Brian Hales has written much on Joseph Smith’s polygamy in the past. He recently wrote this article — Changing Critics’ Criticisms of the Book of Mormon Changes — for the Interpreter in 2/18.
You can listen in under 26 minutes here.
Key quotes below:
“The words dictated by Joseph Smith between April 7 and June 30, 1829, were published with few alterations. However, Joseph intervened in the 1837 and 1840 printings to make multiple changes in the previously published wordings. Other emendations have been authorized by subsequent Church leaders.
Several authors have documented different tallies of alternations made in the various versions of the Book of Mormon (see below). Understanding the quantity and quality of these emendations may be helpful in understanding how Joseph Smith created the text in the first place.
Two critics took the time to count the changes. Turns out, they underestimated when compared to the digital work done by LDS scholar, Royal Skousen:
Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s 1965 publication, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, has probably had a greater influence. Much like Lamoni Call’s approach in the 1890s, Jerald Tanner sat down eighty years later with an 1830 edition and a 1964 edition of the Book of Mormon and annotated all changes he could identify. His count almost doubled Call’s. In their introduction, the Tanners also allege a conspiracy by Church leaders to conceal the changes: “The changes made in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s revelations have apparently caused the Mormon Church leaders some concern, for they fear that their people will find out about them.”12
In the last two decades, digitalization of the texts has allowed a much more nuanced analysis of the words and word substitutions by a team of scholars in the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project led by BYU professor Royal Skousen.13 When he was asked, “How many changes are there in the Book of Mormon text?” Skousen replied:
I don’t know for sure, and I’ll tell you why it’s hard to count them. In my computerized collation of the two manuscripts and 20 significant editions of the Book of Mormon, I can count the number of places of variation. These are places where there’s a textual variant. The variant itself can involve spelling, punctuation, words missing or added, a grammatical change, and so on. In all, there are about 105,000 places of variation in the computerized collation.14
Critics claim no errors at all should be present. But the translation at least partly involved Joseph. And the original didn’t include punctuation, headings, columns, etc.
Different camps of believing Latter-day Saint scholars believe Joseph exercised what have been called tight or loose control.
There is evidence for both camps, tight and loose control. Joseph spelled out proper nouns, but seemed to have freedom to speak (loose control), using words he knew, and playing a role in the transmission.
Others, such as Martin Harris and David Whitmer, reported that Joseph literally saw a scroll with Egyptian characters with English below. That is the view of tight control.
“Joseph Smith left no description of how the words came to him as he dictated. At a Church conference in 1831, Hyrum Smith invited the Prophet to explain how the Book of Mormon came forth. Joseph’s response was that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and … it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”24 His only answer was that it came “by the gift and power of God.”25
That Joseph contributed to the process in an undefined but necessary way was demonstrated in 1829 when Oliver Cowdery attempted to translate but failed. The Lord explained why: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask.” (D&C 9:7–8). It appears that translating involved more than mimicking a court recorder reading back previous testimony.”
Brian Hales identifies and categorizes the changes and variants below:
Understanding the “Changes” and “Variants”
The Book of Mormon is “a literary feat for the ages,” writes Huffington Post blogger Jack Kelly. That Joseph Smith “dictated most of it in a period of less than three months and did not revise a single word before its initial printing is even more jaw-dropping.”29 So Joseph did not revise the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon before it went to print, but as Lamoni Call and the Tanners have documented, changes were made in subsequent printings.
If numerous revisions, rewritings, edits, and modifications were needed in a second edition, then the question is why? Did the original Book of Mormon manuscript contain many errors that needed correction like the early draft of most books that are eventually printed? If so, its creation might not have required divine intervention or have been significantly different from other publications. But if the changes constituted minor letter and word substitutions to upgrade the dialect and grammar without changing the primary story line or message, then Joseph’s creation would retain an important uniqueness.
Royal Skousen has recently published “all of the cases of grammatical variation in the history of the Book of Mormon text.”30 His study identifies 106,508 “accidentals” in the different versions of the Book of Mormon.31
Skousen’s research supports that none of the general categories of changes indicates the presence of glaring problems within the Book of Mormon narrative.
The two major (Tanner) claims related to adding “Son of” to God in four places in the Book of Mormon. And changing Benjamin to Mosiah in two positions. Hardly major changes. Only editing changes for clarity.
“In Joseph’s early teachings, Christ was both God and the son of God, so either rendition was accurate.42 It could be reasoned that this highlighted change did not alter any doctrine or teaching, but the additional words served to more clearly distinguish the teaching from Trinitarian views popular in other religious traditions. Skousen speculates, “Perhaps he didn’t like the Catholic sounding expression” and that the addition was simply a “clarification.”43
It appears that of all the possibilities, these two emendations were the most significant changes the Tanners could identify. If more important historical or doctrinal alterations had been encountered in their research, it is probable those would have been mentioned first.
The significance of all the changes will likely remain controversial, but a couple of observations can be made. First, these two do not seem to represent an attempt to correct sweeping contradictions or blunders in the text but rather provide clarification to potential ambiguities. Second, if these are the most egregious changes critics can identify, the Book of Mormon narrative, as it fell from Joseph’s lips, was remarkably free from significant errors.
Book of Mormon Changes Do Not
Represent Revising or Rewriting
As discussed above, the changes identified by Skousen and Carmack do not refer to major modifications or corrections to sections of the Book of Mormon’s original wording.
(LDS critic) historian Dan Vogel acknowledged, “Smith’s method of dictation did not allow for rewriting. It was a more-or-less stream-of-consciousness composition,” adding, “It is not that the manuscript went through a major rewrite.”44
Normal content editing, which involves revising and reworking parts of the text, did not occur in the original or in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon.
Many naturalists consider Joseph Smith to have been a first-time novelist in 1829 as he created the Book of Mormon, so the lack of revisions is unexpected.45
Professional writers and instructors generally emphasize the need for rewriting in order to create a finished manuscript. Betty Mattix Dietsch, author of Reasoning & Writing Well, addresses the plight of first-time novelists: “Some inexperienced writers seem to think they have hit the jackpot on their first draft. They evade the fact that every exploratory draft needs more work.”46
Note: image above is from the 9th edition.
“I usually write about ten more or less complete drafts” confides Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, “each one usually though not always closer to the final thing.”47 In her college [Page 62]textbook, Steps to Writing Well, Jean Wyrick emphasizes the importance of rewriting:
The absolute necessity of revision cannot be overemphasized. All good writers rethink, rearrange, and rewrite large portions of their prose. … Revision is a thinking process that occurs any time you are working on a writing project. It means looking at your writing with a “fresh eye”—that is, reseeing your writing in ways that will enable you to make more effective choices throughout your essay. … Revision means making important decisions about the best ways to focus, organize, develop, clarify, and emphasize your ideas. … Virtually all writers revise after “reseeing” a draft in its entirety.48
Louis Brandeis, who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, coined a common maxim for authors: “There is no good writing; there is only good rewriting.”
That changes have been made in the Book of Mormon text should not be confused with the idea that revisions or rewriting occurred. They did not, which is surprising for a frontier-schooled twenty-three-year-old farm boy who is listed as “author.”49
A review of critical literature regarding the Book of Mormon identifies two classes of critics. There are those who tell their audiences that many changes have been made and provide examples (like the Tanners). There are others who report “upwards of 4,000” changes without any further discussion.50
On the surface, voices that stress the thousands of emendations could easily generate a mental picture of a book that underwent significant revisions and rewriting after its first edition. If the overall insignificance of the changes is not disclosed, the number of 2,000 or 3,913 changes could be used by critics to mislead their audiences, as propaganda is designed to do.
Jerald and Sandra Tanners have sold many copies of their book 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, since first released in 1965. The title of the book is technically accurate. But how many unsuspecting observers have read (and continue to read) the title and assume the Book of Mormon manuscript required thousands of corrections to compensate for significant mistakes in Joseph Smith’s dictation?
The perception created by the title might be misleading because readers may impute more significance to the word “changes” than actually justified. If transparency is sought, then adding a subtitle might be useful: 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon: But None are Really Significant.
Royal Skousen summarized his research: “Errors have crept into the text, but no errors significantly interfere with either the message of the book or its doctrine. … Ultimately, all of this worry over the number of changes is specious.”51
Reid Moon, a 1985 BYU grad, shows the first five editions of the Book of Mormon printed in Joseph’s lifetime.
By Royal Skousen at FAIR, published in 2015. Royal discusses several minor emendations. Nobody knows more about the Book of Mormon manuscripts and the Book of Mormon changes than Royal Skousen.
The Book of Mormon is a marvel. The translation was a matchless feat. It contains the restored Gospel.
This podcast discusses the 28 books in the library nearest to Palmyra. It also discusses the general learning Joseph received, which was similar to others in his region. He didn’t, however, get much formal education.
Martin Tanner, the host for this episode of the Interpreter Show, also brings up the Martin Harris and Charles Anthon encounter.
In this weekly episode Ostler’s synthesis is this: the Book of Mormon has ancient, as well as modern, elements.
Ostler and his sons discuss several modern topics that others suggest influenced the Book of Mormon: View of the Hebrews, the use of the King James Bible, claimed anachronisms, possible Wesleyan (Methodist) influence on Joseph Smith, a very developed form of Christianity (not available in ancient Judaism), and others.
Then Blake and his sons review the improbability of Joseph knowing ancient material and otherwise guessing correctly in so many areas.
- Mosiah 1-5, 7-8: closely reflect covenant renewal festival in the Old Testament
- Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite: evidence of prophetic lawsuit, following biblical form
- 1 Nephi 1: ancient form of prophetic commission
Blake sees ancient and modern influences in the same text. The same thing occurs in the Bible, as older texts are re-purposed and redacted.
They also discuss the translation process that was not a simple fax from heaven. William Smith described how Martin Harris used the breastplate/spectacles to translate in 1828. He stopped using this system, as it strained his eyes.
Once Oliver was involved (1829), Joseph used a chocolate-colored stone he found near him home when he was digging in a well. Blake explains that David Whitmer’s explanation — ancient text with English below — can’t be the answer for a variety of reasons.
- Joseph wouldn’t have edited a text directly and exclusively given by God (with no room for variation or modification); in fact, in 1827 Joseph added and modified text to clarify
- translation will never be directly and solely from God, unless God overpowers Joseph’s mind
- no translation can possibly be exactly word for word; and Joseph didn’t know a language other than English at this time
- Ostler speaks of the Gospel of John, which was written long after Jesus’ death, and contained insights into Jesus’ divinity (living water, bread of life, etc); these insights weren’t understood at the time of Jesus, as the other Gospels show that the Apostles didn’t understand Jesus’ mission and teachings during his life; the Gospel of John in much more reflective and imposes a more complete view
- Ostler argues that, like the Gospel of John, Joseph is receiving the revelation of the text, but also the true meaning of the text in a 19th Century thought world
- not only is the Book of Mormon a translation (from the Golden Plates), but it’s also a revelation with Joseph’s expansion and reflected through Joseph’s world
- puzzler: no text of Isaiah on table, but he has multiple chapters; uses neither plates nor book available while Joseph is looking at stone (within hat); he was simply inspired to know revelation; he translated just as he did the parchment of John, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and other translations (revelation is the answer)
- early witnesses needed Golden Plates to help Church grow, not because Joseph viewed the plates to translate (in 1828 he gave up trying to understand the characters)
- theory of revelation: includes a human and God, but it’s a human experiences; this experience requires interpretive framework; reflects ancient text, but his own abilities, terminology, and cultural influence has its effects observable
- there’s no such thing as revelation from God’s point of view; we get revelation from our point of view
- the Book of Mormon is twice inspired! Once with the original prophet, but second with Joseph’s expansion.
- Was Joseph aware he was expanding beyond the plates? In 1837, Joseph felt inspired to expand the already-published Book of Mormon. Ostler argues that he originally followed inspiration, not knowing he was the instrument to expand.
- Joseph was free to express, not give an isomorphic 1:1 translation. Any translation has “play” in it. Ostler believe he received concepts and phraseology, and then explained it.
- The Book of Mormon revelation was given great liberty what the underlying text meant.
- Ostler recognizes that chiasmus, Hebrew phrases, separate and unique voices in the book (Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni) are all evidences against the expansion theory.
“That They Might Have Understanding”: Revelation as a Process, by Stephen Harper.
Key points below:
Revelation is communication in which God is a flawless, divine encoder, but mortals are the decoders. Various kinds of “noise” prevent perfect understanding.
There is no evidence that Joseph Smith thought in technical terms of communication theory, but he understood these ideas well. He did not assume as we might that his revelation texts were faxed from heaven.
He understood that the Lord could certainly send signals seamlessly, but he knew better than anyone else that he lacked the power to receive the messages immaculately or to recommunicate them perfectly.
He considered it “an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord,” as he put it, largely because he felt confined by what he called the “total darkness of paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.”
Joseph often revised his revelations before publishing them. He would reflect, edit, and revise. In contrast to what became Joseph’s approach, Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon and only later made few changes.
Consider these thoughts (the conclusion from Dr. Underwood’s devotional):
October 13, 2009, Grant Underwood. Professor of History, Brigham Young University
In conclusion, let us listen to two great students of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The first is F. Henry Richards, one of our Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) “cousins” and longtime member of their First Presidency.
Edwards counseled readers of the Doctrine and Covenants to “not be unduly concerned about the exact phrasing in which revelation is recorded, nor even when further light makes it possible to enrich this phrasing in the attempt to convey this further light.
What is important is that the record shall prove the gateway to understanding, as it has to many thousands who have studied it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” My brothers and sisters, however we may view the process by which scriptural texts are composed, Edwards reminds us that in the end those texts should become a “gateway” to God rather than an idol that replaces Him.
Similar thoughts were expressed by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in his April 2008 general conference address, and to him we give the concluding word. Said he,
“The scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of that ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God.”
In the spirit of Elder Holland’s insightful reminder, may we ever strive to let the written “word of God” in its full divinity and humanity lead us to the Living Word himself. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Another view of the story behind the revelations.
Published by FAIR Mormon in 2015. The video subtitle is “Using the Joseph Smith Papers to Understand the Doctrine and Covenants.”
Was it 116 pages?
Interestingly, 116 pages were the number of pages — dictated by Oliver Cowdery — needed to get up to Mosiah 3. The lost manuscript contained the Book of Mormon narrative from Lehi through Mosiah 2.
Martin Harris’ brother, Emer (distant ancestor of Dallin Harris Oaks), reported that the lost manuscript consisted of over 200 pages.
Contrary to what people may know (and not discovered till the 1990s), Joseph resumed translating from Mosiah to the end of Moroni. Only then did they use the small plates of Nephi to complete their task and add the (now) first books in this scripture.
Jeff Bradshaw spoke on this topic recently:
Each major author in the Book of Mormon had his own style and vocabulary:
I’ve heard critics say the Book of Mormon isn’t unique in any way. But it is. Several time lines, complex and novel doctrines, and interweaving narratives.
And examples often cited by critics — Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” — took years of development and represented their best (not first, unaided) work.
Years of preparation preceeded these two books. Joseph, in contrast, was not an author. He was not educated. Not an academic.
He had no editor. No feedback. No revisions before publication, except primarily to add punctuation not present in the original dictation.
Oliver Cowdery was the primary scribe. From April 7th through the end of June 1829 they translated. Less than 60 working days.
Many details here. A quote below:
“The dictation flowed smoothly. From the surviving portions of the Original Manuscript it appears that Joseph dictated about a dozen words at a time. Oliver would read those words back for verification, and then they would go on. Emma later added that after a meal or a night’s rest, Joseph would begin, without prompting, where he had previously left off (The Saints’ Herald 26 [Oct. 1, 1879]:290). No time was taken for research, internal cross-checking, or editorial rewriting.”
The dictated draft was copied onto the printer’s manuscript and published by Grandin in Palmyra.
No evidence exists Joseph used other sources, despite desperate critics’ claims. His wife Emma said Joseph couldn’t have his such sources from her if he tried.
October 2017 General Conference talk by Elder Callister:
Elder Callister gave another wonderful speech below:
Royal Skousen — the leading expert on the Book of Mormon manuscripts — details the process of dictation and printing:
This book was a product of inspiration. Translated by the gift and power of God.
In Sunday’s afternoon conference session, Elder Tad R. Callister directly addressed so many critical claims. Watch the talk here.
Critics’ Claims fall short. Very short.
Claim ONE: Joseph was a creative genius at 23.
Critics now say this. But nobody thought Joseph was a genius from 1820 – 1844. Instead, they laughed at his “obvious” fraud.
100s of unique names, places, and details. Where’d all that creativity originate? Critics now claim Joseph used numerous books and materials. Not a single person reported seeing Joseph with such. Indeed, scribes, including Emma explained Joseph lacked notes or manuscript upon which to rely. And Emma further noted that Joseph couldn’t have concealed such if he had tried.
In fact, Joseph dictated page after detailed, interwoven, harmonious page with his head in a dark hat, looking at a seer stone.
If he used the mountain of books (for which there is no evidence) as critics claim, how did he sift through it all, winnow out the irrelevant, and keep the intricate facts straight? He dictated 500+ pages fluidly.
To pull this scheme off, Joseph must have also had a photographic memory of prodigious proportions. But critics don’t seem to have ever made that claim in his day.
The above only accounts for the book’s historical content.
Claim TWO: Joseph was a theological genius at 23.
Again, critics say this now, though they didn’t in his lifetime.
Think of what the Book of Mormon contains. Its teachings clarify and contradict Christian teachings of his time. Joseph wrote that the Fall was a positive step forward. Nobody claims that. His dictation described the covenants of baptism. Rich doctrinal insights into the Atonment and Resurrection. Sermon on faith in Alma 32. Allegory of the Olive Tree.
All of this was off the top of his head with no notes? Not possible. Instead, God’s fingerprints are all over this book.
Why didn’t anyone else say all of this in the last 1800 years? “Geniuses” have lived and died. It wasn’t genius. It was revelation.
Claim THREE: Joseph was a naturally gifted writer at 23.
Joseph Interweaved names, places, strategies, coined phrases that are now on refrigerator doors, etc. These are messages that live, breathe, and inspire.
Joseph dictated the entire work in 65 working days. With only (mostly) minor grammatical corrections after that. No working draft.
Emma disagreed with this claim. Emma says Joseph couldn’t write a coherent letter. Elder Nelson made 40 drafts of a recent conference talk. Precision take work. And time. Lots of time.
What of Joseph’s other claims?
Golden plates? LOL! Everyone knew in Joseph’s day that papyrus and parchment was what the ancients wrote on! Unrelenting criticism was heaped upon Joseph. Now experts know metal records exist elsewhere.
Use of cement! Another LOL. Till cement structures were found in ancient America. Lucky guesser, Joseph!
In spite of all the odds, Joseph guessed right over and over and over? Sure.
None of this — guessing-right-consistently hypothesis — makes sense. Further, all 11 witnesses remained true.
The Book of Mormon is an inspiration.
From John Welch: “Hours Never to be Forgotten: Timing the Book of Mormon Translation”
A short version of the Josiah Stowell account starts around the 8:15 mark. A relative of Stowell filed a suit and accused Joseph of “glass-looking” and “being a disorderly person.”
Josiah Stowell even testified on Joseph’s account, and the judge did not find him guilty of anything.
From the Mormon Newsroom:
Legal Trails of Joseph Smith, by Joseph Bentley.
Joseph was involved in over 175 legal proceedings. 50 cases were brought against him as criminal charges. Joseph was patient in his afflictions.