Book of Mormon/Attempt to sell copyright

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    Why did Joseph Smith attempt to sell the Book of Mormon copyright in Canada?


David Whitmer claimed that Joseph Smith received a revelation and prophesied that Oliver Cowdery and Hiram Page should go to Canada where they would find a man willing to buy the copyright to the Book of Mormon. When they failed to sell the copyright, Whitmer states that Joseph admitted that the revelation had not come from God.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


The primary evidence supporting the negative aspects of the Canadian Mission story come from David Whitmer, who was not a participant in the event, and who had left the church many years before. With the discovery of the Hiram Page letter of 1848 showing that the actual participants involved in the trip felt that Joseph Smith delivered an accurate revelation of what would transpire on the Mission, and in fact even found the event uplifting rather than negative, it is evident that no individual contemporary to the event felt that this represented a false prophecy by Joseph Smith. What we do see is excellent evidence in fulfillment of the teachings of Deuteronomy 12 and 18 that Joseph Smith was perceived as a true prophet of God by those involved in the Mission to Canada in early 1830.

Detailed Analysis

The criticism that Joseph later claimed that the revelation had not come from God is in all likelihood the product of a false memory by David Whitmer.


Joseph Smith had been told there were people in Canada willing to buy the copyrights to useful books. Due to the dire financial position of the Church, he decided this could be an opportunity to relieve some of the financial pressure associated with publishing the Book of Mormon. Four men went to Canada. Before leaving, Joseph Smith received a revelation directing them to go to Kingston, Canada, with some conditions placed upon their success. Pleaseth me that Oliver Cowderey Joseph Knight Hyram Pagee & 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{t\gotten} Behold I am God I have spoken it & it is expedient in me Wherefor I say unto you that ye shall go to Kingston seeking me continually through mine only Be{t\gotten} & 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{er\eir} salvation.

Revelation book 1 p. 15 1.jpg

The text of the revelation was published in the The Joseph Smith Papers: The Revelations and Translations Series. According to Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian and Recorder,

Another interesting development from work on the Revelations and Translations Series has been the identification of a previously unpublished revelation on securing a copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada. David Whitmer, after he left the Church, recalled that the revelation promised success in selling the copyright, but upon return of the men charged with the duty, Joseph Smith and others were disappointed by what seemed like failure. Historians have relied upon statements of David Whitmer, Hiram Page, and William McLellin for decades but have not had the actual text of the revelation. Revelation Book 1 will provide that.
Although we still do not know the whole story, particularly Joseph Smith’s own view of the situation, we do know that calling the divine communication a “failed revelation” is not warranted. The Lord’s directive clearly conditions the successful sale of the copyright on the worthiness of those seeking to make the sale as well as on the spiritual receptivity of the potential purchasers. [1]

Hiram Page, who was one of the individuals sent to Canada, laid out the event in a letter in 1848.[2] Page wrote that the revelation Joseph Smith received conditioned success upon whether those individuals in Canada capable of buying the Book of Mormon copyright would have their hearts softened. When unable to sell the copyright, the four men returned to Palmyra. Hiram Page stated he for the first time understood how some revelations given to people were not necessarily for their direct benefit—in fact, Hiram Page believed that the revelation was actually fulfilled.

Historical Development of the Erroneous Story

Hiram Page’s 1848 account of the Canadian Mission trip was sent to William McLellin. Because it was private correspondence, its existence and details were unknown until the 1930’s, when the letter was donated to the RLDS Church’s archives as part of a larger collection of McLellin materials.[3] The content of the letter was not broadly known until after the document was stolen in 1985, but a copy of the original was donated by a private collector around the year 2000 who had made a copy prior to the theft of the original.

In 1872 William McLellin wrote about the journey to Canada.[4] He had no first hand knowledge of the event, as he did not join the Church until 1831. He apparently got the description of the event from Martin Harris, who was likewise not there and had no first hand knowledge. From the published account, McLellin ignores Hiram Page’s 1848 letter, and asserts that all involved in the Canadian Mission viewed it as a complete failure. Since all involved were dead, and the only known account by one of the participants, who obviously viewed it as a success, was in McLellin's possession, he apparently did not worry about being corrected.

In 1881 or shortly thereafter a man by the name of J.L. Traughber wrote a letter to a German correspondent, who published it in 1886, retelling McLellin’s second or third hand knowledge of the event.[5]

Beginning in 1886, David Whitmer reports for the first time of the Canadian Mission.[6] Initially Whitmer reports the event in the third person, but by the time of his 1887 pamphlet An Address to All Believers in Christ, 57 years after the event occurred, he reports to having been a first hand witness, and Joseph Smith having given a false prophecy. Whitmer states,

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.[7]

One must remember that not only was Whitmer looking for evidence to support his theory that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet, but he also wrote with no fear of contradiction, as all the witnesses to the event were dead.

Comparing Whitmer's account to those of the eye witnesses

Whitmer's account is at variance in several ways with Hiram Page’s account. Whitmer gets the destination city in Canada wrong (he says Toronto, the other accounts, and the revelation itself, say Kingston) and he did not correctly identify all of the participants (he identified Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery, while Page noted Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell). Note that the text of the revelation itself finally clears up the issue of exactly who the revelation was directed to, Pleaseth me that Oliver Cowderey Joseph Knight Hyram Pagee & Josiah Stowel shall do my work in this thing...

Page also makes no mention or even a hint at disappointment in Joseph Smith, nor is there an accusation that the trip was based upon a "false prophecy," so naturally no subsequent "revelation" is noted by Page explaining the mission’s failure.

In Whitmer’s 1887 account we learn for the first time of the supposed post-mission revelation where Joseph Smith is told that some revelations are from God, some from devils, some from men. This account is in all likelihood a fabrication. Unlike his consistent, life-long statements concerning the witness of the Gold Plates, this account, which is probably a second-hand retelling of events 57 years after their occurrence, suddenly appears and is wrong on several of the documentable facts, as well as being inconsistent with the first-hand testimony of Hiram Page, given 40 years earlier than Whitmer and by comparison much closer to the actual event.

Response of LDS scholars prior to Page's letter coming to light

The letter from 1848 by Hiram Page was not publically available until the 20th Century. As a result, various LDS responses to the accounts by Whitmer and McLellin of necessity must explain why the apparent anomalous revelation does not make Joseph Smith a fallen prophet. Such was the case when B.H. Roberts expressed doubt as to the accuracy of the story, and suggested that David Whitmer may not have recalled all of the details correctly, yet went on to address the claim anyway. Roberts concluded:

Does that circumstance vitiate his claim as a prophet? No; the fact remains that despite this circumstance there exists a long list of events to be dealt with which will establish the fact of divine inspiration operating upon the mind of this man Joseph Smith. The wisdom frequently displayed, the knowledge revealed, the predicted events and the fulfilment thereof, are explicable upon no other theory than of divine inspiration giving guidance to him. [8]

As it happens, the passage of time and the uncovering of additional information has vindicated that confidence.

For further information related to this topic


  1. Marlin K. Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers: The Manuscript Revelation Books,” Ensign (July 2009) off-site
  2. Letter to William McLellin, February 2, 1848, as cited in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 5, pages 257-9.
  3. Ibid., page 257
  4. William McLellin to Joseph Smith III, September 8, 1872. See Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 5, page 328.
  5. John L. Traughber correspondence, which appears to date from 1881. Dan Vogel’s editor comments in “Early Mormon Documents”, Vol. 5, page 333, explain his assumption this was written to James T. Cobb. See page 334 for relevant statements concerning the Mission to Canada.
  6. David Whitmer Interview with Omaha (NE) Herald, Oct. 10, 1886, as quoted by Dan Vogel in Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 5, pages 174-181. See page 180 for relevant material.
  7. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon (David Whitmer: Richmond, Virginia, 1887).
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:165. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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