Theft, intrigue and the Book of Mormon

There were a couple of interesting posts on CNN’s Belief Blog that caught my eye yesterday. The first was a post extrapolating from Bryce Harper’s “clown question” retort a deeper meaning relative to the Washington Nationals phenom’s Mormon beliefs. I then caught myself researching various baseball players’ religious affiliations and was quite surprised to find out that another player I’d met in a bar once was also identified as LDS. But the point being it’s a great hook for a religion angle.

Also on the blog was a story about the FBI recovering a stolen first edition of the Book of Mormon. But the best story I came across on that theft was in the Washington Post, which also worked a local angle. You have to read the whole thing but the piece is full of colorful characters, such as Jay Linford, a Mormon bookseller who “pilfered the prized tome” as the story puts it. But the piece was as educational as it was entertaining:

The theft and arrest spotlighted the market for “Mormonia” — memorabilia about Mormonism — that has been thriving as Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, television shows and a Broadway play have stoked interest in the faith.

The news last month that Helen Spencer Schlie’s first edition had been stolen spread quickly through the small, tightknit world of rare-book dealers, who were aware of Schlie’s book as one of 5,000 original 1830 copies of the Book of Mormon, which is viewed by Mormons as sacred text.

But the theft didn’t elicit much sympathy for the Mesa, Ariz., widow, who had become something of a pariah for removing individual pages from the book and offering them for sale.

We hear from other booksellers who think that Schlie got what she deserved and was motivated by greed. We learn that Schlie felt that Linford was like a grandson and that unlike her real grandchildren, he was interested in her work. Their Mormonia is explored:

Linford, 48, had founded Experience Press in Palmyra, N.Y., a business intended to serve the growing number of tourists interested in Mormonism’s birthplace. The company produced handmade books that were meant to look like the originals and that sold for $100 to $1,000.

Linford and Schlie also worked together on video interviews with people who owned some of the prized first editions of the Book of Mormon. The videos were intended to be sold as mini-documentaries to buyers of the books.

Schlie, a convert to Mormonism, attracted sharp criticism a few years ago when she started removing pages from the first edition that her husband acquired in 1967. “Some people were disturbed I’d taken a perfectly good book apart, but each page in its lifetime is capable of touching hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said.

And she priced the pages as much as $4,500! The article explains what Mormons believe about the Book of Mormon and its importance among Mormon book collectors. This part was also fascinating:

No one knows how many of the original 5,000 copies are left. At the time they were printed, it was unheard of to print thousands of books in one run, and it was particularly noteworthy because there were no Mormons at the time. The run is considered part of the unusual history of Mormonism’s rapid spread during a period when Americans were experimenting with new religions.

We learn that Linford had various financial troubles and that Schlie wasn’t the most organized book seller. Oh, this part intrigued me, too:

Schlie said she realized that the book was gone Memorial Day when she went to show it to some Mormon missionaries from Asia who wanted their photos taken with it.

Are Asian Mormons really sending missionaries to Mesa, Arizona? That would be a great story in and of itself. The other thing I found interesting was that Schlie claims she was once Mitt Romney’s Sunday School teacher. I think many reporters would have led with that claim but I rather liked how it was tucked in at the end.

Just all in all, a fascinating story with great religious touches and fun style. It did also remind me of the intense world of Mormon memorabilia revealed by this scandalous story about counterfeiting, forgery and murder. Dunh dunh dunh!

Book of Mormon image via Shutterstock.

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  • Taylor

    “Are Asian Mormons really sending missionaries to Mesa, Arizona?”

    Missionaries can be assigned to virtually any area except the one that they currently live in. A significant proportion of the missionaries in the “Mormon Heartland” thus end up coming from areas on the periphery. For example, the last pair I met in Utah were from Ghana and Mongolia.

  • David Rupert

    And another story left unexplored is how much the “First Edition” has morphed over the years. About 3,000 changes later, they now have an “inspired’ version.

  • Charles

    To add to what Taylor said above, it’s not “Asian Mormons” who would be sending missionaries to Mesa, per se, as if the LDS Church were a decentralized body in which local congregations arranged for missionary trips independently. When writing about Mormons, it is vital to keep in mind the hierarchical nature of the organization.

    So the answer to the question is really, “No, the Mormons are sending Asian missionaries to Mesa.” And if a story were written about this tradition, the inevitable response would be an eye-rolling post on this blog about a clueless reporter reporting on a SURPRISING practice that ACTUALLY business as usual.

  • MC

    Charles’ assessment is brutal but true. Glass houses and all that. Didn’t Ms. Hemingway’s husband grow up LDS?

  • Mollie

    Not only did he grow up LDS but he didn’t catch the line either. We will both resign immediately and move to a reeducation camp.

    Just kidding. But I do apologize for the error and am thankful for our careful readers.

    I will mention that in a chat with two of my local LDS missionaries today, they agreed it was not a common practice, on account of how many LDS missionaries come from the States. But they didn’t see my clumsy wording, or I’m sure they would have, uh, thrown rocks at my house or whatever the going punishment is these days.

  • Sigob

    I’m surprised the author didn’t throw in an allusion or foil to other Christian religion’s perspectives on religious artifacts; or can a first copy BoM be considered a Mormon artifact? In light of the Garbaged Korans of a few months ago, such a foil would be an interesting contrast to make.

    Are the upset Mormon members upset about the destruction of history, the destruction of something with religious value, or potential profiteering from religious artifacts? I suspect the story’s highlighting of the first and last reasons are accurate, but we don’t hear why the other reason isn’t weighted.

  • Maureen

    Bibliophiles and historians uniformly hate and despise the practice of pulling books apart and selling individual pages — or worse yet, selling only “significant” or illustrated pages, and trashing the rest.

    I don’t care if you’re Mormon or an alien from outer space. It’s just wrong. It’s enough to make your blood run cold, seriously. Some of the things that happen in Egypt with manuscript fragments — seriously, it’s terrible. Of course, the more stuff is digitized, the more you can “put books back together,” but if stuff is in private collections or with somebody who doesn’t know what they’ve got, you’ll never be able to find out what happened.

    Like that book of Origen homilies they just identified. Imagine if at some stage, somebody had pulled out the “pretty” pages and discarded the “boring Greek stuff.” Shudder.

  • Jettboy

    Maureen hit on something that had bothered me with some of these stories, and D. Rupert tried to exploit. Mormon ideas of what scripture is has much different connotations than most all other traditions. There is no significance to the written word that makes any one book or text of divine significants as if belonging to heaven itself. Perfection and literal God breathed words is not theologically believed, although some Mormons may act like it is. First addition Book of Mormons are rare and very important historical documents, but are no more theologically important as a relic than the free blue covered ones handed out by missionaries. In fact, if you burned a Book of Mormon, most Mormons would laugh at the idiot for thinking it would cause a scandle.

    This is a round about way to answer sigob and some news reports treating picture taking and fascination by some Mormons and. missionaries

  • Jettboy

    … as if veneration in the religious sense. There is only curiosity and a special tie to history.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I second Jettboy. There is no particular religious significance to a first edition of the Book of Mormon, other than to be able to examine it and appreciate the investment it took to produce the manuscript and then finance the printing. Taking the book apart is like stripping siding off of Mount Vernon.

    You can buy a facsimile of the first edition Book of Mormon for about $25. It is interesting to read it in a “raw” form, without paragraphs and chapters and footnotes that cross reference the Bible. Professor Granty Hardy has produced a version that has the text in more natural speech units, and I have read that it produces insights to read it in that way.

    A critical text of the Book of Mormon has been produced, based on the original scribal text, dictated by Joseph Smith, and then the copy made to leave, a few pages at a time, with the printer. Most of the changes from the first edition were spelling errors and awkward grammar. As it turns out, some of that awkward grammar is characteristically Hebrew grammar. The critical text shows that the word usage is NOT characteristic of the early 19th Century, but rather reflects the vocabulary of 16th Century England, including word usages not found in the King James Version of the Bible. How Joseph Smith pulled that off, no one has explained. Many of the more recent corrections in words in the Book of Mormons have restored the original text for clarity.

    Compare this to the Bible, which has been published with numerous word variations in different translations.