Evidence #280 | December 6, 2021

Translation Witnesses

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Scripture Central


Numerous individuals witnessed Joseph Smith dictate the Book of Mormon. Their recorded statements strongly argue against theories of alternative authorship.

Discussions of Book of Mormon witnesses often emphasize the visual or other sensory experiences of those who physically encountered the gold plates. What may sometimes get overlooked is the variety of individuals who also witnessed the Book of Mormon’s translation, which took place in different stages and circumstances between 1827 and 1829. Accounts and details about this crucial Restoration event are preserved in more than 200 historical documents.1

Primary Witnesses

The primary witnesses to the translation, in addition to Joseph Smith himself, include Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. Nearly half of the relevant extant historical documents come from statements (some firsthand but most secondhand) made by these individuals.2 As the text’s purported translator, Joseph’s own comments about what happened are obviously of great interest. Emma, Martin, and Oliver all acted as scribes and thus were also intimately involved in the translation process. While David didn’t act as a scribe, a major portion of the translation took place at his parent’s home in Fayette, New York, allowing him a front-row seat to the process as it unfolded.

Joseph Smith translates the Book of Mormon, dictating the text to his scribe Oliver Cowdery. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Additional Witnesses

Several family members of these individuals were also closely involved. In the early stages of the translation, Reuben Hale (Emma’s brother) acted as a scribe.3 Samuel Smith (Joseph’s younger brother) briefly assisted as a scribe sometime in March 1829.4 And John and Christian Whitmer (David’s brothers) served temporarily as scribes when the translation project moved to the Whitmer home in Fayette.5

When asked about the translation, Emma Smith described it as taking place in an open setting with Joseph visible to her view: “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” The plates themselves (although covered by a cloth) “lay on the table without any attempt at concealment” and Joseph had “neither manuscript nor book to read from.” Emma further remarked that if Joseph “had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.”6

Emma as Scribe, by Robert T. Pack.

A similar report comes from David Whitmer, who stated that when translating at his father’s home, Joseph Smith “was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides.”7

Thus, in addition to David and his brothers John and Christian (who, as previously mentioned, acted as scribes), it appears that Peter Whitmer Sr., Mary Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Elizabeth Ann Whitmer (who were all living in the Whitmer home at the time) would have witnessed the translation at times.8 An account from Elizabeth Whitmer helps corroborate this claim:

I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him.9

Portrait of Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, wife of Oliver Cowdery. Image via rsc.byu.edu.

Not everyone who observed the translation, however, was one of Joseph Smith’s close associates or followers. Michael Morse, Emma Smith’s brother-in-law, “had occasion more than once to go into [Joseph Smith’s] immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation.” Morse even reported specific details about the translation process.

The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph’s placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating, word after word, while the scribe—Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down.10

Yet William Blair, who recorded these statements, noted that “Mr. Morse is not, and has never been a believer in the prophetic mission of Joseph.”11 Similar accounts come from other observers outside of Joseph Smith’s circle, including Elizabeth McKune,12 Joseph McKune,13 and William R. Hine.14 While all these reports (most of which are second hand) should be treated with caution, they lend additional support to the claim that Joseph, at least during some stages of the translation, dictated in an open setting visible to bystanders.


Altogether, historical sources indicate that more than a dozen individuals observed Joseph Smith dictate the text of the Book of Mormon, many of whom participated in the process as his scribes.15 This data plays a crucial role in the ongoing debate over the Book of Mormon’s authorship.

On one hand, multiple lines of evidence argue against Joseph Smith as being the book’s author or creator. The Book of Mormon is highly complex and sophisticated on numerous levels.16 It has archaic words, grammar, and syntax that haven’t yet turned up in Joseph Smith’s linguistic environment.17 It contains a variety of ancient literary, linguistic, and cultural features.18 And stylometric studies using several different statistical methods indicate that Joseph Smith wasn’t responsible for the Book of Mormon’s wording.19

Stylometric analysis comparing the linguistic patterns of the Book of Mormon and those of several 19th century candidate authors, including Joseph Smith. 

When viewed together, these and other lines of evidence make it very difficult to ascribe the Book of Mormon’s creation to Joseph Smith, a frontier famer with limited education and no prior literary experience in 1829.20 Faced with this convergence of data, it may be tempting to assume that one or more individuals besides Joseph Smith were either partly or completely responsible for the text’s creation. Yet, as this summary has demonstrated, that assumption is also highly problematic. Too many people witnessed Joseph dictate the words of the Book of Mormon to various scribes between April 7 and June 30, 1829. The overwhelming preponderance of historical data indicates that he—and he alone—brought forth its contents.21

This places the Book of Mormon in an interesting situation. Multiple lines of internal textual evidence point away from Joseph Smith as being its author. Yet, the external historical sources decisively point towards Joseph Smith as its sole producer. While perplexing under purely secular or naturalistic theories, these unusual circumstances agree perfectly with Joseph Smith’s own claim of having been the text’s divinely aided translator, rather than its author. No other explanation can so easily account for what otherwise must be viewed as powerful sets of contradictory data.

Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019).

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).

Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews (Orem, UT: Grandin Press, 1991).

Book of Mormon

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