“Printing and Publishing the Book of Mormon,” Church History Topics
“Printing and Publishing the Book of Mormon”
A small group of believers supported Joseph Smith through the Book of Mormon translation process, but none of them had experience in publishing. Learning as they went, Joseph Smith and his associates worked to secure a printer’s services, finance the printing process, and respond to local opposition to publish the sacred record. Their plan for a first printing of 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon was ambitious—it was more than twice the average size for a book at that time.1
Joseph Smith retained control over the printing and distribution of the Book of Mormon in the United States by obtaining a federal copyright for the text. He followed legal requirements for securing copyright by having a copy of the title page deposited with the clerk of a federal district court and paying for the copyright certificate.
Local printers refused Joseph’s proposed book, and not entirely out of religious misgiving. Printing a book as large and as expensive as the Book of Mormon would demand expertise and an investment in new printing type and supplies. Joseph Smith and Martin Harris visited several printers about the project. Three printers in Palmyra and Rochester—Egbert Grandin, Jonathan Hadley, and Thurlow Weed—turned them down, and Grandin even tried to enlist Harris’s friends to dissuade Harris from financing the book. When Rochester printer Elihu Marshall agreed to publish the book, Joseph and Martin returned to Grandin in Palmyra, hoping to print the book closer to home. Harris offered to mortgage part of his farm as collateral, and the men negotiated terms. In August 1829, Harris signed over the mortgage to Grandin, and production of the Book of Mormon began.
The earlier loss of 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript together with rising antagonism in the Palmyra area persuaded Joseph and his followers to guard the text during printing. Oliver Cowdery produced a printer’s manuscript, a copy of the original for use in the printing process. Hyrum Smith transported pages of the printer’s manuscript to compositor John Gilbert, one of Grandin’s employees, in installments, sometimes hiding the pages under his buttoned vest for security. Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, and Peter Whitmer Jr. each visited Grandin’s shop at times to supervise the handling of the manuscript.
The printer’s manuscript contained virtually no punctuation, leaving Gilbert to insert punctuation himself. Initially, Hyrum refused to entrust Gilbert with pages overnight, but Gilbert persuaded Hyrum that keeping pages long enough to write punctuation on them greatly reduced the time needed for typesetting.
Though the manuscript pages remained secure, a local satirist named Abner Cole took advantage of the unguarded proof sheets in Grandin’s shop to reproduce passages from the Book of Mormon in his own newspaper. Even before the Book of Mormon had been published, Joseph had to assert copyright authority to halt Cole’s unauthorized publication of excerpts. As word spread that the Book of Mormon would soon be available for sale, locals reportedly organized a boycott. Martin Harris became concerned that he would lose his farm property and asked Joseph for a new agreement entitling him to a portion of the proceeds from book sales until his mortgage had been redeemed.
Concerned about financing the church they would soon organize, Joseph and others looked for additional ways to raise funds from the Book of Mormon. Hyrum Smith suggested to Joseph they consider selling the rights to reproduce and distribute the Book of Mormon (in their words, “sell the copyright”) in Canada. Hiram Page, who assisted in the attempt, later said the brothers hoped the sale would be $8,000. Joseph received a revelation promising him the recent troubles would not thwart publication and granting him permission to sell the copyright in Canada “if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings of my spirit & my word.” Agents representing Joseph Smith traveled to Kingston, Upper Canada, but returned without success.2
Once printed and bound, the Book of Mormon was made available for sale at Grandin’s shop. Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Samuel Smith, and others made short preaching tours promoting the book. Copies did not sell well initially in the area around Palmyra, and a year after publication, Harris’s property sold to an investor who had purchased the mortgage from Grandin.3 But interest in the book increased over the next few years as missionaries carried copies around the country. Harris was eventually paid in full, and demand for the book was high enough that Joseph arranged for a second printing in 1837.
Authors often discarded manuscripts after their texts were published, but Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery retained both the original and printer’s manuscripts for some time. In 1841, Joseph placed the original manuscript in the hollowed-out cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. Over time, most of this manuscript disintegrated due to water that seeped into the cornerstone deposit. The surviving pages—about 28 percent of the manuscript—are housed in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. The printer’s manuscript was preserved by the Cowdery and Whitmer families and survived intact. Now held at the Church History Library, the printer’s manuscript gives unique insight into the translation and production of the Book of Mormon.