The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.

Chapter 8
The Translation of the Book of Mormon
James E. Lancaster

[p.97]Any consideration of the method of translation of the Book of Mormon must begin with the accounts of its translator, Joseph Smith, Jr. One of the earliest known references by Smith to the translation occurred on 25 October 1831 when a general conference of the new church met at Orange, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.1 At this meeting, several of the brethren affirmed the truth of the Book of Mormon. Smith’s older brother Hyrum “said that he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.” However, the prophet thought otherwise and “said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.”2

One week later at a special conference in Hiram, Portage County, Ohio, a revelation was received which was similarly reticent: “and after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jr., might have power to translate, through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon” (RLDS D&C l:5d; LDS D&C 1:29). Smith would follow this pattern throughout his life, never revealing details of his method of translation and always stressing the divine aspects of the process.

Smith’s earliest published testimony concerning the translation appears in the Elders’ Journal, July 1838: “Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was [p.98] translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which; I translated the plates and thus came the book of Mormon” (pp. 42-43).

Less than four years later, on 1 March 1842, in response to a letter from John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, Smith printed in the Times and Seasons a short history of the Mormon movement: “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called ‘Urim and Thummim,’ which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God” (p. 707).3 In the next edition of the Times and Seasons, Smith began the publication of his serialized autobiography, writing of the translation of the Book of Mormon in the 2 May issue: “By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania, and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters of the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father in the month of December, and the February following” (p. 772).

Smith also wrote about the translation in a letter dated 4 January 1833 to N. E. Seaton, another newspaper publisher. This letter was printed in the Times and Seasons on 15 November 1844, only five months after Smith’s death, and is probably his last published statement on the subject: “The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians, having been found through the ministration of an holy angel, and translated into our own language by the gift and power of God, after having been hid up in the earth for the last fourteen hundred years, containing the word of God which was delivered unto them” (p. 707).

Again, none of Smith’s statements give detailed information about the translation of the Book of Mormon. He consistently emphasized that it was “by the gift and power of God” that the record of the Nephites was made available to the world.

Smith’s wife, Emma Smith Bidamon, was interviewed late in her life by her son Joseph Smith III about her knowledge of the early [p.99] church. This interview took place in February 1879 in the presence of Lewis C. Bidamon, her husband. At one point Emma stated the following: “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… He had neither manuscript nor book to read from… If he had had anything of the kind, he could not have concealed it from me… 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… Oliver Cowdery and your father wrote in the room where I was at work.”4 According to his wife, Smith translated the Book of Mormon sitting with his face in a hat with a stone in the hat as well. He did not look at the plates which were nearby, wrapped in a small tablecloth.

Emma’s testimony is substantially corroborated by another witness to the translation, David Whitmer. In 1887 he published a booklet entitled An Address to All Believers in Christ, summarizing his beliefs about the Restoration and the role he played in the movement. “I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated,” he 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.”5

Helping to reconcile the statements of Emma Smith and David Whitmer that Smith used a seer stone with the traditional story that he used “interpreters” found with the plates is an additional account of Emma Smith Bidamon. Sometime in early 1870, Emma S. Pilgrim, the wife of the pastor of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri, wrote to Emma Bidamon, requesting information about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Emma replied in a letter written from Nauvoo, [p.100] Illinois, 27 March 1870: “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.”6

Emma’s testimony is supported by David Whitmer in an interview, which appeared in the Chicago Inter-Ocean on 17 October 1886: “The first 116 pages when completed were by permission of the prophet intrusted to the hands of Martin Harris, who carried them home to his incredulous relatives in triumph, hoping by the exhibition to convert his family and kinfolk from their uncompromising hostility to the religious premises he had adopted. Upon retiring at night he locked up the precious pages in a bureau drawer, along with his money and other valuables. In the morning he was shocked to find that they had been stolen, while his money had been left untouched. They were never found and were never replaced, so that the Book of Mormon is today minus just 116 pages of the original matter, which would increase the volume fully one-fourth of its present size. This unpardonable carelessness evoked the stormiest kind of chastisement from the Lord, who took from the prophet the Urim and Thummim and otherwise expressed his condemnation. By fervent prayer and by otherwise humbling himself, the prophet, however, again found favor, and was presented with a strange, oval-shaped, chocolate-colored stone, about the size of an egg, only more flat, which, it was promised, should serve the same purpose as the missing Urim and Thummim (the latter was a pair of transparent stones set in a bow-shaped frame and very much resembled a pair of spectacles). With this stone all of the present Book of Mormon was translated.”7 A similar account was printed in a later Whitmer interview.8

That there were two methods of translation appears early in anti-Mormon works. In a book by Eber D. Howe published in 1834, Mormonism Unvailed, is the following statement: “Now, whether the two methods for translation, one by a pair of stone spectacles ‘set in the rims of a bow,’ and the other by one stone, were provided against accident, we cannot determine—perhaps they were limited in their appropriate uses—at all events the plan meets our approbation. We are informed that Smith used a stone in a hat, for the purpose of translating the plates. The spectacles and plates were found together, but were taken from him and hid up again before he had [p.101] translated one word, and he has never seen them since—this is Smith’s own story.”9 Doctor Philastus Hurlburt collected information about the translation of the Book of Mormon from Smith’s Palmyra/Manchester, New York, neighbors in late 1833. This material was later used by Howe in his book. Thus at an early date both Smith’s friends and antagonists knew that two methods were involved in the translation process.

David Whitmer was interviewed many times in his later years by reporters seeking information about early Mormonism from one of its founders. The resulting accounts do not always agree in detail. While some discrepancies may be due to Whitmer’s age, others apparently resulted from a reporter’s misunderstanding or carelessness. On several occasions Whitmer issued corrections to statements he was purported to have made. However, there are two Whitmer statements which were not filtered through newspaper writers. The most important is his own booklet, An Address to All Believers in Christ. The other is a statement he made to a member of the RLDS church, J. L. Traughber, Jr., in October 1879 and printed in Saints’ Herald. In connection with Whitmer’s account to Traughber, it should be pointed out that Whitmer did not meet Smith until June 1829 and could not have been present when the Urim and Thummim or interpreters were used, since they had been taken away in June 1828.10 Whitmer nonetheless is aware of the earlier method of translation: “With the sanction of David Whitmer, and by his authority, I now state that he does not say that Joseph Smith ever translated in his presence by aid of Urim and Thummim; but by means of one dark colored, opaque stone, called a ‘Seer Stone,’ which was placed in the crown of a hat, into which Joseph put his face so as to exclude the external light. Then, a spiritual light would shine forth, and parchment would appear before Joseph, upon which was a line of characters from the plates, and under it, the translation in English; at least, so Joseph said.”11

One of the earliest published interviews with Whitmer appeared in the Chicago Times, 7 August 1875. Another article appeared on 18 December 1885 in the Chicago Tribune,12 and a corrected summary of this account appeared in the same paper on 27 January 1888 following Whitmer’s death.13 In 1881 Whitmer made a statement to the Kansas City Journal which appeared on 5 June: “I, as well as all of my father’s family, Smith’s wife, Oliver Cowdery, and [p.102] Martin Harris were present during the translation. The translation was by Smith, and the manner as follows: He had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates. He did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light.”14 In reading Whitmer’s various accounts, it should be remembered that he was not an eye witness to any method of translation other than that of the “seer stone.” His accounts of the Urim and Thummim are probably a result of conversations with Emma Smith or Martin Harris, who were Smith’s scribes at that earlier time.

The testimony of Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s principal scribe, is similar to the prophet’s own, for it gives little detailed information about the translation. There are two published statements of Cowdery discussing his work with Smith in translating the Book of Mormon.15 The earlier of the two reads: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history, or record, called ‘The Book of Mormon.'”16

“I wrote,” Cowdery said in the second testimonial, “with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, ‘holy interpreters.’ I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the ‘holy interpreters.’ That book is true… I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.”17 Cowdery, like Whitmer, could never have been present when the Nephite interpreters were used and, like Smith, makes the “seer stone” synonymous with the Urim and Thummim.

The remaining key witness, Martin Harris, provided only one reliable statement. It came during his later years when he resided in Utah: “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 [p.103] 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 engraved on the plates, precisely in the language then used. Martin said further that the seer stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembling spectacles, only were larger. Martin said there were not many pages translated while he wrote, after which Oliver Cowdery and others did the writing.”18 Harris also claimed that Smith used two methods of translation and clearly distinguished the Urim and Thummim which “was obtained with the plates” from the seer stone. Interestingly, he did not say why Smith used the seer stone. According to other witnesses, the stone’s use was due to Harris’s own indiscretion. Harris merely said that for “convenience” the prophet used the seer stone.

On 15 February 1870 Oliver Cowdery’s widow, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery Johnson, a daughter of David Whitmer, made a statement regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon. This was in the form of an affidavit made in Richmond, Missouri, for William E. McLellin. No copy of the original affidavit has been found, but McLellin copied it into a letter written in February 1870. The last line of the affidavit is conjectural: “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 [(dictate) to his scribe the words (he said) as they appeared before him.]”19

One other eyewitness to the translation of the Book of Mormon has left an account. Michael Morse who was married to Trial Hale, a sister of Emma Hale Smith, was present at the time of the translation. In an 1879 interview with W. W. Blair of the Reorganized church, Morse described the translation process: “He further states that when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon, he [p.104] [Morse] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted of Joseph’s placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating, word after word, while the scribe—Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other, wrote it down.”20

Isaac Hale, Emma’s father, provided additional information about the translation. His testimony first appeared in 1834, when Hale was antagonistic toward Smith and Mormonism. He stated, “The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods!”21 Alva Hale, one of Hale’s sons, also made a statement at the same time which is similar to his father’s.

William Smith, younger brother of the prophet, has also been quoted about the translation method. But since he was not in Harmony, Pennsylvania, when the translation took place, we cannot be certain he was an eyewitness. In 1883 William published a small book of his experiences in the church, writing, “The manner in which this [the translation] was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying nearby covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God.”22 In a sermon preached in Deloit, Iowa, 8 June 1884, William said, “When Joseph received the plates he also received the Urim and Thummim, which he would place in a hat to exclude all light, and with the plates by his side he translated the characters, which were cut into the plates with some sharp instrument, into English. And thus, letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, the whole book was translated.”23

In July 1891 William was interviewed by J. W. Peterson and W. S. Pender of the Reorganized church. This interview was not published until 1924, thirty years after William’s death: “The Urim and Thummim were set in a double silver bow which was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of the bow. At one end was attached a rod which was connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breastplate. By pressing the head a little forward, the rod held [p.105] the Urim and Thummim before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the Urim and Thummim was placed in the pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could, however, be detached from the breastplate, and his brother said that Joseph often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications, and usually so when translating, as it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates. In answer to our query, William informed us that he had, himself, by Joseph’s direction, put the Urim and Thummim before his eyes, but could see nothing, as he did not have the gift of Seer. He also informed us that the instruments were too wide for his eyes, as also for Joseph’s, and must have been used by much larger men. The instrument caused a strain on Joseph’s eyes, and he sometimes resorted to the plan of covering his eyes with a hat to exclude the light in part.”24

In the first method described by William a rod affixed to the Urim and Thummim was inserted into a breastplate. The second method, according to William, was for Smith to cover his eyes with a hat. William further reports that the first method was “usually” employed when translating and the second method was “sometimes” used to avoid eye strain. This seems inconsistent with William’s earlier statements which mention only the second, supposedly less frequently used, method.

An examination of the foregoing eyewitness testimonies produces the following consensus on the method of translation of the Book of Mormon: (1) Nephite interpreters often called “Urim and Thummim” were found with the plates on Hill Cumorah; (2) these interpreters were used first in the translation of the plates; (3) the portion translated by use of the interpreters25 was copied into 116 pages of foolscap and was later lost by Martin Harris; (4) because of the loss of the first 116 pages of translation, the interpreters were permanently taken away; (5) the Book of Mormon that we have today was translated by use of the seer stone; (6) Smith translated by placing the seer stone in a hat and covering his face with his hat to darken his eyes; (7) the plates were not used in the translating process and often were not even in sight during the translation; (8) other persons were sometimes in the [p.106] room while Smith dictated to a scribe; and (9) all witnesses agree to these facts.

The earliest newspaper accounts do not differ significantly from this scenario. In August 1829 a newspaper in Palmyra, New York, the Palmyra Freeman, printed the earliest known reference to the Book of Mormon. Although the original issue of the Freeman has been lost, the article was republished by the Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph on 31 August. This latter newspaper is still available in the Reynolds Library in Rochester, New York. The article is noteworthy because it attempts to explain the method of translation of the Book of Mormon prior to its publication: “The Palmyra Freeman says—The greatest piece of superstition that has come within our knowledge now occupies the attention of a few individuals of this quarter. It is generally known and spoken of as the ‘Golden Bible.’ Its proselytes give the following account of it. In the fall of 1827, a person by the name of Joseph Smith, of Manchester, Ontario Co., reported that he had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Almighty and informed that in a certain hill in that town was deposited this golden Bible, containing an ancient record of a divine nature and origin. After having been thrice visited, as he states, he proceeded to the spot, and after penetrating ‘mother earth’ a short distance the Bible was found, together with a huge pair of spectacles. He had been directed, however, not to let any mortal examine them, ‘under no less penalty than instant death.’ They were therefore nicely wrapped up and excluded from the ‘vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals.’ It was said that the leaves of the Bible were plates of gold, about eight inches thick on which were engraved characters of hyroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so at least) interpret these characters.” Another extant article was printed in the Rochester Gem on 5 September 1829. Both early newspaper accounts conform to the statements witnesses later made regarding the method of translation.

Witnesses thus filled in important details about the physical media used in the translation. They also provided additional details about the quality of the translation which Smith himself had always stressed, that the translation was revelation or inspiration from God. In a statement to William H. Kelley and G. A. Blakeslee, dated 15 September 1882, David Whitmer focused on the inspirational nature of the translation of the Book of Mormon: “He had to trust God. [p.107] He could not translate unless he was humble and possessed the right feelings toward everyone. To illustrate so you can see: One morning when he was getting ready to continue the translation, something went wrong about the house and he was put out about it. Something that Emma, his wife, had done. Oliver and I went upstairs and Joseph came up soon after to continue the translation but he could not translate a single syllable. He went downstairs, out into the orchard, and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour—came back to the house, and asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came upstairs where we were and then the translation went on all right. He could do nothing save he was humble and faithful.”26

Soon after Cowdery became scribe for Smith, he began to want to translate the records. Cowdery was promised this power and given an explanation of it in a revelation through Smith in April 1829: “you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which have been spoken, by the manifestation of my Spirit; yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you, and which shall dwell in your heart… Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate all those ancient records which have been hid up, which are sacred, and according to your faith shall it be done unto you.”27 Cowdery tried to translate, but because of misunderstanding was unsuccessful. In answer to Cowdery’s problem Smith received another revelation a few days later: “Behold, you have not understood, you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought, save it was to ask me; but, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right; but if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought, that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you can not write that which is sacred save it be given you from me. Now if you had known this, you could have translated: nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.”28

In some of the testimonies, witnesses stated that Smith saw, or said he saw, English words appear to him in the translation process. But regardless of this, from the statement of David Whitmer and the revelations to Cowdery, we understand that Joseph Smith [p.108] himself did not regard the process of translation as mechanical. The power to translate resided not in a material device but involved the mind and heart of the translator. The inspiration Smith received involved general concepts rather than literal information. Smith had to express in his own words and phrases the concepts which passed through his mind. Supporting this view is the fact that Smith did not hesitate to change the wording of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. In preparing the 1837 edition, he changed words, added and deleted phrases so that the language would more adequately express his inspiration. Of the more than three thousand changes made most are grammatical and stylistic, but a significant number involve doctrinal or theological revision.29

That the use of the seer stone involved a process of inspiration is also borne out by the manner in which the early revelations were given. During the time that the Book of Mormon was being translated, Smith received revelations through what he later called the Urim and Thummim. In this period “Urim and Thummim” refer to the seer stone. Revelations given up to June 1829 and later recorded in the Book of Commandments were received through the seer stone. When these revelations were republished in 1835 in the Doctrine and Covenants, Smith authorized numerous changes in both wording and content.

By the time of the organization of the church in April 1830, Smith’s concept of inspiration had progressed to the point that he was able to dispense with the use of any material instrument for receiving revelation. David Whitmer recorded that “after the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more. He said he was through the work that God had given him the gift to perform, except to preach the gospel. He told us that we would all have to depend on the Holy Ghost hereafter to be guided into truth and obtain the will of the Lord. The revelations after this came through Joseph as ‘mouthpiece;’ that is, he would enquire of the Lord, pray and ask concerning a matter, and speak out the revelation, which he thought to be a revelation from the Lord.”30 Smith felt he had grown beyond the use of the earlier media of translation. He established the policy that the new church would depend solely on the Holy Spirit for revelations.

Many Saints at first did not understand what Smith regarded as a more profound principle of revelation. We have noted Cowdery’s difficulties in this area, and David Whitmer was to make a statement near the end of his life that all the revelations given by the prophet after he had discarded the seer stone were not of God but were words of man.31 Possibly as a result of such ideas, a revelation was given to the church on 6 April 1830 explaining: “Thou shalt give heed unto all his [Smith’s] words, and commandments, which he shall give unto you, as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith… they shall believe on his words, which are given him through me, by the Comforter.”32

Yet some members of the church continued to cling to a belief in more mechanical methods of revelation. Hiram Page, who had married David Whitmer’s sister, possessed a stone, apparently the seer stone obtained from Oliver Cowdery,33 with which he claimed to receive revelation. The Whitmer family, which by marriage included Page and later Cowdery, believed many of the statements coming forth from the stone. Accordingly, at a conference of the church convened 26 September 1830, a revelation was given to Cowdery through Smith. It emphasized again the role of the Comforter: “It shall be given unto thee that thou shalt be heard by the church, in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter, concerning the revelations and commandments which I have given. But, behold, verily, verily I say unto you, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church, excepting my servant Joseph, for he receiveth them even as Moses… And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it… And again, thou shalt take thy brother Hiram between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him; For, behold, these things have not been appointed unto him.”34 The church was plunged into dissension again on this point in 1837.35 Ultimately many of the early believers were expelled from the church.

These events help us understand Joseph Smith’s reluctance to discuss the details of the translation of the Book of Mormon. By 1838, when he began dictating his autobiography, he chose not to [p.110] describe translation in a way which would emphasize a mechanical view of revelation. Instead, when pressed about the method of translation, he would carefully state that it was done by “the gift and power of God.” Beyond this he would never elaborate.

In keeping with this decision, Smith used the term “Urim and Thummim” to cover all instruments used to determine the will of God. It appears that the identification of the Nephite interpreters with the biblical Urim and Thummim was made only gradually.36 The words “Urim and Thummim” are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Commandments, or early newspaper accounts, and first appear, in reference to the Book of Mormon, in the Evening and the Morning Star and the Messenger and Advocate in 1833 and 1834.37 By 1835 the term “Urim and Thummim” had been incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants.38 Thereafter, in discussing his history Smith euphemistically used “Urim and Thummim” to include both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone.

Today when reading the testimony of the witnesses to the translation of the Book of Mormon, it is easy to forget what Joseph Smith emphasized about the “gift and power of God.” The witnesses had no such difficulty, however. Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris were unwavering in their belief in the divine origin of the book. Emma not only described the method of translation of the Book of Mormon but reaffirmed her faith in it: “I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired.”39 Cowdery’s last words as he lay dying in Whitmer’s home were reportedly: “Brother David, be true to your testimony to the Book of Mormon.”40 And Whitmer, who all through his life testified to the authenticity of the book, requested before his death that there be engraved on his tombstone: “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one, truth is eternal.”

James E. Lancaster is a mathematician with the Chrysler Corporation. “The Translation of the Book of Mormon” first appeared in the Saints’ Herald, 15 Nov. 1962, as “By the Gift and Power of God,” and later in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983): 51-61 as “The Method of Translation of the Book of Mormon.”


1. Times and Seasons, 1 April 1844, 482.

2. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 23; also in Joseph Smith, Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1932-51), 1:219n; hereafter HC.

[p.111]3. See also I. Daniel Rupp, comp., He Pasa Ekklesia: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at the Present Existing in the United States (Philadelphia, 1844), 405, 406. Smith earlier used the term “gift and power of God” in his preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, applying it, however, to his translation of the lost 116 pages (the book of Lehi).

4. Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, 289, 290; also in History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1952), 356.

5. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 13.

6. Original in the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri (P4 f20). For the circumstances surrounding this letter, see The Return, 15 July 1895), 4:2.

7. Reprinted in Saints’ Herald, 13 Nov. 1886, 706, 707.

8. Richmond Democrat, 26 Jan. 1886, from Plattsburg Democrat; reprinted in Saints’ Herald, 11 Feb. 1888, 94, 95.

9. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 77.

10. Times and Seasons, 15 Aug. 1842, 884; 16 May 1842, 785.

11. Saints’ Herald, 15 Nov. 1879, 341.

12. Reprinted in Saints’ Herald, 2 Jan. 1886, 12, 13.

13. Reprinted in Saints’ Herald, 4 Feb. 1888, 67.

14. In Saints’ Herald 1 July 1888, 198.

15. A third statement has been attributed to Cowdery. It appears in Defence in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints (Norton, OH, 1839). However, convincing evidence has been presented indicating that this document is probably a forgery. See Salt Lake City Messenger, Oct. 1989, 5-15.

16. Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 14; from a letter by Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, 7 Sept. 1834.

17. Deseret News, 13 April 1859.

18. Latter-day Saints ‘Millennial Star, 6 Feb. 1882, 86, 87.

19. From a transcription provided by Robert F. Smith. See his essay “Translation of Languages” in RLDS archives.

20. Saints’ Herald, 15 June 1879, 190, 191.

21. Howe, 265. See also Susquehanna Register, 1 May 1834.

22. William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, IA, 1883), 10-12.

23. Saints’ Herald, 4 Oct. 1884, 644.

24. Rod of Iron 1 (Feb. 1924): 6.

25. Various sources mention a screen or curtain used in the translation. These all can be traced back to Martin Harris, and it can be thus assumed that when the Nephite interpreters were used, Smith, the plates, [p.112]and the interpreters were hidden from the scribe. See my “A Note Regarding the Translation of the Lost 116 Pages of the Book of Mormon,” 25 May 1965, in RLDS archives.

26. Clark Braden and E. L. Kelley, Public Discussion of the Issues Between the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church of Christ, Disciples, Held in Kirtland Ohio (St. Louis, 1884), 186.

27. Book of Commandments (1833), 19, 20. Later revised and reprinted in 1835 as D&C 34. See RLDS D&C 8:1b-1c, 3f; LDS D&C 8:1-2, 11.

28. Book of Commandments, 10, 21. See RLDS D&C 9:3a-4a; LDS D&C 9:7-10.

29. See Richard P. Howard, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development (Independence, MO, 1969), 41-49. Stan Larson, “Conjectural Emendations and the Text of the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Summer 1978): 563-69.

30. Whitmer, 32.

31. Ibid.

32. Book of Commandments, 10; RLDS D&C 19:2a-2b, 3a; LDS D&C 21:4-5, 9.

33. After Oliver Cowdery’s death, the seer stone was given by his wife, Elizabeth, to Phineas Young, who took it to Utah. See Whitmer, 32. It was exhibited by LDS leaders in Utah and viewed by many. As late as 1930 it was still in the archives of the LDS church. See B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City,: Deseret Book, 1930), 6:230-31.

34. Book of Commandments; RLDS D&C 27:1-2a, 2c, 4b; LDS D&C 28:1-2, 4, 11-12.

35. Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, 1853), 211-13.

36. Smith obviously did not use the type of instrument referred to in the Old Testament as Urim and Thummim, which biblical scholars conclude, was a device for casting lots to determine the will of God.

37. Evening and the Morning Star, Jan. 1833, 2; Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 14. The terms “Urim and Thummim” themselves, without specific reference to the translation of the Book of Mormon, first appear in Evening and the Morning Star, July 1832, 6.

38. Compare RLDS D&C 3:1a (LDS D&C 10:1) with Book of Commandments, chap. 9.

39. Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, 289, 290.

40. Whitmer, 8.