Lesser-known heroes of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (MIPodcast Moments)

10.14.2015 | Blair Hodges

For those who don’t have time to listen to hour-long episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast we bring you “MIPodcast Moments”—transcribed excerpts of interesting extracts for your quick consideration.

Robin Scott Jensen is an LDS Church historian who has spent a lot of time thinking about the Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript. Together with Royal Skousen he co-edited the printer’s manuscript for the latest volume in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Mormons today revere Joseph Smith for his role in bringing forth this new book of scripture. But as Jensen worked on the printer’s manuscript he couldn’t help but think of all the people around the prophet who were indispensable to the project—from his wife Emma, to the Whitmer family, and even some who didn’t believe in the prophet’s inspiration at all.

Consider John Gilbert.

ROBIN JENSEN: John Gilbert, 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. And he gave a lot of interviews, very important interviews, because he gives us an understanding of what he was doing, you know, the process, and we know from him about how long it took per week and how many sheets they could do. ((One of John Gilbert’s descriptions can be found at the end of Royal Skousen’s article, “Worthy of Another Look: John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21/2 (2012): 58–72.)) But 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 “Spaulding manuscript theory” and whatnot, because he was trying to figure out how Joseph could’ve produced this text. ((See Lance D. Chase’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism piece on the “Spaulding Manuscript” or Matthew Roper’s “The Mythical ‘Manuscript Found,’” FARMS Review 17/12 (2005).))

But what I find very interesting about John Gilbert is, of course we all know the story that 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. And, you know, 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. And Gilbert introduces 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 that we think today 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’s helping us read the text, he’s helping us engage with the text. And to me, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but I find great symbolism there that those not believing 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 help us get a different perspective that we might not [otherwise] have.

You can hear more from Robin Jensen in episode 32 of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, “The printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon.” If you enjoy the Maxwell Institute Podcast, please take a moment to rate and review it in iTunes and share the show with your friends.