The Book of Mormon vs. the Critics: Nit-Picking for Fun and Profit
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be
In every work regard the writer’s end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
While this paper is a direct response to “Changes Made to the Book of Mormon Since 1830,”an article found on the JosephLied.com2 Web site which purports to “expose” Book of Mormon errors and resulting corrections, in truth nothing new is chronicled in the article. Thus, it is my intent to take a more general approach in critiquing this “exposé,” which frankly lifts most of its complaints from other, similarly critical Web sites (Utah Lighthouse Ministry comes easily to mind) and the stacks of books that exist primarily to attack The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon.
It never ceases to amaze me that anyone can spend so much time picking out “errors” in the Book of Mormon and yet completely ignore the overall message of the book. This type of criticism reminds me of a story I learned some years ago: A little girl’s chore is to wash the dishes, which she does as requested, and with heartfelt effort. However, when she is done, she doesn’t receive the expected praise, and her efforts are held for nought because she forgot to rinse out the sink. People similarly dismiss the Book of Mormon, focusing on small perceived errors instead of the larger message.
Does the Book of Mormon contain errors? Yes, it does, and so does every other printed document on the planet. Has the LDS Church tried to suppress that information? Nothing of the sort! Do those errors make the Book of Mormon any less “correct?” Again, the answer is no. The critics uniformly misquote Joseph Smith in this regard, a point I will discuss shortly.
My perspective on the corrections made to the Book of Mormon since it first went to press is of one quite familiar with the printing industry. My father spent much of his twenty-year military career running a printing press. As a young man I worked for two years in two different print shops in a position low enough (delivery boy) to introduce me to many aspects of the printing/publishing industry. Later, I would spend fourteen years as a writer, illustrator, paste-up artist and proofreader (all rolled into one job) for a construction equipment manufacturer. I have long been a student of English literature and linguistics, both as an amateur and as a university student. Naturally, I am singularly unimpressed by the claims made against the Book of Mormon on typographical and grammatical grounds.
Of Ellipses and Scarecrows
el-lip-sis (i lip´ sis) n., pl. -ses (-sez). 1. Gram. a. the omission from a sentence of a word or words that would complete or clarify the construction. b. the deletion of an element or a morpheme from a construction with which the deleted construction is syntactically equivalent. 2. Print. a mark or marks as –, . . . , * * *, to indicate an omission or suppression of letters or words.3
Critics of the Church love to misuse ellipses, and JosephLied is no exception to the rule–as seen in the very first paragraph. In this instance, the critics support their tirade against the Book of Mormon with some version of the following: “Joseph Smith once made the claim that the Book of Mormon was ‘the most correct of any book on the earth.’”4 The careful writer, of course, will try to preserve the original meaning of the citation even though it has been wrested from its original context. Let’s take a look at the original quotation. I’ve emphasized the above portion with italics:
I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other book.5
I propose we all set the Wayback Machine to “Junior High School” and return to English class where we will dissect this sentence:
(A) “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth…” Since this part of the sentence is an independent clause, it can stand alone. However, it leaves the audience crying for more. “What do you mean by ‘correct,’ Brother Joseph?”
(B) “…and the keystone of our religion…” This is a dependent clause, and cannot stand by itself without modification.
(C) “…and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other book.” This also is a dependent clause, and cannot stand alone.
Careful scrutiny will show that while clause B is important, it could be considered a parenthetical remark and the statement in toto could conceivably stand without it. As such, clause B would be a candidate for excising by ellipses. It comes down to the fact that Joseph Smith’s statement builds toward the last few words, particularly “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts.” So one writing about the Book of Mormon might accurately cut the sentence down to its very heart of meaning and say something like “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by…the precepts of the Book of Mormon.” Sadly the critics of this great work don’t aim for the truth, but intend instead to be disingenuous. So it is that by deliberately distorting a famous quote that they can begin building their straw man, a scarecrow much like the one found in the Broadway musical “The Wiz.” Only their scarecrow is filled with supposedly faulty passages from the Book of Mormon rather than shredded newspapers or fortune cookie nostrums.
Why Should We Expect Perfection?
In Changes the author asks the question, “Should we expect perfection?” then answers his own question by informing the reader
Surprisingly, the answer to this question is “Yes.” We have detailed information as to exactly how the Book of Mormon was translated. It was, quite literally, supposed to have been the first book ever written with the aid of God himself. Considering the methodical means by which the gold plates were translated, there was little, if any, room for error.6
Now, that is funny. I have been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost 27 years at the time of this writing, and I have never heard such. I’ve asked around, of course, and I have yet to find a fellow Mormon who has ever heard that the Book of Mormon is “the first book ever written with the aid of God himself.” Searches for doctrinal articles, or any articles by LDS authorities referring to this belief have been in vain. I think it is safe to say that Mormons don’t believe this concerning of the Book of Mormon. When an “ex-Mormon” critic makes claims of this nature, I begin to doubt that person’s claim to LDS membership.7
Technically speaking, the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, is an anthology; a portable library. It is a collection of books written by Prophets previous to Joseph Smith and edited and condensed by Mormon, the last of the New World prophets. By definition a prophet is the mouthpiece of God, which strongly indicates that every piece of scripture was “written with the aid of God himself.” What is more, there are traditions of direct divine influence on holy writ, which predate Joseph Smith and Mormonism by centuries, even millennia. In the Middle Ages many fine works of poetry and drama were written by people whose names are lost to history, because the writers, frequently monks, felt that the product was a gift from God, and that they would not presume to place their name on God’s work. There was once a tradition among some Jews that the very alphabet employed by modern Hebrew speakers was handed down to mankind in its current form by an angel of God. The Qur’an is claimed by many who practice Islam to have been direct revelation to Muhammad and is therefore infallible. A recent discovery of very old copies of the Qur’an that differ from modern editions8 casts doubt on this tradition as there are several generations of handwritten copies of the Qur’an, all containing the kind of errors one would expect in something done by a human being. Even quick and dirty research into the Hebrew “alef-bet” will quickly locate the entirely human origins of that writing system.
It is not my intent, of course, to cast aspersions at our Muslim and Jewish brethren; I am merely trying to make a point: The charge that we LDS believe the Book of Mormon is “the first book ever written with the aid of God himself” is patently and verifiably false. To reiterate: I have never heard this said by either “ordinary” LDS or by the General Authorities.
What then, did Joseph Smith actually say about how the Book of Mormon translation came about? In his 1830 testimony regarding the plates, he said “they have been translated by the gift and power of God,” but says it best in 1839, when he states “These plates have been revealed by the power of God and they have been translated by the power of God”9 While justly giving credit to God, Joseph Smith certainly doesn’t claim that it’s the only time God ever helped with a book.
As previously noted, the critics also like to remind us and anybody who will listen that “We have detailed information as to exactly how the Book of Mormon was translated.” Before commenting on this statement, let me share something Elder Jeffrey R Holland had to say concerning Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon:
To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.10
This is an important thought to ponder in light of the charges that Smith’s “most correct” book contains errors. Either Joseph Smith was a prophet as he claimed, or he was a fraud and the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. Similarly, we can say that either Jesus Christ was who He said He was, or he was a fraud and there was no Resurrection and Atonement. But are the “errors” of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon evidence of fraud? Atheists and other anti-Christians have for many, many years been making claims against the Bible that are almost identical to those made against the Book of Mormon by its critics. Those who claim it is incorrect on the basis of poor grammar and bad spelling are walking on thin ice, indeed, because a little research shows that the Holy Bible, which LDS also revere as Scripture, also suffers from such “errors.”
Now, about the translation process: Emma Smith, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery all took part in the translation of the Book of Mormon, though Emma Smith apparently only transcribed a small portion of the book and Oliver Cowdery was responsible for the lion’s share of the work. However, when one looks at whom the critics use to prosecute their case–in particular those mentioned in the Changes article–one sees a list of second- and third-hand accounts. And even the best witnesses–Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery–were only second-hand witnesses.
So what, exactly, do we have? In short, we have a few personal observations by those who actually took part in, or witnessed, the translation of the Book of Mormon, mixed with a dose of well-meant conjecture. However, Oliver Cowdery, who did most of the writing as Joseph Smith translated, possibly had the best description of the process:
I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, “Holy Interpreters.”11
At another time he said:
Those were days never to be forgotten – to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued uninterrupted to write from his mouth…the history or record called The Book of Mormon.12
The critics of the Book of Mormon are fond of pulling quotes of LDS luminaries out of context in order to build their arguments against the Book of Mormon and the LDS faith. JosephLied is no different in this regard, as many of the quotes used to support the site’s argument that the Book of Mormon should be perfect (as opposed to correct–there is a difference) are taken from a volume entitled Myth of the Manuscript Found,13 a book which contains faith-promoting stories about early LDS leaders. While the records found therein are excellent, most of the sources are secondary and tertiary, and are not to be regarded as reliable as first-hand testimony. While Joseph Smith did speak on the translation from time to time in his life, he rarely offered any details, even in private. So what we have from the only first-hand witness to the translation is scant. This stands as a testimony of Joseph Smith’s humility and character. If he seems evasive to the critic, perhaps the critic should consider the possibility that Joseph Smith was not given to boasting.
But, one might ask, doesn’t divine assistance preclude the possibility of error in the Book of Mormon? As a matter of fact, the answer is “No.” Mormons believe in the doctrine of free agency. God guides our lives, but he doesn’t compel us to do anything. Likewise, He did not have the Holy Ghost dictate the translation of the plates to Joseph Smith, but rather pointed him the right way and let him create what he felt to be a correct translation. As a result, Joseph Smith learned the translation process, he learned a lot about the language(s) in which the Book of Mormon was written, and he learned a lot about obedience and humility. Had God simply dictated the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, he would not have had the opportunity to literally be a student of the divine.
A good analogy, perhaps, is when my dad taught me to ride a bicycle. When I finally figured out how to keep my balance, dad gave me a big push and I rocketed across the yard and crashed into the neighbor’s car. Certainly I was a bit battered and bruised by the incident (and so was the driver’s door), but my father had to let me go at some point, or I would never have learned to ride a bike. Once I was able to remember how to keep my balance, which way to pedal to go forward or to stop, and how to steer the bike, my dad was able to stand back and say “Good enough.” Later, I would become proficient and would spend a great deal of time on the bicycle riding for the joy of it and honing my skills.
This, I believe, is why many of the differences between the 1830 and 1837 editions of the Book of Mormon exist. The 1830 edition is in many ways a literal translation from the original language into English, which gives rise to some of the “errors” the critics point out. The Joseph Smith of the late 1820s was not as well educated as the Joseph Smith who would review the manuscript and make the changes that resulted in the 1837 edition. JosephLied, and the critics he parrots, don’t allow for this, and so must take issue with any changes in the original Book of Mormon. Smith, in his lifetime, never intended for the world to think that there were no typographical or grammatical error in the work, only that the principals of the book are correct.
(Not So) Major Changes
Some have alleged that these books of revelation are false, and they place in evidence changes that have occurred in the texts of these scriptures since their original publication. They cite these changes, of which there are many examples, as though they themselves were announcing revelation. As though they were the only ones that knew of them.
Of course there have been changes and corrections. Anyone who has done even limited research knows that. When properly reviewed, such correction becomes a testimony for, not against, the truth of the books.14
This portion of Changes is interesting not because it borrows heavily from another Web site, but some of the material appears to have been lifted from Gerald and Sandra Tanner15 without proper citation. To make matters worse, the Book of Mormon is incorrectly quoted. For example, what is quoted as 1 Nephi 11:19 is actually 1 Nephi 11:18. It is somehow ironic when those who are critical of the LDS faith and LDS scholars are, themselves, guilty of such nit-picky errors in our day of computers, word-processors, and spell-checkers.
It is also ironic that current critics of the Book of Mormon take Joseph Smith to task for the addition of words referring to Christ as the Son of God, when earlier critics of the same volume complained of the lack of such clarification. A complete reading of 1 Nephi 11:21, 32, and 13:40 should reveal to the reader that the addition of the words “Son of God” was necessary in the context of those verses and certainly the chapters they are found in. Because it is not very clear in these verses as they appeared in the 1830 edition that Christ is the subject, but other similar verses are more clear when read in context, then of course it makes sense that “Son of God” was added only in those verses where necessary. For example, clarity is not a problem in Moroni 4:3, 5:2 and 10:4, which verses speak of God the Father, and Mosiah 16:5 and Alma 11:38-39 speak of Christ.16
Other problems are pointed out in the parts of the 1830 Book of Mormon that would later be identified as Mosiah 21:28 and Ether 4:1. In these verses, the 1830 edition reads “Benjamin” and the later editions of the Book of Mormon read “Mosiah.” Only when the reader is convinced that the Book of Mormon translation was dictated verbatim to Joseph Smith does this become a problem. If, however, the reader remembers that Mormon, via Joseph Smith, states “And now if there be fault, it be the mistakes of men…,”17 it is entirely possible that errors did creep into the text here. What is not clear is when these errors occurred.
The first “error” regarding Benjamin supposedly takes place in Mosiah 6:5, when Benjamin dies. However, the critic assumes that the book of Mosiah is a linear account of that time of Book of Mormon history, when such is not the case. Rather, the account jumps around a little bit, a fact which careful readers will notice. Benjamin may have still been very much alive when the mission to the Land of Nephi returned, and would have been in a position to begin the translation of the Jaredite record. If one takes into account that Mormon condensed a lot of material into the volume that now bears his name, the apparent errors can be explained because of the necessary historical compression. As John Tvedtnes points out, “It is certainly possible that the keeper of the record of Zeniff or Mormon and Moroni may have erred in compiling the records. After all they were mortals, capable of making mistakes. It is also possible that this was an example of a scribal error, later corrected by Joseph Smith the translator.”18 If Joseph Smith were translating from a flawed text, then of course the mistake would appear in the translated work. However, the possibility also exists, as Tvedtnes said, that it was a scribal error. Since this portion of the original Book of Mormon manuscript is no longer extant (only 28% of the original remains19), it is not possible to say just where the error was made.
The critics of the Book of Mormon seem to frequently be of the opinion that a prophet of God is infallible, yet nowhere in the Bible is such a thing taught, and LDS doctrine does not teach such. Prophets, being mortal men, do indeed make mistakes, so it is that errors of this nature, much as similar errors in the Bible, that have crept into the text. The remarks of John Tvedtnes:
It is interesting that the Bible has a situation similar to that found in the Book of Mormon. We read in 1 Kings 15:31-15:5 that Abijam (also called Abijah, as in the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 12:16) became king of Judah after the death of his father Rehoboam and that, despite his sins, the Lord preserved his kingship for the sake of his ancestor David. Then, in 1 Kings 15:6-7, we read,
And there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life. Now the rest of the acts of Abijam, and all that he did, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah? And there was war between Abijam and Jeroboam.
The name Rehoboam is anachronistic, since he was dead and the passage was intended to describe events in the days of his son Abijam. The error is actually corrected in a few Hebrew manuscripts and in the Peshitta (Christian Aramaic) version to read, “And there was war between Abijah the son of Rehoboam.” The parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 13:2 reads, “And there was war between Abijah and Jeroboam.”20
So, if one should judge the Book of Mormon according to its errors, one should hold the same glass up to the Bible. Prophets, scribes, typesetters and printers all make mistakes. This is a simple fact of life.
Of course, the critic doesn’t stop here. He pans the “contradictions” that occur between the 1830 version of 1 Nephi 12:18 and the current version, and 2 Nephi 10:3. 1 Nephi 12 is part of a remarkable story in which Nephi receives the same vision his father Lehi had previously received, and it is quoted correctly in the Changes article. However, the argument that Christ’s name is not actually revealed for the first time until 2 Nephi 10:3 carries no weight, and for more than one reason. Firstly, to the Christian, “the Messiah” and “Jesus Christ” are one and the same. Secondly, it is Nephi who is having the vision recounted in 1 Nephi 12, and Jacob his brother who is having a vision in 2 Nephi 10, so the critic is trying to use the visions of two men to point out a “discrepancy.” This smacks, frankly, of the old saw about the group of blind men trying to describe an elephant based on the part of the animal they are touching.
Lastly, the Book of Mormon is a translation. Since “Jesus Christ” is actually the Greek name for the Messiah, and not the Hebrew of Aramaic form of the same, then one could conceivable argue that the presence of the name “Jesus Christ” in the Book of Mormon text is anachronistic. However, in terms of translation, it means the same thing as whatever words were on the plates from which Joseph Smith derived his translation. In all honesty, Joseph Smith could have left the name of Christ in 1 Nephi 12:18 as he originally translated it, and it would not have made a difference.
It’s no surprise that critics of the Book of Mormon question the later (1840) insertion of the phrase “or out of the waters of baptism” into 1 Nephi 20:1. However, the question is posed, “Why did it take God ten years to decide to introduce the ordinance of baptism into Old Testament text?” Again, there is the assumption that Joseph Smith was compelled to write down exactly what God told him to write when he translated the Book of Mormon. There is no allowance here for an older, wiser Joseph Smith who, while examining the manuscript in preparation for the 1840 edition, didn’t see a need to clarify just what the “waters of Judah” were. Our critic seems to be implying that God changed His mind on the subject or that Joseph Smith is introducing a doctrine that was not implied in the original wording. Of course, the critic offers no alternate explanation for “waters of Judah,” apparently unaware that allegories don’t live in swamps, and that good translations of any work can always stand some minor revision, even if the translation was accomplished with divine assistance.
Who Said Ain’t Ain’t a Word?
Moving around the country while growing up afforded me the opportunity to hear and learn more than one American English dialect, and the years I’ve spent as a tutor of English as a second language has forced me to become familiar with my native tongue in a manner most never enjoy. The questions my students have asked and the effort needed to answer them has often led me down tortuous linguistic paths only to make some pretty surprising discoveries. This can be particularly true when language X uses a structure or word no longer extant in English. Taking the opportunity to learn at least one foreign language has put me in the position of learning firsthand the potential problems of translating. Studying German has allowed me to see the basic structure of English as it was spoken prior to a certain major altercation at Hastings in 1066. Studying Spanish has allowed me to learn more of the essential structure of Latin, which heavily influenced many of the languages of Europe, English among them. My study of Hebrew has led me to find that that particular tongue is not as alien as one might think, particularly when studying the Old Testament. My Hebrew instructor likes to tell me that “all languages are Semitic,” and I’m beginning to wonder if he might be right. A personal fascination for very old English and American literature, from about a century prior to Chaucer to the nineteenth century has given me hands-on experience in seeing how modern English has developed.
So what does this biographical sketch have to do with the matter at hand? Simply put, I’ve learned that it’s not a very good idea to make fun of a writer’s or speaker’s grammar, because I have learned all sorts of ways in which I may be wrong. That elusive language, Standard English, I have discovered, is a language best applied to papers written by high-school students and technical manuals. It is a language in a constant state of flux, with even some of the most basic rules periodically challenged. More importantly, the Standard English benchmark of one era should never be applied to the writing of another era. Grammarians don’t always agree, in fact, on the definition of “Standard English.”
Consider the example put forward by JosephLied, “Ain’t ain’t a word (but it would sure feel at home in the 1830 Book of Mormon [even though it doesn't appear in the Book of Mormon].)”21. This statement actually says a lot more about the critic’s knowledge than it does about the grammatical quality of the Book of Mormon.
“Ain’t” is a contraction of “am not” or “am I not.” For generations, American school children have been taught that this form is incorrect, bad, forbidden English. Points have been counted off of countless papers, festooned with red marks left by the teacher on papers containing such offensive attacks on proper English. Yet, the fact is, American grammarians are far more critical of the word than their British counterparts. Grammarian Frank H. Vizitelly said:
An English play can generally be distinguished from an American play by the single fact the actors say “ain’t,” something unspeakable in educated American circles. The English people are not to be shamed out of saying “ain’t.” They use it boldly and unblushingly, declaring it is all right and perfectly proper, if for no other reason than that the English people say it. In America “ain’t” is always inelegant, and when used is due more to carelessness than to ignorance.22
The persistence of “ain’t” in the common vernacular should give one pause before decrying its use, and this should apply to many other “non-standard” words and phrases in the English language. Furthermore,
In considering the restrictions within which grammarians strive to confine the language, we should remember that the language came first and that its codification produced the grammar. Ever since the first grammarian laid down the rules, others have set out to correct him.23
Thus, anyone critical of the grammar found in the 1830 Book of Mormon would do well to remember the rules by which he criticizes Joseph Smith’s “improper” English are not the same rules Joseph Smith followed when he wrote and spoke.
In his lifetime, Joseph Smith maintained that he had received only a minimal education, and there is no evidence to suggest this is not true. In 1832, two years after the first edition of the Book of Mormon went to press, Joseph Smith found time to write a biographical sketch of himself, in which he stated
“as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing and the ground of Arithmatic which const[it]tuted my whole literary acquirements.”24
Standard (or Authoritarian25) English, the meter stick being used to measure the 1830 Book of Mormon, is the language of the educated. That Joseph Smith wrote in a manner that reflected his lack of education in and of itself is a testimony to the veracity of his claim. The 1830 Book of Mormon reflects the vernacular that Joseph Smith was accustomed to simply because Heavenly Father worked within Smith’s limits. Contrary to what a few wags have claimed, God is not an Englishman, and there is nothing to compel God to sanction one or another form of the English language parading as “Standard” English.
If, indeed, the Book of Mormon had appeared in 1830 in good Standard English, that alone would have been reason enough to dismiss the book as a fraud. However, not only does the 1830 edition exhibit some of the limits of Joseph Smith’s education at that time, but being a very literal translation, it also more clearly exhibits distinctly non-English word usage and patterns. Also, some of the mistakes in the text may not be those of Joseph Smith, his scribes, or the typesetters. The title page of the Book of Mormon is translated from the volume Mormon so carefully edited and condensed onto the plates, and there Mormon apologizes in advance for any errors he might have made by saying “And now, if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God.”
Let us examine some of the “errors” found by the Book of Mormon critics. First, we will backtrack a little, to the critics’ examination of the word “seraphims.”
So, just “how does one explain that Joseph Smith would make the same exact spelling error…that the writers of the KJV…made centuries before?”26 There are a couple of ways of approaching this. One possibility is that during the transcribing of the printer’s manuscript, someone recognized that Jacob was quoting Isaiah, and referred to the King James Version. The mistake may have been made by the typesetter, whose job it was not only to set the type, but also to punctuate the text, since neither the original nor printer’s manuscripts were punctuated. The typesetter’s job was, of course, to go over the text carefully, and it stands to reason that he might have recognized the Isaiah references and pulled his Bible out to ease his task.
Another possibility is that Joseph Smith just used the word incorrectly, repeating an old error. That this happened is hardly an indictment against the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
“One of the most frequent mistakes in the first edition of the Book of Mormon is the use of the word “was instead of the word “were,” JosephLied tells us.27 Certainly errors in was/were usage are to be found in the 1830 Book of Mormon, however, are there as many to be found as the critics claim? Also, were all of the corrections made over the years correct? Editing even a short article can be difficult, but to edit a book like the Book of Mormon is frankly mind-boggling. Even the very best edition will contain errors. The following criteria would be important in sorting out errors:
- Does the sentence reflect English grammar or the underlying language from which it was translated? Hebrew, for instance, does not differentiate between “was” and “were,” leaving it to the translator to straighten it out in the new language.
- Is it really a mistake?
- If it is an error, does the mistake reflect a common error and by extension, Joseph Smith’s education level?
Much more importantly, one should ask if the meaning of the sentence is actually changed by the “improper” use of the past tense of “to be.”
In Hebrew, the past tense of “to be” is indicated by or , and both forms designate “was” or “were,” leaving it up to sentence structure to indicate whether singular or plural is indicated. Since Hebrew sentence structure is different than that of English, the translator may decide to randomly insert “was” or “were,” and correct as necessary at a later time. The meaning of the sentence is not altered, whichever of the two words are used, though one of those choices may look “wrong” to the twenty-first century reader. “Misuse” of “was/were” actually goes back centuries, and is actually quite alive and well in some parts of the United States in the twenty-first century,28 and should be regarded not as “incorrect,” but as a nonstandard dialectic form. Since grammarians were arguing over the proper use of “was/were” even into Noah Webster’s lifetime,29 it seems quite a stretch that God would choose one over the other as He assisted Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon translation process.
It would be a waste of time and space to examine each and every example used in the Changes, so only a few examples will be scrutinized:
“…and also of Adam and Eve, which was our first parents…” (1 Nephi 5:11, 1830)
“…and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents…” (1 Nephi 5:11, 1982)
Curiously, Joseph Smith is not taken to task here for his “improper” use of “which” to refer to people, which in Modern English is considered incorrect. However, this usage of “which” is correct in Hebrew, and it is left up to the translator to decide whether to use was or were. Of course the reader who went to junior high school in the twentieth century will remember getting fat red marks for using “which” to refer to a person and “was” for a plurality, one must remember that this mistake is still common even now, particularly in areas where the local dialect keeps such usage alive. Joseph Smith, therefore, would not have thought he was making a mistake in 1828. By 1837, however, he’d benefited by a few more years of life and education, and he would have recognized that the grammar of the 1830 Book of Mormon was hardly universal, and would have amended the same to reflect a broader use of English.
“Wherefore, all mankind was in a lost and fallen state…” (1 Nephi 10:6, 1830)
“Wherefore, all mankind were in a lost and fallen state…” (1 Nephi 10:6, 1982)
Actually, there is no error here; both versions are correct. Ralph Harrison, in his 1777 Institutes of English Grammar, states: “A noun of multitude may be joined either to the singular or plural number of the verb.”30 This same rule applies to the “error” noted in Mosiah 23:25, “an army of the Lamanites were in the borders” (1830). Strange though it may seem to many modern readers to refer to an army as a plural entity, in Joseph Smith’s time it was correct, and there are those in our time who would argue that same point. Another error brings to mind grammar lessons from junior high:
“…the land of Nephi, and the land of Zarahemla, was nearly surrounded by water…” (Alma 22:32, 1830)
“…the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water…” (Alma 22:32, 1982)
Notice the difference? The 1830 version contains two more commas than what is found in the current (1982) version of the Book of Mormon. Since the printer’s manuscript was delivered to Grandin’s with no punctuation, the “error” pointed out here is not that of Joseph Smith, but of the typesetter. However, if the 1830 quotation is deconstructed much as an English teacher might tell her class during a grammar lesson, it could look like this: “the land of Nephi was nearly surrounded by water, and the land of Zarahemla was nearly surrounded by water,” which is the sentence structure implied best in the 1830 edition. The current version of the quote, minus the commas and using “were” instead of “was,” merely reflects a more modern preference, but does not change the meaning at all.
That, of course, is the point: A close examination shows that in the aforementioned quotes, and the numerous similar others found in Changes, the meaning is not altered by the change from the “incorrect” non-standard forms to the modern “correct” forms. However, the non-standard usage of “was/were” by Joseph Smith can easily be explained by any of the three points raised earlier. Some, if not all, examples represent not only the underlying language of the Book of Mormon, but also confirm Joseph Smith’s level of education, and not a few of the “errors” are Joseph Smith’s, being either correct in either form, or reflecting errors made by the typesetter. The same can be applied to the use of “is/are”, the present tense of “to be,” whether it be a relic of the underlying Hebrew or Joseph Smith’s manner of speech and writing in 1828. God is no respecter of persons, we are told, so it follows that He is no respecter of dialects.
Many languages don’t necessarily differentiate between “many” and “much” as English does. Examples would be “mucho”, from Spanish, and “rav” from Hebrew. Since “much” and “many” mean the same thing, it seems specious to call out the erroneous use of “much” in the 1830 versions of Enos 1:21 and Mosiah 29:7. Since “much” conveys the same meaning as the preferred rendering “many” in these cases, then of course Joseph Smith was not correcting an error when he amended the Book of Mormon for the 1837 and 1840, but was getting the printed edition up to speed with what was considered acceptable English.
It’s a bit of a different story where “had not ought” is changed to “ought not” in the current version of Mosiah 8:1331. There was no mistake to be corrected here, as both forms are correct. “Ought not” merely reflects a more modern usage than “had not ought.” It would have been just as correct to amend the Book of Mormon to read “hadn’t ought” or even “oughtn’t,” though it seems clear that the editors responsible for the change were trying to avoid using contractions. Another possibility would have been to use “should not,” as again the meaning is synonymous. This is one of the problems any translator faces, with or without divine assistance: The end product will reflect more than a little bit of the translator’s manner of expressing himself. Had someone other than Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, than any one of the above phrases could have been expressed differently and have had exactly the same meaning.
Changes points out “Another common mistake in the first edition of the Book of Mormon is the use of the word “a” where it does not belong.” Perhaps the author would enjoy a few examples of what is called by linguists and grammarians as the “prepositional ‘a’”:
A hunting we will go,
A hunting we will go,
Heigh ho, the dairy-o,
A hunting we will go.32
Simon Peter said unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. (John 21:3)
Changes spends not a little time picking apart Joseph Smith’s use of the prepositional “a” as it appears in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. However, it can be seen in the popular nursery rhyme shown above, and in an old folk song, “Froggy Went A-Courtin.’” “I go a fishing”is not confined to the King James Bible, but can in fact be traced to the Tyndale and Geneva translations of the same. Obviously, such a use of “a” was not an error as far as the men who translated the Bible into English were concerned. Prepositional “a,” as seen in numerous passages in the 1830 Book of Mormon,33 is not an error at all, but an archaism that frankly can still be found in Appalachia today.34 John Nist tells us:
From the seventeenth century, the present participle evolved from a noun governed by the preposition on, through the intermediary a-form, which could be either nominal or verbal… This evolution can be traced in the following examples: he was set on building a barn; he was a-building a barn.35
The prepositional “a” form is actually alive and well in modern English, and not just in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, though in many words, such as aback, abaft, ablush, aboard, aborning (or a-borning), afield, afire, and ago,36 to name only a few, it has become a permanent affix. It should be noted that this rule generally applies to words of English, not Latin, origin, though as with any English grammar rule, the lines are fuzzy at best. Like so many items previously covered, these criticized verses from the original Book of Mormon printing may not look correct to the “modern” reader, they were certainly not incorrect to Joseph Smith in 1828 as he translated the Book of Mormon, and the deletion of the prepositional “a” again does not represent correction of the text, but a standardization of it. While the prepositional “a” is currently the victim of grammatical snobbery in some parts of the United States, it was certainly not out of place in Joseph Smith’s time or place.
But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in king’s houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, and I say unto you, and more than a prophet.37
When one sees criticisms like the use of “for to” being leveled at the Book of Mormon, be it the 1830 edition or the current printing, it’s not at all difficult to wonder if the critic has read a Bible recently, preferably a King James Version. “For to” appears countless times in the Bible. Again, where this usage has been edited out of the current Book of Mormon, it is not to correct an error, but to modernize the text to make it more accessible to this generation’s readers. “For to” also represent a Hebrew structure not found in English, a fact that only reinforces the veracity of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s translation.
Next, the author of Changes takes issue with a couple of actual mistakes, found in Alma 13:20 (page 260, 1830 edition) and Alma 41:1 (page 336, 1830 edition). Both mistakes concern words that are very nearly homophonic, “wrest” and “arrest.” Put yourself in the position of Joseph Smith’s scribe. As has already been seen, Alma is littered with prepositional “a’s,” so it isn’t at all hard to imagine that when Joseph said “wrest,” the scribe heard “arrest.” What is important is that the error was noticed and corrected, not that the error occurred in the first place.
1 Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism. Quoted in: Institutes of English Grammar, Ralph Harrison (1777). Menston, England: The Scolar Press Limited, 1967.
3 Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Portland House,1989
4 ”Changes Made to the Book of Mormon Since 1830,” http://www.josephlied.com
5 History of the Church, Volume 4, 461
8 Abul Taher, “Querying the Koran,” Guardian, Tuesday August 8, 2000 http://www.geocities.com/islampencereleri3/querying_the_koran.htm
9 History of the Church 1:54-55
10 Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant (1997), 345-46
11 Reuben Miller, Journal, October 21, 1848
12 Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1:14 (1834)
13 George Reynolds, Myth of the Manuscript Found, 1883
14 Boyd K. Packer, “We Believe All That God Has Revealed,” Ensign 4 (May 1974), 94.
15 Utah Lighthouse Ministry, www.utlm.org. This Web site is quoted several times without citation. Most of the material in Changes can be found on the ULM website here: http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/3913intro.htm
16 Stan Larson, “Changes in Early Texts of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign (September 1976), 77-82.
17 Book of Mormon, 1830 Edition (Independence, Missouri: Herald Heritage Reprint, 1970). The current title page of the Book of Mormon (1982 edition) reads: “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men…” The title page of the Book of Mormon is attributed to Mormon, a fact not made clear in the 1830 edition.
18 John A. Tvedtnes, “The Mistakes of Men: Can the Scriptures Be Error Free?” 2002 FAIR Conference presentation, http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2002_Can_the_Scriptures_be_Error-Free.html
19 Royal Skousen, “History of the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon: Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon: History and Findings of the Critical Text Project,” (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 5.
20 Tvedtnes, “The Mistakes of Men: Can the Scriptures Be Error Free?”
21 History of the Church, Volume 4, 461
22 Frank H. Vizitelly, Essentials of English Speech and Literature, Third Edition (New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1917), 340.
23 Ibid., 157
24 Joseph Smith Letterbook, 1:1-3. Quoted in H. Michael Marquardt, “First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” 1999 http://www.xmission.com/~research/central/resth7.htm. Spelling and punctuation uncorrected.
25 John Nist, A Structural History of English (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966).
26 History of the Church, Volume 4, 461
27 Ibid. However, it should be noted that this section, at least, is lifted whole cloth from the Utah Lighthouse Ministry Web site, with nary a “thank you” nor a proper citation. The original material can be found here: http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/3913intro.htm
28 Author’s personal observation. “You was” or “we was” (for example) are still quite common in Appalachia. Appalachian English is not greatly dissimilar from Joseph Smith’s vernacular. (The author is a long-time resident of Kentucky.)
29 Elizabeth Closs Traugott, A History of English Syntax: A Transformational Approach to the History of English Structure (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), 175.
30 Ralph Harrison, Institutes of English Grammar (Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1967), 27. This is a reprint of the original title which was printed in Manchester, England, in 1777.
31 Similar changes can be found in Mosiah 29:34, Alma 23:3 and Alma 29:4.
32 Children’s nursery rhyme.
33 Page numbers (in parentheses) from the 1830 edition correspond with the current chapter and verse references: Alma 10: 7-8 (249), 27 (251), 17:1 (269), 20:8 (280), 21:11 (284), 30:56, 58 (309), 48:7 (358), 52:26 (373), 57:31 (389), 62:31 (403); Mormon 6:7 (529). This is not an exhaustive list.
34 Author’s personal observation.
35 John Nist, A Structural History of English (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966), 293-294.
36 Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Portland House, 1989).
37 Matthew 11:8-9, KJV.