Lesson Three: It Is Profitable to Read These Chapters “Literally,” Though Not in the Way People Usually Think About the WordThe Prophet Joseph Smith held the view that scripture should be “understood precisely as it reads.” It must be realized, however, that what premoderns understood to be “literal” interpretations of scripture are not the same as what most people understand them to be in our day. Whereas modernists typically apply the term “literal” to accounts that provide clinical accuracy in the journalistic dimensions of who, what, when, and where, premoderns were more apt to understand “literal” in the sense of “what the letters, i.e., the words say.” These are two very different modes of interpretation. As James Faulconer observed: “‘What x says’ [i.e., the premodern idea of “literal”] and ‘what x describes accurately’ [i.e., the modernist idea of “literal”] do not mean the same, even if the first is a description.”
Consider, for example, Joseph Smith’s description of the Book of Mormon translation process. An emphasis consistent with modernist interests appears in the detailed descriptions given by some of the Prophet’s contemporaries of the size and appearance of the instruments used and the procedure by which the words of the ancient text were made known to him. These kinds of accounts appeal to us as modernists — the more physical details the better — because we want to know what “actually happened” as he translated. Note, however, that Joseph Smith declined to relate such specifics himself even in response to direct questioning in private company from believing friends. The only explicit statement he made about the translation process is his testimony that it occurred “by the gift and power of God,” a description that avoids reinforcing the misleading impression that we can come to an understanding of “what really happened” through “objective” accounts of external observers.