Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was the most correct book on the earth. This has been a major topic of conversation for many people who are not Mormon and do not understand what this statement means.
The purpose of scripture is to teach the word of God. Mormons (a nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) use four books of scripture: The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Each came to the world in different ways. To understand the impact and meaning of Joseph Smith’s statement, we need to look at how both the Bible and the Book of Mormon came to be.
How We Got the Bible
The Bible was written in ancient times by a variety of people. In fact, we don’t always know who actually wrote each section. It was not written as a single book, but was compiled from a large number of manuscripts by committee. There has never been just one canon for the Bible and various groups include different combinations of ancient books in their own canon. These canons were all compiled long after Jesus and the apostles were gone (approximately 200 A.D)—the Bible didn’t exist during the time the Bible events were happening and so no one with authority from Christ selected the books, although Mormons believe God did help to guide those making these choices.
Over the centuries, the original texts of the Bible were copied again and again by scribes, since no printing press existed. As they were copied, mistakes were made, as is natural. But sometimes changes came about intentionally as things were added or dropped to suit political or religious desires. For this reason, scholars today debate many of the books and passages in the Bible as being later additions. We do not have the original copy of even one book of Bible scripture and must rely entirely on copies of copies. Despite these errors, man-made decisions, and complications, Mormons revere the Bible as the word of God. They teach that as it was first written, it was perfect. Any mistakes and changes are the mistakes of mortals.
How We Got the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon came about a little differently. The first writer was a man named Lehi, who was a prophet. His son Nephi then added his own words, including copying over many of his father’s writings. Lehi’s records were lost, but we still have the ones Nephi copied. When Nephi died, the records were passed on to another person. This continued throughout the entire span of time the Book of Mormon was being written. Each new writer received the complete record that had come before.
When the records reached Mormon, for whom the book is named, God commanded him to go through the records and pull out just the most important parts to make a more manageable record. He died before this was completed, so his son Moroni finished the task, recording it on golden plates so they would last longer. Of course, this took a great deal of time and material, so he wrote them in what he referred to as reformed Egyptian, which was apparently more compact, but which was not his native language.
Both books, then, were written by mortals, and mortals are imperfect. In the Book of Mormon, Mormon himself noted:
And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire (Mormon 8:17).
Is the Book of Mormon Perfect?
In other words, Mormon also agreed that man is imperfect. However, these imperfections in either the Bible or the Book of Mormon do not take away from the sacredness of the scriptures themselves and should not be used to judge the original intent of the books.
A recent in-depth study of the changes made to the Book of Mormon found that there were many changes, but none altered doctrine. They were largely errors in punctuation and spelling. Some were the result of the scribe mis-hearing what Joseph said. He did not do the writing himself. He translated orally and scribes wrote his words. Many of these mistakes were found by Joseph himself and corrected. Some were, however, inserted by printers. The few doctrinal types of errors, when corrected, restored the teachings the church offers today, rather than altering them. Joseph taught the doctrines correctly, even when very small word changes would seem to have altered them.
Saying that it is the most correct book, then, is not saying is it a perfect book. It is not saying there are not man-made errors, inevitable in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. What does it mean, then?
It means that the purpose of the Book has been fulfilled more completely than it has in any other book. Translation problems are minimal, since there is only one translation per language. The initial translation was carried about by a prophet and today’s translations into other languages are carefully monitored to be certain political or manipulative changes are not introduced.
The Book of Mormon was translated by a prophet. While there may be some limitations due to the imperfectness of our language, God guided the translation to make certain no important doctrine was changed in any way. The book was written and abridged by prophets. It outlines many essential saving doctrines more completely and more clearly than the Bible, with verses tending to be longer and sermons more completely recorded.
The purpose of the Book of Mormon was to bring people to Jesus Christ and its perfectness must be measured against its ability to do just that. It is the purpose that matters, not minor spelling or punctuation errors. (The original dictation did not even contain punctuation.) The book contains more references to Christ and his gospel than does even the Bible. It is estimated that this is mentioned on average in every 1.7 verses.
In 1984, Monte Nyman, who was an associate dean of religious education at Brigham Young University addressed this bold statement concerning the correctness of the Book of Mormon. He wrote:
“The most important principle, of course, is acceptance of Jesus Christ as the literal Son of God and the Savior of the world. To this principle, the Book of Mormon bears a second witness in dozens of instances. Its primary objective is to convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God. This correct second witness has become more and more valuable as the world has increasingly entertained various alternate opinions of Jesus. The Book of Mormon proclaims him to be more than a great teacher, or a great philosopher, or a great moral and ethical proclaimer. These opinions have replaced Isaiah’s prophetic designation of the Christ as “Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6.) In making a substitution, splintered Christianity has assimilated fragments of philosophies and rituals that took the place of original Christian unity and the plan of salvation. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the Book of Mormon corrects the false doctrine and affirms the true….Man’s recognition of these teachings and his step-by-step growth and development are highlighted by the third part of the Prophet’s statement that “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (See Monte Nyman, The Most Correct Book, Ensign, June 1984)