Descendants of a man who provided funding for the first printing of the Book of Mormon presented his wallet to the LDS Church on Friday, noting the $3,000 he donated in 1830 would be the equivalent of a $1.6 million gift in 2007.
Martin Harris is known to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the man who mortgaged his farm to pay for the first 5,000 copies of what has become the keystone of their faith.
Russell Martin Harris, 86, and two family members presented the wallet on Friday to Elder Dallin Harris Oaks, a member of the church's Council of the Twelve and also a member of the extended Harris family. Harris said he determined to donate the wallet to the church last summer so it wouldn't end up "in some child's play box."
The wallet has been owned by Martin Harris' descendants since he died in 1875, and they believe it once contained the $3,000 Harris paid E.B. Grandin to publish the first edition of the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1830.
Richard Oman, curator of acquisitions for the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, told reporters and family members gathered for a press conference at the museum Friday morning that $3,000 in Harris' time would be the equivalent of $67,000 today.
But the economy of the time, and the wages Harris would have made compared to current living standards put the value of the gift at $1.6 million in 2007, he said.
Elder Oaks said Harris was the church's "most significant financial benefactor" in the first century of its history. He said most Latter-day Saints remember Harris as the man who borrowed and then lost the first 116 pages of translation work that church founder Joseph Smith had completed on the Book of Mormon.
Yet members often fail to recognize that "he made the Book of Mormon possible at enormous financial sacrifice," along with financially supporting Smith and serving as one of the witnesses to the book. "And that is what he deserves to be remembered for," Elder Oaks said.
Martin and Emer Harris were brothers, the latter man being Elder Oaks' great-great-grandfather. Russell Martin Harris told the crowd that, as a boy, he often heard stories from people who knew his great-great-grandfather personally, including a barber who had once cut Martin Harris' hair.
The same barber would cut young Russell's hair and tell him about the testimony of faith his great-great-grandfather had shared.
The wallet was on display during the ceremony, along with a rock from the Martin Harris home near Palmyra, N.Y., an old Bible he had owned and a first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon.
Oman said the wallet will join other artifacts at the museum connected with Harris, including the E.B. Grandin printing press on which the first copies of the Book of Mormon were printed using his funds.
Oman said Harris' gift, and his support for Smith and the early LDS Church, "cost him his political office, his social position and ultimately helped lead to the dissolution of his marriage."
The wallet rests in "an acid-free box. We treat it like the crown jewels," Oman said, adding the wallet has never been formally appraised and likely never will be.
E-mail: [email protected]