The Nauvoo Origins of the Book of Abraham

JSP AbrahamYesterday, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released their newest volume: Revelations and Translations, Volume Four: The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen. The book is another hallmark for the project, as its deep research and exhaustive contextualization will add much to an already popular topic. There is material for scholars interested in all sorts of questions: what did Joseph Smith mean by “translation”? How were the Egyptian documents related to the Book of Abraham project? What do these texts tell us about modern definitions of “scripture” in America? And for those most dedicated to either proving or dismissing Mormonism’s truth claims, there will always be questions concerning historicity. Read More

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Narrating America’s First Saint

SetonWhen Elizabeth Bailey Seton arrived back home in New York in 1804, her life was akin to a maelstrom. She was returning from an extended trip to Italy, where she had hoped the temperate climate would heal her ailing husband. It didn’t work. William, her intellectual and spiritual companion, died shortly after their landing in Europe. His economic success had already died a couple years prior: he ran a successful trade with his father, but after his father’s death, William was unable to keep things afloat. So when he himself passed a couple days after Christmas, 1803, in a foreign land, he left his young wife without many prospects. She would have to find a way to scrape by with her five children, all under the age of ten. When she disembarked the ship after the long voyage, and was greeted with the four children she had left behind (only one made the trip to Italy), Elizabeth must have faced a number of difficult emotions.

Yet while her friends and family urged her to turn her attention to earthly matters, Elizabeth Seton could only focus on the heavenly. Her stay in Italy not only introduced her to widowhood, but also Catholicism. Always a religious seeker, and increasingly yearning for institutional stability, Seton was deeply tempted by the faith most Americans dismissed as “popish.” She was especially drawn to their doctrine of transubstantiation, a sacrament that fulfilled her wish for immediate access to the divine. The following months were a religious struggle as her Episcopalian priest fought to retain her soul. Reflecting the torn nature of her mind, she wrote passionate letters to a married Italian man to whom she held such a deep bond that she also felt guilty; to balance these conflicted effort, she simultaneously directed her soul-searching diary entries to his wife.

This accounts for just a small sliver of Seton’s engrossing life, all told in exhaustive detail by Catherine O’Donnell in Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Three Hills, 2018). Read More

Fighting in Congress, Then and Now

FreemanThe confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have reaffirmed something that has become standard today: America’s congressional system, included the senate, is a very partisan space. While the vote is expected to follow strict party lines, both sides have lobbied insults and accusations at one another, party leaders have used shady mechanisms to get their way, and opponents have declared the moral depravity of the other. But at least they haven’t started to throw swings at one another.

(Yet, anyway; if they ever do, then perhaps this is the realm where Jeff Flake’s training might actually come in handy.)  Read More

Black Voices and Black Rights in Black Baltimore

BirthrightAmong the many casualties in the recent push to remove confederate monuments was Roger Taney. Taney was the Supreme Court justice who authored one of the most nefarious rulings in American history, the 1857 majority opinion in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that declared African Americans as non-citizens devoid of any rights. Despite his national reputation, Taney was a beloved (by some) son of Baltimore, and his statue sat prominently in Mount Vernon Place since 1887. In the midst of the fervid discussion concerning how America commemorates its racial past, city officials had the statue removed and placed in storage in August, 2017. Taney played a significant role in Baltimore, but it was not one that had to be commemorated.

Taney plays a crucial, if indirect, role in Martha S. Jones’s new book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Focusing on Baltimore between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jones argues that “black Americans can serve as our guides through a history of race and rights” (9). That is, rather than just focusing on race and rights as a touchstone topic—which historians have increasingly done—we must also incorporate black voices into this analysis. Birthright Citizens is a model for how to incorporate more characters into our historical narratives. Read More

Mormonism’s Expanded Canon

Expanded CanonOne of the most famous elements concerning the Mormon faith is its belief in an expanded scriptural canon. Besides the Bible, members of the church believe that the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are holy texts that contain the word and commands of God; more liberally, and abstractly, Mormons also believe that the words uttered by leaders today are, at least in some form, scripture, even if the official canon has been functionally closed for some time.

A new collection of essays, titled The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts (Kofford Books, 2018), explores many of the tensions related to Mormonism’s scriptural corpus. Most of these chapters are drawn from a conference hosted by Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies program a few years ago. Indeed, this volume is the first in a collaboration between Kofford Books and UVU, which will serve an important service for the field by reproducing some of the more provocative and smart proceedings in Mormon studies today.  Read More

Approaching a Decolonized Zion

Decolonizing MormonismThere are many books that influenced my development as a young Mormon academic, but few were as significant as Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. A collection of essays spanning several decades, the volume was Nibley at his finest: cultural gadfly, materialist critic, and armchair historian. Even as I might have grown a bit disillusioned with his historical chops—it turns out Brigham Young wasn’t the intellectual and individualistic iconoclast Nibley promised!—several fundamental lessons from the book still shape me today: an abhorrence toward the gross accumulation of wealth, a love for intellectual inquiries, and, most importantly, a belief that one could still be a Mormon while simultaneously critiquing the faith’s mainstream culture.

Also, the book made me a Democrat, so there’s that. Read More

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. Read More