“I Will Heal Him”: How the Small Plates Healed the Book of Mormon after the Loss of its First 116 Manuscript Pages

Gaye Strathearn and Jacob Moody’s article “Christ’s Interpretation of Isaiah 52’s ‘My Servant’ in 3 Nephi” takes us back to Christ’s prophesied post-resurrection appearance to the Nephites in the Americas. It is in this setting that they present a unique insight into Christ’s usage of Isaiah’s words to prophecy about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. This review summarizes the crux of their article and submits an alternate fulfillment to the prophecies pointed out in their work regarding the Book of Mormon. Strathearn and Moody use the following language to introduce the core of their paper:

…when Christ came to the Americas, he spent a significant portion of his sermon on the second day focused on Isaiah’s teachings. He quoted a substantial portion of chapter 52, although in a rearranged order, and all of chapter 54. What is stunning about this rendition is that Jesus did not include Isaiah 53 in his sermon, even though his audience would probably have expected it. Instead he includes a chapter discussing the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It is the purpose of this paper to argue that the discussion on the Book of Mormon was not a digression from his teachings from the Isaianic texts, but rather was Jesus’ interpretation of the servant passage in Isaiah 52:13-15, which he had just quoted in 3 Nephi 20:43-45.

Stathearn and Moody explain that the servant passage in Christ’s sermon comes from a series of four Servant Songs or poems beginning in Isaiah Chapter 41 (42:1-7;49:1-6;50:4-9;52:13-53:12). They point out that historically many have interpreted this servant to refer to multiple referents, collective Israel, specific prophets both ancient and modern, or Christ. These passages are familiar to many modern Bible readers and would have been familiar to the Nephites. The uniqueness of Strathearn and Moody’s analysis lies in their discussion of how Christ innovatively removed a servant passage from its familiar Isaianic context, (Isaiah 52:13-15) poetically stitched it into His sermon on the future gathering of Israel, added a unique servant prophecy (3 Nephi 21:10), and reinterpreted the servant as a prophetic personification of the Book of Mormon.

Strathearn and Moody show how general thematic elements, specific textual cues, and even chiastic structures in Christ’s sermon focus on the Book of Mormon suggesting that the servant passages in Christ’s sermon should also be read as references to the Book of Mormon. In support of this, they explain that Christ is not using the servant theme to refer to Himself because of the future tenses He employed to explain the servant prophecy of 3 Nephi 20:43-45 (see the use of shall in verse 46). They also discount Joseph Smith as the servant by discussing how the material especially in 3 Nephi chapter 21 is more plainly a discussion of the Book of Mormon. Below are the two passages related to the prophecies of the servant in Christ’s sermon:

Behold, my servant shall deal prudently; he shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. As many were astonished at thee—his visage was so marred, more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men—so shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him, for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider. (3 Nephi 20:43-45; see also Isaiah 52:13-15)

But behold, the life of my servant shall be in my hand; therefore they shall not hurt him, although he shall be marred because of them. Yet I will heal him, for I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil. (3 Nephi 21:10)

Strathearn and Moody discuss a possible fulfillment of these prophecies in 3 Nephi by explaining how the Book of Mormon has been marred by critics both past and present. Even Mark Twain’s infamous “chloroform in print” quote makes its way into the discussion. These critics could definitely be said to have marred the reputation of the Book of Mormon; however, there is an alternate and more specific fulfillment to be found for these prophecies signaled by the text itself. In the prophecy in 3 Nephi 21: 10, Christ declared, “I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.” Strathearn and Moody noted that this phrase also appears in Doctrine and Covenants 10:43, but this shared wording between 3 Nephi 21:10 and D&C 10:43 is more than coincidence. It is a textual link connecting a prophecy (3 Nephi 21:10) and its specific fulfillment (D&C 10:43) in the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon.

In D&C section 10, the Lord reveals to Joseph Smith the cunning plan of the devil to destroy the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. According to section 10, Satan had orchestrated the loss of the first 116 pages, which caused the loss of Joseph’s gift to translate the Book of Mormon (see D&C 10:1-2,6-7). Additionally, the Lord explained to Joseph that he had prepared the small plates thousands of years ahead of time in order to replace some of the content that would be lost due to the loss of the 116 pages.

A Wise Purpose for the Small Plates

Doctrine and Covenants sections 10 and 3 are the Lord’s words to Joseph upon the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon. Joseph had lent the manuscript pages to Martin Harris after Martin had repeatedly asked the prophet to permit him to show his family the work that he had been transcribing and funding for the last few months. One can only imagine the shame and terror Joseph Smith felt when he discovered that the first 116 manuscript pages of his translation of the Book of Mormon were lost. He probably thought that it was over, all the visions and blessings promised during the multiple angelic visitations for the last few years, the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth again, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—all gone [1]. It would have appeared that Satan’s cunning plan to stop the Book of Mormon from coming to light had succeeded. Providentially, God had foreseen this event and had made preparations to counter it thousands of years before 1828. The Lord told Joseph, “The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3: 1).

The Lord told Joseph that the loss of the 116 pages was part of a cunning plan of the adversary to trick Joseph into retranslating this first section of the book. Then Satan could have his book bandits produce an altered copy of the 116 manuscript pages to prove Joseph was a charlatan. For this reason, God revealed to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants 10 that it was “in [His] wisdom” that Joseph should not retranslate the same record from which the 116 manuscript pages came, but should translate from the plates of Nephi instead (see verses 30, 38-42). In verse 38, the Lord reassured Joseph that “an account of the things [Joseph had]  written, which [had] gone out of [his] hands, [were] engraven upon the plates of Nephi” or upon what Jacob called the “small plates” (see Jacob 1:1).

Due to the small plates the loss was not total; however, the loss of the 116 manuscript pages marred the Book of Mormon leaving a jagged rift in the first part of the record. The insertion of the small plates directly over the missing first section of the translated Book of Mormon covered this fissure like a textual bandage. The small plates healed the Lord’s servant (the Book of Mormon), which had been marred by Satan’s attack. In this way, Christ’s prophesy to the Nephite people was fulfilled wherein He said, “the life of my servant shall be in my hand; therefore they shall not hurt him, although he shall be marred because of them. Yet I will heal him, for I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil” (3 Nephi 21:10).

Throughout the Book of Mormon, God’s wisdom becomes a textual trail marker via the phrase wise purpose. The repetition of this phrase guides the reader to discover the intent for the small plates—to allow God’s wisdom to ultimately triumph over Satan’s cunning through its use as a replacement for the the loss of the Book of Mormon’s first 116 pages. Nephite prophet-historians claimed that the decisions to create, preserve, and include the small plates in the final Nephite record was for a wise purpose, a purpose otherwise unknown to them. Remarkably, the small plates would play a defining part in showing how “[His] wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.”

1 Nephi 9 and 19

According to Jack Welch, Nephi made the first set of plates, the large plates, “after his arrival in the New World. On these plates he recorded the book of Lehi and the secular affairs of his people” [2]. After Nephi had left the land of first inheritance and moved to the land of Nephi, the Lord commanded him to make a new set of plates and begin to write a new record with a different purpose than the records he was already keeping (between 588-570 BC) [3]. Jacob called this record the small plates.  These plates were to be spiritually focused, “an account…of the ministry” of the prophets as opposed to the “account of the reign of the Kings” that was upon the other plates, or large plates (see 1 Nephi 9:3-4). This additional set of plates and the subsequent labor to engrave much of the same material already engraved on the large plates only highlights Nephi’s obedient nature. Nephi characteristically states simply “the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not” (1 Nephi 9: 5).

God taught Joseph some 2300 years later what this wise purpose was including the fact that the accounts written in the small plates contained “greater views upon [His] gospel”. These greater views may be connected with the commandments Nephi received when making the record. Nephi wrote that he “received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates.” Many modern readers might agree with Nephi that his small plates are precious. Truly, the spiritual teachings written by these first authors constituted some of the sweetest spiritual sermons contained in the Book of Mormon. Had these teachings only been found in the large plates, they would have been lost. Regrettably, while some interesting information like Lehi’s genealogy and a more detailed account of their wanderings in the wilderness did not make the spiritual threshold to be included on the small plates and were subsequently lost with the 116 pages, according to Kent Brown, the “material quoted or summarized from Lehi’s records contains some of the most powerful doctrine and far-reaching prophecies in the entire Book of Mormon” [4].

Alma 37

Approximately 500 years after Nephi made the small plates (approximately 73 BC), Alma spoke of the importance to preserve all the records (including the small plates) [5]. He commanded his son Helaman saying, “keep all these things sacred which I have kept, even as I have kept them; for it is a wise purpose that they are kept” (Alma 37: 2). After sharing some of what Alma believed were reasons for keeping the records, Alma admits that he does not know all the purposes for preserving the records, “it may suffice if I only say they are preserved for a wise purpose, which purpose is known unto God” (Alma 37: 12).

Speaking of the divine preservation of the plates of brass, as well as “all the plates which do contain that which is holy writ,” Alma explained that “the Lord God doth work by means to bring about His great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls” (Alma 37: 5, 7). Although only partly known to Alma, the preservation of the small plates of Nephi would play a large role in bringing about God’s purposes to save many souls.

Alma’s anxiety over keeping the records was warranted seeing how the Lamanites historically wanted to destroy the records of the Nephites, not just the Nephites themselves (see Enos 1: 13-14, 20). Consequently, by Mormon’s time the various plates were deposited in the earth (see Mormon 2: 17; 6: 6), no doubt to protect them against evil designs to steal and destroy them. From personal experience, Alma knew the importance of keeping records safe from destruction. As a missionary he was taken captive and made to witness the burning of his converts and the records these martyrs had (see Alma 14).

Despite the many threats posed against the plates, the Lord told Joseph that He had promised the Nephites that their records would go out to all people (see D&C 10: 46-52). Because of God’s wisdom and the great diligence of His servants in keeping the records safe from destruction, Mormon was able to find the small plates among all the other records and attach them to his abridgment of the large plates.

Words of Mormon

Mormon providentially found the small plates among the records entrusted to him some 400 years after Alma made his comment about preserving the records and inserted them unedited with his own abridgment on the gold plates (about 385 AD). Alma and all the other prophets had kept their obligation to keep the records sacred and complete. Mormon not only found the small plates, but found them to be “choice unto [him]” (Words of Mormon 1: 6).

God’s wisdom is seen once again in Mormon’s decision to include Nephi’s small plates in his final record. Although Mormon found pleasure in the small plates, he also states that his reasons for including the plates into his final account were ultimately beyond him. He wrote, “I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come” (Words of Mormon 1: 7).

Additionally, God’s wisdom, in general, is seen in prophecies of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and also specifically in its arrival in the hands of each individual. Mormon wrote that “[the Book of Mormon] shall come forth according to the commandment of the Lord, when [He] shall see fit, in [His] wisdom” (Mormon 5: 13). In the last exhortation of the Book of Mormon penned by Moroni, each reader passes this phrase, “when ye shall read these things (the Book of Mormon), if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them” (Moroni 10: 3), and may wonder if God had provided this individual opportunity to him or her for a wise purpose that only He knows.

One thing is clear about the Book of Mormon, its authors and its translator, all saw themselves acting out God’s will according to His wisdom. They confess that they did not know exactly why they wrote what they did, anymore than perhaps why readers thousands of years later almost coincidentally come upon verses that impact them in such poignant ways. According to the Book of Mormon, in both cases, it can be attributed to the Lord’s wisdom.

Conclusion

Strathearn and Moody identified Christ’s innovative personification of the Book of Mormon as Isaiah’s prophesied servant and identified His use of these prophecies to foretell the Book of Mormon’s future opposition. This review concurs with this identification, but argues that the specific fulfillment to these prophecies was the loss of the 116 manuscript pages. This loss damaged the Book of Mormon; fortunately, God inspired his servants to create, preserve, and pass on the small plates, so that this record could bandage the Book of Mormon.

Although these ancient prophet-authors were likely unaware of the specific reason why the small plates were so important to God’s purposes, they trusted that God was working through them for the benefit of His people. Mormon stated “the Lord knoweth all things which are to come” (Words of Mormon 1: 7). This is a fitting statement seeing how God’s foresight allowed him to inspire Nephi to make and write the small plates 2300 years before they would play their pivotal role as yet another way the Lord’s wisdom would trump the cunning of the devil [6].

Interestingly, the textual bandage of the small plates did not completely cover up the hole left by the loss of the first part of the large plates’ narrative. Ironically, the resulting ragged edges, which remain uncovered can be seen as added support to the veracity of the underlying source materials (the plates) and the theory of multiple authors and editors for the Book of Mormon [7]. Given the limited time in which Joseph Smith had to translate the Book of Mormon, John Welch argues that the textual consistency within the Book of Mormon itself support the claim that Joseph Smith was not the author [8]. Additionally, the empty allusions made by authors of the Book of Mormon to content in the missing material of the large plates creates a virtual ghost text that would have been a difficult feat for a hurried uneducated author like Joseph Smith was [9].

The link between the prophecy in 3 Nephi 21: 10 extolling the future showdown between God’s wisdom and Satan’s cunning in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the explanation of the prophecy’s fulfillment in D&C 10, and the trail of textual connections that point to the working of God’s wise purposes throughout the narrative of the Book of Mormon all support the claim that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record. Although the claim for the validity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record inspired by God is becoming more solid via faithful scholarship, the truthfulness of its message is still a matter of faith. This truth is only found in the manner God has established, that is, via revelation to the faithful prayers of the humble.

End Notes

[1] Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of the prophet, related the sad account of the loss of the 116 manuscript pages in The History of Joseph Smith-by His Mother, revised by George A. Smith and Elias Smith (Utah: Covenant Communications, Inc. [2000]), 123-130. Lucy recorded that upon hearing the news regarding the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph cried out “All is lost! All is lost!” (p. 126) and she noted that “it now appeared that all which we has so fondly anticipated, and which had been the source of so much secret gratification, had in a moment fled, and fled forever” (p. 127). A fair approach to Martin Harris and his role in the transciption and publishing of the Book of Mormon, see Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, “For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14.2 (2005), 8-9. For some oringal accounts from Joseph Smith on this event, see History, circa Summer 1832, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 1 June 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-summer-1832 or History, circa 1841, fair copy, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 1 June 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-1841-fair-copy

[2] John W. Welch, “When Did Nephi Write the Small Plates?” FARMS Update in Insights (March 1999): 2.

[3] See Welch, “When Did Nephi Write the Small Plates?”, 2. According to 1 Nephi 19, it was only after Nephi had already “engraven the record of [his] father, and also [their] journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of [his] father; and also many of [his] own prophecies”, did the Lord command Nephi to make the small plates.

[4] S. Kent Brown, “Nephi’s Use of Lehi’s Record” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights you may have missed before, ed. John L. Sorenseon and Melvin J. Thorpe (Utah: Deseret Book Company [1991]), 11. http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1111&index=2

[5] God’s wisdom has yet to play out fully in the realm of sacred records. The use of God’s “wisdom” is not wholly confined to the instances I have cited above, but also includes verses, which talk about records yet to be revealed. According to Nephi’s record, there was a portion of the Nephite record that was not to be translated by Joseph Smith, it was to be sealed up “until [the Lord] sh[ould] see fit in [his] own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men” (2 Nephi 27: 22; italics added for emphasis).

[6] Another example of how God’s wisdom trumped the cunning of the devil is evidenced in Satan’s attempt to frustrate God’s plan by tricking Eve into partaking of the fruit of life. In Moses 4: 6 we find that Satan “sought also to beguile Eve…he sought to destroy the world”. However,  “[Satan] knew not the mind of God” (Moses 4: 6), for the Lord had already provided a way to eliminate the effects of the fall by anointing a savior in the preexistence. For this reason, Lehi could talk to his son Jacob about the fall and testify that “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2: 24).

[7] John Tvedtnes points out that in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon the book of Mosiah lacked a preface and had no title therefore the “first part of Mormon’s abridgement of Mosiah’s record, including the colophon, was evidently on the 116 pages lost by Martin Harris.” See “Colophons in the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights you may have missed before, ed. John L. Sorenseon and Melvin J. Thorpe (Utah: Deseret Book Company [1991]), 33. This missing first part of the book of Mosiah is part of this jagged edge not fully covered by the insertion of the small plates.

[8] According to John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, Joseph Smith had sixty-five to seventy-five days to translate the Book of Mormon, which would have given him a translation rate of seven to eight pages a day see “How Long Did It Take to Translate the Book of Mormon” accessed on 4 June 2013, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=71&chapid=767. Considering all the complexity and consistency inherent in the Book of Mormon, to write it in this amount of time would have been an extremely difficult feat for an educated genius much less an uneducated farm boy. Welch points this out in his “Textual Consistency” accessed on 15 June 2013, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=71&chapid=771

[9] Here are two examples of such passages: John Tvedtnes noted that Alma 3:14-17 quotes a passage from Nephi, which does not appear in the small plates and there fore “must have been on the 116 pages”. See Tvedtnes “Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon in FARMS Review, volume 3, issue 1, pages 188-230, accessed on 15 June 2013, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=3&num=1&id=71; and Amulek provides his ancestry in Alma 10:2-3 noting that Lehi was a descendent of Manasseh, which was a fact that was purposefully not mentioned in the small plates, but was recorded in the large plates (see 1 Nephi 6:1-2).

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