The Pearl of Great Price – A History

[Reposted from 2010.]

In our priesthood meeting a few weeks back a part of the lesson involved inviting class members to offer brief accounts of “how we got them and what’s in ’em” in regard to the Mormon scriptures. Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants went about as short and sweet as you might imagine, but no one volunteered anything about the Pearl of Great Price beyond the usual bit about its contents. (I don’t usually comment – unless someone points at me and asks. Its been a good policy)

So I thought at the time, why not do a post on this, and shine the light on an important bit of history. Actually the book itself gives its own brief account, but who reads that? No one in my ward apparently.

The Pearl of Great Price was compiled by newly minted apostle, Franklin D. Richards in 1851 while he was president of the British Mission. Richards’ motive was a circumstance we’ve noted before in this blog. People didn’t know what Joseph Smith had said/taught. The Book of Mormon was distributed among potential converts as well as a boat-load of pamphlets. The church magazine in the British Isles was the Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (the hyphen started in 1842), but its circulation was not terribly wide during Smith’s lifetime.

British converts made up the majority of Mormons by 1851 and there were a significant number of them in Britain. Those who could manage it were departing for Utah, and hence there was a constant turn-over in membership and leadership. While Richards was young during Joseph Smith’s time in Nauvoo, (he was 23 when Joseph died) he was somewhat of an insider and one of the few who left an independent record of Joseph Smith’s speeches. Heber C. Kimball ordained him an apostle at age 28. When Richards was assigned to lead the mission, he had in his personal store of lore excerpts of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, a copy of the Book of Abraham as well as other issues of the Nauvoo Times and Seasons and various bits and pieces in the mission office in Liverpool.

Richards observed that most of the British converts were ignorant of these materials as well as Smith’s theological developments in Nauvoo. He felt the urge to get this material out to the initiated, not as a missionary tool to bring in converts, but as a taste of all Joseph Smith had produced, for the newer Saints.

Elder Richards settled on including excerpts from the Joseph Smith translation of Genesis and Matthew (chapter 24), a poem by John Jacques (titled “Truth” which later became the text of the hymn “Oh Say What is Truth?” – one of my favorites), portions of the revelations which now appear as D&C 20, 27, 77, 87, 107, the excerpt from the “Wentworth Letter” we know as the Articles of Faith and of course, the Book of Abraham, and finally extracts from Joseph Smith’s history which had been published in the Times and Seasons as well as observations of Oliver Cowdery on early events of Joseph Smith’s career extracted from the old Messenger and Advocate.

Franklin was fairly liberal in his editing, making some changes in the various texts, in punctuation, spelling, removing the verse structure Joseph Smith had introduced with the Book of Abraham. The church contracted its printing to Richard James, a Liverpool printer and James printed about 12,000 copies of the Pearl of Great Price. Richards gave him copies of the Times and Seasons Book of Abraham facsimiles and James made new woodcuts to use with the smaller format of the booklet he produced.[1]

One of the larger cash expenses of the church was its printing expense. Brigham Young wanted missionaries and mission leaders to reduce their printing expense since cash outlays for supplies in Utah and immigration expenses were viewed as a higher priority. But he needn’t have worried about Richards’ booklet. It would not be reprinted. There were still a lot of unsold copies twenty-five years later.

The booklet had enough circulation and pleased church leadership enough that they
took the unusual step of raising its status to canon in 1880.

A couple of other editions were printed prior to 1880, one in 1852 in Wales (in Welsh, edited by convert John Davis)

Davis' Welsh Facsimile No. 2

and one in 1878 (edited by Orson Pratt who added more material from the JST as well as what is now D&C 132). The 1878 edition set the text for later editions.

Parts of the text appeared in other places besides the Pearl of Great Price.

Editions following 1880 began to remove some of the material that was duplicated in the Doctrine and Covenants of 1876. James Talmage was asked to edit a new version in 1902, adding verses numbers and footnotes:

Talmage Markup for His Edition

and was involved again in 1921. The 1921 edition set a stable text until 1981 when the text was compared with available manuscripts and some changes were made. Along the way some additions were made in 1976 and then removed in 1981.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff (to me) about printing methods, discussions about content, changes in the facsimiles and text, addition and subtraction of footnotes, and other things I won’t bore you with. Just the tip of the iceberg folks. Buy hey, now you can answer that question. Assuming it ever comes up.


[1] The original Nauvoo woodcuts for printing the facsimiles were produced by Reuben Hedlock in 1842. They were packed up by WIllard Richards and Thomas Bullock with the rest of the church records and went west to Salt Lake City. They were reused to reprint the Book of Abraham in the Deseret News in the 1850s. Three sets of woodcuts for the facsimiles were produced in Britain.

5 Responses to The Pearl of Great Price – A History

  1. Aaron R. says:

    “The booklet had enough circulation and pleased church leadership enough that they
    took the unusual step of raising its status to canon in 1880.”

    What a weird sentence, but absolutely fascinating? I wonder whether, if sales had not been as good whether this would have happened. Do you have any source for the circulation being important to their decision.

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    There were several issues that played into the canonization. One was the fact of the compilation itself. By 1876 10,000 copies were out and people knew about it. Leaders quoted from it from time to time. Franklin D. Richards was a senior member of the Q12 in 1880, and this honored him. Orson Pratt, also senior was pushing it (Pratt was a fan of the 1867 RLDS “Inspired Version” and expanded the PoGP text of Genesis from the IV). Pratt’s 1878(9) edition cemented it as an authoritative work. Pratt produced the edition partly in response to Salt Lake’s rejection of his idea to remove the Lectures on Faith from the D&C and substitute the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham. Pratt made It an important source for Joseph Smith as founder of polygamy (it had what would become D&C 132). All issues that worked in the preliminaries. The PoGP never enjoyed the kind of cachet that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants had. Imagine Arnold Friberg illustrations for the Book of Moses, or Book of Abraham. Missed opportunity. A Friberg Facsimile 1 would be cool.

    Another issue may have been the reorganization of the First Presidency. Perhaps there was a compromise involved in some way.

  3. ricke says:

    Did Richards use the publication as a fund raiser? I read recently that PPP not only used his own books for that purpose, but proposed a private printing of the Book of Mormon to help fund his mission to England.

  4. WVS says:

    I’m not sure, but I suspect it was not very successful if so. He did 12,000 copies or so and there were still several thousand around 20 years later. Not exactly hotcakes.

  5. David G. says:


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