Recommended Site of the Week: Images of the Restoration
October 17, 2007
With all the great resources out there for people who are engaged in religious studies generally and Mormon studies in particular, I thought I would start a new recurring feature here at Equality Time to help people find the best blogs and web sites out there on the "Internets" that deal with these subjects. For the inaugural post in what I intend to be a regular series, I feature a newly created blog by a talented artist (who, it seems, at this point wants to remain anonymous). The blog is called Images of the Restoration. The author/artist of this blog has created a number of compelling depictions of events from Mormon history--events that Mormon apologists, studious members of the LDS Church who venture outside the correlated materials, and critics of the LDS Church alike are aware of but which are seldom if ever mentioned or depicted in official LDS Church lesson materials.
Mormon apologists sometimes argue that the LDS Church, as an institution, does not whitewash or cover up its history, and that blame for artwork in church manuals, etc. that is not historically accurate should be laid at the feet of the artists and not the church that uses their work. Critics disagree, and sometimes point to the way the translation of the Book of Mormon is most often portrayed in church-approved and distributed print and visual media. For example, the following pictures are probably familiar to most members of the LDS Church:
This image is by Del Parson, the artist of the ubiquitous "red robe" painting of Jesus. It is found in the Gospel Art Kit, a resource found in every LDS ward library and which teachers are directed to use in conjunction with the correlated lessons the church provides. The same Gospel Art Kit is used for all ages, from Nursery through the adult Sunday School classes. This is the only depiction of the translation of the Book of Mormon found in the Gospel Art Kit. Note that Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith are together with the plates in front of them in plain view.
Here is another image taken from the LDS Church-run josephsmith.net site. Here, Joseph is the only one shown, and he is studying the plates intently, running his finger along the inscriptions. Harold Kilbourn is the artist and the painting was done in 1970.
Another from Harold Kilbourn, this one from 1978. Note that Joseph here not only has the plates out on a table but he is acting as his own scribe.
What I find interesting about all these images is what they have in common--the plates are in open view out on a table. But although the witness accounts about the translation period vary and sometimes conflict in some details, one thing they all agree on is this: Joseph Smith kept the plates covered during the translation. No one--not Emma, not Oliver, not Martin--was ever able to see and handle the plates during the translation. Other details about the translation are also known. Joseph Smith never acted as his own scribe. He used either the Urim and Thummim delivered to him with the plates by the angel, or (for most of the translation) he used the seer stone he had obtained while digging a well for Willard Chase in the early 1820s (which he had used in attempting, in vain, to locate buried treasure for Josiah Stowell and others). According to David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses and in whose home the translation took place: "Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man." David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Missouri: n.p., 1887, p. 12.
He also said that: "I, as well as all of my father's family, Smith's wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation. . . . He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation." Interview given to Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881, reprinted in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Journal of History, vol. 8, (1910), pp. 299-300.
Emma Smith and Martin Harris corroborated Whitmer's account.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an address to some of the LDS Church's Mission Presidents, quoted from Whitmer's description of Joseph Smith putting the seer stone in his hat to effect the translation. The address was published in the church magazine The Ensign in July 1993. This appears to be the only mention in an official church magazine, lesson manual, or church-produced medium of the "stone-in-hat" method of translation. Despite the clear historical record, and knowledge of it by at least one member of the Quorum of the Twelve, the LDS Church continues to portray the event in the manner shown in the three images above. I have heard apologists respond by saying the church is dependent on the artists for the depictions that appear in official church sources. If so, then I hope the folks at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City will visit Images of the Restoration. Here is how the artist there depicts the translation of the Book of Mormon in an historically accurate way:
This is just one of several historically accurate drawings you will see when you go to Images of the Restoration, my featured site of the week.
Interesting post. I recently taught a Sunday school class about this very topic, and used the Russell Nelson talk as a reference. It was difficult to gauge the reception: some people were very surprised, others were familiar with it, and some simply didn't want to hear about it.
But those who did say they were surprised mentioned that every depiction of the translation they've seen suggested something less...weird than what the historical record tells us.
Great link, by the way.
Posted by: andrew | October 17, 2007 at 04:41 PM
That's precisely it. The church's correlation committee does as much as it can to reduce the "weirdness" factor from church history. And the PR department tries to mainstream the church to make it less "weird". Gordon B. Hinckley says "I don't know that we teach that" because the doctrine that God was once a man is "weird". And regardless of all the efforts that the church makes to mitigate the weirdness, the general population still thinks Mormons are weirder than ever.
Posted by: Lunar Quaker | October 17, 2007 at 05:13 PM
Hey, thanks for the plug, Equality!
I am the one responsible for most of the artwork on Images of the Restoration so far, but we are hoping that more artists will be willing to have their their fact-based illustrations of Mormonism featured on the site.
I think it would be nice to see more common ground staked out between the believers and skeptics of Mormonism, and I think focusing on the facts is a great way to do that. Only after the facts (and our varying levels of certainty about them) are established can our respective conclusions drawn from those facts be understood and respected. Images of the Restoration is an attempt to establish and discuss the facts in a different way.
Please check it out, and feel free to comment.
Posted by: JV | October 17, 2007 at 10:49 PM
I thought I recognized your style on that site! I'm still considering doing some art for you over there...
Posted by: SML | October 18, 2007 at 09:38 AM
Here are some suggestions for JV, SML, or any other talented artists of depictions from Mormon history I'd like to see:
1. Martin Harris "seeing" the gold plates with his "spiritual eyes."
2. Joseph asking Heber and Vilate Kimball for their 14-year-old daughter Helen's hand in "marriage."
3. The sand-filled deposit boxes with a layer of silver on top, used to give the impression that the Kirtland Safety Society had enough hard currency on hand.
4. Oliver using the dowsing rod.
5. Joseph opining upon the discovery of "Zelph."
6. Lucy Smith charging admission to see the Egyptian papyri.
7. Moroni (or Nephi) appearing in Joseph's small bedroom where his five brothers were sleeping in two beds.
8. Joseph as a boy regaling the family with stories about the ancient inhabitants of the American continent.
9. The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor.
10. Emma pushing the pregnant Eliza Snow (Smith) down the stairs.
Gee, the possibilities are almost limitless. I wonder how many of these will eventually get published in the Ensign?
Posted by: Equality | October 18, 2007 at 10:09 AM
I wonder how much an artist gets paid when one of their illustrations gets published in the Ensign.....
Posted by: SML | October 18, 2007 at 11:37 AM
Awesome work JV and what a great idea to post this topic Equality.
Posted by: LDS truthseeker | October 22, 2007 at 06:41 AM
Thank you very much, LDS truthseeker.
Posted by: JV | October 22, 2007 at 11:21 AM