long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The 3-part puzzle of the 116 pages, plus a bonus question

There's an ongoing puzzle in Church history: the lost 116 pages. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains the prevailing (should I say consensus?) view here, with my comments in red:

The first 116 pages of the original manuscript of Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon from the plates of Mormon are commonly known as "the 116 pages" or the "lost manuscript." These foolscap-size pages were hand-written in harmony, Pennsylvania, between April and June 14, 1828. Although principally transcribed by Martin Harris from dictation by Joseph Smith, some of the pages may also have been transcribed by Joseph's wife, Emma Smith, or her brother, Reuben Hale. [or Samuel Smith]
The pages contained materials "from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon," as Joseph explained in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon (see also HC 1:56). Lehi's record is mentioned in 1 Nephi 1:17 and,today, is partially preserved through Nephi's abridgment of it primarily in 1 Nephi 1-10.
In June 1828 Martin Harris asked Joseph Smith repeatedly to allow him to show the 116 pages to family members to allay their skepticism and criticism of the translation. After prayerful inquiry of the Lord, Joseph Smith twice emphatically denied these requests. As Joseph's 1832 and 1839 histories indicate, a third request received divine permission for Harris to take the 116 manuscript pages to Palmyra, New York. The Prophet required Harris to solemnly covenant that he would show them only to his brother, his parents, his wife, and her sister.
Harris's failure to return to Harmony as promised caused Joseph great anxiety and necessitated a strenuous journey to Manchester. There, a reluctant Harris reported that someone had stolen the manuscript from his home after he had broken his covenant and indiscriminately showed it to persons outside his family. Grief-stricken, Joseph Smith readily shared responsibility for the loss. The most widespread rumor was that Harris' wife, irritated at having earlier been denied a glimpse of the ancient plates, had removed the manuscript translation from Martin's unlocked bureau and burned it. Not long afterward, she and Martin separated. [The burning story contradicts D&C 10, of course.]
In consequence of this loss and of having wearied the Lord with the requests to let Harris take the pages, Joseph temporarily lost custody of the plates and the Urim and Thummim to the angel Moroni (D&C 3). Lucy Mack Smith notes also that two-thirds of Harris's crop was oddly destroyed by a dense fog, which she interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure (Smith, p. 132). Following much humble and painful affliction of soul, Joseph Smith again received the plates as well as the Urim and Thummim and his gifts were restored. [Some Church scholars claim he didn't receive the Urim and Thummim back, which is why he used only his seer stone from then on. I disagree with them because I think he used the U&T throughout his time in Harmony and returned the U&T, along with the plates, before he left Harmony for Fayette. I think the U&T fit in a compartment in the Harmony plates.]
Joseph Smith was forbidden by the Lord to retranslate that part of the record previously translated because those who had stolen the manuscript planned to publish it in an altered form to discredit his ability to translate accurately (D&C 10:9-13). Instead, he was to translate the Small [the revelation doesn't say "small"] Plates of Nephi (1 Nephi-Omni) down to that which he had translated (D&C 10:41). Those plates covered approximately the same period as had the lost manuscript, or four centuries from Lehi to Benjamin. Mormon had been so impressed with the choice prophecies and sayings contained in the small plates that he had included them with his own abridgment of Nephite writings when told to by the Spirit for "a wise purpose" known only to the Lord (W of M 1:7). [The plates of Nephi were not included with his abridgment; the Lord told Joseph he'd have to translate those plates because he didn't have them yet. Joseph didn't get them until he arrived in Fayette. It took me an entire chapter to go through Words of Mormon to explain this, so I'm not doing it here, but it's fairly obvious when you see it.]
The loss of the 116 pages taught Joseph Smith and his associates several lessons: that one should be satisfied with the first answers of the Lord, that keeping one's covenants is a serious matter, that God forgives the repentant in spite of human weakness, and that through his caring foresight and wisdom the Lord fulfills his purposes. [Unfortunately, the last comment here implies that the Lord knew that Joseph Smith and Martin Harris were going to sin in this specific way hundreds of years before it happened. That raises the question whether they had free agency to choose, or whether they were predestined. The only reason for this confusion is Mesomania; i.e., the insistence by Mesoamerican advocates that the depository of records (Mormon 6:6) was in southern Mexico in the "real" Hill Cumorah. But that's a false notion. Once we accept that the "real" Cumorah, including the depository, is in New York, then it's easy to see how the Lord had a backup plan for any eventuality. Martin lost 116 pages; the Lord has his messenger get the plates of Nephi from the depository in Cumorah and take them to Fayette for translation. Had Martin lost 50 pages, or had part of Alma been lost, etc., the Lord could have replaced it from the depository. If Martin had not lost the 116 pages, we would not yet know about the plates of Nephi (unless the Book of Lehi discussed them). The key point here is that the incident of the 116 pages does not have the philosophical implication of predestination once we get the history right.]
The loss of the 116 pages is a 3-part puzzle, plus a bonus question.
The first part arises from the long-held but erroneous assumption that the "small plates of Nephi" were included with the abridgment in the set of plates Moroni put in the stone box. I think that aspect of the puzzle has been solved, as described in my notes above.
The second part of the puzzle is how to explain D&C 10. First, we learn the pages were not destroyed; they were retained and, possibly, modified. I say possibly because it says "10 And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands. 11 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."
One wonders, would they alter the pages before Joseph retranslated them? It seems more likely they would alter them after he retranslated so they could make sure they differed. It's possible that this language reflects what Mosiah 16:6 says; i.e., "speaking of things to come as though they had already come." 
But let's say these wicked men (note: not Lucy Harris) had already "altered" the words by the time Joseph received D&C 10. Sometimes people think this makes no sense because any such alteration would be obvious. There are two possibilities. 
First, maybe Martin Harris had already made corrections in the form of line outs and writing above the text. Maybe his handwriting was poor, not uniform, or easy to replicate. It wouldn't take much alteration to change the wording of the text.
Second, maybe the "wicked men" never planned to produce the hand-written manuscript, but just a printed version of it. It would be similar enough to see it was the same content as the 116 pages. People would object that they produced it after Joseph retranslated the text, but maybe they planned to print it before the Book of Mormon was printed.
Either way, the objective was not to prove that Joseph was a false prophet; it was not to test Joseph and see if he could translate it word-for-word a second time, because even if he did that--even if he "bringeth forth the same words"--these men altered them.
Their objective was only to give people another reason not to believe. People believe what they want to believe anyway; so long as there would be an alternative version of the 116 pages, those who wanted to reject Joseph as a prophet could always cite the alternative version--especially if it was published first. Here's how the revelation explains it.
"16 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; 17 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; 18 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; 19 Therefore we will destroy him, and also the work; and we will do this that we may not be ashamed in the end, and that we may get glory of the world."
In the context of the times, this seems like a very plausible scenario. People were opposing Joseph Smith in every conceivable way (just as they do today). So long as there was an "alternative" version of the 116 pages, people who wanted to confirm their biases could say the alternative version disproved the original version. The credibility and reliability of the second translation would be forever in doubt, defeating its purpose. 
In my view, the explanation in D&C 10 makes perfect sense. 
The third part of the puzzle is what the 116 pages contained. I'm speaking about the 116 pages at the Mormon History Association in June in St. Louis, so I'm not going to go through them in detail, but I will mention here that the pages referred to the mounds in North America.
This brings up an extremely important point. Let's say, hypothetically, that the 116 pages exist somewhere. Let's say they explicitly describe the North American setting. What would happen if they were ever found and published?
Our modern LDS scholars have insisted for years that Joseph Smith taught the Book of Mormon took place in Central America. They have managed to establish their "two-Cumorahs" theory so well, it is being taught in LDS visitors' centers and in the missionary editions of the Book of Mormon itself. 
Now, if the 116 pages ever came forth and contradicted the two-Cumorahs and Mesoamerican theories, where does that put us?
Because of the "consensus" among LDS scholars and educators, it puts us in the position of having Joseph Smith himself contradicting the 116 pages!
The prevailing narrative has Joseph "changing his mind" about what he translated in the Book of Lehi.
As bad as Mesomania has been for faith so far, the recovery of the 116 pages would be even more devastating.
Except for one thing.
Joseph never once connected the Book of Mormon to Central or South America.
Of course, that's what I've been demonstrating in my books and blogs about Church history. There is not a single reliable historical source that shows Joseph directly connecting the Book of Mormon to Central or South America. 
As important, Joseph did directly link the Book of Mormon to North America. Specifically, the Hill Cumorah in New York, the plains of the Nephites in the Midwest, and Zarahemla across from Nauvoo. (There are others, but I'll stick with these three for now).
With this understanding of Church history, the recovery of the 116 pages would be awesome.
[Of course, there's always the possibility that the 116 pages described Central America. We wouldn't know unless they were actually found. But the descriptions of their content that we do have point directly to the mounds in North America.]
Bonus question. Why would the Lord allow the 116 pages to be lost in the first place?
Here I'm purely speculating, of course, but I think the translation of the plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon) were well-suited to 19th century people who accepted the Bible. Early LDS missionaries appealed to the Bible as proof of the Book of Mormon.
That doesn't work much nowadays because people don't believe the Bible any more. 
Instead, we're using the Book of Mormon to prove the Bible.
Rather, we should be using the Book of Mormon this way. But as long as our scholars and educators are perpetuating Mesomania, we can't use the Book of Mormon to prove the Bible because the Book of Mormon itself never mentions Mesoamerica. 
It's beyond absurd, really, to tell people the Book of Mormon describes jungles, volcanoes, and massive stone pyramids when they can read the text for themselves and see it describes anything but Central America. 
Setting that aside for now, I think the plates of Nephi, awesome as they are, are less effective at reaching the current generation than they were previous generations. Even more so, they are ineffective at reaching non-Christians.
Instead, from what we know of the 116 pages, they would be highly effective at reaching the modern generation and non-Christians. 
The reason? 
If, as we expect, the Book of Lehi tells more of the history of the people and less of the religious, apocalyptic, and Isaiah material, everyone in the world would be interested. It would tell us the kind of thing modern society wants to know. More facts, less doctrine. More history, less quoting Isaiah.
Seems to me this would be tailored to the interests and concerns of the modern world. And if those pages clearly identified the Lamanites, as we expect from D&C 28, 30, 32 and the rest, then we could get on with fulfilling the prophecies about the Lamanites.
In retrospect, it would have been a great thing to have lost the 116 pages.
We'll see.


  1. I'm curious as to why you feel as though the Plates of Nephi are less effective with the current generation than those who came before? I've noticed something similar, nobody is familiar with timelines, testimonies, and goings on during the time of Nephi. Why is this?

  2. The Plates of Nephi are apocalyptic like Revelation in the Bible, and then they quote Isaiah extensively. Neither appeals to people who aren't familiar with the Bible--which is most people in the current generation.

    Investigators (and members) find 1 & 2 Nephi difficult to read and appreciate. I always recommend that investigators start reading Mosiah 1 because of how well King Benjamin's address explains the gospel. By the time they finish the book and come back to Nephi, they're better prepared.