The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 6

February 1838 - August 1839

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Brenden W. Rensink, Alexander L. Baugh, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, David W. Grua, Mark R. Ashurst-McGee
  • Salt Lake City, UT: 
    Deseret Books
    , September
     800 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the last decade the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP) has endeavored to comprehensively document the life of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A product of the LDS Church’s History Department, the last three volumes in the Documents series, volumes 5 through 7continue the meticulous standard of the editing and annotation of the prior volumes. All offer new nuance and detail to the narrative of Smith’s life. The Papersare now the standard for documentary scholarship related to early LDS Church history and the life of Smith. Any secondary source citing the 19th century production History of the Church now marks its age or ignorance. While created for scholars, the JSP editors have also made these papers accessible to a wide academic and devotional audience through videos, lectures, and comprehensive online access to each volume two years after its original publication. 

Geographic displacement, theological innovation, internal dissent, and political intimidation and expulsion characterize the years discussed in volumes 5 through 7. Each volume includes a broad variety of documents from revelations to meeting minutes to letters to political and financial documents. Though a documentary history of a single man, it is always difficult to extricate the man from the church he organized. The volumes offer a precise history of Smith’s life, often shifting the popular narrative of Mormon history in significant ways. A long-time focus on official male ecclesiastical structure has always limited female participation in the larger project of Mormon history. This continues here, limiting women’s appearance in the volumes, despite women’s consistent presence as followers of Smith. The JSP editors’ inclusion of women has improved over time, but the presence of women in these volumes is still rarely more than a token appearance. 

Volume 5 of JSP Documents (D5) thoroughly details the latter half of the Latter-day Saints’ time in Kirtland, Ohio. D5 reveals a revelatory Smith attuned to both the mundane and the fantastical during a period of numerical as well as structural growth. The sheer number of Smith’s interests identified in this volume is mind-boggling; he is a character representative of the dazzling religious landscape of the 19th century. He buys papyri and mummies, starts a bank (that becomes an anti-bank), directs the building of the first LDS temple, introduces early Mormon rituals, and participates in the visionary and charismatic celebrations accompanying the temple dedication. 

Documenting the transcendent accounts of the temple dedication is the spiritual center of this volume. Nineteenth-century Mormonism here appears as something completely charismatically other than its 21st century Protestantized counterpart. New rituals were central to these experiences for many, yet women were then excluded from the rituals. According to George A. Smith, member of the Twelve, the women were in a “right huffy about it” (Journal of Discourses, Brigham Young, ed. 2:215). Smith and his male associates in leadership positions were not the only ones to experience the numinous events surrounding Smith’s temple, yet women are absent from the charismata laid out in D5.

The celebration over the temple dedication does not last; it is shortly followed by significant dissension in Smith’s church, declension among a majority of church leaders, and the failure of Smith’s “bank.” D5 importantly provides the contextual precursors to this dissension among the leadership. Expanding the narrative, D5 also chronicles threats of violence in Clay County, Missouri, which sees violence against the Mormons as a consistent force throughout their time in the state.

The Missouri experience looms large in the Mormon memory and the contribution of volume 6 of JSP Documents (D6) is essential to understanding this critical period. This volume has the capability to shift not only the standard narrative of Mormons in Missouri, but also how we consider “mob” violence, as well as theological concerns of canon and revelation.

This volume begins with the Saints’ expansion into northern Missouri and lingering troubles from Kirtland. Though a January 1838 revelation told Smith to “get out of this place,” Smith did not leave all those troubles behind in Kirtland. The documents (regrettably) do not add to our understanding of the proto-polygamic relationship between Fanny Alger and Smith. However, the topic keeps on bubbling up and there is continuing dissent originating in those rumors. 

The most significant contribution here comes in the summer and fall of 1838: further expansion of the Saints in northern Missouri, the conflicts that resulted, the role of rumors in those conflicts, and the beginning of the Danites—the so-called Mormon “Avenging Angels.” The volume introduction begins the work of illustrating a broader contextual understanding of violence in antebellum culture. A focus on vigilante action shifts the narrative. Decisions about terminology were significant tasks for the editors; word choices like “vigilantism,” “expulsion” rather than “extermination,” and considerations about whether or not this conflict truly fit the characterization of “war” were crucial. The failure of the local Missouri government to protect the Saints led Latter-day Saints to choose extra-legal justice. Sidney Rigdon and Smith worked to legally contend against rumors that Mormons were uniting with Native Americans (perhaps one of the most persistent 19th-century Mormon rumors). Vigilante action on the part of both Mormons and Missourians becomes vital to understanding the breadth of this violence and the accuracy of the label “the Mormon War.” Extra-legal action transitioned to state-sponsored violence against a minority group, yet that minority group would continue to defend itself. 

A weighty absence marks October 1838. There are no sources from Smith directly during that month. Though there were letters written back and forth, chaos overwhelmed any ability to preserve documentation. Unfortunately, the extant sources do not add any women’s accounts to the contemporary record of sexual violence in Missouri.

The last section focuses on Smith as a prisoner in Missouri with a collection of letters to rival Jeremiah (but probably not Paul). It covers 4 November 1838 to 16 April 1839—the day of Smith’s escape. Smith’s prison letters illuminate his own suffering, the hardship of his followers as they were legally expelled from the state of Missouri, and their legal efforts at redress. But the letters also offer more details of the continuing contest between the Missourians and the Mormons. Moreover, the letters become a spring of significant Mormon theology. 

While Smith languished in jail, Sarah Burt Beman was reimbursed for a portion of a loan she made to help alleviate some of the church’s debts in Kirtland. Along with Emma Smith, Noble is one of the very few women who make it to the text by name in D6—more appear in the notes. Many women visited the jail and also made copies of Smith’s prison letters. However, none of the full text of those sources was included. One letter from Emma Smith to her husband in March 1839, as well as a letter they wrote together, are the only women’s writings included in the volume. The volume ends with the quest of Latter-day Saint refugees to create new communities once again, this time on a swampy bend of the Mississippi. 

Volume 7 of JSP Documents (D7) covers just seventeen months in more than seven hundred pages. After the harrowing drama of the Missouri War, expulsion, and the brief respite found for the refugees in Quincy, we narratively find ourselves in a fully formed and functioning Nauvoo. This volume compensates for a historical lacuna—Smith laboring to establish and bring the Saints to what he considers will be “the greatest city in the world” and beginning to introduce distinctive Mormon doctrines that will shape the Nauvoo period.

Mired in the mundane aspects of establishing a city, Smith tired of selling city lots, an activity which took up much of his time. Though the land deeds are not all included, the editors use the deeds as an opportunity to bring people of color and more women into the white male-centric narrative. This includes land deeds for Elijah Able, a free person of color, and Jane Miller, a single woman. Smith was eager to focus on more spiritual things—this volume is on the cusp of a period of great doctrinal creativity beginning with teachings about the Constitution, baptism for the dead, expansions to the temple rites, and the first sealing of a couple in marriage. Some documents are known but expanded, such as Smith’s letter to the Twelve in Britain in December 1840, which includes a significant paragraph about his teaching of baptism for the dead that was expurgated from the published version of the letter (469-70). Other familiar stories are given more context such as the reconciliation of Smith with dissenting apostle W. W. Phelps.

This volume also begins to incorporate more women’s voices. Though they remain scant, it is a significant improvement over previous volumes and includes a letter from Emma, sermon notes available via Martha Jane Coray, and Jane Miller’s land deed. It also continues to allow women to provide important context as do Vilate Kimball and Phebe Woodruff on baptism for the dead. One of my favorite documents highlighted by the editors comes from this same period—Brigham Young was on the mission in Great Britain and his wife, Mary Ann Angell Young, was in need. She and her children “apparently lacked adequate food and shelter.” Smith sent a note to the bishop, writing, “Sir, it is of my opinion, that you had better let Mrs Young have anything she wants, that so doing will be well pleasing in the sight of God” (291-293). All she wanted was nutmeg, a shawl, and some shoes.

Politically, D7 likewise offers more colors and shades to paint well-known characters like US President Martin Van Buren, the notorious John C. Bennett, and weighty events like Smith’s trip to Washington and the creation of the Nauvoo Charter. President Van Buren attracts the biting comments of Smith, but D7 offers context to the vitriol. The establishment of the Nauvoo Charter, the continuing political atmosphere in Illinois, and Bennett’s central role in creating the Charter are all explored in meticulous depth, as is Smith’s phrenology reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janiece Johnson is the Laura F. Willes Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brenden W. Rensink is an Assistant Professor of History, Assistant Director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University, and general editor of Intermountain Histories.

Alexander L. Baugh is a professor and chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Elizabeth Kuehn is a historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

David W. Grua is a historian and documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mark Ashurst-McGee is a senior research and review editor for the Joseph Smith Papers and a specialist in document analysis and documentary editing methodology. He holds a PhD in history from Arizona State University and has trained at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents. 



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