Saturday, February 27, 2010

Understanding Joseph Smith’s Translation

Daniel Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828, at the time Joseph Smith was translating the Gold Plates. Since both men were of New England, it is likely that they had the same basic understanding of the words and language we find in the Book of Mormon.

Webster’s dictionary was produced during the years when the American home, church and school were established upon a Biblical and patriotic basis, and made important contributions to an American educational system that kept the nation upon a Christian Constitutional course for many years.

He spearheaded the flood of educational volumes emphasizing Christian Constitutional values for more than a century. It is not surprising, therefore, that the 1828 American Dictionary should contain the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any secular volume.

As Webster pointed out in the Preface of his dictionary, “It is not only important, but, in a degree necessary, that the people of this country, should have an American Dictionary of the English Language; for, although the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.”

Following the Preface, Webster spends 48 pages in an introduction showing how words in most of the earth’s languages interact, and how they developed, and how they affect the words of other languages. He then spends a like amount of pages in outlining the grammar of the English language. His dedication, strong religious background, and firm belief in Judean/Christian ethics, principles, and Constitutional government might suggest that he was one of the Lord’s chosen emissaries to come forth at the time he did to carry out a work that would prove extremely important to the country as a whole, and to the restoration of the gospel specifically.

It would be imprudent for anyone who wants to understand the language Joseph Smith knew when translating the plates, not to recognize the placement of Noah Webster in the same general area of New England in which young Joseph grew to manhood. It would also be imprudent not to recognize the Lord’s hand in preserving the language known to the prophet and in which he translated the Book of Mormon, for later generations.

Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, besides being a masterpiece of religious preservation in our language, gives us the exact language known at the time the prophet, Joseph was translating and, therefore, the exact meanings Joseph would have meant regarding the English equivalent of the reformed Egyptian written on the plates. Therefore, it is expedient for us to both obtain this extremely wonderful dictionary, and to use it in conjunction with reading the Book of Mormon.

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