In A Try For Transparency, Mormon Church Releases Historical Documents

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released documents Tuesday that give more information on the origins of the founding of the religion by Joseph Smith in the 19th century.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been saying they want to be more open about their religion's origin. Well, today, they took a step in that direction. The Book of Mormon, the church's official Scripture, is said to come from an ancient text inscribed on golden plates discovered by founder Joseph Smith. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the account of how those plates were interpreted had been shrouded in mystery until now.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Mormon Church historians say Joseph Smith was visited by an angel in the 1820s and told where golden tablets were buried. He is said to have been able to translate the ancient text on the tablets with the help of a magic stone. The hand-written text was then set in print. Beyond that, details of the Scripture story have been murky, but church historian Steven Snow announced today that the church is now publishing the printer's manuscript.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN SNOW: It's presented in high-quality, full-color photographs along with the transcript on the facing page so that you can follow along and not have to strain your eyes with the old cursive style of writing from the 19th century.

GJELTEN: With the manuscript, a detailed account of how Smith is said to have translated the ancient text by use of a seer stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SNOW: This volume contains images of a brown seer stone likely used by Joseph in his translation of The Book of Mormon. This is the first time that the church has published images of this seer stone.

GJELTEN: Mormon leaders have until now been reluctant to discuss Joseph Smith's magic translating stones, says Matthew Bowman, a religion historian at Henderson State University. Perhaps, he says, from a desire to achieve cultural respectability for their church.

MATTHEW BOWMAN: I suspect that the stones were left out of popular media in part simply because modern Americans find it kind of strange. This sort of folk magical milieu that was so popular in the 19th century which made this seem not that abnormal in the 19th century has faded.

GJELTEN: Many religions have their own historical explanations for how their scriptures came to be. With today's announcements, The Mormon Church has become more open about its own early scriptural history. Tom Gjelten, NPR news, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.