Fun Fact: Zelph on the Shelf Doesn’t Know What They Are Talking About

Pictured: Zelph on the Shelf’s latest mixtape (ft. Jeremy Runnells)

Zelph on the Shelf is the name of a blog run by Samantha Shelley and Tanner Gilliland,1 two millennial ex-Mormons who are, sadly, afflicted with the handicap of thinking that Twitter hot takes and edgy memes are suitable substitutes for sound historical scholarship and critical thinking.

Take, for instance, the “fun facts” which Zelph recently shared on Twitter, beginning with this one:

Zelph is presenting a garbled version of an incident reported by David Whitmer in his 1887 publication An Address to All Believers in Christ. “When the Book of Mormon was in the hands of the printer” sometime in the winter of 1829–1830, Whitmer remembered, “more money was needed to finish the printing of it. We were waiting on Martin Harris who was doing his best to sell a part of his farm, in order to raise the necessary funds.” Constrained by impatience, Hyrum Smith and others, Whitmer recalled, “suggested to [Joseph Smith] that some of the brethren might go to Toronto, Canada, and sell the copy-right of the Book of Mormon for considerable money.” So for starters, the purpose of the sale was, according to Whitmer, to raise funds for the printing of the Book of Mormon, not to fill Joseph Smith’s pockets.2

In any event, Hyrum “persuaded Joseph to inquire of the Lord about it. Joseph concluded to do so. He had not yet given up the stone. Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copy-right of the Book of Mormon.” Whitmer continues:

Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copy-right, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father’s house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada. Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.” So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.3

If all we had was Whitmer’s version of the story, then Zelph might have an argument. But, as it happens, we have more than just Whitmer’s retelling of the occasion. We actually possess the manuscript of the revelation behind the incident. It appears in Revelation Book 1 (“A Book of Commandments & Revelations”) and is datable to no earlier than “circa Early 1830.” The relevant passage reads:

Behold I say unto you that I have covenanted & it Pleaseth me that Oliver Cowderey Joseph Knight Hyram Page & Josiah Stowel shall do my work in this thing yea even in securing the <​Copy​> right & they shall do it with an eye single to my Glory that it may be the means of bringing souls unto me Salvation through mine only Begotten Behold I am God I have spoken it & it is expedient in me Wherefor I say unto you that ye shall go to Kingston seeking me continually through mine only Begotten & if ye do this ye shall have my spirit to go with you & ye shall have an addition of all things which is expedient in me & I grant unto my servent a privelige that he may sell <​a copyright​> through you speaking after the manner of men for the four Provinces if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings of my spirit & my word for Behold it lieth in themselves to their condemnation & or to their salvation Behold my way is before you & the means I will prepare & the Blessing I hold in mine own hand & if ye are faithful I will pour out upon you even as much as ye are able to Bear & thus it shall be Behold I am the father & it is through mine only begotten which is Jesus Christ your Redeemer amen. [emphasis added]

At once the conditional aspect of the revelation is made clear. This fundamentally changes the dynamics of the revelation by introducing conditions which were prerequisite for its fulfillment. Contrary to the impression made by Whitmer, there is nothing in the revelation itself which demands exact, uncompromising fulfillment in order for the revelation to have been authentic. Hence Marlin K. Jensen’s perceptive observation: “Although we still do not know the whole story, particularly Joseph Smith’s own view of the situation, we do know that calling the divine communication a ‘failed revelation’ is not warranted. The Lord’s directive clearly conditions the successful sale of the copyright on the worthiness of those seeking to make the sale as well as on the spiritual receptivity of the potential purchasers.”4

What’s more, we also possess an 1848 letter written by Hiram Page (who, unlike Whitmer, was one of the immediate participants) to William McLellin wherein Page gives his own version of the story.5 Some aspects of Page’s version contradict Whitmer’s. For instance, Page understood that the “sum of money” to be had at selling the copyright was to be used “for the exclusive benefit” of the destitute Smith family “after the expenses [of the trip] were taken out,” whereas Whitmer understood that the money was to be used for printing the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, Page, as a participant, was privy to the revelation, whereas Whitmer evidently was not. This nicely explains why Page precisely reiterated the conditional nature of the revelation (“we were to go to Kingston where we were to sell [the copyright] if they would not harden their hearts“) whereas Whitmer did not (probably because he was unaware of or misremembered the revelation). Finally, and crucially, Page’s takeaway from the incident was drastically different from Whitmer’s. “By the above,” Page concluded, “we may learn how a revelation may be received and the person receiving it not be benefitted.” Nowhere does Page doubt the veracity of the revelation, only that expectations on the part of a revelation’s recipient might at times be subverted. This stands in marked contrast to Whitmer’s own conclusion, which was that the revelation “was not of God.”6

So to summarize:

  1. David Whitmer’s late recounting of the Canadian copyright incident as tweeted by Zelph represents just one perspective on the event; namely, David Whitmer’s.
  2. Whitmer’s negative assessment of the outcome of the incident is contradicted by the more favorable assessment of the incident by Hiram Page, an actual participant.
  3. We have no firsthand description from Joseph Smith himself as to the incident or its outcome or how the revelation directing the trip was received and understood. We thus lack any verification for the reaction Whitmer attributed to Joseph. This isn’t to say that Whitmer was necessarily lying, only that his late recollection lacks any immediate verification.
  4. The actual revelation itself, independent of how it was understood by Whitmer or Page or anyone else, clearly predicates the success of the outcome on the condition that the people of Kingston be receptive to the party and the members of the party themselves be faithful in the execution of their duties.

Whatever one personally believes about Joseph Smith’s claims to revelation (and clearly Zelph thinks very little of them), doing responsible history requires an evaluation of an event in light of all available evidence.7 It also requires understanding historical figures on their own terms in light of all available evidence. Zelph has failed to do any of this, and instead offers a particularly narrow, cynical, and, ultimately, misleading picture of the Canadian copyright incident. That this narrow and misleading picture of the affair just so happens to reinforce Zelph’s dogmatic belief that Joseph Smith was a swindling conman should, naturally, be noted with suspicion.

Next up is this “fun fact” about the identity of the angel who appeared to Joseph Smith in 1823.

The first incident of the angel being called “Nephi” is in Joseph Smith’s history begun in 1838–1839: “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​>”

This manuscript (in the handwriting of James Mulholland) was drafted in the summer of 1839 and is based in part on an earlier text prepared in April 1838 but which is no longer extant. So it is impossible to know if in the earlier history the name of the angel was “Moroni” or “Nephi” (or something else). What is clear is that, as is seen in the manuscript, an unidentified scribe inserted “Moroni” above the name Nephi with an asterisk directing attention to text at the bottom of the page: “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.​”

This text, “the first of the six volumes of the ‘Manuscript History of the Church’,” served as the source for the narrative known as the “History of Joseph Smith” as published in the Times and Seasons, the Millennial Star, and other Mormon publications from the 1840s onward. Thus the name “Nephi” appears as the name of the angel in the 15 April 1842 Times and Seasons publication of the history:

Each subsequent reprinting of the name “Nephi” (in, for instance, the Millennial Star, Lucy Mack Smith’s 1844–45 history, and the 1851 Pearl of Great Price) is undoubtedly attributable to an uncritical reliance on the printed Times and Seasons article, not to a widespread understanding that Nephi, as opposed to Moroni, was the angel.8 Eventually the error was spotted and corrected:

A later redaction in the hand of Albert Carrington changed “Nephi” to “Moroni” and noted that the original attribution was a “clerical error.” Carrington probably made the note in 1871, at a time when he was Church Historian and Recorder. He and others at the Historian’s Office were assigned by Brigham Young to investigate the difference of the name of the angel in this source compared with other sources.

What, exactly, are these “other sources”?

Early sources often did not name the angelic visitor, but sources naming Moroni include Oliver Cowdery’s historical letter published in the April 1835 LDS Messenger and Advocate; an expanded version of a circa August 1830 revelation, as published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants; and a JS editorial published in the Elders’ Journal in July 1838. The present history [the 1838-1839 history] 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. [citations removed]

Sure enough, a survey of the mentioned sources before the 1838–1839 history reveals that the angel was clearly called Moroni:

  • “I believe that the angel Moroni, whose words I have been rehearsing, who communicated the knowledge of the record of the Nephites, in this age, saw also, before he hid up the same unto the Lord, great and marvellous things, which were to transpire when the same should come forth” (Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VI,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 7 (April 1835): 112. This source was reprinted in Mormon newspapers, including the Times and Seasons, in the early 1840s).
  • “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” (Revelation, circa August 1835 [D&C 27] = D&C 27:5).
  • “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 therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon” (Joseph Smith, Elders’ Journal (July 1838): 42–43).

This last source is especially important, since it: (1) was printed between the non-extant April 1838 history and the extant history prepared in the summer of 1839, (2) comes directly from Joseph Smith (who was the editor answering the questions raised in the article), and (3) is in direct response to the question of who revealed the Book of Mormon in 1823.

From the preceeding it is plainly obvious that Zelph’s tweet is both erroneous and, again, misleading. Speaking strictly in terms of chronology, Joseph Smith “originally” called the angel “Moroni” a full year before the error identifying him as “Nephi” was made in Mulholland’s 1839 manuscript. And while it’s true that the name did appear as “Nephi” in the Times and Seasons, an official LDS Church newspaper, such was simply perpetuating the error made in the manuscript source for the publication.9

Finally, although not presented as a “fun fact,” just for the heck of it, we’ll take a look at one final Zelph tweet.

It’s truly difficult for me to articulate just how stupid the argument being insinuated in this tweet is.

For starters, Joseph Smith was obliged to name himself as the “author and proprietor” of the work simply to comply “with federal law (see I Statutes 124, 1790, as amended by 2 Stat. 171, 1802), which dictated the words the district clerk had to write when a person was taking out a copyright on a book. It can be demonstrated historically that many translators, including those who produced the 1824 edition of the King James Version of the Bible, were listed as ‘Author’ to conform to this law.”10

Indeed, the copyright page of the 1830 Book of Mormon, which appears directly after the title page, explicitly uses this language:

In conformity to the act of the Congress of the United States, entitled, “An act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of Maps, Charts, and Books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned;” and also the act, entitled, “An act supplementary to an act, entitled, ‘An act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of Maps, Charts, and Books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned, and extending the benefits thereof to the arts of designing, engraving, and etching historical and other prints.” [emphasis added]

Beyond this, the preface that appears right after the title and copyright pages of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon clearly describes Joseph Smith as having translated the work even while calling him the “author.” Whence this conflation of terms? Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary lists the first definition of “author” as: “One who produces, creates, or brings into being; as, God is the author of the Universe.” The second definition follows the first, with an important caveat: “The beginner, former, or first mover of any thing; hence, the efficient cause of a thing. It is appropriately applied to one who composes or writes a book, or original work, and in a more general sense, to one whose occupation is to compose and write books; opposed to compiler or translator” (emphasis added).

Joseph Smith indisputably qualified as the “author” of the Book of Mormon by contemporary usage of the word. He was the one who produced or brought into being the English text of the Book of Mormon, which he made clear was a translation no less than six times in the 1830 preface to clear up any lingering ambiguity. Contemporary revelations, additionally, speak of Joseph and Oliver Cowdery as “translating” the Book of Mormon (Doctrine and Covenants 3:12; 5:4, 30; 8:11; 9:1–3, 5, 10; 10:1, 4, 10–11, 13, 15-17, 30–31, 41, 45; 21:1), never of writing or authoring it.

So it was simply to comply with a legal banality that Joseph Smith was first named as the “author and proprietor” of the Book of Mormon, and it was merely to avoid any potential confusion that Joseph then emended the title page of the 1837 Kirtland edition of the Book of Mormon to identify him as the “translator.” There is not one shred of evidence that Joseph made this change in an attempt to cook up some kind of conspiratorial scam or to revise his narrative or foundational truth claims.11 The only reasons I can imagine why Zelph might think otherwise is because they are either utterly ignorant of the relevant historical facts or they have chosen to deliberately ignore them to score easy retweets.

Whatever the cause of their ignorance, what’s abundantly clear from these tweets is that Zelph on the Shelf doesn’t know what they’re talking about. This is because, I’d be willing to wager, neither Samantha Shelley nor Tanner Gilliand have so much as ever lifted a Joseph Smith Papers volume, let alone spent any meaningful time using one to do careful historical analysis.

  1. Because these two are the primary personalities behind Zelph on the Shelf, I have opted to use plural pronouns for an otherwise singular antecedent.
  2. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO.: David Whitmer, 1887), 30–31.
  3. Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 31, emphasis in original.
  4. Marlin K. Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers: The Manuscript Revelation Books,” Ensign (July 2009), 11.
  5. Letter to William McLellin, 2 February, 1848, reproduced in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2003), 5:257–259.
  6. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5:258–259, spelling and grammar standardized.
  7. I have omitted discussion of William McLellin’s 1872 account of this event to Joseph Smith III since it is little more than hearsay, and is contradicted by the evidence of the revelation. As such, it is of relatively little value in any reconstruction of the event. See William McLellin to Joseph Smith III, 8 September, 1872, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5:327–330.
  8. In fact, the 1851 Pearl of Great Price and the Millennial Star republications of the “History of Joseph Smith” both directly cite the Times and Seasons as their source, leaving no doubt as to the origin of the error’s perpetuation.
  9. Contrast the Times and Season‘s naming of the angel as Nephi with Joseph Smith’s 6 September 1842 signed letter identifying the same as Moroni. “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, An Angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets— the book to be revealed.”
  10. Kenneth H. Godfrey, “Not Enough Trouble, review of Trouble Enough: Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon by Ernest H. Taves and Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon by David Persuitte,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 143. See further Miriam A. Smith and John W. Welch, “Joseph Smith: ‘Author and Proprietor’,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 154–157.
  11. Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part One: 1 Nephi – 2 Nephi 10 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2014), 35–36.

5 thoughts on “Fun Fact: Zelph on the Shelf Doesn’t Know What They Are Talking About

  1. I enjoyed your commentary. Very thoughtful. Coming from someone who has regretted a few arguments in his life I would just say tone it down a bit. If you are confident you have the truth just share the facts how they are and try to stay away from hyperbole or name calling. It might put off people who have sincere questions but are afraid to ask you. 😉

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