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Does Truth Matter When Recounting Mormon History?

by Sharon Lindbloom
30 June 2020

The July (2020) issue of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Ensign magazine includes an article titled, “Church History: A Source of Strength and Inspiration.” It consists of selected portions from the September 9, 2018 “Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults: A Face to Face Event with Elder Cook.” For the devotional, LDS apostle Quentin Cook, along with two church historians, answered questions posed by young adult members of the church regarding church history.

As reported in the Ensign article, the question was asked, “Why isn’t the Church more open about some of the controversial things in its history?” Dr. Kate Holbrook responded with a personal story about her surprising discovery of Joseph Smith’s polygamy when she was twenty years old. She said that the church had not been hiding information, but the fact that Joseph Smith had many wives wasn’t emphasized when she was younger. Dr. Holbrook expressed sympathy for people who are troubled when they come across previously unknown church history and said, “We hope that experience for people will now become a part of the past” because there are new resources available from the church that portray “a full history.”

Quentin Cook emphasized the need for this kind of “credible history,” presented in a “credible way,” because “some people have even purposely misrepresented stories of the past to sow doubt.”

Given this foundational emphasis on an open, credible history, stories being truthfully represented, and guarding against people being blindsided by unknown historical facts, I was surprised by Dr. Holbrook’s answer to another question, “What role did the Urim and Thummim play in the translation of the Book of Mormon?”

As she answered that question, Dr. Holbrook briefly mentioned the Urim and Thummim as well as Joseph’s seer stone, but seemed to want her audience to focus on a different aspect of the translation. She said,

“If you look at a page from Joseph Smith’s personal journal that he wrote three years after translating the Book of Mormon, it’s full of crossed-out words, incomplete thoughts, and broken sentences. When you look at a page in the dictated Book of Mormon, there’s none of that. It’s complete, beautiful prose—complete sentences, nothing crossed out.” (Ensign, July 2020, 16)

Dr. Holbrook seemed to be suggesting that the Book of Mormon’s “beautiful prose,” compared to Joseph Smith’s other correction-laden writing, points toward a divine hand having been involved in the translation. But her claim for the Book of Mormon is wrong. While the beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, the prose as it was dictated by Joseph Smith was far from “complete” in the sense that it has required (and undergone) numerous corrections to get to the text as found in the Book of Mormon today. The historian’s claim to the contrary is so off-base that it seems like a good illustration of the people Quentin Cook spoke of who “have even purposely misrepresented stories of the past,” although for a different reason.

The Book of Mormon was first printed in 1830 from a “printer’s manuscript,” that is, a copy of the original. According to The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project at BYU, the printer’s manuscript was not an exact copy of the original, but was very close. This manuscript still exists today (with the exception of two missing lines), while only 25% of the original manuscript is extant.

Seven years after the printing of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, a new edition was printed containing thousands of corrections, with many more corrections made in subsequent editions. Though many examples of each type of correction could be cited, provided here is just one of each:

  • There have been corrections of mismatched plural and singular nouns and verbs as in 3 Nephi 17:6-7: “Behold, my bowels is filled with compassion towards you . . . my bowels is filled with mercy” Found in the original, corrected to “Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you . . . my bowels are filled with mercy” in a later edition.
  • There have been corrections of anachronisms as in Mosiah 21:28: “… king Benjamin had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings …” in the 1830 edition, later changed to “… king Mosiah had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings …” because according to Book of Mormon chronology, king Benjamin had previously died.
  • There have been words added, as in 1 Nephi 11:21: “And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!” in the 1830 edition, corrected later by adding three important words to say, “And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!”
  • There have been words deleted, as in Alma 14:7: “And it came to pass that he began to plead for them, from that time forth; but they reviled him, saying: Art thou also possessed with the Devil? And it came to pass that they spit upon him …” in 1830, with later editions having “crossed out” ten words to read, “And he began to plead for them from that time forth; but they reviled him, saying: Art thou also possessed with the devil? And they spit upon him …”
  • There have been corrections of wrong word choices as in Ether 13:31: “… the people upon all the face of the land were a shedding blood, and there was none to constrain them” later corrected to read, “… the people upon the face of the land were shedding blood, and there was none to restrain them.”
  • There have been corrections made to improve poor prose as in Alma 56:10: “… for behold, his army had been reduced by the Lamanites because of the numerority of their forces having slain a vast number of our men …” in 1830, corrected later to read “… for behold, his army had been reduced by the Lamanites because their forces had slain a vast number of our men ….”

In an article that examines the alleged divine origins of the Book of Mormon, Christian scholar Ronald Huggins notes the existence of a great number of grammatical corrections:

“RLDS Church Historian Richard Howard counted 137 places where Joseph corrected the grammar by replacing ‘was’ with ‘were,’ ‘were’ with ‘was,’ ‘is’ with ‘are,’ ‘are’ with ‘is.’ Howard counted more than two thousand refinements that had been entered into the Printer’s Manuscript, mostly by Joseph Smith himself, more than a thousand of which ended up in the 1837 second edition of the Book of Mormon.” (“The Book of Mormon: Another Bible or Another Bible Forgery, Part 1, Salt Lake City Messenger, November 2016, 7)

As has been pointed out by Christian researchers Jerald and Sandra Tanner, well-respected LDS general authority B. H. Roberts made it clear that these many errors in the first edition of the Book of Mormon could not be blamed on typos:

“That errors of grammar and faults in dictation do exist in the Book of Mormon (and more especially and abundantly in the first edition) must be conceded; and what is more, while some of the errors may be referred to inefficient proof-reading, such as is to be expected in a country printing establishment, yet such is the nature of the errors in question, and so interwoven are they throughout the diction of the Book, that they may not be disposed of by saying they result from inefficient proof-reading or referring them to the mischievous disposition of the ‘typos’ or the unfriendliness of the publishing house. The errors are constitutional in their character; they are of the web and woof of the style, and not such errors as may be classed as typographical. Indeed, the first edition of the Book of Mormon is singularly free from typographical errors.” (Defense of the Faith, by B. H. Roberts, 280-281; reprinted in A New Witness For Christ in America, by Francis W. Kirkham, Vol. 1, 200-201)

Contrary to what the Ensign article claims about the dictated Book of Mormon, it cannot be truthfully said that it was “complete, beautiful prose—complete sentences, [with] nothing crossed out.” Thousands of corrections have been necessary to make the text what it is today.

Which prompts me to ask: Why would an LDS historian make such a surprising and unsupportable claim during a worldwide broadcast to LDS young adults? Why does the LDS church continue to say one thing while doing another? Either the church places value on its stated commitment to telling its true history (which would be evidenced by doing so), or it places higher value on substituting faith-promoting history for the truth (which is evidenced by misrepresenting the stories of the past). There is no doubt that the church has more recently made some of its controversial history accessible to those who search for it, yet the church is pretty selective on when and where that faith-challenging information is disclosed.

In this particular instance, the truth-telling problem goes beyond concealing or revealing historical information. Here, a worldwide church broadcast and a subsequent (editable) church article perpetuated an unnecessary misrepresentation regarding the Book of Mormon translation. The church historian did not need to include that sort of claim in her answer to the original question about the Urim and Thummim, and the church did not need to reproduce it in its subsequent article. So, what’s going on here?

The Bible tells us that God delights in truth (Psalm 51:6) and all His work is done in faithfulness (Psalm 33:4). Truth matters to God, so truth matters to God’s people.

Latter-day Saint, does truth matter to you?

To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.

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