- Reviewed by
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...