Profits of The Book of Mormon

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This is an excerpt from The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Vol. 1: July 1828-June 1831.

On 11 June 1829, JS had applied for a copyright for the Book of Mormon in the United States by submitting the book’s title page to the clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. The copyright protected the text against unauthorized changes and distribution. In January 1830, Abner Cole, who printed the Palmyra Reflector on the same press being used for the Book of Mormon, tested the prepublication copyright by printing a portion of the Book of Mormon in his newspaper without authorization. The problem was quickly resolved, in part because JS asserted his copyright authority. Shortly after that confrontation, this revelation commanded JS to expand copyright protection of the Book of Mormon throughout the world.

The potential profits from the sale of the books had also recently become the subject of an agreement between JS and Martin Harris, the primary financier for the printing, who had mortgaged his property in August 1829 as payment to E. B. Grandin. On 16 January 1830, likely during his visit to Palmyra to confront Cole, JS signed an agreement that granted Harris the right to sell copies of the Book of Mormon until he was compensated for the cost of the printing. Although the agreement permitted Harris to collect $3,000 from the sale of the books, this revelation, possibly dictated about the same time, explicitly excluded Harris from sharing in the temporal blessings associated with the wider sale and distribution of the Book of Mormon. As shown in the text transcribed, the revelation promised blessings to “those who have assisted” JS, “yea even all save M◊◊tin [Martin] only.” Three layers of deletion obscured Harris’s name. Hiram Page later wrote that the necessary preparations for the trip to Upper Canada were made “in a sly manor so as to keep Martin Haris from drawing a share of the money.”

According to a much later recollection by David Whitmer, Hyrum Smith originally suggested to JS that the Book of Mormon copyright could be sold for “considerable money” in Upper Canada. Hiram Page recalled that a small group of church leaders were assembled at the Smith log home in Palmyra Township when this revelation came. It directed Cowdery, Page, Stowell, and Knight to obtain the copyright for the Book of Mormon not only in Canada but “upon all the face of the Earth of which is known by you.” They were to begin their efforts in Kingston and were then authorized, under certain conditions, to sell the Book of Mormon copyright for the four major British provinces in North America.

Cowdery, Page, and likely the other two traveled to Kingston in response to the revelation, but they failed to obtain a copyright. A local resident apparently informed them that they were more likely to secure a copyright if they went to York, the capital of Upper Canada, but rather than travel more than 160 miles farther, they returned home and reported to JS at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. in Fayette. Almost six decades later David Whitmer questioned the legitimacy of the revelation because of the group’s failure to secure a copyright. He claimed that in a council held on 1 November 1831 to consider printing the revelations, JS repudiated the revelation. Whitmer further stated that he and Jacob and John Whitmer were present when Cowdery and Page returned. “We asked Joseph,” he wrote, “how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto [Kingston] and sell the copy-right, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking.” Joseph reportedly enquired of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim and, according to Whitmer, received a revelation that stated, “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.” Page, however, left no indication in his recollection that he was bitter about the revelation or his trip to Canada.

(Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow, The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, vol. 1: July 1828–June 1831 [Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013], 109–110).

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