Joseph Smith’s Efforts to Publish His Bible “Translation”

Despite numerous difficulties, the Prophet Joseph Smith never lost interest in publishing the JST.

Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible (JST) has received increased attention in the Church in recent years, primarily because it forms an important part of the new LDS editions of the scriptures. The new edition of the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1979, presents hundreds of JST passages in the footnotes, includes lengthier JST passages in a seventeen-page appendix, and contains an explanatory entry in the dictionary.

Similarly, the new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1981, contains many references to the JST in the footnotes (see, for example, D&C 9:2; D&C 35:20; D&C 37:1; D&C 45:60; D&C 124:89) and also in the headnotes and content summaries of numerous sections (for example, sections D&C 35, D&C 45, D&C 73, D&C 74, D&C 76,D&C 86, and D&C 91).

Because of the increased use now given to the JST, it seems appropriate to present this special work of the Prophet in its historical perspective, to show his high regard for it and its use by early members of the Church. The Saints of that day were aware that the Prophet had made a new translation of the Bible, and many were eager to obtain the increased information it would afford. But since it was not published, access to it was limited. Eventually, excerpts from the JST were published in early Church periodicals, and selections were also used in the “Lectures on Faith.” There are, however, several instances recorded in the revelations in which the Lord directed that the entire translation be printed; and, accordingly, Joseph Smith made extensive plans to publish the translation in book form.

The Doctrine and Covenants, as well as the Prophet’s journal, letters, Church periodicals, the JST manuscript, and other documentary sources, demonstrate that the translation was frequently discussed in the early Church and that several attempts were made by the Prophet to publish his work in its entirety, although such a publication was never realized in his lifetime. The historical records show that failure to publish the new translation was not due to any negligence or lack of interest on Joseph Smith’s part, but rather to a neglect on the part of the Saints to provide the temporal necessities by which the Prophet could attend to the work. The story is fascinating and meaningful, with important lessons to be learned, not the least of which is that when an opportunity presents itself to render service to a prophet doing the Lord’s work, we should act without delay or the opportunity may pass unfulfilled.

The translation was begun in June 1830, commencing with Genesis. The Prophet had just previously brought the Book of Mormon from the press (March 18–25) and organized the Church (6 April 1830). At this early time, there was still much to be revealed to the Prophet about the doctrines of the gospel and the management of the young Church. As the facts are assembled, it becomes clear that one of the benefits of the Bible translation is that it provided the Prophet with the spiritual involvement necessary for the revelation of many important doctrines.

That these revelations came as a result of intense study of the holy scriptures is a lesson in itself. Answers are found while searching the scriptures because inspiration comes from studying the Lord’s own words. They are an unfailing source of light and inspiration.

With his many responsibilities in guiding the Church and rearing a family, it was difficult for the Prophet to find the time required to make a Bible translation; yet the importance of the work did not allow for unwarranted delays. No one else could make the translation, but there were others who could help him with his temporal needs. Consequently, we read the following from a revelation given in February 1831 in which the Lord said to the members of the Church:

“And if ye desire the glories of the kingdom, appoint ye my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and uphold him before me by the prayer of faith.

“And again, I say unto you, that if ye desire the mysteries of the kingdom, provide for him food and raiment, and whatsoever thing he needeth to accomplish the work wherewith I have commanded him.” (D&C 43:12–13.)

At the time this revelation was received, the Prophet was daily pursuing the translation of the Bible. The revelation is more meaningful when read with that understanding. Thus, the message is that the “glories” and “mysteries of the kingdom” would be forthcoming if the members would provide food, clothing, and “whatsoever thing” the Prophet needed to accomplish the work to which he had been called—namely, at that time, the translation of the Bible.

A few months later, on 11 October 1831, the Prophet recorded in his journal:

“A conference was held at Brother [John] Johnson’s where I was living [Hiram, Ohio]. … A committee of six was appointed to instruct the several branches of the Church. Elders David Whitmer and Reynolds Cahoon were appointed as two of the said committee; with the further duty on their mission of setting forth the condition of Brothers Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, that they might obtain means to continue the translation.” (History of the Church, 1:219.)

In plainer terms, this meant that the Prophet and his scribe were without means and would have to lay aside the translation in order to labor for the necessities of life. The journal of Reynolds Cahoon mentions this appointment under the date of 9 November 1831 in these words: “Started for hiram to fulfill my mission to the churches which was given to Br. David and myself to obtain mony or property for Brs Joseph and others to finish the translation.” (Journal of Reynolds Cahoon, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Two weeks later, on 25 October 1831, at another conference of the Church in Hiram, the Prophet again dwelt upon the need for temporal aid to enable him to do his work, specifically mentioning the translation of the scriptures. The minutes of the meeting include the following:

“Brother Joseph Smith, Jr. said … that the promise of God was that the greatest blessings which God had to bestow should be given to those who contributed to the support of his family while he was translating the fulness of the Scriptures … that God had often sealed up the heavens because of covetousness in the Church … and except the Church receive the fulness of the Scriptures that they would yet fail.” (Far West Report, p. 16, quoted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, p. 9.)

These sources say at least this much: (1) the Lord was interested in the translation; (2) through it, information of significance to the Church would be obtained; (3) Joseph Smith and his scribes would need temporal aid to sustain their families during the time needed to complete the translation; (4) efforts to obtain help had begun; and (5) glorious spiritual rewards would be given to those who assisted.

The translation was begun with the Old Testament. About ten months later the Lord instructed Joseph Smith to make a translation of the New Testament also, and promised him that in doing so he would learn many great things. (See D&C 45:60–62.) Until this time the Prophet had translated from Genesis only, but the manuscript of the JST shows that in obedience to this command he began translating the New Testament on 8 March 1831, just one day after being instructed to do so. The promptness of the Prophet in responding to the commandment to translate the New Testament manifests his regard for the work he was engaged in and his desire to do what the Lord expected of him. Through this work great things would be revealed to him and through him be made known to the Church.

Sidney Rigdon

Late in 1831, with Sidney Rigdon acting as scribe, the work of translating the Bible was resumed with great earnestness.

From March 1831 until February 1833, the Prophet and his scribes continued to work through the New Testament, making hundreds of corrections and additions, and a few deletions. On 10 January 1832, the Lord encouraged the Brethren to continue the translation “until it be finished.” (D&C 73:3–4.)

Although there were many interruptions, the work progressed, and on 2 February 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio, the Prophet recorded in his journal: “I completed the translation and review of the New Testament on the 2nd of February, 1833, and sealed it up, no more to be opened till it arrived in Zion.” (History of the Church, 1:324.) “Zion” meant Independence, Missouri, where William W. Phelps had established the Church printing press. In April 1833, an inquiry was received from Brother Phelps as to whether he should print the new translation in the monthly issues of The Evening and the Morning Star. The Prophet’s reply, dated 21 April 1833, reads:

“It is not the will of the Lord to print any of the new Translation in the Star; but when it is published, it will all go to the world together, in a volume by itself; and the New Testament and the Book of Mormon will be printed together.” (History of the Church, 1:341.)

Having completed the New Testament, the Brethren then returned to the book of Genesis and continued with the translation of the Old Testament. On 8 March 1833, the Lord spoke to them about other duties that needed to be taken care of, but not until after they had “finished the translation of the prophets.” (D&C 90:13.)

Then on 6 May 1833, at Kirtland, Ohio, the Lord counseled the Prophet, “It is my will that you should hasten to translate my scriptures.” (D&C 93:53.) On the same day another revelation was received in which the Lord gave instruction concerning a printing house to be built:

“And again, verily I say unto you, the second lot on the south shall be dedicated unto me for the building of a house unto me, for the work of the printing of the translation of my scriptures.” (D&C 94:10.)

These revelations suggest some urgency about completing the work and getting it printed.

On 25 June 1833, the Prophet wrote again to Brother Phelps in Missouri: “In regard to the printing of the New Translation: It cannot be done until we can attend to it ourselves, and this we will do as soon as the Lord permits.” (History of the Church, 1:365.)

A week later, on 2 July 1833, in a letter to the brethren in Zion, the Prophet wrote that “we are exceedingly fatigued, owing to a great press of business. We this day finished the translating of the Scriptures, for which we returned gratitude to our Heavenly Father.” (History of the Church, 1:368.) The words “Finished on the 2nd day of July 1833” also occur in bold handwriting on the JST manuscript at the conclusion of the book of Malachi.

Photo of last page of Malachi

The words “Finished on the 2nd day of July 1833” occur in bold handwriting on the JST manuscript at the conclusion of Malachi. “We returned gratitude to our Heavenly Father,” recorded the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Although the Prophet states that the translation activity was “finished” on 2 July 1833, the manuscript was not ready to be given to a printer. During the remaining eleven years of his life he continued to revise and add to the text and to make other editorial refinements to prepare the document for printing.

In August 1833 the First Presidency in Kirtland, Ohio, sent copies of three revelations (including Doctrine and Covenants 94 referred to above) to Bishop Edward Partridge in Independence, Missouri, with the following note: “You will see by these revelations that we have to print the new translation here at kirtland for which we will prepare as soon as possible.” (Joseph Smith, Jr., Sidney Rigdon, and F. G. Williams to Edward Partridge, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

As a new year dawned in January 1834, the Church was beset by persecution and violence, both in Ohio and Missouri. On the evening of January 11, a group of brethren met in a prayer meeting with the Prophet to ask the Lord for help and protection. Their requests were itemized, and the fifth request read: “That the Lord would protect our printing press from the hands of evil men, … that we may print His scriptures.” (History of the Church, 2:3.) Such a plea had special meaning relative to the press in Ohio, for the W. W. Phelps printing press in Independence had been destroyed by a mob just six months earlier, on 20 July 1833.

On 23 April 1834, the Lord again spoke to the Prophet about printing the new translation: “And for this purpose I have commanded you to organize yourselves, even to print my words, the fulness of my scriptures, the revelations which I have given unto you.” (D&C 104:58.) Although more than the new Bible translation is involved in the scope of this revelation, the new translation is included.

Earlier plans did not permit the JST to be published piecemeal, yet portions of the translation of Genesis had already been published in The Evening and the Morning Star in August 1832 and in March and April 1833. Then, in July 1833, the Star announced: “At no very distant period, we shall print the book of Mormon and the [New] Testament, and bind them in one volume.” However, hopes for this were postponed when the printing press in Independence was destroyed the same month.

As the years passed, the Prophet did not lose interest in publishing the JST, although he was greatly hampered by persecution, the administrative duties of the Church, the lack of financial and material means, and the burden of moving the Church from Ohio to Missouri and then to Illinois. During this time he also came into possession of some Egyptian papyri containing the writings of Abraham, and he was anxious to translate that record.

On 18 June 1840 in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Prophet presented the high council with a lengthy memorial. He lamented that he had to be concerned so much with the “temporalities” of the Church and explained that it was a duty that he owed to God and to the Church to give his attention more particularly to spiritual things. He requested that the Church build him an office in which he could “attend to the affairs of the Church without distraction, … [for] the time has now come, when he should devote himself exclusively to those things which relate to the spiritualities of the Church, and commence the work of translating the Egyptian records, [and] the Bible.” The Prophet reminded the high council that he had “no means of support whatever” and requested that “some one might be appointed to see that all his necessary wants may be provided for.” (History of the Church, 4:137.)

The plea fell on receptive ears, and in July of that year the First Presidency and high council appointed two brethren to go throughout the Church to obtain money for the publication of various books, including the JST, or as they called it, the “new translation of the scriptures.” An extract from an epistle by the First Presidency, July 1840, states:

“To all whom it may concern:—This is to certify that Elders Samuel Bent and George W. Harris are authorized agents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, being appointed by the First Presidency and High Council of said Church to visit the branches of the Church … to obtain donations and subscriptions for the purpose of printing the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, hymn-books, the new translation of the scriptures. … We do hope the Saints will do all in their power to effect the object proposed. [signed] Joseph Smith, Jun., President.” (History of the Church, 4:164.)

A few days later in Nauvoo an editorial appeared in the Times and Seasons, the official Church periodical, bearing the headline “BOOKS!!!” The editorial reiterated the call of Elders Bent and Harris and stated, among other things, that “the authorities of the church” were taking definite steps to make the scriptures available to the members of the Church, including “also the necessity of Publishing the new translation of the scriptures, which has so long been desired by the Saints.” (Times and Seasons, vol. 1, no. 9, pp. 139–40.)

The labors of Elders Bent and Harris are illustrated in several pages they prepared, showing a record of money collected in their assignment. The document, located in the archives of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, is prefaced with these words: “An account of money received (of subscribers for the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Hymn Books, & the new Translation of the scriptures)—by Sam’l Bent & G. W. Harris agents for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to aid in printing the above named Books.” (Whitney Collection, box 3, folder 7.)

Then follows a list of fifty names, places, dates, and amounts donated. The total recorded on this list is $207.25, the largest single entry being twenty-five dollars and the smallest twenty-five cents. Most donations were for three to five dollars. The dates are all in July and August 1840, and the major areas where collections were made were Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. One receipt reads: “Brown Co., Ill., August 14, 1840. Received of Stephen Lity, & Samuel Bickmore and Wm Bickmore nine dollars by note as a subscription to aid in printing the Book of Mormon and new translation and hymn Book. Wm Bosley, agent for Geo. W. Harris of the Church of Latter day Saints.”

Another “Epistle of the First Presidency to the Saints Scattered Abroad” was sent out on or about 1 September 1840 and contained an appeal to the members to contribute financially to the building up of the kingdom. Particularly mentioned was “the printing and circulation of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, hymn-book, and the new translation of the Scriptures.” (History of the Church, 4:187; also Times and Seasons, vol. 1, no. 12, Oct. 1840, p. 179.)

These epistles make it clear that the Church leaders intended to publish the JST along with the other scriptures and a hymnbook, but in order for it to happen the Saints would have to make a financial contribution.

On 19 January 1841, in counsel to William Law, the Lord spoke again about publishing the JST: “If he will do my will let him from henceforth hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph, … and publish the new translation of my holy word unto the inhabitants of the earth.” (D&C 124:89.)

That William Law did not “hearken to the counsel” is shown in the following excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Nauvoo City Council containing a charge against him: “Daniel Carn was sworn: Said, ‘I told Brother Norton that certain men had been counseled by the Prophet to invest their means in publishing the new translation of the Bible; and they instead of obeying that counsel, had used their property for the purpose of building a steam-mill and raising a hundred acres of hemp; and the Lord had not blessed them in the business, but sunk their hemp in the Mississippi River.’” (History of the Church, 6:164–65.)

On 15 January 1842, the Times and Seasons contained a notice that the “Trustee” [Joseph Smith] needed time to arrange the scriptures, including the “New Translation of the Bible … for the press.” Therefore, the recorder’s office would be open only one day a week. (Vol. 3, no. 6, p. 667.)

In February 1842, the Council of the Twelve placed a notice in the Times and Seasons, over the signature of President Brigham Young. The entire document dwelt upon the financial straits of the Church and the need for assistance from the Saints, especially in the building of a temple and loosing the Prophet’s hands from temporal bondage so that various works could be done, “such as the new translation of the bible, and the record of Father Abraham [can be] published to the world.” (Vol. 3, no. 9, March 1842, p. 715.)

Eight months later an announcement was made in the Times and Seasons that the Book of Mormon and the hymnbook had been republished, but “the new translation of the bible, and the book of Doctrine and Covenants are entirely dependent on the liberality of the well-disposed for the cause of our Redeemer.” (Vol. 3, no. 24, 15 October 1842, p. 958.) The Brethren had been successful in reprinting the Book of Mormon and the hymnbook, but more time and money were needed before the Doctrine and Covenants and the JST could go to press. Since all except the JST had been published before, less time would be required to arrange them for republication than to prepare the JST for its first appearance in print. That may be the reason the other books were ready first.

On 1 March 1843 at Nauvoo, the Council of the Twelve issued another epistle to the Saints requesting financial and material aid for the Prophet and his family to enable him to find the time to bring forth the spiritual things of the Church. Particularly mentioned are the “revelations, translation, and history.” Although the “translation” is not identified, it is quickly discernible that it has reference to the Bible, since the record of Abraham had already been published a year earlier in 1842 in the Times and Seasons. The epistle is extremely interesting and illustrates not only the meager financial situation of the Prophet, but also the determination of the leading Brethren to put the scriptures, including the JST, into the hands of the membership of the Church. The entire epistle follows:

“BELOVED BRETHREN:—As our beloved President Joseph Smith is now relieved from his bondage and his business, temporarily, and his property, too, he has but one thing to hinder his devoting his time to the spiritual interests of the Church, to the bringing forth of the revelations, translation, and history. And what is that? He has not provision for himself and family, and is obliged to spend his time in providing therefor. His family is large and his company great, and it requires much to furnish his table. And now, brethren, we call on you for immediate relief in this matter; and we invite you to bring our President as many loads of wheat, corn, beef, pork, lard, tallow, eggs, poultry, venison, and everything eatable at your command, (not excepting unfrozen potatoes and vegetables, as soon as the weather will admit,) flour, etc., and thus give him the privilege of attending to your spiritual interest.

“The measure you mete shall be measured to you again. If you give liberally to your President in temporal things, God will return to you liberally in spiritual and temporal things too. One or two good new milch cows are much needed also.

“Brethren, will you do your work, and let the President do his for you before God? We wish an immediate answer by loaded teams or letter.

“Your brethren in Christ, in behalf of the quorum, brigham young, President

Willard Richards, Clerk

“P.S. Brethren, we are not unmindful of the favors our President has received from you in former days. But a man will not cease to be hungry this year because he ate last year.” (History of the Church, 5:293.)

The epistle says nothing about the Book of Mormon or the hymnbook, since these had recently been republished. Attention was now centered on the “revelations” (Doctrine and Covenants) and the JST.

A year later in June 1844, the Prophet lay dead, felled by assassins’ bullets, and the JST was not yet published. The Doctrine and Covenants was nearly ready for a republication at the time of his death and came forth from the press in September 1844. The JST would probably have been next, but the Prophet had been unable to get it published. He worked diligently on it during the closing years of his life when time would permit. Perhaps if he had not been forced to leave the “spiritualities” of the Church so often to attend to the “temporalities,” he would have been able to see the translation of the Bible through to publication as he had hoped to do.

There has been an assumption that the JST was deliberately not published because it was grossly unfinished. That assumption is not based on all of the facts. The epistles of the First Presidency and of the Twelve as published in the History of the Church and the Times and Seasons, some of which are cited in this article, lead to the unmistakable conclusion that the intention was to publish. The major reason for failure to publish appears to have been an inadequate response from the Saints in providing temporal assistance. The basic conclusion seems to be that the work of translation was acceptable as far as the Lord required it of the Prophet at that time, but the manuscript was not fully prepared for the press.

Perhaps one reason for the feeling about the “unfinished” nature of the JST has been a statement by President George Q. Cannon in his Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet: “We have heard President Brigham Young state that the Prophet before his death had spoken to him about going through the translation of the scriptures again and perfecting it upon points of doctrine which the Lord had restrained him from giving in plainness and fulness at the time of which we write [2 February 1833].” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1958, p. 148.)

George Q. Cannon

A statement by George Q. Cannon indicates that between 1833 and 1844 the Prophet Joseph Smith made necessary revisions in his translation.

We note, however, that what is referred to is the nature of the translation as it existed in 1833. During the eleven years of his life after that time, the Prophet apparently did much of what he desired to do with the JST. The original manuscript tends to bear this out, since it shows an original draft and a later more complete revision, clarified in language and thought, and versed and punctuated. That the work was not perfected is clear. But it is equally clear that it was nearer the stage necessary for publication than casual observers have realized. We must also recognize that although the manuscript was ready for publication, this does not prevent more information from being added when the Lord desires to reveal it.

Those familiar with the JST know that it contains important truths not available elsewhere. The desire of the early Brethren was to make these truths available by publication, but they were not able to accomplish it during the Prophet’s lifetime. After Joseph Smith’s death, the manuscript was retained by his widow, Emma Smith, and later given to their son Joseph Smith III. He published the JST in book form and copyrighted it through the RLDS Church. However, because of this, many in the LDS Church have been reluctant to use it.

Present Church leaders have expended much effort to make the translation available to the members. The new LDS edition of the Bible contains hundreds of doctrinally significant passages from the JST in the footnotes and reference section. How beneficial it would have been to the Church and to the world through the past 138 years if the Prophet Joseph Smith had been able to provide an official publication in his day! How we might wish that those early Saints had been able to respond fully to the opportunity that was theirs to provide the needed financial assistance! They would have brought blessings not only to themselves, but to millions of lives for generations. After all these years, the time is right and the official scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now offer much light and truth from the Joseph Smith Translation.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

[photo] With the purposes of instructing the Church and obtaining means to continue his translation, the Prophet Joseph Smith conducted a conference in the John Johnson home in 1831.

[photo] Ten months after the translation of the Old Testament started, the Lord revealed that the New Testament should also be translated and that many great things would be learned. (Courtesy, RLDS Library and Archives, Independence, MO.)

[photo] In the early 1840s, President Brigham Young urged the Saints to help provide for the Prophet Joseph Smith so he could continue the translation.

Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Instruction at Brigham Young University, serves as patriarch in the Pleasant Grove Utah Stake.