The Earliest Part of the Book of Mormon

ChapterheaderSample1Although our project this year is to carefully read the Book of Mormon in the order of its composition, the earliest portion of Joseph Smith’s gold plates manuscript was lost (and consequently did not make its way into the Book of Mormon when it was published in 1830).

The first phase of the writing began after Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where her father Isaac Hale set them up with a small house of their own in December of 1828. The composition process was oral: Joseph dictated and Emma wrote down the text. Martin Harris, who was emerging as the chief financier of the project, visited a couple times in early 1829 before relocating to Harmony on April 12 and taking up work as the principal scribe.[1] By the middle of June, a significant portion of the work was complete and Martin convinced Joseph to let him take the working manuscript back to Palmyra, where it was stolen and probably destroyed.

The lost section is generally called the “116 pages,” (although that figure refers to the number of pages of the later replacement manuscript covering the lost section and not the actual number of pages lost). This first section is also called the “Book of Lehi.” From the later internal narrative of the Book of Mormon, the lost text was said to have been first part of an abridgment or edited summary of a much longer collection of records. The Book of Mormon takes its name from Mormon, who was the editor of the abridgment. Properly speaking this name should only refer to the lost 116 pages and the section of the text from “Words of Mormon” through the “Book of Mormon” within the Book of Mormon, i.e., because the Book of First Nephi through the Book of Omni, and then the Book of Ether and the Book of Moroni are not meant to have been part of Mormon’s abridgment.

We’ll explore the device of texts within the text in future weeks; suffice to say that that although we’re attempting to read the book in the order it was composed this year, we can’t start with the original beginning because it is lost. However, we do have something else. (If you’re following along in our weekly readings, you’ll already know what that something is.) In July of 1828, Joseph dictated a new text — with Emma once again replacing Martin as scribe. Joseph used the same procedure that he had been employing to dictate the Book of Mormon with the key difference that the plates were not involved at all, even conceptually. The result was an original message of rebuke, but also consolation. (Because of later alterations when the text was published in the Book of Commandments and again when included in the Doctrine and Covenants, I’m quoting here from the text as copied into the “Revelation Book 1” manuscript, transcribed by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.)

Beginning with the assurance that “the works & designs & the Purposes of God cannot be frustrated”, we read: “although a man may have many Revelations & have power to do many Mighty works yet if he boast in his own strength & Sets at naught the councils of God & follows after the dictates of his will & carnal desires he must fall to the Earth & incur the vengence of a Just God”.[2]  However, the warning is probationary: Joseph has messed up, but he’s going to get a second chance:

[B]ehold thou art Joseph & thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord but because of transgression thou mayest fall but remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen & will & will again be called to the work & except Thou do this thou shalt be delivered up & become as other men & have no more gift[.][3]

In the first several paragraphs, God is referred to in the third person (he, his) and Joseph in the second (you, your, thou, thee, thy) as if the Joseph who is dictating the text is acting as a kind of disembodied narrator to the Joseph who is receiving the message. However, that changes briefly in the final paragraph[4]:

[F]or as the knowledge of a Saveiour hath come to the world so shall the knowledge of my People the Nephities & the Jacobites & the Josephites & the Lamanites come to the Lamanites knowledge of the Lamanites & the Lamanites [Lemuelites] & the Ishmaelites which dwindeled in unbelief because of the iniquities of their Fathers who hath been suffered to destroy their Brethren because of their iniquities & their Abominations & for this very Purpose are these Plates prepared which contain these Records that the Promises of the Lord might be fulfilled which he made to his People & that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their Fathers & that they may know the Promises of the Lord that they may believe the Gospel & rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ & that they might be glorified through faith in his name & that they might repent & be Saved Amen[.]

With the phrase “my People the Nephites,” Joseph appears to slip into the prophetic voice for the first time — moving from the indirect discourse of God speaking of his people to the direct discourse of God speaking about “my people” in the first person.[5] (And I say “appear to slip” in because by the end with “his People” and “his name” he has already slipped back out again.) Joseph’s use of the prophet voice (which will build considerably in future revelations) was a restoration or imitation of ancient Israelite prophets, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, who presumed to speak messages of rebuke, counsel, and hope to people and individuals, invoking God in the first person.

Thus, out of the crisis of the lost text, we have the start of something new: Joseph the seer is now beginning to act as Joseph the prophet. Ultimately, the assertion of direct revelation was probably just as important as the publication of the Book of Mormon for the foundation of the Latter Day Saint movement that followed. But as the first instance illustrates, the history and forms of both are intertwined.

We can note also that in addition to rehearsing some of the contents of the lost text — it was apparently a story about the Nephites, Jacobites, and Josephites who were destroyed because of their iniquities and abominations by the Lamanites, [Lemuelites], and Ishmaelites — we also are told the purpose of the work: to give the “Lamanites” a history that will lead to belief in Jesus Christ and ultimate salvation. We’ll surely talk more about all of the above in the weeks to come.

Next week’s assignment: Mosiah 1 (CofC); Mosiah 1-3 (LDS).

 

_________________________________

[1] An extremely useful chronology of this period is found in Dan Vogel (ed.) Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Signature Books, 1996-2003), 5:337-456. A briefer, but still useful chronology can be found in Grant Hardy (ed.) The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003), 643-52.

[2] In the original, the scribe wrote “the words of designs” but crossed out “words of” correcting the text to read “works & designs”. See: http://josephsmithpapers.org/ : the-papers, Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revlation Books (2), Revelation Book 1, pages 3-4.

[3] Later edits will soften this rebuke somewhat. When published in the 1833 Book of Commandments as “Chapter II”: “thou mayest fall” becomes “if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.” And by the time the same text was included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants as “Section XXX,” the line “therefore repent of that which thou has done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen” became “therefore repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen”.

[4] This changed when the text was edited. The text in the Book of Commandments read: “Therefore, repent of that which thou has done, and he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season, and thou are still chosen…” The altered text in the D&C reads: “therefore, repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen…” which retroactively introduces God as “I”.

[5] These prophetic compositions (now usually referred to as “revelations”) were often initially called “commandments” and were collected, edited, and published in the Book of Commandments (1833). They were later edited again and rebranded as “covenants” when included in the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). This first revelation became “Chapter II” of the Book of Commandments and “Section XXX” of the 1835 D&C. (It’s now Community of Christ D&C 2 and LDS D&C 3.)

This series is cross-posted on Wheat and Tares.

Advertisements

3 comments on “The Earliest Part of the Book of Mormon

  1. Mike says:

    This is not my first attempt to read the BofM, but I’m hoping to actually follow through this time I’m sure with your insight and others who participate, it will be a great learning experience. I look forward to our journey.

    I have to confess that my first hearing of how the BofM was written came from a (in)famous episode of South Park (http://youtu.be/06jF1EG8o-Q). I was just beginning my journey as an adult returning to Community of Christ when I watched the episode. While probably not the best source for a history lesson, it did spark my interest to learn more about the early development of the Latter Day Movement. Thanks for the additional insight John.

  2. Eric says:

    John,

    In D&C 3, verse 2 we read the phrase “… his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round.”

    For a long time I simply accepted this theological idea in positive intuitive way, probably focusing on the familiar “straight” metaphor, but glossing over the “eternal round” metaphor. Any thoughts?

    Also, when I went to the LDS on-line scriptures it turns up again, word-for-word, in Alma 37:12. This is interesting considering (1) the order of dictation and (2) that it used 1900 years earlier by Alma the Younger, presumably with some understanding of the “eternal round” metaphor.

    The thought just came to me that the recycling of this phrase over such a span is consonant with the idea of a “round” in musical composition sense. But I am not sure what to make of that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s