The Book of Mormon: A 20th Century Text

John Nilssonbook of mormon, church, doubt, faith, General Authorities, historicity, history, LDS, Leaders, Mormon, President Monson, scripture, smith 16 Comments

There are many positions on which century the Book of Mormon originated in, but most seem to fall into two general camps: the book was largely produced in the fifth century by Moroni, or in the nineteenth century by Joseph Smith.

There is a third view: the text was largely produced in the 20th century by committees of LDS Church employees.

Let me explain: when I say production, I mean the process of presenting, formatting, editing, shaping, and summarizing which goes along with creating a readable document for mass consumption. When I first read portions of the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, I was struck by how differently the text read than the smooth twentieth century edition I was raised with.

The 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon was presided over by a committee of apostles including Thomas Monson (presumably for his professional background in printing) and Bruce McConkie and Boyd Packer (presumably for their doctrinal expertise). It is believed that the chapter summaries found in this edition of the Book of Mormon were written either solely or primarily by McConkie.

The 1981 edition is also the edition which has been most read by Mormons and non-Mormons, especially since President Benson’s push to flood the earth (or at least, thrift store bookshelves) with the Book of Mormon. Not many of us have the 1920 edition at hand or earlier versions. I remember my surprise when I compared my 1981 version’s rendition of “pure and delightsome” to refer to the Lamanites in 2 Nephi to my mom’s pre-1981 version of the same verse which read “white and delightsome.” Some twenty-odd major textual changes of this type were made to the 1981 edition, apparently by preferring the original manuscript to the printer’s.

Do you think a heavily edited production of the text (edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, chapter summaries which highlight points of doctrine important to the editors, ) enhances respect for the text, and therefore increases the believability of, claims for historicity of the events depicted in the Book of Mormon? Or does it detract from the claims of historicity by seeming too clean, too “produced”?

Comments 16

  1. There are probably two schools of thought:
    1) formatting like other scripture has a legitimizing effect. That’s a (maybe) skeptical perspective.
    2) communication is two-way and requires textual clarity; words, grammar, cultural connotations of words (that change over time and differ from group to group), punctuation, etc., should not impede understanding. Words and format should not be allowed to get in between the communicators (both the speaker and the receiver). That’s a writer’s perspective.

    Regardless of the first, some of the formatting changes are necessary for the second to be accomplished, which is the purpose of all communication.

  2. Post


    I wonder about your point 2, in the sense that the Church included in the missionary editions of the Book of Mormon, presumably in an attempt to increase “clarity”, illustrations of Book of Mormon scenes by Arnold Friberg, and pictures of relics of ancient MesoAmerica in some editions as well.

    At some point increasing clarity impacts the message of the text, like when readers can’t imagine Abinadi in any other way except as a skinny old guy in chains in a court with a fat bad man with lounging leopards about the place.

    Both Friberg’s illustrations and the heavily edited text present a respectable smooth image that sometimes, at least for me, clashes with the rough content (Shiz and Coriantumr, piles of rotting corpses, cataclysmic upheaval to the landscape, etc.)

    Has anyone out there read a weatherbeaten first edition of the Book of Mormon with the original errors left in?

  3. A couple of years ago, I made my own edition of the Book of Mormon by having Word do a document compare between the 1830 and 1981 editions. It shows redlined strikeout text blue text for the additions. Since I wasn’t particularly interested in the punctuation, I didn’t do a comparison for that. I’ve found that I prefer reading this version over my current 1981 edition or the expired version of 1921–mainly because many of the changes bring up additional ideas I hadn’t previously considered. Of course, my edition has left out all the chapter headings and only the chapter numbers have been preserved. As an aside, the change to “pure and delightsome” was made in 1840 by Joseph Smith; but all of the changes that were unique to that edition reverted to the 1837 version until the latest edition.

    I also assume that Pres. Monson was in charge of the publication committee because of seniority in the quorum rather than for previous work experience.

  4. “It is believed that the chapter summaries found in this edition of the Book of Mormon were written either solely or primarily by McConkie.”

    Actually, it’s stated fact.

    “QUESTION: Who is responsible for the little informational headings preceding each chapter in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price?

    ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: I would be glad to tell you who did that… I think it would be no breach of etiquette or of confidentiality if I were to say with pleasure that Elder Bruce R. McConkie produced those headings.” in “The JST: Retrospect and Prospect—A Panel” Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things,
    ed. Robert L. Millet, Monte S. Nyman, p. 300-301.

  5. John – I tend to agree with you about the effects of the Friberg paintings and mesoamerican artifacts which are really more like school of thought #1 than #2 anyway. I think I lose IQ points every time I see an Arnold Friberg painting, but to the church’s defense, what other paintings do they have to pull from? Old family Bibles also have weird pictures in them. It’s all in what’s available. I agree with you that it doesn’t reflect the real content very well (it’s on par with the highly feminized and incorrectly depicted crucifixion paintings of earlier centuries in the Catholic church).

    That BRM was a major contributor to the 1981 version (headings, etc.–including the one major correction that was just made to insert “among the”) doesn’t come as a surprise; it also makes me like it less. Does that make me a bad person?

  6. Ah, you bring back fond memories of my mission. I brought along my mother’s 1976 triple (which at least had D&C 137 and 138 in the PoGP, but not yet in the D&C and no OD2) and read it every morning during companionship study. After the first time we realized our texts differed (beyond the HUGE amounts of “exceeding”/”exceedingly” changes) I started to mark all of them obviously and even used the copy machine in the ward to make little glue-ins of the 1981 text. Most of the changes were benign, but at least one or two of them we’d agree to bring up with the President at Zone Conferences. It was a blast to both study that way and get a sense of the modern history of the book (nearly two centuries now!) and also have a ready comeback for the constant “Don’t you boys know your Mormon Book has gone through thousands of changes?” (“Why yes sir; in fact we just found another one this past week during our study of it. We’d love to come in and discuss some of them with you, if you’d like.”)

  7. Neal: Certainly. The best format I have is in Microsoft Reader. I’ve sent it to quite a few people and would make it available for download from a site if I knew how. I can be emailed at my blog–just click on the EMAIL below my picture.


  8. Regardless of the first, some of the formatting changes are necessary for the second to be accomplished, which is the purpose of all communication.

    I really agree with that thought, and was going to state it when I read it already said 😉

  9. “Has anyone out there read a weatherbeaten first edition of the Book of Mormon with the original errors left in?” (#2) Indeed, that is one of the “rare” privileges enjoyed by antiquarians, and it can be sobering to contemplate the less-varnished presentation. The development and redaction of texts is an interesting process. In the case of the Book of Mormon, of course, even the punctuation had to be supplied by non-Mormons at the Grandin printing shop, so it is little wonder that Royal Skousen has such a heavy responsibility now to attempt a Critical Text.

    When I transcribe difficult original manuscripts from that era, I often supply an adjacent “reading column” with minimal editing and a few crucial words supplied. Comparing a readable text to a rough original reminds us how much effect a cleaned-up version can have. And of course the Book of Mormon’s Bible-imitating Elizabethan (or Jacobean, or “King James”) literary style has far more power over our psyches than many of us might acknowledge. “Smith judiciously wrote his book,” observed Dr. Paul C. Gutjahr, “in an idiom that constantly invoked the holy cadences of the King James Bible. While Alexander Campbell was taking the eth endings off words, Smith was putting them on.” – An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, [c. 1999]), 153.

  10. Just for the record, Friberg’s painting of Abinadi shows jaguars (which are found in the Americas) and not leopards (which are not).

  11. Post

    Left Field,

    Thanks for the clarification on jaguars.

    I should point out that Friberg’s painting also shows Europeans (which were not found in the Americas in the time period indicated) and not Palestinians or Asians(which maybe were?)

  12. John,

    Your example of “pure and delightsome” vs. “white and delightsome” is a particularly interesting example, but runs counter to your point.

    It was Joseph Smith (in the 1840 edition) that made that change. The LDS church was just slow to include the change in their version of the BoM because they based their later editions after 1840 on the European editions which didn’t include the clarification. In 1981 they finally “caught up” with all the clarifications JS had intended. This is well documented.

  13. I have read the Book of Mormon and found it to be of interest to me. It is very interesting book and teaches many good moral values. I would say it is one of my favorite books to read. The only reason I have not joined the Mormon church is because my parents object and so far I am dependent on them. But I would say that Mormons are very descent people who love Jesus Christ of Nazareth and who live their faith. I would also say that the LDS church is very respectable church and the mormon bishops are the most dedicated men I have ever met. I wish I could learn more about the church if anyone wants to e-mail me and correspond with me I would love that. I promise to respond within 24 hours or less and I am very good at answering my e-mails. Most sincerely; David Edward Oliver

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