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 more 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.