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Indeed, many outsiders see any change in the LDS scripture as undermining the veracity of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who claimed the text's wording came directly through divine revelation.
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. The typesetter had to decipher the penmanship, correct spelling he thought was wrong and add commas and paragraph breaks.
The book went through two major revisions during Smith's life, in 1837 and 1840, and each time he authorized the changes. It was altered again in 1879 by Apostle Orson Pratt who added chapters and verses, in 1920 by Apostle James E. Talmage, who corrected some grammar and restored some earlier readings, and 1981 by a committee of apostles, including Bruce R. McConkie. During that last revision, McConkie wrote the introduction as well as plot summaries at the beginning of each chapter.
"There are about five textual issues that seem to have grabbed people's attention," said Skousen, who has been working on a project analyzing the text. "But there are other changes that make a difference in meaning. Ultimately, it will be about 250 such changes."
One changed a character name from Benjamin to Mosiah, which seemed more appropriate for the narrative. Another added the words, "Son of" to the phrase, "the mother of God," making the 1837 edition read "the mother of the Son of God."
"We don't have any notes from Joseph Smith explaining why he changed it. It just appeared," Skousen said. "Some critics pointed out the Catholic sounding 'mother of God?' Maybe that's why he did it. "
The most controversial change was from describing what will happen to brown-skinned peoples who follow Christ as becoming "white and delightsome," to being "pure and delightsome."
The change first appeared in the 1840 edition, possibly made by Smith. But a British edition derived from the 1837 version and does not reflect the change, nor did subsequent editions until 1981 when the church's Scripture Committee decided to follow the 1840 edition.
"It was definitely not done by Joseph Smith or the 1981 committee for political reasons. They were not trying to remove racism from the Book of Mormon text," Skousen said. "There are eight other passages they did not touch which clearly could be identified as making the same preference for white skin."
The last change could present some problems in the church's next edition, which is due to come out "in the future," said LDS spokesman Scott Trotter, who declined to give any specifics.
One passage in the 1829 manuscript said the "the brother of Jared had a family, Jared his brother had a family and . . . the brother of Jared had his friends, more than one and each of them have a family, and Jared has friends and each of them has a family."
The 1830 printer accidentally set the first "family" as 'families' but that may change back to singular in the next printing.
"There will be this outrage that the Brethren are doing it to eliminate polygamy from the text, but it isn't there in the original," Skousen said. "The textual evidence is very clear that it was in the singular."