The Prophet Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the “keystone of our religion.”It is not only evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, but it is also a testament of the reality and divinity of Jesus Christ. Together with the Bible, it witnesses that “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” It was this very printing press that issued the first copies of the Book of Mormon in 1830.
Now on display at the Church History Museum, this printing press came from the shop of Egbert B. Grandin in Palmyra, New York. Modern for its time, the Smith Patented Improved Press greatly simplified the printing process and allowed the pressman to make an impression with one pull of a lever. Without this press, it is unlikely that Grandin would have been able to take on such a large printing job as the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith made arrangements to print the Book of Mormon in 1829, before the translation was complete. He secured a copyright and contacted several printers. Ultimately, Grandin agreed to print 5,000 copies for a cost of $3,000.
In 1829, a print run of 5,000 copies was extremely large. By comparison, the first edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter was only 2,500 copies.In order to finance such a large printing job, Martin Harris mortgaged part of his farm and later sold 151 acres of his property to cover some of the costs.
After making these arrangements, Joseph returned home to Harmony, Pennsylvania, leaving his brother Hyrum and Oliver Cowdery to supervise the printing. Joseph was concerned about the security of the manuscript, having lost 116 pages earlier in the translation process when he let Martin Harris borrow them. Joseph’s mother recorded the measures they took to safeguard the manuscript during the printing:
Joseph . . . received a commandment which was in substance, thus: First, that Oliver Cowdery should transcribe the whole of the manuscript. Second, that he should take but one copy to the office at a time; so that, if one copy should be destroyed, there would still be a copy remaining—Third, that, in going to and from the office, he should always have a guard to attend him for the purpose of protecting the manuscript.—Fourth, that a guard should be kept constantly on the watch, both night and day, about the house, to protect the manuscript from malicious persons, who would infest the house for the purpose of destroying it. All these things were strictly attended to, according to the commandment.
The copy that Oliver made is called the printer’s manuscript, and it was used in setting the type. The original copy remained at the Smith home for safekeeping. Hyrum visited the printer almost daily to oversee the work.
The printing process at that time was slow and labor-intensive. A typesetter had to place each letter into a tray by hand. These lines of type were transferred to a form that, in the case of the Book of Mormon, included eight pages.To complicate matters, the original manuscript included no punctuation or paragraphing. Hyrum permitted the typesetter to add the punctuation and paragraphing himself. Oliver was also allowed to help with the typesetting.
Once each letter and punctuation mark was in place, “the type was inked, and large sheets of paper were placed in a frame and positioned over the type. Pulling on a lever lowered the heavy iron plate onto the paper and type. This process was repeated five thousand times, and each sheet was hung up to dry.” Then the process was repeated for the reverse side of those sheets. “The resulting sixteen pages were folded and sewed into the book and trimmed to size when it was bound.” The 16-page unit is called a signature. The Book of Mormon included about 35 signatures.
According to one study, “it took eleven hours a day, six days a week, excluding Sundays and holidays, for nine months” to print the 5,000 copies of the first edition. At nearly 600 pages per copy, that is nearly 3,000,000 pages.
Finally, the Book of Mormon was ready. On March 19, 1830, a Palmyra newspaper ran an advertisement that said, “We are requested to announce that the ‘Book of Mormon’ will be ready for sale in the course of a week.” A week later, another advertisement announced that the Book of Mormon was for sale.
Missionaries took these first copies of the Book of Mormon to neighboring towns and regions. Passed from one hand to another, the Book of Mormon was eventually instrumental in converting thousands to the Church in the United States and Europe.
President Joseph F. Smith purchased this press in 1906 as part of his efforts to preserve the heritage of the Church. A replica of the press is also on exhibit at the Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site in Palmyra, New York.
Today, the Book of Mormon is translated into 82 languages, and more than 150 million copies have been printed.Millions of people throughout the world can add their testimony that the Book of Mormon is the word of God and that Joseph Smith truly was a prophet.