One of the most astounding aspects of the Book of Mormon is the intricate detail it provides regarding its sources. As largely compiled by the military leader and master historian, Mormon, and concluded by his son, Moroni, the Book of Mormon relies on numerous documents, including the brass plates brought from Jerusalem around 600 BC, Nephi’s small plates with many authors, the large plates, the Jaredite record, and then a host of sources drawn upon by Mormon or others such as the record of Limhi, military reports, epistles, etc. Through it all, we are frequently told where the information came from and who is writing or editing it.
Far more than just acknowledgement of sources is involved. The Book of Mormon gives us intricate details on the creation, transmission, preservation, and reliability of those sources–in other words, abundant details on provenance.
In this way, the Book of Mormon is quite different than the Old Testament, where we are often left to wonder who wrote which parts of the various texts. For those interested in the Documentary Hypothesis and the various ways ancient scribes and editors may have compiled and redacted their texts, the data from the Book of Mormon should be a welcome reference point for detailed study.
But not only does the emphasis on record keeping and provenance in the Book of Mormon differ strongly from what we have in the Bible, it also differs radically from record keeping practices in Joseph Smith’s day. The record keeping aspects of the Book of Mormon often seem fairly normal to modern readers because it reflects our modern understanding of good practices in dealing with historical records, but those practices were largely absent in Joseph Smith’s day, as an archivist, Anita Wells, has explained. Anita has a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, and recently published an outstanding examination of the record keep issues in the Book of Mormon that many of us gloss over or take for granted. See Anita Wells, “Bare Record: The Nephite Archivist, The Record of Records, and the Book of Mormon Provenance,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 24 (2017): 99-122. An excerpt follows (see the original for the references deleted here):
Some historic tablets and scrolls indicate that scribes signed their work and noted the lineage of copy transmission.Yet the idea of record provenance, which traces the chronology of ownership and custody of records to document their authenticity, was a nineteenth and twentieth century development by European archivists. In the mid-nineteenth century, American interest in the past grew with the formation of historical societies (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) to honor the dying colonial generation. However, American society experienced a slow beginning in organizing historical records. As a historian noted, “the handwritten world of colonial records did not adopt a sophisticated recordkeeping system. Discussions on colonial records and recordkeeping mostly focus on individual or organizational negligence or natural damage by fire and water.” It was not until the twentieth century revolution of typewriters and duplicators (and further digital transformations) that record keeping changed dramatically.
The resources for a historian in Joseph Smith’s era would have been limited, insofar as library access, organization, and retrieval went. A nineteenth-century frontier historian searching through volumes of early Plymouth history or Harvard College’s records would not have the benefit of alphabetical arrangement, indices, cross-references, and topical searches, as these concepts were in their infancy. Additionally, more advanced archival principles like chain of custody, keeping fonds (an archival group of papers) together (officially known as “respect des fonds”), and archival integrity were nascent at the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
While archival methodology began to move in new directions around 1830 (interesting coincidence of date) in Europe, it was not until the early twentieth century that these ideas became accepted on a widespread level in the United States:
Although archives have existed for thousands of years, much of the archival paradigm — not unlike that of library science — coalesced between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several key treatises and manuals codifying archival theory and practice were published between 1830 … and 1956. … The most influential of these was the Manual on the Arrangement and Description of Archives, written in 1898 by Dutch archivists … which brought together the French and Prussian ideas of respect des fonds and provenance. The translated manual was widely disseminated and was a major topic of discussion when librarians and archivists met for the first time for an international congress at the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. As a result, the concept of provenance was adopted by the congress as the basic rule of the archival profession.
Consider how the above information affects our understanding of Book of Mormon studies: the archival profession as we understand it now did not exist in Joseph Smith’s time. The concept of provenance (a record of ownership to guide claims of authenticity) and chain of custody (documenting that record of ownership) was not identified. The Bible, Joseph’s main resource for an example of ancient writing at the time he translated the Book of Mormon, gave very little indication of who wrote it and how its records were copied and transmitted throughout the ages. These ideas were not something anyone in the mid-nineteenth century could have held a working conceptual knowledge of that would allow their incorporation into the Book of Mormon. Provenance is a modern convention used today and developed in the past century to validate claims (notably in art auctions); Mormon made the chain of custody and provenance of his record abundantly clear from millennia prior. As “questionable provenance can still create an atmosphere of distrust,” conversely a secure, credible provenance can foster belief. The Nephite authors were doing something unknown from biblical texts, and unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day.
Anita makes the point that the treatment of provenance in the Book of Mormon fulfills the modern expectations associated with that term, including these issues pertaining to evidence for provenance: “Is the record (1) what it says it is, (2) in continuous possession by each individual who had possession, and (3) in substantially the same condition until it passed into the next person’s custody?” Analysis of the information provided in the Book of Mormon account, including its final transmission to Joseph Smith and its translation, provides a powerful and very modern “yes” to each of these questions. Thus, the Book of Mormon provides evidence for its provenance and reliability in a surprisingly modern way that was not part of the paradigms used by either farmers or professional record keepers in Joseph Smith’s day. And while that paradigm is not found expressed in the Bible, it is a reasonable paradigm for an ancient, literate society highly reliant on and dedicated to preserving ancient sacred records.
Perhaps we will find more of the archivist’s attitude as we recover more preserved records from other ancient Americans in the past, where in Mesoamerica we can see remnants of several ancient literate societies, most of whose ancient books and documents were destroyed by the Spaniards.
A final except from Anita Wells:
Richard Bushman noted that “in between Nephi and Moroni, we never lose sight of the records. Their descent is meticulously accounted for … [and] the Jacobean record tells us step by step of the passage from one record-keeper to another. For a time in Omni, the transmission of the records was nearly all that was written about. Throughout the Book of Mormon, there is a recurrent clanking of plates as they pass from one record-keeper to another. To my mind, it is noteworthy that there is nothing like this explicit description of records and record-keeping either in the Bible or in books current in nineteenth-century America” [Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 68-69]. Science fiction author Orson Scott Card explained that written hoaxes are a product of their time, easily unmasked by later scientific understanding. If the Book of Mormon was purely a Joseph Smith creation, how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers. Yet the more we learn about archival provenance and chain of custody, the more remarkable it is to discover the precise documentation of such practices in the Book of Mormon.