Review: JSPP, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844

July 14, 2012

Review by J. Stapley for

Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.
These are words of revelation to which all those interested in the human past muster a resounding amen, Latter-day Saint and non-Mormon alike. The process of heeding that call in the early Church of Christ started and restarted in fits of optimism. Because of the records that were eventually kept, the project of Joseph Smith’s institutional history was ultimately finished, though more than a decade after his death. Most interested observers of Mormonism have approached this history through B.H. Roberts’ edited version, published and republished as the History of the Church (sometimes called the “Documentary History of the Church” in the twentieth-century literature because of its documentary structure). However, there are more histories than one, and more pure.
Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard Jensen, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844in THE JOSEPH SMITH PAPERS, general editors Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012). xlvii, 686 pp. Cloth: $54.95; ISBN: 978-1-60641-946-4
Histories 1 (H1) comprises documents containing narrative history, which Joseph Smith (JS) either helped create or immediately oversaw. Beyond the canonized text of JS’s history are several other texts, written at different times, for different audiences and under different circumstances. H1 follows the general pattern of arrangement and construction for JSPP volumes, though perhaps citing more secondary literature than others [n1]. I will therefore address its content directly.
History, circa Summer 1832
The circa 1832 history is perhaps most well known as the first, first vision account. In introducing the document, the editors point out that the manuscript is likely a copy or revised copy inscribed by JS and F. G. Williams (6). This is an important observation as inscription does not necessarily indicate composition, though JS’s involvement is undoubted. Like most JS documents the question of how much the text reflects JS’s mind at the moment of creation looms over the circa 1832 history. However, while it is important to be mindful of such ambiguities, I tend to view this history as extremely proximate to JS, perhaps more so than any other history. In another helpful commentary, the editors also note the presence of lexical shifts in the first years of the church relating to priesthood (10). This is an important point that also preps the reader for later chapters where scribes read (and write) their understanding and vocabulary back into earlier events.
In my estimation, the circa 1832 history is the most accessible JS history to devotional readings. As Christopher Jones has shown, there is an unmistakable resonance to the broader early American context within it [n2]. JS’s experience was not as foreign to his environment as some may think. The familiarity of being convicted of one’s sins, seeking and then finding forgiveness (and then backsliding and seeking again) is something that scholars of antebellum religious experience and modern believers share, albeit in different ways.
History, 1834-1836
Several documents envisioned by JS in both revelation and correspondence served as cosmic records, spanning heaven and earth. “The Book of the Law of the Lord,” excerpts of which were included in Journals 2,is a prominent example of this classification. However, in 1834, both JS and Oliver Cowdery pestered John Whitmer to create the “Book of Remembrance” another recapitulation of ancient chronicle and reification of this impulse [n3]. That same year, Cowdery began a narrative history apparently on behalf of the Presidency that was also to perhaps serve as such a record (26-28).
The history Cowdery began includes very important details regarding the role and definition of the Church President (and Assistant President, a now deprecated position) and other priesthood functions, circa 1834 (32 and 34). The history includes the text of Cowdery’s ordination to “Presidency of the High Priesthood” and a description of the ordination being subsequently confirmed by the laying on of hands (36).
After two daily journal-like entries by Cowdery, Frederick Williams and Warren Parrish transcribes several letters previously published in the church press, which recount JS’s vision of an angel and discovery of metallic plates. The editors note that this was “the most extensive account of the origins of the Book of Mormon published up to that time” (39). After these letters is a section transcribed by Warren Parrish, which takes Joseph Smith’s second Ohio journal and edits it as a more formal administrative biography. There are many fascinating changes, and it is deeply compelling to see the scribe of a prophet struggle to craft a sacred history from the quotidian. Most edits were minor; in fact the annotation of this section is largely ported over from Journals 1. However, some changes are notable. Compare the following section of J1 and the Parrish history:

To day Samuel Branum [Brannan] came to my house, much afflicted with a swelling on his left arm, which was occasioned by a bruise on his elbow, we had been called to pray for him and anoint him with oil, but his faith was not sufficient to effect, a cure, and my wife prepared a poultice of herbs and applied it and he tarryed with me over night…[the following day] Samuel Brannum is very sick in consequence of his arm, it being much inflamed. (J1, p. 122)

To day Samuel Branum [Brannan], called at his house much afflicted with a swelling on his arm; he had been prayed for, but lacked faith to be healed, and at this time his pain was intolerable; Sister Emma Smith (wife of our author) who is ever ready to alleviate the distresses of the afflicted, administered to him his swolen arm, limb such applications as occurred to her mind, and succeeded, in checking the inflammation, and his arm was saved, and restored to health, through the blessings of God. (146)

Now, the H1 editors note these changes in the annotations, and we should not be quick to condemn the changes as a faith-promoting gloss. We don’t know what ultimately happened to Brannan, whereas Parish most likely did. However, this is also perhaps the first example of translating JS’s journals into a usable history and as such offers an excellent document for the illustration of textual criticism.
History Drafts, 1838-circa 1841
This section presents what volume editor Ashurst-McGee has called a “synoptic edition of the early trajectory” of the “History of Joseph Smith,” comprising three drafts, two of which the First Presidency released to the JSPP (see here, Appendix note 1). The 1838-1856 history of JS has been known to scholars for decades, and pre-Willard Richards portion is transcribed in H1 as Draft 2, though without later accretions. Draft 1 is a very early copy that was available to Jessee in his first volume of the Joseph Smith Papersbut that was only delivered to the Church History Library in 2010. It appears to be close to a compositional copy of the history and was drafted by JS’s scribe James Mulholland. Whereas Draft 2 was used for all subsequent institutional narratives, Draft 3 is a copy prepared in Nauvoo by Howard Coray and represents a closed stema in the production history. Coray apparently worked with JS to refine the history, but his draft was forgotten. It was received with Revelation Book 1 and the Partridge papers from the First Presidency in 2005. Coray also prepared a fair copy, but as it closely follows Draft 3, it was not presented. However, significant deviations are mentioned in the notes. All three drafts are presented in columns and make up the bulk of H1′s page count.
This section bears the history of the history, and the parallel iterations show the difficult mechanics of writing and refining the narrative of the Restoration to capture both the revelation and experience of JS. The annotation is very helpful and highlights aspects of the history that will be new to many readers. For example, anachronisms in the text are noted. As specific examples, the editors complicate the traditional account of having book of Mormon characters translated/verified by Charles Anthon (241n74 and 245n75), and relate details about the charges against JS for glass-looking that are completely absent in the litigation qua persecution narrative (309, 405, and 413).
There is also material that will be new to many readers. I was particularly stunned by the Draft 1 account of the June 1830 conference that was apparently mistakenly included in the account of the first official meeting of the Church of Christ (366-368). It includes material not retained in subsequent versions (cf., 388-389). For those familiar with the evangelic revivals of the period, the details are immediately recognizable, and bring several practices thought to have occurred only later in Kirtland to the very birth of church:

Some prophecied, many spoke with new tongues, and ⟨several⟩ of our number were ⟨so⟩ completely overpowered for a time, that we were obliged to lay them upon beds &c &c, and when bodily sensibility was restored to them they shouted Hosannas to God and the Lamb & declared that the Heavens had been opened unto them, ⟨especially N Knights⟩ that they had seen Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and many other great and glorious things.

“Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith Jr.,” July 1839
This chapter includes a narrative history that wasn’t part of JS’s journal at all. That JS signed it (while it was largely drafted by others) and framed it as his journal are important keys understanding JS’s approach to document creation, viz., he was not a twenty-first-century historian. It is nevertheless an important piece of the JS history which focuses primarily on the Missouri Mormon War. It was published in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. And again, the editors include important context to the document, which is understandably one-sided (e.g., the complications surrounding Mormon violence in the war, 478n49).
“Church History” and “Latter Day Saints”
The “Wentworth Letter” is commonly known among Latter-day Saints as the source for the “Articles of Faith.” John Wentworth asked JS for an historical narrative for a friend who was writing an history of Vermont. This history did not ultimately chronicle events past 1819 and consequently the material was left unused. This history was however printed in the Times and Seasonsin 1842. Though JS took responsibility for the document, the precise authors are unknown. The editors offer several likely possibilities and significant amounts of the text were drawn from a pamphlet authored by Orson Pratt in 1840 (which, in turn, drew from Parley Pratt’s writings). When a chronicler of American Religion requested a history of the church for inclusion in a forthcoming book, W. W. Phelps then edited and revised the 1842 history and sent it along. Whereas the 1842 essay did not make it into the intended volume, JS was thrilled to see the subsequent essay published. He received a copy of the book not long before he died [n5].
Orson Pratt’s Appendix
As noted above, the 1842 and 1844 histories were derived from a pamphlet written and published by Orson Pratt. The text of that document is presented as a transcript, with material used as a source for the JS histories highlighted with grey text blocking.
Writing of Joseph Smith’s plea that the refugees who fled from Missouri record details of their experiences, the editors note that “[h]istory, then, became a means not only to share their story but to forge a shared Latter-day Saint identity” (xxiv). But it is also the reading of the texts that creates identity. JS helped craft several accounts of his experiences which vary significantly from the canonized text that Latter-day Saints have ritualized. Their existence and disparities have been the focus of the most juvenile attempts at cleaving individuals from their faith. Perhaps the publication of History 1 will put an end to such silliness. That the First Presidency once again opened its vault to supply documents for the volume will hopefully allow all readers to appreciate the complex and rich material, which narrates the history of the church and its founder.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project does not cease to surprise. With Histories, Volume 1, the editors have presented some of the most familiar material to Latter-day Saints, but they have also coupled it with material new to the scholarly community. The result is a volume that is absolutely necessary to any serious study of the period, but also a volume that should be used far outside the discipline. It presents consummate material for studies in textual criticism, memory, and narrative studies. H1 maintains the strict and high standards of document editing that continue to push all publishers and scholars interested in Mormonism to increased excellence. And more than any other effort to preserve or present these materials, H1 has fulfilled the injunction of April 6, 1830. Yes, the record is kept, and very well.

  1. Though seriously, while all the supplementary material is of terribly high quality, could someone please fix the glossary entries for “laying on of hands,” “ordinances” and the various priesthoods? Presentaculous.
  2. Christopher C. Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Spring 2011): 88-114.
  3. Alex Smith has a really great ms dealing with the Book of the Law of the Lord. I’ve also got an draft ms dealing with the history of baby blessing which digs into it. Hopefully it will be under review by the end of the year.
  4. Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989).
  5. As a side note, the book which included this 1844 history is a real gem. It includes essays from the bulk of American churches, written by representatives of these churches. As such, it is an important window into the self-characterization of these churches. It is thus one of the primary documents for many faiths for which documentation is scarce, like the Reformed Methodists, from which Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball, et al. sprang.

Appendix I: Musings of a Believer
I think that some Latter-day Saints have believed that textual criticism threatens scripture, that it lessens or demeans the text. This reminds me of those who antagonize Mormonism with claims that its doctrine diminishes God. A common Mormon retort is that it most certainly does not, but that it elevates and exalts humanity. I think that my experience with the documents of the church has convinced me that Mormons should be the greatest proponents of textual criticism, and for reasons not dissimilar to my caricature of Mormon doctrines of divinity. [1] We have the documents which the eye witnesses of the Restoration used to compile our latter-day Testaments. And we have watched almost two hundred years of believers shape and reshape those narratives. A hallmark of the Restored church is a belief in the continuity of generations, and that God has not changed. No, the patterns of writing, rewriting, editing, and audience consideration, manifestly evident and most beautifully displayed in the Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1,do not demean scripture. They elevate both author and reader.

  1. I am no expert on ancient texts. However, I am generally sympathetic to critical approaches to scripture. If we did what we did, with relatively solid contemporaneous documentation, much of which is still extant, I have to imagine that the craft of the ancient authors, editors, and redactors was orders of magnitudes more dramatic without such tools.

Appendix II: Observation on the JSPP
At the release of the H1, the JSPP included the following image of the currently envisioned completed project. Absent from that image are the Administrative Records Series noted in H1 (xiii). This bookshelf also lacks volumes for the Bible Revision Manuscripts, the Book of Abraham, and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Additionally Willard Richards began writing JS’s history in 1842, but it does not appear that that text will be published. The volume editors have confirmed that the JSPP does not at this point plan on publishing these documents in hardbound editions. However, they do intend to provide images and transcripts for most or all of these in the digital edition online (which already presents some of this material).
If you are interested, you may also enjoy my reviews of J1, MRB, R2 and J2.