Did Joseph Smith Attempt to Sell the Book of Mormon Copyright?

An Excerpt from Chapter 13 of the “Comprehensive History of The Church” by B. H. Roberts


There had been some doubts, however, during the winter that the book was in the press, even among the Prophet's friends, as to the ability of Martin Harris to sell a portion of his farm to pay for the printing by the time the book should be finished. According to David Whitmer some of the brethren complained of the slowness of Harris in disposing of part of his farm in order to raise the money. Hyrum Smith is represented by David Whitmer as saying that it had been suggested to him that some of the brethren might go to Toronto, Canada, and sell the copyright of the book for considerable money, that is, sell the right to publish the book in the Canadian provinces, not dispose of the copyright absolutely. He persuaded Joseph to inquire of the Lord, with the result, as David states it, that he "received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and they would sell the copyright." Accordingly, Oliver Cowdery and Hirum Page, the latter being one of the eight witnesses, went to Canada to sell the copyright, but failed. David Whitmer represents that this failure threw the little group of believers into great trouble, and they went to the Prophet and asked him to account for the failure. The Prophet frankly acknowledged his inability to understand the cause of the failure, and inquired of the Lord. He received for answer—according to Whitmer—this: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil." This statement rests chiefly upon the testimony of David Whitmer, and whether his narrative represents the incident with absolute accuracy or not there is no means of determining. His pamphlet, in which the circumstance is detailed, was not published until 1887, fifty-seven years after the event took place; and the possibility of inaccuracy in some part of the statement—which might materially affect the case—is at least considerable; historical candor, however, requires that the incident should be stated here, and the authority given upon which it rests. [1]

In March, 1830, a revelation was received severely reproving Martin Harris for his evident lack of zeal in meeting the obligation he had contracted with the printer, Mr. Grandin. "I command thee," said the revelation to Martin Harris, "that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God. * * * Impart a portion of thy property; yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family. Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage."[2]



In the text of this chapter, attention is called to the fact that our knowledge of the "Toronto Journey Incident" rests chiefly upon the testimony of David Whitmer, and the possibility is suggested of his misapprehending some detail of the matter, which might, if accurately known, put the incident in an entirely new light. That, however, is but conjecture; and while the possibility and even probability of misapprehension by Whitmer is great, still the incident must be considered as it is presented by him, since his testimony may not be set aside.

In that view of the case we have here an alleged revelation received by the Prophet, through the "Seer Stone," directing or allowing men to go on a mission to Canada, which fails of its purpose; namely, the sale of the copyright of the Book of Mormon in Canada. Then in explanation of the failure of that revelation, the Prophet's announcement that all revelations are not of God; some are of men and some even from evil sources. The question presented by this state of facts is: May this Toronto incident and the Prophet's explanation be accepted and faith still be maintained in him as an inspired man, a Prophet of God? I answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative. The revelation respecting the Toronto journey was not of God, surely; else it would not have failed; but the Prophet, overwrought in his deep anxiety for the progress of the work, saw reflected in the "Seer Stone" his own thought, or that suggested to him by his brother Hyrum, rather than the thought of God. Three things are to be taken into account in all mental phenomenon, at least by theists, and especially by Christian theists. One is the fact that the mind of man is an intelligent entity, capable of thought, of originating ideas; conscious of self and of not self; capable of deliberation and of judgment—in a word, man is a self-determining intelligence. But while man is all this, and has power to will and to do things of himself, still he is also susceptible to suggestion; to suggestions from his associates, and all Christians believe, susceptible to suggestion and impressions from God through the Holy Spirit: "There is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding." (Job 32:8); and to those who believe in the Bible account of the fallen angels—"who kept not their first estate" (Jude 6, 9; also II Peter 2:4); and whose chieftain, satan, "deceiveth the whole world," (Rev. xii 7-10); to those it is not incredible that these reprobate spirits also at times should, by thought-power, make evil suggestions to the mind of man. These are the principles recognized in the answer—"some revelations are of God; some revelations are of men; and some revelations are of the devil"—of Joseph Smith to his questioning disciples; and in this instance of the Toronto journey, Joseph was evidently not directed by the inspiration of the Lord. 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.

Then there must be taken into account the probable purpose of God in permitting the Toronto misadventure, the lesson he would teach through it. How important for the Prophet's disciples to know that not every voice heard by the spirit of man is the voice of God; that not every impression made upon the mind is an impression from a divine source. There are other influences in this God's world than divine influences. There are men-originated influences, and even satanic influences, as well as divine influences. It was important that these disciples be made aware of these facts, that they may not stumble in matters of grave concerns. How impressive the object lesson in this Toronto journey incident! The matter of the journey itself, and its object, were of small importance, but the lesson that came out of the experience was of great moment. It concerned the Prophet as well as his followers to learn that lesson. It is to the Prophet's credit that he submitted the matter to God for the solution. It is doubly to his credit that he boldly gave the answer received to his disciples, though it involved humiliation to him. But one will say, what becomes of certainty even in matters of revelation and divine inspiration if such views as these are to obtain? The answer is that absolute certainty, except as to fundamental things, the great things that concern man's salvation, may not be expected. Here, indeed, that is, in things fundamental, we have the right to expect the solid rock, not shifting sands, and God gives that certainty. But in matters that do not involve fundamentals, in matters that involve only questions of administration and policy, the way in which God's servants go about things; in all such matters we may expect more or less of uncertainty, even errors; manifestations of unwisdom, growing out of human limitations. Would absolute certainty be desirable? "Know ye not that we walk by faith, not by sight," is Paul's statement. From which I infer that this very uncertainty in the midst of which we walk by faith, is the very means of our education. What mere automatons men would become if they found truth machine-made, of cast-iron stiffness, and limited, that is to say, finite, instead of being as we now find it, infinite and elusive, and attainable only by the exertion of every power known to mind and heart of man, with constant alertness to ward off deception and mistake!


1. Address to all Believers in Christ, p. 31. Oliver Cowdery also alludes to this circumstance but in a casual and indefinite way (See Cowdery's Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter-day Saints, published at Norton, Ohio, 1839. Republished in Anti-Mormon Tract, No. 9, by R. B. Neal, Grayson, Ky., 1906.)

2. Doctrine and Covenants, sec. xix.

[Source: B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 1: 162 - 166.)]