As the translation of the Book of Mormon neared completion in June 1829, Joseph Smith’s family and friends were eager to share its message with the world. Yet none of those early supporters had experience printing and distributing books. How would they meet the challenges ahead?
An important early step toward sharing the message of the Book of Mormon was to secure the U.S. copyright. Joseph traveled nearly 100 miles to Utica, New York, to do so. His next tasks were to find a printer for the book and a way to fund the printing.
Joseph first asked Palmyra publisher Egbert B. Grandin if he would print the Book of Mormon. Grandin refused on religious grounds.
Martin Harris and Joseph Smith next went to printers in Rochester, New York. Once E. F. Marshall offered to publish the book in Rochester, they asked Grandin again.
Following the advice of his business associates, who assured him that he would not be held responsible for the book’s contents, Grandin accepted the contract.
After signing the printer’s contract, Joseph Smith had to return home to Harmony, Pennsylvania. He trusted his brother Hyrum, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris to supervise the printing and to protect the translation from loss or theft. All of them knew that the Book of Mormon was no ordinary book and that publishing it would require their full commitment.
E. B. Grandin hired experienced printer John H. Gilbert to typeset the Book of Mormon. When Gilbert saw the manuscript, he said it was not ready for press and asked to take it home to add punctuation. Hyrum hesitated. What would happen if Gilbert was careless? Only after receiving Gilbert’s word of honor to protect the pages did Hyrum consent.
John H. Gilbert proved true to his word. In time, he was trusted with pages of the original manuscript when copying fell behind typesetting.
Just months before Joseph Smith approached him, E. B. Grandin had purchased a new, more efficient press. Even so, printing 5,000 books would take more equipment and months of hard work. Grandin hired more hands and bought paper, ink, and lead type. All of this cost money, which Grandin was willing to advance only because Martin Harris had pledged his half of the family farm.
Martin Harris hoped that book sales would offset much of the cost. He grew anxious over the town’s growing disapproval of the project as the printing progressed. He would still have to pay for the printing. If no one bought the book, he could lose his mortgaged farm. In a real sense, Martin Harris was risking his livelihood for his faith in the Book of Mormon.
Martin Harris visited the pressroom often and read some of the proofs. He saw the first page to come off the press. One man present recalled: “The work was pronounced excellent.”
Martin Harris also had one of the first opportunities to share the testimony of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon. In November 1829, Thomas B. Marsh felt prompted to visit Palmyra from his home in Boston. Seeing Marsh’s earnest desire to learn, Harris gave him a printer’s proof of the first 16 pages of the Book of Mormon. Marsh was converted and later served as an Apostle in the Church.
Soon afterward, in January 1830, Grandin stopped work when citizens in Palmyra threatened a boycott. Grandin worried that without sales, the project would ruin his business. Perhaps Martin Harris still wondered how he might pay the printer and keep his farm, but he and Joseph Smith convinced Grandin to resume printing. One way or another, Harris felt, the word had to go forth.
Once the printed pages were dry, binding could begin. Grandin’s business partner, Luther Howard, and his assistants worked on the floor below the pressroom. They would take over a year to finish all 5,000 books. During that time, pages of the Book of Mormon found their way into the hands of curious citizens and earnest seekers alike.
Abner Cole rented Grandin’s press on Sundays to print a news column. Knowing how curious people were about Joseph Smith’s “gold Bible,” Cole published pages of the Book of Mormon illegally next to his own derisive comments. When Hyrum and Joseph confronted him with copyright infringement, Cole finally backed down.
Curiosity in the area opened opportunities to teach people even before the book was finished and the Church was officially organized. Joseph showed pages to his wife’s family in Harmony. Oliver Cowdery shared pages with his brother Warren. Hyrum Smith gave 64 pages to Solomon Chamberlin of Lyons, New York, who took the Book of Mormon’s message across Lake Erie to Canada.
In the spring of 1830, Joseph Smith and others formally organized the restored Church of Christ. At the same time, citizens of Palmyra made good their threat not to buy the Book of Mormon. As a result, missionaries from the new church took the book farther from Palmyra than they might have otherwise, spreading the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although it is difficult to estimate, one expert believes that there are about 150 copies of the first edition in public and private institutions. Several hundred more are in the hands of private collectors. Owners treasure these copies of the first edition for their historical value.
Many more people around the world treasure the Book of Mormon for its message as another testament of Jesus Christ.