There’s an ongoing puzzle in Church history: the lost 116 pages. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains the prevailing (should I say consensus?) view here, with my comments in red:
The first 116 pages of the original manuscript of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon from the plates of Mormon are commonly known as “the 116 pages” or the “lost manuscript.” These foolscap-size pages were hand-written in harmony, Pennsylvania, between April and June 14, 1828. Although principally transcribed by Martin Harris from dictation by Joseph Smith, some of the pages may also have been transcribed by Joseph’s wife, Emma Smith, or her brother, Reuben Hale. [or Samuel Smith]
The pages contained materials “from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon,” as Joseph explained in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon (see also HC 1:56). Lehi’s record is mentioned in 1 Nephi 1:17 and,today, is partially preserved through Nephi’s abridgment of it primarily in 1 Nephi 1–10.
In June 1828 Martin Harris asked Joseph Smith repeatedly to allow him to show the 116 pages to family members to allay their skepticism and criticism of the translation. After prayerful inquiry of the Lord, Joseph Smith twice emphatically denied these requests. As Joseph’s 1832 and 1839 histories indicate, a third request received divine permission for Harris to take the 116 manuscript pages to Palmyra, New York. The Prophet required Harris to solemnly covenant that he would show them only to his brother, his parents, his wife, and her sister.
Harris’s failure to return to Harmony as promised caused Joseph great anxiety and necessitated a strenuous journey to Manchester. There, a reluctant Harris reported that someone had stolen the manuscript from his home after he had broken his covenant and indiscriminately showed it to persons outside his family. Grief-stricken, Joseph Smith readily shared responsibility for the loss. The most widespread rumor was that Harris’ wife, irritated at having earlier been denied a glimpse of the ancient plates, had removed the manuscript translation from Martin’s unlocked bureau and burned it. Not long afterward, she and Martin separated. [The burning story contradicts D&C 10, of course.]
In consequence of this loss and of having wearied the Lord with the requests to let Harris take the pages, Joseph temporarily lost custody of the plates and the Urim and Thummim to the angel Moroni (D&C 3). Lucy Mack Smith notes also that two-thirds of Harris’s crop was oddly destroyed by a dense fog, which she interpreted as a sign of God’s displeasure (Smith, p. 132). Following much humble and painful affliction of soul, Joseph Smith again received the plates as well as the Urim and Thummim and his gifts were restored. [Some Church scholars claim he didn’t receive the Urim and Thummim back, which is why he used only his seer stone from then on. I disagree with them because I think he used the U&T throughout his time in Harmony and returned the U&T, along with the plates, before he left Harmony for Fayette. I think the U&T fit in a compartment in the Harmony plates.]
Joseph Smith was forbidden by the Lord to retranslate that part of the record previously translated because those who had stolen the manuscript planned to publish it in an altered form to discredit his ability to translate accurately (D&C 10:9-13). Instead, he was to translate the Small [the revelation doesn’t say “small”] Plates of Nephi (1 Nephi-Omni) down to that which he had translated (D&C 10:41). Those plates covered approximately the same period as had the lost manuscript, or four centuries from Lehi to Benjamin. Mormon had been so impressed with the choice prophecies and sayings contained in the small plates that he had included them with his own abridgment of Nephite writings when told to by the Spirit for “a wise purpose” known only to the Lord (W of M 1:7). [The plates of Nephi were not included with his abridgment; the Lord told Joseph he’d have to translate those plates because he didn’t have them yet. Joseph didn’t get them until he arrived in Fayette. It took me an entire chapter to go through Words of Mormon to explain this, so I’m not doing it here, but it’s fairly obvious when you see it.]
The loss of the 116 pages taught Joseph Smith and his associates several lessons: that one should be satisfied with the first answers of the Lord, that keeping one’s covenants is a serious matter, that God forgives the repentant in spite of human weakness, and that through his caring foresight and wisdom the Lord fulfills his purposes. [Unfortunately, the last comment here implies that the Lord knew that Joseph Smith and Martin Harris were going to sin in this specific way hundreds of years before it happened. That raises the question whether they had free agency to choose, or whether they were predestined. The only reason for this confusion is Mesomania; i.e., the insistence by Mesoamerican advocates that the depository of records (Mormon 6:6) was in southern Mexico in the “real” Hill Cumorah. But that’s a false notion. Once we accept that the “real” Cumorah, including the depository, is in New York, then it’s easy to see how the Lord had a backup plan for any eventuality. Martin lost 116 pages; the Lord has his messenger get the plates of Nephi from the depository in Cumorah and take them to Fayette for translation. Had Martin lost 50 pages, or had part of Alma been lost, etc., the Lord could have replaced it from the depository. If Martin had not lost the 116 pages, we would not yet know about the plates of Nephi (unless the Book of Lehi discussed them). The key point here is that the incident of the 116 pages does not have the philosophical implication of predestination once we get the history right.]
The loss of the 116 pages is a 3-part puzzle, plus a bonus question.
The first part arises from the long-held but erroneous assumption that the “small plates of Nephi” were included with the abridgment in the set of plates Moroni put in the stone box. I think that aspect of the puzzle has been solved, as described in my notes above.
The third part of the puzzle is what the 116 pages contained. I‘m speaking about the 116 pages at the Mormon History Association in June in St. Louis, so I’m not going to go through them in detail, but I will mention here that the pages referred to the mounds in North America.
This brings up an extremely important point. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the 116 pages exist somewhere. Let’s say they explicitly describe the North American setting. What would happen if they were ever found and published?
Our modern LDS scholars have insisted for years that Joseph Smith taught the Book of Mormon took place in Central America. They have managed to establish their “two-Cumorahs” theory so well, it is being taught in LDS visitors’ centers and in the missionary editions of the Book of Mormon itself.
Now, if the 116 pages ever came forth and contradicted the two-Cumorahs and Mesoamerican theories, where does that put us?
Because of the “consensus” among LDS scholars and educators, it puts us in the position of having Joseph Smith himself contradicting the 116 pages!
The prevailing narrative has Joseph “changing his mind” about what he translated in the Book of Lehi.
As bad as Mesomania has been for faith so far, the recovery of the 116 pages would be even more devastating.
Except for one thing.
Joseph never once connected the Book of Mormon to Central or South America.
Of course, that’s what I’ve been demonstrating in my books and blogs about Church history. There is not a single reliable historical source that shows Joseph directly connecting the Book of Mormon to Central or South America.
As important, Joseph did directly link the Book of Mormon to North America. Specifically, the Hill Cumorah in New York, the plains of the Nephites in the Midwest, and Zarahemla across from Nauvoo. (There are others, but I’ll stick with these three for now).
With this understanding of Church history, the recovery of the 116 pages would be awesome.
[Of course, there’s always the possibility that the 116 pages described Central America. We wouldn’t know unless they were actually found. But the descriptions of their content that we do have point directly to the mounds in North America.]
Bonus question. Why would the Lord allow the 116 pages to be lost in the first place?
Here I’m purely speculating, of course, but I think the translation of the plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon) were well-suited to 19th century people who accepted the Bible. Early LDS missionaries appealed to the Bible as proof of the Book of Mormon.
That doesn’t work much nowadays because people don’t believe the Bible any more.
Instead, we’re using the Book of Mormon to prove the Bible.
Source: Book of Mormon Wars