by James Perry, PhD, FHEA
At various points in human history Satan, also known as the Devil, has sought to thwart the work of the Lord. One of the earliest efforts was when Satan tempted Cain to murder his brother, Abel. The incitement was an attempt to disrupt mankind and to spawn wickedness amongst ancient humans, but it failed (Genesis 4; Moses 5). Later Satan sought to corrupt the inhabitants of the earth to the point that they would be destroyed. However, through Noah’s righteousness humanity was preserved from complete destruction and Satan’s machinations were frustrated (Genesis 6-9). Such incidents also occurred during the mortal ministry of Jesus Christ. After His baptism and while fasting in the desert Jesus was tempted to worship Satan, which He refused to do (Matthew 4). Satan’s endeavours have continued over the subsequent hundreds and thousands of years and persist to this day.
The loss of the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript is an oft recounted incident in Latter-day Saint history that exemplifies the steps Satan will take to halt the work of the Lord. Lucy and Martin Harris, natives of New England, were early supporters and backers of Joseph Smith and his efforts to translate the Book of Mormon. Although initially supportive Lucy Harris grew sceptical of Joseph’s story. Martin, who had originally been reluctant to back Joseph, soon found himself aiding the young seer in his curious endeavours.
In February 1828, Martin Harris travelled to Harmony to visit with Joseph and to check on the progress being made. The visit with Joseph proved successful and Martin subsequently took some materials to several scholars in New York to confirm the translation. After his experience meeting with Professor Charles Anthon and other academics, Martin returned to Joseph. On 12 April 1828, Martin began working as scribe while Joseph dictated the translation. Prior to Martin’s involvement Emma Smith had been helping her husband with the transcription.
Two months later, on 14 June 1828, Martin pled with Joseph to allow him to show the manuscript pages to convince his family and friends of the truthfulness of the work he was involved in. At this point the manuscript draft had reached some 116 pages of foolscap paper and included a translation of the Book of Lehi. As time wore on Martin wanted to show his family the draft pages to release some of the pressure he was getting from them. After inquiring three times the Lord permitted Martin to take the manuscript on the condition that Harris covenant with Him that he would show the pages to only four people.
There are several theories and accounts of what happened next, but ultimately Martin broke his covenant and lost the manuscript. Accounts of the meeting where Martin informed Joseph detail a tragic, morose, and catastrophic scene. Both men were distraught about the incident and feared for their souls. Joseph is reported as having paced the house weeping and grieving all day until sunset when he finally took some food and retired to bed with a heavy heart.
At that time Joseph and Emma had only just buried their firstborn son and after returning to his home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, he was commanded to return the plates and Urim and Thummim to Moroni. A season of reflection was needed before Joseph could be trusted again with the work.
I’ve often put myself in Joseph and Martin’s positions. What would I have done? If it was all made up, as some people claim, why did Joseph continue with the translation? He had hardly materially benefited from it so far. And what was the point in continuing? Surely he could just call it quits, return to treasure seeking, or acquiesce to Isaac Hales’ request that Joseph give up on these pursuits and settle down and forge a life like his family and peers.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has previously commented about the lost manuscript incident along a similar vein:
“And by the way, speaking of Mrs. Harris, if the loss of those 116 pages shared with her was simply the disappearance of some thoughtful, wisdom literature and a few chapters of remarkably deft fiction, as opponents of the Book of Mormon would say, what’s the big deal? Why then all that business about Joseph going through the depths of hell, worrying about whether he was going to get the manuscript back and fearing the rebuke of God. He’s a quick study; he’s a frontier talent. He can just write some more!”
The actions and feelings exhibited by Joseph and Martin reveal that they believed in the translation process and were immediately haunted by the prospect of what their actions had resulted in. This is a telling witness to the work that Joseph was engaged in. For what it is worth, his behaviour mirrors what I would consider an honest and believing person would experience in such a situation. There appears to have been no effort to immediately re-translate or recall what had already been translated. Instead, there was just immense godly sorrow.
For two months Joseph was unable to translate and even after the plates and interpreters were returned he struggled. The persecution and opposition, meanwhile, continued for Joseph. In March 1829, a complaint was lodged by Lucy Harris in Lyons, New York, against Joseph Smith for allegedly defrauding Martin Harris out of money and property. Harris himself bore a strong testimony in defence of Joseph’s character and how he had voluntarily given Joseph financial support. Each of the efforts to stop Joseph from translating the records floundered in the face of the divine mission.
Finally, in April 1829, Oliver Cowdrey arrived at Joseph’s home and the work of translation recommenced in earnest. One of the questions the men had to address was what were they to do about the Book of Lehi? Ultimately, Joseph received a revelation concerning the matter, which later became section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The Lord’s wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil and the attempt to interfere in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon was prepared for anciently by Mormon. Why would Joseph continue if he did not believe and know that what he had seen and experienced was from God? There was certainly plenty that could have caused Joseph, a young man with a basic frontier education, to give up on the whole endeavour.
Below are several of the documented incidents facing Joseph in the period from January 1827 – April 1829:
- Marriage to Emma Hales (18 January 1827)
- Moved to Susquehanna, Pennsylvania (c. November 1827)
- Begins translation with Emma then Martin Harris (1828)
- Loss of the 116-page manuscript (c. mid-June 1828)
- Withdrawal of the plates and interpreters (c. July 1828)
- Death of new-born son, Alvin (15 June 1828)
- Court case lodged by Lucy Harris alleging fraud (March 1829)
- Struggling to pay the rent for a property leased by Isaac Hale (Early 1829)
- Entered a transaction with Isaac Hale (6 April 1829)
Would it not have been much easier to have just called it quits and return to labouring, something that Joseph knew? When you throw into the mix his family obligations, ongoing persecution, lack of education, and personal worries it seems that it was hardly the ideal time for translating new scripture and pursuing such activities. Notably, it appears that Joseph had never previously undertaken any form of lengthy writing or dictation.
There is also no evidence that Joseph ever sought to hide or disavow the loss of the manuscript – it was clearly taken for a purpose and his weakness in persisting with Martin’s requests likely haunted him. But why were there no ransom threats from those who took the document? Financial gain does not appear to be the motive in their theft. The manuscript theft was an attempt to stop Joseph’s efforts to translate the plates. Yet the Lord understood and foresaw the pages being taken and for what purpose – to stop the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
Joseph and Martin’s actions were condemned by the Lord and identified as being the reason for the loss of the manuscript (D&C 10:1), but through the repentance process Joseph’s gift was restored (D&C 10:3). The revelation makes it clear to Joseph that the manuscript was not destroyed but “wicked men have taken them from you.” It is plausible that Lucy or another person who saw the manuscript stole it, destroyed it, sold it, or had it stolen from them. They or other possible associates may have intended to disprove Joseph and redeem Martin from perceived financial ruin.
In section 10 the Lord warns Joseph:
10 …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.
11 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;
12 And, on this wise, the devil has sought to lay a cunning plan, that he may destroy this work;
From the revelation Joseph learned of a plan, centuries in the making, to replace the Book of Lehi with the Small Plates of Nephi. Under the Lord’s direction Nephi produced the small plates of Mormon despite not understanding the purpose of it (1 Nephi 9:5). Later, Mormon followed the Spirit of Lord as he abridged the small and large plates of Nephi (Words of Mormon 1:6-7) thus circumventing Satan’s efforts to thwart the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
The ‘cunning plan’ of Satan was a logical and pragmatic attempt to discredit Joseph Smith and therefore smear any further attempts to restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The biblical literalism that was prevalent at the time meant two competing and differing copies of a purported sacred text would have been disastrous for the Prophet Joseph and his efforts to restore the Church of Christ. A manuscript that differed from a re-translation would erode all trust in Joseph and his professed abilities. Thus, the ‘devil’s cunning plan’ was in motion.
Three months later, and after more than 275,000 words, the plates were translated. Soon after, on 11 June 1829, Joseph Smith Jnr. began the process of copyrighting the Book of Mormon. Motivation for taking such a step likely came from the lost pages incident and proved providential in the Abner Cole incident.
In a revelation dated to early 1830 the Lord instructed Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdrey, Hiram Page, Josiah Stowell, and Joseph Knight Sr. to complete the copyrighting of the Book of Mormon.
“Wherefore be diligent in securing the copyright of my work upon all the face of the earth of which is known by you, unto my servant Joseph, and unto him whom he willeth, according as I shall command him…”
Joseph was able to complete enough of the copyright process to cause Abner to cease releasing more of the Book of Mormon in a local newspaper prior to the book’s publication. Control of the text once again resided with Joseph. Around the same time in January 1830 Joseph Smith granted Martin Harris the ability to sell copies of the Book of Mormon, he too had repented and committed himself to the furthering of the work.
Some of the central points we can extract from this lesson are as follows:
- Satan has consistently sought to destroy the work of God
- The Lord’s wisdom is greater than the cunning of Satan
- If we ask of God we will receive
- God will give us His Spirit as we prepare ourselves in His way
The fallout from the lost manuscript illustrates each of these points neatly.
In fact, the content discussed here is neatly captured in a conference address delivered by President James E. Faust in October 1987:
“I think we will witness increasing evidence of Satan’s power as the kingdom of God grows stronger. I believe Satan’s ever-expanding efforts are some proof of the truthfulness of this work. In the future the opposition will be both more subtle and more open. It will be masked in greater sophistication and cunning, but it will also be more blatant. We will need greater spirituality to perceive all of the forms of evil and greater strength to resist it. But the disappointments and setbacks to the work of God will be temporary, for the work will go forward (see D&C 65:2).”
As Latter-day Saints we can view incidents such as the loss of the 116 pages and see the hand of the Lord, just as we can anciently and throughout the scriptures. God has always worked with imperfect humans and we can take heart in the knowledge that despite our imperfections and foibles we are still watched over. Despite the immense pain of the incident Joseph gained invaluable experience and understanding about the nature and wisdom of God. We can all know that we have a loving Heavenly Father who watches over us as long as we humble ourselves, ask of God, and seek the Spirit as our guide.
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 Doctrine and Covenants Section 10 was originally enumerated as Section 9 in the 1833 Book of Commandments.
 ‘Noah,’ Gospel Topics, available at: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/noah?lang=eng, [date accessed: 28 December 2020].
 Howard W. Hunter, ‘The Temptations of Christ,’ General Conference, October 1976, available at: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1976/10/the-temptations-of-christ?lang=eng, [date accessed: 28 December 2020].
 ‘Lost Manuscript of the Book of Mormon,’ Church History Topics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, available at: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/lost-manuscript-of-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng, [date accessed” 11 January 2021].
 See Ronald W. Walker, ‘Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert,’ Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1986), pp. 29–43.
 Richard E. Bennett, ‘Martin Harris’s 1828 Visit to Luther Bradish, Charles Anthon, and Samuel Mitchill,’ in Dennis L. Largey et al., eds. The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), p. 110.
 “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers, available at: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/5, [date accessed: 29 December 2020].
 Jack M. Lyon and Kent R. Minson, ‘When Pages Collide: Dissecting the Words of Mormon,’ BYU Studies Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 4 (2012), pp. 3-4.
 Dean C. Jessee, ‘The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,’ Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1970), p. 260.
 Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 13.
 Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith The Prophet and his Progenitors for many Generations (Liverpool: Orson Pratt, 1853), pp. 120-122.
 Carter E Grant,
 “Appendix 1: Agreement of Josiah Stowell and Others, 1 November 1825,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, , https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-1-agreement-of-josiah-stowell-and-others-1-november-1825/1, [date accessed: 8 January 2021].
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Standard unto My People,” Eighteenth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators Symposium, August 9, 1994, 5–6.
 See Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019).
 Susan Easton Black, and Larry C. Porter, ‘“For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars,”’ Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2005), p. 8.
 It should be noted that some contemporaries, such as antagonist Pomeroy Tucker, claimed that the manuscript was destroyed by Lucy Harris. See Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1867), pp. 45-47. It ought to be noted, however, that Tucker’s work has been criticized on several fronts. For example, Tucker makes many unsubstantiated claims about Joseph and his family that fly contrary to other (both Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint) recollections and histories. He also appears to have met the Smiths through his work as a printer’s apprentice in Palmyra, New York, when the Book of Mormon was being printed.
 Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 13.
 Copyright for Book of Mormon, 11 June 1829, p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, available at: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/copyright-for-book-of-mormon-11-june-1829/1, [date accessed: 28 December 2020].
 “Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Book 1,” pp. 30-33, available at: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-book-1/15, [date accessed: 28 December 2020].
 “Agreement with Martin Harris, 16 January 1830,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, available here: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/agreement-with-martin-harris-16-january-1830/1, [date accessed: 28 December 2020].
 James E. Faust, “The Great Imitator”, (1987), available at: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1987/10/the-great-imitator?lang=eng, [date accessed: 11 January 2021].
James Perry is a historian and writer for Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days. He holds a recently minted PhD in history from Lancaster University. James has published articles concerning European Latter-day Saints in several scholarly journals including the Journal of Mormon History and Mormon Historical Studies. Until moving to the United States of America, he served as a Europe Area Church History Specialist with an assignment for the United Kingdom. He currently lives in West Bountiful, Utah, with his wife and two daughters.