A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon


A New Prophet and a New Scripture:

On precisely the day that marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall, seventeen-year-old Joseph Smith learned of the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni. It is appropriate that the book, destined to be the restored church’s greatest missionary and a primary sign of the gathering of Israel, would first be made known on the day that officially begins the harvest season.

On that day, 21 September 1823, Moroni showed to Joseph Smith in vision the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations and gave a brief sketch of their origin, culture, and history. He told the youthful prophet about a box buried in a hill, containing engravings on plates of gold written by ancient American prophets that gave an account of those civilizations. The angel also informed Joseph Smith of two stones fastened to a breastplate, which God had prepared to help translate the book. (See JS—H 1:27–47.) 1

In his 1835 account of the experience, the Prophet writes that these stones, known as Urim and Thummim, would assist him in translating the plates because God would give him the power to use the stones. Joseph Smith learned that if he kept the commandments of God, he would be an instrument in God’s hand in bringing forth the book. 2

Oliver Cowdery tells us that the Prophet was warned that bringing the book to light “must be done with an eye single to the glory of God” or the adversary would prevent him from succeeding. He then relates that, while the angel was describing where the record lay hidden, the vision of Joseph Smith’s mind was opened: “He was permitted to view [the place] critically” and could thus “follow the direction of the vision, afterward,” to the exact spot where they were buried. 3

The following day at the Hill Cumorah, after locating the stone under which the gold plates lay, the young man removed the earth around the stone, obtained a lever, and raised the stone up. For the first time, he beheld the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. Joseph Smith’s earliest account of these events simply relates that he made three unsuccessful attempts to obtain the record, but Oliver Cowdery provides greater detail concerning these attempts.

Apparently the thought of the gold had severely tempted the youth, and the actual sight of the plates moved Joseph to thoughts of riches. In his first attempt to take possession of the record, Joseph Smith experienced a shock from an unseen power that physically weakened him. An even stronger shock accompanied the second attempt. With increased exertion, young Joseph tried a third time, unsuccessfully, and was left far weaker than before. He then cried out, “Why can I not obtain this book?” From a short distance away, he heard Moroni’s voice say, “Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord.” 4

Lucy Smith and Joseph Knight provide further details about the Prophet’s first visit to Cumorah. 5 Mother Smith writes that her son expected to receive the plates and hide them until the proper time for translation. She relates that he actually took the plates up, then laid them down, thinking that the box might contain something valuable and ought to be covered. When he turned back from looking into the box, the plates were gone. 6

Joseph Knight, in a manuscript written some time between 1833 and 1847, relates in his personalized style that the Prophet reopened the box and found the plates resting in it. When he tried to lift them out, he found he couldn’t budge them. At that point he cried out, “Why Cant I stur [stir] this Book?” He was answered, “You have not Done rite; you should have took the Book and gone right away. You cant have it now.” 7 It was probably in this incident that Joseph reached forth his hand to touch the plates and was hurled back upon the ground, as his mother describes. 8

In the Prophet’s 1838 account, Joseph says that the messenger informed him that “the time for bringing [the plates] forth had not yet arrived, neither would it, until four years from that time.” He was instructed to return to the place in precisely one year, when he would again meet the messenger. (JS—H 1:53.) Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, informs us that Joseph was told he could not obtain the plates “until he had learned to keep the commandments of God—not only till he was willing but able to do it.” 9

Oliver Cowdery adds that a manifestation regarding the forces of evil accompanied the angel’s instructions. When the darkness dissipated from his mind, he was filled with the Holy Ghost, and the heavens were opened. Moroni then said, “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one.” Moreover, the angel stated that the plates were sealed by the power of faith, and their true value was the knowledge they contained. The angel then gave instructions regarding the process of translation. 10

That evening, September 22, the Prophet related the experiences of the past twenty-four hours to his family. Alvin observed that Joseph was terribly tired. He suggested that they all retire and that the next evening their mother might prepare an early supper to allow more time to listen to Joseph’s account. The following evening, before the discussion, Joseph Smith warned his family that evil men would hate them and seek their lives because of what had happened to him. They then spent the evening discussing Joseph’s recent experiences. With one accord, they believed and received his account joyfully. 11

Unfortunately, we know little of the September 1824, 1825, and 1826 interviews with Moroni. The Prophet said about his meetings with the angel that “at each time I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.” (JS—H 1:54.)

Meanwhile, opposition to the Smith family was growing, as Joseph had warned. The Smiths lost their home. Mr. Stoddard, the carpenter on their house, tried to cheat the Smiths out of their farm, and they ended up selling it and their home to Mr. Durfee to keep it out of Stoddard’s hands. 12 On another occasion, Joseph Smith was brought to trial on a misdemeanor charge. The accounts of and references to the trial disagree on almost everything, including the verdict. One thing they agree on is the subject—treasure hunting. Rumors about Joseph Smith’s ability to find treasure as a result of his experience with the gold plates were evidently rife, even though Joseph himself references in his writings to only one incident in which he was involved in treasure hunting—when Josiah Stowell hired him and his father at fourteen dollars a month to help find a mine. Joseph says that the search was fruitless and that he finally persuaded Mr. Stowell to stop looking. 13

Sometime in early 1827, shortly after Joseph Smith had married Emma Hale, the Prophet left for Manchester on business. Lucy Smith recalls that he came home late that night exhausted, three hours later than expected. He told his father that the angel Moroni had appeared to him, saying that he “had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that [he] must be up and doing and set [himself] about the things which God had commanded.” 14

As the night of 22 September 1827 approached, Joseph Smith and his family had much to be anxious about. According to Joseph Knight, who was a close friend of the family and who happened to be visiting the Smiths at the time, Moroni had told the Prophet that if he did not prepare himself and make himself worthy to receive the plates that year, he would never have them. 15 Furthermore, members of the community knew that Joseph Smith went to Cumorah every year on the same day, and the Prophet was fearful that Samuel Lawrence, a local resident who professed seership, might spend the night on the hill in an attempt to obtain the plates for himself. 16

On the twenty-first, Joseph Smith sent his father to scout the neighborhood to see if Samuel was, in fact, planning to interfere with the upcoming visit with Moroni. When night came, Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell, who had come with Mr. Knight on the visit, retired to bed. Joseph Smith, Sr., returned and reported that everything was fine. He, too, retired for the night. Lucy kept busy painting oilcloth. About midnight, Joseph Smith, who was fully dressed, asked his mother if she had a chest with a lock and key. She knew immediately what he wanted it for and was greatly alarmed that they did not have one. Joseph perceived her anxiety and said, “Never mind, I can do very well for the present without it—be calm—all is right.” 17

Shortly after, Emma, in her bonnet and riding dress, left with her husband, who borrowed a horse and wagon from Mr. Knight. The two arrived at Cumorah, and the 21-year-old prophet climbed to the meeting place, leaving Emma to pray. 18 There he met Moroni, who delivered the plates into his charge with the promise that if Joseph strove to preserve the plates until Moroni called for them, they would be protected. (JS—H 1:59.)

Wrapping the plates in his coat, Joseph Smith took them into the forest, where he hid them in a log he had hollowed out for the purpose, covering the hole with pieces of bark. The young couple then returned to the farm, where an anxious family and the two visitors waited. It was already after breakfast. Joseph Knight says that the Prophet told them, “It is ten times better than I expected,” and described the length, width, and thickness of the plates. He was especially pleased with the Urim and Thummim, saying, “I can see anything, they are marvelous.” 19

Joseph Smith soon learned why Moroni had instructed him to preserve the plates. A few days after the Prophet obtained the record, his father overheard Samuel Lawrence and some neighbors devise plans to take what they called the gold Bible. Emma left to fetch Joseph, who had gone to Macedon to work, and they immediately rode back home. Joseph sent his brother Carlos to Hyrum’s for a chest with a lock, then set off for the plates. He retrieved them from the log, wrapped them in a linen smock, and began the journey home. Lucy Smith writes that he was attacked three times while coming home but struck the men down, dislocating a thumb during the third attack. 20

The Smiths continued to be harassed, and the Prophet had to resort to numerous hiding places. Joseph Smith first placed them in Hyrum’s chest, then, at various times, secreted the plates under the hearth of his father’s home, in a pile of flax in the cooper’s loft, in Father Beman’s Ontario glass box, and in Emma’s red Morocco trunk. 21

However, Joseph Smith’s calling was not merely to preserve the gold plates, but also to translate them. With people in the area around Manchester so intent on stealing the plates, Joseph and Emma decided to move to Harmony to live on her father’s farm. They hoped to have the necessary peace there to accomplish the divine task. Martin Harris gave Joseph $50 to make the move, and Emma’s brother Alva lent them a team and wagon. They left after hiding the record in a barrel of beans in the wagon. Several men detained the travelers but were unsuccessful in finding the plates. 22

In Harmony, the couple moved into a two-room house owned by Jesse, another of Emma’s brothers, about 150 yards from Isaac Hale’s house. The Prophet was ready to begin the translation. On at least six different occasions, Joseph Smith gave brief descriptions of how he translated the Book of Mormon. All six accounts agree that he translated them by the gift and power of God, through the Urim and Thummim. 23

Such a statement does not mean, though, that Joseph Smith did nothing but read to his scribe the English appearing in that instrument. He first began to translate by copying a considerable number of characters off the plates. He then studied them out in his mind and finally, by using the Urim and Thummim and his faith, translated them.

The scriptures indicate that translation involved sight, power, transcription of the characters, the Urim and Thummim or a seerstone, study, and prayer. David Whitmer and Martin Harris testify that if the Prophet made the proper preparation, sentences would appear, which he dictated to his scribe. If the scribe wrote them correctly, the words would disappear, and others would take their place. 24

About two months after Joseph and Emma had moved to Harmony, Martin Harris and Hyrum arrived for a visit. Joseph, with Emma’s help, had carefully copied quite a few characters from the plates and translated some of them. Martin left with the characters and translation for New York to show them to linguists there. His biographer, Rhett James, feels that Martin Harris went east to confront the learned, not because he wanted more proof to alleviate his doubts but because Joseph Smith had requested him to make the journey. To James, Martin Harris was not a doubter but was a believer from the first. 25

On his return, Martin Harris told Joseph Smith that he had presented the characters and translation to two scholars and that their response increased his faith in the Prophet’s work. 26 It was around this time that Martin Harris volunteered to act as Joseph Smith’s scribe.

After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them. 27

By early summer, the Prophet had translated and his scribe had written 116 pages of script on foolscap paper. Martin Harris wanted evidence to take to his wife, Lucy, to convince her that he had not been wasting his time or their money. Perhaps Joseph Smith saw a way to help silence some of his critics. Whatever the reasons, Joseph asked the Lord several times for permission to let Martin Harris take the manuscript pages to Palmyra. What follows is the famous lost-manuscript episode, which has been told and retold by dozens of historians and writers.

Because Martin Harris lost the manuscript, the first part of the published Book of Mormon was actually translated last. Doctrine and Covenants 3 and 10 [D&C 3, D&C 10] were given in relation to the loss, detailing the impact it had on the Lord’s work. Joseph Smith was required to give the interpreters back to the angel Moroni for a time and was not allowed to translate until he received them back later that year, with Emma acting as scribe. 28

On 5 April 1829 Joseph’s brother Samuel Smith arrived in Harmony with Oliver Cowdery. Twenty-year-old Oliver had learned of Joseph and his work while teaching school in Palmyra and boarding with the Smith family. Later he would write that he remembered those days as the sort that would never be forgotten: “To sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven.” 29 The Prophet probably resumed translating with Oliver Cowdery in what is now the book of Mosiah. Oliver Cowdery was so excited with the work that he even desired to try some translating himself. He was unsuccessful, and the Lord tells us why in Doctrine and Covenants 9, [D&C 9] giving us insight into the translation process.

By May, Joseph Smith was working on 3 Nephi and the account of Christ’s ministry among the Nephites. There he read the instructions of the Savior concerning baptism, which led Joseph and Oliver to the Susquehanna River, where they received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist and were baptized.

In June, after the Melchizedek Priesthood had been restored, David Whitmer offered the translator and his scribe free room and board at his parents’ home in Fayette, New York. They accepted; Joseph Smith apparently felt the translation would be easier in an environment of believers. 30 David and John Whitmer also assisted the Prophet as scribes for a time. The first few pages of the translation of 1 Nephi are in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting, followed by several pages of what is probably John Whitmer’s hand.

Evidently, the Prophet was still working on 1 Nephi in June 1829. David Whitmer, in an interview with M. J. Hubble in 1886, remembered that while Joseph Smith was working on the translation that month, he came to the place where it speaks of Jerusalem being a walled city (undoubtedly 1 Ne. 4:4). At that point he stopped until they got a Bible and he was shown that the Holy City was indeed walled. 31 The translation was finished by 1 July 1829.

In late May or early June, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery may have come across the passage in Ether 5 that mentions the principle of witnesses. 32 Later, while working on 2 Nephi 27, [2 Ne. 27] the principle would be reinforced. When the translation was nearly complete, the Prophet learned that David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris would fill the role of witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Smith were visiting at that time. They spent their first evening reading from the completed portion of the manuscript. The following morning, after a devotional, Joseph Smith told Martin Harris that he would have to humble himself that day if he were to look upon the plates.

The Prophet went with Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris into the woods near David Whitmer’s farm. After each prayed twice without success, Martin offered to withdraw. Joseph, David, and Oliver then knelt, and within a few minutes, they saw a light over their heads. An angel appeared with the plates, and, according to David Whitmer, they also saw the breastplate, Lehi’s directors, and the sword of Laban as they lay on a table. The angel told them that God had revealed the plates, that they were translated by the power of God, and that the translation was correct. He commanded them to bear record of what they had seen and heard, then departed. Later Joseph found Martin Harris, and the two men subsequently had essentially the same experience. 33

The Prophet asked Oliver Cowdery to make a complete copy of the original manuscript as a precaution against loss. Even before the translation was finished, Joseph Smith deposited the title page in the office of R. R. Lansing, clerk of New York’s northern district, and obtained a copyright. Then he began searching for a printer. 34

Only three months before Joseph Smith finished the translation of the Book of Mormon, E. B. Grandin began to advertise himself as a book printer. Grandin had purchased a Palmyra newspaper, The Wayne Sentinel, and a bookstore on 13 April 1827 from John Gilbert. Thereafter, Gilbert worked for Grandin and was the person who set the type and printed the Book of Mormon. E. B. Grandin was at first reluctant to publish the book. He agreed after Joseph Smith and Martin Harris pointed out to him that it would appear anyway because another printer, Elihu F. Marshall, had agreed to print the book. 35

John Gilbert, as chief compositor, began his work under rather unusual circumstances. He received the manuscript only through a guard and only in small batches of copy. The copy was then composed and set in galley, and page forms were checked and proofread. Oliver Cowdery and a guard, sometimes Hyrum Smith, withdrew the manuscript each evening and took it home for safekeeping. 36

Even so, Abner Cole, who used the Grandin press in the evenings to publish his newspaper, the Reflector, actually printed the first chapter of 1 Nephi on 2 January 1830. Even though Hyrum Smith pointed out to him that the book was copyrighted, Cole insisted that he would continue to publish the book in his newspaper and did so in the next two issues. About this time, Joseph Smith, who had gone back to Harmony to be with Emma, was summoned, and he and Cole reached an accord through arbitration that Cole would cease to pirate the contents of the Book of Mormon. 37

After working six days a week—and many times eleven hours a day—from fall until spring, the printer finally printed five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon. He was able to announce on 26 March 1830, in the Wayne Sentinel, that the book was now on sale at the E. B. Grandin bookstore. 38

Some of the citizens of Palmyra organized a boycott of the book. They called on E. B. Grandin and told him their decision. They argued that since the Smiths had lost their farm, Grandin would not receive his pay unless the book sold. Reacting to this pressure, Grandin demanded full payment from Joseph Smith. However, it was not until 7 April 1831 that Martin Harris, who had already left a mortgage agreement with Grandin as security on 25 April 1829, liquidated enough of his properties to pay the printing costs. 39

Footstool of the Prophet’s mother

Footstool of the Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and her copy of the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon. (Photography by Jed Clark; Book of Mormon shown courtesy of Buddy Youngreen.)

The Book of Mormon had indeed been brought forth by the gift and power of God. Every step of the way, from its beginnings on the small plates six hundred years before Christ to its appearance in March 1830 as a printed book, that volume of scripture had been protected and then brought forth by the hand of the Lord. Time would soon tell what impact the book would have on those who learned about it.

[photo] Photography by George Edward Anderson

[illustration] “The Angel Moroni Appears to Joseph Smith,” by Tom Lovell

[illustrations] The Book of Mormon itself promises that the Lord would choose a few witnesses to behold the plates and testify of the truth contained therein. (“Joseph Smith Translating,” by Dale Kilbourn; “Joseph Smith and the Eight Witnesses Viewing the Gold Plates,” by Dale Kilbourn.)

[photo] A copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon opened to the title page. A fragment of the traditional copy of characters Joseph Smith transcribed from the gold plates rests on top.

[illustration] After working eleven hours a day six days a week from fall until spring, the printer finally finished five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon. (“Printing the First Book of Mormon,” by Gary E. Smith.)

[illustration] “Joseph Smith,” by William Whittaker

[illustration] “Organization of the Church, April 6, 1830,” by Dale Kilbourn

Kenneth W. Godfrey, a Church Educational System area director, is a Sunday School teacher in the Logan (Utah) Twenty-seventh Ward.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    See also Paul Cheesman, The Keystone of Mormonism: Little Known Truths about the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973), pp. 102, 118; Dean C. Jessee, comp. and ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), pp. 6–7.

  2.   2.

    Cheesman, pp. 116, 123.

  3.   3.

    Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, p. 80.

  4.   4.

    Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, pp. 197–98.

  5.   5.

    Lucy Smith or her interviewers obviously confused details of the Prophet’s first visit to the hill with his second. Alvin Smith is the key here. See Richard L. Anderson, Ensign, Aug. 1987, pp. 61–62.

  6.   6.

    Ibid., pp. 83–84.

  7.   7.

    Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies, 17 (Autumn 1976):31.

  8.   8.

    Lucy Smith, pp. 84–85.

  9.   9.

    Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), p. 81.

  10.   10.

    Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, p. 198.

  11.   11.

    Lucy Smith, p. 91.

  12.   12.

    Ibid., pp. 94–99.

  13.   13.

    Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” BYU Studies, 12 (Winter 1972):223–33; Lucy Smith, pp. 104–5; Elders Journal, July 1838, p. 43.

  14.   14.

    Lucy Smith, pp. 99–101.

  15.   15.

    Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” p. 31.

  16.   16.

    Ibid., p. 32.

  17.   17.

    Lucy Smith, p. 102; Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” pp. 32–33.

  18.   18.

    Martin Harris, Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859, p. 183; Wilford Woodruff Journal, 18 May 1888, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  19.   19.

    Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” p. 33. See also Bruce A. Van Orden, “Joseph Smith’s Developmental Years, 1823–29,” Studies in Scripture: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Robert Millet (Salt Lake City: Randall Book Co., 1985), p. 377; Lucy Smith, pp. 107–8.

  20.   20.

    Lucy Smith, p. 108.

  21.   21.

    See Lucy Smith, pp. 112–13.

  22.   22.

    Bushman, p. 85.

  23.   23.

    JS—H 1:62; D&C 9:4–12; Warren Cowdery, Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-1, in LDS Church Archives, pp. 121–22; Elders Journal, 1 (July 1838):43; Times and Seasons, 3 (May 1842):772; and Times and Seasons, 4 (Nov. 1843):373.

  24.   24.

    David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ—By A Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Richmond, Missouri, 1887), p. 12; “Statement of Martin Harris to Edward Stevenson,” Millennial Star, 44:86–87.

  25.   25.

    Rhett Stephen James, The Man Who Knew (Cache Valley, Utah: Martin Harris Pageant Committee, 1983), pp. 117–19.

  26.   26.

    See JS—H 1:64–65; History of the Church, 1:20.

  27.   27.

    Millennial Star, 44:87.

  28.   28.

    Lucy Smith, pp. 134–35.

  29.   29.

    Messenger and Advocate, 1 (Oct. 1834):14–18.

  30.   30.

    History of the Church, 1:43–44, 48–49, 51.

  31.   31.

    Stanley B. Kimball, “Missouri Mormon Manuscripts: Sources in Selected Societies,” BYU Studies, 14 (Summer 1974): 486.

  32.   32.

    Reverend Diedrich Willers letter, 18 June 1830, published by Michael Quinn in New York History, 54, no. 3 (July 1973):317–33.

  33.   33.

    History of the Church, 1:54–55; Saints Herald, 1 Mar. 1882. For a thorough analysis of the Three Witnesses, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981).

  34.   34.

    The Life of Thurlow Weed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1884), pp. 358–59.

  35.   35.

    History of the Church, 1:58, 71. Larry C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816–1831,” diss., Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1971, pp. 86–87.

  36.   36.

    Gayle Goble Ord, “The Book of Mormon Goes to Press,” Ensign, Dec. 1972, p. 67.

  37.   37.

    O. Dogberry [Abner Cole], The Reflector, 2 Jan.–22 Jan. 1830; Russell R. Rich, “The Dogberry Papers and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies, 10 (Spring 1970):316–19.

  38.   38.

    Ord, p. 69.

  39.   39.

    Richard Howard, “Martin Harris’ March 1830 Commitment to Book of Mormon Publication,” Saints Herald, March 1980, p. 28. See also D&C 19:28.