Selected Teachings on Book of Mormon Translation
Accounts of the Translation Process

It is difficult to assess with certainty the exact process, or processes, by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. The few extant first-hand accounts from those who participated directly in the translation process provide little insight into the granular details of the process. Those accounts which provide the greatest amount of detail are typically 2nd hand accounts obtained from interviews or other interactions with eyewitnesses. The 2nd-hand nature of these accounts introduces the question of reporter accuracy when reporting the details of the account. Did the interviewer/note-taker record the details correctly? There is a desire to trust those accounts which were written by non-participants, such as Joseph Knight and David Whitmer, who were close to, but not directly involved in, the translation process. In several such accounts, however, the details contradict one another. For instance, were the plates present while Joseph translated, or were they not? Did he ever look at the plates, or did he always look into his hat? Did Joseph put the Nephite interpreters (the spectacles) into his hat, or did he only place his seer stone into the hat? Perhaps Joseph did some of all of these things at different times in the process, thus accounting for the contradictions. It's hard to assess with certainty. Then there are also many accounts from antagonistic sources which provide additional details. But should we trust those who are reporting the translation process with the intent to ridicule it? All of these hazards notwithstanding, several accounts are provided below for the reader to consider for themselves and to draw their own conclusions about the translation process.
1st Hand Accounts
Source
Method Summary
Joseph Smith (Translator)

1829. I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account, some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again. (Preface to the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829; josephsmithpapers.org)

Gift and power of God.
Joseph Smith (Translator)

1832. [Martin Harris] imediately came to Su[s]quehanna and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to new York City with some of the c[h]aracters so we proceeded to coppy some of them and he took his Journy to the Eastern Cittys and to the Learned <saying> read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the blates [plates] they would read it but the Lord had fo<r>bid it and he returned to me and gave them to <me to> translate and I said [I] cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prop[h]icy of Is<ia>ah was fulfilled. (History, circa Summer 1832; josephsmithpapers.org)

Method Summary

Used "spectacles" which the Lord had prepared.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1833. The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians; having been found through the ministration of an holy angel, and translated into our own language by the gift and power of God. (Letter to Noah C. Saxton, 4 January 1833; josephsmithpapers.org)

Method Summary

Gift and power of God.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1835. [The Angel told me] that the Urim and Thumim, was hid up with  the record, and that God would give me power to translate it, with the assistance of this instrument....

The Angel told me, that the reason why I could not obtain the plates at this time [1823], was because I was under transgression, but to come again in one year from that time. I did so but did not obtain them, also the third and the fourth year the last of which time I obtained them, and translated them into <the> english language by the gift and power of God and have been preaching it ever since. (Interview, 9 November 1835; josephsmithpapers.org)

Method Summary

With the assistance of the Urim and Thummim; by the gift and power of God.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1838. Moroni, who deposited the plates in a hill in Manchester, Ontario county, New York, being dead and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were, and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon. (History of the Church, 3:28)

Method Summary

By the means of the Urim and Thummim.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1839. Moroni, who deposited the plates in a hill in Manchester, Ontario county, New York, being dead and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were, and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon. (History of the Church, 3:28)

Method Summary

By means of the Urim and Thummim.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1842. These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction, and much skill in the art of engraving. With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called "Urim and Thummim," which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breast plate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God. ("The Wentworth Letter," History of the Church, 4:536-541)

Method Summary

Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1843. [T]he fact is, that by the power of God I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost to the world, in which wonderful event I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries, with a new revelation, which (if they would receive the everlasting Gospel,) would open the eyes of more than eight hundred millions of people, and make "plain the old paths," wherein if a man walk in all the ordinances of God blameless, he shall inherit eternal life. (History of the Church, 6:74-77)

Method Summary

By the power of God.

Joseph Smith (Translator)

1843. SIR:—Through the medium of your paper, I wish to correct an error.... The error I speak of, is the definition of the word “MORMON.” It has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek word mormo. This is not the case. There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon.... Here then the subject is put to silence, for “none other people knoweth our language,” [Morm. 9:34] therefore the Lord, and not man, had to interpret, after the people were all dead.29

Method Summary

By the grace of God; the Lord interpreted it.

Oliver Cowdery (Scribe)

1834. These were days never to be forgotten to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, "Interpreters," the history or record called "The book of Mormon." (Messenger and Advocate, 1:14) 

Method Summary

With the Urim and Thummim, or "Interpreters"

The Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, & David Whitmer)

1829. [We], through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. ("Testimony of the Three Witnesses")

Method Summary

By the gift and power of God.

Emma Smith (in a letter to Emma Pilgrim)

1870. Now, the first part my husband translated, was translated by the use of Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost. After that he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color. (Emma Smith Bidamon, Nauvoo, IL, to Emma Pilgrim, 27 Mar. 1870, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:532)

Method Summary

116 pages by Urim and Thummim. The remainder (Mosiah-Moroni and 1 Nephi-Omni) by using a small dark colored stone.

David Whitmer (an observer of the process (?) in his home in Fayette, New York; 1st hand account)

1881. My statement was and now is that in translating he put the stone in his hat and putting his face in his hat so as to excluded the light and that then the light and characters appeared in the hat together with the interpretation which he uttered and was written by the scribe and which was tested at the time as stated. (David Whitmer to the editor, Kansas City Daily Journal, June 19, 1881; cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 71-72)

Method Summary

Seer stone in a hat. Characters appeared with the interpretation.

David Whitmer (Reported 2nd hand in the St. Louis Republican)

1884. The understanding we have about it was that when the book was discovered an angel was present and pointed the place out. In translating from the plates, Joseph Smith looked through the Urim and Thummim, consisting of two transparent pebbles set in the rim of a bow, fastened to a breastplate. He dictated by looking through them to his scribes. (St. Louis Republican, July 16, 1884; cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 143)

Method Summary

Looked through the Urim and Thummim.

David Whitmer (Reported 2nd hand in the Chicago Tribune)

1885. Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After prayer Smith would sit on one side of a table and the amanuenses, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English. ("The Book of Mormon;' Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3. The Tribune correspondent visited and interviewed Whitmer on December 15, 1885, at Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri)

Method Summary

Affixed the spectacles to his eyes. Looked "through the glasses" at the plates and translated one character at a time.

David Whitmer (Reported 2nd hand in the Chicago Tribune)

1885. In order to give privacy to the proceeding a blanket, which served as a portiere, was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith's relatives besides. ("The Book of Mormon;' Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3. The Tribune correspondent visited and interviewed Whitmer on December 15, 1885, at Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri)

Method Summary

A privacy blanket was used only to shield the translator and scribes from those who might "call at the house."

David Whitmer (an observer of the process (?) in his home in Fayette, New York; 1st hand account)

1887. I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man. (An Address to All Believers in Christ, (1887), p. 12)

Method Summary

Seer stone in a hat. Parchment appeared with ancient writing and under it, the interpretation in English.

2nd Hand Accounts
Jonathan A. Hadley (Printer of a Palmyra Newspaper who had spoken to Joseph personally about the coming forth of the plates and the translation process)

1829. "By placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters." ("Golden Bible," Palmyra (NY) Freeman, 11 Aug. 1829, [2]; quoted in The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Volume 1, xxxi).

Method Summary

Spectacles in a hat.

Shaker Richard McNemar (a Shaker from Union Village)

1830. In late 1830 Oliver Cowdery traveled through the Shaker community of Union Village, Ohio. One Shaker recorded that, while there, Oliver Cowdery explained the translation process as follows: "The engraving being unintelligible to learned & unlearned. there is said to have been in the box with the plates two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind. which he uttered to the amanuensis who wrote it down." (Goodwillie, "Shaker Richard McNemar," 143; quoted in The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Volume 1, xxxi-xxxii).

Method Summary

Looked at the plates through the spectacles, then looked into his hat.

Peter Bauder (hostile interviewer of Joseph Smith)

1830. [Joseph Smith] went, and after the third or fourth time, which was repeated once a year, he obtained a parcel of plate resembling gold, on which were engraved what he did not understand, only by the aid of a glass which he also obtained with the plate, by which means he was enabled to translate the characters on the plate into English ... and after he had a part translated, the angel conmanded him to carry the plate into a certain piece of woods, which he did:—the angel took them and carried them to parts unknown to him. (Online Source)

Method Summary

By the aid of a glass.

Evangelical Magazine (hostile magazine report)

1831. Oliver Cowdery, one of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath [during the June 1830 Colesville trials], that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates. (Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 9 April 1831; see online account. Note: that this is quoted by an unbeliever, in an antagonistic magazine, in a spirit of incredulity adds to the force of Oliver's statement)

Method Summary

Looking through two transparent stones.

(Suggests that Joseph is looking at the plates)

Joseph Knight (faithful friend to Joseph Smith)

183?. Now the way he [Joseph Smith] translated was he put the Urim and Thummim into his hat and darkened his eyes. Then he would take a sentence and it would appear in bright Roman letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away [and] the next sentence would come, and so on. But if it was not spelled right it would not go away till it was right. So we see, it was marvelous. Thus was the whole translated. ("Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," BYU Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1; spelling and grammar modernized; online version)

Method Summary

Urim and Thummim in his hat; word-by-word dictation.

Reuben Miller (Reported Oliver Cowdery's words)

1848. [Oliver said:] Friends and brethren my name is Cowdrey, Oliver Cowdrey, In the early history of this church I stood Identified with her. And [was] one in her councils.... I wrote with my own pen the intire book of mormon (Save a few pages) as it fell from the Lips of the prophet [Joseph Smith]. As he translated <it> by the gift and power of god, By [the] means of the urum and thummim, or as it is called by that book holy Interperters. I beheld with my eyes. And handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interperters. That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr [Solomon] Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the Lips of the prophet. ("Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery's Reaffirmations," BYU Studies 8, no. 3 (1968):277-293)

Method Summary

Gift and power of God; by means of the Urim and Thummim, or "Interpreters."

Edmund C. Briggs (Interviewer of Emma Smith)

1856. [Emma Smith said:] When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.

When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, “Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When I answered “Yes,” he replied “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.” He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls. (Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454. Edmund C. Briggs and Samuel H. Gurley traveled to Nauvoo to visit Joseph Smith III and testify to him of the reorganization of the Church, which had recently occurred in Wisconsin. Briggs and Gurley arrived at the Mansion House in Nauvoo on December 5, 1856, and interviewed Emma Smith Bidamon three days later)

Method Summary

Word-by-word dictation; spelling difficult words.

Iowa State Register (Interviewer of Martin Harris)

1870. By means of the urim and thummim “a pair of large spectacles,” as Mr. Harris termed them, the translation was made, and Mr. Harris claims to have written, of the translations as they were given by Smith, “116 solid pages of cap [foolscap].” The remainder was written by others. (“A Witness to the Book of Mormon,” Des Moines Iowa State Register, August 28, 1870; cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:330.

Method Summary

By means of the urim and thummim spectacles.

William E. McLellin (report of Elizabeth Whitmer Cowdery's words)

1870. I staid in Richmond two days and nights. I had a great deal of talk with widow Cowdry [Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery], and her amiable daughter. She is married to a Dr Johnson, but has no children. She gave me a certificate, And this is the copy. “Richmond, Ray Co., Mo. Feb 15, 1870———I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him.” (William E. McLellin to “My Dear Friends,” February 1870, Community of Christ Library-Archives; cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 233–34. Elizabeth Whitmer was the sister of David Whitmer. She was fourteen years old when the translation was completed at her parents’ home in Fayette, New York. She married Oliver Cowdery in 1832)

Method Summary

Placed the "director" in his hat. Words appeared.

Simon Smith (Interviewer of Martin Harris)

1875. He [Martin Harris] also said, “I was Joseph Smith’s scribe, and wrote for him a great deal; for he was such a poor writer, and could not even draw up a note of hand as his education was so limited. I also wrote for him about one third of the first part of the translation of the plates as he interpreted them by the Urim and Thummim. And I paid the printer about three thousand dollars for the first edition of the Book of Mormon.” (Simon Smith to the editor, April 30, 1884, Saints’ Herald 31 (May 24, 1884): 324. Smith visited Martin Harris in Clarkston, Utah, in July 1875)

Method Summary

By the Urim and Thummim.

Joseph Smith III (interviewer of his mother, Emma Smith)

1879. [Emma Smith said:] In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us....
The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metalic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book....
My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible. (Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289–90; and Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (October 1879): 50–52. Joseph Smith III wrote that Emma reviewed the answers he had recorded for her. The answers “were affirmed by her” on the day before he left Nauvoo. Emma’s husband Lewis C. Bidamon asserted that Emma’s answers were “substantially what she had always stated” at times when they discussed the translation of the Book of Mormon)

Method Summary

Dictated hour after hour with his head in his hat, looking at his stone. He did not look directly at the plates, but they were nearby on the table.

Edward Stevenson (interviewer)

1881. Martin Harris ... said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone. Martin explained the translating as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, "Written," and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.

Martin said further that the seer stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembled spectacles, only they were larger. Martin said there were not many pages translated while he wrote; after which Oliver Cowdery and others did the writing. (Deseret Evening News, December 13, 1881)

Method Summary

Joseph used the seer stone as well as the Urim and Thummim.

Edward Stevenson (interviewer)

1886. Brother Harris ... stated that the Prophet translated a portion of the Book of Mormon, with the seer stone in his possession. The stone was placed in a hat that was used for that purpose, and with the aid of this seer stone the Prophet would read sentence by sentence as Martin wrote, and if he made any mistake the sentence would remain before the Prophet until corrected, when another sentence would appear. When they became weary, as it was confining work to translate from the plates of gold, they would go down to the river and throw stones into the water for exercise.

Martin on one occasion picked up a stone resembling the one with which they were translating, and on resuming their work Martin placed the false stone in the hat. He said that the Prophet looked quietly for a long time, when he raised his head and said: “Martin, what on earth is the matter, all is dark as Egypt.” Martin smiled and the seer discovered that the wrong stone was placed in the hat. When he asked Martin why he had done so he replied, to stop the mouths of fools who had declared that the Prophet knew by heart all that he told him to write, and did not see by the seer stone; when the true stone was placed in the hat, the translation was resumed, as usual. (“The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon,” Millennial Star 48 (June 21, 1886): 389–90)

Method Summary

Part of the Book of Mormon was translated with the seer stone by placing it in his hat. Words appeared.

Other 2nd + Hand Accounts
(Source Uncertain)

Nancy Towle (visiting critic)

1832. [2nd-hand account. Reported by Nancy Towle]. He accordingly went; and was directed by the angel to a certain spot of ground, where was deposited a “Box”—and in that box contained “Plates,” which resembled gold; also, a pair of “interpreters,” (as he called them,) that resembled spectacles; by looking into which, he could read a writing engraven upon the plates, though to himself, in a tongue unknown. (Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America (Charleston: James L. Burges, 1832), 138–39. In October 1831, Towle visited Kirtland, where she attended Sabbath meetings, witnessed a baptism, and engaged in a contentious dialogue with W. W. Phelps, Martin Harris, and Sidney Rigdon. She also met Joseph Smith and watched him give the gift of the Holy Ghost to several women and children)

Method Summary

Looks through the spectacles and reads the engraving on the plates.

Truman Coe (unfriendly editorial)

1836. An angel descended and warned him that God was about to make an astonishing revelation to the world, and then directed him to go to such a place, and after prying up a stone he should find a number of plates of the color of gold inscribed with hieroglyphics, and under them a breastplate, and under that a transparent stone or stones which was the Urim and Thummim mentioned by Moses.... The manner of translation was as wonderful as the discovery. By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummin, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him. After delivering this to his emanuensi, he would again proceed in the same manner and obtain the meaning of the next character, and so on till he came to a part of the plates which were sealed up, and there was commanded to desist: and he says he has a promise from God that in due time he will enable him to translate the remainder. (Cincinnati Journal and Western Luminary (25 August 1836). Reprinted from Ohio Observer, circa August 1836; see online version)

Method Summary

Puts his finger on a character on the plates; looks into the Urim and Thummim; sees the word written in English on a "screen."