The Original Text of the Book of Mormon I: Major Findings of the Critical Text Project

Royal Skousen is editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University. In this post he discusses the work of the Book of Mormon critical text project and the attempt to restore and publish the original text of the Book of Mormon. He has been working on the critical text project from 1988 up to the present, and thus far ten books have been published as part of this project.[1]

There are two main goals in this critical text project. The first is to restore by scholarly means, to the extent possible, the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon. This original language text is, I believe, what Joseph Smith received through a physical instrument – either the Nephite interpreters (later called the Urim and Thummim) or the seer stone – and read off to scribes. The second goal of the critical text project is to determine the history of the Book of Mormon text, in particular the kind of changes that it has undergone, both accidental and editorial. Most of the editorial changes have been of a grammatical nature.

The largest part of the work in recovering the original text involves two manuscripts. The most important of these is the original manuscript (O), the one that Joseph Smith dictated to his scribes. The other manuscript is called the printer’s manuscript (P), and it is a copy of the original manuscript. This second manuscript is the one that was prepared to take to the Palymra, New York, printer E. B. Grandin in 1829-30 to set the type. In addition to the two manuscripts, I have considered 20 printed editions of the Book of Mormon in the critical text project: 15 LDS editions, one private edition from 1858 (the Wright edition), and four RLDS editions (the RLDS Church is now known as the Community of Christ).

Approximately 28 percent of the original manuscript is extant. (In calculating this percentage, I exclude the 116 pages that were lost by Martin Harris in 1828.) In 1841 Joseph Smith placed the original manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, a hotel being built in Nauvoo. The manuscript lay there in the cornerstone for the next 41 years until in 1882 Lewis Bidamon, the second husband of Emma Smith’s, after her death, retrieved the manuscript. Most of it was severely damaged by water that had seeped in; much of it had been eaten away by mold.

Bidamon gave most of the larger manuscript portions to LDS people. As a result, 25 of that 28 percent has ended up in the archives of the LDS Church. The LDS portions cover from 1 Nephi 2 to 2 Nephi 1, from Alma 22 to Alma 60, and from Alma 62 to Helaman 3, and include other minor fragments. There is also half a leaf at the University of Utah (from 1 Nephi 14). And the equivalent of a leaf in fragments is held privately (from Alma 58 to Alma 60).

Of great importance for this project has been the discovery of two percent of the text that Wilford Wood, a collector from Bountiful, Utah, bought from Charles Bidamon, the son of Lewis Bidamon, in 1937. The majority of the Wilford Wood fragments are found in three parts of the text: from 2 Nephi 5 to Enos 1, from Helaman 13 to 3 Nephi 4, and from Ether 3 to Ether 15.

We will now have a look at some of the Wilford Wood fragments. We begin with the lump of fragments as they were observed on 30 September 1991, at the beginning of the conservation of these fragments:

skousen01At the time we couldn’t be sure if this really was the original manuscript, or what it might be. But it turned out, for the most part, to be from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

Next we see Robert Espinosa, then the head of conservation at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, beginning the very difficult task of teasing apart these fragments:

skousen02Now consider one of the more interesting fragments found in this lump. This is how it appeared when first removed from the lump, all rolled up:

skousen03After it was unraveled, we could see the uneven edges where mold had eaten away parts of the leaf:

skousen04In addition, there was a large water stain in the center of the fragment, resulting from the water that had gotten into the cornerstone.

After the fragment was leveled and photographed, we could basically see what was there:

skousen05The text for this fragment is in the hand of Oliver Cowdery; the ink was originally black and has turned brown over time. We found that black and white ultraviolet photography brought out the text best of all:

skousen06This fragment of the original manuscript comes from 2 Nephi 7-8. When Oliver copied this particular portion of the text into the printer’s manuscript, he made six changes, of which five were accidental. For this part of the text, he was copying an Isaiah quotation, which is difficult enough. Even so, the relatively high number of errors for this single page was unusual for Oliver; he was probably getting tired as he was making the copy here. But it also turns out that he made one conscious change here, a grammatical one, when he changed they dieth to they die as he copied the text into the printer’s manuscript.

One of the biggest discoveries of the critical text project was to find that for one sixth of the Book of Mormon text the printer’s manuscript was not the manuscript taken to the 1830 printer; instead it was the original manuscript. And we can see this quite well from the pencil marks in this color photograph of the original manuscript for Helaman 15:9-14:

skousen07The pencil marks were placed here by the 1830 typesetter, John Gilbert. About one third of the time Gilbert marked up his manuscript in advance of doing the typesetting. Overall the evidence is that he used the original manuscript from Helaman 13:17 through the end of Mormon.

Here is the black and white ultraviolet photograph for the same part of Helaman 15; as one would expect, the pencil marks don’t show up as well in a black and white photo:

skousen08This important finding about the textual transmission means that from Helaman 13:17 to the end of Mormon there are two firsthand copies of the original manuscript. Only a small percentage of the original manuscript is extant for this part of the text. Yet for this part we have two firsthand copies, which basically means that when those two copies – the printer’s manuscript and the 1830 edition – agree, then that’s probably what the original manuscript read. And when they disagree, then one of the readings is probably the correct one. But trying to determine which reading is the correct one is sometimes quite difficult.

To give you an idea of what the printer’s manuscript looks like, here’s a photo of the first page:

skousen09Note that the bottom portion of the first leaf has been worn away; on each side of this leaf, about one and a half lines of text are missing. This page is in Oliver Cowdery’s hand.

We now turn to a blown-up section from that first page of the printer’s manuscript. For these lines there are a number of corrections:

skousen10On the third line, two words, to be, are crossed out. Written above the crossout is a grammatical correction that Joseph Smith made, namely, the word is. Joseph made this change from to be to is (and others like it) when he edited the printer’s manuscript for the second edition of the Book of Mormon (published in 1837 in Kirtland, Ohio). On the next line – you can barely see it – after the word knowledge there is a capital letter P that was added by the 1830 typesetter. It’s above the line, written in pencil, and it tells the typesetter to start a new paragraph at this point.

There are a couple of other corrections here that were made by Oliver Cowdery when he originally wrote down the text for the printer’s manuscript. Sometimes he missed some words or wrote something wrong, which he then corrected, often by inserting words above the line. In the last line shown here, Oliver originally wrote the word that, then he crossed it out and wrote the above the crossout. These kinds of corrections in copywork were frequently made by the original scribe for the printer’s manuscript. And we also find corrections like these in the original manuscript.

Next we have what is called a facsimile transcript (or typographical facsimile) for this part of the manuscript:

skousen11As part of the critical text project of the Book of Mormon, we have produced transcripts like this one in order to faithfully record what’s actually on the manuscripts. Note, for instance, that in this case the word prophets was misspelled as prophits in the next-to-last line. And destroyed was spelled as destroid in the last line. In each instance, we leave it to the reader to figure out what the intended reading is. Most of the time there isn’t any problem.

In 2001 the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS, now part of the Maxwell Institute at BYU) published the facsimile transcripts of the original and printer’s manuscripts. These two volumes are made up of three large blue books, and they reproduce all the then-known portions of the original manuscript as well as the virtually complete printer’s manuscript. From these books one can read what’s in the actual manuscripts.

Since 2001 I have continued work on three other volumes. Volume 4 was completed last year (in 2009). This volume is called Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. There are six maroon books in that volume. They represent my work on recovering the original text, going from verse to verse, looking at all of the variants (and potential variants) in the text as well as looking at all the textual evidence, in order to determine what the original reading might have been.

Volume 3 is called The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon. This is the volume that I am currently working on. And volume 5 will be a computerized collation that will be made available with volume 3. Later in this paper, we’ll consider what that collation looks like.

Next: The Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon

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[1] An earlier version of the following paper was presented 5 August 2010 at a conference sponsored by FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. The text of this paper is copyrighted by Royal Skousen. The photographs that appear in this paper are also protected by copyright. Photographs of the original manuscript are provided courtesy of David Hawkinson and Robert Espinosa and are reproduced here by permission of the Wilford Wood Foundation. Photographs of the printer’s manuscript were taken by Nevin Skousen and are reproduced here courtesy of Community of Christ. The text of the Yale edition of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (2009) is copyrighted by Royal Skousen; Yale University Press holds the rights to reproduce this text.

25 comments for “The Original Text of the Book of Mormon I: Major Findings of the Critical Text Project

  1. Absolutely fascinating. I particularly appreciate seeing the photographs. Thank you for taking the time to post here.

    Would you be interested in commenting on what you personally have thought to be the most surprising finding from your work?

  2. Royal is a rock star. I can’t tell you how impressed I’ve been with the way that he has managed this massive project.

  3. Like Julie, I found this a fantastic read and loved the pictures. I had no knowledge about the original manuscript until I read this piece and thought it very enlightening. I would love to see what the original manuscipt looked like and discover how the paragraphing and punctuation was added or changed by Joseph or the typesetter. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. I also thoroughly enjoyed Royal Skousen’s comments on the Joseph Smith Papers television program. Excellent.

  5. I would love to see Royal Skousen and Blake Ostler have a public debate over the method of Smith’s translation, i.e. whether Smith’s method allowed for the kind of creative contribution that Ostler says accounts for so much 19th century stuff ending up in a translation of an ancient document.

  6. I hate to say it, but I guess someone has to.

    For Joseph to have put such an important manuscript into a location that resulted in so much damage being done to it seems rather short-sighted. I suppose he figured that there was nothing to be gained by keeping it around once the BofM had been published, but, still…

  7. Excellent work. I own most of the volumes and find it very interesting to read entries chosen at random. I agree with an earlier comment that it would be great to hear a panel discussion, at least, featuring Skousen, Ostler, Gardner on translation perspectives.

  8. Royal, I’m grateful for the work you are doing. I’ve often wondered, though, what conclusions to draw from some of the points you raise. For example, you have brought up in the past some particular examples of usage in the BoM is a few hundred years too archaic for Joseph’s time and that Joseph probably didn’t have access to books that would have used such language. While this may be true, what exactly does that do to support traditional theories of the translation process? What is it about archaisms in the text that makes it supposedly more authentic? Let’s take for granted that these weren’t Joseph’s words, or at least weren’t all his words. Whose were they? A familiar spirit that was two or three hundred years his elder? That is what confuses me about the textual analysis. It doesn’t seem to bolster the theories that presume the book’s ancient origins. If you have time, I would appreciate your response. Thanks again for your valuable contributions.

  9. I want to add my kudos and thanks to everyone else’s. I’ll drink up as much of this stuff as T&S and Royal Skousen will post. Fascinating stuff.


  10. Skousen’s work will be a significant help in understanding the historicity of the Book of Mormon. For example the words Jesus Christ are determined by Skousen(Yale edition page 748) as the preferred words for 1 Nephi 12:18 since those words appear in the original ,printer’s and 1830 editions; whereas the word Mosiah is a correction penned by Joseph in the printer’s copy and the word Messiah is found in the 1837 and current edition of the Book of Mormon. If Jesus Christ are the true words then it implies that the name Jesus was known by Lehi and Nephi 600 years before Gabriel announced Jesus as the Saviour’s name; and Christ was not used until the first century but Lehi and Nephi knew it in 586 BC. And stringing Jesus Christ together is also a New Testament usage. Skousen is to be lauded for going with Jesus Christ regardless of the issue it raises.

  11. Royal, It is great to read all of the work you have put into this project. Like others, the photos really added a lot to the information. The amount of work, both intellectually and physically, in this entire project is mind boggling. It is great to see an old West Hills Ward kid make good.

  12. Details matter, and careful review of original documents is both illuminating and inspiring. It takes you back to a moment of time that is profound in its meaning and sacred to the heart and soul. Thank you for that experience af being there in some small part of a personal moment and witness.

  13. Many of us learned a language other than English, either in school or on missions. We know that normal translation involves having a personal vocabulary of related terms in the original and target languages, as well as familiarity with the grammatical rules in both languages. We know that Joseph Smith made efforts to learn Hebrew later in life, but I know of no evidence that he retained, or ever claimed to have, any vocabulary of Hebrew from the time of his Book of Mormon translation experience, or of “reformed Egyptian”. Skousen recounts the statements of contemporaries about Joseph’s actions when carrying out the translation. The evidence appears to favor lines of English words, along with unusual names written in a Roman alphabet, being displayed in the Urim and Thummim or seer stone, which he read and spelled from as he dictated. While what happened in Joseph’s perceptions was certainly miraculous, it was not “translation” in the sense that I would translate a sentence from Japanese into English. Joseph did not retain any vocabulary or grammatical knowledge about another language from his translation experience.

    Yes, Professor Skousen does conclude elsewhere that Joseph was reading miraculously from an English manuscript composed with terms that were, in some cases, archaic in the 19th Century. The fact that he is following the evidence where it leads, and not trying to come up with speculative theories to explain such evidence, is a mark of Skousen’s academic integrity. Joseph himself apparently did not think it was important to publish with the Book of Mormon an account of how he received the words he dictated to scribes. He gave his own testimony of the reality of the book and the testimony of witnesses that corroborate that.

    That there are lacuna in some details about the translation process just tells us that the Lord is not going to tell us how he pulls off his miracles. He doesn’t explain the energy storage, and light-giving, information storage and transmission capabilities of the devices known as the Urim and Thummim, though in the year 2011 we can recognize it as an information appliance made of elements derived from minerals, in the same broad functional class as my Droid smartphone. If one grants the existence of God as someone who has the power to manipulate matter and energy so as to create worlds, and communicate with prophets, we must also grant that he has a grasp of technology beyond our own, even in the 21st century, and can use that ability to provide such a device to assist Joseph in his assigned task, just as he could provide bread, wine and fish to a multitude or an intimate group of apostles, a pair of stone tablets with writing for Moses, or a GPS-like device to Lehi. To deny that God could do so is to fall back into a gnostic heresy about the dichotomy between spirit and matter.

  14. Raymond, I don’t deny the possibility of any of these things you describe. I, for one, wholeheartedly agree with the notion that God abides by law and therefore all of his miracles would employ technological means, or in words, they would make use of his superior understanding of the law to accomplish their purpose.

    But back to my original point. I have seen the archaisms cited as somehow bolstering the case for the traditional account, which I don’t think they do. I just think it’s important to bracket these claims when making them and explain why they are being shared. Your explanation made sense to me, that they were being shared merely because that’s where the evidence was leading. I just think that should have been explained more clearly.

    My desire to understand takes me further, though, to question: Is this the best God can do? Must he make use of ultra-tech peep stones that are reserved to be used by a few individuals in secret and partially witnessed only by close associates and relatives? It seems to me that the most charitable and compassionate way of bettering the lot of mankind is to seek to understand and explain universal laws to the point that technology harnessing such laws is reproducible at will by people throughout the globe for the benefit of humanity. While I will forever be grateful to Joseph Smith and the early church members for the lasting legacy they left, I feel that, just as our article of faith claims, our understanding of God is still growing by leaps and bounds, and that this new era calls for a reevaluation of some of the modalities that we have previously attributed to Him/Her/Them.

    We should not be afraid if some of our myths are broken during this process, as long as we have better myths to replace them with. That is the job of prophets. To discern the signs of the times and to respond to them in ways that galvanize the residue of humanity.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  15. Carl,

    Is “Is this the best God can do?” the right question to ask? One should accept that, given God’s perfect love and omnipotence, God is certainly doing His best. A better question might be, “Why were the methods behind the translation of the Book of Mormon the best methods?” This article suggests in my mind that God did the translation, not Joseph, but that Joseph acted as a representative of God in bringing that translation to the world. Isn’t that exactly the role a prophet? The means through which Joseph received his revelations are in my opinion irrelevant. Perhaps God used a stone, or breastplate, because that is what Joseph needed at the time to get the job done. We don’t see Joseph relying on such instruments later to receive revelation.

    As for the “technology” of the Urim and Thummim, I don’t think we should lump smart phones and the U&T into the same category, simply for the fact that we can produce one and not the other. So it may be that it is not possible for God to share this “technology” with us given our current state of righteousness. All knowledge will be revealed to the righteous, but only when we’re ready.

  16. Garrett, my question was a rhetorical device for suggesting that our conception of God is evolving.

    Also, I don’t believe that any of God’s miracles are unilateral. They all require some level participation on our part, and I believe that, if God’s ultimate goal is to be achieved, we must eventually come to understand how these things work and participate in them in the same we build mobile phones or any other miracle that is enabled by a sufficient understanding of natural law.

  17. Carl,
    I agree with you that none of God’s miracles are unilateral and require some level of participation from humans, be it the wickedness of the people in the days of Noah or the departing of the Red (Reed?) Sea.
    I also envision a God who knows a little about his children and throws us a few curve balls to addle our brains and maybe help confound our enemies. The 1500’s and 1600’s English that Royal has identified in the Book of Mormon is one of those puzzles. Another is the textual variants of Isaiah found in the Book of Mormon. Some parts follow the King James version faithfully, while others follow no known text, and others follow the Greek Spetuagint.
    I am drawing no conclusions from this right now, but it does leave us with some questions for which we have no clear answers.


  18. Regarding archaic language in BoM: I think Dr. Skousen fails to realize how rich and divergent from ‘standard’ English are/were the dialects of ethnic Americans. (By ethnic Americans I am referring to the English-speaking peoples who migrated to this continent in the 1600s; it was they who founded this nation and who were little mixed with other peoples at the time of Joseph’s birth.) My paternal line is composed entirely of ethnic Americans from the American south, and I can attest to the presence of many archaic words and pronunciations in the speech of my father’s generation. (As one example, ‘Yonder’ is still a common word in their speech and it has a special pronunciation, ‘yunder’, which derives from a Middle English variant.) Joseph’s family had been in America almost 200 years by the time he learned English, and I don’t doubt that his colloquial speech included much that was already deemed archaic by urban sophisticates in his own day. (I might add that I heard a tenured linguist assert that ‘yonder’ was no longer used in spoken English while I was in grad school; she didn’t believe that it was still a common word in parts of the south–this despite the fact that I grew up with my uncles telling to look at things in the distance which were “over yunder”!)

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