“Book of Mormon Translation,” Church History Topics
“Book of Mormon Translation”
Joseph Smith translated an ancient text “by the gift and power of God” to produce the Book of Mormon. His early work on the translation, with Emma Smith and Martin Harris serving as the main scribes, was lost in 1828. Almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June 1829 with Oliver Cowdery as the scribe. Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.
The manuscript Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives. This manuscript corroborates Joseph’s statements that he dictated the text from another language within a short time frame. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript. In addition, some grammatical constructions more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting the base language of the translation was not English.1
Joseph and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates. The other instrument, which Joseph discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As he grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.2
Scribes and others who observed the translation left accounts giving insight into the process. Some accounts indicate Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the interpreters or the seer stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and spoke aloud the English words inspired by the instrument. The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”3
The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma believed the text of the Book of Mormon surpassed her husband’s writing abilities. Oliver Cowdery testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.”4
Questions raised during the translation process led to many of the earliest revelations now recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants and to significant events like the restoration of the priesthood. The translation and publication of the Book of Mormon immediately preceded the organization of the Church in the spring of 1830.
Related Topics: Seer Stones, Printing and Publishing the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris’s Consultations with Scholars, Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Book of Abraham Translation, Joseph Smith Jr., Witnesses of the Book of Mormon