There are 24 thoughts on “The Faith to See: Burning in the Bosom and Translating the Book of Mormon in Doctrine and Covenants 9”.

  1. While I appreciate the effort—which raises a possibility I had not previously contemplated—I offer a respectful dissent from Dr. Spencer’s analysis.
    I would note that in carefully considering the antecedents for “it” in context, Dr. Spencer seems to have skipped two occasions of the word. I see nothing which suggests a different antecedent for these other occurrences, and they seem to me to weaken Dr. Spencer’s thesis. Expanding his paraphrase:
    8. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study [out your desire for the privilege, or whether it is the right time for you to have the privilege] in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right [that I give it unto you], and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right [that you should have the privilege].
    I have followed Dr. Spencer’s substitution method, inserting his concept in place of the word “it,” or as he did, putting a phrase at the end of the verse to clarify. The underlined phrases (if the underlining survived the insertion into the online comments) are the pieces that I have added; they are the missing “its.”
    To me at least, by filling out the unused its, the idea that Oliver was to contemplate whether and when he should translate becomes weaker. And I am not clear why Dr. Spencer dropped the word “out” from his paraphrase (D&C 9 says “you must study it out . . .”), for it seems a key element to me. “Study it out” fits much better with pondering how to render a translation (more below), than it does with reflecting on one’s desires.
    (Attempting) To follow Dr. Midgley, I would not make Brother Joseph’s translation into a process where he studied the characters, proposed his understanding of the strange language, and then asked for confirmation. But, despite the testimony of David Whitmer, I am unable to read the Book of Mormon as an ironclad translation where God controlled each and every word through the confirmation of the spirit.
    I believe Brother Joseph was given conceptual understanding of the characters on the plates. It was then his struggle, the studying out part, to render those concepts into acceptable, accessible, understandable English. Anyone who translates knows what a struggle it is to render ideas into another language, trying one’s best to neither add to nor subtract from the original, and yet, to make good sense in the target language.
    I believe the church has, from the beginning, supported the idea that as a translator, Brother Joseph made choices. That’s how we explain most of the so called anachronisms in the book. It’s also the reason Brother Joseph felt at liberty to modify and correct words and phrases in the Book of Mormon, in subsequent editions. He came to understand and see—as the years rolled on—that there was clearer language for expressing the ideas or concepts that were given to him by the gift and power of God. The confirmation of the spirit didn’t mean that Joseph’s language was perfect. It meant that the ideas, commandments and doctrines were correct. I believe this explanation is the gist of the Roberts interpretation.
    The back story for D&C 67 was that some of the brethren felt that they could improve upon Brother Joseph’s language. I don’t think any presumed to improve upon God’s doctrines or commands, just the expression of those things in English. And yet the attempt to better the language utterly failed. Was not Oliver’s fear about the responsibility that one bears when laboring to get God’s word into language that is true and correct, without any loss or embellishment? One can translate, and yet never get past the worry about being true to what is in the original. I myself (recognizing that I am not working by the gift and power of God) can never stop fiddling with the language, seeking clarity, brevity, accuracy and decent sounding English. And, as the brethren found when trying to improve upon the language of D&C section 1, “it [is] an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord.”

    • ” ‘Study it out’ fits much better with pondering how to render a translation (more below), than it does with reflecting on one’s desires.”
      I don’t know that that is a supportable assertion.
      “It was then his struggle, the studying out part, to render those concepts into acceptable, accessible, understandable English.”
      Here you ignore a large amount of substantive textual evidence — which I will not attempt to list here — that argues against this view.

      • Thank you Stanford.
        Mine was a supportable assertion because I said that’s the way the language seems or reads to me, which is undeniably the case.
        I am familiar with the textual evidence to which you refer. Yet it is clear that as part of his work Joseph made choices, and it is historical fact that he later felt at liberty to make changes, where he saw the need to clarify.
        While I appreciate Dr. Spencer’s thoughts, I am not persuaded.

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Thanks for finding the typo. It did not intend to leave “out” out of “study it out.” The “out” changes the meaning slightly. “Study it out” suggests that something is studied until a logical conclusion is reached. “Study it” does not. Either way makes sense in the context, but I think “study it out” makes better sense.
      If I were attempting to render spiritual impressions (or a conceptual understanding) into my own language, I would be working out (not studying out) a translation. Then I could ask if the translation that I had worked out was correct. There would really be nothing to “study out,” since the conceptual understanding had already been given to me. On the other hand, if I’m reflecting on whether a desired course of action is appropriate, I would “study out” its implications, given the current situation, and then ask for a spiritual confirmation.
      The antecedent for the two instances of “it” that you mentioned would be the same. I simply didn’t want the text to sound too redundant. I don’t see the sense weakening with the “it”s replaced.
      I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is an ironclad translation either. David Whitmer doesn’t say that the text was tested by the spirit, but by reading it back:
      “before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment, on which would appear the characters of the plates in a line at the top, and immediately below would appear the translation in English, which Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistake had been made the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected, when they faded from sight to be replaced by another line. ”
      The scribe writes what he hears Joseph dictate, then repeats it back to Joseph as would be normal for verifying a dictation. If Joseph is satisfied with what he hears, the text advances. (If the Spirit and not JS was doing the verifying, why have the scribe read the text back at all?). Spelling errors would not necessarily have been detected by hearing a text read back, and we do see many spelling errors in the original manuscript. It seems to be the first spellings of proper names that are verified in an “ironclad” manner. We should also allow that Joseph may have chosen to do some smoothing of the text he was seeing and dictating. You make a good point that he felt free to modify the text somewhat. As for anachronisms, there are various solutions. They would be expected for a translation whether Joseph, or God, or 16th-18th century mortals translated the plates. The KJV text quoted in the BoM is itself anachronistic, but it has it’s purpose. The English text was created for us to use and understand.

  2. I’d like to offer this important entry on Oliver Cowdery’s translation experience from
    “Oliver made some comments to Samuel W. Richards while he and his family stayed at his [S. W. Richards] house during a snow storm at Winter Quarters These Richards deposited with the Church Historian’s Office in 1905. Referring to Oliver’s recollection of the BoM translation, Richards wrote:
    “I was surprised at the bright recollection he seemed to have of his early experiences with the Prophet Joseph, especially in relation to the work of translating the Book of Mormon. He represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he (Oliver) sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the ‘translators’ over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages. Every word was distinctly visible even to every letter; and if Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the ‘interpreter’ until it was copied correctly. This was a great mystery to Oliver, how Joseph, being comparatively ignorant could thus correct him, even in spelling, without seeing the word written; and he did not rest satisfied until he himself obtained the gift to translate also. To satisfy Oliver, Joseph went with him before the Lord in prayer, and the Lord bestowed on Oliver the gift by which he was enabled to translate; and thus he learned how it was that Joseph could correct him even to the spelling of words”
    Signed statement of S. W. Richards, Salt Lake City, May 25, 1907.
    Original in Church Historian’s Office.
    Copy in BYU Library Special Collections.”
    This is of course very late, but it is a memory of Oliver’s own account. If taken as reliable this would indicate that Oliver did have some success.
    To me it doesn’t make sense that the Lord would instruct Oliver to get His approval a second time for the sake of faith in divine will. Certainly nothing in section 9 chides him for translating the first time. In fact the Lord explains his reasons for not allowing Oliver to translate a second time as if the first time had been perfectly legitimate. The phrase about not writing that which is sacred except it comes from God is, I think, what gives the traditional take its teeth.
    If D&C 9 were about translation method, then it could be harmonized with the Whitmer description of seer stone translation. In section 8 Oliver is instructed that by inquiry he can learn about the engravings of ancient records. This could mean translation, but if so why not just state it unambiguously like it is in later verses? This could instead be a preliminary step where Oliver was suppose to get some foundational knowledge or some specific knowledge about what he would translate which would allow him to make some intellectual steps (study it out) towards figuring out what he would translate. Then he would seek out divine approval for what he had, with the Holy Ghost’s aid, figured out, and having this confirmation be prepared to tackle full on translation with proper faith (no fear).
    This is fairly speculative, but accounts of Joseph’s having knowledge of BOM people and events prior to beginning translation at least support the idea. The oft quoted account of Joseph informing his family about the ancient inhabitants of the Americans demonstrates that Joseph was getting BOM related knowledge pre-translation. A second example is from the miner’s cave treasure dig where he claimed that a king of the ancient inhabitants had been buried in the hill (or imprisoned? I don’t remember the exact wording) during a great battle (I’ve got this pretty accurately but feel free to google and double check me). Anyways he clearly has some inkling of great wars fought by ancient inhabitants of America before starting translation. Also, JS’s attitude towards revelation and translation, that it could always be revised after it was received, at least parallels the idea that some forethought could be put into the formulation of the translation as well. If JS were translating with alot of specific foreknowledge of BOM content then that could help him pick up where they left off without cue (like Emma describes). Finally, there is also the precedent of section 132 which, when prompted to dictate via the seer stone, Joseph said was unneeded because he had the revelation memorized. Of course we know that revelation is likely built from earlier revelations, but it is an example of a revelation dictated from memory of which some of the content was likely either new or at least unwritten/dictated previously. Essentially, I’m suggesting that the above examples align with a theory in which translation/revelation has preliminary thought and even formulation before the big reveal and that this is what the Lord is suggesting Oliver should have done in D&C 9.

  3. It seems that a plain reading of D&C 8 says to oliver that if he asks in faith the Lord will tell him what the “engravings of old records” meant so he could translate. It looks like he already had permission to translate there. Also, a plain reading of D&C 9 seems to be saying that oliver should have known that he needed to study it out in his mind first. However, the Lord had not told him this beforehand. So, was the Lord giving oliver a head fake in D&C 8 in order to teach a lesson? Was it really evidence of an early power struggle?

    • I agree that these sections have been interpreted as the Lord (or Joseph Smith, depending on your inclination) putting Oliver in his place, and that it’s easy to get that idea from a conventional interpretation of verses 7-9. But I don’t read the text that way. If Oliver had already had permission, he would not have been instructed to “ask…that you may translate.” The thing Oliver had “not understood” was that the Lord would not give “it” to him for the mere asking–“it” being the “privilege” or “power” to translate. He had been clearly told that more would be required–that his success would be “according to [his] faith,” and to “remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith.” When fear overcame him for lack of faith, the Lord gives him some advice for how he can go about strengthening his faith the next time. The Lord is not condemning Oliver (“neither of you have I condemned”), and, although his service is presently needed as scribe, he’s invited to be patient and wait for the opportunity to translate again.

  4. Stan, thank you. Very enjoyable and enlightening. Like the clay on the blind man’s eyes, the burning in Oliver’s bosom could have served to strengthen his faith and resolve.

    • Either that or the “burning” is itself the faith–the conviction or feeling that “it is right.” When the Lord says “therefore you shall feel that it is right,” it’s not clear to me whether that feeling “that it is right” (i.e. faith) is a result of the burning or is itself the burning. Faith is supplied by God according to 1 Cor 12:9.

      • Stan
        I believe that we find a good parallel to Oliver’s experience in Alma’s planting of the seed in our heart.
        “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves–It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge. But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.” (Alma 32:28-30)
        Similar to the burning in the breast, when the seed sprouts we begin to “feel these swelling motions,” and it begins to:
        1. “enlarge my soul;”
        2. “enlighten my understanding;”
        3. “be delicious to me.”
        Alma said that these manifestations would “increase your faith,” not that they were the faith itself.
        Alma continued by saying that the seed:
        1. swelleth, and
        2. sprouteth, and
        3. beginneth to grow.
        The result of these actions in our heart is to “strengthen your faith.” I see a good parallel between Alma’s swelling seed and Oliver’s burning bosom feeling. Rather than saying that “the ‘burning’ is itself the faith,” I believe that it would probably be more accurate to say that this “burning” (or swelling motion) – as a gift or manifestation from the Lord – was given to strengthen a weak faith.

        • Well, that could be. And I would be especially inclined to see it that way if a burning in the bosom were some kind of sensation limited in time—maybe a warm feeling in the chest. But I see burning in the bosom as more of an understanding or conviction, which are elements of faith. The idea of one’s bosom burning appears to have had its peak in the 1700s. Here are some uses of the phrase “bosom burn” from that period from Google NGram Viewer:
          “There shall my bosom burn with friendship’s flame” (1737)
          “While truth and virtue in thy bosom burn” (1743)
          “He thank’d her care; yet day by day His bosom burn’d to disobey” (1733)
          “Honorius’ bosom burn’d with fierce desire” (1737)
          “And love did with a chaster flame Within my bosom burn.” (1622)
          “With sudden Grief her lab’ring bosom burn’d” (1745)
          “By Tyrants first, then by a Brother spurns, Still, still, with Loyalty his Bosom burn’d” (1745)
          “Whilst the bright Flames which in his Bosom burn” (1708)
          “Genius of Britain ! bid those days return, For Thee, for Virtue, let each bosom burn.” (1780)
          “If e’er thy bosom burn’d with lawless love, Art thou to pining avarice a slave?” (1790)
          “The stage breath’d war— the soldiers bosom burn’d, And fiercer to the field each chief rerurn’d” (1764)
          “With sacred Thirst my Bosom burn’d” (1788)
          “With martial wrath his ardent bosom burn’d” (1795)
          “Each bosom burn’d to meet their foes, and swore to save their native land.” (1798)
          Grief, sacred thirst, truth and virtue, loyalty–I don’t see anything about physical sensation, the chest, or any kind of time-limited experience here. Your bosom is your innermost self, so a burning in your bosom is something you feel deep inside. Based on the examples above, that feeling can be friendship, truth, virtue, desire, love, grief, loyalty, patriotism, spiritual need, or anger. In D&C 9:8, what burns in your bosom is ultimately a feeling that something “is right.” In other words, you feel deep inside that it is right. This deep feeling could also be described as faith or a peaceful assurance that would hopefully be enduring, not just a discrete experience (although I’ve experienced that as well). I’m just presenting another possible interpretation here. I see your view as well and it may be the correct one. I think the “burning in the bosom” merits more study and at least one paper of its own.

          • Stan
            All good points. And, I agree that the meaning is by no means certain to us. Something else to consider: Eight times in the scriptures we find the phrase “I will cause that …” Two of those are from the D&C and the rest are from the Book of Mormon. Here is a summary of the phrases that follow “I will cause that”:
            … they shall be loathsome
            … my people shall rejoice
            … they shall howl all the day long
            … they shall have burdens lashed upon their backs
            … they shall be smitten
            … they shall return again unto me
            … your bosom shall burn within you
            … he shall mourn for her no longer
            Most of these reference some concrete action (rejoice, howl, be smitten, return or mourn). Given the context, “I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you” seems to reference an actual burning sensation inside of the person. The other references appear to be literal, which leads me to believe that this would not be metaphorical usage. But, it is only a supposition.
            I look forward to your next paper which will solve this for us.

        • You might also find Elder Oaks’ statement interesting, which echoes Oliver’s earlier spiritual witness in D&C 6:23:
          “What does a ‘burning in the bosom’ mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word ‘burning’ in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works.”
          –Dallin H. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign (March 1997), 6–14.

          • Stan
            I remember when Elder Oaks made this comment and it puzzled me at the time, because it differed from my own experience, since I have experienced and actual “burning” in the bosom. Surely, his experiences are anecdotal, as are mine. Here is another anecdotal experience of Elder Orson F. Whitney, as told by him in General Conference of April 1925:
            “No sooner had I laid my hands upon that woman’s head, than a power came upon me that I had never felt before, nor have I ever felt it since, in the same degree. It was a burning in my bosom, so powerful as to almost deprive me of speech, and it went like fire to the very tips of my fingers. I rebuked the pain in the name of Jesus Christ, and the woman was instantly healed. ‘Thank God!’ she said, ‘the pain has gone.’ I sank into a chair and burst into tears, overcome by this manifestation of the goodness and power of God.”
            There is also the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus when they declared after the Lord had left them:
            “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
            The Greek word for “burn” here is καίω (kaiō) and means “to set on fire, i.e. kindle or (by implication) consume:—burn, light” (Strong G2545). While this could imply that they were enlightened by the Lord, a more plain explanation would be that they felt an actual burning sensation inside. Had the author meant to imply enlightenment rather than burning, a better fit would have been φωτίζω (phōtizō) which means ” to shed rays, i.e. to shine or (transitively) to brighten up (literally or figuratively):—enlighten, illuminate, (bring to, give) light, make to see” (Strong G5461). This verb (phōtizō) is used eight times in the New Testament, like here:
            “The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18).
            Perhaps this “burning” can be experienced in different ways, tailored to each individual. I imagine that we do not all see colors or experience tastes and smells in the same way. Perhaps the Lord works with us in ways that are suited to our unique physical nature, disposition and preparation. Perhaps also this passage is left purposely undefined to allow for a variety of personal understanding and expression.

  5. The standard interpretation of these verses has always confused me. Neither Joseph or Oliver had any background in Hebrew, Egyptian, or language translation at this point. How could they be expected to stare at a completely foreign script and come up with anything even remotely right?! (Even with a “You’re getting warmer!” and “No, now you’re getting colder…” feedback loop.) It boggles the mind.
    I had never considered a different interpretation though, but this one makes sense. Thank you!

  6. Great article! You harmonize D&C 9 with the statements of the three witnesses who describe how Joseph could see letters of fire or light and how he read off the words to his scribes. This is also consistent with the very solid case for tight control made by Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Spencer, for your perceptive comments about D&C 9. I invite you now to extend your thinking to an analysis of the following book: Joseph C. Lundwall, The Truth about Prayer and Divine Revelation (n.p.: Lulu Publishing Services, 2014). I am particularly interested in what you might have to say about Lundwall’s especially critical–perhaps derogatory–language toward Elder Melvin Joseph Ballard and Elder Marion G. Romney and their teachings about D&C 9.

    • Joseph Lundwall is right in dismissing the belief that the Holy Ghost speaks to us through a warm feeling in the chest. That’s not what a “burning in the bosom” meant. But he is wrong in dismissing the testimonies of Martin Harris and David Whitmer, both of whom retained their belief in the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and its translation by the power of God as they described. They got it right as far as they went, I believe. I also disagree with Lundwall’s position that God wants to give us answers to prayer without us first applying our God-given brains to the problem in question. He had the brother of Jared “study it out in his mind,” as one example. Lundwall is correct, though, about the ease with which Satan can deceive us when we rely on a single test of revelation. Hartman Rector Jr gave a speech that addressed this called “How to Know If Revelation Is from the Lord.” There are more recent conference talks as well on this topic. Lundwall misinterprets D&C 9 as applying to translation technique, but then again, the scripture can perhaps be applied to broadly. I think the message of D&C 9 is to not ask for a miracle without knowing that it is the right thing to ask for. That’s fairly narrow.

  8. Very well done. As said by Jeff, it clarifies how we view the translation process. It also helps me better understand faith. Seeing these scriptures in this way has enlightened my mind. Thank you.

  9. Without commenting on the rich assortment of details in this fine essay, I must indicate that I am very pleased that someone has now set out my own reading of that section of the Doctrine and Covenants. I detest efforts to turn that language into the way in which Joseph Smith or anyone else could possibly translate an ancient text in strange language. Instead, I read that section as merely explaining that one who has an urge to “translate” ought to ask God if that is the proper thing to do. And in this instance, no answer and hence a stupor of thought is the proper answer. And i;t was emphatically not telling Oliver how to translate.

    • A couple of other people I’ve discussed this section with say they’ve always interpreted it the way you do, which surprised me, given the explanation in the section heading.

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