Evidence #13 | September 19, 2020

Rapid Translation

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Scripture Central

Abstract

A variety of source documents indicate that Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon’s 269,510 words in approximately 60 working days—an astonishingly rapid pace considering that he accomplished this without using any notes, outlines, reference materials, or substantive revisions.

Lengthy novels often take many months and sometimes even years to write. The process usually involves preliminary research, long periods of creating and revising multiple drafts, and collaborative editing. The Book of Mormon, however, was produced in a very different manner. Various witnesses claimed that its 269,510 words,1 originally printed onto 588 pages,2 were revealed to Joseph Smith through divinely prepared translation instruments by the gift and power of God.3 According to those present, the young 23-year-old prophet dictated the words of the Book of Mormon day after day, for hours on end, in the presence of multiple scribes and witnesses, without any outlines, preliminary drafts, working notes, reference materials, or substantive revisions.4 

Creating a final draft of any lengthy document under these circumstances would be remarkable. Yet the production of the Book of Mormon is truly astounding when one takes into account the rapid pace of its translation. Based on a variety of source documents, it can now be firmly established that the English text of the Book of Mormon (as it was published in 1830) was essentially translated between April 7 and June 30, 1829. Several lines of evidence help support this timeframe.

Anchor Dates

Compelling data confirm the dates of five key events during the translation timeline. The first date concerns the day upon which Oliver Cowdery began to record Joseph Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon. Oliver stated that he first arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in the evening of April 5, 1829, that he helped Joseph with “some business of a temporal nature” on April 6, and that on the very next day, April 7, he “commenced to write the Book of Mormon”5 as Joseph’s scribe.

Remarkably, a legal document discovered not long ago at a county courthouse near Harmony, Pennsylvania, bears Oliver’s handwriting and signature. It demonstrates that he served as a witness to an agreement dated April 6, 1829 between Joseph Smith and his father-in-law, Isaac Hale. On that day, Joseph purchased property from Hale on which stood the log cabin that Joseph and his wife Emma were living in.6 Oliver’s signature confirms that he was indeed with Joseph in Harmony on April 6, 1829 (just as Oliver had claimed), and now we know the nature of that notable “temporal” matter of which he spoke.

Agreement between Joseph Smith and Isaac Hale. Image via josephsmithpapers.org. 

Such accuracy strongly invites and builds trust that Oliver was also correct about beginning his work as a scribe the very next day (April 7). He and Joseph would have been working in what we now know was Joseph’s newly purchased home, a place where they could hopefully labor without disruptions. Four other dates, including the day by which the translation was surely completed (June 30), are each supported by similarly credible documentation. Together, these five dates have been referred to as “anchor dates” because they help anchor key reported details to specific days within the proposed translation timeline:7

Anchor Dates (1829)Associated Events
April 7Oliver Cowdery began working as Joseph’s scribe.
May 15John restored authority to baptize per 3 Nephi 11.
May 31The title page was completed.
June 11The Book of Mormon’s copyright was filed.
June 30The translation was completed.

Contemporaneous Revelatory Documents

Thirteen revelations, each included in the Doctrine and Covenants, as well as a document called the “Articles of the Church of Christ,” were written during the period of the Book of Mormon’s translation. Not only do some of the words in those revelations correspond to the details of reported historical events during April–June 1829, but in several cases they reflect words or ideas found in the Book of Mormon itself. This suggests that as the translation of the Book of Mormon moved forward, further revelations and inspiration may have built upon what had just been revealed in its pages.

While any proposed relationships between these documents and the Book of Mormon remain tentative, textual analysis can help locate which portions of the Book of Mormon may have been produced at particular points during the translation timeline. Moreover, whatever their relationship to passages in the Book of Mormon, receiving, delivering, and recording these additional revelations surely added another layer of time and distraction away from the already onerous and urgent translation project.8

Date (1829)Possible Chapters TranslatedAssociated Revelations/Documents
April 6 About this time, D&C 6 was received, directed to Oliver Cowdery, as he began serving as Joseph Smith’s scribe.
April 9Mosiah 811About this time, D&C 8 was received, directed to Oliver, about the power to translate. Compare Mosiah 8:11–16, speaking of King Mosiah’s power to translate.
April 26Alma 3940About this time, D&C 9 was received (compare D&C 9:14, “a hair of your head shall not be lost, and you shall be lifted up at the last day,” with Alma 11:44; 40:23).
May 213 Nephi 2830 and 4 NephiAbout this time, D&C 7 may have been received, speaking about John not tasting death. Compare material in the account about the Three Nephites in 3 Nephi 28:1 (“what desirest thou?” D&C 7:1); 28:2 (“speedily,” D&C 7:4); 28:7 (“never taste death,” “power over death” in D&C 7:2)
May 30Moroni 58About at this point, D&C 12 was received, directed to Joseph Knight Sr. (compare D&C 12:8, “full of love,” “faith, hope and charity,” with Moroni 7:1; 8:14).
May 31Moroni 910 and title pageAbout this time, D&C 11 was revealed, directed to Hyrum. Compare D&C 11:16 (“my gospel”), and D&C 11:25 (“deny not”) with Moroni 10:8, and the previously translated 3 Nephi 27:21.
June 4 Traveled to Fayette and unpacked. About this time, D&C 10 was finalized, telling Joseph to translate the plates of Nephi (D&C 10:41).
June 71 Nephi 79About this time, John and Peter Whitmer Sr. were baptized, and D&C 15 and 16 were received.
June 81 Nephi 1012About this time, D&C 14 was given for David Whitmer.
June 91 Nephi 1316About this time, D&C 18 was received (compare D&C 18:20, “church of the devil” with 1 Nephi 14:10).
June 21 About this time, Oliver Cowdery composed the “Articles of the Church of Christ.” This document quotes extensively, verbatim, from the Original Manuscript of 3 Nephi 9:15–16, 18; 11:23–27, 32, 39–40; 18:22, 28–33; 27:8–10, 20; Moroni 3:1–4; 4:1–2; 5:1–2; 6:6; and also from D&C 18:4, 22–25, 31, 34.
June 222 Nephi 2831About this time, D&C 17 was received, authorizing Oliver, David, and Martin to obtain a view of the plates (D&C 17:2; compare 2 Nephi 27:12).

Confirmations of Reported Daily Activities

Several practical matters arose during the translation process that required time and attention, and in a number of instances these circumstances have been independently confirmed by documentary evidence. For example, Joseph Smith once commented upon his poverty during the period of translation and that he petitioned the Lord for help.9 Joseph mentioned that shortly after his brother Samuel arrived (sometime in May),10 a Mr. Joseph Knight “several times brought us supplies (a distance of at least thirty miles) which enabled us to continue the work” of translation.11

Knight’s own account perfectly agrees with this situation. He repeatedly commented upon Joseph’s poverty, mentioned his multiple visits to supply Joseph and Oliver with necessary provisions, and even mentioned that Samuel Smith was present at the home.12 Historian Richard Lloyd Anderson described Knight’s recollection as “a talkative account that displays little awareness of what the Prophet had independently said.”13 In about twenty cases, details such as these help flesh out the proposed timeline.14 They also provide evidence that the translators were accurate and truthful in their description of events and circumstances surrounding the translation.15

Estimating the Timing of the Translation

When combined together, the established anchor dates, revelations, and other supporting historical details give a nuanced and consistent view of the timing of the translation. On its face, the timeframe between April 7 and June 30 allows 85 possible days for the translation, but we know that on many of these days the translators were also engaged in other activities: doing farm chores, entertaining visitors, making trips to Colesville, receiving priesthood authority and additional revelations, baptizing Samuel and Hyrum Smith, moving from Harmony to Fayette, acquiring the Book of Mormon’s copyright, and so forth.16

Book of Mormon scholar John W. Welch has suggested that with these known disruptions and time constraints accounted for, “not many more than the equivalent of about 60 actual working days would have been available in April, May, and June 1829.”17 Terryl Givens has described this rate of translation as “truly prodigious,”18 and Welch concluded that by “any standard” the pace was “blistering.”19

Translation Experiments

Some may wonder if translating the entire Book of Mormon in so short a time was even humanly possible. In order to answer this question, Welch calculated how quickly the translators would have needed to work in order to accomplish their task in the allotted time. Welch explained, “Several of the resulting hours-per-day and words-per-minute options yield elapsed time figures that fall within the realm of feasibility, but the latitude is not wide. The parameters here do not allow much variation beyond the values shown on this graph.”20

Estimated rates of translation, accounting for possible variations in word/minutes and hours/day, that would be needed for the proposed timeline.

In order to test these estimated possibilities, Welch and his wife Jeannie informally replicated the process of translation as described by the witnesses, with one of them dictating the text and the other acting as scribe. They then recorded how many words they were able to produce per minute on average. They found the experience to be so insightful that they then tested out the process in their stake scripture class.21

Their combined results, while not strictly scientific, suggest “that a translation rate of right around 20 words per minute was quite possible.”22 Yet those who participated also felt that they couldn’t have sustained that pace very long without time for breaks. They reported, “Our hands got tired, and the one playing Joseph needed to catch his or her breath and clear his or her voice.”23 Moreover, they were using ballpoint pens, whereas Oliver Cowdery would have often needed some time to dip his quill pen and refill it with ink.24 Thus, while it is difficult to determine exactly how quickly on average the translation was carried out, it reasonably fell within the needed estimated range (10–20 words per minute) in order for the entire project to have been completed between April 7 and June 30.

Conclusion

This data and analysis demonstrate “that the historical documents relating to this somewhat obscure chapter in early Latter-day Saint history interlock more accurately than might otherwise have been expected.”25 As a result, readers can be confident that the Book of Mormon was dictated in a remarkably short amount of time.

If Joseph Smith had hastily created the Book of Mormon on the fly or perhaps attempted to recall his prior plans for its contents from memory, then one might expect the book’s plots, settings, and characters to be fairly simple and for any unnecessary or extraneous data to be limited.26 Instead, the text immediately throws readers into a believable ancient world, featuring over 337 proper names,27 a detailed and consistent internal geography,28 three calendar systems,29 a developed system of weights and measures,30 multiple migrations,31 complex narratives,32 cohesive doctrines,33 dozens of editorial promises,34 various underlying source texts,35 realistic battles,36 hundreds of poetic structures,37 pervasive intertextual relationships,38 multiple literary genres,39 scores of internally fulfilled prophecies,40 and other surprisingly sophisticated or unexpectedly consistent features.41

In other words, the Book of Mormon exhibits the variety and complexity that one might expect from a truly ancient compilation of records spanning approximately a thousand years of history. It looks nothing like what a young, marginally educated42 frontier farmer with no prior literary experience43 could be expected to produce in the span of about 60 working days, especially if he were deprived of notes, outlines, references materials, and the ability to make revisions. When these and other significant factors pertaining to the production of the Book of Mormon are duly considered,44 the breakneck speed of its translation is nothing short of astonishing.45

John W. Welch, “Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon: ‘Days [and Hours] Never to Be Forgotten’,” BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2018): 10–50.

John W. Welch, “April 7th and the Commencement of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” BMC Conference, April, 2018, online at bookofmormoncentral.org.

John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, 2nd edition, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 79–125.

1 Nephi 14:102 Nephi 27:12Mosiah 8:11–16Alma 11:44 Alma 40:233 Nephi 9:15–16, 183 Nephi 11:23–27, 32, 39–403 Nephi 18:22, 28–333 Nephi 27:8–10, 10–213 Nephi 28:1, 2, 7Moroni 3:1–4Moroni 4:1–2Moroni 5:1–2Moroni 6:6Moroni 7:1 Moroni 8:14

1 Nephi 14:10

2 Nephi 27:12

Mosiah 8:11–16

Alma 11:44

Alma 40:23

3 Nephi 9:15–16, 18

3 Nephi 11:23–27, 32, 39–40

3 Nephi 18:22, 28–33

3 Nephi 27:8–10, 10–21

3 Nephi 28:1, 2, 7

Moroni 3:1–4

Moroni 4:1–2

Moroni 5:1–2

Moroni 6:6

Moroni 7:1

Moroni 8:14

Translation
Book of Mormon

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