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Interpreting Interpreter
Joseph Smith at the Veil

This post is a summary of the article “Joseph Smith at the Veil: Significant Ritual, Symbolism, and Temple Influence at Latter-day Saint Beginnings” by George L. Mitton in Volume 58 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Mitton argues that various aspects of Joseph’s early experiences with the Book of Mormon evoke ritual temple symbolism, such as the ritual ascent to Hill Cumorah as a cosmic mountain, visions being timed to align with ritual feasts, and the use of a veil in the translation of the Book of Mormon.


The Summary

In this article, George L. Mitton examines the events surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, identifying areas that he associates with various kinds of temple symbolism. These are areas that he feels are often misunderstood and used as criticisms of the prophet Joseph, but that appear to symbolically recapitulate sacred historical events, as well as a broader conflict between good and evil. They include:

Joseph’s recounting of his own sins and temptations prior to the First Vision, aligning with a common ancient schema for heroic figures, including the temptations of Moses and Christ.

The Book of Mormon literally coming forth out of a “rocky hillside tomb”, typifying Christ’s resurrection, an event that, like Christ’s resurrection, had 11 official witnesses. This process is likened by some to the priestly discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in the recesses of the temple. Mitton joins others in likening the book’s stone box to the box containing the ark of the covenant.

The Hill Cumorah potentially representing a “cosmic sacred mountain”, an ancient prototype of the temple that one can ascend both physically and spiritually. Mitton ties this pattern of ascent to Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai, among other connections to the exodus. This pattern extends to the New Testament, including to Christ’s post-resurrection ascension. Mitton emphasizes the spiritually ascendant visionary experiences associated with the early Restoration.

The timing of Joseph’s annual visits with Moroni aligning with Israelite ritual feasts. In addition, Mitton recounts another visionary experience occurring on the date that Joseph received the places, reported by Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young.

The Book of Mormon translation, which often involved a blanket or curtain hung as a veil protecting the plates from view, and which often occurred in the upper room of a home. Mitton outlines a number of parallels between this arrangement and ritual symbolism, including the designation and protection of a sacred space, a heavenly ascent within an upper room, representations of the holy of holies and the ark of the covenant, and the reception of a holy text. These aspects would eventually be incorporated into the formal temple experience that was developed in the Nauvoo period.

For Mitton, these connections help answer key questions about Joseph’s experience, with these events serving a symbolic or ritual purpose in addition to reflecting actual history. As he concludes:

“There was simplicity in Joseph Smith’s translation arrangements, yet they represented profound religious matters. The process involved an anticipatory procedure that amounted to a prophecy of what was to come when temples were established. What may be gleaned from the available sources is a mere glimpse of what occurred — but what a marvelous glimpse it is.”


The Reflection

Mitton provides an interesting basket of associations. I had legitimately never considered the connection between the Book of Mormon coming out of a stone box and Christ being raised from the tomb. The possibility that the nature of the Book of Mormon translation had important ritual significance is a tantalizing one, particularly as one could be tempted to raise questions about their necessity from a practical standpoint. It would seem to be a bit of an odd chore, for instance, to have Joseph make annual treks up Cumorah, but its possible ritual significance helps to make its purpose a little clearer. One wonders what events and details in our own lives might take on greater significance when looked through in the light of divinity, and in light of the rituals that help connect us to divinity’s source.

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