This week, I’m going to ask some questions about translation. Here are a few of the questions I’m planning to tackle:
- Why is it important for people to hear the gospel in their own language?
- What is the Urim and Thummim, and what role does it play in translation?
- Why is the Book of Mormon written in King James English?
- Why are some passages in the Book of Mormon identical to passages in the King James Version of the Bible?
- Is there additional meaning in some of the unusual verbiage in the scriptures…phrases like “an hungered” and “your father, which” (not who)?
Today, I’m starting with a basic question: How did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon?
“By the Gift and Power of God”
In the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote that he had translated the book “by the gift and power of God” (Book of Mormon, 1830, page iii). On the title page of the Book of Mormon, Moroni declared that the book would “come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof.” The three witnesses of the book—Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—used the same phrase in their endorsement of the book (“Testimony of Three Witnesses“).
The word “gift” suggests that Joseph Smith received capabilities from God which enabled him to translate. The word “power” suggests an ongoing need—he couldn’t do this work without God’s help.
“Intense, Personal Efforts”
Even though Joseph Smith relied on God’s power as he translated the book, it was still hard work. Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed: “This faith-filled process was not easy…. It required Joseph’s intense, personal efforts.” (“By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, January 1997).
Joseph’s scribe, Oliver Cowdery, requested and obtained permission to translate part of the record. But he was unable to translate a single word. When he asked why he had failed, he received the following answers from the Lord:
- “It is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you” (D&C 9:5).
- “You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me” (D&C 9:7).
Oliver apparently dramatically underestimated the effort and perseverance required to perform this miraculous work. It might have seemed easy as he sat, one day after another, listening to “the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven” (Joseph Smith History, footnote.) But Joseph had received the plates more than 18 months earlier, had spent many hours copying characters and translating them into English, and had translated 116 pages which were never included in the final output. It was a miraculous undertaking, but it did not happen without significant effort on Joseph’s part.
Orson Pratt said that Joseph explained to him that, early in the translation process, he needed the Urim and Thummim which were buried with the plates, but as he became more experienced with “the Spirit of inspiration,” he was able to translate without it (Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 11 Aug. 1874, 498–99, quoted in the Neal A. Maxwell article cited above and in “Joseph the Seer” by Richard E. Turley, Ensign, October 2015). This seems consistent with Joseph’s assertion that, by practicing over time, we can “grow into the principle of revelation” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 10: “Prayer and Personal Revelation“).
At a conference of the Church in Ohio, in October 1831, Joseph’s brother Hyrum told the assembled congregation that they ought to hear firsthand from Joseph Smith how the Book of Mormon was translated. According to the notes of the conference, Joseph said simply 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” (The Joseph Smith Papers, “Minutes, 25–26 October 1831“). Elder Neal A. Maxwell suggested that Joseph may have said this because he didn’t want his audience to be distracted from the main point—the principles of the gospel taught in the Book of Mormon. “Perhaps the details of translation are withheld,” said Elder Maxwell, “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” (“By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, January 1997).
Here are some principles I have learned by studying about Joseph Smith’s translation process:
- Doing the work of the Lord requires effort on our part. Even though we have access to His power, we must work diligently and persistently.
- Even when God has blessed us with talents and skills, we still need access to His power in order to do His work.
- It’s important to prioritize our efforts and focus on the things of the greatest importance.
Today, I will strive to follow the example of Joseph Smith, seeking the guidance and power of God, working hard to develop needed skills (including the ability to recognize the voice of the Spirit), and focusing my attention on the things that matter most.