Chapter 4: How the Pearl of Great Price Came to Be
In 1851, Franklin D. Richards, a newly ordained Apostle and president of the European Mission, had an idea he shared with his uncle Levi Richards, who was serving a mission in England. Uncle Levi encouraged Franklin. In a follow-up letter written on February 1, 1851, Franklin wrote:
“You will perhaps recollect my . . . thought of issuing a collection of revelations, prophecies etc., in a tract form of a character not designed to pioneer our doctrines to the world, so much as for the use of the Elders and Saints to arm and better qualify them for their service in our great war. The order . . . I have considered is about as follows:
“First the revelation to Moses then the translation of the first chapter of Genesis. Then perhaps the revelation to Enoch after which or perhaps before it, items of revelation informing of God’s second law to Adam, viz faith repentance etc., as given to him by ministration of an Angel. . . . Then perhaps Mr. Chandler’s letter about the mummies containing an account of the sale of them to the Church etc., etc., followed with a facsimile of the plates and the translation of the book of Abraham. I have not particularly determined in my own mind as to the consecutive order of the other items such as translation of 24th Matthew.”
In May of 1851, Levi wrote in his journal: “With Franklin at 15 Wilton, Liverpool, reading proof sheets of the Pearl of Great Price.”
On July 15, 1851, the Millennial Star advertised: “Pearl of Great Price, is the title of a new work which will soon be ready for sale, containing 64 pages on beautiful paper of superior quality. . . . It contains extracts from the prophecy of Enoch. . . . The Words of God, which he spake unto Moses. . . . The book of Abraham. . . . An extract from a translation of the Bible—being the Twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. . . . A Key to the Revelation of St. John. . . . Extracts from the history of Joseph Smith. . . . All this in less than six month from idea to fulfillment! An impressive achievement! (See H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism [Springville, UT: CFI, 2008], 178).
The Introductory Note prefacing today’s edition of the Pearl of Great Price explains some of the same detail, using three defining words: selection of choice materials.
The selection came through the efforts of Elder Franklin D. Richards, who compiled these five diverse works to give British Saints the same opportunity to study and learn newly revealed doctrine as the Saints in the United States. (It is understandable that Elder Richards would feel inclined to make available to the British Saints everything that was available to the Saints in Utah. In 1851 there were 30,000 Saints in Great Britain and only 12,000 in Utah.) Choice indicates the significant, even superior, value of these materials. These five unrelated materials all came through or from Joseph Smith.
A commandment to Joseph in June of 1830 started the process whereby the Pearl of Great Price could be assembled—the translation of the Bible. After dictating the Book of Mormon and arranging for the printing, binding, and distribution, Joseph officially organized the Church on April 6, 1830. He hardly had time for a deep breath—April to June—when he began the translation of the Bible—another major project. Joseph referred to this new assignment as “this branch of my calling” (History of the Church 1:238–39). Records show that Joseph worked about ten months on Genesis chapters 1–17 and then continued through Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament, working sporadically but steadily until March 1831, when another revelation instructed him to turn his efforts to the New Testament. (See D&C 45:60–61.)
In total, he changed about 3,400 verses—some changes were minor, others major. “He made extensive corrections and additions to the books of Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation. He also made many alterations in the writings of the Old Testament prophets and in Mark, John, Acts, and several of the epistles. He made no changes in Ruth, Ezra, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Obadiah, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John. He made some corrections in all other books of the Bible, and rejected the Song of Solomon as not being inspired scripture” (Bible Dictionary). Evidence shows that Joseph continued to edit and refine the Genesis material up to the time of his death (see Robert J. Matthews, “How We Got the Book of Moses,” Ensign, Jan. 1986).
One example to measure the magnitude of Joseph’s Bible translation project comes by counting the number of words in Genesis chapters 1–6 six in the King James Version. The word count is 3,899. With Joseph’s emendations and additions, which become Moses 1–8, the word count is 12,543. Longer is not necessarily better, but the additions did not just take the existing text and make it wordier. Not hardly. The new is truth restored via revelation. For example, the book of Moses gives detailed information found in no other scripture about Adam and Eve’s lives; their knowledge of the first principles of the gospel, including an account of Adam’s baptism; and pivotal knowledge about the prophet Enoch and a blueprint for building a Zion community. Some of the restored information has no counterpart, as in Moses 1, which adds 1,472 words. Two of the five books in the Pearl of Great Price came because of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible.
Below is an overview of the five selections that comprise the Pearl of Great Price:
The Book of Moses came by revelation to Joseph as he was fulfilling the commandment to translate the book of Genesis. Acting in his office of seer, Joseph corrected, amended, rearranged, emended, revised, and received lost truths that had been taken from the Bible, as the prophet Nephi foresaw: “Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God” (1 Nephi 13:28). The book of Moses was first published in installments in the Church periodical the Evening and Morning Star in August of 1832 (Ibid).
The Book of Abraham is a translation of ancient Egyptian writings that some members of the Church purchased in 1835. (Translation again does not mean that Joseph learned Egyptian but rather that the information came to him by revelation.) The headnote to chapter 1 of Abraham states that these writing were from some catacombs in Egypt, that they were written on papyrus, and that Abraham wrote them himself. These writings also restore lost Biblical truths as Nephi prophesied. The translation was first published in segments starting in March of 1842 in a Church publication called the Times and Seasons (see History of the Church 4:519–534 for more information). As far as is known, the book of Abraham was the last translation Joseph accomplished.
Joseph Smith—Matthew came to Joseph Smith as part of his translation of the New Testament. In Doctrine and Covenants 45:59–61, Joseph was commanded to stop his work on the Old Testament and begin the New Testament. The Lord’s words must have caused Joseph to greatly anticipate this experience: “Wherefore I give unto you that ye may now translate [the New Testament], that ye may be prepared for the things to come. For verily I say unto you, that great things await you” (D&C 45:61–62; italics added). The organization of Matthew 24 gives latter-day clarity in a look back at the perilous times of the Jews from AD 33 to the abomination of desolation or the destruction of Herod’s temple when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in AD 70, and a look forward, foretelling of the Restoration of the gospel and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Joseph Smith—History is comprised of extracts from Joseph’s personal history, including his testimony and the testimonies of Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery. He finished this history in 1838, which was published in the Times and Seasons in segments starting on March 15, 1842. (The complete history can be read in History of the Church, 1:1–44.)
The Articles of Faith are thirteen short statements itemizing some of the core doctrines and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph wrote them as part of a letter sent to John Wentworth, editor of a Chicago newspaper. Joseph began: “At the request of Mr. John Wentworth, . . . I have written the following sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-day Saints, of which I have the honor, under God, of being the founder” (see History of the Church 4:535–541). This was published in the Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842.
A basic question about the Pearl of Great Price is how Elder Richards came up with the title. It seems Elder Richards felt these revelations were like the pearls the Savior described in the New Testament: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:45–46).
Elder Richard’s testimony summarizes his purpose in compiling the selections for the Pearl of Great Price: “Nor do we conceive it possible for any unprejudiced person to arise from a careful perusal of this work, without being deeply impressed with a sense of the divine calling, and holy ordination, of the man by whom these revelations, translations, and narrations have been communicated to us. As impervious as the minds of men may be at present to these convictions, the day is not far distant when sinners, as well as Saints, will know that JOSEPH SMITH was one of the greatest men that ever lived upon the earth, and that under God he was the Prophet and founder of the dispensation of the fulness of times, in which will be gathered together in one all things which are in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth” (Preface to the 1851 edition).
Because of the doctrine and history in the Pearl of Great Price, it received wide use and subsequently became a standard work of the Church. The First Presidency presented it to the Church for acceptance in general conference in Salt Lake City on October 10, 1880.
One aspect cannot go without re-emphasis: the truths found in the books of Moses, Abraham, and Joseph Smith—Matthew had to be re-revealed because they were lost or distorted. Whether carelessly or purposely, the result and consequence were the same. Nephi explained: “They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 13:26–27). S. Michael Wilcox in a 2008 BYU Education Week talk suggested that Moses 1 was originally the preface to all scripture, that if plain and precious truths had not been taken away, Moses 1 would be Genesis 1, the first book in the Bible (see “Education Week 2008 - S. Michael Wilcox - The Great Visions of The Pearl of Great Price,” YouTube, 15 Apr. 2015, “www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpiThYIBhxQ).
In Sunday School classes, the Pearl of Great Price is usually studied in pieces: the books of Moses and Abraham with the Old Testament, Joseph Smith—Matthew with the New Testament, and Joseph Smith—History and the Articles of Faith with Church history. My goal was to study the Pearl of Great Price as a whole, yet pearl by pearl. I wanted to find out how many individual voices there were and discover if these individuals used unique vocabulary. I looked for proper nouns, geographic names, names of deity, consistent doctrines, common themes, and whatever else presented itself along the way. I felt certain that at the end of my study, it would be obvious whether Joseph Smith authored Moses, Abraham, Joseph Smith—Matthew, Joseph Smith—History, and the Articles of Faith. However, if there were several, maybe even many unique vocabularies and styles, then the Pearl of Great Price would be another undeniable evidence that Joseph was the conduit through which the gift and power of God flowed to give the world additional scripture.
And scripture it is! In May 1833, the Lord instructed Joseph to “hasten to translate my scriptures” (D&C 93:53 italics added). Also, in a revelation calling Sidney Ridgeon as Joseph’s scribe for the translation, the Lord said: “And a commandment I give unto thee—that thou shalt write for him; and the scriptures shall be given, even as they are in mine own bosom, to the salvation of mine own elect” (D&C 35:20; italics added).
And just so you know, my first attempt to read the text with the intent to identify unique words was not successful. I had to type the text of the Pearl of Great Price as I did with the Book of Mormon.
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017