The exact process by which the Book of Mormon was translated is known only to Joseph Smith.  He described it as through the “gift and power of God,” and attributed the Urim and Thummim as a vehicle for translation.  From contemporary accounts of others, including his wife, Emma, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, all whom acted as scribes during the translation, it is possible to piece together some idea of the process.

Book of MormonJoseph Smith first learned about the existence of the golden plates from an angel in 1823.  In 1827 he was entrusted with the golden plates and charged with a mission to translate them and deliver their message to the world.  Buried with the plates were the Urim and Thummim, the devices prepared for the purpose of translation from ancient times.

Each witness seems to have a differing account of the method by which the translation took place, each of which may be correct, since history suggests that Joseph Smith struggled with a few methods to find the one that worked best.  One account describes Joseph wearing the breastplate of the Urim and Thummim and looking directly at the plates through the two stones set in a silver bow.  The other widely-recorded method tells of Joseph putting his own personal seer stone in a hat and placing his face in the hat to block out all light.  The plates were left covered when using this method.  What Joseph saw through the interpreters or his seer stone is also the speculation of his scribes and other acquaintances based on their conversations with him.  Each scribe reported Joseph dictating one sentence at a time, spelling out words or names if he did not know the pronunciation, and then having them read back the sentence to confirm.

The language of the Book of Mormon is written in the language of the King James Version of the Bible, the one Joseph read and was familiar with, and contains elements of 1830 New York dialect.  This seems to suggest that Joseph Smith was instrumental in formulating the language.  Some who knew him during the translation supposed that he actually saw the words appear in English, but whether this was a physical manifestation or a mental one is not known.  The particulars of the Book of Mormon translation will remain a mystery, but from the process observed by others, and the time frame within which it was accomplished (two months), it was a supernatural effort.

Said Emma Smith to her son shortly before her death: “I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired. For when acting as his 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” (Saints’ Herald 26 (1879):290).

Said Oliver Cowdery: “I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by 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 translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet” (“Journal of Reuben Miller,” 21 Oct. 1848; for background see R. L. Anderson, “Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” BYU Studies 8 (1968):277).

Urim and Thummim

“The urim and tumim are associated with the breastplate worn by the High Priest. This breastplate had twelve precious stones, arranged in four rows of three, upon which the names of the tribes were engraved: ‘The stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve in their names, engraved, each person with his name on it, for the twelve tribes’ (Exodus 28:21). A later verse instructs, ‘And you shall place in the Breastplate of Judgment the urim and the tumim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he comes before G-d, and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart before G-d, always’ (Exodus 28:30).

“While the High Priests wearing of the breastplate atoned for the Courts mistakes in judgment, the urim and tumim inside the breastplate dispensed judgment of their own. Rashi explains that when the Jewish People needed to know something of great import, the urim and tumim could be consulted to reveal the will of G-d, as in the verse, ‘Before Elazar the priest, [Joshua] will stand and seek from him the judgment of the urim’ (Numbers 27:21). Urim and tumim, Rashi explains, refers to a special name of G-d that was written and placed in the fold of the breastplate through which the breastplate illuminated and clarified its message. This, the Talmud explains, is the source of its name: urim being related to or, the Hebrew word for light; tumim being related to tam meaning perfect (Yoma 73b).

“Ramban describes the phenomenon in greater detail: ‘[The urim, (specifically)] were holy names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate lit up to the eyes of the priest who was asking for judgment. For example, when they asked ‘who should lead the way for us to fight against the Canaanites?’ the priest would concentrate on the Divine names which are the urim, and the letters would light up to his eyes [But] he still did not know their correct order, for from the letters which can be ordered ‘Yehuda ya’aleh (Judah shall go up) it is possible to make of them’hey al Yehuda‘ (woe unto Judah) and many other words’” (, Jewish Information Resource: Urim and Thummim).

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