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Davidson, et al, eds, "The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1 (Joseph Smith Histories: 1832-1844)" (reviewed by Br Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 1:09:33 PM

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Review
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Title: The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1 (Joseph Smith Histories: 1832-1844)
Editors: Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark R. Ashurst-McGee and Richard L. Jensen
Publisher: The Church Historian’s Press
Genre: Documentary History
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 560
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: 1606411969
ISBN13: 978-1606411964
Price: $54.95

Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters

When the Joseph Smith Papers project began, some expressed concerns that an “in house” effort would lack legitimacy. Scholarship such as that featured in “The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1 (Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844)” (hereafter H1) has put that concern to rest. This latest series—Histories—will consist of two volumes with the second including several non-supervised efforts (such as John Whitmer’s) to produce an early history of the Mormons. The four editors—Karen Lynn Davidson, Richard Jensen, Mark Ashurst-McGee and David Whittaker—are to be commended for their excellent introductory essays and helpful annotation surrounding eight separate historical documents composed under Joseph Smith’s supervision.

H1 contains the earliest attempts to capture the history of both Joseph Smith and the Mormons as a people. Following the counsel given in a revelation on the day the church was organized to have a “record kept among you,” several early efforts were made by different people. The first substantial pen to paper contribution came from John Whitmer in 1831. Shortly thereafter, Joseph Smith began a history in collaboration with Frederick G. Williams—the highlight being an account of the First Vision in Smith’s own handwriting (a unique occurrence). This history did not endure long and two years passed before another “headquarters” history was envisioned. The resultant 1834-36 history is a patchwork of differing sources (journals, letters, etc) and several successive scribes.

Though he never abandoned the goal of creating a flowing historical narrative, ensuing events prevented another attempt until 1838. Smith, in conjunction with Sidney Rigdon, began to create a (non-extant) history “from the earliest perion [period] of its existence up to this date.” Their initial effort was incorporated into later drafts—H1 includes three such drafts in parallel columns: the first in the handwriting of James Mulholland from 1839, the second (portions of which were copied from the first) written by Mulholland and Robert Thompson and the third (previously unknown) written by Howard Coray two years later. During this period of beginning what would become the Manuscript History of the Church, a separate (misnamed) document entitled “Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith Jr.” was published in the first issue of “Times and Seasons.” Based not on his journal but mainly on a “Bill of Damages against the state of Missouri,” this text related the chaotic final days in Missouri.

Partway through the Nauvoo period, editor John Wentworth wrote Joseph Smith on behalf of a friend and requested an outline history of the Mormons with some discussion of their doctrinal leanings. Though the response was never included in the projected history—it did not fall within the final chronological scope of the book—“Church History” (usually known as the “Wentworth Letter”) was published in “Times and Seasons.” Drawing on Orson Pratt’s 1840 tract “An Interesting Account…,” [2] the five-page article covers the trajectory of Mormonism from the beginning until the Nauvoo era and appends what are now known as the Articles of Faith. Shortly before Joseph Smith’s death, “Church History” was revised slightly [1] and updated before being included in Israel Daniel Rupp’s overview of American religions, “He Pasa Ekklesia.”

In an event held to announce the volume, the editors discussed what advantages H1 has over previous treatments of Joseph Smith’s history. They noted that the transcriptions have been reverified (on occasion using whitelight, UV and even multispectral imaging) to ensure accuracy. As readers of previous JSP volumes know, the introductory and contextual matter is a hallmark of the project. The editors have done an excellent job of noting the complexity of the earliest histories—in addition to patchwork narrative quality, the physical location of their recording is fascinating. The ledgers was often turned upside down, backward, etc., and repurposed as letterbooks to conserve precious paper. Finally, the third draft of “Manuscript History of the Church” in Howard Coray’s handwriting is new to historians. It was discovered in 2005 (along with the Book of Commandments and Revelations--included in "The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations & Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books"--and other miscellany) after a census of items in the First Presidency’s possession.

Having happily dug into the wealth of detail in the introductions in previous volumes, I was pleased to see this standard of excellence continued. The editors are meticulous in supporting their conclusions and broad in their reading. One wouldn’t have to think very long to make a list of all the times a Church imprint has cited Michael Marquardt, for example. I loved the detail of the records themselves—their multiple uses, the traces of later editors, the tantalizing remnants of other documents removed from the ledgers and so on. Even seemingly minor elements such as charts are of the highest caliber—the “pedigree chart” showing the relationship of all the texts involved in “Manuscript History of the Church” being a notable example. My only gripe with the Histories series is that more of “Manuscript History of the Church” won’t appear in print. However, knowing that the full, annotated record will be available is reassuring. Another well-deserved feather in the cap of the Joseph Smith Papers Project cap!

[1] An initial paragraph detailing the centrality of revelation to Mormon thought was one notable change.
[2] Given its importance in the later histories, Pratt’s pamphlet is included here as an appendix.
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