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How seeing historic images of the original Book of Mormon manuscript can enhance gospel learning

Latter-day Saints can discover more about the Book of Mormon by viewing historic images of the original manuscript on the Joseph Smith Papers website

As Latter-day Saints prepare to study the Book of Mormon in 2024, the Joseph Smith Papers is providing a historic online resource to help enhance gospel learning — a collection of digital images of the original Book of Mormon manuscript.

“We thought, ‘What better resource to study than the manuscript itself,’” said Robin Jensen, a historian for the Joseph Smith Papers.

Additional images of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, including photographs of the manuscript made in 1948circa 1968 and two sets of multispectral images created in 2017, were released on josephsmithpapers.org in November in conjunction with Nauvoo-era tithing records.

Historian Robin Jensen examines a page of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
Robin Jensen, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, examines a page of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on Jan. 19, 2022. Images of the original manuscript are available to see on the Joseph Smith Papers website. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has devoted significant resources to making the Book of Mormon easily accessible in a digital world, the original manuscript remains only one step removed from the gold plates and Joseph Smith’s divine translation experience.

“We don’t forget this manuscript because it’s a witness to the translation,” Jensen said. “It’s also a testament to the sacrifices of early Latter-day Saints.”

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What is the original Book of Mormon manuscript?

The original manuscript was handwritten with a quill pen by Oliver Cowdery and other scribes as Joseph Smith dictated the text in 1829.

After the original manuscript was completed, Joseph Smith instructed Cowdery to prepare a second copy that became known as the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

More than a decade later in 1841, the Prophet placed the original manuscript in the Nauvoo House cornerstone, where it remained for the next four decades.

In 1882, Lewis Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband, was renovating the Nauvoo House when he found the original manuscript had sustained extensive water damage. Of the manuscript’s approximate 500 pages, only portions of 232 remained — roughly 28% of the original text. Those portions vary from full pages to small fragments. 

In the years that followed, the original manuscript was further damaged as pieces were given to Nauvoo visitors as souvenirs.

Joseph Smith placed the original manuscript in the Nauvoo House cornerstone.
Joseph Smith placed the original manuscript in the Nauvoo House cornerstone. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Joseph Smith Papers volumes

In August 2015, the Joseph Smith Papers collaborated with the Community of Christ to publish “Revelations and Translations, Volume 3: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon.” Elder Steven E. Snow, an emeritus General Authority Seventy who served as Church Historian and Recorder at that time, told the Church News, “The printer’s manuscript ... is the most complete early text of the Book of Mormon.”

Historian Robin Jensen examines fragments of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
Robin Jensen, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, examines fragments of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on Jan. 19, 2022. Images of the original manuscript are available to see on the Joseph Smith Papers website. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In January 2022, the Joseph Smith Papers scholars pieced back together what remains of the original Book of Mormon manuscript and used multispectral imaging, ultraviolet lighting and other technology to make the text as visible as possible in high-resolution photographs in “Revelations and Translations, Volume 5: Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon.” The volume features the first complete photographic record of one of the most significant documents in Church history.

“This is a tremendous achievement,” Jensen said in 2022. “This volume is a landmark in the scholarship of the Book of Mormon.”

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See online resources

The following resources are available for free on the Joseph Smith Papers website:

Zooming in on these historic documents can bring Church history to life in a new exciting way, said Sharon Nielsen, senior editor and leader of the Joseph Smith Papers website.

“We don’t have the gold plates, but we have part of what Oliver Cowdery and others wrote from what Joseph dictated, and to me, that is powerful,” Nielsen said. “You see some of the quirks of their writing, and it makes it real. This really happened.”

Robin Jensen holds a page from the original Book of Mormon manuscript under a machine that does multispectral imaging.
Robin Jensen, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, holds a page from the original Book of Mormon manuscript under a machine that does multispectral imaging in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on Jan. 19, 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Connecting to the past

How can learning about the original Book of Mormon manuscript enhance gospel study for Latter-day Saints in 2024?

“Probably the easiest and most apparent benefit is this connection to the past,” Jensen said. “Sitting in Sunday School, learning about the Book of Mormon, we don’t often step back and think, ‘Where did this book come from?’”

In some ways, Jensen said, the year 1830 is not that long ago. “It’s remarkable that we have in the Church History Library so many of these pages from that miraculous event of the translation,” he said, as opposed to Biblical scholars who study texts that are hundreds of years old.

“We are extremely blessed to have this manuscript because it is the witness manuscript to the translation,” Jensen said.

Robin Jensen, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, holds a page from the original manuscript.
Robin Jensen, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, holds a page from the original manuscript in the Church History Library on Jan. 19, 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Jensen said there is also “a power in seeing the handwriting” of Cowdery and others.

“It’s interesting to see the text of the Book of Mormon in a non-printed format,” Jensen said. “We are most familiar with the Book of Mormon in double columns, printed pages with footnotes and other things. Reading it in manuscript form gives us another sense of how that manuscript came to be.”

Jensen said it is also interesting to see one of the Book of Mormon’s most quoted passages of scripture, as well as others, in the remaining pages of the original manuscript — Nephi’s declaration that he will “go and do” in 1st Nephi 3:7.

“It’s fun to see where that was first captured, first recorded on the page,” Jensen said. “It’s fun to see these familiar words in a new light, giving us new access to how early Latter-day Saints first approached the text.”

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