The earliest editions of the Book of Mormon did not have the same chapter divisions as our modern editions. For example, in the 1830 edition, the first chapter of 1 Nephi included all of what is now labeled 1 Nephi 1–5 (the entire episode of obtaining the brass plates). There is considerable evidence that these original chapter breaks were written on the gold plates by the original authors themselves (although they did not number the breaks). For that reason, in laying out my Structured Edition of the Book of Mormon, I’ve not only included the modern chapter breaks; I’ve also added the original chapter breaks in the margins (using Roman numerals, to distinguish them from the modern breaks).
I have compiled a table of all the original breaks below. I have searched for such a table online but have never been able to find one, so I made my own. To my knowledge, this is the only such table providing this information online.
[Update, Oct 2015: I’ve since learned there was a 1993 JBMS article (Thomas W. Mackay, “Mormon as Editor: A Study in Colophons, Headers, and Source Indicators” [Journal of Book of Mormon Studies v2 n2, 1993]) that provided a similar table, but I don’t know if it was available online at the Maxwell Institute website at the time I published this post. Also, I have found at least three errors in it.]
[Update, Feb 2017: I found that BYU Studies has posted online their 1999 book Charting the Book of Mormon, which includes a table “Comparison of Chapter Divisions, 1830 and 1981 editions.” I found no errors in it.]
The table indicates the location of each original chapter break by using the modern chapter-verse reference system. As is apparently the emerging convention, original chapter breaks are all given in Roman numerals (as opposed to the Arabic numerals used for modern chapter breaks). You can download the chart as a PDF by clicking the green box below. The chart fits on one letter-sized page, with a brief explanation on the reverse side.
Where the chapter breaks came from
The modern chapter and verse divisions were devised by the apostle Orson Pratt in 1879, having been given the assignment by then-president of the Church John Taylor. Elder Pratt broke up the original chapters into shorter ones about the length of conventional Bible chapters, and he added verse divisions. For long quotations (e.g., when Jesus Christ quotes Isaiah at 3 Nephi 22) he made the verse numbering match that in the Bible, which makes it easier to compare these parallel passages. You can read a little more about this in David Whittaker’s Ensign article or in his Encyclopedia of Mormonism article.
The original chapter divisions, however, were apparently devised by the original authors (primarily Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni) and were included on the gold plates themselves. Royal Skousen is by far the foremost expert on the original Book of Mormon manuscripts and translation process (the First Presidency gave him access to the original manuscripts back in the ’80s, and he has been copiously and methodically examining them ever since). He notes,
Evidence from both the original and printer’s manuscripts shows that Joseph Smith apparently saw some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending. Although this may have been a symbol of some kind, a more likely possibility is that the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph then told the scribe to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later.
There is considerable evidence in both manuscripts to support this interpretation. … [Follow the link to read Skousen’s reasoning.]
While the earliest editions used these original chapter divisions, they were not divided into verses. Rather, they were divided into unnumbered paragraphs (like a novel) by E. B. Grandin’s employee, the typesetter John H. Gilbert.
Why this is worth knowing
Since these section dividers are part of the original text, they can be useful in a number of ways when studying the Book of Mormon. For one thing, they can aid in understanding how the authors were structuring their writings, as well as in revealing connections between passages.
For example, the episode of Alma’s mission to the Zoramites (Alma 31–35) is part of a larger unit according to the original chapter breaks. That unit also included Alma 30, the episode with Korihor. This could be taken to imply that Mormon intended Korihor’s story to be sort of introduction to the mission to the Zoramites, and invites us to find relationships between the two accounts.
Now that Royal Skousen’s work is starting to be better known, scholars are beginning to refer to these original breaks when generating hypotheses and supporting conclusions. In the future, I hope to point out some of the interesting insights that can be gained by doing so.
Table of original chapter breaks
The following table that I created lists all the original chapter breaks and their locations in the text (using modern chapter-verse references). This table is identical to the one in the downloadable handout above.
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|*These original breaks fall before the headnote that precedes the modern chapter.|
There are a few questions that can be answered with this table:
Did Orson Pratt use every original break as a modern break?
No. Out of the 115 original chapter breaks, in 9 cases, he ignored an original break when arranging the new chapters: 1 Nephi VI; Mosiah VIII, XIII; Alma X; and 3 Nephi VI, X, XI, XII, XIII.
Which book has the most instances of this?
3 Nephi, especially during Christ’s sermons on the second day of his visit.
While most modern chapters take up less text than an original chapter, do any modern chapters cover more than one original chapter?
Yes, only in 1 instance: Mosiah 28 consists of Mosiah XII plus an extra bit of text from chapter XIII.
Were any books unaffected by the modern chapter numbering?
Yes. Interestingly, the book of Moroni came out of Elder Pratt’s process with the breaks and numbering unchanged, probably because the original chapters were so short to begin with. I suppose he could have merged chapters IV and V (the two sacrament prayers), but he didn’t.
Some of these questions might seem like idle trivia at this point, but there are actually some interesting insights to be had by being aware of these original breaks. As I said, in the future, I hope to point out some of those insights.
Table comparing total number of chapters
The following table compares the quantity of chapters in the original version with those in the modern version. As you can see, the ratio of original to modern is about 1:2.
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