Section 9: Why Oliver Cowdery Failed in His Attempt To Translate
Before studying this section, make certain you have studied section 8 and its commentary. Shortly after receiving permission from the Lord to translate, Oliver attempted to translate with Joseph acting as scribe. He was initially successful, but then failed in his attempt. In this section the Lord tells Oliver that he was not properly prepared, he was improperly motivated, and he exercised insufficient faith. It seems probable that Oliver wanted to translate largely because he was impatient at having to sit and act as scribe. He wanted to be the equal of the Prophet, and he failed to anticipate the spiritual and mental preparation necessary to qualify him to translate.
Oliver is further instructed to continue functioning as scribe for Joseph and to be patient. He is assured that the opportunity to translate records, other than the Book of Mormon, may yet be his in the future if he continues faithful. We know that he never did translate other records, but that may have been because of his eventual apostasy.
D&C 9 Why Oliver Cowdery Failed to Translate
D&C 9:7-9 Study it out in your mind, and I will cause your bosom to burn within you.
1 Behold, I say unto you, my son, that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., even so I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record, which I have entrusted unto him.
verse 1 “you did not translate according to that which you desired of me” Oliver desired to translate just as Joseph had been translating. He desired that the Lord would allow that. But he did not fully meet the Lord’s requirements to translate at that level.
“you . . . did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun.” It is apparent that this revelation was received after Oliver had resumed his former position as scribe.
Oliver is instructed not to worry further about translating but to continue to act as scribe for Joseph until the Book of Mormon translation is completed. Most of the Book of Mormon manuscript is written in the hand of Oliver Cowdery, a measure of his obedience to this command.
2 And then, behold, other records have I, that I will give unto you power that you may assist to translate.
verse 2 “other records have I, that I will give unto you power that you may assist to translate” These “other records” might include the book of Abraham, which was later “translated” by Joseph with the assistance of Oliver, and the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon plates. Parenthetically, we really don’t know in detail the process by which Joseph was able to write the Book of Abraham. It is possible that he had writings of Abraham on the Egyptian papyri, but it is also possible that he received the Book of Abraham by a revelatory process similar to the way in which he “translated” the Book of Mormon.
Referring particularly to the sealed portion of the plates of Mormon, President Joseph Fielding Smith provided us with interesting insight into why we have not as yet received a knowledge of what is on that sealed record:
It is possible that some of them might have been translated had the people received the Book of Mormon with full purpose of heart and had been faithful to its teachings. This was the promise the Lord made through Mormon. He said he would try the faith of lesser things (i.e., the Book of Mormon) then he would make known to them the greater things. That we have failed in this is very apparent, we have not accepted the revelations in the Book of Mormon, neither in the Doctrine and Covenants, with that faith and willingness to know the will of the Lord which would entitle us to receive this greater information. Oliver Cowdery was a party to this failure by turning away from the Church for a number of years when it needed his service. He therefore lost his privilege to translate through his own disobedience and the people have lost the privilege of receiving the “greater things” spoken of by the Lord to Mormon (3 Nephi 26:8-11) until the day shall come when they are willing to be obedient in all things and will exercise faith such as was had by the brother of Jared. It should be remembered that such faith has rarely been seen on the earth. It appears, therefore that we must wait until the reign of unrighteousness is at an end before the Lord will give to the people these writings, containing “a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof” (2 Nephi 27) (Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:52-53).
Oliver did act as scribe for Joseph for parts of the JST and for the book of Abraham.
3 Be patient, my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time.
4 Behold, the work which you are called to do is to write for my servant Joseph.
verses 3-4 It is sometimes difficult to realize that our calling may be to assist rather than to preside, or to record rather than to translate. Oliver’s calling was to assist Joseph, like Aaron assisted Moses, and not to become equal to him.
5 And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.
verse 5 “you did not continue as you commenced” Oliver did begin to translate. He commenced well, but when the task was more difficult than he had anticipated, he failed to do what was required of him and lost his opportunity to continue.
Why did the Lord take away Oliver’s right to translate? The likely key reason was Oliver did not possess faith sufficient to allow him to translate. Most likely the faith required at this stage was the practical preparations necessary for the task. This lack of faith would later manifest itself in the form of apostasy. He was also inadequately mentally prepared and inappropriately motivated. He had not paid the price in terms of spiritual and mental effort to properly prepare himself. He wanted to be a translator and not merely a scribe to satisfy his own ego. Joseph did need a scribe, and perhaps the Lord allowed Oliver to try to translate and fail in the attempt in order to quell his dissatisfaction at being only a scribe.
6 Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.
verse 6 “it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner” Though Oliver may have thought of his unsuccessful attempt as a “failure,” there was some reason why the Lord allowed this to happen. His “failure” somehow served God’s purposes. No doubt it was a learning experience for Oliver. Perhaps it was important for him to understand the gift of translation so he could function more effectively as a scribe or serve as a more informed witness to the translation process.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
verse 7 The revelations of heaven are not granted to one in a mindless stupor. Rather, they embrace the complete use of all heavenly given endowments. A man cannot expect the Lord to answer his prayers in the form of writing on the wall. But after the man pays in full the tuition of effort, then—and only then—he has claim upon the answer.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
verses 7-9 It is important to understand that the contrast described here between a burning of the bosom and a stupor of thought (and a forgetting) applied specifically to the process of translation. While these verses may also contain important keys for all in the Church who would seek for personal revelation, we must be cautious in this application.
“if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you” Each individual must learn to recognize the promptings of the Spirit of God. Some, indeed, may receive a burning in the bosom. Others may recognize the Spirit’s promptings in other ways. Elder Mark E. Petersen once remarked that he had never experienced a “burning” in his bosom (personal communication). Whatever the specific feeling, it will be experienced as a peaceful, wonderful, and most positive experience.
Perhaps one key point to these verses is that receiving revelation is an active rather than a passive process. The receiver must think, must work to understand, must come up with a plan, a proposal, a theory—in short must do as much of the work as possible to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. It is then that our mental and spiritual efforts are most likely to be rewarded with understanding and confirmation.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.
verse 10 Completing the work of the Lord is more important than satisfying the individual wishes and preferences of those called to do it.
11 Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you feared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now;
verse 11 “you feared” Fear is the enemy of faith. Perhaps our secular definition of fear, however, is in some circumstances inadequate to fully explain that scriptural emotion that prevents us from exercising faith. In the scripture, fear is that controlling emotion—certainly the product of our natural-man self—that makes us decide not to act on our inclination to be obedience. It is the reluctance to do the more difficult thing. Caught in the clutches of this fear, we gravitate to doing the safer, less stressful, more comfortable, easier thing instead.
This verse tells us that timing is also important in the Lord’s scheme of things. Sometimes we need to do what the Lord wants us to do when he wants us to do it, otherwise, by the time we get around to it, it may no longer be necessary, profitable, or needed by the Lord.
12 For, do you not behold that I have given unto my servant Joseph sufficient strength, whereby it is made up? And neither of you have I condemned.
verse 12 “whereby it is made up” Joseph’s sufficient gift and strength in translating will “make up” or compensate for Oliver’s not being allowed to translate.
13 Do this thing which I have commanded you, and you shall prosper. Be faithful, and yield to no temptation.
14 Stand fast in the work wherewith I have called you, and a hair of your head shall not be lost, and you shall be lifted up at the last day. Amen.
verses 12-14 Note that the Lord did not condemn Oliver for his inability to translate, and neither should we. As with Peter, who because of fear walked on water for only a moment, that moment was a great deal more than most others can manage. The Lord does not reject Oliver for doing with difficulty what most others could not do at all. This was not the right time, however, to make further attempts. The work was more important than the private wishes of the workers. Oliver was called to be a scribe, not a translator. The Lord kindly indulged his private desire to translate, but now wanted him to resume his intended role of assisting Joseph that the work might move forward rapidly.
Brief Historical Setting 1829 May
By May 1829, Joseph and Oliver had finished the translation of the Plates of Mormon (see the supplemental article, Those Confusing Book of Mormon Plates). Joseph now had to decide what to do to fill in the gap left by the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript—from the time of Lehi to the reign of Mosiah I. In May he received a revelation telling him not to re-translate the first part of the Plates of Mormon, but rather to translate in its place the small Plates of Nephi [D&C 10 -Fate of the 116 Pages].
- Michael J. Preece