For the first time ever, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has assembled some of its most treasured historical documents into a single exhibit and is inviting the public to view them.
More than two dozen books, manuscripts and other papers that date from before the faith’s founding in 1830 — including a manuscript page from the original Book of Mormon — are now on display at the LDS Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.
Also on view is a handwritten letter dictated by founder Joseph Smith to church members from the Liberty, Mo., jail, where he and others were imprisoned. Portions of the letter became part of the Mormon canon’s Doctrine and Covenants.
These artifacts go “to the roots of our foundational faith,” LDS Church Historian and Recorder Steven E. Snow said. “These four cases hold our most precious documents.”
It comes at a time when LDS officials have worked for more transparency about their faith’s past, making more documents available online, publishing scholarly essays about controversial episodes and opening archives to outside researchers.
“This exhibit is not intended to silence critics” of Mormon history, Snow said. “But members will find it faith-promoting.”
A page from the original Book of Mormon — which Latter-day Saints believe Smith translated from an ancient record — is “the single most valuable manuscript because of its importance to the church,” said Richard E. Turley, assistant church historian and recorder.
It is written with “one endless flow,” as Smith dictated it to scribes, the historian said, without breaks for paragraphs, or, as in the modern version, verses.
Compare that with Smith’s first personal journal entry Nov. 27, 1832, also in the collection. Smith clearly wrote a sentence, scratched it out, started again and, not liking anything he penned, concluded the entry by jotting down “praying to God for help,” Turley said.
Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon manuscript in a single draft, which he completed in 60 to 90 days, “was nothing short of marvelous,” Turley said.
“To Latter-day Saints,” he said, “it means the first manuscript, the Book of Mormon, is something created by the gift and power of God.”
Other items in the exhibit include:
A Book of Commandments, an early collection of Smith’s “revelations” that belonged to early convert and eventual church President Wilford Woodruff — who, by the way, used to spell his first name with two “l’s” — and it carries his signature. Only 29 copies exist.
A copy of early LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt’s “Voice of Warning” pamphlet, described by Turley as the “most important of all Mormon missionary tracts of the 19th century.”
A tiny hymnal compiled by Smith’s wife, Emma. It includes only lyrics, no melodies.
Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.