What If There Were No Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible?

Thomas E. Sherry

Thomas E. Sherry, “What If There were No Joseph Smith Translation Of The Bible?” in Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration (Provo: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 2005), 319–32.

Thomas E. Sherry was the director of the Corvallis Oregon Institute of Religion when this was published.

When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved west to Utah in 1846, the unpublished manuscripts of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible (JST) were left behind. [1] Thereafter, Church members largely lost access to and use of much of this “crowning achievement” [2] of the Prophet and the rich history related to the translation. For the next 135 years, the resulting deprivation had a rippling effect on the Church and its members who carried on largely as if there were no JST. [3]

Without access to the manuscripts, Latter-day Saints were hindered in understanding the intimate interplay between the production of the “new translation” and the making and tutoring of a prophet. In their absence it was more difficult to discern how, in Joseph Smith’s words, “an obscure boy” became a mature spokesman for the Lord in the restoration of all things (see Joseph Smith—History 1: ). Additionally, much of what Latter-day Saints take for granted as essential doctrinal foundation to the Restoration was underappreciated. [4] Both the process and product of the new translation shaped the development of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the theological foundations of the Church in essential ways.

This paper explores these issues, looking specifically at three consequences of the manuscripts’ loss to members of the Church. First, Latter-day Saints in general would not have been able to appreciate the joy and wonder felt by the Prophet as a result of experiences related to the translation. Second, they were less able to recognize the strength, courage, and education received during the process. A third consequence was a diminished awareness of the enduring doctrinal impact on both the Prophet and the Church as Joseph Smith translated the Bible “by the power of God.” [5]

Joy and Wonder

The process of producing the JST was neither passive nor dispassionate. The Prophet Joseph worked hard at the new translation. He recorded that the endeavor was a “branch of [his] calling” [6] and that its demands caused “exceeding fatigue.” [7] At times the Lord directed him to cease the translation because it was “expedient” that he tend to other matters (see D&C 37:1), but, the Prophet noted, “as soon as I could arrange my affairs, I recommenced the translation of the Scriptures, and thus I spent most of the summer.” [8] Notwithstanding the demands, the Prophet was exuberant about the work and its results. He published bits and pieces of it in early periodicals and spoke enthusiastically about its value. [9] The work brought the Prophet a spiritual joy that filled him with wonder at the magnificence of communing with God and understanding the holy scriptures. Note those sentiments in the following:

December 1830. During the translation and while contemplating the “lost books” of the Bible, the Prophet Joseph received revelations concerning Enoch and recorded: “To the joy of the little flock . . . did the Lord reveal the following doings of olden times, from the prophecy of Enoch.” [10]

January–February 1832. While Joseph Smith and scribe Sidney Rigdon were translating John 5:29, a great and glorious vision burst upon them, “not only one of the greatest revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants but one of the greatest ever given to mortal man.” [11] “While we were doing the work of translation, which the Lord had appointed unto us, . . . [we saw a vision that] caused us to marvel, for it was given unto us of the Spirit” (D&C 76:15, 18; emphasis added). After recording the vision, the Prophet said, “Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saints upon the order of the kingdom of the Lord, than the light which burst upon the world through the foregoing vision . . . [which] is a transcript from the records of the eternal world.” [12]

February 1843. Here in poetic verse, Joseph Smith reflects on the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76 and again exults in the joy he felt at such magnificence:

“And while I did meditate what it all meant, / The Lord touch’d the eyes of my own intellect:—/ Hosanna forever! They open’d anon [immediately], / And the glory of God shone around where I was; / And there was the Son, at the Father’s right hand, / In a fulness of glory, and holy applause. [13]

We can sense in these statements the deep pleasure felt by the Prophet at the wonders of eternity revealed during the translation and at being an instrument in the hands of God to bring back that which had been lost (see Moses 1:41; 1 Nephi 13: –29, 38–41).

Strength, Encouragement, and Knowledge

The joy and wonder the Prophet felt was tempered during the translation years (1830–33) by difficult trials. Historical records note that truths and information received during the translation strengthened and encouraged Joseph and early Church members in the demands of discipleship even in the face of these trials. The Prophet Joseph Smith appreciated these gifts of knowledge and noted their strengthening and refreshing value:

June 1830. “I will say . . . that amid all the trials and tribulations we had to wade through, the Lord, who well knew our infantile and delicate situation, vouchsafed for us a supply of strength, and granted us ‘line upon line of knowledge’ . . . of which the following was a precious morsel.” [14]

December 1830. “It may be well to observe here, that the Lord greatly encouraged and strengthened the faith of His little flock, which had embraced the fulness of the everlasting Gospel, . . . by giving some more extended information upon the Scriptures, a translation of which had already commenced.” [15]

Winter 1832–33. “The winter was spent in translating the Scriptures. . . . I had many glorious seasons of refreshing.” [16]

These statements inform us that the knowledge received and the process of translating strengthened, encouraged, and refreshed Joseph Smith and the Saints. The years spent on the new translation affirmed the truth of the scriptures and witnessed that God was guiding him in their restoration. Additionally, during the translation the Prophet repeatedly mentioned that he received explanations, visions, and revelation that expanded his knowledge of biblical passages, their meaning and application. [17] Perhaps this was all part of what the Lord intended in an 1831 revelation: “Wherefore I give unto you that ye may now translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come” (D&C 45:61). Both the translation experience and product helped prepare Joseph Smith to lay a sure foundation for the Church on the footings of restored and corrected doctrine.

Essential Doctrine

The new translation was the revelatory means God chose as the “primary source of doctrine and to strengthen the Bible as a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel. . . . Many of the doctrines that set our religion apart from the rest of modern Christianity derive from [the JST and] in many cases are revealed nowhere else and are unknown in the doctrines of Christian tradition.” [18]

Excellent articles and books have previously been published on the doctrinal contributions, value, and importance of the JST. [19] A broad summary of those contributions might be approached by asking, “What doctrines define the mission, purpose, and foundation of the Church and set it apart from other religious organizations?” Essential items on the list would include the nature of God and our relationship to Him; the mission of Jesus Christ and the antiquity of His gospel; the plan of salvation, beginning with our premortal existence and extending through to immortality and eternal life; the reality, nature, and motives of Satan and the process of his apostasy; the Fall of Adam and Eve and their redemption; the establishment of Zion; and the role of priesthood ordinances, councils, and covenants. Each of these essential elements of the gospel was introduced or expanded through the new translation and were a significant source of Joseph Smith’s doctrinal education. Not only does the new translation add and clarify truth, but it often restores relevant context that helps us better understand the meaning of sacred history and doctrine. [20]

Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate contributions of the JST is by contrasting the Bible text without the benefit of doctrines restored through the new translation. For example, let us look at messages conveyed in the first few chapters of Genesis as they might be viewed by a reader who does not have the blessing of restored knowledge found in the JST. [21]

Genesis 1–2. God creates heaven and earth as well as Adam and Eve and places them in the Garden of Eden, though we are not informed as to His purpose. He gives them apparently contradictory commandments that seem to leave them unable to make either choice without incurring the displeasure of God.

Genesis 3. A serpent appears and tempts Eve. She succumbs and persuades Adam to partake, thus breaking the commandment not to eat of a certain fruit. In apparent anger, God curses and summarily expels them from the garden.

Genesis 4. Adam and Eve’s first child, Cain, is jealous of his younger brother Abel and assumes that God prefers Abel over him. Cain is incensed and kills Abel. God curses Cain and expels him from the family.

Genesis 5–8. Adam and Eve continue having children as does Cain. In time, much of their posterity forsake God and live riotously. God is sorrowful that He created man and feels to “repent” (Genesis 6:6). He calls Noah as a prophet to preach repentance and reclaim the people. Noah’s apparent lack of success culminates in God’s destruction of the earth’s inhabitants save Noah and seven of his family, who are brought through the flood to repopulate the earth.

Even in a brief selection such as this, reading the sacred record without the purifying touch of revelation may not impress one as logical or inspiring. If this were the entire story, we would have difficulty loving and trusting God and seeing meaning in our earthly sojourn. Gratefully, the story remaining in current biblical text is not the whole story. The account told in the JST differs markedly and helps us draw nearer to God rather than being repulsed. [22] The events of this same period are covered in Moses 1–8 (the JST parallel of Genesis 1–6). The added light and understanding make an immeasurable difference to these first chapters in the Bible:

Moses 1. Moses, the author of Genesis, sought and found God, who appeared to him and declared His almighty sovereignty. God lovingly told Moses, “Thou art my son; . . . and I have a work for thee” to do (vv. 4, 6). Lucifer was allowed to tempt and dissuade Moses from his mission, but Moses discerned between the divine and the imposter. God revealed the infinite majesty and purpose of His many creations, declaring, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (v. 39). The Lord informed Moses that he should record the divine history of God’s creations. In time, however, “the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write”; but not to fear, for God would “raise up another like unto thee [Joseph Smith]; and they shall be had again . . . among as many as shall believe” (v. 41).

Moses 2–3. Knowing why God created the earth, Moses understood that the Creation account was a brief narrative setting the stage for the coming of Adam and Eve and all who would issue from them. The earth was designed to assist them in their eternal progress. Since all mankind is of the family of God, He established the covenant of marriage and the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth that the spirit offspring of God might have a family in which to be raised in the ways of the Lord—the earthly pattern being a reflection of the heavenly. Moses 4–5. To accomplish the purposes of God, the rebel Lucifer was allowed to act on earth to tempt us. We are told how Lucifer fell through pride and rebellion in hopes of aggrandizing himself at the cost of our moral agency. In response to the temptations of Lucifer (the serpent), Adam and Eve initiated the divine plan of God on behalf of each of us and cried out, “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God. . . . Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and . . . known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:10–11). They learned of Jesus Christ and His Atonement, of their redemption through the Only Begotten Son, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. They, in turn, taught the same to their children, for this is the message of salvation in every age. Cain, one of their many children, eventually chose evil, making a pact with Lucifer to murder his brother Abel for gain.

Moses 6–8. Adam and Eve were forgiven their transgression in the Garden of Eden. Adam kept a record of the Lord’s doings among them, and later the record was kept by his righteous posterity. Among those were Enoch and Noah, both of whom also declared the gospel of Jesus Christ to an increasingly wicked people. Enoch established a Zion, which was eventually translated, and from then until the Flood the righteous who hearkened to the prophets were likewise taken off the earth to join the holy city so that when the Flood came, the sheaves of Noah had been harvested with only the tares remaining to be washed away.

The JST contributions noted above are a sample of the rich historical context and doctrine found in the new translation. Beyond these early Genesis refinements that were preserved in the book of Moses, the JST goes on to enrich our knowledge of early patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament. Hundreds of verses are added about Abraham, Melchizedek, Joseph, Moses, Isaiah, and others. Their knowledge of the eternal plan of salvation is greater than portrayed in the KJV, and their focus on Jesus, the priesthood, and covenants of salvation between God and mankind is consistent. The JST thus makes the Old Testament witness of the gospel consistent with the Book of Mormon witness and tells us that salvation through Jesus Christ has ever been the centerpiece of prophetic witness (see Jacob 4:4; 7:10–11).

Regarding the New Testament record, Robert J. Matthews writes: “The JST is more vivid and informative than all other translations of the Bible, the doctrine is stronger, situations are more focused, the disciples struggle more, Jewish rulers are worse, and Jesus is greater. The Prophet Joseph Smith understood Jesus and the New Testament better than anyone in this dispensation, and when we use the JST we honor both the Prophet and the Lord Jesus Christ who inspired him.” [23] He joins coauthors Faulring and Jackson to further state: “The Bible is Judah’s witness for God and for Jesus Christ. It was not sufficient for the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price to restore missing doctrinal truth. Justice to Bible prophets required that the Bible itself be restored to its original power as a witness for Jesus and His gospel. The Bible must be made right, and the Joseph Smith Translation contributes powerfully to the restoration of its truths.” [24]

It is this doctrinal restoration that led Elder Bruce R. McConkie to declare that the JST is “a thousand times over the best Bible now existing on the earth.” [25] Truly, the Prophet Joseph Smith was inspired of the Lord as he translated and taught with power and authority from biblical text. Near the end of his life, he frankly and boldly stated, “I know the scriptures, I understand them.” [26]


Regarding the position of the JST in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said: “There should be no doubt about the current status of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. It is a member of the royal family of scripture . . . [and] should be noticed and honored on any occasion when it is present.” [27] But it is not just the richness of the text and its marvelous doctrine that should receive such attention. [28] We should also note and honor the blessings which came to Joseph Smith while engaged in the new translation. The Prophet progressively learned of divine doctrine and history, text and context, of ancient prophets and the spirit of prophecy and revelation. These elements made their contribution to related modern revelation and guidance, all of which helped establish and empower the fledgling Restoration. [29] The work shaped both the Prophet and the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as unique in the world of religion. Lastly, we should remember that Joseph Smith found joy and pleasure in this work that strengthened him and the early Saints in establishing the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the latter days.

Could the Prophet have learned these same things if there were no JST? While the Lord may have been able to impart necessary learning and personal development through other avenues, this was a primary avenue He chose. It was to the process of constructing the new translation and experiences growing from it that God employed to educate and nurture both the Prophet and the Church and to set them firmly on the path to salvation.

By studying Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, we are better able to appreciate the divine role it played in tutoring Joseph Smith and contributing so richly to what made him the great prophet of the Restoration. [30] In turn, we also gain access to unique truths and messages of the Bible. “What would you give to know the Bible and other scriptures as Joseph Smith knew them? Using the JST in our study is like sitting at the same table with the Prophet Joseph Smith, with the privilege of turning to him for counsel.” [31] For such a privilege, I am deeply grateful.


[1] In response to divine directive, the Prophet Joseph Smith undertook an inspired translation of the King James Version of the Bible (which he and his contemporaries referred to as the New Translation). The endeavor occupied much of his time from 1830 to 1833. Periodically thereafter until his death in 1844, the Prophet sought unsuccessfully to prepare the work for publication (see Robert J. Matthews, “Joseph Smith’s Efforts to Publish His Translation,” Ensign, January 1983, 57–64). The translation manuscripts were retained by Emma Smith after the death of her husband and were subsequently transferred to her son Joseph Smith III and the newly emerged Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (now Community of Christ) in 1866. After it was published in 1867 with the title Holy Scriptures, in 1936 the subtitle Inspired Version was added and became the common title used by members of the RLDS Church. In 1979 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published its first LDS edition of the King James Bible which by permission from RLDS leaders included footnote references to the new translation text. In that publication, the acronym JST was adopted for Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible and is now the common term used by members of the LDS Church.

[2] Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles taught that “as a crowning achievement . . . [Joseph Smith] would begin the perfection of the Bible, a work destined to be greater and have more significance than any of us have yet realized. . . . The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is holy scripture. In one sense of the word, it is the crowning part of the doctrinal restoration” (see “The Doctrinal Restoration,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985], 10, 21–22). Note: The LDS Church did retain for use those portions of the new translation which were previously published by Joseph Smith in Church periodicals and which later became part of the Pearl of Great Price (the book of Moses and Matthew 24).

[3] In a recent interview, Robert J. Matthews said, “I have frequently said that every person who has joined the Church since 1831 has been affected by the JST, even though he or she did not know it.” For details on how they have been affected, see Ray L. Huntington and Brian M. Hauglid, “Robert J. Matthews and His Work with the Joseph Smith Translation,” Religious Educator 5, no. 2 (2004), 45. The figure of 135 years is taken from the death of Joseph Smith in 1844 until the 1979 publication of the first LDS edition of the King James Version of the Bible which included JST text in footnotes and a sixteen-page appendix. For details on the odyssey of the JST from nonuse by the LDS Church to official inclusion in the 1979 LDS edition of the Bible, see Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A Historical Overview,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, 35–42. Also see the author’s dissertation: “Attitudes, Practices, and Positions Toward Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A Historical Analysis of Publications, 1847–1987” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1988), 162–63.

[4] For a succinct review on this issue, see “The New Translation and Latter-day Saint Doctrine,” in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts, ed. Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 17–25.

[5] Taken from a written note at the top of the first page of the new translation manuscript for the New Testament (NT1, March 8, 1831). The whole statement reads, “A Translation of the New Testament translated by the power of God” (Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 159).

[6] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:238.

[7] Smith, History of the Church, 1:368.

[8] Smith, History of the Church, 1:273.

[9] See Matthews, Plainer Translation, 52–53.

[10] Smith, History of the Church, 1:132–33; emphasis added.

[11] Robert J. Matthews, A Plainer Translation: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 34; emphasis added.

[12] Smith, History of the Church, 1:252; emphasis added.

[13] Quoted in Larry E. Dahl, “The Vision of the Glories,” in Studies in Scripture: Volume One—The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Sandy, UT: Randall Book, 1984), 297; emphasis added.

[14] Smith, History of the Church, 1:98; emphasis added. This reference refers to the revelations regarding Enoch now contained in Moses 7.

[15] Smith, History of the Church, 1:131–32; emphasis added.

[16] Smith, History of the Church, 1:322; emphasis added.

[17] See, for example, Smith, History of the Church, 1:242, 245, 253, 300, 331. These experiences helped Joseph Smith to know and restore the scriptures “even as they are in [the Lord’s] bosom” (D&C 35:20).

[18] See “The New Translation and Latter-day Saint Doctrine,” in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 18, 20.

[19] A comprehensive summary is found in the previously cited article, “The New Translation and Latter-day Saint Doctrine,” by Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews. Also see Robert J. Matthews, “The Role of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible in the Restoration of Doctrine” in The Disciple As Witness, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 327–53. Whole symposia were largely dedicated to the JST and its doctrinal contributions; see Nyman and Millet, The Joseph Smith Translation, and Robert L. Millet and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Plain and Precious Truths Restored: The Doctrinal and Historical Significance of the Joseph Smith Translation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995).

[20] “Since no originals of any part of the Bible are available today, only a prophet or seer could now correctly give the original author’s intended meaning. . . . A seer can restore the proper meaning whether the passage is vague or incorrectly stated, or even if the text is entirely lost. I have noticed that often other Bibles tell what occurred anciently, but the JST adds why” (Robert J. Matthews, “The Role of the JST in the Restoration,” in Plain and Precious Truths Restored, 47). For a pointed example of the significance of restored doctrine and context, see the author’s article “The Savior’s Rejection: Insights from the Joseph Smith Translation,” in Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, ed. Paul H. Peterson, Gary L. Hatch, and Laura D. Card (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 270–83.

[21] For a book-length treatment, see Kent P. Jackson, The Restored Gospel and the Book of Genesis (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001).

[22] In October of 1988, the television show Donahue hosted various ministers and a former minister turned atheist, to discuss God’s plan for the salvation of his creations. At one point near the end of the broadcast, an audience member queried the former minister: “What made you change your mind? You were a minister, and now you’re an atheist.” To which the atheist replied: “What made me change my mind was I studied the Bible, and now I’m an atheist. The Bible is contradictory. It is nonhistorical. It is repugnant and it is harmful. I have no choice but to not believe in it” (transcription by the author from video recording).

[23] “The Joseph Smith Translation: Restoring the Doctrinal Foundation to the New Testament,” handout for the CES Conference on the New Testament, Brigham Young University, 2000, 70.

[24] “The New Translation and Latter-day Saint Doctrine,” in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 25.

[25] Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 289.

[26] Thomas Bullock notes from the “King Follett Discourse” as published in Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, comp. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 353. Joseph Smith knew and understood the power of divine knowledge. He affirmed: “Knowledge does away with darkness, suspense and doubt; for these cannot exist where knowledge is. . . . In knowledge there is power. God has more power than all other beings, because he has greater knowledge” (History of the Church, 5:340).

[27] “Scripture Reading, Revelation, and the JST,” in Plain and Precious Truths Restored, 13.

[28] This said, I do not wish to minimize the attention that should be paid to doctrinal text in the JST. In an interesting perusal of the last five years of general conference addresses (1999–2004) it is noted that JST texts are used nearly 150 times to establish and emphasize certain points of doctrine and constitute the major theme of about ten addresses. The most frequent users of the JST during that period were Elders Russell M. Nelson, Neal A. Maxwell, and Jeffrey R. Holland.

[29] “Over 50 percent of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received during the time period associated with the inspired revision of the Bible” (Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants,” in Studies in Scripture: Volume 1: The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Robert L. Millet and Keith P. Jackson [Salt Lake City: Randall Book, 1985], 139). “The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible exerted a substantial influence on the content of the Doctrine and Covenants . . . [and] shows the [JST] for what it really is, a preliminary source for many of the theological statements in the Doctrine and Covenants. Such a view adds dignity, grace, and stature to the extensive labors of the Prophet Joseph Smith in making this translation” (Robert J. Matthews, “Doctrinal Connections with the Joseph Smith Translation,” in The Doctrine and Covenants: A Book of Answers, ed. Leon R. Hartshorn, Dennis A. Wright, and Craig J. Ostler [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996], 27–28).

[30] I concur with the view of Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews: “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible has not received the attention it deserves and has not been recognized for the important contributions it has made to Latter-day Saint scripture and doctrine. It has been neglected and even ignored by some LDS scripture scholars and historians. . . . Few Latter-day Saints appreciate what it has contributed to our faith” (in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 17, 20).

[31] Robert J. Matthews, “The Eternal Worth of the JST,” in Plain and Precious Truths Restored, 175.