Section 3: The Lost Manuscript
D&C 3:2 Joseph rebuked for losing 116 pages of manuscript—For God doth not walk in crooked paths.
After showing the characters and their translation, which Joseph had copied from the gold plates, to Professor Charles Anthon and others, Martin Harris returned to his home in Palmyra. He told his wife, Lucy, he was satisfied as to the authenticity of the plates and that he was planning to help Joseph translate them. This announcement made Lucy determined to see the plates for herself and settle the question once and for all as to their existence. She thus insisted on traveling to Harmony with Martin. The two of them left Palmyra for Harmony in March 1828. Once in Harmony, Joseph of course refused to allow her to see the plates. Not to be denied, she searched the Smith cabin and even the grounds outside the cabin. Anticipating Lucy’s obnoxious behavior in advance, Joseph had hidden the plates somewhere outside his property. Frustrated and angry, she accused Joseph of trying to cheat her husband by encouraging him to contribute to the project financially and to serve as scribe. The Harrises returned to Palmyra after two weeks, and Lucy did her best to dissuade Martin from assisting in the translation. Seeds of doubt were planted in his mind, not only by his wife, but also by some of his Palmyra friends who told him they thought he was foolish for getting involved in this venture.
Martin traveled back to Harmony in early April 1828, and for the first time the translation started in earnest. Joseph and Martin worked steadily from April 12 until June 14, 1828. Martin wrote down the text as it was dictated by Joseph. A curtain separated them to prevent Martin’s seeing the plates.
Even as he was translating, clouds of doubt continued to enter his mind. To interrupt the tedious process of translation, Joseph and Martin would sometimes go down to the banks of the Susquehannah River to throw stones. On one occasion, Martin found a stone that resembled the seer stone that Joseph was using in the translation process. He surreptitiously switched the two stones, substituting the one he had found for Joseph’s stone. When they resumed the translation, Joseph paused for a long time and finally exclaimed, “Martin! What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt.” Martin confessed to Joseph that he merely had wished “to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned the sentences and was merely repeating them” (Millennial Star, 44 :78-79, 86-87).
By June 14, 1828, they had translated sufficient text to fill 116 pages of foolscap paper (inexpensive, legal-size, lined, yellow paper bound together in tablet form). Doubts, particularly those of his wife and friends, still continued to plague Martin. If only he could show his wife and his friends the 116 pages of manuscript! If only he could see the plates! Martin asked again to see the plates and was again denied. Failing that, he asked if he might at least take home the 116 pages of manuscript. Joseph asked the Lord through the interpreters, and the answer was no. Martin continued to petition the Prophet, and Joseph continued to inquire of the Lord until finally it was Joseph’s impression that the Lord had relented, but that he would hold both Martin and Joseph accountable for the safety of the manuscript. Rigid restrictions were placed upon Martin’s freedom to show the manuscript. He was allowed to show the manuscript only to his brother Preserved Harris, his wife, his father and mother, and his wife’s sister, Abigail Cobb. Joseph was uncomfortable with the whole arrangement, and he required Martin to bind himself in a solemn covenant to comply with these restrictions before leaving for Palmyra.
Joseph didn’t have much time to worry after Martin left because he had serious problems of his own there in Harmony. On the day after Martin left, June 15, Emma gave birth to the couple’s first child, a boy. Named Alvin, after Joseph’s older brother, the baby died on the day of his birth. The exhausting labor and the tragic loss of her baby were almost too much for Emma, and for a while she seemed close to death. Joseph attended her night and day for two weeks, and Emma began to improve. Joseph then turned his attention to the manuscript. Sensing his anxiety, Emma suggested that he go to Palmyra to check up on Martin and to make sure the manuscript was safe. Emma’s mother agreed to watch after her daughter, and Joseph caught the first stagecoach to Palmyra.
The stage let Joseph off about twenty miles from the Smith house. Emotionally and physically exhausted, Joseph probably would not have been able to make the long walk to his parents’ house, save for the help of a benevolent stranger who, seeing Joseph’s condition, offered to accompany him home. They reached the Smith farm at dawn. As soon as it was light, someone was sent to get Martin Harris.
Joseph expected Martin to come immediately, but the morning hours dragged by, and he did not come. Lucy Mack Smith tells the next part of the story well in her book History of Joseph Smith by His Mother:
We waited till nine, and he came not—till ten, and he was not there—till eleven, still he did not make his appearance. But at half past twelve we saw him walking with a slow and measured tread towards the house, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the ground. On coming to the gate he stopped, instead of passing through, and got upon the fence, and sat there some time with his hat drawn over his eyes. At length he entered the house. Soon after which we sat down to the table, Mr. Harris with the rest. He took up his knife and fork as if he were going to use them, but immediately dropped them. Hyrum, observing this, said “Martin, why do you not eat; are you sick?” Upon which Mr. Harris pressed his hands upon his temples, and cried out in a tone of deep anguish, “Oh, I have lost my soul! I have lost my soul!” Joseph who had not expressed his fears till now, sprang from the table, exclaiming, “Martin, have you lost that manuscript? Have you broken your oath, and brought down condemnation upon my head as well as your own?” “Yes, it is gone,” replied Martin, “and I know not where.” “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. At length, he told Martin to go back and search again. “No,” said Martin, “it is all in vain; for I have ripped open beds and pillows, and I know it is not there.” "Then must I," said Joseph, "return with such a tale as this? I dare not do it. And how shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?" I besought him not to mourn so, for perhaps the Lord would forgive him, after a short season of humiliation and repentance. But what could I do to comfort him, when he saw all the family in the same situation of mind as himself; for sobs and groans, and the most bitter lamentations filled the house. However, Joseph was more distressed than the rest, as he better understood the consequences of disobedience. And he continued pacing back and forth, meantime weeping and grieving, until about sunset, when, by persuasion, he took a little nourishment. The next morning, he set out for home. We parted with heavy hearts, for it now appeared that all which we had so fondly anticipated, and which had been the source of so much secret gratification, had in a moment fled, and fled forever (129).
According to Pomeroy Tucker (Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867, 45-46), a prominent resident of Palmyra and Lucy Mack Smith, Martin Harris’s wife played a key role in the theft of the manuscript. “There is no doubt but Mrs. Harris took it from the drawer [where Martin had placed it], with the view of retaining it until another translation should be given,” wrote Lucy Mack Smith, “then to alter the original translation, for the purpose of showing a discrepancy between them, and thus make the whole appear to be a deception” (HC, 131).
Regardless of who took the manuscript and for what purpose, it was gone and would never be recovered. Joseph was inconsolable, and every member of the Smith family felt his despair.
We know by revelation (D&C 10) that the manuscript did fall into the hands of wicked people who altered the wording. They were waiting for Joseph to retranslate so they could reveal the discrepancies between the two versions.
For the indiscretion of allowing Martin Harris to borrow the manuscript, the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken from Joseph. In July 1828, Moroni returned the Urim and Thummim to Joseph briefly to allow him to receive section 3. Of this event Joseph wrote: “After my return home [to Harmony], I was walking out a little distance, when, behold, the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again—for it had been taken from me in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings, which he lost by transgression—and I inquired of the Lord through it, and obtained [section 3]” (HC, 1:21-22). The Urim and Thummim were then taken back by Moroni.
Section 3 is a scathing rebuke of Joseph for allowing himself to be led astray by the persuasions of men. Martin Harris is also rebuked for his role in losing the manuscript.
After Joseph repented and humbled himself before the Lord, the plates and Urim and Thummim were returned to him on September 22, 1828.
The reader should be aware that after section 3 the next revelation received by Joseph Smith was section 10. Reading the revelations in the order in which they were received—section 3, 10, and then 4—gives the reader an understanding of the historical events surrounding the receiving of these revelations.
1 The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught.
verse 1 Notice that the Lord is angry. He starts right off without any kind of introduction.
2 For God doth not walk in crooked paths, neither doth he turn to the right hand nor to the left, neither doth he vary from that which he hath said, therefore his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round.
verse 2 “his course is one eternal round” This phrase refers to a concept which is a rich and vital one. We are governed by God’s law. That law is absolute, completely reliable, unvarying, and its consequences are inescapable. For every action there is an identical result. These results follow without respect to person. It has always been thus, in Adam’s day just as in ours and in the eternities to come. Thus, “his course is one eternal round.” The direct opposite of this concept is also stated in the verse: “God doth not walk in crooked paths.”
Yet another meaning has been suggested for the phrase “his course is one eternal round.” It is that there is a circular aspect to God and his course. Humanity starts in a celestial (premortal) world, descends through a terrestrial Eden to a fallen, telestial earth, there to be redeemed and restored—first to a paradisiacal or terrestrial glory during the Millennium and thence back to a celestial glory once again.
Even a third meaning has been suggested: God’s course is an eternal round since, from a human perspective, he and his works are without beginning or end, like a ring or a circle.
3 Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men;
verse 3 “Remember, remember” Note the repetition for emphasis.
God’s power is sufficient that no one or no force or happening can frustrate or prevent him from accomplishing his designs. He will fulfill all his purposes and promises, including his promise of eternal life for all who obey him.
4 For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.
verse 4 Do we ever “set at naught the counsels of God” when he commands us in such matters as Sabbath-day observance, birth control, cleanliness of speech, and honesty in our daily activities? Do we obey willingly or do we follow the dictates of our own “carnal” desires?
5 Behold, you have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments; and remember also the promises which were made to you, if you did not transgress them.
verse 5 “these things” The plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the manuscript.
Perhaps the Lord has reference here to the warnings and promises delivered to Joseph by the prophet Moroni on the occasion of Moroni’s first visit on the evening of September 21, 1823 (see JS–H 1:59).
6 And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men.
verse 6 “how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God” Joseph was human, and he made mistakes and committed human transgressions. We must remember that on the absolute scale of God’s perfect righteousness, each of us is guilty of these same charges (Roman 3:23); so this is not to be taken as evidence of any particular wickedness on Joseph’s part. Joseph himself stated: “No one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature” (JS-H 1:28).
7 For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God. Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his words—
verse 7 “behold, you should not have feared man more than God” Joseph apparently believed that Martin Harris was indispensable not only as a scribe but also in providing the financial means for publishing the finished book to the world. It was natural that Joseph might fear losing the support of such an important man as Martin Harris, and that fear may have led him to make a wrong decision in the affair of the 116 pages.
The use of the word “feared” does not refer to the fear of a coward, but was more probably caused by the fact that Joseph was but a youth and was inexperienced. In the case of Martin Harris, Joseph was dealing with a man over twenty-two years his senior, a prominent and wealthy farmer and one of the few who believed Joseph’s story and supported him with both money and labor. There would have been tremendous inner pressure for Joseph to want to show his appreciation to Martin Harris.
8 Yet you should have been faithful; and he would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.
verses 7-8 “Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his words—yet you should have been faithful” Joseph, with his experiences and his knowledge, is held to a higher standard than other men (D&C 82:3).
verse 8 “he would have been with you in every time of trouble” The Lord reassures Joseph that even without the help of Martin Harris, the Lord would have not forsaken Joseph. It is interesting to note that the Lord refers to himself in the third person here.
“fiery darts of the adversary” This phrase is, of course, figurative. Fiery means burning and indicates a poison that has penetrated a person’s soul.
9 Behold, thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.
verse 9 “Behold, thou art Joseph” This provocative statement implies that Joseph was foreordained to his calling for good reason. He was chosen by the Lord in the premortal council in heaven for his specific assignment. This fact notwithstanding, he could lose it all if he is not obedient.
10 But remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work;
verse 10 The rebuke in section 3 must have been very hard on Joseph, particularly since he had just lost his firstborn son and had nearly lost his wife as well. But this verse offers comfort as well.
11 Except thou do this, thou shalt be delivered up and become as other men, and have no more gift.
verse 11 “have no more gift” The specific gift referred to here is the gift of translation.
12 And when thou deliveredst up that which God had given thee sight and power to translate, thou deliveredst up that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man,
verse 12 It must have been a sobering experience for Martin Harris to have been called a “wicked man” by the Lord. However, in 1829 a common use of the word wicked was someone of slight or little blame, such as a wicked child. Certainly his loss of the manuscript was unintentional, and less than a year after this unfortunate episode, the Lord was willing that Martin should become one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon.
13 Who has set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises which were made before God, and has depended upon his own judgment and boasted in his own wisdom.
14 And this is the reason that thou hast lost thy privileges for a season—
verse 14 “thou hast lost thy privileges for a season” These privileges include possession of the plates and the Urim and Thummim and the right and power to translate the sacred scriptures.
15 For thou hast suffered the counsel of thy director to be trampled upon from the beginning.
verse 15 “thy director” This term likely refers to Moroni or perhaps to the Lord himself.
Others have insisted that “thy director” is the Urim and Thummim (Smith and Sjodahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, 20). However, elsewhere in scripture (see D&C 17:1; Mosiah 1:16; Alma 37:38, 45) and in early LDS usage, “director” or “directors” always referred to the Liahona rather than the Urim and Thummim. Because there is no evidence that Joseph had possession of the Liahona “from the beginning” of his work, this reference is more likely to him who ultimately directed Joseph—again, either to Moroni or to the Lord himself.
16 Nevertheless, my work shall go forth, for inasmuch as the knowledge of a Savior has come unto the world, through the testimony of the Jews, even so shall the knowledge of a Savior come unto my people—
verse 16 “testimony of the Jews” The Bible.
“even so shall the knowledge of a Savior come unto my people” The expression “my people” here might seem to refer to the descendants of those who wrote the Book of Mormon. The following verse, however, seems to differentiate between “my people” and the descendants of the Book of Mormon people. We know also that the Book of Mormon was received by the “Gentiles” of the Great Gentile nation who were largely descendants of the house of Israel. To these and by these, the gospel would be restored and the Book of Mormon be given. The non-Jews of the house of Israel, then, are certainly considered by the Lord to be what he calls “my people.”
17 And to the Nephites, and the Jacobites, and the Josephites, and the Zoramites, through the testimony of their fathers—
verse 17 Are there descendants of the Nephites alive in this final dispensation? Weren’t they all killed by the Lamanites? Following the Savior’s visit to the New World, there followed a two-hundred-year period of peace, the Zion society described in 4 Nephi, when the people joined together into one unified group in which there were no “ites.” After this so-called “mini-millennium” the people broke up into Nephite and Lamanite groups again. This time the division was not according to lineage but by righteousness or unrighteousness. The “Nephites” were those that wanted to live the commandments of God, and the “Lamanites” were those that did not (see 4 Nephi 1:38). Therefore, there were descendants of Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and Zoram in both groups, and undoubtedly some of their descendants are among the native inhabitants of the Americas—probably largely of Central America. Thus, the terms Nephites and Lamanites both refer to all of the descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples.
18 And this testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites, and the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites, who dwindled in unbelief because of the iniquity of their fathers, whom the Lord has suffered to destroy their brethren the Nephites, because of their iniquities and their abominations.
19 And for this very purpose are these plates preserved, which contain these records—that the promises of the Lord might be fulfilled, which he made to his people;
20 And that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved. Amen.
verses 19-20 “the promises of the Lord” One specific purpose of the Book of Mormon is to bring the descendants of Lehi to a knowledge of their fathers and of the religion of their fathers, in fulfillment of God’s promises to their fathers.
verse 20 “rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ” This phrase means to trust in the atonement of Jesus Christ and his consequent ability to save imperfect mortals.
- Michael J. Preece