Review: The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois

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The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois
Edited by: Richard G Moore Published by: Kofford Books, June 2020
Genre: Documentary History
Pages: 340
Binding: Cloth  
ISBN: 978-1-58958-762-5
Price: 38.95

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In 1981, my parents took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved it! When we got home from the theater, I ran around our yard playing “Archaeologist”.  With a “whip” in my hand and a hat on my head, I fended off bad guys as I looked for secret caves and lost treasures. I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be able to make cool discoveries like Indy did. I never did discover any gold, idols, religious artifacts, secret caves, or lost temples; but I have had plenty of adventures over the years digging through archives for lost treasures of the written word.  Where this used to require long trips to distant archives, the many publications of documentary histories in recent years has made it easier and easier to fulfill my eight-year-old fantasies of discovery. (minus the whip, still occasionally with a hat!) The most recent book of lost treasures to find is The Writings of Oliver Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois, edited by Richard G Moore and published by Kofford Books. 

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There is a good chance that you have a lost or confused look on your face right now. The newest book in the Joseph Smith Papers series is always hotly anticipated. Word that the papers or journals of Brigham Young, William Clayton, George Q Cannon, or Oliver Cowdry gets Mormon History nerds drooling.  But who was Oliver Olney? Why do you want to invest in this cool book of hidden treasures? What is your Inner Indy likely to find if you dig into eleven months-worth of Olney’s life and musings?

John Johnson Farm
John and Alice Elsa Johnson Farm

Even though you probably never heard of him, for a time, Olney was almost Mormon royalty. In 1820, Olney married Alice Mary Johnson, the sister of future original Mormon apostles Luke and Lyman Johnson and the daughter of John and Alice Elsa Johnson, in whose home Joseph Smith had his “vision of the three degrees of glory”.  In a meeting held in the Kirtland temple in 1836, Olney was made president of the Teacher’s quorum. Shortly after that he was made an elder and then a member of the third quorum of seventy. While in Kirtland, Joseph Smith himself attended a “patriarchal blessing meeting” in Olney’s home.  Olney faithfully followed Smith and the church to Missouri and then to Nauvoo where his wife passed away on 16 July 1841.  As stated in Moore’s introduction:

“Oliver Olney was a faithful follower of Joseph Smith for over ten years. With the Saints in Missouri, he endured trials, persecution, and the loss of home and lands under Missouri Governor Boggs’ Extermination Order. But after finding refuge in Nauvoo, Illinois, and suffering the death of his wife, Olney became troubled with what he perceived to be taking place in Nauvoo. He began to view Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet and believed the Church was out of favor with God.” (p. xii)

In March of 1842 Olney became public enough in his criticisms of the Church that he was called before the Nauvoo High council by John C Bennett for “for improper conduct, for setting himself up as a prophet & revelator in the Church” (p. xii). He was also asked to turn over all of his writings to the high council at this time.  This is where Olney’s fascinating writings come in to play. THIS is where the fun begins. Despite his now “Apostate” status, Olney not only continued to live in Nauvoo, he continued to actively attended LDS church meetings. During this time he kept detailed records of the meetings that he attended, wrote about the introduction of Masonry and temple rites into the Nauvoo church, commented on the beginnings of the Relief Society, and noted rumors of polygamy among the elite of the Church. He also recorded his feelings and observations about the various rumors swirling around Nauvoo about Joseph Smith and the other LDS leaders of the time. Olney came to believe that Smith was a fallen prophet and that he had been given a “mission to save the Saints from being led astray by corrupt Church officials.” Olney indicated that he was being visited by heavenly messengers who were sent to help him with this mission that he had been given. These messengers included recently deceased Mormons such as David W Patten, and many Old Testament figures such as, “Old father Adam”, Elijah, Enoch, and others who he referred to as a “Council of twelve ancient men of God known as the Ancient of Days” (pp. xiv-xvi).

Historic Nauvoo
Nauvoo in the time of Oliver Olney

At the conclusion of his introduction, Moore states that Olney’s, “writings … afford us an interesting view of Nauvoo from someone living in the city during a time of change and controversy in the Church” (p. xxxi). That is an excellent description of the discoveries that await you in Writings.  While the Joseph Smith Papers and similar projects provide us with the “top brass” perspective of what was going on in Nauvoo, the writings of Oliver Olney give us the everyman, outside of the inner circle, perspective of those same events and times. 

I want you to enjoy exploring and discovering this book as much as I did, so I’ll just share a few cool bits and insights.  It was long a common belief among Mormons that their ancestors set out into the wilderness from Nauvoo not having any idea where they were going until Brigham Young reached Emigration Canyon and was supposed to have uttered, “This is the right place.” The Joseph Smith Papers release of The Council of Fifty Minutes made it clear that Joseph Smith’s inner circle had long been considering and even studying a place to settle in the Rocky Mountains. What I discovered reading the writings of Olney was that rumor of these travel plans were afloat enough in Nauvoo that Olney wrote of them often, with something like a dozen references to these plans appearing in Olney’s writings.  Here are a few of samples:

“a company is a forming in to the wilderness to go as far west as the Rocky mountains and that without delay Yes men women and Childern are all in aray to make ready a voige (voyage) amongst the natives of the far west Let this subject be looked to As this is what they say that they must go whire there is no law to baffle them in their doings” (p. 78, July 2nd 1842)

“go ahead in Poligemy and raise up a Righeous branch some whire near the Rocky Mountains in the far west, Whire no law can tuch you or hinder you on the way” (p. 87, July 7th 1842)

“They say with your numerous wifes and maidens you are about to start west as far as the Rocky Mountains whire you will raise up a Righeous Branch without being molested by the Laws of the land” (p. 107, July 20th 1842)

“Many Noted Familys is a fixing to move to the far west They fast are a makeing ready a voige to take As far as the Rocky Mountains to gain a place of rest A rest that to them will be of value In their daily moves to establish a foundation whire they can live They have long ben a fixing that much as in store such as money and goods that has ben donated in the name of the Lord that is carefully laid away in boxes to be ready to load when the way opens to go to the Rocky Mountains Men women and Childern are in aray fast a fixing to be under way with their Prophit Joseph” (p. 147, August 19th 1842)

As you may have noticed, Olney not only knew of proposed plans to have the Saints move to the Rocky Mountains years before Joseph Smith was killed and the formal plans to leave were set in motion; he also knew about Joseph Smith’s “secret” practice of polygamy. Here is just one more related entry that shows that the “Secret” of polygamy among the group that Olney calls the Mormon elite was not so secret after all:

“I have ben informed by the members of the Church of LD Saints that you are to receive of your sisters in the Church a plurality of wives as they say is of God in order to raise up a righeous branch” (p. 107, July 20th 1842).

A forthcoming volume, also from Kofford Books, that many are hotly anticipating is, Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration (by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski). This will be THE book that will set the standard for years to come on writing about and understanding Mormon and Mason connections.  While you wait for it to come out, you can get a sneak peak in to how Masonry was pulsing through Nauvoo by reading the writings of Olney.  Here is just one sample:

“We have of late had an institution set up by a man from a distance said to be Masonry In its best state As I am not a mason I know not of its Charms but they say threw it to obtain the fulness of the Priesthood … This master Mason Instructed them in many good things He said there was certin degrees for the fair sex of the land They soon met in union a loge to form But changed the name that they mite be distinguished from the lodge of the men” (p. 12, April 6th 1842).

In other entries, Olney notices the connections between Masonry and the recently formed Relief Society and he also seems to be catching hints of the beginnings of the endowment and the Anointed Quorum. This really is wild, cool, fascinating stuff coming from someone who by this time was well outside the inner circle of Nauvoo. 

I will give one minor “warning” of sorts.  As you might have noticed from the samples I have shared, Olney was not a big believer in punctuation.  This can make reading his writings a bit challenging at times, you need to take it slow and easy as you go. 

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Its been nearly 40 years since Indiana Jones convinced me that digging through damp caves and musty tunnels looking for lost treasures was the coolest thing ever.  Its been about 20 years since I started trying to make my own discoveries by digging through archive folders and reels of old microfilms.  Searching through old records may not require the deft use of a whip to fend off Nazi’s, spikes, and dangerous snakes, but I still find it to be exciting, rewarding, and lots of fun. And thanks to Richard G Moore and Kofford Books, we now can all indulge our Inner Indy by digging into and exploring the world of early Nauvoo in the fascinating stories and experiences found in The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois


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