Church History
Book of Mormon Translation

“Book of Mormon Translation,” Church History Topics

“Book of Mormon Translation”

Book of Mormon Translation

Joseph Smith translated an ancient text “by the gift and power of God” to produce the Book of Mormon. His early work on the translation, with Emma Smith and Martin Harris serving as the main scribes, was lost in 1828. Almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June 1829 with Oliver Cowdery as the scribe. Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.

photograph from film reenactment, Joseph and Oliver seated facing each other at table, Oliver writing

Joseph Smith translates the Book of Mormon, dictating the text to his scribe Oliver Cowdery.

The manuscript Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives. This manuscript corroborates Joseph’s statements that he dictated the text from another language within a short time frame. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript. In addition, some grammatical constructions more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting the base language of the translation was not English.1

Joseph and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates. The other instrument, which Joseph discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As he grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.2

Scribes and others who observed the translation left accounts giving insight into the process. Some accounts indicate Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the interpreters or the seer stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and spoke aloud the English words inspired by the instrument. The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”3

The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma believed the text of the Book of Mormon surpassed her husband’s writing abilities. Oliver Cowdery testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.”4

Questions raised during the translation process led to many of the earliest revelations now recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants and to significant events like the restoration of the priesthood. The translation and publication of the Book of Mormon immediately preceded the organization of the Church in the spring of 1830.

Related Topics: Seer Stones, Printing and Publishing the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris’s Consultations with Scholars, Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Book of Abraham Translation, Joseph Smith Jr., Witnesses of the Book of Mormon


  1. For example, when Joseph translated the text now in 1 Nephi 13:29, the scribe wrote “&” in one place where he should have written “an.” At 1 Nephi 17:48, the scribe wrote “weed” where he should have written “reed” (Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins [Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997], 67; see also Grant Hardy, “Introduction,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009], xv–xix).

  2. According to Martin Harris, an angel commanded Joseph Smith to stop these activities, which he did by 1826. Joseph did not hide his well-known early involvement in treasure seeking. In 1838, he published responses to questions frequently asked of him. “Was not Jo Smith a money digger,” one question read. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it” (“Elders’ Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, July 1838,” 43,; see also Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984], 64–76; Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1 [Spring 1986], 6–34; Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet” [master’s thesis, Utah State University, 2000]).

  3. Alma 37:23. Joseph Smith probably possessed more than one seer stone; he appears to have found one of the stones while digging for a well around 1822 (Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 69–70).

  4. A. W. B., “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, vol. 2 (Apr. 19, 1831), 120; Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, vol. 26, no. 19 (Oct. 1, 1879), 1–2.