I was searching through my books in storage a few days ago and came across a first edition of the Book of Mormon in Afrikaans. I served a mission in South African from 1971 to 1973. I had interesting and challenging experiences. But this was one of the most riveting.
I attended the special conference in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972, when the new translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans (Die Boek van Mormon) was presented. It was an electric moment. People wept. Some had waited all of their lifetimes to read the Book of Mormon in Afrikaans. Many people had learned English for the sole purpose of reading this scripture. The Spirit was strong among us as we rejoiced.
Remembering back more than forty years, I can still remember Professor Felix Mijnhardt as he spoke of his experience in translating that sacred book. We also had a special zone conference a few days prior where our mission president, Harlan Clark, recounted his involvement with and experience of the translation of the Book of Mormon. I had a good friend who was an assistant to President Clark, who later shared with me his experiences of being in meetings with Professor Mijnhardt and Elder Clark several times. I can no longer remember who said what exactly, but I remember what I felt, and how it affected my newly-minted testimony as a young missionary. I will retell it as best as I can recall.
Professor Mijnhardt was invited to come to the stand and speak about his experience in translating the Book of Mormon. He recounted how he had been given a gift of languages from God from his youth. He said that he was fluent in over sixty languages. He was presently employed at Pretoria University as a language professor. He said he had been praying that the Lord would give him some task, some divinely important task, that would justify his having this gift of language from God.
He said that in about 1970 he had visited a group of Mormon leaders, including a Bishop Brummer, Mission President Harlan Clark, and others, who sought to commission him to translate the Book of Mormon from English into Afrikaans. He said that he knew of the Book of Mormon from his religions studies, and his initial reaction was that he did not want to be involved in translating it.
However, that evening as he prayed upon his knees, as was his habit, the Spirit of the Lord convicted him. The message was something on the order of, “You asked me for a great, divinely inspired task of translation, I sent it to you in the form of translating the Book of Mormon, and you declined.” Professor Mijnhardt said he could not sleep through the night because he knew that translating the Book of Mormon would get him into trouble with his university, which was owned and operated by the Dutch Reformed Church. When morning came he agreed to begin the translation immediately.
Standing at the pulpit, he described the experience. He said something like, “I never begin translating a book at the beginning. Writing style usually changes throughout a book and becomes more consistent toward the middle. Accordingly, I opened to a random place in the middle of the Book of Mormon, and began translating.”
He said, “I was startled by the obvious fact that the Book of Mormon was not authored in English. It became immediately apparent that what I was reading was a translation into English from some other language. The sentence structure was wrong for native English. The word choices were wrong, as were many phrases.”
He asked, “How many times has an Englishman said or written, ‘And it came to pass’?” We all laughed, and knew he was right, of course.
He explained that when he realized this, he knew that he had to find either the original language or a median language, and then proceed to translate it into Afrikaans. He listed a half-dozen languages he tried, all of which did not accommodate the strange sentence structure found in the Book of Mormon. He said he finally tried Egyptian, and to his complete surprise, he found that the Book of Mormon translated flawlessly into Egyptian—not modern, but ancient Egyptian. He found that some nouns were missing from Egyptian, so he used Hebrew nouns where Egyptian did not provide the word or phrase. He chose Hebrew because both languages existed in the same place anciently.
He said he had no idea at that time why the Book of Mormon was once written in Egyptian, but he said that without any doubt, the Book of Mormon had been authored in Egyptian or a language with very similar syntax. I heard him say this over and over. Then, he said, “Imagine my utter astonishment when I turned to chapter one, verse one, and began my actual translation, and came to verse two, where Nephi explains that he was writing in the language of the Egyptians, with the learning of the Jews!”
He said, “I knew by the second verse that this was no ordinary book, that it was not the writings of Joseph Smith, but that it was of ancient origin. I could have saved myself months of work if I had just begun at the beginning. Nobody but God—working through a prophet of God, in this case Nephi—would have included a statement of the language he was writing in. Consider how many documents written in English include the phrase, ‘I am writing in English’! It is unthinkable and absolute proof of the inspired origins of this book.”
He noted that he was one of the few people in the world with any knowledge of old Egyptian writing. He was certainly the only person who was also fluent in Afrikaans and English. He indicated that when a verse would not translate directly into English, he used Egyptian as a tool to arrive at a correct translation into Afrikaans.
Professor Mijnhardt spoke of many other things regarding the translation of this book and then said, “I do not know what Joseph Smith was before he translated this book, and I do not know what he was afterward, but while he translated this book, he was a prophet of God! I know he was a prophet! I testify to you that he was a prophet while he brought forth this book! He could have been nothing else! No person in 1827 could have done what he did. The science did not exist. The knowledge of ancient Egyptian did not exist. The knowledge of these ancient times and ancient peoples did not exist. The Book of Mormon is scripture. I hope you realize this.”
“I have since been asked to translate the book you call the Doctrine and Covenants. I got part way through and set it down. It is not like the Book of Mormon. Anyone could translate it into Afrikaans. It is not scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon is scripture. I declare that the Book of Mormon is of ancient origin, and is scripture of the same caliber as the Old Testament, or for that matter, the New Testament.”
“I have taken this book of scripture, this Book of Mormon, and presented it to my Board of Regents, and urged them to embrace it as scripture. They declined, of course. I took it to the head of our Dutch Reformed Church and demonstrated why the Book of Mormon is scripture, and urged them to at least study it, even if they did not canonize it or even share it with the people of the church. I urged them to just think what having a new and profound book of scripture could mean to the church–to my church, the Dutch Reformed Church. I pointed out that they need not become Mormons, in the same way that they did not need to become Jews to embrace the Old Testament. They considered my presentation for a very few seconds and then rejected it. They next threatened me regarding my belief in the Book of Mormon, threatened my employment, and ejected me from their presence. I am deeply disappointed, but I am not deterred. I will keep promoting this book as scripture for the remainder of my life–simply because it is scripture, and I know it.”
He paused, then added, “I am not a member of your church, and do not expect to become one. I have been asked many times why I have not joined your church, and my answer is because God has not directed me to join you. If He had, I would be standing here as a fellow Mormon. Perhaps my mission in life is better served outside of your church. I haven’t studied your doctrine or your history since Joseph Smith. The only thing I know about you is that you have authentic, ancient scripture in the Book of Mormon, and that all of the world should embrace the Book of Mormon as scripture. It simply can’t be denied. I believe every religion could embrace the Book of Mormon without becoming a Mormon. You probably disagree with that, but it is my present belief, and my message to anyone who will listen.”
I have pondered that experience for half of a century now. I do not know whether Professor Mijnhardt ever joined the Church. I know my memory of his exact words is wanting, but my memory of what I felt and what I knew and how potent it was to hear his testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is one of those things that I will never forget.
For more accounts from John Pontius’ life, please read “Journey to the Veil”, located here.
* Terri’s note: For anyone interested, the current location of the transcript for the May 14, 1972 Transvaal Stake meeting in Johannesburg is in the Church History Library, call number LR 9256 24, Folder 1.