John Turner, a religious studies professor at George Mason University and the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, has written a post reflecting on Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham, and the recent statement by the LDS Church about the Book of Abraham.
Here is a selection from the end of Turner’s post:
Mormon scholars of Mormonism typically set aside questions of religious truth in their examinations of their subject. There is no good reason for one to offer an opinion about whether or not Joseph Smith saw heavenly beings, for instance. In this case, it is harder to sidestep such judgments. Did Smith mislead his followers into thinking that he had literally decoded the language and symbols found on the papyri he bought for a small fortune? Perhaps so. Indeed, most non-Mormons can hardly avoid this conclusion when examining the Book of Abraham controversy. Then again, perhaps Smith genuinely believed that the papyri contained the narrative he brought forth.
What both the Book of Abraham itself and the church’s recent statements on both that text and on the Book of Mormon remind us is that Joseph Smith had a very expansive understanding of translation, far more expansive than most twenty-first century students of Mormonism. One exception — I find Samuel Brown’s expansive explanation of “translation” helpful in understanding Joseph Smith:
Smith had a revelation to make, a set of religious messages that constantly overflowed the banks of his mind… His mode of translation was a process of finding and assembling from many sources the clues and cues that supported this revelation. Whether he was observing burial mounds or scrying stones or the King James Bible or Masonic liturgy or funerary papyri, Smith had a message whose details arose from careful and passionate reading informed by religious experience and insight … This was more than just syncretism. Smith had a vision, a revelation – his followers believed a divine dispensation – and as his mind roamed over the conceptual landscape he inhabited, myriad phenomena came to speak of this great revelation. Smith was a translator rather than a parrot, an artist rather than a collator.[In Heaven, pp. 10-11]
Regardless of how one assesses the Book of Abraham, Smith did far more than pull a fast one on his followers. He used objects such as the papyri, along with a host of other sources of inspiration, to bring forth a new set of doctrines and rituals that millions of individuals still find compelling.