New York -- The sacred text of the Mormon faith, one of the fastest growing churches in America, will be published by a mainstream publisher for the first time next week after nearly two centuries of being handed out for free.
For members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, which claims around 12 million followers worldwide, "The Book of Mormon" is literally the word of God.
Mormon missionaries have been handing out free copies of the book since it was first published in 1830, and more than 100 million copies have been printed since then. It can be obtained free on the Internet or in person from the Mormons.
But Michelle Rapkin, vice president of Doubleday religious publishing, said previous editions were not easily found in non-religious book stores and there was a market to be tapped as Americans in general grow curious about different faiths.
"People ... want to understand the dynamics of our culture and our world. And with Mormons growing faster than any other denomination in our country I think there's bound to be a certain interest springing from that," she said.
A $39.95 "Readers Edition" annotated by a member of the church is currently published by the University of Illinois Press. Doubleday's new edition goes on sale in bookstores across the United States on Tuesday priced at $24.95.
The head of Mormon publisher Deseret Book, Sheri Dew, told the Deseret Morning News the publication of the first trade edition would mean the curious would now be able to find it in mainstream stores beside the Bible, the Talmud or the Koran.
"The Lord doesn't need Doubleday's endorsement, but there are some for whom that imprint on the spine says ... this is a legitimate book of scripture," she was quoted as saying.
Religious publishing has boomed over the past four or five years in what Rapkin attributes to a combination of the "Millennium factor," the baby-boomer generation reaching middle age and facing their own mortality, and the Sept. 11 attacks that shook the United States in 2001.
"I think we're all forced to wrestle with some of these issues which are about more than possessions and status," said Rapkin, who was raised a Baptist and is now an Episcopalian.
According to Mormon belief, "The Book of Mormon" was inscribed on golden plates by generations of prophets, quoted and abridged by the prophet-historian Mormon, and buried in the ground by Mormon's son, Moroni.
Fourteen centuries later, in 1823, the angel Moroni led Joseph Smith to the plates hidden in a hillside in upstate New York. Smith translated the ancient language into English through divine revelation, Mormons believe.
Doubleday, a unit of Random House renowned for publishing Bibles, is initially printing over 100,000 copies of the book, and Rapkin said she would not be surprised if first year sales reached well over 200,000.