First printing of Book of Mormon 175 years ago

A result of fortuitous circumstances, courage, tenacity of early Brethren

From the standpoint of the eternal welfare of mankind, it might be considered the most pivotal publishing event since Gutenberg printed the Bible. It is the first printing of the Book of Mormon, and it occurred 175 years ago this March 26.

It resulted from a confluence of fortuitous circumstances combined with sheer courage and tenacity on the part of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his associates.

That a press and printer should be available in Palmyra, N.Y., at the precise time they were needed for printing the Book of Mormon is remarkable. Keith J. Wilson, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, has identified 12 "significant trends or events that culminated in the printing of the Book of Mormon." Among these: the availability of iron handpresses in the mid-to-late 1820s, presses that quadrupled the capacity of the common wood press and were suitable for book printing; the opening of the Erie Canal that flowed through Palmyra, making possible the shipment of heavy items such as a press; availability of more plentiful and less-expensive paper; the recent purchase by 21-year-old Egbert B. Grandin of a print shop in Palmyra, conveniently located about two miles from the Smith home.

Despite all this, publishing the newly translated Nephite record was far from easy. Grandin, publisher of the Wayne Sentinel, refused the job when first approached by his friend, Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, in June 1829. The printer disapproved of it on religious grounds, but also felt his friend was being defrauded.

Joseph and Martin then went northeast to Rochester, where they contacted newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed; he, too, rebuffed them, later characterizing the Prophet as "either crazed or a very shallow imposter." Joseph next approached Rochester book publisher Elihu F. Marshall, who made an offer to do the work at less-than-optimal terms. With an offer in hand, Martin appealed to printer Grandin to reconsider and offered a mortgage on 151 acres of his farm as security. Henry Allen, Grandin's grandson, recounted, "After consulting friends who felt that it was merely a business matter and that he would be in no way related to the religion, he consented." Aided by former Wayne Sentinel owner John Gilbert, he estimated the order and offered to print 5,000 copies for $3,000 by the following February, with the Harris property to be sold at public auction to pay the debt if necessary. A year after the publication of the book on March 26, 1830, Martin was indeed obliged to sell his acreage.

Made wiser through past experience with enemies who tried to get hold of the Book of Mormon plates, the Prophet took steps to safeguard the newly completed manuscript. Before leaving for Harmony, Pa., he assigned Oliver Cowdery, another of the Three Witnesses, to make a transcription of the manuscript to use for printing purposes so the original could be kept safe. This task was completed with the help of two other scribes, one unknown and the other Hyrum Smith. As a further safeguard, Oliver carried only one page at a time of the manuscript to the Grandin office in Palmyra, under protection of a guard. And a guard was stationed night and day at the house to protect the manuscript from would-be intruders.

That printer's copy is the only intact manuscript of the Book of Mormon that survives today. It is preserved in the archives of the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS Church) at its headquarters in Independence, Mo.

As for the original, it has mostly been destroyed. The Prophet Joseph placed it in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House as it was being erected. Never completed, the structure was torn down by Lewis C. Bidamon, who married Emma Smith, widow of the Prophet. In 1884, Sarah M. Kimball called upon him, learned that the manuscript had badly decayed due to moisture seeping into the cornerstone, and obtained from him a portion of it. That portion and other fragments are now in the possession of the Church.

Two events threatened to hinder or halt publication of the Book of Mormon. One was the illegal action of a former justice of the peace, Abner Cole. He obtained access to the Grandin shop on evenings and Sundays when it was not occupied with printing of the Book of Mormon. Working from printed sheets he found in the office, he published portions of the Book of Mormon text in his newspaper, The Palmyra Reflector, under the pseudonym Obadiah Dogberry.

Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet's mother, recalled that Hyrum Smith found Cole engaged in his unlawful work. "He had thrown together a parcel of the most vulgar, disgusting prose, and the meanest and most low-lived doggerel in juxtaposition with a portion of the Book of Mormon, which he had pilfered," she wrote.

Unable to dissuade Cole from printing the stolen work, Hyrum went to Harmony, Pa., to fetch Joseph, who returned with him, then went to the Grandin office the following Sunday and confronted Cole. Lucy recounted, "At this, Mr. Cole threw off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and came toward Joseph, smacking his fists together with vengeance, and roaring out, 'do you want to fight, sir? . . . Joseph could not help smiling at his grotesque appearance, for his behaviour was too ridiculous to excite indignation. 'Now, Mr. Cole,' said he, 'you had better keep your coat on — it is cold, and I am not going to fight you, nevertheless, I assure you, sir, that you have got to stop printing my book, for I know my rights, and shall maintain them."

Indeed, Joseph asserted his copyright. The matter was submitted to legal arbitration, in which the Prophet prevailed.

The other threatened hindrance occurred when area residents organized themselves and declared to Grandin in advance their refusal to purchase the Book of Mormon when it was published. This caused Grandin to cease work and necessitated Joseph again returning from Harmony, this time to reassure Grandin and persuade him to continue.

By March 26, 1830 — about a week and a half before the formal organization of the Church on April 6 — the first copies of the Book of Mormon were made available in Grandin's bookstore. "Henceforth," wrote Elder B. H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God, "thanks to the 'great art preservative' — printing — it would be indestructible. To the world was given the testimony of sleeping nations that the Lord is God; that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world; that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation."

In light of the tenuous beginnings in its publication, it is remarkable that as of the end of last year, according to Church Curriculum Department figures, some 124.4 million copies of the Book of Mormon had been printed by the Church in the book's 175-year history. Of these, 51 million have been distributed in the past decade. Today it is available in 74 translations, with selections in an additional 30 languages. Last year, for the first time, it was made available in a commercial edition by a major publisher, Doubleday, and has thus been exposed to a substantial segment of the reading public.

True to the prophetic intent on its title page, the Book of Mormon has "come forth in due time by way of the Gentile — The interpretation thereof by the gift of God."

(Sources: Book of Mormon Reference Companion; Keith J. Wilson, "From Gutenberg to Grandin," a lecture given at the 33rd Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium; B.H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God; Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon; Kent P. Jackson, From Apostasy to Restoration; Milton V. Backman Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration; Larry C. Porter in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man.)

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