Book of Mormon/Translation/The lost 116 pages
Why didn't Joseph Smith re-translate the 116 pages of lost manuscript?
- It is claimed that Joseph Smith did not re-translate the 116 lost pages of the Book of Lehi because he knew that he could not reproduce the exact same text.
- It is asserted that alterations in a different handwriting to the stolen manuscript would have been readily apparent.
- Some claim that the writing of the 116 pages served as an “apprenticeship” to allow Joseph to improve his writing skills.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
Only Joseph Smith himself knew the exact details of the translation process, despite the opinions of various second hand witnesses. All we know for certain is that the translation was performed by “the gift and power of God.” If one believes that the translation was accomplished through divine means, then one can easily believe that if the Lord wished for Joseph to dictate the exact same text that he did previously, then it would have been so. The Lord, however, knew of the problem to come with the 116 pages, and used the opportunity to teach the Prophet the importance of humility and of the need to heed the Lord’s counsel. As a result, we not only have the opportunity to gain wisdom from the lesson learned by the Prophet, but we also have access to the “plain and precious” teachings that constitute the record of Nephi.
Don Bradley, "Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages," Proceedings of the 2012 FAIR Conference (August 2012)
[Y]es, there really are things we can know about what was in the lost pages. There are several kinds of evidence for their content....Using the various types of evidence for the Book of Lehi’s contents, and piecing together the various fragments like puzzle pieces, a larger picture of the book’s contents begins to emerge.(Click here for full article)
Upon completing the translation of the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, known as the Book of Lehi, Martin Harris, who had acted as scribe during this period of time, asked the Prophet if he could show the manuscript to his wife Lucy. After repeated inquiries of the Lord, Joseph reluctantly agreed to let Martin take the manuscript home. The manuscript disappeared after Martin showed it not only to his wife, but to a number of other people as well. Rather than re-translate the original portion of the record, the Lord instructed Joseph to translate an additional set of plates that had been provided, the record of Nephi, as described in DC 3: and DC 10:.
Critics have attempted to come up with a secular explanation of why Joseph Smith would create an entirely different text rather than simply reproducing the text of the 116 lost pages. One argument used by critics is that Joseph was afraid to reproduce the text of the 116 pages because he could not do so, and that he therefore chose to avoid the issue by creating an entirely different text.
Given the descriptions of the translation process by various witnesses, it is apparent that the translation proceeded in a very linear fashion. Each day Joseph would pick up the translation where he had left off the day before, without any recital of the previously written text. It is inconsistent for the critics to believe that Joseph was capable of dictating in this manner, and yet could not have easily dictated an alternate text to replace that which was lost. For the believer, it is much easier to accept that the Lord, in His wisdom, knew of the problem that would occur and provided an alternate text.
The loss of the 116 pages did not stop the Book of Mormon from coming forth. If the Book of Lehi (Mormon’s abridgment of what is currently found in the first books in the Book of Mormon today) had been preserved, we would not have had the “more spiritual” first person narrative of Nephi and Jacob. The incident provided a very valuable lesson about the importance of not opposing the Lord’s will. This incident affected the Prophet very deeply, and he was more determined than ever to regain the ability to translate. The lessons taught by this incident are meaningful and are taught even today to members of the Church.
A lesson learned
In the case of the website MormonThink, the web site takes a very pedestrian view of the incident of the lost 116 pages. The web site makes the following claim:
If the angel did indeed take back the gold plates and the urim and thummim from Joseph when Martin Harris lost the first 116 pages, he would have returned the urim and thummim to Joseph when he returned the gold plates to him, instead of having Joseph finish the translation using a common stone he found when digging a well. (MormonThink.com)
The Lord taught Joseph an important lesson with the loss of the manuscript, and He provided an alternate text to compensate. It wasn't necessary to obtain the original pages, therefore there was no reason for Joseph to attempt to locate it using a seer stone. The Lord did not command him to do so. In fact, the Lord commanded Joseph not to retranslate the pages, therefore this is really an issue of whether or not one believes that Joseph was actually a prophet. Had the pages not been lost, we would not have the following:
And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God. Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his words— Yet you should have been faithful; and he would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble. Behold, thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou wilt fall. But remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work.
A "nonsensical" plan?
MormonThink also claims that the story is "nonsensical" because any changes made to the transcript would be noticeable. This perspective ignores the fact that it would have been a simple matter to publish Joseph's purported translation with alterations, and then either "lose" or conveniently destroy the original manuscript.
A local paper was happy to plagiarize the Book of Mormon text before it was even published and print excerpts in the newspaper. The Smiths had to use the threat of legal action to get him to stop. This demonstrates that finding a publisher to broadcast at least some altered text--enough to discredit Joseph--would not have been difficult.
Something somewhat similar actually happened with the Spalding manuscript--the manuscript was found, but was hidden by those wishing to discredit Joseph. His critics simply requested affidavits from people who claimed to have read the manuscript, and who testified that it matched the Book of Mormon. This was the dominant critical theory for explaining the Book of Mormon until the Spalding manuscript was found, disproving the theory. How much better to have people (like Lucy Harris) who could publish what they claimed and would swear were Joseph's actual words from the original translation?
If this story is so "nonsensical," then why did none of Joseph's friends, allies, or family find it suspicious at the time? Like many critics' theories, this one requires everyone involved except Joseph to be complete dunces. They obviously found the possibility plausible, which suggests that if we do not, we are missing something about how they saw things. It is possible that an alteration that would not stand up to 21st century forensics might be far more persuasive to many in a rural 19th century audience, crippling the Restoration before it began.
A looser translation model might cause other problems
Another possibility is raised by Brant Gardner. Gardner argues that the Book of Mormon translation was not a word-for-word process, and that Joseph had considerable freedom in how he rendered the text. This means that even a divinely-inspired translation would not be the same (and certainly not word-for-word the same) if done twice. Given the expectations in Joseph's environment (which saw scripture as inerrant and divinely inspired word-for-word), this might have caused problems for Joseph's contemporaries. They expected, even demanded that scripture be inerrant and revealed word-for-word. David Whitmer, for example, would later complain that Joseph ought not to edit the revelations he received--David was still stuck with the view of revelation shared by most nineteenth century believers.
- [note] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 67.
- [note] "Prior to the publication of the book some pages of the manuscript were published by Abner Cole, an ex-justice of the peace, who published the Palmyra Reflector under the name Obadiah Dogberry. On December 29, 1829, Dogberry published the present Chapter 1 of First Nephi and the first the verses of Chapter 2. The issues of January 13, and 22, 1830, published more the Book of Mormon text, but Smith threatened to take Cole to court for violation of copyright and Cole ran no more of the excerpts." - Leonard J. Arrington, "Mormonism: From Its New York Beginnings," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 no. 3, 125.
- [note] MormonThink.com website (as of 8 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/lost116web.htm
- [note] 
- Matthew Roper, "A More Perfect Priority? (Review of "Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis" by Brett Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 362–378. off-site