1 Nephi 1:1-2 — LeGrand Baker — Angels helped Joseph Translate

(This is an excerpt from my Joseph and Moroni. The full text is in “Published Books” in this website.)

While Joseph and Oliver were house guests in the Peter Whitmer home, the men of the family liked having them around and were glad to help whenever they could. The visitors had little effect on the routine of their farm work, but for David’s mother, Mary Whitmer, that was not the case at all. In addition to her usual chores, like gathering the eggs, feeding the chickens, and milking the cows, she now had to fix extra for meals, bake more bread, and wash all her guests’ clothes—by hand on a scrub board. It made a great deal of difference to her that there were two more grown men living in her home.{1}

Joseph had kept his promise to Moroni and had not shown the plates to anyone, so Mary didn’t know he really had them. It may have seemed unfair to Mary that she should have the burden of looking after these two self-invited guests. She may have complained; if she didn’t, she probably wanted to.

One day, Mary went out into the barn. She was startled when she first saw an angel standing there with a knapsack over his shoulder, but his kindly appearance soon caused all her fear to go away. Her description of him was like the description of the old gentleman Joseph, Oliver, and her son David had talked with when they were riding in the wagon.

He said to her, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase in your toil; it is proper, therefore, that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” He then untied his knapsack and showed her the golden plates. The angel “turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer.”{2}

After Mary examined the plates, the angel left the barn. She followed him because she wanted to ask him a question, but he was gone.

The angel’s showing Mary the plates teaches about how the Lord looks after His children. The Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses saw the plates and they were given the responsibility of testifying that they had seen them and they were told never to deny that testimony. But Mary was not given that responsibility. She was shown the plates because the Lord wished to give her peace and to help her understand.

The Testimony of Sarah Conrad

Mary Whitmer never wavered in her support for Joseph Smith after she saw the angel and the plates. But she did do something to lighten her burden and make it easier to care for her family and guests.

The angel had suggested that she hire someone to help her, so she hired her niece, a girl named Sarah Conrad, to live at the house and help with the chores.{3} She did not tell Sarah what Joseph and Oliver were doing, but it did not take long for Sarah to discover that something unusual was going on. Sarah noticed that the Prophet and his friend “would go up into the attic, and they would stay all day. When they came down, they looked more like heavenly beings than they did just ordinary men.”{4}

At first Sarah was curious, but in time their luminous appearance actually frightened her. She told her aunt how she felt and asked what made those men “so exceedingly white.”{5}

When Mrs. Whitmer explained to Sarah about the Book of Mormon, she “told her what the men were doing in the room above and that the power of God was so great in the room that they could hardly endure it. At times angels were in the room in their glory which nearly consumed them.”{6} The light that shone from Joseph and Oliver’s faces came from their having been with the angels.

This explanation was reasonable enough and satisfied Sarah. She not only stayed with the Whitmers, but she also became one of Joseph’s good friends. She was baptized, and much later, after she and the other Saints were driven from Nauvoo, she settled with them in Provo, Utah.{7}

Joseph never told his readers how he translated the Book of Mormon except to say that he used the Urim and Thummim and that he did it “by the gift and power of God.” But there are some interesting indications that he had help from other angels besides Moroni.{8}

Sarah’s is the earliest of a number of accounts that testify that at times, when the Prophet was receiving revelation or was in the presence of heavenly beings, he, like Moses, actually glowed (Exodus 34:29-35).

Wilford Woodruff tried to describe the Prophet’s appearance on one of those occasions. He said, “His face was clear as amber.”{9} Philo Dibble, who was present when the Prophet received the revelation that is now the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, reported, “Joseph wore black clothes, but at this time seemed to be dressed in an element of glorious white.”{10}

Sarah’s testimony that the men who were working on the translation of the Book of Mormon “looked so exceedingly white,” combined with Mrs. Whitmer’s explanation that “angels were in the room in their glory which nearly consumed them,” gives a valuable key to understanding the Book of Mormon and to knowing how it was translated. One may assume that if there were angels in the room, they had some purpose for being there other than just to pass the time of day. Their presence in the translating room certainly had an impact upon the ultimate outcome of Joseph’s work.

Angels Helped Joseph Translate

Neither Joseph Smith, nor Oliver Cowdery, nor the Whitmers, nor Sarah Conrad left any record identifying who the angels were, but others also knew, and they have given some important information about who the angels might have been.

Elder Parley P. Pratt did not identify the angels by name, but he testified that through Joseph Smith “and the ministration of holy angels to him, that book came forth to the world.”{11} His brother Orson added that during those years, Joseph “was often ministered to by the angels of God, and received instruction” from them.{12}

President John Taylor, who was a dear friend and confidant of the Prophet Joseph mentioned some of the angels by name. He said:

Again who more likely than Mormon and Nephi, and some of those prophets who had ministered to the people upon this continent, under the influence of the same Gospel, to operate again as its representatives? Who more likely than those who had officiated in the holy Melchisedec priesthood to administer to Joseph Smith and reveal unto him the great principles which were developed? Well, now, do I believe that Joseph Smith saw the several angels alleged to have been seen by him as described, one after another? Yes, I do.{13}

On another occasion, when President Taylor was discussing the restoration of the gospel, he said, “I can tell you what he [Joseph] told me about it.” Then he told this story:

Afterwards the Angel Moroni came to him and revealed to him the Book of Mormon, with the history of which you are generally familiar, and also with the statements that I am now making pertaining to these things. And then came Nephi, one of the ancient prophets, that had lived upon this continent, who had an interest in the welfare of the people that he had lived amongst in those days.{14}

President Taylor was even more explicit in another address to the Saints:

And when Joseph Smith was raised up as a Prophet of God, Mormon, Moroni, Nephi and others of the ancient Prophets who formerly lived on this Continent, and Peter and John and others who lived on the Asiatic Continent, came to him and communicated to him certain principles pertaining to the Gospel of the Son of God. Why? Because they held the keys of the various dispensations, and conferred them upon him, and he upon us. He was indebted to God; and we are indebted to God and to him for all the intelligence that we have on these subjects.{15}

Similarly, President George Q. Cannon once assured his listeners:

[The Prophet Joseph] had doubtless, also, visits from Nephi and it may be from Alma and others. He was visited constantly by angels…. Moroni, in the beginning, as you know, to prepare him for his mission, came and ministered and talked to him from time to time, and he had vision after vision in order that his mind might be fully saturated with a knowledge of the things of God, and that he might comprehend the great and holy calling that God has bestowed upon him.{16}

Joseph said very little about his meeting with Book of Mormon prophets other than Moroni. However, in the famous letter to John Wentworth, the one in which he wrote the Articles of Faith, the Prophet explained that the Book of Mormon came forth only “after having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days.”{17} The “many visits” could, of course, have all been from Moroni. But Moroni is only one angel and Joseph wrote that he had received “many visits from the angels.” That statement by the Prophet, coupled with those of his friends, leads one to conclude that the translation of the Book of Mormon was something of a joint effort between Moroni; Joseph Smith, who used the Urim and Thummim; Nephi (probably more than one Nephi); Alma; Mormon; and other original authors of the Book of Mormon.

One cannot read the Book of Mormon without noticing the Lord’s promises to the prophets that their messages would be passed on to people in the last days.{18} It is not surprising, then, that those same prophets who wrote those messages should be present with Joseph while he was translating their own writings. If the original authors did help in the translation of their own parts of the book, that would guarantee that the English version of the Book of Mormon says just exactly what the authors wanted it to say, and could help account for the remarkably rich diversity in the wordprints of the various authors.

{1} Jensen, Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:267.

{2} Jensen, Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:267.

{3} Newell, “History of Sarah (Sallie) Heller Conrad Bunnel,” and “My Grandmother Bunnel.”

{4} Interview statement reported in, Richard L. Anderson, “The House Where the Church Was Organized,”Improvement Era, April, 1970, 21.

{5} Oliver B. Huntington, “Diary,” typescript copy at BYU Library. vol. 2, 415-16. Huntington heard this story from Sarah, herself, when she was 88 years old.

{6} Huntington, “Diary,” 2:415-16.
{7} Huntington, “Diary,” 2:415-16. See also Anderson, “The House,” Improvement Era, April, 1970 21. I have also spoken with Sarah’s descendants who confirmed the story.

{8} For a discussion of how Joseph translated, see: Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36-41. Regarding the time that it took to translate and write the 116 pages, Joseph Smith wrote that Martin arrived “about the 12th of April, 1828, and commenced writing for me while I translated from the plates, which we continued until the 14th of June [1828]” (History of the Church, 1:20).

{9} Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report, April, 1898, 89.

{10} Juvenile Instructor, 27:303-04.

{11} Journal of Discourses, 9:212. See also: Journal of Discourses, 3:185.

{12} Journal of Discourses, 15:185. See similar testimonies in Journal of Discourses, 13:66 and 14:140.

{13} Journal of Discourses, 21:163-64.

{14} Journal of Discourses, 21:161-62.

{15} Journal of Discourses, 17:375-76.

{16} Journal of Discourses, 23:363.

{17} Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:537.

{18} For examples see: 2 Nephi 33:3-4; 3 Nephi 5:18; Mormon 8:12, 9:30-31; Enos 1:15-16; Ether 12:25-29. See also, 2 Nephi 3:19-21, 26:16, chapter 27; Mormon 5:12-13; Mosiah 1:7; D&C 17:6, D&C 10:46-53.

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