The Unlikely Convert: Daniel Webster Jones

An orphan boy from Missouri grew to open the way for the Church in Mexico and begin the great work of translating the Book of Mormon into Spanish.

Orphaned at the age of eleven, Daniel Webster Jones traveled from his home in Missouri to the western United States in 1847 with a company of volunteer soldiers who went to fight in the U.S.-Mexican War. “Gambling, swearing, fighting, and other rough conduct” were part of his every day activity he later wrote in his autobiography, Forty Years among the Indians, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor Office.) So Daniel Webster Jones in his early years seemed an unlikely person to join the Church, spend forty years proselyting among the American Indians, and with little formal training in Spanish help make the first Spanish translation from the Book of Mormon. As it happened, he was a good person to do all of these things.

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 volunteer army, he “took part in many ways in the wild, reckless life that was common in the army;” but still would not partake of “strong drink and other worse vices that I could see were destroying the lives of my friends.”

Because of his life-style, he says, “I felt condemned, and often asked God in all seriousness 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 people living in his time were entitled to a prophet too; that it was not right “to leave them without anything but the Bible.”

He left Mexico in 1850 with a large trading company traveling to Salt Lake City. On the way, he was badly wounded by a gun accident, but managed to survive until his companions got him to the Latter-day Saint settlements near Provo, south of Salt Lake City.

In that day, the Saints were often ridiculed by travelers, but when he overheard some of his friends reading the Doctrine and Covenants and making fun of it, he thought of his prayer asking for modern revelation. He left his companions, moved in with a Latter-day Saint family, and began investigating the gospel as he recovered from his injury. “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 deliberate liars and deceivers. I was determined, if possible, not to be fooled, therefore I commenced to watch very closely.” 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?” When he decided that he could be, he spoke to Isaac Morley, who had been one of the first converts to the Church in Ohio.

It was 27 January 1851, wintertime, and Brother Morley “was just going out to get 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 thick ice formed over the nearby lake—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 storms, 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 to translate.”

Although both spoke Spanish, Daniel “often thought how good it would be to have a Spanish-speaking native to help us.” A few months later, Brother Brizzee met a stranger, Spanish-speaking 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 help 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 to pay for the printing of 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 suggested this test: they would select a book, Brother Trejo would translate a passage into Spanish, Daniel would take the Spanish translation and, without looking at the original book, translate the text back into English. President Young accepted the suggestion, and when the Brethren received a copy of Daniel’s translation from the Spanish, 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.’”

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

“When the printing started, Brother Brigham told me that he would hold me responsible for its correctness. This worried me so much that I asked the Lord to in some way show me any mistakes [as we proofread the printed sheets].

“Brother Trejo’s manuscript was written in modern language 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 thread being pulled smoothly out. When there was a mistake, 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 was there that I would show it to my companion and ask him to correct it. When this was done we continued on until the same thing happened again.”

In September 1875 Daniel left for Mexico 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.”

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 Church 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. Apart from 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 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.

The work begun in Mexico by a faithful, obedient servant of the Lord, Daniel Webster Jones, Missouri orphan, was to become a major factor in the lives of thousands of Spanish-speaking peoples around the world.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown