In What Order Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Mormon?

After writing the history of his people on metal plates, the prophet Nephi was instructed by the Lord to create a second set of plates, which are known today as the small plates of Nephi. On these, he was to engrave a record of the ministry of his people. Nephi obeyed this commandment even though he didn’t understand why this second set of plates was necessary: “The Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not” (1 Nephi 9:5).

Approximately 1,000 years later, while the prophet Mormon was writing a history of his people, he discovered this set of plates. He had already written his history of that period of time, which he called the Book of Lehi. But he felt inspired to also include Nephi’s record of that time period in spite of the apparent redundancy:

I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will (Words of Mormon 1:7).

When Joseph Smith obtained the plates containing the text of the Book of Mormon on September 27, 1827, he first translated the Book of Lehi. After those pages of manuscript were lost, Joseph was unable to translate for a period of time. He was devastated by this loss, but the Lord reassured him that “the works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3:1).

When the Lord allowed Joseph to start translating again, he apparently began where he had left off: Mosiah 1. This must have seemed like a strange thing to do. So much of the content was based on material he had previously translated. Nevertheless, Joseph and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, moved forward, translating about 7 pages per day, beginning on April 7, 1829. By the middle of May, they were in 3 Nephi, where the Savior’s instructions on baptism prompted the restoration of the priesthood. By the end of May, they had finished translating the book through Moroni. They also translated the title page about that time, which was the last leaf in the book.

The first week of June, they moved about 260 miles from Harmony, Pennsylvania to Fayette, New York. When Joseph Smith received a copyright for the book on June 11, the middle and ending were complete, but the book had no beginning. The Lord had instructed him not to retranslate the Book of Lehi (D&C 10:30). But He had also prepared a way for the book to be completed:

You shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained.
And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi (D&C 10:41-42).

Joseph Smith translated the small plates of Nephi during the month of June. Near the end of the small plates, Joseph Smith translated a prophecy that three witnesses would see the plates (2 Nephi 27:12). Shortly after, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were shown the plates by an angel (The Testimony of Three Witnesses).

Nephi, Mormon, and Joseph Smith all demonstrated faith by acting on instructions from the Lord without understanding the reasons for those instructions. Because of their faith, God was able to use their efforts to advance His work.

Today, I will strive to follow their examples of faith. I won’t always understand the reasons why I am given commandments by God, but will trust that He has a “wise purpose” for the things He asks of me. I will remember that “the Lord knoweth all things.” And I will remember that God’s work “cannot be frustrated,” and that I can contribute to it if I am willing to trust Him.

7 thoughts on “In What Order Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Mormon?

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  1. Reminds me of what we learn about Adam after he and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and built an altar to the Lord. In Moses 5:6 we read, “And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.” Whether it be Nephi, Mormon or Adam…how often are we asked to press forward and walk in faith, even when we don’t know why we’ve been asked to do something!


  2. Is there a chance I could please get your references for this. My husband and I were just talking about this thing earlier in the week; the order in which the plates were translated. I find your information very fascinating! Thanks for sharing


    1. Thank you for the question. As I read through this post again, I realized that I didn’t provide a lot of specifics for why I think Joseph Smith translated Mosiah through Moroni first, then translated the small plates of Nephi. The rationale is as follows:
      1. Chronology – Even though Joseph Smith didn’t tell us where he was in translation at key moments in time, the historical events which occurred during translation make more sense when we assume that he started with Mosiah. Notably, the restoration of the priesthood happened about when he would have reached 3 Nephi 11, and the three witnesses which are mentioned in Ether are reiterated in 2 Nephi 27, which would have fallen near the end of the translation process.
      2. Handwriting – The 1 Nephi pages from the original manuscript were written by Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer. But Joseph Smith’s first scribe after receiving the plates again was Emma.
      A useful discussion of this question, with a lot of useful footnotes, is found in the Wikipedia article “Mosiah priority” –
      Another helpful source is the book Joseph Smith – Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman. The topic is discussed on page 74 and in an extensive endnote on page 579.
      I hope those thoughts are helpful. Happy studying!


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