During the summer of 1828, while working on the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith allowed his scribe, Martin Harris, to take 116 pages of the manuscript home to show Mrs. Harris. The manuscript pages disappeared. The lost book of Lehi is still missing; it has never been restored to the Book of Mormon.
As the story goes, Martin Harris asked for permission to take the Book of Mormon manuscript home in order to prove to his skeptical wife that the gold plates really did exist and Joseph Smith really was translating them. Joseph asked God if that would be okay “through the interpreters,” but Mr. Harris’ request was denied. Mr. Harris continued to pester Joseph until Joseph asked God for permission again and then again. Finally, permission was granted, Mr. Harris took the 116 pages home, and over the course of the next few weeks, the manuscript disappeared.
While Joseph still had the gold plates from which he originally translated, he received a revelation telling him not to retranslate that portion of the plates because enemies would somehow use the retranslation to make Joseph look bad (see Doctrine and Covenants 10). Instead, the revelation said, the plates of Nephi contained all the same information that had been on the plates of Lehi, only in greater detail; therefore, Joseph was to translate the plates of Nephi and forget about the lost manuscript of the book of Lehi. So he did.
On Wednesday (July 30, 2008) Jerry Johnston at Mormon Times wrote about the 116 pages Marin Harris lost from the early translation of the Book of Mormon. Mr. Johnston wrote that he has questions about that particular episode, and in his article he supposed some answers.
“Some questions I’ve puzzled out on my own. For instance, when Nephi begins the ‘small plates’ — which would replace the lost 116 — he says, ‘the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God.’
“I’m guessing that means the 116 were filled with ‘things pleasing unto the world’ — stories about battles, war heroes, kings and betrayals. If so, the Book of Mormon may be a more spiritual book because those pages were lost.”
That’s an interesting guess, but it raises other questions for me. For example, if the “account engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular” concerning the things that had been described on the plates of Lehi, wouldn’t all the details of battles, war heroes and kings be found on the plates of Nephi, and then some?
I also wonder about this view regarding the apparently unnecessary lost book of Lehi—that Mr. Johnston is comfortable with its absence, suggesting that perhaps this makes the Book of Mormon “more spiritual” than it would otherwise have been. Why would a Latter-day Saint hold such a view about a missing book from the Book of Mormon, but not allow a similar possibility for the allegedly missing books of the Bible?
Continuing with his pondering, Mr. Johnston wrote:
“Still, the one question that troubles many people never troubles me. Joseph Smith pleaded with God several times to let Martin take the 116 pages and was told ‘no.’ But Joseph went back one more time and God reversed himself. He let Martin take the pages. And he lost them.
“Why would God give his consent to such a debacle?…”
Mr. Johnston suggested that Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had lessons to learn and this was the way God choose to teach them. I have no doubt that God often uses our bad choices and disobedience to teach us lessons, but when Joseph discovered that the manuscript was missing he cried out in anguish, “It is I who tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer” (Quoted in Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, page 67).
The clear implication here is that Joseph was wrong to keep asking God after he had received an initial answer; by continuing to ask, he provoked God’s wrath.
Most Mormons know of the lost 116 pages and the story surrounding the unfortunate event. So why is it that they will not accept the testimony of someone who has prayed about the Book of Mormon and received the answer that it is not of God? Time and again I hear Mormons say, “Well, you need to keep praying, keep asking, until He tells you it is true.” Though Joseph Smith tempted the wrath of God in not being satisfied with the first answer he received, they suggest investigators do the same thing.
Finally, Mr. Johnston wrote:
“…if I’m right and the Book of Mormon is more spiritual without those lost 116 pages, maybe having Martin misplace the things was simply God’s way of editing the book.”
Maybe. But doesn’t it seem odd that God would have to edit a book that He supposedly caused to be written “by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophesy and revelation–Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed”? All human writers understand edits and rewrites, but the need for multiple drafts is due to our imperfections and our ignorance when we begin of where the first draft will take us. God is not imperfect, nor is He ignorant of the future.
I believe the sovereign and almighty God did have a purpose in the loss of the 116 pages from the Book of Mormon. But if I were to guess, I would guess the reason has something to do with God’s merciful grace in providing people with yet another piece of simple, tangible evidence that Joseph Smith was not a true prophet of God.