The Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript, recently purchased by the Church for $35 million, can now be viewed for free by virtually anyone in the world who has a computer with an internet connection.
In cooperation with Community of Christ, the Church History Department in 2015 published the manuscript in two letterpress volumes as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. Then, this past September, the Church announced the purchase of the manuscript from Community of Christ.
Now, the manuscript can be viewed at the Joseph Smith Papers website, www.josephsmithpapers.org. Each page of the manuscript is displayed side-by-side with its accompanying transcription, which includes a detailed, color-coded reproduction of the text. All of the annotation included with the print volume is also on the website.
As in the printed volume, the pages of the manuscript are presented as full-color, high-resolution images. And the user may zoom in for a close-up view of the handwriting.
“The Church’s recent purchase of the printer’s manuscript and its willingness to also put it online within several weeks of the purchase shows our commitment to transparency and desire to make materials as widely available as possible to scholar and member alike,” said Reid L. Neilson, assistant Church historian and recorder.
He told of being in Southeast Asia two weeks ago. “I was thrilled to be able to tell the Saints in Singapore and India that they soon could see the printer’s manuscript without coming to the Church History Library,” he said.
The printer’s manuscript is the copy of the Book of Mormon text made by Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith and a third, unknown scribe from the original text written by scribes as Joseph Smith dictated an English translation of the Nephite record. The printer’s manuscript was a safe copy made between April 1829 and January 1830 for use in the typesetting of the Book of Mormon in preparation for its publication in 1830.
After the book’s publication, the manuscript remained in the possession of Oliver Cowdery, who gave it to his brother-in-law, fellow Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer, shortly before Cowdery’s death in 1850. Whitmer’s grandson, George Schweich, sold it to the Community of Christ (then called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in 1903. It remained in the Community of Christ archives in Independence, Missouri, until this year.
“In the past, access was very limited to the printer’s manuscript because of its value,” Neilson said. “Basically, you had to know one of the archivists to see the entire manuscript.
“Thankfully, in 2015, in collaboration with the Community of Christ, we were able to produce a full-color facsimile so the entire world could enjoy it through publication as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.”
The work of Book of Mormon scholar Royal Skousen has made the printer’s manuscript more accessible within the past two decades.
“Now that we own it, we want to make sure the printer’s manuscript is not just put away in a vault, but rather is made available to the public,” Neilson said. Accordingly, several pages of the manuscript are on display at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.
“In addition, we wanted to put it all online as well,” he said.
Ben Godfrey, product manager of the Joseph Smith Papers, said, "It is an amazing thing that within just a few years the printer’s manuscript has gone from being an artifact that only a few individuals would ever see, to now being available to anyone in the world to inspect and study. I am confident that David Whitmer, who owned the manuscript for many years, would be thrilled that this treasure is now available to the world."
Godfrey pointed out that the viewer who goes to the website will notice that clicking on a book-shaped icon on the left side of the screen will bring up an image of the page from the printed volume. "This page shows the original text, and the changes that were made by Joseph Smith and others for later editions of the Book of Mormon. Each change is color coded and identifies the person making the change.
The Community of Christ made photostatic copies (negative images on paper) of the manuscript in 1923. These images have been available on the Joseph Smith Papers website for the past several years after the photostatic copies were optically scanned and the digital images inverted from negative to positive using photo imaging software.
"The contents of the printer’s manuscript have been available to select scholars in various formats (photostatic, microfilm, black and white photos), but they have remained virtually unknown the members of the Church," Godfrey noted.
"Publishing the full color images along with detailed transcripts allows members and scholars alike to see the text for themselves. For me, seeing the color images, and seeing the document on display at the Church History Library was and is a powerful witness of the Book of Mormon. This is as close as I will ever get to being there, in the room with Oliver and Joseph, as Joseph spoke and Oliver wrote the words of scripture that testify to me of the mission of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is an awe-inspiring experience for me."