Our Pearl of Great Price: From Mission Pamphlet to Standard Work
August 1976

“Our Pearl of Great Price: From Mission Pamphlet to Standard Work,” Ensign, Aug. 1976, 13

Our Pearl of Great Price:

From Mission Pamphlet to Standard Work

The addition of two revelations to the Pearl of Great Price in the proceedings of the April 1976 general conference provides an unusual opportunity to review the interesting story of how this standard work originally came to be. The two recent additions, “The Vision of the Celestial Kingdom,” given in 1836 to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” given in 1918 to President Joseph F. Smith, are the latest of a long series of additions and subtractions in this wonderful volume of scripture, truly a pearl of great and extraordinary price.

This scripture in its very name typifies the gospel of Jesus Christ. During his earthly ministry, the Savior spoke of his kingdom in parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:

“Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Matt. 13:45–46.)

Thence comes the name The Pearl of Great Price, signifying that the information contained on the pages of that volume are worth more than any earthly fortune. The Pearl of Great Price contains precious gems of the gospel; it contains a portion of the true riches “which it is the will of the Father to give unto [us].” (See D&C 38:39.)

The Pearl of Great Price began as a mission pamphlet, compiled and published in 1851 by Elder Franklin D. Richards, then president of the European Mission of the Church.

“It is presumed,” Elder Richards wrote, “that true believers in the Divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, will appreciate this little collection of precious truths as a Pearl of Great Price that will increase their ability to maintain and to defend the holy faith by becoming possessors of it.” (Preface, 1851 ed., p. v.)

Pearls grow and develop until they become priceless. Our fourth volume of scripture likewise grew from a small beginning as a mission pamphlet to occupy a position beside the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. And it continues to grow, as the addition of two new revelations in April 1976 indicates.

The story of the Pearl of Great Price in this dispensation is fascinating, and its contents include gems restored from major dispensations from Adam to Joseph Smith. That story is a study of the unique manner in which the revelations, translations, and narrations contained therein were made public, were used in strengthening the faith and knowledge of recent converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and finally were made a standard book of scripture.

The Pearl of Great Price was not originally compiled by an official committee of the Church and did not become a collection as a direct result of a commandment to the President of the Church or by specific appointment from the First Presidency, so far as the record shows. Elder Franklin D. Richards, who was also a member of the Council of the Twelve, said that the compilation of the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price was made at “the repeated solicitations of several friends of the publisher, who are desirous to be put in possession of the very important articles contained therein.” (Preface, 1851 ed., p. v.)

The First Edition—1851

The “very important articles,” made available primarily in Great Britain, were the book of Abraham, translated from Egyptian papyrus and first published by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1842, and materials from the records of Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Moses from Joseph Smith’s new translation of the Bible, which had been published primarily in The Evening and Morning Star in Independence, Missouri, 1832–33, and in the Millennial Star in Liverpool, England. Elder Richards also selected portions of revelations given to Joseph Smith that had previously appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants and that dealt with such fundamental principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the commandment to the Church concerning baptism (D&C 20:37, 72–74); duties of members after baptism (D&C 20:68–69); method of administering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (D&C 20:75–79); duties of elders, priests, teachers, deacons, and members of the church of Christ (D&C 20:38–44; D&C 107:11; D&C 20:45–59, 70, 80); the order of the priesthood (D&C 107:1–10, 12–20); the calling and duties of the twelve apostles and seventies (D&C 107:23, 33–34, 93–100); an item on the second coming of Christ (D&C 27:5–18); and a revelation on the rise of the Church in these last days (D&C 20:1–36).

Other inclusions in the 1851 edition were:

1. Extracts from the history of Joseph Smith: the account of his vision of the Father and the Son, of the visits of the angel Moroni, of his obtaining the plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon, and of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood.

2. Two revelations that clarified certain New Testament scriptures: an explanation of part of the revelation of John (now section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants), and a revision of Matthew 24, from Joseph Smith’s new translation of the Bible. [JS—M 1]

3. A revelation of Joseph Smith that had never before appeared in print: the prophecy on war now constituting Doctrine and Covenants 87. [D&C 87]

4. A poem by John Jacques, an 1845 convert to the Church, entitled “Truth,” now the favorite Mormon hymn “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” (Hymns, no. 143.)

5. Joseph Smith’s formulation of belief now known as the thirteen Articles of Faith.

There was a genuine need in Great Britain for the contents of this pamphlet, and that need was met by an inspired and energetic mission president and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Today the whole Church is the beneficiary of that effort.

The Second Edition—1878

The second edition of the Pearl of Great Price was published in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1878. One of the principal differences between the two editions was a more complete text of the Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Moses material and the identification of this material as (1) the Visions of Moses, as revealed to Joseph the Seer, in June, 1830, and (2) the Writings of Moses, as revealed to Joseph the Seer, in December, 1830. The more extensive text of the Moses material was taken from the 1867 edition of the Inspired Version of the Bible.

Added to the 1878 edition was the revelation on the eternity of the marriage covenant, including the plurality of wives (now D&C 132).

The editing and rearrangement for the second edition were done by Elder Orson Pratt, a member of the Council of the Twelve and Church Historian. Elder Richards’s preface to the first edition was omitted from the second edition, but no new preface was supplied. “Nor was there any explanation about the changed format or the additional material. … The 1878 edition contained no preface or introductory remarks whatsoever.”1

As to the important changes in the Moses material in the 1878 edition, Robert J. Matthews has summarized:

“The most significant of these were the following: (1) the material was placed chronologically, corresponding to the order in which it is found in Genesis and also in the printed Inspired Version; (2) material missing from the 1851 edition was added, so that the record was complete for Moses, chapters 1 through 8, as in the present book of Moses; (3) the text was somewhat different from the first edition.”2

The 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price was accepted by the voice of a general conference of the Church in Salt Lake City on October 10, 1880. This put the stamp of approval and authority on the work. The conference report records:

“President George Q. Cannon said: I hold in my hand the book of Doctrine and Covenants and also the book The Pearl of Great Price, which books contain revelations of God. … As there have been additions made to it … it has been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the Conference, to see whether the Conference will vote to accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church.

“President Joseph F. Smith said: I move that we receive and accept the revelations contained in these books, as revelations from God to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to all the world.

“The motion was seconded and sustained by unanimous vote of the whole conference.” (Journal History, Oct. 10, 1880.)

Printings between 1878 and the Third Edition in 1902

There were a number of printings of the Pearl of Great Price between the second edition and the next major revision in 1902. An edition appeared in England in 1879, which by comparison shows it not to have been produced from the printing plates of the 1878 edition. The third European edition appeared in Liverpool, England, in 1882. An edition appeared in Salt Lake City, Utah, with essentially the same characteristics as the 1878 edition. In 1891 George Q. Cannon & Sons Co. published a new edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Various foreign language editions also appeared before 1902. All of the editions subsequent to the 1878 edition were hardbound copies; none bore notice of a copyright. The principal difference in all editions from 1878 to 1902 was an almost constant change in page size, necessitating the solution of problems connected with printing the three illustrations for the book of Abraham. As page size was reduced, this problem was solved by printing the illustrations as fold-out pages. Eventually, however, the size of these illustrations was reduced to the page size of the particular edition, causing some loss of details in the illustrations that still remains in present editions.

The 1902 Edition

The 1902 edition of the Pearl of Great Price was primarily the work of Dr. James E. Talmage, who had been given the assignment by the First Presidency. As Elder Talmage’s personal journal records:

“Had interview with the First Presidency in a matter which has been under informal consideration for some time, viz: that of preparing a revised edition of the ‘Pearl of Great Price,’ one of the standard works of the church. I was appointed today to prepare the same, the text to be divided into paragraphs or verses, with references. I undertake this as I have attempted other labors in connection with Church work in a missionary spirit without hope or expectation of reward. Indeed I doubt that I will be known as the reviser even if the work be completed, and a revised edition published.” (Personal Journal # 10, February 2, 1900.)

The First Presidency appointed a revision committee, consisting of apostles Frances M. Lyman and Anthon H. Lund, and Elder George Reynolds, secretary to the First Presidency, to work with Elder Talmage or to supervise his work. Thus, from the outset, the 1902 edition, in contrast with earlier editions, was produced under the direct supervision and authority of the First Presidency of the Church.

Elder Talmage was not a member of the Council of the Twelve at this time and did not become such until December 8, 1911. However, he was well known in the Church for his doctrinal and scriptural works and had been a member of the faculties of the Brigham Young Academy and the University of Utah.

The story of the 1902 revision is perhaps no more succinctly told than in the personal journals of Elder Talmage and Elder Lund. From the evidence in the Talmage collection in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, the revision was accomplished by making ink changes in two copies of the 1888 edition.

For March 20, 1900, Elder Talmage recorded in his journal:

“Began the reading of ‘The Pearl of Great Price’ before the committee on revision appointed by the First Presidency. … Two sessions today, one before and one after my lecture at the university.”

The entry in the personal journal of Anthon H. Lund for the same date reads:

“I went to the President’s office and Bro. F. M. Lyman, Geo. Reynolds and I being appointed upon a committee of revisions listened to Bro. Talmage’s reading of the notes he has made in the Pearl of Great Price in unity with notes in the Book of Doc. & Cov. We had two sessions.”

By February 2, 1901, the revision had progressed to the point where Elder Talmage and the revision committee were meeting with the First Presidency to review the work that had been accomplished. That day’s entry in Elder Lund’s journal reads:

“I attended a meeting with the literary committee and the Presidency. We read the first chapter of the Book of Moses. There were several changes from the original and this was followed. Pres. Cannon does not like to make any change.3 In most cases the original text was restored. Some changes in the tense or number of the verb was allowed to remain.”

The following day Elder Lund records that after a morning testimony meeting in the Salt Lake Temple, “we went to the president’s office and spent three hours in examining and comparing the revelation given to Enoch.”

In both of these entries there is reference to consulting and comparing what seem to have been variant renderings of the texts of the revelations.4 In light of the brevity of the entries in the Talmage and Lund journals, it is hazardous to guess what manuscripts may or may not have been consulted during the 1902 revision. However, evidence points to careful consideration and study by Elder Talmage, the revision committee members, and the First Presidency before any revisions were allowed to stand or to appear in print.

Revisions and discussions apparently continued with the committee and the First Presidency until the April 1902 general conference, when Joseph F. Smith, sustained in October 1901 as the new President of the Church, announced:

“We have a little matter of business to bring before the conference by way of notice of action in the future, probably at the next October conference. The Latter-day Saints generally are familiar with the book called the Pearl of Great Price. The old edition of it has been accepted by the Church as an authentic doctrinal work. It has now been republished, with some improvements. It has been divided into chapters and verses, with references on the bottom of the pages. This has been done, under the sanction of the Presidency of the Church, by Elder James E. Talmage. We have eliminated from the Pearl of Great Price those revelations it formerly contained which are to be found, and always were, in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, believing that it was unnecessary to publish revelations in the Pearl of Great Price that were included in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. These changes have been made in the book, and it is now ready for use of those who desire to obtain it; and at the coming October Conference the book will be presented to the conference for their acceptance in its revised and changed form.” (Conference Report, April 1902, pp. 90–91.)

It must have given Elder James E. Talmage great satisfaction to be able to record in his journal for October 6, 1902, that at the afternoon session of the general conference “The Pearl of Great Price in the revised form prepared by the Committee and myself, was accepted by vote as one of the standard works of the Church.” (Personal Journal # 10, p. 471.)

The statement by President Smith preceding the motion for acceptance of the revised Pearl of Great Price reinforced the previous statement of April 1902, adding that the revision had also made the Pearl of Great Price “a far more convenient book of reference than it was before. [Elder Talmage] has also supplied copious footnotes or references, which will aid in the study of the book … and we now present this book in its revised form … for your acceptance as a standard work of the Church.

“It was moved and seconded that the book be accepted as a standard work of the Church, and the motion carried unanimously.” (Conference Report, October 6, 1902, p. 82.)

This vote was the last vote to be taken on the Pearl of Great Price as a standard work of the Church in a general conference.

The 1921 Edition

The principal changes in the 1921 edition of the Pearl of Great Price were made for convenience in its use as a reference work. An index was added to the 1921 edition and the format was changed to double column pages to match the format of the other three standard works. Later editions have essentially been reprintings of this 1921 edition. However, in 1951 the format was altered in a special edition printed in larger type face for use in ward chapels and by those who may have difficulty in reading the smaller type of earlier editions.

The 1976 Additions

Members of the Church attending the April 1976 general conference were pleased to learn of the most recent additions to the Pearl of Great Price. During the April 3 Saturday afternoon general session of conference, President N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor in the First Presidency, concluded the sustaining of the General Authorities and general officers of the Church with the following statement:

“At a meeting of the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve held in the Salt Lake Temple on March 25, 1976, approval was given to add to the Pearl of Great Price the following two revelations:

“First, a vision of the celestial kingdom given to Joseph Smith, the Prophet, in the Kirtland Temple, on January 21, 1836, which deals with the salvation of those who die without a knowledge of the gospel.

“And second, a vision given to President Joseph F. Smith in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 3, 1918, showing the visit of the Lord Jesus Christ in the spirit world and setting forth the doctrine of the redemption of the dead.

“It is proposed that we sustain and approve this action and adopt these revelations as part of the standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

In that action the Pearl of Great Price received its first additions since its acceptance as a standard work in 1880.

An addition to the standard works is an exciting thing for Latter-day Saints. But just as exciting should be the scripture we receive in the general conferences of the Church, where the General Authorities continue to give the membership of the Church current, ongoing guidance, counsel, and inspiration.

The Lord said concerning his servants, “And this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.

“And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” (D&C 68:3–4.)

Writing from the depth of experience of more than fifty years as the secretary to the presidents of the Church, Elder Joseph Anderson, Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, has said of the General Authorities:

“These men are making scripture today. They are doing the will of the Father and his Beloved Son today as did the apostles of old.” (Prophets I Have Known, Deseret Book, 1973, p. 11.)

Elder Franklin D. Richards had a firm belief in that doctrine, understanding that to be a prophet is to receive revelation. As he testified in the preface to the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price:

“Nor do we conceive it possible for any unprejudiced person to arise from a careful perusal of this work, without being deeply impressed with a sense of the Divine calling, and holy ordination, of the [men] by whom these revelations, translations, and narrations have been communicated to us.” We, today, echo that testimony.


  1. Robert J. Matthews, Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: a History and Commentary, Brigham Young University Press, 1975, p. 222. For the reader who wishes additional details, chapter 11 of this work, “The Relation of the New Translation of the Bible to the Pearl of Great Price,” is highly recommended. Because many details are there supplied, they have been omitted from this article.

  2. Ibid, pp. 221–22.

  3. President George Q. Cannon was counselor in the First Presidency to Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and President Joseph F. Smith. He died April 12, 1901, at Monterey, California, at the age of 74.

  4. Detailed implications of such comparisons and changes are not possible in this article. See Robert J. Matthews, Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, chapters 6 and 11, for a discussion of revelations that may or may not have been available for making revisions.

  • James R. Clark, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, serves as an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple. He lives in the Oak Hills First Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Illustrated by James Christensen

Elder Orson Pratt of the Council of the Twelve arranged and edited the second edition of the Pearl of Great Price for the approval of the Brethren. It was accepted by the Church in 1880.

Elder James E. Talmage divided the text into verses and supplied references for the 1902 edition. The First Presidency supervised this work.