Bankruptcy and a Book of Mormon

Note that this isn't the Book of Mormon the debtor got to keep

Note that this isn’t the Book of Mormon the debtor got to keep

I was walking through the mailroom at work today and, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the word “Mormon” in newspaper headline. Mormonism doesn’t come up much in the news around here, so I took a second look. On the front page—in fact, above the fold—of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, a legal newspaper here, was the headline “Debtor can keep rare Book of Mormon.”[fn1]

Now, I’m not a bankruptcy person,[fn2] but the story is too good to pass up, so here goes:

Anna Robinson is an employee at a library in Anna, IL, a (really) small town in the southwest corner of the state. She is also a lifelong Mormon. In 2003, her employer charged her with clearing old and damaged books from the library storeroom.

While she was cleaning it out, she discovered a first edition Book of Mormon. The library let her keep it, and, although it was missing the title page and had some other damage, she had it authenticated, and it was appraised at a value of at least $10,000.[fn3]

Robinson naturally doesn’t use the Book of Mormon. Rather, she keeps it in a Ziploc bag,[fn4] and occasionally pulls it out to show to her kids and to other church members.

At some point, Robinson filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Chapter 7 provides for the sale of most of the debtor’s property, with the proceeds going to pay creditors. As a policy matter, though, we don’t want all of a debtor’s property to be sold—even bankrupt debtors need clothes to wear, a place to live, and some other assets; otherwise, the state would ultimately end up supporting her.

As a result, some property is treated as exempt; debtors get to keep that property, and creditors don’t get their hands on it. And, although the bankruptcy law is a federal law, it provides that debtors can choose between federal and state exemptions.

Illinois law provides that exempt property includes, among a handful of other things:

The necessary wearing apparel, bible, school books, and family pictures of the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.

Interestingly enough, the bankruptcy trustee didn’t argue that the word “bible” would exclude the Book of Mormon; apparently, “bible” in this context means “a religious text.” The trustee did argue that the statute only exempted one bible, though, and Robinson conceded that she had fifteen other copies of the Book of Mormon (including on her iPhone and iPad). The purpose of the exemption for bibles, the trustee argued, was to allow a debtor to keep a bible for devotional purposes. Any of her other fifteen copies would work just as well, the trustee argued.

Actually, the trustee argued that any of her other fifteen copies would work better. She conceded that she didn’t use the first edition Book of Mormon for devotional purposes. It was fragile, and she rarely took it out of its Ziploc home. It should be sold, the trustee argued, so that the proceeds could go to her creditors.

The bankruptcy court agreed, but, on appeal, the district court did not. Neither did the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit said that the language of the exemption statute was clear: debtors could exclude a bible from their bankruptcy estate. Even if it was meant to preserve debtors’ ability to read devotionally, that’s not what the statute said. And the statute did not place a maximum value on an exempt bible.

And, as a result, Robinson will be able to keep her first edition copy of the Book of Mormon.

[fn1] Technically, the story appeared about two weeks ago, but I just saw it today.—

[fn2] (though I did do well in my bankruptcy class back when I was in law school!)

[fn3] A little bit from my world here: if she got a book worth $10,000 from her employer, it would be income to her, and she would need to pay taxes on that $10,000. Did she? No idea; it doesn’t seem to have been of any interest to the bankruptcy court; even if it had been, as long as she filed her tax return for 2003 in a timely fashion, the statute of limitations would have run.

[fn4] For all of our antique books people out there, does that make you cringe? or are Ziploc bags a standard storage device?


  1. Cringe? Yes. Fascinating bit of law, Sam.

  2. That is a fascinating bit of law. From a morality perspective, though, she should absolutely, positively sell that Book of Mormon to pay her debts. Absolutely.

  3. I think this is comparable to a case where a debtor has an old and valuable family bible. It wouldn’t be used for devotional reading either. But it might have religious value as a symbol.

    I think it is fascinating that the library just let her keep the book. Did they really understand the value of it?

  4. “A bible, a bible, she already has a bible!”

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Cool case. Last time I was in the Church History building, I saw boxes of Ziploc bags all over the place; I wondered what their purpose was…

  6. K Lee Smith says:

    Do We know how many copies of this edition exist outside of those hoarded by the Church? i.e.. what is the availability to scholars and scoundrels?

  7. I have an uncle with one in much better condition that is kept in a climate controlled safe deposit box… Ziploc is how I would have to go with my meager funding though

  8. Is that a serious question in fn4? Moisture levels do need to be taken into consideration (don’t put your high-value rare books and documents in the basement or attic!) and certain types of plastic storage are fine, but for otherwise stable environments, acid- and lignin-free pH-neutral archival rare book boxes are only $10-20. Here’s the Library of Congress guide to handling books:

    Note, also, that the use of the white archival glove that was so common a few years back has been abandoned in favor of washed and dried hands, unless there are concerns about arsenic or other toxins, in which case a nitrile or vinyl glove should be used. (Fun stuff!)

  9. Thanks, Amy! Not a serious question by any means, but I love that you provided a serious answer.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think anyone knows how many first edition Book of Mormons are still extant. I’ve seen estimates in the range of 4-500; i.e., just under 10% of the print run of 5,000.

  11. This is a really interesting case. I can see why they might charge her to sell it, but Niklas’ answer is closer to what I think the truth of the matter is. The book only has value to her because of its religious significance. It is a symbol.

  12. Aussie Mormon says:

    If we’re after ways to preserve documents, we could do what they did with some papers named after a non-living large body of water (zombie lake rolls or something) and shove them in a salty desert cave. :)

    As to whether I’d use a 1st edition; probably not. Since there are facsimile copies etc of it these days it’d be like the aforementioned Dead Sea scrolls. An awesome bit of history to have, but not sonething I’d bring out at parties.

  13. My archival storage media is Ziploc bags as well. It’s worked for the last twenty years.

  14. Interesting case, Sam. I think it’s a fair criticism of the bankruptcy code that one should not be allowed to keep an investment-grade religious text. Seems like it shoulder be brought in line with the wedding ring exemption, I.e., a wedding ring up to a certain value is exempt, but if it’s a J-Lo ring then you’re
    out of luck.

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