Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel

The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency

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Editor(s): 
Reid L. Neilson, Nathan N. Waite
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2017.
     464 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190600891.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency is a helpful, easy to use collection that offers first hand glimpses into the concerns, struggles, and experiences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid 19th century. The themes addressed in the letters “to the Saints scattered throughout the earth” illustrate the difficulties of frontier living, as well as the spiritual perspectives of a deviant religious tradition walking a line between theological patriotism and cultural rejection. Organized chronologically, the epistles drafted by the LDS church’s highest governing body began in 1849 and concluded in 1856. While the names and events contained in each epistle change, several major themes throughout help identify the primary values and beliefs of the self-exiled religion, at least from an institutional perspective.

Perhaps the most important and frequent topic addressed in the letters is the principle of gathering. As the church sent missionaries to the eastern United States, western Europe, the Pacific islands, Australia, and even Asia, leaders urgently called new converts to “come home” to Zion in the Salt Lake Valley. Not only did gathering Israel serve to fulfill biblical prophecy, strengthen the persecuted faith, and assert theological authority; it also doubled as a practical means to help the economy and improve living conditions, erasing boundaries between the sacred and the secular. As new converts came to Deseret (the original name given to the territory by Mormon leader, Brigham Young), they brought with them skills, supplies, and resources that contributed to the collective prosperity of the various settlements. These benefits included additional bodies to labor for the production of crops, volunteers to build the temple and other civic and religious structures, men with foreign language expertise to help with evangelization in their homelands, and people in specialized vocations to meet the constant demand for textiles and hardware.

Despite the constant shortage of material goods caused by lack of funds, isolation from American society, and harsh climates, the First Presidency maintained a positive outlook and commended the Saints for their progress and advancement both at home and abroad. However, they had no tolerance for “idolaters” who sought after gold in California, who did not gather to the valley, or who forsook holiness by not giving to the poor. Additionally, they called for peaceful treatment of the local Indians, with whom they had many struggles during these years. While Young and his counselors believed they were degenerate savages, as most Americans did, they consistently counseled the Saints to feed them, protect them from the slave trade, and teach them the gospel.

The Saints’ theocratic democracy required physical and spiritual sacrifice as means to pursue a religious end. In the 12th general epistle, the First Presidency declares “our Holy Religion absorbs every feeling, desire, ambition, motive and action of our natures, and renders every association in life tributary thereto… it enters not only into our spiritual but also into temporal organization, and controls us in all our affairs” (233). Nearly every report of secular concern, including commands to improve the economic situation at home, is woven throughout with scriptural language and religious imperative. Although the Latter-day Saints helped to shape the American West through their industrial, agricultural, and educational developments, they ultimately saw themselves as a religious community fulfilling the commandments of God. For them, everything they did had a spiritual purpose.   

Reid L. Neilson and Nathan N. Waite contribute introductory essays that summarize the main themes of the fourteen epistles, contextualizing them within larger historical narratives, and that outline the historiography of apostolic letter-writing. The title of the book identifies the major aims of the early church in the Salt Lake Basin. The authors employ convenient same-page footnotes that contextualize the epistles’ content to fill in historical gaps, as well as provide helpful appendices to identify and describe important persons and places. All of these elements help them accomplish their purpose: “to make these General Epistles more accessible to our twenty-first-century audience” (xiv). Their editorial contributions remain true to the original documents and expound upon them to establish their importance for the church and for 19th-century American religious history. By providing the epistles’ provenance, readers can also appreciate the value and rarity of having these letters bound in a single volume.

This primary source collection, then, makes rigorous study accessible to determine the biases, motivations, and factual accuracy of LDS leaders in antebellum Utah. While there is little for which to criticize the editors, the production gives ample reason for praise. Beyond Mormon studies, Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel advances and facilitates scholarship in disciplines as varied as comparative literature, American religious history, history of the American West, religion, missiology, and Native American studies. It provides qualitative data that is quantifiable for studying LDS institutional policies, practices, and processes. By comparing these general epistles and their scholarly commentaries to the literature of other movements and institutions of the 1850s, students, scholars, and laypersons can achieve a more accurate and complete understanding of an influential religious movement on the frontier of American ideology and territorial expansion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mitch Nelson is a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Reid L. Neilson is assistant church historian and recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Managing Director of the Church History Department. He completed his PhD in religious studies (American religious history emphasis) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an award-winning author and has published over a dozen books. 

Nathan N. Waite is an associate editorial manager for the Joseph Smith Papers Project in Salt Lake City. He received an MA in American studies from the University of Utah and previously published A Zion Canyon Reader.

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