Structure of the Book of Mormon – how it came to be

Structure of the Book of Mormon – how it came to be

A Theory of Evolutionary Development for the Structure of the Book of Mormon

SynopsisPart 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

With such concerns in the back of his mind Joseph began translating the plates of Nephi. He would have expected that these plates were the original source of Mormon’s abridgment. What he probably didn’t know at the time was that the plates he was translating would turn out to be the small plates of Nephi, which had not been the source of Mormon’s abridgment.13 He therefore must have been concerned when he began to translate the plates of Nephi and realized that the text he was dictating was not going to be consistent with the “plates of Nephi” that had been described in the lost manuscript. The lost manuscript contained implicit (at least, and probably explicit) evidence that the source of Mormon’s abridgment had included detailed accounts of certain specific information such as Lehi’s prophecies and Lehi’s genealogy (designated as LG in Plan 2 diagram). Since this information had been contained in the lost manuscript it must have been in the original source (see flow of information designated LG in Plan 2 diagram). Whether he read ahead in the plates or came to the realization as he dictated the words, sooner or later Joseph would have comprehended that the record he was dictating was not going to supply this information. He would not have had to go any farther than 1 Ne. 6:1 to find out that Lehi’s genealogy was not to be given anywhere in the present record of Nephi. Even as early in the text as 1 Ne. 1:16-17 Nephi was hinting that Lehi’s prophecies weren’t going to be given in any great detail. Joseph must have realized the ammunition this could become for his enemies if they desired to thwart the work. He must have become concerned. Why were the plates he had been told to translate, the plates of Nephi, not forthcoming with specific information that had been in Mormon’s abridgment? Perhaps the plates of Nephi were not the source of Mormon’s information about Lehi’s prophecies and genealogy, Joseph might have speculated. Perhaps the system of plates was more complex than Joseph had initially imagined.

Plan 3

With the realization that the record of Nephi he was translating would not include certain specific information relating to Lehi that had appeared in the lost manuscript, Joseph also apparently realized the reason why. In the same verses that notify the reader of the absence of this information (1 Ne. 1:16-17; 6:1), Nephi also explains that his father Lehi had kept a record which did contain this information.

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 record of Lehi, therefore, could have been the source from which Mormon got Lehi’s genealogy and prophecies, Joseph might have reasoned. As for the plates of Nephi (the ones Joseph was now translating), they only contained an abridgment or part of the information in Lehi’s record but not Lehi’s genealogy. Still what about the solution revelation (D&C 10); it hadn’t mentioned any record of Lehi as a source for Mormon’s (lost) abridgment. Didn’t this new information about Lehi’s record contradict the revelation? Hadn’t the revelation said that the plates of Nephi had been the source of the lost manuscript information? Apparently not. D&C 10 only intimates that the plates of Nephi had been the source of this information. It hadn’t said (or at least does not now say) so explicitly. What it says is that an account of that which “had gone out of [Joseph’s] hands” was contained on the plates of Nephi. This wording left open the possibility that Mormon could have gotten some of his information about Lehi elsewhere. Where? The plates of Nephi which Joseph was now translating seemed to suggest the record of Lehi. Of course, this explanation would require that Lehi’s “record,” as referred to in 1 Ne. 1:17, 6:1, be interpreted as a non-perishable one (i.e., plates) in order that it might be preserved from Lehi’s to Mormon’s time. But this interpretation would have been reasonable to Joseph since previously transcribed text had used the words “record” and “plates” interchangeably (e.g., in 1 Ne. 6:1, Nephi’s “record” clearly means Nephi’s “plates”). Thus Joseph’s understanding of the Book of Mormon structure would have expanded to that shown in the diagram as plan 3 with the record or plates of Lehi serving as the source of Lehi’s genealogy and prophecies (LG). At worst, Joseph had slightly misunderstood the D&C 10 revelation if he inferred that the original source of all the information lost by Martin Harris had been the plates of Nephi. There was also still the minor problem of Mormon’s having recorded (and Joseph’s having already dictated) that he (Mormon) was specifically instructed to take (i.e., use) only the plates of Nephi (Mormon 1:4, 2:17, 6:6), which might be taken to exclude anything but Nephi’s plates as a source for Mormon’s abridgment. But that language was perhaps not to be taken so literally as to exclude Lehi’s record. Thus Joseph could have been at least partially satisfied with an understanding of the Book of Mormon structure patterned after plan 3 during the early stage of his attempt to translate the plates of Nephi. The important feature of plan 3 compared with plan 2 was that Lehi’s genealogy and prophecies (LG) would no longer have been expected to appear in the Book of Mormon replacement forepart.

With an expanded understanding of the Book of Mormon structure, which now included a knowledge of Lehi’s record, Joseph would have again attempted the translation of Nephi’s plates, in order to fulfill the solution outlined by D&C 10. As he worked through the translation of Nephi’s plates, however, sooner or later it would have become evident that there was a problem: the plates of Nephi he was translating were still not the same plates to which reference had been made in the lost manuscript. Those plates of Nephi must have contained a more detailed description of general, pre-Benjamin Nephite history (NH) than the lost manuscript. These plates of Nephi apparently contained an even less detailed description of that history. As early in the text as 1 Ne. 6:3-6 Nephi gives indications that his record will not be the kind of detailed historical account which one might have expected as the source of Mormon’s abridgment. In fact, Nephi’s account was starting to sound more like a religious record than a historical one.

6:3 And it mattereth not to me that I am particular to give a full account of all the things of my father, for they cannot be written upon these plates, for I desire the room that I may write of the things of God. 4 For the fullness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved. 5 Wherefore, the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God and unto those who are not of the world. 6 Wherefore, I shall give commandment unto my seed,14 that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men.

Knowing what he did about the lost manuscript Joseph must have been not only puzzled but concerned. Surely the early Nephite history–which in the lost manuscript version included the names of generations of kings and descendants after Nephi–could not, like Lehi’s genealogy and prophecies, be attributed to Lehi’s record. The lost manuscript narrative had proceeded far beyond the time of Lehi’s death. Even Martin Harris could have probably remembered that much. Why would the plates of Nephi not be forthcoming with even a general outline of the early Nephite history–at least as much as had been in the lost manuscript? Perhaps, Joseph might have speculated, these plates of Nephi were not the same plates of Nephi from which Mormon had taken his abridgment (same name notwithstanding). Perhaps the Book of Mormon system of plates was yet more complex.

Plan 4

If Joseph puzzled over the scarcity of early Nephite history (NH) on the plates of Nephi the answer was eventually forthcoming.15 In 1 Ne. 9, Nephi finally makes clear that the record he is writing is actually the second of two records, both of which are called “the plates of Nephi.”

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. 6 But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.

For the first time Nephi’s small plates are identified. For the first time Joseph might have understood that there was no reason to expect much Nephite history on the plates he was translating, because the plates he was translating were the small plates, the ones specifically designated for religious writings. Apparently the “plates of Nephi” from which Mormon had taken his abridgment were the large plates. Joseph’s understanding of the system of plates expanded to that shown in the diagram as plan 4.

Plan 4 represents the basic structure of the Book of Mormon that eventually came to be understood by Joseph. An unabridged version of Lehi’s record, including his genealogy and prophecies (LG), was engraved on Nephi’s large plates (1 Ne. 19:1-2). An abridged version (not including LG) was engraved on Nephi’s small plates (1 Ne. 1:16-17). Thus a structure was defined in which Lehi’s genealogy and prophecies (LG) were transmitted to Mormon’s abridgment (lost forepart) but not to Nephi’s abridgment (replacement forepart). The same structure provided that early Nephite history (NH) would also appear in the lost manuscript but not the replacement. Since the small plates were kept separately from the large plates by prophets instead of kings (1 Ne. 19:4, Jarom 1:14) there was no reason to expect much correlation between the two records except for Nephi’s part. When the brief narrative reached the time of Benjamin the record ended because Amaleki had no more seed (Omni 1:25) and the plates were full (Omni 1:30).16 The reader is not entirely unprepared for the small record to end, though. Jarom twice warns (Jarom 1:2, 14) that the plates are small and then offers this reason for not writing more, “wherefore it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations. For what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have they not revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me.” This part of the story is somewhat incongruent; it seems to relegate Jarom’s prophecy and revelation to a lesser importance relative to the burden of making a few additional plates which goes against a main theme of the Book of Mormon and the small plates in particular. Nevertheless, the reader’s mind is prepared for the small record to end, which it does at the right time with all the connecting history quickly explained in the last book, Omni, so that a coherent transition back to Mormon’s abridgment is possible.

Thus Joseph Smith’s understanding reached the final stage of complexity with regard to the structure of the Book of Mormon. He had progressed from a plan 2 description to a plan 4 description, possibly by way of an intermediate plan 3 description. He had learned that there were actually two sets of plates of Nephi which, although referred to by the same name, were very different in nature and served different purposes. This insight alone might seem worthy of special mention by Joseph, given that the ambiguous name “plates of Nephi” must have been either the cause or effect of his own misinterpretation of the D&C 10 revelation. Having gained this new insight about the dual plates of Nephi what kind of final description did he give relative to the lost manuscript, the replacement solution, and the Book of Mormon structure, and to what degree did his final description clarify points left undefined, ambiguous, and even contradictory in the initial one (D&C 10)? Interestingly, Joseph’s final description of these matters was still incomplete as far as what could have been said to clarify explicitly the structure of the Book of Mormon and its system of source plates.

1830 Preface: Final Description of the Translation Crisis and Solution

The final description Joseph gave of the translation crisis and its solution is the preface of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon.

To the reader–As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again–and being commanded of the Lord that I should not translate the same over again, for Satan had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God, by altering the words, that they did read contrary from that which I translated and caused to be written; and if I should bring forth the same words again, or, in other words, if I should translate the same over again, they would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county, New York. The Author.

This final description of the manuscript problem is based largely on the initial description, D&C 10, and uses much of the same wording in its central portion. New material added at the beginning clarifies some of what had not been explicitly stated in D&C 10, that the plates of Lehi had been the source of the first part of Mormon’s abridgment. However, like D&C 10, there is still no mention of separate and distinct large and small plates of Nephi in the 1830 preface. Thus this preface superficially sounds more like a description of plan 3 than plan 4. Nevertheless, the wording is actually incompatible with plan 3 in a subtle way such that it must be viewed as a plan 4 description, albeit an incomplete one.

The wording Joseph used in the 1830 preface suggests a “sole source” status for the plates of Lehi with respect to the lost manuscript. Joseph wrote, “I translated . . . one hundred and sixteen pages . . . from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi . . .” (italics added). (Note that he did not say, “. . . which was in part an account . . .”) This description is incompatible with plan 3, under which Lehi’s “record”17 was viewed as a source for Mormon but not the only source. Specifically, under plan 3, Lehi’s record could be viewed as the source for Lehi’s genealogy and prophecies (and some limited history), while Nephi’s (still separate) record had provided the general post-Lehi, pre-Benjamin Nephite history. (See flow of information designated by LG and NH in plan 3 diagram.) Therefore, under plan 3, Lehi’s record cannot be viewed as the sole source of Mormon’s early abridgment (lost manuscript). However, under plan 4, the plates of Lehi can be viewed as the source which provided both Lehi’s genealogy and whatever Nephite history was in the lost manuscript because Joseph’s reference to “the plates of Lehi” in the 1830 preface could point to the part of Nephi’s plates that contained both (see footnote to Jacob 3:13-14, n28, in Appendix). Thus, the 1830 preface is only compatible with the final structure of the Book of Mormon, plan 4 (not plan 3); however, it is notably incomplete in not delineating the separate large and small plates of Nephi. Instead Joseph chose to leave the 1830 preface in the same ambiguous terms as D&C 10: “the plates of Nephi.”

Who was the intended audience of the 1830 preface? Since Joseph had the preface removed in the 1837 edition it would seem that the intended audience in 1830 had been his enemies (who still might have held the lost manuscript), those who had heard of the lost manuscript episode, and those who might have been swayed by comparative attacks using the lost manuscript. The preface was apparently no longer deemed necessary or important in 1837 when the possibility of such a challenge had become negligibly remote and the many “false reports” had long since ceased circulating. To a reader already familiar in detail with the contents of the book and its structure the wording of the 1830 preface might seem slightly odd–odd in the sense that Joseph chose to contrast between “plates of Lehi” and “plates of Nephi” to explain the missing and replacement information for the book’s forepart, instead of contrasting between “large plates of Nephi” and “small plates of Nephi” as suggested by 1 Ne. 9, Jacob 1:1, and Words of Mormon 1:3.18 But the 1830 preface certainly would not have seemed odd in that sense to a new reader in 1830, even to one who had seen or heard of the lost manuscript. The preface offered a logical explanation for any discrepancies between the lost manuscript material and the published replacement. A potential enemy of the work who was contemplating trying to discredit Joseph by pointing out such discrepancies (whether they be genuine or the result of alterations) could read this preface and easily see that the basis for such an attack had been weakened.

The Plates of Nephi: “And I knew not at the time when I made them . . . “

A significant feature of Joseph Smith’s progression in understanding of the Book of Mormon records is the delay between his knowledge of the (large) “plates of Nephi” (by late 1827 or early 1828) and his knowledge of the small plates (sometime after D&C 10). Similarly a significant feature of the Book of Mormon system of plates as defined under plan 4 is the time delay between Nephi’s knowledge of the large and small plates. According to Nephi both sets of plates were begun by him, as commanded by God, at different times; the large plates were begun just after Lehi’s group arrived in the New World (ten years after they left Jerusalem), and the small plates between twenty and thirty years later. Thus the more important (for our day) ministry-prophecy record was begun at least thirty years after the departure from Jerusalem. This delay apparently affected the nature of the material recorded in the large plates. Nephi explains that in the beginning, before he knew he would be commanded to keep the small plates, he recorded major religious matters (his own and his father’s prophecies) on the large plates, (1 Ne. 19:1-3).

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; 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.

Thus, according to the latter part of verse 1, the appearance of some amount of prophecy and religious writing in the first part of Mormon’s abridgment (lost manuscript) would not have been inconsistent with the structure of plan 4. To the degree he was sensitive to Martin Harris’s vulnerability on the issue of compatibility of lost manuscript material, Joseph must have been gratified to see Nephi give such a clear explanation for the appearance of religious writings in the first (lost) portion of Mormon’s abridgment.

In addition to accounting for the possible presence of certain, otherwise unexpected, information in the lost manuscript (a certain amount of prophecy), the twenty year delay between Nephi’s plates also accounts for the possible absence of certain, otherwise expected, information. Given the frequency with which the first (large) plates are mentioned in Nephi’s second (small) record (1 Ne. 1:17; 9:2; 10:15; 19:1-4; 2 Ne. 4:14; 5:29-33) it might be expected that Nephi would have also mentioned the existence of the small plates in the large record, at least after the point in time had been reached where he had been commanded to make them. If no mention of the second record was to be found in the lost manuscript, that could be accounted for by the fact that the commandment to make them had come to Nephi much later, perhaps after he had finished most of his first record. Thus it is logical that an extended record of history could have been written by Nephi that had no mention of the second set of plates he was commanded to make. And it is also therefore logical that Mormon could abridge at least a significant portion of Nephi’s large plates and not become aware of the small plates (as apparently was the case; see Words of Mormon 1:3). But what about the approximately 30 years from the time Nephi was commanded to make the second record (570 BC) until his death (about 540 BC). Didn’t Nephi write about the small plates at all on the large plates? Or did Mormon not notice it as he was abridging? Given the frequency with which Nephi mentioned his “other” (large) plates in the small record it seems inconsistent that the theologically more important small record would not have been mentioned prominently in the large plates by Nephi. Yet this is the logical inference we are led to by analysis of the contents of the Book of Mormon and the likely contents of the various plates according to the structure of plan 4.

The Question of Causality

Several questions related to the Book of Mormon structure and contents have arisen in the preceding discussion. For example, why did Mormon never mention the small plates of Nephi in his post-Benjamin abridgment, when he had by then acquired knowledge of them? Why would Nephi not mention his more important small plates in his large plates19, when he consistently did the reverse? Why were Nephi’s, Mormon’s, and Joseph Smith’s knowledge of the small plates all significantly delayed relative to their knowledge of the large plates–in Joseph’s case, in spite of a revelation explaining the role of the plates of Nephi? Coincidence may be the answer in each case, or there may be specific reasons. One explanation that accounts for each of these “coincidences” is that the direction of causality between Joseph’s understanding of the Book of Mormon structure and the information about that structure that appeared in the book could have been the reverse of that considered in the first part of this essay. That is, rather than thinking in terms of Joseph’s understanding of the Book of Mormon being limited by and progressing according to what he learned from Mormon’s and later Nephi’s writings, it may be more correct to think in terms of Mormon’s and Nephi’s descriptions of the Book of Mormon records being limited by and progressing according to what Joseph understood or imagined. Perhaps the mind of Nephi, the mind of Mormon, and the mind of Joseph Smith were to some degree one and the same. As Joseph’s understanding of the Book of Mormon structure progressed from plan 2, to 3, and 4, so did Nephi’s and Mormon’s. If Nephi didn’t refer to the small plates in his large plates it could be because at the time Joseph dictated the lost manuscript in early 1828 he was thinking in terms of plan 1. Perhaps the reason Mormon never mentioned the small plates in Mosiah through Mormon 7 is because at the time Joseph dictated this material in late 1828 and early 1829 he was still thinking in terms of a single set of plates of Nephi, i.e., plan 2. Both Nephi’s and Mormon’s awareness of the small plates could have been delayed because Joseph’s was. This interpretation need not be seen as attributing devious motives to Joseph. The state of his mind is unknown. But it does probably mean attributing to him more the role of author than of translator, and to the Book of Mormon more the status of fiction than of history.

Transcription Sequence

It has already been suggested that the four-plan series postulated herein fits with current understanding of the sequence in which the Book of Mormon transcription took place. Textual analysis of the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s revelations has led most investigators of Mormon history to conclude that after the lost manuscript, transcription resumed with the book of Mosiah, and that the replacement chapters (1 Nephi – Omni) were probably the last to be transcribed. By using information criteria suggested by the four-plan theory to analyze the text of the Book of Mormon it is possible to test the Book of Mormon for compatibility (in terms of transcription sequence) with the four-plan theory.


13. The assumption made here for the sake of discussion is that Joseph started his translation of the replacement forepart directly with the small plates of Nephi. However, the preceding discussion of D&C 10 and word pattern studies (see Transcription Sequence) suggest the possibility that he attempted an early translation from the large–at that time in his mind, the only–plates of Nephi, perhaps with Emma as scribe (see also fn. 20). Unfortunately it is difficult to determine which plates he thought or claimed he was translating; Joseph apparently left no clear record of when he conceived of the existence of the small plates.

14. Perhaps at this point Nephi anticipated that he would pass the small plates to his posterity. As it turned out Nephi passed them to his brother Jacob for keeping (Jacob 1:1) and his own posterity remain nameless in the small plates.

15. It is possible that Joseph realized the lack of both specific information (e.g., Lehi’s genealogy) and general Nephite history in the small plates at the same time. Similarly it is possible that he discovered both the plates of Lehi and the small plates of Nephi at about the same time, since they are described within a few chapters of each other. Thus it is possible that his understanding went directly from plan 2 to plan 4, skipping plan 3. If so, however, the preface he included in the 1830 Book of Mormon is puzzling. If he had never considered the configuration of plan 3 as a means for explaining missing or different information in the replacement forepart, it seems more likely that the 1830 preface would have explained the lost manuscript episode in terms more evocative of plan 4 (“large plates of Nephi” versus “small plates of Nephi”) than plan 3 (“record/plates of Lehi” versus “plates of Nephi”). See also subsequent section, 1830 Preface: Final Description of the Translation Crisis.

16. It is notable that neither of these reasons was sufficient for ending the record on other occasions. When Nephi passed on the small record he did so to his brother Jacob instead of his son. When more plates were needed to continue the record they were simply made. Ore was plentiful (1 Ne. 18:25, 2 Ne. 5:15) and the practice appears to have been that if more plates were desired, more were made. Only Moroni was unable to make more plates because he was alone (Mormon 8:5).

17. Whether Lehi’s original “record” (1Ne. 1:16-17, 6:1) is viewed as a metallic plate record or a perishable one is irrelevant under plan 4. If Lehi’s record was not metallic, Joseph’s reference to “plates of Lehi” (1830 preface) could still point to the part of Nephi’s plates that contained Lehi’s record. On the other hand, under plan 3, Lehi’s “record” must be considered a non-perishable metallic “plate” record (although it is not specifically designated so in 1 Nephi) in order for it to be preserved to Mormon’s time for abridgment.

18. In fact, the record Joseph designated as the “plates of Lehi” in the preface is usually referred to as the “plates of Nephi” in the book itself.

19. Here and in subsequent sections this inference is made for the sake of discussion. As explained at the end of the previous section, this is only an inference which seems logical but cannot be proved without examining the lost manuscript.

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