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Revelations and translations

Joseph Smith Papers volumes will show original manuscript copies

Third in a series

Note: Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, has called The Joseph Smith Papers Project "the single most significant historical project of our generation." This article, part of an on-going series, examines the "Revelations and Translations" volumes in the project.

Of all the papers produced by Joseph Smith, none have had a greater and more lasting impact upon Latter-day Saints than the revelations he received from God and the translations of ancient scripture he produced by divine gift and power.

Slip of paper with a scribe's correction is pinned to a page of the Kirtland Revelation Book. The book has most of 1835 Doctrine and Covenants edition.
Slip of paper with a scribe's correction is pinned to a page of the Kirtland Revelation Book. The book has most of 1835 Doctrine and Covenants edition.

"Mormons are tied to their scriptures, and if you think about the Standard Works that we carry to Sunday School every week, you realize these manuscripts are vitally important for our history of Joseph Smith," said Robin Jensen, an editor of the first volume in the "Revelations and Translations" series in The Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Brother Jensen and his colleagues in the Church History Department have undertaken a textual study of these divine documents, which include manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and others.

"Some of these documents are among the earliest surviving record-keeping endeavors of Joseph Smith's life," he said. "We have a few letters and business papers, but the bulk of the first three years or so of his prophetic career are scripture, whether it's revelations or translations."

The first printed volume in the series, edited by Robin Jensen, Steven Harper and Robert Woodford, is expected to be on the shelves by next July, with likely at least two others to follow later.

Robin Jensen displays Wilford Woodruff's personal copy of first printing of Book of Commandments. The copy is incomplete because a mob destroyed the printing press in 1833.
Robin Jensen displays Wilford Woodruff's personal copy of first printing of Book of Commandments. The copy is incomplete because a mob destroyed the printing press in 1833.

At some point, the Book of Mormon manuscripts will be published. About 30 percent of the original manuscript survives today; most of it was destroyed by water damage while it was in the cornerstone of the Navuoo House. On the other hand, the "printer's manuscript," a copy made for use in producing the first publication of the book, is almost entirely intact and is in the possession of the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church) in Independence, Mo.

The first published volume in the series will contain the earliest revelations in the Church. Among the series in the project, this one is unique.

"With this series, readers will see the actual document," said Brother Woodford. "That's what makes this series so exciting for scholars."

Robin Jensen displays Wilford Woodruff's personal copy of first printing of Book of Commandments.
Robin Jensen displays Wilford Woodruff's personal copy of first printing of Book of Commandments. Photo: Scott Lloyd

The reproduction will be so good, he noted, that "you can even see the texture of the paper." For each page of document reproduction, the facing page will contain a typescript copy of the document's text. Where later corrections and additions are made, those alterations will be identified in a different color for each scribe, along with the name of the scribe.

One of the manuscripts being published is the Kirtland Revelation Book, a "priceless" holding in the Church History Library that relatively few have seen.

"It contains almost 40 revelations, most of which appear in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants," Brother Woodford said. "Scans of these documents eventually will be on the Internet. When you see them on a computer, you can zoom in and see subtleties that you may not otherwise see; and you will be able to change the contrast and read underneath the ink sometimes."

Brother Jensen and Brother Woodford displayed an entry in the Kirtland Revelation Book titled "The Vision." It is a manuscript of what today is Doctrine and Covenants 76, the section dealing with the degrees of glory. Viewing it, one can plainly discern what scholars identify as the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams with a portion by Joseph Smith and later corrections by others.

Readers of the series will be able to view that and other documents in high quality photo reproduction.

On another page in the manuscript book, Brother Jensen pointed out a scrap of paper that had been pinned to the page. The scribe "made an error in his copying, so on a separate slip of paper, he copied the correct text," he explained. "This was in the days before staples, so they literally pinned it right onto the page. You can see the pin, and, as far as I can tell, it is an 1830s pin."

Showing a manuscript copy in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery of what today is Doctrine and Covenants 59, Brother Woodford pointed out a smudge on the page which, when magnified, turns out to be a fingerprint, likely belonging to Oliver.

"Quite often, when they made an error, they wiped the wet ink to erase it," Brother Jensen said, explaining why scribes might have ink on their fingertips.

Brother Jensen showed three missionary notebooks made in the days before the Doctrine and Covenants or the Book of Commandments were printed.

"Before they left on their missions, the elders would create this notebook and copy in some of the more important revelations so they could have a reference while on their missions to these revelations." He pointed out Orson Hyde's signature on his notebook.

Another rarity Brother Jensen displayed was an incomplete copy of the Book of Commandments. "In July 1833, a mob came into the printing office in Independence, Mo., destroyed the type and the press, and the saints were left with whatever they had already printed at the time," he explained. With the incomplete pages, they bound their own copies and, as in the case of Wilford Woodruff, copied in the rest of the revelations by hand.

One of the benefits of a textual study of the revelation manuscripts, Brother Jensen said, has to do with error reversal.

"Just in the dictation process, in the copying process, in the typesetting process, some errors are bound to creep in," he said. Some revelations were recopied many times over and there are a dozen or so different manuscripts or printed versions.

"Sometimes, an error creeps in at one point, and then every copy after that has the same error," he said. By examining the various copies, scholars can get as close as possible back to the original, thus reversing the error process.

Moreover, through such an endeavor, one can get a sense of the revelatory process, the two editors affirmed. Sometimes, Brother Jensen noted, the revelations were updated to conform to administrative developments in the Church.

"To me, those changes are inspirational," he said. "They tell me that Joseph Smith really did have continuing revelation. It's not something that challenges my faith, it just reinforces my faith."

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