Without a Scribe
When Martin Harris lost the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith had translated from the gold plates, the young prophet was heartbroken. Joseph worried that his opportunity to translate the precious book may have fled forever. Moroni took the plates and the Urim and Thummim from him, but he was promised that if he were humble and penitent, he would receive the precious objects again the following September.
Joseph said that he continued his supplications for forgiveness without ceasing, and on September 22, 1828, in Harmony Pennsylvania, Moroni returned the plates and Urim and Thummim to him. Still, the translation process did not immediately move forward with any speed.
Moroni had promised Joseph a scribe, and he had not yet come. Though Joseph occasionally used Emma and her brother Reuben Hale to write for him, secular duties kept interfering with the progress. In that day when food had to be grown and wood chopped and hauled for warmth, the duties of survival were a full-time activity. Emma “had so much of her time taken up with the care of her house, that she could write but little for him.”(1)
Joseph, too, had been so hurried with his secular affairs that he could not proceed with his spiritual concerns so fast as was necessary for the speedy completion of the work.”(2)
As he put it, “Now, my wife had written for me and also my brother, Samuel H. Smith, but we had become reduced in property and my wife’s father was about to turn me out of doors…I cried unto the Lord that he would provide for me to accomplish the work whereunto he had commanded me.”(3)
Oliver Cowdery in Palmyra
For some time, the Lord had been preparing the answer to that prayer. In January 1829, a man named Lyman Cowdery came to Palmyra and applied for a teaching position to Hyrum Smith, who was one of the principal trustees of the school. The trustees determined to hire him but, as Lyman had unexpected business arise, the next day he brought his brother Oliver, asking if he could have the job instead. This was agreed upon and Oliver came to board with the Smith family.
“He had not been in the place long,” said Lucy Smith, “until he began to hear about the plates from all quarters and immediately commenced importuning Mr. Smith upon the subject. He did not succeed in eliciting any information from him for a long time.” [The Smiths had learned from too many blows that this matter was best left undiscussed.] “At length however, he gained my husband’s confidence so far as to get a sketch of the facts which related to the plates.
“One day, Oliver came home from school in quite a lively manner. As soon as he had an opportunity of conversing with Mr. Smith, he told him that he (Oliver) had been in a deep study all day, and it had been put into his heart that he would have the privilege of writing for Joseph. And when the term of school which he was then teaching was closed, he would go and pay Joseph a visit.
“The next day was so very stormy as to render it almost impossible to travel the road between the schoolhouse and our place. The rain fell in torrents all evening, so I supposed that Oliver would certainly stop with some neighbor who lived nearer the schoolhouse than we did. But he was not to be deterred from coming by any common difficulty, for his mind was now fully set upon a subject which he could not converse upon anywhere else.
“When he came in, he said, ‘I have now resolved what I will do for the thing which I told you about yesterday seems working on my very bones, insomuch that I cannot for a moment get rid of it…I have made it a subject of prayer, and I firmly believe that if it is the will of the Lord that I should go, and that there is a work for me to do in this thing, I am determined to attend to it.”(4)
Oliver arrived at Joseph’s Harmony home near sunset on Sunday evening, April 5, and announced to Joseph, “Mr. Smith, I have come for the purpose of writing for you.”(5)
They sat down together and conversed, as Joseph told Oliver the entire story late into the night.
Business affairs had to be settled on Monday, but on Tuesday, April 7, Joseph and Oliver sat down in earnest to begin the translation. In Oliver, Joseph had a twenty-two-year-old, vigorous young man who could work long and tedious hours, and someone who had already consulted the Lord about the plates.
The next three months, April through July, 1829, would be some of the most significant in the Restoration, as translation progressed rapidly and priesthood and baptismal gifts were bestowed by heavenly messengers. It appears that it only took some 63 to 70 working days to complete the entire translation, a complex religious history covering 2,000 years and more than five hundred pages.
To demonstrate how astounding this is, Hugh Nibley once asked his Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University, “Since Joseph was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names – hundreds of them – pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 B.C.; be lavish with cultural and technical details – manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites and traditions; include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible setting; observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials. Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up – we have our little joke – but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as a fiction or romance, but as a true history!After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on a par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim – they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck!”(6)
Description by the Closest Witnesses
In 1834, Oliver Cowdery described the transcendent work he had started upon, “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.’(7)
When Joseph had dictated to Martin, they apparently hung a blanket between them lest Martin accidentally catch a glimpse of the plates. Emma had a different experience, “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.”(8)
This was also true for Oliver.
Emma gave this insight in an 1879 interview with her son, Joseph III:
Q. Had he [Joseph Smith] not a book of manuscript from which to read from?
A. He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.
Q. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
A. If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
Q. Are you sure that he had the plates at the time you were writing for him?
A. The plates often lay on the table, without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which had been 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.
Q. Where did Father and Oliver Cowdery write?
A. Oliver Cowdery and your father wrote in the room where I was at work.
Q. 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?
A. Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating 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 as to anyone else.
Q. I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them?
A. 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 [Lewis Bidamon, Emma’s second husband] here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates?
A. 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.
Q. Mother, what is your belief about the authenticity, or origin of the Book of Mormon?
A. 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 your scribe, your father would dictate to me 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. 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.”(9)
What was this translation process that demanded so much of the Prophet? Those who knew the most about how it was accomplished, Joseph and Oliver, said the least about it. Emma, Martin, and David Whitmer left sketchy accounts, but these were recorded much later in life, and have some contradictions. Still, with that caution, their observations are fascinating.
Referring to the time when the translation was completed at his Fayette, New York home, David Whitmer gave us a picture of discipline, hard work and spirituality that went into the process. He said that, “each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding.”(10)
A reporter of the Omaha Herald who interviewed David at length on the matter, said the stone would not work unless Joseph was cleansed of sin. “This rigorous exactment required him to be humble and spotless in his deportment in order that the work might progress. One occasion the Prophet had indulged in a … quarrel with his wife. Without pacifying her or making any reparation for his … treatment, he returned to the room in the Whitmer residence to resume the work with the plates. The surface of the magic stone remained blank, and all his persistent efforts to bring out the coveted words proved abortive. He went into the woods again to pray, and this time was gone fully an hour. His friends became positively concerned, and were about to institute a search, when Joseph entered the room, pale and haggard, having suffered a vigorous chastisement at the hands of the Lord. He went straight in humiliation to his wife, entreated and received her forgiveness, returned to his work, and much to the joy of himself and his anxious friends surrounding him, the stone again glared forth its letters of fire.”(11)
In another interview for the Bear Lake Democrat, a newspaper of Richmond, Missouri, David Whitmer focused on the translation method itself. “In regard to the translation it was laborious work, for the weather was very warm; and the days were long, but both Joseph and Oliver were young and strong and soon able to complete the work. The way it was done was thus: Joseph would place the Seer stone in a deep hat, and placing his face close to it would see, not the Seer stone, but what appeared like an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphic would appear, and the translation in the English language, all appearing in bright luminous letters. Joseph would then read it to Oliver, who would write it down as spoken. Sometimes Joseph could not pronounce the words correctly, and if any mistake was made in the copy, the luminous writing, would remain until it was corrected. It sometimes took Oliver several trials to get the right letters to spell correctly some of the more difficult words, and when he had written them correctly the characters and the interpretation would disappear, and be replaced by other characters; and their interpretation. When the Seer stone was not placed in the hat, nothing could be seen therein; but when placed there the hieroglyphics would appear; some represented but one word or name. Some represented several, and some from one to nearly two lines.”(12)
With his head in the hat, how could he see the plates? It is a question that demands a spiritual answer, for the plates were often wrapped in a napkin on the table before him.
When Joseph and Oliver would resume translating after a break, Joseph would not reread what they had written to see where they were or get the flow of the speech. He would merely read on without backtracking.
Some ideas were new to Joseph even as he translated them. Once when he was translating, the text referred to a wall around Jerusalem. He stopped and said to Emma that he had never known that Jerusalem had a wall. She assured him that it did.
Though they were plagued with hatred from many of their neighbors and rumors circulated about them, these were glorious months for Joseph and Oliver. The unfolding account of the Nephite civilization was fascinating to them and they grieved that “a people once beloved and favored of heaven” could have fallen so far.
Oliver said, “After writing the account given of the Savior’s ministery to the remnant of the seed of Jacob, upon this continent, it was easy to be seen, as the prophet said it would be, that darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the minds of the people. On religion, none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the Gospel.”(13)
That would soon change.
- Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith, p. 184.
- 1832 History
- Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith, pp. 181-182.
- Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,1989) pp. 220-21.
- Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1 (October 1834), pp. 14-16, also in a footnotes in Joseph Smith–History, p. 58.
- Saints’ Herald Journal, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma”, October 1, 1879.
- As quoted in Porter, “Origins,” p. 152. This statement is from Emma Smith to Joseph Smith III, February 4-10, 1879 and printed in The Saints’ Herald , (op. cit.)
- David Whitmer Interviews, A Restoration Witness, Lyndon W. Cook, ed. (Orem, Utah: Grandin Press, 1991) p.174
- Ibid. P . 199
- Ibid. 123-24
- Joseph Smith History p. 58