Hey guys, so members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon was written by inspired ancient prophets, similar to the Bible. A young man named Joseph Smith was told by an angel in the 1820s where to find this ancient record. He then translated the Book into English by the gift and power of God. Obviously, that’s quite the claim, and there’s a lot riding on whether or not it’s true. If it’s true, that’s life-changing. And potentially eternity-changing. If the Book of Mormon is a fraud, then our truth claims come tumbling down like dominos.
Thus, people have been scrutinizing the Book of Mormon for almost 200 years now, trying to figure out where it came from. Considering Joseph’s claims as the inspired translator of the book, it must have been somewhat ironic for people to crack open the first edition of the Book of Mormon only to find Joseph Smith on the title page described as the author and proprietor of the Book of Mormon! What’s the deal with that?! Let’s talk about it.
Alright, guys, critics of our faith have had a lot of fun with this one. For instance, the famous preacher Alexander Campbell wrote in 1831, “If I could swear to any man’s voice, face, or person, assuming different names, I could swear that this book was written by one man. And as Joseph Smith is a very ignorant man and is called the author on the title page, I cannot doubt for a single moment but that he is the sole author and proprietor of it.”
Ironically, Campbell later changes his position and pins the Book of Mormon on Sidney Rigdon and the elusive Solomon Spaulding manuscript, which we’ve talked about, but whatever.
In Jonathan Turner’s “Mormonism in All Ages” published in 1842 we read, “Joe Smith is sole author and proprietor, as he himself claimed on the title-page of the first edition. …”
Even in the 1985 book “Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon,” David Persuitte wrote, “…this particular declaration [that Joseph is the author and proprietor] is curious because it seems to contradict the claims that Joseph Smith made about the origin of his latter-day ‘revelation.’ Indeed, it seems to imply that The Book of Mormon was his own creation rather than being an authentic ‘history’ of ancient America. …”
Alright, so what’s going on here? Why is Joseph claiming here the title of author and proprietor? Well, it’s honestly kind of anticlimactic. The phrase “Author and Proprietor” simply reflects the language of the copyright laws then in effect.
“… the applicant was to deposit a copy of a work’s title page with the clerk of the federal district court, pay for the copyright certificate, publish the certificate in the newspaper in four consecutive weeks over the next two months, print the certificate in the book, and provide a copy of the book to the United States secretary of state within six months of its publication.”
That 1790 law mentions “author or proprietor” 13 times, and even instructs county clerks to include that terminology in the copyright certificates they issued.
Here’s the title page that was submitted to the county clerk, Richard R. Lansing. Here’s the copyright certificate Lansing issued in return. This certificate is printed in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon on the page following the Title Page. Notice again, as per the law, the “author and proprietor” language.
This wasn’t a fraudulent Joseph Smith slipping up and admitting to be the Book of Mormon’s true author. This wasn’t him trying to pull a fast one on anybody. This was him recognizing that the law referred to the copyright holder as the “author and/or proprietor,” so that’s the language he uses on the title page, conforming to that legal language. That being said,
“Joseph fits comfortably, in any event, within the broad legal meaning of the word author. Musical composers, cartographers, etchers, engravers, and designers were all authors within the meaning of that term in this statute. A translator also qualified, for copyright purposes, as the author of a book he had translated.”
But however you want to define the word, it’s still fairly obvious in the first edition that Joseph was not claiming to be the author of the book in the traditional sense. For example, even though Joseph again refers to himself as “the Author” at the end of the preface of the 1830 Book of Mormon, which appears just after the copyright certificate, “[Joseph] speaks of translating the book six times in this thirty-five line preface, making his role as translator unmistakable.” A reference to Joseph as translator also appears in the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. Apparently to avoid confusion, “author and proprietor” was changed to “translator” in the next edition of the Book of Mormon, in 1837.
It’s kind of one of those “much ado about nothing” situations, but now you know! If you want to know more, check out the resources in the YouTube description, and have a great day!
- “Was Joseph Smith the ‘Author’ of the Book of Mormon?” by Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/2UyGh0B
- “Joseph Smith: ‘Author and Proprietor’” by Miriam A. Smith and John W. Welch: https://bit.ly/3kDW9cM
- “Copyright Laws and the 1830 Book of Mormon,” by Nathaniel Hinckley Wadsworth (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/36QzFNC
- “Joseph Smith’s Negotiations to Publish the Book of Mormon,” by Gerrit J. Dirkmaat & Michael Hubbard MacKay (BYU): https://bit.ly/3kEsZdx
- “Analysis of Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon,” by Royal Skousen, pg. 35-36: https://bit.ly/3xTBC82
- 1830 Book of Mormon “Copyright Page” (Joseph Smith Papers): https://bit.ly/3zjlwom
- 1830 Book of Mormon title page (Joseph Smith Papers): https://bit.ly/3rl8vbk
- Book of Mormon title page submitted to the county clerk (1829): https://bit.ly/36McW5o
- Book of Mormon copyright certificate from county clerk: https://bit.ly/2Ts70eW
- Read the “Copyright Act of 1790” here (amended in 1802): https://bit.ly/3BlgU2V
- Wayne Sentinel June 26, 1829 publication of the title page: https://bit.ly/36LoRjR