Financing the Book of Mormon

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One of the gifts Santa brought me was Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2015). I had asked the old guy for this book with the thought that it would help me in preparing my introductory lesson this coming Sunday, in which I wanted to focus on the production and publication of the book. That meant I had to read it quickly, but it was an easy read and I just finished it yesterday.

This book brings to bear insights gleaned from the JSPP, and so represents the state of the art on these issues. I was already familiar with most of the material in the book, but there were some things that were new to me. For instance, this contained the most detailed treatment of the interpreters that I have encountered; most references to them that I have seen in the past have been brief and vague.

The aspect of the coming forth of the BoM that I learned the most about from this volume was the actual publication of the book.

The translation process had been quite an ordeal, but as it concluded and Joseph and Martin began to look for a printer, they were in for quite a shock. The first printer Martin approached was E.B. Grandin of the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra. Granville’s terms to produce a print run of 5,000 high quality, lengthy books were $3,000, paid in advance. (Printers usually shared in the risk of publication and expected to be repaid out of book sales, but Grandin didn’t believe these books would sell and wanted to protect himself for the large capital investment in type, paper and employees he would have to make for such a job.) The authors point out that this was probably the first time that the financial magnitude of what they were trying to accomplish hit Joseph and Martin, which I thought was a great insight. They would have had no way of knowing what to expect in terms of a quote for such a job. As the authors write (p. 165):

To put the cost in perspective, Joseph had purchased his fourteen-acre, already cultivated farm with accompanying house, in Harmony for only $200. The Book of Mormon cost, by comparison, was fifteen times that of his house and farm. Day laborers in New York often worked for a dollar per day, making the cost of the Book of Mormon printing at least ten times the amount Joseph Smith could have made digging wells for an entire year.

Grandin tried to talk Harris out of financing this venture, as the amount required was almost the value of his entire farm, and he knew Harris would never get his money back. Grandin actually refused to go through with the print job in an effort to spare Harris his farm.

So Joseph and Martin then tried to negotiate with a series of printers: Jonathan Hadley, also in Palmyra, Thurlow Weed in Rochester, and Elihu Marshall, also in Rochester. Hadley and Weed declined the job, partly for lack of experience printing actual books, and partly for the same scruples Grandin had shown. Marshall was willing to do it, having actual book printing experience, but the location in Rochester was a problem, especially since after the loss of the 116 manuscript pages Joseph wanted to exercise close control over the manuscript. So Joseph and Hyrum took Marshall’s offer back to Grandin and used it as leverage. Since it appeared the book would actually be printed anyway, Grandin finally agreed to do it.

As mentioned above, Grandin refused to begin work until he was paid in advance. And now the reality of what he was doing hit Martin, and he began to drag his feet. Eventually, he got the revelation he had requested: D&C 19 (which was originally dated to 1830, but the authors convincingly make the case that the correct date is summer, 1829. A couple of years ago the Church changed the headnote to make that correction.)

Finally, Martin gave Grandin a mortgage on his farm for the $3,000. The term of the mortgage was 18 months, and if Martin paid the $3,000 in cash during that time he could keep the farm, but if not the farm would belong to Grandin. Using a mortgage rather than cash enabled Martin to farm his land during the interim and to redeem his farm if he came up with the money to do so.

In October 1830, four months before the payment from Harris was due, Grandin assigned the mortgage to Thomas Rogers II for $2,000. In April 1831, with the mortgage foreclosed, Rogers sold the Harris farm property to Thomas Lakey for $3,000, who in turn sold the property two years later for $3,300. Needless to say, Martin never got his farm back

I’ve always been struck by D&C 19:26:

 26 And again, I command thee that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God— [emphasis added]

The line “thou shalt not covet thine own property” I find really striking. We’re talking about Martin’s entire net worth–his farm–which he in fact was unable to redeem and lost. Apparently the original plan was for all proceeds of sale of the first print run of the Book of Mormon to go towards building up the Church, with no provision for Martin to recover his “gift.” That was later changed, by giving Martin an equal right to sell copies of the BoM until his investment was recouped, but at first at least the books wouldn’t sell, for nobody wanted them. It’s unclear to me whether Martin eventually recouped some of his investment from BoM sales, but even if so it would have been a small fraction of what he had lost.

This kind of puts the actions of Martin’s wife, Lucy Harris, into a certain perspective. She made Martin deed to her her dower interest in the farm (80 acres) to make sure he couldn’t alienate it to finance the BoM. Although we don’t know for sure, the best guess is that it was Lucy who destroyed the 116 manuscript pages in an effort to prevent her husband from doing what he in fact ended up doing.

I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about it before, but what Martin did was absolutely remarkable. Paying tithing is hard enough, but if the Prophet came to me and said, “Brother Kevin, I need your house, your furniture, your cars, your bank accounts and your 401(k),” in other words everything I’ve spent my entire life working for, would I have the faith to comply with such a request? I sincerely doubt it. Which to me makes what Martin did all the more remarkable.

 

Comments

  1. He is a pretty amazing figure in Church history!

  2. Martin literally bet the farm, and technically lost. I’ve sometimes led up to this story in class with the seerstone-testing story, the Charles Anthon story, and 116 pages story, all of which involve Martin Harris testing Joseph Smith. He passed every time, which is why Martin was willing to bet the farm.

  3. Also, thanks for the book summary. I put this volume on the recommended resources list. It’s useful for people to see that “even Kevin Barney!” learns something from such a volume.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    A great perspective, Ben, thanks for sharing.

  5. Brian Rostron says:

    The actions of Smith in bilking an excessively credulous Harris are disgusting.

  6. Brian, I’m not sure how you get there from either what Kevin said; while financially, Harris made a bad bet, I don’t see where he’s excessively credulous, or where he’s bilked. I’m unaware of any evidence that Harris was naive or stupid, and he seems, as Ben pointed out, to set up hurdles that he found acceptable to his financing the printing.

    Was it a costly mistake? It was certainly costly; it’s less clear that it was a mistake, or that Harris entered in under any delusion above the optimism bias that clouds all of our judgments.

    Thanks for this, Kevin; I’m definitely borrowing for my Primary lesson on Sunday.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Kevin, thanks for the post. The efforts to get the BoM printed and the interaction with Grandin (along with the redated section 19) are all really important contributions.

  8. Since the loss of the 116 pages occurred well before the discussions with Grandin and the other potential publishers, I wonder if Lucy Harris’s actions (if she indeed was the person who stole/destroyed those pages) were based upon the potential financial loss, or if she were more concerned by Martin’s loss of “face” in the community (which of course might have resulted in financial loss along with the loss of reputation, etc.). Would she have had insight into the costs of publication, or of printers’ reluctance to bear any of the financial risk, at the time of the loss of the manuscript?

    On an unrelated note, it’s interesting to see Thurlow Weed’s name appear in this story. He later became a leader (perhaps “the boss” would be a more appropriate term) in the Whig and then the Republican Parties in New York State, and was a principal backer of William Seward in his bid for the Republican nomination for President in 1860.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark B., my impression is that Lucy at that early point would have had no better insight into how much the printing would have cost than Martin or Joseph did. But Martin early on had declared his intention to pay for the pubication, so my guess is she was concerned about that promise, whatever the scope might turn out to be. And yes, the authors briefly mention Weed’s subsequent political career.

  10. Nice heads up for the book, Kevin. Harris was a fascinating character, not just at the beginning of things, but well into mid-decade and later.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Kevin, what do you of their argument about looking for others (Anthon) to do the translation?

  12. J. Stapley says:

    …you think of their…

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    J., I have long read the evidence the same way they do, that originally Joseph did not contemplate doing the translation himself but finding someone else (learned) to do it.

  14. Just a heads up about a new biography of Martin Harris by Larry Porter and Susan Easton Black that BYU Studies will be publishing, hopefully sometime this year. It will contain a more complete accounting of the somewhat convoluted financial transactions surrounding Martin’s farm than MacKay and Dirkmaat offer. There are still a few loose ends to tie up on this matter, but stay tuned. Most members know very little about Harris between the mortgaging of his farm and his return to the Church as an old man, so this book will be a valuable addition to LDS scholarship.