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Firsthand accounts say that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to receive the translation for the Book of Mormon (emphasis mine):

Joseph Smith 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), 12; Quinn (1998, p. 172).

The LDS website on the translation of the Book of Mormon corroborates this account of Joseph Smith looking into his hat at the stone, and states that the gold plates containing the original "reformed Egyptian" version of the text were sometimes nearby, but covered.

Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”

These accounts make it clear that Joseph Smith was not looking at the golden plates when he was translating the Book of Mormon, and they were covered by cloth so that they were not visible to anyone. My understanding is that sometimes the golden plates were not even in the room when he translated them. It seems strange that after all the difficulty he went through to get them, the golden plates were ultimately unused during the actual translation process.

Given that multiple sources say that Joseph Smith derived at least a major portion of his translation of the Book of Morman by looking at the stone in his hat "hour after hour", why were the golden plates necessary in the first place?

  • Joseph apparently used the "urim and thummim" which came with the plates part of the time. If I remember correctly, he said he found out that the stone worked as well, and presumably used the stone (mostly?) thereafter. I don't know of any statement that would tell us whether or not the plates were open when translating originally. – disciple Nov 16 '18 at 17:37
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Not even the stones were really necessary, as is clearly shown by the many revelations that came without them.

But: The existence of the seer stone shows that Joseph believed that revelation could come through a physical object. So that helped his faith, but also probably made the translation easier for him, as he had more experience with the stone than "direct revelation". I think we see that change later during the course of his life.

Second: The existence of the plates, even though few people saw them, helped that people believed this was an actual record written by ancient prophets. Also, it provided the opportunity to have the witnesses see the plates and testify for their existence, giving more credibility to Joseph.

Joseph wasn't given the ability to read and understand the plates, and then carry out a translation with this knowledge. He was given the translation directly.

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    As short as this answer is, I believe it's as complete as anyone is able to give with the records we currently are aware of. – NeutronStar Dec 6 '18 at 1:21
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Joseph Smith was not a well educated man, and he certainly knew nothing about Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, let alone "reformed Egyptian." His claims that angelic beings dictated what he was to write was necessary to lend credibility to his Book of Mormon. The introduction to the Book of Mormon says that the glorified and resurrected prophet Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and instructed him relative to the ancient record and its destined translation into the English language:

In due course the plates were delivered to Joseph Smith,who translated them by the gift and power of God. Source: Book of Mormon Introduction 1981

The Book of Mormon 9:32 says this:

“And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.” (See 1 Ne.1:2; Mosiah 1:2)

Verse 34 says “because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he[God] hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.”

1 Nephi 1:2 says “Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.”

Mosiah 1:2 says King Benjamin taught his three sons, Mosiah, Helorum and Helaman the language of his fathers. This is cross-referenced to Mormon 9:32 which says they used “reformed Egyptian.”

It is important to note that the first book of Nephi was written circa 600 BC, the book of Moshia around 130 BC and the book of Mormon around 332 AD.

The fact that there is no evidence of any language called "reformed Egyptian" or that the golden plates do not exist necessitated the story of how Joseph Smith came to translate this unknown language. Whether he used seer stones or not is hardly relevant. Indeed, it somewhat detracts from the authenticity of the claim that angels dictated what Joseph Smith was to write. Why they failed to use English is a mystery, given Joseph Smith plagiarised from the King James Authorised Version, even to the extent of using the archaic language of 1611.

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    While there are certainly plenty of people who agree with your view that Joseph Smith did not receive divine inspiration and that his claims of seeing golden plates were fictitious, I was expecting an answer from a Mormon worldview that assumed these things were true. So I'm not really sure how to respond to this answer. – Thunderforge Nov 26 '18 at 1:57
  • There is an abundance of positive comments about the golden plates and divine inspiration as to their translation in the links to the two articles you provided. And the introduction to the Book of Mormon declares that "the plates were delivered to Joseph Smith,who translated them by the gift and power of God." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (and the other offshoots) accept the authenticity of the plates and the accuracy of Smith's translation via divine help. No golden plates, nothing to translate. I'm not sure what else can be said. – Lesley Nov 26 '18 at 7:45
  • It appears that the golden plates were actually in the room with Joseph Smith and his wife during the process of translating. Under the heading The Mechanics of Translation the LDS document says: “Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone.” Source: lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng – Lesley Nov 26 '18 at 15:06
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    This response is off topic. It does not address "why the plates were necessary"; instead it addresses "is the existence of the plates credible", which deserves its own separate question if there isn't one already. – IzRey Nov 30 '18 at 14:43
  • My response is directed at Thunderforge and his comment to me. The link I provide gives the Mormon explanation of events. If Thunderforge wants to ask another question, or if he takes exception to my comments, I am sure he will say so. – Lesley Nov 30 '18 at 15:26

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