August 15, 2011

Review: Turley and Slaughter, "How We Got the Book of Mormon"

Title: How We Got the Book of Mormon
Authors: Richard E. Turley, Jr., William W. Slaughter
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: History
Year: 2011
Pages: 208
Binding: Cloth
ISBN13: 978-1-60908-062-4
Price: $34.99

This isn't the first time Deseret Book has published a book called How We Got the Book of Mormon,1 but the new take by Richard Turley and William Slaughter is a visually-rich approach to an ever-contestable subject. Theories of the book's origin have multiplied since the beginning, from fraudulent pseudo-scripture, to plagiarized romance, to inspired fiction, to revelation from God. Turley (Assistant Church Historian and Recorder) and Slaughter (photograph historian and consultation archivist for the LDS Church History Department) give a general overview of the discovery, translation, and publication history of the book.

A short prologue traces the Book of Mormon's internal account of itself beginning when the golden plates were transmitted to Mormon and then Moroni. Turley and Slaughter avoid becoming wrapped up in debates about BoM geography by speaking broadly of the Book of Mormon peoples as being "people of the Americas" (xi), though they label an attractive older photograph of the hill where Smith located the plates as depicting the "Hill Cumorah" with no comment on disputes about that identification (xvi).2 A chapter on "The Golden Plates" includes diagrams of the plates possible size and contents, drawing on first-hand witness accounts like that of Emma Smith (4). The chapter concludes by emphasizing Mormon's stated intent of inviting "all to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written" (9). "No wonder," they note, "that more than a century and a half after Joseph received the golden plates...millions would accept the record as 'another testament of Jesus Christ,'" referring readers to Boyd K. Packer's 1982 conference address announcing the addition of the subtitle (10).

In the next chapter Turley and Slaughter describe the translation and transcription of the Book of Mormon. Their source selection and editing in this chapter highlights the pitfalls and possibilities of educating church members about highly-disputed historical events. In describing Smith's visions and discovery of the plates they largely follow the account published in the official History of the Church, but they supplement it with several primary sources. These include Lucy Mack Smith's Biographical Sketches3 and David Whitmer's An Address to All Believers in Christ. Because the book was written "for general readers" they improve the "ease of reading" by updating spelling and punctuation in such sources (vii). Thus, one possibility they take advantage of is introducing a wider number of Church members to the lesser-known account of Smith translating the Book of Mormon without looking directly at the plates: "Several people...said he looked into the interpreters or another seer stone, blocking out external light, such as by placing the interpreters in his hat and putting his face down into it" (13). To help ease the strangeness they compare the translation method to a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants in which Joseph saw a "parchment" written by the apostle John (14). They don't direct readers to other scholarly works regarding the use of seer stones in 19th-century America, but I'm still happy to see a description of the stone-in-hat method in a book for general readership. In fact, the book does a fairly good job of directing readers to other scholarship, should this book whet their appetite: "Readers can verify the facts in our book by consulting the sources cited in the notes," they encourage, "which we have deliberately tucked in the back so as not to interrupt our narrative" (vii).4 This is especially significant encouragement given that the authors thank Elders Russell M. Nelson, Jeffery R. Holland, and Marlin K. Jensen who "generously offered their insights" to the book, though the end product is their own responsibility (viii). They also express gratitude for input from great historians including Matthew Grow, Royal Skousen, and Reid Neilson (viii).

The same chapter about the translation also highlights pitfalls of such a general overview written for a general audience. They tell the story of Martin Harris's visit with Professor Charles Anthon, but do not refer to his contradictory counter-narrative of their exchange (13). In their brevity they also leave out details about "widespread dissent in 1837" Kirtland (47), among other stories. Such events bore direct influence on Book of Mormon publishing, but the complexities are far afield from the purpose of this narrative. Perhaps the largest omission is their decision to focus solely on English editions. They quote Joseph Smith as being "glad to hear" about Brigham Young's efforts in printing the Book of Mormon in England, noting that Smith said he would "be pleased to hear that it was printed in all the different languages of the earth" (73). "Some 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed in more than 100 languages, reflecting the book's growing worldwide influence," they emphasize (vii).5 By failing to talk about other language editions they miss an opportunity to tell fascinating stories (like Parley P. Pratt's early desire to translate it into Spanish, or stylistic and cultural considerations regarding the Japanese editions).6 This is an area that seems ripe for inquiry.

Despite such lapses, the authors take ample opportunity to introduce members to certain details long known to critics of the Church. "Joseph Smith's 1839 history, penned by clerks, used the name 'Nephi' instead of 'Moroni,' a mistake that tracked into later publications before being corrected," for instance (131). And the old canard about Joseph Smith claiming to be the author of the book is clarified, diplomatically without reference to the countless critics who have cited it as reason to doubt the inspiration of the book: "Federal law granted copyrights to 'authors and proprietors,' and the term 'authors' included translators," thus Joseph was listed as such on the initial title page (27). Alongside this explanation is a document I've never seen before--the original copyright registration document of June 11, 1829 (28).

Next, Turley and Slaughter describe the initial publication. They include pictures of the manuscript and uncut printed sheets. A large image of the first time a portion of the Book of Mormon was published reminds readers that media piracy isn't a new phenomenon-- Abner Cole's pilfered selection from the First Book of Nephi was printed in the January 2, 1830 issue of The Reflector, much to the chagrin of Joseph and associates who demanded he cease.

The remainder of the book discusses the subsequent publications of 1837, 1840, 1841, 1920 and 1981. Printers, dates, and locations all receive due attention. They repeatedly remind readers that  "emendations and grammatical changes" have been made to the Book of Mormon since its initial publication (58). The example they highlight is Joseph Smith's 1840 edition adjustment of "white" to "pure" in reference to the Lamanites. "This was consistent with a Bible passage declaring that 'man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart,'" they editorialize (58). Color photographs of pages from the 1830, 1837 and 1840 editions show the changes. They explain why "white" appeared in post-Nauvoo editions until it was corrected in the 1981 edition (78). In fact, they seem to heavily emphasize the history and legitimacy of making such adjustments to the Book of Mormon text, noting that leaders like Orson Pratt, James E. Talmage, and Bruce R. McConkie have had a hand in such updates (43, 99, 112, 138). Perhaps, though they don't say so, Royal Skousen's critical analysis of the Book of Mormon manuscripts will lead to a few future changes in the text, this book anticipating how such changes will be explained. Images depict the changing aesthetics of the book--the addition of verses, changes in typeface, updated footnotes, and columnization. Throughout the narrative they note interesting trivia, such as a failed plan to print the Book of Mormon New Testament together in Missouri (40-41, 47). Fun anecdotes are plenty, like Joseph F. Smith's approval of a 1903 BYU committee's pronunciation guide for Book of Mormon names ("provided you do not afterwards cut me off [from] the Church if I don't pronounce the words according to the rule adopted by the committee," he joked, p. 100).

In the final chapter they share the story of Hyrum reading from the Book of Mormon prior to he and Joseph's departure for Carthage, Illinois in June 1844 (121-122). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shared this story in a recent General Conference address, and the authors here include a photo of the page Hyrum is said to have folded down, marking the spot where he read.7 They close by citing several verses from the Book of Mormon emphasizing its testimony of Jesus Christ. Efforts to publish the Book of Mormon online are not mentioned, though I would be interested in those developments as well.

This is a beautifully-designed book for general LDS readers. Its coffee-table-sprucing photographs, unusual dimensions and large font make for a good introduction, perhaps a nice supplement to an introductory Sunday School lesson on the Book of Mormon. Hopefully it will also spur readers on to deeper engagement with the currently-fruitful field of LDS scholarship. An excerpt of the book is available on Deseret Book's website.


[1] E. Cecil McGavin's book by the same name was published in 1960. Incidentally, McGavin was also employed by the Church Historian's office.

[2] Brant A. Gardner, among others, has discussed problems behind this identification, see Gardner, The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2011), 129-131.

[3] They cite the original, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S.W. Richards, 1853. Readers should check out Lavina Fielding Anderson's Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), available free online here.

[4] Sources include volumes from the Joseph Smith Papers project, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and  heavy reference to Dennis Largey's Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Deseret Book, 2003). The crucial work of Royal Skousen, including his Earliest Text from Yale University Press, receive attention. Articles from the EnsignBYU Studies, Journal of Mormon HistoryThe Journal of Book of Mormon Studies are cited. Deseret Book references include Allen and Leonard's The Story of the Latter-day Saints, Leonard's Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, Cannon and Cook's Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Backman's The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, Allen, Esplin and Whittaker's Men With a Mission, 1837-1841: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, Baugh's A Call To Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri, Jesse's The Papers of Joseph Smith and Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Derr and Davidson's Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, and Arrington's Brigham Young: American Moses. Crawley's eminently useful Descriptive Bibliography and a piece by former RLDS archivist Ronald Romig also receive note, among many early newspapers and other sources. Should members follow their admonition, they will become familiar with some very good sources.

[5] Elsewhere they clarify this total: "This book has been published in full in 82 languages and partially in 25 more" (129). I've heard rumors that a new Russian edition is very close to completion, incidentally.

[6] See Terryl L. Givens and Matthew Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 306-307. On the Japanese editions see Van C. Gessel, "'Strange Characters and Expressions': Three Japanse Translations of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies14/1 (2005), pp. 32-47 and Shinji Takagi, "Proclaiming the Way in Japanese: The 1909 Translation of the Book of Mormon," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 18/2 (2009), pp. 18-37.

[7] A few critics of the Church immediately seized on the story, criticizing Elder Holland for supposedly lying about the book he held up in Conference. See my "A few comments on Elder Holland's conference address,", 5 October 2009.