History of the Book of Mormon:
Prepublication Manuscripts and Early Editions
Edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith
Book of Mormon History
According to the official version of the history of the church, Joseph Smith received his first vision the very first time he prayed audibly in 1820 (Pearl of Great Price J.S. History [JSH] 1:14). In this vision, he was told that all the churches were wrong (JSH 1:19) and that he should restore the church. In September of 1823 he had his second vision, which consisted of three repeated visions in the night by the Angel Moroni in Joseph's bedroom. Moroni told him three times where the gold plates were buried (JSH 1:47). Joseph went to the Hill Cumorah and uncovered the box where in were the gold plates. He was forbidden to take them out and was instructed to return each year to talk to this angel until the time was right to take them out (JSH. 1:53). Four years later, he received the plates in September 1827 (JSH 1:59). At the time in America, no one knew how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics and no one had ever seen or heard of reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Book of Mormon, Mormon 9:34 states that no one can know this language,
that none other people knoweth our language; therefore he hath prepared means for interpretation thereof. Yet to authenticate his work, Joseph copied some of the characters from the gold plates along with some translations and had Martin Harris take them to professor Anthon and Dr. Mitchell. Without the ability to know the language, these two men somehow validated that these were true characters and the partial translation was accurate (JSH 1:65). According to Joseph Smith, the translation was also verified by the Lord's voice in June of 1829: We heard a voice from out of the bright light above us saying, ... These plates have been revealed [and translated] by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, ... (HoC 1:55). This translation that the Lord's voice refers to, is the initial translation of the Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics on the gold plates into English, hand written by the scribes on the original manuscript. The printed Book of Mormon did not come off the press until March of 1830.
What About the Original Manuscripts?
By means of a hat and a seer stone, Joseph Smith translated the reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics that he saw on the plates into English words that he spoke to individual scribes on the other side of a veil. His scribes wrote the words down on paper to form a hand written manuscript. Martin Harris lost the first 116 pages of this manuscript and Joseph had to start over making his original manuscript. This original manuscript had different size pages and different handwriting styles. Because of the loss of 116 pages, Joseph was careful to have a very neat copy of this manuscript made by Oliver Cowdery to take to the printer. This second manuscript is called the printer manuscript. It was very important that the scribe carefully copy the original neatly so the printer could read each letter and be able to set the type accurately.
History of the Manuscripts
Joseph Smith kept the original manuscript himself and eventually deposited it in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House when it was being built. When the Nauvoo house was torn down in the early 1900s, the original manuscript was discovered. It had been water damaged over the years in storage. The good sheets were divided between those present. All of these pages found their way into private libraries and are not on display to the general public. The largest portions are in the LDS Church library and the Wilford C. Wood library. Occasionally, a very few photocopies of individual pages have appeared in official LDS Church publications over the years.
The printer manuscript was retained by Oliver Cowdery and eventually given to David Whitmer and later donated to the Reorganized LDS Church library. The printer manuscript is complete and in excellent condition. Photocopies of the original manuscript are rarely published, but the printer manuscript has been photocopied in its entirety and is available through Modern Microfilm Co., Box 1884 Salt Lake City, Utah.
History of the Book of Mormon Printings
The first edition of the Book of Mormon came out in March of 1830. So many were printed (5000 copies for $3000) that the second edition was not needed until 1837 in Kirtland. The 1840 and 1842 Nauvoo editions were the last two editions printed in Joseph Smith's lifetime. In 1869, Brigham Young had the 1842 edition reprinted in his newly invented phonetic alphabet. Apostle Orson Pratt was in charge of the 1879 revision, which was the first version with verses and foot notes. Apostle James Talmage was in charge of the 1920 revision, which put the text into two columns and changed the footnotes. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie was a key influence in the 1981 revision with new foot notes, cross references and a revised Topical Guide. As these editions were printed in following years, the printing dates were updated without changing the text. Thus, the text of all Books of Mormon dated from 1921 to 1980 is the same as 1920. In summary, there are seven regular English versions of the Book of Mormon officially printed by the authority of the LDS Church in America (1830, 1837, 1840, 1842, 1879, 1920, and 1981).
Of these seven different versions, the 1837 Kirtland edition is the most rare. There are multiple reasons for this; one is that very few were printed. Another is that time has taken its toll with the old leather and paper to the point that many of these have deteriorated into nonexistence. A third reason is that this edition contained the largest portion of the major changes that are still printed in today's modern edition.
Official Admission of Errors
In the modern edition, the LDS Church addresses the changes that were made to the text of the Book of Mormon. At the bottom of the page titled A Brief Explanation of the Book of Mormon is the following statement: About this edition: Some minor errors have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the prophet Joseph Smith. Errors in the Book of Mormon translated by the inspiration of God have been a topic of discussion since the second edition came forth from the printer. Because we have the actual original manuscripts available to us, we can easily investigate these errors. In my investigations I have discovered major errors in the text of the Book of Mormon. Most of these errors do not match the original manuscript. According to Joseph Smith, the voice of the Lord told Joseph Smith and his three witnesses that the original manuscript was correct (HoC 1:55).
Minor Errors in the Bible?
Many people attack the Bible stating that it too, has many errors. It is true that English translations of the Bible have very few minor errors. The original manuscripts are assumed to be perfect because God inspired them Himself and He doesn't make any errors. Many people confuse different words used in the different translations as errors. Most of these are just synonyms, which are different ways of translating the same meaning into different words. The manuscript copies we have today are copies of copies made by many different scribes over many centuries. The manuscripts available in the 1700s date to fairly recent times (approximately 1000 1500 AD.). But in the 1940s the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls was made and later, many ancient manuscripts were found in Egypt. These manuscripts date back to the time of Jesus and before (approximately 1800 2300 years old). These older manuscripts authenticated the careful nature of the copies that the scribes had made through the centuries. Today the Bible has very few verses that are in question and unlike the Book of Mormon, none of these verses concern the essentials of the faith.
For further info, see Major Changes in the Book of Mormon.
Marshall Almarode - (509) 585-0416