The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839, and: The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Vol. 1: Manuscript Revelation Books, and: The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books, and: The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Vol. 2: Published Revelations
Joseph Smith, Mormonism, American religion
Over the course of the last half-century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, has moved from an inward-looking, defensive posture with regard to the preservation and writing of [End Page 518] its history to taking a place in mainstream scholarship. The present volumes symbolize the openness and scholarly standards that have come to characterize that effort.
Joseph Smith wrote little. The Joseph Smith Papers, therefore, include a great deal of work not actually written by Smith himself. The Journals volume includes both records by Smith and, more often, entries written by scribes that were either dictated by Smith or summarize his activities. The editors are careful to distinguish whose handwriting recorded each entry. Indeed, the presentation of all of these volumes allows for a clarity of understanding of not just the words but the process of coming to certain versions of the words—a level of clarity beyond the needs of many readers but very helpful to experts in the study of early Mormonism.
For a broader audience, the Journals volume will hold more interest, perhaps, than will the Revelations. Nonetheless, the Revelations volumes are also carefully, even meticulously, prepared and presented. For the expert on Mormonism, and perhaps for the just plain curious, a multi-colored format that allows the reader to see messages believed to be from God going through various adumbrations is enlightening and sometimes fascinating. The facsimile edition will please some readers; the volume of published revelations allows scholars to trace the dissemination of those pronouncements.
The records of these early years of Mormonism show us a religious movement drenched in millennial anticipation and in occasional revivals that brought down the Spirit and resulted in such manifestations as speaking in tongues. Yet this was also a period of tremendous organizational drive. These volumes open up the process of creating and maintaining a complex hierarchy for the church. They also show Smith and other Mormon leaders at work simultaneously seeking a home for their community and putting energy into missionary outreach.
The primary audience for these volumes will be adherents to and experts in Mormonism. Historians beyond the specific field may also find these volumes of interest, however, and this review will concentrate on a few areas that may be illuminated by these collections.
Historians of American religion will find perusing these volumes fruitful in at least two ways. First of all, the religious development of Mormonism itself provides insight on popular religious culture and opportunities to see comparative aspects of American religions. The study of millennialism in the antebellum era, for example, necessarily includes mainstream Protestants, Millerites and Adventists, Shakers, [End Page 519] communitarians, and others. The visions, rhetoric, anticipation, and judgment that characterize Smith’s views of the end supply rich material for comparative study. Similarly, the Pentecostal-style practices of speaking in tongues and of laying on hands to heal the sick appeared in several antebellum movements, and these volumes allow us to tease out some comparative practices and experiences. Second, Smith and other early Mormons had contact with leaders from a number of religious traditions. These sources provide at least brief glimpses into the lives of some of those leaders. Smith had a significant visit with the Prophet Matthias during which the two leaders discussed, among other things, visions of the end, before Smith declared Matthias’s doctrine “of the devil” (Journals, 95) and threw him out. Conflict with mainstream denominations is a consistent theme: Smith was not allowed to use a Presbyterian meeting house; a Wesleyan Methodist spoke out against him; a Methodist was excommunicated for welcoming the Latter-day Saints.
Many historians, let alone other readers and students, cannot think of Mormonism without thinking of polygamy. It will be a disappointment to some, therefore, to note, first, that these volumes cover the years before the open polygamy period, and, second, that these volumes have very little directly to say about women. Women sometimes appear as the objects of actions: one brother was accused of “trying to seduce a female” (Journals, 85); the healing of a “deranged” sister was to be effected by the laying on of hands (Journals, 119). It is not clear whether Smith’s denunciation of a young woman who doubted the antiquity of his collection of “Egyptian records” had anything to do with gender; such a denunciation may simply have been an expression of Smith’s usual quick rejection of doubts and doubters. Women’s activities met approval when they followed mainstream gender norms: The role of women in preparing the House of the Lord in Kirtland, Ohio, was to make “the veil of the Temple” (Journals, 188). A revelation addressed to Smith’s wife, Emma, called her “an Elect lady” and encouraged her in the pursuit of learning, but specified her role as that of “a comfort unto my Servent Joseph . . . in the spirit of meekness” (Revelations, Vol. 1, 33).
The scarcity of entries directly related to women, however, stands in contrast to the richer potential in these volumes for the study of masculinity. Much of the material here would reinforce our assumptions about nineteenth-century gender norms: Smith’s discussion of the virtues and vices of Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, for example, reflects [End Page 520] the value that many of Smith’s peers placed on self-confidence without pride and uneasiness about establishing trust in the mobile world of the 1830s. Mormon men were also expected to uphold the middle-class value of temperance as well as the “refinement” of which Richard Bush-man writes.
These papers also allow us an entry into what might be called the organization of manhood. Readers of Mark C. Carnes and others interested in fraternal organizations will find in the early Mormons a similar sense of carving out a world of men that offered a complex of ranks and titles while rejecting the feminization of mainstream middle-class Protestantism. In fact, Carnes’s focus on the ritual of the angry father who first rejects and then embraces fits Joseph Smith perfectly. While it seems fair to plead that those interested in fraternal organizations should not neglect those of a religious nature, the same might be said of those who study militias or paramilitary organizations in American history. A Journal entry notes “we have a company of Danites in these times, to put to rights physically that which is not righ[t], and to cleanse the Church of verry great evils which have hitherto existed among us.” The same entry notes that Danites were organized “by companies of tens, commanded by their Captain over ten” (Journals, 293). The fact that this entry was later crossed out gives it even greater interest.
Another area for which these volumes provide a resource may be leadership studies—a growing area of interest in higher education of late. To say that Joseph Smith was a remarkable leader is a dramatic understatement. He praised, criticized, ostracized, and embraced until he had a loyal group around him in the presidency and other offices. He reinforced his patriarchal system by placing his father above himself in at least symbolic ways. He opened up revelation as a contemporary source of authority, and wended his way through the challenges represented by the possibility that others might claim to have the voice of God. Often Smith’s own voice or the voice of the revelations was angry and promised punishment to those who attacked or disagreed. As unsettling as that voice may be to some readers, it also shows Smith’s strength in drawing lines between insiders and outsiders, between acceptable questions and heresy.
The biases of the old Mormon historiography have not been erased completely in these volumes. There is no mention of those who question whether Smith really had a first revelation in 1820—a revelation that he recorded only some years later. On contentious issues, the editors are [End Page 521] inclined to back off from criticism of Smith. Nonetheless, these attractive volumes represent a tremendous scholarly resource presented effectively and comprehensively.
Ruth Alden Doan is professor of history at Hollins University. She studies religion in the United States, and has written on Millerites and Adventists, Methodists, and southern evangelicalism.