Q&A with Don Bradley, author of The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon's Missing Stories December 09 2019
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For readers less familiar with the "lost 116 pages" can you provide a brief synopsis of what they were and how they became lost?
After Joseph Smith dictated to scribes the first four and half centuries of the Book of Mormon’s chronicle of ancient Jewish settlers in the New World (the Nephites), the manuscript of this account was borrowed by the last of those scribes, Martin Harris. The manuscript later disappeared from Harris’s locked drawer and has been lost to history ever since. The current Book of Mormon text is therefore incomplete, substituting a shorter account for this lengthy missing narrative.
Can you piece together what most likely happened to this lost early manuscript? Does the standard narrative that Lucy Harris likely destroyed them hold up? If not, why and what other possibilities should we consider?
When the manuscript disappeared, Martin Harris initially suspected his wife of the theft. Lucy Harris had been skeptical of her husband’s investment in the book and would have had motive to interfere. Lucy Harris has been regarded as the prime suspect in the theft since the late 1800s, and it has been widely presumed that she burned the manuscript. However, the explanation that Lucy Harris burned the manuscript was first proposed as only a speculative possibility a quarter-century after the fact, but the dramatic image of the disgruntled wife throwing the pages into the flames quickly caught fire and became increasingly popular with time. The further the historical sources get from the actual theft, the more likely they are to tell this story, indicating that it was the story’s sensationalism, rather than its accuracy, that led to its popularity. The first person to have suspected Lucy Harris of the theft, her husband Martin, abandoned this theory when he learned that his estranged but devout Quaker wife had denied on her deathbed knowing what happened to the pages.
The presumption that Lucy Harris stole the pages, acted alone in doing so, and burned them has prevented investigators from looking closely at other suspects, including a number of people who had previously attempted to steal other documents and relics associated with the Book of Mormon. Former treasure digging associates of Joseph Smith had attempted several times to steal the original Book of Mormon—the golden plates. And Martin and Lucy Harris had a son-in-law, a known swindler, who once stole the “Anthon transcript” of characters copied from the plates. Fixating on Lucy Harris as the only possible thief has blinded inquirers to noticing these obvious suspects.
Despite the widespread presumption that Lucy Harris was guilty of taking and burning the manuscript, the manuscript’s ultimate fate is an open question.
You assert that the lost early manuscript might have been longer than 116 pages. Can you provide some reasoning for this? Can you also speculate on how long they may have been?
The number given for the length of the lost manuscript—116 pages—exactly matches the length of the “small plates” text that replaced that manuscript. This coincidence has led several scholars, beginning with Robert F. Smith, to propose that the length of the lost manuscript was actually unknown and the 116 pages figure was just an estimate based on the length of its replacement.
While we can’t know for sure the length of the lost manuscript, unless it turns up, we can do better than just guessing at its actual length, because we have several lines of evidence for this, all of which converge on a probable manuscript size. Joseph Smith reported that Martin scribed on the lost manuscript over a period of 64 days, which, given Joseph’s known translation rate would have produced a manuscript far larger than 116 pages. In line with this, Emer Harris, ancestor to a living Latter-day Saint apostle and brother to Martin Harris, reported at a church conference that Martin had scribed for “near 200 pages” of the manuscript before it was lost. A later interviewer recounted Martin himself reporting a similar scribal output when stating what proportion of the total Book of Mormon text he recorded. Since Martin was not the only scribe to work on the now-lost manuscript but, rather, the fifth such scribe, the manuscript as a whole would have been well in excess of the nearly 200 pages produced by Martin, likely closer to 300 pages. Other lines of evidence within the existing Book of Mormon text point to a similar length for the lost portion.
What sources are used in this book to identify what was in the Book of Mormon's lost 116 pages?
To reconstruct the Book of Mormon’s lost stories this book makes use of both internal sources from within the current Book of Mormon text and external sources beyond that text. Internal sources from the Book of Mormon include, first, accounts from the narrators of the small plates of Nephi, which cover the same time period as the lost portion of Mormon’s abridgment, and, second, narrative callbacks in the surviving remnants of Mormon’s abridgment that refer to the lost stories. External sources used in the reconstruction include statements in the earliest manuscripts of Joseph Smith's revelations describing and echoing the lost pages, statements by Joseph Smith reported by apostles Franklin D. Richards and Erastus Snow, an 1830 interview granted by Joseph Smith, Sr., a conference sermon by Martin Harris’s brother Emer Harris, and reports by several other early Latter-day Saints and friends of Martin Harris.
Can you provide a few examples of how your research into the lost early manuscript has increased your awareness of a Jewish core in the Book of Mormon text?
The research that went into this book has disclosed to me a Jewishness to the Book of Mormon that I could never have imagined. Through the lens of the sources on the lost manuscript, we can see the Jewishness in the Book of Mormon from the very start: according to Joseph Smith, Sr., the lost pages identified the Book of Mormon as beginning with a Jewish festival, namely, Passover. This Jewishness is particularly striking in the sources on the lost manuscript’s narrative of the book’s founding prophets Lehi and Nephi. Their narrative begins in that of the Hebrew Bible, at the start of the Jewish Exile. The recoverable lost-manuscript narratives of Lehi and Nephi show them seeking to build a new Jewish kingdom in the New World systematically parallel to the pre-Exile Jewish kingdom in the Old World. Having lost the biblical Promised Land, sacred city, dynasty, temple, and Ark of the Covenant, they set about re-creating these by proxy.
This Jewishness in the Book of Mormon is paralleled by a distinct Jewishness of the Book of Mormon’s coming forth. Reconstructing a chronology of the several earliest events in the Book of Mormon’s emergence shows every one of these events to have been keyed to the dates of Jewish festivals. In ways not previously appreciated, the Book of Mormon is a richly and profoundly Judaic book.
In your book, you discuss temple worship among the Nephites. Can you summarize some of your findings?
Temple worship stands at the center of Nephite life and of the Book of Mormon’s narrative. The early events of Nephite history, as chronicled in the present Book of Mormon text and fleshed out further in the sources on the book’s lost manuscript, all build toward the ultimate goal of re-establishing Jewish temple worship in a new promised land. Re-establishing such worship required constructing a system closely parallel to that of Solomon’s temple. To meet the requirements of the Mosaic Law, the Nephites would have needed substitutes for the biblical high priest and Ark of the Covenant, with their associated sacred relics. Accordingly, the Nephite sacred relics—the plates, interpreters, breastplate, sword of Laban, and Liahona—systematically parallel the relics of the biblical Ark and high priest, showing how closely temple worship in the Book of Mormon was modeled on temple worship in the Bible.
In what ways are the doctrines in the early lost Book of Mormon manuscript reflected in the doctrines of early Mormonism?
Earliest Mormonism has sometimes been understood as primarily a form of Christian primitivism, the New Testament-focused nineteenth-century movement to restore original Christianity. Yet already when we explore the earliest Mormon text, the lost portion of the Book of Mormon, we find a whole-Bible religion, one weaving Christian primitivist, Judaic, and esoteric strands into a distinctively Mormon restorationist tapestry of faith.
The Book of Mormon’s focus on the temple is also very Mormon. Temple worship among the Nephites not only echoes ancient Jewish temple worship, but it also anticipates temple worship among the Latter-day Saints. The recoverable narratives of the Book of Mormon’s lost pages portray the Nephite temple as not only a place in which sacrifices are performed but also one in which higher truths are taught in symbolic form, human beings learn to speak with the Lord through the veil, and people can begin to take on divine attributes.
What are you hoping readers will gain from your book?
This book’s earliest seed was my childhood curiosity about the Book of Mormon’s lost pages. That seed grew in adulthood when I realized how knowing more about the Book of Mormon’s lost pages could illuminate its present pages. On one level, this new book is a book about the Book of Mormon’s lost text, pursuing the mystery of what was in the lost first half of Mormon’s abridgment. On another level, this is a book about understanding more deeply the Book of Mormon text we do have, since the last half of any narrator’s story is best understood in light of the first half. Researching what can be known about the lost manuscript has helped me to more fully recognize the Book of Mormon’s richness, understand its messages and meanings, and grasp its power as a sacred text. My hope is that recapturing some of the long-missing contexts behind our Book of Mormon will also expand others’ understanding of and appreciation for this remarkable foundational scripture of Latter-day Saint faith and inspire readers to delve deeper into the Book of Mormon.