Book of Mormon Symposium Marks Milestone

On 20 October 2001 a FARMS symposium titled “The Original Text of the Book of Mormon: Findings from the Critical Text Project” drew a near-capacity crowd at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library auditorium as well as a few dozen participants from California to New York to Mexico who viewed the Web-cast proceedings live via home computer.

Celebrating FARMS’s recent groundbreaking publication of the project’s first two volumes—typographical facsimiles of the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon—the event featured two presentations by BYU professor Royal Skousen, the editor and principal investigator, and remarks by three collaborators and two respondents.

Skousen, a professor of English and linguistics who has worked on the Critical Text Project since 1988, said that his research in this area aims to show every change that the Book of Mormon has undergone from the original and printer’s manuscripts through its various editions since 1830. Scribal and printer’s errors, as well as Joseph Smith’s editing for the 1837 edition, account for the majority of those changes, most of which are minor and do not affect meaning. Skousen’s research shows that five-sixths of the Book of Mormon was typeset from the printer’s manuscript, virtually 100 percent of which still exists. Because only 28 percent of the original manuscript is extant, some suspected scribal errors in the printer’s manuscript and later editions cannot be traced to the original manuscript and thus remain conjectural.

Major steps in Skousen’s research include the following: (1) the Historical Department of the LDS Church allowed Skousen to transcribe the text from ultraviolet photographs of the original manuscript and later to examine the remaining sheets of the manuscript itself; (2) the RLDS Church loaned him a photographic reproduction of the printer’s manuscript and later allowed him to examine the manuscript firsthand and have it photographed in color; (3) he located and examined scattered fragments of the original manuscript owned by private parties; and (4) the creation of a complete computerized collation of the entire text for 20 editions and the two manuscripts greatly facilitated the identification of variants. Skousen also reviewed evidence showing how certain errors crept into the text (such as when a scribe misheard Joseph or miscopied from the original manuscript) and how later grammatical editing sometimes removed non-English Hebrew idioms.

Robert Espinosa, digital projects librarian at the Lee library, described his team’s painstaking work of humidifying, unfolding, photographing, and identifying water-damaged fragments of the original manuscript. Espinosa’s identification of different paper types used in both manuscripts also proved helpful in Skousen’s research.

Ron Romig, archivist for the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church), spoke of how his associates “had to move heaven and earth” to allow Skousen access to the printer’s manuscript. In 1992 the RLDS Church also permitted Nevin Skousen, a professional photographer, to shoot color photographs of that manuscript and allowed Royal Skousen to examine 22 first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon (none exactly alike, because at various times during the printing of the 1830 edition the press was stopped so typos could be corrected).

Larry Draper, curator of Mormon Americana at the Lee library (formerly a librarian at the LDS Church’s Historical Department), discussed his role of providing Skousen access to 15 post-1830 editions of the Book of Mormon so they could be electronically scanned to create a searchable database. Using props, Draper demonstrated how the forms for the 1830 edition (large sheets of paper containing 16 pages of the text) were printed, folded, and cut.

In his second presentation, titled “The Systematic Text of the Book of Mormon,” Skousen emphasized the remarkable internal consistency of the text. His computer searches of variant readings in both manuscripts and 20 editions of the book confirm this fact. For example, all 47 occurrences of the phrase “thus ended [a period of time, usually a year]” originally used the past tense form ended, whereas the current text uses the present tense form endeth four times (a result of typos in later editions). Yet Skousen cautioned against assuming that any deviation from an apparent pattern is an error, because there are also examples of original, unique readings among similar expressions in the text. He showed examples of apparent errors of transmission and editing and concluded that not one of them alters the basic meaning of the book or its doctrine.

In concluding remarks Richard L. Anderson, emeritus professor of ancient scripture at BYU, called Skousen’s work “brilliant” and “persuasive,” and Daniel C. Peterson, associate executive director of the Institute, pointed out that the evidence from the project supports witnesses’ accounts of the divine manner in which the Book of Mormon came forth.

Skousen’s work on the history of the Book of Mormon text and his analysis of textual variants, plus the complete electronic collation, are expected to be published sometime in 2004.