“How We Got the Book of Mormon” – A Review

A few months ago I was invited to review a new book titled How We Got the Book of Mormon. Given that title, I thought the book would be concerned with issues of translation, or criticism of Joseph Smith as translator. In fact, the book has a much wider sweep. Perhaps a better title might have been, “how we got the current edition of the Book of Mormon.” In fact, that is a title I can get into, fascinated as I am with texts, their development and criticism. Indeed, the book follows a long tradition of the many volumes similarly titled: How We Got the Bible, and variations on the theme.

We are treated, courtesy of co-author William Slaughter, to some nice images from various editions of the Book of Mormon but more than this, we get early photos and images of people who played pivotal roles in its publication. For example (p.31) you can see John H. Gilbert, late in life to be sure, but clearly marking his trade. In terms of portraiture, we have Emma Hale Smith (p.5) and Egbert B. Grandin, whose short-lived printing venture in Palmyra gave us the first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon along with other principals. The Queen of England even gets a page. Other images include the original copyright registration (p.28).

The book is arranged chronologically, the first two chapters giving a brief summary of the golden plates era up to the first edition. Co-author Richard Turley makes good use of expert witnesses here, Peter Crawley, Royal Skousen and others. The book is well-founded, clearly referenced and if not complete, at least accurate. This is a history in the sense of telling the story from the Latter-day Saint point of view. You won’t find an apologetic rehash of every bump in the narrative road here.

Chapter three gives us the first edition of the Book of Mormon and my guess is this will be interesting stuff for even some of the well-read. Several bits here are from Dennis L. Largey, Book of Mormon Reference Companion, Deseret Book, 2003 which collects material from Skousen, Larry Porter and others, but there are primary sources too. One of the things that popped out to me was the issue of boycotting the Book of Mormon in Palmyra. Originally priced at $1.75, there was a rapid price reduction to $1.25 since the books didn’t move. Martin Harris’ encounter with Joseph as the latter arrived from Pennsylvania in late March 1830 is noted. Some of the language here is interesting. Harris stopped Smith and told him he needed a “commandment”[1]. The early Saints distinguished “revelation” from “commandment,” the latter named communications that primarily gave behavioral orders as opposed to doctrinal information. Harris wanted a Divine Dictum affirming his offer to mortgage his farm to cover Grandin’s costs. He wasn’t going to jump off that cliff without a definite command and of course he gets what he asked for (D&C 19:35). Eventually, Harris has to follow through since the book just doesn’t sell enough to cover printing costs during its first year.

Other chapters detail the rare 1837 2nd edition (originally meant to be a 5,000 copy run, it stopped at 3,000 and several hundred of those were burned in the Kirtland printshop fire of 1838). The curious third edition of 1840, edited with interesting changes by Joseph Smith himself seemingly should have been the founding text for all later editions, but it was not to be. The apostolic missionaries of 1840 used the 1837 edition for their British edition and that text formed the base text of future editions until 1981.

Well there is some fun stuff here for a text geek, but I think others may find it interesting too. I enjoyed the all too brief discussion of the important 1920 edition and of course the careful work in the 1981 edition. Again, Slaughter treats us to some nice images from these and other editions.

It’s true that history types may find little that is new here. But I’m guessing the average Church member with an interest in the history of the Book of Mormon as a scriptural text in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will find this book reliable, enjoyable and informative.

Now a word about the book as object. To display images well, a larger format was a given. It’s 28cm. Quality materials were used in its construction and it’s relatively expensive at $35.00 for 208 pages (my prepublication copy had about 170) – DB has them on sale now at $31. Even the dust jacket (which has an image of the 1920 edition on the front) is nicely done.

There are a few nit-picks. First, I hate endnotes. They made reading this book a pain for me. There is no real reason to use them beyond a little required extra formatting care for footnotes. Footnotes make an astonishingly better read in a book like this (and ANY book or article that claims some basis in fact – even some that don’t). Though the author’s disclaim a scholarly audience, even ordinary folks like to see where you’re getting your screed without having to constantly flip to some mysterious place near the back to find out. Did I say endnotes are annoying? Second, some of the later editions could have used a little longer treatment. The 1920 edition was a real landmark. The Assistant Church Historian (Turley) has got to have some good stuff here. But these are minor things for the target audience, I’m guessing.

The publisher is obviously directing this volume to the Church members looking to supplement their study of the Book of Mormon next year (it’s Book of Mormon year in case you’ve been living on the moon). But the Preface to the book suggests a hopeful nod to non-Mormons — and Latter-day Saints will find a broad tone in the text that at once suggests a scholarly pen but a faithful one too. I recommend the book and I hope it finds a large audience. It should be an item of reference on most LDS bookshelves.

How We Got the Book of Mormon
Richard E. Turley, Jr., William W. Slaughter
Deseret Book, 2011
208 pages, cloth.
ISBN13: 978-1-60908-062-4

[1] It was probably worth a couple of sentences to explain that Harris didn’t ask for a “revelation” (p.36). Then again, since we don’t have a contemporary source for the incident, the language could be post hoc.

2 Responses to “How We Got the Book of Mormon” – A Review

  1. aquinas says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m glad to hear your thoughts on the subject. I think a Works Cited page would have been convenient. For a more targeted exploration into the more recent editions of the Book of Mormon and especially the implications of the new footnote system, one will have to look elsewhere (like Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible), but overall, I thought the book was well done. As someone interested in narrative creation, I think Turley and Slaughter successfully offer Latter-day Saints a fresh and broader Book of Mormon production narrative.

    • WVS says:

      I’m in sympathy with this kind of book. Agreed, a bibliography would have been worth a couple of pages. Who knows? You might encourage someone to dig deeper.

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