Exploring the Iconic Nature of the Book of Mormon: Part IIa – Manuscripts and Editions of the Book of Mormon

In my last post, I introduced two lines of questioning that Timothy Beal has raised in his book The Rise and Fall of the Bible concerning biblical texts. Part of Beal’s intent in writing is to introduce the reader to how a bunch of disparate religious writings came to be known as “The Bible.” Two main points are important in such a discussion: (1) that there are a great number of biblical manuscripts in existence today, and (2) that there are a significant number of differences in how these different manuscripts read. In this current post I would like to (begin to) do something similar with regard to the Book of Mormon. While I was originally planning on accomplishing this in one post, the amount of information has proven worthy of two separate posts; therefore, this post will focus more on the first point raised above, i.e. the different editions and manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, while my next post will focus more on the second point, i.e. the variant readings found in the aforementioned editions and manuscripts.

Such a discussion requires somewhat further explanation when dealing with the unique circumstances of the Book of the Mormon—for while we in fact do possess ancient manuscripts of the bible that we can examine, study, translate, and re-translate, the Book of Mormon provides somewhat of a different situation. Though most Latter-day Saints have a firm belief  that similar manuscripts, in the form of metal records, stand behind the English translation of the Book of Mormon, these records are not available for scholars to study today. Thus, whatever an individual may think and/or belief concerning the historicity of ancient plates or reformed Egyptian, the current situation is one in which readers of the Book of Mormon (believer, non-believer, and everything in-between) experience the Book of Mormon in its 19th century translated form, and (at least to some extent) through the lens of Joseph Smith. This is not to say that there is not worthwhile work being done under the assumption that there were indeed ancient records and ancient editors [1]—only that as far as manuscript evidence goes, we can only examine what we have: and what we have are documents that date from the early 19th century forward. But, let not anyone concern themselves that there isn’t a whole lot to study, examine, and/or learn. On the contrary, there is a wealth of knowledge and understanding to be gained from a close reading of the modern manuscripts and editions of the Book of Mormon—far more, I believe, than most Latter-day Saints assume.

Just as Beal suggested that “there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular,” [2] one could, with good reason, say something similar about the Book of Mormon. As part of the humanist revolution that transpired during the European renaissance period, and particularly due to a renewed interest in classical languages, close readers of the biblical texts began to ask questions regarding the correctness of biblical manuscripts. This line of inquiry would blossom into its own academic discipline called “textual criticism,” a method of examining different manuscripts (in this case, biblical) in order to theorize about how, when, and why scribal alterations were made. Such examinations have revealed, and continue to reveal, much concerning scribal culture and practices. [3]  In general, however, text criticism has shown that any biblical text contains a substantial number of scribal alterations (both intentional and accidental) made at different points during its transmission. [4]  This principle alone adds a layer of complexity to the oft said/heard proclamation: “well, that’s what the scriptures say.” The findings of textual scholarship, at the very least, beg for a follow up question to such a statement: “which particular (manuscript of the) scriptures are you referring to?”

Lack of physical records make it difficult to apply these principles to the the ancient records spoken of regarding the Book of Mormon; however, it is quite possible, and worthwhile, to examine the modern manuscripts and editions that are extant. Any discussion about Book of Mormon text critical work owes much to BYU linguistics professor Royal Skousen, whose nearly completed The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (CTBOM) has provided not only an invaluable resource for mapping out the manuscript and edition/version history of the Book of Mormon, but also for acknowledging and analyzing the textual variants that can be found through the aforementioned manuscripts and editions. [5] By Skousen’s count, there are 2o editions of the Book of Mormon text and 2 manuscripts. As stated above, in my next post I will review several of the many significant and fascinating examples of textual variants found in Book of Mormon text(s); thus, a brief mention of the available sources is in order:


The Original Manuscript (OM)

Most Latter-day Saints are more than aware of the scraps of parchment used by various scribes to record the words of the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith dictated them out loud. Perhaps less known is the current state of what has come to be called the “original manuscript.” While OM represents the earliest text that we possess for the Book of Mormon, a difficulty exists in the fact that most of it is no longer extant. After making some editorial changes in 1840, Joseph Smith placed OM in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. Some 40 years later, Lewis Bidamon removed OM only to find that mold and water had mostly destroyed the manuscript. Today, approximately 28% of OM remain (1 Nephi 2–13; 1 Nephi 15–2 Nephi 1; Alma 22-60; Alma 62–Helaman 3; along with a number of other more fragmentary sections [6]). Of the extant 28% of OM, the LDS church owns about 25% while the Wilford Wood Foundation, the University of Utah, and other various individuals own the remaining 3%. [7]

The Printer’s Manuscript (PM)

Unlike OM, PM is virtually 100% extant. At Joseph Smith’s direction, scribes prepared PM to serve as a guide for the typesetter (though one sixth of the type was set from OM [Helaman 13:17–Mormon 9:37]). In many cases PM stands as our earliest textual evidence in light of OM being so fragmentary. Even in the copying process from OM to PM, scribal errors entered the text. [8]


Though there are 22 editions of the Book of Mormon, some editions certainly play a more interesting role in the textual history of the Book of  Mormon. Aside from the current edition, the 1830 edition is the most well known and most referenced by Latter-day Saints today. Equally important editions include the 1837 edition completed in Kirtland and the 1840 edition completed in Nauvoo, both under the supervision of Joseph Smith. It precisely because Joseph Smith’s authority plays such a integral role in Mormon thought that these first 3 editions are of such interest, particularly the textual variants that exist between them. Numerous other editions would be published including the Liverpool, England edition, the first over-seas edition, published in 1841. Interestingly, the 1841 Liverpool edition came about at the hands of a group of missionaries who left in obedience to a July 8, 1838 commandment to “depart to go over the great waters [to England], and there promulgate my gospel” (D&C 118:4). Since Joseph Smith’s 1840 revisions would not be complete until after they departed, the 1841 Liverpool edition does not reflect any of the changes found in the 1840 edition. The 1879 edition is significant in that a committee led by Orson Pratt divided up the text into much smaller chapters and verses (nearly identical to the current edition), a process that began with Franklin D. Richard’s editorial work for the 1852 edition. The 1920 edition introduced the double-columed format familiar to Latter-day Saints today in order to appear as bibles of the time did. The 1981 edition, the most current edition contains interesting changes including the introduction of the subtitle: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” [9]  Even subsequent changes to the peripheral text in the online version of the Book of Mormon adds to the discussion of the fluidity of texts. [10]

Having provided a brief sketch of the numerous extant manuscripts and editions of the Book of Mormon, I will, in my next post, look to address several of the more interesting textual variants that I’ve come across in my (admittedly limited) study of Book of Mormon text criticism. At the very least, the existence of multiple editions and manuscripts suggests that while the situation is not identical to that of the biblical documents, Beal’s question about the use of “The Bible”  is not all together unrelated to the question of the Book of Mormon as compared to the iconic Book of Mormon.


[1] I have particularly enjoyed Grant Hardy’s volume, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Hardy’s volume, interestingly enough, attempts to look at the narrative of the Book of Mormon without becoming too entangled in questions regarding historicity, a goal that I think he accomplishes to a great degree. I ultimately agree with Hardy that the game of finding parallels to try and “prove” the Book of Mormon to be this or that has become fatigued and stagnant in many regards. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by some of the possibilities presented by Hardy regarding individuals authoring, editing, compiling, and/or abridging records and find his book a valuable catalyst for discussions about the Book of Mormon regardless of one’s religious views.

[2] Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 22.

[3] On scribes and scribal culture, see: David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Philip R. Davies, Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[4] For a brief overview of biblical text criticism, see Moshe Goshen-Gottstien, “Hebrew Bible Textual Criticism,” 19-26, and Kurt Aland, “New Testament Textual Criticism,” 27-34, both in Methods of Biblical Interpretation, Forward by Douglas A. Knight (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), a condensed version of John H. Hayes (ed.), Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999). For a more exhaustive treatment, the classic works are: Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3d ed. revised and expanded (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012); Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[5] Skousen’s The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (CTBOM) project has been a life-long project that is nearing completion. To date, 4 of the proposed 6 volumes have now been published: The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text. CTBOM 1 (Provo: FARMS, 2001); The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts, 2 vols; CTBOM 2 (Provo: FARMS, 2001); Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, 6 vols; CTBOM 4 (Provo: FARMS, 2004-2009); The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Two volumes are still to come: The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon and A Complete Electronic Collation of the Book of Mormon.

[6] Book of Mormon references are to the current edition of the Book of Mormon. Prior to 1879, the chapters in the Book of Mormon were divided up differently.

[7] Royal Skousen, “History of the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 5-21 (6).

[8] Skousen, “History,” 6.

[9] Much of my information for the different editions comes from Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2011).

[10] For example, while the “Introduction” to the 1981 edition reads “all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians,” the online version, available at www.lds.org reads, “all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians” (my emphasis).

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