Rogers, Brent M., Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Christian K. Heimburger, Max H Parkin, Alexander L. Baugh, and Steven C. Harper, eds. Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838. Vol. 5 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017. xlvi + 656 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, $54.95 hardback.
Review by R. Devan Jensen
Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University. He worked previously as an editor for the Ensign magazine, the LDS Church’s Publishing Services Department, and Deseret Book Company.
Joseph Smith was a complex person. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in this volume discussing such a complicated period in US and LDS Church history.
As the introduction asserts, Documents, Volume 5 covers “moments of elation and moments of upheaval” (xix), including an 1835 recounting of the First Vision, purchase of mummies and manuscripts leading to the Book of Abraham, the School of the Prophets, a physical alteration between William and Joseph Smith, attempts at reconciliation, construction of the House of the Lord in Kirtland, glorious heavenly visitations during the dedication ceremony, a national recession and failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, widespread apostasy, launch of the Elders’ Journal, and Joseph Smith’s move to Missouri.
As with other volumes in the Documents series, the editing team succeeds in providing helpful and professional discussion of the documents, historical context, and artifacts.
Part 1 focuses mainly on an 1835 recounting of the First Vision (40–47) and translation of the Book of Abraham (69–88). This section raises intriguing questions: What connection do the Egyptian alphabet and grammar have with the Book of Abraham? How much time did the Prophet and his scribes focus on producing and recording revelation, and how much were they trying to reproduce the origins of human language? Here we are left with perhaps more questions than answers, but we look forward to more discussion in future planned volumes by Brian Hauglid, Robin Scott Jensen, and others.
Part 2 begins with tension. Elder Orson Hyde offered “a litany of complaints” against the top leadership (105). Then a disciplinary council led to a deposition by Lucy Mack Smith. An argument over that deposition erupted between sons William and Joseph Smith. When the Kirtland high council planned to censure William, he insisted he “had not done wrong” and accused Joseph of determining to always support his arguments “whether right or wrong” (111). After heated argument in a debating school, William and Joseph engaged in a fight, leaving Joseph “unable to sit down, or rise up, without help” (112). The brothers sought reconciliation. This section ends with a solemn assembly, washing and anointing, and a vision of the celestial kingdom involving the Father and the Son and the faithful deceased, including Joseph’s brother Alvin (157–59). The section of the vision involving Brigham Young preaching to “men of colour” is thought-provoking in light of the later move to Utah (160).
Part 3 describes the Hebrew School, priesthood ordinations, and heavenly visitations relating to the dedication of the House of the Lord. Some of the recorded visitations are quite dramatic (190). The hymn “Ere Long the Vail” was quite impressive (192–93). On page 206, the word “retuning” would benefit from an editorial clarification to “retu[r]ning.”
Part 4 recounts the familiar and well-documented visions of heavenly messengers (224–29). Less familiar is the section describing W. W. Phelps’s editorial about abolitionism in Ohio and the resulting backlash in Missouri (234–35), the ordination of blacks to the priesthood (235–36), and Joseph Smith’s seemingly contradictory claim in the April 1836 Messenger and Advocate “that the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan” (240). These documents and accompanying notes are vital as we seek to examine Joseph Smith’s notions of race, abolition, and emancipation.
Part 5 describes the banking experiment of the Kirtland Safety Society in ways that are both satisfying and challenging. The images of currency are particularly helpful. As the leadership pressed forward with a bank despite lack of state sponsorship, readers may wonder, What qualms did board members or the general members express about the way the leadership pressed forward? The editors do a fine job contextualizing how the national panic influenced the failure of the bank experiment.
Part 6 begins after the failure of the Safety Society with pressing financial and legal problems, dissension by Warren Parrish and many others, and Joseph Smith’s grave illness. As the volume introduction states, “The spiritual exuberance that attended the dediction at of the House of the Lord just eighteen months earlier seemed a distant memory” (xxxii). This section concludes with the bold and visionary calls of Wilford Woodruff and Jonathan H. Hale to preach as missionaries in “the eastern country” and of Heber C. Kimball to serve the first transatlantic mission in England.
Part 7 includes the launch of the Elders’ Journal; Wilford Woodruff’s report of missionary labors in New York, Maine, and the Fox Islands; excommunications in Kirtland; and Joseph Smith’s announcement of moving his family to Missouri. Brief mention is made of the burning of the Church printing press in Kirtland days after it was auctioned off (xxxiv, 537), a topic reserved for discussion in a later volume of the Documents series.
Overall, this volume makes an important contribution to Mormon history and is well worth the time to search for historical treasure therein.