Ezra Taft Benson said: “A . . . powerful testimony to the importance of the Book of Mormon is to note where the Lord placed its coming forth in the timetable of the unfolding Restoration. The only thing that preceded it was the First Vision. In that marvelous manifestation, the Prophet Joseph Smith learned the true nature of God and that God had a work for him to do.
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon was the next thing to follow.
“Think of that in terms of what it implies. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon preceded the restoration of the priesthood. It was published just a few days before the Church was organized. The Saints were given the Book of Mormon to read before they were given the revelations outlining such great doctrines as the three degrees of glory, celestial marriage, or work for the dead. It came before priesthood quorums and Church organization. Doesn’t this tell us something about how the Lord views this sacred work?” (in onference Report, Oct. 1986, 3; or Ensign , Nov. 1986, 4).
The Book of Mormon and Our Own Spirituality
The Prophet Joseph Smith said to the Twelve Apostles on 28 November 1841: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion and a man would get nearer to God: by abiding by its precepts than by any other book.” ( History of the Churc h, 4:461).
Ezra Taft Benson said: “Now, we have not been using the Book of Mormon as we should. Our homes are not as strong unless we are using it to bring our children to Christ. . . . Our Church classes are not as spirit-filled unless we hold it up as a standard. . . . Reading the Book of Mormon is one of the greatest persuaders to get men on missions. We need more missionaries. But, we also need better-prepared missionaries coming out of the wards and branches and homes where they know and love the Book of Mormon. . . .
“Every Latter-day Saint should make the study of this book a lifetime pursuit. Otherwise he is placing his soul in jeopardy and neglecting that which could give spiritual and intellectual unity to his whole life. There is a difference between a convert who is built on the rock of Christ through the Book of Mormon and stays hold of that iron rod, and one who is not.” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1975, 96–97).
Preparing to Receive the Plates
After Three Years, Joseph Seeks to Know His Status
After his first vision, Joseph was clear on the status of the sectarian world—“that it was not my duty to join with any of them.” He also knew for sure that he could turn to God and get answers. He continued to suffer ridicule and abuse from many people but his family members supported him believingly. He resolved to “continue as I was until further directed.”
Joseph was a Typical Teenage Boy, Living a Normal Life.
It had been three years—a long period of time for a teenage boy—and in all that time he had heard nothing more from the Lord. He began to worry about his spiritual standing. “During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty-three—having been forbidden to join any of the religious sects of the day, and being of very tender years, and persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends . . . I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God” (JSH 1:28).
The Prophet assures us: “In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament”. Imagine that—a teenage boy acting foolishly, pulling tricks on people, and hanging out with the wrong crowd at times. He was, after all, a youngster, and one who loved life and loved to laugh.
On September 21, 1823, Joseph sought to know his status with the Lord. It having been three years, and feeling “condemned for my weakness and imperfections,” the Prophet lay in bed on the evening of September 21, 1838, and offered prayer to his God. He desired “forgiveness of all my sins and follies” and also asked for “a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him.” He says he had “full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.”
In his diary, the Prophet Joseph Smith said of that evening: “When I was about 17 years old, I had another visitation . . . in the night . . . after I had retired to bed. I had not been asleep, but was meditating upon my past life and xperience. I was very conscious that I had not kept the commandments and I repented heartily for all my sins and transgression, and humbled myself before Him whose eyes are on all things.” ( Joseph Smith Diary , [9 November 1835], Church Archives)
The Appearance of the Angel Moroni
The Angel Moroni appeared in Joseph’s bedroom in answer to his prayer. “While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a alight appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor” (v. 30).
The Prophet described the angel’s appearance. “He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom” (v. 31). He was beholding a resurrected person, so this vision gives us some idea of how resurrected persons look when they appear.
The angel’s robe was not the only thing that was “exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me” (JSH 1: 32).
Joseph was not alone in this bedroom. Several siblings lay sleeping beside him. But they were not awakened by either the light or the voice of this angel. It would seem that only Joseph could see and hear him. The others slept blissfully throughout the vision.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “On the evening of the 21st of September, A.D. 1823, while I was praying unto God . . . light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance, and brightness burst into the room, indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire; the appearance produced a shock that affected the whole body; in a moment a personage stood before me surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded.” ( Times and Seasons , 1 Mar. 1842, 707)
Oliver Cowdery said: “The stature of this personage was a little above the common size of men in this age; his garment was perfectly white, and had the appearance of being without seam . . . . [The angel identified himself as Moroni ], “a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord, to deliver a special message, and to witness to him [Joseph] that his sins were forgiven, and that his prayers were heard.” ( Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, 79).
The angel called Joseph Smith by name and said “he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.”
Neal A. Maxwell said: “ Throughout the expanse of human history, no prophet has been scrutinized in such a sustained way, on as wide a scale, or for so long a period of time as Joseph Smith, Jr. The communication capacity of this age and the global impact of his work have so ensured. Young Joseph was told that his name would be “both good and evil spoken of” throughout the world. Except from a divine source, how audacious a statement! Yet his contemporary religious leaders, then much better known than Joseph, have faded into the footnotes of history, while the work of Joseph Smith grows constantly and globally.” (in Conference Report, October 1983, Ensign, November 1983, 54.)
Moroni told Joseph about the Nephite plates containing an account of the inhabitants of ancient America and the Savior’s ministry among them. “He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (JSH 1:34). Moroni told Joseph that “the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled” but that when he did receive them “I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed” (JSH 1: 42).
A vision then opened before Joseph’s mind so that he “could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it” (JSH 1: 42).
Moroni also told Joseph about the Urim and Thummim . He described them as “two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim — deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”
Moroni Departs and Reappears
When Moroni departed, Joseph said, “I saw the light in the room begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking to me, and it continued to do so until the room was again left dark, except just around him; when, instantly I saw, as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended till he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance.”
We can imagine Joseph Smith lying there, musing on singularity of the scene, and marveling greatly at what had been told to me by this extraordinary messenger” (JSH 1:44). While he did so, “my room was again beginning to get lighted, and in an instant, as it were, the same heavenly messenger was again by my bedside” (JSH 1:44). Joseph said that he “again related the very same things which he had done at his first visit, without the least variation; which having done, he informed me of great judgments which were coming upon the earth, with great desolations by famine, sword, and pestilence; and that these grievous judgments would come on the earth in this generation.” And then, “he again ascended as he had done before” (v. 45).
Moroni appeared a third time and Joseph said, “so deep were the impressions made on my mind, that sleep had fled from my eyes, and I lay overwhelmed in astonishment at what I had both seen and heard” (v. 46). But we can imagine his great “surprise when again I beheld the same messenger at my bedside, and heard him rehearse or repeat over again to me the same things as before” (JSH 1:46). This time, the angel “added a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them.” The angel then ascended into heaven again as he had done before, leaving Joseph to “ponder on the strangeness of what I had just experienced; when almost immediately . . . the cock crowed, and I found that day was approaching, so that our interviews must have occupied the whole of that night.”
Trying to Work
Joseph had been up all night and was exhausted. He tried to work on the farm with his father, as usual, but was not able. His father told him to go home. He started to do so, “but, in attempting to cross the fence out of the field where we were, my strength entirely failed me, and I fell helpless on the ground, and for a time was quite unconscious of anything.” When he came to, he heard a voice “calling me by name. I looked up, and beheld the same messenger standing over my head, surrounded by light as before. He then again related unto me all that he had related to me the previous night, and commanded me to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandments which I had received”. Joseph did this, returning to the field and “rehears[ing] the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger” (v. 50).
Joseph Smith, Sr. from the beginning believed in and sustained the prophetic calling of his son. Soon after D&C 4 was given to him in answer to his desire to know what the Lord would have him do, he became one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon. He became the first Patriarch to the Church December 18, 1833, and an assistant counselor in the First Presidency in 1837, in which calling he served faithfully until his death in 1840.
E. Cecil McGavin noted: “Joseph Smith, Sr. was filled with the testimony of the truth, and was always anxious to share it with others. He was almost sixty when he made the tedious journey…to carry the gospel to his father and mother, his sisters and brothers. Soon after his return [home,] he was imprisoned for a small debt of fourteen dollars, rather than deny the divinity of the Book of Mormon and be forgiven the debt! He was cast into a cell with a condemned murderer and left for four days without food. Later he was transferred to the prison workyard where he preached the gospel and converted two persons whom he later baptized. He was in prison a full month before his family was able to obtain his release” ( The Family of Joseph Smith, [ Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, Inc., 1965],
Moroni’s Message Clarified Old Testament Prophecies
In explaining the restoration of the gospel during these visions, the angel Moroni quoted or summarized at least five Old Testament prophecies, indicating that they would soon be fulfilled. In 1842, Joseph Smith explained Moroni’s message to John Wentworth, a newspaper editor: The Prophet Joseph Smith said: ”This messenger proclaimed himself to be an angel of God sent to bring the joyful tidings, that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel, in all its fulness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign.” ( History of the Church , 4:537).
Moroni quoted Malachi 3:1–3 These verses about the preparation for the second coming of the Lord, say “the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in” (Malachi 3:1). We know from modern revelation that this “messenger of the covenant” is the Lord himself. We are told that when the Lord comes again he will be like “a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifer of silver” (Malachi 3:23). In other words, he will purge all wickedness from the earth.
The scripture also makes mention of the sons of Levi making offerings again at the temple of the Lord (Malachi 3:3). We should note the heavy emphasis on the temple in these predictions. The restoration has barely begun, and already Joseph is learning of the importance of the temple to the Lord’s work.
Next, Moroni quoted Malachi 4:1 . Joseph said he quoted Malachi 4 “with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles.” Instead of quoting Malachi 4:1 as it reads in the Bible, he said: “For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble ; for they that come shall burn them , saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch” (JSH 1:37) emphasis added to highlight changed words). This prophetic language has multiple meanings. It can refer to the utter destruction of the wicked at the second coming. But it also has symbolic meaning concerning eternal families—that those who choose to do wickedly will not be eternally connected to their ancestors or descendants, but will live singly and without eternal family relationships forever.
Moroni quoted Malachi 4:5–6. Moroni quoted these two verses differently also. He said “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers , and t he hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers . If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.”
Here, at the very beginning of the restoration, we have Moroni emphasizing the importance of genealogical and temple work, and stating that without it the entire history of the world and plan of salvation would have been a “waste.” It will be 13 years before the keys of this work will be restored (1838), yet the groundwork is already being laid. As if to emphasize its importance, this one scripture appears in all four of our standard works.
How important is temple work, then? And why is this instruction repeated so many times throughout the scriptures?
Again, early in the young Prophet’s life, he is already being taught temple principles and being prepared to be a restorer of these blessings to the earth.
When Moroni quoted Isaiah 11 , h e said that the prophecies contained in this chapter were “about to be fulfilled.” It is interesting to note that in D&C 113, we find the Prophet Joseph Smith explaining the scripture to others, perhaps based on what Moroni told him in this vision. Several of these verses refer to a latter-day prophet who will restore Israel and hold the keys of the priesthood. These refer specifically to the Prophet Joseph himself.
Moroni quoted Joel 2:28–32 about revelation in the latter days and also some of the destructions that will precede the second coming of the Lord, he said also “was not yet fulfilled, but was soon to be.” Then Moroni “quoted many other passages of scripture and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here.”
A Period of Preparation
When Joseph Smith was first shown the gold plates at the tender age of 17, he was not yet prepared to receive and translate them. But the Lord prepared Joseph to receive and translate the plates over the next four years. There were a number of things that Joseph had to learn before he could receive the plates:
— The need to be strictly obedient to the Lord’s commandments
— The sacredness of the ancient record
— The power of Satan, who would attempt to destroy both Joseph and the record
— The future destiny of the work to which Joseph had been called
Instruction at the Hill Cumorah
When Joseph first went to the Hill Cumorah, because his vision had been so distinct, “he knew the place instantly,” and used a lever to lift up the edge of the stone coverint the box. Moroni had warned Joseph that he would be tempted to seek the gold plates for worldly gain, and indeed when he first beheld the block of golden plates, he allowed himself to marvel and wonder at their monetary worth. Because of this, when he “made an attempt to take them out, [he] was forbidden by the messenger, and was again informed that the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived, neither would it, until four years from that time” (JSH-1:53). This was greatly disappointing to Joseph, but he learned an important lesson about righteous motivation and obedience.
Lucy Mack Smith said: ”The angel told him . . . that the time had not yet come for the plates to be brought forth to the world; that he could not take them from the place wherein they were deposited until he had learned to keep the commandments of God—not only till he was willing but able to do it.” ( History of Joseph Smith , 81).
During that first visit to Cumorah, though he could not obtain the plates, the Lord gave Joseph Smith a vision of his glory followed by a vision of the Prince of Darkness so that Joseph would be able to recognize the difference between the two powers, and to resist temptation. (B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 6 vols. [ Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 78–80).
According to Oliver Cowdery, Moroni told the Prophet during that first visit, “When it is known that the Lord has shown you these things, the workers of iniquity will seek your overthrow: they will circulate falsehoods to destroy your reputation, and also will seek to take your life.” ( Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate , Oct. 1835, 199).
Moroni told Joseph Smith “that I should come to that place precisely in one year from that time, and that he would there meet with me, and that I should continue to do so until the time should come for obtaining the plates” (v. 53). This he did, going “at the end of each year, and at each time I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days” (v. 54). These annual visits on the 22nd of September, 1823–1827, were days of instruction concerning the restoration and concerning the history and culture of the Nephites.
Lucy Mack Smith said:
Joseph continued to receive instructions from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same. I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth—all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, who had never read the Bible through in his life. . . . The sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house and tranquility reigned in our midst.
He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease . . . as if he had spent his whole life among them.” ( History of Joseph Smith , 82–83).
Important Family Events While Waiting for the Plates
The Smiths were not wealthy and had to work hard on their farm and in day jobs around the area to support themselves. As the eldest brother, Alvin was an important key to their earning power. He had also labored hard to build a nice frame home for his parents so they wouldn’t have to live in the original log cabin anymore. But during that first year after Joseph’s first visit to the Hill Cumorah, his brother Alvin died, leaving the family in financial difficulty and in mourning. Lucy Mack Smith said:
On the 15th of November, 1823, about ten o’clock in the morning, Alvin was taken very sick [and treatment by several different physicians did not help. After a few days of sickness,] he called Hyrum to him and said, ‘Hyrum, I must die. Now I want to say a few things, which I wish to have you remember. I have done all I could to make our dear parents comfortable. I want you to go on and finish the house and take care of them in their old age, and do not any more let them work hard, as they are now in old age.’ . . . He called for all the children and exhorted them separately in the same strain as above. But when he came to Joseph, he said, ‘I am now going to die, the distress which I suffer and the feelings that I have, tell me my time is very short. I want you to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you. Your brother Alvin must leave you; but remember the example which he has set for you; and set the same example for the children that are younger than yourself, and always be kind to your father and mother . . . ‘ Alvin was a youth of singular goodness of disposition—kind and amiable, so that lamentation and mourning filled the whole neighborhood in which he resided.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith , 86–88).
Joseph Meets and Marries Emma Hale.
In answer to the family’s financial crisis, “In the month of October, 1825, [Joseph] hired with an old gentleman by the name of Josiah Stoal, who lived in Chenango county, State of New York . He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanna county, State of Pennsylvania ”. While employed by Mr. Stoal, Joseph boarded with the Hale family in Harmony, Pennsylvania , and there, for the first time, “saw my wife (his daughter), Emma Hale.”
Translation of the Record Begins
The Angel Moroni told the Prophet in 1823 that great persecution would come. According to Oliver Cowdery, Moroni said, “When it is known that the Lord has shown you these things, the workers of iniquity will seek your overthrow: they will circulate falsehoods to destroy your reputation, and also will seek to take your life.” ( Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate , Oct. 1835, 199).
Joseph and Emma moved back to Joseph’s parents home near Palmyra , where he farmed with his father that spring and summer season (v. 58). The year was 1827, and this was the year in which Moroni had told Joseph he could obtain the plates. Thus, “On the twenty-second day of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, having gone as usual at the end of another year to the place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them up to me” (v. 59). Emma rode to the hill with Joseph, in a borrowed carriage, in the middle of the night, and waited patiently in the dark while Joseph met with Moroni and received the plates.
The Angel Moroni warned again as he delivered the plates to Joseph, as he had during their first visit at the Hill Cumorah in 1823: “You are but a man, therefore you will have to be watchful and faithful to your trust, or you will be overpowered by wicked men; for they will lay every plan and scheme that is possible to get it away from you, and if you do not take heed continually, they will succeed.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, 110).
Joseph soon learned that Moroni ‘s prophecies would be literally fulfilled . Leaving the Hill Cumorah, Joseph temporarily hid the plates in an old log. Later, while transferring them to his home, he was attacked several times. This quickly taught Joseph why Moroni had given him the warning concerning the safety of the plates.
Translating Begins in Harmony, Pennsylvania
After Joseph had received the plates, the harassment and persecution in Palmyra became very severe, forcing Joseph and Emma to move to Harmony, Pennsylvania , the home of his inlaws, the Hales. Some of the anger that existed at the time of their marriage had subsided, and the Hales consented to have them return.
Martin Harris, a prominent resident of Palmyra , was one of the first to believe in Joseph Smith’s work. He gave Joseph fifty dollars to assist him in moving to Harmony, Pennsylvania . It was there in the temporary peace of Harmony that the translation began. Persecution soon arose in Harmony. Isaac Hale heard that Joseph had the plates with him and demanded to see them. When Joseph refused his demand, he refused to let them stay.
Joseph purchased a modest home and farm from him nearby across the road, which bordered on the back of the property with the Susquehanna River . Joseph worked on his farm to support his family and translation work was very slow. He learned how to use the Urim and Thummim to translate and managed to copy and translate a few characters. It was there, in that home, that Emma acted as Joseph’s first scribe, but because of his and her many duties very little was able to be translated. She became pregnant with their first child during that time.
In 1879, Emma bore solemn witness of the plates and their miraculous translation:
I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting . . . and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us. . . . He had neither manuscript or book to read from . . . If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me. . . .
Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much as to anyone else . . .
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 your 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.”
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 metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb.” (Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate, 2 [Oct. 1879], 51).
Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
Sometime between December 1827 and February 1828, Martin Harris received a vision affirming the divinity of Joseph’s work. Martin had received much criticism from his wife, family and neighbors for his support of Joseph Smith. He desired scientific “proof” of Joseph’s work to convince them—a weakness that persisted in his life.
In February 1828, he traveled to Harmony to obtain a copy of the ancient characters and their translation. He took them east to show them to a “learned man” who could verify their authenticity and accuracy. Eventually, he actually showed them to two learned men.
The first learned man, Professor Charles Anthon unwittingly fulfilled an ancient prophecy made by Isaiah. He recognized the characters as being of ancient origin, and claimed he could translate them, though he certainly could not—the world was years from the time when the Rosetta stone provided a way to translate ancient Egyptian characters. Probably for his own academic career’s sake he sought to obtain the record, and when Martin Harris told him he could not have it because the record was “sealed,” he made his famous and prophecy-fulfilling statement that “I cannot read a sealed book” (Isaiah 29:11; 2 Nephi 27:15) and promptly tore up the certificate of authenticity he had given to Martin. Martin then took the characters to a second learned man, Professor Samuel Mitchell, who also verified their authenticity as ancient characters.
Hard Lessons about Strict Obedience—The Lost Manuscript
Martin’s assistance, both financially and as a scribe were very valuable to Joseph Smith. Convinced of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon plates after his visit with learned men, Martin prepared to come to Harmony to help with translating. His wife insisted on coming with him, but she stirred up so much prejudice toward Joseph that Martin had to take her home before the work could begin.
For the next two months—April 12 to June 14, 1828—Martin was Joseph’s scribe as he translated 116 pages. Those pages were 13 x 17 inches in size, the equivalent of 300 pages of 8 ½ x 11 inch paper. Their work covered the writings and events of the prophet Lehi on the large plates of Mormon.
Martin’s great weakness was pride. He was convinced that if he could show his family their work, they would believe him. He asked the Prophet for permission from the Lord for him to show his family the manuscript. At Martin’s insistence, Joseph asked twice, and both times the answer was “no.” Unsatisfied with the answer he insisted that Joseph ask again.
Joseph was afraid of offending Martin Harris, who had befriended him and supported him with both his money and his time. Joseph was young and had very few friends—especially friends with Martin Harris’ reputation. He was worried about offending his prominent friend and about losing his valuable support. He foolishly pestered the Lord a third time and was told he could do it, though it wasn’t wise.
Martin made a solemn covenant that he would show them only to give people—his wife, her sister, his mother and father, and his brother — and would write to Joseph regularly. Martin then hurried off to Palmyra, where he violated his covenant in order to “test” the Lord. He wanted to see if Joseph would translate the record precisely the same a second time, which he no doubt believed that he would but he wanted scientific proof for his wife and family.
Tragedy struck Joseph’s young family during this time. The following day, Emma prematurely delivered their first child—who died the same day. They named the child Alvin—after Joseph’s beloved deceased older brother. The grave of this first-born child still lies today in the cemetery not too far east of the site of Joseph and Emma’s home. Emma nearly died herself from complications of the childbirth. Joseph sat up with her night after night until she was out of danger and began to mend.
Moroni Withdraws the Record
Meanwhile, Martin Harris had not written to Joseph as promised. Emma eventually convinced him to go Palmyra to investigate what had happened. When he got there he discovered, to his horror, that the manuscript had been lost. Joseph fell into deep anguish and self-condemnation for allowing the record out of his possession. Lucy Mack Smith said:
I besought him not to mourn so, for perhaps the Lord would forgive him, after a short season of humiliation and repentance. But what could I do to comfort him, when he saw all the family in the same situation of mind as himself; for sobs and groans, and the most bitter lamentations filled the house. However, Joseph was more distressed than the rest, as he better understood the consequences of disobedience. And he continued pacing back and forth, meantime weeping and grieving, until about sunset, when, by persuasion, he took a little nourishment. The next morning, he set out for home. We parted with heavy hearts, for it now appeared that all which we had so fondly anticipated, and which had been the source of so much secret gratification, had in a moment fled, and fled forever.” (History of Joseph Smith, 129).
Joseph returned to Harmony in July of 1828, and went to the Lord in prayerful sorrow. Moroni appeared, demanded the Urim and Thummim and condemned him for his serious offense. He offered some hope, however, with a promise: “If you are very humble and penitent, it may be you will receive them [the Urim and Thummim] again; if so, it will be on the 22 nd of next September.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, 134).
The Purposes of God Cannot Be Frustrated
A few days later, in July 1828, Moroni appeared again to Joseph and gave him the Urim and Thummim long enough for him to receive a revelation from the Lord—which is now recorded as D&C 3. This revelation is a thorough scolding of the Prophet for his foolishness and a warning that if he did not learn to be obedient he might lose his sacred calling. I believe it to be one of the evidences of the truth of Joseph’s testimony, because an egotistical fraud would never have published such a stern condemnation of himself and his weaknesses.
In D&C 3, the Lord reminded Joseph that the works of God cannot be frustrated (v. 1). God knows the end from the beginning because “his course is one eternal round” (v. 2). This means that all things, past, present, and future are continually before Him. As Neal A. Maxwell said, “What we mortals encounter as the unforeseen, God has already seen.” ( Ensign , Nov. 1987, 31). We cannot comprehend how this is done because all things in this mortal life have a beginning and an end. But we may rest assured that God knows and comprehends everything, and “it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men” (v. 3). This should give us absolute confidence in his promises to us.
The Lord will not permit His prophet to lead us astray . While scolding the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord said, “although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.” The Lord makes a very important assurance in this verse—that if his chosen prophet should stray from the truth and attempt to lead the people of God astray, He will not permit it. He will remove such a prophet before this can destroy His work. We can, therefore, have absolute confidence that we will never go astray so long as we follow the Lord’s Prophet.
L. Tom Perry said: “I pray that all the members of the Church will recognize that there is safety when we follow the prophet and strictly heed his voice.” ( Living with Enthusiasm [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1966], 124). J. Reuben Clark, Jr. said: “You will never make a mistake by following the instructions and the counsel of him who stands at the head as God’s mouthpiece on earth” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1945, 166). Ezra Taft Benson said: “Keep your eye on the Prophet, for the Lord will never permit his Prophet to lead this Church astray. Let us live close to the Spirit, so we can test all counsel” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1966, 123). And Joseph Fielding Smith said: “I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.” (“Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,” Ensign, July 1972, 88).
In the next verses in D&C 3, the Lord chastened Joseph for fearing man (Martin’s opinion of him) more than God. The Lord had entrusted Joseph with the plates and other sacred things and given him strict commandments concerning them (v. 5). This refers in part to Joseph Smith’s first interview with Moroni and the cautions and promises made to him at that time (JS-History 1:33–54, 59). And yet, because of his youth and inexperience he had too often “transgressed the commandments and the laws of God” (v. 6). Because of the “persuasions of men” he had “feared man more than God” (vv. 6–7). Because of this, Joseph had “set at naught the counsels of God, and despise[d] his words” (v. 7). If he had been more faithful and trusting in the Lord “he would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble” (v. 8). Like all of us, Joseph needed to learn to trust the Lord and His promises, no matter how difficult the situation.
The Lord said, “Behold, thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou wilt fall” (v. 9). He reminded Joseph that He is merciful and that if he would repent “thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work” (v. 10). But if not, “thou shalt be delivered up and become as other men, and have no more gift” (v. 11). The Prophet took this counsel to heart. He said to the Saints in Kirtland, “I declare unto you the warning which the Lord has commanded me to declare unto this generation, remembering that the eyes of my Maker are upon me, and that to Him I am accountable for every word I say” (Letter to N.E. Seaton, Esq., Kirtland, January 4th, 1833, in James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , 6 vols. [ Salt Lake City : Bookcraft, 1965–75], 1:312-316 ”. And he counseled the Saints at Nauvoo that “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire” ( Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith , sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [ Salt Lake City : Deseret Book Co., 1976], 256).
At the close of this revelation, Moroni then took back the Urim and Thummim—and the plates—leaving Joseph to think about what he had done for the next two months.
The Designs of Evil Men
The sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are not inserted chronologically. If we look at the headings for D&C 3, D&C 4, and D&C 10, we note the following:
— D&C 3 was given in July 1828.
— D&C 10 was given in September of 1828, though this fact was missed in versions of the D&C prior to 1921.
— D&C 4, a revelation to Joseph Smith, Sr., came after D&C 10 in February 1829.
—D&C 5–9 were all given in April and May of 1829.
We can conclude, therefore, that the next revelation Joseph Smith received after the scolding he received in D&C 3 was the revelation contained in D&C 10.
In D&C 10, the plates and his prophetic calling are restored to Joseph Smith. This revelation was given in September 1828 after what must have been a long and difficult summer for Joseph and Emma. The Lord reminded Joseph that “because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them” (v. 1). “And you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened” (v. 2). But now, these gifts were “restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun” (v. 3).
It would have been tempting for Joseph to work overtime now to make up for lost time. It had been one year since he received the plates at the Hill Cumorah, and at this point he had nothing to show for it. All of his work was stolen and lost. But the Lord gave him wise counsel on how to proceed:
— Be diligent—keeping at it until the assignment is finished (v. 4), but . . .
— Do all things with reason—don’t over-do things or go beyond your strength (v. 4).
— Pray always, recognizing that we need the Lord’s help to succeed (v. 5).
Joseph was not to “make up for lost time,” but proceed with wisdom and order. Joseph heeded this advice and did not return immediately to translating. He farmed his land and provided for his family for a while.
How were the 116 page manuscript was lost?
In the Lord’s eyes, “enemies,” including Martin Harris—”the man in whom you have trusted” (v. 6) had sought to destroy the Lord’s work. Martin’s wickedness consisted of “tak[ing] away the things wherewith you have been entrusted” and seeking “to destroy your gift” (v. 7). And once they were in Martin’s hands, other “wicked men have taken them from you” (v. 8). The net effect was that Joseph had “delivered . . . up . . . that which was sacred, unto wickedness” (v. 9).
God revealed the conspiracy of Joseph’s enemies to try to destroy him.
“Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands” (v. 10). Because of these alterations, they now “read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written” (v. 11). This Satan-inspired conspiracy sought to trap Joseph by comparing their altered manuscript with whatever he re-translated, and then saying that “they have caught you in the words which you have pretended to translate” (v. 13). But God will not permit this conspiracy to succeed (v. 14). He had planned for this eventuality more than 2,000 years earlier in the days of the prophet Nephi by having him keep a second record of events on the smaller plates of Nephi.
The Lord instructed the Prophet not to retranslate the first 116 pages of manuscript, but to translate Nephi’s second set of records instead. These small plates of Nephi contained “things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people” they would suit the Lord’s purposes equally well (v. 40). As a matter of fact, “there are many things engraven upon the plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel” than what Joseph had previously translated (v. 45). That is because these small plates contained a more sacred or spiritual record as opposed to the more temporal historical record to be found on the large plates (Jacob 1:2–4).
When Joseph Smith originally began translating with Martin Harris in 1828, he evidently started with the Book of Lehi from Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi (see heading to D&C 10). There is some indication from the historical record that when Joseph and Oliver began their translation activities one year later in April 1829, they translated the remainder of the large plates (from Mosiah to Moroni ) first, then translated the small plates from 1 Nephi to Words of Mormon to replace the lost 116 pages. Thus, by the time these replacement pages from the small plates were translated (June 1829), it had been nearly a year since the original 116 pages had been lost (July 1828).
One of the evidences of this is the fact that five weeks after they started, 15 May 1829, they were on 3 Nephi and the Savior’s sermon on baptism to the Nephites. Not until arriving at the Whitmer residence in Fayette did Joseph translate the small plates of Nephi, which contain 1 Nephi through the Words of Mormon. We draw this conclusion from the fact that in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, John Whitmer’s work as a scribe in Fayette , New York , only dealt with material from the small plates.
The Miracle of Translation
In the spring of 1829, Oliver Cowdery came to be Joseph’s scribe, and in June they moved to the Whitmer farm in Fayette , New York to finish the translation.
There in the peaceful environment of the Whitmer farm in Fayette , New York , Joseph and Oliver completed the translation of the Book of Mormon. The dates of their beginning in Harmony, Pennsylvania , and of their finishing in Fayette , New York are a matter of public record. All told, they accomplished their work of translating about 500 printed pages in about 65 working days. That amounts to about 10 pages per working day.
Oliver Cowdery said: “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 (October 1834), 14–16).
Oliver also said: “I wrote with my own pen, the entire 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 means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by the book, “holy interpreters”. . . . The book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it; Mr. Spaulding did not write it; I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.” (Quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, The Restoration of All Things , [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1945], 114.)
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon
In June 1829, at about the time that the Book of Mormon translation was completed in Fayette , New York , Joseph Smith received D&C 17, which designates those who will be His three witnesses of the Book of Mormon. They are the three who had had the most to do with the coming forth of the book: Martin Harris (who paid for its printing), Oliver Cowdery (who acted as scribe for most of it), and David Whitmer (whose family had provided safe shelter while the work was completed).
They were commanded to bear witness of what they would see.
This would include “a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim . . . and the miraculous directors [Liahona] which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness” (v. 1). It is interesting to note that the Urim and Thummim that Joseph Smith used and that was shown to the three witnesses were the ones “given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face” (v. 1), making them very ancient—nearly 4,000 years old.
These three witnesses would receive this witness only “by your faith . . . even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old” (v. 2). It was that same kind of faith that had allowed Joseph Smith to receive them (v. 5). And thereafter these witnesses will be required to “testify of them, by the power of God” (v. 3), that “you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them” (v. 5). “And this you shall do that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed, that I may bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men in this work” (v. 4).
Bruce R. McConkie said: “Whenever the Lord has established a dispensation by revealing his gospel and by conferring priesthood and keys upon men, he has acted in accordance with the law of witnesses which he himself ordained. This law is: ‘In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established’ . . . Never does one man stand alone in establishing a new dispensation of revealed truth, or in carrying the burden of such a message and warning to the world. In every dispensation, from Adam to the present, two or more witnesses have always joined their testimonies, thus leaving their hearers without excuse in the day of judgment should the testimony be rejected.” ( Mormon Doctrine , 436).
These three men were promised that if they would do all that they were instructed in this revelation, the Lord’s grace was sufficient to ensure their salvation. In hindsight, this promise is interesting, given their eventual disaffection with Joseph Smith personally and with the Church in general. They displayed weakness in their faith and their characters, but they never did deny their witness of this great event. It is hopeful to note that the Lord’s saving grace is sufficient to save them so long as they do not deny their witness of this heavenly manifestation.
The Eight Witnesses
In addition to the Three Witnesses, eight others were shown the gold plates with the Lord’s permission. These individuals were not shown the plates by an angel (the power of God) but by Joseph Smith. And they saw and handled only the plates, not the other items seen by the Three Witnesses. They were individuals who had assisted Joseph in important ways as he translated the work: Joseph Smith, Sr., Christian Whitmer, Hyrum Smith, Jacob Whitmer, Samuel H. Smith, Peter Whitmer, Jr., Hiram Page, and John Whitmer.
During June 1829, while Joseph and Oliver were busy finishing the translation at the Whitmer’s farm in Fayette, Mary Whitmer labored faithfully to take care of their every need, without complaint and despite much persecution from her neighbors and friends. As a reward for her faithfulness, the Angel Moroni appeared to her in broad daylight and showed her the plates. (History of the Church, 1:125–127)
Others knew of the existence of the plates without actually seeing them. We do not know for sure how many had opportunity to lift the plates while they were being moved from place to place to keep them hidden from Joseph Smith’s enemies. But we do know that Joseph’s parents, Lucy and Joseph, Sr., felt them through a pillow case, during this time, as did a man by the name of Joshua McCune. (Brenton G. Yorgason, Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon , 19).
Always Faithful to Their Witness
We have the printed witness of both the three witnesses and the eight witnesses in the front of every Book of Mormon. These are their official pronouncements that stand as sentinels of truth against those who would deny the divine origin of the book. It is also interesting to read their unofficial reaffirmations given toward the end of their lives. All of the Three Witnesses and three of the Eight Witnesses later left the Church. Only a few returned, but none ever denied his testimony of what he saw.
Oliver Cowdery said in 1848: “I have never denied my testimony, which is attached to the front page of the Book of Mormon and I declare to you here that these eyes saw the angel, and these ears of mine heard the voice of the angel, and he told us his name was Moroni; that the book was true, and contained the fullness of the gospel, and we were also told that if we ever denied what we had heard and seen that there would be no forgiveness for us, neither in this world nor in the world to come.” (1838–1840) “I wrote, with my own pen, the entire 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 Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book ‘Holy Interpreters.’ I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the ‘Holy Interpreters.’ That book is true . . . I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.” (Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], 27).
Martin Harris said in 1875: “I had the privilege of being with the Prophet Joseph Smith and with these eyes of men, (pointing to his eyes) I saw the angel of the Lord, and I saw the plates and the Urim and Thummim and the sword of Laban, and with these ears (pointing to his ears), I heard the voice of the angel, and with these hands (holding out his hands), I handled the plates containing the record of the Book of Mormon, and I assisted the Prophet in the translation thereof. I bear witness that this testimony is true” ( Ludlow , A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, 37–38).
David Whitmer said in 1886: “He (the angel) stood before us. Our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon, is strictly and absolutely true . . . ” (1878) “As sure as the sun shines and I live, just so sure did the angel appear unto me and Joseph Smith and I heard his voice and did see the angel standing before us” (Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, 37).
David Whitmer said one year later (1887), in the last year of his life: “It is recorded in the American Encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that I, David Whitmer, have denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the divinity of the Book of Mormon, and that the other two witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, denied their testimony to that book. I will say once more to all mankind, that I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. I also testify to the world, that neither Oliver Cowdery nor Martin Harris ever at any time denied their testimony. They both died reaffirming the truth of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” (Address to All Believers in Christ , 8; as quoted in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church , 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 1:145).