Help me construct a Book of Mormon scholarly bibliography!

As the proud old-time LDSLF readers among our audience may be aware, about two years ago I began a project to create a modern-language adaptation, for study purposes, of the Book of Mormon. Modest individual that I am, I named it after myself.

The project has been on hiatus for more than a year – initially because I lost several months to poor physical health, but more recently because I’ve been reworking my purpose. I’ve decided that I’m more interested in creating an adaptation of the original text of the Book of Mormon (inasmuch as it can be recovered) than the 1980 edition. My reasons for this include: 1) unwillingness to infringe on the church’s copyright of the more recent text, 2) the desire to familiarize myself with Joseph’s original revelation, as I’m already familiar with today’s version, and 3) the joy of buying a bunch of cool books by people like Royal Skousen.

Well, if I’m honest, #2 is really what’s motivating me here. For all that I respect the process of ongoing revelation, I’m curious about the original product of Joseph Smith’s labors. What did God show him? What did he see? What did it mean to his 1820s mind?

It’s a complicated task. In the adaptation I’m ever-so-slowly creating, I’m using my handy OED and its excellent word histories to determine the most likely current meanings of words which are unclear today. I’ve begun a bit of a crash-course in the sort of manuscript criticism Skousen has used in his work (thanks, J. Daniel Crawford and Mogget, for your help in starting me out). I’m currently reading New Approaches to the Book of Mormon as an intro to Book of Mormon textual criticism, and I’m going to dig through every issue of Dialogue, BYU Studies, etc., for relevant articles. (Kevin, I demand immediate praise!).

My goal here is to build myself a nifty toolbox of ideas and methods. But I’m sure I’ll miss something vital. Brave BCC readers, won’t you please help me? What have I already missed? What, in your opinions, is vital reading?

-Serenity Valley


  1. Costanza says:

    Have you read Mark Thomas’s _Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives_ (Signature, 1999)? It might be helpful to your overall project.

  2. Pardon the perhaps naive question, but will a modernization of the “original” text using Skousen’s work be much different than a modernization using the 1980 edition?

  3. Costanza,

    Yeah, I got it for Christmas. It’s one of the things that convinced me the project is really worth doing, in fact – it gave me hope that someone, somewhere, might actually be interested in reading the adaptation.

  4. Stapley,

    Ah, the big question.

    Yes, it will. That’s in part because of the revisions we’ve made over the last 175 years. (“white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome”, “God” to “Son of God”), and in part because there are some clear instances of printing errors which no one ever picked up. Here’s a fun example: someone (I can’t remember whether it was a scribe or the printer) misread the phrase “sword of God” as “word of God” at an important juncture in the text, and now we’ve got “word of God” in a place where it doesn’t make much sense; “sword of God” does make sense, and it changes the meaning of the passage. Sorry, I’m not at home, and I can’t cite the passage. If you remind me, I’ll look it up later.

  5. I’m not sure I understand quite what you’re doing. if I’ve understood you correctly, you’re attempting to contextualize the Book of Mormon original text. To that end, I would recommend using Webster’s 1828 dictionary (Smith bought a copy in 1835 to help with the Abraham translation, and though he didn’t have it in hand for BoM, I think it reasonably represents the milieu).
    For theological understandings Smith would have brought to bear, I recommend Buck’s Theological Dictionary 1823 edition (googlebooks has it). For the pseudo-anthropological milieu, I would read Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (NB: I’m not saying they inspired BoM, I’m saying they may be helpful in gauging how Smith might have responded to BoM). Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible is a good start for Bible culture. Rust (I think his first name is Richard) has written a book on literary themes in BoM. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith gives a decent view of folk religion for the period preceding Smith. Catherine Albanese’s new book will give you a reasonable survey of the metaphysical milieu of antebellum America.

  6. Taryn, I’m familiar with at least some of the anomolous words here and there and there is also punctuation. I guess I am just not convinced it will be that much of difference (this could be naivety on my part).

  7. Taryn: If you’re interested in textual criticism it seems to me that Royal Skousen’s work is far more relevant. In fact, I would think that New Approaches would be one of the worst places to start. If you just interested in how Joseph worked with biblical pericopes, then I would think that the Michael Marquardt’s list of biblical parallels. I guess I’ befuddled at your starting point.

  8. Taryn, I believe you’re referring to 1 Nephi 12:18.

  9. smb, you may not understand what I’m doing, but you’re pretty good at giving me very helpful advice for it anyway. :) Thank you!

    My foremost interest here is to create a study version of the text which will help people figure out what the book actually said to Joseph Smith – what the words he used most likely meant to him. What did a phrase like “fine apparel” mean to him? How did he visualize the stories? What did he actually say when he was dictating?

    I’m not an originalist. I don’t think that understanding such things will give me insight into a more authentic Mormonism than that which we practice today. I do think, though, that the original text is intrinsically interesting. I also think that we’re probably underutilizing the religious imagery the book provides us, because we can’t visualize it. I think we frequently misunderstand the book’s basic literal narrative because the grammer gets in the way. I think it’s easy for people to hide (or more commonly, be unaware of) the biases they bring to their interpretations of the Book of Mormon because its language is often opaque and easy to obscure. That puts up barriers to theological work based on the text, since it prevents people from communicating about the text effectively.

    I also think we underestimate the beauty of the Book of Mormon – both its words and its structure – because that beauty is hidden by so very many uses of “And it came to pass…”.

    Finally, I think it’s really useful for us to understand how we’ve changed the text. It’s an interesting way of documenting our developing understanding of God.

  10. MikeInWeHo says:

    I know I’m being simplistic here, Taryn, but is the end result going to be analogous to The Living Bible ? That would be cool.

  11. Sounds like you’re working on a sociocultural Sitz im Leben for the Book of Mormon translation. Now I understand (sorry for being obtuse).

    In that case, other works include
    Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
    Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.
    Rex Eugene Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers: Mormon Covenant Organization. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1990.
    John Greenleaf Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1847.
    Gordon S. Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” New York History LXI (October 1980): 360-86.
    Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary.
    Dan Vogel, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988.
    Lewis Saum, The Popular Mood of Pre-Civil War America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
    John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
    David Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989 (focus on the New England section, the book is very very very long)

    Good luck. I wouldn’t rely on OED for your definitions; their project is a bit Anglophile and diachronic for your stated needs. I would stick with Webster 1828.

  12. Stapley,

    I’d be willing to bet that most folks don’t know what a scarlet is. And the debates I’ve heard on what it means that Nephi’s parents were “goodly”…

    As far as the punctuation goes: there isn’t much in the manuscripts, actually. The printer inserted most of it, and he occasionally resolved ambiguities. We’re pretty sure that Joseph wasn’t involved in any significant way, and we have no idea what sort of criteria the printer used beyond his own personal common sense. In fact, this is a major reason I’m interested in the project.

    Anyway, I don’t think you’re naive, I think you’re very, very educated.

    Blake, thanks for the advice; I’ll check out Marquardt’s stuff. I’m not quite sure how New Approaches could be a poor starting place, though – I realize that it’s got a basic orientation you probably don’t agree with, but the bibliographies are a great starting place. Besides, I’m more interested in familiarizing myself with the entire relevant literature than involving myself in its hot debates.

    Justin, that’s it. Thanks for the citation.

  13. a random John says:


    How do you plan to publish this when you’re done? I’d be tempted to suggest publishing at the outset as a sort of Wiki and never being done.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Taryn, immediate praise hereby granted!

    I’ve got just the thing for you: A Comprehensive Annotated Book of Mormon Bibliography. Here is the Amazon link.

    When FARMS first came out with this, I purchased the more succinct Selected Bibliography, because the hardbound Comprehensive version cost more than $100. But when FARMS stopped warehousing its own materials, I was able to buy one for about $20. At the Amazon link, you’ll see that the new price is still about $100, but you can purchase a used copy for just over $20. The Comprehensive bibliography is superior, because it includes anti-Mormon literature, whereas the Selected paperback bibliography just has the pro stuff.

    You may find the FARMS selected reading list useful.

  15. arJ,

    I’d thought about an open, collaborative project. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that a respectful treatment of the text requires a single originating voice; multiple people would have much more difficulty creating a whole, smooth text. Also, sticking it out on my own will give me more control over the quality of the adaptation. After each book is done, I intend to post it online somewhere – perhaps as a PDF – and ask for critiques. I also intend to find some professionally qualified experts and ask them to look the text over once I’ve got the whole thing completed. Then I’ll revise it, go through the critiquing process again, and publish. Best of both worlds that way.

    I may submit it to a publishing house, but frankly, I doubt sending it to Signature would maximize the adaptation’s usefulness to the community, since a large chunk of the community avoids Signature so strenuously. And given that I’m an academically unqualified woman with what some might see as unclear loyalties, I doubt anyone associated with BYU would want it. I’m not sure anyone else would be interested. So I’ll most likely either leave it as an electronic download, or I’ll set up a Lulu account. As far as copyrights go, I’ll probably set it up so that no one can make money from the adaptation, but they’re free to use it – a Creative Commons type of thing. That makes it wikiable, should anyone wish to organize a collaborative effort.

  16. smb and Kevin, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    smb, that Nathan Hatch book is great fun. And I had to look Sitz im Leben up, but yes, that’s what I’m going for.

  17. MikeInWeHo,

    Sorry, I missed your comment earlier. Yes, that’s one of the major intended purposes of the project. First and foremost, I want to provide a clear, readable text. Second, I want to contextualize it as smb discusses above.

  18. Taryn – some thoughts:

    What you’re proposing is difficult; to get inside the theological world of Smith, circa 1825-30 – before he became the religionmaker he was ten years later. Is that right? It’s difficult to gauge exactly what theological concepts like the Trinity and the atonement meant to average folks like his family.

    Buck’s is as good a source as any for Anglo-American theology in the period (though a secondary source that might be useful is Paul Conkin’s _The Uneasy Center:Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America_), as it was very well known, but it’s a Presbyterian work, which means that Arminians like the Methodists had some theological problems with it, particularly its interpretations of church authority, as the distinctions between Arminian and Calvinist soteriology were fading at this point.

    There are several books that like the Hatch, Saum and Fischer, attempt to explore popular religiosity and culture in antebellum America – another is Richard Rabinowitz, __The Spiritual Self in Everyday Life_. The Hatch has proved the most influential; many historians believe the others have some pervasive interpretive flaws. Still, they’re useful for sources and context.

    Also check out Whitney Cross, _The Burned Over District_, which is fifty years old but still the best work on the Second Great Awakening in Joseph’s neighborhood.

  19. Matt B,

    Thank you, I appreciate the recommendations.

  20. I’d love to know if there has been an evolution of 19th century to present views of HF having omniscience and/or omnipotence (it’s so strange how they do not neatly fit together but are oddly used together in so many church articles).

    I’d also like to know the Mormon view of a God as a theist and/or a deist God (again, both can fit depending on the teaching of the time).

    This might be better suited as work for a graduate student doing a meta-analysis of church articles. If done, we could possibly see if one view pops up more than the other, or how the view might evolve over time and cultures.

  21. Anon. How on earth could a God who intervenes go appear and give revelations and create miracles as often as occurred to Joseph Smith be a deistic deity?

  22. Blake, I’m not sure whether anon had this level of sophistication in mind, but there are some who would situate Smith’s teachings about the Light of Christ or his ultra-Elohim theology of law as something like the metaphysical God the Deists promoted, though this is at best a partial analogy. I absolutely agree that Smith’s Heavenly Father is about as Deistic as Hermes.

  23. There’s this.

  24. Sterling says:

    How would your attempt to create a readable text be different from _The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition_ by Grant Hardy?

    If you are serious about doing this, I would identify every three-word phrase that the Book of Mormon has in common with the Bible. Most modern readers miss these biblical allusions, but they were very noticeable to people in Jacksonian America. FARMS put together a database of this sort some time ago, which was probably based on the 1981 edition, but I do not know how available it is to outside scholars. It would be nice to see someone update this project/database with the text recovered by Skousen. It would also improve upon the concordances for the Book of Mormon that others have produced.

  25. Nitsav, thanks.


    This product will continue to use contemporary English vocabulary, as I’ve attempted to do up to now. As much as is possible, given the ambiguities in the original text, I’m also using contemporary syntax, and I’m freeing it of clutter words and phrases (“And it came to pass…”). Think of it more as a translation from, say, Middle English to today’s English, than as an excercise in historical footnoting.

    I’m also much more interested in manuscript history than church history. There’s some overlap – the transcription and copying process, with its various scribes, for instance, is of interest to both of us. I’m interested in the side of it Skousen has concerned himself with – the ways in which the conditions and individuals involved influenced the manuscripts’ contents. So far as I know, Hardy focuses heavily on the testimony-building side of such things: statements by witnesses to the gold plates, and so on.

    I’ve thought about trying to maintain phrasing parallels between my adaptation and some modern-language version of the Bible, but I’ve not yet thought through the implications and complexities of such a course of action. I’m more likely to try and ensure that repeated phrases in the original text are adapted in consistent ways, and to footnote the biblical parallels. They are, after all, important to our understanding of early Mormons’ experiences with the text. In any case, thanks for alerting me to the FARMS database; if I can get access to it, it will be very helpful.

  26. SV, then you might want to check out Hugh Stocks’ PhD dissy and Master’s thesis. He is supposed to have a book out with Kofford one of these days as well.

  27. Stapley, thanks.

  28. Mike Parker says:

    Taryn: Completely off-topic, but were you at the Battle of Serenity Valley? And if so, which side did you fight on?

  29. My memories of the battle are still fresh, Mike. I’m a browncoat.

    -Serenity Valley/TNS

  30. Sterling says:

    Re: original post – I do not think the LDS church holds the copyright to the Book of Mormon text. Only the chapter headings are copyrighted. Everything else, I believe, is in the public domain.

    Re: 5 & 11 – I wouldn’t write off the OED so easily. If Skousen is right, the language of the Book of Mormon has more in common with the seventeenth-century English of the KJV than it does with Webster’s 1828 dictionary.

    Re: 17 – How do you define a readable text? To what extent is this related to word length? How about sentence length? What about substituting archaic words for modern ones? Are you aiming to make the text accessible to any particular grade level?

    Re: 25 – You said you want to “ensure that repeated phrases in the original text are adapted in consistent ways.” Is it valid to assume that a particular phrase will mean the same thing every time it is employed in the Book of Mormon?

    Re: 25 – I like your idea about “phrasing parallels.” With the help of biblical concordances, you could track changes in the language of the Bible, from KJV to modern. In instances where the phraseology of the Book of Mormon is identical to the KJV Bible, you could consider adapting the Book of Mormon text just as modern translations of the Bible have done.

  31. Sterling, I thought Grant Hardy used the 1921 text for his reader’s edition precisely because the 1981 text was still under copyright.

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    You’re right, J. Grant used the older text because the Church has a copyright in the specific 1981 edition text. As I commented in my FR review of Hardy’s book, the differences are miniscule for the average reader and hardly noticeable.

  33. Thanks for the correction guys. It seems a little amazing to me that people can publish all they want from the 1921 edition without infringing on the copyright of the 1981 edition. But then again, I am not a lawyer. ;-)

  34. Serenity: I am just flabbergasted (I like that word) that no one has mentioned Richard Rust’s Feasting on the Word. I also think the FARMS tome on King Benjamin’s Speech would be another great place to look.

  35. Sterling, I think you’re right about the OED. I don’t really see it as anglophilic; it generally discusses both era- and region-specific word usage, and it includes plenty of information about US usage.

    I’ll probably pick up a copy of the other dictionary for reference, though. It will be useful in cases where the OED leaves things unresolved.

    My goal up to now has been to put the text at a level which is very readable for a student in high school or the first year of college. I believe there are already some modern-language adaptations which target more of a grade-school reading level; the quality of their rephrasing (both meaning and basic writing quality) is not generally very good; they often lose much of the original’s underlying grace in both language and structure. However, at least they exist. I’d like to produce something an independent reader could use, but which would also be of use in an undergraduate classroom. I prefer to break down portions of the text with long, clause-ridden sentences, but that’s something I’ve had to negotiate carefully; loss of meaning is a serious concern. In terms of word choice, I’m generally shooting for a notch below SAT-level words. I hope to make this at least somewhat accessible to church members who aren’t highly educated.

    I intend to continue substituting modern words for archaic ones – you can see what I’ve done up to now if you click on the link in my original post. This is necessary if the original meaning of the text is to be transmitted. If I were simply to footnote the original text with information about word meaning and usage, I’d be left with a potentially useful reference, but the reader would not experience the book as a whole text, and it would be harder for them to avoid carrying information from previous readings of the canonized text into their interaction with the adaptation.

    Of course, if I wanted to adapt repeated phrases without concern for their contextual meaning, I’d just use the find and replace function on my word processor. I’m not interested in that. I want to make sense of the text. I’m doing everything I can to avoid bringing my own pre-existing ideas about its meaning into the project. As you might imagine, this is not a rote process; it involves a great deal of mental effort. Even the limited work I’ve already done required serious labor; though I started out using the short chaptering of recent BOM versions, each chapter took me an average of five hours to complete.

    Re: phrasing parallels: yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about. The problem is that in some cases, the KJV-BOM forms of such parallel phrases still resonate strongly in the minds of today’s Mormons, as they presumably did in the minds of early church members; I’d like to preserve that as much as I can without undermining the adaptation’s purpose. It’s a tricky situation, though part of what makes the entire project enjoyable.

  36. Blake, that’s why I put my original post up – so folks with differing reading histories can help me compile a comprehensive body of literature for review. I appreciate your information here!

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