Mormonism had not even officially begun, and Joseph Smith’s family was indigent. In additional to the hard work they put in on their farm, they hired out for other work as best they could. A man named Josiah Stowell hired members of the family to help him dig on his property for Spanish treasure. Although Joseph had committed not to associate with treasure-hunters, he did agree to help Stowell. During this fruitless venture, Joseph stayed with the Hale family and met his future wife, Emma Hale. Joseph had not yet retrieved the plates when he married Emma, but because of his visions, he had a reputation that grew with every exageration and misrepresentation about him. Emma’s father alternately accepted and rejected Joseph, and Emma married him without her parents’ approval. Joseph and Emma’s first residence was in Palmyra with Joseph’s parents.
Joseph, as commanded by the Lord, began to translate the writings on the plates with the help of the Urim and Thummim. Emma acted as his first scribe. She commented on the miraculous nature of the work. Joseph had only three years of education and had trouble creating a lucid sentence on the written page. Yet he dictated word by word and sometimes letter by letter.
An influential local farmer, Martin Harris, took an interest in the work. He was among the many people of the time who had developed a “restorationist” orientation towards religion. Many seemed to come to the idea that all Christian faiths had gone astray. Some had spiritual experiences which increased their hope that the original gospel of Christ was about to be restored. Harris nurtured Joseph along in the work. He took a copy of certain of the ancient characters to professor Charles Anton in New York. Anton certified that the characters were real and of ancient origin, and put it in writing. However, when he discovered that the writings had been given to Joseph Smith by an angel, he tore up that which he had written. Harris had told Anton that part of the book was sealed. Anton replied, “I cannot read a sealed book.” The Mormons recognized this as a fulfillment of the prophecy made in Isaiah 29, where a book is delivered to the learned man who is unable to read it, and then given to an unlearned man who, by the power of God, can read it.
Martin Harris’ wife was a constant thorn in the work. She mistrusted Joseph and was jealous of the time Harris spent helping him. Harris begged to borrow part of the translated manuscript to show her. Joseph petitioned the Lord over and over for permission, and several times, the Lord refused, then finally relented. Harris lost the manuscript. It may have been stolen, perhaps by his wife or her associates, but Joseph stood at the edge of the abyss because of the loss. He knew his standing before God and his calling were in serious jeopardy.
The Lord took back the plates, the Urim and Thummim and Joseph’s standing until Joseph had thoroughly repented. Fortunately, the Lord had foreseen the event and had commanded the prophets of old to record similar events and revelations in two places, so the information was still available. This was important. The Lord revealed to Joseph the plot behind the theft, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants, Sections 3 and 10:
And when thou deliveredst up that which God had given thee sight and power to translate, thou deliveredst up that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man, Who has set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises which were made before God, and has depended upon his own judgment and boasted in his own wisdom.
And this is the reason that thou hast lost thy privileges for a season—For thou hast suffered the counsel of thy director to be trampled upon from the beginning (D&C 3:12-14)….And because you have delivered the writings into his hands, behold, wicked men have taken them from you. Therefore, you have delivered them up, yea, that which was sacred, unto wickedness.
And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands. And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written; And, on this wise, the devil has sought to lay a cunning plan, that he may destroy this work;
For he hath put into their hearts to do this, that by lying they may say they have caught you in the words which you have pretended to translate. Verily, I say unto you, that I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing. For behold, he has put it into their hearts to get thee to tempt the Lord thy God, in asking to translate it over again.
And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts—We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again; And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them; Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power; Therefore we will destroy him, and also the work; and we will do this that we may not be ashamed in the end, and that we may get glory of the world. Verily, verily, I say unto you, that Satan has great hold upon their hearts; he stirreth them up to iniquity against that which is good; And their hearts are corrupt, and full of wickedness and abominations; and they love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil; therefore they will not ask of me (Doctrine & Covenants 10:8-21).