The Process of Translating The Book of Mormon
This chapter is included in this collection of gospel doctrine writings to provide
the reader with a never-to-be-forgotten example of the Lord’s willingness to bless his
people in remarkable ways and with unimaginable gifts.
Though it is clear our knowledge of the actual technique Joseph used in
translating the plates is incomplete, it is fascinating to review what is known. It should
be no surprise that there remain many unanswered questions. Joseph himself once
commented on the Lord’s intentions regarding his method of making the book
accessible to us: “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming
forth of the Book of Mormon and . . . it was not expedient for him to relate these things”
(Far West Record, 13; HC, 1:220). As to the particulars of the process by which the
plates were translated, unfortunately Joseph left us no details. He said only that the
plates were translated “by the gift and power of God” (HC, 1:315; see also D&C 1:29;
I gratefully acknowledge Dr. Royal J. Skousen, professor of linguistics and
English and the editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project at Brigham Young
University, for bringing to our awareness many facts about the process of Joseph’s
translating the Book of Mormon. Through Brother Skousen’s meticulous examination of
what remains of the original text (about 28% of the original), of the entire printer’s
manuscript (minus only three lines), and through his correlation of multiple, consistent,
and credible eyewitness testimonies, he has provided us a compelling peek into that
wonderful and miraculous period of our church’s history (“Translating the Book of
Mormon, Evidence From the Original Manuscript” in Book of Mormon Authorship
Revisited, The Evidence for Ancient Origins, 61-93).
More about Royal Skousen
In 1988 Dr. Skousen began the critical text project, and he has worked on it full
time since then. The two goals of this project were to (1) recover the original English language
text of the Book of Mormon, and (2) determine the history of the text (namely,
how it has changed over time). Two kinds of changes have occurred in the text over the
period of its existence: (1) accidental errors in the transmission of the text, and (2) the
deliberate editing out of nonstandard English, largely by Joseph Smith.
Thus far Brother Skousen has published three major volumes on the project and
has nearly completed a fourth:
- The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of
the Extant Text. This volume contains black-and-white, color, and ultraviolet
photographs of fragments of the original manuscript and an exact typescript of the
available parts of that manuscript.
- The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of
the Entire Text in Two Parts. This volume contains eight pages of color photographs of
the manuscript and an exact typescript of the entire manuscript.
- A history of the project he entitled Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of
Mormon: History and Findings of the Critical Text Project. This volume is a result of a
symposium held at Brigham Young University.
- Volume four is to be a detailed analysis of all the textual variants or changes
made between the early manuscripts and the present. Its purpose is to attempt to
restore the original English-language text to the extent possible by scholarly analysis.
This volume is a work in progress. As of this writing (April 2009), it consists of
five parts or books—each a book of about 650-700 pages. It covers from the beginning
of the book through 3 Nephi 18. Dr. Skousen plans to publish the final part by late
summer of 2009.
While the actual process by which the book was “translated” was not a primary
purpose of the Book of Mormon critical text project, Dr. Skousen has obviously become
interested in what is known and has provided us with a fascinating account of that few month
period of time.
A Brief History of the Translation
The prophet Moroni’s fifth annual Cumorah visit to Joseph Smith occurred just
after midnight, September 21, 1827. On that occasion, Moroni delivered the Book of
Mormon plates into Joseph’s hands.
Joseph and Emma were unable to find peace in Palmyra after Joseph took
possession of the plates. Many wanted to see the plates, and some even sought to
steal them. Joseph had been instructed to show them to no one. With some financial
help from his wealthy neighbor, Martin Harris, Joseph was able to pay his debts and
travel to Harmony, Pennsylvania, 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.
That winter, Joseph was busy trying to eke out a living for his family, and had
little time to spend on the plates. He did copy some characters off of the plates and did
some translating with Emma acting as scribe.
In March 1828, Martin Harris, after visiting with Joseph in Harmony, traveled to
New York to show a few characters Joseph had copied to Professor Charles Anthon at
Columbia University. He was satisfied with Dr. Anthon’s response and returned to
Harmony in April to help with the translation. Between April 12 and June 14, 1828, with
Joseph translating and Martin acting as scribe, they completed the translation of the
“book of Lehi” from the first part of the plates of Mormon. This resulted in 116 pages of
manuscript. He used the interpreters, the Urim and Thummim in his translating. He
either translated directly from the plates or copied characters off the plates and then
In June, Martin borrowed and lost the entire 116-page manuscript. The plates
and other relics were taken from Joseph by Moroni but returned to him in September
Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony the following spring on April 5, 1829, and two
days later, on April 7, the two of them began translating full time. While Joseph
translated, Oliver acted as scribe. It is probable that Joseph mostly used his seerstone
as he translated with Oliver.
By July 1, 1829, they finished the translation of the entire Book of Mormon. They
began the translation in Harmony, Pennsylvania, but moved to Fayette, New York,
before the translation was completed. The experience of the three witnesses occurred,
according to David Whitmer, in Fayette “in June, 1829, the very last part of the month”
(Joseph Fielding Smith, The Life of Joseph F. Smith, 242). The eight witnesses were
allowed to see and handle the plates in Palmyra somewhat later.
In August 1829, Oliver began to produce a copy of the original manuscript,
subsequently known as the “printer’s manuscript.” This manuscript was produced to
provide the printer, E. B. Grandin, with a clean copy for typesetting and to produce a
back up copy of the original. John Gilbert, an employee of the printer, added all the
punctuation and did the typesetting. Printing began in August 1829. The printer’s
manuscript was produced, largely by Oliver Cowdery, as it was needed by the printer.
This manuscript was completed early in 1830. By March 1830, the Book of Mormon
was printed and ready for distribution.
The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon was placed by Joseph Smith in
the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in October 1841. There it remained, exposed to
the elements, until September of 1882 when the cornerstone was opened by Lewis
Bidamon, the second husband of Emma Smith. The original manuscript had suffered
considerable damage. Just over a fourth of it—28%—was recovered and has been
available for scholarly study.
The printer’s manuscript was retained by Oliver Cowdery. After his death in
1850, his brother-in-law, David Whitmer, kept it until his death in 1888. In 1903
Whitmer's grandson sold the manuscript to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, which owns it today. It is wholly extant except for three lines at the
bottom of the first page. The RLDS Church has made the printer’s manuscript available
for scholarly study.
Two Instruments Used in the Translation.
Seer stone - Joseph often referred to a “seer stone” he used for translating. This
was a stone found by Joseph and kept in his possession. According to Willard Chase, a
resident of the Palmyra area, Joseph found the stone in 1822 while digging a well with
his brother Alvin on the Chase property. It was “about the size of a small hen’s egg, in
the shape of a high instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors
passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps from being carried
in the pocket” (Kirkham, Francis, W. A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:365).
Emma Smith once described it as “a small stone, not exactly black, but it was rather a
dark color” (unpublished letter of Emma Smith Bidamon to Mrs. George W. Pilgrim,
March 27, 1870, RLDS Archives P 4 F 20). Historian Andrew Jenson described the
stone as an “oval shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg but more
flat” (The Historical Record). According to most accounts, the seer stone was used
during all stages of the translation of the Book of Mormon, both before and especially
after the loss of the first 116 pages of manuscript. It seems likely that as Joseph and
Oliver translated, only the seer stone was used and not the Urim and Thummim.
Following the translation of the Book of Mormon, the seer stone was passed on
to Oliver Cowdery who maintained it in his possession until his death. It was then
passed to his widow, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, who gave it to Phineas Young.
Phineas took it to Utah and gave it to his brother, Brigham Young. From that time, with
the exception of a brief hiatus when it was purchased by someone else, it has remained
in the possession of the First Presidency where it remains today. On May 18, 1888,
following a private dedication of the Manti Temple, President Wilford Woodruff wrote
that he “consecrated upon the Altar the seers’ [sic] stone that Joseph Smith found by
Revelation some 30 feet under the Earth” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898, entry
dated 13th-19th May, 1988).
Urim and Thummim - Joseph also spoke of using the Nephite interpreters, the
Urim and Thummim or “spectacles” in the translation process. Apparently the Urim and
Thummim consisted of two transparent stones resembling glass, set into silver metallic
rims which caused the whole unit to look like an overlarge pair of spectacles. The
metallic rims are referred to as “silver bows.” Presumably this terminology refers to the
fact that the metal rims resembled two “bows” (as in the bow-and-arrow type of bow
without the string) placed together to form an ellipse, then pinched or twisted together in
the center to form two rough circles which contained the stones. Lucy Mack Smith
“examined” the Urim and Thummim and “found that it consisted of two smooth threecornered
diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were
connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles” (Lucy’s
These spectacles were attached by a moveable rod to a breastplate. The
following description of this entire device is probably the best we have available to us.
In 1891, Joseph’s brother William was interviewed by two brethren who reported:
We asked him what was meant by the expression “two rims of a
bow,” which held the former. He said a double silver bow was twisted into
the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally
between the two rims of a bow. At one end was attached a rod which was
connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breastplate. By
pressing the head a little forward, the rod held the Urim and Thummim
before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in
the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in
use the Urim and Thummim was placed in this pocket, the rod being of
just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could,
however, be detached from the breast plate and his brother said Joseph
often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in
connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications,
and usually so when translating, as it permitted him to have both hands
free to hold the plates (J. W. Peterson, “William B. Smith’s Last
Statement,” Zion’s Ensign, 6).
William Smith is also quoted as saying, in referring to the spectacles: “They were
much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using
sometimes one and sometimes the other” (Early Mormon Documents, 1:508).
We also have a separate description of the breastplate given by the Prophet’s
mother, Lucy Mack Smith. She wrote:
It was wrapped in a thin muslin handkerchief, so thin that I could
see the glistening metal, and ascertain its proportions without any
It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and extended
from the neck downward, as far as center of the stomach of a man of
extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose
of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the
shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. They
were just the width of two of my fingers (for I measured them), and they
had holes in the ends of them, to be convenient in fastening (Lucy’s Book,
A similar instrument—“the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim”—
had been given to Aaron (see Exodus 28:30). Through its power, the high priest had
been able to act as judge for the house of Israel. Aaron’s instrument was not the same
as that provided to Joseph Smith. This latter one had been in the possession of Moroni
who buried it with the plates (see Ether 4:5). Earlier, Mosiah had used this instrument
to translate the original Jaredite records (see Omni 1:20; Mosiah 8:13; 21:27-28). This
Urim and Thummim is likely the one God gave the brother of Jared for the specific
purpose of helping later prophets translate his record (see Ether 3:23-224; note on
In addition to translating the Nephite record, Lucy Mack Smith reported that
Joseph was able to receive visions through the Urim and Thummim, as well as
“ascertain, at any time, the approach of danger, either to himself or the Record”
(Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many
Generations, 110). Joseph also used the instrument to inquire of the Lord on behalf of
various individuals (see headings of D&C 6; 11; 14; 17), and to learn “whether John, the
beloved disciple, tarried in the flesh or had died” (D&C 7 heading).
At times the term “Urim and Thummim” was used in a generic manner to mean
either the seer stone or the Nephite interpreters. Emma Smith Bidamon once wrote that
Joseph began by using the interpreters and used them to translate the manuscript that
Martin Harris lost. After that he used only the seer stone (unpublished letter to Mrs.
George W. Pilgrim).
One might well raise the question as to why instruments such as the interpreters
and the seer stone were needed in the translation process in the first place. Orson
Pratt, who had considered this same question, reported that Joseph told him that the
Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim “when he was inexperienced in the spirit of
inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operation of the
Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument” (Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The
Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching”). Zebedee Coltrin, a friend of the
Prophet, related that he had once asked Joseph what he had done with the Urim and
Thummim and that “Joseph said that he had no further need of it and he had given it to
the angel Moroni. He had the Melchizedek Priesthood and with that priesthood he had
the key to all knowledge and intelligence” (High Priests Record of Spanish Fork Branch,
September, 128). These statements do not provide a complete answer to the question
as to why the Lord required Joseph to utilize objects or instruments in the process of
translation. I believe we are left with the idea that the seer stone and the Urim and
Thummim represented the Lord’s part in the miraculous process, but more was required
for the process to work—likely substantial personal preparation and effort were also
required by the translator himself. The exact nature of that preparation is unknown.
Divine Control of the Process of Translation
There have been three ideas or theories advanced as to exactly how much divine
control was maintained over the Book of Mormon text during the translation:
- Loose control. Ideas were revealed somehow to Joseph during the translation
process, and he put the ideas into his own language. This theory has been advocated
by many Book of Mormon scholars over the years.
- Tight control. Joseph saw specific words written out in English, and he read
them off to the scribe. The accuracy of the resulting text depended on the carefulness
of Joseph and his scribe.
- Iron-clad control. Joseph (or the interpreters themselves) would not allow any
error to be made by the scribe, including the spelling of common words.
Evidence for the concept of loose control relies on the finding of occasional
instances of nonstandard English, including dialectical English, in the text which
presumably did not come from the Lord. We would presume that the Lord speaks only
“correct” English. One example is Jacob 7:27 where the prophet Jacob is concluding
his book. He says, “I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words.
Brethren, adieu.” Joseph’s use of the French word adieu is easily explainable by his
living in upstate New York, close to French-speaking Canadians. Adieu would have
been part of his vocabulary.
While there are elements of loose control in the text, there is also much evidence
for tight control. We will comment on examples of tight control as we proceed. The
presence of many errors in both the original and printer’s manuscript eliminate the
possibility of iron-clad control.
For the remainder of this chapter, I will briefly consider a few of Dr. Skousen’s
major discoveries regarding the process of translation as he has worked on the critical
The Translation Sessions Were Initially Closed but Eventually Open
Early in the translation process, from late 1827 and into 1828, it appears that
Joseph first copied some of the characters directly from the plates onto sheets of paper,
from which sheets he would then translate his transcribed characters into English by
means of the Urim and Thummim. Joseph wrote, referring to his initial arrival in
Harmony in the fall of 1827 and to the help he received from Martin Harris:
By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my
destination in Pennsylvania, and immediately after my arrival there I
commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable
number of them and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated
some of them (“History, 1839,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:284).
During this early period, the plates were uncovered while Joseph translated (or at
least while he copied the characters from the plates onto paper); and since no one was
permitted to see the plates until later, Joseph took precautions to prevent anyone from
seeing him working directly with the plates. Martin Harris, in a couple of early
statements, said that a blanket or curtain separated Joseph from him at the time he
(Harris) obtained a sample transcript and translation to take to Professor Anthon in New
York City (Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration, 209-13).
During the translation of the Book of Mormon in 1829, the translation process
was an open one, that is, others in the room were able to observe the process. Joseph
dictated, and Oliver wrote.
Joseph Saw the Divinely-Transmitted Script and Dictated the Original Manuscript Word for Word
Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language
text. Dr. Skousen has observed, therefore, that Joseph Smith is not the author of the
Book of Mormon. Nor is he actually the translator. Instead, he was the revelator.
Through him the Lord revealed the English language text. Dr. Skousen believes that
the words translate and translation relative to Joseph’s work on the Book of Mormon
should be rendered transmit and transmission.
Samuel W. Richards, in a statement recorded on May 25, 1907, reported that
Oliver Cowdery had explained to him during the winter of 1848-49 how Joseph Smith
had translated: (1) Every word was distinctly visible even down to every letter; (2) and if
Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the
“interpreter” until it was copied correctly (The original typescript signed by Samuel
Richards is located in the LDS Church Historical Department [Samuel Whitney Richards
Collection, Ms 6576, Box 2, Folder 14]).
Though Joseph largely used the plates and the Urim and Thummim during their
period of translation in 1828, apparently, on occasion, Joseph also used his seer stone.
Edward Stevenson reported:
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 (“One of the Three Witnesses.
Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris”).
Of course the witnesses could not actually see what Joseph saw, and they were
either offering their own conjecture or perhaps they were recalling what Joseph might
have told them. We will learn that an examination of the original manuscript of the Book
of Mormon does not support the idea that Joseph could not continue with the translation
until the scribe had written what he had dictated in perfect detail. There are many errors
in the original manuscript which have subsequently had to be corrected. These should
not be present in the original manuscript had the Lord maintained iron-clad control over
the process of translation.
All witnesses of the translation stated that Joseph dictated the text of the Book of
Mormon. Royal Skousen has utilized the original manuscript to shed light upon and
gather evidence for this idea (“Translating the Book of Mormon, Evidence from the
Original Manuscript” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, The Evidence for Ancient
Origins, 67-71). He points out that several errors in the original manuscript resulted
from the scribe’s mishearing what Joseph dictated rather than visually misreading while
copying from another manuscript. For example, several specific errors resulted from
the scribes’ failing to distinguish between and and an, weed and reed, meet and beat,
them and him. This latter error seems to have resulted from the Prophet’s pronouncing
both as the unstressed ‘em. Another error resulted when the scribe heard sons instead
of son (Alma 40:20). This occurred when “sons” was followed by a word beginning with
an “s.” This made it difficult for Oliver Cowdery to hear any difference between son see
and sons see.
An example of the “mishearing” kind of error is contained in 1 Nephi 13:29 of the
original manuscript. The scribe wrote the following: “. . . & because of these things
which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb & exceeding great many do
stumble.” Obviously the scribe misheard “an exceeding great many” as “and exceeding
great many.” The scribe’s use of the ampersand (&) shows that the error was not based
on visual similarity. Hearing an, the scribe interpreted it as the casual speech form an’
Joseph Spelled Out Unfamiliar Proper Names as He Dictated
Royal Skousen has found clear evidence in his study of the original manuscript of
the Book of Mormon that Joseph, as he translated, could see the English spelling of
names. Witnesses to the translation have indicated that Joseph would sometimes spell
out names so that the scribe could get them down correctly. Frequently, in the original
manuscript, when a Book of Mormon name first occurs (or has not occurred for some
time) that name is first written out in a more phonetic but incorrect spelling, then this
incorrect spelling is crossed out and the correct spelling immediately follows. For
instance in Alma 33:15 Oliver Cowdery first spells the prophet Zenoch’s name as
Zenock, then he crosses out the whole name and rewrites it with a “ch” at the end rather
than a “ck,” thus indicating that the correct spelling is Zenoch. Similarly in Helaman
1:15 Oliver ends Coriantumr with the spelling –tummer. Then he crosses out the whole
name and follows it with the correct spelling which ends with -tumr.
Emma Smith reported:
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 a 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 (John W. Welch and Tim
Rathbone, “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical
David Whitmer reportedly said in an interview reported in 1885 in the Chicago
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 (David Whitmer Interviews: A
Restoration Witness, 3).
Joseph Knight: “But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so
we see it was marvelous” (Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early
Mormon History,” 35).
In spite of Joseph’s spelling of proper names and difficult words, there are
several long English words in the original manuscript that are misspelled. Consider the
following examples from 1 Nephi:
- 2:3 obedient
- 8:21 concorses
- 3:16 inheritence
- 4:20 treasurey
- 4:34 dilligent
- 4:36 desirus
- 5:2 inherritance
- 5:8 surity
- 5:9 sacrafice
- 5:13 prophasies
- 5:14 jenealeja
- 6:2 sofiseth
- 7:1 fammaly
- 7:8 exampel
- 7:12 exersise
- 10:2 dilagence
- 10:4 Masiah
- 11:6 hosana
- 11:26 condesension
- 11:34 apostels
- 12:4 tumultius
- 13:5 tortereth
- 13:23 covanants
- 15:20 passified
- 16:19 fateagued
- 17:51 miricles
- 17:30 expediant
- 19:10 espesiall
- 2:11 immagionations
As Emma Smith reported, Joseph likely did spell out long English words, but
apparently not consistently, and perhaps he did so largely when Emma was active as
scribe at the beginning of the book of Lehi.
The Original Text Evidences Remarkable Internal Consistency
John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone have pointed out an interesting case where
the book of Mormon contains the same identical (nonbiblical) quote in widely separate
parts of the text. The example they point out is initially found in Lehi’s vision of the tree
of life (“Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism,
. . . and he thought he [saw God sitting upon his throne surrounded with
numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising
their God] (1 Nephi 1:8)
. . . and methought I saw even as our father Lehi [saw God sitting upon his
throne surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of
singing and praising their God] (Alma 36:22).
How might we explain the twenty-one word phrase (in brackets) shared by these
two verses, particularly since they are separated by hundreds of pages of text, and they
were dictated weeks apart? The answer is that it was Alma who looked back in the
record and found the quote of father Lehi. It is not surprising that Alma borrowed Lehi’s
words since Alma had charge of the small plates of Nephi and thus had ready access to
the patriarch’s words (see Alma 37:2). In describing his own joy, Alma thought of Lehi’s
experience in 1 Nephi 1:8 and quoted verbatim these twenty-one words. It was not
Joseph Smith who looked back. Joseph was merely the translator and not the writer or
editor. He was not simply expressing the thought that came into his mind in his own
words. This has to be an example of an instance of tight divine control. There are other
examples of this same phenomenon in the Book of Mormon. For example, compare
Helaman 14:12 with Mosiah 3:8. Also compare 3 Nephi 8:6-23 with 1 Nephi 19:11-12.
Perhaps this observation has not struck you as very interesting. If it has not,
then just try quoting any twenty-one words of Lehi without looking! Dr. Welch pointed
out that this phrase and others in the Book of Mormon text provide remarkable
examples of internal textual consistency in the Book of Mormon (“Textual Consistency,”
Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 21-23).
Another similar example: King Benjamin established a law containing five
proscriptions: murder, plunder, theft, adultery, and any manner of wickedness. This list
which first appears in Mosiah 2:13 reappears in seven other verses in the Book of
Mormon: Mosiah 29:36; Alma 23:3; 30:10; Helaman 3:13; 6:23; 7:21; and Ether 8:16.
These examples of internal textual consistency are particularly interesting, in the
context of the way in which Joseph translated. We will soon discuss the fact that
Joseph dictated his translation to a scribe pausing only to allow the scribe to complete
the recording. Once recorded, he did not go back and review or revise the text. At the
beginning of each translation session, he simply began exactly where he had left off in
the previous session without going back to review.
The Printer’s Manuscript Was Produced by Visual Copying from the Original
In contrast to the errors found in the original manuscript, the errors that are found
in the printer’s manuscript show that this second manuscript was visually copied. As
Oliver Cowdery was copying from the original manuscript onto the printer’s manuscript,
he sometimes incorrectly read the original manuscript. In many cases, the error leads
to a more difficult reading, as the in the following example in Alma 30:52:
- original manuscript: yea & I always knew that there was a God
- printer’s manuscript: yea & I also knew that there was a God
This error was due to visual similarity between the words always and also. This
kind of error does not appear in the original manuscript because the scribes were not
copying from another written source but were hearing the words dictated by Joseph.
Original Text Includes Expressions Uncharacteristic of English
One of the interesting complexities of the original English-language text of the
Book of Mormon is that it contains expressions that appear to be uncharacteristic of
English in all of its dialects and historical stages. These structures also support the
notion that Joseph Smith’s translation is a literal one and not simply a reflection of his
own dialect. They support the notion that at least tight control was exerted by the Lord
in much of the translation process.
For instance, in the original text of the Book of Mormon we find a number of
occurrences of a Hebrew-like conditional clause. In English, a typical conditional clause
would be “if you come, then I will come,” with then being optional. In Hebrew this same
clause is expressed as “if you come and I will come.” It is instructive to note that in the
original text of the Book of Mormon, there were at least fourteen occurrences of this
non-English expression. One occurrence was accidentally removed in 1 Nephi 17:50 as
Oliver Cowdery was producing the printer’s manuscript by copying from the original
manuscript: “if he should command me that I should say unto this water be thou earth
and it shall be earth.” The remaining thirteen occurrences were all removed by Joseph
Smith in his editing for the second edition, including one from the famous passage in
Moroni 10:4: “and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in
Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you.”
This use of “and” is not due to scribal error. In one passage in the original
manuscript this if-and expression occurs seven times (Helaman 12:13-21). Helaman
12:13 was rendered in the original edition: “yea, if he saith unto the earth, Move, and it
is moved.” Joseph’s use of the more typical Hebrew construction in his original
translation supports the idea that Joseph’s translation was a literal one and not simply a
reflection of his own dialect. If the Lord had exercised only loose control over the
translation process, then Joseph would have translated these conditional phrases using
the if-then construction, possibly without the then. Thus, we see another example of
tight control (Royal Skousen, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, “The Original
Language of the Book of Mormon: Upstate New York Dialect, King James English, or
These Hebrew forms were mostly eliminated by Joseph Smith in his editing of
the text for the second (1837) edition. Joseph’s editing for the second and third editions
(1837 and 1840) represents human editing and not revealed revision of the text.
The Vocabulary of the Manuscripts Appears to Derive from the 1500s and 1600s
and Not from the 1800s
A prominent feature of the Book of Mormon translation is its use of early modern
English which resembles the language of the King James Version of the Bible. For
example, both books use the archaic inflectional suffixes -est and -eth as in “sayest”
and “maketh.” They both use archaic pronoun forms “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” and “thine.”
Also, they both tolerate the formation of questions and negatives in ways that are no
longer used in modern English, i.e., “What sayest thou?” (Alma 56:44; cf. John 8:5;) and
“they knew not whither they had fled” (Mosiah 21:31; cf. 2 Samuel 30:22).
The original text contains a number of expressions and words with meanings that
were lost from the English language by 1700 including the following (the date of their
last citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is given in parentheses):
To require meant “to request” (1665): Enos 1:18 reads “Thy fathers have also
required of me this thing.”
A sermon meant “talk, discourse, speech, conversation” (1594): In Mosiah 19,
the people of king Noah had just reported to Gideon that they had slain King Noah and
that his priests had fled into the wilderness. Mosiah 19:24 should read “after they had
ended the sermon” (not the current reading “after they had ended the ceremony”).
To cast arrows meant “to shoot arrows” (1609): Alma 49:4 reads “The Lamanites
could not cast their stones and their arrows at them.”
To counsel meant “to counsel with” (1547): Alma 37:37 originally read “counsel
the Lord in all thy doings” (similarly in Alma 39:10).
But if meant “unless” (1596): Mosiah 3:19 originally read “For the natural man is
an enemy to God . . . and will be forever and ever but if he yieldeth to the enticings of
the Holy Spirit.”
To depart meant “to part” (1677): Helaman 8:11 originally read “to smite upon the
waters of the Red Sea and they departed hither and thither.”
Extinct was used to refer to an individual’s death (1675): In Alma 44, captain
Moroni has just commanded Zerahemna to deliver up his weapons of war. Alma 44:7
reads “If ye do not this . . . I will command my men that they shall fall upon you, and
inflict the wounds of death in your bodies that ye may become extinct.”
The pleading bar of God (this expression is not in the Oxford English Dictionary,
but three early 1600 citations have been found, including one in a legal context): In
Jacob 6, the prophet Jacob bids his people farewell. Jacob 6:13 should read “until I
shall meet you before the pleading bar of God,” not “the pleasing bar of God” (similarly
in Moroni 10:34).
It is not really known why the Lord chose to reveal the English text of the Book of
Mormon employing this early English dialect. Perhaps it had something to do with
Joseph Smith’s dialect. Analysis of that dialect might yield insights into the language of
the translation. This is true whether the Book of Mormon text was revealed to Joseph
through concepts Joseph then put into his own language, or whether it was revealed
word for word to him in his own language, or some combination of the two.
Unfortunately, there are virtually no extant personal writings by him at the time he
translated the Book of Mormon. Joseph’s own dialect of English at that time must
therefore be inferred through an examination of some of his later writings or through the
available writings of his local contemporaries. Documents from the general time and
area of Joseph Smith’s boyhood attest to the presence in the local dialects of some
linguistic forms that would seem archaic to people today and that are similar to the
language of the King James Bible. Indeed, one could find some lingering use of the
pronoun forms “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” and “thine,” as well as the archaic -eth and -est verb
inflectional suffixes. Other characteristics found in the King James Bible as well as in
the upstate New York area of Joseph Smith’s time include “for” in front of verb infinitives
(i.e., “for to come”) and the use of such forms as “a going.”
It is common for rural communities to be conservative in preserving some older
forms of speech. Furthermore, some religious groups often deliberately preserve older
language forms. By these measures, Palmyra and its surrounding area thus
represented a prime region for the presence of many older linguistic forms, because it
was not only decidedly rural but contained a substantial number of members of the
Society of Friends (Quakers) whose speech, even in normal everyday settings, was
highly influenced by older forms of English.
It is difficult but ultimately unnecessary from the standpoint of Joseph Smith’s
dialectical environment to establish whether the presence of such linguistic forms
among speakers in this area is attributable to retained older dialectical forms or to a
conscious effort by some religious-minded people to use such forms in their language.
Either way, these elements were in the speech of at least some of the people around
Joseph Smith. His ability to use these forms would not have to have been exclusively
determined by any direct contact with the Bible.
All of this is not to say that Joseph used such archaic forms in his own regular
speech. His speech, like that of everyone else, would have had multiple registers that
probably varied depending on whether he was addressing a church congregation,
relating a story to small children, or telling a joke to a group of friends. But it seems that
he likely had a religious register containing features associated with the language of the
King James Bible. The language of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon
appropriately matches the religious register associated with the biblical translations then
available throughout the English-speaking world. The language of the Book of Mormon
translation was likely influenced by Joseph’s own language.
Joseph Dictated for Long Periods of Time Without Reference to Any Books,
Papers, Manuscripts, or Even to the Plates Themselves
Separate accounts of the process written by David Whitmer and Emma Smith
show a surprising similarity. David Whitmer wrote:
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,
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 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, 12).
Emma’s account was contained in an interview with Emma conducted by one of
her children in February 1879:
Q. Who were scribes for father when translating the Book of Mormon?
A. Myself, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and my brother Reuben Hale.
Q. Was Alva Hale one?
A. I think not. He may have written some; but if he did, I do not remember
it . . .
Q. What is the truth of Mormonism?
A. I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the Church to have been
established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for
your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close
by him. He sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and
dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.
Q. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to
A. He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.
Q. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
A. If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
Q. Are you sure that he had the plates at the time you were writing for
A. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment,
wrapped in a small linen table cloth, 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.
Q. Where did father and Oliver Cowdery write?
A. Oliver Cowdery and your father wrote in the room where I was at work.
Q. Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver
Cowdery, and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or
having first read it out of some book?
A. Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and wellworded
letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. . . . The
larger part of this labour [of translation] was done in my presence and
where I could see and know what was being done . . . During no part of it
did Joseph Smith have any [manuscripts] or book of any kind from which
to read or dictate except the metallic plates which I knew he had. If, he
had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
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
(Joseph Smith III. “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald,
It is interesting that this process, described by two of Joseph’s contemporaries,
does not seem to directly involve the plates, though they were undoubtedly always
nearby! It would seem illogical, however, to conclude that the plates were not at times
and in some way intimately involved in the translation process. It seems unlikely that
the method of translation was as effortless as here implied. Keep in mind that Oliver
failed in his attempt to translate because he “took no thought save it was to ask [the
Lord]” (D&C 9).
But what kind of effort was involved? It must have been in rendering the ideas
on the plates into acceptable English. Part of the divine process by which Joseph
worked may have allowed him to think, as it were, in that language, and to understand,
by inspiration, the ideas of the language. Then he would have the challenge of
expressing the ideas on the plates in suitable English. There is also the considerable
effort involved in continuing the process of translation hour after hour and day after day.
The witnesses to the process of translation spoke of words appearing on the seer
stone or “translators.” Was there only one correct translation for the ideas found on the
plates? Probably not. A “correct” translation can often be improved upon in word
choice or in some other manner. Joseph himself seemed to have felt no particular
compunctions about revising the Book of Mormon, as evidenced by the numerous
changes (mostly of a grammatical nature) made by him in 1837 in the second edition of
the Book of Mormon.
Although Joseph was intensely involved in translating an ancient record, he was
clearly unschooled in things ancient. For example, early in the work he came across
words concerning a wall around Jerusalem and asked Emma if the city indeed had
walls. She affirmed what Joseph simply hadn’t known. It is clear that Joseph Smith
worked completely without referring to any other sources. None of the twelve people
who either participated or merely observed mentioned Joseph’s having any reference
materials present. Emma Smith was emphatic on this very point: “He had neither
manuscript nor book to read from, [and] if he had anything of the kind he could not have
concealed it from me” (Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’
Joseph Had Access to Twenty to Thirty Words at a Time as He Dictated
Royal Skousen has found evidence in the original manuscript to suggest that
Joseph dealt with twenty to thirty words at a time as he translated. One piece of
evidence is his finding an instance where Joseph’s dictation ran ahead of Oliver’s ability
to write. In trying to catch up, Oliver omitted a phrase which later had to be inserted
after crossing out the words following the omitted phrase. Thus the number of words
Joseph dictated at a time can be estimated. This example is found in Alma 56:41 of the
. . . & it came to pass that again when the light of
the morning came we saw the Lamanites upon us [the angled brackets
refer to a crossout].
This example suggests that Joseph and Oliver started out together, but by the
time Oliver finished writing “& it came to pass that again,” Joseph had moved along far
enough that he was then dictating “we saw the Lamanites upon us” and Oliver started to
write that down. As he did so he realized he had skipped the intervening text (“when
the light of the morning came”), so he immediately crossed out “we saw the Lamanites”
and wrote the correct sequence, possibly with Joseph repeating the correct text for him.
If this explanation is correct, then it indicates that Joseph had at least twenty words in
view as he was dictating.
In another instance, a twenty-eight word phrase suddenly appears in Joseph’s
handwriting suggesting that Oliver was momentarily indisposed and Joseph had to get
down those words he was processing at that moment (Royal Skousen, “Translating the
Book of Mormon, Evidence From the Original Manuscript” in Book of Mormon
Authorship Revisited, The Evidence for Ancient Origins, 71-74).
The Scribe Read Back to Joseph Each Dictated Phrase
David Whitmer reported that Joseph’s dictation of words was followed by a
checking sequence in which the scribe would read back the text to Joseph. If an error
was detected, Joseph would presumably read off the text once more until he was
satisfied that the scribe had written it down correctly:
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 (An Address to All
Believers in Christ, 12).
Many corrections in the original manuscript are consistent with this repetition
sequence. The majority of changes in the original manuscript were made immediately.
Evidence for these immediate corrections include: corrections following on the same
line, erasures showing ink smearing (since the ink had not yet dried), and supralinear
corrections or insertions made above the line with no change in the level of ink flow or
difference in the quill. Some of these may have been made by the scribe himself
without Joseph’s feedback. There are numerous changes consistent with the process
of repeating back. In these instances the original form is complete and the error is
usually not obvious. The correction is either supralinear or inserted on the line. There
is no erasure—only a cross out of the error.
It should also be noted that there are numerous other corrections in the original
manuscript that were made considerably later—often by a different scribe or in a
different medium (such as pencil).
Even using this checking process, errors in the original manuscript obviously
could and did go undetected.
Each Dictation Session Began without Reviewing Where the Previous Session
Emma Smith reported:
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, [he] would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after
meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he left off,
without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to
him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable
that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned
as he was, it was simply impossible (Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of
Sister Emma” in Saints’ Advocate 26:289-90.)
As He Dictated, Joseph Saw Some Visual Indication that a Section Was Ending
and a New Section Was Beginning
This visual indicator could have been a symbol of some type or perhaps just
blankness. Recognizing that a section was ending, Joseph then told the scribe to write
the word chapter with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added
later. The word chapter and the corresponding chapter numbers were not part of the
revealed text. By this scheme the book of 1 Nephi, in the original manuscript, has
seven divisions or chapters. Our present chapter system dates back to the 1879 edition
wherein Orson Pratt divided 1 Nephi into twenty-two chapters.
Apparently Joseph sometimes realized that he had come to the end of a major
division—a “book”—but at other times he knew only that he had come to the end of
some type of section of the translation. For example, in the original manuscript, the
word chapter was placed at the beginning of each of the small books at the end of the
small plates (Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon), as well as at the beginning of 4
Nephi. The word chapter was also placed at the beginning of the Second Book of
Nephi, and later, when Oliver was adding the chapter numbers, he first assigned the
Roman numeral VIII to this first chapter of 2 Nephi. But when he realized that this was
actually the beginning of a new book, he crossed out the whole chapter designation and
inserted (with slightly weaker ink flow) “The second Book of Nephi Chapter I.” At the
beginning of each of these books, Joseph recognized only that he had come to the end
of a section. He could have had no knowledge in advance of the contents or structure
of the book that followed.
In summary, we may identify the following steps in the translation process:
- Joseph saw (in some way) the English text word for word and letter for letter.
- He then read off the text to the scribe.
- The scribe heard and wrote down the text.
- The scribe then read back the text to Joseph.
- Joseph then gave his approval to the passage of text and continued on with the translation process.
Despite Joseph’s reading off of the text, one should not assume that this process
was automatic or easily done. Joseph had to prepare himself mentally and spiritually
for this work.
A few additional comments regarding the original manuscript of the Book of
Mormon seem pertinent. Critics of the Book of Mormon have sought alternative
explanations to account for the book’s existence, arguing that it is a fraud created by
Joseph Smith, or by Joseph and someone else, such as Sidney Rigdon. However, the
original manuscript gives no aid or comfort to such theories nor, indeed, to any
explanations other than the account given by Joseph Smith concerning the coming forth
of the book. Under careful examination, the original manuscript shows no evidence of
fraud. It is not a compilation of pages worked on over a long period of time. The paper,
ink, handwriting, and everything about the collection indicates that it was created within
a short time frame. It bears no trace of collaborative committee work. The manuscript
is clean and straightforward. It shows no evidence of developmental research or
copying from contemporary books or articles. It is not the product of revision and
rethinking. It shows no evidence of rewriting to change a modern expression into an
archaic-sounding phrase. It does not appear that Joseph reformulated thoughts or
reworked the translation to make it sound more plausible. Everything points to a
uniform manner of dictation and production. It really looks like one person read and
another copied, much as Joseph Smith described.
What the original manuscript is not is quite impressive, especially when one
begins to contemplate the number of problems that could have arisen if Joseph Smith
had not been telling the truth. The original manuscript is exactly the kind of smoking
gun that a prosecuting lawyer would normally love to find in trying to build a case of
fraud or deception against an accused. How many mistakes, how many unavoidable
problems, how many inevitable inconsistencies would a prosecutor expect to find in
such a document? The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon takes us into the
workshop of the translator and his scribes; and much to the critic’s chagrin, what we see
is what we have been told by Joseph Smith and his companions all along. If Joseph
had perpetrated a fraud and were trying to cover his tracks, this unforgiving record
should have been the last thing he would have kept. Yet Joseph Smith did not dispose
of the original manuscript. Despite all the hardships and atrocities the saints
experienced in their travel, the original manuscript somehow survived, until it was
deposited in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House.
- Michael J. Preece