Learning to Love The Gospel

The Process of Translating The Book of Mormon By Michael J. Preece

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; 20:8).

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 translated them.

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 1828.

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 Book, 379).

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 difficulty.

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, 379).

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 Abraham 3:1).

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 text project.

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’ for and.

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 Information,” 8).

David Whitmer reportedly said in an interview reported in 1885 in the Chicago Tribune:

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, 1:210-3):

. . . 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 Manuscript

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 Hebrew?” 34).

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 you?
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 him?
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, 26:289-90).

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’ Herald, 26:289).

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 original manuscript:

. . . & 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 Had Ended

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:

  1. Joseph saw (in some way) the English text word for word and letter for letter.

  2. He then read off the text to the scribe.

  3. The scribe heard and wrote down the text.

  4. The scribe then read back the text to Joseph.

  5. 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