Martin Harris and Our Reactions to Personal Crises

This morning while listening to a talk by Ulisses Soares about the publication of the Book of Mormon, I had an insight about Martin Harris, who paid for the printing of the first 5,000 copies of the book. Martin did so by mortgaging his farm. The mortgage was for $3,000.

Three thousand dollars is a generous loan in any era. That amount in 1830 would be equal to $67,000 today. By some estimates, however, if you compare Martin’s wealth to the local economy at that time, his gift would be worth more than $1.6 million today.

To help repay the mortgage on Martin’s farm, Joseph Smith gave him the right to sell copies of the book. The books did not sell as well as they had hoped, however, and Martin struggled to repay the loan.

Martin Harris, the Great Benefactor” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ultimately Martin sold 151 acres of land to pay the loan. “While at one time he was ‘one of the most socially and politically prominent members of the community,’ his support of Joseph Smith and the Church ‘cost him his political office, his social position and ultimately helped lead to the dissolution of his marriage’.” (ibid.)

Our Motives

So, I tried to put myself in Martin’s position in the midst of all that.

It is possible that Martin approached the venture knowing that these were religious books, that they would more often be given away rather than sold, and his paying for them was a very generous contribution to the establishment of a new movement.

But there is also a good chance, perhaps a better chance, that Martin thought the books might sell very well, and in fact he might make money on the venture, given the fact that the book represented a sensational story of archeology, ancient languages, incredibly expensive gold plate records, and so forth.

Martin was certainly involved in the decision of how many copies to print, and as this article shows, 5,000 copies was an incredibly large order for that time in that area on that equipment. To agree to such a large order indicates to me a good chance Martin thought he could make money on the venture.

And here’s the point: if Martin approached his mortgage and payment to EB Grandin with these later thoughts in mind, then there was likely a moment where Martin realized he had exchanged a very large sum of money for 5,000 copies of a book that he could not sell in the near-term.

That would have been a moment of terrible, personal crisis.

Our Reaction

We have moments like this in our lives. Often in those moments we regret our lack of knowledge, which led us to those positions.

If Martin had more knowledge, he likely could have seen that the books would not sell for much and a large percentage would be given away. So more knowledge would have impeded his decision to finance the operation.

What, though, if Martin had more knowledge and that knowledge included knowing that death was not the end? This requires a set of knowledge that is now called faith, because if death is or is not the end is not something knowable today.

An Investment–Beyond Death

Imagine Martin Harris’s reaction to this recent newspaper article about the sale of one of those 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon.

A first edition of the Book of Mormon, the founding text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was auctioned by EBTH, an online auction house. The starting bid was $1, but the final 15 minutes of the weeklong auction were punctuated by rapidly rising bids in mostly $500 increments.

While not a record for a first-edition Book of Mormon — that was set at $180,000 in 2007 — it is almost double the price for another first-edition Book of Mormon sold in 2014 and significantly higher than another sold for $52,500 in 2016.

“First-edition Book of Mormon sells at auction for $80,000” By Kimberly Winston | Salt Lake Tribune, Published: March 1, 2018 

Let’s do some math.

Let’s assume that in the not too distant future, as prices on these things typically continue to rise, each copy of the Book of Mormon Martin Harris once owned will be worth $80,000. So for Martin Harris’s initial investment of $3,000, today his holding would be worth $400,000,000.

Over 191 years, the annualized rate of return on that investment is nearly 70,000%!

(If we take the rate of inflation out by using the high value of $1,600,000 for his initial investment in today’s money, the annual rate of return over 191 is still over 30%, an incredible rate of return over such a period of time.)

More Than Money

OK, but Martin Harris is not here on earth to enjoy his potential $400,000,000. And as Jeffery R. Holland noted, such a sum is basically useless as no one can ever practically shop that much even if they had it.

And it’s questionable if he had held onto all 5,000 copies if the price of them would have risen at all.

But all this is too the point perhaps as well. What worth is money in the long term?

As Jesus taught: The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. (Luke 12:23)

Choose Faith

In our moments of crisis, we may not have all the knowledge we wish we had; we may not have been able to avoid the crisis because of our lack of understanding; but we can choose faith. Faith is not faith unless what we believe in is true (Alma 32:21), even though it may not be provable to others currently. Faith in some measure is knowledge of things which will be true.

Martin Harris is a very wealthy man because he will always be recognized as the man that paid for the printing of the Book of Mormon The currency of that recognition does not die at death, but such things live with us forever. They are a portion of those treasures we should be laying up in heaven. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)

Choose faith in your moment of personal crisis. It will serve you well.

For more reading, check out “A Fortune to Share” by Sterling W. Sill or the story of the printing of the Book of Mormon.

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