The following post is by Eric P. Frazier, Reference Specialist in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Patrons of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division often ask, “What is one of the most popular books in your collection?” Early imprints from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints are some of the Division’s most requested items—particularly the first edition of the Book of Mormon.
The Library of Congress holds two copies of the first edition of the Book of Mormon in its collection. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division keeps one copy of the first edition in a display case in our reading room, located in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, LJ 239. A Library of Congress Reader Card, necessary for consulting material in the Rare Book and Special Collections reading room, is not required to view the Book of Mormon display.
Unfortunately, due to very heavy use and significant wear to these important pieces of American history, preservation assessments have resulted in an inability to serve copies of the Book of Mormon, as well as the Book of Commandments and the Pearl of Great Price in a reading room setting. This restriction has been made solely in the interest of protecting these valuable items for generations to come. As a custodial institution, the Library has a responsibility to balance its dual mandates of preservation and access.
Seeking to expand accessibility while still remaining conscious of the materials’ safety, the Library has digitized all of these books in order to make these important texts available to any and all interested readers. The images are provided in high resolution, and the image files can be downloaded directly from the Library’s image viewer in a variety of formats and sizes using the links provided below.
Digitized copies of the Book of Mormon:
Digitized copy of the Pearl of Great Price:
Digitized copy of A Book of Commandments:
Due, perhaps, to the enormity of the interest and enthusiasm for these texts, there has been a fair amount of speculation surrounding the Library’s editions of the Book of Mormon, and what historical figures may have consulted the Library’s copies in the past. As a response to patron curiosity regarding the institutional history of these books, curators in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress found in the borrowing records of the Library, that on Monday, November 18th 1861, and later on Friday, November 22nd, several books on the subject of Mormonism—including the Book of Mormon—were loaned to the “President of the U. States.” What may have caused a sudden focused engagement in Mormonism within the White House? Several pressing matters were occurring in Utah around this time: President James Buchanan‘s Utah War had occurred only three years before, Utah was just obtaining telegraph service, and a second push for Utah statehood was imminent. It is of little wonder why someone in the White House–if not the President himself–might have been interested in learning more about the LDS community in the year 1861.
As President Abraham Lincoln had been sworn in as the sixteenth president of the United States on May 4, 1861, many people have speculated that it was President Lincoln who consulted these particular volumes. However, this is a difficult claim to prove definitively. Someone from the president’s staff may have borrowed the book, for example. Seeking further information about the copy in question, Library staff turned to early Library of Congress institutional records.
This borrowing log, or ledger, from 1861 was for congressional representatives and executive branch members–essentially only those who were allowed to borrow books from the Library of Congress. Each page is dedicated to a different representative with their names written at the top.
Naturally, researchers began wondering which of the Library’s first editions had been borrowed by the “President of U. States.” To determine the answer, Library staff consulted the 1860s printed catalogs of the Library in the hopes of discovering any specific information about which copy was in the Library’s collection in 1861. In these catalogs, Library staff discovered that the Library of Congress, in fact, did not own a first edition Book of Mormon in 1861. The first catalog that mentions any edition of the Book of Mormon is in the following volume: Library of Congress. Catalogue of the Library of Congress, L. Towers, printer, 1861 on page 488.
No earlier Library of Congress catalog, cumulative or supplemental, lists a Book of Mormon among its holdings. The edition listed in the 1861 catalog is the third American edition of the Book of Mormon that was printed in 1840. Therefore, neither the first edition of the Book of Mormon, printed in 1830, nor the second edition, printed in 1837, had yet been acquired by the Library of Congress at the time the “President of the U. States” borrowed the Library’s copy.
Unfortunately, while the Rare Book and Special Collections Division does have a copy of the third American edition, digitization of this copy is not recommended because one set of conjugate leaves is uncut. The un-severed joint at the top of the leaves obscures the text on page 256, which suggests that that the borrower of this particular book did not read these pages.
How did a portion of this book remain uncut? The error would have occurred when the book was first bound. Typically, a binder would ‘open’ the book by cutting these leaves free from one another. Sometimes trimming the edges of the text block to fit a new binding would sever the fold of the pages automatically, but sometimes the leaves had to be opened one-by-one, which makes it easy to overlook a fold.
The Library’s copy of the third edition of the Book of Mormon contains only a single annotation: a pencil mark along a few passages in the Book of Jacob, the third of the fifteen books. Although Abraham Lincoln did sometimes use a pencil while reading, Library staff cannot say with any certainty that Lincoln drew this line. Many users would have an an opportunity to mark this particular text. This third edition stayed in the General Collections of the Library of Congress until sometime after 1940, when it was transferred at an unknown date to the newly created vaults of the Rare Book Division on the second floor of the Jefferson Building. During its time in the General Collections, it was available for consultation by all library users, many of whom would have also used pencils and could have marked the text. The general availability of the volume makes the authorship of the pencil markings all the more uncertain.
According to the 1861 Library of Congress ledger, five other books on the subject of Mormonism were borrowed the same week in 1861. Four of these five books, thought to be the same copies that were borrowed that week in 1861, have been digitized, and are available through the library’s online catalog:
- Gunnison, J. W. 1812-1853 (John Williams). The Mormons, or, Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition, and Prospects, Derived from Personal Observation, during a Residence among Them. Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1852. //lccn.loc.gov/35035226
– Entry found on page 509 of the 1861 Library of Congress catalog.
- Hyde, John. Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs. W.P. Fetridge & Co., 1857. //lccn.loc.gov/tmp96031486
– Entry found on page 514 of the 1861 Library of Congress catalog.
- Smith, Joseph, and Jr. The Book of Mormon. Printed by Robinson and Smith, 1840. Note: the link available, from record below, is not the Library of Congress copy. The digitized copy has been supplied by another institution: //lccn.loc.gov/77357708
– Entry found on page 488 of the 1861 Library of Congress catalog.
- Turner, J. B. 1805-1899 (Jonathan Baldwin). Mormonism in All Ages: Or, the Rise, Progress, and Causes of Mormonism with the Biography of Its Author and Founder, Joseph Smith. Platt & Peters, 1842. //lccn.loc.gov/unk82062517
– Entry found on page 550 of the 1861 Library of Congress catalog.
Please contact the Reference Staff in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division through our Ask-A-Librarian service with any questions.
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