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Joseph Smith as Revelator and Translator

The Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers reproduces many of the earliest extant manuscripts of Joseph Smith’s written revelations and translations, together with official editions of these documents published during his lifetime.1 These publications include The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi (first edition, 1830); A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ, Organized according to Law, on the 6th of April, 1830 (1833); and Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints: Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God (first edition, 1835).2 In early Latter-day Saint usage, the terms revelation and translation acquired specialized meaning. In this series, revelation generally refers to messages expressed in the first-person voice of Deity that Joseph Smith dictated to his scribes. The term may occasionally be applied to other texts Smith presented as being revealed or inspired. Translation refers to works such as the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith said were based on sacred, ancient texts and translated “by the gift and power of God,”3 that is, by a revelatory or inspired process and not by natural means. As used in this series, translation does not refer to conventional translations, such as Smith’s exercises in the study of Hebrew.

A revelation to Joseph Smith dated 6 April 1830, the day he organized the Church of Christ, describes him as “a seer & Translater & Prop[h]et.”4 What did these titles mean to him and his followers? His work in translating the Book of Mormon helped shape their understanding. The Book of Mormon tells of a king who asks Ammon, an emissary from another kingdom, if he can translate an ancient, indecipherable record in the king’s possession. “I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate,” Ammon replies, “for he hath wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God.” Such power constitutes a “seer,” Ammon says, which he defines as “a revelator, and a prophet also.” A seer by this definition possesses “great power given him from God” that enables him to know of things past, present, and future and to reveal what is otherwise unknowable. “Therefore,” the Book of Mormon states, “he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.”5

For early Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s roles as seer, translator, and prophet constituted such a gift from God. He and his followers considered his translation and the subsequent publication of the Book of Mormon a great benefit to humanity and regarded him as a servant of God who, like Moses, revealed God’s commandments. “The fact is,” Smith declared, “that by the power of God I translated the book of Mormon from hierogliphics; the knowledge of which was lost to the world. In which wonderful event, I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries.”6 Such confidence in his calling characterized Smith’s life.

Years before he published the Book of Mormon, young Joseph Smith had his first experience with Deity. Stirred by preachers and revivalists in upstate New York, by 1820 he became seriously concerned for what he called “the wellfare of my immortal Soul.” Having come of age in an evangelical culture, he used the vocabulary of the revival preachers to describe how he became “convicted” of his sins and longed for an assurance of salvation. He turned to the Bible and found it reassuring but insufficient, and the denominations he observed did not seem to him to be “built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.”7

During this period of personal distress, Joseph Smith “cried unto the Lord for mercy.” According to his account, his prayer was answered with a dramatic vision. “A pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me,” he wrote. “I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.” Smith recounted that he “could find none that would believe” in his experience, and he apparently grew careful of how and to whom he recounted it. “Nevertheless,” he said, “I pondered these things in my heart.”8 Though an 1830 statement apparently refers to the vision,9 he waited a dozen years to write specifically about this experience.

Despite the intensely private nature of Joseph Smith’s 1820 vision, his spiritual experiences gradually drew him into a public role. In September 1823, concerned about his standing before God, he again sought guidance through prayer. This time, Smith later recounted, an angel calling himself Moroni appeared to him with a message that foretold his future roles as seer and translator. The angel spoke of a buried record “written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” The messenger said the record contained “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel . . . as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants.” The angel also spoke of “two stones in silver bows . . . deposited with the plates,” saying “the possession and use of these stones was what constituted seers in ancient or former times.”10Joseph Smith later used the Old Testament term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to such stones. In ancient Israel, certain stones were associated with the priestly or prophetic office and were considered a means of revelation.11 By the early nineteenth century, however, Enlightenment rationalism had relegated such objects to the realm of superstition and magic. Smith rejected that judgment and may have seen a link between Old Testament revelatory practices and the folk religion of his region.12

Previous experience had prepared Joseph Smith to understand and believe the angel’s words concerning the stones. Even before learning of the inscribed gold plates, he gained experience with a mysterious gift he had by which he could look into certain stones and, according to his mother’s report, “discern things, that could not be seen by the natural eye.”13 Smith acknowledged that through this means he had occasionally sought buried treasure and frequently searched for lost property.14 With his 1827 reception of the plates, the ancient seer stones (sometimes called interpreters), and a mandate from heaven, Joseph Smith embarked on a new path as a translator of ancient records.15 He began translating the Book of Mormon in early 1828, and the translation, as he explained it, was made known to him through the stones or interpreters.16Whether using the interpreters or his own stone, he characterized as divine his power to look into seer stones and translate.17

In July 1828, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation for the first known time. In its earliest surviving manuscript form, the introduction to that revelation reads, “Given to Joseph the Seer after he had lost certan writings [of the Book of Mormon] which he had Translated by the gift & Power of God.”18 He had previously entrusted over a hundred pages of the dictated manuscript to a supporter named Martin Harris, who lost them. The loss devastated Smith, and he wept inconsolably upon learning the news.19

The revelation that resulted included both reproof and comfort. The text begins in the voice of a just God who rebukes Joseph Smith for boasting and repeatedly neglecting his counsel. The tone of the revelation turns midway, however, with the words “but remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season.” Smith is assured that he is “still chosen & will again be called to the work.” Still, he is admonished, “except Thou do this thou shalt be delivered up & become as other men & have no more gift.”20 One historian has said that this revelation “gave the first inkling of how Joseph would speak in his prophetic voice. The speaker stands above and outside Joseph, sharply separated emotionally and intellectually. The rebuke of Joseph is as forthright as the denunciation of Martin Harris. There is no effort to conceal or rationalize, no sign of Joseph justifying himself to prospective followers.”21

Joseph Smith dictated most of the Book of Mormon between April and June 1829.22When the manuscript was finished, he contracted with printer E. B. Grandin of Palmyra, New York, to print and bind five thousand copies. The book went on sale in March 1830. By that spring, dozens outside of Joseph Smith’s family had accepted him as a divinely inspired revelator and translator, and the number soon grew. Such a group of believers was essential for his texts to function as scripture: “Texts without . . . an interactive group are mere texts,” wrote historian Stephen Stein, “ancient texts perhaps, or even modern texts, but not scripture.”23 After the Book of Mormon was published and Smith organized a church, the number of converts continued to grow, beginning with many of the women and men who knew him best, who “accepted the voice in the revelations as the voice of God, investing in the revelations the highest authority, even above Joseph Smith’s counsel. In the revelations, they believed, God himself spoke, not a man.”24

Witnesses described how Joseph Smith captured the revealed words in written texts, giving them permanence. “The scribe seats himself at a desk or table, with pen, ink and paper,” recounted one scribe. “The subject of enquiry being understood, the Prophet and Revelator enquires of God. He spiritually sees, hears and feels, and then speaks as he is moved upon by the Holy Ghost, the ‘thus saith the Lord,’ sentence after sentence, and waits for his amanuenses to write and then read aloud each sentence.”25 As with the 1820 theophany, the revelations preserved in his manuscripts are mostly dialogic. Smith posed questions to Deity, who answered directly. Pressing questions frequently catalyzed revelation, and the divine response contained specific answers. This form of revelation also pervades the Book of Mormon, where “prayer frequently and dramatically evokes an answer that is impossible to mistake as anything other than an individualized, dialogic response.”26

Many of Joseph Smith’s revelations share common threads. Pronounced themes in the first revelations—such as apostasy, fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and the imminent return of Christ—reappear frequently in many of the later revelations. The revelations also follow the New Testament pattern of quoting and paraphrasing earlier scripture; words, phrases, and ideas found in the Old and New Testaments and in the Book of Mormon are diffused throughout. Revelations addressed to numerous individual followers repeat a commission to proclaim to all humankind the message of the gospel as revealed to Joseph Smith.

His work on the Book of Mormon was not Joseph Smith’s only activity as a translator. In April 1829, he envisioned, translated, and dictated the text of an ancient parchment that included an expanded version of John 21 that he said had been written and hidden by the apostle John.27 Soon after organizing the church the following year, he turned his attention to what he called a “new Translation” of the Bible, perhaps best described as an inspired revision (and in some cases expansion) of biblical passages.28 Unlike contemporaries who produced more accessible English Bibles from Greek, Hebrew, or Latin versions, he read the King James Version and “translated” it by adding glosses, rearranging clauses, and at times appending entire pages of revealed text. The most significant of these additions came between June and December 1830 when Smith dictated a text expanding on the book of Genesis. Though this translation of the Bible occupied much of his time from June 1830 to July 1833, he did not live to see the publication of the entire manuscript. The earliest manuscripts of this translation will be published in this Revelations and Translations series.

In 1835, Joseph Smith acquired manuscripts written on Egyptian scrolls, along with several smaller papyrus documents and four Egyptian mummies. He dictated a translation of some of this material to scribe Warren Parrish. As with the Book of Mormon, Smith claimed no knowledge of the ancient language but, as Parrish noted, “claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.”29 As a result of these labors, he published a translation of “some ancient Records . . . purporting to be the writings of Abraham” in the church newspaper Times and Seasons in 1842, leaving the impression that more was forthcoming.30

Preserving his revelations and translations was among Joseph Smith’s earliest priorities. Smith’s letters from the 1820s did not survive and neither his journal nor his history predates 1832,31 but from the beginning, he worked to preserve and publish his revelations and translations. He copyrighted the Book of Mormon in 1829 and closely monitored its publication, and he took care to preserve the manuscripts used for publication.32 By summer 1830, he and convert John Whitmer “began to arrange and copy the revelations” received to that point.33 The receipt, transcription, entry into manuscript books, and publication of the revelations frequently occupied his attention. The book referred to herein as Revelation Book 1 is the earliest extant fruit of those labors, likely dating from early 1831, though possibly from 1830. This text was penned mainly by John Whitmer. He and Oliver Cowdery carried Revelation Book 1 to Missouri in November 1831, where the revelations were to be published. By early 1832, Smith and his scribes had procured another book, designated herein as Revelation Book 2, in which to record further words from heaven. Both manuscript books are published in this volume.

Though loose manuscript copies of some revelations also circulated, Revelation Book 1 became the principal basis for the Book of Commandments, and Revelation Books 1 and 2 became the basis for the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelations recorded in these two manuscript books date from 1828 to 1834, the period when Joseph Smith’s written revelations were most frequent.34 By introducing offices and defining roles for presidents, apostles, bishops, and priesthood quorums, these early revelations informed the creation of an institutional church. One of the last items in Revelation Book 1 is a heading intended for minutes of the February 1834 organization of a standing “high counsel” established to provide counsel and handle difficulties. Such councils were expected to administer church business according to revelations already received and to seek further revelation for themselves—always, however, within their particular purview, the bounds of which were set by the canonized revelations.35

The revelations and translations of Joseph Smith have made him known worldwide. Since the time these texts were recorded, they have been revered as God’s word and dismissed as frauds, considered canonical and regarded as blasphemous. Reflecting in 1841 on Smith’s production of such texts, one writer noted that “it is difficult to imagine a more difficult literary task than to write what may be termed a continuation of the Scriptures.”36 But producing scripture, Joseph Smith believed, was a fundamental component of his role as a revelator and translator, and this series will provide unprecedented access to the material that resulted from his efforts.