Scholars & Saints

The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon (feat. Robin Jensen)

November 05, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 25
Scholars & Saints
The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon (feat. Robin Jensen)
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Robin Jensen (Joseph Smith Papers) talks with me about the recently published facsimile edition of the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, part of the Joseph Smith Papers's Revelations & Translations series. We talk about early Latter-day Saint record-keeping, the relationship between prophetic authority and scriptural texts, and much more.

 The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon

Robin Jensen, The Joseph Smith Papers Project
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

 

Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Robin Jensen—historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers project. Dr. Jensen has edited multiple volumes in the JSP, including all of the five volumes in the Revelations & Translations series, which include The Book of Abraham and Related [Manuscripts], The Printer's Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, and The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon

So Robin, you've worked more closely with the physical scriptural texts produced by Joseph Smith than almost anyone else. What originally got you interested in working with historical documents and Latter-day Saint documents in particular? 

Robin Jensen: I think one of the biggest impetuses for me joining the project was I needed money {laughter}. I was a master's student at Brigham Young University and like a lot of students, I was looking for supplemental income. I did not like waking up every day at 3:30 AM to go sweep floors as my custodial job then demanded. So, I applied for a research assistant position at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. And I was hired by Ron Walker when they were working on the Mountain Meadows Massacre book, and eventually I made my way to the Joseph Smith Papers. And I never looked back. This approach of looking at history through the documents themselves was just eye-opening for me. I absolutely loved it. And I have been with the Joseph Smith Papers for nearly 20 years reading, researching, editing, thinking about manuscripts and printed text. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, so tell us more about the Joseph Smith Papers project. This has like you said, been going for about 20 years and we're actually reaching the end now of the scope of that project. So tell us a little bit more about the background, it's sort of relationship with other historical projects that the church has had over the years and maybe what's next after the final volumes come out. 

A Brief History of the Joseph Smith Papers Project

Robin Jensen: Yeah. So there's kind of the history of the Joseph Smith Papers project, but then there's kind of the pre-history and the pre-history really can go back 'til well, I don't know, 1838. Joseph Smith wanted his, his story out there. He wanted his story published. There's kind of this rich tradition of, of printing historical manuscripts. B.H. Roberts did it with The History of the Church. Several people in the 20th century were publishing historical documents, but a man by the name of Dean Jessee really got things started. He surveyed a lot of archives throughout the country. Went through the church's own material and started gathering Joseph Smith's documents and he really wanted to publish those documents for scholars. And this wasn't a new idea for him. He was borrowing from the larger tradition of documentary editing. Julian Boyd is kind of considered the first modern scholarly documentary editor for the Thomas Jefferson papers. But Dean Jessee realized that if we wanted writers to be fair about the church history and the church, then they needed sources. And one of the ways to provide those sources was to edit and publish them. So he actually started, he published two volumes called the Papers of Joseph Smith, but then, it became daunting. There were some political things. There was need to kind of re-envision that. So, around 2001, the church decided to publish the Joseph Smith Papers. This was approved and authorized by church leaders themselves. But this was a scholarly endeavor. In fact, that question kind of went up all the way to the top saying, “Who's our primary audience, are we writing for members of the church? Are we writing for scholars?” And the answer back was, “You are writing for scholars. This is a scholarly project.” But we were also told that we shouldn't forget about the members. So if you open up an edition of the Joseph Smith Papers, it's definitely scholarly, but it's also not inaccessible for average Latter-day Saints. And so, we were fortunate enough to receive funding from a benefactor and that made it possible that we could publish a fairly aggressive schedule of two volumes per year. Our first volume was around 2008 or nine. And then we published two volumes a year ever since. And so next year in the spring of 2023 will be our final print volume. Although we have a very robust online web presence, josephsmithpapers.org, where all of the documents that we have published in the volumes, plus some additional documents that either we didn't know about when we were publishing the volume or kind of the routine documents that we decided not to publish in the volumes, they will all be available online. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, so what's next for the historians who've been involved in this project? You yourself have been involved in this project for nearly 20 years. What, what do you do after Joseph Smith? 

Robin Jensen: I don't know. I mean, Joseph Smith was so big and just it was such a monumental project that anything else we do it, it kind of seems, yeah, it's not Joseph Smith, but the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a very large collection of manuscripts. Honestly, we could have thousands of historians working in the department, publishing documents and we would never get to the end of it. So we're moving on to other projects, we've announced several. I myself am working on the journals of William Clayton, an early Latter-day Saint who lived in Nauvoo, moved to Utah. He kept some very important journals that some of them have been made available. Most of them have not. And so, we are publishing the complete transcript of those journals. We have a Brigham Young project, an Eliza R. Snow project, a George F. Richards project. We've finished publishing George Q. Cannon's journals. We're working on a Young Women's history. We're thinking about what a Latter-day Saint women's history might look like. So yes, there are a lot of things that we're looking into. 

Stephen Betts: You know, from the very beginning, Latter-day Saints have been well-known for their affinity for recording. Even recording the most mundane details of everyday life. Some of the places where this comes out, uh, most starkly of course is in things like temple recording, which John Durham Peters has written really brilliantly on that. What motivates Latter-day Saints as a culture, as a people, to, to record so extensively and what are the cultural impetuses for the kinds of amateur historian activities that have built up to what we now have as a very professionalized cadre of historians like yourself who're working on these kinds of projects? 

Robin Jensen: That is a very big question and we could spend an entire podcast just scratching the surface on that. But, you know, the very day the church was organized, April 6th, 1830. There was a revelation that was received. Joseph Smith dictated the words of a revelation and the opening words were, "Behold, there shall be a record kept among you." And so early Latter-day Saints really believed that their keeping a record was a divine commandment that they somehow were making history that they were living history and one of the ways to show that is in the records they kept. One of Wilford Woodruff's journals starts out with "The Book of Wilford." I think John Whitmer also opens his history like that, "The Book of John." Kind of this divine kind of reminiscent of Book of Mormon text or biblical texts. But they were living at that moment. There's another example, Wilford Woodruff's journal and his copy of the Book of Commandments are bound in the same leather, the same kind of binding. So you have kind of this scriptural text and your biographical autobiographical writings are kind of seen as one and the same; the materiality shows that they are both seeking after kind of this divine I wouldn't say approval, but this divine effort to document their lives. 

Now, I'm not going to say that they were perfect record-keepers because Joseph Smith's first journal, he wrote in it the first couple of days, and then he didn't write it up for the next several months. And so, you know, Joseph Smith often told his clerks that they needed to be better in keeping the records. Joseph Smith's own attempt at writing his autobiography, you know, he had several attempts at trying to create a history until he finally figured out the key. And the key was to have someone else do it. Joseph was just not, it didn't seem like he was one to, whether it was worried about that minutia or whether he was too distracted by all the things going on, whatever it was, he understood the importance of the records, but he also was weighed down by other responsibilities and kind of just the day-to-day operations of it. 

So for early Mormons, for later Mormons, record keeping was very important. It was a sign that they were God's chosen people that documented that chosenness. It also offered them a chance to set themselves apart from the larger societies within which they lived. But at the same time, they're borrowing the techniques of record keeping from the larger society. So they purchased diaries that are made for kind of an American public. The types of records they're making, you know, they're virtually indistinguishable. The form of those records are very identical to other churches or other bureaucracies at the time. So Latter-day Saints are using kind of those record keeping patterns. They're storing the records. They've created kind of a history, historical department or historical archive, it's called The Historian's Office and yeah, that's not uncommon or, or unfamiliar to kind of the larger American society. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, and I want to get back and touch just for a few minutes on scribal culture in early Mormonism. Joseph Smith, like you noted, wasn't somebody who very often wrote things by himself. We have a few examples of things that he wrote in his own hand, but very few, comparatively, and most of the time, especially when he is revealing things, when he's producing revelations, he has a scribe there and it becomes this almost very formalized relationship between somebody who acts as a voice and somebody who acts as the recorder that then kind of gets ported over into early temple recording and the kinds of witnessing that needs to happen when you record temple ordinances or other kinds of official events.

 You mentioned that Latter-day Saints are using the conventions of recording and history from the broader American culture. It seems like they're creating a certain kind of historical consciousness. Obviously "modernity" writ large, we think about as something that involves historical consciousness of we are actors within a recorded history, and we're self-aware actors within that history. It seems like what Latter-day Saints are doing are trying to create a sacred history, a sacred modernity, in which their historical consciousness is different from, but still in some ways, compatible with the broader culture. Do you have any thoughts on the role of the scribe versus the role of the translator? How does that fit into this? 

Robin Jensen: Yeah, it's an excellent point. And I think you're absolutely right that they're documenting to them, the sacred history, the sacred present that they're participating in, but it's set within the context of a sacred past and a sacred future. So, Joseph Smith as translator, the first thing that he revealed was this Book of Mormon text. It's not in any way a history that the then current Latter-day Saints could relate to. This was ancient history. This was far into the past, and yet this was an inherited text that they could read, that they could learn from that was a symbol of God's interaction with not only God's children from the past, but also God's children in the present. So, the way in which Mormon record keeping showed Mormons as active participants in the present, it also reminded them that there was the sacred past and a sacred future. The revelations often talked about the Second Coming of Christ and what needed to happen. And the activities, the missionary activities, the building of the temple. So, the record keeping, if we want to look to the revelations as part of that record keeping, we have this past, present, future that situates Mormons within kind of this sacred time, this sacred chronology that they can march through, participate in. But also, be cognizant of what's in the past and what's in the future. 

Stephen Betts: Well, and what's really unique in some ways about this as a religious phenomenon— the creation or participation in a sacred time is that when the Book of Mormon is published in 1830, this is part of a cultural moment when print media is just exploding. And the Bible in the United States is being disseminated more broadly than it ever has been before. You know, the American Bible Society and others are distributing copies of the Bible, trying to get them into every home. This is the scene upon which the Book of Mormon then becomes this opening into a sacred time for Latter-day Saints.[i] 

The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon

So, we're talking today about the fifth volume, the fifth and final volume of the Revelations and Translations series from the Joseph Smith Papers. Talk about the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Run us through kind of the significance of handwritten versus copied versus printed. And what are the kinds of religious significances of that? 

Robin Jensen: You're asking the questions that could, we could spend all time off the whole time on, right? So this, this is kind of the significance of these volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers. Historians can't often access these manuscripts—first and foremost, because they are sacred texts. They are held sacred by millions of church members throughout the world. And The Church History Department takes seriously their responsibility to keep these preserved, to preserve them for future generations. So not everyone can see these documents and the documents, particularly the Original Manuscript are in not the best shape. In fact, maybe we should just talk a little bit about the story of the manuscripts. Joseph Smith begins translating the Book of Mormon, dictating the text of the Book of Mormon to his clerks, his scribes. Martin Harris, one of the clerks, one of the scribes was excited about this text and wanted to go show it to his family. Joseph Smith initially was hesitant and then Harris convinced Joseph to let him take it. That we know, or most people know about as the 116 pages, this lost portion of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith, right then, I believe, learned the importance of the ephemeral nature of texts, that something could be lost. And you know, all that work that he and Emma Smith and Martin Harris had put into the text was gone in an instant. And so when they had finished or when they began again, the Book of Mormon text, and finished it, Joseph Smith immediately told Oliver Cowdery to make a copy of it. So, from the very beginning, we had two copies of the Book of Mormon. The first copy was the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. The second copy is what we call the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon. We call it the printer's manuscript because that's the manuscript that they take into the Grandin Press, where they publish the Book of Mormon text. Now there's a little nuance there that I'm glossing over: they don't use the full printer's manuscript. There is some evidence that they're using the original manuscript, but by and large the original was kind of the dictated manuscript. That printer's is the copy that was entrusted to the printer. 

And then of course we have the copy, the first edition of the 1830 Book of Mormon text. Now, when I look at those three main, you know, textual, the original, the printer's manuscript, the 1830. Each one of those has a different reader's experience, right? The original manuscript, let's try to go back in time and kind of imagine what it was like to read that manuscript. You're reading the words of Nephi or Moroni or Mormon or whomever. And it's handwritten. It's very likely you know who wrote this text because the only way that you're reading it is because you're in that inner circle, you're probably borrowing it from Joseph Smith or borrowing it from Oliver Cowdery. In that connection, in that ability to read from the original manuscript, you're probably hearing stories about the translation process. You're probably hearing stories of from Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery about the experience. Or maybe you have yourself experienced that process. David Whitmer, it doesn't appear that he was ever a scribe for the Book of Mormon, but he certainly observed it and he left some comments about it. 

 So right from the get-go, that original manuscript has with it this kind of built-in experience of the Book of Mormon, it's much more intimate. It's much [closer] to the actual process. If you're reading the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, you're probably also getting with that some hidden knowledge, some kind of oral subtext or context about the manuscript. The printer's manuscript, if you're reading that maybe you're the printer, maybe you don't have kind of that context or maybe, maybe by the time that Cowdery made some of those copies Joseph Smith had moved back to Harmony [Pennsylvania] and the printer's manuscript was there in Palmyra [New York] area. So maybe you're reading the printer's manuscript and you haven't really gotten to know Joseph Smith or you're, you're a printer working on the manuscript itself. So, a little bit different of an experience. And, you know, if you're reading the printer's manuscript and you see one of the Whitmers' handwriting, one of the Whitmer brothers' handwriting is on that manuscript. You can maybe talk to them, but maybe not 'cause that's in Fayette and you're in Palmyra. So anyway. A different experience. 

And then the 1830, the first edition, that's an entirely different experience as a reader. You could read that from literally anywhere in the world. Presumably you got a copy of it from a missionary or maybe you've, you've got it from a neighbor or something, but you might not have that same kind of oral context or additional information. You're dependent strictly upon the characteristics of the book itself. What does the book tell me about this text and if you read the preface to the first edition, there's not a lot about Joseph Smith. There's not a lot about the translation process itself. You just, you just jump right in, virtually into "I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents," and you know, that reminds me, that's a different ordering than what the translation order was itself. So anyway, maybe I'm belaboring this point, maybe I'm going on and on too much, but I just find so fascinating kind of the materiality of the text. What is the materiality tell us about the experience of the early Latter-day Saints? And it kind of tracks this movement from the embryo of Mormonism as kind of this very close circle, you know, Joseph Smith and just a couple of people around him. And then as the text kind of develops, then we have this expanding circle of either believers or people that are interested in the text to the point where the printing of the Book of Mormon is kind of this impersonal, you don't know who's working on it, and you know, that can continue on today. You know, if you read the Book of Mormon from the phone, on your smartphone, that's very separated from the original experience of the translation. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I think you're drawing in here is the notion that the materiality of texts create these communities. They create what Benedict Anderson calls "imagined communities," where, especially in the 19th century before the advent of, you know, mass like newspapers that everybody can read. You know, I read the New York Times in New York and you read the New York Times in Ohio or whatever the case may be, people didn't necessarily have a, a shared sense, he argues, of not only community, but time and other aspects of experience that we don't necessarily think about. And so, yeah, I like how you're drawing out that there are these various levels of involvement in the production of the physical text early on for the Book of Mormon. And that has sociological consequences that will ripple out really quite endlessly throughout the history of Mormonism, but particularly in the early you know, first, 10– 15 years. It's the people who are involved in the production of text, Oliver Cowdery, for instance, who will then choose the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Right. 

Robin Jensen: Yeah,

Stephen Betts: It's David Whitmer and Martin Harris, who will go on to be uh, leading members of sectarian movements that depart from what will then become Brigham Young's church, right? 

 I mean, what are some of the specific things you have learned? You talk about some of these sociological consequences of the materiality of the text. What are some of the specific things that you've taken away as you've studied the original manuscript? 

Robin Jensen: Ah! There's a lot. I find it interesting that the treatment of the manuscript, the original manuscript, is not how we would treat it today, right. In 1841, they are building the Nauvoo House and they have this cornerstone ceremony where they deposit several things in the cornerstone. And Joseph Smith, just as they're kind of wrapping up that they put in you know, a copy of the newspaper they'd put in coins and put in some other things. And just as they're about ready to close up the, the cornerstone Joseph Smith says, "wait, I have one more thing to add." So he runs across the street into his house. And he brings back the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. And he places it in the cornerstone. And we have from several different sources— so this seems to be independent— that Joseph Smith says, "this is the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. I've had trouble enough with it. I'm putting it in the cornerstone." And I've always puzzled about that statement, "I've had trouble enough with this." At first, I thought, “This is him kind of putting the manuscript in because he doesn't like the manuscript,” but that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. So I've kind of come to realize that, you know, scholars sometimes talk about the symbolic nature of the Book of Mormon, or the symbolism of the Book of Mormon as you know, the sign for a prophet speaking to God. I think for Joseph Smith, it was a symbol as well. It was a symbol of all the hardships that he had endured, or that was forced to endure that it really started with the Book of Mormon. He had lived in multiple states by that point. He had sat in prison for six months. He had lost kids to mob activity. Many of his friends and family and co-religionists had been driven from the state of Missouri. So for him, the Book of Mormon was the sign of challenges. And maybe him depositing that into the Nauvoo House cornerstone was a way of expressing some of that frustration also expressing some of the faith as well. That yes this has been challenging, but I'm still moving forward. We're building this Nauvoo House because God has commanded us to do it. So there's still some challenges there. 

And it's interesting as an aside because he placed that manuscript into the cornerstone, we now only have about 28% of the manuscript that has survived when it was retrieved from the cornerstone about 40 years later, it had fallen apart in a lot of ways. And so after that, it was kind of disseminated, passed along to various people, and we only have a mere fraction of the text itself, so that that's kind of unfortunate.

Back to your original question that there's this interesting passage in the second edition of the Book of Mormon, where they in the preface talk about how they had fixed the mistakes of the Book of Mormon because they hadn't had access to the manuscript. And that doesn't seem to be the case. It seems that most of the changes they're making to the second edition are ways to smooth out the language. There's a lot of minor changes with punctuation or minor changes of" you" to "thee" or "thee" to "you," things like that. Although there are some significant changes. And to me, this is kind of an interesting as a textual scholar. It's interesting to see that even as early as 1837, early Latter-day Saints are looking back to the manuscripts to say, " this is an authoritative text. We want to get to the authoritative text." Which is not how, you know, the Book of Mormon came from Joseph Smith's words, his mouth, he was the authority, but then all of a sudden by, you know, seven years later, the texts can be the authority or at least rhetorically speaking the texts are the authority. So the manuscripts very quickly kind of take this place within Mormonism as, as sacred. They almost become static, or you could argue that that's kind of the beginning of this static nature, that the scriptural texts need to stay pure. They need to stay firm. Which, in the world of multiple versions, that's not always easy. You can't always say that this is the authorial intent or that this is the actual document that, that was originally created. Because that's not how texts work. Texts are constantly changing because there's always intervention in producing the text. There's always mistakes. There's always deliberate changes. And the Book of Mormon, the revelations, the, you know, Latter-day Saint scriptures, they're not the exception. 

Stephen Betts: I mean, this makes me think about a couple of things. The first is this really complicates the notion of authority and also of the sacred, what it means for something to be sacred for early Latter-day Saints, because they're not venerating the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. 

Robin Jensen: Yeah. 

Stephen Betts: They're not venerating the, I mean, they're curious about, but they're not venerating from what I understand the Book of Abraham manuscripts, the Egyptian scrolls. They think of them as curiosities that they put on display. There's a sense in which yes, the sacred resides in the prophet, Joseph Smith himself, but then Joseph Smith's sense, it seems, of his own authority it's more that the definiteness of that authority is always deferred because he can in 1840 make some significant changes in the Book of Mormon, notably from things like "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome" 

Robin Jensen: Yeah 

Stephen Betts: But also in the, you know, you see this in the Doctrine & Covenants where he's wrestling at times with how to describe the sense that he has the sense of the revelation that he wants to describe. And, and he's willing to go back and make changes and, and this also gets, again, you talk about authorial intent. This brings us really full circle to his work on revising the Bible, right, where he says I'm giving you the text as it fell from the pens of the original writers or, or really as it should have been, in a certain sense. That's a really interesting sense of authority, sense of the sacred and again, of this kind of deferral of ultimate you know, closure on the sacred, I mean, say, say more about that. Like why is it that Latter-day Saints aren't revering, they're not treating these manuscripts as if they're holy relics?

Robin Jensen: I think you're absolutely right that they recognize that there's value in the manuscripts, there's value in these versions. You need to be reading the texts, but, you know, there's the famous story, possibly apocryphal, where it's kind of this argument, rhetorical argument between Brigham Young and Hyrum Smith, and I'm forgetting who takes which side, but one of them lays all the books on the pulpit and says here's, here's the scriptures, these are sacred. These are the word of God. And then the other says, yeah, they're not worth anything because we have a prophet in our midst kind of thing. And so, I wouldn't put it in that extreme of a dichotomy. I think that Latter-day Saints as we've seen in recent scholarship, I'm thinking particularly of Janiece Johnson. They are absolutely "people of the book" as Janiece calls them.[ii] But they also recognize the source of that book. They they've recognized where we got the texts from. And so there's this interesting interplay between orality and the literate. I mean, in past scholarship there's been a very harsh, distinct line between an oral culture and a literate culture. And recent scholars have said that that's a false dichotomy that we shouldn't see it as so stark. And I think, you know, you've got the words of the prophet, the vocal words of the prophet and the written words of the prophet. And there's a very interesting relationship between those two because early Latter-day Saints are absolutely reading the texts. They're very interested in the text. You know, when they publish the newspaper The Evening and Morning Star in 1832, the very first page of that newspaper is a revelation. These are important texts. The missionaries as they're going on to their mission. The things that they copy down before leaving church headquarters are the revelations. These are vital. The church spends an enormous amount of resources in publishing them. 

So the texts, the written texts are vital, and yet they also recognize that Joseph Smith is the prophet that he can kinda upend the text, or rather add to the text and you see that very clearly, as you mentioned with, with the Doctrine & Covenants. The 1835 edition of the Doctrine & Covenants changed a lot of the revelations. And this was just a way for Joseph Smith to say, "here we have these texts. They're very useful, but some of them are already outdated." And so, we kind of have this, you know, we don't only have this mobile church, but we have this changing church. We've got to update the text for current day administration and that's, that's a constant battle for Joseph Smith. And you know, the second edition of the Doctrine & Covenants doesn't change as much because most of the instructions Joseph Smith wants to give to the church he's given vocally over the pulpit. So, we're kind of back to kind of this oral culture. It's this fascinating kind of movement of Joseph Smith in trying to get the Saints to understand the source of the revelations. The written texts can be there, but don't forget to listen to me. But then you need to remember that Joseph Smith is also encouraging Oliver Cowdery to translate. He's encouraging members of the church to receive their own revelations. So it's a very fascinating whole story about the, the texts, both the oral and the written texts of early Mormonism. 

Stephen Betts: Not to go off on a huge tangent here, but we still see this tension between orality and literacy today. And the notion that there is an oracular authority in the living prophets versus the oracular authority in the written word, especially as revealed by Joseph Smith in particular, and especially in the Book of Mormon, right? Where the Book of Mormon, unlike the Doctrine & Covenants, doesn't get updated, right? This is not a procedural manual. This is considered to be some sort of oracular text. It's a narrative. It's considered to be a history, right? But it's an oracular text that possesses some sort of authority by virtue, not just of its antiquity or of its, of its particular transmission through Joseph Smith by God, but also because of its inherent capacity to interact with people. 

Robin Jensen: Yeah 

Stephen Betts: And in particular, with the popularization and the emphasis on the Book of Mormon since the late 1980s, which coincides right with the huge explosion with the, you know, the internet and, the huge explosion of the availability of all kinds of authoritative oral pronouncements, and yet those things then are still in tension with "but need to get back to this text." 

Robin Jensen: Yeah, let me just add, I think the translation experience itself is really instructive here. If, if you were Oliver Cowdery, you're hearing the words of the Book of Mormon first, and then you write them down and you see them. If you're Joseph Smith, you're seeing the words, according to the traditional narrative, you're seeing the words of the Book of Mormon first on the seer stone and then you speak them out loud. So there's kind of this, even in the very translation process itself, there's this oral versus literate component of the, of the sacred text. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, that's really nice. And, it reminds me of something we said earlier, which was, you know, talking about almost this theological importance of there being a speaker and a scribe. 

Robin Jensen: Mmmhmm. 

Stephen Betts: That the speaker and the scribe show up throughout all of the revelations of Joseph Smith until his death, right. There's always somebody writing it down. It's never him writing it down. And that's very interesting, right. Because the Book of Mormon's narrative is repeatedly "I write this with my own hand." And so then Joseph Smith is not, "I write this with my own hand" that that deserves some unpacking at some later time, but, before we wrap up here, you have an article coming out soon in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies talking about, a rather controversial element that was published as part of the fifth volume of the Revelations & Translations series —two leaves from the original Book of Mormon manuscript that the church acquired in 1984 from the University of Chicago. Tell us more about that and why is that controversial? 

Robin Jensen: So, I should say, you know, this, this fifth volume of the Revelations & Translations series, I was co-editor along with my other co-editor Royal Skousen. This volume produces the entirety of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon as we have it. So, only 28% of it. And we produce it in what's called the facsimile edition. So, images on the one side and then a transcription on the other side. We used Royal Skousen's transcript and published images in the book. So essentially with this volume, readers will have access to all of the original manuscripts of the Book of Mormon that we know of. However, there are two leaves that caused some question in our minds. And the way we solved it in the volume is that at the back of the book, there's an appendix. And Royal Skousen wrote a piece that argued why these Chicago leaves should not be considered authentic. And I wrote a piece that argued why they should be considered authentic. And so even the two co-editors of this volume were not able to agree on the authenticity of these, of these documents. And so you'll have to talk to Royal to get his side of things. Clearly I'm [a] biased individual with regard to this, but the story is that in the 1980s, the LDS church acquired two leaves of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon from the University of Chicago Special Collections. These were two leaves from Alma. And there are some oddities about them, textual oddities and other things that don't quite make sense. But you know, in the piece I lay out kind of all the arguments as to why I think that they're authentic. And one of the things, or one of the points that I make is that we really need to think about the fragmented nature of the Book of Mormon texts. You know, I hate to say that it's kind of poetic, but the fact that the original manuscript is in pieces kind of mirrors how the Book of Mormon text is read. I mean, it's read by millions of people throughout the church, and yet, you know, members of the church are also encouraged to read it in light of how their experiences take them in the text, right? So each individual will gain something different from the text that there's this fragmented reading of the text that mirrors the physicality of the manuscript. Now, I would much prefer a complete manuscript, but that that's where we're at. But, these two leaves, because they're part of this fragmented manuscript I argue kind of in the piece, that the way that we look at the leaves fragments the manuscripts, further fragments them, because no one can look at any textual evidence in it's totality. You're always looking with either your experience or your background or your particular field or whatnot. And so, you know, I just take an example to say, you know, we can look at the provenance of these documents. We can look at the textual analysis. We can kind of look at the historical context. But none of that is complete. We're always kind of reading through this glass darkly. In other words, the historian's job, the textual scholar’s job, is never complete because we can never truly understand what a manuscript. Looks like, and so that's kind of what the piece argues, but I think even if I was trying to be a little clever there and arguing about a fragmented text, I think that the provenance and the physical characteristics and the textual oddities can be explained well enough to recognize that these are authentic leaves of the Book of Mormon. 

Stephen Betts: And of course, the alternative then would be that these are forgeries made by Mark Hoffman

Robin Jensen: Yeah, so Royal Skousen believes that they're inauthentic, probably forgeries. And he speculates, possibly Mark Hoffman. And that of course is a legitimate concern. There are a lot of documents that have surfaced, or circulated that were associated with Mark Hoffman. And so, yeah, as a reader of the Joseph Smith Papers volume, it's kind of nice that we were able to give that dual perspective to let the reader decide which, yeah, it's kind of open-ended. Which is maybe appropriate for the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon can be read fairly open-ended I suppose. 

Stephen Betts: Well, yeah, just to conclude, I mean, the interesting thing about the Book of Mormon itself and you point out it's fragmentary nature is that the Book of Mormon presents itself as an edited volume. Right. Where you don't just have multiple editors, but you even have embedded documents that themselves are edited. And so, the notion that you're looking at a curated text, which is produced in an oral fashion and recorded by multiple scribes who don't always necessarily have the same scribal practices and who sometimes mishear things and have to make corrections and various things like that. You're always dealing with a text that is never quite full. It's never quite complete. And maybe that's where we get Joseph Smith's sense that, "it's okay to make corrections." And of course, for him, revelatory corrections, right. 

Robin Jensen: Yeah, there's kind of this aspirational, you know, humans are aspirational. Mormons tend to be aspirational. I mean, the teachings that everyone can become like God that's, I think it's safe to say that's fairly aspirational. And yet, you know, the text itself, it's given to us as scriptures to given to Latter-day Saints saying, "here is a book of scripture." And yet, it's not quite there. There's something, you know, filtered through human hands that, you know, Oliver Cowdery may have misheard this word, or the printer may have got this comma wrong, or you know, the subsequent printers may have messed up a gathering or a signature page or something like that. There's kind of this nice thing to say that Mormon scripture wants to be perfect, but it isn't always. It's aspirational. It mirrors for Mormons that even though you're in this world, trying your best, you're going to fall short. There's something that isn't going to work. And so, you're dependent upon the gospel, upon the sacred nature of the atonement or the temple ordinances here after all that, so that you can, one day become perfect, or one day you can attain the celestial kingdom. And I find it interesting that, you know, even the scripture, the textual scriptures itself, kind of lead you in that direction. 

Stephen Betts: That's Robin Jensen talking about the fifth volume of the Revelations & Translations series from the Joseph Smith Papers, featuring the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Thanks for being here today. 

Robin Jensen: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 


*Transcript edited for clarity

[i] On this period and the relationship between print media and religious authority see Seth Perry, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
[ii] See Janiece Johnson, “Becoming a People of the Books: Toward an Understanding of Early Mormon Converts and the New Word of the Lord,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 27 (2018):1–43.