A Theory of Evolutionary Development for the Structure of the Book of Mormon
Originally Joseph Smith had a very simple plan for the Book of Mormon: it was to be a translation of an abridgment (Mormon’s) taken from a more detailed record (Nephi’s). There was only one set of plates of Nephi (no large and small versions as in the final plan). After transcribing 116 pages from Mormon’s abridgment, Martin Harris lost the manuscript. It was probably stolen by Harris’s wife who was eager to discredit Joseph by proving he couldn’t reproduce the same translation, or at least so Joseph worried.After losing the 116 page manuscript, Joseph’s next plan was to bypass Mormon’s abridgment and produce a direct “translation” of the plates of Nephi to replace the lost manuscript (see D&C 10). However, it would have been difficult to produce a new manuscript consistent with the old one without having the old one to check details, such as Lehi’s genealogy. If he could have recovered the lost manuscript he would have been able to produce a replacement consistent with the lost manuscript, i.e., containing the “correct” Lehi’s Genealogy (LG) and other details of “Nephite history” (NH). So he delayed translating Nephi’s plates and continued dictating Mormon’s abridgment from Benjamin onward, hoping to recover the manuscript. He still had no idea of two versions (large and small) for Nephi’s plates, even after D&C 10 had been given to close associates as an explanation. See D&C 10: 38-46, which is really a reflection of Plan 2 (not the ultimate solution, Plan 4).
38 And now, verily I say unto you, that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands, is engraven upon the plates of Nephi; 39 Yea, and you remember, it was said in those writings, that a more particular account was given of these things upon the plates of Nephi. 40 And now, because the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi, is more particular concerning the things, which in my wisdom I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account–41 Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained; 42 And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. 43 I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil. 44 Behold they have only got a part, or an abridgment of the account of Nephi. 45 Behold there are many things engraven on the plates of Nephi, which do throw greater views upon my gospel; therefore, it is wisdom in me that you should translate this first part of the engravings of Nephi, and send forth in this work. 46 And behold, all the remainder of this work does contain all those parts of my gospel which my holy prophets, yea, and also my disciples desired in their prayers, should come forth unto this people.
Eventually Joseph finished Mormon’s abridgment and had to return to the plates of Nephi. With the lost manuscript still missing, however, he found he could not reproduce the information appearing in it such as Lehi’s Genealogy (LG). So he created a new source record, Lehi’s, which contained this information, and he got new scribes who were not as familiar with the original manuscript. Lehi’s record made it possible to explain why LG would have appeared in the lost manuscript but not in the replacement translation of Nephi’s plates (i.e., Mormon got it from Lehi’s record, not Nephi’s). 1 Ne. 1:16-17, 6:1-3 is a reflection of Plan 3.
1:16 And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written, for he hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I shall not make a full account. 17 But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life.
6:1 And now I, Nephi, do not give the genealogy of my fathers in this part of my record; neither at any time shall I give it after upon these plates which I am writing; for it is given in the record which has been kept by my father; wherefore, I do not write it in this work.
This strategy worked for part of the information Joseph needed to reproduce, e.g., LG. It didn’t work for the rest of the general, pre-Benjamin Nephite History (NH) that occurred after Lehi’s death (e.g., names of Nephite kings who succeeded Nephi; see Jacob 1:9-11). A new plan was needed.Ultimately Joseph devised a plan that eliminated the need for any of the detailed post-Lehi, pre-Benjamin Nephite History (NH) to appear in his replacement translation of Nephi’s plates. He created the small plates of Nephi. The old plates of Nephi became the large plates. Mormon’s abridgment came from the large version which contained LG and NH. The replacement “translation” came from the small version which did not contain LG or NH. Now the absence of previous detail was understandable. 1 Ne 9:2-5 is a reflection of Plan 4.
9:2 And now, as I have spoken concerning these plates, behold they are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people; for the plates upon which I make a full account of my people I have given the name of Nephi; wherefore, they are called the plates of Nephi, after mine own name; and these plates also are called the plates of Nephi. 3 Nevertheless, I have received a commandment of the Lord that I should make these plates, for the special purpose that there should be an account engraven of the ministry of my people. 4 Upon the other plates should be engraven an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people, wherefore these plates are for the more part of the ministry; and the other plates are for the more part of the reign of the kings and the wars and contentions of my people. 5 Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.
The description in 1 Ne 19:1-3 of Nephi finding out he should also do small plates after having already begun the large plates is a reflection of Joseph’s own thought process, i.e., his own later realization that he should make a second, shorter and less historical, record of Nephi.
1 And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore [large plates of Nephi] that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father; and also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them. 2 And I knew not at the time when I made them [large plates] that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these [small] plates [read: I,Joseph, didn’t know when I started dictating to Martin Harris that he was going to lose the manuscript]; wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first [large] plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these [small] plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first [large] plates. 3 And after I had made these [small] plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates; and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord.
To make his earlier D&C 10 explanation seem consistent with his final Plan 4 Joseph has Nephi explain (1 Ne. 9) that both the large and small plates of Nephi were referred to ambiguously as just “the plates of Nephi.” Thus the phrase “plates of Nephi” which was used to mean the “one and only plates of Nephi” when Joseph first used it with D&C 10 to explain the lost manuscript solution to his close friends could be interpreted later as the small plates of Nephi. This solution worked in Joseph Smith’s day and has continued to work to the present. However, it contains one telltale flaw so subtle it has gone unnoticed even by Mormon scholars. It can be discovered by a careful reading of D&C 10 and Words of Mormon in the Book of Mormon. Can you find it? Here are some hints. Which “plates of Nephi” was Joseph referring to when he originally recorded D&C 10:38-46? Which plates did that phrase come to represent after he had finally dictated 1 Ne. 9? Was Mormon aware of the small plates of Nephi when he was making his abridgment of the first portion (Lehi-Benjamin) of the large plates? (For the answer, see Dialogue, Summer 1996 article.)