike invited me to be a co-editor for this volume, I immediately loved the idea of a book that would cover all of the different translation projects. We put a lot of work into the book, which was several years in the making. And now it is finally out.

“Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity” (University of Utah Press, 2020).

Is there an overall pattern to Joseph Smith’s “translation” efforts?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: There are a few overall patterns. First and foremost, regarding Joseph Smith’s spiritual gift of translation, he never used it to translate the words of foreign-tongued contemporaries. This gift was only used to recover ancient scripture.

Second, for all the similarities that Smith’s translations had with his other revelations, he himself classified them differently.

Michael Hubbard MacKay: It’s not just that Smith called some revelations “translations” and called others “commandments” or “revelations.” A comparison of the revelations deemed “translations” and the other revelations does show qualitative differences (as well as similarities).

The translations were presented as ancient texts. Moreover, they were usually associated with some kind of artifact—such as plates or parchment or papyri. Most of the other revelations, in contrast, were direct transmissions given through no other medium than Smith’s mind and his inherited vocabulary.

Because of this, the revelations differ in narrative voice. They were delivered in the voice of the living God—often directed to specific individuals in the immediacy of present circumstances and employing familiar address.

In contrast, the translations were narrated in the voice of ancient prophets and generally addressed an unknown audience of scripture readers somewhere far off in the distant future.

Mark Ashurst-McGee: The narrative dimension of the translations further differentiates them from the revelations. The “thus saith the Lord” genre of revelations usually give commandments and teach principles in a didactic manner, whereas the translations are often autobiographical or even historical—frequently reading much like the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.

Michael Hubbard MacKay: These and other patterns are explored in greater depth in the book’s introduction and in several of the chapters.

What forgotten voices do Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope weave back into the Book of Mormon translation narrative?

Michael Hubbard MacKay: Easton-Flake and Cope show how Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy Harris Harris, Mary Musselman Whitmer, and Emma Hale Smith made Joseph Smith’s translation work possible and took on the role of witnesses to the golden plates and their translation.

They apply theoretical work from an intersection between gender studies and archival studies to highlight a substantial body of often overlooked documentation regarding the production of Mormonism’s founding text. Also, they provide balanced readings of these sources—thereby revealing just how much the production of the Book of Mormon was a group effort involving both men and women.

Of course, the Prophet Joseph Smith was involved in a way that is essential.

But there is so much more to the story. Their focus on discovering these narratives will be helpful to others with an interest in gender and the founding events of the Restoration.

Mark Ashurst-McGee: I have been studying the translation of the Book of Mormon off and on for almost three decades. So I was familiar with most of the sources used in this chapter. Nevertheless, the authors pointed out so many things I had never before noticed.

On a personal note, I’ll add that reading this chapter, for me, was also a spiritual experience.

After Joseph Smith had established a translation method for the Book of Mormon, did his later translation projects deviate from this method?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Yes, at least in some respects. The Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Version of the Holy Bible, which Joseph Smith began a few months after the publication of the Book of Mormon, already shows some deviation. It has a few massive insertions of new text, like what the Book of Mormon constituted, but it also has intricate modifications of the biblical text that was present as well as hundreds of rather mundane word changes.

Perhaps the most important development in Smith’s role as a translator was his study of Hebrew in the winter of 1835–1836. A chapter in the book by BYU professor Matthew J. Grey shows how Smith’s knowledge of Hebrew is manifested in certain ways in the Book of Abraham.

Smith was not just interested in Hebrew. He expressed a desire in his journal to become a master linguist. He studied languages when he could, off and on, for the rest of his life.

However, his responsibilities as church president precluded extensive language study. His intense if amateur interest in languages certainly influenced his attempt at using secular methods to translate the Kinderhook plates, a subject covered in the book’s final chapter.

Michael Hubbard MacKay: I would add that the chapters demonstrate that even the method for translating the Book of Mormon shows signs of change, and one chapter even challenges the traditional narrative of words being read from off the seerstone.

Why are Thomas A. Wayment and Hayley Wilson-Lemmon’s findings regarding the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible so anticipated—and potentially controversial?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Professor Thomas A. Wayment hired Haley Wilson-Lemmón, then an undergraduate student at BYU, to assist him with research on the Joseph Smith Translation.

Among other assignments, he provided Wilson-Lemmón with several test passages from the Joseph Smith Translation and asked her to see how these passages were treated in a nineteenth-century Bible commentary by Methodist theologian Adam Clarke. There she found several striking parallels and was directed to investigate further. Dr. Wayment then further involved Haley in analyzing the findings with him and co-writing the chapter.

A preliminary report of their findings was published in 2017, but it provided very little in the way of actual evidence. So, the full article—now published in Producing Ancient Scripture—has indeed been greatly anticipated in Mormon history circles.

The potential controversy of this research has certainly been heightened by Wilson-Lemmón leaving the church, speaking about the Joseph Smith Translation on ex-Mormon websites, and calling Smith’s use of Clarke “plagiarism.”

Does Joseph Smith’s use of Adam Clarke’s commentary lessen the importance of the Joseph Smith Translation?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: No, it doesn’t, and let me explain why (although this will take a minute).

Church historians have recognized for decades that there is a broad qualitative spectrum of content in the Joseph Smith Translation. At one end of the spectrum, there are the substantial expansions regarding Moses and Enoch. It’s quite clear that these are meant to be understood as the result of revelation (or revelatory translation). At the other end of the spectrum there are mundane word changes that update the language of the seventeenth-century King James translation for a nineteenth-century audience.

Church historians have long been open to the idea that revelation was not required for these mundane changes. There is a wide range of changes in between these two extremes, with a large gray area in the middle—where it is unclear whether changes are meant to be understood as the result of revelation or reason.

It is certainly possible that the entire Joseph Smith Translation is inspired, at least in the sense that Smith was inspired to modernize some of the words in the Bible for the Latter-day Saints of his time.

But even in this scenario, is it the case that every single word change is meant to be understood as the result of pure revelation?

  • Smith revised scores of pronouns, as in this example: “there is one God; and there is none other but he <him>”. Must we assume that Smith meant for this change from he to him to be understood as the result of revelation?
  • Smith revised several instances of thee and thou to you, and revised scores of instances of ye to you. Must we consider all of these ye-to-you changes to be revelation?
  • Smith revised wotteth to knoweth, wot to know, and wist to knew.
  • He revised holpen to helped and dwelt to dwelled and shalt to shall, revised draweth to draw and seeketh to seek, revised spake to spoke and gat to got, and revised bewrayeth to betrayeth. Was that revelation?
  • He revised several instances of hath and hast to has.
  • He revised afore to before and aforehand to beforehand.
  • He revised alway to always and amongst to among. Must we assume that Smith meant for this change from amongst to among to be understood as the result of revelation?

This is just a small smattering of examples of such mundane revisions—over 1,200 by my count.

While it is theoretically possible that Smith meant for every single one of these revisions to be received as revelation, it seems as much or more likely to me (and others) that this was not his intent.

And, if this is the case, then Smith understood the Joseph Smith Translation to be the result of both revelation from God and reasoning in his own mind.

Let’s think that through further.

Even if Joseph Smith was a very intelligent and creative person, it is unreasonable to hold that the reasoning he employed in updating archaic words was confined to the interior of his brain, that it was hermetically sealed off from his family, friends, and associates.

A painting of Joseph Smith owned by his son, Joseph Smith III. This faithful photographic reproduction is in the public domain because it was published before January 1, 1925 and it is anonymous due to unknown authorship.

Smith had frequent conversations with others about the Bible. He almost certainly discussed the Bible with his scribes as they were working on the Bible translation.

Take for example, the context for D&C 76—a report of the vision of the three degrees of glory experienced by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. The History of the Church explains that this vision was experienced while they were engaged in the Joseph Smith Translation and suggests that the vision began while they were discussing the meaning of John 5:29.

Such conversations took place in the context of not only their interpersonal relationships as they worked together on the Joseph Smith Translation, but within their wider culture, including the surrounding religious culture of church meetings, preaching, and biblical exegesis, as well as the surrounding literary culture of devotional and scholarly Bible exegesis.

Did Smith and his scribes consider themselves forbidden from consulting any published works?

We could go on, but I think you get my drift. The idea of Smith producing the Joseph Smith Translation in an intellectual vacuum just doesn’t make sense. Actually, the scenario of Smith drawing upon his own thoughts, conversations with others, and available Bible commentaries for some of his revisions makes perfect sense.

However, in terms of the substantial additions regarding Moses and Enoch, the revisions that are most certainly intended to be understood as revelation, Wayment and Wilson-Lemmon found no influence of Clarke.

Therefore, Smith’s personal revisions (even in the relatively rare cases of consulting Clarke) detract nothing from his revelatory revisions regarding Moses and Enoch or the teachings of Jesus (as found in our Pearl of Great Price).

What about the fact that Joseph Smith did borrow from Adam Clark. Does this constitute plagiarism?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: No, not necessarily, and here’s why. Plagiarism means borrowing without attribution. Since Joseph Smith never published the Joseph Smith Translation, as he had hoped to, we don’t know how he would have presented it to readers.

If Smith’s introduction to the Joseph Smith Translation had said that all the changes were a result of direct revelation, or that all of them were his own ideas—or even some combination of the two—then his borrowing from Clarke would be something that could be reasonably called plagiarism.

A painting of Adam Clarke.
Adam Clarke was a British Methodist theologian and Biblical scholar. He is chiefly remembered for writing a commentary on the Bible which took him 40 years to complete, Painting by Mosses, published 1844, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1958. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

This could even be true by the standards of the day, even though it probably would not have happened, as there wasn’t at all the same cultural ethics of attribution expectations that we now share in our current culture of common college education.

Still, if there were no kind of nod toward Clarke or toward the use of any outside sources generally, I would say that this could fairly be raised as an ethical issue. Conversely, if there were any kind of attribution to Clarke, or even just to outside sources generally, that would not have been considered plagiarism in Smith’s culture. It would have been considered conventional.

Do we have any idea of how Joseph Smith might have introduced the Joseph Smith Translation to readers?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: There is no unpublished manuscript preface, so all we can do is consider precedents.

There is prefatory material in the other books that the Church published in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. None of these prefaces are extensive, but each does give some information about the source(s) from which the content was derived.

The Book of Mormon

The front and back matter of the Book of Mormon relate that the text was derived from the golden plates and that it was translated by the “gift and power of God.” So, perhaps an introduction to the Joseph Smith Translation would have introduced the Bible revisions simply as divine translation.

The Doctrine and Covenants

The preface to the Doctrine and Covenants explains that Part 1, the “Doctrine,” was derived from a series of theological lectures given in Kirtland, and that Part 2, the “Covenants,” were a selection of Smith’s revelations. So, perhaps an introduction to the Joseph Smith Translation would have introduced the Bible revisions as a similar mixture of revelation and theological exegesis.

Collection of Sacred Hymns

The preface to the church hymnal explained that it included several “songs of Zion,” new songs written by Latter-day Saints for use in the Church, as well as many hymns derived from the surrounding Protestant culture (presumably borrowed from other hymnals).

The introduction to the Church hymnal further explained that words of several of these hymns had been “adapted” for use in Church worship. Many of these hymns were by the likes of Isaac Watts and John Wesley. Unlike our current Church hymnal, which credits the source of each hymn individually, the early Church hymnal just used a blanket attribution to other sources.

Perhaps an introduction to the Joseph Smith Translation would have included a similar blanket attribution to the borrowing and adaptation of other sources.

As explored in the previous paragraphs, we can use the publishing precedents to make a guess as to how the Joseph Smith Translation might have been introduced, but the real point is that we just don’t know what an introduction to the Joseph Smith Translation would or would not have explained.

I have a forthcoming article that lays all of this out in much more detail. When published, this article will become a part of the historiography of the Joseph Smith Translation.

Yet I’m quite confident that some detractors will continue to push what I call “the plagiarism hypothesis.” The “plagiarism” sound-bite is just too good to pass up. So there will be some detractors who will continue to insist that Smith was scheming when he used Clarke’s commentary and that he would have dishonestly and nefariously passed off his borrowings without any kind of attribution whatsoever.

But, again, we just don’t know that.

It’s a leap of faith (or, rather, a leap of doubt).

Do you think the Book of Mormon might read differently if Joseph Smith started studying Hebrew prior to translating it?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Now that’s a curve ball! I’ve never before considered this counterfactual scenario. I guess my answer to this question would be . . . possibly.

In one of Joseph Smith’s revelations, the Lord states that his revelations are “given unto [his] servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24 [with emphasis added]).

If Smith had already studied Hebrew prior to his translation of the Book of Mormon, it would have given him a broader linguistic capacity. I’m not sure that would have influenced the English translation that was given to him, but it might have. Perhaps the translation text that he viewed in the interpreters could have been supplied to him within a larger scope of linguistic “manner” and “understanding.”

Michael Hubbard MacKay: Even conservative scholars of the translation accept that Joseph Smith had some control over the text.

The most conservative only allow for punctuation, chapter and paragraphing choices, and slight edits and corrections. So, even within their perspective, Hebrew could have found its way into the text within the scenario you’ve suggested.

Also, those who accept that it’s an actual translation of an ancient record could accept a translation model that embraces a translation into Smith’s vernacular, which might also allow for Hebrew to find its way into the text.

Note also that neither of these scenarios necessarily challenges the divine origin of the text.

Why does the timeline of when Joseph Smith learned Hebrew and worked on the Book of Abraham matter?

Michael Hubbard MacKay: The manuscripts of the Book of Abraham that date to the mid-1830s—and apparently to mid-1835—do not contain any Hebrew words. In contrast, the new content that was published in the early 1840s does contain Hebrew words.

It therefore appears that Smith’s study of Hebrew in the winter of 1835–1836 was put to use in the translation efforts that followed.

Matt Grey’s chapter on Hebrew in the Book of Abraham argues that Smith began his study of Hebrew because he felt that doing so would help him to better understand the Book of Abraham.

Mark Ashurst-McGee: As in my answer to the previous question, Smith’s broadened linguistic capacity—after having studied Hebrew—may have allowed God to reveal the Book of Abraham to him within a larger linguistic scope.

What have you learned about the way Joseph Smith sought and received revelation?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: He was not afraid to involve his best mental efforts in the process of revelation.

Michael Hubbard MacKay: Even the most purely fideistic revelation has to be thought by humans for humans to understand it. Once they enter into our thought they become ours—wrapped in our own language and understood in ways that fit within our capacity to know.

Upon close examination, Smith’s cogitation reveals itself within his revelations and translations. Yet, his own participation in receiving revelation cannot remove the divine nature of the message received and he does not distinguish between fideism and reason.

What does Joseph Smith’s simultaneous pursuit of academic learning and prophetic inspiration teach us about him?

Michael Hubbard MacKay: He’s remarkable, but vulnerably desperate to live up to the social expectations of prophetic authority. I think he did live up to those expectations and that his translations are part of the proof.

Mark Ashurst-McGee: It teaches us that he believed in his own revelations, including the divine injunction to “seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

And it sets an example for us to do the same.

If you want to add more study to your faith, I suggest reading Producing Ancient Scripture.

**Stay tuned for more interviews drawn from Producing Ancient Scripture during the month of August, including Richard Bushman, Thomas Wayment, and Matthew Grey.

Recommended resources

Learn more about Joseph Smith and his translation activities:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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