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The Pearl of Great Price, first published in 1851, is one of the scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is an important source of the teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, and the beliefs of the church today. Serialized in Smith’s day and undergoing changes in organization in its various printings, Pearl contains works of revelation, including Smith’s translations of the book of Moses, the book of Abraham, and a selection from the book of Matthew. Smith’s autobiographical account of his visions of the angel Moroni, discovery of the golden tablets, and establishment of the church can also be found in Pearl. Concluding with articles of the faith, Pearl helped guide members of the church during Smith’s day and continues to be a source of inspiration and instruction for Latter-day Saints in the twenty-first century.
Joseph Smith, a controversial figure in his own day, has proved to be an important and influential figure in the history of religion in America. The prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as the Mormon Church), Smith emerged during a period of religious ferment in the United States that would shape the rest of his life. Disappointed in the animosity that was associated with the religious revival of his day, Smith was called by God, as Latter-day Saints believe, to turn away from the churches of his day to establish a new one that more closely followed the will of God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Smith discovered ancient golden tablets that he believed contained a lost divine revelation. These tablets formed the basis of his teaching and provided the foundation for the establishment of his church. Although Smith’s own life would end tragically, his church survived to become a dynamic force in American religion.
Born in Vermont on December 23, 1805, Joseph Smith, Jr., was the fifth of eleven children (the first, however, died at birth) in the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith. A merchant and farmer, Joseph, Sr., was the descendant of a respected family of modest means that eventually moved to Vermont. After a failure in a business deal and a series of crop failures, the senior Smith moved his family to Palmyra, New York. In Palmyra, Smith established himself as a tenant farmer and a teacher to help make ends meet. Joseph, Jr., seems to have had little formal education but most likely received instruction from his father. In 1820, at the age of fourteen, he began his religious conversion, which occurred during the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revivalism that swept through New York and New England in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Smith, however, was left unsettled by the revival as he saw as much animosity as good feeling emerge from the competition between the various churches. His own family was split over the matter of churches as his mother became a Presbyterian and the young Joseph leaned toward the Methodists. It was during this period of religious unrest that Smith experienced his first vision; while he was praying alone in the woods, two figures in light appeared before him, one of which said, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” Smith was told not to join any of the churches because they were all corrupt. When he informed a local minister of his vision, he was told that it was a delusion or, worse, inspired by the devil. Smith remained convinced of his experience and, as he noted in his autobiography, was granted a second vision on September 21, 1823, when he was visited by the angel Moroni who told him about the golden plates that contained “the fullness of everlasting Gospel” and an account of ancient Americans. In 1827, Smith was allowed to uncover the tablets, which he found near his father’s farm buried in a stone box. Smith then translated the tablets as the Book of Mormon, one of the main scriptures of the church (the Bible, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl are the other scriptures), and in 1830 he established what would become the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Over the next fourteen years, Smith compiled the scriptures of his church and endured increasing persecution. He was forced to move his family (he had married Emma Hale in 1827; they adopted two children and had nine children of their own, only four survived infancy) and his church as a result of the opposition of those outside the church. His followers joined him first in Independence, Missouri. They were forced out of Independence, however, because the local non-Mormon population feared that Smith and his growing number of followers would gain too much political power, so the Mormons moved to other places in Missouri, while Smith and his family settled in Kirtland, Ohio. He and his church moved to Far West, Missouri, in 1838. The situation was little better there; armed conflict broke out between members of the church and other settlers, and the governor ordered an attack. As a result of armed conflict with other residents, Smith was imprisoned for robbery and other crimes. He then fled to Nauvoo, Illinois, which would become the first great settlement of the church and attracted followers from America and Europe.
Despite being forced to move from place to place, Smith continued to write—rather, dictate material that was copied by scribes—and translate the basic texts of the church. In 1830, he received the revelations that would be compiled in the book of Moses, a work that would become part of Smith’s broader revision of the Bible and would be incorporated in The Pearl of Great Price. In 1835, Smith obtained certain Egyptian papyri that included important illustrations and text, which he translated as the book of Abraham. These translations would appear in serialized form in 1842 in the church’s newspaper, Times and Seasons, and would later be published in the Pearl. The original papyri seem to have disappeared after 1871, but eleven fragments were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s; the fragments, however, most likely constitute a small part of the original collection. Smith also composed numerous personal letters and began his autobiography and a history of the church.
In 1835, the first collection of Smith’s revelations was published under the title of the Book of Commandments, which was later expanded to include all of Smith’s revelations and published as Doctrine and Covenants. This work would remain one of the primary scriptures of the church and reveals a number of its important teachings. It confirms the revealed nature of the Book of Mormon and offers a guide to the organization of the church. The work also describes the nature of the Godhead, the workings of the Holy Spirit, and the reality of the devil. Smith’s revelations also provided guidance for obtaining salvation, and explanations of the sacraments, the eternal nature of both the marriage bond and the family, and the nature of heavenly life after death. Doctrines and Covenants also provides instruction for the building of the temple in Nauvoo and for the establishment of Zion.
Having provided the basic scriptural and organization foundation for the church in Nauvoo, Smith continued to provide leadership for the church until the time of his death. His final years, however, were marked by continued controversy and turmoil for him and the church. Although successful enough that he felt able to run for president in 1844, Smith nonetheless endured numerous personal and religious difficulties. There were tensions in his own family, as his wife Emma questioned the revelation that approved polygamy. Smith also faced dissent from church members critical of his leadership. Dissidents in the church published a newspaper that challenged Smith, and his efforts at suppressing the dissidents contributed to growing tensions within the church and between the church and non-church members in Illinois. Smith was accused of violating press freedoms, fomenting riot, and other crimes against the state and was arrested and taken to Carthage, Illinois, for a hearing. On June 27, 1844, the prison was stormed by a mob of some two hundred, and Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed during the violence. The church Smith founded would survive his death, however. Led by Brigham Young, the majority of the community at Nauvoo left in the face of open hostility and bloodshed. Despite numerous hardships, the Church of Latter-Day Saints successfully migrated to Utah in 1846–47, settling in the Great Basin and founding Salt Lake City in 1847 as the administrative capital of Utah and the religious capital of the church.
Although sections of the text appeared in church newspapers, the first full collection to appear under the title The Pearl of Great Price was published in 1851 by Franklin D. Richards, president of the church’s British mission and a high-ranking church official (a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles). Richards published the volume, which was named after a parable found in the Gospel of Matthew (13:45–46), so that a growing church population, especially the many new European members, would have access to Smith’s writings. Along with much that is in the current version of the work, Richards’ volume contained material also found in Doctrine and Covenants, including “A Key to the Revelations of St. John,” and a revelation to Joseph Smith from December 25, 1832, as well as other statements of the faith and a poem titled “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” which is now in the church’s hymnal. The volume enjoyed great popularity among church members and became widespread throughout the church community.
The Pearl of Great Price went through a number of editions and revisions during its history, the first of which occurred in 1878. In that year, the first American edition of the work was published in Salt Lake City, and selections from the book of Moses that had not appeared in the first edition as well as a revelation on marriage (now in Doctrine and Covenants) were added to the book. In 1880, a general conference of the church meeting in Salt Lake City confirmed The Pearl of Great Price as one of the scriptures of the church, and the Pearl formally assumed its esteemed place in the literature of the church. In 1902, however, it underwent further revision. James E. Talmage, a church scholar and later a member the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, was assigned to edit the work. He divided the volume into chapters and verses, added some material, and removed sections that appeared in Doctrines and Covenants. His revision was officially approved by the church at a conference in October 1902. Talmage’s edition became the standard text of the Pearl for much of the twentieth century, undergoing a minor revision in 1976 when Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom and President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead were added. The additions of 1976 were removed from the Pearl in 1979 and added to Doctrine and Covenants.
The book of Moses, which was compiled as part of the revision of the Bible that Smith began in 1830, is the first part of The Pearl of Great Price. Smith believed that he was called by God to restore material omitted from the Bible as part of his revision of the holy book, and, therefore, the opening chapter of the book of Moses includes material not found in the standard version of the Bible. In this chapter, God speaks to Moses and reveals himself in all his glory and tells Moses of the nature of creation. The chapter includes passages that describe Satan’s temptation of Moses and of Moses’ repudiation of Satan. The remainder of the material in the book of Moses parallels the events recorded in the book of Genesis, but with added information not found in modern versions of the Bible. The book contains discussion of creation, the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and events associated with the descendants of the first humans. Smith’s translation includes new material concerning Enoch, who knows of his ancestors because their names were written in a book of remembrance, and a detailed discussion of Satan’s rebellion. The book of Moses also includes important doctrinal material unique to the LDS church. Smith’s translation asserts, for example, that the gospel was taught from the beginning and that Adam and Eve and other early figures knew of the coming of Jesus Christ and were aware of God’s promise of salvation. As with later Christian tradition, Adam was baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit. The book of Moses also includes the controversial pronouncement that “the seed of Cain were black” (7:22), which contributed to the formation of a doctrine that banned blacks from attaining the priesthood, a doctrine overturned in 1978.
The second part of the Pearl, the book of Abraham, is believed to have been written by Abraham himself while he was in Egypt. The book recounts Abraham’s life in Ur and subsequent migrations as well as an Egyptian priest’s effort to sacrifice Abraham, a scene depicted in the first facsimile illustration. Abraham is rescued by God, who appears after Abraham calls on him, and a covenant is established between them. The book includes important commentary on the covenant between God and Abraham and describes God’s promise to make a great nation and the bestowal of the priesthood on Abraham and his descendants. It also associates the covenant with the Gospel. The book describes Abraham’s experience in Egypt as well as his visions of God and creation. The book of Abraham also contains important doctrinal material, including a description of pre-mortal life and souls that were created before the creation of the world. It additionally describes Abraham’s vision of a heavenly council of gods as they planned and then created the world and the first humans. There is also a discussion of heavenly bodies including Kolob, which is the star closest to God.
Although an important text for the church, the book of Abraham is the most controversial of the works found in the Pearl. The translations and Smith’s commentary on the accompanying facsimiles illustrating various rituals hasbeen the subject of great debate almost from the time of publication and continues to be a point of controversy between church members and non-church members. A number of Egyptologists from outside the church have criticized Smith’s translations and interpretations of the papyri. Non-LDS scholars have argued that Smith’s translation of the text was highly flawed, that the text does not contain the name Abraham, and that anachronisms in the text indicate it was not written by Abraham. These scholars have also noted the similarity of the text to The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Book of Breathings, which were compiled long after the time of Abraham and have little to do with him. Smith’s understanding of the illustrations, according to these scholars, is also problematic; they have maintained that they are depictions of common Egyptian funerary rites that have little do with Abraham. LDS scholars have responded to these criticisms and have sought to demonstrate the accuracy of Smith’s translation and interpretation; needless to say, neither side has been convinced by the other, and as a result the controversy continues. Scholars have also identified parallels between the book and various works of Jewish and Christian pseudepigraphy.
The final section of the Pearl contains various writings of Joseph Smith. The first part of the final section is a slightly revised version of parts of chapters 23 and 24 of the Gospel of Matthew from the King James’ Version of the Bible. Smith’s revision of the text is minor; some of the verses appear in a different order than Smith’s exemplar, some verses are repeated at different points, and there is direct reference to Jews, Israel, and Jerusalem at points not found in the King James. The translation of Matthew is followed by an excerpt from Smith’s autobiography, which was written in response to critics of the church in order to set forth the truth about the church and its history. The autobiography provides important details about Smith’s family and early life and, most importantly, about his visions and the revelations he received from God, Jesus Christ, and the angel Moroni. Smith describes his own spiritual crisis and the vision of God and His Son that resolved the turmoil and set him on the path of establishing his own church. Of equal significance is Smith’s description of visits by Moroni, who revealed further messages from God and the location of the golden plates that Smith would translate as the Book of Mormon. Smith also records his marriage to Emma Hale, the acquisition of his first disciples, and the institution of the rite of baptism and of the priestly orders of the church. The Pearl concludes with the articles of the faith, which include devotion to God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, belief in the Bible and Book of Mormon, acceptance of God’s existing revelations and revelations to come, and belief that God’s kingdom will be established on earth. The Pearl of Great Price contains valuable material on the life and beliefs of Joseph Smith and is an important spiritual guide and source of inspiration for members of his church.
Michael Frassetto teaches history at the University of Delaware and is the former religion editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware and has written extensively on the history of religion.