The Unlikely Daniel Webster Jones: First Spanish Translations from the Book of Mormon


Orphaned at the age of eleven, Daniel Webster Jones launched himself West in 1847 with a company of Missouri Volunteers, off to fight in the Mexican War. “Gambling, swearing, fighting, and other rough conduct” were the order of the day and, like “white men generally, I looked upon all Indians as fit only to be killed.” (Forty Years among the Indians, Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890, pp. 18–19. Other references to this autobiography will be cited parenthetically in the text.) Thus, Daniel Webster Jones seems an unlikely choice to join the Church, spend forty years proselyting among the Indians, and with little formal training in Spanish help make the first Spanish translations from the Book of Mormon. As it turned out, he was a good choice for all three.

He does not talk about his early life, but somewhere he had gained a strong belief in God. During the three years he spent in Mexico with the American army, he “took part in many ways in the wild, reckless life that was common in that land” but still refrained from “strong drink and other worse vices that I could see were destroying the lives of my associates.” (pp. 18–19.)

Because of his life-style, he says, “I felt condemned, and often asked God in all earnestness to help me to see what was right, and how to serve Him; telling Him I wanted to know positively, and not be deceived.” In his rough way, he felt that his age was entitled to a prophet too, “that it was not a ‘square thing’ to leave them without anything but the Bible.” (p. 19.)

He left Mexico in 1850 with a large trading company en route to Salt Lake City. On the way, he was badly wounded by a gun accident, but managed to hold on until his companions got him to the Mormon settlements around Provo.

The Latter-day Saints were often the butt of ridicule by travelers of the time, but when he overheard some of his friends reading the Doctrine and Covenants and making fun of it, his “oft-repeated prayer” asking for modern revelation came to his mind. He left his companions, installed himself with an LDS family, and began investigating the gospel as he recuperated. (p. 36.) “Everyone was kind and treated me with great confidence,” he remembered. “I listened to the elders preaching and soon concluded they were honest and knew it, or were willful liars and deceivers. I was determined, if possible, not to be fooled, therefore I commenced to watch very closely.” (p. 37.) He was particularly impressed by the lack of bitterness that Latter-day Saints felt toward the Indians, in spite of recent battles.

When he learned about the Book of Mormon, “it seemed natural to me to believe it. I cannot remember ever questioning in my mind the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, or that Joseph Smith was a prophet. The question was: Are the Mormons sincere, and can I be one?” (p. 38.) When he decided that he could be, he spoke to Isaac Morley, one of the first members of the Church in Ohio.

It was 27 January 1851 and Brother Morley “was just starting out after a load of wood with his ax under his arm.” Remarking quietly, “‘I have been expecting this,’” Brother Morley used the ax to chop through a foot of ice—and Dan became a member of the Church.

The next twenty-three years were busy ones. He farmed, traded with the Ute Indians, was ordained a seventy, married Harriet Emily Colton, acted as Brigham Young’s interpreter when he dealt with some Mexicans in Sanpete County, helped rescue the handcart pioneers stranded by winter, and continued his friendly contacts with the Indians, both as a member of the Church and as a government official.

Then, in 1874, he was summoned to Brigham Young’s office and was called on a mission to Mexico. “I had expected this call to come some time. I had both desired and dreaded the mission,” he says frankly, knowing how hard a mission would be in Mexico. He and Harry Brizzee were both called and told to prepare themselves. Since “Brother Young said he would like to have some extracts from the Book of Mormon translated,” they “began to study and prepare for translating.”

Although both spoke Spanish, Daniel “often thought how good it would be to have a native Spaniard to help us.” (p. 220.) A few months later, Brother Brizzee brought a stranger, Mileton G. Trejo, who had heard about the Church in the Philippine Islands and had come to Utah to investigate it. He soon was baptized and began translating selections from the Book of Mormon into Spanish with Daniel’s assistance and support.

In 1875, Daniel reported to President Young that they were ready to start on their mission. Authorized by President Young, Daniel soon raised $500 by subscription to print the first set of Spanish selections.

In a later conversation with President Young, Daniel was asked how he proposed “to prove to the satisfaction of the authorities of the Church [none of whom spoke Spanish] that the translation was correct.” Daniel offered this trial: they would select a book, Brother Trejo would translate a passage into Spanish, Daniel would take the Spanish translation and, without referring to the original book, translate it again into English. Brother Brigham accepted the trial and, when they provided the translation again, President George A. Smith, then a member of the First Presidency, “laughingly remarked, ‘I like Brother Jones’ style better [than the original]. … The language is more easily understood.’” (p. 231.)

But that was not the only exceptional experience Daniel had in connection with the translation. He says:

“When the printing was commenced, Brother Brigham told me that he would hold me responsible for its correctness. This weighed heavily upon my mind. So much so that I asked the Lord to in some way manifest to me when there were mistakes [as we proofread the printed sheets].

“The manuscript as written by Brother Trejo, was at times rather after the modern notion of good style. When I called his attention to errors he invariably agreed with me. He often remarked that I was a close critic and understood Spanish better than he did. I did not like to tell him how I discerned the mistakes.

“I felt a sensation in the center of my forehead as though there was a fine fiber being drawn smoothly out. When a mistake occurred, the smoothness would be interrupted as though a small knot was passing out through the forehead. Whether I saw the mistake or not I was so sure it existed that I would direct my companion’s attention to it and call on him to correct it. When this was done we continued on until the same occurred again.” (pp. 231–32.)

In September 1875 Daniel left for Mexico in company with his son Wiley, James Z. Stewart, Helaman Pratt, Robert H. Smith, Ammon M. Tenney, and Anthony W. Ivins. The group went on horseback and took with them two thousand copies of their publication, “Choice Selections from the Book of Mormon.” (See Eduardo Balderas, “A Brief History of the Mexican Mission, 1874–1936,” English typescript of manuscript prepared for publication in the Church’s Spanish magazine, Liahona, August 1956. Typescript in possession of Brother Balderas, Church Translation Service Services. Brother Balderas corrects Brother Jones’ spelling of Mileton Trejo.)

After several frustrating experiences dealing with local officials, they received permission in Chihuahua to hold a public meeting, and on 8 April 1876 they preached to a group of approximately five hundred persons at the first LDS meeting in the interior of Mexico. After some other attempts to preach the gospel, they returned to the United States, arriving in Salt Lake City on 5 July 1876. Daniel served a second mission to Mexico in 1876–1877, again with Brother Trejo, Brother Pratt, and Brother Stewart. Also serving were Louis Garff and George Terry. Five converts were baptized.

In 1879, Elder Moses Thatcher of the Quorum of the Twelve officially opened the mission, accompanied by Brother Stewart and Brother Trejo. With interruptions caused by political conditions in 1913 and 1926, the mission has operated since.

The first complete translation of the Book of Mormon was finished in 1886 by Brother Trejo and Brother Stewart. Rey L. Pratt, the mission president from 1907 until 1931, revised this translation, assisted by some linguistic questions from Eduardo Balderas. Brother Balderas eventually became the Church’s chief Spanish translator and corrected the Pratt edition around 1949 for a new printing. A second revision, begun in 1969 and completed in 1980 by Brother Balderas, has recently been published and is in use in all Spanish-speaking missions of the Church.

Daniel Webster Jones, Missouri orphan, had begun a mighty work.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown