Reading the Book of Mormon Again, for the First Time #BOM2016

I esteemed the Book, or the information contained in it, more than all the riches of the world. Yes; I verily believe that I would not at that time have exchanged the knowledge I then possessed, for a legal title to all the beautiful farms, houses, villages and property which passed in review before me, on my journey through one of the most flourishing settlements of western New York. —Parley P. Pratt on first reading the Book of Mormon

I’m going to be reading and blogging about the Book of Mormon this year. To be honest, it’s been a while since I read it, but I finished the Quran and the Old Testament last year, and I feel pulled back to my own spiritual roots. And besides, I like having things to say in Gospel Doctrine.

I am reading a facsimile edition of the 1830 text published by the Community of Christ and sold in the Old Joseph Smith Store in Nauvoo. It’s a great edition, without the chapters and verses that we are used to, so it reads 9760830900253more like a book. I am not reading it this way because I want to do a textual study (leaving that in the capable hands of the Joseph Smith Papers people). What I want to do is a rhetorical study. I want to get some sense of what readers in the early 1830s saw in the Book of Mormon. I want to try to understand how it functioned rhetorically as a book at a very specific point in time.

This is part of a larger project—one that I have been working on for several years—to better understand how books functioned in the 19th century. This is no small task, as printing technology advanced as rapidly during this era as it has in our own. But I am convinced that a better understanding of the Book of Mormon’s original reception can tell us important things about the ways that books functioned rhetorically at a crucial time in the nation’s history. I’m not talking about what books meant for the well-educated elite, whose views about such things have always been well-known, but for the average Americans—Eliza Doe and Parley P. Sixpack—who were just beginning to understand themselves as people who could own and read books.

In 1830, almost all books published in the United States had to be printed privately and sold through the informal channels that existed at the time. And book publishing was not cheap. Each letter of the text had to be set by hand, and an independent printer could spend several months doing nothing but typesetting a single long manuscript. To publish the first edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith had to put up a $3,000 bond—equivalent to $75,000 in 2016—for which his friend Martin Harris agreed to mortgage his farm.

Harris must have seen the hand of God in the Book of Mormon, since there was no earthly power that could have made the venture successful. In 1830, the price of books was at an all-time high. In just a few years, innovations in the production of paper, ink, and typesetting would drive this cost down to a fraction of what it was when the Book of Mormon was published, but, in 1830, book ownership was largely confined to the upper classes. Most other people, if they could read at all, read newspapers.

When Joseph Smith set the original price of the Book of Mormon at $1.75 per copy (about $50.00 today), he placed it well above the means of the average farm worker or tradesperson, who earned between $8:50 and $12.00 per month. Even at the reduced price of $1.25, it was an uphill slog. Only a fraction of the population owned books, and even most book owners owned only a few. The best data that we have on the period shows that 25% of New England book owners in 1830 owned only one book, usually the Bible; virtually nobody owned more than six or seven.

Soon after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris, whose farm was on the line, brought an armload of copies to Joseph Smith and complained that “the Books will not sell for no Body wants them.”  Harris and his contemporaries attributed this to the hostility that Smith faced in the community and to the earlier pirated excerpts having been printed by Abner Cole in the Palmyra Reflector. But almost no book selling for more than a dollar would have been successful in that time and place. It was not a fertile ground for runaway bestsellers.

But there is a flipside. Because books were so rare and hard to come by, the first edition of the Book of Mormon must have had enormous rhetorical power right out of the box. Unlike the flimsy paperbacks that today’s missionaries are encouraged to give away for free, the 1830 Book of Mormon was a well-made and inherently valuable object that few at the time could afford. The few who purchased a copy knew that they had made a significant investment, and those who read borrowed copies would have had a keen sense of the value of what they held in their hands.

Yes, the Book of Mormon had plenty of detractors. But there is nothing special about that. It’s easy to get people to hate something. What is more remarkable, though, is the number of people who were converted to the Church by reading it, before even meeting Joseph Smith. To people like Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and Sidney Rigdon, the book held a sense of wonder that, I would suggest, owed at least something to the rhetorical power of books on the American frontier. I invite all to join me this year in an attempt to recapture that sense and rekindle the wonder.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the observation in your next to last paragraph. I’ve never thought about it before, but that really rings true to me.

  2. Kristine A says:

    Im with Kevin, I love the imagery of people knowing it was something valuable and worth sacrifice bc of its scarcity. I have a hard time remembering just one book can be that valuable when my house is walk to wall books.

    I’m using this year of companion study w my husband to read Grant Hardy’s reader’s edition….along with his understanding the BoM. Here’s hoping to a year of Sunday school with more depth than I’m used to.

  3. Any advice on how to get a similar copy if we live somewhere exotic, like the middle of Alaska, and aren’t likely to make it to Independence anytime soon?

  4. Kevin Barney says:
  5. Kevin Barney says:

    The Yale text of Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text is available on line at Book of Mormon Central. I like his “sense lines.”

  6. I’m excited for this series, Mike!

  7. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I think I hear your call!

  8. Looking forward to this. Plate technology didn’t exist in the provinces much ca. 1830. Tedious work (but fun for amateurs).

  9. Bradley K. says:

    Excellent reading project, Michael. I did this with a special facsimile edition Deseret Book produced in 1980 (150th anniversary of its publication), which matched as closely “as possible the paper and binding of that first edition.” The smell of the paper and the feel of the leather was intoxicating to me (yes, as a teetotaller, I am intoxicated easily). However, the longer chapters in single column format devoid verse divisions or notes was even more thrilling. It helped me feel the flow of the narrative better and appreciate its literary elements better, and this approach moved me in ways that the current edition could not. I think you are in for a wonderful experience.

  10. melodynew says:

    I love the Book of Mormon. Always have. I suppose I always will. I love holding the worn white leather in my hands and smelling it. (This dates me, but I still cherish those white scriptures I bought back in the day.) I love the waves of memory associated with that smell: the comfort I’ve found within those pages during some of the most difficult periods of my life, the testimony of truth and light and love I’ve felt as I’ve read and studied in years passed; Jesus, in His goodness and mercy. There is something simple and beautiful about that book. Something undeniably holy.

    I suppose part of our job as followers of Christ is to seek for and find new love and new meaning over and over again in holy writ. I won’t deny this happens when my heart is open and willing to receive. Yet, I freely admit when my husband and I began to read in preparation for this year’s study (he likes to listen to audio BOM) I felt uninspired. We dove into the first lesson in the electronic version of the Gospel Doctrine instructors’s Manual this morning – with the message and imagery about the BOM as the keystone of our religion – and the suggestion for the teacher to draw a picture of a rock archway . . . I groaned, rolled over and said, “I’ve heard this so many times. I don’t know if I can stand it. They need new Gospel Doctrine manuals.”

    I’m so glad Royal Skousen had the passion and perseverance to commit decades of his life to “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text.” I attended the symposium a couple of years ago at BYU where he presented the book and the story of its development. I’ll be reading from it for the first time this year. I am also grateful for BCC and other sites like it. Thank you for bringing another perspective to the year’s study. Thank you for sharing your own unique witness. That helps.

    Can you direct readers to suggested companion readings, in addition to the versions of the BOM already mentioned here? Is there a list somewhere on BCC or elsewhere? Thanks again. Have a lovely sabbath.

  11. This post really made me think – I love the look and smell and feel of books even when they’re so cheaply made these days, so to imagine how precious a well-made one would be 180 years ago…wow.

    In recent years, I’ve made a habit of re-reading Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon every spring, over roughly the same number of working days in which it was translated way back when. The change in layout really makes a difference in the reading experience and I do feel that I’m reading it for the first time, again, each time.

  12. Awesome. My three favorite editions for reading are the facsimile, Grant’s Reader’s Edition, and Skousen’s critical text (the Yale one). For each new project, I re-read the book in one of those (I did the Facsimile for In Heaven and Skousen for the translation project). For believer’s the Street Legal BoM is fun too. I’m assuming you’ll be interacting with Gutjahr in this project. Excited to see.

  13. Melodynew,

    Here is the list of companions I am bringing to the journey. They generally come from a literary perspective because, well, so do I:

    Bradley Kramer’s _Beholding the Tree of Life_

    Grant Hardy’s _Understanding the Book of Mormon_

    Richard Rust’s _Feasting on the Word_

    Marilyn Arnold’s _Sweet is the Word_

    Mark Thomas’s _Digging in Cummorah_

  14. melodynew says:

    Thank you, Michael.

  15. Thanks, Michael.

  16. Does the page numbering of the 1830 facsimile edition have any errors?

  17. Deep Think says:

    @melodynew: I was to teach “Keystone of our Religion” today as well (church cancelled today due to snow). Like you, I groaned at the keystone drawing in the manual. As I read President Benson’s 1986 talk “Keystone”, he identifies three ways in which it is the Keystone: (1) witness of Christ (2) Keystone of our doctrine and (3) keystone of testimony. Which gave me an idea. How about we find all the doctrines that are distinguished or made clearer by the Book of Mormon and talk about those (instead of drawing the arch)? So I called upon seven of our smartest members and assigned them each a doctrine that the Book of Mormon clarifies: The Fall, The Innocence of Children, The Nature of God, Christ in Gethsemane, The importance of Religious Freedom, and so on. Each were to research and present how the Book of Mormon deepens and clarifies our doctrines. I was really looking forward to their insights on this. Even so, it has been an enlightening exploration for me as well to deepen what it means to be a keystone.

  18. And how different is the 1830 edition from the 1841 Liverpool edition?

    “The presentation to the queen mirrored that made in 1841 to Queen Victoria by Lorenzo Snow, on behalf of Brigham Young. Queen Victoria’s personally inscribed copy was found earlier this year in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle; on the front cover, inscribed in gold, are the words: “To Queen Victoria, 1841,” and on the back, “Presented by Brigham Young.” The copies given to Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher are replicas of the 1841 copy, except that their names are inscribed on the front cover, and “Presented by Ezra Taft Benson” is inscribed on the back.”

  19. Thanks for sharing that, Deep Think. It’s a nice way to approach the message.

  20. Deepthink – my church was cancelled today because of snow. Happy snow day.

  21. I was supposed to teach lesson 1 yesterday. Instead, we read all six verses 1 Nephi 6 and talked about the purpose of the BofM. Then went on to lesson 2 and skipped the “story parts” and just read the verses that talked about how Lehi, his family, and Ishmael’s family responded to the message they were given. Did not quote ETB, and no one seemed to mind.

  22. MIchael. After looking at the messages above, I think I’ll be mostly along for the ride, like I was for your Job; but be assured, I’ll be watching and learning. I liked what Deep Think did. Not so sure Mark’s method would have worked for me. I’m sure it worked for his class though.

  23. “To people like Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and Sidney Rigdon, the book held a sense of wonder that, I would suggest, owed at least something to the rhetorical power of books on the American frontier.”

    Excellent post, Michael. Looking forward to more of your insights.

  24. oh wow! This was so fascinating and such a useful insight in thinking about the Book of Mormon as I start a new year, and thus a new goal to better engage with scripture, in particular the BOM. It’s so interesting to think of it with such monetary value when as a missionary, we gave away so many for free that in some ways it maybe started to lose value for me in the process.