“Lesson 4: Translating the Book of Mormon,” Latter-day Saint History: 1815–1846 Teacher Material (2018)
“Lesson 4,” Latter-day Saint History: 1815–1846 Teacher Material
Translating the Book of Mormon
Introduction and Timeline
After Joseph Smith received the golden plates in September 1827, he faced the difficult task of translating and publishing the record. In December 1827, Joseph and Emma moved from Manchester, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, so that the couple could escape increasing persecution and so that Emma, then pregnant, could give birth closer to her family. In February 1828, Martin Harris arrived in Harmony to assist the Prophet. By June, the Prophet had translated 116 pages with Martin Harris as his scribe. Martin asked for Joseph’s permission to return to New York and show the manuscript pages to his wife and a few others, but the Lord forbade it. Because of Martin’s continual pleading, Joseph asked the Lord twice more, and the Lord permitted Martin to take the manuscript if he agreed to certain conditions. However, through Martin’s carelessness, the manuscript pages were taken by “wicked men” (D&C 10:8). Because of this mistake, Joseph Smith lost the gift to translate for a time. After the Prophet’s gift was restored, the Lord sent Oliver Cowdery to assist him in the work of translation.
September 22, 1827
Joseph Smith received the golden plates from the angel Moroni.
Joseph and Emma Smith moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon in earnest.
Martin Harris took a transcript of some characters copied from the golden plates to scholars in New York City.
Martin Harris lost 116 pages Joseph Smith had translated from the Book of Mormon.
April 5, 1829
Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to assist Joseph Smith with the translation of the golden plates.
Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018), chapters 5–6
Suggestions for Teaching
Martin Harris assists Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon
Display the accompanying image. Explain that this image is a depiction of Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates in the early morning of September 22, 1827.
Based on your reading of chapter 5 of Saints: Volume 1, what were some of the challenges Joseph Smith experienced after he received the plates from Moroni? (The persecution Joseph experienced “became more bitter and severe than before,” and many people attempted to steal the plates from him [Joseph Smith—History 1:60].)
Explain that because of this persecution and harassment, Joseph and Emma moved from Manchester, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, in December 1827 (see Joseph Smith—History 1:60–61). This move also allowed Emma, who was expecting her first baby, to be near her family.
Display an image of Martin Harris. Explain that Martin Harris was a well-respected and prosperous farmer from Palmyra, New York, who was 22 years older than Joseph Smith. Martin was initially skeptical about what he heard concerning Joseph Smith and the golden plates.
Display the following statement, and invite a student to read it aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for what Martin Harris experienced that motivated him to assist in the Lord’s work.
“I retired to my bedroom and prayed God to show me concerning these things, and I covenanted that if it was his work and he would show me so, I would put forth my best ability to bring it before the world. He then showed me that it was his work. … He showed this to me by the still small voice spoken in the soul” (Martin Harris, in “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, Aug. 1859, 170).
What are some of the ways that Martin assisted in the Lord’s work? (Make sure that the following are mentioned: He provided financial assistance to help Joseph and Emma move to Pennsylvania, he took a transcript of some characters copied from the golden plates to scholars in New York City, and he served as scribe while the Prophet translated a portion of the Book of Mormon from April–June 1828.)
Ask students to locate chapter 5 of Saints: Volume 1. Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from page 51, starting with the paragraph that begins “One day, Martin …” and concluding with paragraph that begins “After Martin left …” Ask the class to follow along, looking for Martin’s request to Joseph.
Why do you think Joseph Smith persisted in asking the Lord the same question after having already received an answer?
Martin Harris loses the manuscript, and the Lord reprimands Joseph Smith
Explain that after Martin Harris left Harmony, Emma Smith gave birth to a son, who died shortly after being born. Emma also nearly died, and Joseph spent the next two weeks caring for her. After she began to regain her health, Emma expressed her concern about the manuscript. She urged Joseph to go to Palmyra to check on Martin.
Ask students to locate chapter 5 in Saints: Volume 1. Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from pages 52–53, starting with the paragraph that begins “Joseph took a stagecoach …” and continuing through the end of the chapter. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what Joseph learned about the manuscript and how it affected him.
Instead of reading from chapter 5 of Saints: Volume 1, consider showing part of the video “The Work of God,” which depicts the reactions of Martin Harris and Joseph Smith following the loss of the 116 manuscript pages. Show the video from time code 6:52 to 8:35. This video is available on ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
Why do you think Joseph felt that all was lost?
Explain that the next morning, Joseph said goodbye to his parents and left for Harmony. During the next two months, Joseph’s parents did not hear from him. They became increasingly worried about his welfare and decided to travel to Harmony to check on him.
Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by the Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44). Explain that it is a record of what Joseph Smith shared with his mother regarding his return home following the loss of the manuscript.
“After I left you … I commenced humbling myself in mighty prayer before the Lord, … that if possible I might obtain mercy at [His] hands and be forgiven of all that I had done which was contrary to His will” (Joseph Smith, in Lucy Mack Smith, “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” book 7, pages 8–9, josephsmithpapers.org; capitalization and punctuation standardized).
What can we learn about Joseph Smith from this statement?
Explain that during this period of repentance, Joseph Smith received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 3. Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 3:5–8 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what the Lord told Joseph Smith.
Which words or phrases in these verses stand out to you? (As students respond, invite them to explain why those words or phrases stand out to them.)
According to verses 6–7, what led Joseph Smith to transgress “the commandments and the laws of God”? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: Fearing others more than fearing God can lead us to commit sin. If necessary, explain to students that fear in this context can mean regard or respect.)
In what ways did Joseph Smith fear Martin Harris more than he feared God?
What are some examples of how fearing others more than fearing God can lead us to commit sin?
Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 3:10 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what else the Lord told Joseph as he sought forgiveness.
If you had been in Joseph’s place, how might you have felt when the Lord revealed these words to you?
What principle can we identify from the Lord’s counsel to Joseph in verse 10? (Students should identify a principle similar to the following: God is merciful and will forgive us if we repent.)
Why do you think it is important for us to understand this principle?
Testify that when we sin, all is not lost because God is merciful and willing to forgive us if we repent.
The Lord sends Oliver Cowdery to assist the Prophet in translating the Book of Mormon
Explain that after Joseph Smith repented, Moroni returned the golden plates and the Urim and Thummim to the Prophet and told him that he could again translate. Instead of helping Joseph as scribe, Martin Harris remained in his home in Palmyra, distressed by his mistake and his wife’s actions to discredit the Prophet. Emma assisted Joseph as a scribe as he continued with the translation. However, Moroni had promised Joseph that the Lord would send him another scribe.
Display the accompanying image, and explain that it is a portrait of Oliver Cowdery. Remind students that Oliver was a schoolteacher who learned about the golden plates while living with Joseph Smith’s parents in Manchester.
Invite a student to read the following paragraphs aloud:
“Oliver prayed privately to know if what he had heard about the gold plates was true. The Lord showed him a vision of the gold plates and Joseph’s efforts to translate them. A peaceful feeling rested over him, and he knew then that he should volunteer to be Joseph’s scribe.
“Oliver told no one about his prayer. But as soon as the school term ended, he and Joseph’s brother Samuel set out on foot for Harmony, more than a hundred miles away” (Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 , 60).
What stands out to you about how the Lord fulfilled His promise to send Joseph a scribe?
Explain that Joseph and Oliver began their work on the translation on April 7, 1829, two days after Oliver’s arrival in Harmony. Joseph and Oliver worked at a miraculous pace, finishing the translation by the end of June 1829. It is estimated that Joseph Smith completed the translation in “sixty-five or fewer working days,” translating “an average of eight pages per day” (Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61).
Display the following statement by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and invite students to read it silently:
“I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God” (preface to the Book of Mormon , iii).
What did Joseph Smith testify concerning the translation of the Book of Mormon? (After students respond, write the following truth on the board: Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.)
Display the following statement by Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and invite a student to read it aloud:
“Many who read the Book of Mormon understandably desire to know more about its coming forth, including the actual process of translation. This was certainly so with faithful and loyal Hyrum Smith. Upon inquiring, Hyrum was told by the Prophet Joseph 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’ [in “Minutes, 25–26 October 1831,” Minute Book 2, 13, josephsmithpapers.org; capitalization standardized]. Thus what we do know about the actual coming forth of the Book of Mormon is adequate, but it is not comprehensive. …
“Whatever the details of the process, it required Joseph’s intense, personal efforts along with the aid of the revelatory instruments” (Neal A. Maxwell, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 39).
Invite a student to read Joseph Smith—History 1:34–35 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what Moroni taught Joseph Smith about the instruments that were with the golden plates.
What did Moroni teach Joseph Smith about the instruments that were with the golden plates? (God had prepared the Urim and Thummim for the purpose of translating the plates. Explain that the Book of Mormon refers to the Urim and Thummim as “interpreters” [Alma 37:21, 24].)
Explain that 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 upon the plates” (“Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org). Some later historical accounts from individuals who were present while Joseph Smith translated, including Emma Smith and Martin Harris, 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 discovered several years before he obtained the golden plates. These accounts indicate that Joseph would place either the interpreters or the seer stone into a hat to 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.)
Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
“Of course, the real revelatory process involved Joseph’s mind and faith, which could not be seen by others in any case. …
“Why do we not have more disclosure concerning the process of translation of the Book of Mormon? Perhaps the full process was not disclosed because we would not be ready to understand it, even if given. Perhaps, too, the Lord wanted to leave the Book of Mormon in the realm of faith, though it is drenched with intrinsic evidence. After all, Christ instructed Mormon, who was reviewing the Savior’s own teachings among the Nephites, not to record all of them on the plates because ‘I will try the faith of my people’ (3 Ne. 26:11). Perhaps the details of translation are withheld also 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, 40–41).
Why do you think knowing that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God is more important than knowing specific details about the translation process?
Give each student a copy of the accompanying handout, “The Book of Mormon Was Translated by the Gift and Power of God.” Invite students to read the paragraphs of the handout aloud in pairs or small groups and then discuss their answers to the questions on the handout.
Conclude the lesson by sharing your testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Invite students to show their gratitude to God for the Book of Mormon by studying it daily and applying its teachings.
Invite students to prepare for the next class by reading chapter 7 of Saints: Volume 1.