“Impossible!” I said.
The minister just smiled with a big “I’ve-got-you-now” smile and handed me an old, well-worn copy of the Book of Mormon. “See for yourselves,” he challenged.
When we had knocked on his door, he had been down in his basement printing anti-Mormon literature. “How can you believe that the Book of Mormon is perfect?” he chided. “Why, it’s full of mistakes.”
“Give me even one example,” I responded, with great missionary confidence.
“Well,” he challenged, “Anyone who has read the New Testament knows that Jesus was not born in the city of Jerusalem, as Alma 7:10 says.”
“It doesn’t say that,” I said. “It says he was born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers.’”
His smile seemed to grow even wider as he opened an early edition of the Book of Mormon. Turning to the page, he pointed to the passage and read, “at Jerusalem which is in the land of our forefathers.”
Quickly checking my own copy, I was almost speechless. But there it was, glaring up at me—a change in the text! “Impossible,” I whispered.
I later learned that my edition read exactly like the first edition at Alma 7:10. The little word in was actually an error that had crept in after the first edition. I could understand that errors inevitably occur in any copy or transcription, so I was satisfied.
But how would I have felt had I known then that literally thousands of corrections have been made in the book. In order to understand why all these corrections have been made over the years, we need some historical perspective.
Although Joseph Smith was the translator of the Book of Mormon, the spelling in the first edition was Oliver Cowdery’s, and the punctuation was John H. Gilbert’s.
Oliver described the time he spent as a scribe as “days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude in this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the urim and thummim.” (Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, p. 14.)
To view the pages of the original manuscript that are still remaining is to be reassured that it is a dictated document.
The man responsible for punctuating the first edition of the Book of Mormon was John H. Gilbert, the non-Mormon typesetter who worked for E. B. Grandin, publisher of that edition. According to Gilbert, it was Hyrum Smith who brought the first twenty-four pages of the handwritten printer’s manuscript to the publisher:
“He had it under his vest, and vest and coat closely buttoned over it. At night [Hyrum] came and got the manuscript, and with the same precaution carried it away. The next morning with the same watchfulness, he brought it again, and at night took it away. … On the second day—[Martin Harris] and [Hyrum] being in the office—I called their attention to a grammatical error, and asked whether I should correct it? Harris consulted with [Hyrum] a short time, and turned to me and said: ‘The Old Testament is ungrammatical, set it as it is written.’
“After working a few days, I said to [Hyrum] on his handing me the manuscript in the morning; ‘Mr. Smith, if you would leave this manuscript with me, I would take it home with me at night and read and punctuate it.’ His reply was, ‘We are commanded not to leave it.’ A few mornings after this, when [Hyrum] handed me the manuscript, he said to me: ‘if you will give your word that this manuscript shall be returned to us when you get through with it, I will leave it with you.’ … for two or three nights I took it home with me and read it, and punctuated it with a lead pencil.’” (In Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, vol. 1, Salt Lake City: Wilford C. Wood, 1959.)
His effort resulted in somewhere between 30,000–35,000 additional punctuation marks.
Typesetting from the printer’s manuscript (which was Oliver Cowdery’s handwritten copy of the original manuscript) started in August of 1829. By March of 1830 the book was completed. But Joseph Smith had had little to do with the supervision of the printing for the first edition. In fact, he was reportedly in Grandin’s shop only once for about fifteen or twenty minutes during that printing.
As soon as the first edition was out, readers began finding typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors. On 25 June 1833, Joseph wrote to printer W. W. Phelps, “As soon as we can get time, we will review the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, after which they will be forwarded to you.” (History of the Church, 1:363.)
With the help of Oliver Cowdery, the Prophet prepared the second (1837) edition. At this point, they made over one thousand corrections—most of them grammatical and added some minor clarifications. By this time, the Prophet, who had limited formal schooling, was learning the rudiments of Hebrew, and English grammar. (See History of the Church, 2:390, 474; 3:26.)
Both the 1840 and 1842 editions were carefully revised by Joseph Smith. By now, however, Oliver Cowdery had left the Church, taking the printer’s manuscript with him.
As late as 15 January 1842 Joseph Smith was still making corrections himself. He recorded: “I commenced reading the Book of Mormon, at page 54, … (the previous pages having been corrected), for the purpose of correcting the stereotype plates of some errors which escaped notice in the first edition.” (History of the Church, 4:494.)
Because the first European edition in English followed the 1837 edition, it did not contain some of these changes made by Joseph Smith. So later American editions, which were taken from the first European edition, perpetuated these omissions.
John Taylor assigned Orson Pratt to prepare a new edition of the book in 1879. Elder Pratt redivided the chapters (increasing them from 114 to 239)—and added verse numbers and references.
After the turn of the century, President Heber J. Grant called James E. Talmage to prepare a new edition. The 1920 edition included double-column pages, revised references, a pronouncing vocabulary, an index, and many grammatical improvements.
And, most recently, the 1981 edition was prepared under the supervision of the Scriptures Publication Committee, under direction of the First Presidency.
Before we can understand why many of these corrections have been necessary, we must know that American English spelling in 1829 was not yet standardized.
Interestingly, the spelling problems in the Book of Mormon paralleled earlier kinds of spelling changes in the English Bible. For example, consider the word sins, which had been spelled synnes and became sinnes in the 1611 King James Version; or majesty, which had been maiestye and became maiestie, in that same first edition; or spirits, which had earlier been spretes and spirites.
The first nine verses of Hebrews chapter one in the 1611 edition include such spellings as diuers, dayes, sonne, heire, brightnesse, R and oyle.
As late as 1828, American lexicographer Noah Webster noted that five dictionaries were available to him. Examples from four of those dictionaries show the variations in spellings commonly accepted at the time Oliver was taking dictation from the Prophet:
Webster’s own American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828; and, if it was available to Oliver Cowdery, that would add one more to the other five. Small wonder, then, that Oliver’s spelling would seem creative to the modern reader.
About this time, many people in the United States were pressing for a variety of English that would be uniquely American.
Noah Webster led this movement, proposing many new rules for American spellings, seven of which are still in use. As a result of Webster’s innovations, for example, Americans changed the British spelling of theatre to theater. Not all of the spellings he suggested were accepted, however (for example, ake, beleeve, iz, hed, and iland). But Webster’s recommendations reveal a tendency common at the time to spell words phonetically, or as they sound.
Some of Oliver’s more famous contemporaries spelled phonetically. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, wrote: ancles, cieling, cloathing, and musquito. And President Andrew Johnson’s spelling included whent, allways, desid, anxus, and immaganable. It is not surprising, then, that many words in the Book of Mormon would need to be corrected as American English spelling became more uniform later in the nineteenth century.
We also need to remember that Oliver Cowdery wrote what he heard. Many of the words—Nephite and Lamanite names, for example—would have been unfamiliar to Oliver. Joseph apparently had to correct some of these proper nouns. Consider, too, that the two distinct words strait and straight would sound exactly the same as Joseph dictated it. But Oliver spelled both words straight every time. In ten places, straight had to be corrected to read strait.
Oliver’s handwriting also presented a special challenge to the typesetter, His R (which looks like a ‘Palmer’ R) and his N are difficult to distinguish, as are his B and L. So in the first edition, Gadianton was mislabeled “the nobler,” rather than “the robber.” In a similar way, the typesetter apparently mistook Oliver’s RM as UN. So in 1 Nephi 13 [1 Ne. 13], where the original manuscript read formation, the typesetter misread founation. Then, thinking the letter d had been left out, he supplied it. In the 1981 edition, foundation has been corrected back to read formation, as originally intended.
Many other spelling errors appear to have been strictly typographical for example, aaswer, amog, bacause, daghter, mnltitude, theit, and uttered.
Another kind of common copying error occurred when the typesetter’s eye momentarily left the page. Then, when he looked back, he would pick up the text at a different spot where the wording was very similar. The most significant example of this is the dropping of thirty-five words in Alma 32:30, where the words seed, good, sprouteth, beginneth, and grow are common to two parts of the verse.
Some of the words we thought Oliver Cowdery misspelled are actually legitimate variants found in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. Consider these: adhear, adultry, babtized, befal, burthensome, centre, condescention, devlish, fraid, phrensied, and sepulcher.
But the most common changes have not been in spelling, but in grammar. For example, there have been 891 changes of which to who, 177 changes of exceeding to exceedingly. Many changes involve a change in number or tense of verbs. Was was changed to were 162 times, is to are 74 times, and done to did 10 times.
A few other changes involving meaning appear to be more significant. In 2 Nephi 30:6 [2 Ne. 30:6], white appeared in the 1830 and 1837 editions. Joseph changed this word to pure in the 1840 edition. But later American editions did not show this change because they had followed the first European and 1837 editions. This correction by the Prophet has finally been restored in the 1981 edition.
In Mosiah 21:28 and Ether 4:1, the first edition had “Benjamin” where the name of Mosiah now appears. In fact, King Benjamin would not likely have still been living in the historical period described by these verses. In the 1837 edition, the Prophet Joseph made this correction.
We can only speculate about the cause of this error. Book of Mormon scholar Sidney B. Sperry has posed this interesting question: “Was it an inadvertent slip of the tongue on the part of Joseph Smith as he dictated his translation to Oliver Cowdery, or did he translate correctly an original error on the part of Mormon, the abridger of the Book of Mormon? (The Problems of the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964, p. 203.)
Over the years, a few hundred deletions have also been made, primarily to improve the book grammatically. The most commonly eliminated have been the words that (188 times), the (48 times), it came to pass (46 times), a and and (40 times), and had (29 times).
Additions have been less numerous, probably less than one hundred. For example, of was added 12 times, and, is, and the 7 times. Some additions simply result from rearranging parts of a sentence or returning words inadvertently dropped in earlier editions. These are not “true” additions.
In a few places, however, Joseph Smith did intentionally add to the text to clarify a point. An illustration of this is the added words the son of in 1 Nephi 11:21, 32 [1 Ne. 11:21, 32], and 13:40 [1 Ne. 13:40]. The text would be correct with or without the additional words, but the addition helps the reader avoid misunderstanding.
Understanding the nature of the thousands of small changes in the Book of Mormon may be helpful and interesting. In reality, though, the kind of stylistic accuracy achieved by these changes has little to do with what Joseph meant when he called the Book of Mormon the “most correct of any book on earth.” (History of the Church, 4:461.) His concept of correctness had nothing to do with accepted standards of grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
Looking at one definition of the word correct as accepted during Joseph Smith’s day may be enlightening. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines correct as being, “literally, set right, or made straight. Hence, right: conformable to truth, rectitude or propriety, or conformable to a just standard. … Correct manners correspond with the rules of morality and received notions of decorum … correct principles coincide with the truth.”
According to this concept, the Book of Mormon certainly meets the test of correctness, for its principles coincide with truth. And, as Joseph Smith himself explained, the ultimate test of its correctness is in the lives of those who use its principles in their lives. Indeed, he promised that we can “get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church, 4:461.)