Sunday, July 27, 2008

Alleged Changes to The Book of Mormon

      Critics often characterize the church as attempting to become more “mainstream,” that is, to quietly abandon old beliefs in favor of less controversial ones. A much-circulated bit of misinformation claims that there have been over 3,000 changes to the Book of Mormon (the number varies), suggesting an underhanded attempt to sanitize the text without admitting that there were any problems with the original.

If the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth,” as Joseph Smith claimed, and if it was translated “by the gift of God,” as the title page states, why would it need to be changed?
      The truth is that there are far more than 3,000 differences between my King James edition of the Bible and my New International Version, yet the meanings of the passages in both are the same. Likewise, there have been numerous small typographical edits to the text of the Book of Mormon, but no changes in its teachings. When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he dictated from the plates to a scribe, usually Oliver Cowdery. The surviving manuscripts show no punctuation in Oliver’s manuscript—just running text. To prevent theft, Smith had Cowdery hand-copy the manuscript and take the copy, not the original, to E.B. Grandin, the printer. Grandin inserted punctuation according to his own judgment as he set the type.
      Needless to say, there was plenty of opportunity for small errors to creep in throughout the process of writing and copying by hand, inserting punctuation, and typesetting. When Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth,” he meant that its teachings were correct, not that it was free of typos. He corrected some such errors in the 1837 and 1840 editions. A note at the beginning of editions published today reads, “Some minor errors in the text have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
      To those who believe that all of this is a cover-up to hide more substantial and damning changes, perhaps I can offer a firsthand experience. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I took the opportunity to visit the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room in the Library of Congress, where I spent about an hour reading from an original Book of Mormon—one of the 5,000 copies published on E.B. Grandin’s press in 1830. I read several chapters from 1 Nephi, 3 Nephi, and Moroni, the equivalent of 16 chapters according to the way the chapters are divided in modern editions. I made notes of anything that seemed different than what I remembered from the 15 or so times I’ve read the modern edition. Here are the most significant differences I noticed in the original edition:
      -The text is not divided into verses.
      -The chapter breaks are more spaced out, resulting in fewer and longer chapters.
      -Where the original read “&c,” the modern edition reads “and so forth.” (“&c” is an archaic way of abbreviating “et cetera,” which literally means, “and so forth.”)
      -Where the original read “exceeding,” as in, “he was exceeding glad,” the modern reads, “exceedingly.” (For example, see 1 Nephi 3:8.)
      -The original edition capitalized many improper nouns; the modern edition follows the capitalization conventions of modern English.
      -Some spellings have been modernized; for example, “baptised” has been changed to “baptized.”
      -The verb “to be” has been modernized, occasionally replacing “be” with “is” and “are.”
      -There are many differences in the placement of commas and semicolons, and occasionally sentences are divided differently.
      Of what I read, I noticed no changes to the meaning or message or story of the book or any part of it. Once you subtract such minor typographical corrections, the number of changes drops to a small handful. Modern editions do not contain any significant changes except those made by Joseph Smith himself, and even these serve only to clarify, not to change the meaning.
      Much ado has been made about a change in 2 Nephi 30:6, where Smith changed the word “white” to “pure.” From the context, one could argue that the passage originally referred to race, not whiteness in the symbolic sense of purity. Apparently Smith made the change in order to prevent such confusion.
      The Book of Mormon as published in 1830 is the same book with the same message as the current edition. Ever since its first publication, it has served as a witness of the divinity, mission, and doctrine of Jesus Christ. When attacking the Book of Mormon for mere typographical errors, critics should take note of the final sentence from the book’s title page: “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”

In summary
Argument: There are over 3,000 differences between the original Book of Mormon and the current edition, so it must not have been divinely inspired.
Response: The differences are insignificant. They correct typographical errors and in a very few instances clarify confusing wording. The book has not been changed in any significant way.


Anonymous said...

This is a good summary, and I'm glad your faith is working for you.

I just wanted to point out that the much-commented-on change in 2 Nephi 30 did not take place until 1981. Joseph Smith did not make that change, nor does it particularly seem in line with the other parts of the Book of Mormon that talk about skin color. Hence the controversy.

Travis Brinton said...

Thanks for your comment; it took me a while to find a reliable source on this. I consulted the Royal Skousen work, "Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon," which is the definitive scholarly resource on Book of Mormon textual variants. The change from "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome" first occurred in the 1840 (third) edition of the Book of Mormon. The printer's manuscript and the 1830 and 1837 editions read "white and delightsome." The original manuscript is no longer extant, but the change appears to be a deliberate one made by Joseph Smith in 1840. The wording "pure" instead of "white" was repeated in the 1858, 1874, and 1892 editions, and again in the 1981 edition.