Robin Scott Jensen is the mastermind behind the Joseph Smith Papers’ Revelations and Translations Series, which just released its third volume reproducing the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Jeffrey G. Cannon is the JSP’s photo archivist and as such is the point man for the numerous textual and contextual illustrations that appear in JSP volumes. When R3 was released, photographs of Joseph Smith’s seer stone dominated attention here on the blog. This guest post sheds light on the history of the printer’s manuscript by focusing on the 1923 effort to photograph the entire manuscript for conservation purposes and the recent addition of the complete set of 1923 photos to the JSP website.
With all the excitement about seer stones in the weeks since the latest volume of The Joseph Smith Papers was released, it is easy to overlook the fact that the volume also contains hundreds of high-quality, full-color photographs of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Another set of important images was also recently posted exclusively to the Joseph Smith Papers Project website.
An inconspicuous link on the Joseph Smith Papers home page brings readers to a set of images based on photostatic copies of the manuscript made in 1923. RLDS church member E. Hobson Tordoff carried the printer’s manuscript from Independence, Missouri, to his home in Berkley, California, where he began conservation work in 1922. The next year, Tordoff photographed or created photostatic images of the entire manuscript as part of that conservation process.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Hobson Tordoff for his conservation and photographic record of the manuscript. Because of his work, researchers today can see portions of the manuscript that have been lost or obscured due to the inevitable deterioration of the last ninety-plus years. His images make it possible to uncover now-missing text and to do other important scholarship now and for many years to come.
Two examples come from the very first leaf of 1 Nephi. A portion of the bottom is now gone and in the case of the front side, that equals about a line and a half of missing text. However, in the 1923 image the words “a vision,” which are completely missing from the manuscript, are clearly visible. Another problem comes from the reverse side, where in order to prevent further damage, paper backing was placed along the bottom edge sometime after Tordoff’s conservation. Unfortunately, the backing has obscured part of the text. Thanks to the 1923 image, we can recover Oliver Cowdery’s transcription from the original manuscript. This sort of textual recovery can be done elsewhere in the manuscript as well, and in the new JSP volume, missing text is supplied in gray based on Tordoff’s photostats.
Not only do the 1923 images reveal text which has been lost to decay, they tell us more about how the manuscript has been used and assist us in understanding the state of the manuscript in 1923. During the process of publication, the printer’s manuscript was cut into smaller pieces to allow multiple typesetters to simultaneously compose the type for printing. It appears that in 1923, these smaller pieces were still cut and loose from the main pages. The misalignment of characters, for instance, of the first cut on page 183 that spans words on a line shows that the manuscript was in several pieces when Tordoff was doing his conservation work.
Some readers (perhaps many of them) may be wondering why any of this matters. For the general reader of the Book of Mormon, it probably doesn’t. At least not right now. In presenting these images, we hope other scholars will do their own study and make their own findings. We cannot overstate the importance of the work already done by Royal Skousen, but the study of the Book of Mormon manuscripts cannot rest on the back of just one scholar. With the publication of the third volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers and the online release of the 1923 images, the study of the textual history of the Book of Mormon has become more democratized. More and more scholars can approach the text of the Book of Mormon, delving into the history of its creation, publication, and dissemination.
 See JSP PMBoM, R3, part 1:7.