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Book of Mormon Manuscript Fragments Examined

TitleBook of Mormon Manuscript Fragments Examined
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1992
Corporate AuthorsEnsign Staff
Issue Number4
Date PublishedApril 1992
Type of ArticleNews of the Church
KeywordsCritical Text; Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon; Textual History

Reports of a project led by Royal Skousen to study original Book of Mormon manuscript fragments. Ultraviolet photographs have allowed Skousen to identify fragments from six different passages in the Book of Mormon.


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Book of Mormon Manuscript Fragments Examined

A project aimed at studying the original English text of the Book of Mormon has led to the identification of a large collection of previously unidentified fragments from the original manuscript.

For more than three years, Royal Skousen, an English professor at Brigham Young University, has been working on a project of studying the original English Book of Mormon text. He was thrilled to recently locate additional fragments of the original manuscript.

The original manuscript was written down by Joseph Smith’s scribes as Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. In 1841, the Prophet placed this manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House.

“In 1882, when Lewis Bidamon (Emma Smith’s second husband) opened the cornerstone, he discovered that the original manuscript was mostly destroyed by water,” Brother Skousen says. “Bidamon handed out the better-preserved portions of the manuscript but apparently kept for himself some smaller fragments.” Today the Church owns most of what Bidamon handed out—about 25 percent of the original manuscript.

In 1937, Wilford Wood of Bountiful, Utah, purchased from the Bidamon family the smaller fragments that Lewis Bidamon had retained. Since Wilford Wood’s death, his family has kept the fragments. Last year Brother Skousen was able to view the fragments and have them conserved and photographed.

The unraveling of the fragments, stuck together in a lump measuring approximately one by two by six inches, “was extremely exciting work,” says Brother Skousen.

Robert Espinosa, Cathy Bell, and Pam Barrios, conservators at the BYU Library, became involved in the project to conserve the fragments. David Hawkinson, photographer for the university’s Museum of Fine Arts, used various photographic techniques to reveal and document the very faint handwriting on the fragments. Black-and-white ultraviolet reflected photography proved to be the most successful in revealing the faded handwriting. The fragments themselves, after being unraveled, photographed, and encapsulated, were returned to the Wilford Wood family.

Using the ultraviolet photographs, Brother Skousen has been able to identify fragments from six different places within the Book of Mormon: 2 Ne. 5–9; 2 Ne. 23–25; 2 Ne. 33–Jacob 4; Jacob 5–Enos 1; Hel. 13–3 Ne. 4; and Ether 3–15. Brother Skousen continues to work on identifying the smaller fragments. Thus far, fragments have been found from fifty-eight pages of the original manuscripts.

“The major purpose of this project is to show the original English text of the Book of Mormon, to the extent that it can be determined,” Brother Skousen explains.

In addition to the original manuscript, Brother Skousen has also worked extensively on the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. This manuscript is a copy of the original manuscript that was used by the printer to set the type for the 1830 edition. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints owns the printer’s manuscript, which has been preserved virtually intact.

Important discoveries from studying these two manuscripts include the following: (1) for seventy-two pages, the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset directly from the original manuscript rather than from the printer’s manuscript; (2) there is direct evidence that Joseph Smith spelled out Book of Mormon names for his scribes; (3) a small part of the original manuscript is written in Joseph’s own handwriting; and (4) the word chapter and the added chapter numbers were not part of the original text of the Book of Mormon, but instead correspond to what the Prophet saw as breaks in the text.

According to Brother Skousen, the project of studying the original English text of the Book of Mormon will continue for the next three years. It is funded in part by BYU, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, the Keter Foundation, and a number of private donors. Both the LDS and RLDS churches have also provided valuable assistance for this project.