Lost 116 Pages of Book of Mormonby William J. Critchlow III
The first 116 pages of the original manuscript of Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon from the plates of Mormon are commonly known as "the 116 pages" or the "lost manuscript." These foolscap-size pages were hand-written in Harmony, Pennsylvania, between April and June 14, 1828. Although principally transcribed by Martin Harris from dictation by Joseph Smith, some of the pages may also have been transcribed by Joseph's wife, Emma Smith, or her brother, Reuben Hale.
The pages contained materials "from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon," as Joseph explained in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon (see also HC 1:56). Lehi's record is mentioned in 1 Nephi 1:17 and, today, is partially preserved through Nephi's abridgment of it primarily in 1 Nephi 1- 10.
In June 1828 Martin Harris asked Joseph Smith repeatedly to allow him to show the 116 pages to family members to allay their skepticism and criticism of the translation. After prayerful inquiry of the Lord, Joseph Smith twice emphatically denied these requests. As Joseph's 1832 and 1839 histories indicate, a third request received divine permission for Harris to take the 116 manuscript pages to Palmyra, New York. The Prophet required Harris to solemnly covenant that he would show them only to his brother, his parents, his wife, and her sister.
Harris's failure to return to Harmony as promised caused Joseph great anxiety and necessitated a strenuous journey to Manchester. There, a reluctant Harris reported that someone had stolen the manuscript from his home after he had broken his covenant and indiscriminately showed it to persons outside his family. Grief-stricken, Joseph Smith readily shared responsibility for the loss. The most widespread rumor was that Harris' wife, irritated at having earlier been denied a glimpse of the ancient plates, had removed the manuscript translation from Martin's unlocked bureau and burned it. Not long afterward, she and Martin separated.
In consequence of this loss and of having wearied the Lord with the requests to let Harris take the pages, Joseph temporarily lost custody of the plates and the Urim and Thummim to the angel Moroni (D&C 3). Lucy Mack Smith notes also that two-thirds of Harris's crop was oddly destroyed by a dense fog, which she interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure (Smith, p. 132). Following much humble and painful affliction of soul, Joseph Smith again received the plates as well as the Urim and Thummim and his gifts were restored.
Joseph Smith was forbidden by the Lord to retranslate that part of the record previously translated because those who had stolen the manuscript planned to publish it in an altered form to discredit his ability to translate accurately (D&C 10:9-13). Instead, he was to translate the Small Plates of Nephi (1 Nephi-Omni) down to that which he had translated (D&C 10:41). Those plates covered approximately the same period as had the lost manuscript, or four centuries from Lehi to Benjamin. Mormon had been so impressed with the choice prophecies and sayings contained in the small plates that he had included them with his own abridgment of Nephite writings when told to by the Spirit for "a wise purpose" known only to the Lord (W of M 1:7).
The loss of the 116 pages taught Joseph Smith and his associates several lessons: that one should be satisfied with the first answers of the Lord, that keeping one's covenants is a serious matter, that God forgives the repentant in spite of human weakness, and that through his caring foresight and wisdom the Lord fulfills his purposes.
Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, pp. 89-94. Urbana, Ill., 1984.
Jessee, Dean C., ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 1, pp. 9-10, 286-88. Salt Lake City, 1989.
Smith, Lucy Mack. History of Joseph Smith, pp. 124-32. Salt Lake City, 1958.