The Attempt to Sell the Book of Mormon Copyright

Text of Revelation

Joseph Smith Papers – Revelation Book 1

A Revelation given to  Oliver [Cowdery] Hyram [Hiram Page] Josiah [Stowell]
& Joseph Knight given at Manchester Ontario C[ounty] New York
Behold I the Lord am God I Created the Heavens & the Earth
& all things that in them is wherefore they are mine & I sway
my scepter over all the Earth & ye are in my hands to will &
to do that I can deliver you o{ut} of evry difficulty & affliction
according to your faith & dilligence & uprightness Before me
& I have cov{◊enanted} with my Servent Joseph that earth nor Hell
combined againsts him shall not take the Blessing out of
his hands which I have prepared for him if he walketh
uprightly before me neither the spiritual nor the temporal
Blessing & Behold I also covenanted with those who have assisted
him in my work that I will do unto them even the same
Because they have done that which is pleasing in my sight
(yea even all save  it be one o{lnly}) Wherefore be
dilligent in Securing the Copy right of my  work
upon all the face of the Earth of which is known by you
unto  my Servent Joseph & unto him whom he willeth
accordinng as I shall command him that the faithful & the
righteous may retain the temperal Blessing as well as the
Spirit[u]al & also that my work be not destroyed by the workers
of iniquity to the{rir} own distruction & damnation when they
are fully ripe & now Behold I say unto you that I have coven=
=anted & it Pleaseth me that Oliver Cowderey Joseph Knight Hyram
Page & Josiah Stowel shall do my work in this thing yea
even in securing the Copyright & they shall do it with an eye single
to my Glory that it may be the means of bringing souls
unto me Salvation through mine only Be{gotten} Behold I am
God I have spoken it  Wherefor I say
unto you that ye shall go  seeking me continually
through mine only Be{tgotten} & if ye do this ye shall have my
spirit to go with you & ye shall have an addition of all things
which is expedient in me. amen & I grant unto my servent a privelige
that he may sell a copyright through you speaking after the manner of
men for the four Provinces if the People harden not their hearts
against the enticeings of my spirit & my word for Behold it
lieth in themselves to their condemnation {or} th{eir} salvation
Behold my way is before you & the means I will prepare
& the Blessing I hold in mine own hand & if ye are faithful
I will pour out upon you even as much as ye are able to
Bear & thus it shall be Behold I am the father & it is through
mine o{nly} begotten which is Jesus Christ your Redeemer amen

Letter by Hiram Page to William McLellin

“Joseph heard that there was a chance to sell a copy right in Canada for any useful book that was used in the States. Joseph thought this would be a good opportunity to get a hand on a sum of money which was to be (after the expenses were taken out) for the exclusive benefit of the Smith family and was to be at the disposal of Joseph. Accordingly Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Knight, Hiram Page and Joseph Stoel were chosen (as I understand by revelation) to do the business; we were living from 30 to 100 miles apart. The necessary preparation was made (by them) in a sly manner so as to keep Martin Harris from drawing a share of the money. It was told me we were to go by revelation, but when we had assembled at Father Smiths, there was no revelation for us to go, but we were all anxious to get a revelation to go; and when it came we were to go to Kingston where we were to sell if they would not harden their hearts; but when we got there, there was no purchaser, neither were they authorized at Kingston to buy rights for the Provence; but little York was the place where such business had to be done. We were to get 8,000 dollars. We were treated with the best of respect by all we met with in Kingston – by the above we may learn how a revelation may be received and the person receiving it not be benefitted.” (Letter, Hiram Page to William McLellin, Fishingriver, Feb. 2, 1848; Community of Christ Archives, spelling and punctuation standardized by Eldon Watson)

Other Accounts

David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 30-31:

“Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copyright, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father’s house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada.”

“Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copyright, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.” So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copyright was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.”

Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge, pp. 20-21:

“Joseph Capron wrote that Smith hoped his volume would “relieve the family from all pecuniary embarrassment.” There is evidence from Mormon sources to confirm Capron’s recollections. Smith himself admitted in his unpublished history that “he sought the plates to obtain riches.”

“Hyrum Smith wrote to his grandfather, Asael, that he believed that service to the Lord would bring the family their long-awaited prosperity. In October 1829, Joseph wrote excitedly to Oliver Cowdery that Josiah Stowell had a chance to obtain five or six hundred dollars and that he was going to buy copies of the Book of Mormon. Lucy Mack Smith said that when it was finally published in March 1830 the family had to sell copies of the book to buy food.”

“The economic situation of the Smith families was so desperate at this time that Joseph tried to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page wrote with bitterness years later that the prophet heard he could sell the copyright of any useful book in Canada and that he then received a revelation that “this would be a good opportunity to get a handsome sum.” Page explained that once expenses were met the profits were to be “for the exclusive benefit of the Smith family and was to be at the disposal of Joseph.” Page indicated that they hoped to get $8,000 for the copyright and that they traveled to Canada covertly to prevent Martin Harris from sharing in the dividend. Smith evidently believed that Harris was well enough off while his own family was destitute. When Page, Cowdery, and Knight arrived at Kingston, Ontario, they found no buyer. Martin Harris apparently learned of what was done, and Joseph guaranteed him in writing that he would share in any profits made from the subsequent sales of the book. In the spring of 1830 Harris walked the streets of Palmyra, trying to sell as many copies of the new scripture as he could. Shortly after Joseph Smith and Jesse Knight saw him in the road with books in his hand, he told them “the books will not sell for nobody wants them.”

Don Bradley on the Kingston Problem

Don Bradley writes,

[The text of the revelation] confirms Hiram Page’s recollection that the group was sent specifically to Kingston–he had even recalled the exact phrase: “go to Kingston.” It also confirms his memory of the incident generally, verifying his account on several points, including Martin Harris being frowned on, the identity of the men sent to Kingston, the sale being conditioned on the Canadian audience not hardening their hearts, etc.

That the revelation’s promise of a sale–even conditionally–and its direction to go specifically “to Kingston” were later seen as problematic is evident from the fact that editing marks on the revelation indicate that these elements (along with the negative judgment on Martin) were to be omitted from the (anticipated) published version. Stricken from the revelation were Martin’s name, the statement that the copyright sale was “expedient,” the phrase “to Kingston,” and all of the last five lines, with an “Amen” being added to terminate the text before the revelation’s original ending.

The second question–of whether the copyright could have been secured in Kingston–remains open. Those sent to Kingston were given the understanding that they could not copyright the book there. And the editor of the revelation’s text in the Book of Commandments and Revelations appears to have shared or accepted this understanding, and therefore removed elements promising that a copyright could be secured and sold in Kingston. That this editor saw the revelation as problematic is further evidenced by his removal of even its conditional clause. If he thought that clause eliminated any problems with the revelation, he would have had motivation to retain the promises and their conditional clause, rather than removing it all. But noting the understandings of those involved in and aware of the revelation does not answer the fundamental question. Legal research is needed to determine whether it a copyright could have been secured in Kingston. If so, then, despite the understandings of those involved, the revelation could have been fulfilled, perhaps through greater diligence on their part or greater receptivity on the part of their Canadian audience. If not, then the revelation would appear to have promised the impossible, which would suggest that Joseph Smith’s reported response to the apparent failure was quite appropriate: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.”

In this latter case, it would be clear that Joseph Smith and other early saints were able to accept the idea that a true prophet could have apparent revelations that were not truly (or fully) from God. With this precedent, their present-day heirs should be able to accept it as well…

Third, this document is not the original manuscript of the revelation but a copy in the collection “The Book of Commandments and Revelations.” So the text as it was first written in the BCR was the text as it existed on the earlier manuscript, and the strikeouts, etc. represent changes made in the BCR. Since the BCR has many changes to other revelations that appear in the published D&C but not in the earlier manuscripts, it stands to reason that the BCR changes to this revelation were intended to prepare it for publication…

The revelation mentions only the need to travel to Kingston.

Those commanded by the revelation understood it only to say that they needed to travel to Kingston.

As discussed, the BCR editing changes to this revelation show that its material about obtaining a Canadian copyright, including going to Kingston, were seen as problematic in the succeeding years. Without the stricken portions there is nothing in the revelation to indicate that it’s even talking about a Canadian copyright. If the failure of the Kingston mission were not seen as problematic, why gut the revelation of any specific reference to the attempt to obtain a Canadian copyright?

This revelation was never published, even though every other revelation in the BCR was, suggesting, again, that this one was seen as problematic.

Joseph Smith himself is said by David Whitmer to have seen the revelation as problematic, suggesting that it may not have been from God. Given that the statement attributed to Joseph by Whitmer coheres perfectly with D&C 46:7 and with Joseph’s teachings in sermons (about the three sources of revelation: God, man, and the devil), and that Whitmer was in the inner circle at the time (as one of the Three Witnesses), why is this hard to believe? Surely it provides at least prima facie evidence that even Joseph Smith thought something was wrong with the revelation.

If what happened is simply that a conditional revelation didn’t have its conditions met, why was it seen as a significant problem? Plenty of conditional revelations didn’t have their conditions met. But when did this lead to them being gutted and omitted from scripture? And why would the participants in the incident and others hearing about it find it so confusing and faith-shaking? It should never have become an issue at all. They saw it as a problem.

Perhaps those to whom the revelation was given misunderstood it and we, who are distant from it, understand it better. But I think the opposite far more likely.

Now, should the legal evidence prove that the copyright could have been secured in Kingston, then I think the “hardening of the hearts” explanation could work: the officials in Kingston would be the ones hardening their hearts and giving Cowdery, Page, et al. the run around.

But if the legal evidence shows that the copyright could not possibly have been secured in Kingston, then the explanation attributed to Joseph Smith would make the most sense: the apparent revelation was either not from God or was only imperfectly so, with an admixture of non-divine influences.