For many, Joseph Smith’s claim that he translated the Book of Mormon from ancient plates has been a topic of interest, confusion, and uncertainty. But thanks to better research methods, and by looking more closely at the accounts of those closest to Joseph Smith during the translation process, we have a clearer picture of how it happened. The evidence suggests that Joseph would typically sit down, look into a hat with a seer stone in it, and somehow know what words to dictate to his scribes. Joseph Smith’s wife said that Joseph would sit “with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us. (1)”
Yes, that is very weird. But despite how strange it is, how would it even have been possible to create the Book of Mormon under such circumstances? One thing should be clear: the method of burying your face in a hat is actually amazing evidence for the Book of Mormon!
Book of Mormon Challenge
There used to be a challenge that the renowned LDS scholar Hugh Nibley would give to his students. In essence, students were asked to recreate a book similar to the Book of Mormon. Requirements included finishing it in a certain time period (Joseph had under 90 days), dictating it in a first draft, with complex chronologies, complex source texts, complex culture, Hebrew literary devices, characters with their own voices, and more. The full list of requirements can be found here. Nibley’s conclusion was that,
“To date no student has carried out this assignment, which, of course, was not meant seriously. But why not? If anybody could write the Book of Mormon, as we have been so often assured, it is high time that somebody, some devoted and learned minister of the gospel, let us say, performed the invaluable public service of showing the world that it can be done.”
Now, this challenge has been updated. Today, we are asking people to not only do all of this, but to do all of it with their head buried in a hat! In a sense, we are asking others to create the Book of Mormon with their eyes closed, in one take! Has anyone ever completed such a feat, under all these circumstances? J.R.R. Tolkien took years to masterfully craft his story, but Joseph Smith did it when he was only 23 years old, in a very small amount of time, and he had never written a book before. Don’t get me wrong, it is a strange and weird way to translate. But perhaps it’s supposed to be strange and weird. It makes it more miraculous.
To be clear, while this article focuses on the hat, in reality, it could have been anything. Joseph Smith simply used a hat for convenience to block out the light. But this hat makes the translation so much more amazing.
I chuckle sometimes when I see critics of the LDS Church poke fun at the “stone in a hat”, or even make memes of Joseph Smith as a magician with a magician’s hat. Sure, it’s funny and silly. But the irony is that they are pushing a narrative that makes it even more impossible for Joseph Smith to pull off without some divine help. Joseph Smith literally pulled the Book of Mormon out of a hat! Alternative explanations for such a miraculous process haven’t been convincing. And to date, no one has created such a book under these circumstances and meeting these criteria.
Now, is this miraculous translation evidence enough to convince us of the Book of Mormon’s truth? Not really. No matter how many physical evidences come forth for the Book of Mormon, the only thing that can prove the spiritual aspect of the Book of Mormon is a spiritual witness from God, through prayer. This is why so many Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon. This witness has helped many of us deal with the weirdness of such an account, and wonder at how it came to pass. And hopefully this miracle will pique people’s curiosity to read the Book of Mormon, ponder whether Joseph Smith could have made this book himself, and to pray and ask God, with a sincere heart, if the book is true.
If you are interested in learning more about the Book of Mormon’s beautiful complexity, watch this video while keeping in mind how Joseph translated!
- “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90.