2. Translator or Author
The Mormon Bible was communicated to him direct from heaven.
If there was such a thing on earth as the author of it, then [Smith]
was the author; but the idea that he wished to impress was that
he had penned it as dictated by God. — Matthew L. Davis,1
Washington, D.C., political correspondent
On a wintry 5 February 1840 political correspondent Matthew
L. Davis crossed to Washington, D.C., to hear Joseph Smith expound
his new faith and speak about the Book of Mormon. The report he
wrote to his wife, quoted above, echoes the assumptions most modern
investigators of Mormon origins bring to their task. Mormons suppose
that God was involved somehow in the production of the book, even
if historical understanding requires that some aspects of Mormon
origins be explained differently or laid aside. They believe that
the Book of Mormon defends God but add that Smith could not have
written it without divine aid.
The earliest participants with Smith in the origins of Mormonism
describe that divine aid as coming through a "peepstone" or "seerstone,"
which Smith had used to translate most of the Book of Mormon. This
was the same stone which Smith used to locate buried treasure.2
Early Mormons Martin Harris and David Whitmer told
how Smith put the stone in a hat in which he then buried his face
to  read the translation of the plates superimposed on the stone.3
The "Reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics appeared on the stone with
the English translation beneath each character. Smith read the translation
to his scribe, who then verbally repeated it to check for accuracy.
If the scribe had incorrectly transcribed Smith's dictation, the
sentence image remained on the stone until the correction was made.4
Smith's wife Emma supported Harris's
and Whitmer's versions of the story in recalling that her husband
buried his face in his hat while she was serving as his scribe.5
"Translating" for these early witnesses meant "reading."
This is the sense of the translation process which Harris conveyed
to Father John A. Clark of Palmyra's Episcopal church. Clark
wrote that Smith had found the "GOLDEN BIBLE … and two transparent
stones, through which as a sort of spectacles, he could read the
Bible." Smith looked "through his spectacles … and would
then write down or repeat what he saw, which, when repeated aloud,
was written down by Harris." The spectacles enabled Smith "to
read the golden letters on the plates in the box … [B]y means of
them he could read all the book contained."6
However, Clark mentioned two stones rather than the single stone
of the other accounts. Soon after he spoke with Clark, Harris also
told Professor Charles Anthon about the "spectacles." According
to Anthon, these eye glasses were so large that Smith could look
only through one of the lenses.7
There is thus some confusion about whether Smith used spectacles
or a stone to translate. Smith was the ultimate source of this confusion
and included both versions in the Book of Mormon.8
If Smith simply read the translation, he might be expected to repeat
a section word for word. Exactly that expectation paralysed Smith
when Harris lost 116 manuscript pages in 1828; he chose not to retranslate
the pages. In section 10 of the Doctrine
and Covenants and in the foreword to the 1830 edition of the
Book of Mormon, Smith explained why he did not retranslate the
lost material.9 God knew that
evil men who had gained possession of the lost manuscript planned
to alter the words to conflict with the forthcoming translation.
How they might do this was not explained, but in any case God had
provided different plates with the same basic information.
After the loss of the early translation, Smith talked about the
power of the eye glasses in a different way. At first they had assured
an errorless translation by providing a translation to read. That
was  necessary to fulfill Isaiah 29:11-12; reference to one
"not learned," assumed to be himself, meant that Smith would be
equipped to "read" what the "learned" could not. When Harris pled
to be allowed to show others the translation, the glasses became
the medium of revelation. Smith prayed through the spectacles and
received the Lord's answer to Harris's request.10
Following the loss of the translation, an angel took the glasses
but returned them in July 1828 so that Smith could receive section
3 and possibly 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Then the angel
removed both the glasses and gold plates until 22 September 1828,
when he returned them to Smith.11
When Oliver Cowdery took over scribal duties in April 1829,
he told Smith that he wanted to try his hand at translating the
plates. He tried and faltered, thereby forcing yet another shift
in the role of the glasses. Cowdery had the idea that translating
was merely a matter of reading. Smith answered Cowdery's failure
with a revelation. Cowdery should have studied his proposed translation
"out in his mind" (D&C 8:1-3) and his bosom would "burn" within
him when he felt "that it is right." Thus Cowdery was held responsible
for his failure. Earlier Smith had told him that Christ would "tell"
him in his "mind" and "heart" the knowledge concerning the engravings
of old records. Now it was explained that the translation really
took place within a person and not in the lenses of the glasses
or in the seer stone.
It was Smith who eventually emphasized the mind and heart of the
translator as the medium of translation and deemphasized the inherent
power of the spectacles.12 A
contemporary, Diedrich Willers, described this view of translation.
He said that Smith wore the glasses and that "the Holy Ghost
would by inspiration give him the translation in the English language."13
In this same vein, Smith told E. B. Grandin that the translation
was accomplished by inspiration.
Further, Smith did not need to have the plates present or the leaves
open to translate. Martin Harris told John Clark that when Smith
first put on the glasses the plates were in the box or chest, but
he could read the plates even though the chest was closed.14
Joseph Smith, Sr., said that after the Lord removed the plates,
"Joseph put on the spectacles, and saw where the Lord had hid
them, among the rocks, in the mountains. Though not allowed to get
them, he could by the help of the spectacles, read them where they
were, as well as if they were before him."15
Development of the Translation Process Story
Joseph Smith's Activity
Function of Medium Used
|Reads and translates characters.
||Stone and spectacles mediums of translation.
||Open plates, stone, and spectacles needed.
|Reads and translates characters;
|Spectacles medium or receiving translation
||Stone and plates not always used, but spectacles
Explains why Cowdery cannot
|Mind and heart medium of translation.
||Spectacles not needed, but used.
|Gives plates and spectacles to
angel; still receives revelations;
corrects manuscript for printer.
|Mind and heart medium of translation, revision,
||Spectacles and plates gone; not needed, not
|June 1830 on
||Writes Book of Moses; revises
Bible; corrects and revises Book
|Mind and heart medium of translation, revision
||Spectacles gone, not needed.
After completing the manuscript of the Book of Mormon in 1829,
Smith handed the plates and glasses back to the angel.16
From that time the revelations he received came from his "heart"
and "mind." To produce the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, 3,000
changes were made to the 1830 edition17
from revelation and intuition, without the aid of eyeglasses, as
did the parenthetical phrase which Smith added to 1 Nephi 20:1 in
the 1840 edition.18 Smith began
to write his revision of the Bible, the
Book of Moses, in June 1830 and received it by means of a vision,
not through glasses.19 All the
work of revising the Bible, the founding revelations, and the making
of an alphabet for Egyptian hieroglyphics was done without the glasses,
solely by revelation. Smith was no longer merely a "reader."
For both believer and non-believer, the question of Smith as a
translator, whatever his method, or simply as author of the Book
of Mormon often turns on the issue of his ability and education.
The fact that he was "unlearned" and yet could "read" what the "learned"
could not was for Martin Harris a sign that Smith's calling was
authentic. For unbelievers who also considered Smith uneducated,
an alternative theory was needed to explain the book: namely, that
Sidney Rigdon, a trained and educated preacher, had guided
the creation of the Book of Mormon which was based on a romance
of the American Indians written at the turn of the nineteenth century
by a man named Solomon Spaulding.
However, not all contemporaries found Smith too "unlearned" to
have written the book. Orsamus Turner knew Smith in Palmyra,
New York, and opposed the faith he headed. According to Turner,
Smith was a "passable" Methodist "exhorter" after catching "a spark
of religion." He credited the Smith family with the production of
the Book of Mormon and specifically dismissed the Spaulding theory.20
John Greenleaf Whittier and Josiah Quincy also gave
Smith high marks as a person with ability and intelligence.21
Certainly Smith was literate. He lamented his inexperience with
the written word but knew he had an impressive speaking style.22
His mother told how he held the family spellbound with Indian stories.
Smith himself did some other writing during the translation process.
Martin Harris told John Clark that "Smith was to prepare for
the conversion of the world … by transcribing the characters from
the plates."23 Harris also
told Charles Anthon that Smith "deciphered the characters in
the book" and "communicated their contents in writing."24
Mormons today credit Smith with knowing the Bible and being conversant
in contemporary affairs—unlike early Mormon apologist Orson Pratt,
who denied him even a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible at the
time he began to produce new scripture.
Smith needed support from those around him while working on the
book. Diedrich Willer reported that the Peter Whitmer home,
where Smith spent the final weeks of translating, was the eleventh
place he had stayed during the translation process. Willer also
reported that inhabitants in each of the places Smith translated
had seen visions or angels. Whenever Smith was at odds with his
wife Emma, he was unable to continue dictating. He would go into
the woods for an hour of prayer, return, and ask her forgiveness.
Then  he could resume his task.25
At other times he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently
humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation.26
Or he would take time out to skip stones on the Susquehannah River
to rejuvenate himself.27 Smith
had dry spells like anyone working on a major, ongoing project.
Many are convinced that no twenty-four-year-old-man could produce
the quantity of material in the brief time it took Smith to produce
the Book of Mormon; they argue for the necessity of divine help.
Smith turned out 8,800 words in eight days with Emma serving as
scribe, and 266, 200 words in seventy-five days with Oliver Cowdery
as scribe. The average jumped from 1,100 to 3,550 words per day.
Twenty-five thousand of these words are Old Testament quotations
which Smith read from the Bible. The expression "it came to pass"
accounts for over 6,000 words. And the task was not accomplished
without preparation· For over a year before Smith began his first
try at getting the Book of Mormon on paper with Martin Harris in
1828, he was talking about the themes of the book. He had lived
with those concerns for two years—possibly more—when he began dictating
to Cowdery in 1829.
Still the final value judgment about Smith—as translator or author—will
always remain personal. He had the ability, the motive, and the
opportunity to write a brief in defense of God. In his time and
place, a defense seemed needed when the book came off the press
in March 1830.
- Ben E. Rich, Scrap Book of Mormon Literature (Chicago:
Henry C. Etten & Co., n.d.), 2:404.
- Compare Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y.
Court Trials," Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter
1974): 123-55, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith's
1826 Trial (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., 1971), for
discussions of this aspect of Smith's career.
- David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ
(Richmond, MO, 1887), 12; Martin Harris, in Latter-day Saints'
Millennial Star, 6 Feb. 1882.
- 4 B. H. Roberts conceded that the two witnesses heard this version
from Smith but the "mere mechanical process" they described was
incorrect. Only after Smith had worked out the interpretation
in his mind was the translation then "reflected in the sacred
instrument, there to remain until correctly written by the scribe."
New Witness for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,
1926), 2:137-38. In Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their
Textual Development (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House,
1969), 40, Richard Howard concludes that the Whitmer-Harris version
is untenable. In contrast to Roberts, Howard dismissed the idea
that Smith saw the translation of the characters "as if through
some kind of visually projected medium." Both agree that Smith
used the stone. Although both hold to Smith's working out the
translation in his mind, Howard points to the text which Smith
and Cowdery improved in the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon
and notes that such improvement would have been unnecessary if
the Whitmer-Harris version were correct.
- She stated this in a personal interview with a committee from
the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in
1879, shortly before her death. Joseph Smith III, "Last Testimony
of Sister Emma," Saint's Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, 220.
- John Clark, Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia: W.J.
& J. K. Simon, 1842), 224, 230, 228.
- Charles Anthon to Eber D. Howe, 17 Feb. 1834. Howe, Mormonism
Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 270-72. Hereafter cited
as Anthon's 1834 letter. Charles Anthon to T. W. Coit, 3 Apr.
1841, in The Church Record, 24 Apr. 1841, 231-32. It appears in
Clark, Gleanings, 233-38. Cited hereafter as Anthon 1841
- The confusion is compounded by the many statements of those
who were with Smith during the translation period. Emma Smith
and David Whitmer both said that after the spectacles, called
Urim and Thummim, were removed from Joseph's possession in June
1828, they were never returned, but that Smith then translated
with only one stone. Many witnesses claim that Smith used one
stone only in 1829.
An excellent discussion of the various stories is James E. Lancaster,
"'By the Gift and Power of God': The Method of Translation
of the Book of Mormon," Saints' Herald, 15 Nov. 1962, 798-806,
The term "Urim and Thummim" was used for the single stone and
the two-stone spectacles, he concludes. The spectacles appear
in the Book of Mormon in Mos. 8:13, 19; 21:27-28; 28:11-19; Om.
20-22; Al. 10:2; 37:21-26; Eth. 3:23, 28; 4:5. Note the confusion
that results from Al. 37:23-24. Verse 23 reads: "And the Lord
said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone … that I
may discover unto my people who serve me … the works of their
brethren"; but verse 24 speaks of "interpreters" used for
the same purpose.
In Smith's 1830 Bainbridge trial Oliver Cowdery described the
spectacles as "two transparent stones, resembling glass, set
in silver bows." Reported in the Evangelical Magazine and
Advocate, 9 Apr. 1831, 120.
In the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, p. 328, line 8, "directors"
is used instead of "interpreters" (Al. 37:31).
The 1920 LDS edition was the first to change the word. Cf. Howard,
Restoration Scriptures, 59.
- This foreword was not printed in subsequent editions of the
Book of Mormon.
- Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
Co., 1927), 1:21; hereafter HC.
- Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the
Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool:
S. W. Richards, 1853), 125-26. Smith's mother quotes him as having
said this. However, his wife Emma wrote in 1876 that Joseph had
used the spectacles, the Urim and Thummim, during the 1828 session
with Martin Harris but after that a small stone. Emma Bidamon
to Sister Pilgrim, 27 Mar. 1876, archives, Reorganized Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.
David Whitmer also says the same thing. See Lancaster, "Gift
and Power," 799-800.
- Howard, Restoration Scriptures, 159, summarized the progression
of thought: Section 6: 1. The "translator" must have righteous
desires for heavenly treasure. 2. "Translation" ability is a gift
from God. Section 8: 1. Faith is the key to using the gift
of "translation."2. Faith must be exercised with honesty of heart.
3. Only then will truth be perceived. Such perception is registered
in the mind and heart of the "translator" by the power of the
Holy Ghost. Section 9: 1. "Translation" is not an automatic
process. 3. The "translator" will know that what he is considering
in his mind is either valid or invalid by the God-given impressions
and intuitions and feelings born of such a studious, faithful
- Willers to L. Mayer and D. Young, 18 June 1830. In D. Michael
Quinn, "The First Months of Mormonism: A Contemporary View
by Rev. Diedrich Willers," New York History 54 (July 1973):
- Clark, Gleanings, 228.
- Fayette Lapham, "The Mormons," Historical Magazine (New
Series), 7 (May 1870): 308. This would have to have happened after
the angel returned the spectacles to Smith so that he could receive
D&C 3, since the spectacles were first taken with the plates.
- HC 1:19.
- Howard, Restoration Scriptures, 41, states that over
2,000 changes were made in the emended manuscript, which Oliver
Cowdery prepared for the printer from the dictated manuscript,
in preparation for the 1837 edition, and that an additional 1,000
changes are found in the second edition.
- 1 Nephi 20:1 and the parenthetical phrase read: "Hearken
and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called out of the waters
of Judah, (or out of the waters of baptism), who swear by the
name of the Lord.…" Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 151, explains that the addition
is needed for the modern mind, which would not get the meaning
of "waters of Judah," although the original audiences would have
understood. The translator, therefore, gave his own rendition
of what he perceived to be in the mind of the author.
- Compare the Book of Moses 1,
in the Pearl of Great Price.
- Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps
and Gorham's Purchase (Rochester, 1851), 214.
- A twentieth-century, non-Mormon scholar agrees with Whittier
and Quincy. According to Jan Shipps, in "Prophet Puzzle"
(p. 1), the prophet was an "extraordinarily talented individual—a
genius beyond question."
- Smith referred to his "lack of fluency" in a letter to Moses
C. Nickerson, 29 Nov. 1833 (HC 1:441-42). At a church conference
on 1 November 1831, Christ notes his servant's weakness in this
regard (D&C 1:24). In a letter to W. W. Phelps, Nov. 1832, Smith
wrote of language as a "narrow prison" (HC 1:299).
- Clark, Gleanings, 228.
- Anthon's 1834 and 1841 letters.
- David Whitmer, An Address, 12.
- In William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, Readings in LDS
History from Original Manuscripts, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 1953), 1:51.
- Whitmer, An Address.