Printing the Book of Mormon

From our modern day perspective, it seems that the printing of the Book of Mormon would be an obvious success, but the true history varies greatly from the popular LDS narrative. When exploring the circumstances and motivations of the Smith family before and after the publication, it becomes clear that Joseph Smith’s intentions were always to profit financially from the work. And while others took the risks that his credit could not bear, Martin Harris’ story is truly tragic.

The Smith family remained perpetually strapped with debt and was actively avoiding creditors while living off the charity of friends around the time of the printing. Lucy Mack Smith stated that when Joseph brought the plates home in Sept 1827 “There was not a shilling in the house.” [1]  While there is no shame in being poor, an economic theme runs throughout the obtaining, translating and printing years.

In the years immediately preceding the publication of the Book, Joseph Smith Sr. had been sued for repayment of debt (Feb 1825) and lost the family land and house for failure to pay the long delinquent mortgage (Dec 20, 1825), while Smith Jr. was arrested for his ongoing money digging enterprise. [2] During these early years, Joseph’s employ revolved primarily around a tight-knit group of money digging associates. Smith later recounted, “I brought salvation to my father’s house…when they were in a miserable situation.” [3]

THE ARRANGEMENTS


In 1829, Joseph Smith and Martin Harris approached E. B. Grandin, the well-established printer of the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra, N.Y.  He declined the job, counseling his friend Martin not to part with any additional funds, that he was being duped. Undeterred, Harris and Smith then approached a number of printers throughout the region, without satisfaction.

The LDS Church confirms, “While many printers were content to publish books and then share the proceeds of the expected sales with the author, this arrangement was predicated upon the printer’s belief that the Book of Mormon would sell well enough to recoup the costs of production. Grandin was adamant that the Book would not sell, and refused to consider such an arrangement.” [4] He believed that the book would never recoup the cost of printing and approached influential mutual friends, attempting to dissuade Harris from pledging his farm on the hopes of book sales. 

Negotiations continued through July and August 1829, yet Grandin did not trust the Smiths to pay him and would not extend credit or begin work without securing collateral. Lacking additional sponsors, Smith’s ambitions were pinned exclusively on Harris. Grandin’s brother-in-law later recalled, “Harris became for a time in some degree staggered in his confidence; but nothing could be done in the way of printing without his aid.”

MARTIN HARRIS

Sometime between Aug 11-25, the Lord warns Harris, via Smith’s D&C 19 revelation, of endless punishment, torment and eternal damnation if he did not encumber his valuable land to cover Smith’s printing needs. Harris was repeatedly chastised to repent, specifically instructed to “Pay the printers debt…release thyself from bondage…impart freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon.”

D&C 19 also contains a very unique admonition which seldom receives attention. Verse 25 chastises Martin to “not covet thy neighbor’s wife”; it immediately precedes the demand to part with his land. Lucy Harris provided corroboration for this hinted sin when she later suggested that her husband may have committed adultery with Mrs. Haggart, their neighbor. [5] 

The revelation immediately shook Harris sufficiently to collateralize his farm. Years later, when recounting his history, Smith carefully introduced this revelation as “a commandment of God and not of man, to Martin Harris, given by him who is Eternal.”

Unsuccessful in his efforts to dissuade Harris, Grandin entered into a secured transaction on August 25, 1829 to print 5,000 copies for $3,000. While the agreement stipulated that half the sum was to be paid by Harris, the other half by Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Martin’s farmland provided sole collateral. Full payment was due within 18 months. Lucy Harris also confirmed that the financial obligation was mutually shared. Such a large sum nearly equaled the entire value of Martin’s land, which Grandin was authorized to liquidate in the event of default. 

Smith promptly got about soliciting funding and promoting the sale of the book, unsuccessfully attempting to obtain a loan from George Crain for his portion of the debt. Joseph wrote Oliver Cowdery on Oct 1829 to declare that “Josiah Stowell had a chance to obtain five or six hundred dollars and that he was going to buy copies of the Book of Mormon,” though the money never materialized. Similar themes of financial scheming and an inability to manage funds were displayed through much of Smith’s life.

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SELL THE RIGHTS


Joseph Smith’s attempts to profit from the Book of Mormon continued through its publication. While the LDS Church now maintains a firm hold on the copyright of its unique scripture, Smith himself seemed not to see the need to do so, even claimed that God wanted him to sell it.

Through the winter of 1829, Joseph Smith and his brothers remained unable to raise funds, so God spoke again through Smith, instructing Oliver Cowdrey, Joseph Knight, Hyrum Page and Josiah Stowell to enter into a covenant to sell the Book of Mormon copyright for $8,000 (what would be the equivalent of over $200,000 today, adjusted for inflation). Smith used his seer stone to receive a vision that they were to travel to Toronto, where they would secure a buyer. [6] The original revelation manuscript of this part of the story only recently came to light in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. 

Hiram Page, a direct participant in the event, shared that “Joseph thought this would be a good opportunity to get a hand on a sum of money which was to be (after expenses) for the exclusive benefit of the Smith family and was to be at the disposal of Joseph.” [7] Page is also reported to have said that the group traveled to Canada covertly to prevent Martin Harris from sharing in the dividend. Smith evidently believed that Harris was well enough off, while his own family remained destitute.

David Whitmer recounted, “Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram and Oliver went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copyright, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father’s house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada.” When pressed about the revelation, Smith replied, “Some revelations are of God, some are of man, and some are of the devil.” [8] It seemed this was an admission that he had got it wrong this time, and that he wasn’t to sell the copyright, nor to work around Harris to leave him with the debt for the printing. 

REVELATION TO SELL BOOK OF MORMON COPYRIGHT

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BOOKSELLING


Problems began to simmer between Smith and Harris subsequent to these events. Martin Harris was beginning to recognize that the full $3,000 fee would fall solely upon him if not repaid by early 1831. He was understandably reluctant to forfeit the majority of his land and net worth. Harris learned of Smith’s attempt to sell the copyright without informing him or including him in the expected proceeds. Prodded by his concerned wife, Harris considered breaching his contract to pay for the printing.

In response, Smith promptly traveled from Harmony to Palmyra, placating his patron by entering into a contract on January 16, 1830 affording him equal right to sell books. “I hereby agree that Martin Harris shall have an equal privilege with me and my friends of selling the Book of Mormon of the edition now printing by Egbert B. Grandin until enough of them shall be sold to pay for the printing of the same.” Smith seemed not to see the Book as sacred scripture from God at the time, so much as his own property which he was free to sell or share with anyone he chose to contract with.

Smith’s signed contract granting Harris right to sell Book of Mormon, Jan 16, 1830.

 

Regarding Martin’s role in the publishing of the Book of Mormon, his wife Lucy said, “Whether the Mormon religion be true or false, I leave the world to judge…His whole object was to make money by it. I will have one circumstance in proof of it. One day, while at Peter Harris’ house, I told him he had better leave the company of the Smiths, as their religion was false; to which he replied, if you would let me alone, I could make money by it.” 

Lucy Harris never saw Smith as anything more than a charlatan intent upon extracting money from her husband’s gullibility, certainly not as a prophet of God. Lucy’s attempts to salvage her husband and finances from Smith’s grasp went so far as filing a complaint before a magistrate in May 1829. Despite presenting her own affidavit and the testimony of multiple witnesses that corroborated her grievances, Martin’s personal testimony affirming that he believed in Smith’s special powers and that he had willingly provided him with money because “God made me,” caused the judge to toss them all out and trouble him no more.

“… Mrs. Harris, knowing her husband’s credulity and Smith’s trickery, did all she could to stop the expenditure of money; but Smith not only plied [Martin] Harris with ‘revelations,’ but explained the certainty of making a spec out of the publication of the manuscripts… Joseph had a revelation that the books would sell for $1.25 each, and he went on to assure his victim that there was a chance to clear $3,250. [9] In defense of its traditional faithful narrative, LDS Church sources have inaccurately asserted that Martin Harris was repaid in full, when in fact he paid an extremely high price for his role. [10]

 

THE PRINTING


Turning to the final printing itself, Smith’s financial motivations were again clearly manifest. The family continued to avoid creditors, which would soon land Joseph Sr. in debtor’s prison, while Smith himself reassured those around him with revelations that they need not worry about their future because the church would take care of everything. Smith remained supremely optimistic about the prospects for the Book of Mormon and began to promote the sale of the text far and wide. 

Operating with the full assurance of Martin’s land, Grandin finally undertook the editing and printing preparations. Not a single punctuation mark existed in the entire original manuscript, which supports the recently emerging acknowledgement from the LDS Church that the work stemmed from an oral dictation. The typesetter recounted, “The sentences were all run in without capitals or other marks to designate where one left off and another began…I have frequently to stop and read half a page to find how to punctuate it.” The original manuscript required thousands of edits and corrections and read nothing like the contemporary version of the Book of Mormon, with Biblically styled chapters, verses, and punctuation.

On March 26, 1830, a notice appeared in the Wayne Sentinel indicating that the Book of Mormon was published and available for sale at $1.75 per volume at the Palmyra Bookstore. Later, a resolution to boycott the Book of Mormon was suggested in Palmyra, so angry were many of its citizens about the Smith family and the debts left behind when they departed. Martin Harris was said to have “given up his entire time to advertising the book”, thus the price was soon reduced to $1.25 in a failed effort to boost sales and save his farm.

Joseph Smith himself was more focused on his own financial prospects and began to encourage family members to promote the book. The timing of book sales was particularly critical for the Smith family, as Joseph Sr. was the subject of a collection order for $37.50 on May 7, one of many unpaid debts that would soon lead to his imprisonment. With the family in dire financial straits, facing little hope of resurrecting faltering book sales, Joseph Smith Jr. turned his attention to the members of the budding church (then called “Church of Christ”), he had founded just a few months prior. Smith brought forth revelation (D&C 24) in July which enhanced his position during this critical time of need, repeatedly chastising members to support him under threat of God’s curse, while offering temporal blessings to those who complied. The revelation bears a striking resemblance to the aggressive tactics used against Martin Harris the prior fall, and clarifies that “temporal labor” was not Smith’s calling.

Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, remained understandably troubled by her young family’s tenuous circumstances and constant relocation. Smith’s renewed focus on the church enabled him to deliver D&C 25, instructing her not to “fear for livelihood,” as her husband would support her “from the church.” The revelation was later altered to read “in the church,” softening the original economic meaning that challenged members to support the prophet financially, a paid clergy practice that the LDS Church would one day pride itself on avoiding.

Difficult times extended into winter as the family’s freemasonry associates pursued Joseph Sr. for his unpaid debts and obtained a warrant for his arrest and imprisonment, prompting Joseph Jr. to write a letter of warning to his brother Hyrum, ”beware of the freemasons…who care more for his body than the debt…heard were in Manchester, got a warrant.” [11] Fortunately, his other brother, Samuel, returned home having sold sufficient books to free Smith Sr. from debtor’s prison before moving their poverty-stricken parents to New York.

Opportunity presented itself as Sidney Rigdon persuaded Smith to relocate to Ohio, where Rigdon led a communitarian society of shared common possessions. Whether divine intervention or simple convenience, Smith revealed D&C 37 in January 1831, within mere weeks of meeting Rigdon, commanding his own followers to relocate to Ohio. Smith’s ensuing speech included additional assurances of “greater riches…land of promise…shall be endowed with power from on high.” Smith’s prompt affiliation with influential figures and westward movement into frontier territories, and away from unpaid financial obligations, established a pattern that would be replicated throughout his life.

 

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HARRIS LOSES THE FARM


Smith and his family left New York state because few prospects remained for them. But Martin Harris had counted on Smith’s assurances of book sales to redeem his mortgage, and buyers remained elusive. Joseph encountered a distraught Harris in late March 1830 near Palmyra. Carrying several copies, he protested, “The books will not sell for nobody wants them,” before requesting another revelation. Though the Book of Mormon is today widely known in various parts of the world, it was at this time so far from a wise investment that Harris was distraught. And although he was encouraged to persevere, the eventual losses to him financially and personally were great.

Lucy Harris could not rely upon a church for financial support, as Smith did, nor did she have any offers to flee westward; she remained committed to the land in New York. Witnessing the nature of the relationship between Smith and her husband, she wisely demanded that Martin deed her the dower portion of his land, which prevented those 80 acres from being lost to Smith without her consent. She clearly believed Smith to be a con man who exerted charismatic influence to cheat her husband out of the bulk of his net worth, and as a result, his farm. The fact that Harris continued to follow Smith for a time only confirmed to her that he had become irrational beyond the reach of her pleas.

The repayment deadline came and went with Smith still unable to pay any portion of the printing costs, so Martin’s mortgage was foreclosed upon. Martin’s land was ultimately sold to Thomas Lakey on April 1, 1831, a year after the publication of the Book of Mormon, never to return to his possession.

Martin’s wife left him soon after this episode and he became estranged from his family. In 1882, Stephen Harding, former governor of the Utah territory and not a member of the Mormon church wrote critically, “… The fact that such a man as Martin Harris should mortgage his farm for a large sum, to secure the publisher for printing the book, should abandon the cultivation of one of the best farms in the neighborhood, and change all his habits of life from industry to indolence and general shiftlessness, was truly phenomenal. He, at the same time was the only man among the primitive Mormons who was responsible in a pecuniary sense for a single dollar. Nevertheless, he had become absolutely infatuated, and believed that an immense fortune could be made out of the enterprise. The misfortune that attended Harris from that day did not consist in the loss of money merely, and the general breaking up of his business as a farmer; but the blight and ruin fell upon all his domestic relations–causing his separation from his wife and family forever. …His eccentricities and idiosyncrasies had been charitably passed over by all who knew him, until his separation from his wife and family, when he was looked upon as utterly infatuated and crazy.” [12] Some might argue that Harding is biased and anti-Mormon, but he was a credible man with no interest in bolstering religious claims and might therefore be seen as more objective than most.

It is a sad ending to the story for Martin Harris. By the time he was relieved of his farm, Smith had already relocated westward to Ohio and affiliated with Sidney Rigdon’s community. He did not incur the cost of the failure of the original printing of his new scripture; Harris bore that burden exclusively. Almost immediately upon his arrival in Ohio, Smith revealed from Kirtland in Feb 1831, that his followers should consecrate “all thy properties” to the church. [13] Clearly, the financial and personal wreckage was left far behind for Harris to deal with, while Smith moved on to better things.

The Books of Mormon from the first printing remained behind, stored in a warehouse and largely ignored. Despite the extraordinary sacrifice required to bring the work to light, it remained almost unmentioned within the early Church, seldom spoken of in any of Smith’s numerous sermons. Only decades later, as the official LDS narrative evolved, did it receive renewed focus within the Church.

When he fell out with Joseph Smith, Martin Harris was excommunicated in 1837 and proceeded to wander in and out of several other religions, as he had done prior to joining Mormonism. Throughout the remainder of his life, he was known to passionately testify of his shifting beliefs and visions. Historian Michael Marquardt aptly described Harris as a spiritual gypsy. There is no evidence that Martin ever denied his testimonies of any of the numerous religions he embraced. Contrary to Martin’s statements late in life, he was never repaid any portion of the obligation owed by the Smiths, though at age 85, he was given $200 and logistic support by Brigham Young to move to Utah where he reunited with his family. He remained dependent upon the LDS Church for support until his death in 1875.

It seems clear that his support of the first printing of the Book of Mormon ruined Martin Harris. He lost his wife, his farm and any semblance of financial security as a result. Smith himself, having failed to sell the copyright of his book to others, escaped the consequences of this disaster by getting his father out of debtor’s prison and moving to Ohio where a new batch of supporters welcomed him into their established congregation. This fascinating episode foreshadows many questions about Smith’s motivations, character, and evolving role as a prophet in modern times.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS


1822 – Peter Ingersoll, Smith family neighbor at the time, later stated “general employment of the family was digging for money.”  72 others made corroborating affidavits. [14]

May 1824 – John Greenwood, NY lawyer, receives power of attorney over Smith’s farm, 18 months overdue mortgage payment. Note deferred until Dec 25, 1825. 

Feb 18, 1825 – Russell Stoddard, carpenter on Smith home, sues Joseph Sr. for $66.

Oct 1825 – Both Joseph Sr. and Jr. accompany Josiah Stowell to South Bainbridge to search for buried treasure.

Nov 1, 1825 – Joseph Smith, Isaac Hale, Josiah Stowell and others sign agreement for dividing anticipated proceeds from renewed treasure quest. [15]

Nov 1825 – Isaac Hale’s (whose daughter Emma later married Joseph Smith) affidavit identifies this as the month he met Joseph in the money digging business.

Dec 20, 1825 – Smith family fails to pay mortgage, lose land and house, while both Joseph Sr. and Jr. dig for money instead of doing the actual work of farming their land.

Nov 1825 – Mar 1826 – Smith lives at Josiah Stowell’s in Bainbridge, NY, while employed as a treasure seer.

March 20, 1826 – Josiah Stowell’s relative files complaint against Smith, who is arrested for money digging fraud. Justice Albert Neely conducts “The Glass Looker” trial.

Fall 1827 – Joseph and father work on yet another money digging project. [16]

Sept 22, 1827 – Smith claimed to receive gold plates at the Hill Cumorah.

Dec 1827 – Joseph and Emma move to Harmony to live with her parents. Penniless, earning little money, he borrows $50 from Martin Harris.

Spring 1828 – Isaac Hale wants son-in-law Joseph out of money digging business, extends him credit for farmland on his property.

July 1828 – Martin Harris loses 116 pages of manuscript of the first part of the Book of Mormon translation, often referred to as “the Book of Lehi.”

May 1829  – Smith and Cowdery relocate to Whitmer farm in N.Y., at Whitmer’s expense.

May 1829 – Lucy Harris gathers affidavits from neighbors, files complaint against Smith before magistrate. Martin testifies he believes Smith has powers, judges tosses them all out.

June 11, 1829 – Smith applies for Book of Mormon copyright.

June 16, 1829  – E.B. Grandin’s Wayne Sentinel newspaper publishes Book of Mormon title page, a requirement for copyright, along with derisive commentary about the project.

June 1829 – As the work nears completion, Smith family writes many letters to family members promoting the book.

June 1829 – Book of Mormon finished.

July-Aug 1829 – Negotiations with printer continue. Grandin does not trust the Smiths to pay him, will not extend credit or begin work without securing collateral.

Aug 11-25, 1829 – Unable to pay any portion of the printing costs or secure credit, Smith delivers chastising D&C 19 revelation to Martin Harris – “eternal, endless God’s punishment, repent, smite, wrath, anger, suffering, not covet thine own property, impart freely…and not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”

Aug 25, 1829 – Despite warnings from Grandin not to do so, Martin Harris mortgages 151 acres of his land to E. B. Grandin to pay for printing, repayment due within 18 months.

Oct 1829 – Joseph writes Oliver Cowdery, declaring that “Josiah Stowell had a chance to obtain five or six hundred dollars and that he was going to buy copies of the Book of Mormon.” Stowell ultimately did not purchase the books. 

Winter 1829 – Smith received revelation via his seer stone to sell Book of Mormon copyright. When the effort fails, Smith declares revelation not of God.

Jan 1830 – Palmyra citizens pass resolution to boycott the Book of Mormon.

Jan 16, 1830 – Troubled by Smith’s secretive attempt to sell the copyright, and mounting public opposition to the book, Martin Harris obtains agreement affording him and friends equal right to sell books.

March 26, 1830 – Book of Mormon published, advertised for sale in Grandin’s bookstore.

Late March, 1830 – Smith arrives in Palmyra, encounters Harris in the street soliciting books. “The books will not sell for no body wants them.” Harris requests a commandment.

April 6, 1830 – Joseph Smith establishes Church of Christ.

May 7, 1830 – Collection order issued against Joseph Smith Sr. for $37.50, Constable Sylvester Southworth.

July 1830 – Smith reveals D&C 24 enhancing his position as called and chosen, chastises members to “support him under threat of God’s curse” in exchange for spiritual and temporal blessings, labor not his calling.

July 1830 – Smith reveals D&C 25 instructing Emma not to “fear for livelihood” as Joseph will support her “from the church.”

Oct 26, 1830 – Constable Nathan Harrington attempts to serve warrant on Hyrum Smith, horse farrier still unpaid from April, Hyrum flees the county to avoid creditors. Joseph Sr. sentenced to 30 days in debtors’ prison.

Oct 1830 – Four months before payment from Harris was due, disbelieving he would be paid, Grandin assigns the mortgage to Thomas Rogers for $2,000.

Nov 1830 – Samuel Smith returns home from selling books, frees Smith Sr. from prison, moves poverty stricken parents to New York.

Dec 2, 1830 – Joseph writes his brother, Hyrum, warning to “beware of the freemasons…who care more for his body than the debt…heard were in Manchester, got a warrant.” [17] 

Dec 24, 1830 – Sidney Rigdon persuades Smith to relocate to Ohio where he maintains a communitarian, sharing all things in common, many wealthy members.

Jan 2, 1831 – Smith reveals D&C 37, commands followers to relocate to Ohio. Original speech includes assurances of “greater riches…land of promise…shall be endowed with power from on high.” Followers begin selling property.

Feb 1831 – Smith reveals Book of Commandments (Chapter 44:26) from Kirtland, Ohio, commands followers to consecrate “all thy properties” to the church.

Feb 25, 1831 – Martin Harris’s mortgage is due in full.

March 3, 1831 – Smith again writes Hyrum, warning him that creditors were again pursuing Smith Sr. for unpaid debts. “Come to Fayette, bring father, do not go through Buffalo for they lie in wait for you.” [18]

April 1, 1831 – With Martin’s mortgage two months overdue and foreclosed, Tomas Rogers sells Harris’s farm (minus the dower portion saved by Lucy Harris) to Thomas Lakey for $3,000. 

March 1, 1832 – Smith delivers D&C 78 from Kirtland to establish United Order, aggressively solicits communal property donations.

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[1] History of Joseph Smith, 104.
[2] The Glass Looker Trial, March 20, 1826.
[3] History of the Church 2: 343.
[4] Joseph Smith’s Negotiations to Publish the Book of Mormon, BYU Religious Studies Center.
[5] Lucy Harris affidavit, Mormonism Unvailed, Nov. 29, 1833.
[6] Book of Commandments and Revelations p. 30-31.
[7] Hiram Page to William McLellin, Feb 2, 1848.
[8] An Address to All Believers in Christ, Whitmer, 1887, 30-31.
[9]
lds.org, Church History Topics, Printing and Publishing the Book of Mormon.
[10] A Mormon Saint, Death of Martin Harris, The Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept 12, 1875.
[11] Smith to Colesville Saints, Dec 2, 1830.
[12] The Prophet of Palmyra, New York: John B. Alden, 1890 — letter from Stephen S. Harding: former governor of Utah territory Feb, 1882, to Thomas Greg.
[13] Book of Commandments 44:26.
[14] Peter Ingersoll, Affidavit, Dec 2, 1833.
[15] Articles of Agreement, reprinted in Kirkham, New Witness for Christ in America.
[16] Martin Harris, Lorenzo Saunders Interview.
[17] Smith to Colesville Saints, Dec 2, 1830.
[18] Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.