“How We Got the Book of Moses,” Ensign, Jan. 1986, 43
How We Got the Book of Moses
The book of Moses is the first of several documents in the collection of sacred writings published as the Pearl of Great Price. Although this material is currently labeled “Selections from the Book of Moses,” it was not always specified by that name, nor has the content of the material always been exactly as it is today. A quick look at its origin, development, and content can help us more fully appreciate what the book of Moses is, how it came to be, and why it is a unique witness for Jesus Christ.
Origin of the Book of Moses Material
The material constituting the eight chapters of the book of Moses is an extract from Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. More precisely, chapter one of Moses is an account of a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph just prior to, or at the commencement of, the translation, while Moses chapters two through eight constitute his translation of Genesis from chapter one through chapter six, verse thirteen. [Moses 1, 2–8; Gen. 1–6:13] The Joseph Smith translation of the Bible (hereafter identified as JST) began with Genesis and continued through the entire Bible to the book of Revelation. The initial draft of his Bible translation was made between June 1830 and July 1833. However, the short excerpt that we recognize as the book of Moses, being the early part of Genesis, was completed in its first draft by February 1831.1
Examination of the original manuscripts of the JST shows that, soon after the initial writing, Joseph further modified and revised these early chapters in a number of ways. This included a complete rewriting of the early chapters of Genesis, which was then followed in the editorial process by a number of inter-linear inserts and deletions. In some instances, additional material was written on small pieces of paper and pinned to the manuscript at places needing still further correction.
Thus, there are two drafts of the manuscript for the first twenty-four chapters of Genesis, with the second copy being more complete and presenting a more extensive text than the first draft. These pre-publication documents are not numbered, but they are dated in various portions, and these dates serve to clarify and delineate the sequence.
Although the translation of the early chapters of Genesis was initially revealed and recorded between June 1830 and February 1831, it is clear that the Prophet Joseph Smith continued to revise and modify this material until his death in 1844. The manuscripts then came into the possession of his widow, Emma Smith, who subsequently gave them to her children. Eventually they became the property of the Reorganized Church (RLDS).2 The RLDS church has retained them to this day, and it was from these manuscripts that they published the Inspired Version of the Bible in 1867.
A partial copy of the manuscripts had been made in 1845 by Dr. John M. Bernhisel in Nauvoo. This copy was brought to the West by Brother Bernhisel and is now in the Church offices in Salt Lake City. The Bernhisel copy is a valuable historical document, but it is not as helpful as one might wish, since it does not contain all of the translation. A comparison with the originals has made it clear that Dr. Bernhisel made his copy from the final revision of the Prophet’s manuscript. This is a very significant fact in attempting to trace whether or not the Bernhisel copy was used as the source for the first or any subsequent edition of the Pearl of Great Price.
The greatest deficiency of the Bernhisel copy is that it does not contain any of the material now identified as Moses chapter 7 or Matthew chapter 24. [Moses 7; Matt. 24] Hence, it could not have been the source for these items in the Pearl of Great Price. As will be seen later, the text of the Bernhisel copy shows that it could not have been the source for any part of the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price.
Early Publications of the Book of Moses Material
The first publication of excerpts from the JST was closely associated with the establishment of the first printing press and the first periodical of the Church. Early in 1831, the headquarters of the Church were located in Kirtland, Ohio. However, revelations were being received that gave instructions for a gathering of the Saints at Independence, Missouri, and William W. Phelps was appointed to go there to be “a printer unto the Church.” (D&C 57:11–14.)
After Brother Phelps’s arrival at Independence, a printing press was established and various publications began to come from it. The first periodical of the Church printed on this press was volume 1, number 1, of the Evening and Morning Star, dated June 1832. Subsequent monthly issues of the Star published items of instruction from the Prophet Joseph Smith for the guidance of the Church. These items consisted of letters from the Prophet and a record of the revelations that he had received, including excerpts from the new translation of the Bible, which was then underway.
Thus, the earliest publication of the materials now identified as the book of Moses was in the Evening and Morning Star, with the first installment being in August 1832, another in March 1833, and a third in April 1833.
Although the Prophet Joseph made several trips to Independence during these early years, he maintained his home eight hundred miles away in Kirtland. Consequently, manuscript copies of materials for publication had to be made in Kirtland and taken to Independence for printing. These copies presented the Bible translation as far as it had been done at that time, but of course could not reflect the interlinear revisions and additions that the Prophet later made to his copy. Thus, the excerpts that were published in the Star represented a preliminary stage of the book of Moses (JST) and not the final revision.
The portions of the JST that were published in the Evening and Morning Star and later incorporated into the book of Moses are as follows:
August 1832—Moses 7:1–69March 1833—Moses 6:43–68April 1833—Moses 5:1–16; Moses 6:52, 58–61; Moses 7:5–11; Moses 8:13–30
Portions of the JST were also included in the Lectures on Faith as presented in the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, and published in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. The material that is now identified as Moses chapter 1 was first published in Nauvoo in the Church periodical Times and Seasons, January 1843, pp. 71–73. [Moses 1] These excerpts all were from the text of the early stages of the Bible translation.
Publication in the Pearl of Great Price
The Pearl of Great Price was first compiled as a pamphlet for use in the British Mission and came from the press in Liverpool, England, in July 1851. The compiler, Elder Franklin D. Richards, a member of the Council of the Twelve and president of the mission, explained in the preface that most of the materials that he had included had already been published in the early periodicals of the Church in the United States, but had limited circulation. He therefore published the pamphlet in order to make the information more readily available, since most of the members of the Church in Britain had been converted within the previous four years3 and did not have access to the early magazines formerly printed in the United States.
In the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price there was no book of Moses as such, but various materials from Moses were included piecemeal (and not in chronological order) under separate headings. In order of their occurrence, these included Moses 6:45–7:69; Moses 1:1–42; Moses 2:1–5, 40; and Moses 8:13–30. These excerpts were not complete in themselves, and large sections are missing compared with our present book of Moses.
There was no unifying title for the excerpts, nor was there any statement identifying their source. No specific mention was made of the new translation of the Bible. There were several other items in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price from the writings of Abraham and from the Doctrine and Covenants.4
Although Elder Richards did not cite his sources, he explained, as noted above, that most of the materials had been printed in the early periodicals of the Church. Some of the excerpts Elder Richards used came from the JST Genesis translation published in the Evening and Morning Star in Independence from 1832 to 1833 and in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo in 1843. This is confirmed by a comparison of the texts, including spelling and punctuation. However, there is one sizable portion of the Moses material (now identified as Moses 2:1 to Moses 4:13) that had not appeared in the early periodicals and in fact had never been printed until just four months previously, when Elder Richards, as editor, published it in the Millennial Star in March 1851.5 Elder Richards does not state how he obtained this latest material, but he must have had a handwritten source for it, since most of it had never before been printed. When published in the Millennial Star, it carried the title “The First Part of the Book of Genesis, as Rendered by Joseph Smith, First Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Of particular interest are the unnatural divisions of the Moses material in the 1851 Pearl of Great Price, suggesting that it was extracted from other sources rather than copied from a continuous, smooth-flowing manuscript. Since some of the divisions are the same as the portions of the JST used in the Lectures on Faith, it is probable that this was one of the sources for the 1851 edition.
In the meantime, the RLDS church printed the so-called Inspired Version, or Joseph Smith Translation, in 1867, sixteen years after the first printing of the Pearl of Great Price. The RLDS printing contained all of the corrections made by Joseph Smith, not just excerpts.
The second edition of the Pearl of Great Price was published in Salt Lake City in 1878, having been edited and rearranged by Elder Orson Pratt, who was then Church historian. It had approximately the same general content as the first edition, but there were several important changes in format. The most significant of these were: (1) the Moses material was placed chronologically, corresponding to the order in which it is found in Genesis and also in the printed Inspired Version, which had been published eleven years earlier; (2) Moses material missing from the 1851 edition was added, so that the record was complete for Moses, chapters one through eight, as in the present book of Moses; (3) the text was changed somewhat from the first edition; and (4) this material was given a unifying title for the first time. The first portion (corresponding to Moses 1) was labeled “Visions of Moses,” and the second portion (corresponding to Moses 2–8) was titled “Writings of Moses.”
As in 1851, the 1878 edition made no clear statement that the source of the materials was the new translation, nor was there any explanation about the changed format or the additional material. The original preface was also omitted. The 1878 edition contained no preface or introductory remarks whatsoever other than the title page, which was the same as the original.
We noted earlier that the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price presented the Moses material in a format entirely different from that contained in the 1851 edition. Of greater importance, but less noticeable at first, are the differences in the text, some of which are presented below. Significant differences are italicized.
Behold, this is my work to my glory, to the immortality and eternal life of man.
For this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
Moses 5:10 [Adam speaking]
blessed be the name of God for my transgression, for in this life I shall have joy,
Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy,
Moses 5:39 [Cain speaking]
Behold, you have driven me out this day from the face of men, and from your face shall I be hid also; … And it shall come to pass, everyone that finds me will slay me because of my oath.
Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the Lord, and from thy face shall I be hid; … and it shall come to pass, that he that findeth me will slay me, because of mine iniquities.
inasmuch as they were born into the world by the fall which bringeth death, by Water and Blood and the Spirit, which I have made, and so become of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again of Water and the Spirit, and cleansed by Blood, even the Blood of mine Only Begotten, into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.
By reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten.
Sources of the Moses Material
It is evident from the foregoing examples that there is considerable divergence between the texts of the first and second editions of the Pearl of Great Price and that the 1878 text is smoother and more flowing. These are not the kinds of differences characteristic of scribal and typographical errors, but are actually different revisions representing different manuscripts. A comparison with the original manuscripts of the JST reveals that the Moses material in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price closely follows the text of the earlier revisions, whereas the Moses material of the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price represents generally the text of the Prophet Joseph’s latest revisions.
Hence, generally speaking, the textual differences between the 1851 and 1878 editions of the Moses material in the Pearl of Great Price actually represent the textual differences of the JST in different stages of its development. (There are, of course, some minor typographical errors and other small differences.) These are important conclusions that were reached with certainty only through a comparison with the original manuscripts of the JST.
The question still remains, how was the material actually transmitted from the original JST manuscripts to the printed pages of the Pearl of Great Price?
Many have thought that the Bernhisel copy was the source of the Moses material in the Pearl of Great Price, but this cannot be—the Bernhisel copy represents the final revisions made by Joseph Smith, while the 1851 Pearl of Great Price more closely resembles the initial drafting. For one thing, the Bernhisel copy does not contain the prophecy of Enoch (Moses 7). For another, a comparison of the original manuscripts of the new translation with the excerpts that were printed in the Evening and Morning Star, the Lectures on Faith, and the Times and Seasons shows that these excerpts came from the text of the earlier draft, with added punctuation and some word variation. Further comparison of the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price with the same excerpts in the Evening and Morning Star, the Lectures on Faith, and the Times and Seasons show a great similarity, even to punctuation and misspelled words.
Since the Evening and Morning Star was printed in Independence, Missouri, at a time when the Prophet Joseph Smith was living in Ohio and was engaged in the translation of the Bible, it is unlikely that the Prophet would have given up the original manuscript for Brother Phelps to publish in Missouri. He would more likely have given him a copy while he continued work on the original. The conclusion, therefore, is that the Moses material in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price was obtained from the early periodicals, which had been obtained from a manuscript copied from the earliest of the originals.
Though the foregoing conclusion is true for most of the Moses material, there was also that other smaller portion, published in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price, which had not been in print before and had not appeared in the periodicals. For this material there must have been an additional manuscript source, but how it came into the hands of Elder Franklin D. Richards in Liverpool, we do not know. More of this matter remains to be learned.6
With the question concerning the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price at least tentatively settled, we turn our attention to another question: What is the history of the Moses material found in the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price? It has already been noted that it differs from the 1851 edition in at least three ways: (1) it is a different text, (2) it is more complete, and (3) it is arranged in a different order. Where did Elder Orson Pratt get the material? A textual comparison points to the 1867 printed Inspired Version as the immediate source.
This conclusion was reached after a detailed comparison was made between the texts of the original manuscripts of the JST, the RLDS 1867 printed Inspired Version, and the Moses material in the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. With few exceptions, the 1878 printing of the Pearl of Great Price was remarkably close to the 1867 printed Inspired Version, and both of them generally, but not exactly, resemble the text of the later manuscript of the new translation prepared by the Prophet Joseph Smith and his scribes.
Furthermore, it was found that when the 1867 printed Inspired Version departed from the original manuscript in a few unique and interesting ways, the 1878 Pearl of Great Price also departed in exactly the same manner. These instances were too numerous and too similar to have been merely coincidental. The departures are harmless, doctrinally, but they have significance historically because they indicate that Elder Pratt used the 1867 printed Inspired Version as his basic source for the Moses material when he prepared the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price.7
The 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price was accepted by sustaining vote of the Church on 10 October 1880 as one of the standard works of the Church.8 Some years thereafter, Elder James E. Talmage, working under assignment from the First Presidency, made further contributions. These included putting in cross-references and footnotes and also arranging the material in its present chapter and verse form. The Talmage edition was published in 1902.
Elder Talmage made two rather significant textual alterations. First, he developed the title to read “Book of Moses,” which is the first time that title had appeared in connection with these materials. A second item of importance is that Elder Talmage restructured the use of the word Cainan, as currently found in Moses chapter 7, causing the last six occurrences to be spelled Canaan, instead of the way they had appeared in the 1878 edition and in the printed Inspired Version as Cainan. These are currently found in Moses 7:6, 7, 8; and Moses 7:12. This also brought these words into harmony with the manner of spelling found in the excerpts that had been printed in the Evening and Morning Star and in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Since Canaan and Cainan are two different things, the clarification is important. The 1902 edition became the standard text for the book of Moses for many years. In 1921 it was given a new format—double columns on the page. But the text remained as arranged in the 1902 edition, until a few variations were introduced in the 1981 edition by the Scriptures Publications Committee. Among these latest items are the following:
1. The title was enlarged to read “Selections from the Book of Moses.”
A subtitle was added stating that this material was an excerpt from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
The correct dates in which the chapters were received were inserted as learned from the original manuscripts.
Explanatory chapter headings were added.
The text was altered at Moses 1:19 to say “ranted” instead of “rent.” It was the feeling of the Committee that such a change more clearly expressed the intent of the passage.
Unique Doctrinal Contributions
The prophets of God from Joseph Smith to the present have revered the book of Moses as divine revelation, and it has been sustained by the Church membership, not only by uplifted hand in conference, but also in the testimony of truth that comes into the hearts of those who become acquainted with it. Each chapter of the book of Moses contains outstanding, and often unique, doctrinal contributions:
Moses chapter 1. [Moses 1] In this account, we learn of a vision which Moses had of many worlds and of a personal visit from the Lord himself. He also had an encounter with Satan, who tried to deceive him. These great experiences were in preparation for Moses’ forthcoming mission to lead Israel out of Egypt. It is in this chapter that we find the lofty and oft quoted passage, “For behold this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) There is no other known source available today for the information contained in this chapter. It is an essential preface and helpful introduction to the book of Genesis, telling why the Lord created the world and populated it with the human family.
Moses chapters 2 and 3. [Moses 2; Moses 3] Here is a clearer account of the Creation than is contained in Genesis. We learn that there was a spiritual creation before the natural creation, and that Adam is designated as the first flesh upon the earth.
Moses chapter 4. [Moses 4] This chapter deals with the fall of man and also tells how Lucifer became the devil. We are shown the role of both Christ and Satan in the premortal world.
Moses chapter 5. [Moses 5] Moses records here how the gospel of Jesus Christ was presented to Adam after the Fall. Animal sacrifice is revealed from the Lord, and its purpose as a symbol of Christ is explained. Adam and Eve rejoice in the Lord and the plan of redemption. We also learn that Adam and Eve had children before Cain and Abel were born and that Cain subsequently married his niece. The sin of Cain and the beginning of secret wickedness is more fully explained here than in any other source. Furthermore, we are told that the gospel was taught to the descendants of Adam.
Moses chapter 6. [Moses 6] From this chapter we learn that Adam had both a spoken and a written language and kept a record known as a book of remembrance. Enoch begins his ministry as a seer, and his preaching reveals many things to us about Adam and the plan of salvation. Adam’s baptism is mentioned. The atonement of Jesus Christ is emphasized, along with its relationship to the fall of Adam and the innocence of little children.
Moses chapter 7. [Moses 7] The ministry of Enoch continues, with emphasis on his preaching and the establishment of the city of Zion. Enoch foresees the coming of the Savior and his crucifixion, atoning sacrifice, and resurrection. Enoch moves mountains and changes the course of rivers. He talks with the Lord and weeps with him because mankind chooses wickedness and sorrow in preference to the happiness of God. Enoch sees the Second Coming, eventual peace on the earth, and the establishment of a latter-day Zion called the New Jerusalem. The translation of Enoch and his city is declared. This chapter forms a pattern for the establishment of Zion in our own dispensation—a day when there will be no war, no death, no poverty, and the people will be of one heart and one mind.
Moses chapter 8. [Moses 8] After Enoch’s translation, his son Methuselah and great grandson Noah continue to preach the gospel. Noah, a righteous prophet, teaches the first principles of the gospel. It is for rejecting the gospel and devoting themselves to violence and wickedness that the people are drowned in the flood.
As we read the book of Moses, we come to recognize it as a rich source of gospel truth and spiritual insight. The book of Moses is a powerful witness for Jesus Christ and is evidence of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith.