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‘A marvellous work and a wonder': A look back at the translation of the Book of Mormon 185 years after it was first published

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It takes an average of five years to translate and produce the Book of Mormon in another language, according to LDS Church Public Affairs.

Yet as the Book of Mormon Translation topic page on lds.org states, Joseph Smith translated “almost all of the present Book of Mormon text” from the gold plates in just three months, from April to June of 1829 — long before computers, electronic encyclopedias and the Internet.

That “series of miraculous events,” as the topic page refers to it, involved in the translation of the text came to a climax 185 years ago today on March 26, 1830, when the Book of Mormon was first made available for the public to purchase.

Although all the details of exactly how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon are not known, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles pointed out in a 1997 Ensign article (“By the Gift and Power of God”) that this might have been intentional.

“Perhaps … the Lord wanted to leave the Book of Mormon in the realm of faith, though it is drenched with intrinsic evidence,” he wrote.

Elder Maxwell indicated, however, that there is value in learning more about the Prophet Joseph, the translation process and those who assisted.

“Our primary focus in studying the Book of Mormon should be on the principles of the gospel anyway, not on the process by which the book came forth,” Elder Maxwell wrote. “Yet because its coming so amply fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of a ‘marvellous work and a wonder,’ we may find strengthened faith in considering how marvelous and wondrous the translation really was.”

'By the gift and power of God'

Among those who have wondered about the specific details of the Book of Mormon's translation was Hyrum Smith, an older brother of the Prophet Joseph.

According to “History of the Church,” Joseph responded to his brother's curiosity by saying that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” and “it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”

“Thus what we do know about the actual coming forth of the Book of Mormon is adequate, but it is not comprehensive,” Elder Maxwell wrote.

Robin Jensen, associate managing historian and project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers, said in an interview with the Deseret News that because the Prophet Joseph didn’t leave a detailed account of the translation process, historians and members of the church must rely on the reminiscences of scribes and those who witnessed the translation in order to understand the mechanics.

Jensen said that in his studying of the process, he has come to see the translation as a “development” with multiple “different phases” in which Joseph “grew and developed and better understood his role.”

It was a “monumental task” as Joseph was asked to “render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages,” the lds.org topic page states. So “God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments” to aid in the different phases of the translation process.

“The Book of Mormon tells us the way is prepared for this record to be translated, and that’s a very physical, very mechanical process, much more so than we perhaps might envision that,” Jensen said.

The topic page refers specifically to two types of instruments. The first, known as the Urim and Thummim, was “a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim” that was found in the Hill Cumorah with the gold plates.

“The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device ‘kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord’ and ‘handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages,’” the topic page states.

The second, known as a seer stone, was a “small oval stone” that Joseph “discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates,” according to the lds.org topic page, that he later learned could be used in the translation process. Jensen said the idea of seer stones was common during Joseph’s time. They were seen as “a way to confront the spiritual, supernatural world.”

Witnesses of the translation process recorded that “when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English,” according to the topic page.

Joseph was in his early 20s at the time and had “very little formal education and was incapable of writing a book on his own, let alone translating an ancient book written from an unknown language,” according to the topic page.

Joseph repeatedly testified that it was “by the gift and power of God” that he was able to complete the translation, a fact his wife, Emma, affirmed.

“The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity — I have not the slightest doubt of it,” Emma told their son Joseph III on one occasion. “I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”

The topic page also asserts the idea that the original Book of Mormon manuscript, 28 percent of which has survived through the years, also supports statements that Joseph dictated the text from another language in a short period of time.

“For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript,” the topic page states. “In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.”

‘Days never to be forgotten’

Joseph may have been the one called to translate the Book of Mormon, but Jensen emphasized that he was not completely alone in the process.

“We have a lot of faithful individuals who believed in the Book of Mormon, believed in the power of the Book of Mormon and who were willing to put up with a lot of drudgery, and then of course later in church history, a lot of trial, a lot of hardship,” Jensen said.

Jensen highlighted Joseph's scribes as examples of others who performed “time-intensive” work during the process.

Oliver Cowdery is known as the primary scribe for the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, but many others took up a quill to assist Joseph during the translation, according to Jensen. They include Martin Harris, a friend of Joseph’s who later was one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and who financed the printing; Emma Smith; Samuel Smith, one of Joseph’s younger brothers; Reuben Hale, Joseph’s brother-in-law; and Christian Whitmer, one of the sons of the Whitmer family who allowed Joseph to finish translating in their home in Fayette, New York. Christian’s brother John Whitmer also may have served as scribe for a time, and there is handwriting of an additional unidentified scribe found in the original manuscript.

After completing the first manuscript, Joseph also asked Cowdery to take charge on creating a second copy of the text to provide to E.B. Grandin’s printing office in Palmyra, New York. Although Hyrum Smith and another unidentified scribe assisted, Cowdery wrote the bulk of the scripture by hand twice, according to Jensen.

“Think of the hand cramps that Oliver Cowdery had to endure,” Jensen said.

But for Cowdery, the opportunity to assist with the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon was a treasured one.

“These were days never to be forgotten — to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven,” Cowdery said, according to the translation topic page.

The “drudgery” that set the stage for the coming forth of the Book of Mormon extended into the realm of housework and farm chores. One person known for providing assistance with the everyday matters was Mary Whitmer, the mother of the Whitmer family.

Jensen said Mary Whitmer’s grandson John C. Whitmer told of her being “bogged down” with the additional cooking, cleaning and other house chores that came as a result of Joseph and other visitors staying in her home during the translation process. One day while she was milking the cows, Mary Whitmer saw an angel who acknowledged her hard work and proceeded to show her the gold plates.

“From that moment, my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard,” said John C. Whitmer, as cited in an article Jensen wrote titled “A Bit of Old String” on history.lds.org.

Jensen also pointed out that contributions were even made by some who didn’t believe in the Book of Mormon as a book of divine origin, including John H. Gilbert, who was the principal typesetter at Grandin’s printing office. As Joseph dictated the translation to the scribes, he “did not call for punctuation.” Therefore, both the original manuscript and the printer’s manuscript were devoid of it, according to the topic page. The task of punctuating the Book of Mormon and setting the type, letter by letter, was left to Gilbert, a job he “took pride” in later in life, Jensen said.

The Book of Mormon today

The Book of Mormon has gone a long way since it first hit the shelves of Grandin’s bookshop in the small town of Palmyra, New York. More than 168 million copies have been distributed since March 1830, according to LDS Church Public Affairs, and an average of 4.5 million physical copies are distributed each year. With 110 different language translations of the book and digital translations available in 40 different languages on scriptures.lds.org and the Gospel Library app, the Book of Mormon continues to expand the church’s reach.

“You could very much make the case that the LDS Church was founded on the publication of a book,” Jensen said. “Word of mouth only has a limited radius. It really was the publication of this book, and therefore this dissemination of this information through missionaries and others, that people began to hear about and then believe in Joseph Smith, his prophetic calling and the Restoration.”

Email: wbutters@deseretnews.com, Twitter: WhitneyButters