“Voices from Cumorah: The Personal Experience of the Book of Mormon,” New Era, Nov. 1974, 17
It had come forth! For Joseph Smith the small, new, leather-bound book must have seemed in itself the very tangible embodiment of a miracle. The Book of Mormon—now published. There had been months of anxious waiting punctuated by soul-stretching confrontations with messengers from heaven—days and nights of tired eyes and weary bones as the translation plodded on—long minutes of heart-pounding fear while watching angry men curse and tear at the house as they searched for the golden plates. All this was over now. That chapter was closed.
How clearly the vicissitudes of the past months and weeks must have stood in Joseph’s recollection as he thumbed the small pages, letting his glance fall on passages once strange, then familiar, and now associated with vivid memories:
“I, Nephi, …” So it began. But not really. There were earlier pages of translated manuscript that preceded those words. Joseph may well have been reminded of the bitter anguish of that day at the Smith family home when Martin Harris hung his head in sadness and confessed that he could not find the manuscript Joseph had let him take. The first 116 pages lost! Then the long night—pacing back and forth, the words searing his mind: “And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.” (D&C 3:6–7.)
There were other nights, too, filled with evil men, nights when the nicker of a horse or the squeak of a buggy wheel brought flutters of fear to the stomach: Who was coming? Were they after the plates? Would they look too closely at the stones in the fireplace? Would they harm Emma? On such nights Joseph had felt in the rough grasp and seen in the twisted faces the powers of the devil raging and burning in the hearts and minds of men.
But if these pages recalled the harsh voices of the powers of hell, they also recalled the sustaining voices of his family and friends: Of his father, dusty and perspiring from honest labor in the humid warmth of a fall harvest, listening intently to his son’s awesome yet simple account of the coming of Moroni, looking at his boy with pride and belief, and saying, “It [is] of God. … ” Of his wife, Emma, as she patiently took down the words dictated from the plates she had never been allowed to see. And of Martin Harris, capable of error, anxious to help, willing to sell his own prosperous farm to support the young prophet and his vital work of translating. And of Oliver Cowdery, well-read, articulate, a friend, providentially led to Joseph’s own door to become the principal scribe during the long days and nights of slow, meticulous translation and transcription.
But whatever warm recollections occurred to Joseph as he held that first copy in his hand, none could have been more moving than his remembrance of voices from heaven itself. Ten years had passed since he had knelt in the woods before the divine presence of the Father and the Son. And in the last four years Joseph had received many additional confirmations and communications, quiet yet undeniable assurance that came to him time and again as he struggled through line after line of the unfamiliar language, assurance that his translation was accepted by God.
More dramatic and perhaps more profound was the actual voice of Moroni himself whom Joseph came to know as his own spiritual teacher in those annual meetings on the west slope of the Hill Cumorah. Each year Joseph kept that September appointment, climbing with what anxiety and anticipation we can only imagine, feeling in the pull of mortal muscle against the slope of the hill the finiteness and limits of his own existence, yet knowing that shortly he would again see a face by now familiar yet not of this earth, a figure recognizable but incomprehensible. Here was a mere man going, by appointment, to meet an angel from heaven.
As overwhelming as such an encounter might have been, the task the angel outlined was more so: To bring forth upon the earth the great and marvelous latter-day work. This was a task of heroes and giants, not frontier farm boys. Yet as Joseph turned in his hands that first copy of the Book of Mormon, he saw the very fulfillment of a part of that task. Once hidden in the earth, for a long time hidden from men, the Book of Mormon was now ready to go forth to the world, to speak the message that had already come forth in the heart of this young man.
And what a message it was! Looking down at the new black-covered book in his hand, Joseph might have pondered on that momentous day the significance of the messages of those varied voices from the dust—messages engraved by different hands but all so similar in their import: that sin was never happiness; that repentance is required of every man and woman; that “there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ” (Alma 38:9); that to forget our God and his Christ in pursuit of material prosperity or other strange gods, we are courting assured destruction, spiritual and physical.
How vivid must have been the personal recollections of spiritual changes that the book had wrought in Joseph’s own life. How much the book had become part and parcel of his own religious discovery. He might have recollected how, on translating the passages concerning baptism, he and his scribe, Oliver, had gone into the nearby woods to inquire of the Lord as to his meaning. There, “a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light,” and, introducing himself as John the Baptist, ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood. And it was likely while Joseph was engaged in the translation of the book that Peter, James, and John, the ancient First Presidency, appeared and ordained him and his companion to the Melchizedek Priesthood.
But Joseph knew that this newly published Book of Mormon would mean more than personal vicissitudes and successes, no matter how powerful; he had already seen the impact of the book’s truths on his family, on Martin, on Oliver, and others of his little flock, and he knew, because of the promises of the Father and the Son reiterated by other heavenly messengers, that men and women throughout the earth, down to the last mortal day, would be immeasurably influenced by the Book of Mormon, would come, as he had, to have their own personal experiences with and testimonies of the words of the book.
Joseph might have foreseen, as he skimmed the book’s fresh pages that day, the universal and personal significance of this phase of the work of the Restoration. He must have foreseen the impact on rich and poor, humble and proud, ignorant and schooled, that the various prophetic messages of the little book would have. How the dream of the tree, the iron rod, and the great river would quicken the sensibilities of a German schoolmaster, a Boston merchant, a London clerk—and leave their lives forever changed. How the stories of necessary change, of repentance, would strike to the hearts of a teenage girl in Australia, an elderly widow in Denmark, and a Baptist minister in Alabama. How Alma’s conversion as he watched and listened to Abinadi preach to King Noah would touch their hearts! How Alma’s son’s dramatic conversion during three days of conscious unconsciousness would grow into the conversion not only of his friends, of Amulek, Ammon, and King Lamoni, but also of a British educator, a Japanese manufacturer, and an Argentine policeman searching for a pattern that they, too, should follow in learning that which Nephi learned and uttered so beautifully in his psalm: “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.” (2 Ne. 4:28.)
Joseph may have sensed that through the pages of this volume, springing from obscurity to fame, would come countless testimonies of the truths it witnessed, of the peace it brought to the spirit. Untold millions of future readers would yet thrill to and attempt to follow the pattern of such as Enos, who heard a voice whispering eternal peace to his soul: “… Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed” (Enos 1:5), and come, through the witness of that peaceful spirit, to follow Enos through constant prayer and continued missionary efforts to the assurance that “I know that in [my Redeemer] I shall rest.”
Recalling his own thrill in translating each word of the book, in groping to find the English word that best expressed the literal and spiritual intent of the ancient prophets, Joseph may have anticipated the joy of the new reader who first reads the stirring sermon of Benjamin, exhorting his people to repentance, to “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.
“And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.” (Mosiah 4:9–10.)
Perhaps Joseph hoped that future readers could envision, as he could, old Benjamin standing atop the tower, speaking to his people and causing that those who could not hear, being too distant, should be taken his written prophetic words—an action that foreshadowed the very purpose that this newly translated book would fulfill in Joseph’s own dispensation (an action that foreshadowed the methods of the annual and semi-annual conferences of the great church that Joseph was to restore). How colorful must the scene have been. It was doubtless as rich, in its way, as that great scene wherein General Helaman led in triumph his 2,000 Ammonite youth against the Lamanites—without the loss of one man! Or as rich, perhaps, as that scene wherein another prophet, Samuel the Lamanite, stood boldly atop the Nephite walls and proclaimed that Christ would come, and that repentance must come first if one were to withstand His coming.
But perhaps none of the scenes could have been so vivid, in the minds of Joseph or subsequent readers, as those of the great New World upheavals that took place at the time of Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem. Of that band of humbled and fearful survivors who quaked to hear the voice that came, three times, from heaven; “… not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.” (3 Ne. 11:3.)
Joseph knew how glorious that voice must have been, for he had heard that voice; and how he must have thrilled, as would future readers, to find that the survivors “cast their eyes up again towards heaven; and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven.” (3 Ne. 11:8.) Surely this was one of the greatest moments in all recorded or unrecorded history, to see a Man, albeit a glorified Man, descending from the heavens and allowing all who desired to examine his wounds, to ascertain that the words of Samuel were true, that this was “the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, [who had] been slain for the sins of the world.” (3 Ne. 11:14.)
How noble the words of the book that Joseph held in his hand! The words, like the seeds of faith of which he loved to read in the 32nd chapter of Alma, [Alma 32] would grow in the minds of men and stretch their earthbound souls to exaltation and eternal lives as men would be inspired to put behind them the carnal and reach toward the faith of the brother of Jared. The words of the little book would yet encourage many to endure in faith, for, as Nephi had recorded, “He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.” (2 Ne. 31:15.)
And Joseph, standing there that day, new book in hand, may have looked down the years, past inspired premonitions of his own death at the hands of evil men; past the wars and rumors of wars that he knew would beset the men of earth until Christ came again; past the political, social, and cultural havoc wrought by the influence of Satan abroad in the earth; looked down the years to the time that “ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts”; even down to that time, in 1875, 1925, 1955, or 1975, when the young (or old) man or woman emerges from his lovely or humble home, with the same book in hand, and goes into a private place and there, kneeling and humble, implores his or her God “in the name of Christ, if these things,” this book of Joseph, be “not true.” Then, that miracle will recur, the same miracle that Joseph experienced, the miracle that made him cradle the Book of Mormon in his hand with reverential awe, the miracle that changes mankind. For “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
“And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moro. 10:4–5.)
Joseph, fondling the newly printed book, must have smiled that day. It was a great beginning. The book may well have seemed to Joseph like a stone, cut from the side of a mountain, whose message would roll forth to fill the whole earth. He was right.