Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith in 1823, but Joseph was not allowed to retrieve the plates until 1827. Why? Besides the need for Joseph’s own personal growth, and the fact that the timing coincides with important dates in the Jewish calendar, there are several other reasons why it was prudent to wait a few years before beginning the translation and publication process for the Book of Mormon. The reality is, had Joseph retrieved the plates in 1823, he would not have had the means to make much progress on the translation and publication for several more years.
President Russell M. Nelson recently invited us to “immerse [ourselves] in the glorious light of the Restoration” and to prepare to “commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.” This week’s Come Follow Me lesson also encourages to consider the question: “what evidence do we find that God was involved in the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon?” In my own effort to study the early events of the restoration, and identify God’s hand in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, I’ve detected 6 crucial events that needed to happen in order for the Book of Mormon to get translated and published—most of which occurred several years after 1823.
1. Joseph Smith Moves to Palmyra (1816–1817)
There is one crucial event, however, that occurred several years before 1823: Joseph Smith’s family moved to the Palmyra area in the winter of 1816–1817. Obviously, before the translation of the Book of Mormon could happen, Joseph needed to be in the right place at the right time. The Lord needed Joseph Smith to be in close proximity to the plates of gold on which the Book of Mormon was written.
It would be another decade before Joseph would retrieve the plates from the hill, but western New York was the proving ground young Joseph needed to grow into the seer and translator required to bring forth the Book of Mormon. It was there that Joseph was exposed to religious excitement in the years between 1817–1820, leading him to seek answers from God and receive his First Vision. It was also in Palmyra that Joseph discovered and cultivated his gifts as a seer. All of this, in turn, prepared him for his visitations from Moroni and the task of retrieving and translating the plates of gold.
President M. Russell Ballard situated the Smiths’ move to Palmyra within the larger context of providential history: “In many ways, the Smith family’s failures in New England pushed them to western New York, where religious excitement increased and inspired Joseph Smith Jr. to seek the Lord in his quest for forgiveness and direction. It was also where the gold plates lay hidden, waiting for him to locate, translate, and publish them.”
2. Martin Harris Befriends Joseph Smith (1824–1827)
Forget about the loss of the 116 pages and condemnation of Martin Harris as a “wicked man” in the Doctrine and Covenants for a moment. The fact is, without Martin, the Book of Mormon never comes off the press. When Joseph first retrieved the plates in September 1827, he was being thoroughly harassed by a mob determined to steal the plates from him. This prevented him from being able to make any progress on translating the record. In November or December, Martin came along and provided the funding Joseph needed to pay off his debts and move to Harmony, near his in-laws, where he was able to live in peace and begin working on the translation.
A few months later, in February 1828, Martin would—at his own expense—come and take a transcript of the characters to scholars in Albany, New York City, and Philadelphia. Satisfied with their report, Martin dedicated two months from mid-April to mid-June to assisting Joseph with the translation. Although that manuscript was lost, Joseph gained valuable experience on the process of receiving the revelatory translation. In summer 1829, Martin became one of the Three Witnesses, and mortgaged his farm to provide the funding needed to print the Book of Mormon.
But Martin’s support didn’t come out of nowhere and required much of the time between 1823 and 1827 to cultivate. According to historians, it began to develop in 1824 when members of the Smith family were working on the Harris farmstead. Lucy Mack Smith remembered her husband confiding in Martin about Moroni’s visits sometime between 1824–1825, and Lucy Harris remembered Martin being close with the Smith family by 1826. By the time Joseph recovered the plates, Lucy Mack Smith said Martin was a “confidential friend.” This relationship—developed primarily in the years between 1823 and 1827—proved crucial to getting the Book of Mormon translated, printed, and published.
3. Joseph Marries Emma (1825–1827)
Another person Joseph simply could not have translated the Book of Mormon without was his wife, Emma Hale Smith. Joseph first met Emma in October 1825 when he was working for Josiah Stowell and boarding at her father’s house. Even after Joseph persuaded Stowell to give up his money digging quest, he remained in the local area working for Stowell and Joseph Knight Sr. so he could continue to court Emma throughout 1826. In January 1827, Joseph and Emma got married.
In 1826, Joseph learned by revelation that he needed to bring Emma with him to the hill when he retrieved the plates. On September 22, 1827, Joseph dutifully came to the hill with Emma. She waited at the bottom as he went up to get the plates. A couple months later, it was Emma’s family that provided a haven in Harmony, PA, where Joseph was finally able to start translating from the plates. Emma was also his first scribe, assisting him before Martin Harris arrived.
In addition to all that, Emma took care of the many day-to-day tasks necessary to get done while Joseph translated full-time for months at a time in the springs of both 1828 and 1829. Without Emma preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house, etc., Joseph never could have dedicated the time he needed to get the Book of Mormon translated. Joseph needed the years between 1823 and 1827 to meet and cultivate his relationship with Emma so that he could have her much needed aide while translating the Book of Mormon.
4. E. B. Grandin Opens a Printshop (1827–1829)
E. B. Grandin was never a believer in the Book of Mormon, and yet he was crucial in getting it published to the world. His printing business in Palmyra began when he bought a local newspaper, the Wayne Sentinel, and associated printing business in April 1827. In November 1828, Grandin moved his business into the three-story building on Palmyra’s main street currently known as the historic site where the Book of Mormon was first printed.
It was there at his printing office that Joseph and Martin approached him about printing the Book of Mormon. Grandin initially refused, but agreed to the deal in August 1829. It was also at this time that Grandin came to an agreement with Luther Howard, a book binder. Per the agreement, Grandin’s printshop operated on the third floor while Howard maintained a book bindery on the second floor. The two men then jointly owned the bookshop on the ground level. This agreement made it possible for the Book of Mormon to be conveniently printed, bound, and sold all from the same location in Palmyra.
Grandin first opened his printshop a few months before Joseph retrieved the plates, and after relocating to a bigger space, he formed a partnership allowing for the binding and selling of books on site at the very time the Book of Mormon was ready to be printed. None of this would have been in place for Joseph Smith in 1823, or anytime before 1827.
5. Oliver Cowdery Lodges with the Smith Family (1828–1829)
Oliver Cowdery is so important to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church that some historians insist on seeing him as co-founder of the Restoration. Martin was forbidden to help after loosing the manuscript, so not only was most of Joseph’s progress lost, but he was unable to rely on his biggest supporter for help. Emma continued to assist him as time permitted him, but he needed a full-time scribe. That’s where Oliver comes into the picture.
In the fall of 1828, Lyman Cowdery, Oliver’s brother, was hired to teach school in Palmyra. But he ended up having a conflict, and Oliver came to take his place. And not only did this place Oliver in Palmyra—where he began hearing rumors about the “Golden Bible”—but he ended up lodging at the Smith home. This allowed him to gain the confidences of the Smith family and get an explanation about Moroni and the plates from Joseph Smith Sr. After praying about it, Oliver felt called to help Joseph bring forth the record.
In April 1829, Oliver came to Harmony, PA, where he met Joseph Smith Jr. for the first time. Two-days later, they began translating the Book of Mormon at a blistering pace of 7–8 pages per day. By the end of June 1829, they finished the entire Book of Mormon. During the translation, Oliver received both the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods from heavenly messengers along side Joseph Smith. Oliver was also one of the Three Witnesses.
After the translation was complete, Oliver was the primary person who oversaw the printing of the Book of Mormon and diligently made a second copy of the manuscript by hand (known today as the printer’s manuscript). This printer’s manuscript is the only full, pre-publication manuscript we have today, and we have it thanks to Oliver Cowdery. Thus, Oliver was crucial to both the translation and printing of the Book of Mormon, making the circumstances landing him in the Smith home in 1828 seemingly providential. Oliver wouldn’t have been there in 1823.
6. David Whitmer Meets Oliver Cowdery in Palmyra (1828–1829)
Oliver was also important for another reason: he was the one who made a connection to the Whitmer family, who also proved vital to getting the Book of Mormon translation completed. What happened was in late 1828 or perhaps early 1829, David Whitmer traveled to Palmyra for business. While there, he heard the rumors about the “Golden Bible” and thought the matter rather curious. He also met Oliver Cowdery, and the two young men bonded talking about the Golden Bible stories. Perhaps because Oliver mentioned he was staying with the very family at the center of the rumors, David asked Oliver to let him know if he heard anything more on the subject.
True to his word, Oliver maintained correspondence with David Whitmer while he was scribing for Joseph in Harmony, and when persecution started to mount there, Oliver was able to appeal to David to see if they could finish the work in the Whitmer home in Fayette, NY. David’s parents agreed, and David came out and helped them with the move in late May/early June 1829. Once settled in the Whitmer home, Joseph and Oliver were able to finish the translation with the assistance of the Whitmer family, some of whom assisted at times as scribe. David’s mother Mary Whitmer took on the role Emma had previously fulfilled, taking care of Oliver, Joseph, and Emma’s day-to-day needs—and for her trouble, she was shown the plates by an angel.
Most of the Whitmer family became Book of Mormon Witnesses. David was one of the Three Witnesses, while his brothers and father made up half of the Eight Witnesses. Without the Whitmer family’s assistance, Joseph could not have finished with the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, and it was the fateful meeting of Oliver and David in 1828–1829 in Palmyra that led to their support. Once again, the Whitmer’s support would not have been available closer to 1823.
In 1823, Joseph and the Smith family had no strong connections with Martin Harris or anyone else with the means to pay for the printing and publication of the Book of Mormon. Joseph had no apparent marriage prospects, there was no sign of Oliver Cowdery or another willing scribe, and the Whitmer family had no idea who the Smith’s even were. Nor was E. B. Grandin in the printing business at that point. Most of the support Joseph needed to get the Book of Mormon published came together in the years 1827–1829, with some of the important relationships (e.g., Martin Harris and Emma Hale) being cultivated in the intervening years between 1823–1827.
If God willed it, perhaps he could have found some way to bring the Book of Mormon forth in 1823. But based on what we know actually happened, it would seem that if Joseph had retrieved the plates in 1823, he would have been waiting several years for the needed assistance to become available—and protecting the plates over those years would have been a challenge.
Thus, it would seem at least one reason for why Joseph had to wait a few years before recovering the plates is because a few more pieces needed to be in place before progress could begin. Thus, while Joseph arrived in place near the hill several years in advance to begin his preparation, God continued to not only prepare Joseph between 1823–1827, but also several others who would be needed to assist in bringing forth the Book of Mormon and launching the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A Note on Sources
This blog post is based on a fireside I gave back in September 2019, in celebration of the day Moroni visited Joseph Smith. I did the research for all of this in the time leading up to that, and used my notes and PowerPoint from that occasion in writing this up. But wanting to write quickly and keep the tone casual, I did not bother going back through the primary sources and academic literature and, as I am sure you noticed, my documentation was sparse.
While I’ve researched the founding decade (1820–1830) of the Restoration in detail many times, and so feel confident in the general accuracy of the details mentioned here, some may want to research further or check my facts. If that is you, many of the details can be verified by following the links I’ve place in this article. Documentation for most of the facts can also be found in John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, 2nd ed., ed. John W. Welch (BYU Press, 2017), 79–125. This article is well-documented and has more than 200 of the relevant primary sources in an appendix.