Maxwell Institute Podcast #139: The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, with Robin Scott Jensen
Volume 5 of the Revelations and Translations series from the Joseph Smith Papers Project presents all extant fragments of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. For the first time ever, researchers have access to a photograph and color-coded transcripts of each fragment of the manuscript, showing every change made and which scribe made it.
Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Joseph Stuart. The Book of Mormon, as Joseph Smith said, is the keystone of our religion. But what can we learn from looking at the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon? What can we learn about translation? And what can scholars, Latter-day Saints, and Latter-day Saint scholars gain from reading the earliest texts available from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon? We will discuss that today with Robin Scott Jensen, a historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. Do you follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter at @byumaxwell? If you do, please tell a friend. If you don’t, we hope you do soon. And now, our conversation with Dr. Jensen.
Joseph Stuart: Robin Jensen, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: It’s great to be with you.
Joseph Stuart: Glad to have you here. Now, when do you first remember holding an original copy of the Book of Mormon? And what do you remember feeling when you held that book?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: That’s a good question. I’ve done my work in the Joseph Smith papers starting with the revelations. And so my earliest memories of holding something sacred is the Book of Commandments. And that’s talking about a sacred item, to me that is very special. I do not actually remember the exact moment that I held a copy of the first edition of The Book of Mormon, although I do remember going to the museum there in Salt Lake City. And in the display case, there was an original leaf of the original Book of Mormon manuscripts. I didn’t hold it. And I was part of the Joseph Smith papers at the time, but I walked over and even through the glass, even though I couldn’t hold it and even though I was experiencing it, what most would experience from the museum, I remember the sense of importance. Here was a manuscript, a piece of paper that was so meaningful to so many people throughout the world. And I’ve kind of been haunted by that or I am haunted by that every time I remember it, because there’s nothing that I can do as a scholar that can replicate that experience. Because that experience has to come with this important framework that all of my life experiences to that point, made that experience meaningful. And so scholars that use our Joseph Smith papers volumes, won’t probably won’t have that same experience in looking at our volumes. But, I hope that some of the work and some of the experiences that I have gone through in putting this volume together shows in the pages themselves, that the scholars can recognize that this is an important book spiritually for those that believe in it, but also historically for those that recognize Joseph Smith as such an important historical figure.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for sharing that. I also want to put in a plug for the Joseph Smith Papers website where many of these documents are available for free and make great additions to Sunday School lessons or FHE, or in your own family Come, Follow Me curriculum. And for scholars out there listening as well, there are plans for how to incorporate the Joseph Smith Papers as primary sources into lessons on American History, American Religious History and Religious Studies as well. Robin, you with Royal Skousen, edited this volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, volume five and the revelations and translation series, the original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon. And in the introduction to the volume, it says that this is the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon dictated by Joseph Smith. And that seems an interesting use of language to me. Why dictated instead of translated?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: You know, as people approach our volumes they’re going to have different experiences based upon their backgrounds. The members of the church who read our volumes might be aware or notice certain things that aren’t as devotional as they’re used to reading in either the Liahona or other church publications. And a scholar might come to these publications and not recognize some of the historiographical arguments or other theories that are prominent in scholarship. And so that kind of gets at the dual audience that we have for the Joseph Smith papers. When we first started out, the question was raised, who are we writing for? I mean, this is an important question whenever you’re writing an article or book. Who is my audience? And so that question was taken up the line and essentially, the answer that we received is you’re writing not only for scholars, document editing as a scholarly profession, but you’re also writing for members of the church. And I thought that was kind of an aggressive goal. Now that we have almost finished the Joseph Smith papers, I’m quite pleased that we’ve been able to do that so well. But one of the things about that is that we have to find language that can be neutral for both parties. And that’s tricky. So when you read things like Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon, that is a factual statement. He spoke words aloud and that was the text of the Book of Mormon. Now, members of the church would say that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and scholars would perhaps say that Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon or authored the Book of Mormon. Both of those are value statements or statements that come with certain assumptions that the entire audience doesn’t share. And so we try to use language that won’t turn people off from what we are doing but also not imply certain faith claims, beliefs of Joseph Smith and we haven’t succeeded completely. I’m sure that people could find examples in these volumes where we’re either too academic or too faithful. You’re always in search of doing better. But I think overall, we have done well in trying to incorporate both of those audiences in our volumes.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, certainly you continually learn the lesson that Joseph Smith wrote that language is a narrow little prison.
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: It absolutely is.
Joseph Stuart: I’m thinking with dictation that there were different modes of translation and different people that Joseph Smith worked with while he was translating by the gift and power of God. And what are some of the modes of translation that Joseph Smith engaged in while he was translating the Book of Mormon?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: This seems to be the question of the hour, perhaps over the last decade or maybe I’ve just been noticing it over the last decade. It’s probably been the question since 1829. But let’s back up just a bit because I think that one of the important things to remember is that no one living today was in the room where it happened, so to speak. Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdry, Emma Smith, David Whitmer, these individuals left behind records of how the translation happened. And yet each one of them, Joseph Smith included, is a biased witness or someone who has their own reasons for stating what they state. And so as a historian, I have to go through and carefully weigh those statements and understand, reconstruct a process that by all accounts, by all first witness accounts was divine, was somehow supernatural. And that’s an impossible task from the very beginning. I cannot fully reconstruct supernatural events.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, this is something that the scholar Robert Orsi has talked about in A Theory of Abundant Events, that we can talk about things that are deeply held to people about sincere religious beliefs, about experiences that they’ve had, but as scholars we have to take them as accounts of what has happened rather than saying this absolutely happened and footnote it to a spiritual experience. Would you say that’s fair?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: Yeah, that’s absolutely fair. And so as we apply that kind of thinking onto the translation process, there are certain things that we can come to conclusions. But ultimately, the question: how was the Book of Mormon translated? That’s an impossible question for scholars, members to fully answer. And so we have to be comfortable in sitting in the ambiguity. But I say that not to dismiss the question because the question to me is deeply fascinating and as a believer in the Book of Mormon, they should be asking those questions, absolutely. And so, as we have looked at the various accounts, as we’ve looked at Joseph Smith’s own statement, the thing that everyone agrees upon is that it was divine. That it was somehow Joseph Smith said that he accomplished it, in his own words through the gift and power of God. But there were certain mechanical processes that seemed to be agreed upon. One of which is the use of an object, a seer stone. Joseph Smith would place a seer stone into a hat, look into it and according to David Whitmer and Emma Smith, he would read words from the stone. Now we have statements from particularly David Whitmer, where he says that the words would appear and they wouldn’t disappear unless the scribe got it accurate, you know, 100% accurate. And while there is some evidence from the manuscript itself, that there was spelling that took place that Joseph Smith would often correct proper noun spelling, there are a lot of spelling mistakes in the manuscripts. In fact, we can conclusively prove that that statement by David Whitmer regarding the accuracy or the disappearance of the words until it was accurate, that is not true. Or at least that’s not true for some of the manuscripts.
Joseph Stuart: And I think this is what you’re getting at when you’re saying with primary accounts or the words of those who are involved, memory is a tricky thing. And sometimes people misremember details, but that’s the historian’s job is to recreate as much as possible what actually happened.
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: And to get really creative in the sources that we use, you know, the manuscript is not often considered a witness to the translation event, but it absolutely is. And in some ways, it’s the best witness that we have, because it still has survived unlike any living person at the time that was involved in it. As we look at the manuscript itself, there are some clues that can tell us about the translation process. I want to also add, or underscore the fact that this more recent discussion of the seer stone in the hat troubles some people. There is a certain troubling aspect to it and I can appreciate that because that is not how I grew up understanding the translation to have taken place. I was familiar with artwork at the time that you know, was produced by the church where Joseph Smith is on the table, or rather sitting at the table with the plates in front of him and a scribe opposite him, and that’s not how it happened or any of the other ways in which the translation has been portrayed. And so this is kind of the historian’s task of looking at how narratives came to be and to correct them when the primary sources, when the archival record allows us to do so. So I want to be clear that this seer stone in the hat is, while it’s a corrective, I’ve been seeing maybe that corrective going a little too far to the extreme that the seer stone in the hat is the only way Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. And I would not agree with that statement. I think that there were a myriad ways in which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. If we want to, if we want to get into kind of the weeds and to kind of expand the definition of translation, Joseph Smith copied out characters, sent them with Martin Harris to New York to either get them translated or to confirm the translation depending upon the source that we’re using. And that to me, is a part of a translation. So studying the characters, we see that Oliver Cowdery when he wanted to translate during the Book of Mormon translation process, he was commanded to study it out in your mind. So there was some sort of intellectual process. I’m of the opinion, I think the scholarship is good that Joseph Smith had a King James Bible in front of him during the translation of the Book of Mormon at certain points and that he was reading from the King James Bible. Now what that means, I’m not 100% sure, but we have to allow for the fact that he was consulting a Bible at the time. We also have to look at past or later precedents, where Joseph Smith seemed to either get into a trance or get in the zone if we want to call it that, and simply dictate words that were from his mind from the supernatural, from revelation and it’s possible that some of the text of the Book of Mormon came through that means. What I’d like to stress is kind of this myriad way, this kind of spectrum of translation where we don’t necessarily need to force us into one particular corner of how the translation happened. Now, what does that do for us? I think it gives us a little bit of breathing room so that if someone says, “Did you know that Joseph Smith translated with a seer stone instead of using a Urim and Thummim?” You can say, “Well, why didn’t he do both? Why didn’t he have these interpreters that he found with the plates and use a seer stone?” Or if we have questions about the King James usage of the Bible in the Book of Mormon, we can say, “Well, that actually makes sense because there was perhaps a Bible in front of him.” In other words, if we are a little bit more loose and relaxed in trying to reconstruct that translation process and not be so dogmatic about how the translation happened, I think that that will open up the possibility for more interesting interpretations of what the translation event meant for Joseph Smith and others of his followers.
Joseph Stuart: I think that it also requires a little bit of intellectual humility to say, I don’t have all of the answers. But I think that that also gives us spiritual flexibility to say God reaches people in a number of ways, sometimes even in the course of the same task that they’re asked to do. I think about the second chapter of Preach My Gospel and about how many different ways that God communicates through the Holy Spirit to each of us. And that’s something to keep in mind as well. I also think about how one of the ways that I receive inspiration is often through talking to other people or working with other people engaged in the same task. I’m curious, what role did Emma Smith have in the translation of the Book of Mormon?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: I love that you asked that because it’s been one of my personal missions in the last little bit is to reclaim the role of Emma in the Book of Mormon translation. If you were to poll most Latter-day Saints about the Book of Mormon translation, if you would ask them, “Reconstruct that in your mind. What’s going on?” I think you would get probably two names. First and foremost, you’d have Joseph Smith and second, you’d have Oliver Cowdrey. Well, we forget that Emma Smith served as a scribe to Joseph Smith. Now that in and of itself is important to remember, Emma was right there, literally by Joseph’s side writing down the words that she heard spoken from her husband’s mouth. But there’s this event in church history that not many people know or rather, they know it quite well, but they get one perspective. And I want to tell the story, a familiar story in a different perspective. When Joseph Smith had translated the first portion of the Book of Mormon, he had used the help of both Martin Harris and Emma Smith. Now Martin Harris was a very passionate individual. He was very conscientious of the work that he was doing, sharing time, resources with Joseph Smith. He wanted to prove to his family that he was not duped or that there was something resulting of that. So Martin Harris of course, asked Joseph if he could take the manuscript and show it to family. Well, after several negative responses, Martin Harris finally convinced Joseph to let him take these pages up to show family. Well, we of course know that Martin Harris lost the pages. Joseph Smith was reprimanded, punished, and it kind of was a challenging time for Joseph Smith’s lifetime. But what if we told that story through the eyes of Emma Smith. I think we get a different perspective. Emma is writing by the side of Joseph Smith and she’s pregnant. She’s expecting their first child. Well, shortly right around this point, she delivers a baby and the baby dies. It was either stillbirth or died shortly after the birth. Now of course, this is a traumatic experience for any couple, but it was potentially doubly so because Emma was near death. In fact, we have a wonderful narrative of this event from Lucy Mack Smith. And I want to read a little bit of it because Lucy has a way of just really kind of capturing Emma’s thoughts and feelings. She says, “Immediately after his departure,” that’s Martin Harris’s departure to take the pages up to New York, “Emma was confined and became the mother of a son. But she had but little, small comfort from the society of the dear little stranger. For he was very soon snatched from her arms and born aloft to the world of spirits. For some time its mother,” that is Emma, “…seemed to tremble upon the verge of the silent home of her infant. So uncertain seemed her fate for a season that in the space of two weeks, her husband never slept one hour in undisturbed, quiet.” Reword this, here we have Emma on near deathbed. Two weeks, Joseph is not able to get even one uninterrupted hour of sleep because he’s so concerned about his wife. He’s lost his first born and he might lose his spouse. And you can imagine the emotions that are going on Lucy Mack Smith continues, “His anxiety became so great about the manuscript,” that is the Book of Mormon manuscript, “…that he determined as his wife was now some better,” so she’d improved a little bit, “…that as soon as she gained a little bit more strength, he would make the trip to New York and see after the same. But he did not mention this subject to Emma for fear of agitating her mind too much.” So here we have Joseph, he’s relieved that Emma’s improving slightly, but he’s now starting to remember hey wait, what happened to Martin Harris what’s up with the manuscript? And so he determines silently, without consulting Emma, that after a little while he would go up and inquire after the manuscript. And I love Lucy’s words here. “However, she soon manifested that she was not without her thoughts upon the subject. Notwithstanding the debilitated state which she was in, she called her husband to her and asked him what he thought about the manuscript. ‘I feel so uneasy,’ she said, ‘…that I cannot rest and shall not be at rest until I know something about what Mr. Harris is doing with it.’” So here we have Emma, on her deathbed, sick having lost her firstborn. And she calls Joseph Smith in and says, hey, Joseph, what’s up with that manuscript? We worked so hard on that. We need to know what’s going on. And so of course, the story is so different from Emma’s perspective. She is as dedicated to Joseph, maybe arguably more so, about the state of the manuscript about this joint project that they have accomplished. And so we have Joseph very quickly going up to New York to visit his parents. He finds out about the loss of the manuscript and he’s devastated. Well, what does he do? He doesn’t wallow in pity up near his parents where he’s getting comfort. He immediately returns back to Harmony and what are his thoughts going home? Yes, it’s of course, to the loss of the manuscript. But is it also, am I too late? Am I going to lose my spouse? So it’s just this very touching, tender story that we don’t hear about. Emma was so dedicated to this work. And we forget her role in that.
Joseph Stuart: You also mentioned Lucy Mack Smith whose narrative of her family’s history is one of the first sources we have for understanding Joseph Smith’s life before he’s a prophet but also his early years. What role does Lucy Mack Smith’s narrative play in helping us understand the translation process for the Book of Mormon?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: I think Lucy is so important. And she, of course, has been recognized for her history. She wrote this history in 1845 and 46, shortly after Joseph and Hiram had died. And this history is so tender. It’s a family history. It’s a history of a mother of her son. In fact, that’s been the subtitle of that history. But we forget even by 1844 and 1845, Joseph had achieved this celebrity status. He was the martyr, he was the prophet of God, and Lucy was able to give us a side of Joseph that we wouldn’t have been able to get even that early in the church’s history. And so we get this unparalleled access to Joseph’s thoughts and his activities and before he was really Joseph the Prophet. He was Joseph the son, trying to figure things out trying to make sense of what he was called to do. Now like any history, particularly any history that was done after the fact, we have to recognize that Lucy Mack Smith is writing 20, 30 years after the events and so we do need to take into consideration the complexities of memory and bias and things. And we also have to remember that most of the translation of the Book of Mormon took place outside of her home. She was living there in the Palmyra area while Joseph and his new wife, Emma, were in Harmony and then they moved up to Fayette, again where Lucy was not there. But Lucy and her husband, Joseph Smith Sr., visited often and certainly had insight. But we have to remember that there is a certain distance of the history while simultaneously having this closeness, of, of the relationship of this mother writing about her son.
Joseph Stuart: Moving on to the manuscript itself, one of the things I’m most struck by in the volume is the attention to the manuscript’s physical composition. So what did the leaves feel like? Why does the text materiality matter in a digital world?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: We are spoiled. If you would transport a historian from the 1940s to current day, I think that they would be shocked at the accessibility of documents just at a Google search away. But you are absolutely right that we lose something in that digitized landscape. Manuscripts exist as an artifact, they’re three dimensional even though we often see them as two dimensional. There’s a tactile presence of the manuscript that makes a difference. I would love in fact, for someone to write a tactile history of the Book of Mormon. What does the onion skin pages of the Book of Mormon— what kind of experience is that in reading it versus a glowing screen against your face, and you know, at 10 o’clock at night, just before going to bed? I mean, this is an experience of reading the scriptures that I think is important. And so I think it’s meaningful to me that the original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon is so interesting from a materiality perspective. There’s some tragedy about the aspect of the manuscripts in 1841. Joseph Smith placed the manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House and they’re laid for about 40 years where when it was pulled out in the 1880s, the water had seeped into the cornerstone and done some damage to the manuscript. So to experience the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon is to experience loss, to experience fragility, which we don’t often associate with the Book of Mormon. I find that kind of interesting. And so you’re absolutely right, that as you look through the pages of this volume of the Joseph Smith papers, it really is quite apparent that this manuscript is beaten up. It’s seen better days if we want to say that way. And so I think we need to remember that the Book of Mormon is more than the text upon which it is written. The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon is not the Book of Mormon text. We absolutely can learn a lot of things from it. But the Book of Mormon text is that text that is freely available to the world, you know, just going on the homepage of the church. But I, as a historian, of course, I’m drawn to the materiality of the text. And so one of the things that struck me, and this is getting into nerd territory, you’ll recognize that not everyone will recognize this as interesting. But the Book of Mormon manuscript did not stack perfectly. It was made of multiple pages. And not only that, sometimes Oliver Cowdrey folded the pages differently. So in order to get the manuscript assembled, he would take multiple stacks or multiple pieces of paper, and then fold them in half. And that would create a gathering of 6 or 10, or 12, or 24 leaves that he would then write upon. Sometimes he would fold those pages horizontally and sometimes he would fold them vertically. And so you have different measured sizes of pages. And so you have sometimes long, narrow, skinny pages, or sometimes you have short and fat pages. And so you know, when you have a giant stack of 200 pages or so and you can kind of tap it on the table to straighten it all out, that was never something you could do with the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. And that to me seems interesting. You know, it’s this tiny, tiny detail that recreates and reconstructs what it was like to handle the manuscript. It was forever not a straight stack of pages. Now what you want to make of that, that’s up to you. But to me, it’s an interesting tidbit.
Joseph Stuart: That is fascinating. What kind of paper was it written on?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: So it was written in the early 19th century, so it was kind of a cotton based paper. Royal Skousen has done a lot of work, or rather, those that helped him have identified multiple different paper types. In fact, we have a story from Joseph Knight, who was an early supporter of Joseph Smith. He would come to Harmony and visit with provisions and the provisions included food, but also paper. And so we have different types of paper and some would have been better than others, but for the most part, early 19th century paper is pretty good. It’s really only until they introduce wood pulp and other things that make the paper acidic. So when you pull out an old piece of paper and it starts flaking away, that’s the acidity. But the original manuscript to the Book of Mormon, had it not been started in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, would have been fairly well preserved.
Joseph Stuart: With that in mind, what are some things that listeners could do if they have historical documents that they would like to preserve?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: I often tell people that history is reconstructed through the scraps of scraps of scraps of that which was created. There are all sorts of records in people’s houses and basements and attics that are of historic value. You know, I’m, I’m a textual guy. I am someone that really focuses on the text. I would even kill for a shopping list of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, whereas he would have seen that as inconsequential. If you have something that is of importance, of value for your family or for your extended family or your community or the church or whatnot, I would strongly encourage you to seek out an expert. Go to your local historical society or special collections or archive and ask them their advice. The best thing someone can do is keep it in a well regulated, environmentally controlled area of your home. Now, that’s not going to be as good as perhaps a multimillion dollar building that’s designed for that, but attics fluctuate in their temperature throughout the year and that’s not the best on paper. Basements, same thing and often when people’s houses flood you know, obviously water runs down. So if you’ve got documents that are of importance to you, bring them up. Show them to people and share why it’s meaningful for you and we talked about digitization and the challenges of that but it is a boon also. If you are concerned about your missionary journal or your early courtship letters, take pictures of them and digitize them. I guarantee that someone at some point will find them meaningful if you think that you have led a boring life. I can guarantee you as a social historian, one interested in social history, nothing is uninteresting for the right historian and the right scholar.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I also recommend artists’ partials Twitter feed and blog @keepapitchinin to understand how these sorts of scraps of documents end up making a difference in people’s lives.
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: She is my hero in really teasing out historical details of even the tiniest scrap. I find that you know, there’s certain scholars, she and I think of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as well, where even the tiniest fragment we can understand so much about the environment in which that was created.
Joseph Stuart: What was it like to work with the Community of Christ? Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Community of Christ didn’t always enjoy great relations with each other until later in the 20th century? What was it like to work with them as colleagues?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best of relations. We often would send missionaries to the other congregation and tell them how wrong they were. Those relations have dramatically improved. And one of the reasons for that is the scholarship that took place. We had a scholar by the name of Robert Matthews who worked very carefully on the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. And the Community of Christ, then they were known as the RLDS church, had that manuscript. And so he was able to work with Richard Howard and others there at the Community of Christ and develop a really good friendship. And The Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association, those are also out of the organizations that have brought those two groups together. And the same was with Joseph Smith papers, I not only found good colleagues in the people that I worked with in the Community of Christ, but really good friends. So we published not only the original manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, but also the printers manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. And at the time that we published that for the Joseph Smith papers, the Community of Christ owned that manuscript. And they bent over backwards to allow access for us. They welcomed us with open arms as we brought a photographer and kind of took over their space to photograph the entire manuscript. Rachel Killebrew from the archives there has probably spent countless hours answering my email questions and whatnot, and Ron Romig and Lachlan MacKay. These people are not only good scholars but have become good friends. And I hope that that relationship can continue going forward. Because we share the same heritage. We share the same passion about the history of Joseph Smith and the church and churches that are traceable to him. And I can’t think of better friends and individuals to work with than those in the Community of Christ.
Joseph Stuart: You mentioned that a photographer went out. And I also understand from the volume that a lot of technology was used to not only see what was on the paper at the level of the naked eye, but much more. Is there an example of something that technology revealed that helped you and Royal to find insights that you were able to put into the volume?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: Royal Skousen worked very tirelessly on the Book of Mormon manuscript. He had some portions of the manuscript photographed in ultraviolet light. But he wasn’t the beginning of that. The church has spent resources in photographing the manuscripts because photographs allow not only the preservation of a manuscript, but it also offers the ability to share that manuscript. And with the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon we’ve been interested in sharing but also preserving. And sometimes those are counterproductive if you share manuscripts especially in the condition of the Book of Mormon original manuscript, it sometimes, back then, literally fell apart in pieces or in your hands. And so we had an individual by the name of Ernst Color photograph the manuscripts in ultraviolet lights. But we also had in 2017, my colleagues of the church history library, were able to photograph the Book of Mormon manuscripts with multi spectral imaging. Now your audience will of course, forgive me I’m not a scientist, I don’t know the ins and outs of all of this. But as I understand it as a 19th century historian, as I understand multispectral imaging, you shine different wavelengths at a piece of paper, whether that’s ultraviolet, or infrared, and all the spectrum in between and the different wavelengths reflects the ink and the pages differently. And so you take pictures at each wavelength. So you have at the end of the process we had about 40 images of each leaf, you could see differences in the pages. And so while it’s true that some of these pages are preserved, particularly First Nephi at the top of the manuscript is— you can read that with the naked eye. As you go deeper into the manuscript, there are pages that are virtually invisible to the naked eye. And so if I pulled out a page and showed it to you, you wouldn’t be able to read it. You would barely be able to recognize that there was text on it. And so with the multispectral imaging, we were able to pull out that ink so that we could read the pages. Now this isn’t a magic cure all, I wish that it were but it makes it dramatically improved, as opposed to what it would be with the naked eye. And I’m confident that you know the nature of technology in 10,15, 20 years from now we will have better and improved technology so that we can perhaps uncover things that are hidden today.
Joseph Stuart: Now in thinking about the two audiences that you’re trying to reach, academia and Latter-day Saints, although of course there’s overlap there as well. What do you hope that scholars and academia take from this volume of the Joseph Smith papers?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: It’s not as true anymore, but the Book of Mormon used to be the most famous unread text in academia. I think that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that a scholar who spent years and years and years studying the early church history, maybe they had read the Book of Mormon once. Now I’m sure that there are exceptions. But I am very pleasantly happy to see that that is no longer the case or it’s increasingly not becoming the case. There are scholars of the early American experience who are tackling, taking seriously the Book of Mormon and nothing gives me greater joy because as a believer, I of course, recognize the Book of Mormon as scripture. But as a historian, I recognize the Book of Mormon as an influential text. Here we have this document that converted first dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands, and now millions of believers of the Book of Mormon texts. Scholars need to recognize what is it about this text that was so impactful, so influential, so— what was it that drew people to this text? And so if we can offer this text, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, to scholars to study, so that they can understand the ways in which it was first created, the ways in which the text has been transmitted through the years, that is an important part of any influential text. You think about plays of William Shakespeare, there are whole scholars on Shakespearean texts. I hope that we can see the day where there are going to be scholars, not just one or two, but dozens of scholars of the Book of Mormon text and volumes like this are going to pave the way for that to happen.
Joseph Stuart: Now same question, but for Latter-day Saints, what should nonspecialists take away from this volume?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: I think that one of the things that nonspecialists, particularly believers in the text of the Book of Mormon, they can open this book and recognize the Book of Mormon has a history. And I’m not talking about ancient history, I’m talking about 19th century history. The Book of Mormon was produced and printed, copied, this has a history. There are differences between the original manuscript and the printer’s manuscript in the first edition of The Book of Mormon that are important. Many of those changes were accidental, but some of them were deliberate. And so the question of what do we do with a scripture that we hold sacred and yet also had changes through mistakes of men and women? Or the deliberate changing of the text? What does that mean? What is it about scripture that is scripture as opposed to what is it in the text that makes that scripture? And so I think those are really interesting questions and something that we as Latter-day Saints need to tackle, need to think through, need to experience and I think that that can offer meaningful interpretation in your devotional reading of the text. I think also, and I kind of opened with this, I think there’s power, spiritual resonance with this manuscript. This is, if we truly believe that the Book of Mormon was a divine text, then we should recognize that this manuscript was on the table when that miraculous event happened. And I think that that’s, I think that’s remarkable to think about. And I think that even for non-believers, they can still recognize that this is a manuscript that was on the table when received this inspired text. And I think that’s an important aspect of this manuscript that will never go away. It’s this critically important manuscript that bears witness to its own past.
Joseph Stuart: Now following the Lord’s directive in Section 88 to seek learning out of the best books, what are the three books that you would recommend to our audience, Robin?
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: So I’m staying on the Book of Mormon theme. I think that there’s some wonderful books recently, on the Book of Mormon and I struggle with recommending just three because there has really been a lot of good scholarship lately. But I’m gonna hold myself to three. For those interested in the earliest manuscript of the Book of Mormon, this earliest text of the Book of Mormon, I really would recommend Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon. It was published by Yale University but I think scholars are, of course, interested in it but I’ve sat down and read in that book in kind of a devotional setting. And it’s lovely, it’s wonderful. It essentially is the culmination of all of Royal Skousen’s many, many, many years of work with the Book of Mormon and I think that it is just as wonderful work in trying to get to that earliest text. Another book that I think is really important that has come out in the last years is William Davis’s Visions In a Seer Stone. This is a really important book in trying to understand how is it that Joseph Smith as well thought, well for the time, not terribly educated of the day individual, could produce the Book of Mormon. And I haven’t read a scholarly book in quite a while that has tried so hard as Bill has in making space for believers of the Book of Mormon in that book. He offers a lot in his preface as to how his interpretations and his arguments in this book are not threatening to faithful Latter-day Saints. And I really appreciated that because he recognized that the Book of Mormon translation is, in some ways, a fraught exploration. But I learned a lot from that book. I, of course, didn’t agree with everything but that’s academia, that scholarship. I’m not going to agree with everything that I read, but I thought that it was a very well done book that moved the conversation of the translation forward. And then finally, for a more lay audience, lay interest of the Book of Mormon, William Slaughter and Richard E. Turley published a book. It’s probably been maybe 10 years ago now, but it’s called How We Got the Book of Mormon. And it really could serve as a coffee table book, but I always hate calling books coffee tables that are so well done in kind of their scholarship. But Bill and Rick really put together kind of the history of the different versions of the Book of Mormon, how we got the Book of Mormon manuscripts or the text and you know, we sometimes forget as we’re reading the Book of Mormon on our screen today, the many iterations and the many sacrifices that went into that. And I think that book really helps us understand that history and that narrative.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for visiting with us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Robin.
Dr. Robin Scott Jensen: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Joey.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)