All was not lost. Even though 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon had been stolen, Joseph Smith was once again translating from the Gold Plates. He picked up where he had paused: Chapter 3 of "The Book of Mosiah."
Royal Skousen, a BYU professor of linguistics and the editor of the monumental Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, said in a phone interview that our current Mosiah chapter 1 is really just the beginning of Mosiah chapter 3. Most, if not all of the original first two chapters were stolen along with "The Book of Lehi."
"That 116 pages that they had went a little bit further. It already started into Mosiah. So that was also (stolen)," Skousen said.
There are several clues that support this theory, Skousen said. Every other book in the Book of Mormon is named after the first person that is writing in it. The current Mosiah chapter 1 begins with King Benjamin. But the book is not called "Benjamin." The "Mosiah" it is named after is likely Benjamin's father.
Another indication that the first few chapters of Mosiah are missing is that, unlike the other books in Mormon's abridgement, there is no explanatory introduction. "It begins in the middle of things," Skousen said.
The clincher is that the printer's manuscript identified the first page of Mosiah as "Chapter III" before it was corrected to read "Chapter I."
What would have been in the missing two chapters of Mosiah? Much of the content covered by the record at the end of the Small Plates of Nephi and The Words of Mormon. "What I would assume is that 'chapter I' had to do with Mosiah fleeing from the Land of Nephi and going up to Zarahemla. And then 'chapter II' was King Benjamin's initial reign and the wars he was involved with," Skousen said. "We'll never know, I guess, now."
Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints probably have assumed that after the loss of "The Book of Lehi," that Joseph Smith then translated the Small Plates of Nephi — a basically first-person account that covered the same time period that "The Book of Lehi" had covered. But the evidence shows otherwise.
One way to tell when certain parts of the Book of Mormon were translated is to look at what happened when during the translation process. John W. Welch, a professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU, discussed some of these clues in "Reexploring the Book of Mormon" and in ”Opening the Heavens.” Joseph Smith’s scribe, Oliver Cowdery, indicated that translating 3 Nephi 11 led to them receiving the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist on May 15, 1829. About the middle of June the scripture 2 Nephi 27 led to the experiences of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. There are other possible triggering scriptures, but these particular scriptures are most likely — and also support a more consistent pages-translated-per-day ratio.
Notice the sequence: 3 Nephi (which is near the end of the Book of Mormon) and then 2 Nephi (which is near the beginning of the Book of Mormon). Joseph translated from Mosiah through Moroni and then translated from 1 Nephi through the Words of Mormon. In the middle of all this is the Title Page, which had to have been translated by June 11 when it used as part of the copyright application process.
Skousen said that the original manuscript also may support this sequence. Normally six sheets of paper were folded to make little booklets to use for writing the translation as Joseph dictated. From Alma to 3 Nephi, the fold was horizontal or widthwise. “Oliver was always folding them in the middle,” Skousen said.
But then, in 3 Nephi, Oliver changes his practice and starts folding the papers vertically or lengthwise. Fragments from Ether show the same length fold. The first 24 pages of 1 Nephi are also length folded. “From 3 Nephi all the way to the end of Moroni and then into 1 Nephi you had length folds,” Skousen said. But then, in about 1 Nephi 14, Oliver goes back to the horizontal width fold. The printer’s manuscript, which, of course, came after the original manuscript, is always width folded.
After each page was dictated, the scribe would write a brief summary at the top of the page. Skousen said that Oliver stopped making top-of-the-page summaries around 1 Nephi 16. It makes sense to Skousen that Oliver stopped making summaries near the end of the translation process. It doesn’t make sense that he would stop and then start up again when he reached Mosiah.
“The simplest explanation is that it’s being done Mosiah to Moroni and then the small plates (of Nephi),” Skousen said. The first was last and the last was first.
The Title Page came at the end of Moroni. Welch said in a phone interview that the second paragraph had to have been written by Moroni since it mentions the record of the Jaredites — which Moroni abridged. “It was translated independently,” Skousen said.
Skousen said there is some question as to where exactly Words of Mormon fits into this. “I believe they are at the very end of the translation process,” he said. “Without having the original (manuscript pages of Words of Mormon), we can’t be really absolutely sure.”
When Joseph Smith began translating again in earnest, it had been about nine months since the heartbreaking loss of “Book of Lehi” and the first few chapters of Mosiah. He may have gone through much of the translation process without knowing that the Lord had prepared an alternate record for the stolen pages (see Doctrine and Covenants 10). But then, after Moroni: joy. That which was lost had been, in a sense, found — and the Lord had known it all along.