Part I: An Oral Document
In August 2005 when Pres. Hinckley made his invitation (which morphed to a commandment in some minds) to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year we found Rex Campbell’s narration of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price and started listening. Earlier that year (I think) at the Association For Mormon Letters symposium my brother Dennis Clark had suggested after a session on scripture that we might well consider the Book of Mormon as oral literature since Joseph dictated the translation. He also suggested, though maybe at a different time, that we ought to think about Joseph as a translator like any other translator, someone who knew the language he was translating from.
Ironically, while listening to Campbell’s narration I didn’t think a lot about
the Book of Mormon as an oral narrative. I didn’t start thinking about that
until I had started my second reading of Deseret Book’s 1980 1st Edition facsimile.
I started my first reading around the time we got to the Words of Mormon,
pulling out the facsimile to follow along. I wanted to see what the differences
were, the 3,000+ differences I had heard about. I didn’t listen long before
pulling out pen and paper. The book is roughly 7×4 1/2″ and I cut some paper to take notes on, and started cataloging the differences I noticed. About the time I got to Helaman I took 4 sheets folded in half and made booklets. My notes became more thorough.
When I finished I decided to read from I Nephi to Words of Mormon to see what I had missed. And I kept reading after that, and started noticing a strong oral rhythm, and a great deal of oral literature, prayers, sermons, orations, blessings, instruction, conversation, trash talk (so to speak).
The oral literature suggests a culture used to preserving and passing records
along orally, which also suggests that many of the records were recorded orally before beng engraved.
So why didn’t I notice the oral rhythm when I heard Rex Campbell reading the book? Or other times I’ve read it? Part of what makes the rhythm noticeable is the length of the sentences, paragraphs and chapters. As he wrote the dictation, Oliver Cowdery designated some chapters, which RLDS/Community of Christ editions still use–LDS editions use much shorter chapters–but didn’t punctuate or paragraph the manuscript. The typesetter, John H. Gilbert, did that and his sentences and paragraphs are often long.
Gilbert’s sentences can be half a page or more and a few paragraphs go on for pages. Later editions keep most of Gilbert’s sentences and punctuation–though where he used semicolons we favor Emily Dickinson’s beloved em-dashes. We don’t notice the long sentences as much as we would in the first edition, though, because our editions break many sentences up into 2 or 3 or more verses.
The Book of Mormon’s oral rhythm is marked by lots of polysyndeton–using many ands to join phrases and clauses into long sentences–but we don’t notice the oral rhythm or long sentences because when Parley P. Pratt divided Gilbert’s long paragraphs into verses he didn’t do it by sentence. Some verses have more than one sentence, and many sentences span several verses. Because we print each verse as an indented paragraph starting with a capital letter we tend to think of the basic unit of scripture as the verse rather than the sentence or paragraph. Versifying The Book of Mormon affected the meaning of the book–or the way we read it–more than all of the 3,000 textual changes combined.