By KEVIN ELZE
The task of analyzing recently discovered fragments of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ has led to new insights into its translation.
The fragments, belonging to the Wilford Wood family, consist of bits of 58 pages from the original Book of Mormon manuscript that was written down by Joseph Smith’s scribes as he dictated it during the spring and early summer of 1829.
According to Royal Skousen, a professor of English at BYU, the original manuscript consisted of about 480 pages.
Skousen said that the Wood fragments make up about 2 percent of the text.
“The Historical Department of the Church (of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has most of what is left of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. About maybe 30 percent in all remains and I would guess that (the Church) has maybe 25 percent of that.”
Skousen, who has been working on a critical textual analysis of the Book of Mormon original manuscript since 1988, said that he learned about the Wood fragments in 1991. The Wood family was contacted and Skousen asked to see the fragments.
The Wood family brought down to BYU a box with a lump of paper fragments coated in cellophane.
“When we were looking at it at that stage we couldn’t even be sure what it was,” Skousen said.
Apparently, the bundle of paper was unfolded and each bit was flattened so it could be photographed in an ultraviolet reflected image. This made it so the ink on the pages was visible.
David Hawkinson, manager of imaging and photographic services for the Museum of Art at BYU, did all of the photography of the fragments.
“It was fun to handle the Oliver Cowdery manuscript. It was also very stressful. They were so fragile that if you looked at these wrong they would crumble,” Hawkinson said.
The photographs were then put into a computer to try to decipher the faint wording on the paper. This work was done by Robert Espinosa, head of conservation at the Harold B. Lee Library, and was assisted by Cathy Bell and Pamela Barrios. Bell and Barrios both worked as conservationists in the library’s conservation lab.
“Only then were we able to confirm that most of it was from the original,” Skousen said.
In 1841 the original manuscript was put into the cornerstone of Joseph Smith’s home in Nauvoo, Ill. Also placed in the cornerstone with the manuscript were an 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, a Bible, and a petition to the government written by Lyman White.
Four different scribes have been identified on the manuscript, and two have been identified. The majority of all the fragments are one’s written by Oliver Cowdery.
Along with the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon there were a couple of fragments from White’s document in the Wood fragments.
Skousen, who received his bachelor’s degree in English from BYU and his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Illinois, was able to compare these parts of the original manuscript to the manuscript that was made to take to the printer. These manuscripts were compared to each other to see any differences.
“Having a linguistics background has been really helpful in doing this kind of work because language issues are very much involved in trying to determine what the original English language of the Book of Mormon was,” Skousen said.
“What is really helpful is when you get two copies of the same document even though you may not have the original document. Where those two copies are in agreement it is probably what the original said. Where they are different you have to decide which one maybe is the right one. There always theoretically is the small possibility that both of them are wrong,” Skousen said.
Smith and Cowdery did not send the original copy to the printer. They decided to copy it and this copy is known as the printer’s manuscript.
“One of the interesting things we discovered was that for 15 percent of the text they actually brought in the original (to the printer),” Skousen said.
Skousen’s theory is that Smith and Cowdery just got behind in the copying process. The printer was never told that there were two manuscripts. He thought there was only one copy.
Fearing the safety of the original manuscript Hyrum Smith, Martin Harris, and Cowdery must have, “stayed right with that manuscript,” said Skousen.
Skousen said, “Occasionally you find where the text has been accidentally changed and you discover what the original reading was. Although they don’t make a fundamental difference in the book they very often give us something quite interesting to see.”
Skousen also said that whatever changes that were found did not in any way get in the way of the message of the book and that very often the differences are simply due to accidental things. There are other places, said Skousen, where you think that it was intended to be different.
“There also could have been something in the original which was difficult to deal with. Maybe the original manuscript says something like, ‘Their tradition were wicked,’ the 1830 printer and the printer’s manuscript might change it to ‘their traditions were or their tradition was.'”
According to Skousen, it is a delicate process of examining the Book of Mormon as a critical text.
“You have to be really careful and not come across like, ‘It had to be this way.’ For the most part you really can’t be sure unless you have the original manuscript. We try to say things carefully in this process.”
Financial support for this project has come from the College of Humanities, the Department of English, and the Religious Studies Center at BYU, as well as from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), the Keter Foundation, and a number of private donors.
Tentatively, FARMS will be involved in the publication of the information gathered through the study and it will probably involve several volumes. The publication will include transcripts of the manuscripts, a history of the text, and a critical text.
“People that do research in the text want this kind of information because it helps analyze the text,” Skousen said.
The history volume will go through the details of the manuscripts, what they tell us of the translation, and details of the 1830 printing and all the various editions and what kinds of changes have taken place.
What intrigued Hawkinson the most about the project was the opportunity to work with such historic artifacts.
“One of the things that I enjoyed was the ability to see and handle objects that most people don’t get to see.