For the first time ever, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has assembled some of its most treasured historical documents into a single exhibit and is inviting the public to view them.
Starting on Sept. 4, 26 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, a first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and the handwritten minutes from the 1842 founding of the women’s Relief Society — will be on display at the LDS Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.
These artifacts go “to the roots of our foundational faith,” LDS Church Historian and Recorder Steven E. Snow said at a news conference Wednesday. “These four cases hold our most precious documents.”
Taken together, the documents are worth several million dollars, Snow said, so church officials waited to showcase them until their safety could be secured.
“This exhibit is not intended to silence critics” of Mormon history, Snow said. “But members will find it faith-promoting.”
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.
The items tell individual stories, said Richard E. Turley, assistant church historian and recorder, “but they also collectively tell a story that is greater than the sum of the parts.”
A page from the original Book of Mormon — which Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith translated from an ancient record — is, Turley said, “the single most valuable manuscript because of its importance to the church.”
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, which is another item 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 handwritten letter dictated by Smith to church members from Missouri’s Liberty Jail, where he and others were imprisoned. Portions of the letter became part of the Mormon canon’s Doctrine and Covenants.
* 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.
* Minutes of other LDS organizations launched by Mormon women — the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association (forerunner of today’s Young Women organization for girls ages 12 to 17) and the Primary (for children under 12).
These organizations gave LDS women “an incredible place in the church,” said Jenny Reeder, women’s history specialist for the LDS Church History Department.
Seeing these minutes, Reeder said, “should give modern Mormon women an understanding of their history and the autonomy of women at the time.”
The exhibit will be open during the library’s regular hours and is slated to be up for at least five years.
(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)