Something I’ve wondered for a while was what the original order of content on the gold plates was. We had a huge portion lost, and in Don Bradley’s book The Lost 116 Pages, he estimates that it may have been around 345 pages of what we see in our modern Book of Mormon.
He says that it would be like losing everything from 1 Nephi to the end of Alma! That’s really staggering to consider but I wanted to visualize it because I’m very visually oriented.
Here, in the document below, I have the books arranged in the order that it seems like they were arranged in while using the names of the books according to the earliest text of the Book of Mormon.
Note that in the original, the books of Nephi were not identified by “First Nephi, Second Nephi” etc. I suspect that “Words of Mormon” had no title but was inserted after he had finished his work in Mormon 7 because after he finished abridging the Nephite history, he decided to add some more.
I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.
And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass—
Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people.
But behold, I shall take these plates, which contain these prophesyings and revelations, and put them with the remainder of my record, for they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my brethren.
And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.Words of Mormon 1:3-7
He finished his record with these plates and he lists the accounts from Jacob to King Benjamin along with many of the words of Nephi so AFTER he finished his main abridgment at the end of the modern book of Mormon chapter 7, it seems he added the books of Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, and then what is now First and Second Nephi.
Moroni takes over in what is today Mormon chapters 8 and 9, adds the Book of Ether, and then writes some of his own words as Mormon expected him to. (Words of Mormon 1:2)
That would give us a version of the gold plates as pictured above with the lost portion constituting a whopping two-fifths of the entire record.
Imagine dictating and writing every word in the Book of Mormon from the beginning all the way to the end of Alma. Now you put all of that sacred work into the hands of a friend who loses it after being told repeatedly by the Lord not to.
No wonder he exclaimed:
“Oh, my God!” said Joseph, clinching his hands. “All is lost! all is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned-it is I who tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession.” He wept and groaned, and walked the floor continually.History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 125-129)
The “Mosiah Priority” theory suggests that Joseph Smith picked up where he left off in the Book of Mosiah which the original manuscript indicated is actually chapter 3. You can read more about this theory here and download a detailed paper by John Welch here.
The other books added by Mormon at the end cover that was used to replace the lost material cover roughly the same time period but pagewise are only about 41% of what the lost pages constituted. (143 pages from 1 Nephi to Words of Mormon, versus approximately 345 pages of the lost material)
Now, it seems to be astounding that Mormon would go through all that work to abridge that history only to have it end up getting lost.
A critic might think that it is incredibly convenient that Mormon would happen to add a smaller set of plates that happened to cover roughly the same time period that would be lost in the future.
And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands.
And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written; […]
Behold, I say unto you, that you shall not translate again those words which have gone forth out of your hands;D&C 10:10-11, 30
From a critical standpoint, you could say that Joseph didn’t want to publish half a book so he simply made up a story about a second account that happened to be on the plates that would be used to replace the first.
Here’s what is interesting to me though. The replacement records were not an abridgment like the rest of the Book of Mormon, they are all first-hand writings of their spiritual records which were distinct from their historical ones.
So the Book of Mormon transitions from a firsthand account of several different people to a commentary written by one person.
Now imagine if you are trying to conduct a forgery, writing the whole thing pretending to be just one character and then shifting to where you now have to write as if you were another major character and several other characters. Why would you intentionally add this twist and make your job that much harder?
With God being God and all, he likely knew that this portion would end up being lost. After all, God tells Joseph “no” several times and then finally gives permission the third time instead of simply just commanding him and not letting the papers get lost.
The Lord also says this about the “replacement” content.
And now, because the account which is engraven upon the 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—
Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the 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;
And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words.D&C 10:40-42
In a similar way to Jesus calling Judas as an apostle knowing that he would betray him later, we have this catastrophic loss of the pages which shows how careless Joseph was deep down with the plates.
Perhaps it was necessary for him to learn this lesson and to have it hurt this badly that he would not fail again to preserve the record.
I also wonder if there is something to taking Mormon’s completed project that he and Moroni saw as having no known flaw that they were aware of and chopping it in half while grafting another portion to the beginning.
It is now intentionally published as a bit of a marred record, much like the marred servant of the Lord in the last days spoken of by Isaiah.
I think it speaks to how God is still willing to work with us damaged and broken people. We’re all he has, and it seems that this is how it was all planned to be from the beginning.
Look at how many times an attempt to build a Zion is thwarted, but he just starts again, and again, and again. Patient and longsuffering, he is willing to allow failure so that we might learn; which is why we are here after all.
It would have been so much easier to fake a whole story, told from the perspective of one person, a clean narrative from start to finish.
The Book of Mormon we have today is patched together like a pruned, grafted, and dunged olive tree. Even if the lost portion wasn’t replaced with unabridged records that break the flow of Mormon’s narrative, the book itself is incredibly complex, consistent, and features ancient literary patterns and a richness that continues to amaze me.
While I think you can make some valid criticism of how the whole Book of Mormon drama played out, a closer look yields other possibilities.
Ultimately the message of the text and the fruits of its teachings will determine what individuals think of it and if it was inspired by God or not.