The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon
- The Golden Plates and the Translation of the Records
That fall on September 22, 1827, Joseph Smith and Emma borrowed a horse and buggy and went to the hill where lay the records engraved on Gold plates. Joseph was given the records by the Angel Moroni, as well as the Urim and Thummim, two stones set in a bow which had been used by the ancient Israelite prophets for receiving revelations (see Exodus 28:30). The plates were each about as thin as rolled tin with characters engraved upon them. Witnesses described them as either gold or gold in appearance. They were connected by three rings and measured about six by six by eight inches thick.
Two-thirds of the record was sealed and Joseph never translated that portion. For the next few months he studied the records through the aid of the Urim and Thummim. He began the work of translation with Emma as his scribe.
News that Joseph had records inscribed on metal plates with the appearance of gold spread through the surrounding community, and many people attempted to get the plates from Joseph. Joseph was attacked several times and even shot at. Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother, made a wooden box in which to hide the plates and which could in turn be hidden under a loose stone in the fireplace or in barrels used for storing foodstuffs. Joseph was forced to move several times during the translation process.
Early on, a local farmer named Martin Harris, who was much older and well respected in the community, became interested in the record and helped Joseph as scribe during the early translation. Martin was curious, but also skeptical. Joseph Smith needed to find supporters, and so sought to convince Harris that the work was genuine. At length, Joseph copied some of the characters from the plates onto a piece of paper along with his initial translation. Harris went to Albany and New York City to show the characters and translation to various scholars hoping to confirm that the work was accurate.
Harris visited Charles Anthon at Columbia College (now University), to whom he showed the characters. The later accounts of Anthon and Harris do conflict somewhat, Harris asserting that Anthon confirmed the antiquity of the characters and the accuracy of the translation, while Anthon later claimed that he did not, but instead asked to see the book. When Harris replied that he could not bring the record because it was sealed, and after he told Anthon that an Angel of God had shown Joseph where the record was buried, Anthon rejected the whole affair and declared, “I cannot read a sealed book.” Whatever exactly happened, Harris became convinced of the truthfulness of the work Joseph Smith was undertaking and was even willing to support Joseph financially until the work was completed. The Mormons recognized this as a fulfillment of the prophecy made in Isaiah 29, where a book is delivered to the learned man who is unable to read it, and then given to an unlearned man who, by the power of God, can read it.
Harris’ wife, Lucy, however, needed more convincing. She became angry over the time Martin spent with Joseph and Martin’s willingness to give Joseph money when he needed it. In the summer of 1828, after translating 116 handwritten pages, Martin begged Joseph to let him show the translation to his wife so that she would know he was really working on something. Joseph prayed to the Lord about it and received from the Lord a definite “no,” but Martin was insistent. Twice more Joseph prayed to the Lord to let Martin borrow the writings. Finally, upon Joseph’s third request, the Lord said yes, but only if Martin swore an oath to show them only to a few designated persons. Martin agreed, and Joseph gave him the writings.
A short time after Martin Harris left for his home in Palmyra, Joseph’s wife Emma gave birth to a son, whom they named after Joseph’s deceased older brother, Alvin. Baby Alvin died the day he was born, and Emma became so ill, that it appeared she would die also. For nearly two weeks, Joseph sat at her bedside, rarely sleeping or eating. Once she improved slightly, his attention ventured to the 116 pages of manuscript. Martin had been gone for three weeks, and Joseph had heard nothing from him.
Emma encouraged Joseph to go to Palmyra, and Joseph left her in the care of his mother Lucy. Out of anxiety for the safety of the manuscript, Joseph took a stagecoach from Harmony, without eating or sleeping. He then walked another twenty miles through the night. Joseph arrived at the home of his parents in Manchester, New York, and sent for Martin, preparing breakfast for him in expectation of Martin’s quick response.
Martin arrived hours later than expected. He had lost the writings, now known among Mormons as “the lost 116 pages.” He had broken his oath and showed the writings to many other interested persons and eventually lost track of them. Joseph was devastated. In a subsequent revelation given to Joseph Smith, the Lord rebuked him for not accepting the Lord’s original response to his request, and for fearing men above God. For a time, the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken away from him. Joseph later said that this was one of the worst periods in his life.
When the plates were entrusted to Joseph once more, Joseph was commanded not to translate those passages already translated and lost. The Lord revealed that those who had stolen the writings were planning to alter them and publish them when Joseph retranslated the record, thus attempting to prove that he could not translate, or that the work was a fraud. Instead, the Lord told Joseph to go forward and translate the record as is, because it contained a summary of those 116 pages elsewhere in the ancient text.
The Arrival of Oliver Cowdery
Shortly after this episode, a school teacher named Oliver Cowdery came to work in the Palmyra area and heard about Joseph Smith, whom the locals disparagingly called “Joe Smith” or “Peepstone Joe,” and his “Gold Bible,” as the locals referred to it. Curious, Oliver visited Joseph’s house and talked to Hyrum, Joseph’s older brother. Joseph Smith and Emma were at the time living with her family in southern New York, where they had fled to obtain relief from the persecution and harassment. In April of 1829, Oliver traveled to visit them. He found them living in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
Very quickly after meeting with Joseph Smith and Emma, Oliver became convinced that the work was true and became Joseph’s primary scribe and very good friend. Oliver was the primary scribe for the handwritten draft of the Book of Mormon, as the record on the golden plates was to be called. From April 7 to the last week of June, 1829, Joseph dictated and Oliver wrote. In sixty working days, subtracting days they spent traveling and doing other work, they translated virtually all of which is now the Book of Mormon.
The Witnesses to the Book of Mormon
One of Joseph Smith’s burdens during this period had been to carry on the translation alone, though several different scribes assisted. At the direction of the angel, he alone was permitted to see and handle the plates, unless God directed otherwise. Finally Joseph got his answer as he translated a passage in Ether 5:3 which states, “And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.”
Three men were selected to be these special witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer, who had also served as scribe. The four men retired to woods around Fayette and prayed in turn for a manifestation from God. After some time, Harris withdrew, feeling that he was to blame for the lack of a heavenly vision. After he left, an angel appeared to the three remaining men and showed them the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and other artifacts. The men reported hearing the voice of God commanding them to testify to the world that these things were true. They were permitted to see, touch, and lift the plates. After the vision closed, Joseph found Martin Harris alone in the woods praying. The two of them continued praying and at last the angel reappeared and Harris saw the same things. Their testimony is affixed to the beginning of every copy of the Book of Mormon as “The Testimony of Three Witnesses.”
A short time later, Joseph was permitted to show the plates to eight other men: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Smith. Their testimony is known as the “Testimony of Eight Witnesses.” None of these eleven men every denied this testimony even though they endured severe hardships and were even threatened with death. Although some later left the Mormon Church because of unrelated disagreements, they never denied their testimonies about the Book of Mormon. Of the eleven, seven died in full fellowship with the Mormon Church and the remaining four, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, and Hiram Page, continued to affirm that the Book of Mormon was true even though disagreements and conflicts drove them out of the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith felt greatly relieved to have others to help him share the burden. After the translation was completed, Joseph Smith returned the gold plates to the angel Moroni, until the time should come that the rest of the record should be translated.
Publishing the Book of Mormon
Having obtained a copyright in June of 1829, Joseph Smith then sought to publish the Book of Mormon. E. B. Grandin, a publisher in Palmyra, New York, agreed to publish the book, but given the risky nature of the venture, only if $3,000 dollars could be raised. Martin Harris mortgaged his farm to raise the $3,000 dollars. Joseph further insisted that Grandin never be allowed to have the entire manuscript in his possession. A handwritten copy was made and each day several handwritten sheets were taken to the publisher where he set the type and printed the pages. At the end of the day, the sheets were returned to Joseph.
News of the forthcoming publication excited the local press and even made it into major newspapers in New York City. A local journalist named Abner Cole, writing under the pseudonym Obadiah Dogberry, stole some printed pages of the Book of Mormon and published them illegally in his newspaper along with mocking commentary. Joseph, who had the sole publishing rights, threatened legal action, and the writer ceased.
In late March of 1830, the first copies of the Book of Mormon were published, and the first official missionary work began, as Joseph Smith instructed his brother, Samuel Harrison Smith, to take several copies of the book and begin to share the message. He did so, and had some moderate success in distributing copies, but returned shortly. With the Book of Mormon published and the Priesthood authority restored, the time had come to organize the church officially.