In 1842, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to John Wentworth, the editor of the Chicago Democrat, who was asked by an acquaintance, George Barstow, for information about the Saints. Barstow was writing a history of New Hampshire and wanted to include information about the Mormons. In response, the Prophet sent Mr. Wentworth a very brief history including thirteen statements of belief, what we today know as the thirteen Articles of Faith.
The eighth article of faith states that “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God." Since the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly” does not follow our statement of belief in the Book of Mormon, some critics of the Church charge that we believe the Book of Mormon to be perfect.
Do we believe that the Book of Mormon is inerrant? It is no secret that there have been numerous changes to the text of the Book of Mormon between the 1830 edition and modern LDS editions; almost four thousand changes according to the Tanners, Salt Lake City-based Mormon critics.
Sadly, many uninformed LDS do make the inerrancy assumption and back it up with a typically misconstrued passage in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon:
“Concerning this record the Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.’” (emphasis added)
The term “correct” in this instance, however, does not necessarily mean perfect. In fact, in 1841 when Joseph uttered these words, the word “correct” meant “set right, made straight,” or “conformable to truth, or conformable to a just standard.” In accordance with this definition, the Book of Mormon indeed is correct.
What is more, the book itself repeatedly feigns inerrancy. Moroni himself acknowledged that “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men” (Book of Mormon, Title Page; see also Mormon 8:17). Similarly, the Brief Explanation about the Book of Mormon includes the following statement:
“About this edition: Some minor errors in the text have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
[Now, be honest, did you know this statement was in the Book of Mormon before now? I actually just read that for the first time last week, and I deem myself fairly well-read in the scriptures.]
In other words, the same text-critical concerns that LDS have with the Bible certainly exist with the various Book of Mormon manuscripts. Scripture, including the Book of Mormon, is recorded by fallible men who can and do make mistakes. Therefore, the possibility of mistranslation or misinterpretation of Hebrew and Greek (or reformed Egyptian, for that matter) exists. Undoubtedly, however, the Book of Mormon is much less textually uncertain than the Bible as a result of the shorter and simpler transmission history. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone can authoritatively state that we believe either text is free from verbal inerrancy in their present form.
What is more, a closer reading of the Prophet’s statement reveals his stress on the “precepts” of the book, and therefore his inference to the correctness of the book’s doctrinal content, not the book itself. Read in this view, the Book of Mormon certainly is correct in the doctrines and principles it teaches, however, it does not claim to contain all truth. Although it may constitute “the most correct of any book on earth,” according to this interpretation, it unmistakably is not comprehensive in its truth.