I’ve been slowly making my way through Dan Vogel’s excellent 8-volume(!) annotated History of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Smith-Pettit, 2015). This is an excellent resource for scholars of early Mormon history, as it helps peel back the layers of one of the most problematic yet significant sources in the LDS tradition. It is a good reminder that we need to consider the context in which historical sources were first created. One particular example stood out to me this morning.
The winter of 1844-1845 was a tough time for Mormons in Nauvoo. A year previous they were calculating a way to elect Joseph Smith president as a last-ditch effort to redeem America, only to see their prophet killed in what they believed to be a state-sponsored conspiracy. They therefor lost faith in the American government. Ironically, it was at that time that those who were working on the Church’s manuscript history, which had been in progress since 1839, was trying to cover the Saints’ expulsion from Missouri. That is, they were forced to once again deal with the narrative of being kicked out of one state even as they were preparing to be kicked out of yet another. When Willard Richards penned this preface to the 1839 portion of the record, he probably felt it just as pertinent for the dawn of 1845:
Tuesday, January 1st, 1839, dawned upon us as prisoners of hope, but not as sons of liberty. O Columbia! Columbia! How art thou fallen! “The land of the free, the home of the brave.” “The asylum of the oppressed.”–oppressing thy noblest sons, in a loathsome dungeon, without any provocation, only to have claimed to worship the God of their fathers, according to his own word and the dictates of their own conscience. (3:229)
Vogel dates this editorial insertion to February/March 1845. Richards probably believed life was repeating itself. (Though in both cases, the “without any provocation” might be a bit biased…) It struck me how penning this history must have worked to re-live it at a moment where the pain and frustration was only compounded. It probably intensified their animosity, and framed future experience.
As True Detective put it, time is a flat circle.