Did Joseph Use a Bible in Compiling the Book of Mormon?

The Book of Mormon often quotes the King James Bible. It even reproduces entire chapters from Isaiah, Malachi, and Matthew. Historians disagree as to how these Bible passages came to be in the text.

Some believe Joseph Smith dictated these lengthy quotations either by revelation or a prodigious feat of memory, without looking at a Bible. After all, his wife Emma testified in 1879 that Joseph “had neither manuscript nor book to read from” while he dictated the Book of Mormon.[1] And several witnesses to the translation said Joseph dictated with his head in a hat.[2]

A rival view is that when Joseph and Oliver encountered lengthy quotations from the “brass plates,” they copied from the King James Bible as a shortcut. They may have felt there was nothing wrong with this so long as Joseph examined the King James text and corrected its errors. When Emma denied that Joseph had used a book or manuscript, she may have meant only to deny the persistent rumor that he had plagiarized a novel. Or she may have just fibbed. She certainly told other lies, such as that Joseph had never practiced polygamy and never quarreled with her, or that he hadn’t forbidden her to view the plates but she’d never felt curious enough to peek.[3]

How can we resolve this question? Possibly we could look for evidence in the original handwritten Book of Mormon manuscript. Certain kinds of scribal errors are characteristic of visual copying; others characteristic of dictation. Unfortunately much of the original Book of Mormon manuscript has been lost, and I don’t have ready access to the remainder.[4] I leave that task to some future researcher.

Photo: Ronald V. Huggins

Photo: Ronald V. Huggins

What I do have access to are lots of manuscript revelations. And when I looked at how quotations are handled in these documents, I found something telling: sometimes the original dictated texts use placeholders or partial quotations later to be expanded into lengthy quotations copied from the Book of Mormon or Bible. It appears that Joseph and his scribes were indeed comfortable using this shortcut.

Below I outline four examples from revelations dictated in 1829 and 1830, close to when the Book of Mormon was translated.

Example #1: D&C 4:6

The original handwritten manuscript for D&C 4 is not extant, but we do have two different published versions. The revelation was first published in the 1833 Book of Commandments and then revised for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

Verse 6 originally read, “Remember temperance, patience, humility, diligence, &c.” The revised text reads, “Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.”[5]

It appears that when Joseph first dictated this verse, he assembled a partial list of virtues meant to evoke New Testament passages such as Galatians 5:22–23 and 2 Peter 1:5–7. Perhaps forgetting the exact New Testament verbiage, he used the placeholder “&c.” (etcetera) to refer the reader back to the relevant biblical passages. In revising the verse for the 1835 D&C, he removed the placeholder and borrowed from 2 Peter 1:5–7 to expand the list of virtues.

Example #2: D&C 20:37

The earliest manuscript of D&C 20 is found in the journal of Zebedee Coltrin. It gives the following text for verse 37: “And again by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of Baptism[:] Book of Mormon Page 576.”[6]

The first edition of the Book of Mormon was not versified, so references were given by page number. “Page 576” is Moroni 6 in modern LDS editions. “Book of Mormon Page 576” was placeholder text indicating that a quotation should be inserted from the Book of Mormon. Thus in the 1833 Book of Commandments (24:29–30) the placeholder is replaced with text copied (with slight changes) from Moroni 6:2–3:

And again, by way of commandment to the church, concerning the matter of baptism; Behold whosoever humbleth himself before God and desireth to be baptized, and comes forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and witnesseth unto the church, that they have truly repented of all their sins and are willing to take upon them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him unto the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, then shall they be received unto baptism into the church of Christ.[7]

Example #3: D&C 20:75–79

Another, similar example appears later in the same manuscript revelation. Here is the original text for D&C 20:75–76: “& it is expedient that the Church meet together often to partake of bread & wine in remembrance of the Lord Jesus & the Elder or Priest shall minister it & after this manner shall he do[:] Book of Mormon Page 175.”[8]

“Page 175” was a scribal error; the correct page number was 575. In modern LDS editions, this is chapters 4 and 5 of Moroni. I won’t give the entire revised text, but suffice to say that for the 1833 Book of Commandments (24:55–59), the placeholder text “Book of Mormon Page 175” was replaced with a lengthy quote copied (again with slight changes) from Moroni 4 and 5.

Example #4: D&C 27:15

D&C 27:15 is available in manuscript form on page 36 of the Book of Commandments and Revelations. The manuscript text reads, “Wherefore lift up your hearts & rejoice & Gird up your loins & be faithful untill I come.” Although Joseph may not have intended this as a reference to Ephesians 6:13–17 when he first dictated the revelation, he certainly took it as one when he revised the text for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (50:3). There we find the passage expanded with a lengthy, slightly modified version of the Ephesians passage:

wherefore lift up your hearts and rejoice, and gird up your loins, and take upon you my whole armor, that ye may be able to withstand the evil day, having done all ye may be able to stand. Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth; having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace which I have sent mine angels to commit unto you, taking the shield of faith wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of my Spirit, which I will pour out upon you, and my word which I reveal unto you, and be agreed as touching all things whatsoever ye ask of me, and be faithful until I come, and ye shall be caught up that where I am ye shall be also.[9]

Concluding Thoughts

My analysis here does not support the view that Joseph Smith was always able or willing to dictate extended quotations from the Bible without referring to the text. Even if he was capable of doing so, he and his scribes seem sometimes to have opted for a shortcut. They may have found working with a source text more convenient or interesting than unaided dictation.

If Joseph and his scribes consulted a Bible to insert scriptural quotations into his revelations, one can certainly imagine them using a similar method in composing the Book of Mormon. Joseph may have marked up a King James Bible and instructed a scribe to copy from it, or he may have read aloud from the Bible while a scribe took dictation.


Update 4/16/2015 4:00 PM: An earlier version of this post erroneously asserted that all portions of the original Book of Mormon manuscript containing chapter-length Bible quotations have been lost. I’m grateful to Stanford Carmack for correcting me on this point.


[1] “Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879,” in Early Mormon Documents, edited by Dan Vogel, 5 Vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 1:542. (Hereafter cited as EMD.)

[2] See the accounts collected in John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, edited by John W. Welch and Erick B. Carlson (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), 123–28.

[3] “Emma Smith Bidamon Interview,” in EMD 1:535, 539, 542. Emma was curious enough about the plates to require a rebuke in D&C 25:4: “Murmur not because of the things which thou hast not seen, for they are withheld from thee and from the world, which is wisdom in me in a time to come.” One resident of the Smiths’ neighborhood even told a newspaperman in 1831 that Emma had sneaked a peek into the box where the plates were hidden, with the consequence that a portion of the plates had permanently disappeared. “James Gordon Bennett Account,” in EMD 3:282–83, 289.

[4] Royal Skousen, “Book of Mormon Manuscripts,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 185–86. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/EoM/id/4391/show/5544

[5] H. Michael Marquardt, Joseph Smith’s 1828–1843 Revelations (Maitland, Fl.: Xulon Press, 2013), Kindle ed., Chapter 2.

[6] Ibid., Chapter 24.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., Chapter 29

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Did Joseph Use a Bible in Compiling the Book of Mormon? — 21 Comments

  1. I suspect it’s a bit dangerous to assume that revelations like this were conducted the same way as the Book of Mormon. It’s indicative that Joseph was willing to do so, of course. The counter argument are the differences from the KJV text. If he was transcribing mere references how would he deal with the variant readings. I suspect we could look to how the JST was conducted but it seems hard to reconcile that with the methodology of the Book of Mormon without at least some positive statements from eyewitnesses. Precisely what we don’t have.

  2. It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions from limited evidence, but that rarely stops those of us with curious minds. 🙂

    The examples I gave from the revelations actually contain variant readings just as the Bible quotations in the BoM do. I suspect either Joseph goes through his Bible ahead of time and scribbles changes in the margins, or he reads the KJV text aloud to a scribe, verbally making changes as he goes. Either way, the end result looks similar: Bible quotations that mostly follow the KJV but disagree in some particulars.

    Here’s another argument for Joseph having visually consulted the KJV: his changes to the KJV cluster around words and phrases the translators italicized, including those they italicized erroneously. David Wright discusses this in his classic essay on the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah.

  3. “Unfortunately, about 75% of the original Book of Mormon manuscript has been lost, including all the chapter-length Bible quotations.”

    Not terribly important, but according to Skousen, “Approximately 28 percent of the original manuscript is extant”.

    What is important to consider is Vol. 1 of the critical text project, pp.153ff. 1N20=Isa48; 1N21=Isa49. Two KJB Isaiah chapters are clearly written out in the original MS. There is no “insert Isaiah chapters here”, as you have speculated.

    I have examined a constituent-by-constituent comparison made by Skousen of the Earliest Text and KJB chapters that will be published in the near future. As you know, there are numerous little differences between the texts, with some larger ones. One small one that I personally find interesting is found in 2N8:16~Isa51:16. The BofM reading corresponds to the orig. 1611 KJB, not the 1769 update, and it also has one instance of less common EModE inflectional variation never found in the KJB, but which can be found in Tyndale, for example.

  4. Thanks very much for your comment, Stanford. I’d forgotten the Isaiah stuff started in 1 Nephi. The lack of a placeholder doesn’t change the basic observation about Joseph’s willingness to consult a source for quotations, but it does blow my last little speculation there completely out of the water. I may even go back and update the piece to reflect your important correction.

    I’m aware of your EModE research, but don’t find the argument persuasive. Still, I commend you for your close attention to the text and its language. I know how taxing it can be to labor over those sorts of details, and I really admire anyone who can drive that sort of project to completion and publication.

  5. Here are numbers I just ran on biblical changes in the BofM. These are reliable, as far as I can tell. 816 (constituent/word) changes, 171 involve italics: 21% of changes involved italics. 171 of 438 italics are changed = 39%. It is clear that italics were changed at a higher rate than other items could have been, but that there are hundreds of non-italics changes.

    The revealed-words view is that divine translators used the KJB for biblical passages and changed the language as they saw fit, under God’s direction. The Joseph-qua-author view is that he consulted the KJB and made the changes he felt like making. Either divine translators or Smith might feel freer to do so in italicized contexts.

    I think the matter is inconclusive in isolation. There are some non-KJB things found in the BofM that are in Coverdale (2N12:16) or EModE (2N7:2; 2N8:16). And there are apparent erroneous elements in the BofM that are more explicable if we assume that a human dictated/composed them.

  6. I find it interesting that in the Evening and Morning Star this was published in 1833:

    The word of the Lord carries its own evidence with it. In vain have men attempted to counterfeit it. They may compass the earth with their knowledge, and look through the regions of space by their inventions, but death teaches them their frailty, and time covers their glory. The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.-It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles-(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim)… (The Evening and Morning Star, Vol. 1, No 8, January 1833, 58).

  7. Yes, grindael; Joseph was well aware of the italic problem. He was also, in case there’s any doubt, quite conscious of his Bible quotations’ strong similarities to the KJV and their subtle differences from it. In the 1839 Joseph Smith History he says of his vision of Moroni, “After telling me these things, he commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament. He first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi; and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy, though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. Instead of quoting the first verse as it reads in our books, he quoted it thus:…” In other words, he knew there were differences and wanted people to take note.

    Indeed, I’m sure I don’t have to point out how implausible it is that in 1839 he still remembered Moroni’s exact words well enough to figure out which Bible verses Moroni had quoted and to note subtle differences. When Joseph wrote these words of Moroni and noted their differences from the Bible, it was not an act of recall and comparison. Rather, it was an act of composition—of consulting the Bible, extracting quotations, and subtly altering those quotations to fit the spirit of what he remembered or imagined Moroni saying. At least, that’s what I think.

  8. is it known whether joseph and oliver had access to more than one bible? is it pretty well locked down that they had only one biblical source?

    Second- has any research been done on why the particular Isaiah chapters were chosen and inserted where they are in the BOM?

    do those chapters appear to be filler material or does the BOM material before and after an Isaiah chapter for example have a reasonable contextual flow.

    asking as a non-student or reader of the BOM.

  9. Unfortunately the Bible they used is no longer extant. It was certainly a King James Version, which dominated the American market at the time. Whether they used an edition with explanatory notes or the Apocrypha is harder to say. If Joseph invented the Book of Mormon narrative, explanatory notes could have helped him keep his names and dates straight. But the Smiths were poor, so it’s more likely their family Bible was basic and cheap.

    There are even some apologists who have argued that the Smiths may not have owned a Bible at all during the Book of Mormon translation, since we know that Joseph and Oliver purchased one in October 1829 for use in producing the Joseph Smith Translation (JST). This Bible is still extant, and it has notations in it corresponding to the changes that appear in the JST manuscript. This is an edition with margin notes and the Apocrypha. It has Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s names on the flyleaf.

    Personally, I don’t buy the explanation that they purchased this Bible because the Smiths didn’t already own one. There are at least a couple possible alternative explanations. First, they may have already marked up the Smith family Bible while compiling the Book of Mormon, in which case they may have wanted a clean copy for their JST work. Second, the family Bible may have lacked explanatory notes, so they purchased this more upscale Bible for study purposes. Whatever the reason, there’s good evidence that the Smiths owned at least one Bible well before Joseph and Oliver’s purchase. For instance, Lucy records her son saying to her once in the early 1820s, “I can take my Bible, and go into the woods and learn more in two hours than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time.”

  10. Regarding Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, you can read an academic, text-critical perspective here. For a faithful/theological perspective, go here. For a critical perspective arguing that the Isaiah chapters are just “filler,” try here. Personally, I think there’s some truth and validity to each of these perspectives. I view the Isaiah chapters as largely filler, but not completely thoughtless or pointless filler. Joseph selected these chapters because he understood them to lay out America’s prophetic destiny, which is what the Book of Mormon is all about. But full disclosure: I am not a Mormon.

  11. A question: Which Bible did Joseph read in the late 1820s? Is it reliably known that it was a 1769 text? Has research been done to determine to what degree the 1769 text is followed as opposed to the 1611 text?

  12. Besides yours, none that I know of. The Bible purchased by Joseph and Oliver in October 1829 was a 1769 edition, and I think that was the more common edition in the US at the time.

  13. Worth considering are various biblical passages found in 3rd Nephi. That is because the 1830 first edition of the BofM is a firsthand copy of the original MS from Helaman 13 to the end of Mormon. In other words, in this section the 1830 compositor, John Gilbert, set type from the original MS. Normally he set from the printer’s MS. But that MS was in Canada in early 1830; it was taken there in order to protect the copyright of the book in the British realm.

    For this stretch, according to the placeholder theory, it would have been Gilbert who supplied text indicated by placeholders in the original MS by using a Bible. (There is some evidence in the textual history — based on differences between the MSS and the first edition — that Gilbert consulted a Bible and intervened from time to time during the typesetting process in order to correct perceived errors.) Overall, the textual evidence suggests that Gilbert was not confronted with placeholders. As elsewhere, changes to biblical passages — both minor and major — in 3rd Nephi are rather frequent, more frequent in most instances than they would have been if the compositor had set type according to the biblical text and introduced changes at an accidental rate. In three passages where it is reasonable to assume that there was a placeholder (because there are not that many differences), there is italic evidence that goes against such a view. Thus one may reasonably conclude that Gilbert did not expand MS placeholders in setting type for 3rd Nephi biblical passages.

    Sermon on the Mount details:

    Matthew 5 is different from 3 Nephi 12 in almost 100 places. Gilbert set “senine” twice, adding 19 nonbiblical words after the first instance. The placeholder view cannot work for that chapter.

    Matthew 6 is intermediate in change frequency (23, give or take); the placeholder view is unlikely.

    Matthew 7 is hardly changed in 3 Nephi 14; the placeholder view is possible. There is only an inserted “unto”, a deleted italic “can”, and a changed indefinite pronoun. In the last instance, Gilbert set “whoso” instead of “whosoever” at 3 Nephi 14:24. It is interesting that that usage goes against the KJB, against majority biblical usage (>3:1), and against Gilbert’s own language preferences (and apparently not for type spacing reasons). That change weakens the placeholder view for this chapter.

  14. Stanford, it’s worth pointing out that Joseph and his scribes are said to have worked long hours in the printing office with Gilbert, so they could in theory have made changes during typesetting.

  15. Cowdery was in Canada with Page and others during the relevant period. As you probably have read, Gilbert said the following:

    “Cowdery held and looked over the manuscript when most of the proofs were read. Martin Harris once or twice, and Hyrum Smith once, Grandin supposing these men could read their own writing as well, if not better, than anyone else; and if there are any discrepancies between the Palmyra edition and the manuscript these men should be held responsible.

    Joseph Smith, Jr., had nothing to do whatever with the printing or furnishing copy for the printers, being but once in the office during the printing of the Bible [Book of Mormon], and then not over fifteen or twenty minutes.”

  16. Hmm. The account I had in mind was Stephen Burnett’s narrative of the typesetting of the title page (by Tucker, not Grandin). He described Joseph Smith carefully examining every letter. But I guess that must have been a special occasion.

  17. Fun ideas and comparison. I think that just addressing the larger chunks of text ignores some the most important data though. Many of the smaller quotations, especially of the New Testament, are really impressive with or without a Bible. If you haven’t checked out Nick Frederick’s recent presentation at the Interpreter conference, do it. The kind of complexities that he illustrates in the text are amazing. I personally feel that neither Joseph or Oliver would have been capable of these whether they were referencing a Bible or not.

  18. The shorter borrowings don’t seem to me to require as much explanation. This was a culture saturated with the Bible, after all, and most of these allusions from from fairly well known biblical texts. Joseph’s 1830 letters to the Colesville Saints are similarly saturated with bits of Bible.