I Have a Question
March 1987

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Mar. 1987, 47–49

Why have changes been made in the printed editions of the Book of Mormon?

Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Education, Brigham Young University. The simplest answer is that changes and corrections have been necessary to correct copying and printing errors and to clarify the message of this book of scripture. Corrections of this sort are normal whenever new editions of a book are printed. Mistakes such as typographical errors, misspellings, misplaced or dropped words, and ambiguities noted in the first edition are usually corrected in the next. Errors like these multiply when one language is translated into another. And if the source of the communication is divine revelation, the process becomes even more complex.

The Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, for example, said they saw and heard things they could not communicate in the language they had:

“Great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom which he showed unto us, which surpass all understanding in glory, and in might, and in dominion;

“Which he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter;

“Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him.” (D&C 76:114–16.)

President John Taylor told of when he and the Prophet Joseph Smith were discussing the second coming of the Savior and the role of various prophets who held priesthood keys: “He wished me to write something for him on this subject, but I found it a very difficult thing to do. He had to correct me several times. … It is very difficult to find language suitable to convey the meaning of spiritual things.” (Journal of Discourses, 18:330.) President Taylor was a man of considerable intelligence, very gifted in the use of language. His discourse and writing flowed smoothly and clearly, but he experienced, as have others, the difficulty mortal man has when he attempts to write the things of God.

The Prophet Joseph Smith was well aware of this problem. During his lifetime, three editions of the Book of Mormon were printed. Each time, he amended the text in a few places to more correctly convey the intended meaning of his translation. Other changes in these and successive editions were made to correct typographical errors, improper spelling, and inaccurate or missing punctuation and to improve grammar and sentence structure to eliminate ambiguity. None of these changes, individually or collectively, alter the message of the Book of Mormon.1

Let us survey the corrective literary process that took place from the original translation of the gold plates by the Prophet Joseph Smith to the printing of the various editions. Here we will deal particularly with changes in the original manuscript, in the handwritten copy of the original, and in the printed editions of 1830, 1837, 1840, and 1981.2 The first three editions are especially valuable because they were printed during the Prophet Joseph Smith’s lifetime; some copies contain his editorial comments.

Corrections took place at every stage—while transcribing and editing the original manuscript, while copying the manuscript, and while setting type from that manuscript. As each edition was prepared for printing, the errors that had been noted in the preceding edition or editions were corrected.

The Book of Mormon Documents

The Prophet Joseph Smith did not leave us a detailed account of the daily translation process of the Book of Mormon but said it was accomplished through the “mercy of God, by the power of God.” (D&C 1:29.) His usual procedure was to dictate to a scribe as he translated from the plates. Oliver Cowdery was the principal scribe and was assisted by Martin Harris, Emma Smith, probably John Whitmer, and an additional unidentified person. The words on the manuscript were essentially the Prophet’s, but each scribe added his or her own spelling variations.

Spelling was not as standardized in those days as it is now, and many felt at liberty to vary the way they formed words.3 For example, in what is now 1 Nephi 7:20 [1 Ne. 7:20], ware sorraful in the manuscript was changed to were sorrowful in the first printed edition. Plaits in the manuscript (1 Ne. 13:23) became plates in the printed edition. These and similar changes show why editing was necessary to make the manuscript more understandable.

The document these several scribes produced as they wrote at the Prophet’s dictation is the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon in English translation. It was completed about 1 July 1829.

Then Oliver Cowdery was directed by the Prophet to make a second copy. This he did, writing most, but not all, of it himself. This manuscript is called the “printer’s” or “emended” manuscript. It was made before any printing was attempted.

The original manuscript has not survived intact; it became water-soaked while stored in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, and about two-thirds of it rotted away. The 144 remaining pages, in the Church vaults in Salt Lake City, contain most of 1 Nephi [1 Ne.]; a portion of 2 Nephi 1 [2 Ne. 1]; portions of Alma 11 and 19 [Alma 11; Alma 19]; Alma 22–63; parts of Helaman 1–3 [Hel. 1–3]; and part of 3 Nephi 26 [3 Ne. 26].4 The printer’s manuscript, on the other hand, is in good condition. It is a part of the collection of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri.

As one might expect, any handwritten copy will differ in some ways from its original. The printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon differed from the original for two principal reasons. First, unintentional variations are impossible to avoid in a transcription of 464 pages. Second, there is evidence of some deliberate editing, such as smoothing out phrases, substituting one word for another, correcting spelling errors, adding punctuation, and other intended improvements.

It was this “emended” manuscript that was taken to the printer for typesetting for the first edition of the Book of Mormon.

Printed Editions

The first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed in 1830 in Palmyra, New York, by the E. B. Grandin Company. The principal typesetter and compositor was John H. Gilbert, who also provided most of the punctuation and paragraphing. Production was slow and fraught with the possibility of making errors, both of sight and of judgment. Comparison of first edition copies show that corrections were made even during the press run, a practice common in those days.5

Seven years later, the second edition—a minor revision—of the Book of Mormon was printed in Kirtland, Ohio, by O. Cowdery and Company for P. P. Pratt and J. Goodson. Brothers Pratt and Goodson served as editors and caretakers and made the following explanation about the efforts of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to prepare this revised edition (spelling and punctuation are original):

“Individuals acquainted with book printing, are aware of the numerous typographical errors which always occur in manuscript editions. It is only necessary to say, that the whole has been carefully re-examined and compared with the original manuscripts, by elder Joseph Smith, Jr. the translator of the book of Mormon, assisted by the present printer, brother O. Cowdery, who formerly wrote the greatest portion of the same, as dictated by brother Smith.

Parley P. Pratt,

John Goodson

Kirtland, Ohio 1837”

In 1840, the third edition was printed in Nauvoo, Illinois, by Ebenezer Robinson and Don Carlos Smith. Here the title page notes that this edition has been “Carefully Revised by the Translator,” again letting the reader know that the Prophet Joseph Smith was directly involved with the editorial changes in both this edition and its 1830 and 1837 predecessors.

Over the next 140 years, various other editions containing adjustments and refinements were published, resulting in considerable format change but not in many textual revisions. Then, in 1981, the Church published an edition with approximately 160 corrections. Although most are grammar and spelling improvements, several significant corrections and additions to the text were made. A detailed account of these corrections may be found in the Ensign (Sept. 1976, pp. 77–82; Oct. 1981, pp. 8–19) and in BYU Studies (Fall 1982, pp. 387–423). Two examples follow.

In Alma 16:5 two words sound similar, but the spelling is slightly different, and the meaning is vastly different. The Lamanites had taken Nephite prisoners of war. Zoram, chief Nephite army captain, went to Alma the prophet and asked him to inquire of the Lord concerning the prisoners. Until 1981, all printed editions read, “therefore they went unto him to know whether the Lord would that they should go … in search of their brethren.” (Italics added.) The original manuscript reads whither rather than whether, and it was corrected to read so in the 1981 version. For years the interpretation had been whether (if) the Nephites should go in search of their brethren. The true meaning is, rather, whither (where) they should go. The printer’s manuscript contains a rather awkward correction from whether to whither, showing that this had been discovered long ago, but the correction was not assimilated into the scripture until the 1981 edition.

An interesting correction has been made in Alma 57:25, which deals with the remarkable preservation of 2060 young soldiers: “And to our great astonishment, and also the joy of our whole army, there was not one soul of them who did perish.” Until 1981, all editions of the Book of Mormon read foes. However, careful examination of the printer’s manuscript shows that the correct word is joy. The error occurred in earlier editions because the handwriting on the manuscript is peculiarly formed at this point, and typesetters and proofreaders simply misread it. The word foes does make sense as used in the passage, but is not as appropriate as joy.

Editing Bible Texts

The same kind of editorial effort that has been exerted to correct and refine the Book of Mormon over the past 156 years has been occurring for centuries with the Bible. Students familiar with biblical research know that the reason there are several versions of the Bible in print today is that there are literally thousands of biblical manuscripts available, none of them originals, and all differ in various ways. They are grouped in “families” because they appear to come from several major textual ancestors. Hence, the Catholic Vulgate Bible represents a different textual lineage than the New English Bible. The King James Version represents still another.

Typographical errors have occurred in many editions of the Bible, especially in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, when typesetting was done by hand. Since the first printing of the King James Version in A.D. 1611, there have been many revisions and modifications made by British scholars. This has resulted in a continuing increase in the number of words being set in italics, which indicates an editorial attempt to enlarge or round out a thought that was poorly expressed in the manuscripts or was difficult to translate exactly. Readers of today’s King James Version may think that it is an exact duplicate of what was printed 375 years ago, but it is not. The number of italicized words in Matthew alone increased from 43 in 1611 to 583 in 1870 because of revisions to the text.6

It is no secret that many changes and omissions occurred during the development of modern Bible texts. This creates a particularly serious situation since neither the originals nor even a complete second- or third-generation document of the Bible is available for comparison. In this respect, the text of the Book of Mormon is on a much stronger footing since the entire printer’s manuscript is available, plus parts of the original dictated manuscript and the 1837 and 1840 editions, which were revised by the translator himself. Because comparison with these early versions was possible, the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon is the most correct ever published by the Church.


  1. Several individuals have sought out with great care the variants that exist Among the printed editions of the Book of Mormon, and some have also made comparison with the prepublication manuscripts. These studies have shown that the majority of the changes have been grammatical, punctuational, and explanatory, but not substantive.

  2. Readers wishing to know more will find the following documents informative: Jeffrey R. Holland, “An Analysis of Selected Changes in Major Editions of the Book of Mormon—1830–1920,” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1966; Stanley R. Larson, “A Study of Some Textual Variations in the Book of Mormon Comparing the Original and Printer’s Manuscripts and the 1830, the 1837, and the 1840 Editions,” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974; Richard P. Howard, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development, Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1969; Daniel H. Ludlow, “Selected Changes in the Book of Mormon Since the First Edition,” Special Collections, Brigham Young University Library, n.d.; Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies, Spring 1970, pp. 259–78.

  3. For an interesting discussion of the varieties of spelling that were common and even acceptable in the period immediately preceding Joseph Smith’s time, see George A. Horton, Jr., “Changes in the Book of Mormon and How to Handle Them,” Report of the Sixth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium on the Book of Mormon, August 1982, pp. 36–39.

  4. Jessee, Ibid.

  5. For an informative discussion on this matter, see Janet Jenson, “Variations Between Copies of the First Edition of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies, Winter 1973, pp. 214–22.

  6. P. Marion Simms, The Bible in America, New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1936, p. 97.