Questions and Answers
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“Questions and Answers,” Tambuli, Sept. 1989, 14–15

How long did it take Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon?

John W. Welch, professor of law at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.

One of the most amazing facts about the Book of Mormon is that it took Joseph Smith only about sixty-five working days to translate it. Historical details about the time it took to translate the book are remarkably well preserved, and they are supported by independent statements of numerous witnesses.

Almost all of the Book of Mormon as we now have it was translated between 7 April and 30 June 1829. Before that, from 12 April to 14 June 1828, Joseph had translated 116 pages that Martin Harris lost when he borrowed them to show to members of his family. In addition, during March 1829, Joseph translated “a few” pages—with his wife, Emma, acting as scribe—before he was commanded to “stop for a season.” (D&C 5:30.)

At that time, Joseph was in Harmony, Pennsylvania. About 160 kilometers away, Oliver Cowdery was in Palmyra, New York, boarding at the Smith family home, where he asked Joseph’s father many questions about the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. In 1832, Joseph Smith stated that the Lord had answered Oliver’s prayer, appearing to him and showing “unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do.” (Dean Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984], page 8) At the same time, as reported in an 1847 letter by Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph was praying for assistance. In answer to his prayer, an angel of the Lord assured him that a scribe should be forthcoming in a few days.

Oliver arrived in Harmony as the sun was going down on Sunday, 5 April 1829. On Tuesday, April 7, Joseph began translating with Oliver as his scribe. Historical and textual research indicates that they probably began translating at the beginning of the book of Mosiah, where Joseph had last left off. So the Prophet Joseph actually began translating at the middle of the book; it is probable that he did not work on 1 and 2 Nephi until later—in June. Yet the Book does not seem disorganized; it comes together well, with the historical and doctrinal details introduced in 1 and 2 Nephi fitting the rest of the book.

By 15 May 1829, Joseph had translated the books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, and 3 Nephi’s account of Christ’s ministry among the Nephites. It was that account of the Savior’s ministry—probably 3 Nephi 11:22–27 [3 Ne. 11:22–27] in particular—that led Joseph and Oliver to inquire of the Lord about the authority to baptize. That, in turn, led to the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood on that same day, and to that of the Melchizedek Priesthood shortly thereafter.

By the end of May, they had completed the books of 4 Nephi, Mormon, Ether, Moroni, and the title page—which was the last plate among the plates of Mormon. At this time, David Whitmer arrived in Harmony. During the first week in June, David, Oliver, Joseph, and possibly Emma moved 160 kilometers, by horse and wagon, to the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette, New York. On 11 June 1829, the copyright for the Book of Mormon was recorded in the Federal District Court for the Western District of New York. The copyright application used the full text of the title page as the legal description of the contents of the book, so it is clear that the title page had already been translated by then.

Once Joseph, Emma, and Oliver were settled in Fayette, the work of translation continued. Oliver and John Whitmer acted as scribes, and it was here that they worked on what is the beginning of the Book of Mormon as we know it—1 Nephi and 2 Nephi. By around 20 June, they had reached 2 Nephi 27:12 [2 Ne. 27:12], which provided the basis upon which the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses were shown the plates around that time, in June 1829. By the end of June, the translation was completed, and inquiries to publishers were being made.

The translation was an amazing achievement. It was completed within a time period of eighty-five days, from 7 April to 30 June. In addition to the translation many other things must have happened to the Prophet and his scribes during that time. They must have taken time to eat, to sleep, to find work (once for money when supplies ran out), to receive the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, to make at least one (and possibly two) trips to Colesville, New York—forty-eight kilometers away—to convert and baptize Hyrum and Samuel Smith, to move from Harmony to Fayette, to acquire the Book of Mormon copyright, to preach a few days and baptize several people near Fayette, to experience spiritual manifestations with the Three and Eight Witnesses, and to begin making arrangements for the Book of Mormon’s publication.

This leaves approximately sixty-five or fewer working days upon which the Prophet and his scribes could have translated. That works out to be an average of eight pages per day. At such a rate, only about a week could have been taken to translate 1 Nephi; a day and a half for King Benjamin’s speech. Considering the complexity, consistency, clarity, artistry, accuracy, and intellectual depth and insight of the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph’s translation is a remarkable accomplishment. As Oliver Cowdery a few years after testified, “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 … the Book of Mormon.”