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Gabriel Mayberry, BYU
BYU professor John W. Welch examined how long it took Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon in a lecture Wednesday night at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni & Visitors Center.

PROVO — With basic figures, it could read like a 4th grade math problem.

If Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery translated 10 words per minute, eight hours a day, how long would it take them to translate the 269,510 words in Book of Mormon?

BYU professor John W. "Jack" Welch has done the math and has the answer.

"Is doing this even possible? The answer is yes," Welch said. "By doing 10 words per minute, eight hours a day, they could get the Book of Mormon done in 56.2 full working day equivalents. ... If they worked faster (15 or 20 words per minute) or if they worked an hour or two fewer per day, they could also get it done."

Welch, a BYU law professor and author who served as the founding president of FARMS (the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies), examined the timing of the Book of Mormon translation as he gave the 2017 Book of Mormon lecture for the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies Wednesday at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni & Visitors Center.

"My purpose, I hope, is to get us all thinking more specifically than ever before about the amazing and illuminating timing of the translation of the Book of Mormon," Welch said. "We can be more specific about those days, even those hours and minutes. ... I too, hope to awaken a greater sense of gratitude in our hearts for this miraculous volume of scripture."

At the outset of his remarks, Welch said it was the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles from 1981 to 2004, who first asked him how long it took Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon. That question launched him into a 30-year involvement with the subject, Welch said.

In his presentation, Welch reviewed earlier scholarship on the timing of translation before discussing what he called "5 anchor dates" which set up the translation timeframe as April 7-June 30, 1829.

"History is admittedly an inexact science, dependent to a large extent on the accidental survival of information and personal memory," Welch said. "In stabilizing historical judgments, one always looks for certain anchor points that hold in place the structural girders of our historical understanding. ... I propose that these five anchor dates in particular can be tied down with near-historical-certainty. They are based on credible, contemporaneous, primary sources, found in independent documents. They show that, with the possible exception of a page or two, the entire Book of Mormon came forth, day after day, and hour by hour, between April 7 and June 30."

Welch's five anchor dates (all during the year of 1829) include:

  • April 7, with Cowdery acting as scribe in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
  • May 15, as documented by testimonies given by Cowdery and Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph's mother.
  • May 31, when the Title Page of the Book of Mormon was translated.
  • June 11, when Joseph Smith obtained the copyright from the Library of Congress.
  • June 30, the established date for completion of the translation. Cowdery began to copy the Printer's Manuscript in July so it could go to press, Welch said.
With that timeframe established, Welch counted the number of days between April 7 and June 30, which is 85. Subtract 11 full days for trips or times when Joseph was identifiably occupied, leaving 74. Subtract another 16 days of about half-time distractions or other interruptions (business, farming, chores, personal time, visitors, Sundays, church matters and other distractions), and it's down to 58. Another day is taken away for work to receive 13 revelations and you are left with 57, Welch said.

In order to test how fast Joseph and Oliver may have worked, Welch and his wife, Jeannie, tried an experiment. They picked two pages in Royal Skousen’s Yale edition of the Book of Mormon and he played the role of Joseph while his wife acted as scribe. They timed themselves with a stopwatch and estimated their translation rate at about 20 words per minute.

"But we couldn’t imagine sustaining that rate hour after hour," Welch said. "Hands got tired, and Joseph needed to catch his breath and clear his voice. We used ballpoint pens. We imagined Oliver dipping and using his quill pen."

Welch said they found the experience so "intellectually awakening" and "spiritually engaging" that they repeated the activity in his stake scripture class.

"The experience was equally electrifying for everyone in the class," he said. "Although not strictly scientific, this exercise produced a flood of experiential insights."

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Welch said his research into the timing of the Book of Mormon increased his gratitude and faith. What he learned increased his appreciation, awe and reverence for the scriptures, as well as his love for the Lord.

"This book is worthy of the name miracle," Welch said. "It is a miraculous work and a miracle."

Before he spoke, Welch was honored with special recognition by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and BYU Studies for his work over the last 26 years as the BYU journal's editor-in-chief, along with the publication of BYU Studies Quarterly's 100th issue.

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