A Single Draft of the Book of Mormon.©
Revised 7, 12, 21 January, 6 February, 7 April 2016
“If one were manufacturing a text, he would constantly need to cross-check himself, to edit, and to revise for consistency. Had the Prophet dictated and revised extensively, there would be more evidence of it. But there was no need to revise divinely supplied text. Whatever the details of the translation process, we are discussing a process that was truly astonishing!(2)What we know of the translation process affirms that it was one smooth dictation. Joseph’s wife Emma assisted him as a scribe between the time when Martin Harris was no longer permitted to work with Joseph because of the loss of the 116 pages, and the arrival of Oliver Cowdery in the spring of 1829, and she knew the process well. She was interviewed about the translation of the Book of Mormon several times and from her we learn two important facts relating to this issue of producing an unedited draft. First, the translation moved forward smoothly.Though without much formal education Joseph helped his scribes with spelling. Emma reported:
... when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.(3)Even more important to the point of this essay, she told her son Joseph Smith III, “When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation....” Later in the same interview when ask about the book’s authenticity she returned to this point. For Emma, the one person who knew Joseph the most intimately of all, this was especially impressive. She said”
... your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or any interruption, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.(4)Second, he did not use outside resources while he dictated. In the same interview Joseph III asked his mother, “Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?” She replied, “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.” Joseph followed up, “Could he not have had, and you not know it?” “If he had anything of the kind,” she responded, “he could not have concealed it from me.”(5) Joseph III reaffirmed this point in an 1879 letter. He reported that the “larger part of this labor” of translating
was done in her presence, and where she could see and know what was being done; that during no part of it did Joseph Smith have any Mss. or Book of any kind from which to read, or dictate, except the metalic [sic] plates, which she knew he had.(6)All evidence suggest that the entire Book of Mormon was dictated to scribes in somewhere between a 60 and 90 day period. Many people find the speed of the translation the big miracle here. For me the biggest miracle of all is that he dictated one draft and he got it right and complete the first time through!
You do not have to take my word for it. You can see for yourself. The original manuscript is now being prepared for publication as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project and you can see two pages of it online at the project’s website. Moreover, since 2001, we have had available a meticulous typographical transcript prepared by the world’s leading expert on the text of the Book of Mormon, BYU professor Royal Skousen.(7) It also has photos of five or six full pages of the manuscript and numerous fragments. To me, the most obvious characteristic of those pages is how clean they are. Commentary about the pages at the project website says:“The text transcribed here, as with other extant portions of the original manuscript, exhibits very few signs of editing. It contains spelling errors characteristic of each particular scribe.”(8)
Welch’s point is, try dictating a formal letter to a secretary and get it the way you want it the first time through without having to go back and edit, rewrite, rearrange, add, delete, or polish drafts. If it is difficult to get a single letter dictated correctly the first time through, what does one say about a book of over 530 pages dictated with some minor exceptions, with no crossing out and restarting, virtually no rewrites or revisions, no extensive alterations or modifications, no clipping and pasting portions of texts from one place to another as is common today with a modern computer, no adding, deleting or word substitution--no evidence whatsoever of polishing the text? Almost nothing– except fixing some spelling, capitalization, punctuation and grammar.What a miracle! I’m not kidding, nor am I over exaggerating. Joseph Smith dictated an entire book of over 500 pages in less than 90 days and got it correct the first and only time through. By itself this constitutes a miracle of monumental proportions if you know anything about translating, writing, and publishing.(9) I agree with Elder Maxwell, "astonishing" is the correct word!
To attribute this accomplishment to the mind and genius of Joseph Smith would place him among the most elite class of intellects and constitute one of the most astounding achievements in human history. People who attribute authorship of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith hardly understand what they are really saying. While I acknowledge he was one of the “master spirits” to come to this earth and one of its supreme spiritual intellects, it really takes a great deal more faith to believe that human genius is capable of producing the Book of Mormon under the conditions just described than it does to believe that God helped him. But there is more.
This is all the more miraculous and wondrous when we consider it in the context of several other matters. First, the convoluted sequence of translation. Evidence shows that after the loss of the 116 pages, rather than start anew with the “Small Plates of Nephi” which contain 1 and 2 Nephi, and which are the beginning of the present book, what Joseph and Oliver did was continue to translate the “Large Plates of Nephi.” This meant they did Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman, through to the end of the book, and then they worked on the Small Plates last. Imagine under these circumstances, as an example, the challenge of not making a blunder in the complex timeline found in the Book of Mormon with several major groups of people migrating to the Americas from the Old World and with several significant and complex flashbacks, but dictate it correctly in the first and only draft, all without notes, without reworking it, without polishing it! Marylynne Linford, author of a recent book about the vocabulary in the Book of Mormon said “This is a stunning achievement because the history, logic, doctrine, and organization are in order and build incrementally, chapter by chapter, from page 1 to page 531.”(10)
Second, as we have already alluded to, consider the complexity of the book as a whole. In this respect Welch observes, “Considering the Book of Mormon’s theological depth, historical complexity, consistency, clarity, artistry, accuracy, and profundity, the Prophet Joseph’s translation is a phenomenal achievement–even a miraculous feat.”(11) It is even more so in light of the evidence suggesting it was accomplished in one dictation. Marylynne Linford said this about the book’ complexity: “...the Book of Mormon is not arranged chronologically. There are flashbacks in Mosiah and Words of Mormon; Ether is way out of order. And there is no uniformity in the length of the books. Alma is long, and others, such as Jarom and Words of Mormon, are only a couple of pages. The historical time period of some books is a few decades, while others like Omni and 4 Nephi cover centuries. Ether spans over a thousand years. To add to this maze are 202 people and 118 places that weave in and out through verses and time lines."(12) It was Hugh Nibley’s testimony that, “For all its simple and straight-forward narrative style, this history is packed as few others with a staggering wealth of detail that completely escapes the casual reader. The whole Book of Mormon is a condensation, and a masterly one; it will take years simply to unravel the thousands of cunning inferences and implications that are wound around its most matter-of-fact statements. Only laziness and vanity lead the student to the early conviction that he has the final answers on what the Book of Mormon contains.”(13) Making a similar point, Noel B. Reynolds observed, "Many of these relationships have taken scholars longer to sort out than it took Joseph Smith to translate the entire book."(14)
Third, consider another important insight from Jack Welch. “Even more remarkable are the extensive, intricate consistencies within the Book of Mormon. Passages tie together precisely and accurately though separated from each other by hundreds of pages of text and dictated weeks apart.” Jeffery R. Holland wrote, “In spite of the fact that it is written by a series of prophets who had different styles and different experiences, in spite of the fact that it has some unabridged materials mixed with others that have been greatly condensed, in spite of the fact that it has unique and irregular chronological sequences, it is a classic book—Aristotle’s kind of book: unified, whole, verses fitting with verses, chapters fitting with chapters, books fitting with books. It has these ideal qualities because it is the clear, compelling word of God, revealed through his chosen prophets.”(15) There are a number of remarkable examples in the story line, in prophecy and its subsequent fulfillment, or in references by one author relative to the writings, teachings, doctrines and activities of another which demonstrate this internal consistency.
Welch cites four striking examples. I have selected one to conclude this brief discussion of the amazing phenomenon of an entire book published from the manuscript of a onetime, unrevised dictation.
Early in the Book of Mormon history, King Benjamin set forth a five-part legal series prohibiting (1) murder, (2) plunder, (3) theft, (4) adultery, and (5) any manner of wickedness. This five-part list, which first appears in Mosiah 2:13, uniformly reappears seven other times in the Book of Mormon (see Mosiah 29:36; Al 23:3; 30:10; Helaman 3:14; 6:23; 7:21; and Ether 8:16). Apparently the Nephites viewed Benjamin’s set of laws as setting a formulaic precedent.(15)How could Joseph keep all the various threads of history, religion and doctrine, politics and government, culture and society, economics, warfare, and family history, to name some of the more prominent themes in the book, in his mind? How could he possibly write a single draft without rewriting a sentence, substituting a word or phrase, revising a paragraph, rearranging the structure of a chapter? It is a mind boggling achievement when considered in its true light.(17) For me genius is not a credible explanation. For me the miracle can only be explained in one way; he translated an ancient religious record by the “gift and power of God.”
In one clean unrevised inspired draft!
Thank God for Joseph Smith!
Let’s think together again, soon.
1. John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), pp. 21-23.
2. Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign (January 1997): 39, 40. I read this article twice and didn’t recognize the importance of what Elder Maxwell was saying. It was not until I had written the first two drafts of this essay that I read his talk again. It was so much more impressive to me now that I was consciously attending to the idea that I decided to make a third revision and include his statements. In addition, the Printer's Manuscript which Oliver Cowdery produced by carefully copying the original, "shows no sign of any conscious editing on Oliver Cowdery's part." Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, p. 11.
Moreover, in April 2016, I had occasion to read another of Elder Maxwell's talks about the Book of Mormon and was delighted to discover the following two paragraphs:
We will now show you an example, or a picture of Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting. This happens to be a photo of the original manuscript, the end of 1 Nephi 4 and the beginning of 1 Nephi 5. You will notice one interesting thing, there is no punctuation; there are no paragraphs; no editing or revising. No wonder when they took it to the Grandin press that Mr. Gilbert decided he’d better put some punctuation in the Book of Mormon, which he did—and this is why we had to revise later some of that punctuation
Even so, the most impressive thing is not the rapid rate of Joseph’s translation, it is the marvelous flow. When I write, uninspired as my writings may be, I move things all over. I do drafts, canceling this out, moving that from here to there, etc. Such revising is not in the original manuscript. It simply flows under the gift and power of God.
Neal A. Maxwell, untitled address to the Seminar for New Mission Presidents, 21 June 1996, p. 3, copy in my possession, emphasis added.
3. Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454, reproduced in, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, edited by John W. Welch with Erick B. Carlson, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), p. 129.
4. This interview was published twice: “Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90; and Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (October 1879): 50-52. My quote comes from a reproduction in Welch, Opening the Heavens, pp. 130-131.
5. Welch, Opening the Heavens, p. 130.
6. Joseph Smith III to James T. Cobb, 14 February 1879, Community of Christ Library-Archives, reproduced in Welch, Opening the Heavens, pp. 131-132.
7. Royal Skousen, ed., The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001). I own a copy of this publication and the following statements come from an analysis of it sitting in front of me at the moment. Photo facsimiles are found on pp. 39-54. Note particularly the clarity and cleanness of the one on page 45. The typescript facsimile (line-for-line transcription and format), shows that the vast majority of corrections are spelling and grammar. The text itself shows almost no other signs of editing–few scratch outs, no rewrites, revisions, or polishing. Such deletions and overwriting as do occur in the text are discussed on pages 21-22, and 28 of the Introduction.
8. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/book-of-mormon-manuscript-excerpt-circa-June-1829-1-nephi-22b 318ap=1&highlight=Original%20manuscript%20of%20the%20book%20of%20mormon#!/paperSummary/book-of-mormon-manuscript-excerpt-circa-june-1829-1-nephi-22b-318a&p=1 Accessed 29 December 2015.
9. I just read an interview with David Mcullough the famous historian. He said it took him six years to research and write his book on John Adams, but the problem is that in that period of time he changed, his family changed, and he knew more about Adams at the end than he did at the first. The interviewer asked him what he did with the earlier chapters. McCullough replied, “The voice has to stay the same. So you go back and work on them, in a way, as a painter will work all over the whole canvas. I work on the front and the back and the middle all at once.” [See: http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/david-mccullough-interview] This is somewhat typical of many writers, constantly rewriting, revising, polishing.
10. Marilynne Todd Linford, The Book of Mormon is True: Evidences and Insights to Strengthen Your Testimony (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2015), p. 26.
11. John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), p. 4.
12. Marilynne Todd Linford, The Book of Mormon is True: Evidences and Insights to Strengthen Your Testimony (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2015), p. 27.
13. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert & The World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), pp. 238-39.
14. Noel B. Reynolds, “By Objective Measures: Old Wine into Old Bottles,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch. Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002, p. 148. This was part of a larger statement making similar points to those cited above. Reynolds wrote, "One of the strongest arguments for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon is the amazing depth of complexity addressed in a consistent manner throughout the book. This argument, first developed and perfected by Hugh Nibley, points to Joseph Smith’s lack of education and his dictation of the Book of Mormon line by line without notes and without reviewing what was said minutes, hours, days, or even months earlier. Yet despite these circumstances, a large number of complex relationships are developed in the book and consistently maintained from beginning to end. Many of these relationships have taken scholars longer to sort out than it took Joseph Smith to translate the entire book."
15. Jeffery R. Holland, “Daddy, Donna, and Nephi,” Ensign 6 (September 1976): 7-8.
16. John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), p. 23, emphasis added.
17. On Thursday, 21 January 2016, I received in the mail a used book about the Book of Mormon I ordered over the Internet. I was delighted to discover in the final chapter, “A Tribute to Joseph Smith, the Translator,” the following assessment of his work in dictating the original manuscript compared to their writing of a commentary on 1 Nephi 1-18. It expresses an opinion similar to my own expressed above.
Joseph Smith translated the entire Book of Mormon in about sixty-three days, or just under eight and a half pages per day. In other words, all of the Book of First Nephi would have been translated in about a week.
By contrast we have been researching this material for six years and writing for four. We have made numerous field trips each year to examine the terrain and the lands over which Joseph proposed the family traveled. Between us we have covered some fifty thousand miles of desert. Each chapter has been written and rewritten, researched for accuracy, proofread and submitted for criticism, then rewritten again. We have had access to hundreds of works, many of which we cite in this book. Yet our work is only a commentary on Joseph’s original, which he wrote, with not time or outside research, in his “spare time” in little over a week.
Each original draft of a chapter of this book had hundreds of errors, even with the help of modern word processing programs, and we spent much of our time proofreading each others’s work for errors. We have invariably returned chapters with numerous crossed out or eliminated passages on every page. There has not been a time when we have proofread a chapter, when we have not found errors, no matter how meticulous we were in its preparation. By contrast, Joseph Smith made amazingly few changes in the Book of Mormon. About a quarter of the original manuscript is held by the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day [sic] Saints and the pages hold few crossed out passages. The vast majority of the changes that were made when the book went to publication were spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. [George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New Documented Evidences that the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2003), p. 170.]After reading of their diligence and hard work in writing this book, I cannot resist calling attention to an error in the name of the Church in the last paragraph. The compound word Latter-day is incorrectly written latter-day! How fitting a contribution to this particular essay on evidence for the divine aid given to Joseph Smith!