Review of Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume Four: April 1834–September 1835

Matthew C. Godfrey, Brenden W. Rensink, Alex D. Smith, Max H Parkin, and Alexander L. Baugh, eds. Documents, Volume 4: April 1834–September 1835. Vol. 4 of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016. xliv, 668pp. Illustrations, maps, charts, appendices, bibliography, index. Cloth: $54.95.

Joseph Smith Papers

I had the opportunity to review the first three volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, Documents series for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Mormon History, so it was a delight to have the chance to review an advanced copy of volume four. For those unfamiliar with the series (and there can’t be many left in Mormon studies), I recommend the excellent site for additional background. For those who are familiar, the format and layout of the books is fast becoming a welcome friend. There is little, if anything, changed here. This series offers unique challenges to the project editors because such a wide variety of documents are featured, including minutes, revelations, letters, property deeds, blessings, licenses and certificates, etc. But the choices they have made serve the project well. Documents are introduced with a title, a source note, a historical introduction, and then the document itself, complete with careful annotation.

The Documents series showcases the unfolding of Mormon history in chronological order. It challenges (at least it did for me) what we think the documented past looks like. In that way, it is both limiting and freeing at the same time. Limiting because the extant records are…well…what’s extant. Readers combing through the Documents series in hopes of juicy details about money digging, glass looking, or violence, are bound to be disappointed. But it’s precisely that limitation that frees us from those naturally alluring topics and lets us zero in on what really animated Joseph Smith and his followers.

Volume four, covering the mid-1830s (April 1834–September 1835, to be exact) gives us a shift in what kind of papers survive. Volumes one and two of the Documents series were largely made up of revelations. It was those divine communications that drew people to Joseph Smith. Volume three featured more letters and church records, but still contained several revelations. But in volume four, out of eighty-five documents (not including appendices), there are, by my count, only seven revelations. Already Smith’s attention has turned from divine communication to the challenging work of administration and community building. Meeting minutes, blessings, and letters make up the bulk of this volume. Which isn’t to say a religious zeal or sense of the divine still doesn’t permeate the records. But all organizations confront the challenges of growth and day-to-day mundane realities that force them to take actions that often contradict what propelled them to success in the first place. Joseph Smith’s church was no exception.

Many of the records reveal Smith’s desire to save or redeem Zion in Missouri. Even after the failure of the Army of Israel, Joseph’s eyes turned west to the people and the land there set apart as the center of his faith. For example, in a letter that only partially survives in William McLellin’s journal, Smith wrote to Moses Daley about the Florence, Ohio, branch’s role in the “redemption of Zion” (177). Other documents, such as minutes, focus on the establishment of new offices, such as the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. The historical introduction to this is great, though I’ll confess some mild personal (and perhaps petty) disappointment that the JSP project found no use for Michael Marquardt and William Shepard’s marvelous work, Lost Apostles (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2014), for this portion of volume four.

Appendix three gives us our first real glimpse of polygamy in the Documents series. The “Statement on Marriage,” usually attributed to Oliver Cowdery, is included here. The editors write that, “Since it is unclear whether JS was involved in producing the statement or whether he approved it, it is included as an appendix of this volume rather than as a featured text” (476). The document insists that, “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare…that one man should have one wife; and one woman” (477–78).

I am not an expert on the development of LDS polygamy so I will be curious to see what others make of the choice to relegate this to an appendix. But the volume editors rely heavily on later (much later, in fact) statements to distance Joseph Smith from this document, including discourses from Brigham Young—who himself had every reason to insist Smith disapproved of the statement—given over thirty years later. I can’t help but detect a hint of defensiveness given that this document unambiguously contradicts what we know Smith practiced.

Perhaps I was drawn to this document because it’s tempting to zero in on one’s own pet topics—topics that are usually disputed or even contentious—and establish them as a litmus test for whether a book is successful or even scholarly. What a book says about [insert thing that’s important to you here] is an easy (but lazy) way to review a new work. So before I leap to my next personal interest, know that JSP D4 covers dozens of topics and issues, large and small, that Joseph Smith wrestled with, and offers far more than my narrow examples might suggest.

For reasons I won’t go into here, I’ve long been fascinated with the Zelph story. In June 1834, while the Army of Israel (Zion’s Camp) passed through Illinois, multiple accounts, both contemporary and reminiscences, tell how Joseph Smith prophesied that the bones of a long-deceased Native were those of Zelph, the white Lamanite who fought under the prophet Onandagus. For those interested in Book of Mormon historicity debates, this event has significant implications.

Although neither Smith nor his scribes ever recorded anything about Zelph, I was aware that Joseph wrote a letter the next day, June 4, 1834, to his wife, Emma, where he spoke of “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as proof of its divine authenticity” (57). The language is wonderfully evocative and it strongly reinforces Smith’s view of a hemispheric model for the Book of Mormon. How, I wondered, would the Joseph Smith Papers handle this issue. Included here with the letter to Emma is a footnote that recounts the Zelph story in two brief sentences and then explains that “archeologists have since identified the mound as…a Hopewell burial mound of the Middle Woodland period of the North American pre-Columbian era (roughly 50 BC to AD 250)” (57n266). It’s a fine example of how the professional historians who work for the church, a religious institution with a very particular perspective about Joseph Smith, have successfully navigated these potential challenges. The note did not attempt to reconcile or delve into the many nuances of the Zelph story, but it did not shy away from the facts. It was honest and straightforward and included two references to other works that readers can consult.

It is worth stepping back and assessing the current Mormon historical landscape. The LDS Church, a private institution, is under no obligation to open its archives; instead it spends what I can only guess is millions of dollars a year to make its library available to researchers and scholars. The church could simply ignore current issues and trends or even tricky challenges; instead it has published essays on challenging historical topics for the benefit of its members. And certainly the church could let Joseph Smith’s papers stay locked away in archival boxes; instead we get volume after volume to thumb through and devour at our leisure. I could (and occasionally do) take issue, sometimes significant issue, with what documents and collections are available, how the church interprets its history, or how it uses the past to justify policies I disagree with today. But for now I’ll embrace some celebratory hyperbole as a cheap excuse to quote Hamilton: “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”


Review of Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume Four: April 1834–September 1835 — 2 Comments

  1. Wonderful review, thank you! I would just suggest you change “white Laminate” to “white Lamanite” (understandable typo)