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Family donates wallet of early Mormon scribe to LDS Church

Published March 23, 2007 1:35 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 1:33 PM- Russell Martin Harris celebrated his 86th birthday Friday by giving a gift to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - a leather wallet carried by his great-great grandfather back in the 1830s.

That may seem like an unspectacular gift, but Harris' great-great-grandfather was Martin Harris, who mortgaged his farm for the $3,000 needed to print the first 5,000 copies of the faith's central text, the Book of Mormon.

Family folklore holds that the soft, caramel-brown leather wallet carried the cash to the printer, Russell Harris said.

"I have the spirit of giving, and I felt that more people would see it and it was safer here," said Russell Harris, adding that it's just a little hard to let go of the family heirloom.

Passed through the generations from father to eldest son until it arrived in Russell Harris' hands, the wallet will now have a permanent home in a glass case at the Museum of Church History and Art.

Nearby is the original press used to print the Book of Mormon, which chronicles what Mormons believe is an account of Jesus' dealings with ancient Americans.

Church founder Joseph Smith is said to have dictated a translation of the book from a set of gold plates given to him by an angel.

Martin Harris was one of three people besides Smith said to have seen the plates. He took dictation from Smith. He's also the man who lost the first 116 completed pages, which had to be redone.

"Lost is the fact that he was probably the most significant financial benefactor of the church in its first century of existence, putting up what was then an enormous sum of money," said church elder Dallin Harris Oaks, who is a third cousin to Russell Harris.

The first edition of the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

Museum Curator of Acquisitions Richard Orman called the wallet the most significant donation to the museum in the last 10 years. Along with the wallet, the museum also holds two other Harris artifacts - a stone from the mortgaged homestead and a family Bible.

Orman said when you calculate the value of a dollar today, the value of Martin Harris's original $3,000 gift to the church would now be worth $67,000.

"This was a gift of major proportions," Orman said. "It tells us something about his faith."

The museum's collection holds more than 50,000 artifacts and thousands of books, including some from Oliver Cowdry and David Whitmer, the other two men said to have seen the golden plates. Adding the wallet makes for "an incredibly significant package," Orman said.

Russell Harris said he first saw the wallet as a boy, when it was still in the possession of his grandfather, who like many others passed along the story of Martin Harris' great faith and commitment to the church.

Through the years, Russell Harris has shared that same story over the years, showing off the wallet to small groups. He stored it at home, wrapped in plastic and tucked away in a briefcase, he said.

"Everybody wanted to open the billfold and see if the money was still there," Russell Harris said. "It was always empty."