A Plea to the Writers of Seminary Manuals

We’re studying the Book of Mormon again in seminary, and the current manual includes the following quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith (Lesson 5, “Overview of the Book of Mormon”):

There were bound to be some typographical errors in the first edition [of the Book of Mormon], and perhaps an omission of a word or two. Those who have published books under the most careful and favorable circumstances, have, to their dismay, found errors, typographical and mechanical, some of which occurred after the final examination of proof has been made.

… A careful check of the list of changes … shows there is not one change or addition that is not in full harmony with the original text. Changes have been made in punctuation and a few other minor matters that needed correction, but never has any alteration or addition changed a single original thought. As it appears to us, the changes … are such that make the text clearer and indicate that they were omitted. I am sure that the mistakes or omissions in the first edition were in large measure the fault of the compositor or the printer. Many of these mistakes which were in the first proofs were caught by the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, and he made the corrections (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. [1958], 2:199–200; italics in original).

The problem is that the second paragraph is almost entirely false. We can now compare the extant original manuscript and printer’s manuscript with the 1830 edition, and there are indeed several changes that make a difference in meaning, that modified more than “a single original thought.” Not all the changes made the text clearer. Joseph Smith did not catch many mistakes since he was living elsewhere and rarely interacted with the printer. And most importantly, mistakes and omissions are not to be blamed on the compositor or the printer.

In a sentence omitted from the beginning of the paragraph, Joseph Fielding Smith claimed that because the publisher was “unfriendly” to the church, “it would have been a natural thing for him to permit some errors to appear.” In fact, rather than trying to subtly undermine the Book of Mormon, we have comprehensive evidence that the compositor, John Gilbert, was a consummate professional who worked hard to get the words right. He consulted his Bible when he was unsure of wording in the Isaiah quotations, he carefully and sensitively punctuated the text (most of the punctuation in our current edition originated with Gilbert), and he even made some cautious conjectural emendations when he felt like the actual words did not make sense. (Royal Skousen, a very conservative editor, accepted a majority of Gilbert’s emendations, a higher percentage than those put forward by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, or any of the later editors, including Skousen himself).

In other words, Joseph Fielding Smith’s explanation of errors in the first edition is both inaccurate and unfair. Perhaps he did not know the truth when he was writing in the 1950s (even though he was Church Historian at the time), since that predated modern textual criticism of the Book of Mormon, but the seminary manual writers should have at least been acquainted with Royal Skousen’s work, and they should have realized that Smith’s characterization of the printing process and the changes in the text has no basis in reality. Perpetuating falsehoods to teenagers is never a good idea if you want to keep them in the faith, even if those falsehoods originated with an apostle. It is understandable how those comments were made sixty years ago, but to continue to convey them to seminary teachers in 2017 is inexcusable. It would be good to delete the quotation (it may have already been deleted from the PDF version, but it’s still there when you open Lesson 5). Even better would be to find ways to communicate to students that our knowledge of the scriptures and the gospel grows over time, that church leaders sometimes made mistakes, and that we can look forward to future scholarly advances as well as continuing revelations of “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

For more details, see Royal Skousen, “Conjectural Emendation in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 18, no. 1 (2006): 187–231; and “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, no. 2 (2012): 58–72; as well as the six volumes of his Analysis of Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004–9).