The following John H. Gilbert interview is available in Early Mormon Documents Vol. 2

Photos of:
The American Bookseller, Vol. IV. No. 12
December 15, 1877
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[Typescript below.]



Vol. IV No. 12

DECEMBER 15, 1877.



    The Detroit Post and Tribune [3 December 1877] of the ad instant prints the following:

    Maj. J. H. Gilbert, of Palmyra, N. Y., is in the city on a visit to his son, Charles T. Gilbert, of Nevin & Mills. He is a printer; was formerly proprietor of the Wayne (Palmyra) Sentinel, and is the man who set up the Mormon Bible from the original manuscript. It was the custom of the printers as the sheets were run through the press to take one of each form for preservation. Maj. Gilbert did this, and now has with him in this city the unbound sheets of the Mormon Bible as he then took them from the press. These he cheerfully exhibits to any person who has a curiosity to look at them. The book was a quarto of 580 pages. The contents were sub-divided into chapters broken into frequent paragraphs, but the verses were not numbered as they are in later editions. Upon the title page appears the name of Joseph Smith as "Author and Proprietor." In all subsequent editions he appears simply as "Translator." This change was rendered necessary to carry out the theory afterward adopted that Smith dug up these writings and translated them from "reformed Egyptian" by means of a pair of supernatural spectacles.

    A reporter of The Post and Tribune met Maj. Gilbert on Saturday, and had a very pleasant chat with him about the early days of Mormondom in Wayne county, N. Y., in which that modern religion started. He found the veteran printer, though now 75 years of age, remarkably well preserved, and hale and vigorous as a man of 50. It was more than half a century ago that he learned the printer's trade, of Chauncey Morse, now a resident of this city, and had just established himself in business at Palmyra, when, after a short newspaper experience, he sold out to E. P. Grandin, and continued in his employment as a journeyman printer.

    One pleasant day in the summer of 1829, Hiram Smith, Joe's brother, came to the office to negotiate for the printing of a book. The arrangements were completed. Five thousand copies of the book were to be printed for $3,000. A well-to-do farmer named Martin Harris, living in the neighborhood, agreed to become security for the payment of the money, and the work was at once put in hand. Maj. Gilbert set up all the type of the book, except some 20 or 30 pages, and did nearly all the press work. It was all worked off on a hand press.

    The copy was brought to the office by Hiram Smith. It was written on foolscap paper in a good, clear hand. The handwriting was Oliver Cowdery's. There was not a punctuation mark in the whole manuscript. The sentences were all run in without capitals, or other marks to designate where one left off and another began, and it was no easy task to straighten out the stuff. Maj. Gilbert, perceiving that large portions were stolen verbatim from the Bible, used to have a copy of that book on his case to aid him in deciphering the manuscript and putting in the proper punctuation marks.

    At first Smith used to come to the office every morning with just enough manuscript to last through the day. But it was so much bother to put in the punctuation that Gilbert said: "Bring me around a quantity of copy at a time, and I can go through it and fix it up evenings, and so get along faster with it."

    Smith replied: "This is pretty important business, young man, and I don't know as we can trust this manuscript in your possession."

    Finally his scruples were overcome, and he consented to the arrangement. Then he would bring around a quire of paper, or forty-eight pages, at a time, and this would last several days. When the matter had been set all the copy was carefully taken away again by Smith. It took eight months to set up the book and run it through the press.

    Maj. Gilbert was not much interested in the book, thought it rather dry and prosy, and to this day has never thought it worth his while to read it a second time.

    Of course, nobody then dreamed that the "Book of Mormon" was destined to achieve the notoriety which it has gained, or that it was to cut such a figure in the history of this country. It did not find a very ready sale at the outset, and Harris, who had mortgaged his farm to pay the printer's bill, was cleaned out financially. He was an intimate friend of the Smiths, and afterwards became an adherent to the doctrines they taught. He did not follow them Westward, however, but remained near his own home, where he died two years ago.

    With this book as the basis of his teaching, Joe Smith began to preach, and soon formed a congregation of followers in Palmyra and the neighboring village of Manchester, where the Smiths resided. A year later he, with thirty of his followers, removed to Kirtland, Ohio. His subsequent history is well known.

    There were nine children in the Smith family. Joe was then about 23 years of age. He was a lazy, good-for-nothing lout, chiefly noted for his capacity to hang around a corner grocery and punish poor whisky. He had good physical strength, but he never put it to any use in the way of mowing grass or sawing wood. He could wrestle pretty well, but was not given to exerting his muscles in any practical way. He had evidently made up his mind that there was an easier way of getting a living than by honest industry.

    He was the discoverer of a magic stone which he used to carry around in his hat. Holding it carefully laid in the bottom of his hat he would bring his eye to bear on it at an angle of about 45 degrees and forthwith discover the whereabouts of hidden treasures. He would draw a circle on the ground and say to the awe struck bystanders, "dig deep enough within this circle and you will find a pot of gold." But he never dug himself. He had a good share of the rising generation of Palmyra out digging in the suburbs, and to this day traces of the pits thus dug are pointed out to curious vis[i]tors.

    As he claimed to be the author of the "Book of Mormon" his story was that by the aid of his wonderful stone he found gold plates on which were inscribed the writings in hieroglyphics. He translated them by means of a pair of magic spectacles which the Lord delivered to him at the same time that the golden tablets were turned up. But nobody but Joe himself ever saw the golden tablets or the far-seeing spectacles. He dictated the book, concealed behind a curtain, and it was written down by Cowdery. This course seemed to be rendered necessary by the fact that Joe did not know how to write. Otherwise the book might have gone to the printer in the handwriting of Old Mormon himself.

    It is now pretty well established that the "Book of Mormon" was written in 1812 by the Rev. Solomon Spalding, of Ohio, as a popular romance. He could not find any one to print it. The manuscript was sent to Pittsburg, where it lay in a printing office several years. Spalding was never able to raise the money to secure the printing of the story, and after his death in 1824 [1816] it was returned to his wife. By some means, exactly how is not known, it fell into the hands of one Sidney Rigdon, who, with Joe Smith, concocted the scheme by which it was subsequently brought out as the work of Smith.

    The dealings with the outside world in respect to it were manipulated by Hiram Smith, an elder brother of Joe.

    Maj. Gilbert's recollection of all these persons and events is fresh and vivid, and he has a fund of anecdote and incident relating to them.


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