My Testimony of the Book of Mormon, Scholarly and Personal
As editor of the Book of Mormon critical text project and The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press, 2009), my task has been to recover the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon to the extent scholarly and academic analysis will allow. I have therefore restricted my discussion to the text per se and have completely avoided discussions of whether there are practices found among the cultures of the world (including the Americas) in support of particular readings in the text. Nor have I engaged in any discussion of external evidences for the Book of Mormon, including questions of geography, genetics, and archaeology.
My initial endeavor as editor of the critical text project was to produce a detailed transcription of the original and printer’s manuscripts. And right from the beginning, I discovered errors that had crept into the text as Oliver Cowdery and the other scribes produced the printer’s manuscript from the original manuscript. In fact, there were errors in the original manuscript itself. Within a year or so I recognized that I would not be able to completely recover the original text by scholarly methods. Yet at the same time, I began to see considerable evidence for the traditional interpretation that witnesses of the translation process claimed: (a) the text was orally dictated, word for word; (b) Book of Mormon names were frequently spelled out the first time they occurred in the text, thus indicating that Joseph Smith could see the spelling of the names; and (c) during dictation there was no rewriting of the text except to correct errors in taking down the dictation. Since then I have also discovered internal evidence from the original language itself that argues for a fully determined English-language text:
- The original text is much more consistent and systematic in phraseology and vocabulary than has ever been realized.
- Sometimes passages of text are the same, word for word, even though they are found in completely different parts of the book.
- The original text includes unique kinds of expression that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in any time and place; some of these expressions can be considered Hebraistic in nature.
- The vocabulary of the earliest Book of Mormon text appears to derive from the 1500s and 1600s, not from the 1800s.
Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language text. Taken as a whole, the evidence in the manuscripts and in the language of the earliest text supports the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon was a precise text. I do not consider this conclusion apologetic, but instead as one demanded by the evidence.
The opposing viewpoint, that Joseph Smith got ideas and translated them into his own English, cannot be supported by the manuscript and textual evidence. The only substantive argument for this alternative view has been the nonstandard nature of the original text, with its implication that God would never speak ungrammatical English, so the nonstandard usage must be the result of Joseph Smith putting the ideas he received into his own language. Yet with the recent finding that the original vocabulary of the text appears to date from the 1500s and 1600s (not the 1800s), we now need to consider the possibility that the ungrammaticality of the original text may also date from that earlier period of time, not necessarily from Joseph’s own time and place. The evidence basically argues that Joseph Smith was not the author of the Book of Mormon, nor was he actually the translator. Instead, he was the revelator: through him the Lord revealed the English-language text (by means of the interpreters, later called the Urim and Thummim, and the seer stone). Such a view is consistent, I believe, with Joseph’s use elsewhere of the verb translate to mean ‘transmit’ and the noun translation to mean ‘transmission’ (as in the eighth Article of Faith).
Yet my personal testimony of the Book of Mormon is independent of my work on the critical text project. The Book of Mormon stands on its own and is ultimately not dependent on how that text may vary in printed editions or in the manuscripts. Moroni promised that the Lord will give a testimony of the book to the prayerful reader – irrespective of any infelicities and errors in the text (which Moroni recognized could be there, as he himself noted in the last part of the title page of the Book of Mormon). I received my own personal witness of this book long before I ever began work on this project. I have never needed to prove to myself that the text is from the Lord. Nor have errors in the text ever prevented the Spirit from bearing witness that the book is the Lord’s.
My own personal witness of this book dates from 1979, when I was reading the book during a time of difficulty. I was reading the words that king Lamoni’s queen expresses as she comes out of her state of unconsciousness:
Alma 19:29-30 (original text)
she arose and stood upon her feet and cried with a loud voice saying
O blessed Jesus who has saved me from an awful hell
O blessed God have mercy on this people
and when she had said this she clapped her hands being filled with joy
speaking many words which were not understood
As I was reading this passage, the Spirit witnessed to me, “This really happened.” What is interesting about this passage is that I didn’t actually read “she clapped her hands” (the reading based on the printer’s manuscript), but instead I read “she clasped her hands” (the reading found in the 1830 edition as well as in all LDS editions). Now I do not take this personal witness as evidence that I should reject the earliest reading, clapped. It simply means that the Lord witnesses the truthfulness of this book irrespective of the minor errors that have crept in. I know of no error that changes any doctrine or the basic account of the text. There is no error, awkward expression, or ungrammaticality in any of the printed editions of the book that will prevent the honest reader from gaining a testimony of the Book of Mormon.
Posted December 2009 on FairMormon.org
Royal Skousen is Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Brigham Young University. In 1972 he received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has taught linguistics at the University of Illinois, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at San Diego, and, as a Fulbright scholar, at the University of Tampere in Finland. In 2001 he was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands.
Skousen’s work in linguistics has dealt chiefly with developing a theory of language called Analogical Modeling, a theory that predicts language behavior by means of examples rather than by rules. He has published three books on this subject: Analogical Modeling of Language (1989), Analogy and Structure (1992), and Analogical Modeling: An Exemplar-Based Approach to Language (2002). More recently, he has published on the quantum computation of Analogical Modeling, notably in his 2005 paper “Quantum Analogical Modeling” (available at www.arXiv.org).
Skousen began working on the critical text of the Book of Mormon in 1988. In 2001 he published the first two volumes of the Critical Text Project, namely typographical facsimiles for the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. From 2004 through 2009 he published the six books that make up volume 4 of the critical text, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. This work represents the central task of the Critical Text Project, to restore by scholarly means the original text of the Book of Mormon, to the extent possible.
In 2009 Skousen published with Yale University Press the culmination of his critical work on the Book of Mormon text, namely The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. The Yale edition presents the reconstructed original text in a clear-text format, without explanatory intervention. Unlike modern editions of the Book of Mormon that have added chapter summaries, scriptural cross-references, dates, and footnotes, this edition consists solely of the words dictated by Joseph Smith in 1828-29, as far as they can be established through standard methods of textual criticism. Later emendations by scribes, editors, and even Joseph Smith himself have been omitted, except for those that appear to restore original readings.