The Smith Family Cabin
In 1816, 45-year-old Joseph Smith Sr. and 42-year-old Lucy Mack family moved from Norwich, Vermont to the 600-person village of Palmyra, which was on the announced but not yet-started Erie Canal, the 8th wonder of the world that connected the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. About a year later, the family saved up enough to make a down-payment on a 100-acre farm about two miles south of the town.
There they raised a small log cabin, which would be their home for eight of the twelve years they lived on the farm, until a larger white-frame house was built. Their neighbors were the Staffords, Stoddards, Chases, Saunders, Jackaways, and Rockwells, as in Orrin Porter. These neighbors helped the family build their one and one-half story structure which had a 24 x 30-foot foundation.
One of the ground-level rooms served as kitchen, dining area, and general-purpose workroom. The large fireplace was probably on an end wall. The other room, spoken of as “the best room,” was likely a combination parlor, sitting room, and master bedroom for the parents.
The upstairs loft was partitioned into two areas with a room divider: one for the girls, and one for the boys. All-in-all there was just over 1100 square feet of livable area.
On Sunday, September 21, 1823, 17-year-old Joseph had gone to bed upstairs in the family cabin. Who was upstairs with him? This would include:
- 25-year-old Alvin, who would die in a couple of months from mercury poisoning
- 23-year-old Hyrum, whose name which in Hebrew means, “my brother is exalted”
- 20-year-old sister, Sophronia
- 15-year-old Samuel Harrison
- 12-year-old William
- 10-year old Katharine
- 7-year old Don Carlos
- 2-year old Lucy
So perhaps the three girls were in one part of the room, while the six boys occupied the other part. Undoubtedly beds were shared.
It had been about three and a half years since Joseph had received his first vision a few hundred feet away in a grove of trees. Since that time, he had done the things that teenage boys at the time were expected to do—which was work from sunrise to sunset taking care of the farm and their animals, and earning a little bit of money from doing odd jobs for neighbors—with all the proceeds going back to buy goods and services consumed by the family. In the evenings, you would have some time to relax, which would often mean reading and learning with your home-schooled siblings.
But the family had its share of extra challenges. Joseph had boldly told lots of people about his vision of the Father and the Son, and how he had been forbidden to join any church. Well, this drew lots of ridicule, scorn, shunning, and persecution—not just aimed at Joseph, but his family too. But they always stood behind him, and weathered the storms together.
Joseph had a natural cheery temperament. He loved to play around with his family and his friends. He told jokes and engaged in typical teenage behaviors. He loved adventure and excitement. If you’re familiar with my personality typing system, he was what we would call an Orange temperament—someone who is action-oriented, fun-loving, and energetic.
But he also began demonstrating some special abilities. As religious people of the Second Great Awakening knew from their study of the teachings of Isaiah, Joel, Jesus, Paul, and Peter, there were some pneumatik charima, which is Greek for spiritual gifts, which are freely given by the Spirit of God to bless the lives of people.
One of these is the gift of seership. At that time, a seer was someone who was in possession of a special stone that would help them find things that were lost. This was called a seer stone or a peep stone. Many rural communities had a village seer, sometimes called an scryer, who would use stones, crystals, or mirrors.
By the way, most communities also had a diviner, someone who could use dowsing rods to identify subterranean water. While we don’t often hear about seers and diviners today, they still exist. Sometimes these people are influenced by the spirit of God; sometimes they are influenced by the spirits that serve Satan.
Joseph’s neighbor, Sally Chase, had such a stone, a black peep stone, that she used to find things for neighbors.
Joseph had found such a seer stone the previous year in 1822 while digging with his brother Hyrum. In fact, he had at least two of them by this stage of his life. One was brown, and one was white. Joseph believed they were gifts of God that allowed him to see things that others couldn’t see.
A couple of years ago, the church published a photo of the brown seer stone and it is on display in the Church History Museum up in Salt Lake City. If you want to know more about the epistemology and cosmology of seer stones, I just read a new book by BYU professor Mike MacKay called Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones. You can find it at Deseret Book.
But on this particular Sunday night, probably after their regular family Bible study, as he was going to bed, he was worried that he had been too fun-loving. He thought he might be guilty of levity, which in 1820 meant that he wasn’t consistently serious or as sober as he should be for someone who had spoken with and been called of God.
So on this night, after his brothers and sisters had gone to sleep, he lay lying in the dark contemplating his sins. He prayed that he would be forgiven for his sins and follies, and asked for a manifestation to know of his state and spiritual standing before God. He was confident he would receive one since it had happened before.
The Angel Moroni
Suddenly, an extremely bright light began filling the room. In the middle of the light was an angel, sent from the presence of God, standing above the floor near his bed. He only wore a loose, exquisitely white robe that went from his wrists up to his shoulders and down to his bare ankles. It was partially open, revealing his chest. Joseph was initially afraid, but the fear soon left.
What happened next? Well, we can read about it over in the Pearl of Great Price, in the Joseph Smith History, starting in verse 33. Here’s what Joseph said happened:
33 He called me by name, and said unto me that 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.
34 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;
35 Also, that there were 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 then quoted from the prophets Malachi, Isaiah, and Joel (Mal. 3:1–4, Mal. 4:1–6, Isa. 11:1–16, Joel 2:28–32). He also quoted from the Book of Acts (Acts 3:22–23) which is a paraphrase from the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 18:18-19).
He also quoted other scriptures. What were they? According to a close associate of Joseph’s, Oliver Cowdery, Moroni also quoted 31 additional passages from First Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Jeremiah.
All of these scriptures contained prophecies of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the covenants and ordinances that are necessary to prepare the world for the millennial reign of the Savior.
After explaining that Joseph had been chosen to restore these things to the earth, Moroni assured Joseph that the Lord had forgiven him of his sins. Since this was at least a two-hour visit, it is also believed that Moroni provided an overview of the Book of Mormon and shared with him some of the knowledge Joseph would need to locate and translate the gold plates.
Let’s jump down to verse 43:
43 After this communication, 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.
Critics have asked the question how could this manifestation could have happened without wakening his brothers. But it isn’t unprecedented. You’ll find examples of this happening in the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, and in the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 76, the vision of the three degrees of glory, was given to Joseph and Sidney Rigdon in the presence of a handful of other men, who sensed that a vision was occurring but did not see anything unusual.
Well, the story continues and we can read about how Moroni came back and repeated this message two more times that night, adding some additional details with each visit. This repetition undoubtedly helped Joseph remember the important details.
After the last visit, the sun began rising, and Joseph and his family got up to do their daily work. But he was drained, physically and spiritually, so his father sent him home to recover. But on his way there, he passed out and awoke to a fourth visit from the angel. Moroni counseled him to tell his father about the vision, which he did, and his father told him to go and do what the angel told him to do.
Joseph then went and found the plates hidden in a nearby hill, about three miles to the southeast. They were found in a stone box that had been covered with a large stone. After removing the stone he saw the plates and additional ancient artifacts that would help in the translations of the record. When Joseph reached for the plates, he received a shock. He tried again, and the shock was stronger. He tried a third time and was shocked a third time. He exclaimed aloud, “Why can I not obtain the book?” Moroni then appeared and explained that Joseph wasn’t prepared to begin translation yet, but was told to return here for an interview with Moroni every year for four years; and then, if he was faithful, the record would be given to him.
By the way, did any of you notice the parallelism between the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the coming forth of the resurrected Christ? The Book of Mormon came out of a stone box where it was entombed for 1400 years. The resurrected Jesus came out of stone tomb, owned by a man named Joseph. The angel Moroni stood by the plate’s resting spot as Joseph removed the plates and declared of their truthfulness; an angel stood by the Lord’s tomb and declared that the Lord had risen. Coincidence? Hardly.
Let’s skip ahead to four years later. It is now the early morning of Saturday, September 22, 1827. Joseph, now aged 21, and his beautiful wife Emma, who he left sitting in a buggy wrapped in a shawl at the base of the hill, climbed the western slope and, under the supervision of Moroni, retrieved the artifacts and stashed them in a hollow birch log. You see, he was told not to show them to anyone, including his wife Emma, although later she rifle through the leaves of the handkerchief-covered plates one day as she was “dusting.”
Later, he transferred them into his brother Alvin’s tool box (14-inches x 16-inches, which had a lock and key.
But from that moment on, he and his family worked extremely hard to protect the plates from theft. The word had gotten out that “young Joe had struck gold”, so he had to constantly move them around and relay on the inspiration of God to keep them safe and hidden. Not only did he have to keep them safe from evil men, he had to keep them away from evil spirits, who were now marshaling their efforts to thwart the translation.
To keep the plates safe, he and Emma finally decided to move 150 miles to be near his in-laws in Harmony, Pennsylvania (now known as Oakland). There, he and his scribes—which originally were Emma and their 45-year old farmer friend Martin Harris from Palmyra—began the work of translation.
The Translation Process
Witnesses say the record weighed between 30 and 60 pounds. It was composed of thin, golden-colored sheets of engraved metal, about five by six inches. Three large rings held them in order, like a binder. The characters were written in a language that Joseph had never seen before, a type of hieroglyphic that bore a resemblance to 3,000 year-old condensed form of Egyptian. The people in the Book of Mormon called it “reformed Egyptian.”
Along with the plates, was a breastplate with leather straps that could be worn by the translator. It was a little big for Joseph, so he didn’t use it very often. The breastplate had a feature that held a device called the Nephite interpreters. These were two clear seer stones, which were fastened together by silver bows that resembled spectacles. These were the same interpreters that were used by the Brother of Jared (D&C 17:1) and possibly Mosiah II, both of whom were also designated as seers who were authorized by the Lord to use them to provide a translation of sacred records.
A few years later, Joseph would refer to these as Urim and Thummim, which in Hebrew means “Lights and Perfections.” This is a title given to sacred seer stones that have been prepared by the Lord that allow its bearers to see into the past, the present, and the future—to see things that have been lost from our spiritual eyes.
There seem to be at least two Urim and Thummim devices because both the descendants of Jared and the descendants of Jacob (the temple high priests: (Exodus 28:30; 39:6-7; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:21; Deuteronomy 33:8; 1 Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65) had them at the same time on two different continents.
While the exact translation process has never been revealed to us, and Joseph Smith simply said that the translation was made “by the gift and power of God”, we do know some details from his scribes.
Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery were two of his scribes. They said that when Joseph was spiritually prepared, he would put on the Nephite interpreters or use one of his seer stones, most likely the white one which he named “Gazelem” (which may have also been Joseph’s pre-mortal name), to help him focus his thoughts. Sometimes he would put the device in his hat to block out light and place his head down in it. Pondering on the images from the plates, and trying to work out what it meant, writing would then appear on the stones. Joseph would read it aloud and the scribe would write it down. The scribe would read it back, and if it was written correctly, the words would disappear from the stone. Now whether this was a literal word-for-word translation, or more of a reflection of the interpretation in Joseph’s mind, we just don’t know, but I suspect the latter.
The 116 Lost Pages
On June 14, 1828, Joseph had translated about 16% of the unsealed portion of the plates. It contained the Book of Lehi and probably some of the missing Book of Mosiah, Martin asked Joseph to allow him to show the 116-page manuscript to his family. Joseph asked the Lord, and the Lord said no. Martin pressed him to ask God again, and the Lord said no. Finally, pleading with Joseph to ask one more time, the Lord told Joseph he could if Martin would agree to only show them to five specific people. Martin agreed via covenant and Joseph reluctantly gave them to Martin, who took the pages home to Palmyra, showed them around to more than five people, and they were subsequently lost or stolen.
About a month later, after not hearing back from Martin, Moroni appeared to Joseph and gave him back the Nephite interpreters (which he had taken back after Joseph pestered the Lord over the matter), and Joseph used them to receive a revelation, now recorded as D&C 3.
After receiving the revelation, which explained that works of God would not be thwarted, and that God had forseen this event happening thousands of years earlier, Moroni took back the plates and the interpreters for a season, giving Joseph and Martin time to miserably contemplate their weaknesses and repent.
Finishing the Translation
The translation was put on hold for nine months, until April 7, 1829, when Oliver Cowdery, a 22-year-old traveling school teacher volunteered to be Joseph’s new scribe. Oliver had taught in Palmyra, where he learned from Joseph’s family about the translation (Oliver also saw the plates in a dream) and traveled the 150 miles to Harmony to volunteer.
Joseph, and more importantly, the Lord, agreed to the appointment, and the two worked together to finish the translation of the Book of Mormon on June 30, 1829—85 days later.
All in all, it only took about 65 working days to translate the Book of Mormon—about eight pages per day on average. When you consider how complex, consistent, clear, artistic, accurate, and profound these writings are, it is a truly miraculous achievement—especially from Joseph who only received three years of formal education.
As Oliver Cowdery a few years afterwards 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 … the Book of Mormon.” (Joseph Smith History 1 Footnote)
The Three Witnesses
In a revelation to the Prophet Joseph, the Lord announced that there need to be reputable witnesses who can testify to the existence of the reality of the ancient record. Three men were chosen—and all three of them materially contributed to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery, 24-year old David Whitmer, and Martin Harris.
On Sunday, June 28, 1829, two days before the Book of Mormon was completed, the four men retired to a grove of trees near the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York, about 20 miles from the Smith’s home in Palmyra. Moroni appeared in a pillar of light holding the golden plates. He invited the men to see and touch them. They then heard the voice of the Lord which declared that the Book of Mormon was indeed “translated by the gift and power of God.”
The Eight Witnesses
Four days later, on Thursday, July 2, 1829, Joseph invited eight others to accompany him to the woods where he showed them the plates. Five of them were from the Whitmer family, and three of them were from the Smith family.
All in all, if you count Oliver Cowdery who later married into the Whitmer family, seven male members of that family were special witnesses of the gold plates. In addition, if the history of their family is correct, we must add an eighth member of the family who saw the plates—their mother, Mary, the only woman so blessed.
Mark Twain wasn’t very impressed, however. When he opened up his copy of the Book of Mormon and saw the testimony of the witnesses, he wrote, “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”
Notice that there were twelve special witnesses to the golden plates. Hmm. I wonder where we’ve heard that number before. Twelve Apostles… Twelve Nephite disciples….
Throughout their lives, even though six of them were later excommunicated, including all three of the three witnesses (Oliver and Martin were later rebaptized), none of them denied what they had seen, although some anti-Mormon literature would have you believe otherwise.
While I am not a special witness of the Book of Mormon as were these 12 individuals, I am a witness that it is sacred scripture. As I have read it, critically examined it, prayed over it, read commentaries about it, and most importantly applied many of its teachings in my life—the Spirit has borne witness to me time after time that it is everything Joseph said it was. It is the keystone of our religion. It, more than any other book of ancient scripture, plainly teaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his central role in our lives. It will help us get nearer to God than any other book.