“Spelling in the Manuscripts and Editions”

“Spelling in the Manuscripts and Editions” June 29, 2020


OC, DW, JS, and BoM plates
From left to right, in a still photo by James Jordan from the set of the Interpreter Foundation “Witnesses” film project, currently under production: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Joseph Smith, who has the plates of the Book of Mormon in a box. Do they seem very young? They should. They were.


Below is a four-page statement that Royal Skousen has shared with me regarding the publication last week of part 6 of volume 3 of the critical text, Spelling in the Manuscripts and Editions. It should soon be available from BYU Studies at $49.95, if it isn’t already available.  In posting it here, I’ve unfortunately (and, so far as I can tell, pretty much unavoidably) ruined much of his formatting.  But the content remains unimpaired.  And I expect that a properly-formatted version of this statement will appear reasonably soon on the website of the Interpreter Foundation.


Summary of Spelling in the Manuscripts and Editions, part 6 of volume 3, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, by Royal Skousen

For part 6 of volume 3 of the Book of Mormon critical text project, we take up what may

seem like a mundane subject, namely, misspellings in the manuscripts and in the printed editions.

This brief summary of the book will introduce the reader to three important questions regarding

scribal misspellings in the manuscripts:

First, did the 1830 typesetter adopt Oliver Cowdery’s misspellings in the manuscript

when he set the text for the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon?

Second, just how good were the Book of Mormon scribes in doing their copywork?

And third, can the misspellings tell us anything important about the Book of Mormon

text, or are they just innocuous errors?

The answers to all three of these questions turn out to be crucial in doing critical text work on

the Book of Mormon.

The first chapter in part 6 is entitled “Misunderstanding Spelling Variation in the Book of

Mormon”, and it deals with an article that has had an inordinate influence for the past 36 years

on how Latter-day Saints have understood misspellings in the Book of Mormon manuscripts and

in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, namely, George Horton’s “Understanding Textual

Changes in the Book of Mormon”, published in the LDS Church’s Ensign in December, 1983.

Despite Horton’s implicit claim in the title of his article that he will undertake to explain

“textual changes”, he virtually ignores the subject of substantive changes in the text of the Book

of Mormon and instead devotes most of the article to the less important question of spelling

variation in the early text of the Book of Mormon. In this regard, I evaluate several provocative

statements of Horton’s in the first chapter of part 6 and find them false in virtually every aspect:

(1) “The spelling in the first edition was Oliver Cowdery’s.”

(2) “Consider, too, that the two distinct words strait and straight would sound exactly

the same as Joseph dictated it. But Oliver spelled both words straight every time.”

(3) “American English spelling in 1829 was not yet standardized.”

(4) “As late as 1828, American lexicographer Noah Webster noted that five dictionaries

were available to him. Examples from four of those dictionaries show the variations in

spellings commonly accepted at the time Oliver was taking dictation from the Prophet.”

(5) “It is not surprising, then, that many words in the Book of Mormon would need to be

corrected as American English spelling became more uniform later in the nineteenth


Not only can we prove these statements false, but we can also find the sources that Horton

apparently misread or misunderstood and thus led him to make these unsupportable conclusions

about the manuscripts and the early editions of the Book of Mormon.

In the second chapter of part 6, entitled “The Manuscripts and Their Scribes”, I turn to the

question of good and bad scribes in the manuscripts. For the extant 28 percent of the original

manuscript (O) of the Book of Mormon text, we have the handwriting of four scribes: Oliver

Cowdery, John Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, and Joseph Smith himself. Oliver was the main

scribe, and his hand is found on virtually every extant leaf and fragment except for 23 pages

in 1 Nephi. For that part of the text, the two Whitmers each took down Joseph’s dictation for

about a dozen pages each. And finally, Joseph Smith himself wrote down the text for 28 words

in Alma 45:22.

The printer’s manuscript (P), the copy of O, is fully extant except for one and a half lines

at the bottom of page 1 and also the same amount at the bottom of page 2 (the verso of page 1).

Here in P we have the handwriting for three scribes: again, Oliver Cowdery is the main scribe,

and he accounts for 83.0 percent of the text; then Martin Harris for 16.4 percent (who twice

takes over for Oliver, in Mosiah 25 – Alma 13 and in 3 Nephi 19 – Mormon 9); and finally

Hyrum Smith for only 0.6 percent (who takes over for Martin for five short intervals in

Mosiah 28 – Alma 5). The identification of scribes 2 and 3 of O as John and Christian Whitmer,

and scribe 2 of P as Martin Harris are recent and tentative, to varying degrees of probability:

“very likely”, for John Whitmer; “possibly”, for Christian Whitmer; and “probably”, for Martin

Harris. In part 7 of volume 3, I will provide the evidence that supports these identifications.

In evaluating the abilities of these scribes, we consider four different types of errors:


misspelling cept [kept], excede, apparrel, weopon, citties, truely

spelling slips concening, ome [one], woice, Nindred, Nepi

word slips “in my shall they called” (missing name and be) [Mosiah 26:18]

“the number Number of the slain” (a dittography) [Alma 3:l]

“partakers of the spirit of the tree of life” (error for fruit) [Alma 5:62]

textual changes “I cried > did cry unto the Lord [1 Nephi 2:16]

“to be cast with sorrow > NULL into a watery grave” [1 Nephi 18:18]

“being nursed > nourished by the Gentiles” [1 Nephi 22:8]

In the second chapter of part 6, in comparing the abilities of the different scribes, we count only

the first three of these error types. Although the fourth type definitely includes scribal errors,

we can be sure of an error only because the copytext, the original manuscript, still exists. In this

second chapter, we wish to determine the scribes’ ability to correctly copy the text, but for much

of the scribes’ work we do not have a copytext that will allow us to accurately do this. This

automatically holds for any scribe of O that wrote down Joseph Smith’s words as he dictated

them to the scribe. To be sure, an obvious error in O can be detected, such as “ishmael and also

his hole hole” (in 1 Nephi 7:5) and “therefore my Sons see that ye are merciful unto your

Brethren” (in Alma 41:14), where Alma is speaking only to one son, Corianton. But there is no

record of what words Joseph saw in his instrument or what he actually said when he dictated

those words. We have only what the scribe copied down. Similarly, if a scribe copied a portion 

of O into P but that portion of O is no longer extant, we can still determine the scribe’s

misspellings, spelling slips, and word slips, but not the substantive textual changes unless they

are obvious errors. For this reason, we will exclude the fourth error type in measuring a scribe’s

ability since we want to compare the scribes against each other – and also against themselves (in

order to determine if their scribal ability may have changed over time). Ultimately, we will not

ignore these substantive textual changes: they will be considered in depth in part 7 of volume 3

when we determine the transmission of the text from the manuscripts through the editions.

There is one other kind of spelling that we ignore in determining scribal errors, namely,

acceptable variant spellings that occurred in printed matter in the early 1800s, spelling variants

such as centre, enquire, journied, sayeth, saviour, and sea shore. It turns out that Oliver Cowdery

used these spelling variants quite often, and some of these variants are still acceptable in America

or in Britain.

We therefore apply the first three errors types to the known Book of Mormon scribes,

and we end up with two measures: (1) misspellings, and (2) obvious scribal slips. The latter

measures the overall sloppiness of the scribe and combines spelling slips and obvious word slips.

We exclude Joseph Smith from the list because his 28 words in O form too small a sampling to

make any effective analysis of his scribal work in the Book of Mormon manuscripts (there are

no slips and only one misspelling, citty). We list eight samplings of Oliver Cowdery’s scribal

work (one sampling from O and seven from P). For the other scribes we consider all their

scribal work. Martin Harris’s scribal work is divided into four parts. And for the sake of

comparison, we include the 1830 typesetter John Gilbert’s error rates. We end up with the

following conclusions:

(1) Martin Harris was a relatively good speller, but his rate of scribal slips was fairly high.

(2) Oliver Cowdery’s spelling improved over time. This is probably because he was the one

proofing the 1830 typeset sheets against the manuscript.

(3) Oliver Cowdery’s scribal slips were consistently low, and much better than any of the

other scribes. This is one reason why Oliver was the preferred scribe.

(4) There are two really bad scribes, Christian Whitmer and Hyrum Smith. Both their rates of

misspelling and scribal error are very high.

The final chapter of part 6 is an extensive 455-page analysis of all the misspellings in the

manuscripts as well as the spelling variants in the printed editions of the Book of Mormon. Most

of the sections in this chapter are organized according to phonemes (that is, sounds). At the end,

there are a few sections dealing with the spelling of certain graphemes (that is, letters), such as

silent e and the letter x. And to conclude this entire analysis, there is an eight-page index of all

the words in the analysis, organized according to their standard spellings.

Given all this analysis of the misspellings, one may reasonably ask: “Can there any good

thing come out of misspellings?” One purpose of part 6, dedicated entirely to the spellings in the

manuscripts and the editions, is to show the numerous ways in which spelling issues have had an

important impact in the critical text project of the Book of Mormon. Here are some of the things

that spellings errors can tell us:

(1) Joseph Smith’s pronunciation of names such as Amalickiah, Melchizedek, and Mosiah

(2) various dialectal pronunciations for the scribes: wage as written wedge (Oliver Cowdery),

scroll as scrawl (Martin Harris), Nazareth as nathareth (Christian Whitmer), and spacious

as specious (for both Christian and John Whitmer)

(3) a word’s pronunciation sometimes led to a scribal error: scourge was pronounced as if it

were scorge, leading to the replacement of scorched in Mosiah 17:13 with scourged (“they

took him and bound him and scorched > scourged his skin with fagots”)

(4) the written form in O was misread by Oliver Cowdery when he copied it into P, especially

when the scribe in O was not Oliver: Christian Whitmer’s pr. sing > Oliver Cowdery’s

feeling, in 1 Nephi 8:31 (“and he also saw other multitudes pressing > feeling their way

towards that great and spacious building”)

(5) errors made by the 1830 typesetter, misreading a spelling in either O or P: claped in P >

clasped in the 1830 edition, in Alma 19:30 (“she clapped > clasped her hands”)

(6) a name was misinterpreted because of priming from preceding words in the text: shilum

in P > shiblum in the 1830 edition, in Alma 11:16 (“a shiblon is half of a senum / therefore

a shiblon for a half a measure of barley / and a shilum > shiblum is a half of a shiblon”)

(7) difficulty in interpreting the correct wording (especially for homophones): rights or rites, in

Alma 43:45 (“they were fighting … for their rights ~ rites of worship”)

(8) archaic spellings can make understanding difficult: the weapon scimitar was consistently

spelled cimeter in the 1830 edition and still is in the standard Book of Mormon text, yet

many readers wonder what this cimeter is but will not find it in their collegiate dictionary

(9) detecting forgeries, especially in the University of Chicago acquisition (Alma 3-5), dating

from the early 1980s and intending to be in Oliver Cowdery’s hand, with its unique spellings

that the scribes never otherwise used: forheads, thruout, Morman, and gilt [guilt]

(10) the spelling out of Book of Mormon names in O: Oliver Cowdery initially writing a name

phonetically, then immediately revising that spelling, apparently the result of Joseph Smith

spelling out that name for him: Zenock > Zenoch (in Alma 33:15), Amelickiah > Amalickiah

(in Alma 47:4), and Coriantummer > Coriantumr (in Helaman 1:15)

(11) the possible spelling out of common words of English: Christian Whitmer miswrote his first

instance of genealogy as jenealeja (in 1 Nephi 5:14), but then he spelled his subsequent

instances of the word correctly

(12) names that Oliver Cowdery, for no apparent reason, changed the spelling of when he copied

the text from O into P: Gaddianton (O) > Gadianton (P), Kishcumen (O) > Kishkumen (P),

and Morionton (O) > Morianton (P)


Posted from Garden City, Utah



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