(RNS) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints paid the highest price ever recorded for a manuscript when it bought a handwritten printer’s copy of the Book of Mormon for $35 million.
The sale was announced Wednesday (Sept. 20) by both the LDS church and the Community of Christ, the denomination that sold it. Both groups hold the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from a pair of golden tablets he said were given to him by an angel, as sacred scripture.
“Church leaders know that letting go of this document will sadden some members,” Community of Christ President Stephen Veazey said in a live webcast to church members Wednesday. “We feel sadness, too. However the church’s use of the Book of Mormon as scripture and our appreciation for our history do not depend on owning the printer’s manuscript.”
Linda Booth, director of communications for the Community of Christ, said proceeds from the sale will be used to support the denomination’s retirement benefit obligations. LDS church leaders said the money for the purchase came entirely from private donors.
The printer’s manuscript is a handwritten text of the Book of Mormon made in 1829 by Smith’s close associate Oliver Cowdery. It was the guide for printer E.B. Grandin to lay type for the first editions of the Book of Mormon in 1830.
Smith’s original manuscript was placed in the foundation stone of the Mormon temple in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1841. Decades later, when it was removed, it was found to be severely damaged; less than 30 percent of it survived.
While the printer’s manuscript is important to both denominations, it has more significance as an object to the LDS church. The Community of Christ — formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — broke with the LDS church over the question of succession after Smith died in 1844.
“The Book of Mormon is important to the Community of Christ,” Booth said, speaking from the church’s headquarters in Independence, Mo., “but in their (LDS) faith movement, it has even more significance.”
One Mormon historian described the acquisition of the manuscript by the LDS church as “a game-changer in Mormon history.”
“This is a founding document of the LDS Church,” John Hajicek told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It is priceless.”
Ken Sanders, a rare-book expert who appears on “Antiques Roadshow” and specializes in Mormon documents, described the acquisition of the manuscript as “enormously important” for the LDS church.
“What would the manuscript of Darwin’s (On the) ‘Origin of Species’ go for?
Poe’s, Melville’s, Twain’s and Dickinson’s manuscripts?” he wrote in an email. But, he added, “I don’t believe another institution would be a player at that number,” referring to the price.
The sale of the manuscript, which was conducted privately through a broker, is another sign of the increasing cooperation between the two “cousin” denominations that were once distrustful of each other. They share history and sacred space in Nauvoo, Ill., and Kirtland, Ohio.
The Community of Christ, with about 200,000 members worldwide, is tiny compared with the 15 million-member LDS church and is facing some financial difficulties.
In his address, President Veazey said that besides concern about its retirement benefit obligations, tithing is down and endowments, largely invested in real estate, were valued at less than expected. He said the church’s 2019 budget will be $5 million less than 2018’s budget.
“(S)ome serious financial issues are hindering the church as we try to respond to
God’s call,” he said. “These issues must be resolved so we can be free to move ahead.”
Before Wednesday’s sale, the highest price ever paid for a manuscript was $30.8 million, by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, known as the Codex Leicester, in 1994.
Prior to the sale, the most paid for a religious book was $14 million for a copy of the Bay Psalm book, printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Mass.