About Stan Spencer

Stan Spencer earned a BS from Brigham Young University and a PhD from Claremont Graduate University, both in botany. He has worked as a research scientist at Brigham Young University and the Smithsonian Institution’s Laboratory of Molecular Systematics and now works as a consultant in California. He has a particular interest in the textual origins of Mormon scripture.

Seers and Stones:
The Translation of the Book of Mormon as Divine Visions of an Old-Time Seer

Abstract: Joseph Smith used the term the Urim and Thummim to refer to the pair of seer stones, or “interpreters,” he obtained for translating the Book of Mormon as well as to other seer stones he used in a similar manner. According to witness accounts, he would put the stone(s) in a hat and pull the hat close around his face to exclude the light, and then he would see the translated text of the Book of Mormon. By what property or principle these stones enabled Joseph Smith to see the translated text has long been a matter of conjecture among Mormons, but the stones have commonly been understood as divinely powered devices analogous to the latest human communications technology. An alternative view, presented here, is that the stones had no technological function but simply served as aids to faith. In this view, the stones did not themselves translate or display text. They simply inspired the faith Joseph Smith needed to see imaginative visions, and in those visions, he saw the text of the Book of Mormon, just as Lehi and other ancient seers saw sacred texts in vision. Although Joseph Smith also saw visions without the use of stones, the logistics of dictating a book required the ability to see the translated text at will, and that was what the faith-eliciting stones would have made possible. Continue reading

The Faith to See: Burning in the Bosom and Translating the Book of Mormon in Doctrine and Covenants 9

Abstract: Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9 is conventionally interpreted as the Lord’s description of the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated. A close reading of the entire revelation, however, suggests that the Lord was not telling Oliver Cowdery how to translate but rather how to know whether it was right for him to translate and how to obtain the faith necessary to do so. Faith would have enabled Oliver Cowdery to overcome his fear and translate, just as it would have enabled Peter (in Matthew 14) to overcome his fear and walk on water. Continue reading

Reflections of Urim: Hebrew Poetry Sheds Light on the Directors-Interpreters Mystery

Abstract: In the early editions of the Book of Mormon, Alma refers to the Nephite interpreters as directors. Because director(s) elsewhere refers to the brass ball that guided Lehi’s family through the wilderness, Alma’s use of the term was apparently considered a mistake, and directors was changed to interpreters for the 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon. There are reasons, however, to believe that Alma’s use of directors was intentional. I present contextual evidence that Alma was actually using the Hebrew word urim, which was later translated into English as directors (for the interpreters) and director (for the brass ball), and biblical evidence that those translations are appropriate. Alma may have called the instruments urim to emphasize their sacred importance. As English prose, Alma’s discussion of these sacred instruments is wordy and at times confusing. As Hebrew poetry built around the word urim, it makes more sense. Alma’s apparent sophisticated use of this word suggests that he had a thorough understanding of the ancient connotations of urim and remarkable talent as a classical Hebrew poet. Continue reading