SALT LAKE CITY — The printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon was on display in Utah for the first time in history Thursday, and people lined up at the LDS Church History Library to see it.
Meanwhile, historians hailed the role of what is the earliest complete manuscript of the Book of Mormon in both American history and the Mormon faith after the Community of Christ sold it this week to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Anonymous donors provided the funds for the $35 million acquisition.
"This is truly one of the extraordinary documents in American history because of its role in Western Americana," said John Hajicek, an expert on American religious artifacts. "I think of it similarly as if the United States had an opportunity to buy its Constitution back from another country."
It's also critical to believing Mormons.
"It's one of our treasures, of course," said Royal Skousen, a BYU linguistics professor whose study of the printer's manuscript and the remaining portion of the original manuscript enabled him to publish "The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text" with Yale University Press in 2009.
"Some people look at it just as a historic relic," Skousen said, "but no, this is the text of the Book of Mormon, this is the word of God, and it's one of our main sources for studying the word of God."
The original manuscript, dictated by Joseph Smith to scribes such as Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith, and the printer's manuscript, copied by hand with a quill pen by Cowdery over six months in 1829, have been apart since the 1830s.
Joseph Smith kept the original manuscript, but only 28 percent of it survives. About 26 percent is owned by the LDS Church. The other 2 percent is in the hands of private collectors and the University of Utah. Cowdery kept the printer's manuscript, but he gave it to David Whitmer in 1850. Whitmer's family sold it to the Community of Christ in 1903.
"Historians view it as the principal founding document of both churches," Hajicek said.
"This is a landmark acquisition for the LDS Church," added Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church History Department, in an interview with KSL-TV. "The opportunity to bring the two manuscripts together truly is a historic day."
Skousen said the printer's manuscript is crucial to identifying Joseph Smith's original intent when he dictated his translation to his scribes.
"The printer's manuscript is the earliest source we have for over half the text of how the Book of Mormon initially read," he said.
That makes it essential for reconstructing the original intent of Joseph Smith's dictation of his translation, said Richard Holzapfel, a BYU historian. The LDS Church used the printer's manuscript to make corrections in its 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon.
Several of the experts noted the long, cooperative relationship between the LDS Church and the Community of Christ, previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
On Monday, Neilson and a colleague traveled to Independence, Missouri, to make the acquisition. They examined every page to ensure that it was intact.
"The printer's manuscript is in wonderful condition," Neilson said.
He invited the public to the Church History Library to see the display and promised a more expansive exhibit in the future.
"It's fabulous," said John Welch, editor of BYU Studies and a co-founder of Book of Mormon Central. "Imagine what it would be like if we had a copy of Paul's letter to the Corinthians in the hand of his scribe."
Early Mormon books and documents are important pieces of Western Americana, Hajicek said.
For example, most major libraries have copies of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, from Yale, Harvard and Princeton to Cal-Berkeley, UCLA and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. So does Bill Gates.
"I can imagine a number of collectors and institutions that would have wanted this," said Hajicek, who estimated the document's value at $50 million to $100 million. "For a document after 1800, it's extraordinarily important and substantially consequential to the settlement of the American West."13 comments on this story
Hajicek said the manuscript will be seen by more people now that it is in Salt Lake City.
The LDS Church and the Community of Christ had worked together in the past to preserve the document. In 1997, after the Community of Christ gave Skousen access for his project, the LDS Church brought the manuscript to Salt Lake City to clean it.
"Bits were flaking off," Skousen said. "It was in quite a fragile condition in some of the leaves."
The church bathed it in warm water, cleaned and dried it. Then it put the pages under mylar to protect it.