Writing of the Book of Mormon

The Challenge

LDS apologists have claimed that in order to dismiss the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon claims that non-believers must provide compelling evidence.  In laying the burden of proof on non-believers, these believers are assuming that their position – namely that an God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith and an angel provided him with Golden plates to translated from Reformed Egyptian into King James style English – is the most logical and compelling explanation for the text called the Book of Mormon.  In their thesis they lay out 5 straw-man theories and handily defeat all of them.[1]

Apologists assert that the Book of Mormon could have only been created through a divine method.  This method is often termed The Gift and power of God, potentially because this phrase sounds more refined and believable than through the power of the brown stone sitting in the top hat

As Wikipedia explains:

When two parties are in a discussion and one makes a claim that the other disputes, the one who makes the claim typically has a burden of proof to justify or substantiate that claim especially when it challenges a perceived status quo. This is also stated in Hitchens’s razor, which declares that “what may be asserted without evidence, may be dismissed without evidence.” Carl Sagan proposed a related criterion – “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – which is known as the Sagan standard.

There is no burden of proof on the non-believer.  They have not claimed angelic visits by ancient angels from the tribes of Israel who lived in the Americas.  They have not claimed the existence of a physical God who defy Einstein’s theory of relativity and travel from a distant start to our earth during the duration of a short prayer.  They have not claimed that the Americas separated from Europe during the great flood of Noah[2] about 3000 years ago.  These are the bold extra-scientific claims of believers and that is where the burden of proof lies.

Nevertheless, in order to satisfy the curiosity of believers, we offer the following simple explanation regarding how the Book of Mormon was likely constructed.  More detailed and compelling explanations can be found in the writings and video presentations of Dan Vogel, John Hamer and others.

Creating the Book of Mormon – Preparation and Skills

Joseph was a skilled story-teller.  According to his mother Joseph started rehearsing details similar to those in the book of Mormon to the family during even conversations around 1823 or 1824.  She noted that:

During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined: he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent; their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, and their buildings, with every particular; he would describe their <​mode of​> warfare, as also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.[3]

Joseph did read from the Bible and was able to speak in a King-James like voice.  This can be seen in letters where he assumes this voice and in sections of the history which he wrote in 1832.  Writing in a King-James-like tone was common in the era, and one school book that Smith would likely have used was written in this voice[4]

The Spectacles, the Stones, and the Plates

Joseph had at least two seer stones which he obtained during the early period of his life.  It is likely that one of them was a white seer stone shaped somewhat like a baby’s foot, possibly made of smooth quartz.  This is said to have been found after borrowing a green seer stone from Sally Chase and looking into it to see where the white stone was located.  The second stone was found while on a treasure hunt on the Chase property and likely belonged to Willard Chase.  This stone appears to be iron banded jasper and may have come from Quebec or Ontario and been carried down to Palmyra by a glacier during an ice age.  Chase claimed that Joseph and later Hyrum borrowed the stone and failed to return it.  These stones were used by Joseph for treasure digging from about 1822 to 1827[5].

Joseph claimed to obtain Golden Plates or a Golden Bible on September 22, 1827.  He went with his wife at midnight in order to obtain the plates.  This date and time was believed to be enchanted as it was the autumn equinox and this made it easier to obtain the treasure from the guardian spirit.  This spirit or angel was Nephi in some references, but later in life Joseph would typically refer to him as Moroni. 

About this time, Joseph also claimed to have obtained a magical pair of spectacles which one could look into to see the past, present, and future.  The spectacles themselves were later described to be made of two stones, whitish or cream colored in appearance possibly with some grey streaks connected together by a silver rod or bow.  They were made in a style 18th century spectacles, but were approximately 8” across with there being 4” between the lenses and two lenses each approximately 2” in diameter.  The stones were translucent, but Joseph claimed that looking into or through them allowed him see other things.  Now, due to the size, these spectacles would only fit comfortably on a person well over 10’ in height.  Because of this, Joseph Jr. would remove one of the stones and put it into his hat in order to seer.  Joseph Smith Sr. claimed that the size was logical because they had originally been used by ancient giants who inhabited the Americas (i.e. the Jaredites).

…they [Lehi and his descendants] came to a county where there were a great many lakes; which country had once been settled by a very large race of men, who were very rich, having a great deal of money.  For some unknown cause, the nation had become extinct; “but that money,” said Smith, “is here, now, every dollar of it.” When they, the Jews, first beheld this country, they sent out spies to see what manner of country it was, who reported that the country appeared to have been settled by a very large race of men, and had been, to all appearances, a very right agricultural and manufacturing nation.  They also found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?”  They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates.[6]

Dictation begins

Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon starting no later than Apr 12, 1828.   While translating with Harris as his scribe, Smith employed at least two methods of dictation.  In the first, he would remove one of the two stones from the spectacles, place this in a hat, and look into the hat.  When doing so, he would see a piece of parchment appear and on it would appear a single character and the translation.  The translation could consist of a single proper noun or a long phrase or sentence of about 10-20 words.   It makes sense that Joseph would describe the translation in this manner because it was believed at the time that Egyptian characters were complex and contained deep, long meanings similar to Asian characters.  Joseph claimed to read off the sentence and would then have the scribe repeat it.  If it was correct, he claimed that the writing would disappear from the parchment and a new character and translation would appear.  If it was incorrect, it would remain in place until the scribe recorded it correctly.  This method of translation was essentially identical when Joseph transitioned to using his brown stone.  This transition occurred prior to the loss of the 116 pages and both faithful and skeptical scholars have concluded that all of the current Book of Mormon was translated or dictated using the brown seer stone.

Speed of translation

Joseph reaches his fastest pace of translation while Oliver is his scribe.  Using various calculation methods and assumptions, various scholars have ascertained that the current text of the Book of Mormon was created in about 85 days.  This translates to about 7 pages of text per day.  Given the time that this would take to dictate and write onto piece of parchment, Joseph and the scribes would have needed to be diligently engaged in the effort for at least about 2 hours per day.  This would leave time for them to talk, read, eat, etc.  Martin Harris noted that when he was scribe they would take breaks and go down to a stream where they would skip rocks.  Perhaps Joseph used these pauses to prepare himself for the next series of events in the narrative.

Spectacles or a Stone?  Four reliable vs. two unreliable witnesses

David Whitmer and Martin Harris both describe a very similar translation method using the brown stone and the hat.  The use of the brown stone is also confirmed by Emma Smith and Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, the wives of Joseph and Oliver respectively.  However, Oliver and Joseph paint a different picture starting around 1833.  In 1834, Oliver wrote:

These were days never to be forgotten – to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!  Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, “Interpreters,” the history, or record, called “The book of Mormon.”[7]

A later 2nd hand account quoted by the church in their official publications describes how Oliver recounted the translation method to an associate, Samuel Richards:

He represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he (Oliver) sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him.

This was done by holding the “translators” over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages. Every word was distinctly visible even to every letter; and if Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the “interpreter” until it was copied correctly.

Oliver was the primary scribe during the bulk of the translation of those portions contained in the current Book of Mormon.  However, there is reason to doubt his narrative.  In addition to the 4 friendly witnesses previously mentioned, we have an early account of what Oliver taught on his mission to Ohio in 1830 as recorded in the journal of a local citizen:

There is said to have been in the box with the plates two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.  Which he uttered to the amanuensis who wrote it down, The said amanuensis by name Oliver Cowdery, was lately at the North lot & gave this account.  He & others being on their way to Missouri…[8]

Oliver does not mention the hat or placing his face in the hat in later accounts.  At a minimum, we can see a clear evolution of his account of the events.  Oliver notes that Joseph is looking at the plates even though others including Whitmer and Joseph Smith Sr. indicate that the plates were not present during this part of the translation.  The various faithful accounts are not consistent.

Joseph Smith appears to have wanted to avoid the topic of translation entirely, possibly because unlike the NY saints, the Ohio converts may not have shared his belief in seer stones.  When asked about the translation in 1831 in Kirtland, Smith stated that it was, “not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.”[9]

Even though church leaders currently teach that Joseph did not comment or explain the translation process[10], this is not entirely true.   Joseph described using spectacles for the translation in his 1832 history account and repeated this at least twice to others (Nancy Towle and Peter Bauder) between 1832-1834.  There is no surviving written account of Joseph explaining the dictation process accurately (i.e. brown stone, looking into a hat).

Why the seer stone matters

Whether the seer stone, spectacles, or another object was used in translation matters because it allows us to determine the character of the individuals involved in the translation project.  There are a few potential scenarios:

  1.  Joseph indicated to Whitmer and Harris that when he placed the brown seer stone in the hat he could see parchment and read off characters and their translation.  In such a scenario, either
    1. a divine power would be required to create the appearance of the script/translation
    2. Joseph was lying regarding what he could see in the stone or
    3. Joseph believed that he was seeing things in the stone but was mistaken. 
  2. Whitmer and Harris were lying or mistaken about the stone in the hat and parchment appearing wherein Joseph read off the translation.

Let us consider these various scenarios.  In the first case [1.1], if God made the characters and translation appear on the stone and Joseph read off the words, it means that there was no requirement that gold plates be kept.  If this is the case and God can magically make words appear, then it would appear that the killing of Laban to obtain the brass plates should not have been required.  Furthermore, if God is providing the translation, then there is no reason for errors.  Indeed, there is no room for errors because God required that it be correct prior to providing the next portion of translation.  This is how Joseph described the process to Harris and Whitmer according to their testimony.  Yet we know that there were errors, both grammatical and substantive errors.  The Tanners counted 3,913 changes between the 1830 edition and the modern edition[11].  FAIR, a Mormon apologetic group counters that there are more than 100,000 changes but that the vast majority of these are insignificant[12].  D. Michael Quinn has noted that of the various changes made, about 10 address significant doctrinal or narrative changes within the text, such as the changing of names or the nature of deity.  Regardless of how you count the changes, if the text were dictated by God as the supernatural parchment theory suggests, these errors should not exist.  We must therefore discard this theory.

If Joseph was lying regarding what he saw in the hat [1.2], then this would account for the poor grammar and other errors in the text.  It would also bring into question the existence of the Nephites and the divinity of the text.   Lack of a divine source would handily explain why no DNA evidence connecting Native Americans to the tribes of Israel exists.  Indeed, this explanation is both the simple and logical.

If Joseph believed that he was seeing things in the rock but in fact imagining them [1.3], it would explain the various errors in the Book of Mormon, however this explanation seems unlikely.  Joseph mislead others regarding his polygamy on multiple occasions.  He also mislead diggers when searching for buried treasure.  His statements regarding translation contradict those of most other witnesses.  Because he was willing to mislead others in these other scenarios, it seems more likely that he was consciously misleading regarding the translation rather than imagining things.

One can propose a scenario where Whitmer and Harris were mistaken or misleading in their accounts [2][13].  This also seems unlikely.  Whitmer has the most told narrative of any of the witnesses, with more than 70 written accounts surviving.   Where Oliver’s story changes over time, Whitmer’s remains largely consistent.  It is also backed up by other close witnesses such as Emma.  With the exception about her polygamy denials, Emma is generally considered to be a historically accurate source.

What’s in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon contained about 560 pages of text and roughly 269,528 words in its original edition.  It was not written, it was dictated.  Because of this, it has a story-like narrative and long run-on sentences.  Joseph didn’t copy anyone in creating the text.  However, he was influenced by a number of sources in developing the narrative.  Some of those sources include:

  • The Bible[14]:  Roughly 15% of the text is taken from the King James version including:
    • 1 Nephi: 96 verses (with 2 full chapters)
    • 2 Nephi: 392 verses (with 15 full chapters)
    • Jacob: 13 verses
    • Enos: 4 verses
    • Omni: 1 verse
    • Mosiah: 72 verses
    • Alma: 80 verses
    • Heleman: 23 verses
    • 3 Nephi: 220 verses (with 3 full chapters)
    • 4 Nephi: 2 verses
    • Mormon: 20 verses
    • Ether: 8 verses
    • Moroni: 40 verses
  • The Apocrypha, especially 2 Maccabees may have had an influence on the text and includes the name “Nephi”.
  • View of the Hebrews and other 19th century texts contained theories that the Native Americans either came as part of the lost tribes of Israel around the time that Israel was invaded[15]
  • Several of the stories in the text appear to be adaptations from the bible or other ancient stories.  For example, Mosiah 20 and the abduction of Lamanite maidens was probably based on either the abduction narrative in Judges 19-21 or the tale of the abduction of the 30 Sabine women.
  • A few of the place names appear to have been borrowed from the bible or from Joseph’s surroundings.  This was likely not intentional, but rather a natural part of creating a new narrative.  The city of “New Jerusalem” for instance was borrowed from the Bible.  It is not strange that a person living in New York would think to tack the “new” on the beginning.  Similarly, the Book of Mormon includes a city called Oneida.  New York had a city named Onidah which may have inspired this name.

What’s not in the book of Mormon

  • Details about important agricultural products of major native populations such as corn.
  • Any verifiable history of Native Americans not available from contemporary nineteenth century sources
  • Characters with nuance and complexity.  Individuals tends to be one dimensional, good or evil.

Quality of the text

Mark Twain famously called the Book of Mormon chloroform in print.  While the text does provide spiritual meaning to followers of the faith, many consider it mundane and some believing members read it to fall asleep at night.  Among other things:

  • “And it came to pass” or variations of this phrase occur in about 1 of every 5 verses and account for roughly 2.5% of the total words in the book
  • Roughly 1/3 of all of the “and it came to pass” passages were removed from the Book of Mormon after the original printing.  In other words, even though the phrase is more than 4x as frequent in the Book of Mormon as the Old Testament, it used to be even more common.
  • Certain parts of the narrative are compelling, such as King Benjamin’s sermon.  However, there are also long war passages which many readers find much less inspiring.
  • The text as transcribed had no punctuation.  Numerous corrections were made by the first publisher E.B. Grandin.  The vast majority of his corrections remain in the text in recent publications.


One of the ways that one can show that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century text is based on the mistakes that it contains.  Among them:

  1. The Book of Mormon text relies on a literal tower of babel which caused languages to change which occurred according to the Usher chronology of the Bible.  Modern linguists have concluded that there was a variety of spoken and written languages prior to this proposed event.  There is no evidence that this event took place, but significant evidence that this myth arose from a similar Sumerian myth of the 8th century BC, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.[16]
  2. The Book of Mormon text relies heavily on the King James Version of the bible.  Even if we take the huge logical leap that Joseph was quoting from ancient Book of Mormon Authors were making similar statements, he is quoting from sources which didn’t exist when the book of Mormon claims to have been written.  Among the problematic and anachronistic texts we have:
    1. Malachi
    2. Matthew being quoted by Christ in 34 AD (even though it would be based on other texts not written until after 70 AD)
    3. The name Christ (i.e. a Greek word meaning Messiah) being used repeatedly in Old Testament times.
    4. Talk of the Books of Moses.  These 5 books which we commonly reference as such were probably not compiled in written form until about 300 BC, long after Nephi supposedly stole the copy of the Brass Plates
    5. Numerous anachronisms of items not found in the Americas (steel, metal coinage, wheat, barley, silk, horses, chariots, etc).
    6. Metal plates in codex form (Brass plates, Golden plates, etc).  There are no ancient examples of plates in book form containing more than 5 pages.
  3. Doctrinal anachronisms
    1. Anti-universalist rhetoric in the book of Alma
    2. Satisfaction theory of atonement
    3. Infant baptism teachings and rebuttals
  4. Other errors
    1. King Benjamin is referenced in Mosiah 21:28 in the original version of the Book of Mormon even though he was dead according to Book of Mormon chronology.
    2. The book relies on the existence of an ancient language known as “reformed Egyptian”.  Modern Egyptologists have translated Egyptian in its various forms and there is no evidence of the existence of the language claimed in the Book of Mormon.  Such a language, if it existed would be no denser than Hebrew which contradicts claims in the Book of Mormon (see Mormon 9:32).  Several individuals have attempted to decipher the characters claimed to have been copied from the Golden plates, but they bear no resemblance to Egyptian.  On the other hand, several of the characters resemble letters in the English alphabet.


The book of Mormon is a religious text which holds deep meaning and importance to believers.  However, there no evidence that it was created in a divine, supernatural manner.  On the contrary, there is significant evidence that it is the product of the 19th century which was heavily influenced by both the King James Version of the Bible and popular protestant teachings of the time.  The narrative frame-work is derived from racist theories of the time that First Nations peoples were not capable of building the various artifacts found in North and South America.  However, anachronisms and other textual errors point clearly to the book as a modern creation.

[1] See TAD CALLISTER, The Book of Mormon: Man-Made or God-Given?, November 1, 2016.  https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/tad-r-callister/book-mormon-man-made-god-given/  See also Brian C. Hales, Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 31 (2019): 151-190. https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/curiously-unique-joseph-smith-as-author-of-the-book-of-mormon/

[2] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1976/06/a-promised-land?lang=eng

[3] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” p. 87, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 13, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1845/94

[4] The Late War between the United States and Great Britian, New York, 1816.

[5] https://www.jstor.org/stable/45225965?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[6] Fayette Lapham, “Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Fourty Years Ago.  His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates,”  Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309, As quoted in Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel, Vol 1, pg 466.

[7] Messenger and Advocate, Vol 1 No 1. October 1834. https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/7012

[8] Goodwillie, Christian. “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer.” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 37, no. 2, 2011, pp. 138–145. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23291640.  Note:  This source is considered authentic by the LDS church and included as a reference in their gospel topic on the translation of the Book of Mormon.

[9] Minutes of church conference:  Oct 26, 1831 (Ohio).  https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minute-book-2/15

[10] See for example:  https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/neal-a-maxwell/joseph-smith-choice-seer/  An excerpt:  “Since Joseph, who knew the ‘particulars,’ chose not to describe them in detail then, we cannot presently be definitive about methodology.”

[11] http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/3913intro.htm

[12] https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/answers/Book_of_Mormon/Textual_changes/Why_were_these_changes_made#Question:_Why_were_textual_changes_made_to_the_Book_of_Mormon_over_the_years_after_it_was_first_published.3F

[13] This was proposed by Francis Kirkham, the brother of a church leader in the early 20th century.  Improvement Era, Aug 1946  Volume 49 number 8 pg 542-543.  https://archive.org/details/improvementera4908unse/page/n63?q=peepstone

[14] https://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon/comments/3ga9fv/25_of_the_book_of_mormon_is_an_it_came_to_pass/

[15] https://youtu.be/AZTdwMJKc3M?t=480

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel#Comparable_myths