Dissecting Mormonism’s Founding Documents

The field of Mormon history has always been inundated with an obsession with documents. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, the LDS tradition itself possessed an injunction in an early revelation that “a record shall be kept among you,” which resulted in the Saints compiling loads and loads of significant texts since its earliest years. Indeed, I often marvel that in writing my history of Nauvoo, I suffer from a problem rarely encountered in microhistories of early America: rather than having too few sources, I perhaps have too many.

But that’s merely the ecclesiastical context–the historiographical context is trickier still. The New Mormon History movement–the scholarly attempt to write more neutral and academic accounts of the faith during the 1970s and 1980s–was obsessed with documents. Fueled by the New Social History, there was a (sometimes naive) believe that by merely reproducing historical texts, they could better defend their version of the past. This anxiety can be found in both those hoping to defend traditional narrative, like scholars at BYU, as well as those who wished to revise it, like those affiliated with Signature Books. On either side, there was a commitment to using historical documents as ammunition in history wars.

The problem, however, was that these documents were not always as reliable as we would think. Dean Jesse was one voice in the wilderness calling for a closer reading of these texts. His work on the Manuscript History of the Church series made historians reconsider their devotion to positivist readings. He spearheaded the Papers of Joseph Smith series, which soon transformed into the Joseph Smith Papers Project, one of the hallmark efforts of historical accuracy in the field.

As a tribute to Jesse, three people associated with the Project, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Jensen, and Sharalyn Howcroft, put together an impressive volume dedicated to the close reading of documents. Published by Oxford University Press, Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources contains thirteen chapters, each dedicated to a particular document or theme. Authors range from distinguished senior professors like Richard Bushman and Laurel Ulrich to more junior scholars like David Grua and Jennifer Reeder, with many possessing backgrounds in between.

In what is perhaps a first in edited collections, I can honestly say there is not a “dud” in the volume. I genuinely learned something from every chapter. My only critique is that not all of he contributions really fit together: the more thematic chapters like those by Bushman, Grant Underwood, William Smith, and Ronald Barney, which presented a more holistic interpretive approach rather than close readings of text, did not mesh with the textual focus of the rest of the authors. But even those chapters contained nuggets of wisdom that make them important contributions, so my critique is only skin-deep.

My other real critique is the price. This is such a, ahem, foundational book that it deserves a broad distribution. Let’s hope OUP will put out an affordable paperback soon.

But enough with the negative. Let me highlight some of my favorite parts of the book.

Thom Wayment’s chapter focused on Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the Bible, and he made an argument with which I haven’t previously been exposed: that not only did the project contain multiple purposes, but the purpose evolved over time. Drawing on a meticulous reading of the various texts, he argues that the “Revelation on Moses,” now known as the Book of Moses, not only preceded the rest of the Bible project, but should likely be seen as a separate project altogether. Or, more cautiously, it was the catalyst for Smith to return to the Bible and perform harmonizing work with the scripture. The Moses portion, then, was more like Smith’s revelations during the day, and at most a bridge to the Bible revision. He then walks through the revision texts, including two passages that Smith revised twice, to demonstrate how the project evolved over the years. As “Bible interpreter” was Smith’s primary vocation during his first years as prophet, this is an important lens through which to view his development.

Sharalyn Howcroft’s chapter on Lucy Mack Smith’s history of her son was quite fascinating. I knew there was some tricky textual backstory, but I had know idea it was like this!

It was after reading Howcroft’s meticulous dissection of dozens of documents, pin holes, and editor marks that I realized I’m not a real historian.

I also enjoyed Jennifer Reeder’s chapter on the Nauvoo Relief Society’s minutebook. What did it mean that the minutes and council were meant to serve as a “living constitution”? Reeder traces not only the history of the text itself, but also of the women who made it–the social world that made the Society possible. Reading “between the lines” to dissect how power, charity, and friendships worked demonstrates the potential of textual scholarship.

I could go on and on. David Grua’s chapter on Joseph Smith’s prison letters creating a “textual community” for followers in disarray was a fascinating insight I hadn’t seen yet. Laurel Ulrich demonstrates why Wilford Woodruff wrote the “great American diary.” And Andrew Hedges and Alex Smith wrote the perfect primer text on Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo diaries.

In short, this volume is a must-have for historians of Mormonism. I can’t think of many edited collections in the field more worthy of that title. (Which, again, makes the price point so unfortunate–get your library to order a copy!)

It will also work as a great primer for historians of other topics who need an introduction to the field. Indeed, any scholar interested in early Mormonism will need to consult at least one chapter in this volume. It is an instant classic.

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