I Do This for a Wise Purpose Lost 116 Pages

Alan C. Miner

How much written material was contained on the lost 116 pages of Original Manuscript which Joseph Smith entrusted to Martin Harris? According to an article by Shirley Heater, the paper used for the Original Manuscript was called “foolscap.” Foolscap originally referred to a watermark of a jester’s cap on writing paper. This term came to apply to writing paper which generally measured 12“ to 13-1/2” wide by 15“ to 17” long, whether or not it carried a watermark. The surviving Original Manuscript pages are of two sizes (see illustration) and three kinds of paper -- one, a coarse mesh machined paper, the others of finer handmade texture. The longer pages from the first half of First Nephi measured 6-5/8“ by 16-1/2”. Those coming from the book of Alma measure 8“ by 13”. [See Shirley R. Heater, “History of the Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon,” in Recent Book of Mormon Developments, Vol. 2, pp. 66-70]

The reader should be careful to remember that First Nephi (from the small plates) was translated after Joseph Smith completed his translation of Mormon‘s abridgment of the large plates and Moroni’s abridgment of Ether plus a few of Moroni’s own words. Because we lack any fragments from the book of Mosiah (see illustration), and because Joseph waited some months after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript before resuming the translation process, it is difficult to know the exact size of the lost sheets. However, by calculating the page area of both page sizes we can come up with an approximation. Page A yields 109.40 square inches whereas page B yields 104 square inches. We have a preserved portion of the Original Manuscript of the A size (see illustration). By comparing the amount of script with the area of the page we can approximate that one page of handwritten manuscript would yield an average of about 1 page of present 1981 edition text. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]

Words of Mormon 1:7 I do this for a wise purpose (Lost 116 Pages) ([Illustration]): At least two sizes of “foolscap” paper were used in the Original Manuscript. The drawing above illustrates how they were folded to create long and short page sizes. The longer pages from the first half of First Nephi resulted when 13-1/4“ by 16-1/2” sheets were folded and sewn the long direction, thus creating a page size of 6-5/8“ by 16-1/2”. The shorter pages were created from 13“ by 16” sheets, which were folded and sewn the short length, resulting in page size of 8“ by 13”. This is the size of the existing pages from the book of Alma. [Shirley R. Heater, “History of the Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon,” in Recent Book of Mormon Developments, Vol. 2, p. 68]

Words of Mormon 1:7 I do this for a wise purpose (Lost 116 Pages) ([Illustration] The Original Manuscript page containing the equivalent of what is now found in 1 Nephi 7:17 thru 1 Nephi 8:11 (roughly 1 page of the 1981 edition). [Shirley R. Heater, “History of the Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon,” in Recent Book of Mormon Developments, Vol. 2, p. 68]

Words of Mormon 1:7 I do this for a wise purpose (Lost 116 Pages) ([Illustration] Surviving portions of the Original Manuscript. [Shirley R. Heater, “History of the Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon,” in Recent Book of Mormon Developments, Vol. 2, p. 75]

I Do This for a Wise Purpose Lost 116 Pages

In Words of Mormon 1:7, Mormon mentions that he is including the Small Plates of Nephi with his abridgment “for a wise purpose.” This “wise purpose” probably refers, at least in part, to the loss of 116 pages of manuscript by Martin Harris, a scribe of Joseph Smith during the early translation process. A short account of this experience is found in the Documentary History of the Church

Mr. Harris, having returned from his tour, (showing the transcript of the record to Professor Anthon) left me and went home to Palmyra, arranged his affairs, and returned again to my house about the 12th of April, 1828, and commenced writing for me while I translated from the plates, which we continued until the 14th of June following, by which time he had written one hundred and sixteen pages of manuscript on foolscap paper. Some time after Mr. Harris had begun to write for me, he began to importune me to give him liberty to carry the writings home and show them; and desired of me that I would inquire of the Lord, through the Urim and Thummim, if he might not do so. I did inquire, and the answer was that he must not. However, he was not satisfied with this answer, and desired that I should inquire again. I did so, and the answer was as before. Still he could not be contented, but insisted that I should inquire again. I did this and after much solicitation I again inquire of the Lord, and permission was granted him to have the writings on certain conditions; which were, that he show them only to his brother, Preserved Harris, his own wife, his father and his mother, and a Mrs. Cobb, a sister to his wife. In accordance with this last answer, I required of him that he should bind himself in a covenant to me in a most solemn manner that he would not do otherwise than had been directed.

He did so. He bound himself as I required of him, took the writings, and went his way. Notwithstanding, however, the great restrictions which he had been laid under, and the solemnity of the covenant which he had made with me, he did show them to others, and by stratagem they got them away from him, and they never have been recovered unto this day.

In the meantime, while Martin Harris was gone with the writings, I went to visit my father’s family at Manchester. I continued there for a short season, and then returned to my place in Pennsylvania. Immediately after my return home, I was walking out a little distance, when, behold, the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again--for it had been taken from me in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings which he lost by transgression--and I inquired of the Lord through it, and obtained in July 1828, a revelation concerning certain manuscripts of the first part of the book of Mormon, which had been taken from the possession of Martin Harris. [See Doctrine and Covenants, Section 3]

After I had obtained the above revelation, both the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken from me again; but in a few days they were returned to me, when I inquired of the Lord, and the Lord gave unto me a revelation informing me of the alteration of the manuscript of the fore part of the Book of Mormon. [See Doctrine and Covenants, Section 10]. [Documentary History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 20-28]

For the benefit of the reader, Section 10, verses 38-41 will be quoted below with interpretive comment added:

And now, verily I say unto you, that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands [the lost 116 pages of manuscript], is engraven upon the [Small] plates of Nephi; Yea, and you remember it was said in those writings [the lost 116 pages] that a more particular [or more spiritual] account was given of these things upon the [Small] plates of Nephi. And now, because the account which is engraven upon the [Small] plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account [or to the knowledge of the remnant of the tribe of Joseph]--Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the [Small] plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained [from your translation of Mormon’s abridgment of the Large Plates of Nephi]. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]

A more insightful account is found in History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith, pages 111-146. Concerning the exact reason for the loss of the 116 pages, Francis Kirkam notes that the mother of the Prophet wrote:

The manuscript has never been found; and there is no doubt but Mrs. Harris took it from the drawer, with a view of retaining it until another translation should be given, then, to alter the original translation, for the purpose of showing a discrepancy between them, and thus to make the whole appear to be a deception. (History of Joseph Smith, chapters 24-26, pp. 117-127)

Kirkam additionally notes that the loss of the manuscript was also told by Pomeroy Tucker, an early anti-Mormon writer. Tucker gives a few pages of his book to this event and writes in part as follows:

Thus exercised, she [the wife of Martin Harris] contrived in her husband’s sleep to steal from him the particular source of her disturbance, and burned the manuscript to ashes. For years she kept this incendiarism a profound secret to herself, even until after the book was published… . The loss of the first translations checked for a time the progress of Mormon events. (Pomeroy Tucker, Mormonism, Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, 5:48)

[ Francis W. Kirkam, A New Witness for Christ in America, Vol 1. p. 188]

Since the timing of D&C 10 relates to the translation process, and to the words which Mormon used in Words of Mormon to explain his reasons for including the Small Plates of Nephi, the reader is referred to a number of papers: [Max H. Parkin, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Dating of Section 10”] [Alan C. Miner, “The Order of Translation of the Plates of Mormon and Moroni”] [John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information,” F.A.R.M.S., 1991]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary