“Lesson 5 Class Preparation Material: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Material (2019)
“Lesson 5 Class Preparation Material,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Material
Several miraculous events occurred as part of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon that provide evidence that it was translated by the power of God (see Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, vol. 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 , 21–30, 39–64).
On the evening of September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and told him that God had a work for him to do (see Joseph Smith—History 1:33).
Joseph Smith was 17 years old when the angel Moroni first visited him and when he first saw the gold plates. Between the ages of 18 and 21, Moroni visited him once each year and gave him “instruction and intelligence” (Joseph Smith—History 1:54). At age 21 Joseph was permitted to take the plates so that they could be translated. At age 22 he translated a portion of the plates, with Martin Harris acting as scribe. (This manuscript consisting of 116 pages was then lost and was not retranslated.) At age 23 Joseph completed the rest of the translation, with Oliver Cowdery and others acting as scribes.
Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith, explained: “[At that time] 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 … it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to anyone else. … The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it” (“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 290).
It is estimated that Joseph Smith completed the translation in “sixty-five or fewer working days,” translating a book “which contains 531 pages in its current edition. That calculates to an average of eight pages per day. Consider this when you translate a book, or as you schedule your own reading of the Book of Mormon” (Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–62).
Emma described the translation process to her son, Joseph Smith III, shortly before her death in 1879:
[I] believe the Church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. …
[Joseph] had neither manuscript nor book to read from [as he was translating]. …
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 table cloth, which I had 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 metalic [sic] sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book. …
I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his 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. (Emma Smith, in “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 289–90)
Joseph did not translate the Book of Mormon in a conventional way. He did not know the original language of the plates and then translate that language into English. Rather, he rendered the text from one language to another through revelation—by “the gift and power of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 135:3).
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” (Mosiah 8:13), is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim” (Joseph Smith—History 1:35). Oliver Cowdery stated that by “looking through” the Urim and Thummim, Joseph “was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraven on the plates” (“Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
Some later accounts indicate that Joseph sometimes used another instrument to translate the Book of Mormon. This instrument was a small oval stone, referred to as a seer stone, that Joseph had discovered several years before he obtained the gold plates. These accounts indicate that Joseph would place either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat to help block out light, which allowed him to better see the words that appeared on the instrument. (See “Book of Mormon Translation,” topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org; see also Richard E. Turley Jr., Robin S. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, Oct. 2015, 51.)
More than a year after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph was asked in a meeting to relate some specifics of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The minutes of the meeting state that he “said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon” and “that it was not expedient for him to relate these things” (“Minutes, Oct. 25–26, 1831,” in Minute Book 2, 13, josephsmithpapers.org).
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained:
Many who read the Book of Mormon understandably desire to know more about its coming forth, including the actual process of translation. … What we do know about the actual coming forth of the Book of Mormon is adequate, but it is not comprehensive. …
… Perhaps the details of translation are withheld … because we are intended to immerse ourselves in the substance of the book rather than becoming unduly concerned with the process by which we received it. (Neal A. Maxwell, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 39, 41)
During the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery learned that the Lord would show the plates to three special witnesses (see Ether 5:2–4). Oliver, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were “moved upon by an inspired desire to be the three special witnesses” (Doctrine and Covenants 17, section heading).
In June 1829 Oliver, David, and Martin were shown the plates in a miraculous way. They testified that “an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon” (“The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” Book of Mormon).
Immediately after the Three Witnesses had their experience with the angel, Joseph Smith returned to the Whitmer home and exclaimed to his parents: “Father, mother; you do not know [how] happy I am; the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself—they have seen an angel, who has testified to them; and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said; for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people. And I feel as if I was relieved of a burden, which was almost [too] heavy for me to bear; and it rejoices my heart, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.” (“Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” 153–54, josephsmithpapers.org)
Later, Joseph showed the plates to an additional eight witnesses. They declared that “we did handle [the plates] with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, … and know of a surety that [Joseph Smith] has got the plates of which we have spoken” (“The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” Book of Mormon).
Despite differences with Joseph Smith that led each of the Three Witnesses to part ways individually with the Church ([Oliver] Cowdery and [Martin] Harris later returned), they continued to affirm their testimony as witnesses throughout their lives. Each of the Eight Witnesses likewise reaffirmed his testimony of examining the plates, though some eventually became estranged from the Church. The combined weight of their numerous statements, given over many years and despite their changing attitudes toward Joseph Smith and the Church, is a powerful witness of the reliability of the statements they published in the Book of Mormon. (“Witnesses of the Book of Mormon,” Church History Topics, ChurchofJesusChrist.org)