SALT LAKE CITY » In one glass case sits a weathered page from the original Book of Mormon manuscript that Latter-day Saints believe was translated from ancient Egyptian and dictated to scribes by founder Joseph Smith 185 years ago with help from God.
In other nearby cases are Smith’s first journal and the first printed editions of books that contain commandments, doctrine and covenants based on early revelations Smith received while forming The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in upstate New York in 1830.
They are part of a new public exhibit that features some of the faith’s most treasured artifacts dating back to the early days of Mormonism. The priceless collection of 26 books, manuscripts and documents was unveiled Wednesday at a news conference with church leaders that marks the latest example of the faith being more forthcoming about its history and tenets.
"These four display cases comprise our most precious documents," said Steven E. Snow, church historian and recorder. "They go to the foundation of our faith. These are our spiritual roots."
The religion founded with 30 followers now counts 15 million worldwide after experiencing a tripling of membership in the past three decades. As Mormons became more prominent in America and questions emerged about the burgeoning faith, some criticized it as being secretive about its beliefs and practices.
In recent years, the Salt Lake City-based church has taken concerted steps to change that image.
A year ago, it began releasing books containing historical documents that shed light on how Smith formed the church. The religion also has issued a series of in-depth articles that explain or clarify some of the more sensitive parts of its history that it once sidestepped, such as the faith’s past ban on black men in the lay clergy and its early history of polygamy.
The church’s website has become a treasure trove of information about its doctrine, gospel and practices.
The new "Foundations of Faith" exhibit, which opens to the public this week at the church’s Salt Lake City history library, is another illustration of the religion’s push to open its vault and take on questions, said Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion and the James Bostwick chair of English at the University of Richmond.
The collection should generate widespread interest among Mormons who will be able to see, in person, the artifacts associated with keystone events in church history, Givens said.
The items have been in the church vault, taken out from time to time to show, but they have never before been displayed in one collection. Church leaders hope the exhibit will bolster members’ faith and help non-Mormons better understand the religion.
"We need to be open and transparent," Snow said. "There are questions that arise occasionally, and we need to deal with them in an honest, forthright way, which we are trying to do."
The document likely to draw the most interest is the page from the Book of Mormon, considered the religion’s most valuable manuscript, said Richard E. Turley, assistant church historian and recorder.
Before he was killed by a mob in 1844, Smith buried the entire manuscript in the cornerstone of a building under construction in Nauvoo, Illinois, the city Mormons fled to in the mid-1800s to avoid religious persecution. The water-damaged manuscript was found in the rubble of the unfinished hotel some 40 years later. The church has only about one-fourth of the manuscript in its archive today, Turley said.
The exhibit also includes a collection of sacred hymns chosen by Smith’s wife, Emma, in 1835; documents that show the early foundation of the faith’s organization for women and girls; and the first translations of the Book of Mormon into non-English languages such as Danish and Spanish.
Church officials declined to give a monetary value for the collection, saying only that many items are priceless and irreplaceable. They have implemented new security measures in the library to protect them.
Philip Barlow, professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, equated the experience of seeing the documents to Americans viewing the U.S. Constitution for the first time.
"There’s something really important about the tangibility for the public of these documents in their original form," Barlow said. "It’s a link with the past that has a sort of visceral power to change consciousness."