The Book of Mormon has attracted significant attention since its first printing in 1830. Adherents to the Mormon faith have revered it, critics have questioned its authenticity and scholars have approached it from multiple disciplines, such as literature, anthropology and archeology. One important framework for understanding the book is to examine its publishing history.
Over the last 178 years, seven major editions of the Book of Mormon have been published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The purpose of each new edition is to eliminate the human errors that have occurred. This is all aimed at bringing the text into conformity with the message and meaning of the original manuscripts. The various editorial changes that have been made, such as typographical, grammatical and syntactical changes, have improved readability while leaving the doctrine unaltered.
“Our process is to keep the text faithful to the manuscripts and early editions of the Book of Mormon,” said Rainer Hechtle, an editor and assistant manager of the Church’s Curriculum Department.
In 1837, seven years after 5,000 copies of the original version were printed, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery returned to the original manuscript to correct mistakes made during the transcription and printing processes. After a detailed comparison was made between the original manuscript and the 1830 edition, Joseph Smith authorized and made close to 1,000 changes before the printing of the 1837 edition.
The majority of these changes corrected spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and syntaxconfusion which stemmed from the inexperience of the transcribers, the intricate typesetting methods of the 19th century and the rapidity of the translation. While interrupted regularly by persecution and ministerial duties, Joseph Smith translated essentially eight pages of the Book of Mormon each day and completed the whole book in approximately 60 working days.
While some critics cite these textual errors to challenge the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, scholars with experience in translation see them as natural consequences of human imperfections.
“All who have translated are keenly aware that it is a rare translation which cannot be improved,” said Stephen Ricks, a professor of Hebrew at Brigham Young University. “Thus, while it would be incorrect to minimize the divine element in the process of translation of the Book of Mormon, it would also be misleading and potentially hazardous to deny the human factor.”
As an example of the difficulty in rendering an accurate translation of scripture, some Bible scholars also recognize the influence of human error in the process of publishing.
“Though it is the most important book in the religious life and culture of the English-speaking world, the King James Bible or Authorized Version of 1611 has never been perfectly printed,” wrote David Norton, a professor at Victoria University who recently published the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. “What we now read as the King James Bible contains numerous deliberate and some accidental changes to the text, and these can be revised to make it more faithful to the King James translators’ own decisions as to how it should read.”
Since the 1837 version, the Church has published five additional major editions of the Book of Mormon, all of which included slight changes to improve the clarity of the text. The Church’s Scripture Committee is responsible for overseeing the editing process. They research corrections brought to their attention and then make recommendations. All recommendations and any subsequent changes are approved by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the highest governing body of the Church.
Almost 4,000 editing corrections have been made to the Book of Mormon since the first publication in 1830. For example: the word which has been changed to who 891 times; was has been changed to were 162 times; and the word that has been deleted 188 times. Other examples involve mistakes in the transcription process. While Joseph Smith and a scribe were translating in the book of Alma, for instance, the scribe misheard Joseph and wrote the word whether instead of wither. This mistake, which was included in the first edition, changed the complexion of the sentence and caused confusion among readers. Each correction that has been made has aimed at aligning the text with the original translation.
In 1981 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published its most current edition of the Book of the Mormon, the first since 1920, with additions to aid the reader. Chapter summaries, footnotes, an introduction, an index and other information — all of which are not considered scripture — were added or expanded to help the reader navigate through the book and compare scriptures in the Old and New Testaments.
Latter-day Saints maintain that the Book of Mormon is of divine origin and thus, with the Bible, a member of the royal family of scripture.