Top 10 Treasures in the Church History Library
Contributed By Rachel Sterzer
- The napkin on which President Hinckley sketched the plans for small temples.
- The Book of Mormon Hyrum Smith was reading before his death.
- Papyrus scroll fragments that date back to about 200 B.C.
The Church History Library, located at Church headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, is a special place, said the library’s director, Keith A. Erekson. The library houses a quarter of a million books and magazines as well as manuscripts, thousands of audiovisual materials, two million photographs, and many other artifacts that document the history of the Church in the latter days.
The Church goes to great lengths to preserve these treasures. The library retains secure storage vaults and is built to the highest seismic standards. It is climate controlled to reduce fluctuations in temperature for items that are temperature sensitive. It is also secured with cameras and sensors and lasers and “everything we need to keep the records safe,” Brother Erekson explained.
But amid the library’s trove of historical objects and documents are some extra special items. During a session of BYU Campus Education Week, Brother Erekson shared what he considers to be the “Top 10 Treasures of the Church History Library.”
10. President Hinckley’s sketch of small temples
In the 1880s the Church sent several families to northern Mexico to settle. They built a community—Colonia Juarez—including a school that continued to operate 100 years later. President Gordon B. Hinckley traveled there to celebrate the school’s centennial and on the four-hour drive back to El Paso, Texas, began thinking about the Saints he had met.
“[He thought] about their faith, about their history, about their long ties to the Church,” Brother Erekson said. He also thought about how the Saints had to travel six hours across international boundaries to go to the temple in Arizona.
On the plane ride from El Paso to Salt Lake City, President Hinckley sketched the plans for small temples, which he immediately presented to the Church architects, Brother Erekson said. By the October 1997 general conference, President Hinckley announced that they were going to experiment with small temples in Colonia Juarez, Mexico; Monticello, Utah; and Anchorage, Alaska. By July of 1998, the Monticello Temple was completed—13 months from idea to fruition, Brother Erekson noted.
In the April 1998 general conference, President Hinckley announced plans to construct 30 smaller temples immediately, in addition to 17 temples already under construction, to make a total of 47 new temples, plus the 51 then in operation. After naming the countries where the new temples were to be built, President Hinckley said, “I think we had better add two more to make it an even 100 by the end of this century, being 2,000 years ‘since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh’ (D&C 20:1). In this program we are moving on a scale the like of which we have never seen before” (“New Temples to Provide ‘Crowning Blessings of the Gospel,’” Ensign, May 1998).
“You remember how startling that was?” Brother Erkeson asked. “The document of that revelation—of how he worked out the details and followed through—is preserved in the Church History Library.”
9. Emmeline B. Wells’s editorial in the Woman’s Exponent
In the late 19th century President Brigham Young called Emmeline B. Wells, who was serving in the General Relief Society Presidency, into his office. “He tells her, ‘We’ve been here in the valley for 30 years and I have been asking the men to save grain and they haven’t done anything, so I give up. So I’m asking you. I know you’ll get it done,’” Brother Erekson related.
As the editor of a women’s newspaper, the Woman’s Exponent, Sister Wells immediately penned an editorial issuing the challenge by the prophet. “And the sisters began that very day storing grain.”
In the early days, the women stored and used the grain to help those within their own community, but by the 20th century they began sending it to help others in need. They sent grain to help survivors of the San Francisco fire and to China following a devastating earthquake, Brother Erekson explained. During World War I, they sold the grain to the federal government, invested the money, and used the interest to provide insurance and medical assistance to pregnant women and their children.
“So we can see the roots of the Church’s welfare services, humanitarian services, and social services programs.” The impact of those women’s dedicated service goes back to Emmeline B. Wells and her editorial in the Woman’s Exponent, he said.
8. The letter from Liberty Jail
When Joseph Smith was incarcerated in Liberty Jail, he dictated a letter to his scribe, Alexander McRae, who was also there. Joseph signed it. His brother Hyrum signed it. All of the men jailed with the Prophet signed it. In 1876 parts of the letter were used as sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
“But the actual letter that Joseph dictated, that a scribe wrote, that they all signed, is there in the Church History Library,” Brother Erekson shared.
7. Joseph Smith’s first journal
Two years after the Church was organized, Joseph Smith sat down for the first time in his life and started to record his activities.
“Joseph Smith was very aware that he didn’t have a lot of education,” Brother Erekson explained. The Prophet became a very good speaker but never became comfortable as a writer, which is what makes his journal “so precious,” Brother Erekson said. The journal captures his handwriting but also captures his inadequacy.
On the first page of the journal, the first sentence is scratched out. Joseph writes, “Oh may God grant that I may be directed in all my thoughts. Oh bless thy servant, Amen.”
“He can’t even get through the first page without a prayer for help because this is hard for him,” Brother Erekson said. “It’s a very precious record of his life and his experience.”
6. Wilford Woodruff’s copy of the Book of Commandments
In 1833, Mary Elizabeth Rollins and her sister, Caroline, saved a pile of printed revelations from an angry mob in Independence, Missouri, by gathering the pages, running, and hiding in a cornfield.
Shortly after, the salvaged pages were combined with other pages to create a tiny book called the Book of Commandments. “Individual members of the Church hand stitched their own personal copy of these revelations,” Brother Erekson explained. Only 29 copies of the book survived. The Church History Library owns six copies. The Library of Congress has one. Many are in private collections.
“This is one of the rarest and most prized items in all of American book publishing and collecting,” Brother Erekson said.
One of the copies in the library’s possession belonged to Wilford Woodruff. Brother Woodruff kept a few blank pages at the back of his copy. When Joseph Smith received the revelation known today as section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants—the Word of Wisdom—Brother Woodruff handwrote the revelation in the back of his book.
Wilford Woodruff’s handwritten, signed copy of the Book of Commandments “is one of the great treasures of Church history and we’re happy it is in the library,” Brother Erekson said.
5. Fragments of the papyrus scrolls
Brother Erekson explained that the library has 11 fragments that date back to about 200 B.C. “Obviously these are not the things that Abraham wrote on. Papyrus does not last that long. These are copies of copies of copies of copies.” Brother Erekson said they are unsure where the fragments fit within the scrolls that Joseph translated as the book of Abraham.
The scrolls were uncovered in Egypt in the early 1800s and made their way through dealers and collectors to Italy, then to New York City, and then to Ohio, where Joseph purchased them. After translating the book of Abraham, Joseph gave the scrolls to his mother, Lucy Mack Smith.
Brother Erekson said historians’ best guess is that the scrolls were separated when the Saints left Nauvoo. There is historical evidence, he said, that a museum in Chicago was collecting the material before being consumed in the fire of 1871. The fragments now on display in the library were discovered in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967 before being acquired by the Church.
“They’ve all been digitized and are online on the Joseph Smith Papers website. They’ve never been on display publicly until just a little bit ago.”
4. Hyrum’s copy of the Book of Mormon
The book belonged to Hyrum Smith’s wife and has a page folded down in the book of Ether where Hyrum was reading before he left for Carthage, where he was murdered with his brother the Prophet Joseph Smith.
“This book is one of the precious things connected with Hyrum Smith’s life and the end of his and Joseph’s [lives] and one of the great treasures that we have in the library,” Brother Erekson said.
3. 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon
Only 5,000 copies of the first edition of the Book of Mormon were printed in New York City in 1830, Brother Erekson explained. Today, somewhere from 500 to 700 survive.
“This is the kind of book that the first generation of converts read. The second edition wasn’t published until 1837. … If your family encountered the Church from 1830 to 1837, this is the Book of Mormon they would have somehow seen or read or borrowed or heard read aloud or found a way to learn about and pray about. This is the edition that Brigham Young read, that Eliza R. Snow and Lorenzo Snow read, that Heber C. Kimball read,” Brother Erekson said.
2. Original manuscript of the Book of Mormon
Brother Erekson explained that when Joseph Smith completed translating the gold plates, he gave his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, an assignment—make a copy of the whole manuscript.
“We call that copy the printer’s manuscript,” Brother Erekson said. “That’s the copy they took to the printer to do the typesetting, and Joseph kept the original manuscript.”
When the Saints settled in Nauvoo, Joseph put the original manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. “It stayed there for 40 years until the house is kind of crumbling. When they open up the cornerstone, water had gotten in and they find a soggy mess,” Brother Erekson said.
Today, historians have been able to recover about 28 percent of the original manuscript. Through the Joseph Smith Papers project, the printer’s manuscript has been digitized and is available online.
1. Patriarchal blessing records
“We have all kinds of treasures, but of all of the treasures we keep, I think … the most important for every member of the Church is that we keep the official record of your patriarchal blessing.”
Brother Erekson then gave listeners a special invitation to come and “see these treasures.”
“All except your patriarchal blessing are on display at the Church History Library. I personally invite you to come up and take a look at the originals. See them there. Bring your family. Bring your friends.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley sketched on a napkin his idea for the design of small temples.
In 1835 the Church acquired papyrus scrolls that had recently been discovered in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, Joseph Smith began translating the book of Abraham, a record of the biblical prophet and patriarch Abraham. After the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, the scrolls remained behind and were sold by Joseph Smith’s family to multiple parties in 1856. Historians believe that most of the scrolls may have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but 10 fragments ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where Kirtland-era paper was attached to the back side as reinforcement. The fragments were transferred to the Church in 1967.
During the October 2009 general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland holds a Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith read from and used to comfort his brother Joseph Smith while leaving for Carthage Jail. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.
Hyrum Smith's copy of the Book of Mormon, with the page corner turned down in the book of Ether, which he was reading on the morning he and Joseph left Nauvoo for Carthage. Photo by Welden C. Andersen.
A first edition Book of Mormon (1830) was on display during a preview of an exhibit featuring some early documents of the Church. The exhibit, entitled Foundations of Faith, includes 26 books, manuscripts, and other historical documents that date back to the 19th century and the beginnings of Mormonism. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.
Sister Ingrid Byram and others of the Family and Church History Headquarters Mission work on Friday, September 4, 2015, to retrieve and check thousands of patriarchal blessings for people around the world. Photo by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News.