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The Lost 116 Pages and the Book of Mormon

The Lost 116 Pages and the Book of Mormon

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One of the most formative events leading to the publication of the Book of Mormon was the loss of the first 116 pages of manuscript that Joseph Smith dictated as his translation of the gold plates. This incident is the subject of Joseph’s earliest revelations (D&C 3, 10) and of all but the last sentence in Joseph’s preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon. It has enormous implications for our understanding of the Book of Mormon itself and of Joseph’s claim to be a prophet of God.

How 116 Pages Were Lost

The basic historical facts concerning the lost manuscript are not in question. Joseph had dictated the text of the manuscript to scribes during the first six months of 1828, while living with his pregnant wife Emma at her parents’ home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. It is unclear exactly when this dictation work began; it might have been as early as the very end of December 1827 or as late as February 1828. Emma and her brother Reuben Hale served as scribes up until about the middle of April. It is unknown how much of the manuscript Emma and Reuben wrote. For much of the time that they worked as Joseph’s scribes, Martin Harris, a farmer who had agreed to finance the translation of the gold plates, was traveling to and from New York City, where he showed a copy of some characters from the plates to some classical scholars.1 In mid-April, Martin Harris took over as Joseph’s scribe. By mid-June, they had produced a total of 116 pages of manuscript.

Martin’s wife Lucy was adamantly opposed to the project. She asked to see the gold plates and Joseph refused (as he refused everyone else during that period; the plates were always covered and were usually hidden or even buried). She tried repeatedly to find the plates but did not succeed. She then began to demand that she at least be allowed to see the pages of the manuscript. Joseph refused this demand more than once, saying that he had asked God for permission and that God had said no. Eventually, though, Joseph relented, informing Martin that he had again prayed for permission and that the Lord now agreed to allow Martin to take the manuscript home to Palmyra, New York, while Joseph took some time off for the imminent birth of their first child. Harris left apparently on June 14 and the child was born on June 15 but died the same day following a difficult delivery that left Emma in critical condition for about two weeks. During that time, Joseph remained with Emma in Harmony.

Meanwhile, Martin Harris was in Palmyra with strict instructions from Joseph to show the manuscript to no one except his wife Lucy and immediate family members. At first Martin complied and the manuscript was kept locked in Lucy’s dresser drawer, but then Martin picked the lock to show the manuscript to some friends, damaging the dresser in the process. He then began showing the manuscript to all sorts of people and kept it in an unlocked drawer in his own dresser. Within a few days, the manuscript disappeared from the unlocked drawer.

As Emma’s condition improved, Joseph began to be concerned when Martin did not return in a timely fashion from his trip to Palmyra. Joseph decided to go to his own parents’ home in Manchester, a town near Palmyra, in order to reconnect with Martin. On July 1 or shortly thereafter, Joseph reached his parents’ home and sent for Martin, who came with the bad news: the manuscript had disappeared, and all efforts to locate it had failed.

Joseph’s Dilemma over the Lost Pages

The disappearance of the 116-page manuscript created a potentially crippling dilemma for Joseph Smith for two reasons. First, Joseph claimed to have dictated the manuscript by divine inspiration, with the text revealed to him word for word. Although Mormons have offered somewhat differing views of the nature of this revelation process, the evidence shows that Joseph claimed to receive the very words to be used in the translation, not just the general idea. Accounts of the dictation process indicate that Joseph claimed to be able supernaturally to “see” a group of words which he would read aloud to his scribe, who then wrote those words down on the paper. Given that the translation process worked in something like this fashion, the disappearance of the manuscript should have been merely a temporary setback. God could reveal the same words to Joseph again, and in a few months the whole manuscript could be replaced. Of course, if Joseph’s translation had not been divinely inspired, he would not be able to reproduce over a hundred pages of material with anything close to such exactness or accuracy.

The second reason for Joseph’s dilemma was that he did not know what had happened to the manuscript. Two possibilities existed: Lucy may have taken the manuscript and destroyed it, or else she or someone else may have taken the manuscript and was keeping it hidden. If Joseph could be sure that Lucy had destroyed the manuscript, he could dictate new material to replace it and there would be no problem. However, if the manuscript was actually in someone’s possession and Joseph were to dictate new material to replace it, whoever had it might then make it public and point out differences between the two supposedly inspired translations of the same text. Joseph therefore faced a dilemma. On the one hand, if he chose not to re-dictate the translation of the material represented by the lost pages, his refusal would imply an inability to receive the same translation that he had claimed to receive by divine inspiration. On the other hand, if he did re-dictate a translation of that material and the lost manuscript was made public, any differences between the two versions would also undermine his claim to have received the translation by inspiration.

The Dilemma of the Lost Pages Resolved by New Revelations

After returning to Harmony, Joseph wrote two revelations addressing the problem. The first, dated July 1828 and known now as Doctrine and Covenants 3, blamed himself and Martin for the disaster and asserted that God’s plan was not frustrated by it. “The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3:1). God had entrusted Joseph with the responsibility of the translation work, but Joseph had transgressed God’s commandments concerning that work and “feared man more than God” by giving into Martin’s pleas to be allowed to take the manuscript (3:5-7). “And when thou deliveredst up that which God had given thee sight and power to translate, thou deliveredst up that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man” (3:12). As a consequence, Joseph said, the Lord had temporarily revoked Joseph’s “privileges” as an inspired translator: “And this is the reason that thou hast lost thy privileges for a season” (3:14).

Joseph’s second written revelation, dated summer 1828 (but possibly written in May 1829), is now known as Doctrine and Covenants 10, and reveals the solution to the dilemma. This revelation reiterates that Joseph was wrong to give Martin the manuscript, that Martin was a wicked man, and that the Lord had temporarily revoked Joseph’s gift of translation (D&C 10:1-2). It then states that the Lord was restoring Joseph’s gift and commissioning him to resume the translation work: “Nevertheless, it is now restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun” (10:3). Joseph goes on to claim that Satan had inspired wicked men “to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands…. And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written…. For he hath put into their hearts to do this, that by lying they may say they have caught you in the words which you have pretended to translate” (10:10-11, 13). The dilemma Joseph faced, according to this revelation, was thus one manufactured by his enemies:

And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts—We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again. And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them; Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power; Therefore we will destroy him, and also the work…. (D&C 10:16-19).

We should pause to notice that Joseph’s description of the dilemma presupposes that he had claimed that the very wording of the translation had been divinely inspired. Some Mormon apologists argue that Joseph did not claim that the words of the translation were specifically revealed to him. Had Joseph not made such a claim, it is difficult to understand the concern over the lost pages. He could dictate new pages to replace them, and if those lost pages resurfaced and any differences were found they would not matter if Joseph had never claimed that the translation was verbally inspired or entirely accurate. It was precisely because Joseph had claimed that the very words of the translation were divinely revealed to him that the loss of the manuscript was such a problem.

Joseph goes on in this revelation to say that the Lord told him not to re-translate the same material from the gold plates:

Behold, I say unto you, that you shall not translate again those words which have gone forth out of your hands; For, behold, they shall not accomplish their evil designs in lying against those words. For, behold, if you should bring forth the same words they will say that you have lied and that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted yourself (D&C 10:30-31).

Here Joseph claims that God could inspire him to “bring forth the same words” but that doing so would play into the conniving plans of his enemies.

Instead of re-translating the same material, Joseph was to translate material from other plates that contained a parallel account of the same events. “The plates of Nephi” contained “a more particular account” of the things that Joseph had already written in the lost manuscript, which was only “an abridgment of the account of Nephi” (10:38-39, 44). The new account that Joseph was now going to translate includes “many things…which do throw greater views upon my gospel,” making it God’s “wisdom” that Joseph would translate it (10:45).

These two revelations are of enormous importance in the development of the LDS religion. They established a precedent for Joseph Smith receiving new revelations and thus for him to function as a prophet and not just an inspired translator.

Did Joseph Disobey the Lord by Letting Martin Take the Pages?

As important as these revelations were in establishing Joseph as a prophet, they raised severe difficulties even as they were meant to resolve an existing difficulty.

The most glaring difficulty with these revelations is the claim that Joseph Smith had disobeyed God (D&C 3:5-11; 10:1-3) by allowing Martin Harris to take the manuscript home to show his wife and family. This claim flatly contradicts Joseph’s claim that the Lord had granted Martin permission after several requests: “After much solicitation I again inquired of the Lord, and permission was granted him to have the writings.”2 As they stand, these two claims are irreconcilable.

Ironically, Mormons sometimes claim that Joseph’s delivery of a revelation blaming him for the fiasco is somehow evidence of his inspiration. Bushman, who notes that D&C 3 (which was chapter 2 in the Book of Commandments) was probably Joseph’s first written revelation, claims that it was the earliest expression of his “prophetic voice”:

The speaker stands above and outside Joseph, sharply separated emotionally and intellectually. The rebuke of Joseph is as forthright as the denunciation of Martin Harris. There is no effort to conceal or rationalize, no sign of Joseph justifying himself to prospective followers. The words flow directly from the messenger to Joseph and have the single purpose of setting Joseph straight. . . . At age twenty-two Joseph knew how to speak prophetically. Eighteen twenty-eight was a turning point in Joseph Smith’s development. It was the year when he found his prophetic voice.3

The problem with this attempt to make Joseph look like a prophet because of his voicing sharp criticism of himself is that the criticism in context makes no sense. Joseph had allowed Martin to take the pages supposedly only after receiving permission from the Lord to do so. It makes no sense for the Lord later to chastise Joseph for doing something that the Lord himself permitted. Rather than evidence of a prophetic voice, Joseph’s claiming that the Lord sharply criticized him was a shrewd device to avoid alienating Martin by sharing the blame for the loss of the pages.

Did Wicked Men Steal and Alter the Lost Pages?

A number of difficulties arise from the claim that wicked men had stolen the manuscript and altered it in order to lay a trap for Joseph if he were to retranslate the same material.

Had such men really taken the manuscript with the hope of exposing Joseph as a fraud, they certainly would not have believed that he could duplicate the translation of 116 pages. There would have been no need to alter any of the words of those pages, from their point of view, and doing so might even have been counterproductive: an examination of the differences might expose them as frauds if it led to the discovery that they had altered any of the pages.

Furthermore, it is most likely that Lucy Harris (or possibly someone else) destroyed the 116 pages. Several individuals testified that Lucy had burned the manuscript, and this seems the most likely explanation for its disappearance. If the manuscript had not been destroyed, it is surprising that no one ever made it public after the Book of Mormon was published. At that point, anyone in possession of the missing manuscript would have had nothing to lose and much to gain by publishing it. Joseph’s explanation that the missing pages were replaced with material from a different, parallel account would not have stopped an opponent from publishing the missing manuscript and drawing attention to any substantive differences between it and the Book of Mormon.

Why Couldn’t Joseph Find the Lost Pages?

A third difficulty has to do with the fact that Joseph was unable to learn who had taken the manuscript or where it was. We need to remember here that Joseph claimed to have been led by an angel to the location where the gold plates had been buried for fourteen centuries. If an angel could do that for Joseph, he could also show Joseph where to recover the recently lost manuscript.

Joseph’s claim to receive the revelations recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 3 and 10 compounds the problem, since they assert that God knew ahead of time that wicked men would steal the manuscript and that no one could thwart God’s plans. If this was so, then God could easily have revealed to Joseph who had the manuscript and where it was. In his preface to the original edition (1830) of the Book of Mormon, Joseph referred to the lost manuscript which he said “some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again” (emphasis added). Thus, despite supposedly receiving visitations from angels and revelations from God, Joseph was unable to determine who had stolen the manuscript or where it was even after “utmost exertions” to do so.

I Just Happen to Have Another Set of Plates Here…

The most incredible claim in Doctrine and Covenants 10 is Joseph’s assertion that God had anticipated the theft of the manuscript two thousand years earlier and inspired Nephi to produce a second, more religiously significant account parallel to the one that would be stolen. What makes this claim incredible is not that it ascribes foreknowledge or omniscience to God. These are divine attributes traditionally recognized in Christianity as essential to God’s nature. Nor is it incredible that God would inspire parallel accounts of the same events. There are examples of such parallel accounts in the Bible: most notably, Samuel-Kings is paralleled by Chronicles, and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke give substantially parallel accounts of the ministry and death of Jesus Christ. No, the claim is incredible because it asks us to believe that God inspired the second account in order to circumvent a problem that would arise only two thousand years later and that would not be a problem at all if Joseph was truly inspired in the way that he claimed. The claim is suspiciously ad hoc, meaning that there is no evidence to support it and no apparent reason for it except as a convenient way around the dilemma posed by the missing manuscript.

The replacement of the missing 116-page manuscript with a parallel but different account (of which nothing had previously been said) contrasts in a striking way with Jeremiah’s replacement of one of his written prophecies after a king had thrown it into a fire. Jeremiah had dictated to his scribe Baruch everything that God had said to him up to that point and then sent Baruch to read the scroll in the temple (Jer. 36:1-10), after which it was read to a number of other officials (36:1-11-15). When the scroll was later read to King Jehoiakim (36:16-21), Jehoiakim threw it piece by piece into his fireplace, eventually burning the entire scroll (36:22-26). Jeremiah responded to this problem by confidently dictating the same revelations to Baruch to be written on a second scroll (Jer. 36:28, 32). Joseph Smith, on the other hand, dictated a different text after his first manuscript was lost, lest anyone produce the first manuscript and show that the two differed. Jeremiah’s act was that of a man who was genuinely inspired by God and not worried about what other people would say; Joseph Smith’s act was that of a man who claimed to be inspired but who was obviously quite worried about what other people would say.4

And You Think the Bible Is Missing Something!

Somewhat ironically, the new material in the Book of Mormon that replaces the lost 116 pages includes the infamous passages that criticize the traditional Christian church for supposedly removing many “plain and precious things” from the Bible. Nephi claims that an angel told him that the “great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches” was responsible for these omissions in the Bible (1 Ne. 13:26).

“They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away…. Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God” (1 Ne. 13:26, 28).

The apostasy of traditional Christianity occurred, the text continues, because “the many plain and precious things” were “taken out of the book” (1 Ne. 13:29).

These statements falsely impugn the integrity of the Christian church in its handling of the text of the Bible, falsely alleging that significant material was expunged from the Bible. Mormons view this passage in 1 Nephi 13 as teaching that the Bible, though originally God’s word, is inadequate as a foundation for the Christian faith because of these supposed omissions. Yet this passage was written in part to replace 116 pages of lost scripture!

The incident of the missing 116 pages, then, raises serious, troubling questions about the Book of Mormon and about Joseph Smith’s claim to be a divinely inspired, angelically guided prophet of God. The problem here is neither modern revelations nor modern angelic visions; the problem is Joseph’s own conflicting, implausible attempt to resolve the problem.

The Bottom Line

  • If Joseph Smith was inspired to translate the gold plates as he claimed, he should have been able to reproduce the translation of the lost pages by the same inspiration.
  • Joseph’s handling of the problem of the missing pages shows that his driving concern was to blunt any criticisms from his detractors, a concern uncharacteristic of genuine prophets of God.
  • Joseph’s claim that he had disobeyed God in allowing Martin Harris to take the manuscript home contradicts his claim that the Lord gave him permission to do so.
  • The problem of the missing manuscript prompted Joseph to issue his first two modern revelations, in effect transforming him from inspired translator to new prophet.
  • The missing manuscript was in all probability destroyed, most likely by Martin’s wife, so that Joseph’s claim that wicked men had the manuscript in their possession and had altered it to make Joseph out to be a fraud is most likely false.
  • Had wicked men actually possessed the missing manuscript, it is very unlikely that they would have altered it, since to do so would invite accusations of tampering and they had no reason to think that Joseph could possibly have reproduced the manuscript correctly.
  • Joseph’s admission that he tried hard to find the missing manuscript but did not know who had it or where it was is not consistent with his claims that an angel revealed to him the location of the gold plates and that God spoke to him.
  • Joseph’s claim, after the loss of the 116 pages, that God had inspired Nephi two thousand years earlier to produce a parallel account in order to circumvent the plot of Joseph’s enemies, is simply too incredible and convenient to take seriously.


NOTES


1. On this event, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Anthon Transcript: Did Charles Anthon Authenticate the Book of Mormon Characters or Translation?” (Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

2. History of the Church 1:21.

3. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, with the assistance of Jed Woodworth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 69.

4. On this contrast, see also my article, “A Tale of Two Scrolls: Jeremiah’s Replacement Scroll and Mormon ‘Restoration’ of Scripture” (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2009).