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Trent Toone, Deseret News
Reid Neilson, assistant church historian and recorder, left, and Robin Scott Jensen, associate managing historian and project archivist for the Joseph Papers project, go over portions of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon that have been in the possession of the Church History Department.

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine walking into a museum featuring the Book of Mormon's gold plates or one of the Apostle Paul's original epistles.

While such an exhibit likely will never exist, the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working on the next best thing: the publication of images and text from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

The department's plan is to take recently acquired fragments of the original manuscript, combined with the surviving 28 percent of the manuscript already in its possession, and use multispectral imaging and other technology to produce a new volume of the Joseph Smith Papers in three to four years, similar to what the department did in 2015 with the printer's manuscript, according to Reid L. Neilson, assistant church historian and recorder, and Robin S. Jensen, associate managing historian and project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with divine power, dictating the words of the ancient book to various scribes over several months before publication in 1830. With leafs and fragments of the original manuscript in protective sheets and spread out on a table, Neilson and Jensen spoke of the manuscript's provenance and the forthcoming project.

"This is as close as you'll ever get to the gold plates," Neilson said. "These leaves and fragments are tangible reminders of Joseph's encounter with the divine and with the sacred texts."

Jensen called the original manuscript the "crown jewel" of the Prophet Joseph's mission. Publishing what is left of the manuscript will hopefully benefit people who want to learn more about the origins of the Book of Mormon.

"We know there isn't a complete text ... but it's important to remember from a textual studies context that even the smallest bit of information can actually give a lot of information," Jensen said. "As we get closer to the original manuscript, we can gain a better understanding of what Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others."

The manuscript and fragments have a proven line of custody, including an authentic shoebox collection of family letters, documents, newspaper clippings and photos, Jensen said.

The Prophet Joseph deposited the original manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in 1841. Four decades later, it was retrieved by Emma Smith's second husband, Lewis Bidamon. Water damage destroyed most of the manuscript, Jensen said.

Bidamon kept the manuscript and when church members or missionaries passing through met him, he often gave them a souvenir fragment of the Book of Mormon manuscript, Jensen said.

At the suggestion of church leaders, missionaries would request parts of the manuscript they could bring back to the church, Neilson said.

"The church leaders couldn't ask for it wholesale, but if they sent people back in a steady stream, they could get little pieces here and there," Neilson said.

Elder Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve secured several pages of the manuscript in the 1880s. The apostle eventually passed those leaves on to his son, Charles C. Richards.

While living in the Hotel Utah during the 1940s, Charles Richards showed the manuscript pages to a hotel employee named Ada Cheney, who was honored to see them. When scraps of paper broke away from the brittle pages and fell on the floor, Cheney picked them up but Richards told her she could keep them, Jensen said.

Cheney treasured these fragments of the manuscript and preserved the pieces in small glass frames. In time, she shared them with her posterity.

Before he died, Charles C. Richards gave his pages to LDS Church President George Albert Smith.

Royal Skousen, a scholar who made his career researching the text of the Book of Mormon manuscript, reached out to Cheney's descendants to get photographs of the fragments, Jensen said.

Skousen offered his brief history of his work with the fragments in an email to the Deseret News.

"Brent Ashworth bought his fragment from one of the descendants and brought it into the BYU Library in November of 1991," Skousen wrote. "Four years later, in November 1995, three of the Ada Cheney descendants brought in their respective fragments for photographing. Sometime between 2008 and 2013, a fourth descendant brought in her fragments. I am trying to get a more specific date from her. Now we have a fifth descendant for this year. ... One of the descendants tells me that there could be another fragment out there, plus there is one that was sent off to show-and-tell at school and never came back."

In recent months, the church acquired some of these fragments to include in the forthcoming Volume 5 of the "Revelations and Translations" series with the Joseph Smith Papers project. The new volume will feature a typographical facsimile, with high-quality images of the manuscript placed next to the manuscript's text. Multispectral imaging will allow church historians to see the faded writing on the pages.

This will allow readers and historians alike to compare the printer's manuscript with the original manuscript, Neilson said.

"It’s a very different kind of work than on the printer’s manuscript," Neilson said. "We’re actually reconstructing and showing the limits of what we have and what we don’t have. I think it’s a tribute to the whole Book of Mormon text and Joseph Smith’s translation work that such care is actually going into reproducing even fragments. It’s unlike anything we’ve done."

There are no substantive differences in the text between the original and the printer's manuscripts for these fragments. There are some differences in spelling but not in meaning or words, Skousen said.

The fragments obtained from the Cheney family include parts of Alma 60:5-7, 11, 15-16 and 19.

When asked why members should care about original fragments from the manuscript when they already have the Book of Mormon, Jensen recalled the book's power and key role in the LDS faith.

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"Latter-day Saints feel such a close connection to the Book of Mormon. We study it constantly; we’re counseled to read it. And the original manuscript itself is, historically speaking, the closest we can get to that original translation, the process that Joseph Smith said transpired ‘by the gift and power of God.’ Well, this is the very first physical iteration of that gift and power of God," Jensen said.

"So to be able to present this manuscript to scholars and to members of the church is really a remarkable responsibility, and it’s great that we here on the Joseph Smith Papers project can make that available.”