In 1827, according to Mormon belief, a young man named Joseph Smith discovered golden plates engraved with ancient Egyptian writing on a hill in upstate New York. With God’s help, he translated the inscriptions, producing a sacred text known as the Book of Mormon.
Earlier this week, the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints doled out a hefty sum for an early, hand-written copy of the religion’s foundational text. As Carol Kuruvilla reports for the Huffington Post, the Church purchased a printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon for $35 million.
The Community of Christ has claimed that the document’s $35 million price tag marks the largest sum ever paid for a manuscript, surpassing the $30.8 million paid by Bill Gates for the Codex Leicester, a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific writings, in 1994.
Antiquarian bookseller Mark James confirmed to Alison Flood of the Guardian that the sale was likely record-breaking, but noted it did not take into account inflation. (According to Tad Walch of Deseret News, a publication owned by the LDS Church, the $30.8 million paid by Gates would be worth $49 million today. Still, as Reid Moon, owner of Moon's Rare Books in Provo, Utah, tells him, "for actual dollars paid, this does set a record.")
The church acquired the document from the Community of Christ, a denomination connected to the Latter Day Saints (LDS) movement. Donors provided the funds required to purchase the manuscript.
Walch of Deseret News reports that the manuscript is a copy of the original text dictated by Joseph Smith. It was reportedly hand-written by Oliver Cowdery, one of Mormonism’s early adherents. In 1830, Smith gave the document to the New York-based printer E.B. Grandin, who used it to set the type for the first printed edition of the Book of Mormon. Cowdery later passed the manuscript on to one David Whitmer, and Whitmer’s grandson sold it to the Community of Christ in 1903.
The manuscript is particularly significant because it is largely intact, missing just three lines of text. Joseph Smith is said to have placed the original copy of his dictation in the cornerstone of a house in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841, but that document sustained considerable damage over time.
“The printer’s manuscript is the earliest surviving copy of about 72 percent of the Book of Mormon text, as only about 28 percent of the earlier dictation copy survived decades of storage in a cornerstone in Nauvoo, Illinois,” Steven E. Snow, LDS Church Historian and Recorder, said in a statement.
The decision to part with the manuscript was a difficult one of the Community of Christ. “Church leaders know that letting go of this document will cause some members sadness and grief,” the church said in its statement. “We feel sad, too … When a decision had to be made, we chose the well-being of people and preserving the current and future mission of the church over owning this document.”
Community of Christ members may take some comfort in knowing that the LDS Church intends to make the manuscript accessible to all those who wish to see it. Within the next few months, the document will be displayed at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Plans are also underway to post images of the entire manuscript to josephsmithpapers.org, an online repository of historical papers written by Joseph Smith and his early followers.