Book Review: Brant Gardner, The Gift and Power

By December 12, 2011

Gardner, Brant A. The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon.  Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2011.

Gardner seeks to understand the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon by a thorough examination of the text coupled with descriptions of the translation process.  Gardner compares the Book of Mormon translation to regular translations and argues for three types: literal (an exact, word-for-word translation), functional (a translation that conveys meaning instead of exact wording) and conceptual.  Gardener argues that the Book of Mormon translation fits the functionalist type: it is a translation of the concepts into the idioms of Joseph Smith’s world.  Gardner goes further, arguing that research on cognition suggests how Smith translated: revelation was given at a pre-language level and then translated into English by Smith.  Gardner argues that such is a “natural” account of the translation and that his description still posits Smith as the translator.

The book does a great job of analyzing the textual evidence: Gardner gives the various studies of the Book of Mormon text full treatment along with the various theories of what the text suggests about the translation.  Further, Gardner’s theory of eidetic images (270) in the brain does much to help with the issue of how revelation may occur.  However, Gardner’s claim to a “natural” explanation of translation is problematic since he asserts that it came by means of revelation: “it was the Lord (or another divine entity) that placed the meaning of the plates in Joseph’s mind” (276).  Gardner rejects Royal Skousen’s assertion that “some other entity did the translation into English,” (254) even though Gardner’s model is not fundamentally different than Skousen’s: God spoke to Smith in some way, and Smith dictated to his scribes.  Gardner nuances the process in useful ways, but the basic procedure remains the same: revelation.  Ultimately, while Smith was certainly a part of the process, as Gardner asserts so emphatically, it is difficult, if not impossible to say where the line is between Smith and the divine.  “Of course, anything is possible when the basic premises are the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon and the absolute power of God,” Gardner admits (304).  I’d argue that this premis muddies the waters considerably;  “For he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne 31:3).  Thus it is difficult to know if contemporary idioms are used because of Smith’s interjection or if God himself found that to be the best way to communicate.  To try to draw the line, one must make theological assertions about how God operates.  “It is easy to see how Joseph could be so heavily influenced by the KJV New Testament; it is harder to explain why a divine interpreter would be,” asserts Gardner (257).   But such assertions are often in the eye of the beholder; perhaps the divine found that language an effective way to communicate.  Thus figuring out how “the gift and power” worked is a very difficult, and I would argue, otherworldly task.  Gardner is dismissive of Kevin Barney’s assertion of “complex translation”–sometimes literal, sometimes not–saying an overarching theory is needed (247).  But there is no explanation of why God would need to adhere to only one method.  Ultimately, I found Barney’s complex-translation model to be the most likely.

Though the book has some other problems (the first section on the historical context of Smith’s world was not up to date on the latest research [1] and was ultimately unnecessary; the book could have been condensed considerably) this is nonetheless a very useful contribution.  Gardner’s examination of the text and the scholarship is very thorough and his use of cognitive science should pave the way to further research.


[1] Loyd Ericson wanted me review the book because of the content of Gardner’s first section.  Since the first section of the book was not central to the book’s main argument, I review that section in this footnote.

Here Gardner seeks to give context for Smith’s activities with his seer stone.  Gardner rightly notes problems with the tem magic, noting an important divide between urban and rural worldviews: that urban people often call the practices of the rural people “magic.”  This is true, but there is more to this dynamic than just the rural/urban divide (though that divide is important).  For instance, plenty of urban people engaged in activities deemed magical.

Gardner nonetheless makes a valid point with this distinction but makes a fundamental error by reifying the categories.  Gardner argues, as have other scholars, that Smith started out practicing magic but then shifted to religion. The big shift came with the Moroni visitation and the translation of the Book of Mormon, Gardner argues.  “Joseph had crossed the threshold between magic/religion and the rural/urban tradition and brought his seer stones with him because they participated in that new context” (102).  This sentence demonstrates the problems of reifying the magic/religion divide.  Smith did not suddenly become an “urban” person by translating the Book of Mormon with the seer stone.  However Smith viewed his seer stones, they were not acceptably religious to the notions of orthodox religion (Protestant) of his day.   As I’ve stated a number of times on this blog, these categories are in the eye of the beholder; people draw the line between magic and religion in all different ways.  Smith’s definitions would have been very different from established Protestant clergymen.  Smith in no way was trying to accomodate Mormonism to the orthodox Protestant worldview; he rejected much of that worldview.  Thus, Gardner would have been better off to have rejected the religion/magic divide, and to have instead simply sought to explore how Smith understood his world.

Ultimately, Garder was not up on the latest scholarship on the the popular religion of Smith’s day (I’ve posted a number of reviews of such books on this blog).  This is understandable, considering the breadth of Gardner’s topic.  I’d be interested to see if such work would alter his conclusions at all.

But again, this was not central to the books main argument, which made a valuable contribution.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Who is Lloyd Ericson?

    Comment by the narrator — December 12, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  2. fixed

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 12, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  3. 😉

    Comment by the narrator — December 12, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  4. I finished reading this book a few weeks ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I admit to being a little confused about the conclusion that the translation was “functional” as I noticed a number of times that Gardner himself provided certain examples that he deemed to be more literal than functional, ie Kevin Barney’s “complex translation.” Overall, I found Gardner’s textual analysis enlightening.

    Steve, when Gardner labeled the Moroni’s visit as the “vision that changed everything,” I found that actually quite useful in the context of Joseph’s subsequent behavior over the next few years. As an amateur dabbling in church history, I can agree that the divide between between magic/religion and rural/urban is certainly not like flipping a light switch, but there is no question that after Moroni’s visit, Joseph became a different and more complex person, a process that from my view, persisted throughout the rest of his life.

    Excellent review, and I would recommend this book to any of my LDS general reader friends who read and enjoyed RSR.

    Comment by kevinf — December 12, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  5. I appear to have a comment stuck in moderation. Or else I am banned? :)

    Admin: Sorry, somehow you were filed as spam. Don’t take it personally.

    Comment by kevinf — December 12, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  6. My comments are regularly flagged as spam Kevin. So consider yourself part of the group. I can’t even put my website in as that immediately flags my comments as spam for some unexplainable reason.

    Comment by Clark — December 12, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

  7. Kevin, yes, Gardner’s textual analysis is very helpful.

    On the issue of magic and Moroni, let me explain a little more. No doubt JS underwent shifts in his thinking and behavior and no doubt the Moroni visitation could have been one of these shifts. The problem is the notion that JS somehow shifted from magic to religion. This is probably best explained using the Gardner’s categories. Gardner is right that there can be an important cultural divides between urban and rural people (there are other important divides as well, like class). Urban people tend to be the elites that dictate cultural norms and look down on the rural “hicks.” They do so in matters of religion, seeing what rural people do as backward and often calling their rituals “magic.” This happend in the Reformation which was driven by urban, university educated people, who called the rituals of Catholicism magic as well as the folk practices of the country people. Invocations of the supernatural or the miraculous were deemed improper by Calvinists, as were most rituals and ritual objects. All such practices were deemed “popish,” “superstitious,” and or “magical.”

    Gardner’s problem is that he reifies this divide when he says that JS crossed over from the rural to the urban and thus from magic to religion. By so doing he’s essentially saying that the urban worldview really is religion and the rural worldview really is magic. This is a mistake. These are simply definitions used by certain parties and not absolute scholarly categories.

    So JS no doubt had some big life altering experiences (the First Vision etc) but saying that he switched from magic to religion simply imposes a categorical division and definitions that would have been foreign to JS. Furthermore, Smith did not accept the religious definitions of the orthodox Protestants (the urban people); he never adopted their norms. Thus Gardner’s typology ends of being problematic. That is, these elites always saw JS’s seer stones as “magic” and not religion. Nothing JS did would have changed that. But again, scholars should not reify that particular point of view. Instead they should note that there are certain practices deemed magic by certain people.

    But again, his textual analysis is worth reading.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 13, 2011 @ 11:19 am

  8. Steve, thanks for taking the time for a stronger explanation. I don’t think I disagree, but my recollection of Gardner’s discussion of the magic/religion divide is that it was more social. What “we” do is religion, what “others” do is magic. That can be an urban/rural distinction, or it can also be a generational concept, or immigrant/old country vs. established resident. I think that is what I understand you saying in your last sentence, in that certain practices were deemed magic by certain people.

    I still find interesting the concept that Moroni’s visit had a more dramatic impact on Joseph Smith than the First Vision, at least in terms of prompting action. The First Vision brought about internal change in Joseph, but little external action. Moroni’s visits focused on turning the young seer Joseph to acting externally on the knowledge he had gained in the First Vision.

    Comment by kevinf — December 13, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  9. Kevin, he says the definitions are cultural in the earlier part of the section but he then reifies the terms (makes them absolute and “real”) when he talks about JS’s shift. He says he “really” shifts from magic to religion. Again, the line: ”Joseph had crossed the threshold between magic/religion and the rural/urban tradition and brought his seer stones with him because they participated in that new context.” He even titles chapter 10 “Miracle, Not Magic: Establishing Mormonism.” So Gardner shifts away from just a cultural definition to an absolute one and that’s what I’m critiquing.

    No doubt the Moroni visit had a major impact but it needs to be examined by categories other than magic/religion divide.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 13, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  10. Thanks, Steve. As a part time amateur, I appreciate your patience as I learn how to think more like a real historian. I am not as well read as I would like to be, a product of making a living in technology sales, and I am scrambling to better understand all the time.

    Comment by kevinf — December 13, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  11. No doubt these are tricky issues, Kevin, and the book certainly has it merits. I did want to pass along some clarification on some points. I’m glad you found it helpful.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 14, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  12. Good review, Steve. I asked Brant about the magic/religion crossover as you note here in a podcast interview. After the interview was over I discovered the software I was using to record through Skype messed the whole thing up royally so I had to scrap it. We’ll re-interview in the next few weeks and I’ll bring it up again.

    Furthermore, Smith did not accept the religious definitions of the orthodox Protestants (the urban people); he never adopted their norms

    I would nuance this by suggesting that JS realized that the village seer thing would cause problems for him in the eyes of some onlookers. I think this explains why JS apparently never publicly described the translation process, and when he was asked about it directly he dodged the question, always pointing to the “gift and power of God” statement which came from the BoM title page. I suggest, and this is only a suggestion, that he knew the seer stone in the hat thing wouldn’t win him much more than ridicule among many of the people he hoped to convert. Also, JS decreased his use of the stone after the translation until eventually he is said not to have used it at all when receiving revelations, which bothered some of the Whitmer’s IIRC.

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  13. btw, i wish JI had the feature that would email me when responses appear…do it! 😉

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  14. Blair, I think you’re exactly right; that’s how I see it. JS became acutely aware at some point (either the 1826 trial or even earlier) that the seer stone would be ridiculed in the larger society and so he always left it out of his narratives. But, as we know, that’s not the same as repudiating the seer stone, which he always held to be sacred. Again, I don’t see the Moroni visit as switching JS’s view of the stone substantially; he always viewed his seeric abilities as a gift from God (though, no doubt, translating the BoM was a better use of the gift than was treasure digging). Also, isn’t there some evidence of some later use, like the Book of Abraham?

    Again, I don’t want my critiques on this point to overshadow the other parts of the book, much of which are really helpful.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  15. That is, JS had to deal with the religious norms of orthodox Protestants, but that’s not the same as accepting those norms.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  16. Thanks for the review Steve. I’m still really fuzzy about the distinction between a functional and a conceptual translation based on revelation. I also don’t see how it differs from the expansion theory that I presented way back when. Perhaps Gardner has in mind that there was always something on the plates that corresponded in some more or less isomorphic way with what is found in the Book of Mormon. In the expansion theory the translation is it is functional in the sense that all expansions are further elucidation of underlying material found on the plates but not properly a translation of the meaning of the words or limited to what was isomorphically communicated on the plate. However, even a loose isomorphic representation of what was found on the plates would be difficult to defend given that Joseph could quote large portions of the KJV without an underlying textual basis in texts that existed when the Book of Mormon passages could have been written. That goes beyond merely translating from an ancient language into “idioms” of ones own culture. I admit that my views were influenced by Quine’s view on the logical impossibility of isomorphic translation – and they still seem valid and necessary to any translation method to me.

    I agree with you about the arbitrary nature of the religion/magic divide and that Joseph didn’t divide it up the way that mainstream Prostestants did (though it isn’t hard to find those contemporaries who belonged to maintstream Protestant churches who engaged in water witching, use of divining rods and use of peep stones etc.).

    Comment by Blake — December 22, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  17. I was a little curious about that too Blake, although not having the book I assumed it was defined more there. Making a guess I’d assume functional conveys a desired aim whereas conceptual conveys a desired concept. So if I am translating something sad I might not want to merely communicate the concepts as the effect may differ in different languages. I’d have to instead translate something with a similar effect but perhaps different concept.

    An example of this might be 1 Samuel 25:22 where I suspect the effect on a modern audience is different from the conceptual translation. A better example might be sisu in Finnish. A conceptual translation would be “never say die” but the word has a strong fatalist connotation. So it’s often translated as “I may not win but would gladly die trying,” Some of those connotations can be conveyed by concept or at least footnote but it’s worth asking how a translation given like the BoM would deal with these issues.

    Comment by Clark — December 22, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  18. These are no doubt complicated issues, Blake. Gardner spends most of his time arguing against literalist translation; he doesn’t address what he sees wrong with conceptual translation much. He gives all sorts of useful examples in the text but I think you bring up the fact that it’s difficult to argue for a one-size-fits-all method.

    Clark, Gardner addresses those sorts of issues. His textual analysis is worth reading.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 23, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  19. Was I close in my guess Steve? I want to pick up Brant’s book. I kind of miss all the discussions we used to have when we were on mailing lists back in the 90’s. I lost contact with him so I was pretty excited to see his Book of Mormon commentary came out. I was disappointed when I was at Seagull yesterday buying stocking stuffers for the kids to see his commentary wasn’t featured more prominently while some that seemed much inferior to me were. C’est la vie I guess. ln some ways his commentary came out of all the discussions he had as he was thinking through a lot of these issues. He was always much more cautious than many people were on these matters.

    I’d say I’d buy it now but the stack of books to read is pretty high. Adam Miller’s new book on object oriented ontology is next up in my reading.

    Comment by Clark — December 23, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  20. Your guess sounds right to me, but again, he doesn’t spend much time discussing conceptual translation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 23, 2011 @ 1:37 pm


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