Why was one sixth of the 1830 Book of Mormon set from the original manuscript?

Royal Skousen is editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University.

Part I: A tentative theory

Physical evidence from the Book of Mormon manuscripts shows that the compositor (that is, the typesetter) for the 1830 edition normally used the printer’s manuscript to set the type for the first edition of the Book of Mormon. The printer’s manuscript (P) was the copy of the dictated or original manuscript (O) that the scribes made and took to E. B. Grandin’s print shop in Palmyra, New York. But for one sixth of the text, from Helaman 13:17 to the end of Mormon (that is, through Mormon 9:37), the 1830 compositor actually used O to set the type. The question is: Why was O used and not P for that part of the text?

In 1990, I first discovered that the original manuscript had been used to set the type for this part of the text when I noticed that a good-sized fragment of O, from 3 Nephi 26-27 (owned by the LDS Church and housed in the Church’s Historical Department) was full of the penciled-in punctuation marks that John Gilbert, the 1830 compositor, frequently added to his copytext before setting the type. For 3 Nephi 26-27, it appeared that Gilbert had used O to set the type for the 1830 edition. I remember asking Glen Rowe of the Historical Department if this fragment might have come from P rather than O, but in going home I examined my photographic copy of P and noted that the corresponding leaf in P was fully intact and completely unmarked. The Church’s fragment definitely came from O, not P.

When I did my initial transcription of P from the photographic copy, I noticed that the 1830 edition consistently misspelled Cumorah as Camorah (9 times in Mormon 6-8) while P virtually always read as either Cumorah (6 times) or Comorah (2 times). For this part of the text, the scribe in P was the unknown scribe 2 (perhaps Martin Harris). It was clear that if P had been used to set the type, then the misspelling Camorah shouldn’t have occurred in the 1830 edition. On the other hand, we know that Oliver Cowdery frequently mixed up his u’s and a’s, so for this 1830 misspelling it looked like the compositor set the type from a text written in Oliver’s hand, namely, O. Interestingly, in P scribe 2 wrote the first Cumorah as Camorah, as it would have been in O, but Oliver Cowdery corrected that misspelling in P to Cumorah when he later proofed P against O. Oliver knew the correct spelling, even though he tended to write it as if it had been Camorah. On the other hand, the 1830 compositor had no idea that what he read as Camorah in O was wrong and thus he set Camorah. (For a complete discussion of this manuscript evidence, see under Mormon 6:2 in volume 4 of the critical text, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon.)

In April 1991, I spent two weeks in Independence Missouri at the RLDS Church Archives working directly with the printer’s manuscript and discovered that for 72 pages of P, from Helaman 13:18 through Mormon, there were no physical signs that those pages had been seen, much less used, by the 1830 compositor. The 72 pages were found in four gatherings of folded sheets, from the 16th through the 19th gatherings. In fact, these four gatherings had never been cut up or marked with the compositor’s punctuation marks, unlike surrounding gatherings of P. In fact, for these four gatherings the threads holding the folded sheets together had been removed only in the early years of the 20th century. Heavy stains from those threads are found in the center gutter for only these four gatherings. For any gathering of P that the compositor worked on, the threads had been removed upon delivery of the bound gathering to the print shop, in order, it would appear, to facilitate the typesetting from individual leaves of the gathering.

In the summer of 1991, fragments from about two percent of the original manuscript were discovered, and in the fall of that year these fragments of O were conserved by Robert Espinosa and his fellow conservators in BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library. These fragments of O are owned by the Wilford Wood family. Some of these fragments come from the last part of Helaman and the first part of 3 Nephi and show the 1830 compositor’s penciled-in punctuation marks, just like the fragment from 3 Nephi 26-27.

At that point in the critical text project, I tentatively proposed the following reason for why O was being used by the 1830 compositor for this part of the text: namely, the copyists had fallen behind in their copywork and they had instead decided to bring in O to the print shop. Originally, they had been assigned the task of copying the text of O into a second copy, the printer’s manuscript (P), and to take only the latter manuscript to Grandin’s Palmyra shop for typesetting. This they had faithfully done until they got to Helaman 13, but at that point, I conjectured, they had been unable to produce copytext fast enough for the compositor, so they decided to take in O itself but to still continue copying and producing P. Eventually, in order to catch up with the compositor, the copyists doubled their efforts by having Oliver Cowdery jump ahead to the book of Ether and to stop copying from where he had gotten to (3 Nephi 19:21) and to let scribe 2 of P continue from that place in 3 Nephi and finish that part of the text, from 3 Nephi 19:21 to the end of Mormon. I proposed that by the time Oliver and scribe 2 got caught up, the compositor was ready to begin the book of Ether, so they resumed taking in P to the print shop, thus having the compositor set the remainder of the Book of Mormon from P, from the beginning of Ether on to the end of Moroni.

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Coming up tomorrow in Part II: But is there any evidence for this theory?

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