Book of Mormon Latter-day Saint History

Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” However, it’s unclear precisely what that means.

Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” However, it’s unclear precisely what that means. In this interview, Michael Hubbard MacKay breaks down what we know from the historical record, including Joseph’s work with seer stones, his insistence on using the term translation, and the peculiar purposes of the gold plates during the translation process.

Read the book by Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and Michael Hubbard MacKay, Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon.

Table of contents

What’s the backstory for this book?

Gerrit and I were hired as historian/writers on the Joseph Smith Papers Project in the Spring of 2010. I was coming from a visiting position at the Department of History at BYU and Gerrit had just finished his PhD in history at the University of Colorado. We were both ecstatic about our first academic positions, especially since we were going to the Papers Project.

The book cover for "Let's Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon."
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We both loved history and Joseph Smith. We worked on early Joseph Smith documents right away and cut our teeth in Latter-day Saint Studies on the translation of the Book of Mormon, which led to other important projects with the Church about the production of scripture in Latter-day Saint history.

Joseph insisted on the term translation.

After participating in producing several volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, we both were hired as faculty in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU. There we continued to write about the translation of the Book of Mormon, including a best seller for the Religious Studies Center at BYU, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Publication and Translation of the Book of Mormon. This book is a careful, but approachable, narrative about the translation of the Book of Mormon from a historical perspective.

Knowing the influence and positive impact of this book, Deseret Book approached Gerrit to publish a short book about the translation with the Let’s Talk About series. Gerrit then recruited me to help with the project and it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

Michael Hubbard MacKay talks about the witnesses and translation of the Book of Mormon in this interview with Doctrine and Covenants Central.

Why do we say Joseph “translated” the Book of Mormon?

Joseph Smith and his colleagues also used the word translate to emphasize that the text of the Book of Mormon came from the gold plates. Some might wonder if terms like revelation, vision, or inspiration might be better at representing the process, but Joseph and his colleagues insisted on the term translation.

His promise to God to never show the plates to anyone would have been broken.

They were aware of the difference between his translations and his revelations; this distinction is clear because he did not call the book of Moses a translation, and he differentiated between Doctrine and Covenants 7—which was a translation—and other Doctrine and Covenants sections that were considered revelations, not translations from an original record.

On the other hand, he did call the book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon translations from ancient records. Joseph Smith apparently used the term translation to describe the change from one language and record to another language and record. This usage was meant to demonstrate the origins of the original text and the process by which it came forth.

Share some verbatim accounts of how Joseph said he translated the Book of Mormon.

D&C 3:9

God had given thee sight to Translate.

Mosiah 8:13

The Book of Mormon explained that King Mosiah was a seer and that he could translate because “he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God”

Emma Smith

Last Testimony of Sister Emma

I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the Church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.

“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saint’s Herald, Vol. 26, No 19. p. 289. (1 October 1879).

Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim

Now the first that my husband translated, was translated by the use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.

“Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870,” in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Press, 1996-2003) 1:532.

Martin Harris

possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.

Joel Tiffany, “Mormonism,” Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859, 165–66; Deseret Evening News, December 13, 1881, 4; W. Wyl, Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and His Friends (Salt Lake City: Tribune Print and Publishing, 1886), 276, footnote; Henry G. Tinsley, “Origin of Mormonism,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 14, 1893, 12.

aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by [Martin], and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected.

Edward Stevenson, “One of the Three Witnesses: Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris,” Millennial Star 44, nos. 5–6 (January 30 and February 6, 1882): 78–79, 86–87. See Welch, Opening the Heavens, 132–41.

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver does not talk as much about translation publicly, but the earliest account we have from him is from 1830. As he is travelling on his mission to the Lamanites he preaches in a Shaker village along the way, and one of the Shaker elders records in his journal what Cowdery said about the translation, that he used the stones found with the plates and would:

put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.

Christian Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 143.

Resource: Here’s an article we wrote about the historical sources describing the translation: First Hand Witness Accounts of the Translation Process.

What does the Church teach about the translation of the Book of Mormon?

Russell M. Nelson

The Church’s position is taken directly from the historical record. Here is President Nelson discussing it. Many years earlier, before he was the prophet, then Elder Nelson also published an Ensign article describing the process that way.

Elder Uchtdorf

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf also expressed this, as reported in this article.

Gospel Topics Essays

Of course the Gospel Topics Essays, on the Library app and the Church website, describe this process as well as provides the many sources that demonstrate that. These essays were approved and published by the apostles and prophet.

Church manuals

The church has been describing this process this way in its manuals as well. Here are some examples:

Who were all of Joseph Smith’s scribes for the Book of Mormon?

Joseph Smith had five scribes that participated in various portions of the Book of Mormon translation, namely Emma Smith, Martin Harris, Samuel Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and John Whitmer.

Do any of Joseph’s scribes indicate that he had the plates in front of him during the translation?

If he would have, his promise to God to never show the plates to anyone, would have been broken. Even when he copied characters from the plates, he placed a blanket between him those who were helping make copies. Family members, especially Emma, saw the plates covered on the table, or heard them moving around in a box.

Exposing them to his scribes and others, was never an option, according to Joseph Smith. The eight and three witnesses are examples of those who God gave permission to see the plates.

What could have been the purpose of the gold plates if Joseph didn’t consult them during the translation?

One of the answers to this question we explore in the book is “the possession of the plates seem to have been directly connected with Joseph’s role as a seer.”

Another is that “The plates also served as a tangible, physical witness that the fantastic work Joseph was engaged in was not merely some flight of fancy or misunderstood dream.”

How can Latter-day Saint art mislead us?

Some of the art depicts Joseph Smith openly showing the plates to his scribe, in contradiction to the commandment of God, just as a starter. It also assumes how the interpreters are used along with the breast plate, or completely exclude any seer stones.

Historical depictions are easily rearranged by an artist’s creative impulses and representations, but the artist’s intent can be misunderstood as exact historical reproductions of the process.

Joseph Smith typically didn't look at the gold plates while translating the Book of Mormon.
Latter-day Saint art about the translation of the Book of Mormon such as “The Gift and Power of God” by Anthony Sweat avoid mistakes in other illustrations that deviate from the historical record. Credit: Anthony Sweat.

Is there any evidence that he stopped relying on seer stones for the Book of Mormon translation?

The answer to this question is an important addition to what this book offers readers. Gerrit recently developed important research to uncover a more accurate answer to this question.

You’ve got to check it out! (See pages 86 to 90.)

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Provide a snapshot of the main translation theories.

There are six main theories to explain how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon:

  1. Textual linguistic. Royal Skousen suggests that Joseph read the translation from seer stones. This theory involves a “Tight Control” level of involvement.
  2. Metaphysical. Samuel Brown argues that Joseph transformed human beings and worlds in his translation. This theory involves a “Loose Control” level of involvement.
  3. Realist/Naturalist. William Davis argues that Joseph was capable of producing the text himself. This theory involves a “Secular” level of involvement.
  4. Anti-Naturalist. John Welch explains that the Book of Mormon can be viewed as a demonstrable miracle, suggesting that Joseph was incapable of producing the book in 72 days. This theory involves a “Tight Control” level of involvement.
  5. Cognitive. Brant Gardner thinks the Book of Mormon could have first come to Joseph naturally, and then emerged as a series of thoughts and language. This theory involves a “Tight/Loose Control” level of involvement.
  6. Automatic Writing. Ann Taves suggests that the Book of Mormon text came to Joseph automatically and rapidly. This theory involves a “Tight Control” level of involvement.

What else can readers learn in your book?

Here are a few snippets:

A violent retrieval of the plates

According to Lucy Smith’s version of events, as Joseph approached an area with multiple downed trees, a man wielding a gun suddenly sprang up from behind one of the logs and attacked him, clubbing Joseph with the rifle. Fueled by adrenaline, fear, and no doubt divine power, Joseph returned the blow, knocking the perpetrator down. Clutching the plates, Joseph ran through the trees to escape. But his assailants had anticipated this reaction, and soon after another hidden man lunged at Joseph. Again, Joseph struck the man hard enough that he went sprawling to the ground. In a state of near panic, Joseph continued to flee home, only to be assaulted a third time. This time, Joseph punched his attacker so violently that his thumb was either dislocated or broken. We do not know how much damage Joseph inflicted on his enemy, but the man’s attack ended after he suffered Joseph’s blow.

Michael Hubbard Mackay, Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon

Emma as scribe

From December 1827 to January 1828, Joseph, with Emma as his primary help, copied characters from the plates and possibly organized them into an alphabet. Emma had to take on this huge responsibility because Joseph “had no one to write [for] him but his wife.” She then served as Joseph’s first scribe of the miraculous translation. This continued this task “a little . . . through the winter.

While Martin was gone, Emma apparently acted as a scribe for the first portion of (the now lost) translation. She did not differentiate between her initial work and the work that Martin Harris would do later that spring as a scribe, making the division of labor hard to identify. Though Martin clearly took part in the scribal work, he later downplayed his role by stating that “there were not many pages translated while he wrote.” Martin estimated that he wrote “about one third of the first part of the translation.” This means that he may have recorded only one third of the book of Lehi, likely leaving the other two-thirds for Emma to record.

Michael Hubbard Mackay, Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon

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About the interview participant

Michael Hubbard MacKay is an associate professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of York. Mackay has written for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and is the author or editor of several books, including Producing Ancient Scripture and Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon.

Further reading

Book of Mormon translation resources

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Let’s Talk About series interviews

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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