Evidence #109 | November 4, 2020

Book of Mormon Evidence: Divine Power Required to Translate

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Scripture Central


Some incidents that unfolded during the translation of the Book of Mormon help support Joseph Smith’s claims about the divine processes involved in its production.

Joseph Smith’s associates didn’t just blindly accept his prophetic calling. Rather, their trust in him was largely based on their personal experiences with his prophetic gifts. Some of these experiences, which will be fleshed out in detail below, involved the peculiar physical and spiritual requirements necessary for Joseph Smith to translate.

Martin Harris Swapping Out Joseph’s Seer Stone

Martin Harris, who for a time acted as Joseph Smith’s scribe, is known to have relayed a story which gives some insight into the Prophet’s dependence upon his translation instruments. As reported by Edward Stevenson in 1886,

When [Joseph Smith and Martin Harris] 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.”1 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.2

Stevenson gave a similar account in a pamphlet he self-published in 1893,3 and another comparable account was reported by Andrew Jenson in 1887.4 This story is noteworthy because it shows that Martin wasn’t simply a gullible follower. His actions were not only intended to satisfy his own skepticism about Joseph’s abilities, but also to “stop the mouths of fools” who were apparently fueling his concerns. According to Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Martin’s answer shows how constantly the secretary was on guard against deception.”5 

Translating with Martin, by Anthony Sweat

More to the point, Stevenson’s account, as described by Daniel C. Peterson, argues “against the translation process being either the simple dictation of a memorized text or the mechanical reading of an ordinary manuscript being surreptitiously smuggled into the room.”6 Rather, it seems that Joseph’s ability to translate was at least partially dependent upon the translation instruments themselves. If he were only pretending to utilize them, Martin’s test would have detected his fraud.7

Joseph’s Need for Spiritual Worthiness

A different story illustrates a similar point. In an interview with William H. Kelley and G. A. Blakeslee, David Whitmer once related the following experience:

He [Joseph Smith] had to trust in God. He could not translate unless he was humble and possessed the right feelings towards every one. To illustrate, so you can see. One morning when he was getting ready to continue the translation, something went wrong about the house and he was put out about it. Something that Emma, his wife, had done. Oliver and I went up stairs, and Joseph came up soon after to continue the translation, but he could not do anything. He could not translate a single syllable. He went down stairs, out into the orchard and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour—came back to the house, asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came up stairs where we were and the translation went on all right. He could do nothing save he was humble and faithful.8

Joseph and Emma Talking. Image via A Day for the Eternities.

A related but more detailed report comes from David Whitmer’s interview with the Omaha Herald.9 Although absent the story of the quarrel, another account—this one directly from Whitmer himself—repeats the sentiment about Joseph’s need for righteousness and humility:

At times when Brother Joseph would attempt to translate, he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is; and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in His sight, before he can receive revelation from him.10

It appears from David’s statements that Joseph’s quarrel with Emma was only one of several occasions where the translation instruments would not function due to a temporary lack of worthiness on Joseph’s part. Thus, another primary witness to the Book of Mormon’s translation had good reason to believe that Joseph Smith wasn’t producing its contents through his own power and abilities.

Scriptural Support

In several ways, these accounts are consistent with the text of the Book of Mormon itself. Some of its passages mention that revelatory devices, like the Nephite interpreters and even the Liahona, needed to be “prepared” by the Lord for their spiritual power to be activated.11 This helps explain why Joseph Smith couldn’t translate when Martin Harris swapped out his seer stone with a similar rock. Apparently, not just any old stone would do. It had to be a stone that was prepared and authorized by the Lord for a spiritually significant purpose.

In addition, several passages indicate that the Nephite interpreters could only be used for righteous purposes.12 Concerning the Liahona, Alma reported that when travelers were “slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence” the miraculous power of the Liahona “ceased, and they did not progress in their journey” (Alma 37:41). In a similar way, when Joseph Smith treated his wife with a lack of respect, or when, as Whitmer reported, “his mind dwelt too much on earthly things,” the Prophet had to repent and humble himself before the divinely prepared translation device would regain its revelatory power.

Lehi and the Liahona, by Joseph Brickey


The historical accounts presented in this evidence summary offer a glimpse into some of the reasons that Joseph Smith’s associates trusted in his prophetic calling. Not only did David Whitmer observe the miraculous translation unfold day after day, but he also saw Joseph’s human weakness. Ironically, that very weakness offered evidence that the Prophet’s extraordinary ability was indeed a gift from God; it could be taken away when he wasn’t worthy of it, just as the Book of Mormon warns. 

Similarly, when Martin Harris discreetly swapped out Joseph’s seer stone for an average rock of similar appearance, Joseph saw only darkness—just as Martin expected and just as the Book of Mormon predicted. From his own experience, Martin came to believe that something really was special about Joseph Smith’s revelatory instruments. In some miraculous way, they had been prepared by the Lord for a marvelous purpose.

Seer stone belonging to Joseph Smith. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Some might assume that Joseph Smith was simply pretending to lose his gift to translate on certain occasions, perhaps because he experienced something like writer’s block from time to time. Or it might be speculated that Joseph detected Martin swapping out his seer stone and therefore only pretended to lose a gift he never really possessed.

While such speculations can never be historically disproven, that hardly means they are on solid ground. It is a big leap to assume without any evidence that Joseph noticed Martin Harris swapping out his seer stone. Unlike today’s theorists, Martin was actually there, and he felt his covert action went undetected. Along similar lines, it seems doubtful that Joseph would engage in something as elaborate as a quarrel with his wife, or engage in other repeated acts of negligence and repentance, just to provide an excuse to not translate.13 Once again, David Whitmer was personally with Joseph day after day during a significant portion of the translation. He could assess, firsthand, the consistency and authenticity of the Prophet’s personality, mood, mannerisms, and disposition. No one living today has that advantage.

Whatever people may choose to believe nearly 200 years after the fact, it is clear that for David Whitmer and Martin Harris these episodes further solidified their faith (and in Martin’s case appeased any skepticism) in Joseph Smith’s prophetic gift to translate. It should also be remembered that these two men later claimed to behold an angel, who presented the plates of the Book of Mormon to their view, and they also heard a voice from heaven declaring its translation to be true.14 The interesting accounts presented in this evidence summary are therefore just several of many experiences which convinced Joseph Smith’s associates that he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.

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), 79–228.

Daniel C. Peterson, “The Divine Source of the Book of Mormon in the Face of Alternative Theories Advocated by LDS Critics,” 2001 FairMormon Conference Presentation, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981).

1 Nephi 16:26–30 Mosiah 8:13Alma 37:8–9, 23, 40–47Mormon 5:12Mormon 8:13, 15Mormon 9:34Moroni 10:8

1 Nephi 16:26–30

Mosiah 8:13

Alma 37:8–9, 23, 40–47

Mormon 5:12

Mormon 8:13, 15

Mormon 9:34

Moroni 10:8

  • 1 The phrase “dark as Egypt” seems to be a reference to the darkness that was present in Egypt’s 9th plague, as recorded in Exodus 10:21–23. Searching for the phrase “dark as Egypt” at Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that usage of this saying peaked in the 19th century, at least according to the Google Books database.
  • 2 “The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon,” Millennial Star 48 (June 21, 1886): 389–90; as cited in 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),150–151 (doc. 55).
  • 3 See Edward Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet, and the Coming Forth of The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Self Published, 1893), 30.
  • 4 Andrew Jenson, ed., “The Three Witnesses,” Historical Record 6 (May 1887): 216–217; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 151.
  • 5 Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 108.
  • 6 Daniel C. Peterson, “The Divine Source of the Book of Mormon in the Face of Alternative Theories Advocated by LDS Critics,” 2001 FairMormon Conference Presentation, 4–5, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org.
  • 7 It should be noted that Joseph Smith utilized several different translation instruments during different phases of the translation. For a helpful overview of this topic, see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Was a Stone Used as an Aid in Translating the Book of Mormon? (Alma 37:23),” Knowhy 145 (July 18, 2016). It is also important to recognize that after Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he apparently no longer utilized the Nephite interpreters or his seer stones. See Richard E. Turley Jr., Robin S. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, October 2015, 49–54. This indicates that while certain translation instruments may have been necessary during certain times or seasons of the translation, they weren’t necessary in an absolute sense. David Whitmer, for instance, “did not think that either the Urim and Thummim or the stone he had were essential, or absolutely essential, to the obtaining of the information.” Nathan A. Tanner Jr. to Nathan A. Tanner, February 17, 1909, photocopy of typescript, 5, Church Archives (the interview occurred in May 1886); cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 177 (doc. 100). God apparently has a variety of ways to facilitate the same or similar spiritual gifts. As the prophet Moroni declared, “And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them” (Moroni 10:8). None of this, however, discounts Martin’s account. Even though different translation instruments could in principle be used at different times and in different ways by Joseph Smith, that doesn’t mean that nothing about the specific stone(s) he was using was important at that time. Just as ordinary bread and water become temporarily sacred and spiritually efficacious through a sacramental ordinance, it is possible that whatever device Joseph was using was dedicated or authorized in some way for facilitating revelation in a specific context or timeframe. Swapping out such a translation instrument for a regular old rock seems to have forestalled Joseph’s revelatory gift.
  • 8 Interview conducted on January 15, 1882, in Richmond, Missouri; published in the Saints’ Herald 29 (March 1, 1882): 68; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 169 (doc. 89).
  • 9 Omaha Herald, October 17, 188; cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 173 (doc. 96): “He [David] states that the work of translation occupied fully eight months, and that at times this peculiar instrument would refuse to perform its functions. On such occasions the prophet would resort to prayer, and after a short season he would return to his work to find that the urim and thummum reflected the words of the translation with its wonted power. This rigorous exactment required him to be humble and spotless in his deportment in order that the work might progress. On one occasion the prophet had indulged in a stormy quarrel with his wife. Without pacifying her or making any reparation for his brutal treatment, he returned to the room in the Whitmer residence to resume the work with the plates. The surface of the magic stone remained blank, and all his persistent efforts to bring out the coveted words proved abortive. He went into the woods again to pray, and this time was gone fully an hour. His friends became positively concerned, and were about to institute a search, when Joseph entered the room, pale and haggard, having suffered a vigorous chastisement at the hands of the Lord. He went straight in humiliation to his wife, entreated and received her forgiveness, returned to his work, and, much to the joy of himself and his anxious friends surrounding him, the stone again glared forth its letters of fire.”
  • 10  David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ: By a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Richmond, Mo.: By the author, 1887): 30; cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 176 (doc. 98). For a similar statement, see E. C. Briggs, Letter to the editor, Saints’ Herald 31 (June 21, 1884): 396–97; cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 179 (doc. 90):
  • 11 For instance, in Alma 37:23 the Lord states: “I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.” A form of the word prepare is also used in the next verse to discuss the Nephite interpreters: “these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying: I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations” (v. 24). Moroni mentions that the Lord had “prepared means for the interpretation” of the Nephite record in Mormon 9:34. And when speaking of the Liahona (a similar revelatory device), Alma specifically noted that “the Lord had prepared it” (Alma 37:8–9, 46; emphasis added to all verses).
  • 12 One passage states that “no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish” (Mosiah 8:13). Another declares that “none can have power to bring [the Book of Mormon] to light save it be given him of God; for God wills that it shall be done with an eye single to his glory” (Mormon 8:15). And a third example declares, “Now these things are written unto the remnant of the house of Jacob; and … it is known of God that wickedness will not bring them forth unto them” (Mormon 5:12).
  • 13 When Martin Harris lost the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon’s early manuscript, Joseph Smith lost his ability to translate for a time. Lucy Mack Smith (Joseph’s mother) left a detailed account of these events, and readers can judge for themselves the sincerity and authenticity of Joseph’s behavior on this occasion. See “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, Page [1], bk. 7,” p. [8–11], bk. 7, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 8, 2020, online at josephsmithpapers.org.
  • 14 See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Were Three Key Witnesses Chosen to Testify of the Book of Mormon? (Ether 5:4),” KnoWhy 267 (January 27, 2017).
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