THE MANNER OF TRANSLATING THE BOOK OF MORMON
New Witness for God by BH Roberts CHAPTER VII.
Relative to the manner of translating the Book of Mormon the Prophet himself has said but little. “Through the medium of the Urim and Thimmim I translated the record by the gift and power of God,” a is the most extended published statement made by him upon the subject. Of the Urim and Thummim he says : “With the record was found a curious instrument which the ancients called a Urim and Thummim,’ which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.”
Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, and the Prophet’s chief amanuensis, says of the work of translation in which he assisted : “I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, ‘Holy Interpreters.’ ” This is all he has left on record on the manner of translating the book.
David Whitmer, another of the Three Witnesses, is more specific on this subject. After describing the means the Prophet employed to exclude the light from the “Seer Stone,” he says : “In the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God and not by any power of man.”‘
There will appear between this statement of David Whitmer’s and what is said both by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery a seeming contradiction. Joseph and Oliver both say the translation was done by means of the Urim and Thummim, which is described by Joseph as being two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate;” while David Whitmer says that the translation was made by means of a “Seer Stone.” The apparent contradiction is cleared up, however, by a statement made by Martin Harris, another of the Three Witnesses. He said that the Prophet possessed a “Seer Stone,” by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then (i. e., at the time Harris was acting as his scribe) used the Seer Stone. * * * * Martin said further that the Seer Stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembling spectacles, only they were larger.
The “Seer Stone” referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it as described above as well as by means of the “Interpreters” found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates.*
He [meaning Joseph Smith] had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg-shape, and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates. He did not see the plates in translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment on which would appear the characters of the plates in a line at the top, and immediately below would appear the translation in English, which Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistakes had been made, the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected, when they would fade from sight to be replaced by another line.
It is evident that there are inaccuracies in the above statement, due, doubtless, to the carelessness of the reporter of the Journal, who has confused what Mr. Whitmer said of the Seer Stone and Urim and Thummim. If he meant to describe the Urim and Thummim or “Interpreters” given to Joseph Smith with the plates as seems to be the case then the reporter is wrong in saying that they were chocolate color and not transparent; for the “Interpreters” given to the Prophet with the plates, as we have seen by his own description, were “two transparent stones.” If the reporter meant to describe the “Seer Stone” which is not likely he would be right in saying it was of a chocolate color, and egg-shaped, but wrong in saying there were two of them.
Martin Harris’s description of the manner of translating while he was the amanuensis of the Prophet is as follows:
By aid of the Seer Stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say “written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.*’
On one occasion Harris sought to test the genuineness of the Prophet’s procedure in the matter of translation, as follows :
Martin said that after continued translation they would become weary and would go down to the river and exercise in throwing stones out on the river, etc. While so doing on one occasion, Martin found a stone very much resembling the one used for translating, and on resuming their labors of translation Martin put in place [of the Seer Stone] the stone that he had found. He said that the Prophet remained silent unusually and intently gazing in darkness, no trace of the usual sentence appearing. Much surprised Joseph exclaimed :”Martin! what is the matter? all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin’s countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them.
“The sum of the whole matter, then, concerning the manner of translating the sacred record of the Nephites, according to the testimony of the only witnesses competent to testify in the matter is: With the Nephite record was deposited a curious instrument, consisting of two transparent stones, set in the rim of a bow, somewhat resembling spectacles, but larger, called by the ancient Hebrews “Urim and Thummim,” but by the Nephites “Interpreters.” In addition to these “Interpreters” the Porphet Joseph had a “Seer Stone,” which to him was a Urim and Thummim; that the Prophet sometimes used ‘one and sometimes the other of these sacred instruments in the work of translation ; that whether the “Interpreters” or the “Seer Stone” was used the Nephite characters with the English interpretation appeared in the sacred instrument; that the Prophet would pronounce the English translation to his scribe, which, when correctly written, would disappear and the other characters with their interpretation take their place, and so on until the work was completed.
It should not be supposed, however, that this translation, though accomplished by means of the “Interpreters” and “Seer Stone,” as stated above, was merely a mechanical procedure; that no faith, or mental or spiritual effort was required on the Prophet’s part; that the instruments did all, while he who used them did nothing but look and repeat mechanically what he saw there reflected. Much has been written upon this manner of translating the Nephite record, by those who have opposed the Book of Mormon, and chiefly in a sneering way. On the manner of translation they have bottomed much of not their argument but their ridicule against the record ; and as in another part of this volume I am to meet what they consider their argument, and what I know to be their ridicule, I consider here a few other facts connected with the manner of translating the Book of Mormon, which are extremely important, as they furnish a basis upon which can be successfully answered all the objections that are urged, based on the manner in which the translation was accomplished, and also as to errors in grammar, the use of modern words, western New York phrases, and other defects of language which it is admitted are to be found in the Book of Mormon, especially in the first edition.
I repeat, then, that the translation of the Book of Mormon by means of the “Interpreters” and “Seer Stone,” was not merely a mechanical process, but required the utmost concentration of mental and spiritual force possessed by the Prophet, in order to exercise the gift of translation through the means of the sacred instruments provided for that work. Fortunately we have the most perfect evidence of the fact, though it could be inferred from the general truth that God sets no premium upon mental or spiritual laziness; for whatever means God may have provided to assist man to arrive at the truth, He has always made it necessary for man to couple with those means his utmost endeavor of mind and heart. So much in the way of reflection; now as to the facts referred to.
In his “Address to All Believers in Christ” ‘ David Whitmer says :
“At times when Brother Joseph would attempt to translate he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, lie could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in his sight before he can receive revelation from him.”
´THE MANNER OF TRANSLATING THE BOOK OF MORMON New Witness for God BH Roberts CHAPTER VII.
The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:
“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)
Emma Smith, who acted as an earlier scribe for Joseph, gave this account in 1856:
“When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.
“When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, ‘Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?’ When I answered, ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Oh! [I didn’t know.] I was afraid I had been deceived.’ He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.” (Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,”Journal of History, Jan. 1916, p. 454.)
On another occasion, Emma Smith recorded:
“The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.” (“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, p. 290; spelling modernized.)
Although the Prophet would polish his skills over the years, Emma acknowledged that Joseph possessed only rudimentary literacy at the time he translated the gold plates:
“Joseph Smith … could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to any one else.” (Ibid.)
Worthiness was the only means of operation just as it was the ball and director used by Nephi. (I Nephi) Testimonials show the worthiness of the Prophet and the reasons he had to remain so.
At times when Brother Joseph would attempt to translate he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He  told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in his sight before he can receive revelation from him. (David Whitmer, Address to All Believers in Christ.)
He was a religious and straightforward man. He had to be; for he was illiterate and he could do nothing himself. He had to trust in God. He could not translate unless he was humble and possessed the right feelings towards everyone. To illustrate so you can see: One morning when he was getting ready to continue the translation, something went wrong about the house and he was put out about it. Something that Emma, his wife, had done. Oliver and I went upstairs and Joseph came up soon after to continue the translation but he could not do anything. He could not translate a single syllable. He went downstairs, out into the orchard, and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour–came back to the house and asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came upstairs where we were and then the translation went all right. He could do nothing save he was humble and faithful. (DavidWhitmer, Sept. 15, 1882, Braden-Kelly Debate, p. 186)
A Treasured Testament by ELDER RUSSELL M. NELSON of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles July 1993 Ensign
One morning the Prophet was unhappy with his wife Emma over a household matter. When he went upstairs where Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were waiting to continue with the translation, he still had a bad feeling about his wife in his heart. Joseph tried to translate but not even a syllable of a word came to him; and he knew why. Joseph went downstairs and out into an orchard where he prayed to the Lord.
After about an hour, Joseph returned to the house feeling humble and repentant. He asked Emma to forgive him for his lack of understanding. Then he went back upstairs where he was able to translate without any difficulty.
The miraculous gift of translation by the use of a seer stone is described in the following account of the translation of the Book of Mormon:
Mr. Whitmer then described Smith’s story of the vision in which the location of the plates was revealed, with the history of the Nephites, Moroni’s labor, and Smith’s finding of the tablets, with which every one is familiar.
Whitmer and Cowdery were greatly impressed by the recital of this strange story, and were conducted to the hill, where they personally viewed the receptacle in which Moroni, at the beginning of the fifth century, had concealed the history of his fathers. Smith also said that he had been commanded to at once begin  the translation of the work in the presence of three witnesses. In accordance with this command, Smith, Cowdery and Whitmer proceeded to the latter’s home, accompanied by Smith’s wife, and bearing with them the precious plates and spectacles. The house of senior Whitmer was a primitive and poorly designed structure, but it was deemed the most secure for carrying out the sacred trust on account of the threats that had been made against Smith by his mercenary neighbors. In order to give privacy to the proceeding, a blanket, which served as a portiere, was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuenses. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides.
The work of translating the tablets consumed about eight months, Smith acting as the seer, and Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s wife and Christian Whitmer, brother of David, performing the duties of amanuenses, in whose handwriting the original manuscript now is. Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After prayer, Smith would sit on one side of a table, and the amanuenses, in turn, as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work, seated themselves around  the room, and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles’ to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English. Sometimes the character would be a single word, and frequently an entire sentence. In translating the characters, Smith, who was illiterate and but little versed in Biblical lore, was ofttimes compelled to spell the words out, not knowing the correct pronunciation, and Mr. Whitmer recalls the fact that at that time Smith did not even know that Jerusalem was a walled city. Cowdery, however, being a school teacher, rendered invaluable aid in pronouncing hard words and giving them their proper definition. (Mill. Star, 48:36)
David Whitmer gave another description of the Prophet’s mode of translating:
. . . I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. (An Address to all Believers in Christ, by David Whitmer, p. 12)
Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation
D&C 45, 76, 77, 86, 91 Elizabeth Maki20 March 2013
Room in Johnson home where Joseph Smith worked on Bible translation
As Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the late 1820s, he learned more than the history of the Lamanites and Nephites.
More than once, the Book of Mormon text indicated that “many plain and precious parts” of the Bible had been lost.1 In the summer of 1830, just a few short months after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph Smith began a new translation of the Bible intended to restore some of those plain and precious parts. This effort defied the prevailing opinion of the day: that the Bible contained the inerrant word of God as contained in the revered text of the King James Version.
Joseph’s translation was not carried out in the traditional sense. He didn’t consult Greek and Hebrew texts or use lexicons to create a new English version. Rather, he used a King James Version of the Bible as his starting point and made additions and changes as he was directed by the Holy Ghost.
Although Joseph made many minor grammatical corrections and modernized some language, he was less concerned with these technical improvements than he was with restoring, through revelation, important truths not included in the contemporary Bible. Historian Mark Lyman Staker characterized the translation as one of “ideas rather than language.”2
Joseph Smith worked diligently on his translation from the summer of 1830 until July 1833. He considered this project a divine mandate, referring to it as a “branch of my calling.”3 Yet while portions were printed in Church publications before his death, Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible was not published during his lifetime.
Even so, evidence of the effort the prophet poured into that work is evident in the pages of the Doctrine and Covenants; the translation process served as the direct catalyst for many revelations contained in that book, which includes more than a dozen sections that arose directly from the translation process or contain instructions for Joseph and others pertaining to it.4
The Translation Process
It was while the Book of Mormon was being printed at E.B. Grandin’s print shop in October 1829 that Oliver Cowdery purchased from Grandin the King James Bible that Joseph Smith used in the translation.
A revelation Joseph received in June 1830 in Colesville, New York, that he described as the “visions of Moses”5 may have served as a catalyst to Joseph’s work on the translation. This revelation now appears as Chapter 1 in the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price. The earliest manuscripts of the Bible translation, beginning with Genesis 1 (now Moses 2), were created in Harmony, Pennsylvania, about one month later, with Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer acting as scribes. Shortly thereafter, in a revelation addressed to Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale Smith, the Lord instructed that Emma serve as Joseph’s scribe for the translation, which she apparently did for a brief time (see D&C 25:6). Over the next few months, the translation progressed through the book of Genesis.
In December of that year, after Sidney Rigdon was baptized in Ohio and traveled to Fayette, New York, to meet the leader of his new faith, Joseph Smith received a revelation directing Rigdon to serve as his scribe: “[T]hou shalt write for him & the scriptures shall be given even as they are in mine own bosom to the salvation of mine own elect”8 (see D&C 35:20).
Rigdon commenced to serve as scribe, and shortly after he and Joseph recorded the story of Enoch, Joseph was instructed to cease translating for a time and take the Church to Ohio (see D&C 37:1). He did so, and soon after he was settled in Kirtland the translation again became one of his primary tasks. In early February 1831, Joseph received a revelation instructing that a home be built in which he could “live & translate” (see D&C 41:7). A few days later, another revelation assured Joseph that as he asked, the “scriptures shall be given” (seeD&C 42:56).
The earliest work of the translation focused on the text of Genesis, but a March 7, 1831, revelation soon changed Joseph’s course. In the revelation, canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 45, Joseph was instructed to put aside the Old Testament for a time and instead focus on translating the New Testament.
“I give unto you that ye may now Translate it,” he was told, “that ye may be prepared for the things to come for Verily I say unto you that great things await you”11 (see D&C 45:61-62).
Accordingly, Joseph and Sidney began the next day to work on the New Testament translation. They continued until leaving for Missouri that summer, then resumed the translation in the fall, after Joseph and Emma moved roughly thirty miles south of Kirtland to Hiram, Ohio, to live in the home of John Johnson. The move was, in part, Joseph’s attempt to find a place “to work in peace and quiet on the translation of the Bible.” Joseph Smith later recalled that the bulk of his time after arriving at the Johnson home was spent in preparing to continue his translation work.12
Joseph also set about overseeing the Church and preaching in the area, then in January 1832 received a revelation directing him to once again focus his work on the translation “untill it be finished”13 (see D&C 73:4). It was while he and Sidney Rigdon did so that, on February 16, they received a landmark revelation in the Johnson home; while working to translate the book of John, the men’s inquiries led to a vision of the kingdoms of glory that was a source of significant new doctrines for the young Church. Today, that vision is contained in Doctrine and Covenants 76.
Sections 77 and 86
Similarly, an explanation of passages in the Book of Revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 77, also arose directly from the Bible translation. Taking the form of a series of questions and answers, it was considered an inspired text and was included in an early revelation book.
Joseph and Emma left the Johnson farm and returned to Kirtland in September 1832, and over the next few months Joseph continued to work diligently on the translation, now with the help of Frederick G. Williams as scribe. In December, another revelation arising from the translation was received, this time explaining the parable of the wheat and tares found in Matthew 13. The revelation, nowDoctrine and Covenants 86, designates the body of the priesthood in the latter days as “a savior unto my people Israel”14 (see D&C 86:11).
In July 1832, Joseph wrote W.W. Phelps that “we have finished the translation of the New testament.”
“[G]reat and marvilous glorious things are revealed,” he wrote, adding that they were “making rapid strides in the old book and in the strength of God we can do all things according to his will.”15
Work on the translation of the Old Testament continued, and Joseph recorded in January 1833 that “This winter was spent in translating the scriptures; in the school of the prophets; and sitting in conferences. I had many glorious seasons of refreshing.”16 In March 1833, Joseph received instruction that when the translation was finished, he should “thence forth preside over the affairs of the Church” (see D&C 90:13). So he eagerly pushed ahead.
Joseph Smith soon came to a section in his King James Bible containing a collection of fourteen books known as the Apocrypha. While most Bibles in Joseph Smith’s day contained these books, there was a growing movement at the time that questioned their status as scripture.17 Given this dispute, Joseph wanted to know if he should seek to translate the books and took the question to the Lord. The resulting revelation, nowDoctrine and Covenants 91, taught Joseph that while “There are many things contained therein that are true and it is mostly translated correct— there are many things contained therein that are not true which are interpelations by the hands of men varely I say unto you that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated”18 (see D&C 91:1-3).
Skipping that section, Joseph continued to labor over the Old Testament translation for several more months until, on July 2, 1833, a letter from the First Presidency (including Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams) in Kirtland to the Saints in Zion recorded that they “this day finished the translating of the Scriptures, for which we returned gratitude to our heavenly father.”19
The Translation’s Legacy
After Joseph’s death, his widow, Emma, retained the translation manuscripts, which were published by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1867. For the modern LDS Church, Joseph Smith’s translation supplies portions of the Pearl of Great Price (the book of Moses and Matthew 24) and informs many footnotes in the LDS edition of the King James Bible.
But the translation also had a significant influence on the Church in the way it shaped the content of the Doctrine and Covenants. More than half of the current Doctrine and Covenants consists of revelations received during the three-year period in which Joseph Smith labored over the Bible translation. Many arose directly from questions Joseph was inspired to ask as his understanding of the gospel expanded during the effort to restore plain and precious parts of the Bible.
For more on the sections mentioned in this article, see the forthcoming volumes of the Documents series in The Joseph Smith Papers.
Book of Mormon Translation
Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any Book on earth & the keystone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other Book.”1 The Book of Mormon came into the world through a series of miraculous events. Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.
“By the Gift and Power of God”
Joseph Smith reported that on the evening of September 21, 1823, while he prayed in the upper room of his parents’ small log home in Palmyra, New York, an angel who called himself Moroni appeared and told Joseph that “God had a work for [you] to do.”2 He informed Joseph that “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.” The book could be found in a hill not far from the Smith family farm. This was no ordinary history, for it contained “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel as delivered by the Savior.”3
The angel charged Joseph Smith to translate the book from the ancient language in which it was written. The young man, however, had very little formal education and was incapable of writing a book on his own, let alone translating an ancient book written from an unknown language, known in the Book of Mormon as “reformed Egyptian”4. Joseph’s wife Emma insisted that, at the time of translation, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”5
Joseph received the plates in September 1827 and the following spring, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, began translating them in earnest, with Emma and his friend Martin Harris serving as his main scribes. The resulting English transcription, known as the Book of Lehi and referred to by Joseph Smith as written on 116 pages, was subsequently lost or stolen. As a result, Joseph Smith was rebuked by the Lord and lost the ability to translate for a short time.6
Joseph began translating again in 1829, and almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June of that year. His chief scribe during these months was Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher from Vermont who learned about the Book of Mormon while boarding with Joseph’s parents in Palmyra. Called by God in a vision, Cowdery traveled to Harmony to meet Joseph Smith and investigate further. Of his experience as scribe, Cowdery wrote, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspirationof heaven.”7
The manuscript that Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives.8 This manuscript corroborates Joseph Smith’s statements that the manuscript was written within a short time frame and that it was dictated from another language. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript.9 In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.10
Unlike most dictated drafts, the original manuscript was considered by Joseph Smith to be, in substance, a final product. To assist in the publication of the book, Oliver Cowdery made a handwritten copy of the original manuscript. This copy is known today as the printer’s manuscript. Because Joseph Smith did not call for punctuation, such as periods, commas, or question marks as he dictated, such marks are not in the original manuscript. The typesetter later inserted punctuation marks when he prepared the text for the printer.11 With the exceptions of punctuation, formatting, other elements of typesetting, and minor adjustments required to correct copying and scribal errors, the dictation copy became the text of the first printed edition of the book.12
Many accounts in the Bible show that God transmitted revelations to His prophets in a variety of ways. Elijah learned that God spoke not to him through the wind or fire or earthquake but through a “still small voice.”13 Paul and other early apostles sometimes communicated with angels and, on occasion, with the Lord Jesus Christ.14 At other times, revelation came in the form of dreams or visions, such as the revelation to Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, or through sacred objects like the Urim and Thummim.15
Joseph Smith stands out among God’s prophets, because he was called to render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages, containing doctrine that would deepen and expand the theological understanding of millions of people. For this monumental task, God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments.
Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.16 Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”17
The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.”18 As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.19 As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.20
Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.21 In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumined.22 Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters. Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.
Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.23
The Mechanics of Translation
In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: “I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.” When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done “by the gift and power of God”24 and once added, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”25
Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.26 The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”27
The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed that Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”28 According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.” When asked if Joseph had dictated from the Bible or from a manuscript he had prepared earlier, Emma flatly denied those possibilities: “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.” Emma told her son Joseph Smith III, “The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”29
Another scribe, Martin Harris sat across the table from Joseph Smith and wrote down the words Joseph dictated. Harris later related that as Joseph used the seer stone to translate, sentences appeared. Joseph read those sentences aloud, and after penning the words, Harris would say, “Written.” An associate who interviewed Harris recorded him saying that Joseph “possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”30
The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraven on the plates.”31 In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.”32
Joseph Smith consistently testified that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” His scribes shared that testimony. The angel who brought news of an ancient record on metal plates buried in a hillside and the divine instruments prepared especially for Joseph Smith to translate were all part of what Joseph and his scribes viewed as the miracle of translation. When he sat down in 1832 to write his own history for the first time, he began by promising to include “an account of his marvelous experience.”33 The translation of the Book of Mormon was truly marvelous.
The truth of the Book of Mormon and its divine source can be known today. God invites each of us to read the book, remember the mercies of the Lord and ponder them in our hearts, “and ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” God promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”34
Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 28, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
On the identity of the angel, see Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 223 n 56.
Davidson et al., Joseph Smith Histories, 223; punctuation regularized; Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3 (March 1, 1842): 706-7. See also Joseph Smith—History 1:33–34.
“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 290.
Joseph Smith History, 1838–ca. 1841, 8–11 (draft 2), in Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 252–3; available at josephsmithpapers.org; Doctrine and Covenants 3:5–15.
Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16; Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, Sept. 7, 1834, in Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834): 14; italics in original.
Most of the manuscript disintegrated or became otherwise unreadable due to water damage between 1841 and 1882, as a result of being placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in Nauvoo, Illinois. Most of the surviving pages were later archived in the historian’s office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The extant original manuscript has been published in The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). A complete copy of this original, known as the printer’s manuscript, was made by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes between August 1829 and early 1830. It was used to set the type for most of the printing in Palmyra. The printer’s manuscript is published in The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typological Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). Both the printer’s manuscript and the original manuscript will be published in future volumes of The Joseph Smith Papers. (Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, no. 3 [Spring 1970]: 261–72; Royal Skousen, “Piecing Together the Original Manuscript,” BYU Today 46, no. 3 [May 1992]: 18–24.)
For example, when Joseph translated the text that is now in 1 Nephi 13:29, the scribe wrote “&” in one place where he should have written “an.” At 1 Nephi 17:48, the scribe wrote “weed” where he should have written “reed.” (See Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997], 67; see also Grant Hardy, “Introduction,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009], xv–xix.)
John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon” and “Names of People: Book of Mormon,” in Geoffrey Kahn, ed., Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (Brill Online, 2013); M. Deloy Pack, “Hebraisms,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 321–25; John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 77–91; Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Donald W. Parry and others, eds., Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 155–89.
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On the role of the typesetter John Gilbert, see Royal Skousen, “John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” in Stephen D. Ricks and others, eds., The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 383–405.
Some grammatical constructions that sound odd to English speakers were edited out of later editions of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith or others in order to render the translation into more standard current English. See Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 44–45. Approximately five-sixth of the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset from the printer’s manuscript. The other one-sixth was typeset from the original manuscript. (Royal Skousen, “Editor’s Preface,” inThe Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, xxx.)
Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grand Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, vol. 1 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), xxix.
Mosiah 28:14–15, 20; see also Mosiah 8:13, 19; and Ether 4:5. Joseph Smith seems to have used the terms “interpreters” and “spectacles” interchangeably during the early years of the Church. Nancy Towle, an itinerant Methodist preacher, recounted Joseph Smith telling her about “a pair of ‘interpreters,’ (as he called them,) that resembled spectacles, by looking into which, he couldread a writing engraven upon the plates, though to himself, in a tongue unknown.” (Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America [Charleston: James L. Burges, 1832], 138-39.) Joseph’s 1832 history referred to “spectacles.” (Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16.) In January 1833, the Latter-day Saint newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star, edited by William W. Phelps, equated “spectacles” and “interpreters” with the term “Urim and Thummim”: the Book of Mormon “was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles— (known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).” (“The Book of Mormon,” The Evening and the Morning Star, January 1833, .) By 1835 Joseph Smith most often used the term “Urim and Thummim” when speaking of translation and rarely, if ever, used the terms “interpreters” or “spectacles.” (Joseph Smith, Journal, Nov. 9-11, 1835, inJournals: Volume 1: 1832-1839, 89; Joseph Smith, History, 1834-1836, in Davidson et al., Histories, Volume 1, 116; John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., with Erick B. Carlson, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 [Provo, UT, and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Press and Deseret Book, 2005], 123-28.)
Joseph Smith probably possessed more than one seer stone; he appears to have found one of the stones while digging for a well around 1822. (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984], 69–70.)
According to Martin Harris, an angel commanded Joseph Smith to stop these activities, which he did by 1826. (See Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 64–76; and Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies 24, no. 4 [Fall 1984]: 489–560.) Joseph did not hide his well-known early involvement in treasure seeking. In 1838, he published responses to questions frequently asked of him. “Was not Jo Smith a money digger,” one question read. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” (Selections from Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 43, available at josephsmithpapers.org.) For the broader cultural context, see Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 6–33.
Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Master’s Thesis, Utah State University, 2000).
For example, when Joseph Smith showed a seer stone to Wilford Woodruff in late 1841, Woodruff recorded in his journal: “I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.” (Wilford Woodruff journal, Dec. 27, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.) See also Doctrine and Covenants 130:10.
Cornelius Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 9–26.
Preface to the Book of Mormon, 1830 edition.
Minutes, Church conference, Orange, OH, Oct. 25–26, 1831, in Minute Book 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, available at josephsmithpapers.org; Welch, “Miraculous Translation,”,121–9.
Virtually all of the accounts of the translation process are reproduced in Welch, “Miraculous Translation.” Two accounts of the translation process, including the use of a seer stone, have been written by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and published in Church magazines. Historians have also written about the seer stone in Church publications, both in the Ensign and in The Joseph Smith Papers. (See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’”Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; and Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, xxix–xxxii.)
“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90. Some outside reports describe the spectacles being placed in the hat during the translation process. A Palmyra newspaper published the earliest known account of the translation in August 1829: Jonathan Hadley, a Palmyra printer who may have spoken with Joseph Smith about translation, claimed that the plates were found with a “huge pair of Spectacles,” and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.” (“Golden Bible,” Palmyra Freeman, Aug. 11, 1829, .) In the winter of 1831, a Shaker in Union Village, Ohio, spoke of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” through which the translator “looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.” (Christian Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 [Spring 2011]: 143.)
“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 289–90.
“One of the Three Witnesses,” Deseret Evening News, Dec. 13, 1881, 4. Here Martin Harris uses the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the interpreters found with the plates.
- W. B., “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 (Apr. 19, 1831): 120.
Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar,” 143. For additional accounts of translation by one of the Three Witnesses, see David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991).
Joseph Smith History, ca. Summer 1832, 1, in Histories, Volume 1, 1832–1844, 10; available at josephsmithpapers.org. Spelling modernized.