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Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

(p.37) 3 Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon
Foundational Texts of Mormonism
Grant Hardy
Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The last several decades have seen the emergence of academically rigorous textual criticism of the Book of Mormon. This scholarly development has largely been based on a detailed analysis of the two earliest manuscripts and twenty of the most significant printed editions. Royal Skousen, a linguist at Brigham Young University, has been the driving force behind these efforts, which have culminated in the publication of multi-volume textual commentaries, photographical and typographical facsimiles of the manuscripts, and a reconstructed earliest version. Grant Hardy, in his “Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon,” presents how these invaluable studies can be used by scholars to provide clues about the 1829 translation/dictation process of Joseph Smith and his scribes, the transmission of text, details of the narrative, and Smith’s attitudes toward the scripture he produced.

Keywords:   Book of Mormon, Royal Skousen, manuscripts, textual criticism, Joseph Smith, scribes, transmission, narrative, scripture

IT SEEMS SAFE to assume that without the Book of Mormon, there would be no Mormonism. In the America of the Second Great Awakening, many people claimed to have seen visions, heard voices, encountered spiritual beings, or received revelations. What made Joseph Smith stand out, however, was his account of a book written on thin gold plates that were delivered to him by an angel and, almost as improbably, the fact that he produced and published a nearly six-hundred-page “translation” of that record. The Book of Mormon received wide notice after its 1830 release, and missionaries carried it throughout the United States and abroad as tangible evidence of Smith’s remarkable claims.1 Believers were quickly labeled “Mormonites,” a derisive nickname that was later shortened to “Mormons.”2 Smith founded a church within days of bound copies of the Book of Mormon becoming available, and converts accepted the new scripture as fully canonical, that is, of equal authority with the Bible—something virtually unheard of among Christian denominations.3 Almost (p.38) two hundred years later, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS church) claims over fifteen million members, and tens of thousands of missionaries still take the Book of Mormon around the globe, in over a hundred languages, testifying that it is God’s word for the modern world.4

In the Latter-day Saint movement, the Book of Mormon is the foundational text. Indeed, without the Book of Mormon, it is doubtful whether anyone today would care much about Joseph Smith, apart from the sorts of scholars who study Ann Lee, Jemima Wilkinson, Nimrod Hughes, Robert Matthews, or other religious visionaries in early American history. But people do care, and the last few decades have seen the emergence of Mormon Studies, a small but vibrant academic field that has grown to include detailed textual analysis of documents connected with Smith and his associates, as can be seen in the publications of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. These primary sources are essential to the study of the founding era of Mormonism, and a fuller awareness of their sometimes complex production histories can greatly enrich our understanding of the development of that American faith tradition.

Yet the Book of Mormon is different from most of the other writings discussed in this volume in at least four ways. First, its textual history is not particularly complicated. It was dictated, one time through, over a three-month period from April to June of 1829.5 Twenty-eight percent of that dictation—commonly known as the Original Manuscript (hereafter O)—survives, as does nearly the whole of a second copy made for the printer: the Printer’s Manuscript (hereafter P). The first edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset from P, and partially from O, with relatively few changes. A second edition of 1837 included numerous grammatical and stylistic corrections made by Smith, but only a handful of significant changes, and a third edition in 1840 offered a few corrections based on O. Subsequent editions have included a limited number of grammatical adjustments and corrections of inadvertent errors that have come to light through closer scrutiny of the two manuscripts. However, aside from (p.39) grammatical updating, the Book of Mormon currently published by the LDS church is essentially the same as that dictated in 1829. This stands in contrast to the extensive revisions and additions that have characterized Joseph Smith’s revelations as published in the Doctrine and Covenants (the church’s third book of scripture) and his journals as published in the official History of the Church, or the laconic notes from multiple sources that have to be pieced together to reconstruct his Nauvoo sermons.

The second distinctive quality of the Book of Mormon is its length, complexity, and originality. Other revelations of Joseph Smith—consisting of commandments, exhortations, doctrinal explications, and organizational instructions—may run to a few pages, but the Book of Mormon is a single, coherent narrative that relates the history of the Nephites over a thousand-year period, as told by three major narrators who integrate a variety of source materials and genres into their account, as can be seen in Richard Bushman’s chapter in the present volume.6 Apart from twenty-three chapters (out of a total of 239) that basically reproduce chapters from Isaiah, Matthew, and Malachi in the King James Version of the Bible, the content is original, which is quite different from Smith’s “New Translation,” or revision, of the Bible, and from his purported translation of a lost book of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham now found in the Pearl of Great Price (Mormonism’s fourth and final book of scripture).7 The scope and complexity of the narrative make the Book of Mormon easily the most impressive document that Smith ever produced. And that is all the more striking given that it was his first publication.8

A third difference is that Joseph Smith’s role in the Book of Mormon narrative is rather peripheral. That is to say, he is not a character in the story. It is not told from his perspective as a nineteenth-century American (p.40) farmer, and he did not claim to be the author.9 Most of the other documents in the Joseph Smith Papers are ones that he wrote, dictated, commissioned, or otherwise took responsibility for, or, in the case of later revelations, were formulated in his own mind rather than coming through a seer stone. Obviously, the question of how much of Smith is in the Book of Mormon is ultimately a matter of faith (or doubt). Some Latter-day Saints believe that Smith miraculously read a pre-existing translation word for word from a seer stone, while other Mormons believe that he received spiritual impressions that he put into his own words as he dictated. Outsiders generally view the Book of Mormon as Smith’s creation from first to last, though one that incorporated bits of the Bible, popular culture, and experiences from his own life. Most historians will be reading the Book of Mormon as a window into Smith’s mind, looking for clues as to his perceptions and responses to social, economic, political, and religious controversies of the day.10 Yet the new scripture did not speak directly about such matters, and in any case, it provides only a snapshot of what one seemingly unremarkable twenty-three-year-old thought during a three-month period. The Book of Mormon, even when read as carefully as possible, does not offer much information about the development of the new religion, because there are not enough textual changes over time. It would be useful, of course, to undertake reception studies to see how others responded to this American scripture, but because the text itself is quite stable and comes at the very beginning of Mormonism, it functions as more of a starting point, or a theological baseline, from which to measure further innovations.

And finally, the Book of Mormon was regarded by Joseph Smith and his followers as canonized scripture—complete, sacred, and (p.41) authoritative—from the moment it was dictated.11 Interestingly, this did not preclude extensive grammatical updating in later editions, but the Book of Mormon is the only document produced by Smith that had such status immediately. Later revelations were transcribed, revised, selected, and incorporated into the canonical collections of the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price over the course of years, if not decades. These other Mormon scriptures have been reduced and expanded in the past two centuries, and further changes or even additions are possible, at least in theory. But the Book of Mormon, as constituted in 1830, was described by Smith as the “keystone of our religion.” As such, it has received extraordinary scrutiny for some time.

As early as 1898, a disillusioned Latter-day Saint named Lamoni Call counted some two thousand changes that had been made since the first edition, and he published a study enumerating the differences book by book. For instance, he noted that in 3 Nephi he had found 136 cases where which had been changed to who; twenty-three of sayeth to said; fifteen of which to whom; seven of is to are; six of they to those; six of was to were; and so forth. He consequently reasoned, “While the changes are only grammatical for the most part, when we consider how the book was translated [that is, by purportedly miraculous means], to my mind even grammatical changes are unpardonable.” In contrasting what he saw in the Book of Mormon with the claims made for it, Call asked, “where, in the name of that Great God that created heaven and earth is ‘the perfection of God’s works’?”12

Wilford C. Wood’s 1958 facsimile reprint of the 1830 edition made it easier to compare the first edition with current printings, and the first systematic textual comparison was published in 1965 by noted critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner with the descriptive title 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon: A Photo Reprint of the Original 1830 Edition of the Book of Mormon with All the Changes Marked.13 The book was presented as an exposé since the Tanners shared Lamoni Call’s belief that grammatical errors would (p.42) have been impossible in a book that had actually been revealed by God. The 1960s and 1970s saw the first academic studies of the text of the Book of Mormon, including several master’s theses and scholarly articles.14 Textual criticism of the scripture began in earnest in the 1980s with a preliminary three-volume critical text, published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). This has since been superseded by the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project of Royal Skousen, a Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Brigham Young University, who remains the preeminent figure in the field.15 Volumes from the Critical Text Projectbegan to appear in 2001, and will be discussed below.16 In fact, much of what follows is drawn from Skousen’s work.

(p.43) Analytical Sources and Methods

In2001, Skousen published typographical facsimiles of O and P (the latter in two books), based on close personal examination and multi-spectral imaging where needed.17 Each of these large quarto volumes presents a typeset, line-by-line version of the text with interlinear corrections represented as such. The original and revising scribes are identified, as are the typesetter’s notes in pencil and ink, and his take marks (indicating points at which he took a break from setting type, so that he could find his place when he returned). In addition, there are a multitude of transcription symbols indicating exactly what one might see in looking at the manuscripts with a magnifying glass. These symbols indicate intralinear insertions of words or even characters, supralinear insertions of words and characters, strike-throughs and cross-outs, erasures, overwrites, letters that are missing a stroke or a dot or a crossing, letters that have extra strokes or dots or crossings, spacing adjustments, places where the text is completely or partially illegible, and lacunae. And finally, there are extensive footnotes describing exactly what is on the pages, including information on changes in the ink flow or sharpness of the quill, along with paper tears, ink smears, splotches, seepage, and stray marks. There are even footnotes such as “dot for i of plains over the n,” “crossing for 2nd t in JS’s that too high,” and “final s in 1st Gentiles ends in an extensive flourish under iles.”18 The result is that the work of the scribes can almost be followed in real time.

For example, at 1 Nephi 7:2 in O, one of the two unidentified scribes, presumably trying to keep straight new names and stories, starts to write Lehi, but catches his error after inscribing the e, crosses out the L and overwrites the name as Nephi. And here is the beginning of a line from the same manuscript in Skousen’s transcript (erasures are indicated by angle brackets, overwrites by curly brackets): “sa{<y>|i}t{h} {<L>o|th(-)}e Lord in an exce|p|table time have I heard thee.” Oliver (p.44) Cowdery, the scribe taking dictation, was having a difficult time with the familiar phrase “thus saith the Lord.”19 He first wrote say (perhaps intending sayeth), then he erased the y and wrote an i in its place. When he completed the word saith, he went back and partially overwrote the h to make it clearer (this type of correction is frequent in Cowdery’s handwriting). He began to write “Lord” as the next word, but then caught his error, erased the L (but left the o), and overwrote with th (though the h is missing a stroke), and added the e. Finally, he wrote Lord and continued on. Three words later, the p within two parallel lines indicates that the letter was intralinearly inserted as a correction, probably almost immediately; the word itself is a misspelling of “acceptable.” And so it continues line by line through the three lengthy books that make up volumes 1 and 2 of the Critical Text Project.

As Skousen himself explained, “Normally, transcripts of manuscripts do not provide the level of detail given here in volumes 1 and 2. However, the Book of Mormon is a religious, foundational text; and the reading of each sentence is of more importance to a religious community than it would be in the normal secular literary work or historical document.”20 This is also the reason the Joseph Smith Papers published a typographical facsimile edition (with full transcripts) of P in 2015.21 The Joseph Smith Papers version is more streamlined than Skousen’s. For example, it does not differentiate forms of cancellation. However, unlike Skousen’s transcript, it differentiates between immediate revisions, made before anything else was inscribed, and inserted revisions. It also color codes the handwriting. Furthermore, the two quarto volumes include full-page color photographs for each page of the manuscript. A third volume of photographs and transcripts of the extant portions of O is planned.

(p.45) In 1841 Joseph Smith placed O into the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House for safekeeping. When it was recovered in 1882, most of it had been destroyed by water and mold. Today only 28% survives, with the greatest number of pages coming from the book of 1 Nephi and the middle of the book of Alma. Most of the handwriting is Oliver Cowdery’s, though two unidentified scribes also contributed to 1 Nephi. There is no punctuation in the manuscript, apart from a few dashes in the preface to 2 Nephi. Cowdery occasionally corrected the work of the other two scribes and even added a few phrases himself to O as he was copying for P. The majority of these emendations were unnecessary but have nevertheless been preserved in the current official edition of 1981.22

Unlike O, P has survived intact, apart from three worn-away lines at the bottom of the first leaf. Oliver Cowdery wrote 85% of it, with another 15% by an unknown scribe, and a few lines here and there by Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum. Although Oliver Cowdery was fairly careful in his copy-work, comparison with O reveals that he still made about three errors per page (typical examples, from 2 Nephi 7:1–9, can be seen in Figure 3.1). The manuscript shows evidence of immediate corrections by the original scribes, editing where scribes appear to have proofed each other’s work against O, and numerous marks—mostly in pencil—made by John Gilbert, the 1830 typesetter. Gilbert added punctuation and paragraphing to the text and corrected a few obvious errors. Skousen has also demonstrated that one-sixth of the 1830 edition (Helaman 13:17 to Mormon 9:37) was actually set from O rather than P, which means that for these pages the 1830 edition and P are both first-hand copies of O—an observation that has significant implications for scholars trying to reconstruct the missing portions of O.23

Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

Figure 3.1. 2 Nephi 7:1–9. Ultraviolet photograph of original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, p. 59 fragment.

Used by permission of Wilford Wood Foundation.

P also contains nearly two thousand corrections made by Joseph Smith as he was revising the text for the second edition (1837). Almost all of these are grammatical in nature, beginning with 952 instances—nearly half the total—of which being changed to who or whom. Also very common are changes of saith to said; hath to has or have; they to those; was to were; and is to are. Smith also regularly excised extraneous instances of that, and (p.46) deleted forty-seven repetitions of it came to pass. In a few cases, he revised P to match the 1830 edition, but there is no evidence that he consulted O in 1837.24Figures 3.2 and 3.3, which correspond to Mosiah 25:4–19 in P, show a shift in handwriting between Oliver Cowdery and an unidentifed scribe, three supralinear corrections made by Cowdery and the unidentified scribe, pilcrows added by John Gilbert indicating paragraphs for the 1830 edition, and fourteen corrections made by Smith in his editing for the 1837 edition—most of which are changes from “which” to “who” but also including a deletion of “it came to pass that.”

Textual Criticism and the Book of MormonTextual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

Figure 3.2 and Figure 3.3. Mosiah 25:4–19. Printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, p. 157, and transcript.

Courtesy Community of Christ Archives, Independence, MO. Transcript from The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations Series, vol. 3, p. 332.

Four editions of the Book of Mormon were published during Joseph Smith’s life—in 1830, 1837, 1840, and 1841—though the last was published (p.48) (p.47) (p.49) in England without Smith’s direct involvement. Full-color photographic renditions of all four have been posted at the Joseph Smith Papers website.25 Online versions of two dozen more editions have been collected at KC Kern’s Book of Mormon Online: A Comprehensive Resource for the Study of the Book of Mormon.26 The 1879 edition was particularly important for the formatting of the book as scripture, since that was the first time the text was divided into numbered verses, and the original chapters were subdivided into smaller, more manageable chapters closer in length to the King James Bible.27 The most important editions thereafter in the LDS tradition were those of 1920 (for which the editorial committee’s marked-up copy is extant) and 1981, which is the current official edition.28 Royal Skousen has created an electronic collation of the Book of Mormon documenting every difference between the two manuscripts and the twenty most significant editions, which he will release at the conclusion of his Critical Text Project. In the meantime, significant variants in all these editions are cited in the 4,060 pages of his Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon.29

The loss of 72% of O is unfortunate and irreparable, but in general it can be determined when the text was changed and by whom, from the moment scribes first took down Smith’s original dictation to the present day. Furthermore, careful scrutiny of the manuscripts and comparisons with early editions can reveal which changes were accidental and which were deliberate, and informed conjectures can be made as to the motivations behind the intentional revisions. Given these primary source materials, it is possible—to a large extent—to reconstruct the text in its original form, which is what Royal Skousen has done in his Book of Mormon: The (p.50) Earliest Text.30 Scholarly studies of the origin and development of the Book of Mormon should be based on this version.

In addition, Skousen has explained the reasoning behind each of the editorial decisions he made for the Earliest Text in his Analysis of Textual Variants, a series of six large volumes published from 2004 to 2009. There he presents detailed arguments based on his close examination of the manuscripts, his reconstruction of the actions and intentions of different scribes and editors, comparisons with other passages elsewhere in the text, statistics, biblical parallels, biblical languages, early English usage and dialects, the writing habits of particular scribes, pronunciation (some mistakes occurred in the initial transcription because dictated words sounded alike), and typical errors of the eye or hand made in copying.31 It is a tour de force of scrupulous textual criticism. Of course, there is still more work to do. Skousen has not given much attention to the internal structure or intratextual allusions of the text—as revealed in close readings—or to the hundreds of examples of phrases from the King James Bible that have been incorporated into the Book of Mormon, and the way that they have been modified or recontextualized in the process.32 And the relationship of the language of the Book of Mormon to terms and concepts prevalent in the nineteenth century has yet to be worked out.

Alma Chapter 30 as a Typical Example

It is not unreasonable to ask what might be gained from several decades of incredibly detailed textual criticism of the Book of Mormon. Is there any payoff to this astonishing amount of effort? For Latter-day Saints, who believe that the book is a work of scripture that was revealed by God in a rather direct fashion, every word is precious and potentially significant. This perspective, then, justifies the five full pages in Analysis of Textual Variants (p.51) that Skousen devoted to determining whether a single word in what is now Helaman 15:8 should be thing or things.33 There are other possible benefits as well, for both believers and outsiders alike.34 This chapter will organize these into broad categories, with examples from throughout the text. But to provide a better sense of the evidence, it may be useful to begin with a somewhat comprehensive examination of one significant but not atypical chapter, what is now Alma 30, which will also be used throughout the rest of this chapter.

Alma 30 tells the story of a confrontation between the high priest Alma and a popular dissenting preacher named Korihor, who is described as an “Anti-Christ,” meaning he denies there is any validity to the Nephite prophets’ message of a Savior who is yet to come. Korihor regards such teachings as the “foolish traditions of your fathers” and asserts that “no man can know of anything which is to come.” Furthermore, he argues that there is no need for an atonement since there is no afterlife; in this life people can, and will, do whatever they like; and he insists that institutional religion is a scheme to oppress the common people and enrich the clergy. Eventually Korihor is arrested and brought before Alma, where he disavows any belief in God. Alma responds by claiming that prophets, scriptures, and all of nature testify of God, but Korihor refuses to believe unless he is shown a sign. Alma tells him that the sign he seeks will be his being struck dumb. When this happens, Korihor confesses through writing that he had been misled by the devil, and he meets his end when he is reduced to begging for food and is accidentally trampled to death in a crowd.

The manuscript evidence for Alma 30 is as follows. The chapter takes up a little more than four pages of O (two leaves, front and back), with the right-hand upper third of each leaf missing. There are thirty-five lines per page, and Oliver Cowdery was the scribe. In the portions of the pages that are extant, he made about eleven supralinear corrections, twelve intralinear corrections, thirty cancellations by strikethrough or cross-out, thirty-five cancellations by erasure, and 280 partial or full overwrites. (This is characteristic of Cowdery’s scribal habits—in trying (p.52) to make his writing as legible as possible, he went back and rewrote two or three letters per line.)35

In P the chapter is also written by Cowdery, and again there is evidence that he was taking pains to get the words exactly right, though the process of copying from a written page is much easier than taking live dictation. Cowdery made ten immediate supralinear corrections and seven somewhat later, along with ten intralinear corrections, fourteen strikes, seven erasures, and more than 360 overwrites. In addition, Joseph Smith’s 1837 editing in P included ten changes of saith to said, eight of which to who, six of hath to have or has, and three deletions of that. Smith also added a set of parentheses and a question mark. He changed an is to are, an if to will, a never to ever (to remedy a double negative), and a causeth to causes; he also deleted both a food and an it came to pass that he.36

These may seem like a great number of changes, but none of them significantly revises or modifies the main line of narrative itself. Cowdery’s insertions, cross-outs, and erasures were attempts to create a precise transcript of the original oral dictation and an accurate second copy. Smith’s later corrections mostly concern diction. Royal Skousen has discussed the most significant changes in Alma 30 in his Analysis of Textual Variants. A summary of some of his specific findings is provided below, followed by analytic observations, supplemented with additional examples from elsewhere in the text, arranged under six general headings.37

v. 1 O – Chapter XVI

The ink flow for XVI is more even than for Chapter, suggesting that the chapter number was added later, which accords with evidence throughout the manuscript.

v. 2 O – greatness of their [number > numbers]

Oliver Cowdery [hereafter OC] corrected number to numbers almost immediately, intralinearly.

v. 5 O – and it came to pass in the commencement of the seventeenth year

P – and it came to pass in the seventeenth year (p.53)

OC accidentally omitted the commencement of in copying; the original reading was restored in 1981.

v. 7 O – for it was strictly contrary to the commandments of God

P – for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God

OC miscopied the word commandments as commands; all printed editions from 1830 to 1981 retain the mistake.

v. 10 O – yea for all [these > this] wickedness they were punished

OC corrected these to this almost immediately, supralinearly.

v. 11 O – therefore a man was punished only for the [crime > crimes] which he had done

OC corrected crime to crimes, intralinearly, perhaps immediately or perhaps later.

v. 12 O – whose name was Korihor—and the law could have no hold upon him—& he began

to preach

P – whose name was Korihor—and the law could have no hold upon him—[& he > Joseph Smith (hereafter JS) &] began to preach

1837 – whose name was Korihor—and the law could have no hold upon him—began to preach

1830 edition followed O and P; JS crossed out he in P in 1837; 1837 edition deleted & he, which is probably what JS intended.

v. 16 O – because of the [traditions > tradition] of your fathers which leads you away

P, 1830, 1837 – because of the tradition of your fathers which lead you away

1840 – because of the traditions of your fathers which lead you away

OC erased the s at the end of traditions in an immediate correction to O, but then miscopied leads as lead in P. JS reconciled the resulting subject–verb disagreement in 1840 by changing tradition to traditions; this is the 1981 reading.

v. 17 P – Ammon which was a high priest over that people

O is not extant here and Skousen, based on spacing considerations, suggests that it

might have read the high priest.

v. 24 O – behold I say [there > these] are in bondage

P – behold I say [there > they] are in bondage

OC immediately overwrote the r in there as an s, but then miscopied the word in

P as there, after which he changed it to they, which is the reading of 1830–1981. (p.54)

v. 28 O – which never was nor never will be

P – which never was nor [never >JS ever] will be

JS deleted a double negative by changing nor never to nor ever in his editing of P for the 1837 edition.

v. 30 P – yea he went on to blasphemy

1830 – yea he went on to blaspheme

O is not extant; John Gilbert, the 1830 typesetter, replaced blasphemy with blaspheme, which is the reading of all subsequent editions.

v. 31 O – for the sake of glutting [by > in] the labors of the people

1920 – for the sake of glutting on the labors of the people

OC first wrote by, then crossed it out and inserted in supralinearly, probably immediately. The in of the early editions was changed to on in 1920 as a deliberate change, since it is marked in the 1920 committee copy. This is the 1981 reading.

v. 35 O – believest thou that we deceive this people & that causeth such joy in their hearts

P – believest thou that we deceive this people that causeth such joy in their hearts

OC missed the & in copying P; it was inserted into O after the line had been written and is very faint and hard to see in the gutter of the tightly-stitched gathering. In fact, Skousen missed it as well in preparing his facsimile transcript of O. He hypothesized that an & was missing from the line, and when he was later examining the gutter in the ultraviolet photograph for the opposing page, he saw the inserted & there, thus confirming his conjectural emendation.

v. 35 O – and that [causes > causeth] such joy in their hearts

P – and that [causeth >JS causes] such joy in their hearts

OC immediately changed causes to causeth by overwriting the s with a t and adding an h inline; in his editing for the 1837 edition, JS changed the causeth in P to causes, the reading of all editions since 1837.

v. 39 P – [if >JS will] ye deny again that there is a God and also deny the Christ [NULL >JS?]

O is not extant here; in his 1837 editing JS changed if to will and added a question mark to complete the sentence. In its original form, the line could be punctuated with ellipses since the implied threat ends mid-sentence. (p.55)

v. 41 O – I have all things as a testimony that these things are true and ye [NULL > also] have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true

OC omitted also in taking the initial dictation and then immediately inserted it


v. 49 O – and I say that in the name of God that ye shall be struck dumb

P – and I say [that >JS NULL] in the name of God that ye shall be struck dumb

1837–1981 – and I say that in the name of God ye shall be struck dumb JS crossed out the first that when he was editing for the 1837 edition, but the typesetter accidently deleted the second that.

v. 51 O – art thou convinced of the power of [gd > NULL] God

P – art thou convinced of the power of a God

1840 – art thou convinced of the power of God

OC originally miswrote God as gd, then crossed it out and wrote the full word God; in copying for P, he misread the erased gd as a; the 1830 and 1837 editions read power of a God, then the extra a was deleted in 1840.

v. 52 O – and I always knew that there was a God

P – and I also knew that there was a God

When copying for P, OC misread always as also; the mistake appeared in all printed editions until the original reading was restored in 1981.

v. 53 O – and he saith unto me there [was > is] no God

OC originally wrote was and then corrected it to is supralinearly, probably fairly soon thereafter.

v. 58 O – and Korihor did go about from house to house a begging food for his support

P – and Korihor did go about from house to house a begging [food >JS NULL] for his support

1837–1981 – and Korihor did go about from house to house begging food for his support

The 1837 typsetter missed JS’s deletion of food and kept the word in the text.

In Alma 30, there were immediate corrections done by the original scribe; accidental omissions and copying errors (only some of which were remedied in later editions); stylistic revisions for the 1837, 1840, and 1920 editions; mistakes made by typesetters; and additional errors that were introduced in attempting to correct previous mistakes. None of these (p.56) changes appear nefarious or agenda-driven, but rather seem to indicate that the transcription, copying, typesetting, and editing were subject to ordinary human fallibilities. They are also all rather minor—suggesting that the people involved were trying hard to be as accurate as possible, even as Joseph Smith slightly regularized the diction.

Observations and Implications

The sorts of changes seen in Alma 30 occur throughout the Book of Mormon. Most readers will probably be less interested in a comprehensive categorizing of errors and changes than in what these variants might mean for our understanding of how the text came into being, how it has been transmitted over time, and what that says about the place of this scripture within the Latter-day Saint faith. The discussion that follows will use examples just seen in Alma 30, as well as textual variants from elsewhere in the Book of Mormon.

The Original Dictation

Both Mormons and non-Mormons have long been intrigued by the very unusual process that brought forth the Book of Mormon. According to eyewitnesses, Smith would place a seer stone into the crown of his hat and then, with his face in the hat to occlude outside light, he would dictate a few phrases at a time. A scribe would write the words as he or she heard them and then read them back to Smith, who would correct any errors before moving on to the next block of text.38 About a decade into his Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, which began in 1988, Royal Skousen published an article describing what might be learned about the production of the Book of Mormon from a careful inspection of O. He offered five observations that largely confirm the reports of eyewitnesses. Skousen provided detailed evidence that (1) O was written from dictation, (2) Smith (p.57) was dictating at least twenty to thirty words at a time, (3) Smith spelled out unusual names at their first occurrence, (4) the scribe repeated the text back to Smith, and (5) the chapter numbers were not part of the original dictation—that is, Smith verbally indicated where narrative divisions occurred and had his scribe write the word chapter, and then the numbers were added later to the manuscript.39

Relevant evidence for several aspects of the dictation process can be readily discerned in Alma 30, especially in the immediate or nearly immediate insertions in O, which apparently were made when Cowdery read back to Smith words that had just been written, and then implemented corrections from Smith. Of particular interest are the changes that do not rectify obvious grammatical problems. For instance, the original word number in v. 2 works just as well as the revised numbers. The same holds for the changes from crime to crimes (v. 11), traditions to tradition (v. 16), causes to causeth (v. 35), and was to is (v. 53)—though the last example makes a difference in whether the phrase should be considered an indirect or a direct quotation. Furthermore, the inclusion of also in v. 41 is not absolutely necessary syntactically. It appears that Cowdery was listening intently to Smith’s dictation and corrections, while Smith was equally attentive to Cowdery’s reading the words back to him, enough so that both men were catching differences in plurals and verb endings. Evidence from O suggests that they were expending considerable effort to get the words exactly right.

Nevertheless, contrary to what some of the witnesses assumed, Smith occasionally did continue on with his dictation even when mistakes were still in O. This is clearly seen in O at 1 Nephi 7:5, where one of the unidentified scribes first wrote: “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael and his hole insomuch that they did take their journey with us,” and then, apparently realizing that he had made a mistake, tried to correct the error by inserting another instance of the word hole above the first. But “hole hole” does not make much sense either, and Oliver Cowdery interpreted this as household (p.58) when he copied it into P. The originally dictated words were probably “whole household.”40 Similarly, at 1 Nephi 13:24, O has the problematic gospel of the land, which Cowdery miscopied into P as gospel of the Lord. The intended phrase was more likely gospel of the Lamb, which occurs four more times in the same chapter.41

Of particular interest in reconstructing the dictation process is Alma 45:22, which reads as follows:

Therefore, Helaman and his brethren went forth to establish the church again in all the land, yea, in every city throughout all the land which was possessed by the people of Nephi. And it came to pass that they did appoint priests and teachers throughout all the land, over all the churches.

In O, Oliver Cowdery was the scribe for this page, aside from the twenty-eight words italicized in the above verse, which are in Joseph Smith’s handwriting. Apparently Smith took over, mid-sentence, at a time when Cowdery was momentarily incapacitated—he had possibly started to doze off—and Smith needed to get the words down before they were lost. This is the only such occurrence in the surviving portion of the manuscript.42

Copying and Publication

Whether or not any divine intervention occurred in the original dictation, from the time the text was first committed to paper, it was clearly subject to very human influences as scribes, typesetters, and editors made inadvertent mistakes and then tried to correct them. Alma 30, seen in Figure 3.4 and Figure 3.5, contains examples of Oliver Cowdery missing or miscopying words in vv. 5, 7, 24, 35, 51, and 52. Joseph Smith made an incomplete correction in 1837 to v. 12, and in v. 16 there is an interesting example where Cowdery immediately caught an error as he was first writing O, but then made a mistake five words later in copying P, which led to Joseph Smith inserting a correction in 1840 that actually (p.59) (p.60) (p.61) restored the first error in O. John Gilbert, the 1830 typesetter, made an unnecessary correction in v. 30, while the 1837 typesetter scrambled Smith’s 1837 revision to v. 49, and entirely missed Smith’s correction at v. 58.43 Some of these mistakes were recognized and rectified in later editions, but several were not.

Textual Criticism and the Book of MormonTextual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

Figure 3.4 and Figure 3.5. Alma 30:18–29. Printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, p. 246, and transcript.

Courtesy Community of Christ Archives, Independence, MO. Transcript from The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations Series, vol. 3, p. 511.

Most of these are rather minor discrepancies, though a few might make a difference in the sort of close reading appropriate to sacred texts. If one were trying to gauge the social context for the Korihor story, or to track the activities of the high priest Alma, it might be important that there was continual peace in “the commencement of the seventeenth year,” rather than just in “the seventeenth year.” And there may be some distinction between Alma’s pronouncing judgment “in the name of God,” rather than the curse itself occurring “in the name of God” (v. 49).

Oliver Cowdery did not make many deliberate revisions as he was copying P, but he did make a few elsewhere, and those might matter for readers who are interested in the exact wording of the original dictation (whether regarded as originating with God or with Joseph Smith). The seven most significant examples are as follows, with Cowdery’s revisions and additions in italics

1 Nephi 3:16 – because of the commandments of the Lord

1 Nephi 7:17 – according to my faith which is in [me > thee]

1 Nephi 11:6 – Son of the most high God

1 Nephi 11:36 – the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceeding great

1 Nephi 12:4 – saw the earth [that it rent the rocks > and the rocks that they rent]

Alma 17:8 – preach the word of God unto the Lamanites

Alma 59:9 – into the hands of the Lamanites than to retake it from them

(p.62) John Gilbert also made a number of changes as he typeset the first edition. These include revising “hath visited me” to “hath visited men” in 2 Nephi 4:26 and expanding “my beloved” to “my beloved brethren” in Jacob 4:11.

When scribes and editors made deliberate changes, they were usually trying to regularize the grammar or correct obvious transcription errors, but they sometimes missed problematic readings, were thrown off by unclear handwriting, or introduced new problems by correcting words that were fine as is. Royal Skousen has tabulated the conjectural emendations that Oliver Cowdery, two unidentified scribes, John Gilbert, and Joseph Smith made in O, P, and the first three editions. In Skousen’s judgment nearly three-quarters of them were either erroneous or unnecessary.44

The Nature of the Text

As Skousen worked to reconstruct the original text of the Book of Mormon, he made several observations based on his analysis of textual variants. He discovered that in the earliest form of the text, quotations of biblical chapters are sometimes closer to the King James Bible than they are in later editions. That is to say, later editors, either through accidental errors or deliberate attempts to update the language, rendered Book of Mormon quotations of the Bible less precise. For example, in 2 Nephi 24:25—quoting Isaiah 14:25 exactly—O included the phrase “I will break the Assyrian in my land,” which Oliver Cowdery miscopied into P as “I will bring the Assyrian in my land.” This has been the reading in every edition since 1830. Similarly, the quotation of the Lord’s Prayer in the earliest version of 3 Nephi 13:9–13 included the King James wording “our father which art in heaven” and “thy will be done in earth,” which Joseph Smith updated in 1837 to “our father who is in heaven” and “thy will be done on earth.”45

(p.63) Skousen has also documented how the language of the original text of the Book of Mormon was more consistent than that of later versions. In its earliest form, there are only occurrences of whatsoever, never whatever; always if it so be that rather than if it be so that; observe to keep the commandments rather than observe the commandments; and thus ended [a period of time] rather than thus endeth [a period of time]—despite the fact that examples of the latter expressions all appear in the current edition.46 He has identified examples in the earliest text of nonbiblical, archaic usages from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that were obsolete by the nineteenth century, which have been gradually edited out of the printed editions. These include to counsel meaning “to counsel with,” but if meaning “unless,” depart meaning “part,” and detect meaning “to expose.”47 And he has pointed to possible Hebraisms that are clearer in the original text, including more than a dozen instances of if–and conditional clauses that were subsequently edited out. For instance, Moroni 10:4 originally read “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you.” In 1837 Joseph Smith deleted the extraneous and.48

Turning back to Alma 30, Cowdery’s miscopying of commands of God for commandments of God is clearly seen when comparing O and P (v. 7), but it is also worth noting that the earliest text of the Book of Mormon almost always prefers commandments of God (70 times) to commands of God (just twice, both in the book of Jacob). There are a few nonbiblical phrases that were much more characteristic of Early Modern English than the English of Smith’s time, including “save it were” (vv. 33, 34, 52) and “nor never” (v. 28). And the phrase if ye deny again that there is a God and also deny the Christ (v. 39) can be interpreted as a Hebrew-like conditional clause that is equivalent to a negative imperative. In any case, Smith changed it in 1837 (p.64) to a simple question: Will ye deny again that there is a God and also deny the Christ?49 Some Mormon interpreters have seen Skousen’s findings of archaic usage and grammar as evidence that Joseph Smith could not have composed the Book of Mormon on his own.50 Some further speculate that through the seer stone, God revealed to Smith a preexisting translation in a language that was based in the vocabulary and grammar of Early Modern English, but which nevertheless drew upon the phrasing of the King James Bible and other elements of nineteenth-century American culture.

The Nature of the Narrative

While Skousen systematically covers every variant in the text, his observations focus on recovering the original words and seldom involve the perspectives of literary criticism. However, there are several interesting possibilities here. The chapter numbers in O were written in later, as with Alma 30, and the same is true of P. Apparently when Smith was dictating, he would tell his scribe to write the word chapter and then continue on, perhaps assuming that numbers could be inserted afterward. At one point in O, the word chapter is followed by the title of a new book—suggesting that Smith had not planned out the macrostructure of the text beforehand—and in P the scribe adding the chapter numbers got confused and accidentally put an X where a IX should have gone. (The typesetter caught the error and penciled in the correct numbers for the subsequent chapters.)51 The current LDS edition uses the shorter chapters introduced in the 1879 edition, but close readings of the narrative should take into account the original chapter divisions. Thus the Korihor story in Alma 30 was originally at the beginning of Alma XVI, which continued until the end of the current chapter 35. This means that in the mind of the original author—whoever that may have been—Korihor’s confrontation with Alma was (p.65) intended to be read as an introduction to the account of Alma’s mission to the Zoramites (chaps. 31–35).52

Sometimes the results of textual criticism may strengthen the case for deliberate internal allusions made by the narrators. It is striking that the phrase press forward (or pressing forward) occurs in only two passages: five times in 1 Nephi 8:21–30 describing Lehi’s dream about people catching hold of an iron rod that would lead them to the tree of life, and twice at 2 Nephi 31:20, where Nephi appears to be alluding to that earlier imagery as he adds some clarifying information.53 That distinctive usage pattern was made even clearer when it was discovered that the next verse (1 Nephi 8:31), which has always been printed as “multitudes feeling their way” was actually “multitudes pressing their way” in O. Similarly, Nephi’s concluding testimony at 2 Nephi 33:4, that “the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them,” in P initially read “the words which I have written in weakness will he make strong unto them,” giving God a more active role in fulfilling the prophecy. The P variant also strengthens the connection to 2 Nephi 3:21, where God himself says, in a revelation attributed to Joseph of Egypt, “and the weakness of their words will I make strong in their faith.” And finally, a lengthy description of God at Helaman 14:12 in the current edition—“Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning”—almost exactly repeats an earlier phrase from Mosiah 3:8 (20 of 21 words), but the restoration of a missing of from the earliest extant version of Mosiah (in P) makes the phrases completely identical.54

Skousen’s conjecture that Alma 30:17 may have originally had “the high priest” rather than “a high priest” (the reading in P) is matched by other textual variants that conceivably might influence the way that one understands Book of Mormon characters and narratives. (In each case below, the textual evidence stands at odds with the current edition.) For example, (p.66) does King Benjamin at Mosiah 2:15 have a “clear conscience” (1981) or a “clean conscience” (P)? At Alma 8:23 was there a singular “church of God throughout the land” (1830, 1981) or numerous “churches of God throughout the land” (P)? Was Amalickiah at Alma 47:13 “a second leader” (P, 1981) or “the second leader” (O)? At Alma 51:7, was there rejoicing only among “many of the people of liberty (P, 1981) or more generally “among the people of liberty” (O)? Was Pahoran at Helaman 1:5 appointed to be “chief judge over the people” (1837, 1981) or “a chief judge over the people” (O, P)? Does Ether 1:41, which speaks of the Brother of Jared’s families (1830, 1981), imply that he was a polygamist, or does the earlier reading of family (P) make him a monogamist?55

One of the most ambitious attempts to integrate textual criticism and theological interpretation was an essay by Brent Metcalfe in which he presented evidence for a hypothesis that had been developed over the previous two decades—namely, that after Martin Harris lost the initial pages (approximately 116) of the manuscript, Smith continued dictating where he had left off, in the book of Mosiah. Smith and Cowdery produced Mosiah through the end of the Book of Mormon, and then afterwards returned to an alternate version of the first generations of the Nephites in First Nephi through Words of Mormon. In other words, the Book of Mormon was dictated out of chronological order, and out of the order in which the text is currently printed. (Most scholars of the Book of Mormon, both in and out of the LDS church, agree with this reconstruction of events.) Metcalfe then argued that doctrines develop not from the beginning of the narrative to the end, but from the last pages to the first. So ideas that are somewhat obscure in the middle get clearer as the story moves toward its conclusion—including teachings concerning the coming of Christ to the Nephites, the meaning of baptism, the relationship between the Messiah and Jesus, and whether the word churches refers to congregations or denominations. That same clarity can be found in the first 150 pages of the Book of Mormon, which were dictated last. Metcalfe used this as evidence in an argument that the book originated in the mind of Joseph Smith. Whether one accepts that conclusion or not, his article is a fine (p.67) example of how close attention to the production of the text can influence theological analysis.56

The Mind of Joseph Smith

There will always be disagreement about how much of Joseph Smith is in the original text of the Book of Mormon, yet all readers can agree that it is possible to see Smith’s mind at work in his 1837 and 1840 revisions. The first thing to notice is the pervasive grammatical and stylistic updating—not only the unique revisions presented above in verses 12, 16, 28, 35, 39, 49, and 58 of Alma chapter 30, but also the generic emendations to the chapter: the ten changes of saith to said, eight of which to who, six of hath to have or has, and three deletions of that. John Gilbert, the typesetter, later recounted that as he was preparing the 1830 edition, he asked about a grammatical error in the manuscript and was told by Martin Harris, “The Old Testament is ungrammatical, set it as written.”57 Seven years later, however, Smith was uncomfortable with the grammar of the first edition.

Smith’s 1837 editing was attentive, but inconsistent. He changed verb forms in some places but left identical forms intact elsewhere; he sometimes misinterpreted handwriting (as when, at 2 Nephi 1:26, he sees “say th-” at the end of a line and instead of recognizing th- as the beginning of a hyphenated word, he reads it as saith); his attempts to smooth out diction could actually cause new problems (at 2 Nephi 4:17, he removed a notwithstanding that had to be added back in 1920); and he occasionally changed his mind (at 1 Nephi 3:3, he emended the 1830 my forefathers to thy forefathers in 1837, and then changed it back to my forefathers in 1840). His revisions of which to who were somewhat mechanistically done, so there are instances where he started to cross out which and then changed (p.68) his mind, and in at least a few cases the original which makes better sense than the newly inserted who.58

More significant are Smith’s deliberate, non-stylistic changes, the most famous of which are six verses where he changed a title of God, as seen in Figure 3.6 (Smith’s 1837 additions or deletions are italicized):

1 Nephi 11:18 – the mother of the Son of God

1 Nephi 11:21 – the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father

1 Nephi 11:32 – the Son of the everlasting God

1 Nephi 13:40 – the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father

Alma 5:48 – the Son [of > ,] the Only Begotten of the Father

Alma 13:9 – the Son [of > ,] the Only Begotten of the Father

These revisions, however, probably represent simple clarifications rather than a development of Christology. Several other verses in the Book of Mormon refer to Jesus Christ as God or the Father, and Smith left these intact, further indicating that he did not revise the text consistently.59

Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

Figure 3.6. 1 Nephi 11:32–12:8. Original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

In addition to the six changes above, there are only a handful of verses where Smith did more than correct grammar or smooth out diction (again, his 1837 additions or substitutions are italicized):

1 Nephi 8:4 – methought I saw in my dream a dark and dreary wilderness

1 Nephi 12:8 – and [Jesus Christ >the Messiah] which is the Lamb of God

1 Nephi 19:20 – had not the Lord been merciful to show unto me concerning them, even as he had prophets of old, I should have perished also

1 Nephi 21:20 – after thou hast lost the [other > first] [in a quotation of Isaiah 49:20]

2 Nephi 4:12 – after my father Lehi had spoken to all his household

Mosiah 21:28 – king [Benjamin > Mosiah] had a gift from God (p.69)

(p.70) None of these emendations make much of a difference to the narrative, with the possible exception of the last, but even that turns out to be unnecessary according to Book of Mormon chronology.60

Smith made even fewer substantive, deliberate changes for the 1840 edition. In fact, only two have real significance. At 1 Nephi 20:1 is the one instance in Smith’s Book of Mormon editing of the sort of lengthy additions and innovative theologizing that characterized his 1830–1833 revision of the King James Bible (known as the Joseph Smith Translation) or of his own revelations. The verse is a quotation of Isaiah 48:1, which includes the phrase “are come forth out of the waters of Judah.” In 1840, Smith added a parenthetical gloss immediately thereafter: (or out of the waters of baptism). In 1920 the parentheses were deleted, so most Latter-day Saints today are unaware that this phrase was not part of the original Book of Mormon.

The second significant 1840 revision was Smith’s change in 2 Nephi 30:6 of “many generations shall not pass away among them save they shall be a white and a delightsome people” to “many generations . . . save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people.” This may indeed be indicative of Smith’s racial views in 1840, though he left intact a half dozen other verses where skin color is seen as a pertinent issue in relations between Nephites and Lamanites. Because the LDS textual tradition took the 1837 edition as its base text rather than the 1840 edition (for complicated historical and geographical reasons), this particular revision was lost to the main denomination of Mormonism until it was restored in 1981, along with a few other 1840 readings.61 It appears that the motivation was not so much to avoid embarrassing racial implications as to canonize one of Smith’s deliberate emendations.

It is also worth noting some of the errors that Smith did not correct in either 1837 or 1840. Since 1830, the book of Alma has included references to two dissident groups of Nephites: the Amlicites found in chapters 23, and the Amalekites of chapters 21–27 and 43. Textual criticism, however, strongly suggests that these were the same people, who became disjoined through a spelling error.62 This changes the narrative arc of the book of Alma, and if Joseph Smith was a master storyteller, it is odd that he never caught the (p.71) mistake (though it is also strange that for the rest of his life, he almost never used Book of Mormon characters or stories in either his writings or his sermons).63 Similarly, the 1837 edition added nine words to 3 Nephi 22:4 (which is quoting Isaiah 54:4): “for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.” But rather than being a veiled reference to the censure Smith had experienced as a teenager, both for his religious claims and his short-lived career as a treasure seeker, it appears that this is a simple case of dittography—when the typesetter’s eye skipped back from the second of thy to the first of thy, and he inadvertently copied the same line twice. Yet Smith did not correct this mistake in his editing for the 1840 edition.

In examining the changes made for the 1837 edition, it is possible to see Joseph Smith as a reader of the Book of Mormon, and it is striking how constrained he seemed to be in his revisions. He worked through the text making grammatical improvements, in a less than systematic fashion, but hardly any of this work resembled the theological innovations or narrative expansions that characterized his editing of the Bible or the Doctrine and Covenants. Very few of his 1837 revisions reinterpret or explain the text, and he never inserted additional information derived from new revelations. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that he was willing to update the language of a book that had been dictated in a fairly exact form, which he asserted had come from God. The 1837 Book of Mormon was the beginning of a translation of the text into modern English, which contrasts with the attitude of the LDS church today, where such efforts are strongly discouraged.64 Even the punctuation, which was added by the non-Mormon typesetter and hence had little claim to canonical status, has been retained mostly unchanged.

(p.72) Conclusion

Since the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, the LDS church has not continued the type of widespread grammatical and stylistic updating that Smith practiced in 1837, even as the somewhat awkward, archaic language of the Book of Mormon has become increasingly removed from common English over the last two centuries. Instead, the LDS church has acted mostly as a conservator of the Book of Mormon as Smith left it, and they greatly value uniformity, so at any given time there is only one official, authorized English version of the Book of Mormon, which takes precedence over any previous editions. These editions have never included footnotes identifying textual variants or explaining changes over time. Thanks to the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and the Joseph Smith Papers, Latter-day Saints now have much more access to information about the history of their signature scripture, and perhaps future official editions will incorporate the results of those scholarly endeavors.

Scholars working on the Book of Mormon should consult Skousen’s Earliest Text first, which reconstructs Smith’s original dictation as accurately as possible. The facsimile transcripts in Skousen’s Original Manuscript and Printer’s Manuscript volumes are invaluable for detailed studies of specific passages from those sources, though the color-coding of the transcript in the Skousen and Jensen edition of the Printer’s Manuscript65 makes it much easier to see the later additions and corrections made by John Gilbert, Oliver Cowdery, and especially Joseph Smith’s revisions for the 1837 edition. Moreover, the photographs in the Skousen and Jensen volume can be used in conjunction with Skousen’s facsimile transcripts. And finally, any significant changes in the text can be quickly and precisely tracked by means of Skousen’s Analysis of Textual Variants.

Critics have long pointed to changes in the Book of Mormon as evidence against its claims of miraculous origins, but whatever the ultimate worth of such claims, it is clear from textual criticism that the Original (p.73) Manuscript was a painstaking transcript of Smith’s dictation—essentially an oral performance—in 1829. From that time, the text was regarded as complete and mostly fixed, apart from inadvertent errors arising from copying and typesetting mistakes (many of which have been corrected) and the extensive grammatical and stylistic updating undertaken by Smith in 1837. There have been relatively few deliberate, substantive changes, and fewer still that have any significant effect on either the theology or the rather complicated narrative, which shows signs of having been carefully composed. The exact wording of the earliest text will matter a great deal to scholars who regard the book as an important work of American literature or world scripture, and to believers who see it as a gift from God pointing the way to salvation. For both sets of readers—and the two groups are not mutually exclusive—careful reading and detailed interpretation, as well as the textual criticism that makes them possible, are essential.


(1.) Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

(2.) Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 73–74

(3.) David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

(4.) “Facts and Statistics,” Mormon Newsroom,

(5.) About 116 pages of translation that had been dictated in the spring of 1828 were stolen a few months later when they were in the care of Martin Harris, one of Smith’s scribes. Virtually all of the Book of Mormon as we have it today was produced from April to June of 1829.

(6.) chapter 2Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

(7.) In addition to the 23 full chapters from the Bible, the Ten Commandments are quoted in Mosiah 12–13, and Micah 5:8–15 is reproduced in 3 Nephi 21.

(8.) Michael Hubbard MacKay et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013)

(9.) Although the title page of the first edition of the Book of Mormon named Joseph Smith as its “AUTHOR AND PROPRIETOR,” this was done to meet copyright requirements. It is clear that Smith was not meant to be understood as the book’s author from the actual contents of the book, the way early church members understood the book, and the way church missionaries presented it to others. See An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Securing Copies of Maps, Charts, and Books, to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies during the Times Therein Mentioned [31 May 1790], Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America . . ., ed. Richard Peters, vol. 1 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 1st Cong., 2nd Sess., chap. 15, pp. 124–26; see also Nathaniel Hinckley Wadsworth, “Copyright Laws and the 1830 Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 (2006): 77–99.

(10.) Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004)

(11.) They were keenly aware that the first 116 pages of the dictation had been stolen and lost, but the book’s narrators had helpfully included substitute material, so the story that is told is complete. See Words of Mormon 1:6–8 and the preface to the 1830 edition.

(12.) Lamoni Call, 2000 Changes in the Book of Mormon (Bountiful, Utah: 1898), 46

(13.) Wilford C. Wood, ed., Joseph Smith Begins His Work: Book of Mormon 1830 First Edition Reproduced from Uncut Sheets (Salt Lake City: Wilford C. Wood, 1958); Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1965).

(14.) Jeffrey R. Holland, “An Analysis of Selected Changes in Major Editions of the Book of Mormon, 1830–1920” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1966); Richard P. Howard, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1969), 23–69; Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, no. 3 (1970): 259–78; Janet Jenson, “Variations between Copies of the First Edition of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 13, no. 2 (1973): 214–22; Stanley R. Larson, “A Study of Some Textual Variations in the Book of Mormon: Comparing the Original and the Printer’s Manuscripts and the 1830, the 1837, and the 1840 Editions” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974); Stanley R. Larson, “Textual Variants in Book of Mormon Manuscripts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10, no. 4 (1977): 8–30; Stanley R. Larson, “Conjectural Emendation and the Text of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 18, no. 4 (1978): 563–69; Hugh G. Stocks, “The Book of Mormon, 1830–1879: A Publishing History” (master’s thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1979).

(15.) Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, The Book of Mormon Critical Text: A Tool for Scholarly Reference, 3 vols. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1984–1987); Hugh G. Stocks, “The Book of Mormon in English, 1870–1920: A Publishing History and Analytical Bibliography,” (PhD diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1986); Royal Skousen, “Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon” BYU Studies 30, no. 1 (1990): 41–69; Royal Skousen, “The Original Language of the Book of Mormon: Upstate New York Dialect, King James English, or Hebrew?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, no. 1 (1994): 28–39; and Royal Skousen, “Changes in the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 161–76. For overviews of the Critical Text Project, see M. Gerald Bradford and Alison V. P. Coutts, eds., Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon: History and Findings of the Critical Text Project (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), and Royal Skousen, “Restoring the Original Text of the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 107–17.

(16.) The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project consists of the following volumes. Each part is a separate book, and all the books are in quarto size:

  • Volume 1. The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text

  • Volume 2. The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts

  • Volume 3. The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, in six parts

  • Volume 4. Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, in six parts

  • Volume 5. A Complete Electronic Collation of the Book of Mormon

  • Volumes 1, 2, and 4 have been published thus far. The first two parts of Volume 3, which provide a detailed analysis of the grammar of the earliest text, were published in 2016.

(17.) Royal Skousen, ed., The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001); Royal Skousen, ed., The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001)

(18.) These examples are taken from three consecutive pages in Skousen, Printer’s Manuscript, 1:87–89.

(19.) Skousen, Original Manuscript, 157; the line is from 1 Nephi 21:8, which is itself borrowed from Isaiah 49:8.

(21.) Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 1: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1–Alma 35, facsimile edition, part 1 of vol. 3 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2015); Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, Alma 36–Moroni 10, facsimile edition, part 2 of vol. 3 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2015).

(22.) Royal Skousen, “Oliver Cowdery as Book of Mormon Scribe,” in Days Never to be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery, ed. Alexander L. Baugh (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 51–70Skousen, Original Manuscript

(23.) Skousen, “Oliver Cowdery as Book of Mormon Scribe”; see also Skousen, Printer’s Manuscript, 1:3–36; and Skousen and Jensen, Revelations and Translations, vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 3–11.

(24.) Royal Skousen, History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Parts One and Two: Grammatical Variation, 2 vols. (Provo, Utah: FARMS; BYU Studies, 2016)Skousen’s

(26.) The Book of Mormon Online,

(27.) The 1852 edition had added numbers to the paragraphs, but the division of the text into Bible-length verses was new to the 1879 edition. These are the chapters and verses still used today.

(28.) A few minor revisions in spelling and punctuation were introduced in 2013.

(30.) Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

(31.) Grant Hardy, “Scholarship for the Ages,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 1 (2006): 43–53

(32.) For a version of the Book of Mormon that highlights its structure and interconnections, see Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), or Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, forthcoming in 2018).

(34.) Royal Skousen“Some Textual Changes for a Scholarly Study of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 51, no. 4 (2012): 99–117

(36.) Skousen, Printer’s Manuscript, 2:539–48; Skousen and Jensen, Revelations and Translations, vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 507–17.

(38.) Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 2 (1982): 48–68; Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015). Smith’s wife Emma was his first scribe; unfortunately, none of her handwriting appears in the extant portions of the Original Manuscript. Images of the seer stone, long in possession of the LDS church, were first made public in Skousen and Jensen, Revelations and Translations, vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. xx–xxi.

(39.) Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 61–93chastechased

(42.) Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 72–75; note that there was no punctuation in O itself.

(43.) Or, at least this is what the manuscript evidence suggests. As is usually the case with textual criticism, the details can be much more complicated. For instance, at Alma 30:49, where Smith’s deletion of the first that in P (and I say [that >JS NULL] in the name of God that ye shall be struck dumb) led to the deletion of the second that in the 1837 edition (and I say that in the name of God ye shall be struck dumb), presumably the 1837 typesetter made a mistake. But it is also possible that Smith changed his mind, or that Cowdery accidentally omitted the wrong that in the marked-up 1830 copy-text they were preparing for the 1837 typesetting.

(44.) Royal Skousen, “Conjectural Emendation in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 18, no. 1 (2006): 187–231

(45.) Royal Skousen, “Textual Variants in the Isaiah Passages of the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 369–90; Skousen, “Some Textual Changes,” 103–6; Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants, 2:799–800 and 5:3381–82. For a careful analysis of the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah, see David P. Wright, “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: or Joseph Smith in Isaiah,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed., Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 157–234. Wright believes that the book is a nineteenth-century text authored by Smith.

(46.) Royal Skousen, “The Systematic Text of the Book of Mormon,” in Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon, ed. M. Gerald Bradford and Alison V. P. Coutts (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), 50–51Skousen

(47.) Royal Skousen, “The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon,” Insights: A Window on the Ancient World, The Newsletter of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University 25, no. 5 (2005), 2–7 (available at, “Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants

(48.) Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 88–90.

(49.) Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants, 4:2233–34; see also his discussion of 1 Nephi 19:20–21 at 1:416–20.

(50.) See Stanford Carmack, “Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and Not Webster’s 1828),” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 15 (2015): 65–77, as well as his “Joseph Smith Read the Words,” Interpreter 18 (2016): 41–64, and his essay “The Nature of the Nonstandard English in the Book of Mormon,” in Skousen, History of the Text, 1:45–98. Skousen’s own summary of the evidence will appear in the introduction to his History of the Text of the Book of Mormon: Original Language, forthcoming from FARMS and BYU Studies in 2018.

(51.) Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 85–87. The original chapter numbers were in Roman numerals, while modern chapters are designated by Arabic numerals.

(52.) Heather Hardy, “Alma’s Experiment in Faith: A Broader Context,” Dialogue 44, no. 3 (2011): 67–91Second Witness

(53.) Actually, there is an eighth occurrence at Ether 14:12, which seems to be a stray usage having nothing to do with Lehi or Nephi.

(54.) “Textual Consistency,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 22SkousenAnalysis of Textual Variants,

(55.) Skousen accepts the emendation “clear conscience” in his Yale edition, but for every other example cited here he follows the earliest reading of the text. In addition, the name Pahoran was originally Parhoron; see Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants, 4:2635–37.

(56.) Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 395–444

(57.) Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 2:544, cf. 536, 550; see also Royal Skousen, “Worthy of Another Look: John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 21, no. 2 (2012): 63.

(58.) For Smith’s aborted replacements of which, see Skousen and Jensen, Revelations and Translations, vol. 3, pt. 1, p. 419; and pt. 2, pp. 45, 51, 85, 235. Verses where the original which is a better reading include 1 Nephi 13:12; Alma 12:29, 13:5; and Helaman 5:41.

(59.) 2 Nephi 25:12; Mosiah 3:8, 7:27, 15:1–2, 16:15; Alma 11:38–39; Helaman 14:12, 16:18; Mormon 9:12; Ether 3:14, 4:7, 4:12; see the discussion in Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants, 1:230–33. The extraneous of in the last two examples appears to have been a transcription error; elsewhere in the Book of Mormon there is no mention of “the Only Begotten” having a son himself. For more on Smith’s inconsistent revisions, see Skousen, History of the Text, 1:35–43.

(63.) Grant Underwood, “Book of Mormon Usage in Early LDS Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17, no. 3 (1984), 35–74

(64.) Handbook 2: Administering the Church (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 181

(65.) Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 1: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1–Alma 35, facsimile edition, part 1 of vol. 3 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2015); Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, Alma 36–Moroni 10, facsimile edition, part 2 of vol. 3 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2015).

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