REVIEW – Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon

Significant Textual Changes in the Book of MormonReview by Bryan Buchanan, Association for Mormon Letters

I’m a sucker for a critical edition. My shelves are peppered with both Hebrew Bible and New Testament editions laying out all the textual variants that have accreted over centuries. Though the Book of Mormon is obviously much newer, the textual tradition is interesting in its own right. Because it emerged in an era with better documentation, the development is easier to trace as well. As an interested observer, I have collected previous attempts to establish a critical attempt to the Book of Mormon. Thanks to my discovery of the installation of a scanner in the Marriott Library with AUTO-FEED (such a novel machine to me!) I acquired a copy of the first attempt at a critical text, compiled by Robert F. Smith and published by FARMS in 1984. A massive undertaking in the early days of computer data crunching, this text compared both manuscripts against the various printed editions. However, it went beyond a simple critical text in that it included statements, scriptural cross references and other entries more indicative of a commentary. One name conspicuously absent from the sources in the FARMS text is Royal Skousen.

Skousen, a professor of English and linguistics, began work on the text of the Book of Mormon in 1988. Over the next 25 years, he has produced typographical facsimiles of the original and printer’s manuscripts and six volumes analyzing textual variants. As a summary volume of sorts, he then published “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text” (“Yale edition”) in which he presented a “reconstructed original text” with evidence for significant variants in an appendix. Why then yet another work on the subject—the recently published “Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon: The First Printed Editions Compared to the Manuscripts and to the Subsequent Major LDS English Printed Editions,” (hereafter STC) edited by John S. Dinger?

This is a valid question and one I have discussed with many people at the bookstore where I work. Many of them have all of Royal Skousen’s works or at least the Yale edition and have thus been curious about the value of STC. To best answer their questions, it has been helpful to point out the goals of Dinger’s contribution and, as a corollary, what it is and is not:

user-friendly setup: STC was designed to be a single volume that would allow the reader to easily “[track] the most significant of these changes by manuscript and published edition, using the 1830 first English printing as its base text.”1 To me, this is the most significant contribution that STC makes—had the Yale edition presented variant evidence in footnotes rather than in an appendix (a very odd choice that I have never seen in any other critical edition I have perused), Dinger’s efforts would have simply been redundant. Changes from the base 1830 text are highlighted using bold text. Another useful feature is that, whereas Skousen uses codes to refer to the various printed editions in the textual variant volumes (but not the Yale edition), Dinger uses the year of publication making the chain of evidence easier to follow.

simplicity: anyone who has read at any length in Skousen’s volumes dealing with textual variants knows the copious details he includes. I have talked to many people who were curious about the nature of changes made in the text of the Book of Mormon but weren’t quite up to the challenge of 6 volumes and nearly 4000 pages. The bulk of these volumes is discussion and exploration of the variants and suggestions for best readings—like the earlier FARMS collection, Skousen here goes beyond a traditional critical text into the realm of commentary. Dinger points out in the introduction that STC “does not propose corrections or emendations. Nor does it discuss the meaning or significance of the changes.” Dinger readily defers to Skousen’s expertise in this area.

narrower focus: Dinger does not include RLDS editions nor does he venture into speculation outside what was written/printed. For example, Skousen discusses the possibility that “I Nephi” in the introduction to 1 Nephi (as it currently reads, the phrase is: “or in other words, I, Nephi, wrote this record”) is actually a title meaning “First Nephi.” Since Dinger limits himself to recorded variants, such a possibility would not be part of the discussion. That said, Dinger’s understanding of “significant” changes correlates strongly to Skousen’s terminology of “substantive”—the specific variants covered in each are very similar.

To illustrate the setup of STC, I will look at one of the most significant changes: that of “white and delightsome” vs. “pure and delightsome” (p. 117 in 1830=2 Ne. 30:6 in the current versification system—see my discussion of chapter/verse below):

STC text (1830 Book of Mormon): “save they shall be a white and a delightsome people”

STC ftn: “PMs: white; 1840: pure; 1841: follows 1830; 1981: follows 1840”

Thus, the change was first made to “pure” in the 1840 edition though 1841 continued to use “white.” As Dinger notes in his introduction, “because [the 1841 edition] is a nearly faithful reprint of the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon…it does not include Joseph Smith’s changes to the 1840 edition.” Additionally, “white” continued to be printed until the 1981 committee decided to return to the reading in 1840.

The genealogy of all other variants in STC are similarly easy to visualize in the footnotes. There are certainly a slew of changes peppering the text of the Book of Mormon (a fact most starkly highlighted in Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s 1965 study “3,193 Changes in the Book of Mormon”)—STC considers 3143 changes over 418 pages (roughly 18 verses/page) for an average of 7.5 changes/page or approximately one change for every two verses.

The introductory material is at the same time concise and helpful. I was pleased that Gary Bergera, managing director of the Smith-Pettit foundation, reached out to Stan Larson to write the foreword. Though Larson has not been heavily involved in Mormon studies lately, he was the first to analyze the Book of Mormon manuscripts to any degree. His essay outlines the types of changes found in the Book of Mormon editions, points out some changes still not incorporated in the 1981 edition and includes an all-too-brief discussion of the use of conjectural emendation to establish readings. Dinger’s excellent introduction discusses the printing history of the major editions and assesses various attempts to analyze the text of the Book of Mormon (everyone from the aforementioned Tanners to Jeffrey R. Holland).

STC is a perfect example of a “why has no one done this before?” book. Certainly one answer to that question is the time and labor requirement. Despite the heavy pioneering work already done, Dinger was still left with an enormous task on his plate. As a result of that effort, Dinger noted (in a release event for the book) that he discusses changes not found in any of the three major studies: Holland, Larson and Skousen. STC is a beautiful book and a worthy addition to the ever-growing corpus of Smith-Pettit publications. My only negative reaction to the book was when it was pointed out to me that the current chapter and verse system is not reflected anywhere—it is slightly annoying to have to hunt and peck for a particular target in the Book of Mormon. That aside, John Dinger’s “Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon” is a very welcome and useful reference tool.

Notes:

1. A recent online forum discussion centered on Dinger’s choice of text to present the 1830 Book of Mormon. As he notes in the introduction, the text used is that of Wilford Wood’s “Joseph Smith Begins His Work, vol. 1.” Some have claimed that Wood’s text was doctored—apparently one instance of “those” was changed to “these” with no additional textual alterations.