It was 170 years ago, on Sept. 22, 1827, that a plow-boy prophet took a horse and wagon and, in the dark of night, rode to the Hill Cumorah where he received an ancient record from the Angel Moroni.
In a remarkably short time, this untutored young man translated a record detailing 1,000 years of history, and then prepared the Book of Mormon for public distribution."By the wisdom of God," the Prophet Joseph wrote, "they [the plates] remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him." (Joseph Smith - History 1:60.)
Since March 1830, more than 83 million copies of the book have been distributed.
"The Book of Mormon was published in 1829. This is the book which the Prophet Joseph Smith brought forward to the world, which he translated by the gift and power of God, as a witness and a testimony unto all people that Jesus is the Christ," said President Gordon B. Hinckley during a regional conference in Palm Springs, Cal., in February 1997.
"When the first 5,000 came from the press, I suppose some people wondered whether anything would ever come of it. We are now printing these at the rate of about five million a year. The Book of Mormon is a testimony to all the world of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ."
In 1996, 5,289,927 copies of the Book of Mormon were distributed around the world, which ranks behind the 5.3 million distributed in 1989, and the 6.5 million in 1990.
The book - or substantial portions of it - is published in 87 languages, making it available to an estimated 70 percent of the world's population. Most of the translations have been completed since 1970, reflecting the Church's international expansion.
The latest translation was completed in 1996 and included selections of the Book of Mormon in Waray, a dialect spoken by 2.8 million people in the Philippines.
Distribution of the Book of Mormon in 1996 was greatest in English-speaking areas of the world with more than 2 million copies, followed by 1.2 million in Spanish-speaking areas.
More than 430,000 copies were distributed in Portuguese, 116,000 in Japanese, 87,000 in French, 77,000 in Korean and 76,000 in German.
"The Book of Mormon is a great converting factor and continues to be one of the most effective tools we have in conversion. It is tangible evidence that the Restoration, and all that Joseph Smith said and did, is true," according to Elder Earl C. Tingey, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department.
"A conversion that does not include a testimony of the Book of Mormon is a conversion that will not likely stand the heat of challenge," he said.
The conversion process is one of commitment, explained Elder Tingey. "From the first discussion, missionaries emphasize the Book of Mormon. They commit investigators to read, and then the missionaries visit regularly to read with them.
"True conversion is not only to be baptized, but to have commenced reading the Book of Mormon."
This same power of the Book of Mormon as a tool of conversion becomes the steady source of nourishment necessary to develop and strengthen a testimony.
The Curriculum Department of the Church bases all instruction for the quorums and auxiliaries on the scriptures. "Teachers are not free to teach what they want, but from the scriptures," said Josiah Douglas, manager of curriculum planning and development.
"They are responsible for touching members with the Spirit and nourishing them by the word. Otherwise, what they say may be nothing more than what any preacher could say."
The aim is that each member will enjoy that same enlightening of the Spirit that Lehi enjoyed when he studied the brass plates, continued Brother Douglas.
In the early chapters of the Book of Mormon, Nephi recounts how his family "did rejoice exceeding " when he and his brothers returned to the wilderness after obtaining the plates from Laban. They then offered "sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord."
After a time of celebrating, Lehi turned his attention from the festivities of the family to the brass plates and began reading - from beginning to end.
Nephi was evidently so impressed with the impact of the scriptures on his father that he described Lehi's reaction by saying: "And now when my father saw all these things, he was filled with the Spirit, and began to prophesy concerning his seed." (1 Ne. 5:9-17.)
"I'm convinced," continued Brother Douglas, "that if families will read daily from the Book of Mormon, they will find an anchor and foundation in life that comes in no other way."