Why one sixth of the 1830 Book of Mormon was set from the original manuscript: Conclusion

Previously appearing on Times and Seasons:

Part I: A tentative theory – the copyists for the printer’s manuscript didn’t work quickly enough.

Part II: Rejecting the theory.

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In January of 1830, Abner Cole illegally published three excerpts from the Book of Mormon, printed in three issues of The Palmyra Reflector, including a section from Alma 43, published on 22 January 1830. This last excerpt conclusively shows that the printing of the 22nd signature, covering Alma 41-46, had already been completed by Grandin. The time-line above argues that this 22nd signature would have been completed on about 24 December 1829, right before Christmas.

A recent article by Stephen Ehat in BYU Studies (2011) discusses the attempts of Joseph Smith in early 1830 to get the copyright of the Book of Mormon secured in Canada. Ehat’s article, “ ‘Securing’ the Prophet’s Copyright in the Book of Mormon: Historical and Legal Context for the So-called Canadian Copyright Revelation” (BYU Studies, volume 50, number 2, pages 4-70), discusses the trip of Oliver Cowdery and Hiram Page (and apparently two others) to Ontario, Canada, sometime from January to March 1830, in order to protect the Book of Mormon’s copyright in the British realm. Perhaps Joseph was concerned that in Canada either Cole or someone else could print purloined excerpts from the already printed signatures in Palmyra – and with impunity if there were no copyright protection in Canada. Ehat’s article provides evidence from a later 1879 interview with David Whitmer (by John Traughber) that the trip took place in early 1830 when the ice on Lake Ontario was frozen over, allowing Cowdery and Page and the others to walk over the ice, at least part of the way. Later, in an 1886 interview published in various newspapers, David Whitmer said that Hyrum Smith had suggested that the brethren “take the manuscript to Canada” (see page 24 of Ehat’s article for the citation). They could not have taken a printed copy of the 1830 edition since that first edition was not yet finished, yet it appears that they felt they needed to have a complete text of the Book of Mormon in their possession.

Thus one possibility is that the Abner Cole affair in January 1830 awakened Joseph Smith to the possible threat of a pirated edition or of unauthorized excerpts being published in Canada. The problem with taking a copy of the Book of Mormon to Canada was that in January 1830 there was still only one complete copy of the text, namely, the original manuscript. And the Palmyra printer needed to have access to a complete copy in order to keep the printing going. It appears that by about the middle of January 1830 Oliver Cowdery, in his normal copy work producing P from O, had gotten up to 3 Nephi 19, the point where scribe 2 of P took over once more for him. According to the above time-line, on 22 January 1830 (the publishing date of Cole’s last printed excerpt) the Palmyra printer would have been on the 130th day of printing and up to about Helaman 13:17. But this is precisely where the printer started using O to set the type, although the compositor himself, John Gilbert, seems to have been unaware of the switch in manuscripts. (According to Gilbert’s 10 February 1879 letter to James Cobb, “But one copy of the manuscript was furnished the printer. I never heard of but one.”) Probably a little before January 22, Joseph Smith had decided to have the printer’s manuscript completed as soon as possible and then taken to Canada, just in case it was needed to secure the copyright there. I would conjecture that scribe 2 of P took over the copywork from 3 Nephi 19:21 on and worked to complete P up through Mormon while simultaneously Oliver Cowdery jumped ahead in his copywork to make the copy for the books of Ether and Moroni. In other words, these two copyists seem to have split up the remaining copywork in order to quickly finish the printer’s manuscript, the second complete copy of the text. Scribe 2 of P ended up doing the equivalent copywork for 44 pages in the 1830 edition, while Oliver did the equivalent of 54 pages. In the meantime, the compositor was working from O, namely, that portion from Helaman 13:17 through 3 Nephi 19:21, from the part that Oliver had already copied from O into P.

This physical as well as internal evidence from the manuscripts helps to determine, I think, when Oliver Cowdery and the others went to Canada, namely, during the month of February, when it was sufficiently cold for the lake to freeze. They had a complete manuscript in their possession (that is, the printer’s manuscript), just in case that was needed as evidence of the book’s existence. The time period agrees with the time when Lake Ontario would have been frozen over, and gives four to five weeks for the round-trip.

At the end of February or beginning of March, Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, and the others returned from Canada with the printer’s manuscript, apparently satisfied that the Book of Mormon copyright was secure there. (See Ehat’s article for what was actually accomplished by this trip to Canada.) Soon thereafter the 1830 Palmyra compositor started to set type once more from P, beginning with the book of Ether, which would have occurred on about the 158th day of printing (around 2 March 1830). This means that overall O was used by the 1830 compositor from about January 22 through March 2. Perhaps Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, and the others left a week or so after January 22, after Oliver and scribe 2 of P had completed P. Most importantly, it appears that all this work of quickly finishing up P was done under the instigation and approval of Joseph Smith.

From a textual point of view, the decision to have the compositor set this part of the text from O means that for Helaman 13:17 through the end of Mormon (for one sixth of the text) we have two firsthand copies of the original manuscript, namely, the printer’s manuscript and the 1830 edition. For that part of the text, then, we can usually determine the reading of O (even though it is mostly missing here) since there are two independent copies. Where both P and the 1830 edition agree, we can be pretty sure that O read that way. When they disagree, the reading in O is probably one of the two, although determining which one it is in any given case is not automatic and may involve considerable analysis, as can be seen for numerous readings from Helaman 13:17 through Mormon 9:37 in volume 4 of the critical text (see parts 5 and 6 of The Analysis of Textual Variants). Despite some textual difficulties, having two sources for determining O is very helpful in recovering the original text of the Book of Mormon for this part of the text. Indeed, it would have been better if Joseph Smith had always had the 1830 compositor set the type from O. But at least now we have a better understanding of why O might have been used to set the type for one sixth of the text. It is very unlikely that it had anything to do with the scribes falling behind in their copywork. Instead, I would argue that in January 1830 Joseph Smith decided, probably at the suggestion of his brother Hyrum, that they needed to have a second complete copy of the text in hand when they went to secure the copyright in Canada. During this time period, John Gilbert continued to set the type, but now from the only other complete copy of the text, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

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Note: This write-up is preliminary and subject to revision. A complete version of this proposed explanation for why the 1830 compositor used the original manuscript for this part of the text will appear in volume 3 of the critical text, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon (to be published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). Here I wish to acknowledge Stephen Ehat’s helpful review of this preliminary write-up. His BYU Studies article has done much to provide important evidence for this episode in the history of the Book of Mormon text, although I must add here that the historical evidence argues only for the possibility of what I propose here.

Royal Skousen is editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University.

5 comments for “Why one sixth of the 1830 Book of Mormon was set from the original manuscript: Conclusion

  1. I’m shivering with admiration. This seems like the perfect balance between giving imagination free rein to explore the possibilities, and tethering conclusions to what the record and the physical evidence can support.


  2. And now I know the rest of the story. I remember when taking your class on the text of the Book of Mormon at BYU (ages ago – over 10, I think), you presented the first theory (they fell behind) as the most likely explanation. But I see that things have changed. Cool.

    [I still think it’s “strait and narrow” and not “straight and narrow”, though!]

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