SALT LAKE CITY —
The Church History Museum is packing them in, as usual. It's general conference time for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and people from around the world are checking out the tens of thousands of artifacts that spell out the church's history.
That includes one of the earliest such artifacts: pages from the manuscript from which the first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed in 1830.
The manuscript was handwritten by Oliver Cowdery as Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith dictated his translation of the ancient golden plates that had been given to him by an angel.
After the translation, the angel took back the plates. The manuscript is the only tangible evidence remaining of what might be called the original Mormon moment.
And yet, it is hardly the biggest draw, this Holy Grail of Mormonism. There are no ropes set up to handle the throngs waiting to catch a glimpse. No sentries standing guard. The martyrdom exhibit around the corner gets a lot more traffic. So does the early pioneer artwork on the walls.
"They're not standing in line like they do for the Gutenberg Bible," says Joan Crowther, a volunteer museum docent, as she shows off the manuscript. "But it really couldn't be more important, could it?"
Kurt Graham, the museum's director, agrees.
"The coolest thing we have here is the handwritten manuscript of Oliver Cowdery; what could be more of a link to who we are than that?" he observes.
Still, it's no match for the death masks.
"We don't keep exact numbers, but anecdotally I would say the death masks is our top draw," Graham says, referring to the masks that were formed after Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by an anti-Mormon mob at the jail in Carthage, Ill., in 1847.
The death masks are the focal point of an exhibit that also displays pistols, a cane and the famous watch that reputedly saved future Mormon prophet John Taylor's life on that fateful day.
Graham theorizes why the martyrdom display is more popular.
"It's more of a human story, a dramatic story, than the publication of a book, even though the publication of the book is the foundation of everything we are," he muses. "Who wouldn't have wanted to be a fly on the wall in the Carthage jail … then again, who wouldn't have wanted to be a fly on the wall when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon?"
As is so often the case with valuable relics, the path to the museum wasn't an easy one for the manuscript.
It remained in Joseph Smith's personal possession until October 1841, when he was building his home, known as the Nauvoo House, in Nauvoo, Ill. For safekeeping he placed the pages of the manuscript, along with other mementos, in the cornerstone of the foundation.
There the pages stayed for 41 years until 1882 when additional construction of the Nauvoo House unearthed the capsule.
By this time, the church had long since relocated its headquarters to Salt Lake City and Joseph Smith's widow, Emma, had remarried a man named Lewis Bidamon.
It was Bidamon who discovered the manuscript in the cornerstone. Much of it was water soaked and hard to read, but he dried it out and for the next several years handed out bits and fragments to family and friends on their visits to his home.
Over the next half-century, many of those bits and fragments, representing about 28 percent of the manuscript, found their way back to the church through donations.
The rest is either destroyed or sitting in someone's attic.
As you might suspect, the existing manuscript is treated with extreme care.
The pages have been separated and laminated with cellulose acetate film and tissue and to protect them from light damage, the pages in the museum exhibit rotate on a regular basis.
At that, the handwriting is barely visible.
But it is visible, and open daily to public view. You'll find it just around the corner from John Taylor's watch.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.