“Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation,” Revelations in Context
As Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the late 1820s, he learned more than the history of the Lamanites and Nephites.
More than once, the Book of Mormon text indicated that “many plain and precious parts” of the Bible had been lost.1 In the summer of 1830, just a few short months after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph Smith began a new translation of the Bible intended to restore some of those plain and precious parts. This effort defied the prevailing opinion of the day that the Bible contained the inerrant word of God as contained in the revered text of the King James Version.
Joseph’s translation was not carried out in the traditional sense. He didn’t consult Greek and Hebrew texts or use lexicons to create a new English version. Rather, he used the King James Version of the Bible as his starting point and made additions and changes as he was directed by the Holy Ghost.
Although Joseph made many minor grammatical corrections and modernized some language, he was less concerned with these technical improvements than he was with restoring, through revelation, important truths not included in the contemporary Bible. Historian Mark Lyman Staker characterized the translation as one of “ideas rather than language.”2
Joseph Smith worked diligently on his translation from the summer of 1830 until July 1833. He considered this project a divine mandate, referring to it as a “branch of my calling.”3 Yet while portions were printed in Church publications before his death, Joseph Smith’s complete translation of the Bible was not published during his lifetime.
Even so, the effort the Prophet poured into that work is evident in the pages of the Doctrine and Covenants; the translation process served as the direct catalyst for many revelations contained in that book, which includes more than a dozen sections that arose directly from the translation process or contain instructions for Joseph and others pertaining to it.4
It was while the Book of Mormon was being printed at E. B. Grandin’s print shop in October 1829 that Oliver Cowdery purchased from Grandin the King James Bible that Joseph Smith used in the translation.
In June 1830, Joseph received a revelation that he described as the “visions of Moses.”5 This revelation may have served as a catalyst to Joseph’s work on the translation. This revelation now appears as the first chapter in the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price. The earliest manuscripts of the Bible translation, beginning with Genesis 1 (now Moses 2), were created in Harmony, Pennsylvania, about one month later, with Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer acting as scribes. Shortly thereafter, in a revelation addressed to Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale Smith, the Lord instructed that Emma serve as Joseph’s scribe6 for the translation, which she apparently did for a brief time.7 Over the next few months, the translation progressed through the book of Genesis.
In December of that year, after Sidney Rigdon was baptized in Ohio and traveled to Fayette, New York, to meet the leader of his new faith, Joseph Smith received a revelation directing Rigdon to serve as his scribe: “Thou shalt write for him & the scriptures shall be given even as they are in mine own bosom to the salvation of mine own elect.”8
Rigdon commenced to serve as scribe, and shortly after he and Joseph recorded the story of Enoch, Joseph was instructed to cease translating for a time and take the Church to Ohio. He did so, and soon after he was settled in Kirtland, the translation again became one of his primary tasks. In early February 1831, Joseph received a revelation instructing that a home be built in which he could “live & translate.”9 A few days later, another revelation assured Joseph that as he asked, the “scriptures shall be given.”10
The earliest work of the translation focused on the text of Genesis, but a March 7, 1831, revelation soon changed Joseph’s course. In the revelation, canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 45, Joseph was instructed to put aside the Old Testament for a time and instead focus on translating the New Testament.
“I give unto you that ye may now Translate it,” he was told, “that ye may be prepared for the things to come for Verily I say unto you that great things await you.”11
Accordingly, Joseph and Sidney began the next day to work on the New Testament translation. They continued until leaving for Missouri that summer and then resumed the translation in the fall, after Joseph and Emma moved roughly 30 miles south of Kirtland to Hiram, Ohio, to live in the home of John Johnson. The move was, in part, Joseph’s attempt to find a place “to work in peace and quiet on the translation of the Bible.”12 Joseph Smith later recalled that the bulk of his time after arriving at the Johnson home was spent in preparing to continue his translation work.
Joseph also set about overseeing the Church and preaching in the area, and then in January 1832 he received a revelation that directed him to once again focus his work on the translation “untill it be finished.”13 It was while he and Sidney Rigdon did so that, on February 16, they received a landmark revelation in the Johnson home. While working to translate the book of John, the men’s inquiries led to a vision of the kingdoms of glory that was a source of significant new doctrines for the young Church. Today, that vision is contained in Doctrine and Covenants 76.
Similarly, an explanation of passages in the book of Revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 77, also arose directly from the Bible translation. Taking the form of a series of questions and answers, it was considered an inspired text and was included in an early revelation book.
Joseph and Emma left the Johnson farm and returned to Kirtland in September 1832. Over the next few months, Joseph continued to work diligently on the translation, now with the help of Frederick G. Williams as scribe. In December, another revelation arising from the translation was received, this time explaining the parable of the wheat and tares found in Matthew 13. The revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 86, designates the body of the priesthood in the latter days as “a saviour unto my people Israel.”14
In July 1832, Joseph wrote to W. W. Phelps that “we have finished the translation of the New testament.”
“Great and glorious things are revealed,” he wrote, adding that they were “making rapid strides in the old book and in the strength of God we can do all things according to his will.”15
Work on the translation of the Old Testament continued, and Joseph recorded in January 1833 that “this winter was spent in translating the scriptures; in the school of the prophets; and sitting in conferences. I had many glorious seasons of refreshing.”16 In March 1833, Joseph received instruction that when the translation was finished, he should “thence forth preside over the affairs of the church.”17 So he eagerly pushed ahead.
Joseph Smith soon came to a section in his King James Bible containing a collection of 14 books known as the Apocrypha. While most Bibles in Joseph Smith’s day contained these books, there was a growing movement at the time that questioned their status as scripture.18 Given this dispute, Joseph wanted to know if he should seek to translate the books and took the question to the Lord. The resulting revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 91, taught Joseph that while “there are many things contained therein that are true and it is mostly translated correct—there are many things contained therein that are not true which are interpelations by the hands of men varely I say unto you that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.”19
Skipping that section, Joseph continued to labor over the Old Testament translation for several more months until, on July 2, 1833, a letter from the First Presidency (including Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams) in Kirtland to the Saints in Zion recorded that they “this day finished the translating of the Scriptures, for which we returned gratitude to our heavenly father.”20
After Joseph’s death, his widow, Emma, retained the translation manuscripts, which were published by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1867. For the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s translation supplies portions of the Pearl of Great Price (the book of Moses and Matthew 24) and informs many footnotes in the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible.
But the translation also had a significant influence on the Church in the way it shaped the content of the Doctrine and Covenants. More than half of the current Doctrine and Covenants consists of revelations received during the three-year period in which Joseph Smith labored over the Bible translation.21 Many revelations were received as direct answers to questions Joseph was inspired to ask as his understanding of the gospel expanded during the effort to restore plain and precious parts of the Bible.