Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Joseph Knight Sr., witness to the translation of the Book of Mormon

Jonathan Neville rejects the eyewitness accounts of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon via a seer stone or Urim and Thummim in a hat. His belief runs counter to that of virtually every Church historian, Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. (the general authority Seventy who heads the Church History Department), and President Russell M. Nelson, as well as to statements made in the Ensign (the Church’s official magazine for English-speaking adults).

Neville claims that
William E. McLellin [taught that] Joseph [Smith] didn’t translate the plates; he just read words that appeared on a peep stone in a hat. This was also taught by David Whitmer and others who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with revisionist Church historians, the Saints book, the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation, Anthony Sweat’s artwork, etc.
(Apparently, President Nelson is a “revisionist Church historian.” Who knew?)

One important eyewitness who claimed Joseph Smith used a hat to translate the Book of Mormon—one who didn’t leave the Church—was Joseph Knight Sr.

Brother Knight was a resident of Colesville, New York, who hired Joseph Smith as a laborer in 1826. Joseph Smith told the Knight family about the visit of Moroni and the promise that he would receive the gold plates. The Knights became some of Joseph Smith’s strongest early supporters. Joseph Knight was present at the Smith family farm when Joseph Smith retrieved the plates in September 1827, and he supplied the Prophet Joseph with money, paper, and provisions during the translation of the Book of Mormon. Knight was baptized in June 1830, and he and his family moved with the Saints from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Nauvoo. In February 1847, he died in full faith and fellowship in Iowa while making the trek west under Brigham Young.

Reflecting on his faithful friends and brethren, Joseph Smith dictated for his journal on August 23, 1842:
While I contemplate the virtues and the good qualifications and characterestics [sic] of the faithful few…of such as have stood by me in every hour of peril, for these fifteen long years past; say for instance; my aged and beloved brother Joseph Knights Senr, who was among the number of the first to administer to my necessities, while I was laboring, in the commencement of the bringing forth of the work of the Lord, and of laying the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: for fifteen years has he been faithful and true, and even handed, and exemplary and virtuous, and kind; never deviating to the right hand nor to the left. Behold he is a righteous man. May God Almighty lengthen out the old mans days; and may his trembling, tortured and broken body be renewed, and the vigor of health turn upon him; if it can be thy will, consistently, O God; and it shall be said of him by the sons of Zion, while there is one of them remaining; that this man, was a faithful man in Israel; therefore his name shall never be forgotten.
Joseph Knight Sr. was always faithful to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Prophet loved him with his whole soul.

So it’s not a light or trivial fact that, when he went to write his personal history, Joseph Knight Sr. testified that Joseph Smith used seer stones and his hat to translate the Book of Mormon.

Knight’s history is kept in the Church Archives. It’s a brief document—only five pages—written in his own hand on 8-by-10-inch sheets of paper. The date of the document is uncertain, but it was composed sometime after Knight departed Jackson County, Missouri, in November 1833 (and, of course, before his death in 1847).

In his history, Brother Knight wrote of how Joseph Smith translated the plates of the Book of Mormon:
Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would appe[a]r in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on. But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the [w]hol[e] translated.
Dean Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies 17/1 (Fall 1976): 35; original spelling and punctuation retained.

Joseph Knight Sr.
Notice how closely Joseph Knight’s testimony matches the testimony given by David Whitmer in 1887 (which Jonathan Neville completely rejects):
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 (1887); cited in Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: A Marvel and a Wonder,” Ensign, January 2020, 40.
Brother Knight wrote his testimony long before David Whitmer or any other eyewitness to the stone-in-the-hat method wrote theirs. There’s no way Knight could have been influenced by Whitmer, Martin Harris, Emma Smith, or any other witness who affirmed that Joseph Smith translated by using a stone in a hat.

Joseph Knight’s testimony is strong evidence that Jonathan Neville is desperately grasping at straws when he claims that the only people who believe Joseph Smith translated by using a stone in a hat were “David Whitmer and others who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with revisionist Church historians.” Rather, it is Neville who is the revisionist.

—Peter Pan


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