'A chain of testimony': 1841 copy of Book of Mormon stays preserved

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2009 12:32 a.m. MDT

LDS apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland holds an 1841 Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith owned.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The book normally sits in a box, in a dark room with a controlled temperature and humidity level.

It is seen as a "treasured artifact," almost two centuries old.

But on Sunday, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke about the power of the Book of Mormon during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 179th Semiannual General Conference with that very book in hand.

His voice impassioned, Holland explained it was the book used by LDS Church founder Joseph Smith's brother Hyrum as a source of comfort as the brothers faced "imminent martyrdom" in 1844.

To ensure the book's preservation, it is stored in prescribed conditions and removed very rarely. Those who handle it usually wear gloves.

When Elder Holland wanted to use the book in his General Conference address, he asked church historians how he should handle the aging text. Because gloves can make hands less nimble, sometimes leading to accidental tears, Elder Holland was simply told to make sure his hands were clean, said Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder.

The book is exquisite — leather-bound with gold filigree on its edges and stamped into its cover and sides. But it's the inside that is truly incredible, said Turley, who is considered an expert on the book.

In the front cover are the names of those who have owned the book since it was printed in Liverpool, England, in 1841. On one side of the back cover, there are signatures of LDS Church leaders, including Heber J. Grant, James E. Talmage and Orson F. Whitney. On the other is an account written by Hyrum's son, Joseph F. Smith, of his father's last days.

Inside the book, page 610 remains as marked by Hyrum Smith the day he and Joseph Smith left for Carthage Jail, where they would later be shot and killed by a mob. In his note on the back cover, Joseph F. Smith, Hyrum's son who would later become president of the church, said his father took the book from a shelf two or three days before going to Carthage and read the marked passages on the day of his departure.

The book traveled quite a bit before landing in Hyrum Smith's home in Nauvoo, Ill. It is a first edition from the European printing in 1841, planned by members of the Quorum of the Twelve who were serving missions in England. The printing was designed to make the book more accessible to members of the church in England, Turley said.

Those missionaries went overseas in 1839 and under the direction of Joseph Smith were able to print copies of the Book of Mormon in Liverpool, he said.

"It just so happened that Liverpool was a wonderful place to publish books," Turley said. "Even the more ordinary volumes were done with very high standards. This is a remarkable volume."

Church historians assume the book was brought back by one of the apostles and given to Hyrum Smith. It eventually ended up in the possession of Mercy Thompson, the sister of Hyrum Smith's wife, Mary Fielding Smith. Members of Thompson's family kept the book until 1944, adding to its value by making it an "autograph volume of church dignitaries," Turley said.

"Unless these volumes are placed in institutions, they start deteriorating and can be lost," he said. "The family decided this artifact was too important to keep in their personal collection."

While its historical significance adds to its value, Turley said there is a second volume the church owns that is "almost identical." The book's original owners even bent the same page after hearing the Hyrum Smith story.

But Turley said the significance of the actual book and the testimony it bears cannot be overstated.

"It's a book that testifies to us in many ways," he said. "From the historical prophets who wrote the book, to the testimony of Joseph and Hyrum who were martyred, to the testimony of those who signed it over the years, to the most recent testimony of a living apostle, it's a chain of testimony."

Turley said that dealing with valued books has given him an appreciation for scripture that he hopes will extend to others.

"I worry that with scriptures being so readily accessible today, we sometimes take them for granted," he said. "Every time I pick up this book, I am reminded of the sacrifice that brought it to us. And I hope, in our own lives, we value our scriptures the way these testators did."

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

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