Translating The Book of Mormon

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This is an excerpt from The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Vol. 1: June 1828-July 1831.

No JS documents created before the fall of 1827 have survived. JS’s earlier visionary experiences and many events related to his obtaining the gold plates are recorded only in later documents. In his 1832 history, JS wrote his earliest known account of his first encounter with heavenly beings, an event later known as the “First Vision.” The history then described the visit of an angel in September 1823:

“When I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins and he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by th[e] commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them.”

JS further declared that the angel “appeared unto me three times in one night and once on the next day and then I immediately went to the place and found where the plates was deposited as the angel of the Lord had commanded me.”

The 1832 history recorded that JS was initially unable to retrieve the gold plates from their hiding place. The angel again appeared, this time chastising him because he “had been tempted of the advisary and saught the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandme[n]t that [he] should have an eye single to the Glory of God.” Not until 1827 was he able to take possession of the plates. In the interim, JS married Emma Hale on 18 January 1827. Then, he explained, “on the 22d day of Sept of this same year I obtained the plat[e]s.”

Some of the earliest known surviving JS documents are related to his efforts to translate the plates. In late 1827 he and Emma moved from Manchester, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, in part to avoid harassment stemming from his claim to possess the plates. There they lived in a house owned by Emma’s parents; they later bought the residence and the surrounding thirteen and a half acres. That winter JS copied some of the characters inscribed on the plates, and in February 1828 Martin Harris, an early supporter of JS, took the copied characters to at least three men in New York who had backgrounds in ancient languages. Harris reported that one of the scholars, Charles Anthon of Columbia College in New York City, provided a certificate verifying “to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct.”

During the winter of 1827–1828, JS translated the plates as Emma and her brother Reuben Hale served as scribes. Later that spring Martin Harris became JS’s principal scribe. After Harris returned to Harmony about 12 April 1828 to serve as JS’s scribe, the pace of translation improved considerably, and by 14 June JS and Harris had completed what JS described in the Book of Mormon preface as the “Book of Lehi.”

JS and Harris then stopped their translation, probably because Emma was due to give birth. About this same time, Harris pleaded with JS to allow him to take the manuscript back to Palmyra, New York, that “he might convince them [his family and friends] of the truth.” In response, JS twice gave the “word of the Lord” to Harris that “he must not take them.” Nevertheless, as Smith explained in 1832, “the third time . . . the Lord said unto me let him go with them only he shall covenant with me that he will not shew them to only but four persons.”

Tragedy struck the Smith household soon afterward. On 15 June Emma gave birth to an infant who was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. By early July 1828, when Harris had not yet returned with the pages of the Book of Mormon translation, JS traveled to Manchester and found that Harris had shown the manuscript to more than the promised few and that the manuscript had been lost or stolen. Devastated by this news, JS returned to Harmony, where he soon obtained a revelation. This, the earliest written JS revelation that has survived, called Harris “a wicked man” and condemned JS for having insistently importuned regarding the manuscript.

In consequence, the plates and the interpreters were temporarily taken from JS, although as his later history explained, “in a few days they were returned to me.” The history continued, “I did not however go immediately to translating, but went to laboring with my hands upon a small farm which I had purchased of my wife’s father, in order to provide for my family.” Lucy Mack Smith recalled that in September 1828, she and Joseph Smith Sr. traveled to Harmony. Soon after their return to Manchester, a young schoolteacher named Oliver Cowdery, who later became JS’s primary scribe, began boarding at their house.

Meanwhile, in Harmony, JS and Emma were struggling financially. JS traveled to nearby Colesville, New York, to visit Joseph Knight Sr., a family friend. After JS discussed his situation and his lack of progress with the translation and requested financial help, Knight provided both money and provisions. Soon after, in January 1829, Joseph Smith Sr. and his son Samuel stopped at Knight’s house on their way to visit JS and Emma. Knight carried the two by sleigh the rest of the way to Harmony. He wrote, “We conversed about many things. in the morning I gave the old man a half a Dollar and Joseph a little money to Buoy paper to translate[,] I having But little with me.” During the visit, JS dictated a revelation for his father declaring that “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work.”

Around late February 1829, after the departure of his father, JS resumed translation of the plates, with Emma and his brother Samuel acting as scribes. It is unknown how many pages they completed. About this time, Harris journeyed to Harmony to request a view of the gold plates, and JS dictated a revelation promising Harris that if he repented he would be allowed to view the plates and would be charged to testify of them. The revelation also instructed JS that “when thou hast translated a few more pages . . . then shalt thou stop for a season” until God provided means for the translation to move forward.

(Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow, The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, vol. 1: July 1828–June 1831 [Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013], 3–5).

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