Revising a reading of Joseph Smith Jr.

book of mormonPeggy Fletcher Stack has been all over a story coming out of Utah, where she reports on religion for The Salt Lake Tribune. A week and a half ago, she wrote about an interesting change being made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

The LDS Church has changed a single word in its introduction to the Book of Mormon, a change observers say has serious implications for commonly held LDS beliefs about the ancestry of American Indians.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith unearthed a set of gold plates from a hill in upperstate New York in 1827 and translated the ancient text into English. The account, known as The Book of Mormon, tells the story of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book's current introduction, added by the late LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, includes this statement: "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

The new version, seen first in Doubleday's revised edition, reads, "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

The change continues a debate about the book's -- and the church's -- historical claims, Fletcher Stack explains. She shows how the new wording is different from what many Mormons, including several church presidents, have taught and how DNA testing came into play. But she is very fair and bends over backwards to provide the church's explanation for its teaching.

Her follow-up stories in the last couple of days have also been interesting. In a special report on Saturday, she spoke with a Mormon apologist who thinks he might have been the cause of the change. She also explored how the Book of Mormon is understood by its academic critics and champions.

DNA is not the only challenge to the Book of Mormon's version of history.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith said the book was written in "Reformed Egyptian," which he claimed to translate from the writings on gold pates he unearthed in Upstate New York. Non-Mormon scholars have never heard of such a language and wonder why Jews would use the language of their oppressors rather than Hebrew to record their sacred history.

The book mentions metals, elephants, horse-drawn chariots, wheat, and barley -- all of which had yet to be discovered in Meso or South America during the scripture's time period, 2200 B.C. to 400 A.D. Critics see no sign of Book of Mormon kings, no palaces or tombs, no mention of important names from the scripture, no site of the book's final battle that included thousands, if not millions of soldiers.

DNALDSBut the bulk of her story is an exploration of how Mormon scholars explain these aspects of the Book of Mormon. It provides an interesting insight into Mormon apologetics and is well worth a read.

Another story looked at how the thousands of changes to the Book of Mormon are seized upon by opponents as evidence of LDS problems.

Starting in the 1980s, longtime anti-Mormon researchers, Sandra and Gerald (now deceased) Tanner have charted nearly 4,000 changes from the 1830 version and the book as it reads today. To them, such a magnitude of difference suggested Mormon leaders were playing fast and loose with the sacred text and contributed to the Tanners' view of the book as fake.

Mormon researchers agree with the Tanners' numbers, just not their conclusion.

The majority of the changes were punctuation and spelling differences between the handwritten manuscript Smith dictated to scribes in 1829 and the printer's first typeset, according to Brigham Young University linguist Royal Skousen, who has studied all the versions side by side.

Skousen later says that there are only about 250 changes of meaning to the text. Fletcher Stack quotes Mormons explaining how those changes came about. Smith himself revised the text twice. Apostle Orson Pratt added chapters and verses in 1879, for instance, and a committee of apostles altered it in 1981. Fletcher Stack mentions the most controversial change, which related to racial issues, but she quotes Skousen defending the change. The package also included a summary of what the Book of Mormon says, provided by a Mormon apologetics group, and how Native American Mormons feel about the change.

It's so nice to read a series of stories about what a church body believes and how it engages in apologetics. I wish that other reporters had noticed the change (it's not like Mormons only live in SLC) so we could look at more coverage but, at this point, it looks like only Fletcher Stack is on this story.

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