From the Archives: Lord Macaulay’s Search for a First Edition Book of Mormon

By March 18, 2015

This post resurrects an older occasional series here at JI devoted to interesting finds in the archives (manuscript, digital, or otherwise). 


wa200802A47_00I’ve recently been reading Philip Gura’s recently released biography of William Apess, an itinerant Methodist preacher and American Indian activist in the early 19th century. While I was hopeful that Gura would note Apess’s fascinating encounter with Mormon missionaries Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde in 1832 (he regrettably doesn’t), I nevertheless recommend the book to readers here. As Jared Hickman has noted in his article on “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse” (see our Q&A with Hickman on the article here), the Book of Mormon and Apess’s writings speak to one another in interesting ways, and Gura’s biography fleshes out the meanings of Apess’s corpus of biographical, polemical, and prophetic writings, and the life of the man behind them, like nobody has before.

Among other things, I was intrigued by the mention of Apess’s relationship with “the well-known Boston antiquary” and bookseller, Samuel Gardner Drake. Drake advertised Apess’s published writings and sold tickets to the preacher’s public lectures, and Apess quoted Drake’s books in the later editions of his own work. The bookseller’s interest in Apess was predictable — Drake himself, Gura notes, authored no fewer than four books on American Indians during the 1830s (see Gura, Life of William Apess, 45, 103-05). I immediately wondered if Drake had read the Book of Mormon, and if so, if he commented on it. Some searching online turned up an 1876 catalogue of Drake’s private library to be auctioned off after his death the year before. Sure enough, a Book of Mormon was included. The entry, though, also contained an interesting note. On Page 480, we read the following:

8663 SMITH, JOSEPH, JR.  The Book of Mormon: An Account written by the hand of Mormon, upon Plates taken from the Plates of Bephi. Tr. by S. Kirkland, O. 1837. 18º. [Very rare.]

The original ed. is one of the scarcest of American books. Lord Macaulay, the historian, endeavored, unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of it.

One of the scarcest of American books? Lord Macaulay unsuccessfully went in search of a first edition? I was genuinely intrigued. The first print run of the Book of Mormon was 5,000 copies. 500 are estimated to still be around today. That’s certainly rare, but far from “the scarcest of American books,” right? Just how scarce could a first edition have been a mere 46 years after its first printing? And Thomas Babington Macaulay, the noted 19th century British Whig historian and politician who had died in 1859, was interested (and unsuccessful) in securing a copy?[1] I needed to know more, and a but more digital digging led me to the following entry in the April 1877 issue of The Evolution: A Weekly Review of Politics, Religion, Science, Literature, and Art, a New York publication edited by positivist James D. Bell:


ONE  of the rarest books printed in the nineteenth century is the first edition of the “Book of Mormon,” published at Palmyra, N.Y., in 1830. Lord Macaulay tried in vain, for years, to procure a copy of it. There are but two copies in existence. One of these was brought to us some two or three years since, when we were in the book-publishing business, for the purpose of having it reprinted. We were satisfied that its publication would be quite sufficient to expose the total inconsistency between early and late Mormonism. The publication of this “Bible” was then, as now, too great a risk. Other kinds of evolution than that of Mormonism interest the world.


Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay

This rather bizarre entry is quite fascinating. It reveals, among other things, that the tactic of attacking Mormonism on the basis of changes within the first and later editions of the Book of Mormon is hardly a recent phenomenon. But it also repeats both the Macaulay story, adding a bit more detail (he “tried in vain, for years, to procure a copy”) and the supposed scarcity of the book, going so far as to positively (get it?) assert that “there are but two copies in existence.” There were obviously more than two in existence in 1877, but perhaps there were only two (of perhaps just a few more) known to exist beyond the confines of the Mormon empire in the intermountain West? Only a few in circulation among eastern antiquarians and book collectors? Still intrigued by both the claims of the book’s scarcity in late 19th century America and the tale of Lord Macaulay’s fruitless efforts to find a copy, I found yet another rehearsal of the Macaulay tale in the September 1898 issue of the Milwaukee-based American Book-Lore Quarterly.[2] It comes from the catalogue of William Gowans, yet another noted 19th century bookseller, and is the fullest description of Macaulay’s search for a first edition Book of Mormon of the three. Gowans died in 1870, and his account therefore predates the other two, though I’ve yet to locate the original listing. It is also the only one of the three that claims any first-hand knowledge of Macaulay’s search for the Book of Mormon, and appears to be the source for the later claims. I include it here in its entirety:

BOOK OF MORMON, THE. An Account written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates taken from the PLATES OF NEPHI. By Joseph Smith, Jr., Author and Proprietor. 12 mo. pp. 588. Palmyra, N.Y. Printed by E.B. Grandin, for the Author. 1830.

A copy of the original edition of the “Book of Mormon” is without a doubt the scarcest book published in the nineteenth century which has obtained any kind of reputation. As an evidence of this, I have been in search of a copy for a great many years, and unsuccessful until this copy, here named, came into my possession by accident among a lot of old school book, which, by the bye, in external appearance it strongly resembles. And as further confirmation of its scarcity: One a certain occasion Sir Henry Bulwar, the then British minister at Washington, and the British consul came into my book repository, 178 Fulton street, the former introducing himself as such, and then introduced his companion as the British consul, adding that he had called upon me by recommendation for the purpose of procuring a copy of the original edition of the “Book of Mormon.” Continued he: “I do this at the request of Lord Macaulay, the historian, who is very anxious to procure a copy of it, having learned that the reprints, both English and American, have been considerably altered.” On hearing his story I immediately expressed my regrets, as well as fears that it would be impossible to exhume a copy of this book; for of all the volumes I have handled, seen and sold, and they are millions, I have never seen what you ask for. Reprints can easily be obtained, but not the original. Her Majesty’s representative seemed greatly disappointed at my remarks, and said he had made himself certain, from what he had been told of my collection, that he would have nothing more to do than call upon me and procure a copy of this singular book, and so gratify my friend Macauley with what he was so anxious to procure. I offered to make some effort to procure a copy, and in the event of being successful would not fail to apprise him of the fortunate discovery. He appeared pleased with my promise to aid him in procuring this rare treasure. I immediately commenced the search by advertising and writing to various booksellers throughout the country who were likely to have such a book, and more particularly to the dealers in the village that have it birth, and the surrounding towns, but all proved unavailing, so that in all probability the great historians, and still greater essayist, never had the pleasure of seeing it.

One final note as a sort of coda to this post: The August 27, 1878 issue of The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (evidently quoting a Deseret News article, though I haven’t gone searching for it) reprinted Gowans’s appraisal of the book’s scarcity under the heading “FORTY DOLLARS FOR THE BOOK OF MORMON,” and added the following note concerning both textual changes to the book and its rumored scarcity: “The assertion that material alterations have been made in later editions is incorrect. They are essentially the same with the first edition in this Territory, but we do not recollect of hearing of one for sale.”


[1] Interestingly, Macaulay was among the 100 “eminent men” whose temple work Wilford Woodruff initiated in the St. George Temple in August 1877. See Woodruff journal, 21 August 1877, published in Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898 (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984), 7:368.

[2] I don’t know if the publication is still extant, but if it is, I have a feeling Robin Jensen is a subscriber. If it isn’t, he almost certainly would’ve been.

Article filed under Book History Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period From the Archives Material Culture


  1. Haha. Robin and the American Book-Lore Quarterly: sounds like a match. Fun stuff, Christopher.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 18, 2015 @ 6:35 am

  2. Thanks for the blurb on the Apess bio and discussing these intriguing hints regarding the Book of Mormon’s history as a book, Chris. Of course, the question now is whether any of this can be confirmed in Macaulay’s papers, or if this was primarily a story told by book-dealers (although, it should be said, that they don’t appear to have had copies that they were trying to jack up the price on).

    LOL, where there is a post on the Book of Mormon and book history, there must be at least one joke about Robin.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2015 @ 6:50 am

  3. Thanks, Christopher.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 18, 2015 @ 9:03 am

  4. Thanks, guys.

    I’ll have a fuller review of the Apess bio up at The Junto next month, David, so keep at eye out. And yes, in addition to trying to confirm this in searching through Macaulay’s papers (anyone know where they are?), I think there’s a larger story to be told about the history of the Book of Mormon as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded. The interesting thing is that while non-Mormons seem to consistently place high value on 1830 copies of the BoM, while Mormons consistently insist they have little monetary value (or, as the Millennial Star bit above insists, they’re not in the habit of buying and selling them). This obviously changes at some point in the late 20th century, and I’d be interested in more research into why that is.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2015 @ 9:03 am

  5. This is great. Thanks, Christoper. (And you guys know me too well.)

    Comment by Robin — March 18, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

  6. Cool stuff. Is this supposed rarity perhaps connected to the exoticisation of Mormonism?

    Comment by Ben S — March 21, 2015 @ 10:50 am

  7. Thanks, Robin.

    That’s a good question, Ben, and it might be, but the little I’ve read doesn’t explicitly make those connections. Rather, it’s the “success” of Mormonism (the book “which has obtained any kind of reputation”) and the inconsistencies between “early and late Mormonism.” I’ll keep that in mind moving forward, though, as it certainly makes some sense.

    Comment by Christopher — March 22, 2015 @ 7:49 am

  8. Cool. My quick read suggests that “rarity” is part of an imposture narrative, an attempt (presumably by Mormons) to keep the truth hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders.

    Comment by Samuel Brown — March 22, 2015 @ 12:50 pm


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