Dictated – Yes

David said the “translation” process was more like “dictation” where Joseph saw the already translated English and either spoke the words or spelled them out. When Book of Mormon critics accused the Book of Mormon of having “bad grammar,” LDS apologists were quick to say it was Joseph’s fault; that he used his own language:

No responsible authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever claimed that God or an angel DICTATED the physical format of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, or directed what the GRAMMAR, SPELLING, punctuation, and capitalization of the text should be. NOR HAS ANY RESPONSIBLE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH, PAST OR PRESENT, said in specific terms that the translation in the Book of Mormon was DICTATED WORD FOR WORD to Joseph Smith by divine means (Sidney Sperry, The Problems of the Book of Mormon, Bookcraft, 1964, p. 183).

True, the Lord would aid the prophet by means of the Urim and Thummim to get the ideas expressed by the characters on the Gold Plates, BUT HE LEFT IT TO HIS SERVANT TO EXPRESS THOSE IDEAS IN THE BEST LANGUAGE AT HIS COMMAND. The Lord seldom does for man what man can do for himself. CONSEQUENTLY THE ALMIGHTY IS NOT TO BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR FAULTY GRAMMAR AND DICTION IN THE FIRST EDITION OF THE BOOK OF MORMON (Ibid, p. 186).

The Lord was rightly concerned about the correctness of the ideas expressed in Joseph Smith’s translation BUT LEFT IT TO THE PROPHET’S GOOD SENSE TO SEE TO IT THAT THE BOOK OF MORMON APPEARED TO THE PUBLIC IN AS DECENT A FORM AS HE COULD BRING ABOUT (Ibid, p. 187).

The Book of Mormon provides the answer.

20 thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

22 when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee…that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read

24 shall read the words that shall be delivered him (2 Nephi 27)

Joe’s brother William described the process thus:

The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God (William Smith on Mormonism, 1883, p. 11).

David knew first hand:

Also, Brother Whitmer stated to the writer in 1885, that ‘Joseph told him’ that in the translation ‘the original characters appeared upon parchment, and under them the translation in English, which enabled him to read it readily’ (Zenas H. Gurley, “The Book of Mormon,” Autumn Leaves, [Lamoni, Iowa] October 1892, vol. 5, no. 10, p. 453).

Thanks to the work of Dr. Royal Skousen, he has verified the truth of David’s statement.

I began to see considerable evidence for the traditional interpretation that witnesses of the translation process claimed: (1) the text was given word for word, (2) Book of Mormon names were frequently spelled out the first time they occurred in the text, and (3) during dictation there was no rewriting of the text except to correct errors in taking down the dictation. Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language text. The evidence in the manuscripts and in the language of the text itself supports the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon was a precisely determined text. I do not consider this conclusion apologetic, but instead as one demanded by the evidence.

The opposing viewpoint, that Joseph Smith got ideas and he translated them into his own English, cannot be supported by the manuscript and textual evidence. The only substantive argument for this alternative view has been the nonstandard nature of the text, with its implication that God would never speak ungrammatical English, so the nonstandard usage must be the result of Joseph Smith putting the ideas he received into his own language. Yet with the recent finding that the original vocabulary of the text appears to be dated from the 1500s and 1600s (not the 1800s), we now need to consider the possibility that the ungrammaticality of the original text may also date from that earlier period of time, not necessarily from Joseph’s own time and place. Joseph Smith is not the author of the Book of Mormon, nor is he actually the translator. Instead, he was the revelator: through him the Lord revealed the English-language text (by means of the interpreters, later called the Urim and Thummim, and the seer stone). Such a view is consistent, I believe, with Joseph’s use elsewhere of the verb translate to mean ‘transmit’ and the noun translation to mean ‘transmission’ (as in the eighth Article of Faith) (Royal Skousen, See #8).

Dr. Skousen took this stance as early as 1998:

A number of statements from the witnesses definitely show that virtually all of them believed in the iron-clad theory:

1. Joseph Knight (autograph [between 1833 and 1847])

But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous.

2. Emma Smith (Edmund Briggs interview, 1856)

When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time.

3. Martin Harris (Edward Stevenson’s 1881 account)

By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.

4. David Whitmer (Eri Mullin interview, 1874)

. . . the words would appear, and if he failed to spell the word right, it would stay till it was spelled right, then pass away; another come, and so on.

Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text, Royal Skousen, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 7, Issue – 1, Pages: 22-31, 1998

See also: By the Gift and Power of God ; Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing

And this is from 1997:

“One of the interesting complexities of the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon is that it contains expressions that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in all of its dialects and historical stages. These structures also support the notion that Joseph Smith’s translation is a literal one and not simply a reflection of either his own dialect or the style of early modern English found in the King James Version of the Bible.”

“All of this evidence (from the original manuscript, witnesses’ statements, and from the text itself) is thus consistent with the hypothesis that Joseph Smith could actually see (whether in the interpreters themselves or in his mind’s eye) the translated English text-word for word and letter for letter-and that he read off this revealed text to his scribe. Despite Joseph’s reading off of the text, one should not assume that this process was automatic or easily done. Joseph had to prepare himself spiritually for this work. Yet the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith was not the author of the Book of Mormon, not even its English language translation, although it was revealed spiritually through him and in his own language” (Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997).

Others Knew

The method was known and reiterated in a Court case as reported by Abram W. Benton in “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, Utica, New York, vol. 2, no. 15 (April 9, 1831), p. 120:

This trial led to an investigation of his [Joseph Smith Jr.’s] character and conduct, which clearly evinced to the unprejudiced, whence the spirit came which dictated his inspirations. During the trial it was shown that the Book of Mormon was brought to light by the same magic power by which he pretended to tell fortunes, discover hidden treasures, &c. Oliver Cowdry, one of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, HE WAS ABLE TO READ IN ENGLISH, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.


“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 his work on 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 went 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 her 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.” (Chicago “Inter-Ocean” cited in Saints’ Herald, November 13, 1886, p. 706.)

Problems with the current view:

  • “Thus saith the Lord” has no merit. Joseph used his own words for both the D&C and the Book of Mormon, therefore could change them.
  • What was the Urim and Thummim/Seer Stone used for if not to see the words?
  • Word print analyses show different authors for the Book of Mormon, i.e. Alma, Moroni, etc. Joseph did not use his own words.
  • Scripture is clear, the word of the Lord IS given “word for word:”

But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost. (Mark 13:11)

And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi did preach unto the Lamanites with such great power and authority, for they had power and authority given unto them that they might speak, and they also had what they should speak given unto them (Helaman 5:18)

And it shall be given thee in the very moment what thou shalt speak AND WRITE (D&C 24:6)

Sperry and others stated that David did not know what he was talking about; that “only a prophet would know.” I guess since no Mormon or RLDS prophet knew, they are not true prophets!

More details can be found here:

Kenneth Godfrey

Paul Cheesman

Sidney Sperry

The impetus should be on: “by the power of God.” Why? Because He said that He would do His own work and claiming that Joe did it undermines God. The spirit that inspired Sperry’s interpretation was the same spirit that discouraged Joe from abiding by its principles.