Seeing Early Mormonism through Newel Knight’s Eyes

KnightIf Latter-day Saints are a record-keeping people, then Mormon studies scholars are document-crazed researchers. The advent of the academic study of Mormonism’s past, known as New Mormon History, was driven by archive-hounds, largely enabled by a period of openness at the LDS Church archives. And that fascination has endured ever since, even as the field has become more theoretically rich and interpretively adventurous. Perhaps the most common expression of this obsession is the large number of documentary history volumes published nearly every year, enough so that both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association have awards dedicated to the genre.[1] Even in the age of digitization, and when most university presses shy away from documentary editing, there are often close to a dozen titles that appear each calendar year, from a variety of different presses.

The most recent addition to this growing corpus is The Rise of the Latter-day Saints: The Journals and Histories of Newel Knight, edited by Michael Hubbard MacKay and the late William G. Hartley. Knight was one of the earliest converts to the Mormon faith, and was involved in a lot of “firsts”: he was one of the first outside of Joseph Smith’s family to hear the message, one of the first baptized, recipient of the first miracle, and the first person to be married by Joseph Smith. He traveled with earliest communities from New York to Missouri, from Missouri to Ohio, from Ohio back to Missouri, and then to Nauvoo, where he was part of the first migrant companies to leave in early-1846. After being appointed over a transient Mormon community in Nebraska, he died in early 1847 at the still-young age of 46. Given his long and close relationship with Joseph Smith, he was witness to a number of important episodes, especially early on, and his accounts are an immensely important source for reconstructing the young faith.

When in Nauvoo, and assigned to work on the official church history, Knight began constructing his own autobiography documenting his eventful life. Much of this new narrative drew directly from the official account, and indeed he often copied verbatim long sections from what came to be known as Joseph Smith’s history. But he also buttressed that material with his own reminiscences, including many details about the earliest followers of Joseph Smith in New York. Then, when he finally caught up to real time in the latter-part of Nauvoo, the autobiography turned into a more standard diary, with fragmented entries that lacked the coherent overview but captured contemporary struggles.

The result was an amalgamation of reminiscent accounts, copied histories, and inchoate diary entries, all loosely held together in scattered bunches. And things only became more complex after Knight’s death in 1847, as his family then tried to edit, complete, and publish his writings, resulting in five different versions. This has led to some confusion in the Mormon history community, as different historians at different times have relied on different versions of the record.

The Rise of the Latter-day Saints then does a wonderful service for the field by producing a volume that collects all the accounts in one place. The original record serves as the primary text, but significant differences in later accounts are highlighted in the footnotes. More, the editors do a good job by buttressing the story with other contemporaneous documents which help flesh out the story. MacKay and Hartley are both veterans of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and it shows. Not only do they have a firm grasp of the early sources relevant to this set of documents, but they also demonstrate seasoned expertise in both presentation and dissection.

Newel Knight has always been seen as an important set of eyes through which to see early Mormonism, and this publication will make sure that this remains the case. Scholars of the early LDS Church will be well-served to consult this volume in the future.


[1] We take this for granted, but I can hardly find any other historical association that presents awards for documentary editing.

[2] For just a few examples this year, see this, this, this, this, and this.