Title: The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Parts 1 & 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon
Editors: Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen
Publisher: The Church Historian’s Press
Genre: Book of Mormon
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 539/437
ISBN10: 1629720607/ 1629720615
Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters
The centrality of the Book of Mormon to the Mormon people is inarguable—it lent the movement its first and most durable name. However, in spite of that (or—some would argue—precisely because of it), study of the text itself has historically been nearly nonexistent. While that has begun to change over the last several decades, the field is still in its infancy. As any textual scholar is well aware, no study on these grounds can proceed very far without rigorously produced base texts. Thus, publication of the latest volume in the Joseph Smith Papers series—“Revelations and Translations, Volume 3: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon”—is a very welcome development. Building on co-editor Royal Skousen’s earlier edition as part of his Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, the text sets out to provide a reliable transcript of the nearly complete manuscript, complete (as was the case with an earlier, oversize facsimile edition) with a color-coded presentation that aims to identify each scribe who worked on the text.
The printer’s manuscript is valuable for several reasons: first—as the name indicates—it was used to typeset the first printed edition of the Book of Mormon in 1830 (with the exception of a brief period in which the original dictated manuscript was used). In addition, functioning as it did as a second attempt, the text includes numerous occasions of variants—many of these are conscious efforts to clean up the text while a minority are accidental errors introduced as a natural consequence of copying an enormous manuscript. Finally, the printer’s manuscript was accorded great respect and protection (from tornadoes, no less!) throughout its existence while the original manuscript was, conversely, treated with relative indifference, tucked away in a cornerstone and then casually given away piecemeal following its removal. Due to this quirk of history, this second manuscript is even more valuable than it might have been. It is only fitting, then, that such a key text receive the type of attention it merits. As befits the flagship project of Mormon history, this eleventh volume in the Joseph Smith Papers is a jewel of painstaking textual scrutiny and attention to detail.
The textual study of the Book of Mormon began in earnest in 1988 when Royal Skousen became involved in the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. Thus, is it quite appropriate that Skousen, not previously linked to the Joseph Smith Papers project, was brought on board to help in the analysis of the Book of Mormon text. He will also act as volume editor for the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, to be published at some point in the future. Along with Robin Jensen, the Dean Jessee of this generation, the two form perhaps the best possible team to assess this text so integral to Mormon identity and thought.
The introduction to the volumes, though not quite twenty pages, is packed with useful and occasionally (at least to a reader not terribly familiar with scholarship on the Book of Mormon) striking points. Most notable here is the discussion of the use of seerstones in translating the Book of Mormon. Though this comprises only a few paragraphs, it is accompanied by four full-color photographs of the stone presumably used as well as a small pouch believed to have been made by Emma Smith. If one were to chart specific moments in the last 20 years that clearly demonstrate the Church History Department’s conscious decision to act in a transparent manner where Mormon history is concerned, publishing these photos is unquestionably a prominent entry on such a list. I was present for the press conference where Elder Steven Snow announced that these photos would be included (though late, I thankfully sat down just in time to hear this!) and I can attest that this group—littered with Mormon history nerds though it was—was quite surprised and delighted at this decision.
The bulk of the volumes is the presentation of the manuscript with a full-color scan of the original page on the left and a transcription of the text on the right. The transcription is color-coded to mark the handwriting of the scribes: Oliver Cowdery, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, John H. Gilbert and, most intriguingly, “Scribe 2.” This last scribe has so far eluded identification. Skousen has noted in presentations that the spelling of this scribe (responsible for roughly 15 % of the text!) is much better than many of the possible candidates. The entry for this scribe in the directory located at the end of part two rules out as many candidates as possible. I personally found it fascinating that this scribe, who did so much of the work, is unidentified despite so much investigation. Accompanying the transcription are marginal notes discussing features of the manuscript (paragraph marks, pinholes, etc.) as well as occasional indications of textual variants in editions of the Book of Mormon produced during Joseph Smith’s life.
Since potential readers of these volumes will likely be familiar with Skousen’s earlier publication of the printer’s manuscript, a comparison with those volumes is in order. While the Joseph Smith Papers edition’s introduction focuses more on the history associated with the production of the text (and thus will be of more interest to the average reader, I believe), Skousen’s is more attuned to the physical characteristics of the manuscript such as gatherings, ink flow and so on. In terms of the presentation of the text, the most obvious difference is that Skousen’s edition did not include scans of the original pages. To give a sense of the textual nuts and bolts for the two editions, I chose a page at random: p. 41 of the manuscript (=p. 132-33 in Skousen/p. 101 in JSP). Skousen includes twelve footnotes, discussing mainly physical features such as a sharpened quill, ink stains/dots and one correction (based on multispectral imaging) thought to have been made by Joseph Smith. In contrast, the Joseph Smith Papers edition has three footnotes for the corresponding page, all of which discuss textual variants between the printer’s and original manuscripts. Thus, it should be obvious that a serious scholar of the text of the Book of Mormon should not assume that Skousen’s earlier edition has been completely superseded. As a sidenote, there are some differences in how insertions, strikeouts and other textual features are presented in the two editions but they don’t affect meaning or textual construction.
As always, the Joseph Smith Papers does not disappoint with back matter. The aforementioned directory of scribes and printers is very interesting and the chronology for the production of the Book of Mormon text is helpful. While the average reader likely won’t give it much attention, the sheer amount of work required to produce these volumes is incredible. I talked with Riley Lorimer, lead editor for these volumes, and she related how she and Robin Jensen read the entire manuscript aloud in the proofing process. (I asked if they ever dressed up as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and she assured me that they had not.)
Though writing and thinking about the Book of Mormon has certainly not ended, it has entered a new age with this edition presenting both the original sheets of the manuscript as well as a meticulous transcription with identification of scribes. Other than wishing they had cracked the mystery of “Scribe 2,” I thoroughly enjoyed this exquisite creation. I look forward to more facsimile editions in the series though my overtaxed bookshelves don’t always share my sentiments!