Artifacts from the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are on display in a new one-year exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The “Religion in Early America” exhibit, part of four new The Nation We Build Together exhibitions and interactive experiences, opens to the public on June 28, 2017, in the National Museum of American History.
“Religion in Early America” tells the story of the beliefs and practices of early Americans from 1630 to the 1840s.
“We would like visitors to come away with the understanding of three factors of early American life — religious diversity, religious freedom and religious growth,” said museum curator Peter Manseau. “To stand in the presence of the physical objects transports you to sharing space with those who had lived with them in early American history.”
Visitors to the museum will be able to see an original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, an 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon, a couple of rare Mormon gold coins and two Kirtland Safety Society notes from 1837. The Latter-day Saint artifacts are on loan from the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, except for the gold coins, which are part of the Smithsonian collection.
“In my opinion, the original manuscript is the most important record in possession of the Church,” said Brandon Metcalf, archivist at the Church History Department. “This is the first time we’ve ever loaned a page of the original manuscript because it is so rare. Many of the pages that did survive are illegible, and so it’s one of our most treasured collections.”
Metcalf said only 28 percent of the manuscript exists because it was stored in less than ideal conditions in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in Illinois for more than 40 years.
Also on display are items from the museum’s permanent collection, including George Washington’s christening robe from 1732; Thomas Jefferson’s “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible; a 1654 Torah scroll; Native American wampum beads; and an 800-pound Revere and Son bronze bell made in Boston in 1802 for a Unitarian church in Maine.
Church founder Joseph Smith began translation of the Book of Mormon more than 188 years ago. The manuscript was dictated by Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery and other scribes in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Fayette, New York, from April to June 1829. (The page on display covers 1 Nephi 4:20–5:14.) The early edition of the Book of Mormon is one of 5,000 copies published by E. B. Grandin in Palmyra, New York, in 1830, right before the Church was organized that same year.
Metcalf said Latter-day Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, established a bank in 1836 called the Kirtland Safety Society and printed notes to create a cash flow. “These two notes that are on loan for the exhibit are two of those notes that were printed in Philadelphia, brought back, and then signed by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and used in circulation,” he said.
Metcalf said the notes and gold coins were used as currency in the Utah Territory.
“The gold coins were created in a mint here in Salt Lake City shortly after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley from some of the gold that was actually collected by those that were in California in the gold mines,” said Metcalf.
Millions of visitors are expected to view the Smithsonian exhibition in the nation’s capital over the next year.
“This story could not have been told without the involvement of many religious communities from all over the United States,” said Manseau. “[Visitors] will discover that religion at the founding moment in this country was far more diverse than they ever possibly could’ve known.”
“It’s a privilege for us to be included in this exhibit that documents early religion in America, and you can’t talk about religious movements in America without talking about Mormonism,” explained Metcalf.
“We’re extremely excited to see the reaction to the exhibit and to see many visitors enjoy these documents that they wouldn’t have otherwise seen,” he said.