Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are living now in a historical golden age. Primary source documents regarding Restoration history are more widely available and easily accessible than they have ever been before.
In the vanguard of this new historical openness is the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which has published thousands of documentary pages for specialized professional historians and interested amateurs alike.
And now Oxford University Press has published “A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon” , which presents and examines primary sources concerning the origin of the foundational text of the church. The compiler and editor of the “Documentary History,” Larry Morris, formerly worked as an editor with the Joseph Smith Papers. He is also a prolific author and productive historian in his own right — on both Latter-day Saint and more general Western subjects — perhaps most notably with his 2004 Yale University Press book “The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition.”
Eleven sizeable chapters provide documents connected to Joseph Smith’s experience with Moroni (September 1823-September 1826), his acquisition of the Nephite plates (September-December 1827), Martin Harris’ visit with scholars in the eastern States (February 1828), the beginning of the translation (April-June 1828), Martin’s loss of the first Book of Mormon manuscript (summer 1828), an “interlude” in the translation process (autumn 1828 to March 1829), the resumption of translation (April-May 1829, resulting in the English Book of Mormon as we know it today), the completion of the book (June 1829), the experience of the Three Witnesses (late June 1829) and of the Eight Witnesses (later that same month), and the publication of the book (June 1829 through March 1830).
There are treasures here. Consider, as an example, just one of them:
On Nov. 9 1829, Oliver Cowdery responded from Palmyra, New York, to a letter sent by one Cornelius Blatchly, apparently to Martin Harris (and perhaps others), inquiring about the still-unpublished Book of Mormon. Cowdery indicates that he was responding at the request of those to whom Blatchly had written.
Cowdery’s reply is significant because it is the first published account of the experience of the Three Witnesses — and the only known description of that event by Cowdery himself. Although he often testified of seeing the angel and the plates, there is no other record of his providing specific details.
In his letter, Cowdery uses a now archaic sense of the word “juggling,” in which it refers to deceptive manipulation. Among other things, he says,
“You also wished Mr. Harris to inform you respecting his seeing this book, whether there could not possibly have been some juggling at the bottom of it. A few words on that point may suffice.—
“It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, (who) ascend (descended?) out of the midst of heaven.
“Now if this is human juggling — judge ye.”
When I was very young, I was deeply influenced by the 1968 Brigham Young University film “The Three Witnesses,” which, though still available for viewing online, is now more than half a century old. (It can be viewed online at youtube.com/watch?v=FGhhG5GTP7g).
It would do Latter-day Saints well, though, in my opinion, to familiarize themselves again with the remarkable witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the “Documentary History” will prove a step in that direction, as also will the biography recently published by Susan Easton Black and Larry Porter titled “Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon,” and published by BYU Studies.21 comments on this story
Beyond the testimony of the Holy Ghost, the witnesses represent the only objective or “secular” evidence for the Book of Mormon provided to us by the Lord himself. Unlike ancient American artifacts, Hebraisms, chiasmus, and a host of other interesting and important pieces of evidence, their testimony is discussed in the Doctrine and Covenants, prophesied in the Book of Mormon itself, and included in every edition of that book, in every language, since its first appearance. Obviously, the Lord wants us to take their testimony seriously. He clearly does.
On the relatively recent finding of the Cowdery letter to Blatchly, see not only the annotation in the “Documentary History” but the account given by Erin Jennings at juvenileinstructor.org.