The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript in “Revelations and Translations, Volume 5”

by Robin Jensen, Tyler Thorsted, and Jeffrey Tucker
12 April 2022

Multispectral imaging allows us to read archival materials that have severely faded. Learn how this technology allowed the publication of the original manuscript fragments of the Book of Mormon in Revelations and Translations, Volume 5.

In a previous blog post published in 2017, Brian Simmons described the Church History Department’s goal to scan, transcribe, and publish the text of the original Book of Mormon manuscript. Since then, those efforts have been proceeding steadily. The result, Revelations and Translations, Volume 5: Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, was recently published by Church Historian’s Press as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.

This is an important milestone in Church history studies; never has so much of the original Book of Mormon manuscript been available for study in one place. Thus, we wanted to give a behind-the-scenes look at what happened to make this new volume a reality.

The first copy of the Book of Mormon was a handwritten manuscript transcribed by various individuals as Joseph Smith dictated the words of the Book of Mormon. That manuscript was then used to create the printer’s manuscript—a copy made sometime between April 1829 and January 1830 to be taken to E. B. Grandin’s printing press for publication. Once the Book of Mormon had been safely copied and published, Joseph Smith placed the original manuscript into the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, hoping to preserve it. Forty years later, the cornerstone was opened when Lewis Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband, was renovating the house. Sadly, the cornerstone had been a poor time capsule; it wasn’t watertight. As a result, the original Book of Mormon manuscript suffered water damage to most of its pages, and many pages simply disintegrated.

Experts estimate that only 28 percent of the original manuscript remains. With so few pages remaining—and with many of the pages existing only in fragments—we have made concerted conservation efforts to preserve what is left. For example, the leaves in the Church’s possession1 were sent to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in 2004. The pages had previously been laminated, which seemed like a good idea when it was done but was later discovered to be harmful to the paper. Accordingly, the NEDCC used acetone to remove the lamination and then lined the pages with thin Japanese tissue paper for extra strength. The pages are now stored in a special polyester film that does not degrade the paper.

This extensive conservation work enabled our specialists to capture the multispectral digital images featured in Revelations and Translations, Volume 5. Multispectral imaging (MSI) is a process of capturing digital images of manuscript pages using wavelengths of light other than visible light (for example, light in the ultraviolet or infrared range). MSI is necessary because most of the original manuscript has faded and become illegible. Fortunately, because the manuscript was written in iron gall ink, the ink fluoresces (or illuminates, becoming more visible) under a specific wavelength of ultraviolet light (365 nanometers). Depending on the degree of fading, infrared light (700–950 nanometers) can also be used.

It is interesting to note that this is not the first time ultraviolet light has been used to illuminate the ink on the manuscript fragments. In the 1950s, researchers first attempted to fluoresce the iron gall ink with an ultraviolet lamp and then photograph the manuscript with a 35mm film camera. While those photographs were cutting-edge for their day—and their efforts were foundational for Book of Mormon studies—their quality was nowhere near what modern digital technology can produce today.

Using this process, approximately 300 images were taken of each manuscript page, requiring 30 minutes of photography time per page. The ultraviolet and infrared wavelength scans were layered on top of an image taken using visible light; when merged, the multiple scans created a more readable composite image.

The following composite image is a page of the original Book of Mormon manuscript that illustrates this process:

The top of the page shows what the manuscript looks like to the naked eye—the handwriting is extremely faded, and it is nearly illegible. The second half is what the same leaf looks like with the ultraviolet frequency added. This scan offers viewers a more visible text; the name Korihor can be clearly seen two lines above the hole on the left-hand side of the page. (This page contains Alma 30:2–17.)

Of course, when there is a physical defect in the page—as with the hole in this manuscript fragment—researchers must consult other sources to determine the missing words.

These images have now been published. In addition, this volume presents typescripts of the text alongside the images so that readers do not need to decipher the manuscripts themselves. The resulting “facsimile edition” offers unprecedented access to the original Book of Mormon manuscript. And once the images and transcripts are published online, users will be able to access both the historic 1950s ultraviolet images and the new MSI images. It is, truly, a new day in Book of Mormon research.

Top image: Three scans of Alma 50:1–12 using varying wavelengths of light.