When you look at the most recent edition of the Book of Mormon, with its numbered verses, text in columns, and footnotes, it can be hard to imagine this book of scripture printed any other way. But the Book of Mormon has not always looked like this. One of the great treasures in the museum is the original Book of Mormon manuscript. Pages are displayed one at a time and are changed out periodically to protect them from exposure to light.
The Original Manuscript
The original manuscript is especially precious because so few pages have survived. In 1841 Joseph Smith placed the manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, probably hoping to preserve it for posterity. The seal on the cornerstone broke, however, exposing the fragile pages to moisture and mold. When Lewis C. Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband, remodeled the Nauvoo House in 1882, he removed the damaged manuscript from the cornerstone.1 Only 28 percent of the original pages survived in any form. Over time Bidamon gave away portions of the manuscript to Church members who visited him. Assistant Church historian Franklin D. Richards recorded this about his visit to Bidamon in May 1885:
We were quite willingly shown . . . the remainder of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon. . . . The paper is yellow with age and from the moisture sweated from its own hiding place. It is brittle to the touch. Many of the leaves crumble like ashes and some of them are broken away. It is necessary to handle them with the utmost care. The writing is faint, and is not legible on many continuous lines, but fragmentary clauses, and even whole verses are occasionally discernible.2
The pages on display at the museum are the best-preserved pages of the manuscript, probably because they were closer to the top of the stack and stayed drier.
If you look at the manuscript page carefully, you can see evidence of the translation process. As Joseph Smith translated the text, he dictated the words to his scribe, who wrote them down with few punctuation marks or paragraph breaks. These elements were added later, just before printing.
To safeguard the original manuscript, Oliver Cowdery transcribed a copy for the printer.3 This became known as the printer’s manuscript, and it still exists today.4 John H. Gilbert was the typesetter at the Grandin Press, where the Book of Mormon was printed. He recalled:
After working a few days, I said to [Hyrum] on his handing me the manuscript in the morning; “Mr. Smith, if you would leave this manuscript with me, I would take it home with me at night and read and punctuate it.” His reply was, “We are commanded not to leave it.” A few mornings after this, when [Hyrum] handed me the manuscript, he said to me: “if you will give your word that this manuscript shall be returned to us when you get through with it, I will leave it with you.” . . . For two or three nights I took it home with me and read it, and punctuated it with a lead pencil.5
Although Gilbert did a fine job adding 30,000 to 35,0006 punctuation marks to the text, some errors were inevitable.
The Title Page
One of the bigger errors occurred on the title page, which includes the preface written by Moroni. In the museum exhibit case, next to the original manuscript page, is an uncut proof sheet from the first printing of the Book of Mormon, which includes the title page.7 Without any punctuation and not understanding the history or content of the Book of Mormon, Gilbert broke the paragraphs in the wrong place, disconnecting “the book of Ether” from “the people of Jared.”
As soon as the Book of Mormon was printed, readers found punctuation and typographical errors like this. Joseph and Oliver reviewed the book carefully, referring to the original manuscript as needed, and in 1837 printed a second edition in Kirtland, Ohio, correcting the error on the title page8 as well as other errors that had been identified. Two more editions were printed during the Prophet’s lifetime—one in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 18409 and another in Liverpool, England, in 1841.10
Joseph Smith carefully edited each of these editions. However, some later European editions did not include some of the changes Joseph had made to the 1840 version, and these errors were perpetuated into the 20th century.11 The most recent editions corrected these errors and standardized spelling.
When the Prophet Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth,”12 he wasn’t speaking of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as we can clearly see by the many corrections that have been made over the years. He was speaking of the precious truths it contains, including witnesses of Jesus Christ and His gospel that have not changed since they were written by prophets centuries ago. From metal plates to manuscript pages to printed books, these truths have remained unchanged through the centuries.