Evidence #2 | September 19, 2020

Earliest Manuscripts

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Scripture Central


Those who witnessed or participated in the translation of the Book of Mormon reported several details that are consistent with analysis of the text’s earliest manuscripts.

Evidence Summary

What the Witnesses Observed

Several individuals observed the translation of the Book of Mormon as it transpired, some of whom participated in that process by acting as Joseph Smith’s scribes.1 After analyzing statements from those close to the translation process, Royal Skousen concluded that the witnesses were reportedly able to observe the following activities in an “open setting”:2

  • Joseph Smith placing the [Urim and Thummim] (either the [Nephite interpreters] or the seer stone) in a hat and placing his face into the hat
  • Joseph Smith dictating for long periods of time without reference to any books, papers, manuscripts, or even the plates themselves
  • Joseph Smith spelling out unfamiliar Book of Mormon names
  • After each dictated sequence, the scribe reading back to Joseph Smith what was written so that Joseph could check the correctness of the manuscript
  • Joseph Smith starting a dictation session without prompting from the scribe about where the previous session had ended
Joseph Smith Translating the Book of Mormon. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org

The collection of manuscript pages upon which scribes recorded Joseph Smith’s dictation is known as the Original Manuscript (O). A copy of this original transcription—called the Printer’s Manuscript (P)—was then used to typeset the Book of Mormon for its publication.3 Skousen’s careful examination of these early manuscripts helps confirm several aspects of what the witnesses said about the translation.4

An Orally Dictated Text

Comparing the types of scribal errors present in O with the errors in P confirms that the English text of the Book of Mormon was indeed transcribed from oral dictation. Overwhelmingly, the discernable errors in O are best explained as the result of a scribe mishearing dictated words. In contrast, the errors in P seem to result from a scribe visually misreading words while in the act of transcribing them from another document.5 So the errors in both documents are consistent with their purported manner of production.

Multispectral imaging system with a fragment of the Original Manuscript ready to be captured. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

As an example of the type of mishearing errors contained in O, Skousen points to the presence of an erroneous amerpsand (&) in 1 Nephi 13:29: “because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb & exceeding great many do stumble.” This error (bolded) seems best explained as the scribe mistaking the word an for and (written as an ampersand) because of their similar sound. Further examples of mishearing can be seen in the word reed being mistaken for the similar sounding weed, meet mistaken for beat, him mistaken for them, and so forth.6

In other cases, errors likely occurred because the sound of one word affected the sound of another word in close proximity. One instance can be seen in Alma 41:14, where the concluding s in the word Sons is an error most likely caused by the fact that the very next word (sees) begins with the same s sound: “Therefore my Sons see that ye are merciful unto your Brethren”7 In other words, if these words were spoken in rapid succession, the beginning sound of the second word could easily have been misconstrued as the ending sound of the first word. This instance of plural Sons in O was changed to the singular Son in P because it was contextually clear that Alma at the time was talking to only one of his sons—Corianton.8

Spelling Unfamiliar Names

Witnesses remarked that Joseph Smith would sometimes correct the spelling used by his scribes. Some support for this claim can be found in the spelling of names.9 When a new name was introduced into the text, it was often crossed out and immediately replaced with a different spelling.10 Thus, a type of fairly systematic spelling correction is indeed present in the text, and it makes sense that unfamiliar names would have needed such correction. Several examples—such as the first instance of the name Coriantumr, found in Helaman 1:1511—are especially telling. Skousen explains,

In this case, no matter how slowly or carefully Joseph Smith might have repronounced Coriantumr, it would have been impossible for him to have indicated that there was no vowel between the m and r at the end of the name except by actually spelling out the separate letters m and r. Nor could Oliver Cowdery have guessed this spelling since no word (or name) in English ends in mr.12

First instance of the name Coriantumr in the Printer's Manuscript. In contrast to this image, the Original Manuscript has the name Coriantumr crossed out and rewritten. Image via josephsmithpapers.org.

This does not mean that misspelled words did not make it into the manuscripts, or that the spelling of names was always corrected. It clearly wasn’t a perfect or infallible process.13 Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that on at least some occasions—as with the name Coriantumr—the text of the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith down to the very letter, just as the witnesses described.

Scribes Repeating Joseph’s Dictation for Correction

As noted in the above sections, errors due to phonetic similarities (such as weed for reed or variations in the spelling of names) were often left uncorrected. Skousen explains, “Most of the undetected errors that remain in the original manuscript could not have been caught when read back because there was little if any difference in pronunciation.”14 The point here is that the types of errors that were not corrected are the type of errors that very easily could have been missed if a scribe were to read back the text for editing purposes, as was observed by the witnesses.

Emma acting as Joseph's Scribe. Illustration by Michael T. Malm. 

As for the types of errors that were corrected, the “clear majority … were made immediately,” signaling that a scribe most likely caught errors in the initial process of Joseph’s dictation.15 However, Skousen points out that many corrections didn’t occur with such immediacy:

there are also numerous changes that are consistent with a process of correcting errors found while repeating the text. In these instances, the original form is complete and the error is usually not obvious (that is, the reading is not a difficult reading); the correction is supralinear or inserted in the line, but there is no erasure, only a crossout of the error, and the level of ink flow for the correction is usually different.16

These second type of corrections, when seen in conjunction with the type of errors that weren’t corrected, offer textual evidence that is consistent with the claim that the Prophet’s scribes would read back to him portions of his dictated text for editing purposes.


According to Skousen, the textual data from O and P “provides valuable support (or at least consistent evidence) for some events that witnesses actually saw.”17 First of all, the evidence that the text in O derives from oral dictation is strong. The types of errors contained in it are hard to explain otherwise.18 

As for the witnesses’ observations about scribes reading back Joseph’s dictation or that he sometimes corrected the spelling of names, the textual data is at least consistent with these claims. It does indeed appear that some types of errors were frequently corrected soon after their dictation through some sort of proofreading process, and there are numerous instances of spelling corrections, particularly when it comes to the first instances of names.

While this analysis doesn’t definitely confirm the statements from the witnesses on these points, it offers corroborating evidence for their claims. At the same time, it may provide obstacles to some theories that assume the text was produced in a manner inconsistent with the testimonial data.

Daguerreotype of Oliver Cowdery. Image via wikipedia.org. 

For instance, it may be tempting to assume that Oliver Cowdery, who was more educated than Joseph Smith, was mostly responsible for the text of the Book of Mormon and that perhaps he simply composed it himself. While it is true that most of the remaining Original Manuscript is preserved in Oliver’s handwriting (he was Joseph’s primary scribe), the types of errors present in the text indicate that he was transcribing someone else’s dictation. Thus, not only would such a theory be contradicted by the testimonial evidence that consistently places Joseph as dictating the text to his scribes, but it also runs against the manuscript evidence itself.

In short, any theory regarding the process of the Book of Mormon’s translation must account for both the historical data from the witnesses and also the available manuscript evidence. The fact that the witnesses’ statements and the manuscript data are mutually consistent on certain points makes some alternative theories more difficult to sustain.

Further Reading

Daniel C. Peterson, “A Response: ‘What the Manuscripts and the Eyewitnesses Tell Us about the Translation of the Book of Mormon’,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11, no. 2 (2002): 67–71.

Royal Skousen, “How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 22–31.

Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 61–93.

End Notes

  • 1 For analysis of a large compilation of statements about the translation, see John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, 2nd edition, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 79–125. According to Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, ed., “Volume 3 Introduction,” in Revelation and Translations, Volume 3, part 1: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1–Alma 35 (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2015), xxiv: “By the time the text of the Book of Mormon was finished, Smith had dictated portions to at least seven scribes: Martin Harris, Emma Smith, Samuel Smith, Reuben Hale, Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, and Christian Whitmer. Cowdery penned more extant pages by far than all the other scribes combined.”
  • 2 Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 62–63.
  • 3 For a helpful overview of these manuscripts, see Royal Skousen, “Book of Mormon Manuscripts,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1992), 1:185–186.
  • 4 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 61–93. For a similar version of this article, see Royal Skousen, “How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 22–31.
  • 5 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 70–71.
  • 6 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 67–68.
  • 7 Other than the bolded letters, which have been added for emphasis, this verse is presented as written in Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 69.
  • 8 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 68–69.
  • 9 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 76 notes that “Emma Smith and David Whitmer claimed that Joseph Smith sometimes spelled out, in addition to names, English words that were difficult to pronounce.” However there is “no firm evidence in what remains of the original manuscript to support this claim of Emma Smith and David Whitmer.” Instead, “Long English words found in what remains of the original manuscript are frequently misspelled.” (pp. 76–77). After further analysis, Skousen concludes, “In any event, if Joseph Smith did spell out long English words, it appears to have been fairly infrequent. The lack of consistent evidence for spelling out words of English does not, however, necessarily contradict Emma Smith’s statement. Emma’s description refers to when she was acting as scribe, which presumably would have been at the beginning of the original book of Lehi (which formed part of the 116 manuscript pages that were later lost). Joseph Smith’s pronunciation of long English words might have improved sufficiently as the 116 pages were being dictated that eventually he hardly ever needed to spell out difficult English words. Even in the beginning there probably wouldn’t have been that many words causing him difficulty. Having learned how to pronounce the difficult words, he would have simply relied on the scribe to correctly spell the words he dictated, except for unfamiliar names.” (pp. 78–79). Even a handful of such instances would likely have been memorable to the witnesses involved, leaving a lasting impression about Joseph Smith’s limited literary ability at that time of his life.
  • 10 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 75.
  • 11 While the name Coriantumr shows up in the Small Plates of Nephi (see Omni 1:21), it is most likely that the Small Plates were translated after the Large Plates. See Book of Mormon Central, “Book of Mormon Central, “How Does the ‘Mosiah-First’ Translation Sequence Strengthen Faith? (Words of Mormon 1:5),” KnoWhy 503 (February 22, 2019). This means that the occurrence of Coriantumr in Helaman 1:15 would have been the first time that Oliver Cowdery had come across this name during the translation.
  • 12 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 76. Skousen further adds, “In fact, Oliver ends the correct spelling Coriantumr with a large flourish on the final r, which Oliver produces nowhere else in either the original or the printer’s manuscript. This addition probably reveals Oliver Cowdery’s frustration at having to guess at such a weird spelling.” (p. 76).
  • 13 See Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 80–82.
  • 14 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 83–84.
  • 15 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 84. Skousen further elaborates, “Evidence for these immediate corrections include: corrections following on the same line, erasures showing ink smearing (since the ink had not yet dried), or supralinear corrections or insertions in the line with no change in the level of ink flow or difference in the quill. These immediate corrections also include numerous cases where the crossed-out word is only part of the intended word or is obviously miswritten” (p. 84).
  • 16 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 84.
  • 17 Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 84.
  • 18 Even the Book of Mormon’s extensive quotations from Isaiah contain evidence of a scribe mishearing, rather than visually misreading, its contents. This fact, along with frequent misspellings of names, indicates that these chapters were produced through oral dictation and not by a scribe simply copying from a Bible. See Royal Skousen, “Textual Variants in the Isaiah Quotations in the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 377–388. One might assume that Joseph himself was possibly reading from a Bible, but the primary witnesses to the translation agreed that he wasn’t reading from any books or manuscripts. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Not Notes or References,” November 2, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
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