SALT LAKE CITY — In June 1878, a vicious tornado ripped through parts of Richmond, Missouri, killing more than 10 people and leaving hundreds homeless, including one prominent person in LDS Church history.
David Whitmer, then age 73 and one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, was injured by flying objects when the cyclone tore through his two-story house.
In the midst of the destruction, however, one room in the Whitmer home was miraculously preserved, according to Robin S. Jensen, a volume editor for the Joseph Smith Papers.
“It was the room with the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon,” Jensen said. “He believed that was providential, that God was protecting that manuscript.”
More than 135 years later, the revered document continues to be preserved in the latest installment of the Joseph Smith Papers project, “Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Parts 1 and 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon.”
The printer's manuscript is the 11th published volume in the Joseph Smith Papers series. The objective of the project, which published its first volume in 2008, is to make every document produced by Joseph Smith or his scribes available to the public.
The new volume was introduced at a press conference Tuesday at the LDS Church History Library. It includes high-quality, full-color images of the printer's manuscript with transcription of the text on the facing page, along with images of a seer stone and details about its role in the translation process of the Book of Mormon. The volume was produced in collaboration with the Community of Christ, which owns the printer's manuscript.
“It’s really going to be this wonderful scholarly resource for those interested in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon,” Jensen said.
Upon completing the original Book of Mormon manuscript, Joseph Smith asked scribe Oliver Cowdery to make a second copy for the typesetter.
“This may have also been for security purposes. Joseph had already lost 116 pages,” Jensen said. “Oliver Cowdery is sort of this unsung hero, the many hand cramps he must have suffered. But he creates a second copy and we call it the printer’s manuscript.”
The printer’s manuscript contains the most complete history of the early text of the Book of Mormon. It is not just another copy, said Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics and English at Brigham Young University who also served as a volume editor.
“There are interesting things we see in this manuscript,” Skousen said. “It tells us about the history of the publishing of the Book of Mormon that we wouldn’t otherwise know about or fully understand.”
In 1841, Joseph Smith placed the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. It was recovered decades later and had sustained substantial water damage. Only about 28 percent of the manuscript survived, Jensen said.
Cowdery gave the printer’s manuscript to Whitmer shortly before his death in 1850. Whitmer guarded the manuscript until his grandson George Schweich sold it to the Community of Christ in 1903.
“Whitmer saw it as his sacred duty to preserve this manuscript," Jensen said. "He was offered vastly large sums of money, but he refused to sell. He saw it as a divine commandment to be the caretaker of this manuscript. A lot of early manuscripts were lost because subsequent generations didn’t understand what they had inherited. They were left in attics or basements and damaged. The Whitmer family knew what the printer’s manuscript was and knew of its importance. When George Schweich realized his family couldn’t be the long-term caretaker, he sold it to the RLDS Church (now Community of Christ).”
While the printer’s manuscript was in David Whitmer’s possession, he didn’t mind showing people or sharing his special testimony of the Book of Mormon, according to Jensen.
“Missionaries (of the time) traveling to the East Coast wrote in their journals about seeing the manuscript and hearing David Whitmer share his testimony,” Jensen said.
One of David Whitmer’s more intimate memories relating to the Book of Mormon manuscripts had to do with a tattered piece of brown string.
When a portion of the Book of Mormon was translated at the Fayette, New York, farmhouse of Peter and Mary Whitmer, David’s mother Mary made a string to bind together the pages of the manuscript. When Cowdery finished the printer’s manuscript, another one of her homespun strings was used to hold the manuscript together, Jensen said.
“For him, this seemingly mundane artifact was important and personal. It became an artifact that connected the generations,” Jensen said. “Church members often talk about small and simple things. To me that represents the community nature of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.”
The Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, owns the printer’s manuscript and has a shared history with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The two churches formed a partnership to make the manuscript more accessible while preserving the original document.
“They have been wonderful stewards of the manuscript. It’s a credit to them the manuscript still exists,” Jensen said. “We are excited to present this volume not just to scholars, but members of both churches who are interested in this shared history.”
Much of Skousen’s career has been spent studying and transcribing the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. He used black and white photos of the printer’s manuscript to create a transcription in the late 1980s.
Around 1990, Skousen asked the Community of Christ if he could compare his transcription with the actual printer’s manuscript, arguing that he needed to see it in color to better examine the text.
Community of Christ archivist Ronald E. Romig and church leaders were startled by the request because no one had ever asked to see it, but they consented, Skousen said. Church leaders retrieved the manuscript from a bank vault in Kansas City and met up with Skousen and his wife in Missouri in April 1991. Using a chess clock to give himself seven minutes per page, Skousen scrutinized the printer’s manuscript for two weeks. He gained insight into typesetter John Gilbert’s punctuation efforts, accidental copy errors by Cowdery that weren’t obvious in black and white, and other interesting details previously missed.
“I immediately saw things in the actual physical document that you couldn’t have seen in photos, black and white or color," Skousen said. "I was able to figure out a lot of things because I was looking at the real document. There are interesting things we see in this manuscript. They tell us about the history of the publishing of the Book of Mormon that we wouldn’t otherwise know about or fully understand.”
The following year, Skousen returned with his brother, Nevin Skousen, a professional photographer. They received permission to take the first color photographs of the printer’s manuscript.
Gratitude all around
Romig is grateful to Skousen for requesting to see the manuscript. Otherwise, it might still be in the Kansas City bank vault, Romig said.
"Well, I think it’s really quite remarkable," Romig, now director of the Kirtland Temple Visitors Center, said in a press release at mormonnewsroom.org. "We’re very appreciative of the scholars and the staff who have worked on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Not only do I consider them to be close colleagues and friends in many cases, but … I’ve come to really value their contribution to helping preserve and make not only this particular manuscript but many of the sacred documents and scriptural materials of the restoration movement available to people who are sometimes just not going to ever see them if they weren’t scholars."
Skousen said there is something in this new volume of the Joseph Smith Papers for everyone who wants to learn about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
“For historians and scholars of the text, having the whole manuscript in this form is a wonderful thing,” Skousen said. “The average church member is going to be surprised. Most people pick up their scriptures and think this is what Joseph Smith did. They don’t realize everything that went into the typesetting, the editing, the punctuation, spelling, all the decisions that have been made in 15 editions from 1830 to the present, chapter and verse numbers, columns. When you see the printer’s manuscript, mostly in Oliver Cowdery’s hand, you say, ‘Wow, this came differently than I thought.’”
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