In 1841, church founder Joseph Smith placed the original Book of Mormon manuscript into the cornerstone of a hotel he was building in Nauvoo, Ill., and sealed it with molten lead, believing the sacred text would be preserved forever.
But when it was opened 40 years later, the documents were in pieces, destroyed by water, badly faded and severely damaged.
Of the nearly 500 pages that had been put in the stone, only portions of 232 pages survived.
“If I had a time machine,” historian Robin Scott Jensen noted this week in a news release, “I would go back and say, ‘Joseph, maybe don’t do that.’”
Those fragments, which are mostly owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now have been painstakingly reassembled, photographed and published as the 23rd volume of the landmark Joseph Smith Papers project and the final one in the “Revelations and Translations” series.
“It is the first complete photographic record,” the Utah-based faith said in the release, “of what remains of the original manuscript.”
These revelations and translations “were at the heart of Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission. These texts are vital to the restoration of the gospel,” church President Russell M. Nelson told the assembled historians and donors at the Church Administration Building on Tuesday. “...It is a deeply moving experience to look at these pages and see God’s hand moving his work forward.”
Utah philanthropist Gail Miller — with her late husband, Larry Miller, and her current husband, Kim Wilson — helped fund the Joseph Smith Papers project.
“I know this is a divine work,” she said. “I know that it is an important — almost critical — work for the church, for people to go to the work of the Joseph Smith Papers and get the truth.”
Smith said he translated the Book of Mormon, a record of peoples in the ancient Americas, by “the gift and power of God” — without offering much detail — from gold plates he unearthed in upstate New York.
Grant Hardy, a Latter-day Saint historian in North Carolina who edited “The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition” for a general audience, cheered the manuscript publication.
Looking at all the notations and changes on these pages, Hardy said Wednesday, “you can see evidence of the process by which these scribes took dictation. You can hear what Joseph Smith was saying. They would read it back to him or he would spell out names for them.”
Whether the Mormon prophet was receiving impressions and putting them into his own words or reading passages in a seer stone, the scholar said, “it’s exciting to thumb through the manuscript to see how carefully it is written and how few corrections there are — and to be that close to the core revelation of Mormonism.”
This publication “should be thrilling to believers and scholars alike,” said Janiece Johnson, a Book of Mormon scholar in Utah. “While only a small portion of the manuscript remains extant, the Joseph Smith Papers offer us this meticulously researched volume so we can see and study for ourselves — whether we’re a believer with a devotional connection to the book or a scholar trying to better understand the process never fully described by Smith.”
Many of the earliest Latter-day Saints first developed a relationship with the book “before they ever met Joseph Smith or considered joining a new church,” Johnson said. “This book has moved people and changed millions of people around the world since it was written down. The level of exacting attention to detail and the transparency of the process are laudatory and will set the standard for years to come.”
Linguist Royal Skousen helped produce a transcript of the recovered pages.
“The transcript preserves all corrections and revisions, line and page breaks, and the locations of interlinear insertions,” the release stated. “Because several scribes penned revisions in this manuscript, the handwriting of each is rendered in a different color to facilitate analysis. The comprehensive and careful presentation gives researchers unparalleled access to the text.”
Jensen, the church historian who worked on the project, said the manuscript takes readers “the closest to that miraculous experience as possible,” he said. It is “the product of that divine translation.”
The new book, called “The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Volume 5: Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon,” will be available online for free in 18 months.
It is the 23rd of 26 volumes of the larger Joseph Smith Papers project, which will wrap up in spring 2023.