Hey guys, so the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith claimed that in the 1820s he was visited multiple times by an angel, and directed by that angel to an ancient record we know today as the Book of Mormon. This angel’s name was Moroni. But there are some early documents in Latter-day Saint history that call the angel Nephi. Some people point to this as evidence that a fraudulent Joseph Smith couldn’t seem to keep his story straight, and some even claim that Joseph intended the name to be Nephi, but after Joseph’s death, the Church retroactively changed the angel’s name from Nephi to the more logical Moroni. In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at this bit of history and see whether those claims hold water or not.
Alright, so was the angel originally called Moroni or Nephi? Which came first? In many early documents, the angel isn’t named at all, but when he is, his name is Moroni. The angel is Moroni in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s Moroni in a letter from Oliver Cowdery, published in the April 1835 issue of the Latter-Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. It’s Moroni in a Q & A with Joseph Smith published in the July 1838 Elders’ Journal. It’s Moroni in an 1839 discourse from Joseph Smith as recorded by Willard Richards.
The first existing instance of the angel being referred to as Nephi appears in mid-1839 in the earliest extant manuscript of what we know today as “Joseph Smith — History”. You’ll notice that it’s written in first-person as if Joseph himself is writing it, but he’s not. Joseph is overseeing this project but this is the handwriting of his clerk, James Mulholland.
Anyway, the passage in question reads, “He called me by name and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me and that his name was Nephi.” You’ll notice here that there’s a little asterisk above “Nephi” with the word “Moroni”. This was a note added by Albert Carrington, probably in 1871 after Brigham Young assigned the Historian’s Office to look into this discrepancy. The corresponding footnote reads, “evidently a clerical error … should read Moroni.” This was the correction of an error, not the Church changing Joseph’s story. Remember, the angel’s name had always been Moroni up to this 1839 document.
And that little note there basically sums up what most Latter-day Saints think about this issue. We view it as a mistake that slipped through the cracks. James Mulholland wrote 59 pages of this history before he passed away. On page 5, the angel responsible for bringing forth the Book of Mormon is called Nephi. Ironically, though, on page 52 Mulholland quotes from the Doctrine and Covenants which names Moroni as the person responsible.
That said, while this manuscript draft is the first instance of the angel Nephi reference, it is not the only instance. The critics of our faith that I’ve seen talk about this are usually quick to point out that an angel Nephi reference shows up in the Millennial Star, there’s one in Lucy Mack Smith’s memoir, and even in the 1851 Pearl of Great Price for heaven’s sake. But let’s slow down and connect some dots.
Here’s what happened. The 1839 manuscript where this error originally occurs ends up ultimately being published a piece at a time in the Times and Seasons in 1842 under the title, “History of Joseph Smith.” The part we’re interested in appears in the April 15th issue. And here’s where things get interesting. I mentioned that the Nephi reference shows up in the Millennial Star. That’s because the August 4th, 1842 issue of the Millennial Star reprinted the Times and Seasons article. Later in this same issue, an editorial also calls the angel “Nephi”. Where is the author getting this information? “…the history of our beloved brother, Joseph Smith.” Again, it’s the Times and Seasons’ “History of Joseph Smith.”
In the 1845 draft of Lucy Mack Smith’s memoir, the angel is again called Nephi. The source? You guessed it, it’s taken straight from that same Times and Seasons article. Fast forward to 1851 several years after Joseph Smith’s death: Before the Pearl of Great Price was canonized, it was published in England as a pamphlet. In this 1851 publication, the angel is called Nephi. Where did they get their information? The same Times and Seasons series where the original error was printed.
Every angel Nephi reference that I am aware of during Joseph’s lifetime and up to 1853 traces directly back to the original 1839 error. It’s one error that kept getting reprinted. Of course, after being republished so many times, some people were bound to continue to perpetuate the error, even though, again, references to Moroni had been and were being printed and reprinted as well, at the same time. For example, the Times and Seasons article mentioning Nephi was published in April 1842. In October 1842 a letter from Joseph Smith to the Church was published in the same newspaper, which identified the angel as Moroni.
As mentioned earlier, the issue was eventually addressed and the Nephi references were corrected. I think Orson Pratt nailed it on the head back in 1876 when he wrote, “The discrepancy in the history to which you refer may have occurred through the ignorance or carelessness of the historian or transcriber … many events recorded were written by [Joseph’s] scribes who undoubtedly trusted too much to their memories, and the items probably were not sufficiently scanned by Bro. Joseph, before they got into print.”
Personally, this controversy is really a non-issue for me. That said, as always, feel free to investigate this for yourself and come to your own conclusions. I’ll leave you some great resources in the YouTube description if you want to dive deeper. Check out the notes in the description as well where I address some additional questions you might have. I’ll leave even more resources on our website. Watch a couple of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “Angel Moroni” from the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3ByAdFL
- “Introduction to History, 1838–1856 (Manuscript History of the Church)” via Joseph Smith Papers Project: https://bit.ly/3AwD2G3
- “Introduction to History Drafts, 1838 — 1842” via JSPP: https://bit.ly/3FKVUoE
- Drafts of this history project:
- Draft  (1838 draft): Non-extant.
- DRAFT 1 (1839): This draft is believed to have picked up where the non-extant 1838 draft left off. Thus, the record of the angelic visit is not recorded in DRAFT 1: https://bit.ly/2XebMP6
- DRAFT 2 (1839): https://bit.ly/3DupIUy
- DRAFT 3 (Howard Coray rough draft, about 1841): https://bit.ly/3DIPYe5
- DRAFT 4 (Howard Coray Fair Copy, about 1841): https://bit.ly/3iUvdUA
- “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834]” via JSPP (note the Historical Introduction): https://bit.ly/3BEyj6I
- “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834]” via JSPP (PAGE 5): https://bit.ly/3AwKJvX (notice this volume includes DRAFT 2)
- “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834]” via JSPP (PAGE 52): https://bit.ly/3FBKjZ2
- Some info on this from FairMormon: https://bit.ly/3v7AH3f
- “Historical or Hysterical: Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources” by Matthew Brown (2004, and slightly dated, I think): https://bit.ly/3aATRF7
- Perspectives of some additional Latter-day Saint scholars can be found here: https://bit.ly/3mOXKMC
- For links to individual examples of “Moroni” and “Nephi” examples, please see the resources section underneath the transcript of this episode on our website. I don’t have room in the YouTube description to include them here.