Joseph Smith reported seeing the golden plates in a stone box for the first time in 1823.
Eighteen years later in October 1841, after translating the language on the plates and publishing the Book of Mormon, Smith sealed the original Book of Mormon manuscript in another stone box — the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in Illinois.
To be fair, he was trying to preserve the manuscript, said Robin Jensen, a volume co-editor and historian with the Joseph Smith Papers.
“Now if I had a time machine, I would go back and say, ‘Let’s not do this,’” Jensen said with a smile.
When Lewis Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband, found the original manuscript four decades later, it had sustained extensive water damage. Of the manuscript’s approximate 500 pages, only portions of 232 remained, roughly 28% of the original text. In the years that followed, some pages and fragments were given to Nauvoo visitors as souvenirs.
Now more than 140 years later, the Joseph Smith Papers team has pieced back together what remains of the original Book of Mormon manuscript and published a 755-page book titled, “Revelations and Translations, Vol. 5: Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon,” which features the first complete photographic record of one of the most significant documents in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“This is a tremendous achievement,” Jensen said. “This volume is a landmark in the scholarship of the Book of Mormon.”
The new volume, published by The Church Historian’s Press and released Wednesday, is the latest installment of the Joseph Smith Papers series. It was originally scheduled to be released in November 2021, but was delayed due to supply chain issues.
What is the original Book of Mormon manuscript?
Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with divine power, dictating the words of the ancient book to various scribes over several months before publication in 1830.
The original manuscript was penned by hand with a quill pen by Oliver Cowdery and other scribes as Joseph dictated the text between April and June 1829. The Book of Mormon remains a central book of sacred scripture in the Latter-day Saint faith. As of October 2020, the church has published 192 million copies of the Book of Mormon in 112 languages.
The original manuscript is only one step removed from golden plates and Joseph’s divine translation experience, Jensen said.
“It is the artifact that resulted from the translation process,” he said. “To me, that is just remarkable. I am blown away that we have access to that specific document. Biblical scholars would kill for a first-generation copy of any of the texts of the New or Old Testament. We have the original manuscript, and that’s so unheard of in so many world religions of the day.”
Why publishing the original manuscript took years
The Joseph Smith Papers team knew this would be a difficult project.
What remains of the original manuscript is badly faded, obscured or otherwise damaged.
“Some of the leaves that have survived are almost invisible to the naked eye,” Jensen said. “If you would pull out a page of the manuscript and look at it, you wouldn’t be able to read it. You might recognize that there’s text on the page, but you wouldn’t be able to read it.”
Most of the images presented in the Joseph Smith Papers appear as they are, but digital editing was required in this case.
Joseph Smith Papers scholars used multispectral imaging, UV lighting and other technology to make the text as visible as possible in high-resolution photographs. The volume includes full explanations of what historians did with the images.
“This volume is going to be a more legible, more clear and productive experience than if you are looking at the original documents themselves,” Jensen said. “Without that photo editing, we would have presented several pages that were just blank, which would have been very useless to readers.”
Jensen credited the Church History Department preservation team for its dedication and attention to detail in carefully removing many pages or fragments from mylar to be scanned as part of the “long” photography process.
“I can’t speak highly enough of those who worked on the images in this manuscript,” Jensen said. “It’s due to their dedication that this volume is the gem that it is.”
Finding all the fragments
The other challenge was collecting all remaining fragments of pages and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle.
The church owns a significant portion of the Book of Mormon manuscript, but not all of it.
The Wilford Wood Museum in Bountiful owns some portions. The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah Special Collections has a leaf, and other parts are in private hands.
“Some of those are full pages where you can read the entire text. In other cases, there are only small fragments,” he said. “So it’s quite the process to look at the surviving fragments and try to piece them together. It’s kind of like putting together a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle except you don’t actually know what it looks like. You don’t have all the pieces and there’s not edge pieces to make it easy. It was challenging.”
With all the fragments and pieces in place, readers can look at the high-quality images and see how it they would have appeared in the original manuscript. The volume also includes a color-coded transcript, introductions and reference material.
Royal Skousen’s valuable contributions
The new volume would not be complete without the valuable contributions of Royal Skousen, Jensen said.
Skousen, who retired as a professor of linguistics and English at BYU in 2020, began examining the original Book of Mormon manuscript in 1988 to prepare and publish a transcript of the original text. His objectives were to discover the original phrasing and show how editors and printers have modified wording.
Skousen called his monumental undertaking the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and published the first two volumes, typographical facsimiles for the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, in 2001.
The transcripts and annotation in the new Joseph Smith Papers volume rely upon years of work by Skousen as part of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project.
“He spent his entire career on these manuscripts,” Jensen said. “Without his work, this volume wouldn’t be what it is.”
The transcript preserves corrections and revisions of any kind, line and page breaks, and the locations of interlinear insertions. The handwriting of each scribe is identified by different colors to facilitate analysis.
There are four scribes identified in the volume:
- Oliver Cowdery — “He’s the one scribing on the manuscript the most,” Jensen said.
- John Whitmer.
- An unidentified hand — “If I had to guess it would be Christian Whitmer,” Jensen said. “But we don’t have any of his handwriting (to compare with).”
- Joseph Smith — “We have two and a half lines of Joseph Smith’s own handwriting,” Jensen said.
Insights and appreciation gained
Years of work on the volume have allowed Jensen to appreciate several aspects of the Book of Mormon.
One fascinating fact is that Joseph Smith allowed John H. Gilbert, who was not a member of the faith, to add punctuation to the Book of Mormon.
“I find that remarkable,” Jensen said. “Joseph Smith was very trusting in allowing someone else to interpret the Book of Mormon for us. Gilbert has influenced how we read the Book of Mormon for generations.”
He also said it is important to acknowledge the contributions of Emma Smith and her role in the publication of the Book of Mormon. She served as scribe early in the translation process and provided unwavering support for Joseph.
“Whenever I look at this manuscript, I remember the loss, the dedication and the sacrifice of these early Latter-day Saints, these early believers,” Jensen said. “It could be a lesson for Latter-day Saints today. How often do we take for granted the text of the Book of Mormon? We should remember the sacrifices that went into the creation of it.”
Printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon
The Joseph Smith Papers collaborated with the Community of Christ to publish the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon in 2015.
The church purchased the printer’s manuscript from the Community of Christ for $35 million in 2017.
“It’s one of our treasures, of course,” Skousen said in 2017. “Some people look at it just as a historic relic, but no, this is the text of the Book of Mormon, this is the word of God, and it’s one of our main sources for studying the word of God.”
The new volume will be uploaded on the Joseph Smith Papers website in the coming months. Learn more about the Joseph Smith Papers at josephsmithpapers.org.