Friday, August 12, 2016

Conference on the Book of Mormon

We take much for granted today about the Book of Mormon and our knowledge of it, and in so doing, often make judgements about what people say regarding it and what we say about it. Most of us probably need to realize that we may not know as much as we think and claim.
As an example, nobody in the early days of the church attempted to define in print how the proper names appearing in the Book of Mormon—but not the Bible—were to be pronounced since Joseph Smith in his translation spelled out unfamiliar proper names to his scribes during the translation process, but never formally recorded his pronunciations.
    Throughout the twentieth century, several church committees attempted to standardize the pronunciation and provided a printed guide for English-speaking church members. In studying the pronunciation guide’s evolution for English-speaking church members, and it seems likely that church members will probably never pronounce Book of Mormon proper names correctly until either the ancients themselves tell us how they said their names or the Lord reveals the proper pronunciations.
    Very likely, the only two names in the Book of Mormon we know how to pronounce for certain are Moroni and Mormon, since Joseph Smith spoke directly to Moroni, and undoubtedly heard from him both names. Joseph’s mother writes that young Joseph told them stories continually about the Book of Mormon before he obtained the plates, therefore, any names of places and people would have been learned from hearing Moroni instruct him in the Nephite history, which he then recounted to his family—but we still do not have any formal pronunciations written down by his family.
    However, it would be highly likely that Joseph knew how to pronounce most or all of the names used in the scriptural record—however, according to Hugh Nibley and based on scribal comments, it appears that Joseph never once pronounced a proper name while transcribing the record, but spelled out unfamiliar names and words. It should also be pointed out that Hebrew pronunciation of names is not the same as English: Jacob, as an example, is spelled Ya’akov (Yackov) in Hebrew, Adam is pronounced “Ah-dom,” Eve is pronounced “Hav-vah,” and Noah is pronounced “Noh-ach” (with a guttural sound on the “ach”). At the same time, while in English we pronounce Nephi’s name “Nee-fie” in Spanish it is pronounced “Nef-fee.”
    Thus, from an English pronunciation viewpoint, it is likely that “Nephi” and “Lehi” would have been names Joseph knew and would have heard from Moroni.
    Yet, for the most part, we do not know for certain how most of these names or words were pronounced by the Nephites, especially words like neas, sheum, ziff, cureloms and cumoms.
BYU Academy in Provo, Utah, 1909 
    Two things have led us to the current pronunciation and that began with a conference that was held on Saturday and Sunday, May 22-23, 1909, called the “1909 Book of Mormon Convention,” in the College Hall at the Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah.
    At this time, rules of pronunciation which we now use for the Book of Mormon were adopted and approved. As reported in the Deseret News, throughout the two days President Joseph F. Smith had to remind those in attendance to calm down when debates got a little heated about such things as the location of Zarahemla and the River Sidon.
In his opening remarks, President Smith (left) said in introducing the objective: “The purpose of the convention is to consider the Book of Mormon and the people to whom it gives a history, and the lands to which it refers. The convention is not organized to discuss the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon—that had been accepted when we accepted the divine mission of Joseph Smith and the testimony of the witnesses to the book.”
    President Smith reminded those attending the convention that where things took place in the Book of Mormon was certainly of interest; but it was not of vital importance. He advised against placing the same level of importance on Book of Mormon geography as on gospel principles.
    It might be of interest to note that from the delivered lectures it seems quite clear that while there has always been a great interest in Book of Mormon geography and that there have also been great debates between the various schools of thought, neither the Church nor anyone there knew anything for certain as to any location---nor did President Smith lean in one direction or the other, nor suggest that Church consider one location over another.
    In fact, at this time Joseph F. Smith, the nephew of Joseph Smith, the prophet, and son of Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, obviously did not know where the Book of Mormon lands took place—if he did, he certainly did not make any comments that would lead one to think he did. Yet, at this conference, opinions as to where the Land of Promise was located was a major topic that lasted for quite some lengthy discussions, lectures, and presentations.
Elder James E. Talmage (left), who studied chemistry and geology at Lehigh University and Johns Hopkins University, presented what he called Internal Evidence of the Book of Mormon. His lecture dealt with the various writing styles found in the book, which he and others believed confirmed the idea that the book was written by several different people in different places and at different times. Lectures were also presented arguing that the city of Zarahemla was located in various places from Venezuala to Honduras to North America. In addition, proposals were given for the River Sidon being in Central America, South America and North America.
Elder B. H. Roberts (left) took issue with those at the convention who believed the destruction and changes in the land at the time of the crucifixion were minimal. Elder Orson F. Whitney, who had served as assistant Church Historian from 1899 to 1906 concurred with Roberts and presented evidence of great destruction. Despite this, both High Nibley, who was born the year after this conference, and John L. Sorenson, who was head of the anthropological department at BYU, and wrote his landmark work in 1985, claim that the destruction was quite minimal and merely surface "cosmetic" level and no great changes occurred.
 Left: Charles W. Penrose; Right: Joseph Brigham Keeler – both worked on the pronunciation guide for the Book of Mormon 
    It seems the only thing that everyone could agree on was a pronunciation guideline for Book of Mormon names. That information was shared by Elder Charles W. Penrose and, on motion of Professor J. B. Keeler, was adopted by the committee. That pronunciation guide consisted of
• Words of three syllables—the accent comes on the first syllable;
• Words of four syllables—the accent comes on the third syllable (although five exceptions to this rule exist: Abinadi, Abinadom, Amalikiah, Aminadi, and Aminadab;
• “ch” always pronounced as “K”
• “I” at the end of a word always pronounced long as in Moroni
• “G” at the beginning of a word is always pronounced hard like in “great”
• Bible names to be pronounced as in the Bible
[A complete list can be found at:]
    At the conclusion of the convention, President Joseph F. Smith again cautioned those in attendance to avoid making the geography of the Book of Mormon of equal importance with the doctrine contained in the book. Not only that, but we should also keep in mind that while we would not quibble over the meaning of doctrinal issues, we find such quibbling over such simple language as to be clearly indicative of geographical understanding. Perhaps we ought to treat the descriptive statements of Mormon with equal emphasis to the doctrinal statements he made in that both are correct as written.

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