A Brief History of the Translation of the Book of Mormon
Joseph's remarkable vision of the Father and Son in the spring of 1820 did not eliminate the necessity of daily back-breaking work on the farm by all able members of the Smith family, including Joseph. It also did not deter Joseph from living what seemed to be a normal childhood and teenage upbringing, including "light-minded pleasure with his friends," "all kinds of temptations," "mingling with all kinds of society," "many foolish errors," "weaknesses of youth," "the foibles of human nature," and "levity and [associating] with . . . jovial company." He was doubtless "guilty" of only the normal frivolity of youth, but he did not measure up to his own perceptions of "that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been" (HC, 1:9-10), and he began to feel guilty over his frivolous behavior.
His remorse came to a head in the fall of 1823. On September 21, after the other family members had fallen asleep in the crowded little cabin, Joseph remained awake to pray "for forgiveness of all of my sins and follies" (HC, 1:11). He continued praying until "eleven or twelve, and perhaps later, as the noise and bustle of the family, in retiring, had long since ceased" (Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate, February, 1835, 78-80). While continuing in prayer, he noticed the room growing brighter than broad daylight. The unusual light was accompanied by "a calmness and serenity of mind, and an overwhelming rapture of joy that surpassed understanding" (Ibid.). After a few moments, a heavenly messenger named Moroni appeared to him. Oliver recalled Joseph's description of Moroni: "The stature of this personage was a little above the common size of men in this age; his garment was perfectly white, and had the appearance of being without seam" (Ibid.). Moroni taught Joseph of the vital mission and responsibilities which lay ahead. He informed the young prophet that there existed a book written on gold plates that gave an account of some former inhabitants of the American continent and contained the fulness of the everlasting gospel. A part of these plates was sealed. "The sealed part, said he, contains the same revelation which was given to John upon the isle of Patmos, and when the people of the Lord are prepared, and found worthy, then it will be unfolded unto them" (Ibid.). The plates were buried in a hill, later named Cumorah, three miles from the Smith farm. The site where the plates were buried was shown to Joseph in vision. Moroni also paraphrased the Old Testament quotation of Malachi which predicted the coming of the Prophet Elijah. The vision ended but recurred twice more the same night.
It is instructive to note that Joseph experienced these visits from Moroni in the crowded family cabin without disturbing his sleeping family. How could that be? Wouldn't such an appearance of a heavenly messenger awaken the entire family-especially since the room became light as day? Yet, we have no record of any one else in the family sharing this sacred experience. Perhaps the Lord caused a deep sleep to come upon them, or perhaps this type of heavenly vision is a private experience discerned only by the person for whom it is intended.
The same vision was repeated a fourth time on the following day when Joseph, who found that he had insufficient strength to work in the fields after his experience of the previous night, fainted as he was returning to the family cabin. His father had noticed his obvious distress and sent him home. As Joseph lay upon the ground, Moroni commanded him to return to the fields and inform his father of the visions. Joseph, Sr., expressed no skepticism but counseled his son to do exactly as the angel had instructed. Moroni had commanded that Joseph go to the place where the plates were deposited, and later that day Joseph went to the site he had seen in vision. He uncovered and pried the lid off the stone box which contained the plates, and he beheld the plates and also two stones in silver bows fastened to a breast plate. These stones, known as the Urim and Thummim, were "seers" in ancient times which God had prepared for the purpose of translating the plates. As Joseph touched the plates, Moroni again appeared and informed him that the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived. Joseph was then commanded to return to this site yearly, on September 22, to receive instructions.
Joseph and his family drew great comfort from the fact that the Lord, by sending the messenger Moroni, had manifest his continued acceptance of Joseph as the instrument through which the gospel would be restored.
Joseph's fifth annual visit to Cumorah was on September 22, 1827. Instead of going during the day as had become his annual custom, he arrived there just after midnight of September 21, in the first hours of September 22. This was done to throw off meddlers who knew of the date. On this visit he was given possession of the plates, the breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim. Rather than taking the plates home immediately, he concealed them in the woods in a hollow birch log. When he finally did pick them up the following day, he quickly learned that it was necessary to maintain a constant vigil in order to keep the plates safe, since many evil and conspiring men sought almost continually to wrest the plates from him. Joseph's sister Catherine, who was at home when Joseph arrived carrying the plates, provides us with a colorful reminiscence: "He came in running and burst though the door carrying the plates. His hand was injured from striking one of the villains [who had chased him]. He told her that he had jumped over a rail fence. When one of the villains grabbed for the plates, he knocked him down with his right fist while carrying the plates under his left arm clasped to his body. Then he ran the gauntlet with several more, and when he came in the house she said he was completely out of breath. She took the plates from him and laid them on the table temporarily, and helped revive him until he got breathing properly and also examined his hand, and treated it for the bruises on his knuckles, where he had struck the villain and thus defended himself and the plates" (Interview by I.B. Ball of H. S. Salisbury, grandson of Catherine Smith Salisbury, August 31, 1954, 2).
Joseph soon realized that he would never find peace in the Palmyra area, so he sent word to Alva Hale, Emma's brother, to come up from Harmony with a wagon to transport them and their belongings back to Harmony. With some financial help from his wealthy neighbor, Martin Harris, Joseph was able to pay his debts and travel to Harmony in the late fall of 1827. During the trip the plates were hidden in a barrel of beans. Joseph and Emma moved into a small two room house on Isaac Hale's land, about 150 yards from the main house. The house consisted of a small frame building, which consisted of two rooms at ground level, one room upstairs, and a full basement (Bushman, Richard L., Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 85-86). Here the translation of the plates could begin, and here the two of them lived for the next two and one half years. Joseph would later purchase this house and thirteen acres of land for two hundred dollars.
Joseph spent the first two months in Harmony simply copying characters and translating a few of them. In February 1828 Martin Harris arrived in Harmony. With Joseph's permission Martin carried some of the characters and their translation to a few Middle East experts for confirmation of their authenticity. The most important encounter was with Dr. Charles Anthon, professor of classical studies at Columbia College. After presenting the characters and Joseph's translation, Martin came away satisfied that Dr. Anthon had confirmed their authenticity. Dr. Anthon later, however, vehemently denied that he had confirmed their validity and called them a hoax. Who was telling the truth in this matter? There is considerable evidence that Professor Anthon lied about his encounter with Martin Harris. First, following the encounter Martin Harris returned home and told his friends about his visit, and he was later willing to mortgage his property to finance the book's publication. In 1831 W. W. Phelps wrote a letter in which he reported that Martin Harris had told him that Professor Anthon, after translating the characters, had declared them to be "ancient shorthand Egyptian." This is not a term which would have been part of Martin Harris's vocabulary, environment, or education, but it was a phrase that was used by scholars of the time. It is therefore highly probable that W. W. Phelps had heard this phrase from Martin Harris, who in turn had heard it from Charles Anthon. It is also well known that it would have a great professional liability for Professor Anthon to have been linked with Mormonism and the "notorious" Joseph Smith. Thus a motive for Anthon's behavior is not difficult to discern (Stanley B. Kimball, "The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems," BYU Studies 10 (1970): 325- 52).
Martin Harris returned to his home in Palmyra. In April 1828, he traveled again to Harmony, and he and Joseph began the translation of the book. Martin functioned as scribe. Between April 12 and June 14, 1828 Harris acted as scribe while Joseph translated the book of Lehi. They completed enough translation to fill 116 pages of foolscap paper. On one occasion while Martin Harris was acting as scribe, he decided to test Joseph and the seer stone he was using by replacing the stone with one of a similar shape and color, but Joseph immediately apprehended the difference, thus satisfying Martin (Millennial Star 44:86-87).
In spite of Martin's personal involvement with the translation project, he still had nagging doubts. Was this the Lord's work or was Joseph making a fool of him? His wife and friends in Palmyra believed the latter. Martin wanted more evidence to set his own mind at ease and quiet the doubters at home. Couldn't he just take home the 116 pages of manuscript and show them to his wife and friends? After much importuning, he was eventually and reluctantly allowed to do so by Joseph.
The day after Martin left for Palmyra with the manuscript, June 15, 1828, Emma delivered the couple's first child, a boy, Alvin, named after Joseph's older brother. The baby died on the day of his birth. The exhausting labor and the tragic loss of her baby were almost too much for Emma, and for a while she seemed close to death. Joseph attended her night and day for two weeks, and Emma finally began to improve.
Joseph then turned his attention to the manuscript. Where was it? Where was Martin? Joseph traveled by stagecoach to Palmyra where he learned, on about July 15, that Martin had lost the manuscript! Thus began a black period in Joseph's life. For the indiscretion of allowing Martin Harris to borrow the manuscript, the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken from Joseph.
In July 1828, Moroni returned the Urim and Thummim to Joseph briefly, only to allow him to receive a revelation which was a scathing rebuke of both Joseph and Martin for their roles in the fiasco (D&C 3).
Joseph was humbly repentant and received the interpreters again on September 22, 1828. He and Emma did a little translating over the next few months, but most of Joseph's time was spent preparing for winter and gathering a living for Emma and himself.
The translation work proceeded slowly and sporadically with Emma and her brother Reuben Hale acting as scribes. Later in 1856, Emma would recall that Joseph dictated the translation to her word for word, spelled out the proper names, and would correct her scribal errors even though he could not see what she had written. Emma was once asked in a later interview if Joseph had read from any books or notes while dictating. She answered, "He had neither," and when pressed, added: "If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me" (Saints' Herald 26 [October 1, 1879]:290.) While being interviewed in 1884, David Whitmer related the story that at one point in the translation of the Book of Mormon with Emma acting as scribe, Joseph was surprised to learn that Jerusalem had walls around it, and he asked her, "Does the city of Jerusalem have a wall around it?" (E. C.Briggs, "Interview with David Whitmer," Saints' Herald 31 [June 21, 1884]:396-97). In March 1829 the persistent Martin Harris again traveled to Harmony, still trying to reassure himself of the existence of the plates. While there, he received a revelation which included the promise that if he would repent and humble himself, he would one day be allowed to view the plates and even become a special witness of the Book of Mormon (D&C 5).
On April 5, 1829, Samuel Smith arrived in Harmony accompanied by a stranger by the name of Oliver Cowdery, a school teacher in Manchester, New York, who had been boarding with the Smith family. While living in the Smith home, he had heard of the "gold plates." He had also learned something of the plates from a friend whom he had met in Palmyra in December of 1828, a man from Fayette, New York, David Whitmer. Oliver had prayed for and was granted a witness of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. He was also inspired to know that there was an essential role for him in this work. Oliver Cowdery later recalled this important time in church history, "Near the time of the setting of the sun, Sabbath evening, April 5th, 1829, my natural eyes, for the first time beheld this brother [Joseph Smith]. . . . On Monday the 6th, I assisted him in arranging some business of a temporal nature, and on Tuesday the 7th, commenced to write the Book of Mormon" (Messenger and Advocate, October 1834, 14).
Virtually all of the English text of the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph with Oliver acting as scribe between April 7 and the last week of June, about sixty working days plus or minus a few. It would appear that Joseph dictated twenty to thirty words at a time. Oliver would read those words back for verification, and then they would continue the process. Emma later added that after a meal or a night's rest, Joseph would begin, without prompting, where he had previously left off (Saints' Herald 26 [October 1, 1879]:290). Oliver later recalled this period of translation, "These were days never to be forgotten-to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim . . . the record called `the Book of Mormon'" (Messenger and Advocate 1 [October 1834]:14). Oliver also bore his testimony of the book: "I know that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testify is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind-it was real" (quoted by Jacob Gates, Improvement Era, March 1912, 418-19).
It seems likely that the translation of the book proceeded in the following order: Joseph and Oliver began their work with Mosiah 1 and translated to the end of the book of Moroni by May. They then translated the Title Page, and finally translated the small plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Omni) and the Words of Mormon before the end of June.
The period of translation was a colorful and important period in our church history. Not long after Joseph and Oliver started translating the Book of Mormon, Oliver began to yearn for the opportunity to translate, and he asked Joseph to inquire of the Lord to see if he might be permitted to try his hand. Joseph did inquire, and Oliver was allowed to try (D&C 8). Oliver failed in his attempt to translate because he had not properly prepared himself and, in his disappointment, he was offered some counsel by the Lord (D&C 9).
It seems clear that many factors played their roles in producing the English text of the Book of Mormon. These included the plates, the physical means at Joseph's disposal (seer stone and interpreters), the remarkable and inexplicable miraculous aspect of the translation process, Joseph's considerable spiritual preparations and exertions, Joseph's personal vocabulary with all its frailties, and the human susceptibility to transcription errors made by the scribes. Clearly a considerable human effort was involved. According to David Whitmer, Joseph could only translate when he was humble and faithful. One morning something had gone wrong about the house. Joseph could not translate a single syllable until he went into an orchard, prayed, and then he and Emma made amends (HC 1:131). Joseph's ability to translate apparently increased as the work progressed. For further discussion of the actual process of Joseph and Oliver's translating the Book of Mormon, see Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 2, Appendix A, The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon.
By mid May, Joseph and Oliver had reached, in their translating, the book of 3 Nephi, and they came upon the concept of baptism probably in chapter 11. Their interest was piqued. They recognized that the proper authority for performing this ordinance was not upon the earth. The question was sufficiently important that they broke off the translation and went down to the Susquehannah River on May 15 so they might be alone. There they prayed for guidance. They were visited by the resurrected John the Baptist who conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood (JS-H 1:68-74). The Baptist also promised them that in due time they would receive the higher or Melchizedek priesthood. Accordingly, some time later on an uncertain date, Peter, James, and John, the Lord's ancient apostles, came to Joseph and Oliver on the banks of the Susquehannah River and conferred upon them the Melchizedek priesthood.
By late May 1829 Joseph and Oliver were nearing completion of the translation of the Plates of Mormon (see also the supplement entitled, Those Confusing Book of Mormon Plates). Joseph had to decide what to do to fill in the gap left by the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript. In May he received a revelation telling him not to re-translate the first part of the plates of Mormon but rather to translate in its place the small plates of Nephi (D&C 10).
As the translation process continued, some neighbors in Harmony were taking notice and beginning to murmur against Joseph and Oliver and began to threaten them. By this time Isaac Hale had been won over to the point of feeling that the two should at least have the right to translate without being bothered or molested by the neighbors. Thus, for a time, he used his influence to protect them. In the latter part of May, however, his protection crumbled; in fact he turned against the two translators. Joseph and Oliver were thus brought under increasing pressure. They had to find a safer place where they might finish the translation.
Oliver wrote to his friend David Whitmer in Fayette, New York, asking if he and Joseph might come to Fayette and live and work in the house of David Whitmer's father, Peter Whitmer, Sr. The Whitmer farm lay between Seneca Lake and Lake Cayuga. Oliver had met David Whitmer in Palmyra in 1828 when the two were just beginning to learn about the gold plates. Oliver had stopped off at the Whitmer farm on the way from Manchester to Harmony earlier in the spring. He later had written to David Whitmer from Harmony telling him that he was sure that Joseph had the plates. The Whitmers extended an invitation for Joseph and Oliver to come to their home and finish the translating.
Oliver wrote again to ask David to come to Harmony with his wagon to carry them back to Fayette. This request came at a difficult time, as the Whitmer's were in the middle of spring plowing, and David Whitmer couldn't really spare the five or six days required for that round trip. He was able to take the time, however, because of what seemed to be miraculous intervention. Plowing that should have taken two days was accomplished in one. Three unknown strangers prepared and plowed the Whitmer land without the Whitmers's requesting any help. Joseph and Oliver were brought from Harmony to Fayette, while the plates were transported by the Lord. Joseph received them when he arrived in Fayette. While at the Whitmer farm, at least one of the Whitmers assisted Oliver in his duties as scribe. One report indicates that John Whitmer acted as scribe for as many as sixty pages (Saints' Herald 26 (15 December 1879, 370b.)
In June 1829, as the Book of Mormon translation was nearing completion, Joseph learned, from the text of the Book of Mormon itself (especially 2 Nephi 27:12, that there were to be three special witnesses of the Book of Mormon who would be allowed to see the plates. David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris repeatedly petitioned Joseph to see if they might become the witnesses. As a result of their importuning, Joseph inquired of the Lord and was given a revelation which named the three as the witnesses (D&C 17).
How long did it take for Joseph to actually translate the Book of Mormon? As previously mentioned, Joseph and Oliver began the translation process on April 7, and finished probably the last week in June 1829. A thoughtful analysis of this period suggests that in addition to working on the translation, time was also required for trips to Colesville, New York, for supplies (thirty miles away); to earn money with which to purchase supplies; to obtain a federal copyright on June 11, 1829; to baptize Samuel and Hyrum Smith; to preach to several interested people; and, during the first week of June, to move by buckboard over 100 miles to the Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York, where probably about the final 150 pages were translated. Therefore it is suggested that the approximate maximum time which Joseph had to do the translation was sixty-three days. Thus, the average rate of translation was about eight pages per day. At this average rate, for example, only about a week was available for the translation of all of 1 Nephi, and a day and a half was taken to translate the remarkable sermon of King Benjamin, about which books would later be written. There was no time for outside research, rewriting, or polishing ("The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information," a FARMS reprint, John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, 38-39).
The translation and recording of the Book of Mormon in this relatively brief time is even more remarkable when we contrast it with the translation of the King James Version of the Bible. This latter effort involved fifty-four scholars from Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. The whole body of translators were fully engaged in the project by about 1607, and the translation was completed in AD 1611.
One morning in July 1829, the three witnesses and Joseph entered the woods near the Whitmer farm. They took turns praying, not once but twice, and nothing happened. Before making a third attempt, Martin Harris withdrew, perceiving that he was the obstacle. The remaining three prayed again, and this time they were granted the glorious experience of having an angel appear and show them the plates, the breastplate, the Liahona, and the sword of Laban. Joseph then went searching for Martin who had wandered deeper into the woods. Joseph and Martin prayed together, and at length, Martin was favored with the same experience. Joseph was greatly relieved that the Lord had allowed others to see the plates so they might now share with him the responsibility of bearing witness to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon record. Shortly thereafter, back in Manchester, New York, eight additional witnesses were allowed to see and handle the plates. These included four Whitmer brothers (Christian, Jacob, John, and Peter, Jr.), their brother-in-law, Hiram Page, Hyrum and Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith, Sr.
While Joseph was in the Palmyra area he sought to make arrangements to have the now-completed Book of Mormon printed. An agreement was reached with E. B. Grandin, a Palmyra book seller, printer, and publisher of The Wayne Sentinel, to print the Book of Mormon. Martin Harris mortgaged his farm and put up three thousand dollars as security for five thousand copies. Joseph returned to Harmony, and Oliver Cowdery remained in Palmyra to oversee the printing operation.
The process of printing actually began in mid August 1829. Since the original or dictated manuscript of the Book of Mormon had been written under difficult circumstances, it was not always neat. To provide the printer with a more readable copy of the manuscript and also to "back up" the original and protect against loss, Oliver Cowdery and others copied the entire Book of Mormon onto a second manuscript, known today as the printer's manuscript. It was from this printer's manuscript that the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset. The creation of the printer's manuscript did not occur all at once. It was produced as the printer needed copy. It began in August of 1829 and continued into the early months of 1830. Oliver and the other scribes were forced every week and a half to produce about twenty-four pages of manuscript.
Three scribes are responsible for the printer's manuscript: Oliver Cowdery (who did about 85 percent of the manuscript), an unknown scribe (who did about 15 percent), and Hyrum Smith, who occasionally substituted (but only briefly) for the unknown scribe. Hyrum is responsible for less than one percent of the text. The copying is quite accurate, with an average of about three changes per manuscript page. Only a small proportion of these changes make any difference in meaning.
Royal Skousen has provided interesting insight into the making of the printer's manuscript. For about 15 percent of the current Book of Mormon text (from Helaman 13 through Mormon 9), the original manuscript was taken to the printer's shop and used to set the type for the 1830 edition. The scribe or scribes responsible for producing the printer's manuscript probably fell behind in their copy work and allowed the original manuscript to be used by the printer until the scribes caught up with their copying ("Piecing Together the Original Manuscript." BYU Today 46 [May 1992]: 18-24).
The printer's manuscript today is covered with the punctuation and other printing-related marks made by the compositor (typesetter), John Gilbert. Most of these punctuation marks are in pencil.
Joseph had to return to Palmyra twice during the printing-once in the late fall of 1829 to prevent a man named Abner Cole from violating the copyright laws by publishing parts of the Book of Mormon in his weekly periodical, The Reflector.
Again in January 1830, Joseph returned to Palmyra to reassure E. B. Grandin, who had stopped the printing process because of fears that he would not be paid, that their financial arrangement was secure.
Finally, on March 26, 1830, the Book of Mormon was finished and offered for sale.
The original manuscript was used by Joseph Smith to restore a handful of accidentally deleted phrases in the 1840 edition. For the 1981 edition, the original manuscript was used to restore the original reading (wording) in about twenty places.
In October 1841 Joseph placed the original manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. Over forty years later (in 1882), Lewis Bidamon, the second husband of Emma Smith, removed the original manuscript from the cornerstone. The manuscript had been severely damaged by water seepage and mold. 1 Nephi was basically intact, as were the middle portions (from Alma 22 through Helaman 3). Apparently, only smaller fragments remained from the rest of the manuscript. Over the next six years, Bidamon handed out intact sheets, mostly to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Most of these sheets now reside in the archives of the Church. Smaller fragments (from fifty-eight pages of the manuscript) were kept back by Bidamon and were purchased from his son in 1937 by Wilford Wood, a collector from Bountiful, Utah. In 1991 these fragments were conserved and photographed.
In all, 25-30% of the original manuscript is extant. The remaining fragments are hard to read and in many places require ultraviolet photography to bring out the text.
Oliver Cowdery was the scribe for nearly all of the extant portions of the original manuscript. Two unknown scribes are responsible for most of the first half of 1 Nephi, and Joseph Smith's hand is found for twenty-eight words in Alma 45.
Oliver Cowdery took the printer's manuscript with him when he was excommunicated from the Church in 1838. After Oliver's death in 1850, the manuscript was kept by David Whitmer, his brother-in-law. After Whitmer's death in 1888, the manuscript was held by a grandson of Whitmer, who sold the manuscript in 1903 to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as Community of Christ). The printer's manuscript is fully extant except for about three lines of text on the first leaf of the manuscript.