Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith recounted that he was visited in 1823 by an angel who told him that gold plates containing an ancient record were buried near his home in , New York. Smith stated that the angel returned annually for the next four years to give further instruction and finally allowed him to take possession of the record in September 1827. During the first several months he possessed the plates, he evidently analyzed the characters inscribed on them; an associate even sought out scholars to assist in deciphering characters copied from the plates. Finally, Joseph Smith began the translation himself, dictating the text by what he called the “gift and power of God.” When completed, the translation comprised hundreds of manuscript pages and was titled the Book of Mormon. For early believers, the book was not only a religious history of ancient inhabitants of the Americas and a text on the gospel of Christ—it also served as a witness of Smith’s divine calling and as a foundation of their newfound faith.
The Book of Mormon is principally the narrative of a family who left Jerusalem circa 600 BC and traveled to the New World. Fraternal strife and unequal spiritual conviction led the family of Lehi and Sariah to separate into two groups. Lehi and Sariah’s oldest son, Laman, along with his brother Lemuel, rejected the visionary experiences of his father and younger brother Nephi, which led to a lasting division in the family, with Laman and Lemuel and their descendants on one side and Nephi, three other brothers, and their descendants on the other. Nephi kept a record of his people that was passed down from generation to generation of scribal custodians. Throughout much of the Book of Mormon’s narrative, the Lamanites and the Nephites are depicted as competing societies; though both groups experience cycles of belief and unbelief, the Nephites are generally presented as the more righteous group.
The text records that from the time Lehi and Sariah’s family left Jerusalem, prophets taught of the eventual coming of Jesus Christ. At the climax of the narrative, Christ visited the Americas following his resurrection, ushering in an era of peace. After two centuries of righteousness, however, both the Lamanites and the Nephites fell into wickedness. In a great, final war, the Lamanites destroyed the Nephites. Around AD 400, Mormon, the last Nephite commander, compiled on gold plates an abridged history of his people and then passed the plates to his son, Moroni, who added his own testimony and a few additional writings before burying the plates. In chronicling these ancient peoples, the Book of Mormon contains narrative history; sermons; letters; accounts of visions, dreams, and prophecies; and commentary on the significance of both spiritual and secular events.
After Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon text, , the principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, made a second copy of the manuscript, from which most of the first edition of the Book of Mormon (1830) was set in type in , New York. Less than 30 percent of the first manuscript, known as the original manuscript, survives. The second copy, known as the printer’s manuscript, is missing only three lines of text. Because the printer’s manuscript is virtually complete, it is presented first in this Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers; publication of the extant portions of the original manuscript will follow in a later volume. Each manuscript will be presented in a facsimile edition, featuring an image of each page of the manuscript with its accompanying transcript. Because this volume presents the complete text, this introduction will give an overview of the discovery, translation, and publication of the Book of Mormon. The introduction to the forthcoming volume will contain a more detailed discussion of the process and chronology of the translation.
The transcripts and annotation in this volume rely upon nearly two decades of earlier work done by volume editor Royal Skousen as part of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. This volume adds to that work by presenting full-color photographs of each page of the manuscript and color-coded transcripts that indicate which portions were written by each scribe. A more detailed description of the differences between the transcript in this volume and the transcript previously published by Skousen is found in the Editorial Method. The annotation in this volume also highlights significant variants between the printer’s manuscript on the one hand and the extant portion of the original manuscript as well as the 1830, 1837, and 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon on the other hand. All four editions of the Book of Mormon published during Joseph Smith’s life, including the 1841 British edition (the publication of which Joseph Smith approved but did not participate in), can be found on the Joseph Smith Papers website,
As of the printing of this volume, more than 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed, the book has been completely translated into over eighty languages, and it is viewed by millions as scripture. Nevertheless, as Nathan Hatch, a leading scholar of American religious history, observed in 1991, “For all the recent attention given to the study of Mormonism, surprisingly little has been devoted to the Book of Mormon itself.” The Book of Mormon, Hatch continued, “still receives scant attention from cultural historians.” In the academic fields of American history and religious studies, Hatch’s observation is still largely true. The present volume will facilitate scholarly study of both the textual history and contents of this significant document.
Obtaining the Plates
Joseph Smith and some of his close associates recorded several accounts of the appearance of the angel and the eventual recovery of the plates. He wrote about these experiences in his first detailed history, which was recorded in 1832 but not published in his lifetime. Smith and his followers first published an account in 1835, when and printed a series of letters in a church newspaper. Their version was based on Joseph Smith’s retelling but included few details. The most extensive first-person narrative appears in Smith’s multivolume manuscript history. Joseph Smith apparently dictated the story of his early life for this history, including an account of the retrieval of the plates and their translation, in spring 1838. This account survives in an 1839 transcription that was first published in 1842.
In this account, Joseph Smith began the retelling of his visionary experiences with a description of a vision of God and Jesus Christ, which he experienced in 1820. Three years later, Smith retired to bed on the night of 21 September 1823 feeling condemned for his “weaknesses and imperfections.” Anxious to know the state of his soul, he prayed to “Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies” and asked “for a manifestation to . . . know of my state and standing” before God. Smith recounted that an angelic “messenger sent from the presence of God” visited him throughout that night, stating that “God had a work” for him and that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations kindreds and tongues.” In a hill near his house in upstate , he was told, there was “a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” The angel, whom Joseph Smith identified in later records as Moroni, said “that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it [the book] as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants.” The angel instructed Joseph Smith about God’s work in the last days and then left. In the course of the night, the angel appeared twice more, each time giving the same instructions.
The next morning, Joseph Smith went to work in the fields as usual but found he was too exhausted to continue, and his sent him home to rest. Before Smith reached the house, the same angel appeared and again delivered a message about his responsibilities in connection with the plates. The angel also charged him to inform his father, Joseph Smith Sr., “of the vision and commandments which [he] had received.” Joseph Smith went back to his father in the fields and “rehearsed the whole matter to him,” and his father urged him to follow the angel’s instruction. Smith then immediately went to the hill to retrieve the plates, only to be denied access to them by the angel because he “had been tempted of the advisary and saught the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandme[n]t that [he] should have an eye single to the Glory of God.” Joseph Smith’s mother, , recalled that her son returned home after the first visit to the hill with empty hands but with a promise that he would obtain the plates in the future.
Upon arriving home, Joseph Smith “told the whole family all that he had made known to his father in the field.” His family became the first audience for the account of what he later termed his “marvilous experience,” and rather than doubting as they might have in the absence of physical evidence of the plates, they were enthusiastic and eager for him to receive the record. wrote, “We were convinced that God was about to bring to light something that we might stay our minds upon some thing that we could get a more definite idea of than anything which had been taught us heretofore and we rejoiced in it with exceeding great joy.” The Smiths’ anticipation was not dimmed even by the death of the oldest brother, , in late 1823. Lucy Mack Smith reported that Alvin’s final words to Joseph included the admonition to “do everything that lays in your power to obtain the records be faithful in receiving instruction and keeping every commandment that is given you.”
According to his 1838–1839 account, Joseph Smith returned to the hill once a year for the next four years, receiving “instruction and intelligence” from the angel until he was finally allowed to retrieve the plates in 1827. During these years Smith, his family, and his early supporters tried to control the circulation of information regarding his experiences. remembered her son’s warning: “We must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad For we do not any of us know the wickedness of the world.” Though he confided in his family and certain friends, Smith was cautious in sharing with others a narrative of angelic visitations and ancient plates.
Over time, however, Joseph Smith and his family shared his experiences with neighbors and associates, especially as the time for obtaining the plates approached. Once out, stories of visions circulated quickly. Neighbor Willard Chase recalled that visited him in June 1827 and related the story of a “spirit” telling Joseph Smith “in a vision” the location of “a record on plates of gold.” , an early supporter, wrote in his later history of learning from Smith about “the Conversation he had with the personage which told him if he would Do right according to the will of God he mite obtain the [plates] the 22nt Day of Septemer Next [1827] and if not he never would have them.” On that night, family members and others, including Knight, gathered at the Smith home in anticipation. According to his later accounts, Smith went to the hill with his wife and removed the plates. He initially hid them in the woods to throw off possible pursuers and then brought them home several days later. His reported that assailants attempted to steal the plates as he brought them home from the woods and that after the plates were stored at the Smith home, various groups attempted to take them.
The Smiths and many in their community drew upon long-established traditions of what some scholars have termed folk religion or folk magic; these traditions may help explain the reactions of many Palmyra residents to Joseph Smith’s experiences. Many people in rural in Smith’s time believed they could exercise supernatural power—to find buried treasure, for instance—through the use of seer stones or divining rods or through prescribed rituals. In 1826, Joseph Smith and his both affirmed in court that the younger Smith used a seer stone, and Joseph Smith later acknowledged that he had been employed to seek out treasure before he obtained the gold plates. Some people in and the surrounding area understood the news of ancient gold plates in light of a common belief in the reality of buried treasure; for them, the angel of Joseph Smith’s visions seemed similar to the treasure guardians of folk belief. But Smith’s experiences also came at a time when these folk religious beliefs and practices were fading as a result of pressure from both Christian denominations and Enlightenment rationalism. For many in the community, Smith’s treasure digging or magic activities discredited his religious claims.
Faced with rumors that he was an active or even leading participant in local treasure-digging activities and concerned that his history might prove an obstacle for some to accepting his religious message, Joseph Smith rarely mentioned his participation in treasure digging and never in great detail. But neither did he deny his early activities. He wrote in his 1838–1839 history that “the very prevalent story of my having been a money digger” arose because he had been employed by in 1825 to “dig for the silver mine” near , Pennsylvania. In a July 1838 question-and-answer column for a church newspaper, Smith answered the question, “Was not Jo Smith a money digger[?]” by saying, “Yes, but it was never a very proffitable job to him.” The caution with which Joseph Smith wrote about his involvement in treasure digging suggests that he was mindful of an audience largely skeptical of such activities.
While many rejected Joseph Smith’s claims of visionary experiences, others were convinced of their authenticity. Even some opponents believed in the reality of the plates. According to a later recollection by early supporter , met some “young men . . . [who] were very angry against Joseph . . . for he had promised to give them some of the golden plates when he obtained them.” Hearing of their disappointment, Cowdery asked if it were possible that Smith did not have the plates, whereupon “they replied angrily: We know he has, for we have seen the place on the hill where he got them.”
Family members and close friends later testified to the existence of the plates, and they claimed their knowledge of the plates from a variety of experiences. Several people testified that they had handled or lifted the plates. Smith’s wife recalled feeling the plates as they lay on the table, covered with a cloth, and “tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metalic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.” Smith’s sister remembered hefting a package that contained the plates. Several individuals reportedly lifted the plates in a pillowcase or some other covering. A story repeated by a grandson of the Whitmers, who were closely associated with the Smiths at the time, fondly recalls ’s account of being shown the plates by an angel after a day in which she felt particularly overburdened by the excessive work brought on by having the translation proceed in her home.
These moments of witness culminated with the experiences of eleven men who became official witnesses of the plates. These men testified to seeing the plates in June 1829, as translation was drawing to a close. Three of them affirmed that an angel showed them the plates and other artifacts associated with the Book of Mormon; the other eight testified that Joseph Smith showed them the plates. The eight witnesses stated that they had “seen & hefted” the plates and therefore knew “of a surety” of their existence. The witnesses’ testimonies, contained in two separate statements, were published in the first edition of the Book of Mormon and in each subsequent Joseph Smith–era edition.
Translating the Plates
According to Joseph Smith’s 1838–1839 history, the angel instructed Smith during the 1823 visits that the plates were to be translated. But Joseph Smith may have been unsure how to proceed or uncertain that it was his personal responsibility to translate, because he apparently did not attempt to translate the plates as soon as he obtained them. recalled that after Smith had possessed the plates for some time, he “began to be anxious to git them translated.” With neighborhood criticism of Joseph Smith’s stories mounting, he moved to , Pennsylvania, with his wife , to live with her parents. , another early believer in the gold plates, supplied the young couple with fifty dollars to aid them in moving to , where translation might proceed.
soon became a key figure in the commencement of the translation. He claimed that he was shown in a vision “that he must go to with some of the characters,” after which he went “imediately” to to visit Joseph Smith. There, he and Smith “proceeded to coppy” characters from the plates, and Harris then set out for New York City in an attempt to confirm their authenticity. The editor of the Gem (Rochester, New York) reported that Harris went “in search of some one to interpret the hieroglyphics.” Harris showed the characters to several scholars, including , a young professor of classics at Columbia College. In his three known accounts of these events, Anthon insisted that he told Harris that he would not help translate the characters because he suspected a hoax. By contrast, Harris said Anthon confirmed the characters’ ancient origins and authenticity, though he did not translate them. Harris and other Mormons frequently retold this version of the story. Whatever happened between Harris and Anthon, Harris returned with renewed conviction. In , one skeptic of Joseph Smith’s claims who spoke with Harris after his return described Harris as having become a “perfect believer” in “Smith’s divine commission.” The editor of the Gem reported that Harris learned during his trip “that no one was intended to perform that all important task [of translation] but Smith himself.”
Joseph Smith’s translation of the plates was not the scholarly process normally associated with that word. Rather than drawing upon familiarity with a foreign or ancient language, Smith declared that he translated “by the gift and power of God.” Smith, , and other early believers came to see Harris’s visit to as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 29 respecting a learned man’s inability to read a sealed book. Smith’s 1832 account records:
He [Harris] took his Journy to the Eastern Cittys and to the Learned saying read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the blates [plates] they would read it but the Lord had forbid it and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate and I said cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.
The “spectacles” refer to an instrument for translation that Smith said he found with the plates and began using soon after ’s return. The ancient scribe Moroni in the Book of Mormon spoke of including these “interpreters” with the plates when he buried them, in order to aid the translation. Earlier in the Book of Mormon narrative, the missionary Ammon explained the purpose of the interpreters to a king who had in his possession unreadable records: “I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records: for he hath wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters.”
Joseph Smith and others often spoke of the interpreters or “spectacles” as one of the means by which Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Decades later, described them: “The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round. . . . The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” Reverend John A. Clark, a resident, recalled Harris describing the spectacles as “two transparent stones, through which, as a sort of spectacles, he could read the Bible [i.e., the plates]. . . . By looking through those mysterious stones, he had transcribed from one of the leaves of this book.” Smith himself described the instrument as “two transparent stones.” , who remembered seeing the spectacles before her son’s move to , gave a description of the instrument that is similar to Harris’s: “2 smooth 3 cornered diamonds set in glass and the glass was set in silver bows conected with each other in the same way that old fashioned spectacles are made.”
For much of the translation, though, Joseph Smith used a different instrument: a seer stone. explained that her husband first translated “by the use of Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that lost. After that he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color.” Joseph Smith owned more than one seer stone, though evidence generally points to the brown seer stone as the one used in translation. Martin Harris recalled that before switching exclusively to the seer stone, Joseph Smith often used the stone instead of the spectacles “for convenience.” Both the spectacles and the seer stone were at times called interpreters. And as evidenced by Emma Smith’s recollection, the biblical term Urim and Thummim was later used to refer to both the spectacles and the seer stone.
Joseph Smith felt, at times, a reticence to share the details of the translation experience. When invited by his brother to provide details to a church conference, he declined. He may have provided some information to Jonathan Hadley, editor of the Palmyra Freeman, whom he and visited in 1829 when searching for someone to print the Book of Mormon. After the visit from Smith and Harris, Hadley wrote in his paper that a “huge pair of Spectacles” was found with the plates and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.”
Some of Smith’s early associates left more detailed accounts of the translation. Some accounts stem directly from the scribes, while others are second- or thirdhand—the result of interviews with scribes or reminiscences of conversations with them. Other individuals who left accounts, such as , may have observed some aspects of the translation; though Whitmer never served as a scribe, for example, the translation was completed in his parents’ home. Many accounts of the translation contain similar features. John Clark, who heard describe the process, later reported that Smith would look into “his spectacles, or transparent stones,” and then the scribe would write down what Smith saw on the stones. , who served as scribe during the early translation work in , said her husband put his face into a hat to block out the light while he looked into the spectacles or a seer stone. In an interview with her son , Emma stated that “in writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”
With the assistance of , , and perhaps others, Joseph Smith translated the first portion of the book, which was identified as coming “from the Book of Lehi.” But Harris’s desire to convince others of the authenticity of the translation almost brought the endeavor to an end. Harris wished to share the text with his family and friends, particularly his wife, , who doubted Smith’s claims and expressed frustration at her husband’s financial support of the work. According to the account in his 1838–1839 history, Joseph Smith took Harris’s request to God, and after two negative responses, received divine permission for Harris to show the unfinished manuscript to a limited number of specific individuals. Harris and Smith wrote a covenant detailing the agreement, and Smith released the manuscript to Harris. But permission came at a cost: Joseph Smith later said that because he had “wearied the Lord” in asking through the interpreters to allow Harris to take the writings, the instrument was taken from him. And in the end, Harris’s desire to share the text proved too powerful. He showed the manuscript to more individuals than permitted, and the manuscript was lost or stolen. Neither the circumstance of the loss nor the ultimate fate of the manuscript is known. The following year, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation that proclaimed that wicked men stole the manuscript to “alter the words” in order to discredit him and the translation.
In July 1828, not long after lost the manuscript, the angel who had previously appeared to Smith returned the interpreters to him. Smith immediately “enquired of the Lord through them and obtained” a revelation of chastisement. He was told that “although a man may have many Revelations & have power to do many Mighty works yet if he boast in his own strength & Sets at naught the councils of God & follows after the dictates of his will & carnal desires he must fall to the Earth & incur the vengence of a Just God upon him.” The angel then left, taking with him both the plates and the interpreters. According to Joseph Smith, the items were returned “a few days” after the reprimand; , however, stated that the moratorium on translation lasted until September 1828. In any event, it appears that no additional translation was done until March 1829.
A revelation in the spring of 1829 addressed the loss of the manuscript and instructed Joseph Smith to “see that you are faithful and go on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work.” This revelation forbade retranslating the portion of the plates containing the “Book of Lehi” and directed that the work recommence where it ended, likely near the beginning of the book of Mosiah. The revelation also directed Smith to translate a record “engraven on the plates of Nephi,” a parallel account written by Lehi’s son Nephi that covered the same period as the lost manuscript. Once the rest of the translation was complete, Smith was to turn to Nephi’s record to supply the beginning of the narrative.
The loss of the manuscript marked the end of ’s work as principal scribe. Beginning in early April 1829, , a schoolteacher, became Joseph Smith’s full-time scribal assistant. A native of , Cowdery had just finished teaching a term in a school near the and family home in , New York. Cowdery learned of Joseph Smith’s experiences while boarding with the Smiths. According to Smith’s 1832 history, Cowdery sought him out in after the “Lord appeared” to him and “shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me his unworthy Servant.” Between 7 April and early July 1829, Smith dictated the bulk of the current Book of Mormon text to Cowdery. After beginning this process in Harmony, they moved to , New York, in early June 1829, where the translation was completed in the home of and , the parents of Cowdery’s friend . By the time the text of the Book of Mormon was finished, Smith had dictated portions to at least seven scribes: Martin Harris, , , Reuben Hale, Oliver Cowdery, , and . Cowdery penned more extant pages by far than all the other scribes combined.
Not long after began to work with Joseph Smith, he sought a more active role in the translation process. A revelation dictated by Joseph Smith and directed to Cowdery stated that the Lord would “grant unto you [Cowdery] a gift if you desire of me, to translate even as my servant Joseph.” After a failed attempt, however, Cowdery was told through another revelation that he had misunderstood the translation process and “took no thought, save it was to ask [God].” While that ended Cowdery’s attempt to translate the Book of Mormon, he was promised that he would receive power to “assist to translate” other records in the future. Cowdery’s failed attempt underscored that the responsibility for translating the Book of Mormon rested with Smith. The revelation addressing Cowdery’s attempt to translate directed him to assist Smith, who would be given “sufficient strength” to translate. In 1834, Cowdery expressed great pleasure in his role as Smith’s scribe:
These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites whould have said, “Interpreters,” the history, or record, called “The book of Mormon.”
Besides the scribes, the translation also drew in others who wished to observe. recollected her experience in her home in , where she “often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together.” , who was interviewed often in later life about the translation process, explained how he understood the process. Michael Morse, ’s brother-in-law, recalled that he “had occasion more than once to go into his [Smith’s] immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation.” The recollections of these observers suggest that the translation was, in some ways, a shared event, which interested individuals could occasionally witness. The retelling of the stories of Smith’s translation extended this sacred experience to members of the first and second generations of Latter-day Saints.
Those who were curious about and eventually believed in Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences, the gold plates, and the translation soon formed the core group from which a larger religious movement grew. While working on the translation in May 1829, Smith and encountered a passage about “baptism for the remission of sins” that led them to pray for understanding. They later recounted that in response to their prayer, they were visited by John the Baptist, who conferred upon them the authority to baptize, and Smith and Cowdery proceeded to baptize one another. After the Book of Mormon manuscript was completed around the first of July 1829, Cowdery, who was likely responding to a Joseph Smith revelation, prepared a document with guidelines for early believers to practice their faith. That document, called the “Articles of the Church of Christ,” included instructions on baptism, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and ecclesiastical organization, and much of its text was drawn directly from the Book of Mormon. After the Book of Mormon was published in March 1830, the Church of Christ was officially established on 6 April 1830. Soon, the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,” a document similar to Cowdery’s “Articles” that relied in part on the same Book of Mormon passages, was written to guide members in their newfound faith. Through the Articles and Covenants, the Book of Mormon served as a pillar on which the church based itself. The church’s founding members were those who accepted the Book of Mormon as a revealed text, brought forward “by the gift and power of God.”
These early believers felt the Book of Mormon’s primary purpose was as a scriptural record that taught about Jesus Christ and contained “the fulness of the gospel.” The title page of the 1830 edition asserts that it was written for a divine purpose: “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting Himself unto all nations.” And a passage near the end of the book reminds readers:
Know ye that ye must come to the knowledge of your fathers, and repent of all your sins and iniquities, and believe in Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God. . . . Therefore repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus, and lay hold upon the Gospel of Christ, which shall be set before you, not only in this record, but also in the record which shall come unto the Gentiles from the Jews.
Publishing and Sharing the Book of Mormon
Following the completion of the translation, was tasked with creating a second copy of the manuscript. Joseph Smith was concerned about the safety of the completed manuscript after ’s loss of the “Book of Lehi.” To provide a security copy and to facilitate publication of the Book of Mormon, therefore, Cowdery and two other scribes produced the printer’s manuscript in 1829 and 1830.
Even before the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, , and other early believers spread news of it. After Smith and Cowdery were baptized, Joseph Smith’s brother visited to inquire after the work. They showed Samuel the translation “and labored to persuade him concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ which was now about to be revealed in it’s fulness.” While working as Joseph Smith’s scribe in Harmony, Cowdery wrote to about his experiences. Decades later, Whitmer recalled that Cowdery “gave me a few lines of what they had translated, and he assured me that he knew of a certainty that he had a record of a people that inhabited this continent, and that the plates they were translating gave a complete history of these people.” Cowdery and Smith also read several of the not-yet-published chapters of the book to the locally respected Quaker George Crane, which suggests their belief in the book’s ability to convert. Despite being “an attentive listener,” Crane rejected the book’s message as “blasphemous.”
An explosion of print technology and the expansion of publishing networks in the early American Republic made it easier than ever before for this new work to reach a wide public. In 1830, the year the Book of Mormon was printed, the American Bible Society announced plans to supply a Bible for every household in America. Although this goal was not reached, almost one million Bibles were printed in the by the end of 1831. In 1829, the American Bible Society’s most prolific year of printing to that point, printer agreed to print five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon, an ambitious print run for a small-town printer, considering that the average print run for a book in the United States in the 1820s was roughly two thousand copies. Believing that the publication of the Book of Mormon was a landmark spiritual event, Joseph Smith and his followers published the book on a large scale, and the brown leather binding was even styled to match the two most common Bibles printed in 1829 and 1830.
Excerpts of the printed Book of Mormon text were circulated by both believers and skeptics even before books came off the press. At least two believers left with portions of the unbound sheets in order to convince friends, neighbors, and family of the book’s authenticity. Having heard of “the Golden Book found by a youth” named Joseph Smith, traveled to Palmyra, where he spoke with and . When he returned to his home in , he took with him an uncut sheet of sixteen printed pages (or a signature) from the Book of Mormon. When he showed the pages to his , she “was much pleased Fe[e]ling it to be the word of God.” After meeting with the Smith family, Solomon Chamberlin took sixty-four pages (four signatures) with him on a missionary trip to , preaching “all that [he] knew concerning Mormonism.” Those who insisted that the book was a fraud also sought evidence in the text. Palmyra newspaper editor , whose newspaper was printed each weekend on the same press used during the week to publish the Book of Mormon, pirated and reprinted parts of the Book of Mormon without extensive critical commentary. “The Book,” Cole observed to his readers, “when it shall come before the public, must stand or fall, according to the whims and fancies of its readers.”
Besides distributing the published book, missionaries of the early Church of Christ told of how the book had come to be, recounting a narrative of Joseph Smith’s visions, ancient plates, translation by the power of God, and a God who interacted with humankind in modern times. Although the book’s title page, copyright notice, preface, and witness statements contain hints of that narrative, the Book of Mormon itself conveys little information about Joseph Smith or his experience in bringing forth the book. The witness statements, which are found at the end of the book, testify to the reality of the plates but do not mention how they were discovered or translated, except to say that they were translated “by the gift and power of God.” The preface, written by Joseph Smith, briefly discusses the book’s origins but focuses largely on ’s loss of the initial portion of the manuscript. Smith concluded his preface by stating simply, “I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of , Ontario county, New-York.”
While many individuals read the book with little or no background knowledge about its origins and were convinced of its divinity, others gained that conviction through conversing with those who knew the history of the discovery and translation of the text. In fall 1830, four missionaries were commanded by revelation to preach to various tribes of American Indians west of the border who were considered by Joseph Smith and many church members to be descendants of Lamanites. On their way to Indian Territory, and his missionary companions converted more than a hundred individuals in . John Riggs, a convert in , Ohio, recalled that Cowdery and the other missionaries recounted the narrative of the angel, the recovery of the plates, and the translation. Samuel Underhill, an observer critical of the new faith, noted that recent converts in Ohio “believe[d] that Joseph Smith was led by supernatural power to discover and to translate the Golden Bible.” When writing to church leadership in of his successes in Ohio, Cowdery pleaded for more books: “There is considerable call here for books, and I wish you would send five hundred immediately here.” By 1831, word of Smith’s early visionary experiences and the translation had circulated widely enough that newspapers had published reports in both New York and Ohio. Early members shared the story of the book’s miraculous origins in part because readers would not learn that context by reading the book itself.
Early Mormons accepted the Book of Mormon as scripture, adopting teachings and stories from the book into the developing church structure, liturgy, and community. Over the next decade, church leaders published three more editions, notwithstanding the church’s serious financial troubles. Recognizing the importance of the book, those skeptical of the faith called believers Mormonites and later Mormons, after the book they accepted as scripture.
The Book of Mormon thus became, in Joseph Smith’s words, the “keystone” of the faith. It not only helped shape the theology of the new religious movement but also provided a foundation for a community of believers committed to spreading their message throughout the world. In the preface to the second edition (1837), the compilers highlighted their belief in the power and destiny of the book:
Expecting, as we have reason to, that this book will be conveyed to places which circumstances will render it impossible for us to visit . . . we cannot consistently let the opportunity pass, without expressing our sincere conviction of its truth, and the great and glorious purposes it must effect, in the restoration of the house of Israel, and the ushering in of that blessed day when the knowledge of God will cover the earth, and one universal peace pervade all people.
The Book of Mormon became a powerful symbol: its text demonstrated to early followers of Joseph Smith that God spoke with the inhabitants of the ancient Americas, and Smith’s experiences in obtaining the gold plates and translating the book offered evidence to them that God continued to speak to humankind through prophetic leaders.