Book of Mormon/Translation/Method/1846-1900

Table of Contents

Statements on the Book of Mormon Translation method: 1846-1900


This page is a chronology of statements from primary and secondary sources. Sources may be viewed by following the citation links.

Jump to statements in: 1829–1835| 1836–1840| 1841–1845| 1846–1900| 1900–2000

1867

Pomeroy Tucker (non-eyewitness), Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism

Translations and interpretations were now entered upon by the prophet, and manuscript specimens of these, with some of the literally transcribed characters, were shown to people, including ministers and other gentlemen of learning and influence.... The manuscripts were in the handwriting of one Oliver Cowdery, which had been written down by him, as he and Smith declared, from the translations, word for word, as made by the latter with the aid of the mammoth spectacles or Urim and Thummim, and verbally announced by him from behind a blanket-screen drawn across a dark corner of a room at his residence-for at this time the original revelation, limiting to the prophet the right of seeing the sacred plates, had not yet been changed, and the view with the instrument used was even too brilliant for his own spiritualized eyes in the light! This was the story of the first series of translations, which was always persisted in by the few persons connected with the business at this early period of its progress. The single significance of this theory will doubtless be manifest, when the facts are stated in explanation, that Smith could not write in a legible hand, and hence an amanuensis or scribe was necessary. Cowdery had been a schoolmaster, and was the only man in the band who could make a copy for the printer. .... The work of translation this time [after the loss of the 116 pages] had been done in the recess of a dark artificial cave, which Smith had caused to be dug in the east side of the forest-hill near his residence. , .. [T]hough another version was, that the prophet continued to pursue his former mode of translating behind the curtain at his house, and only went into the cave to pay his spiritual devotions.[1]

  • Scribe: Oliver Cowdery
  • Curtain: mentioned
  • Instrument: Nephite interpreters ("mammoth spectacles"); Urim and Thummim; "the instrument"
  • Method: Not specified

1870

Martin Harris (eyewitness)

Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote the portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the Prophet 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. Martin explained the translation as follows: By 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, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.[2]

  • Scribe: Martin Harris
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: The seer stone and the Urim and Thummim mentioned as separate items
  • Method: Not specified

Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery (eyewitness)

"I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith's translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father's house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his [face in his] hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him."[3]

  • Scribe: Unknown
  • Curtain: Denied that a curtain had been used.
  • Instrument: A "director"
  • Method: Hat.

Editorial comment: Where this may tell us more than it says is the specific statement that "Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating." The statement made by Elizabeth virtually requires that there be a story in current circulation that there was a curtain, and that this statement was made to counter that story. This indicates that among the Saints there may have been two versions circulating and that there was no clear understanding about which was the accurate picture. Therefore, Elizabeth wanted to clarify the account based on her experience.

I staid in Richmond two days and nights. I had a great deal of talk with widow Cowdry, and her amiable daughter. She is married to a Dr Johnson, but has no children. She gave me a certificate, And this is the copy. "Richmond, Ray Co., Mo. Feb 15, 1870--I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith's translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father's house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him:[4]

  • Scribe: Unknown
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: A "director"
  • Method: Hat.

1875

David Whitmer (eyewitness), Salt Lake Herald

David Whitmer was married in Seneca County, New York, in 1830, and was for a number of years an elder in the Church of Christ. Today he is the proprietor of a livery stable in Richmond, Missouri, owns some real estate, has a handsome balance in the bank, is universally respected by all who know him, and surrounded by children and grandchildren, is pleasantly gliding toward the gates of sunset, confident that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was also the God of Nephi, whose faithful disciple he has been and is. He does not believe that all believing in the Book of Mormon or all adherents to any other faith will be found among the elect, but that the truly good of every faith will be gathered in fulfillment of prophecy. Neither does he believe that the Book of Mormon is the only record of the lost tribes hidden in the earth, but on the contrary, that the caves hold other records that will not come forth till all is peace and the lion shall eat straw with the lamb. Three times he has been at the Hill Cumorah and seen the casket that contained the tablets and seerstone. Eventually the casket has been washed down to the foot of the hill, but it was to be seen when he last visited the historic place.[5]

  • Scribe: Not mentioned
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: seerstone taken from stone box (Nephite interpreters)
  • Method: Not specified, but since seer stone is mentioned this is implied to be the method.

1877

John Gilbert (non-eyewitness), Detroit Post and Tribune

As he claimed to be the author of the "Book of Mormon" his story was that by the aid of his wonderful stone he found gold plates on which were inscribed the writings in hieroglyphics. He translated them by means of a pair of magic spectacles which the Lord delivered to him at the same time that the golden tablets were turned up. But nobody but Joe himself ever saw the golden tablets or the far-seeing spectacles. He dictated the book, concealed behind a curtain, and it was written down by Cowdery. This course seemed to be rendered necessary by the fact that Joe did not know how to write.[6]

  • Scribe: Oliver Cowdery
  • Curtain: Mentioned
  • Instrument: Nephite interpreters ("magic spectacles," "far-seeing spectacles")
  • Method: Not specified

1878

William S. Sayre (non-eyewitness)

Richards [Martin Harris], got into the Stage house when on <the> rout & Said he resided at Palmira, & had been to Quages, which was in the town of Colesville a few miles from South Bainbridge village to See Jos[eph] Smith, who had resided in Palmira, & had found a gold bible & stone in which he looked & was thereby enabled to translate the very ancient chara[c]ters which <he> found in the bible. He Said Smith was poor & was living in a house which had only one room <in which he could keep [for?]> & Smith had a sheet put up in one corner & went behind it from observation when he was writing the bible. He SaId Smith kept the bible hid or covered up & put it in a hat & had the Stone which <he> found in Pal=mira & look[e] d through it & then wrote what he read in the bible. He Said <he> would not let him see the bible but let him feel of it when it was covered up. Smith read to him a good deal of the bible & he repeated to those in the Stage verse after verse of what Smith had read to him; [7]

  • Scribe: Not specified (Martin Harris?)
  • Curtain: mentioned ("a sheet")
  • Instrument: Either the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone ("the Stone which he found in Palmira")
  • Method: Looked "through" it.

1879

Emma Smith Bidamon (eyewitness)

Question. What of the truth of Mormonism?

Answer. 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, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.

Question. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?

Answer. He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.

Question. Could he not have had, and you not know it?

Answer. If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.

Question. Are you sure that he had the plates at the time you were writing for him?

Answer. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.

Question. Where did father and Oliver Cowdery write?

Answer. Oliver Cowdery and your father wrote in the room where I was at work.

Question. Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book?

Answer. Joseph Smith [and for the first time she used his name direct, having usually used the words, "your father" or "my husband"] could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, "a marvel and a wonder," as much so as to anyone else.

Question. I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them?

Answer. I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so;

Major Bidamon here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates?

Answer. I do not think he did. I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.

Question. Mother, what is your belief about the authenticity, or origin, of the Book of Mormon?

Answer. My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity - I have not the slightest doubt of it. 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 hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.[8]

  • Scribe: Emma Smith
  • Curtain: Not present
  • Instrument: Seer stone
  • Method: Hat

S.F. Walker

He had seen the plates; and it was his especial pride and joy that he had written sixty pages of the Book of Mormon.... When the work of translation was going on he sat at one table with his writing material and Joseph at another with the breast-plate and Urim and Thummim. The later were attached to the breast-plate and were two crystals or glasses, into which he looked and saw the words of the book. The words remained in sight till correctly written, and mistakes of the scribe in spelling the names were corrected by the seer without diverting his gaze from the Urim and Thummim.[9]

  • Scribe: Not specified
  • Curtain: Not present
  • Instrument: Nephite interpreters ("Breast-plate and Urim and Thummim," "two crystals or glasses")
  • Method: Joseph "looked" into the crystals or glasses
  • Location: Scribe "at one table" and Joseph "at another"

1880

Sallie McKune (non-eyewitness)

MRS. SALLIE MCKUNE, widow of Joseph McKune and mother of Sheriff [Benjamin] McKune, is now eighty years old. She was between twenty-five and thirty years old when Joe Smith was performing about Susquehanna, and lived upon a farm adjoining Joe Smith's lot and the Isaac Hale farm, and in sight of the place where they dug for the ton of silver, on Jacob I. Skinner's farm. Smith's residence was between the residence of an addition to the house, and Mrs. McKune lived in the house about forty years. She remembers the arrangement of the nails used for hooks to hang blankets on during the translation of the golden bible.[10]

  • Scribe: Unknown
  • Curtain: Mentioned
  • Instrument: Not specified
  • Method: Not specified

Frederick G. Mather (non-eyewitness)

Joe Smith would write the translation from his plates upon a slate, or dictate what to write, and others would copy upon paper. His assistants were witness Martin Harris, and brother-in-law Reuben Hale.31 The translating and writing were done in the little low chamber of Joe Smith's house. The Prophet and his precious trust were screened even from the sight of his clerks by blankets nailed to the walls. 32 The nails remained for many years just as they were driven by the Prophet, and it was not until some repairing was done a short time ago that they were drawn out. Neighbors were free to call at the house as much as they pleased while the bible was concocting, and the matter of the golden bible would be talked over. Some persons were permitted to lift the pillow case in which it was kept, and feel the thickness of the volume the plates made, but no one was permitted to see them. [11]

  • Scribe: Not identified
  • Curtain: Mentioned
  • Instrument: Not specified
  • Method: Not specified

Eri B. Mullin (non-eyewitness), Saint's Herald

I for my part know he said that Joseph had the instrument Urim and Thummim. I asked him how they looked. He said they looked like spectacles, and he (Joseph) would put them on and look in a hat, or put his face in the hat and read. Says I, "Did he have the plates in there:' "No,[12]

  • Scribe: Not identified
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: Nephite interpreters ("spectacles")
  • Method: Hat

1881

David Whitmer (eyewitness), Kansas City Daily Journal

My statement was and now is that in translating he put the stone in his hat and putting his face in his hat so as to excluded the light and that then the light and characters appeared in the hat together with the interpretation which he uttered and was written by the scribe and which was tested at the time as stated.[13]

  • Scribe: Not identified
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: "the stone"
  • Method: Hat

1884

David Whitmer (eyewitness), St. Louis Republican

The understanding we have about it was that when the book was discovered an angel was present and pointed the place out. In translating from the plates, Joseph Smith looked through the Urim and Thummim, consisting of two transparent pebbles set in the rim of a bow, fastened to a breastplate. He dictated by looking through them to his scribes:[14]

  • Scribe: Not explicitly identified ("his scribes")
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: Urim and Thummim, two transparent pebbles set in the rim of a bow.
  • Method: "dictated by looking through them"

1885

David Whitmer (eyewitness), Chicago Tribune

Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After prayer Smith would sit on one side of a table and the amanuenses, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English.[15]

  • Scribe: Not explicitly identified ("the amanuenses")
  • Curtain: Not present
  • Instrument: Nephite interpreters ("magical spectacles," "glasses")
  • Method: "affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes"

David Whitmer (eyewitness), Chicago Tribune

In order to give privacy to the proceeding a blanket, which served as a portiere, was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith's relatives besides.[16]

  • Scribe: Not mentioned
  • Curtain: Mentioned
  • Instrument: Not specified
  • Method: Not specified

1887

David Whitmer (eyewitness), An Address to All Believers in Christ

God gave to an unlearned boy, Joseph Smith, the gift to translate it by the means of a STONE. See the following passages concerning the ”Urim and Thummin," being the same means and one by which the Ancients received the word of the Lord.[17]

I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.[18]

  • Scribe: Oliver Cowdery
  • Curtain: Not mentioned
  • Instrument: Stone, "Urim and Thummim," seer stone
  • Method: Hat

1888

W.R. Hine (non-eyewitness), Naked Truths about Mormonism

Soon I learned that Jo claimed to be translating the plates in Badger's Tavern, in Colesville, three miles from my house. I went there and saw Jo Smith sit by a table and put a handkerchief to his forehead and peek into his hat and call out a word to Cowdery, who sat at the same table and wrote it down. Several persons sat near the same table and there was no curtain between them.[19]

  • Scribe: Oliver Cowdery
  • Curtain: Stated that there was no curtain
  • Instrument: Not mentioned
  • Method: Hat

Notes

  1. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 29-49.
  2. Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating the Book of Mormon," Improvement Era 42. 10 (October 1939) quoting Deseret Evening News, September 5, 1870, which reports in part an address delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
  3. Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, "Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery Affidavit, 15 February 1870," in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:260.
  4. William E. McLellin to "My Dear Friends;' February 1870, Community of Christ Library-Archives; cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 233-34. Elizabeth Whitmer, born in 1815, was the daughter of Peter Whitmer Sr. and Mary Whitmer (and the sister of David Whitmer). She was fourteen years old when the translation was completed at her parents' home in Fayette, New York. She married Oliver Cowdery in 1832.
  5. The Chicago Times Interviews David Whitmer August 1875 S.L. Herald, 12 Aug 1875 in Ebbie Richardson, "David Whitmer," pp.158
  6. }"Joe Smith, Something about the Early Life of the Mormon prophet;' Detroit Post and Tribune, December 3, 1877, 3; cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:517, 520. John Gilbert (1802-95) was principal typesetter and proofreader when the Book of Mormon was printed in 1829-30.
  7. William S. Sayre to James T. Cobb, 31 August 1878, Theodore A. Schroeder Papers, Archives, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.
  8. Joseph Smith III, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma;' Saints' Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289-90; and Joseph Smith III, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma;' Saints' Advocate 2 (October 1879): 50-52.
  9. S. F. Walker, "Synopsis of a Discourse Delivered at Lamoni, Iowa," Saints' Herald 26 (December 15,1879): 370.
  10. [Frederick G. Mather], "The Early Mormons. Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna," Binghamton Republican, 29 July 1880.
  11. [Frederick G. Mather], "The Early Mormons. Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna," Binghamton Republican, 29 July 1880. in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 4:355.
  12. Eri B. Mullin, Letter to the editor, Saints' Herald 27 (March 1, 1880): 76.
  13. David Whitmer to the editor, Kansas City Daily Journal, 9 June 1881; cited in Lyndon Cook (editor), David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Books, 1991), 71-72.
  14. St. Louis Republican, July 16, 1884; cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 143.
  15. "The Book of Mormon;' Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3. off-site The Tribune correspondent visited and interviewed Whitmer on December 15, 1885, at Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri.
  16. "The Book of Mormon;' Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3. off-site The Tribune correspondent visited and interviewed Whitmer on December 15, 1885, at Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri.
  17. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon (David Whitmer: Richmond, Virginia, 1887), 5
  18. Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 11
  19. W. R. Hine's Statement, Naked Truths about Mormonism 1 (January 1888) 2.