It doesn’t get talked about by Mormon missionaries. If you so much as ask the missionaries about it, it puts them in defensive mode. Any hopes of winning an easy convert are suddenly crushed. They realize this target knows too much, and could present difficulties or resistance. It’s the elephant in the room, and when they know that you know about it, it changes everything. I’m referring, of course, to the 116 first pages of the Book of Mormon that were lost after Joseph Smith permitted his scribe Martin Harris to take them home with him. This missing manuscript is a damaging smoking gun that’s caused millions of people to stop reading the Book of Mormon before the missionaries can even schedule a follow-up.
Like I said, it changes everything. More, probably, that Mormons are prepared or willing to accept. Losing those pages didn’t just interrupt Joseph Smith’s translation work for several months, it changed the entire direction of Mormon history. Not knowing who, if anyone, possessed this manuscript put Joseph Smith in a vulnerable position. His whole credibility was on the line, the situation apparently required him to re-translate an extensive passage from the plates he claimed were in his possession that nobody, not even his scribe, had ever seen. Joseph Smith’s bluff was called and his hand was forced. Faced with the impossible, the steps he would take to back out of the corner into which he had been painted would radically define the Mormon concept of “translation”, establish Joseph Smith as a divinely inspired prophet in his own right, and set a precedent in Mormon scripture.
Rather than resume work on translating a supposedly existing holy book, Joseph Smith decided to start writing his own. The oldest surviving Mormon scripture is not actually part of the Book of Mormon, but Joseph Smith’s own proclamation, now collected by the LDS Church in Doctrines & Covenants section 10 (to make a long story short, this was originally two different revelations from 1828 and 1829, first published in the Book of Commandments, then reprinted in the 1835 Doctrines & Covenants section 36 in close to its present form). By pre-emptively claiming through divine revelation that the missing pages had been altered in a conspiracy to discredit him, he had won a small reprieve. But damage had already been done, the shadow of the missing 116 pages would hover over the Book of Mormon through the remainder of its completion. When the “translation” work did resume, Joseph Smith began on what would be considered an abridgment, or a shorter, parallel reading of the same passage (confusingly, also called the plates of Nephi). A special preface would be included in the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon to cover his bases just in case the lost manuscript turned up. But they never did, which is a shame for both believers and critics alike. No longer a threat, the preface was dropped in the next edition in 1837. This scandal is all but forgotten by the LDS church now, and we can only wonder how the account of this first draft compared to the published (but still not final) edition of the Book of Mormon, and how Mormonism could have been so much different without this incident.
Later, I’ll try to piece together some of the missing contents of the 116 lost pages using educated guesses from the existing version of that narrative, but now I’ll focus more on the very first Mormon scripture. You see, the first Doctrines & Covenants passage is more of a watershed moment in history than the Book of Mormon is. It shows that from the inception Joseph Smith’s intent was to be a prophet himself, and the Book of Mormon was really just the stepping stone for his credibility. It’s my belief that if Mormons were truly honest about their religion, they would acknowledge the impact of the missing pages, and include this prophecy of Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon. Too many people have innocently joined the LDS church with no knowledge of these missing pages at all, and as we’ll see, these pages are the real key to understanding the Book of Mormon as literature.