How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon
By the Gift and Power of God
The title page of The Book of Mormon said it would be interpreted and “come forth by the gift and power of God.” Joseph Smith said, in the now-famous letter to John Wentworth, that he translated the Book of Mormon “through the medium of the Urim and Thummim . . . by the gift and power of God.” The three witnesses also testified that they knew the plates “have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.” In D&C 17:6, the Lord himself says that Joseph “has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.”
Joseph’s Seer Stone
While these statements are faithful and true, they do not explain exactly how Joseph Smith translated The Book of Mormon. Elder Russell M. Nelson said at a seminar for new mission presidents, 25 June 1992 that “the details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights.” (See A Treasured Testament by Elder Russell M. Nelson, Ensign July 1993.) Then he quoted David Whitmer who wrote:
“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.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)
The seer stone referred to above was found when Joseph and his brother Alvin were digging a well in 1822. It was “about the size of a small hen’s egg, in the shape of a high instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps from being carried in the pocket” (see Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon by Stephen D. Ricks from the Maxwell Institute).
The Urim and Thummim
During the translation of the Book of Mormon, multiple processes and different instruments were employed. Another way Joseph translated, which is more commonly known to the Latter-day Saints, is that he used the Urim and Thummim, also referred to as “spectacles” or the “Nephite interpreters.” Joseph explains the following in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History 1:34-35, when he tells of the Angel Moroni’s visit to his bedroom on the night of September 21, 1823:
He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants; Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
There is also ample evidence that at times Joseph dictated the translation of The Book of Mormon without use of the seer stone, or the Urim and Thummim, or even the plates themselves. The question, then, naturally arises as to why Joseph Smith needed these instruments at all in the translation process. Orson Pratt reported that the Prophet Joseph told him that the Lord had given him the Urim and Thummim “when he was inexperienced in the spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operation of that spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.”
Similarly, Zebedee Coltrin, an early acquaintance of the prophet, said in 1880 that he had asked Joseph what happened to the Urim and Thummim and that “Joseph said that he had no further need of it and he had given it to the angel Moroni. He had the Melchizedek Priesthood and with that Priesthood he had the key to all knowledge and intelligence” (see Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon by Stephen D. Ricks).
Testimony of Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon
These sources give us much additional light and knowledge concerning how Joseph Smith translated The Book of Mormon. Yet these facts and historical quotes alone are insufficient in developing a testimony that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God and that he translated The Book of Mormon correctly, and that it is indeed new scripture given to us by God. That knowledge can only come from the Spirit of the Lord, and it will come through sincere study, pondering, and prayer. Elder Quentin L. Cook, in the April 2012 General Conference, said,
“The essential doctrine of agency requires that a testimony of the restored gospel be based on faith rather than just external or scientific proof. Obsessive focus on things not yet fully revealed, such as how the virgin birth or the Resurrection of the Savior could have occurred or exactly how Joseph Smith translated our scriptures, will not be efficacious or yield spiritual progress. These are matters of faith. Ultimately, Moroni’s counsel to read and ponder and then ask God in all sincerity of heart, with real intent, to confirm scriptural truths by the witness of the Spirit is the answer.”
Moroni’s counsel referred to above is found in Moroni chapter 10. In verse 4 he exhorts us to read, ponder, and pray in sincerity and faith about the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon. Then he says in verse 5 that “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth.” I have taken this challenge and I know The Book of Mormon to be true. I have received a witness from the Holy Ghost of this and also that Joseph Smith was an inspired seer and true prophet of God. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established by God through Joseph Smith and President Thomas S. Monson is his authoritative successor and possesses all the priesthood keys on the earth. Our missionaries bring this message and the accompanying blessings to the world, and we are blessed to be part of this great and marvelous work.
The quote from David Whitmer (An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.) is just a Whitmer’s speculation.
This is what he said: “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”
In that account he never said “I saw Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon” Why? Because he never saw him. Instead of that he will report “I will give a description…” Therefore, David Whitmer’s account is a second-hand report, he never knew by himself how the Book of Mormon was translated.
On the other hand, Joseph Smith himself reported that he “was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; and also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things” (See Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957, 1:220).
Now, it gets clear that if Joseph Smith never disclosed to anybody how he translated the Book of Mormon, then the reports we have from others is just pure speculation.
The fact the Elder Nelson has quoted David Whitmer’s statement in an official speech does not make the statement true but only shows that even though Elder Nelson is an Apostle, he is not a scholar in Church history.