Foundational Texts of Mormonism

Examining Major Early Sources

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Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin S. Jensen, Sharalyn D. Howcroft
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In October 1838, Asahel Woodruff, who ran a bookstore in Terre Haute, Indiana, died. Two months later, in early December, his brother Wilford, a miller and more recently zealous missionary for the new Church of Christ (soon to be renamed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Mormons) discovered Asahel’s death in a newspaper. On December 11, Wilford sat down and inscribed into his diary his discovery of his brother’s death. Most of his words were written in his customary cramped but clear hand. His brother’s name, though, was carefully printed in large capital letters, twice the size of the text surrounding, and below them he sketched a dozen hands gesturing upward at the name. Wilford’s shock could hardly be clearer.

Woodruff’s extensive diaries are well-known to historians of Mormonism for its author’s meticulous coverage of his experience in early Mormonism, as well as for its not infrequent artistic flourishes like those in this entry. Woodruff often drew arches, symbols, coffins, hands, and other decorations in his entries. But we have waited until Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s exploration of the diary in her essay in this volume (and her recent book, A House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017),which draws extensively on the Woodruff diaries) for an exploration of precisely why. Ulrich’s essay considers not merely the textual content of the Woodruff diaries; it considers them as a visual and material object small enough for Woodruff to carry across the country, valuable enough that he learned shorthand to speed his recordkeeping, and sacred enough to him that he labeled the first “The First Book of Wilford,” imitating scripture. “God spoke to his children through earthly artifacts,” Ulrich writes (269). 

The essays in this innovative volume explore not only the Woodruff diaries but sources as variegated as early portraits of Brigham Young, the handwritten manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, the family history of Joseph Smith’s mother Lucy, and the first minute book of the Female Relief Society, Mormonism’s women’s organization. They encourage us to think of these sources as more than simply texts, but objects. The physicality of these things, items that are produced, transmitted, cared for, altered, or destroyed, itself carries information about the past. As the editors put it, these items should be explored as “products of history rather than just as sources of historical information” (13). The editors are employees of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, a longstanding documentary editing effort targeted at producing critical editions of all extant Joseph Smith documents, and their training both as historians and as documentary editors is evident here: they are interested in the ways the tools of documentary editing can inform the narrative and analytical tasks of the historian. 

Roughly half of the essays in the volume consider sources produced under the authority of Joseph Smith; a few others deal with contemporaneous or subsequent texts, like Woodruff’s diary. They proceed in chronological order, following the production of the texts they are concerned with. As such, the two that follow the author’s introduction deal with the Book of Mormon itself. These include Richard Bushman’s essay on the elusive golden plates from which Smith produced the scripture, and Grant Hardy’s study of the two handwritten manuscripts of that book. (They are the original manuscript, now nearly destroyed after spending many years in the foundation of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo, Illinois home, and the printer’s manuscript, which Joseph Smith’s scribe Oliver Cowdery copied from the original, and of which he also transcribed the majority.) The two essays offer a useful schema for those that follow. Bushman considers the importance of the plates as a religious artifact for later Mormonism. He argues that they served as important a role as a symbol for Joseph Smith’s style of prophecy as they did a source of text. “The angel did not hand the plates to Joseph Smith. He had to dig them out of the ground . . . That is the way God works, the plates insist—through humans,” Bushman writes (36-37). On the other hand, Hardy offers a meticulous study of the Book of Mormon’s text that draws on the work of Royal Skousen. Hardy delineates the differences between the extant original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the printer’s manuscript, and various printed editions to make key points about the nature of early Mormonism. The text, he says, was almost certainly dictated, and the edits later applied signaled that for Joseph Smith and other early Mormons, the Book of Mormon was an object of immediate canonicity—a status that for Joseph Smith did not preclude later grammatical and typographical edits, fixes, and updates.

These two modes of interpretation—the one concerned with an object’s cultural significance and the other the product of textual analysis—characterize the essays which follow. Some of the best interweave both, showing how a text’s physical history and its written meanings complement each other. For instance, Jennifer Reeder’s discussion of the Female Relief Society minute book considers the book’s role in solidifying and legitimating in text the Society’s legitimacy, possession and control of the book as a means of authority, and the book’s charting of the private and public relationships the society created. Similarly, William V. Smith’s account of Joseph Smith’s sermonic record considers the ways in which Smith’s use or disuse of common preaching methods and tropes, his followers’ willingness to treat his sermons as something like scriptural canon, and the audits and records kept of his sermons as he preached extemporaneously all intersected. Sharalyn D. Howcroft’s essay, on the memoir of Joseph Smith’s mother Lucy, demonstrates how that text’s complicated provenance, passing as it did through the hands of two editors-cum-coauthors who took dictation, rewrote, added, and edited, shows us a struggle over the meaning of the Smith legacy in the very production of a history.

This book, then, is more than a discussion of the “foundational sources” of a new religious movement. It shows us that movement’s self-creation through its production of documents. David Grua’s essay on the letters Joseph Smith sent from his brief imprisonment in Liberty Jail reveals just how conscious that process was. Smith’s letter-writing was designed not simply to communicate with his family; he took the opportunity to theologize his failure, to show how his imprisonment was consonant with the new religious tradition he led. He ensured they were carefully and slowly written by scribes, hoping that the stately production of the letters he mailed would help assure his people that he remained in authority. After seeing the similar care and diligence these authors have shown to the documents they study, it will be hard for any historian to avoid scrutinizing the handwriting or watermarks or folds that mark any page that comes before them in an archive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Bowman is Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Ashurst-McGee is Senior Historian and Senior Research and Review Editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, where he specializes in document analysis and documentary editing methodology. He is a coeditor of several volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers and is the author of several articles on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history.

Robin Scott Jensen is Associate Managing Historian and the Project Archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Jensen is a coeditor of the volumes in the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers and is the author of several articles on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history.

Sharalyn D. Howcroft is a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and an archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers Project specializing in handwriting identification and custodial history.


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