The Book of Mormon and the Growth of Printing in America


  • Better understand the expansive growth of printing in early nineteenth-century America and how that affected society.
  • Explore the connections in this period between religion and print culture.
  • Understand the creation and publication of an important American religious text, the Book of Mormon.
  • Examine the Book of Mormon as a historical printed artifact.

Assigned Readings

  • James N. Green, “The Rise of Book Publishing,” in A History of the Book in America, Volume 2: An Extensive Republic; Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790–1840, ed. Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 75–127
  • Joseph Smith’s account of an angelic visitation and the discovery of gold plates in “Church History,” Times and Seasons, 1 Mar. 1842, 3:707–708
  • Title page of the first edition of the Book of Mormon (1830)
  • Excerpt from the original Book of Mormon manuscript, ca. June 1829
  • Copyright for the Book of Mormon, 11 June 1829
  • Excerpts from first edition of Book of Mormon (1830)
    • Title page and other front matter
    • First chapter of the book (1 Nephi 1)
    • Leaf through the rest of the book to be familiar with its content and structure
  • Joseph Smith as Revelator and Translator” (an introduction to the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers)

The Rise of Printing in America

  • Population expanded dramatically in number and geography.
  • Economic growth, free-market economy, increased buying power.
  • Increased emphasis and opportunity for education (improvement).
  • Improved technology: papermaking, stereotyping plates, bookbinding, steam-powered printing.
  • Spread of newspaper presses tied to the rise of political parties.
  • Low postage rates for periodicals and building of postal roads.

One scholar summarized the growth of rural printing this way:

Between 1790 and 1840, the area of the United States doubled, its population quadrupled, cities multiplied, and the output of American presses expanded even more dramatically. But the book trades, rural and urban alike, kept ahead of the demographic trends. Decade by decade, the number of recorded imprints outpaced the increase of population, while the size of editions and print runs grew. The census of 1840 counted 1,573 printing offices employing 11,622 workers and issuing 1,303 newspapers. Two-thirds of all those printing offices, three-fourths of all weekly newspapers, and half of all printers were located in places smaller than America’s fifty most populous counties—that is, in rural villages. City-dwelling Americans surely had easier access to print and on average probably read more. But most book purchasers and readers, and most newspaper subscribers lived in villages and on farms. (Larkin, “Rural Printing and Publishing,” 146.)

Discussion Questions
  • Discuss how various factors (technological, educational, demographic) contributed to the growth of printing in the United States.
  • What political, economic, and cultural effects would a more literate public have had on rural societies in this period?

Religion and Print Culture in the Early Republic

  • Size, resources of religious institutions enabled them to harness power of print.
  • Coincided with awakening of faith in 1790s–1840s.
  • Reaction to commercialism, “evils” of secular literature.
  • Focused on free or at-cost distribution of tracts and Bibles.
  • Published sermons were common because a congregation would frequently pay to publish the sermons of its clergyman, thereby providing him a ready source of patronage.
  • Aided by technological improvements, such as stereotyping.
  • Examples of print-centric religious societies:
    • Society for Propagating the Gospel among Indians and Others in North America (nearly 10,000 books in 1790s)
    • Massachusetts Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (30,000 tracts and 8,200 books by 1815)
    • New England Tract Society (over 400,000 tracts in 1810s)
    • American Bible Society (hundreds of thousands of Bibles in 1810s–1820s)
    • American Tract Society
    • American Sunday School Union
Discussion Questions
  • What role did religion play in the rise of print culture in the United States in the early nineteenth century?
  • Why do you think religious societies were among the first and most important contributors to the growing print movement?
  • As a new technology, how did the rapid expansion of inexpensive printing affect religious leaders’ ability to proselytize or publicize their message? What might be some equivalents of such technology today?

Translation of the Book of Mormon

According to his own account, Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in a “pillar of light” in spring 1820, at the age of fourteen, and they called him to a divine work. He reported that he was visited three years later by an angel who revealed to him the location of gold plates buried in a nearby hill. Smith was told the gold plates contained the account of ancient inhabitants of the American continent, including an account of Jesus Christ’s post-resurrection visit. The angel himself had been the last of the authors of the Book of Mormon and had buried the plates. After receiving four years of annual instruction by the angel, Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates and from them translated the Book of Mormon. The bulk of what would become a 600-page book was produced in about two months.

Regarding the mode of translation, Joseph Smith himself stated only that it was done “by the gift and power of God.” Close associates at the time described Smith using both a set of ancient “spectacles” or “interpreters” found buried with the plates and a single “seer stone” he had found previously. Early Latter-day Saints referred to both the ancient interpreters and seer stone using the biblical term “Urim and Thummim.” One of his scribes testified in court concerning the translation process:

[Joseph Smith] found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraven on the plates. (Oliver Cowdery, qtd. in A. W. B., “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 [19 Apr. 1831]: 120)

Another of Joseph Smith’s associates at the time described the process this way:

Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on But if it was not spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite so we see it was marvelous. (Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscences, no date, CHL)

Discussion Questions
  • Discuss the mode of Joseph Smith’s discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon. How would you suppose the story of angels, gold plates, and divinely aided translation was received in 1830s America?

The Text of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is the narrative of the family of Lehi and Sariah, who left Jerusalem about 600 BC and traveled to the New World, where fraternal strife and unequal spiritual conviction led to a break in the family. The family separated into two groups, the Nephites and the Lamanites, each named after the brother who led it. The oldest brother, Laman, led the group that rejected the visionary experiences of their father and younger brother, Nephi. This brought about a lasting division between the brothers and their descendants. Nephi, who led the other group, experienced visions like those of his father that had led to the family’s exodus from Jerusalem. He later initiated a record of his people—a religious text and narrative history that was passed down from generation to generation of scribal custodians. Throughout much of the Book of Mormon’s narrative, the Lamanites and the Nephites are depicted as competing societies, with the Nephites generally presented as the righteous group.

From the time Lehi’s family left Jerusalem, prophets among them taught of the eventual coming of Jesus Christ. The height of the narrative occurs when Jesus Christ visits the Americas, following his resurrection. The Book of Mormon recounts in detail the visit, which brought an era of peace lasting two hundred years. Finally, both groups fell into wickedness. The Nephites forfeited God’s protection through disobedience and were destroyed by the Lamanites.

The book also recounts the history of the Jaredites, another family group that journeyed to the Americas. This group left the Middle East much earlier, at the time of the biblical Tower of Babel, and the narrative ends in their complete destruction.

Around AD 400, the prophet-general Mormon, the last Nephite commander, compiled on gold plates an abridged history of his people and then passed the plates to his son, Moroni, who added his own testimony and a few additional writings before burying the plates. In chronicling these ancient civilizations, the Book of Mormon contains narrative history, as well as sermons; letters; accounts of visions, dreams, and prophecies; and commentary on the meaning and significance of both the spiritual and the non-spiritual events of the narrative. (See JSP, R3 [forthcoming])

Discussion Questions
  • What is the purpose of the Book of Mormon, according to its title page?
  • • Based on the assigned excerpts from the Book of Mormon, how might the text have spoken to a nineteenth-century American audience?

Publication of the Book of Mormon

As work on the Book of Mormon neared completion, Joseph Smith had to find a publisher. (Display the copyright for the Book of Mormon.)

Printers in the [upstate New York] area had little or no experience printing books that were as large and as expensive as the Book of Mormon. The copyright decreased the financial risk of publishing the book and therefore gave Joseph Smith additional power to negotiate with potential printers. Smith’s early efforts to find a printer were apparently conducted in and around Palmyra, where E. B. Grandin originally rejected his proposal, likely fearing that the book would not be profit­able. Joseph Smith’s lack of a copyright during these early negotiations may also have made Grandin hesitant, since only a copyright would have protected his interests by prohibiting compet­ing presses from producing the same book. After unsuccessful attempts in Palmyra, Joseph Smith and Martin Harris solicited printers in Rochester, New York. There, Thurlow Weed appears also to have rejected the proposal, even though Harris offered his farm as payment, but then Smith met success: his proposal was accepted by printer Elihu F. Marshall. Smith returned to Palmyra with Marshall’s offer, and this time he successfully negotiated with Grandin.

After the agreement was in place, Joseph Smith returned to his home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. He did not sell his copyright to Grandin or negotiate an arrangement to share the profits from the book’s sale, nor did he need to once Harris had agreed to be the financier. John H. Gilbert, the typesetter of the Book of Mormon, estimated the cost for printing five thou­sand books at $3,000, a figure that included a profit for Grandin. (JSP, D1:78–79)

Examples of reactions in press:

In spite of public outcry, the book gained substantial converts to the new faith and did well enough that by the time of Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, it was in its third American edition (this one stereotyped), and it had also been published in Great Britain.

Discussion Questions
  • What uses did the copyright serve in the early nineteenth century? Compare that to what you know about usage today.
  • Why did the Book of Mormon prove divisive when it was published? How has its reputation fared since the 1830s?
  • In what ways might it be considered a typical religious publication of the day and it what ways does it seem to depart?

The Book of Mormon as a Print Artifact

Display various elements of the 1830 Book of Mormon, including the spine, covers, title page, and sample interior pages.

Discussion Questions

Split the class into small groups and have them discuss its format and features.

  • What can be inferred about frontier printing in this period?
  • What elements of the printed Book of Mormon seek to position it as a book of scripture?

Suggested Readings

  • Larkin, Jack, “‘Printing is something every village has in it’: Rural Printing and Publishing.” In A History of the Book in America, Volume 2: An Extensive Republic; Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790–1840, edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley 145–160. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 
  • Pasley, Jeffrey L. “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
  • Shalev, Eran. “‘A Truly American Spirit of Writing’: Pseudobiblicism, the Early Republic, and the Cultural Origins of the Book of Mormon.” In American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War, 84–117New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. 
  • “Joseph Smith Documents Dating through June 1831.” In McKay, Michael Hubbard, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds. Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831. Vol. 1 of the Document series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, xxv–xl [see esp. xxvii–xxxiii]. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013.
  • Book of Mormon Translation.” Historical essay published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F. Introduction to The Book of Mormon, vii–xxvi. New York: Penguin, 2008.
  • Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, 90–99. New York: Oxford, 2009.