Summary of Translation Events

After assessing all the evidence, I concluded that the plates Joseph originally obtained from Moroni didn't include the plates of Nephi. You'll see that the more you think about it, the more obvious it is. I thought I'd write an article, but there was so much evidence that it grew into an entire book.

Here's an example.

D&C 9 promises Oliver there would be "other records" for which he would have power to assist to translate. D&C 10 explains what these "other records" are; i.e., the plates of Nephi. But Joseph didn't have the plates of Nephi when he was in Harmony.

Before he left Harmony, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger who returned them to the repository in the Hill Cumorah. From there, the messenger got the plates of Nephi and took them to Fayette so Joseph could translate 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon.


Once we understand that there were two sets of plates, we can reconcile the different accounts and make sense of these details of Church history.

We also understand that the repository Mormon referred to in Mormon 6:6 was actually in the Hill Cumorah in New York, as explained by several of the men who knew Joseph Smith, including Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, and Orson Pratt.

Commentary by Jonathan Neville

August 1, 2017

Recently I was asked to provide a clear statement of what I think about the translation process and what happened with the plates.

As always, I welcome input, corrections, suggestions, etc.

2017 Overview of Book of Mormon geography and Church history

My thesis: the Book of Mormon took place in North America, not Central America or anywhere else. Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith taught this clearly. Early Church authors, including Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, W.W. Phelps, and the Pratt brothers speculated about a setting in Central and/or South America. Winchester wrote editorials to that effect that were published anonymously in the 1842 Times and Seasons. Ever since, people assumed, incorrectly, that Joseph wrote or approved of these editorials. Over the years, scholars developed a theory that Cumorah was in Mexico, not New York. They elaborated on their theory to the point that it became the de facto consensus in the Church. But it's wrong and I hope the historical mistake gets corrected soon.

I accept the Book of Mormon as an actual history of real people. There are many who question the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. I wanted to know why.

I started my blog to explore issues related to Book of Mormon historicity and geography.

Preliminary matters

Many people are deeply attached to a particular setting for the Book of Mormon. If your ideas work for you—in the sense that your beliefs make the text more real for you and help you understand and apply its Gospel meaning—then that’s great. In my books and blogs I’m simply relating the facts as I understand them, along with inferences I consider reasonable. This understanding works for me. Your mileage may vary. Do what you think best.

Some people tell me it doesn’t matter where the Book of Mormon took place because it is the message (about Christ and the Gospel) that is the most important. To me, that’s a non sequitur. Granted, the message about Christ and the Gospel is the most important, but that’s not the reason we have the Book of Mormon. That message could have been communicated through modern revelation. It could also have been communicated through parables—which is exactly what some think the Book of Mormon is, instead of an actual history.

I think the reason we have the Book of Mormon is (as the Title Page explains) to convince people that Jesus is the Christ, manifesting himself unto all nations. If, as I assert, the Book of Mormon is an actual history of real people, then the only explanation for it is what Joseph and Oliver said. And if it’s an actual history, then it took place somewhere—again, as Joseph and Oliver said.

Ultimately, the geography depends on where Cumorah is. I suspect most people—including me—think Cumorah is in New York. I think those who believe Cumorah is somewhere else are wrong.

Summary and thesis

This is a summary of the facts in Church history as I understand and interpret them. You may or may not have heard/read these things before. Some people will disagree with me about some of the details, but my point here is not to convince anyone. I'm just explaining my thesis. I’m not including any references or detail; I’ve provided hundreds of footnotes in my blogs and in my books for those interested.

My detailed thesis:

In 1827, Joseph Smith obtained a set of golden plates from a box made of stone and cement that Moroni built in the Hill Cumorah in western New York. He took this set of plates to Harmony, Pennsylvania.

In 1828, Joseph dictated the translation of the Book of Lehi from the Harmony plates. Martin Harris acted as scribe, along with Emma. Martin lost the 116 pages and we still don’t have them today.

In 1829, Joseph dictated the balance of the Harmony plates, from Mosiah through Moroni, to Oliver Cowdery, who acted as scribe. Joseph translated the Title Page, which was on the last leaf of the set of plates.

When they reached the end, Joseph and Oliver considered returning to the beginning and retranslating the Book of Lehi. However, Joseph received a revelation in May 1829 (D&C 10) that he should not retranslate the first part of the plates. Instead, he was directed to translate the Plates of Nephi to replace the lost 116 pages of manuscript. But Joseph didn’t have the plates of Nephi.

In May 1829, the Lord commanded Joseph to write to David Whitmer and ask him to convey Joseph and Oliver to David’s father’s home in Fayette. Oliver wrote the letter.

Before leaving Harmony, Joseph gave the set of plates to a heavenly messenger. He also arranged to have the Title Page printed and sent to a federal court in New York to register the copyright.

David drove his wagon to Harmony to pick up Joseph and Oliver. On their way to Fayette, they met an old man on the road. He was carrying a knapsack on his back. David asked if he wanted a ride, but the man declined, saying he was going to Cumorah. David had grown up in the area but had never heard of Cumorah. He turned to Joseph to inquire. When he turned back, the messenger had already left. Joseph said it was the messenger who had the plates.

The messenger went to Cumorah where, separate from Moroni’s stone box, there was a large underground room—a depository containing all the records of the Nephites. (Mormon 6:6) Mormon had moved the plates to Cumorah from the original storage place in the Hill Shim (Mormon 1:3, 4:23, Ether 9:3).

The messenger left the Harmony plates in the depository and retrieved the plates of Nephi. He took these to Fayette. He showed them to David’s mother before giving them to Joseph Smith.

Joseph and Oliver translated the plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon) in Fayette. When they finished, Oliver, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris sought permission to see the plates.

An angel showed the plates to the Three Witnesses, turning each plate so they could see the engravings, but none of the witnesses touched the plates at the time. David Whitmerlater said part of the plates, which he assumed was the sealed portion, looked solid as wood.

A few days later, Joseph arranged to show the plates to eight other witnesses in the Palmyra area.

It’s unknown whether the Three Witnesses saw the Harmony plates or the Fayette plates, but I think they probably saw the Harmony plates, which Joseph later explained were the “Original Book of Mormon.” The reason is David said there was a portion of the plates that looked as solid as wood. I think this is the compartment that contained the Nephite interpreters.

The Eight Witnesses more likely saw the plates of Nephi (the Fayette plates) because none of them mentioned a solid portion. Joseph’s mother said he had obtained these plates from one of the Three Nephites, who was probably the messenger who got them from the depository and took them to Fayette.

Joseph and Oliver went to the depository on multiple occasions. Possibly they returned the Fayette plates there, then got them to show the Eight Witnesses, then returned them again.

From the time Joseph first announced he had found the plates in the Hill Cumorah, people had been digging in the hill seeking buried treasure. The Lord knew that once the statements of the witnesses were published in 1830, the treasure seekers would renew their efforts. Probably in 1829, and certainly before Oliver and three others left on their mission to the Lamanites in October 1830, Oliver and Joseph, apparently assisted by David Whitmer and Joseph’s brothers Hyrum and Don Carlos, moved the plates out of Cumorah to another location. I think they moved them to the Hill Shim where Ammaron had originally hidden them. It took several trips by wagon. None of the plates remained in Cumorah, as both David and Oliver explained.

All of the men involved operated under a vow of secrecy. Oliver and some of the others did tell Brigham Young and a few other people what happened. Possibly they told Brigham where they moved the plates, but if so, this has never been discussed publicly.

When Zion’s Camp walked across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois in 1834, Joseph recognized the terrain as the plains of the Nephites. He wrote about it to Emma on June 4th, 1834, who had been one of the original scribes. She knew what Joseph was referring to because they had discussed what Joseph learned from Moroni during his interviews, when Moroni told him all about Nephite society and showed him the people in vision.

Also on Zion’s Camp, Joseph had a vision of Zelph, a warrior in the final battles who was killed and buried in Illinois.

Joseph knew the Native American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes region were the descendants of Lehi’s people. He met with tribes from this area and told them their fathers had written the Book of Mormon.

At various times, Joseph tried to write a history of the Church, but events were unfolding so rapidly—and he was not comfortable writing because of his limited education—that the efforts never amounted to much. In October 1834, a significant anti-Mormon book,Mormonism Unvailed, was published in Painesville, Ohio, not far from Kirtland. Apparently in response, that same month Oliver began publishing a series of letters about Church history in the Church’s newspaper, the Messenger and Advocate, in Kirtland. Joseph assisted Oliver in writing them. Oliver wrote eight letters. In Letter VII, he described the Hill Cumorah and explained that the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in the mile-wide valley west of Cumorah and that Mormon’s depository was located in the same hill.

Oliver didn’t claim revelation on the point; he knew it was true because he and Joseph had actually visited the depository and saw all the Nephite records and artifacts. Joseph endorsed Letter VII and the rest of the letters by having his scribes copy them into his journal as part of his history.

Years later, Joseph gave express permission to Benjamin Winchester to republish the letters, including Letter VII, in the Gospel Reflector. Winchester published the entire collection in his Philadelphia newspaper in March 1841.

In the fall of 1840, Joseph gave the letters to his brother, Don Carlos, to republish in the Times and Seasons. Don Carlos published them in several issues in 1840 and 1841.

The following year, 1842, Joseph referred to Cumorah in D&C 128. By then, the location of Cumorah in New York was universally understood by members of the Church. Not only had Joseph and Oliver taught it explicitly in Letter VII, but, as Brigham Young explained, Joseph and Oliver had been inside Mormon's depository in the Hill Cumorah multiple times.

In response to strong demand for Oliver's letters, they were also republished in England in February 1844.

Joseph’s brother William republished the letters again in The Prophet, a Church newspaper based in New York. The publication date was June 29, 1844--two days after Joseph was murdered in Carthage.

Apart from Cumorah, which Joseph mentioned in D&C 128, and Zarahemla, mentioned in D&C 125, the Prophet never officially identified specific Book of Mormon sites. He was faced with more pressing matters, including the troubles in Missouri, the thousands of converts coming to settle in Nauvoo, the need to build the temple and introduce all the temple ordinances before he died, and much more. It is possible he saw no need to elaborate beyond the location of Cumorah and the plains of the Nephites and Zelph’s mound.

From the outset of their missionary work, Parley P. Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, and other early missionary/authors were constantly being attacked by anti-Mormons. One persistent line of attack was the claim that Joseph had copied the Book of Mormon from a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding. Pratt and Winchester both responded to this claim.

Another criticism focused on the text itself. The Book of Mormon describes advanced civilizations, but everyone knew the Indians were savages. Critics claimed the Book of Mormon merely repeated the legends of ancient civilizations in North America that were destroyed by the savage Indians. Pratt, Winchester, and others responded to these criticisms by pointing to discoveries of long-lost civilizations in Central America that built great stone pyramids and cities.

In 1842 Joseph Smith became the nominal editor of the Times and Seasons. From the early days of the Church, he knew it was important for the Church to have its own newspaper because he could not get fair coverage from the media. In 1832, W.W. Phelps, an experienced newspaperman, was called to publish a newspaper in Missouri—The Evening and the Morning Star. Oliver Cowdery was called to assist in editing. Phelps had a strident tone, though, and he wrote an article that inflamed the Missourians and led to the destruction of the printing press. Joseph sent Oliver back east to buy another press. Oliver set it up in Kirtland and continued the Evening and the Morning Star. He replaced it with the Messenger and Advocate, which he and his brother Warren edited. Eventually, Phelps, Oliver and Warren left the Church (although Phelps and Oliver later came back). In Kirtland, Joseph started the Elders’ Journal, which listed himself as Editor, although his brother Don Carlos (who had learned the newspaper business from Oliver), was the acting editor.

When the Saints moved to Nauvoo in 1839, Don Carlos started the newspaper named the Times and Seasons. He died in September 1841, after which Ebenezer Robinson took over as publisher and editor. Winchester moved to Nauvoo and began working at the paper in November 1841, despite being severely disciplined by Joseph Smith on October 31. Every issue of the Times and Seasons from November 1 through February 15 contained at least one long article written by Winchester but published anonymously, giving credit only to the Gospel Reflector.

Joseph had misgivings about the operation of the paper. Based on his experience with Phelps and Oliver, he seemed willing to trust only his brother Don Carlos, but when Don died, Joseph was left with few options. The Lord answered his prayers with a revelation that the Quorum of the Twelve should take over the paper. They “suspended” Winchester, who moved back to Philadelphia and started work on his Synopsis and Concordance.

The Twelve purchased the printing shop from Robinson and, beginning on February 15, 1842, Joseph was listed as as printer, editor, and publisher. Wilford Woodruff managed the business affairs of the printing office and John Taylor assisted in writing. The printing office, which published a variety of material in addition to the Times and Seasons, had a staff of printers, proofreaders, and writers. In April, Joseph’s other brother, William, started a local paper called the Wasp. It was published from the same shop as the Times and Seasons and shared editorial content.

Joseph’s involvement at the Times and Seasons included the publication of the Book of Abraham, the Wentworth letter, and the History of Joseph Smith, a compilation of material Joseph supplied to his clerks but did not write himself. By the spring of 1842, W.W. Phelps had moved to Nauvoo and was helping to write and edit material for the Times and Seasons.

Joseph was busy with many responsibilities, well documented in his journal. Editing the Times and Seasons was never mentioned in his journal. Nor was printing the paper, even though the boilerplate caption at the end of each issue claimed the paper was edited, printed and published by Joseph Smith. This means he was editor, printer and publisher in name only.

Because Joseph was merely the nominal editor, in the spring of 1842, William soon became the acting editor of both newspapers (the Wasp and the Times and Seasons), with the uncredited assistance of Phelps (although it is very difficult to determine which of them contributed what editorial content). Winchester, who had been sending material to the Times and Seasons since its very first issue in 1839, continued sending articles to the paper.

Because of his tenuous relationship with the Twelve, Winchester’s work was published anonymously and over the signature of the Editor. One example is the article "Try the Spirits," published on 1 April 1842, which contains several passages that are nearly identical to portions of Winchester's Synopsis and Concordance.

Later in the year, William published some of Winchester’s material over a pseudonym. Winchester continued adapting the material he was writing for his Synopsis and Concordance. As in the Gospel Reflector, Winchester’s main themes were baptism, opposing anti-Mormons, and proving the Book of Mormon with extrinsic evidence. Winchester wrote editorial comments about the works of Josiah Priest and Stevens and Catherwood. Three of these anonymous articles appeared in the September and October 1842 Times and Seasons, making an explicit link between the Book of Mormon and Central America. The one published on October 1 even claimed Zarahemla was in Quirigua, Guatemala.

Note: These issues also contained letters that Joseph Smith wrote and sent to the newspaper because he was in hiding. Obviously, someone else was running the Times and Seasons, and it wasn't John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff, both of whom were seriously ill in August and September.

Joseph Smith usually saw the paper when everyone else did—after it was published. He was dismayed by the Oct. 1 issue. He realized that having his name listed as the nominal editor conferred an element of authority on the paper that was unwarranted and risky. He had already been told by others that William’s editorial approach reflected badly on the Church so he decided to remove William as editor of both papers. He, Joseph, decided that he would officially resign first and allow William to keep his name on the Wasp for a while longer, although John Taylor would take over both papers immediately in October.

Joseph faced a dilemma that his resignation alone would not resolve. His critics read every word of the Times and Seasons, looking for opportunities to criticize Joseph and the Church. The paper was struggling financially. If he were to recant the Zarahemla article, his critics would have a field day. The same October 1 issue contained the letter that would become D&C 128 (D&C 128 refers to Cumorah in the context of other sites in New York).

If Joseph retracted the "Zarahemla is Quirigua" article, his critics would say D&C 128 was also false doctrine. He decided to let the article go without comment. It was never cited again or even mentioned (until the 20th Century by LDS scholars who sought to promote a Mesoamerican theory of geography--but even they reject the Quirigua claim).

Subsequent editorials and news items mentioned both North American and Central American archaeological findings in connection with the Book of Mormon, but this was consistent with what was generally believed. An earlier article in the Times and Seasons had observed that the Aztec people had traditions that contained “Traits of the Mosaic History” which came from migrations from Wisconsin to Mexico. The Wisconsin people, like other Great Lakes tribes, were descendants of Lehi; naturally the accounts of Moses would accompany Israelites wherever they went, even when the stories had been corrupted by Lamanite interpretations.

The only geographic detail that was unambiguously established was the location of Cumorah in New York. During Joseph’s lifetime, everyone knew that Cumorah was in New York because Joseph made sure Letter VII was republished frequently enough for everyone to read and understand.

After Winchester and William Smith were excommunicated, they became persona non grata. Parley P. Pratt instructed Church members to stop buying Winchester’s books. William became President of the Quorum of the Twelve of the Strangites. In that capacity, he wrote a series of articles about the Book of Mormon, placing it in Central America.

Even today, William’s newspaper, the Wasp, is completely ignored at the recreated Printing Shop in Nauvoo. The Community of Christ has historical markers about the Wasp and reprints from its pages, but the LDS sites are silent about it. When I visited Nauvoo in 2015, the missionaries working in the printing shop had never even heard of the Wasp.

Despite his prominence in Nauvoo in 1841-1844—Winchester was President of the Nauvoo Literary Society in 1844—Winchester has largely vanished from Church history. Few LDS even know his name now. William Smith, too, has largely been ignored.

Once the Saints moved to Utah, the question of Book of Mormon geography was mostly ignored, except by Orson Pratt. Pratt did not adhere to the Zarahemla in Quirigua theory, however; he advocated a hemispheric model that put Zarahemla in South America near the Magdalena River. When he organized the Book of Mormon into chapter and verse, he included footnotes about geography that he specified were speculative, except for Cumorah, which he declared was in New York.

Later, in the 1920s, scholars in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proposed that the Book of Mormon took place in a “limited geography” much smaller than the hemispheric model. They figured the distances described in the text were too small; people traveled only a few days between major locations. These scholars settled on Central America. LDS scholars began adopting these ideas.

A dilemma arose. If Cumorah was in New York, how could all the rest of the Book of Mormon take place in Central America? The short answer: it couldn’t. This led to the development of the two-Cumorahs theory; i.e., the theory that the New York Cumorah is merely the place where Moroni buried the one set of plates in the stone and cement box. Moroni carried these plates all the way from Central America to New York because the “real” Cumorah—the site of the final battles of the Nephites and Lamanites—was located in Central America.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Church Historian and member of the Quorum of the Twelve, recognized that this “two-Cumorahs” theory would cause members of the Church to become confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. He denounced the theory in 1935. However, some scholars ignored him and continued developing the idea. When he was President of the Quorum of the Twelve in the 1950s, President Smith reiterated his warning about the two-Cumorahs theory. Again, he was ignored by some scholars.

By the 1980s, the two-Cumorahs Mesoamerican theory had become so widely accepted that it appeared in the Ensign magazine. Artwork based on the Mesoamerican theory became ubiquitous in Church meeting houses, magazines, media, manuals, and web pages. Changes in the artwork in the missionary editions of the Book of Mormon itself reflected the shift away from New York, as did displays in visitors centers.

For me, it’s an easy choice. Everything fits when you put the Cumorah pin in the map of New York.

Why I wrote about all of this.

People ask me why I’ve spent so much time working on these issues and writing about them. The short answer: because I think Book of Mormon historicity is an increasingly important and critical issue.

As I mentioned at the outset, there is a train of thought that people should accept the Book of Mormon on faith; i.e., they should respond to the Spirit that bears witness as they read the book. That seems axiomatic to me; of course people should respond in this way. So I have no problem with this train of thought—but this should not be the only train allowed on the track.

Using the train analogy, let’s say there is a track leading to God. One train carries people who have faith. They believe based on what they’ve been taught, what they’ve read, what they feel. All good. (For that matter, people of other religions also exercise faith that brings them to God, but that's another topic.)

But more than one train can travel on a track, and the scriptures directly tell us that not everyone has this kind of faith. “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yeah, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith (D&C 109:7). Faith is a gift of the Spirit, and everyone has different gifts.

As I read the promise in Moroni 10, it doesn’t apply exclusively to those who have a gift of faith to believe on words only. In verse 1, Moroni says he writes to his brethren, the Lamanites. IOW, the Lamanites are real, identifiable people. Then he gives a specific date: “more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away since the sign was given of the coming of Christ.” Then he says he will “seal up these records,” showing they are real, tangible items. Then he tells his readers to “ponder in your hearts” the things you have read. Think about them. Meditate. Then pray. The Holy Ghost will “manifest the truth of it unto you.”

Does this promise apply only to those on the faith train? I don’t think so. I think the Holy Ghost can manifest the truth of things through physical, extrinsic evidence as well.

This is the point Moroni makes starting in verse 8, when he emphasizes that “there are different ways that these gifts are administered.” Some have a gift to teach the word of wisdom, others the word of knowledge. That invokes D&C 109, where some don’t have faith so they can learn words of wisdom out of the best books.

I think everyone should read Letter VII and make a decision about whether to accept it or not. Keep studying, thinking (pondering), teaching one another, and praying. Eventually we will all know the truth, and the truth will make us free.

All the best, Jonathan Neville July 2017