Question: Which sources mention Nephi as the angelic visitor who told Joseph Smith about the gold plates?

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Question: Which sources mention Nephi as the angelic visitor who told Joseph Smith about the gold plates?

There is actually only one source that claims the heavenly messenger was Nephi, which was an error

Critics cite a variety of sources that repeat the 'Nephi' identification. The key point to understand is that there is really only one source that claims the heavenly messenger was Nephi; the other sources which mention Nephi are merely citing this one source, thus perpetuating the error. The problematic document is the June 1839 Manuscript History of the Church Book A-1 (which was a copy of an April 1838 document -- James Mulholland copied George W. Robinson's earlier text. The 1838 document is no longer extant).

Subsequent documents copied the error from the original source

  • Later drafts of the Manuscript History of the Church reproduced the error (see discussion below).
  • The 1839 document was then published in the 1842 Times and Seasons as follows:
He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi. That God had a work for me to do, and that my name should be had for good and evil, among all nations, kindreds, and tongues; or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people. He said there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. [1]
  • In England, the Church's periodical called the Millennial Star reprinted the same article in August 1842, perpetuating the error:
He called me by name and said unto me, that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi [2]
  • This idea was repeated again, in the same volume of the Millennial Star, in an editorial written on 1 August 1842 either by Parley P. Pratt or Thomas Ward:
Again, when we read the history of our beloved brother, Joseph Smith, and of the glorious ministry and message of the angel Nephi, which has finally opened a new dispensation to man, and commenced a revolution in the moral, civil, and religious government of the world... [3]
  • The Pearl of Great Price, published in England in 1851 (but not yet canonized), identified its source for the story as "Times & Seasons, vol. iii, p. 726, &c." On page 41 it is said,
He called me by name and said unto me, that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi [4]
  • The Times and Seasons account was also inserted into the autobiography of the Prophet's mother (Lucy Mack Smith) by an editor in 1853. The Prophet's mother, therefore, did not make this statement (as some claim). The source is identified on page 81 as follows -- "Times and Seasons, vol. iii., p. 729. Supp. to Mil. Star, vol. xiv., p. 4." It reads:
He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi [5]

However, on the bottom of page 79 of this autobiography (where the above quotation occurs) there is a note about the name "Nephi" and it says, "Moroni, see Doc & Cov. sec. L., par. 2; Elders' Journal, vol. i., pp. 28 and 129; History of Joseph Smith under year 1838; Deseret News, no. 10, vol. iii. O.P." The initials at the end probably stand for Orson Pratt -- who had the autobiography published in 1853.

A single error had a ripple effect through several published accounts of the vision

Thus, a single error in the Manuscript History had a ripple effect through several published accounts of the vision. These accounts are not independent 'proof' that Joseph was changing the story; they all depend upon a single initial error (which may have been caused by the 1838 or 1839 scribes). Most of these occurred in England. Click here to see a list of the later perpetuation of the same errors which refer to the works above. Later references to Moroni can be seen here.

History of the error in the Manuscript History

The Joseph Smith Papers project now allows us to examine the various drafts of the history. (In the transcriptions below, we have added bold type to help the reader pick out small differences between each version. It is clear, however, that the writer is simply copying from the previous manuscript(s)—these are not independently-dictated versions.

First Version [circa June 1839]

Note the footnote added by a later hand at "Nephi" to the circa June 1839 first version.
Some have attributed this footnote to B.H. Roberts. It reads: "Evidently a clerical error; see Book Doc & Cov., Sec 50, par 2; Sec 106, par 20; also Elder’s Journal Vol. 1, page 43. Should read Moroni."
His hands were naked and his arms also a little above the wrist[s added]. So also were his feet naked as were his legs a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe as it was open so that I could see into his bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly white but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him I was afraid, but the fear soon left me. He called me by name and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me and that his name was Nephi.[6]

There is a footnote made in a later hand calling attention to the error of Moroni (see graphics at right). This is a late addition, and not from Joseph Smith's era.

Draft #2 [circa June 1839]

His hands were naked and his arms also a little above the wrist. So also were his feet naked as were his legs a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe as it was open so that I could see into his bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly white but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him I was afraid, but the fear soon left me. He called me by name and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me and that his name was Nephi.[7]

The Joseph Smith Papers footnote reports:

A later redaction in an unidentified hand changed “Nephi” to “Moroni” and noted that the original attribution was a “clerical error.” Early sources often did not name the angelic visitor, but sources naming Moroni include Oliver Cowdery’s historical letter published in the April 1835 LDS Messenger and Advocate; an expanded version of a circa August 1830 revelation, as published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants; and a JS editorial published in the Elders’ Journal in July 1838. The present history is the earliest extant source to name Nephi as the messenger, and subsequent publications based on this history perpetuated the attribution during JS’s lifetime.[8]

Draft #3 [circa 1841]

The Nephi error persists unchanged into the third draft.
His hands and arms were naked. alittle above the wrist. so also <were> his feet and legs alittle ab[o] ve the ancles; his head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing but the robe. as it was open so that I could see his bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly white; but his whole per son was glorious beyond ◊discription. and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light but not so much so as immediately around his person When I first looked upon <him> it I was afraid; but the fear soon left me: calling me by name, <he> said. that he was a messenger. sent from the presence of God to me. and that his name was Nephi.[9]

The historical introduction notes that this and the following draft were prepared by Howard Corray:

In 1869 Coray signed a statement that was later attached to the paper wrapper that enclosed his two drafts: “These hundred pages of History were written by me, under Joseph the Prophet’s dictation. Dr Miller helped me a little in writing the same. (Historians office, 1869).”4 If by “dictation” Coray meant that he transcribed as JS spoke, it seems more likely to be a description of JS’s involvement in the history draft presented here than [an earlier, non-extant historical project]. In the latter project, according to Coray, JS only supplied materials and gave general instructions. If the statement was accurate in that sense, it suggests that JS read aloud from Draft 2 in the large manuscript volume, directing editorial changes as he read. Several passages of Draft 3 contain evidence of dictation, but the history itself includes no indication of who was dictating the text.

Thus, Joseph Smith may have read this text to Coray, and so some have suggested that Joseph should have corrected the error. However, given how nearly identical all versions of the history are in this section, and how closely they follow the previous drafts, it seems that Joseph did little, if any, editing on this aspect of the history. We do not not know if Joseph dictated this section to Coray, or if Coray simply copied it from the previous draft(s).

"Fair copy" draft [circa 1841]

His hands and arms were naked a little above the worist wrist, so also <were> his feet and leng legs were a little above the ancles. his head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing [on omitted]but the robe, as it was open— so that I could see his bosom. Not only was the robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description; and his counte nance truly like lightning. The room was exee dingly light, but not so much so as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him I was afraid, but the fear soon left me, <when>, calling me by name, he said, he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi.[10]

(It is interesting that this copy restores some changes from draft #1 that were removed in drafts #2 and #3.)


Notes

  1. Anon., "History of Joseph Smith (continued)," Times and Seasons 3 no. 12 (15 April 1842), 753. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) [italics added]
  2. Anon., "History of Joseph Smith From the 'Times and Seasons'," Millennial Star 3 no. 4 (August 1842), 53. [italics added]
  3. Anon., ""The Millennial Star. August 1, 1842," Millennial Star 3 no. 4 (August 1842), 71. [italics added]
  4. Franklin D. Richards (publisher), The Pearl of Great Price, 1st edition (Liverpool: R. James, South Castle Street, 1851), 40–41. [italics added]
  5. Lucy [Mack] Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and his Progenitors for Many Generations, (London: Latter-Day Saints' Book Depot, 1853), 78–80. [italics added]
  6. JS, History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, created 11 June 1839–24 Aug. 1843; handwriting of James Mulholland, Robert B. Thompson, William W. Phelps, and Willard Richards; 553 pages, plus 16 pages of addenda; CHL. See original here.
  7. JS, History, [ca. June 1839–ca. 1841]; handwriting of James Mulholland and Robert B. Thompson; sixty-one pages; in JS History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, CHL. Includes redactions, use marks, and archival marking. See original here.
  8. JSP as above, footnote 18.
  9. JS, History, [ca. 1841], draft; handwriting of Howard Coray; 102 pages and one attached slip; CHL. See original here.
  10. JS, History, [ca. 1841], fair copy; handwriting of Howard Coray; 100 pages; CHL. See original here.

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