Paul A. Douglas
30. The Myriad Spelling, Grammatical and Syntactical Errors in Joseph Smith’s Original Translation
Though defenders of the Book of Mormon often discount as minor or meaningless the tens of thousands of grammatical, syntactical and spelling errors that appear in the original edition, I think we need to seriously question this.
Apologists often claim that these changes were made to improve punctuation and fix a few, minor grammatical problems. This is a gross understatement.
The following are only a few of literally thousands of examples:
The original read,
“… the cause of diseases which was subsequent to man, by the nature of the climate…” (page 353, 1830 Book of Mormon)
Today’s edition reads, “… the causes of diseases, to which men were subject, by the nature of the climate…”
“And when Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had wrote upon the rent, and crying with a loud voice…”
(page 351, 1830 Book of Mormon)
Today it reads, “And when Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, crying with a loud voice…”
And, another example:
“… for behold, his army had been reduced by the Lamanites because of the numerority of their forces having slain a vast number of our men…
Book of Mormon, page 382, (1830 edition)
The modern edition reads, “… for behold; his army had been reduced by the Lamanites because their forces had slain a vast number of our men…”
Commenting on the real significance of these numerous errors, B.H. Roberts, unquestionably one of the great historians in LDS church history, painfully admits that the errors in the original edition, were so numerous and such a part of the “web and woof of the style” of the text, that they could not be easily explained away:
“Are these flagrant errors in grammar chargeable to the Lord? To say so is to invite ridicule…the awkward, ungrammatical expression of the thoughts is, doubtless, the result of the translator’s imperfect knowledge of the English language … that old theory cannot be successfully maintained; that is, the Urim and Thummim did the translating, the Prophet, nothing beyond repeating what he saw reflected in that instrument; that God directly or indirectly is responsible for the verbal and grammatical errors of translation. To advance such a theory before intelligent and educated people is to unnecessarily invite ridicule, and make of those who advocate it candidates for contempt…”
Defense of the Faith, by B. H. Roberts, Deseret News, 1907-1912, pp. 278 – 308.
Apologists often pooh-pooh any criticism here by talking about Joseph’s lack of education and his use of the frontier grammar of the day.
As well, numerous Mormon writers and apologists have tried to explain why these myriad mistakes exist in the first place, and why thousands of changes have been made in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon.
Various suggestions have been made, including such things as Joseph Smith’s poor education, his lack of communication with those who later copied the text, and typesetting mistakes. These are all woefully inadequate.
Some have suggested that Smith was not given the actual words, but only the “idea” or “sense” of the things that were to be written – therefore, allowing for the possibility of all kinds of human error.
However, according to all reports; it was not Joseph Smith, but his magic seer stone that did the translating, Smith just had to read and announced the words appearing on it.
This rendition, that ideas came to Joseph, not words, contradicts the many clear statements made by distinguished or at least well-known Mormon leaders who observed the process and had it explained to them by the actual man with his head in the hat.
David Whitmer, for example, said, “I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness, the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English.”
Martin Harris, another of the ‘three witnesses’ reported:
“…sentences would appear and were read by the prophet, and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear, and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”
George Reynolds, the secretary to President John Taylor said, “There were no delays over obscure passages, no difficulties over the choice of words, no stoppages from the ignorance of the translator; no time was wasted in investigation or argument over the value, intent, or meaning of certain characters, and there was no reference to authorities… All was as simple as when a clerk writes from dictation. The translation of the characters appeared… Sentence by sentence, and as soon as one was correctly transcribed the next would appear.”
Joseph Knight described the translation process. This way,
“Darkened his Eyes he would take a sentence, and it would appear in Brite (sic) Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away the next sentence (sic) would come and so on. But if it was not Spelt (sic) rite (sic) it would not go away till it was rite (sic)…”
The above statements are significant, in that they explain the specific nature of the translating – the very words being given by God, spelled out, recorded properly, one character at a time, then repeated and corrected in the case of error. All directed by “the gift and power of God,”
Emma Smith, in an 1856 interview also described the process:
“When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time.”
The one thing that is consistent with all these descriptions is that they portray a visual “crawl” coming across something that looks like parchment. Obviously, the only way these witnesses would know of, and repeat almost verbatim; this account is that Joseph had told them that this was the method.
Ok, here is the rub. If we accept that Joseph Smith simply read words and sentences appearing on the seer stone, then we must assign responsibility for errors in language to Divine instrumentality, that is, God is not very skilled in the English language and a remarkably bad writer. This is absurd and ridiculous, even blasphemous. Or, if the contention is that the phraseology of the Book of Mormon, – letter for letter and word for word was given to the Smith by the direct inspiration of God, acting upon his mind, then again God is made accountable for the thousands and thousands of errors in the Book of Mormon – again, inconceivable.
There have been many LDS leaders and Mormon apologists that have claimed that the errors in the original 1830 Book of Mormon are simply typographical. This is really grasping at straws.
The venerated early Mormon historian, B.H. Roberts made it clear that he did not buy it:
“That errors of grammar and faults in dictation do exist in the Book of Mormon (and more especially and abundantly in the first edition) must be conceded; and what is more, while some of the errors may be referred to inefficient proof-reading, such as is to be expected in a country printing establishment, yet such is the nature of the errors in question, and so interwoven are they throughout the diction of the Book, that they may not be disposed of by saying they result from inefficient proof-reading or referring them to the mischievous disposition of the ‘typos’ or the unfriendliness of the publishing house. The errors are constitutional in their character; they are of the web and woof of the style, and not such errors as may be classed as typographical. Indeed, the first edition of the Book of Mormon is singularly free from typographical errors.”
Defense of the Faith, by B. H. Roberts, pp. 280-281;
reprinted in A New Witness For Christ in America,
by Francis W. Kirkham, Vol. 1, pp. 200-201)
How then could there be mistakes, English may not have been the Lord first language, but I would suggest He certainly has a perfect knowledge of it. Surely the Mormon apologists aren’t suggesting He only had a fundamental grasp of grammar, spelling, syntax and sentence structure.
Nor can these mistakes be blamed on typesetting errors. When we compare, the original handwritten manuscript allegedly dictated by Joseph Smith, and the corrected handwritten one from which the first printing was made, we discover copious changes—and this was before the typesetting was even done!
How then could the misspelled words below get into a translation supposedly overseen by the “power of God”?
“adhear” (for adhere; Alma 60:34)
“bablings” (for babblings; Alma 1:32)
“bellowses” (for bellows; 1 Nephi 17:11)
“feading” (for feeding; Enos 1:20)
“eigth” (for eighth; Alma 53:23)
“eatheth” (for eateth; 3 Nephi 20:8)
“journied” (for journeyed; 1 Nephi 4:38; 5:6; 7:6; 18:25
“phrensied” (for frenzied; Alma 30:16)
“rereward” (for rearward; 3 Nephi 20:42; 21:29)
“sayeth” (for saith; Mosiah 12:21)
“tempels” (for temples; Alma 16:13)
“yars” (for years; Alma 19:16)
Joseph’s grammar was even worse:
A few of the thousands of grammatical errors – incorrect adjectives and adverbs, double negatives, etc. are shown below:
- “And this he done” (Alma 2:10).
- “They did not fight against God no more” (Alma 23:7).
- “And now behold the Lamanites could not retreat neither
way” (Helaman 1:31).
- “Yea, if my days could have been in them days” (Helaman 7:8).
- “And Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could not understand
them” (Omni 1:17).
- “And it came to pass that there was certain men passing by”
- “That all might see the writing which he had wrote” (Alma 46:19).
- “I have wrote to them” (3 Nephi 26:8).
- “I were about to write to them” (3 Nephi 26:11).
- “…which was wrote upon the plates…” (Alma 44:24).
- “…that there might not be no more sorrow” (Alma 29:2).
- “Adam and Eve, which was our first parents…,” (1 Nephi 5:11).
- “…the multitude had all eat” (3 Nephi 20:9).
- “I Moroni have written the words which was commanded” (Ether 5:1).
- “…the gates of hell is…” (3 Nephi 18:13).
Redundancy too is an issue; many words and phrases are repeated ad nauseam:
The phrase, “And it came to pass,” occurring over 1200 times. Mark Twain commented that “Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.”
Also unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon is much too wordy, another example of poor writing. Far too many words are used to express a simple thought or idea. For example, 4 Nephi 6:
“And thus did the thirty and eight years pass away, also the thirty and ninth, and forty and first, and the forty and second, yea even until forty and nine years had passed away, and also the fifty and second; yea, and even until fifty and nine years had passed away.”
Why not just say, “59 years had passed!”
Likewise, the overuse of the words “behold,” insomuch” and “thereof,” often used needlessly.
The Church’s apologists seem to follow three tracks in trying to explain away these myriad spelling, grammatical and syntactical errors:
Blame the Printer: The man responsible for punctuating the first edition of the Book of Mormon was John Gilbert, who worked for E. B. Grandin, publisher of the first edition. According to Gilbert, it was Hyrum Smith who brought the first twenty-four pages of the handwritten printer’s manuscript to the publisher:
“He had it under his vest, and vest and coat closely buttoned over it. At night [Hyrum] came and got the manuscript, and with the same precaution carried it away. The next morning with the same watchfulness, he brought it again, and at night took it away. … On the second day – [Martin Harris] and [Hyrum] being in the office—I called their attention to a grammatical error, and asked whether I should correct it? Harris consulted with [Hyrum] a short time, and turned to me and said: ‘The Old Testament is ungrammatical, set it as it is written.’
“After working a few days, I said to [Hyrum] on his handing me the manuscript in the morning; ‘Mr. Smith, if you would leave this manuscript with me, I would take it home with me at night and read and punctuate it.’ His reply was, ‘We are commanded not to leave it.’ A few mornings after this, when [Hyrum] handed me the manuscript, he said to me: ‘if you will give your word that this manuscript shall be returned to us when you get through with it, I will leave it with you.’ … for two or three nights I took it home with me and read it, and punctuated it with a lead pencil.’”
Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work,
vol. 1, Salt Lake City: Wilford C. Wood, 1959.
Blame the Scribe: “Although Joseph Smith was the translator of the Book of Mormon, the spelling in the first edition was Oliver Cowdery’s…”
George Horton, “Understanding Textual
Changes in the Book of Mormon,” Ensign,
Blame the English language itself: “Before we can understand why many of these corrections have been necessary, we must know that American English spelling in 1829 was not yet standardized.”
“…Webster’s own American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828; and, if it was available to Oliver Cowdery, that would add one more to the other five. Small wonder, then, that Oliver’s spelling would seem creative to the modern reader.”
None of these are of course satisfactory.
Why would Joseph not be given grammatically correct sentences rather than the dog’s breakfast found in the first edition? And surely the words that appeared on the seer stone were not misspelled?
If they were spelled correctly, (or at least in concert with Webster’s 1828 dictionary which the Lord knew was then and in the future, would be the standard) why did Smith not spell the words as they appeared if unfamiliar with them?
When the word ‘temple’ would appear on the stone, the spelling which Smith and Cowdery knew as ‘tempels,’ or ‘eighth’ rather than ‘eigth’ or ‘journeyed’ instead of ‘journeyed’, or ‘years,’ not ‘yars’ would they not catch on after a few hundred words?
I have also discovered several contradictions within the Book of Mormon:
The Book of Mormon states that at the tower of Babel the Jaredites had their separate language (Esther 1:34-35). The Bible, however, tells us that “the whole earth was of one language” (Genesis 11:1).
The Bible says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1). The Book of Mormon reads: “And behold, he shall be born of Mary at Jerusalem” (Alma 7:10).
The Bible relates that at the crucifixion there were three hours of darkness (Luke 23:44). However, the Book of Mormon states there was darkness “for the space of three days” (Helaman 14:20,27).
The Book of Mormon teaches that black skin is a sign of God’s curse (2 Nephi 5:21). In contrast, the Bible teaches that God “made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26).
The Book of Mormon tells us that “Melchizedek…did reign under his father” (Alma 13:18). However, the Bible teaches that Melchizedek was a priest under no one. The Bible states that Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without descent” in other words, he did not inherit his priesthood (Hebrews 7:3).
The people described in the Book of Mormon operated multiple temples (Alma 16:13; 23:2; 26:29). This violates the dictates of the Old Testament Scriptures – God commanded Israel to build only one temple to reflect that fact that there is only one true God (Deuteronomy 12:5,13-14; 16:5-6).
There are thousands of grammatical errors in the first edition of the Book of Mormon – double negatives, incorrect adjectives, adverbs and often wrong or changing tenses.
Smith also used colloquial terms common to his day. The frequent use of “a” with various participles is noticeable in such phrases as: “a journeying,” “a preaching,” “a marching,” “a coming,” and so on! Such lingo betrays the influence of the vernacular of the 1800s and is not the language one might expect to find in scripts from ancient times.
As well, the first edition of the Book of Mormon contains numerous instances of exceptionally poor sentence structure, which was, changed in later editions.
1 1830 Book of Mormon, P. 351.
2 1830 Book of Mormon, page 382
3 Defense of the Faith, by B. H. Roberts, Deseret News, 1907-1912, pp. 278 – 308.
4 Defense of the Faith, by B. H. Roberts, pp. 280-281; reprinted in A New Witness For Christ in America, by Francis W. Kirkham, Vol. 1, pp. 200-201
5 Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, vol. 1, Salt Lake City: Wilford C. Wood, 1959.
6 George Horton, “Understanding Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, December 1983
7 George Horton, “Understanding Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, December 1983