Many critics of the LDS faith identify Joseph Smith’s loss of the 116 pages of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon (BOM) as proof of his fraud. Martin Harris, Joseph’s scribe, had the first 116 pages of the BOM manuscript stolen from him while keeping them hidden at home. Critics claim that this was a test of Joseph’s prophetic ability, and when he could not re-dictate the same lost 116 pages, he failed that test. Joseph, in the preface of the first edition of the BOM, stated that the Lord told him not to re-translate the 116 pages that were stolen under Martin Harris’ possession because there would be those who would alter the original manuscript in order to provide false evidence of his fraud, but this explanation seldom satisfies those who do not believe in Joseph’s prophetic calling.
There are several problems with this criticism which will be discussed shortly. Upon deeper examination, it may be that the story of the lost 116 pages of the BOM manuscript can in fact give greater credibility to Joseph’s claims of having divine power giving him the ability to translate an ancient record. The story of the 116 pages can be faith promoting for the following reasons:
1.Joseph Smith did not have a manuscript from which he was dictating. Recognizing the brilliance of the BOM and Joseph’s supposed ignorant nature, many theorize that Joseph stole a manuscript from a much smarter person such as Solomon Spaulding (see https://www.lds.org/topics/spaulding-manuscript?lang=eng for a detailed history of the theory), Sydney Rigdon, or wrote pages himself and then pretended to be dictating from an ancient record while hidden from his scribes. If Joseph was using a manuscript from any other source, he would have been all too willing to reproduce the 116 pages to prove his prophetic calling.
2. Had Joseph reproduced the 116 pages, critics would not have been silenced. Reproducing the 116 pages so easily would have given further ammunition to theories that someone else wrote the BOM for Joseph. When viewed from this perspective, those who claim that Joseph could not have written the BOM because of his limited academic abilities have a difficult time explaining why Joseph dictated such a manuscript to a scribe and then refused to reproduce it a second time.
3. Joseph did not receive help from his scribes in creating the BOM. After the loss of the 116 pages Joseph switched from having Martin Harris serve as his scribe to Oliver Cowdery. The easy ability to switch scribes suggests that the scribes had no part in the creative process of fabricating the BOM, and in turn supports the claims by Joseph and multiple witnesses that he dictated the BOM himself without the help of others. Both Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris were ex-communicated some time later, which would have been a perfect opportunity to reveal the true nature of the fraudulent translation process. They did not, suggesting that what they claim to have witnessed during the translation process, that Joseph dictated hour after hour and day after day without the help of manuscripts, did in fact happen.
4. Joseph was uneducated and relied on scribes to write for him. In order for critics of the LDS faith to win the argument that the BOM was a produce of Joseph’s imagination, they must also concede that he was a brilliant creative mind, capable of memorizing vast portions of scripture, and was a consumer of an extremely large list of literary works that they suggest he must have read before creating the BOM. Remarkable as his intellectual abilities must have been, he did not have a sufficient ability to write the book on his own. It would make more sense that if Joseph had planned all of his life to write a fraudulent work to get money, that he would have learned how to write and avoid the risky nature of hiring gullible followers and fake the translation process. It is interesting that a man as supposedly brilliant as Joseph (and apparently with so much free time on his hands for reading) had to rely on scribes to produce his creative works. After one scribe failed him by losing 116 pages of the original manuscript, instead of deciding to carry on the fraud himself to avoid further mishaps, he decided to recruit another scribe and open a whole new set of risky complications.
5. Joseph continued translating from the Book of Mosiah as if he had a transcript from which he was reading. There is great evidence to support the fact that Joseph continued to dictate from where the 116 pages left off in the Book of Mosiah until the end of the BOM, and then returned to the chronological beginning of the book to produce 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon (see http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705384845/Scholars-Corner-The-stolen-chapters-of-Mosiah.html?pg=all). This means that if Joseph was making it up, he did not have the ability to go back and review the details of his story in order to reference story details later on. Anybody writing a book who lost their manuscript would find it easier to start their writing process over from the beginning rather than continue where they left off and then write the beginning after the book was completed, but this is not what Joseph did. It is even more interesting considering that several scriptures from Mosiah through the end of the BOM directly quote phrases that happened during the events contained in the lost 116 pages (compare Alma 36:22 and 1 Nephi 1:8. Alma 36 was dictated long before Joseph returned to the account of Lehi and his family in 1 Nephi, and yet he directly quotes Lehi in Alma 36). This happened either because Joseph was dictating words from a source other than his own mind, or because Joseph knew beforehand that it would be more convincing if he quoted scripture found in 1 Nephi in Alma and then remember to come back and write the quote when he started the translation of 1 Nephi. However, Joseph probably did not have a manuscript since he did not reproduce the 116 pages. This gives support to his account of the divine translation of an ancient record.