Das Buch Mormon:
The German Translation of the Book of Mormon

On 25 May 1852, the first German edition of the Book of Mormon came off the press in Hamburg. Earlier that year France and Wales saw translations appear in their languages, following the first foreign-language edition of the Book of Mormon in Danish in 1851. A dozen years before, a chain of events began that would have far-reaching effects in Germany and on the translation of the Book of Mormon into German.

On 6 April 1840, the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members in Nauvoo were still afflicted by debilitating circumstances resulting from their expulsion from Missouri. On that date Joseph Smith called one of the apostles, Orson Hyde, to go to Palestine to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jews.1

A month later, on 1 May 1840, having started his journey to the Middle East in the company of John E. Page, Elder Hyde wrote to Joseph Smith from Columbus, Ohio, “The mission upon which we are sent swells greater and greater. . . . There is a great work to be done in Germany, as manifested to us by the Spirit.” Elder Hyde proposed to write brief lectures in German on the faith and doctrine of the church, including a brief history of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Elder Hyde then asked, “Should we consider it necessary to translate the entire Book of Mormon into German, and Doctrine and Covenants too, are we or are we not at liberty to do so?” One week later, on 8 May, Joseph Smith replied, “I entirely approve” of the plan.2 In Philadelphia, Elder Page discontinued this mission and Elder Hyde proceeded alone.

A few months before Orson Hyde arrived in Germany, James Howard, who had recently become a Latter-day Saint in England, moved to Hamburg, Germany, on 13 September 1840, to work in a foundry. He had received instructions from Brigham Young, then president of the British Mission, to pursue missionary work. But this first Latter-day Saint in Germany wrote, “As soon as I saw what sort of place it was I dropt [sic] my preaching directly. I durst not pretend to say anything about religion to them. Tell Brother Brigham Young how things are and that I am too weak a creature to do anything with them in Hamburg.”3 He soon returned to England, where the church’s first overseas mission had begun three years earlier. With Howard’s departure, the first effort to carry the gospel message to Germany came to an end.4 But help was on the way.

Nine months after Howard’s failure, Orson Hyde arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, on 27 June 1841. He was the first official of the church to set foot on the European mainland. Fortunately, when a visa problem delayed Elder Hyde in Frankfurt, he began studying the German language. “I have read one book through,” he wrote, “. . . and [have] translated and written considerable. I can speak and write the German considerable already.”5 Elder Hyde was in Germany for two and one-half months, until September 1841, before he resumed his journey to the Middle East. He preached the gospel in Egypt and Syria and then traveled on to Jerusalem to dedicate, on 24 October 1841, the land as he was instructed.6

Following his travels in the Middle East, Orson Hyde spent seven months in Regensburg, Germany, from January 30 to August 1842. “I found it appropriate to stay in this city for a season or two, to enjoy the flowers of German literature, after I had been wandering through the thistles and thorns of the uncivilized world.”7 During this time, he finished writing Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry out of the Wilderness), a booklet announcing the restoration and the Book of Mormon. To sustain himself he taught English to students, who may have helped him with his translation. The apostle intended to publish his work in Regensburg, but city officials did not grant permission. He soon succeeded in printing the pamphlet in Frankfurt. This work contained basic teachings of the church and spoke of the Book of Mormon and the angel Moroni, who had directed Joseph Smith to the original plates. In its introduction Orson Hyde stated:

In the course of divine providence it becomes our duty to record one of the remarkable events which gives birth to a new era. . . . It fills the mind with wonder, astonishment and admiration. How welcome are the rays of the morning light, after the shades of darkness have clothed the earth in gloom. So after a long tedious night of moral darkness under which the earth has rolled, and her inhabitants have groaned for the last fourteen hundred years, an Angel, commissioned from the Almighty descended and rolled back the curtains of night. . . . Go forth therefore, little volume, to nations and tongues . . . and may the Almighty speed your way.8

Ein Ruf aus der Wüste was the second foreign language publication of the church and the first in German.9 It is not known what effect this booklet had on LDS proselyting efforts in Germany because later missionaries make no mention of it. The tract might have been confiscated.

Interest in Germany and its language began to grow among church members. Shortly after Elder Hyde returned to Nauvoo, he and Joseph Smith read German together.10 The first German immigrant to be baptized in the church in the United States was probably Jacob Zundel in 1836, in Kirtland, Ohio. On 7 December 1842, German-speaking members who had joined the church in America became established in Nauvoo. Daniel Carn was called as the bishop of this German ward.11 A decade later he became the first mission president in Germany and helped translate the Book of Mormon into German.

Another person who would help turn the attention of church leaders, especially that of Joseph Smith, toward Germany was immigrant Alexander Neibauer. He was born on 9 January 1805 in Ehrenbreitstein, Germany, which became part of a reunited nation in 1871. A Jewish dentist-matchmaker, Neibaur immigrated to Preston, England, where he was baptized into the church on 9 April 1838. Soon thereafter, he immigrated to the United States. Having studied at a Berlin university, intending to become a rabbi, Neibauer later taught Joseph Smith Hebrew and German in Nauvoo.

The influence of German and German people seems to have matured in the Prophet Joseph Smith before his death in 1844. He apparently had gained some understanding of the German language, for in his last public speech, given at the funeral of a man named King Follett, he remarked, “I have been reading the German, and find [the Lutheran Bible] to be the most (nearly) correct translation, and to correspond nearest to the revelations which God has given to me for the last fourteen years.”12 In the same sermon, the acknowledged climax of the Prophet’s career, he translated into English while reading from the German Bible and added, “I know the text is true. I call upon all you Germans who know that it is true to say, Eye [sic]. (Loud shouts of ‘Aye.’)”13 A few days later Joseph Smith made further reference to this subject: “The Germans are an exalted people. The old German translators are the most nearly correct—most honest of any of the translators.”14

“Our missionaries are going forth to different nations, and in Germany . . . the Standard of Truth has been erected,” wrote Joseph Smith in his famous 1842 Wentworth Letter, adding, “no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing.”15 The church founder also stated that “out of the different German tribes will yet some day a great nation grow and in these countries many would yet hear and accept the Gospel.”16 When the Prophet made this statement, Germany was divided into many small states, and unification would not occur until 1871, at the beginning of the Second Reich. Joseph Smith is also quoted as saying that thousands and tens of thousands of the House of Israel are among the German-speaking people.17

Joseph Smith did not live to see his predictions fulfilled. However, his assassination in 1844 and the subsequent exodus of Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 did not slow LDS missionary efforts much. Two years after the first Saints arrived in the Great Basin, a major missionary thrust took place. It was the year of the famous California gold rush in 1849, when thousands of Americans headed west. At the same time, Mormon missionaries headed east, including three apostles. Erastus Snow was sent to begin the work in Scandinavia, while Lorenzo Snow was assigned to Italy. A third apostle, John Taylor, went to France. Although the three did not receive direct instructions to work in Germany, Joseph Smith had told them earlier to open other areas “as directed by the Spirit.” It was John Taylor who became most directly involved in laying stepping stones for future missionary work in Germany.

Within months, a series of events brought key individuals together, thereby facilitating the translation of the Book of Mormon into German. The area known as Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany was at that time under Danish rule. The first two German convert baptisms for which there is any record took place 15 September 1851 in this province that earlier belonged to Germany. The two baptisms were performed by a Scandinavian missionary, George P. Dykes, who knew the German language well. Elder Dykes was subsequently banished from this area and was on his way home to Utah, stopping in London, when he met Elder John Taylor. The apostle had planned to return home from France after arranging for the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon into the French language. However, he received a letter from Brigham Young asking him to work in Europe another year. Elder Taylor wrote in his journal, “It immediately occurred to my mind to go to Germany.” Elder Taylor had actually come to England looking for a British member who could help with the German translation, but he had no success. When he discovered that Elder Dykes was proficient in German, he persuaded the elder not to return home but to meet him in Hamburg. Elder Taylor first stopped in Paris to check on his flock.

George Dykes arrived in Hamburg the latter part of September 1851.18 John Taylor arrived days later, in October, bringing with him a German schoolteacher, George Viett, who had been converted in Paris. The three began the translation of the Book of Mormon into German. These elders also undertook missionary work at the same time, converting John Miller, who also helped with the translation. Elder Taylor said he asked some of the best professors in Hamburg to look over the early pages of the Book of Mormon translation and a German publication that they started, and only few alterations were made.19 Elder Taylor had to leave Hamburg when the first draft of the translation of the Book of Mormon into German was only half completed. Threatened with arrest, he returned to Paris on 18 December 1851, where he found France in chaos with Napoleon III’s ascendency to power. He soon left for England.20

When Elder Taylor first decided to go to Germany, he wrote to Brigham Young in Salt Lake City and asked him to send Daniel Carn to be the mission president in Germany and to help with the translation.21 While still in London, John Taylor met President Carn on his way to Hamburg. Elder Taylor briefed him about happenings in Germany, including the progress on translating the Book of Mormon. President Carn continued on to Hamburg, arriving on 3 April 1852, a date that marks the formal beginning of the German mission.

President Carn and Elders Dykes, Viett, and Miller worked to finish the translation project.22 Elder Dykes reported, “I continued my labors in Germany until the translating, revising, printing, and stereotyping of the Book of Mormon in the German language was completed.” He left Germany on 25 May 1852, the day the first edition of the German Book of Mormon and the second printing of the French translation were published side by side in one volume. This was done because those were the two main languages spoken in Hamburg. Separate French and German copies were also printed.23

Publishing the Book of Mormon in German was a singular event because little else went right for church members during the next 20 years. President Carn was arrested and banished several times, including on 22 January 1853, when five new elders arrived. One of the new missionaries was Orson Spencer, who tried to establish missionary work in Berlin but was surrounded by armed soldiers with bayonets.24 He tried to get an appointment with the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm, to present him with a Book of Mormon but was banished from Berlin instead. This failure was in sharp contrast to his earlier work as the British Mission president from 1846 to 1848, when membership there increased by 8,647 souls to 17,902, about the same membership as in the entire United States at that time.

While some missionaries retreated to England to labor because of troubles with the police, others went to distant parts of Germany but had no success. On 3 October 1852 President Carn was again arrested in Hamburg and given “a choice of a $16 fine, eight days in jail, fifty stripes, or leaving.”25 He decided it would be unwise to remain and went to Denmark. On 24 December 1853 the first German Mission president returned to Utah with 33 German immigrants and about 300 from Scandinavian countries. Perhaps the most important accomplishment of his labors was the publication of the Book of Mormon in German. Other missionaries soon left, and the work in Germany ended for a season. Ironically, at that same time in 1854, 225 miles southeast of Hamburg, in the kingdom of Saxony, the conversion of a prominent educator, Karl G. Maeser, took place. He would later have a remarkable impact on education in the church.26

In 1871 independent German federations reunited as one realm known as the Second Reich, with the prime minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, leading the German people (he became chancellor of the united Germany). This empire lasted 48 years until Germany lost World War I and the Second Reich came to an end. For Latterday Saints, progress was reflected in additional publications of the Book of Mormon, beginning in 1871 with the printing of the second edition of the Book of Mormon in Hamburg, where the first edition had come off the press in 1852. The fifth edition, printed in Bern, Switzerland, in 1893, exhibited a major revision reflecting the chapters and verses that had been added to the English editions. The first triple combination, considered the eighth edition, was published in Basel in 1924. Although each of these versions of the Book of Mormon was numbered as a new edition, in reality they were usually reprints of earlier publications. The fifth edition, because of its major reformatting, does qualify as an “edition” by today’s standards.

After the second edition of the Book of Mormon appeared in Hamburg in 1871, missionary success improved. The first German Mission had lasted only three years, but now it began to flourish. In the years ahead, conversion success would increase and persecution decrease. By 1930, Germany was the number one foreign-speaking area of the church and second only to the United States in total membership. Beginning in 1959, several printings of the German Book of Mormon were done in Salt Lake City. The first was a completely new 13th edition translated by Jean Wunderlich and Max Zimmer. Between 1974 and 1979 the present edition was prepared and translated by Immo Luschin. At the moment, since this text is so very controversial in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, a new translation is in progress as authorized by the First Presidency. Since 1976, all printings of the Book of Mormon have taken place at the church’s then-new printing and distribution complex in Frankfurt. Counting the first German edition of 1852, a total of some 39 different printings have appeared.

To illustrate the importance of the Book of Mormon among German Saints, we note that between 1945 and 1989 devoted Saints in East Germany carried on under the most oppressive conditions behind the “Iron Curtain.”While two dozen or so local missionaries labored at all times and made converts in East Germany, American missionaries in West Berlin took boxes containing copies of the Book of Mormon to East Berlin, and from there the native German missionaries distributed them throughout East Germany, since the American missionaries were not allowed to labor there. Sometimes the books were confiscated at the border, sometimes not. Frequently, East German missionaries who distributed copies of the Book of Mormon were followed by the police, who confiscated the books. There was always a demand for more copies of the Book of Mormon in East Germany, where members of the church relied on printings in the West.

During the dark years of oppression in East Germany, there was one silver lining that helped offset the curtailed growth and lack of freedom. No literature printed in the West after 1920 was permitted in the East Zone of Germany. Latter-day Saint leaders in East Germany asked members to burn lesson manuals and other church material to avoid arrest. This was good advice because police began searching homes of members hoping to find them in violation of the law. Burning this material proved to be an advantage in disguise. Because the Book of Mormon had been published before 1920, it was legal. The lack of lesson materials necessitated that East German Saints center their reading and teaching entirely on the Book of Mormon and the other standard works. One mission president’s wife from Utah, whose husband served in Germany, remarked, “In a way this may be a blessing. I have never known a people so devoted to and so familiar with the scriptures.”27

Some East German members reported that the Book of Mormon kept them loyal to the church. One young troubled member, who was tempted to join the Communist party in order to receive preferential treatment, agonized as to what she should do. “I went out walking in the evening, and I thought to myself, ‘Is there really a Father in Heaven?’ I was taught quite differently at school. . . . So I began reading extensively in the Book of Mormon. . . . I became very calm, I felt a genuine peace, but when I stopped reading, anxiety rose up in me again. I didn’t realize what was happening. About a month later, I had such an overwhelming feeling of joy while reading I can’t even describe it. I felt so happy, and from that moment on, I knew I was in the right church, I knew the meaning of life, and I never doubted these things again. I knew them.” In 1955 she served a full-time mission in East Germany.28

Most of the isolated Latter-day Saints who lived in Germany during the fearsome war years and their oppressive aftermath became uncommonly steadfast members of the church as they immersed themselves in sacred writ, including the Book of Mormon.

Notes

1. See Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1949), 4:106 (hereafter cited as History of the Church). See also pp. 107–375.

2. History of the Church, 4:123, 24, 129.

3. “German Mission Manuscript History,” 13 September 1840, Family and Church History Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church Archives).

4. No further information has been found on James Howard in LDS publications or manuscripts in the LDS Church Archives.

5. “Latter-day Saint Journal History,” 17 July 1841, LDS Church Archives.Myrtle Stevens Hyde, Orson Hyde: The Olive Branch of Israel (Salt Lake City: Agreka, 2000), 126.

6. See History of the Church, 4:456–59, for the text of Orson Hyde’s prayer on the Mount of Olives.

7. “German Mission Manuscript History,” June 1842.

8. The English translation of Ein Ruf aus der Wüste was by Justus Ernest and is available in English in the LDS History Library in Salt Lake City.

9. The church’s first foreign-language publication was a pamphlet that Elder Hyde wrote in Dutch to address Jews in Holland. This pamphlet was written before his first arrival in Germany.

10. See History of the Church, 5:207. Orson Hyde was born on 8 January 1805 in Oxford, Connecticut, the same year that Joseph Smith was born. He became a member of the restored church’s first 12 apostles on 28 April 1835. He died in Spring City, Utah, on 28 November 1878, a year after Brigham Young died.

11. See Der Stern, 27 January 1929, 25–26.

12. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1938), 349 (hereafter Teachings). See History of the Church, 6:307.

13. History of the Church, 6:316.

14. Teachings, 364.

15. History of the Church, 4:540.

16. Der Stern, 27 January 1929, 25.

17. See ibid., 27 October 1929, 315.

18. See “German Mission Manuscript History,” 15 September 1851. George P. Dykes was in St. Clair County, Illinois, 24 December 1814. He was an officer of the Mormon Battalion in 1846 and died on 25 February 1888 in Zenos, Arizona.

19. See Samuel W. Taylor, The Kingdom or Nothing: The Life of John Taylor, Militant Mormon (New York: Macmillan, 1976), 156.

20. John Taylor was born 1 November 1808 in Milnthrop, England. He joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Toronto, Canada, in 1836 and became an apostle on 19 December 1838. On 7 October 1880 he became the third president of the church and died in exile (on 25 July 1887, in Kaysville, Utah) during the government’s opposition to the church.

21. Daniel Carn was born on 13 December 1802 at St. Clair, Pennsylvania. He died on 20 April 1872 in Salt Lake City.

22. See “German Mission Manuscript History,” 8 September 1851. Nothing further can be found in the LDS Church Archives concerning George Viett and John Miller.

23. See Gilbert W. Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany between 1840 and 1970 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 7, 9.

24. Orson Spencer graduated from the Theological Seminary at Hamilton, New York. After his conversion he taught mathematics and languages at the University of Nauvoo. In 1850 he was appointed to head the new University of Deseret, the first university west of the Mississippi, later named the University of Utah. He died on 15 October 1855 in St. Louis, on the way home from this mission.

25. See Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 13, 16–25.

26. Karl Maeser was born in Meissen, Saxony, on 16 January 1828. He served as the first Swiss-German Mission president in 1868, as the second principal of the Brigham Young Academy (forerunner of Brigham Young University), and as the first superintendent of all schools of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He died in Salt Lake City on 15 February 1901.

27. Quoted in LDS Church News, 18 April 1959, 3.

28. Quoted in Garold N. Davis and Norma S. Davis, Behind the Iron Curtain: Recollections of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945–1989 (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1996), 176.