#32—The printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, with church historian Robin Scott Jensen [MIPodcast]
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There’s a bold claim on the dust jacket of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project:
“The Book of Mormon is the centerpiece of Joseph Smith’s documentary record.”
Arguably, without the Book of Mormon we may not even need a Joseph Smith Papers Project, the goal of which is to publish a comprehensive record of documents created by Joseph Smith or people whom he directed. This includes journals, revelations and translations, contemporary reports of discourses, minutes, business and legal records, editorials, and other things.
Robin Scott Jensen co-edited the recently published printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Most of the original manuscript was destroyed by the elements long ago, but the printer’s manuscript which was used (for the most part) to typeset the Book of Mormon is almost completely intact. And it offers some fascinating insight into the production of the keystone LDS scripture.
Robin Scott Jensen is a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Together with Royal Skousen he edited the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, volume three of the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers Project is to publish a comprehensive record of documents created by Joseph Smith or people he directed. This includes journals, revelations, translations, contemporary reports of his discourses, minutes, business and legal records, editorials, and all sorts of documents. A counterfactual historian might argue that if there had been no Book of Mormon there would be no need for a Joseph Smith Papers Project. The dust jacket of the latest book in the Joseph Smith Papers Project says, “The Book of Mormon is the centerpiece of Joseph Smith’s documentary record.”
In this episode Robin Scott Jensen’s here to talk about the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which was published in August 2015 by the Church Historian’s Press. Jensen is a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and together with Royal Skousen he edited the printer’s manuscript. It’s volume three of the “Revelations and Translations” series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to email@example.com. If you like the show please share with your friends and take a minute to rate and review it.
BLAIR HODGES: Robin Scott Jensen, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
ROBIN JENSEN: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
HODGES: I thought we’d start with the most obvious question, and one that people probably don’t even really need to hear the answer to. It’s a question about what the Joseph Smith Papers Project is. While you’re explaining that, maybe you can talk a little bit about how you came to be involved in the project yourself.
JENSEN: So very simply, the Joseph Smith Papers Project is an attempt to publish all known Joseph Smith documents. Now a simple explanation of course doesn’t get to the complexities of things. This has a long history.
Dean Jesse in the seventies began thinking about publishing the Joseph Smith documents. He was looking at examples such as the Thomas Jefferson Papers, George Washington Papers, these founding fathers and other important figures as a resource for scholars. Dean thought this would be perfect for Joseph Smith. Joseph, of course, is an important religious figure. Scholars of American history would be interested in uncovering these documents. So Dean began the work and that has continued to this day.
I began my experience with the Joseph Smith Papers as a graduate student actually here at BYU. I was working on a master’s degree and jumped at the chance to be a research assistant working on this wonderful project and I fell in love. I fell in love with the research, the documents I understood implicitly how important the documents were and getting them right and making them available for scholars. As I was doing my own research I realized how difficult sometimes it was to find the sources. I began to use our own documentation, our own work, and it was wonderful.
So when I graduated with a master’s degree in history they gave me a full time job. I’m one of those rarities of finding a job in history right after getting a master’s degree. They moved up to the Church History Library, the department there at the church.
HODGES: This is where the church kind of adopted from what Dean Jesse was doing at BYU and they said let’s move it to the Church History Department and really put resources behind it?
HODGES: I think there were some donors who came forward.
JENSEN: Yes. Larry H. Miller took a real interest in the Joseph Smith Paper’s Project. It’s not well known, but he had a real interest in history. He thought that it was an important topic to study, so he began speaking with a few people and made the resources available to really expand the project to what it is today.
So they moved it up to the church in 2005. I moved up with them and began my full-time career there. I was in heaven. It was a treat to go into work every single day. We just began working at the sources. Now a lot of people think the Joseph Smith documents, the history of the church, a lot of those documents already out there are available to scholars and to some degree that is correct, but I think readers are sometimes surprised at the amount of contextual information and transcription information that has been missed by previous scholarship. The Joseph Smith Papers has really made an effort to get both the historical context and the textual scholarship right.
HODGES: As you’ve been working on the project yourself you’ve kind of been involved with one of the series within the project, but you’ve also been doing some personal scholarly development as well. You’ve continued to do some schooling, right?
JENSEN: Yeah. As I was working on my master’s degree here at BYU I, like many graduate students, had an existential crisis of trying to figure out what I needed to do and I didn’t necessarily want to teach so I thought working at an archive would be wonderful. So my very last semester here at BYU was my first semester of a second master’s program, an online degree from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and that was a library science degree with an archival concentration. I thought that was my role in life. I wasn’t quite sure of my future with the Joseph Smith Papers, but then I got offered this position and I was wondering whether I should continue with that other master’s or not. I got enough encouragement that I went ahead and finished that.
HODGES: It was basically just memorizing the Dewey decimal system.
JENSEN: Exactly. Exactly. [laughing]
HODGES: Not enough people use it anymore.
JENSEN: I’m the life of the party. What can I say?
When I finished my second master’s program I got into the PhD program at the University of Utah. It came as a very sad realization that I’m now entering my second decade of graduate school. That’s what I get for trying to earn graduate degrees on the side while working full-time, but the church has given me a great resource there and I’ve surely benefitted and my archival degree and now my PhD has really benefitted the project, I feel.
HODGES: It seems like the church is really interested in the professional development of the people who are working on the project. There’s this increasing push for professionalization and the idea that you can be a very strong academic and get along and perform well in the academy and also do good scholarship for the church as well.
JENSEN: Absolutely. I think the church has realized that Mormon history, Mormon scholarship is going to go on whether anyone at the church is going to do anything about it or not. I think the Church History Library has done a really nice job in the last several decades of understanding that they can be engaged in the scholarly conversation. There’s enough room in Mormon studies, Mormon history, other scholarship that we really have a lot to offer because for one thing we sit on the largest collection of Mormon documents there are. We really should be a part of that conversation.
HODGES: Okay. So that kind of gives an idea of the overall Joseph Smith Papers Project, your involvement in it. Let’s talk about what you’re here to buzz market today. This is the latest volume that just came out. It’s part of the “Revelations and Translations” series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. There are several of these series. They include “Revelations and Translation,” “Histories,” “Journals,” “Documents,” “Legal Records,” and “Administrative Records.” The last one sounds—sorry—that’s probably pretty dry reading.
As for the “Revelations and Translations,” that seems to be just a really important part of the project. This is the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. So maybe talk a little bit about how the printer’s manuscript is situated within the overall “Revelations and Translations” series. It seems like a pretty obvious fit, but there are also some gray areas in terms of how to classify some of these Joseph Smith documents. So talk a little bit about that.
JENSEN: Yeah. We have broken up the project into six different series. It gets a little confusing. In fact, because as you could well imagine it’s not always easy to categorize and dissect these documents into distinct series. In fact, some of the revelations that we’ve already published in the “Revelations and Translations” series are also part of the “Documents” series. That overlap has confused some readers. I jokingly say that we in the Joseph Smith Papers was trying to make this as confusing as possible. They are surprised that we’ve now published our eleventh volume. They think we’ve only published two or three.
The printer’s manuscript, as you say, is a perfect fit. I talk to members of the church and they’re surprised that, first of all, when I tell them what I do they’re surprised that there’s actually any scholarly interest. They are quite familiar enough with the broader context of American history scholarship to know that Joseph Smith and Mormonism, the church, is a very legitimate thing to study and it’s becoming even more and more popular. So the reason, of course, that Joseph Smith is so studied is because of his religious, the founding of this church. Him as a religious leader is very important.
So the “Revelation and Translations” series is, of course, one of the most important series because it represents who Joseph Smith is and why he’s so important for scholars. Now I think if you take a very broad look at the “Revelations and Translations” series it’s actually quite interesting. There are different documents within that series because the way in which Joseph Smith brought forth scripture is important for members, it’s important for scholars, but I think what we need to remember is that it’s not a set way.
Joseph Smith is translating a record. He’s translating the Book of Mormon. He’s receiving revelations. He’s translating the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. He’s translating the Book of Abraham. All of these are considered scripture for Latter-day Saints. They’re seen as religious texts for scholars. But the way in which he’s bringing these forth is complicated and messy and not very easily fit into neat categories. So, when all is said and done, I think the totality of the texts in the “Revelations and Translations” series will fit very nicely in one sense, but also show the complexity and the complication of the revelations and the translations that Joseph Smith was bringing forth.
HODGES: It’s really interesting, the categorization of that stuff. So in volume three, again, it’s the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, so just take a quick second and talk about that compared to the original manuscript because that’s something a lot of people wonder about.
JENSEN: So I think maybe we can step back. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founded on a religious text. That’s not uncommon. Mormonism has often been seen recently in scholarship as a world religion. I think when we step back and think about the Book of Mormon it’s actually quite remarkable that the earliest members of the church first saw the Book of Mormon in print. That’s not how it happened with Christianity or Islam or other world religions. Manuscript texts were crucial in spreading those faiths. Before Mormonism it was the printed work. So by and large we do not have the types and numbers of manuscripts that other world religions have. We have two manuscripts, two significant manuscripts that scholars need to study. Except for a few notable exceptions, scholars of Mormonism have largely ignored those manuscripts.
So very briefly, the original manuscript was that dictated by Joseph Smith to scribes, and then when they finished that work, Joseph had Oliver Cowdery make a second copy, known as the printer’s manuscript. It’s with those two manuscripts that we have this sacred text, this scripture for individuals. It’s based upon those two manuscripts that a lot of the textual work, the textual comparison an analysis can be done.
HODGES: It really goes to show, too, how even though we have what we can consider to be the primary source document—aside from the gold plates, the gold plates aren’t around, this is what we have—and there are still a lot of unanswered questions about something even as simple as the printer’s manuscript being created. They didn’t sit down and write out their justification for doing that. We can extrapolate and kind of imagine why they did it, but they never sat down to write about why they did it, they didn’t write about when it happened exactly, all these things. So there are so many gaps, even though we have those actual documents, there are still so many gaps.
JENSEN: Yeah, and it doesn’t help that in 1841 Joseph Smith deposited the original manuscript into the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House.
HODGES: For safekeeping, right? Sounds like a great idea— [laughs]
JENSEN: Yes. When you want to preserve a manuscript, it’s my professional opinion that you should not place it into a cornerstone near the Mississippi River. It just does all sorts of things with mold and water damage.
Decades later when they pulled it out it was falling apart. Much of it was damaged, so today we only have twenty-eight percent of the original manuscript. We’re talking about these two manuscripts in the close scrutiny that we do, but because a significant portion of that original manuscript is not extant we are left with, as you say, many of these unanswered questions.
HODGES: Alright. So you take the stuff that we do have. We have almost all of the printer’s manuscript, right? There’s just a little section of it missing?
JENSEN: There’s about a line and a half on one leaf that’s missing from the text.
HODGES: It was the top sheaves?
JENSEN: The very top sheaf, and it’s just through age and wear and whatnot that kind of flaked off. You don’t write important things on the top sheaf of paper.
HODGES: If you ever want to go back in time and tell them, “hey, here’s something you can do.”
JENSEN: Just have a nice title page or something there. Start on the second leaf.
HODGES: So we have almost all of that, and then what the Joseph Smith volumes do is there are photographs on one side of the manuscript, and then on the other side there’s a transcription of that. The transcription is just typed out exactly what appears there.
So let’s talk about the editorial method. This speaks to the whole Joseph Smith Papers Project as well. I think this is something you’re especially obsessed with, this really minute stuff. Let’s hear about some of these details. What are some of the rules of transcription the Joseph Smith Papers Project follows?
JENSEN: You just described what we call the facsimile edition. Most of our volumes don’t follow that standard; we have just the transcription. Sometimes we have illustrations that kind of give a sense of what the document might look like, but for two of the volumes of the “Revelations and Translations” series, including this volume of the printer’s manuscript, we have for every single manuscript page, all four-hundred and sixty-five—or four, I always forget—of the printer’s manuscript, we have the facsimile, the photograph of the page on the left hand side and the transcription on the right.
That transcription is also slightly different than most of the volumes. It’s called the typographical facsimile. So if in the manuscript they wrote a word above the line, we would transcribe that word above the line. If they’ve crossed something out, then we cross that out. If they’ve written over the word we have a way in which we can identify that.
So oftentimes people will say, “well, this is actually the next best thing to the original.” In some ways it’s in fact better than the original. If you had access to the original manuscript, in order to match what we have here in this book, you would have to have twenty-five plus years of experience with the manuscript. You’d have to have multi-spectral imaging.
HODGES: You’d have to be Royal Skousen.
JENSEN: You’d have to be Royal Skousen to have this better than the original. So we have essentially given this transcription such close scrutiny and care that in some ways it is better than a novice or a scholar accessing the original manuscript.
HODGES: People that read the details are going to learn cool words like pilcrow, which is that paragraph symbol. ¶
JENSEN: Yep. The paragraph symbol has a name in fact. The pilcrow. ¶
HODGES: Alright. So that’s kind of what the transcription is about. We mentioned Royal Skousen. How does the transcription in this differ from the transcription that Royal Skousen has done in the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project? This is something the Maxwell Institute and FARMS before it housed for about twenty-five years, the remainder of which will be published through BYU Studies. How does the transcription differ there?
JENSEN: So Royal Skousen was very kind. We approached him and said we had this “Revelations and Translations” series, we would love to have the Book of Mormon a part of that, and we would love to have your work as part of that. He very graciously agreed. To some degree we could not have done this without Royal. We would have had to re-transcribe everything and do all the work that he did. So it’s very good for us that Royal was able to lend us his transcription.
He essentially gave us his transcription and then any document or editing project is going to transcribe their documents differently. The editorial method of different projects take different approaches depending on the philosophy. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is actually fairly conservative. We’re quite careful in preserving spelling and bad grammar and punctuation and all of that stuff.
HODGES: It’s not covering up all of that stuff or changing them. You’re as true to the document—
JENSEN: Exactly. As careful as we are, Royal’s transcription was even more careful.
HODGES: What are some of those?
JENSEN: So for instance he was quite careful in identifying certain marks that we would have ignored. So if the scribe was going to write an “m” for instance, and they added an extra hump to that “m” so we have four strokes, Royal would have noted that. We would have given the scribe the benefit of the doubt and transcribed that as an “m.” When the scribe begins to write a “d” for instance but never finishes it out, Royal would make a careful note of that, whereas we would at certain times simply ignore the fact that they didn’t finish this character.
So what I did when we got the transcription from Royal, I went through it word by word, line by line, taking the Joseph Smith Papers’ editorial style and imposing it upon Royal’s transcription. This was sometimes easily done.
So for instance he uses angle brackets [ ] to indicate a word is deleted. We simply have a line through, a
strikethrough, and so that’s a fairly easy fix. But there were other times where it was a bit more complicated. I would have to carefully read his description in the footnotes, and if we had an editorial symbol for that we could do that, but oftentimes we had to adopt that. This is Royal’s transcription with the Joseph Smith Papers’ treatment, you could say.
So for those interested in the absolute most detail possible, Royal’s work is still going to be indispensible as it has been since they’ve been published. For those that may see Royal’s work as a little too much for them—and I have met scholars who feel that they’re a little intimidated by Royal’s work because the transcription style can get a little complicated—then this volume presents it in a bit simpler method.
And then of course the photographs are unique. That’s new to the Joseph Smith Papers. Royal had a few illustrations at the beginnings of his books—and Royal would say the same thing. He’s quite pleased that now the full color images of each page are out there.
HODGES: As you went through the transcription and gave Royal’s transcription the Joseph Smith Papers’ treatment, did you ever get to also use the actual manuscript itself?
JENSEN: Unfortunately, no. I went out to Independence a few times, and I held the manuscripts, and I checked a few things, but we used Royal’s transcription and the high resolution digital scans that we have.
This is Robin Scott Jensen. He’s a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and co-editor of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon that just came out with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The photos which we’re talking about, they’re quite beautiful. I think the book is about as big as it could be and still be a reasonable purchase, but it looks really nice. With Royal’s level of detail, I think some of that can also be accommodated by giving people access to the images too.
JENSEN: Exactly. Royal’s level of treatment was in some ways necessary because the images were not available. There were quite a few times where Royal takes great pains to describe a certain feature of the text, and I could delete that footnote because we had the image right there. It was quite apparent with the image.
HODGES: After a while I know the Joseph Smith Papers Project has been putting all of their materials up online months after the printed volumes come out. So I think people can look forward to after a while here being able to look at those photos themselves on the Joseph Smith Papers Project website. It’s so easy to zoom in on images and move around on them and compare them to the transcription. It’s a really impressively designed website. So people that don’t want to pick up the book will be able to benefit from that here after a while. I think it’s great.
JENSEN: Yeah. So the Joseph Smith Papers website, josephsmithpapers.org, is a tremendous resource. We are committed to presenting all of the documents on that website eventually. That already is but will continue to be such a great resource for scholars and members, of course.
HODGES: Now as you’ve been going through this project, you’ve spent quite a bit of time with the text of the Book of Mormon really closely in terms of looking at the transcription, looking at the manuscript, and making sure that the transcription matches, and so forth. In the process of that you’ve also been writing and producing some little articles and pieces on the side.
For example, you were invited to speak here at BYU this week, sponsored by the Willes Center here at the Maxwell Institute, and BYU Studies, and Royal Skousen joined you there, and you both spoke. You spoke about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon translation. We’re going to put up a video of that here in the next couple of months, whenever the editing of that is complete.
You also have an article coming out in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and by the time people hear this episode it will be available. This is an article about Abner Cole. I thought it would be interesting for you to talk a little bit about that article, that is something that grew out of the project.
JENSEN: Yeah. I’m a scholar that’s very interested in the texts, both printed and manuscript, and not just the content of those documents, but I’m interested in how they’re treated as artifacts. These documents have certain symbolism and certain meaning behind them that isn’t related to the content at all.
So I began really looking at the printer’s manuscript and how it was used in the Palmyra print shop there in 1830 for the first edition, and of course we know the story, Abner Cole pirates some of the passages of the Book of Mormon. He’s publishing parts of First Nephi. He then publishes some of Alma. I was very interested in that.
HODGES: Is this the “Dogberry Papers”—
HODGES: What is that referred to?
JENSEN: —He was an interesting character.
HODGES: Did he just make that up? I don’t understand the reference.
JENSEN: Andy Hedges has an article that mentions it, but I forget what… he made a guess as to what it mean, but I forgot what it was. Something with Shakespeare. Anyway, he was a character.
HODGES: He was taking the Book of Mormon and he was putting it in the newspaper and calling it the “Dogberry Papers on Winter Hill” or something like that.
JENSEN: Yeah. He was pretty clear when he did the excerpt from the Book of Mormon and he—What I find actually interesting is that he of course is critical, he’s making fun of Joseph and other saints, but he’s not filtering the Book of Mormon text. He believes that the Book of Mormon text on the surface will convince people that this is a fraud. Joseph and Oliver Cowdery believed that the Book of Mormon on the surface could convince people that this was divine. So it was just this test for people to see whether they would believe or not.
So Abner Cole said, “I’m going to publish the Book of Mormon and it will convince people that it’s a fraud.” Then of course from Lucy Mack Smith we have the story. Joseph comes in and tells him he can’t do that, he doesn’t have the right.
HODGES: It’s like a WikiLeaks of the nineteenth century situation. He’s leaking these documents early.
JENSEN: Abner Cole had an agreement with E. B. Grandin to use his press, and this is the press that’s printing the Book of Mormon. Abner Cole agrees to work nights and on Sundays when Grandin is not working, and so there’s sheets, reams of papers with the Book of Mormon just laying about. And Abner Cole, there’s no supervision there. So he pulls the first sheet of the Book of Mormon, sees that it’s First Nephi chapter one, and he prints it in his newspaper.
So in my article I talk about this, but then I also talk about Alma. So Alma chapter twenty, it’s chapter twenty in the 1830 edition, he publishes this in mid-January and as I looked at the article in the Palmyra Reflector, which is Abner Cole’s newspaper, I saw that there were certain errors that wouldn’t make sense. So of course this is a time when you have to hand set the type for the newspaper, letter by letter, character by character—
HODGES: Holding these little teeny tiny types and setting them into the frames.
JENSEN: Exactly. It was very tedious work. Abner Cole, he’s pirating this work, he’s going to cut corners. He does cut corners. He makes some mistakes with this section of Alma. There are words in there that don’t have spaces. They’re run on words. Two words run together. Of course the space is also a type that you have to set, so periodically you see these mistakes, you see these typos, and you don’t think anything of it. But as I looked more carefully I realized that whenever the word was run together that also matched with the end of line in the 1830 publication. So we have to remember the 1830 Book of Mormon has wider text block than the Palmyra Reflector and so—
HODGES: Right, they were like skinny newspaper columns. The Book of Mormon was laid out on a page for a book.
JENSEN: As a book, yeah.
HODGES: In a single column, too. Today’s Book of Mormon as published by the church is separated into two columns, but back then it was all the way across the page like you’d see in a novel.
JENSEN: Yeah. So what I concluded—and I’m convinced this happened—Abner Cole as he was pirating First Nephi begins to see what else he can do, and he sees Alma is at that time set in type for printing of the 1830 Book of Mormon. So likely what happened, they had finished the type but they hadn’t yet deposited the type back into the cases. So all he had to do was take the type that was set already for the Book of Mormon, rearrange that type for the width of the columns, and put it in his newspaper. So it was his version of the copying and pasting. But the errors came when he forgot to add a space at the end of the line of the Book of Mormon, so it ran together, the words, giving us evidence that this in fact happened.
Now what’s interesting—of course it’s interesting and you should all run out and tell your friends all about this because it’s such a fascinating story—
HODGES: It’s going to go viral. [laughing]
JENSEN: But the implication of course with this is this tells us exactly, well not exactly exactly, but it helps us understand where they are at in the printing process of the 1830 Book of Mormon.
HODGES: When those editions of the paper came out.
JENSEN: Yeah. So when Alma chapter twenty of the 1830 edition was being printed, it’s January twenty-second when Abner Cole was able to print this copy. So it’s granted a small detail. I sometimes run home and tell my wife about this exciting find at work and she says, “that’s not exciting at all, you are a big nerd.”
So I’ve come to grips with the fact that I find things interesting that most people don’t.
HODGES: Stuff like this ampersand “&” and it’s actually an “s” that had a defect in the little metal type. That kind of stuff?
JENSEN: Exactly, yeah. I mean this is my bread and butter. This is what I live for.
But I think the implications are important. It helps us reconstruct this process of printing the manuscript. Scholars of the book, book historians, understand that the production of a book is very important. We understand the book as kind of an impersonal—you send off the manuscript and all of a sudden three weeks later you get a book in the mail and it’s amazing. This is a much more personal, much more involved process, and there are a lot of humans involved. There is this whole structure created around the creation of the book. The more we try to uncover that the more we try to situate the 1830 Book of Mormon within the context of this print culture of the nineteenth century, the better we can understand the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
We talk about early Christianity and the way that they can tease out of some of these early manuscripts the dates and other things. We can do the same things with the publication of the Book of Mormon.
HODGES: Another thing that you talked about, and let’s talk about the paper you gave here this week about the witnesses to the translation process, because it bears on this exact subject, the fact that there were a lot of hands at work in getting the Book of Mormon to where it was. I love the point that you made about how the Book of Mormon may be the first religious text that first appeared to the public as a book.
With Christianity there were letters and there were oral sayings that were later written that existed before what later became the Bible. With the Qur’an it’s the same, that it was recited, it was poetic, it was memorized, and passed on and then began to be recorded and these types of things. With the Book of Mormon we have that kind of textual history, but there’s this line between what we have today and what it was because those gold plates are gone. The records that were written upon are gone. We don’t have access to those. Here we just have this book, and it first appeared to the public 1830 in a printed book.
JENSEN: I think the implications there are important to remember. So the early nineteenth century, there is a difference in any century, there’s a difference between manuscript and print. When you see a book of scripture in print for the first time and if you read the 1830 Book of Mormon cover to cover there’s very little context to this coming forth of the Book of Mormon. There’s a very short preface. There’s the testimony of the three and eight witnesses. But any nineteenth century history and nineteenth century context of the coming forth, there’s very little in there.
So already we have this printed book that almost appears out of nowhere and it gives this sense of permanence of importance of—It’s not a manuscript. It’s not a hand-copied text that your neighbor’s going to give you and you say what is this? There’s a professionalism to it, right? Joseph Smith realized that when he’s printing this many Books of Mormon, it’s going to send a message without anyone even having to open the cover.
Of course you have the wonderful scholarship already done of comparing the bindings of the Book of Mormon 1830 is very similar to the Bibles of the day. So when you see the Book of Mormon on the shelf you can think, “oh, this is a sacred book because it reminds me of this Bible that I’ve recalled.”
So I think that we as scholars need to remember that just because it’s in printed form does not mean that there’s not certain artifactual characteristics about this text. The Book of Mormon in print sent a message to the early Latter-day Saints, the early potential Latter-day Saints. Trying to recover that I think it important for us, that this reception in history of the Book of Mormon—there’s a lot of work still to be done on that.
HODGES: Another interesting element of that story involves people who helped with the printing press. I thought this was really great when you talked about John Gilbert, one of the typesetters. Was he the chief typesetter?
JENSEN: Yeah, so he later in his life was quite proud of the fact that he set most of the type. He was the compositor, the typesetter, for the Book of Mormon. He gave a lot of interviews. Very important interviews, because he gives kind of the understanding of what he was doing, the process, and we know from him about how long it took per week and how many sheets they could do.
He wasn’t a believer. He did not believe Joseph Smith’s story. He did not join the church. Later in his life he tried to explain the Book of Mormon away. He flirted with the “Spalding manuscript” theory and whatnot. He was trying to figure out how Joseph could have produced this text.
What I find very interesting about John Gilbert is—of course we all know the story—the Book of Mormon manuscript was not punctuated. It was one giant run-on sentence, which isn’t totally true. There are a few scattered punctuation marks here and there. But essentially John Gilbert had to punctuate the entire Book of Mormon manuscript. I’m not an English major, I’m a history major, but I know enough about the English language to know that punctuation matters in engaging with a text. It’s subtle, but it’s important to know the phrasing or ending of a sentence. Gilbert’s introducing paragraphing. So the formatting structure, the way in which people pause at certain phrases is coming from a non-believer.
I think that’s so interesting and so important to remember. We think today that you can’t engage in Book of Mormon scholarship unless you’re a believer, unless you agree upon the truth claims that the Book of Mormon establishes, and yet here we have John Gilbert who is helping us read the text. He’s helping us engage with the text. To me—and it’s not a perfect metaphor, but I find great symbolism there that those not believing in the Book of Mormon can help us engage with the text. They might be able to see things differently that we don’t see, or they can give us some different perspective that we might not have.
HODGES: I think that information also serves as an invitation for people to take another look at the punctuation itself and recognize that there are interesting things that you can do. Grant Hardy was at the Maxwell Institute this summer and had a small seminar with students about reading the Book of Mormon. One of the activities that he had us do was to punctuate a section of the Book of Mormon. It was really cool. I think that’s a great idea to have people do that, because like you said, punctuation matters.
So we have this lesson we take away, of people who aren’t believers, not members, not believers in the Book of Mormon, who we should appreciate as contributors to our understanding of the text, and even to the very shape of the text we have today, that also lets us know that we can try our hand at that too. It’s a pretty fun way of studying the Book of Mormon.
JENSEN: That’s great. Royal Skousen tells me with his earliest text that was published at Yale on the Book of Mormon, he stripped away all of the punctuation and then he added the punctuation. He said that was the hardest part of that. It was very difficult to punctuate it because we’re just so used to kind of this heavily punctuated Book of Mormon, but that was very nineteenth century. They loved their punctuation. We would do it differently today. It kind of raises the question, how would that affect our reading of it today if it were completely punctuated in a different way?
I think one of the other things we need to remember, Joseph Smith rightly gets a lot of credit for the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, sometimes we hear stories of Oliver Cowdery and whatnot, but we need to remember that Joseph Smith relied on this whole community of supporters during the Book of Mormon translation and publishing. The Book of Mormon, it could be argued, really is a community text. It’s not until he gets the support and the financial and moral support from his family and friends and other followers that he can sustain himself.
I think that there’s this sense that Joseph Smith really struggled with this. It was a difficult task. I think the unsung heroes are those early supporters that buoyed Joseph up in his translation and publishing.
HODGES: A lot of people might think of Martin Harris in that regard because he mortgages his farm, he’s helping to pay for this, but there are other people we hear less about. I hope over time we’re going to hear more and more about these people.
One of them that you brought up in your paper the other night was Mary Whitmer. Talk a little about her and the role she played. There’s a little bit of humor there, but also it really opened your eyes to that community element of creating the Book of Mormon.
JENSEN: I love the story of Mary Whitmer. It kind of has a backstory with me. I was talking to Dean Jesse. He pulled me into his office once—and Dean Jesse of course had worked at the historian’s office for a long time—and he pulled me into his office once and he said, “I have the string that bound the original Book of Mormon manuscripts and I think I need to donate that back to the church.” I said, “I think you’re right.” So we got that processed into the archives there—
HODGES: Do you know how he had it?
JENSEN: I do. It’s kind of a strange story. Kind of a painful story. In the days before—well, conservation was not at the level that it has become, so the original Book of Mormon manuscript was—
HODGES: Like they used to put masking tape on—
JENSEN: Yeah, exactly. You should never put any sort of adhesive tape on any manuscripts if you want to see it survive. At a certain point they were hoping to conserve the manuscript, and so they needed to—it pains me to even say it—they needed to separate the leaves in order to get it to the conservation place. Unsurprisingly at the time, they thought, “well, the text is all that matters,” so they sliced up the pages in half where the folds were, and they started to throw away the yarn and the string that bound the Book of Mormon manuscript.
HODGES: So it was actually bound together?
JENSEN: There were portions of the original manuscript that were still bound, yeah.
HODGES: It was on foolscap paper?
JENSEN: Yeah, so two pages folded in half, creating essentially an eight by eleven page—
HODGES: So when people see these individual sheets, that was not how the original was.
JENSEN: So they were throwing away this yarn and this ribbon, and Dean, with great foresight, said, “You know, I probably should save some of that.” So he went dumpster diving essentially and recovered some of these and donated it back.
So as I did a little bit more of the research on that, I found the statement by David Whitmer when he later in his life had the printer’s manuscript, and he pointed to the string, the yarn that bound the manuscripts, and said, “That’s my mother’s yarn.” So for David Whitmer this is not just a religious text, or a religious artifact. It’s a family heirloom. It represented the family involvement.
So as I looked at that I thought, this is actually a perfect metaphor, perfect symbol of that early community. Here we have Oliver Cowdery, he’s translating the Book of Mormon, he’s folding up pages together—
JENSEN: Yeah, so transcribing, folding them up, sewing them, binding these pages together, and he’s probably not even conscious of where he’s getting this yarn from. He’s just saying, “Hey where’s some yarn, I need to bind this.” And yet Mary Whitmer and the other Whitmer women very likely engaged in creating this yarn. Of course this is before—
HODGES: They didn’t just go to Michael’s—
JENSEN: Yeah, the local craft store. No.
HODGES: Thank you for not buzz marketing any craft stores. [laughing]
JENSEN: So they very likely hand spun this yarn, and for David Whitmer this was a powerful symbol of his family’s connection to preserving the manuscript. Of course let’s relate it also to another story with Mary Whitmer, where she’s hosting this translation effort—
HODGES: Yeah, they moved the project to the Whitmer place.
JENSEN: So from Harmony they move up to Fayette. You’ve got Joseph and Oliver and others who are not pulling their weight, essentially. They’re doing a lot of work and translation. Mary Whitmer’s overly burdened with these extra individuals.
HODGES: You’ve got more mouths to feed.
JENSEN: Yeah. The story as told by David Whitmer and other family members is that she went out one day and was able to see the plates, and the angel came and showed her the plates as a way of comforting her, as a way of placating her to continue on with this effort. And so it’s a great story with Mary Whitmer as not only an early supporter of Joseph Smith, sometimes reluctantly, but as an early supporter, and also as an early individual who assisted in the preservation of the manuscript.
HODGES: That’s Robin Scott Jensen. Along with Royal Skousen he co-edited the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon transcription by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It’s volume three of the “Revelations and Translations” series of that project. We’ll take a brief break and we’ll be right back.
HODGES: We’re back with Robin Jensen. He’s a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He recently published volume three of the “Revelations and Translations” series in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It’s the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. He worked on that project with Royal Skousen.
So for the last part here I want to talk a little bit about how the Doctrine and Covenants contains a revelation that commands the church to keep records. As a document historian that must be one of your favorites, right?
HODGES: Like a revelation talking about the thing you love the most. So let’s talk about how that kind of played out. Going back to the very beginning, how do you see that command to record playing out in the early years of the church and how did Joseph Smith and other early church members think about record keeping?
JENSEN: So I think that’s interesting. Taking several steps back, looking at the general pattern of record keeping, Joseph Smith was not an educated individual. He did not enjoy writing. He could write. He had no difficulty in writing a letter or diary or whatnot.
HODGES: We have some of those, but on the Book of Mormon manuscript very little in his hand.
JENSEN: Yep. Very little of his own hand. Early on, so in the late 1820s, we have nothing from him essentially except for revelations. Of course he’s dictating those to others, but when we look at the types of documents that are created, when Joseph Smith first begins his prophetic career the first thing that is being written down are scripture revelations and the Book of Mormon and other types of items. It’s only later where we get minutes or journals or histories or things like this.
So as I look at that, as I read kind of the record keeping scene of early Mormonism, I see that Joseph is struggling with keeping a record. It does not come natural to him. So I think of this revelation, given on the day the church was organized, “Behold, there shall be records kept among you,” as kind of helping Joseph along to realize that he is about to do great things and the church needs to be documented.
This is a struggle throughout his life. He’s not always being able to document the church as well as he would like. We have several letters and other minutes from him, minutes of addresses of him where he stresses the importance of record keeping, but then of course we have his great desire to keep a journal. He purchases a journal and says, “I’m going to keep a minute record of everything that transpires.”
HODGES: That’s my favorite part, because immediately he doesn’t write anything for a long time.
JENSEN: Yeah, he keeps the journal for a day or two.
HODGES: Then it’s like, “It rained today.”
JENSEN: And then it’s months before he writes the next entry. So he’s a reluctant journalist, probably like most of us who try to keep journals, but as I look at this I think that there’s an important process to consider here.
The early period of the church’s past is documented through reminiscences and other types of records that are fraught, any historian will tell you that contemporary journal is preferable to a late reminiscence, and yet for much of the early church’s history, before the church was organized, just as the church was organized, we have to rely upon revelation, the Book of Mormon, and late reminiscences.
HODGES: That’s why it’s hard to pin down some of the priesthood restoration dates and things like that?
JENSEN: Yeah. So I think it’s important to remember that just because we don’t have any record of something occurring does not mean that we can ignore that. I think there’s important understanding of this oral record keeping.
Or in other words, maybe a better way to say it, Joseph Smith is converting his friends along a network of kin and friends, and so what does he do when he wants to tell someone about his First Vision or the Angel Moroni or the coming forth of the Book of Mormon? He’s not going to write it down because that’s not his pattern. He’s going to talk about it with other. So we have this oral tradition, oral record keeping that, by definition of course, is not written down.
HODGES: Including some revelations you hypothesize, too. In fact, you mentioned during your paper the other night about Emma Smith. I thought that was really interesting. Maybe you could talk about that for a second.
JENSEN: Yeah, so for instance we know for a fact that Joseph Smith received some revelations that were not written down. Lucy Mack Smith, if her memory can be trusted, said that the commandment, or it was a commandment to tell Oliver Cowdery to make a copy of the Book of Mormon.
HODGES: That was never a “commandment.” That was the word they would use for a revelation.
JENSEN: Exactly. We say revelation and kind of mean it in this broad concept, but early terminology it was a commandment. A divine commandment. A “thus saith the Lord” type of commandment.
I’ve hypothesized—if you pin me down I’ll readily admit there’s not sources for this—but Emma Smith of course was an early supporter of Joseph and assisted with the translation by being a scribe to Joseph, and at the same time she was also pregnant with their first child. The child does not survive the birth. There’s a stillbirth and Emma is near death. She’s laid up for quite a while. So I’ve often wondered, Joseph at the same time loses this early portion of the manuscript, Martin Harris loses it, and we have revelations talking about the lost Book of Mormon manuscripts. We have revelations to Oliver Cowdery explaining what his role in the translation is. He have revelations to Martin Harris talking about the publication and printing of the Book of Mormon. Where are the revelations to Emma Smith, giving her comfort for the loss of her child? Where are the revelations to Mary Whitmer and others who are supporting Joseph but not engaged in an institutional support or institutional process?
HODGES: Right. It was separate from institutional matters.
JENSEN: And I think it’s fun to hypothesize, we don’t know for sure, I think that Joseph must have received some sort of revelation for these individuals that were not written down.
You think of some of the revelations—So section four for instance, the revelation to Joseph Smith’s father, it’s this wonderful revelation, but I wonder, I think, my hunch is there’s actually quite a few more of those that just were never written down.
HODGES: Makes sense. I think it’s a really interesting idea. Obviously there is one section of the Doctrine and Covenants that is addressed to Emma, and it’s mostly in the context of something she’s going to be doing for the church.
JENSEN: Yeah. She’s compiling a hymnal and teaching the saints.
HODGES: Right. So it seems possible that there was kind of that distinction being made. I think it’s really interesting. One argument you could make to counter that might be does the phrasing of that revelation seem to imply that it’s an initial revelation, that maybe she hadn’t had one before? I don’t know. I’d have to go back and read.
JENSEN: Could be. Yeah.
HODGES: You’d have to see, is the Lord really introducing himself to Emma as though for the first time directly? That sort of thing.
JENSEN: This is where I think we as scholars of Mormonism have—There’s a lot more we that we can do. Because scholars of early Christianity have scrutinized their manuscripts so closely, we’ve just taken for granted and have not done the same type of analysis. I think there’s so much that we can be doing in looking at these early manuscripts that’s not explicitly mentioned in the manuscripts. But understanding the patterns of record keeping, the types of documents that are writing down, all of this can open up new vistas of Mormon scholarship.
HODGES: Yeah, I think when you say drop the ball, I agree with you that phrase doesn’t quite work because it’s more like they’re just now getting the ball in the form of these, like the Joseph Smith Papers Project, making this stuff available to people to be able to even begin to formulate those types of questions that previously wouldn’t be formulated because we just had this printed book of finished revelations.
JENSEN: Absolutely. If in the next fifty years the scholarship just explodes and they’re relying upon the Joseph Smith Papers Project, then we will be a great success. That is what we are doing. That’s why we’re publishing these manuscripts and the transcriptions, so that scholars can have easier access for these documents, so they can begin to ask these kinds of questions.
HODGES: And not only the scholars, but regular members of the church can make use of these. And that gets interesting because then they’ll see the grammatical errors and the misspellings and they’ll see revelations being edited and changed. And for some people that seems really unusual, the fact that it hasn’t been emphasized much until recently. Perhaps people in the far past kind of just understood that was the process of preparing a revelation for publication. I think the people that were actually involved in editing sections of the Doctrine and Covenants way back then just understood that was part of the process, but today that comes as a surprise, and some people could say, “Well what kind of a revelation is it if it would require that type of editing?” What are your thoughts about that?
JENSEN: We open up our scriptures in Sunday school or whatnot and we see the printed word and we make a few assumptions that I think are wrong. I love the terminology Grant Underwood uses about the revelations, that Joseph is not a “fax machine for God.” Joseph is engaging with these texts the best he can.
I’ve looked at the Book of Mormon manuscript and I’ve realized there are errors introduced all along the way. Human errors just happen whenever you copy something, whenever you print something, there’s going to be unintended errors that slip in. Members need to think about the implications. Is God going to micromanage the text of the Book of Mormon? Some would argue that it’s certainly within the realm of possibility, which would make sense, but I think a book of scripture might serve us better if we can have a bit more complex, nuanced approach to it.
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon did not come from golden plates to our printed text as we see it today. There’s a whole process that, if we’re thinking devotionally or if we were to put on a church member hat maybe we could compare that to our own lives, where we have an idea, we have a kind of a general concept of building up Zion. Is God going to micromanage every single step along the way? No. We’re going to stumble and make a few mistakes along the path, which according to Mormon theology is what we’re here on earth for.
HODGES: The last question I have before we go is actually more of a logistical one, and that’s you have a fourteen page introduction to the printer’s manuscript edition. Fourteen pages to cover all of this information. Logistically, how did you—Did you write that with Royal?
JENSEN: I wrote it and then he reviewed it.
HODGES: How did you whittle down from all of the documents and all of the things that you could have talked about? To get it down to fourteen pages seems like a pretty—It’s sometimes harder to make something shorter.
JENSEN: Yeah. The Joseph Smith Papers, our philosophy is that we should assist scholars as best as we can, but we should not necessarily lead them down a particular scholarly theory too far. If we don’t know things we shouldn’t speculate too much. We should just present the evidence as we know it. So brevity is often what we prefer in some of the introductions. We set the stage, we alert readers to the information that they absolutely need, and then as I said earlier, if the scholars can take that and run with it and form their own opinions, that’s where we have succeeded.
The introduction to this volume is a bit different. It’s purposefully brief and general. So some have asked why we started with a printer’s manuscript and not the original. I think the main reason is that the printer’s manuscript presents the complete text of the Book of Mormon. We wanted the first time that we presented this text to be the complete text, except for the line and a half that’s missing.
HODGES: By the way, did you fill that in at all?
JENSEN: We did. Not in brackets but in our editorial style we’ve shown what the words were, based on the 1830 Book of Mormon. Some have asked why the printer’s manuscript, and we think that scholars’ first engagement with the text should be with the complete text. Also within the annotation we have tracks with the significant version of other editions, so the original manuscript, the 1830, 1837, during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. So it really presents a good picture of not just the text of the Book of Mormon, but other versions of the Book of Mormon.
So as part of that we decided with the introduction that it should be a general overview of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, or the finding of the plates up through the printing, the publication of that work. We could have done a fifty or eighty page introduction, I suppose, but it would have been a lot of work. I think that, once again, there’s Joseph’s story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, there’s other individuals who want to explain that in a different way, and I think that we’re not going to solve that in the introduction for this.
There’s great scholarly debate of what Joseph is actually doing—a prophet? a pious fraud? or deluded or whatnot. That’s historiography. That’s an engagement of historiography that we tend not to do with the Joseph Smith Papers. We envision these volumes being on the shelf for the next fifty, eighty, one hundred years, and if we engaged in the historiographical debates of 2015, it’s going to age it quite quickly.
HODGES: You just want to give the tools. You want to put the data out there and let the theories, and obviously data is theory-laden still, but I think you’re right that you’re going to get more longevity the less theory you try to put into it.
You see projects growing out of it, even from Joseph Smith Papers people. So we have Gerrit Dirkmaat and Michael McKay, who put a book out about the Book of Mormon translation. A lot of that drew on work they did with Joseph Smith Papers Project. Do you have similar work that you’re doing, where you’re carrying on in that way?
JENSEN: Yeah. So the first thing I need to do is invent a machine that will stop time so I can get all the projects I need—
HODGES: I believe Hermione has this thing that—Yeah.
JENSEN: Yeah. I’m actually very interested in revelation record keeping. I’ve done quite a few papers and whatnot. I’d like to put that together in a book of some sort. Dissertation comes first. I’m going to finish that.
HODGES: What’s your subject there?
JENSEN: So the dissertation, surprise, surprise, is on Mormon record keeping. It’s the history of the Church Historian’s Office. Mostly of the nineteenth century. I think we scholars have utilized the church archives to great effect but we’ve ignored what the church archives actually was. There’s a lot of interesting nuances and interesting—Yeah. They’ve been an important part of the Mormon conception of self identity that I’m going to explore.
HODGES: Good. So we can look forward to seeing some more of that stuff come out.
Robin Scott Jensen. He’s a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and co-editor of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which is volume three of the “Revelations and Translations” series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Thanks for coming in today, Robin.
JENSEN: My pleasure. It’s good to talk to you.
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.
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