“Gold Plates and Printer’s Ink,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 71
Although most Church members are familiar with the basic events surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—the First Vision, the delivery of the gold plates, the translation, the 1830 publishing date, etc.—few know the story in all the detail that is now available, since hundreds of interesting new facts have come to light only in the last decade. Recently discovered accounts by Joseph Smith and those close to him have filled in gaps in what could formerly only be told as a partial story.
In 1831 Joseph Smith said that “it was not expedient” then to “tell the world all the particulars” about the Book of Mormon.1 However, he later made his history a priority project, compiling nearly a hundred pages of narrative and documents on the Book of Mormon years. Had there been no Liberty Jail, this record would have appeared earlier than 1842, when the Nauvoo Times and Seasons began serializing it as the detailed “History of Joseph Smith.” Informed Latter-day Saints have read this account, or the condensed form in the Pearl of Great Price.2 But, in fact, Joseph Smith reviewed his visions many times, adding details to the official history. Here we will principally use his early 1832 narrative, some of which is in the Prophet’s own handwriting, and also his secretary’s notes of a private summary in 1835—each of these manuscripts hereinafter identified by date of writing.3 And just as Joseph Smith’s recollections can be multiplied, his mother’s printed history is supplemented by an early manuscript compiled from talks with her, often adding detail.4
Nor does knowledge of Joseph Smith’s pre-1830 years stop here, for some direct comment is now available from most of the participants, including Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith’s family, the patron Knight family, and skeptical printers paid to set the type. Thus the story can now be richly retold of how the ancient American record came to light. In it one sees how founding the church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation was a profoundly moving religious experience to its first believers.
What kind of person sought the Lord in the powerful prayers of 1820 and 1823? Both of Joseph Smith’s parents agree. The father had known his son’s private growth intimately and in his patriarchal blessing looked back on early years oriented to God: “Thou has sought to know his ways and from thy childhood thou hast meditated much upon the great things of his law.”5 This is but one important source suggesting that Joseph’s investigation extended several years before the First Vision.
As the Prophet related it, the Book of Mormon story typically started with his earliest searches for God. From an 1830 revelation we learn that it was early “manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins,” after which he lapsed again into “the vanities of the world.” (D&C 20:5.) All of this was before the angel announced the ancient record. Joseph Smith’s 1832 notes on the First Vision gave personal details unmentioned in public accounts, stressing that the Savior had appeared and assured him of forgiveness of sins, followed by Joseph’s falling “into transgression … in many things, which brought a wound upon my soul.”
This keen religious conscience also shows through in the Prophet’s published history and was the occasion for the 1823 prayer that brought the revelation of the Book of Mormon. In the 1835 account, Joseph Smith succinctly told of his reflections on that night:
“I had not been asleep, but was meditating upon my past life and experience. I was well aware I had not kept the commandments, and I repented heartily for all my sins and transgressions, and humbled myself before him, whose eye surveys all things at a glance.”
In the midst of this profound humility and awe of almighty God, a blinding light broke upon his view—“lighter than at noonday,” the official record reports (JS—H 1:30), or as Joseph had said in 1835, “above the brightness of the sun.” The young man was overwhelmed with the powerful personage (the angel Moroni) who appeared in such glory, “clothed with purity inexpressible.” The message first reassured him, then answered his prayer—his sins were forgiven, though on the firm condition of realized repentance: “Be faithful, and keep his commandments in all things.” (1835.)
Now came a new assignment for the young Prophet. Central details of the revelation of the Book of Mormon interlock in all of his major accounts. In 1832 he said of the angel: “And he revealed unto me that … there was engraving which was engraved by Moroni and his father, the servant of the living God in ancient days, and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof—and that I should go and get them.”
In all other summaries the angel next explained just how the translation of the ancient Book of Mormon record could be accomplished. The translating instrument, the sacred stones known as the Urim and Thummim, did not function automatically, for Joseph Smith’s 1835 narration emphasized personal spirituality as basic: “God would give me power to translate it with the assistance of this instrument.”
After this vision closed, the next event was a repetition of the first. In fact, every narration of the Prophet mentions three appearances of the angel that night of September 22, 1823, in which identical instructions were reinforced with little variance.
Weakened from the visions of the night, this seventeen-year-old manfully struggled to keep pace in his field work the next morning, only to be sent to the house as sick. But on the way the angel again appeared, and repeated his message with the command that Joseph report the vision and commandments to his father. Though highly independent religiously, the senior Joseph was at once touched within and wept as he acknowledged his son’s “vision from God” (1835), permitting him to leave his work and go to the hill for the record.
But obtaining the ancient plates would not be as simple as it sounded. Young Joseph had seen the location in his visions, but his education as a representative of God was only beginning.
He tried to get the Plates on that first visit to the Hill Cumorah. “I made an attempt to take them out, but was forbidden by the messenger,” says the official account. (JS—H 1:53.) This was all that the Prophet cared to say publicly then, but privately in 1835 he described further experiences at the hill:
“The powers of darkness strove hard against me. I called on God. The angel told me that the reason why I could not obtain the plates at this time, was because I was under transgression, but to come again in one year from that time.”
This terse summary suggests the general accuracy of the secondary stories of both Lucy Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who detail a vision of good and evil and relate this to the youth’s inability to follow instructions strictly and suppress human selfishness.
No wonder that the goal was four years distant. By then Joseph Smith had matured greatly toward the call given him by vision. By then he had learned obedience and accountability in annual interviews with the angel at the hill.
The Prophet’s Wentworth Letter (published in 1842) suggests other manifestations before he got the plates in 1827, indicating that he “received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty, and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days.”6 Joseph Smith’s official account specified that the angel taught him “in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.” Family members close to Joseph Smith saw this in the dimension of character development, for Lucy Smith understood that the angel would give him the plates when “he had learned to keep the commandments of God—not only till he was willing, but able, to do it.” Being God’s servant is not only a calling, but also an ability acquired through strict experience.
Joseph Smith continued to farm and hire out as a laborer until the fall of 1827, when he received the plates. Being a husband was part of his stability then, for he had married Emma Hale the previous January. Emma rode with Joseph from his father’s home in September to get the ancient record. Presumably leaving her in Joseph Knight’s carriage while proceeding to the top of the hill alone, he received the metal plates and the strict charge that “I should be responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off.” (JS—H 1:59.)
Joseph Smith’s entire family shared some burden in the safekeeping of the plates. Neighborhood persecution of Joseph was also their persecution. Yet they looked back on these years with the deep satisfaction of having served the Lord. They were aware that the sacred objects were in the house. Joseph Smith allowed his mother to handle the Urim and Thummim through a silk handkerchief.7 His brother William and others lifted the plates enclosed in a pillowcase.8 Emma on occasion moved them in dusting and felt their thin, pliable leaves through a cloth cover.9 But more than physical signs, there was spiritual power. Telling a Kirtland neighbor of hurriedly hiding the plates in various places when endangered, Lucy Smith’s eyes brimmed with tears as she recalled “the peace of God that rested upon us all that time.”10
Yet serious work could not be done with constant fear of interruption; so Emma’s brother helped move the couple from the Smith farm at Manchester, New York, to the Hale household some 130 miles southwest at Harmony, Pennsylvania. The plates went along, secured in an inner box secreted within a quantity of beans in “a strong cask made for the purpose”—phraseology from Lucy Smith’s manuscript that rings true because her husband was a cooper trained to make barrels. In 1832 the Prophet wrote that the move was made in December 1827.
In early 1828 the first scribe came to write for Joseph Smith—Martin Harris, the wealthy Palmyra farmer who had followed the Prophet’s revelations with careful interest. Before committing himself to assist the younger Joseph Smith, his final act of investigation was to take a transcript of characters from the plates to New York linguists for evaluation. Returning convinced, he gave his services in writing for the translation from mid-April to mid-June of 1828. Even viewing Joseph skeptically at times, he at last satisfied himself that Joseph Smith was translating by inspiration.
The new record was its own proof of authenticity, so Martin wished to share the finished 116 pages, feeling that his wife and immediate relatives would be impressed with the translation. Joseph Smith agonized over the pressure of saying no to the man who had already given much and moreover had the assets to print the book. He knew through prayer that he should not grant Martin Harris the favor, but finally loaned the manuscript with the strict condition that only specified people should see the manuscript. But Martin’s carelessness provided the chance for someone to steal the precious translation, making Joseph the guarantor of their loss.
Nothing explains the Prophet’s mistake more vividly than the revelation given the next month after the loss: “You should not have feared man more than God.” (D&C 3:7.) This revelation solidly links with the angel’s instructions at the hill: “Behold, you have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments.” (D&C 3:5.)
Sadly, this terrible lesson came to Joseph Smith in the time of his grief over losing his first child and nearly losing his beloved Emma. The ancient record and interpreters were temporarily taken from him.
Afterward translation lagged, since he now lived on his own acreage, where both he and Emma faced the practical chores of daily living. Nevertheless, when the Prophet’s parents visited him in Pennsylvania that winter, Lucy Smith saw that her son was at peace. In spite of small progress at translating with his wife writing, he knew that the Lord would soon send another scribe.
Events moved to this result as the senior Smiths returned to their western New York home. Their son Hyrum was a school trustee and had negotiated first with Lyman Cowdery and then with his brother Oliver Cowdery to take over a district school. Then twenty-two (a year younger than Joseph Smith), Oliver Cowdery was trusted on the reputation of his energetic brother. Lucy Smith’s manuscript then indicates, “Oliver requested my husband to take him as a boarder at least for a little while, until he should become acquainted with his patrons in the school.”
But the most intriguing information for the new schoolmaster was the continual rumor about Joseph Smith, absent in Pennsylvania translating the “Gold Bible.” Not sharing information until he began to trust Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, Sr., eventually told what had caused all the gossip. Oliver was passionately interested in the new work. Lucy’s manuscript pictures winter rain that “fell in torrents all the evening,” with the country road between the Smiths and the schoolhouse “almost impossible to travel.” But Oliver Cowdery returned to his boarding location night after night to talk of the Book of Mormon translation, finally impelled with desire to assist Joseph Smith just as soon as school ended in March.
By spring, the roads were firm with frost early and late, but muddy sludge at midday. Nevertheless, deep conviction sustained Oliver Cowdery and Samuel Smith through the 130 miles to meet Joseph. Lucy’s manuscript says that “Oliver froze one of his toes and suffered much on the road from fatigue, as well as Samuel.”
Arriving near the beginning of April, Oliver Cowdery went to work writing for Joseph Smith a couple of days afterward. He later recalled: “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.”11
But Joseph and Emma’s shelves were too empty for sustained translation, Joseph Knight, Sr., who lived twenty miles up the Susquehanna Valley, remembered Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery coming to his place for provisions, after which he brought them “a barrel of mackerel and some lined paper for writing.” Later he made a follow-up visit with supplies to find them gone “to see if they could find a place to work for provisions.”12 Thanks to the generosity of the Knights, translation continued without interruption. Yet as the work moved to completion, fear of persecution increased until finally the Prophet directed Oliver Cowdery to write to his acquaintance David Whitmer and appeal for a secure place. Impressed by divine manifestations, Peter Whitmer, Sr., extended his hospitality, sending his twenty-two-year-old son, David, with a wagon and team to bring Oliver and Joseph to their home in rural Fayette, New York, some thirty miles southeast of the Manchester home of the senior Smiths.
The date of the move is obvious to one leafing through the early revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants, observing that they were dictated by the Prophet in Harmony, Pennsylvania, through May 1829, and in Fayette, New York, during June. Recollections of Joseph Smith and David Whitmer gave June 1 as the date for the move. The translation was far along by then, for district court records indicate that Joseph Smith filed for copyright on June 11, and the title page appeared in newspapers after that.
Those who watched the final translation process in Fayette were deeply impressed, but the most spectacular event that month was the appearance of the angel to the Book of Mormon witnesses.
At Harmony the Book of Mormon had taught its translators of the need for priesthood authority for baptism. In answer to their prayers, John the Baptist first came with the Aaronic Priesthood, followed afterward by Peter, James, and John with the Melchizedek Priesthood. At Fayette three men who had been more active than anyone else in the Book of Mormon translation (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris) read the manuscript’s promise of witnesses (see 2 Ne. 27:12–14, Ether 5:2–4) and requested this great privilege. Joseph Smith then received a revelation promising only what God could fulfill: if they would rely on God’s word “with full purpose of heart,” they would have a “view of the plates,” the Urim and Thummim, and the other sacred objects sealed up with them. (See D&C 17:1.) The fulfillment is a story in itself as the angel appeared in open vision at midday. Over fifty years later meticulous George Q. Cannon reported the response of David Whitmer: “Human language could not, he said, describe heavenly things and that which they saw.”13 Their experience made them not only witnesses of the plates, but of the basic accuracy of the translation; for as Martin Harris typically said later, “I know that the plates have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice declared it unto us.”14
After 150 years, technology still finds it a challenge to typeset and print a 500-page book. Requiring a heavy investment in paper and labor, the publication of the Book of Mormon simply could not have been accomplished without the financial support resulting from the strong convictions of Martin Harris. Palmyra printer Pomeroy Tucker is a fair source for information relative to the printing negotiations, as well as to the ignorance and prejudices of the community. He worked with E. B. Grandin in the Wayne Sentinel office and was present “at the repeated consultations and negotiations” of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris with Grandin regarding “the printing of the book.” Tucker more than once teamed with Grandin in “friendly admonitions” to Martin Harris not to risk his money on printing the “Golden Bible.”15
Tucker gave June 1829 as the time of initial negotiations and indicated that “a few sheets of the manuscript … with the title page” were submitted in order to obtain an estimate of cost.16 When Palmyra businessmen were reluctant, bids were sought in nearby Rochester, where similar materials were shown.
In fact, the earliest imitation of Book of Mormon style apparently resulted from Rochester printers’ knowledge of the sample extracts, parodied in the satirical newspaper Paul Pry. Not yet noticed by Mormon scholars, the heavy-handed humor of that sheet presented its “Chronicles” headed “from the Golden Bible.” These clumsy imitations of Book of Mormon stories ended with the threat that the wicked would “be delivered over to the folly of Smith, and with his exhortations be tormented day and night forever.” Paul Pry’s installments ran between July 25 and August 29, 1829, indicating widespread knowledge of the forthcoming printing before the final contract was made with E. B. Grandin.
Tucker says that Grandin was finally persuaded that Martin Harris would print the book elsewhere, but that a Palmyra printing was advantageous to all parties. Martin Harris’s mortgage to printer Grandin marks the final bargain, August 25, 1829, reciting a $3,000 obligation and pledging Martin Harris’s farm as security for the debt.
That fall and winter, Joseph Smith delegated supervision of the printing to Oliver Cowdery and returned to his Pennsylvania home to be with Emma and care for his practical concerns. But the Prophet did not leave without the strict precaution, his mother reported, of having a second manuscript produced for the printing, requiring the first at the Smith home for security. The printers complained at not having the whole manuscript but adjusted to reality.
A remarkable exchange from this period gives candid glimpses of happenings and feelings. The first is Joseph Smith’s letter to Oliver Cowdery, dated October 22, 1829. The Prophet had just arrived at Harmony, Pennsylvania, and found both prejudice and anticipation: “There begins to be a great call for our books in this country. The minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copyright obtained and there is really [a] book about to be printed.” Joseph Smith closed his letter with a testimony of his faith in Christ.
Oliver responded to the Prophet and reported the progress of their daily work. On November 6, 1829, he wrote that “the printing goes rather slow yet” because new type had not yet been delivered to Grandin, who still thought he would “finish printing by the first of February.” Oliver Cowdery added that he had rewritten over half of the printer’s copy: “I have just got to Alma’s commandment to his son in copying the manuscript.”
Responsive to the closing tone of the Prophet’s letter to him, Oliver Cowdery poured out his love for the Savior: “My dear brother, when I think of the goodness of Christ, I feel no desire to live or stay here … only to serve my maker and be if possible an instrument in his hands of doing some good in his cause with his grace to assist me.” Clearly those who prepared the manuscript of the “New Witness for Christ” were drawn closer to the Savior.
The winter’s printing was filled with drama. The flavor of hand-setting type and striking off multiple pages on the large sheets, hand-pressed one at a time, is found in the many interviews and letters of the chief compositor, John H. Gilbert, who lived out his life in Palmyra to a good old age.
But the first published chapters of the Book of Mormon appeared in the Palmyra Reflector, another satire sheet half devoted to popular explanations of science and religion. Lucy remembered that Hyrum Smith and Oliver Cowdery felt uneasy one Sunday afternoon and went into town to the printing office. They found Squire Cole issuing another extract of the Book of Mormon from the pressroom that was idle over the weekend. Lucy’s manuscript oozes distaste at Cole’s printing “the most disgusting and insignificant stuff that could be conceived of in juxtaposition with the form of the Book of Mormon which he had pilfered.”
Cole defied the Prophet’s agents, so Joseph Smith’s father set out for Pennsylvania to bring back his son. When the Prophet arrived he demanded that Cole stop his literary piracy, and the belligerent promoter first exploded but then agreed to negotiate. Surviving issues of the Palmyra Reflector show that the last borrowed installment appeared on January 22, 1830, which gives a general date for the Prophet’s trip. That issue plagiarized Alma 43, which shows that the printing was approximately 60 percent completed by mid-January.
Both the curious and the serious visited Grandin’s shop while the Book of Mormon was in press. An example of the latter is Thomas B. Marsh, a twenty-nine-year-old skilled laborer from Boston who had separated himself from all churches and felt impressed to make a trip west. On his return he heard of “the Golden Book” and was told that Martin Harris of Palmyra could tell him more. He “found Martin Harris at the printing office, in Palmyra, where the first sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon had just been struck off.”17 Taking a proof sheet with him, he was converted after talking with Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph Smith’s family and corresponding further with them. The Oliver Cowdery letter of November 6, 1829, reported Thomas Marsh’s writing from Boston: “He says he has talked considerable to some respecting our work with freedom but [with] others could not because they had no ears.” Thus the Book of Mormon began its long record of making converts before the printer’s ink was dry on its first sheets.
Grandin lagged a month behind his schedule but published the first notice of availability of the Book of Mormon in his Wayne Sentinel on March 26, 1830. On that date the period of preservation was transformed into the era of dissemination.
Special witnesses had read promises in manuscript and fulfilled the conditions to become witnesses of the plates. But Moroni’s closing chapter urges all readers to become witnesses of the book. Its discovery, translation, and publication are unrivaled in the history of literature. The story is a powerful invitation to read and reread the fruit of these years—the Book of Mormon.