Joseph Smith’s early stories involve the visitation of a specific angel in his bedroom. The current narrative states that this was the angel Moroni, the same Moroni that tops all the temples. He was the last writer of the Book of Mormon. However, some records indicate that it was the angel Nephi who first visited Joseph in his room. Church leaders and historians cleaned up the narrative by making some edits to the church history. They even included asterisks and notes in the manuscript to rectify the discrepancy. They simply note that it was evidently a clerical error and where Joseph mentioned the angel Nephi, it should read Moroni. Lickity split, church history narrative issues fixed in a simple grammatical correction.
They don’t mention that it stated the angel’s name was Nephi for years while Joseph lived, and he even republished the name as Nephi multiple times in the newspaper. This error wasn’t clerical if Joseph himself made it and perpetuated it.
Recently the church celebrated the 200-year mark of this pivotal moment.
September 21 is a significant day in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the evening of that day in 1823, Joseph Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni — a visit that revealed the existence of gold plates that became the Book of Mormon.200 Years Ago: An Angel’s Visit that Led to the Book of Mormon
The moment that has carefully been massaged into a narrative that still doesn’t completely ring consistent and hasan’t entirely achieved consensus. We’re still debating the use of seer stones etc, but at least the church has been able to rectify this “clerical” error before things got out of hand and it became too widespread. Imagine having statues of the Angel Nephi on temples and having to swap them for Moroni due to clerical error!
Why does the story include a name at all? And since the name of the angel in the story changed over time, does it make it more or less likely to be only a story and not actual factual history?
The Angel Nephi
In Joseph Smith’s earliest tellings, this angel was not named. He simply referred to it as the angel of the Lord. Then sometimes he was named Moroni, and other times Nephi. In today’s narrative, there is no discussion of any angel Nephi at all. The only angel mentioned by name is Moroni, but there are plenty of references to the angel Nephi in the past. Though many instances can be traced back to the manuscript for the history of the church, which was then published in the Times and Seasons, and the Millennial Star. We must note that Joseph was alive when these were published and was the editor-in-chief of the Times and Seasons. He could or should have noticed the error and corrected it.
In May 1938, Joseph Smith began dictating a church history that included a detailed account of this angelic visitation. Here he refers to the angel specifically as “Nephi”.
While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in the room which continued to increase untill the room was lighter than at noondayHistory, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834], p. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers
and<when> immediately a personage <appeared> at my bedside standing in the air for his feet did not touch the floor. He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond any<thing> earthly I had ever seen, nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedinly white and brilliant, His hands were naked and his arms also a little above the wrist<s>. So also were his feet naked as were his legs a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe as it was open so that I could see into his bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly white but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him I was afraid, but the fear soon left me. 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 <*Moroni>. <*Evidently a clerical error; see Book Doc & Cov., Sec 50, par 2; Sec 106, par 20; also Elder’s Journal Vol. 1, page 43. Should read Moroni.>
The church explains this away as “evidently a clerical error”. There’s nothing else they can do to hide the fact that Joseph couldn’t keep his character’s names straight.
The Angel Moroni
The current Joseph Smith History includes no footnote to indicate that anything has ever changed in the story. This is what studious members use to learn the history of the church, and what missionaries use to teach people about the church. It does include many other footnotes, but none to note that the name of the angel was ever inconsistent or disputed. A simple whitewashing of the history.
30 While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a alight appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a bpersonage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.
31 He had on a loose robe of most exquisite awhiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.
32 Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was aglorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like blightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was cafraid; but the dfear soon left me.
33 He called me by aname, and said unto me that he was a bmessenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for cgood and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.Joseph Smith History 1:30-33 (footnote reference left intact to show how many footnotes are in place yet there is no footnote to indicate the name of the angel has anything of note)
Fixing Inconsistencies in the Historical Record
Even though there are various names for this angel, during Joseph’s life, he never corrected from one to the other. He used them both nearly simultaneously. He referenced Nephi in May 1938, Moroni in July 1938, and then Nephi again in 1942. The church continued to use both Nephi and Moroni after Joseph’s death until finally, historians under Brigham Young wanted to make the history clear, so they decided to pick one and use it from then on.
There’s a whole section in the Wikipedia article on the Angel Moroni discussing the angel’s name and identity.
Smith’s 1838 identification as “Nephi” was left unchanged when the 1838 history was published in 1842 in Times and Seasons, which Smith edited himself, and in Millennial Star. In the latter, an editorial referred to the 1823 vision and praised “the glorious ministry and message of the angel Nephi”. In 1851, after Smith’s death (1844), the identification as “Nephi” was repeated when the Church published its first edition of the Pearl of Great Price. It was also repeated in 1853 when Smith’s mother Lucy Mack Smith published a history of her son.
As a further complication, Mary Whitmer, mother to one of the Three Witnesses and four of the Eight Witnesses, said she had a vision of the golden plates, shown to her by an angel whom she always called “Brother Nephi”, who may or may not have been the same angel to which Smith referred.Wikipedia: Angel Moroni: Angel’s name and identity
Something that may be small and tolerable as a mistake in and of itself, but when combined with the numerous other changes does indicate that the story was a constantly changing narrative and meaning was being found within the story as time progressed and as needs of the church arose in realtime. Things like the first vision details, the priesthood restoration and even the nature of the Godhead can be seen to be developing over time with similar “clerical” edits to texts insomuch that today, there is hardly a trace of the original writings.
The church has even published a topical article (like a mini gospel topic essay) regarding the identity of the angel Joseph reports visited him in his room 200 years ago. They clarify that both Nephi and Moroni had been used to reference this same angel and Brigham Young himself suspected that the history contained a clerical error and had the historians “fix”. This is framed by a scholarly study for the truth, but could just as easily have been a cover-up revision to clean up the messy story. The church is known to whitewash any piece of history it can get away with.
Both “Nephi” and “Moroni” appeared in publications during the 1840s and 1860s. Brigham Young suspected the history contained a clerical error and assigned Church historians to research the issue. Reviewing Joseph Smith’s other accounts of the angel, they concluded that the name “Nephi” should be replaced with “Moroni” and wrote a correction on the manuscript itself.LDS Official Church History Topic: Angel Moroni
In the church’s defense, while the church history which Joseph began dictating in May 1938 named the angel Nephi, just a couple months later in July 1938 Joseph Smith wrote a question and answer article for the Elders’ Journal where he named the angel Moroni.
Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?
Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead; and raised again there from, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained then, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Number 3, July 1938
And also, to be fair to the rest of the world, this same publication of the Elders’ Journal answered other questions, some of which are completely and demonstrably false where Joseph states that Mormons do not believe in having more wives than one “at the same time,” and others the church would like to be forgotten completely such as where Joseph readily admits to being a money digger.
Question 7th. Do the Mormons believe in having more wives than one.
Answer. No, not at the same time. But they believe, that if their companion dies, they have a right to marry again. But we do disapprove of the custom which has gained in the world, and has been practised among us, to our great mortification, of marrying in five or six weeks, or even in two or three months after the death of their companion.
We believe that dur respect ought to be hard, to the memory of the dead, and the feelings of both friends and children.Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Number 3, July 1938
In the same Elders’ Journal question and answer article, we also find this gem where Joseph Smith personally admits to being a money digger, and that he got fourteen dollars a month doing it (which was more wages a farmhand would receive).
Question 10. Was not Jo Smith a money digger.
Answer. Yes, but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Number 3, July 1938
Church leaders will deny that Joseph was a money digger, even though we have right here an admission that he was. They will use this same publication to affirm that the angel who visited him was Moroni, claiming that the instances that called him Nephi were mere clerical errors even though these were done in Joseph’s view and republished multiple times under Joseph’s view too. Had it been a simple error, it should have easily been spotted and corrected. More likely, Joseph just hadn’t nailed down his full story and sometimes was happy to call the fictional angel Nephi and sometimes Moroni. Joseph’s stories and doctrines did tend to change over time as he saw the need to change them or his views developed.
Angelic Visitations as First Vision
Note that many at the time considered this his “first vision” because it’s the only one that was discussed in contemporary documents. Church leaders for decades would mention his angelic visitations when they discussed his first vision. They were referring to this piece of the story because the first vision story as we know it today had not yet been integrated into the church origin story. The so-called first vision story that allegedly occurred in 1820 was not mentioned until years later and even then, there are differing accounts of the vision. The story of an angelic visitation is the first thing Joseph’s own mother discusses and remembers in her memoirs, the official first vision account is retroactively added to her memoirs since she apparently forgets to even mention it (or perhaps didn’t even know about it).
The church even admits this in the topic of Angel Moroni when they state “Joseph’s preparation to become a prophet began with his First Vision, but his early followers typically spoke of Moroni’s visit as marking the beginning of Joseph’s calling.” The only reason they would have typically spoke of Moroni’s visit as marking the beginning of Joseph’s calling, is because the story of the first vision was largely unknown at the time. They couldn’t have referenced the first vision as the beginning, because Joseph hadn’t spoken of it yet, and surely hadn’t written about it!
Evidently a Clerical Error
In the 1839 manuscript of Joseph’s History and in the 1842 published version in Times and Seasons, which is the basis for the LDS scripture Joseph Smith-History, Joseph said about the angel that “his name was Nephi” (EMD 1:63; cf. Joseph Smith, History, circa June 1839-circa 1841 [Draft 2], 5; “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons 3.12, April 15, 1842, 753, both available at josephsmithpapers.org).
The Joseph Smith Papers website has a note here acknowledging that LDS Church Historian Albert Carrington changed “Nephi” to “Moroni” in the manuscript, probably in 1871, attributing the problem to “evidently a clerical error,” but this seems unlikely in view of the fact that the names do not sound or look at all similar. If one wishes to consider the name Nephi here as an error, one must attribute the error to Joseph Smith and not a mere clerk.
The referenced instances this corrected error point to are the Elders’ Journal referenced above, and a couple of scriptures, D&C 50:2 and D&C 160:20. These sections and verses are not for the current D&C but an earlier version where the different sections are included and they are in a different order. Altogether, not historically convincing that Moroni should take precedence over Nephi in the story, but these are the references the church shows still today to prove this is “evidently a clerical error.” They references relate to the following today:
- Section 50:2 in today’s D&C seems related, “there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world”, but it is not what the reference intended to point to. Though these must on some level still be false spirits, or at least one false spirit and one genuine.
- D&C 50:2 relates to D&C 27:5 which states “Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel …”. A reference to Moroni being sent to Joseph to reveal the Book of Mormon. (Though it’s interesting to note that “the name “Moroni” was not in the revelation when it was first printed in the Book of Commandments in 1833. It was interpolated into the revelation when it was reprinted in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.” – Mormonism–Shadow or Reality? By Jerald and Sandra Tanner)
- D&C 106:20 became D&C 128:20 which states “What do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed. A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette, Seneca county, declaring the three witnesses to bear record of the book!” This verse references witnesses to the plates, and not the visitation of the angel to Joseph.
Mormonism–Shadow or Reality?
Here’s what the Tanners said to expound on this issue. They have important clarifications stating that even when referencing the scriptures as proof of the angel’s name, the earliest versions of these sections in the D&C didn’t include the name, but it was added to later to corroborate the story.
One of the most important changes in the History is concerning the name of the Angel who was supposed to have appeared in Joseph Smith’s room. In the History as it was first published by Joseph Smith, we learn that the Angel’s name was “Nephi”: He called me by name, and said … that his name was Nephi. (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, p. 753) In modern printings of the History of the Church, this has been changed to read “Moroni”: He called me by name, and said … that his name was Moroni; … (History of the Church, vol. 1, p. 11)
The original handwritten manuscript shows that the name was originally written as “Nephi,” but that someone at a later date has written the word “Moroni” above the line.
In our book, Falsification of Joseph Smith’s History, page 13, we show that this change was made after Joseph Smith’s death. The Mormon writer Richard L. Anderson argues that the name “Nephi” had to be changed because it contradicted other statements made by Joseph Smith: “This wording in the present Pearl of Great Price is modified from the first printing, in which the messenger was identified as “Nephi,” a fact that has generated its share of superficial comment. A textual critic or a court of law reserves the right to use common sense in the face of obvious documentary errors. The “Nephi” reading contradicts all that the Prophet published on the subject during his lifetime.” (Improvement Era, September 1970, pp. 6-7)
Actually, it would appear that the early Mormon leaders were somewhat confused concerning the identification of the angel who appeared in Joseph Smith’s room. In Joseph Smith’s earliest attempt to write the history of his life—which has only recently come to light—he merely states that it was “an angel of the Lord” who appeared. The “angel” tells him that the plates were “engraved by Moroni” in “ancient days,” but the “angel” does not give his own name. Joseph Smith stated: “… behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and He the Lord had forgived me my sins and he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester, Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraved by Moroni and his father the servant of the living God in ancient days …” (“An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions,” by Paul R. Cheesman, Master’s thesis, BYU, 1965, p. 130)
When the church began the “first published consecutive account of the origin of the Church” in 1834-35, the “angel” still did not seem to have a name, for in the February 1835 issue of the Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery identified the angel only as “a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord, . . .” (Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, p. 79). Two months later, however, the angel seems to have acquired the name “Moroni,” for Cowdery speaks of “the angel Moroni, whose words I have been rehearsing, . . .” (Ibid., April 1835, p. 112). In the Elders’ Journal for July 1838, page 42, Joseph Smith stated that the angel’s name was “Moroni.”
The Doctrine and Covenants 27:5 is sometimes cited to try to prove that the angel was identified as Moroni at a very early date. The revelation purports to have been given in August 1830, but the name “Moroni” was not in the revelation when it was first printed in the Book of Commandments in 1833. It was interpolated into the revelation when it was reprinted in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.
It would appear, then, that until 1835 the angel was not identified. From 1835 to 1838 the Mormon leaders were teaching that the angel was “Moroni.” When Joseph Smith published his history in the Times and Seasons in 1842, he had changed his mind. He had decided that the angel was really “Nephi.” The handwritten manuscript plainly reads “Nephi,” and since Joseph Smith was the editor of the Times and Seasons at the time this was published, it is almost impossible to believe this was a “clerical error.” Joseph Smith lived for two years after the name “Nephi” was printed, and he never published a retraction. The Millennial Star, printed in England, also published Joseph Smith’s story stating that the angel’s name was “Nephi” (see Millennial Star, vol. 3, p. 53). That the Church members in England believed that the angel’s name was “Nephi” is obvious from the editorial remarks published in
the Millennial Star, vol. 3, page 71: “… we read the history of our beloved brother, Joseph Smith, and of the glorious ministry and message of the angel Nephi which has finally opened a new dispensation to man, …”
Joseph Smith’s mother, when writing her history, also quoted Joseph Smith’s statement that the angel’s name was “Nephi,” but this has been changed in later editions of her book to read “Moroni.” The name was also published in the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price as “Nephi.” Walter L. Whipple states that Orson Pratt “published The Pearl of Great Price in 1878, and removed the name of Nephi from the text entirely and inserted the name Moroni in its place” (“Textual Changes in the Pearl of Great Price,” typed copy, p. 125).
In LaMar Petersen’s book, Problems in Mormon Text, he tells that Joseph Smith said the angel’s name was “Nephi.” In the July, 1961, issue of the Improvement Era, pp. 492 and 522, Dr. Hugh Nibley attempts to answer this problem by stating: “Some critics, for example, seem to think that if they can show that a friend or enemy of Joseph Smith reports him as saying that he was visited by Nephi, they have caught the Prophet in a fraud.” In footnote 15, page 526 of the same issue, Dr. Nibley stated: “Mr. L. Petersen, Problems in Mormon Text (Salt Lake City, 1957), p. 3, n. 4, labours this point most strangely. He cites as evidence the Millennial Star for August 1842 and the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price—the first printed in England, far away from Joseph Smith, and the second edition years after his death; for them Joseph Smith cannot be held responsible … That Mr. P. should have to search so far among literally thousands of retellings of the story of Moroni to find this inevitable slip is actually a vindication of the original.”
Dr. Nibley seems to have missed the whole point; LaMar Petersen was telling how Joseph Smith’s story originally read. The original did say it was Nephi, and it was published in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Joseph Smith himself was the editor at that time. Therefore, Joseph Smith must be held responsible for identifying the angel as “Nephi.”Mormonism–Shadow or Reality? By Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Pages 136-137
Mormon Claims Answered
Marvin Cowan also wrote of this in his book Mormon Claims Answered:
The angel Moroni story has also been changed since the first edition of the P.of G.P. was published in 1851. That edition said that the angel “Nephi” revealed the gold plates to Smith (p. 41). Other early Mormon sources which mention the angel Nephi are: The Millennial Star Vol III, pp. 53, 71 and Times and Seasons Vol. III pp. 749, 753. In the latter volume on page 710, Joseph Smith said, “This paper commences my editorial career. I alone stand responsible for it.” Thus, if the angel’s name is wrong, Smith is at fault. In 1853, Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, also said the angel’s name was Nephi (Biographical Sketches, p. 79). Most Mormons today have never heard that the angel Nephi revealed the gold plates to Joseph Smith. But, Mormons assume the B. of M. must have come from God if an angel revealed it to Joseph Smith. However, the Bible warns that even “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (II Cor. 11:14). The apostle Paul also said in Gal. 1:8, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Did Moroni (or Nephi) preach the same gospel that Paul did in Galatians and the other epistles? If Moroni did preach the same message as Paul did, we already had the message and therefore we do not need the B. of M. But, if Moroni preached a different gospel than Paul did, he is under the curse of Gal. 1:8-9.Mormon Claims Answered, by Marvin W. Cowan.
Chapter 1 – Origin and History of Mormonism, Evidence Against the Joseph Smith Story, Moroni or Nephi.
The Mormon Delusion
Richard L. Anderson, an LDS writer, admits the change in The Pearl of Great Price but argues that it was necessary as “the ‘Nephi’ reading contradicts all that the prophet published on the subject during his lifetime.” He doesn’t qualify all that the prophet published that it contradicted; and in fact many of Smith’s (and others) writings don’t even mention the name of the angel at all. It is usually “the angel” or “an angel of the Lord” or a “messenger” sent by commandment of the Lord. There did however, seem to be some confusion as to which name to ultimately pick, as Oliver Cowdery called the angel a “messenger” and then a few weeks later ” Moroni”, in 1835 and Smith did once call the angel ” Moroni”, in 1838 in the publication “Elders’ Journal”. These are the only references to Moroni, along with D&C 27:5 which includes the name Moroni but this was not in the original revelation. It was inserted along with well over three hundred other words (attributed directly to the Lord himself), some years later, in the 1835 edition. The Book of Commandments version of the 1830 revelation contained no angel’s name.
Other than the couple of references where the name Moroni appeared in 1835 and 1838, the angel then firmly became Nephi in Smith’s writings. Prior to 1835 no name is given at all. By 1842, in published newspapers, in Smith’s own history and in The Pearl of Great Price, given that Smith consistently used the name of Nephi, apparently it is the name that he had settled upon and intended to be used for his angel. (See: Summary of Accounts of Joseph Smith’s Early Visions). Contrary to Anderson’s sweeping statement that using “Nephi” contradicted all that the prophet published, that was not the case at all. It was actually the other way around. It would actually have been much easier to delete the name of Moroni and use Nephi instead…
Smith’s first record of the event in 1832, (nine and five years after the 1823 and 1827 visitations respectively) describes the visitor as “an angel of the Lord” who told him that the plates were “engraved by Moroni”, the visiting angel not giving his own name. This clearly indicates that when first considering his experience, the angel had certainly not introduced himself as Moroni (or Nephi) as the angel spoke of Moroni in the third person and did not give his own name at all.Extract from “The Mormon Delusion,” Jim Whitefield, as published on MormonThink.com
While the church would like to cleanly dismiss this issue, it’s not as simple as that. It fits more into the narrative that Joseph Smith was making things up as he went along and retrofitting revelations to support what he said at the time. This is the most consistent narrative we can find in church history, not that angels led him with flaming swords or not, but that his stories grew over time to increase his own personal authority. Not exactly the picture of a holy prophet, more the image of a charlatan. He was a liar, a thief, and a money digger. He finally found the true gold in starting his own religion which put himself at the top.