In the JSP Histories Vol. 1, the LDS Historian’s Office adds an “Historical Introduction” to drafts of history written between 1838 and 1841. In their introduction, they discuss copyist Howard Coray’s explanation of his clerical work in transcribing Draft 3. This version was based on Draft 2, which Joseph Smith “dictated” to Coray as he wrote down Draft 3. The Historian’s Office then acknowledges this:
If the statement was accurate in that sense, it suggests that JS read aloud from Draft 2 in the large manuscript volume, directing editorial changes as he read. (JS Papers Histories Vol. 1, pp. 200-201.)
In the Draft 2 that Joseph Smith read from, the following description is recorded about the visit of an angel to Joseph on September 21, 1823:
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. That God had a work for me to do, and that my (name) should be had for good and evil among all nations kindreds and tongues. (JS Papers Histories Vol. 1, p. 222.)
While reading the account, and making editorial changes to it as Coray wrote Draft 3, the account was rewritten as follows:
…calling me by name, (he) said. that he was a messenger. sent from the presence of God to me. and that his name was Nephi. —
that he had a work for me to do that my name should be had for good and evil. among all nations. kindreds. & tongues — (JS Papers Histories Vol. 1, p. 223.)
It is noteworthy that the two versions are not identical. There was a close enough examination of the text of Draft 3 for Joseph to have made several changes to these sentences. Yet in both accounts the name of the angel who visited on September 21, 1823 remained “Nephi.”
Somehow the LDS church changed the name of the angel from “Nephi” to “Moroni” and it is the “Angel Moroni” who sits atop almost every LDS temple. The LDS Historian’s Office deals with this problem through a footnote:
A later redaction in an unidentified hand changed “Nephi” to “Moroni” and noted that the original attribution was to a “clerical error.” (JS Papers Histories Vol. 1, p. 223, footnote 56.)
That footnote uses Oliver Cowdery as a reliable source for changing the name to “Moroni” because of a letter he wrote in 1835. But Oliver Cowdery was not with Joseph in 1823-1827. The first time they met was April 5, 1829. (JS-H 1:66.) Oliver is not as reliable a source as Joseph, but the Historian’s Office uses him to justify the change of identity from “Nephi” to “Moroni.”
The same footnote acknowledges that during Joseph’s lifetime the identity of the angel was always Nephi:
The present history [Draft 2] is the earliest extant source to name Nephi as the messenger, and subsequent publications based on this history perpetuated the attribution during JS’s lifetime. (Id.)
Draft 2 was written in 1839, and appears to have been entirely based on a version dictated by Joseph in 1838. The 1838 manuscript has been lost and therefore Draft 2, made the next year, is the “earliest extant source” of the Joseph Smith History.
Taking these dates, we know Joseph identified the angel as “Nephi” in 1838, and remained consistent with that identification when it was recopied in 1839. Joseph reviewed and revised the account with Coray in 1840, and although he changed several things in the surrounding text, the identity of the angel was still “Nephi.” Subsequent publications approved or written by Joseph during his lifetime likewise identified the 1823 visitor as “Nephi.” (See Times and Seasons, 15 April 1842, 3:753-754; LDS Millennial Star, August 1842, 3:53-54.)
In 1842 Joseph became the editor of the Times and Seasons. He wrote an announcement in the March 1, 1842 edition which stated:
To Subscribers: This paper commences my editorial career, I alone stand responsible for it, and shall do for all papers having my signature henceforward. I am not responsible for the publication, or arrangement of the former paper; the matter did not come under my supervision. JOSEPH SMITH (Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 9.)
This March 1, 1842 edition of the paper began the first publication of the Book of Abraham, and so it is one of the more available editions of the paper.
Three editions later, with Joseph as editor of the paper, the following account was printed:
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. That God had a work for me to do, and that my name should be had for good and evil, among all nations, kindreds, and tongues[.] (Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 12, HISTORY OF JOSEPH SMITH (Continued.))
In the JS Papers Histories Vol. 1, the footnote quoted above acknowledges the change of name from “Nephi” to “Moroni” was done “later” and by “an unidentified hand.” It could have been put there anytime by anyone. But this insertion is important enough to the LDS tradition for the Historian’s Office to footnote and to explain the name “Nephi” was a “clerical error.”
Joseph used, approved, repeated and asserted that he alone would stand responsible for identifying the angel as “Nephi.” But an unknown hand is used by the Historian’s Office to relegate this name to a clerical error when it conflicts with LDS tradition.
The question of whether “Moroni” belongs at all in the LDS narrative can be answered by another document found in the same volume. Another recap of history was composed by Joseph Smith in 1842, and printed in the same edition of the Times and Seasons wherein he announced his role as the new editor. Joseph wrote a letter to John Wentworth, the editor of the Chicago Democrat. After the letter was written and sent, it was transcribed and published in the Times and Seasons. This required Joseph to have reviewed the letter at least twice by the time it was printed in the newspaper he edited.
The letter does not name the angel, but clarifies Joseph’s experience between 1823 (first visit) and 1827 (when the plates were given to him):
The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things. After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty, and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22d of September A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands. (JS Papers Histories Vol. 1, p. 495; also Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 9, CHURCH HISTORY.)
Joseph was not visited by a singular angel, but “many visits” from “angels“–making it possible that although Nephi visited him first in 1823, others (which may have included Moroni) also visited him during those four years. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, recounted what Joseph learned from the “many angels” who visited:
During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them. (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 36-173.)
The PofGP version of the Joseph Smith History, verse 54, confirms that with each annual visit between 1823 and 1827 he met “the same messenger” (meaning Nephi). However, as the Wentworth Letter suggests, there were others who are not mentioned and are only alluded to have visited.
The visit of “diverse” angels is also mentioned in D&C 128:20-21. These various angels all declared “their dispensations”–a term that would refer to a beginning and ending of a gospel epoch or order.
The dispensation of Moses began with him and ended with John the Baptist. Both Moses and John the Baptist appeared to Christ, witnessed by Peter, James and John, on the Mount of Transfiguration. In Matthew 17:1-13, Moses is named and “Elias” is later clarified to identify John the Baptist. (Verse 13: “Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.”)
In the JST Mark 9:2-4, the identities are explicitly Moses and John the Baptist: “2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. 3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. 4 And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses, or, in other words, John the Baptist and Moses: and they were talking with Jesus.” Joseph inserted into verse 4: “or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses.”
The men who began and finished the dispensation of Moses visited Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration and “declared their dispensation” to Him. It would be symmetrical for the Nephite dispensation which began with Nephi and ended with Moroni to likewise have the founder and finisher visit Joseph and “declare their dispensation” to him.
[Since Lehi was Nephi’s father some will quibble over identifying Nephi as the beginning. However, before departing from Jerusalem it was Nephi, not Lehi, who possessed the Sword of Laban, brass plates, and indicia of kingship. It was Nephi, not Lehi, who received the revelation giving instructions on how to build the boat for the trip to the promised land. It was Nephi who received the more fulsome revelation of the tree of life. It was Nephi who was shown the entire sweep of history in a revelation summarized in 1 Nephi chapters 11-14. Nephi prepared, and God preserved the Small Plates of Nephi as the foundational scripture of the Book of Mormon. Mormon did not abridge Nephi–we have his record in full. Therefore, it is more properly Nephi, not Lehi, who should be regarded as the founder of the Nephite dispensation.]
If Joseph identified the angel who visited him in September 1823 by the name “Nephi” throughout his life, using it in three drafts of his history, using it in the newspaper he edited, and not changing when given many opportunities to do so, the conclusion it was a “clerical error” that was corrected by “an unknown hand” is at best insufficient.
If “many angels” visited between 1823 to 1827, including Moroni, then leaving the name as “Nephi” does no harm, and more accurately attributes to Joseph Smith what Joseph Smith intended. No matter how the error was made, and despite an “unknown hand’s” change to “Moroni” the Joseph Smith Papers ought to respect Joseph Smith’s words above Oliver’s.
The obvious difficulty with this approach is that the tradition makes the “angel fly[ing] through the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach” (Rev. 14:6) now in gold leaf atop temples and identified as “Moroni” an embarrassing mistake. Tradition holds that this reference in the Book of Revelation was fulfilled by the first angel who visited on September 21, 1823. That would make it Nephi, even if later on an angelic Moroni was among the “many angels” visiting between 1823 and 1827.
Joseph’s account should not be undermined even if, when he tells his account and vouches for its truthfulness, he contradicts an LDS tradition.