An American-Born Faith

The past year has been a busy year for religious events in Philadelphia. Last September the city hosted the World Meeting of Families, capped off by the pope’s visit, and now the Latter-day Saint community is welcoming thousands of visitors to an open house in advance of the September dedication of its new Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple. These events have offered great opportunities to explore our collections: last fall saw the Rosenbach’s “Catholics in the New World” exhibit while this past Monday the Rare Book Department at the Free Library opened “An American-Born Faith: Writings from the First Century of Mormonism.” 

An American-Born Faith was co-curated by Alison Freyermuth, head of the Free Library’s Rare Book Department, and Kathy Haas, associate curator at the Rosenbach, and the exhibit features materials from across the Free Library and Rosenbach collections. As one might expect, both collections include first editions of the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830 (one of the Rosenbach’s two copies is shown below).

The Book of Mormon: an account written by the hand of Mormon upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi. Palmyra [N.Y.]: Printed by E.B. Grandin for the author, 1830. Collection of the Rosenbach. A 830a copy 2.
There are other rare copies of the Book of Mormon in the exhibition, including the Rosenbach’s copy of the second edition, printed in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1837 (which Rosenbach Company catalogs noted is even rarer than the first) and Rare Book Department’s copies of editions printed in Hawaiian (1855) and Deseret alphabet (1869). If you’re not familiar with the Deseret alphabet, it was a phonetic alphabet developed by the Mormons in the mid-19th century. It was described as being an aid to foreign-born converts, since English is notoriously difficult to spell. If you are intrigued, you can play around with the online Deseret Alphabet Translator and see how your name or favorite phrase would come out.

Only four books were printed in Deseret, of which the Rare Book Department has three. The alphabet was also promoted through other printed pieces like the Deseret News, as in this copy below from the Rosenbach’s collection. (As an aside, the term Deseret, which the Saints used as the name for their Utah settlement, comes from the Book of Mormon and means “honeybee”)

Deseret News. Salt Lake City, 23 February 1859. Collection of the Rosenbach, AN .D451

The Rosenbach actually owns many issues of the Deseret News, which are scattered throughout the exhibition; as the first newspaper printed in Utah it appealed to the book collector’s love of “firsts.” Other Rosenbach items in the exhibition range from printed pioneer journals (including that of Howard Egan, who is shown below) to text by Mormon evangelist Parley Parker Pratt to Catholic missionary Pierre-Jean de Smet’s critical description of the Mormons.

Howard Egan. Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878: Major Howard Egan’s diary Richmond, Utah: Published by Howard R. Egan Estate, 1917. Collection of the Rosenbach, A 917p

The items I’ve highlighted here are only the tip of the iceberg; the exhibition uses a wide variety of Mormon and non-Mormon texts to provide a look at the 19th and early 20th-century history of the Latter-day Saints and the range of Americans’ reactions to the new faith. If you are intrigued, be sure to stop by the 3d floor of the Parkway Central Library; the exhibition is free and is open 9-5 every day except Sunday.