After he received the gold plates, Joseph Smith’s life was threatened and many attempts were made to steal the plates. Joseph and Emma, his wife, moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Martin Harris, a friend from Palmyra, New York, came to visit.
Mr. Harris … returned again to my house about the 12th of April, 1828, and commenced writing for me while I translated from the plates, which we continued until the 14th of June following, by which time he had written one hundred and sixteen pages of manuscript. … Mr. Harris … began to importune (beg) me to [let] him … carry the writings home and show them; and desired of me that I would inquire of the Lord … if he might not do so. I did inquire, and the answer was that he must not. However, he was not satisfied with this answer, and desired that I should inquire again. I did so, and the answer was as before. Still he … insisted that I should inquire once more. … Permission was granted … on certain conditions; which were, that he show them only to his brother, Preserved Harris, his own wife, his father and his mother, and a Mrs. Cobb, a sister to his wife. In accordance with this last answer, I required of him that he should bind himself in a covenant to me … that he would not do otherwise than had been directed. … He bound himself as I required of him, took the writings, and went his way.
Martin Harris had been gone for three weeks, and Joseph had heard nothing from him. Joseph took a stagecoach, then walked the last twenty miles in the dark to his parents’ home in Manchester, near Palmyra. He immediately sent for Martin. Several hours later, Martin arrived and explained that the manuscript pages had been lost.
Notwithstanding … the great restrictions which [Martin Harris] had been laid under, and the solemnity [seriousness] of the covenant which he had made with me, he did show [the manuscript pages] to others, and by stratagem they got them away from him, and they never have been recovered unto this day.
I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession.
I returned immediately home. Soon after my arrival, I commenced humbling myself in mighty prayer before the Lord … that if possible I might obtain mercy at his hands and be forgiven of all that I had done contrary to his will.
Both the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken from me … ; but in a few days they were returned to me, … and the Lord said thus unto me:
“Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings … into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.
“And you also lost your gift [of translation] at the same time, and your mind became darkened.
“Nevertheless, it is now restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun.” (D&C 10:1–3.)
The Lord told Joseph Smith that the people who stole the manuscript planned to change some of the words. If Joseph translated the same plates again, the thieves would show the pages they had altered and say that Joseph wasn’t a prophet because the two translations weren’t identical. The Lord long ago commanded the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi to prepare a second set of plates covering the same things, and He told Joseph to translate this set, instead.
(See History of the Church, vol. 1, pages 18–24; The History of Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, pages 128, 133.)