A reminder that Brent Rogers, Elizabeth Kuehn, Christian Heimburger and Max Parkin (Alexander Baugh and Steven Harper will be not able to attend but will sign books beforehand), editors of The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, vol. 5, October 1835-January 1838 (published by the Church Historian’s Press) will be here THIS WEDNESDAY, May 17, to speak about and sign copies of their book. They will be here from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.—speaking at 6:00 p.m.—and will answer questions and sign books before and after that time. We hope you will be able to make it that night but, if not, we can mail a signed copy or hold one here at the store for pick-up. To RSVP on Facebook, click here.

We attended a release event for the book today at the Church History Library and share here some things we learned (click on any photo for larger version).

Brent Rogers, lead editor for the volume, was the first to speak.  He noted that the 28-month period covered in the volume is a complex and trying time for Mormons and Joseph Smith. More than any other volume, this fifth Documents volume highlights the role of women (see Elizabeth Kuehn’s comments below). The first document he showed was a broadside of the dedication prayer for the Kirtland Temple. The months leading up to the dedication were a time of great spiritual experiences, blessings and ritual.

(broadside of the dedicatory
prayer of the Kirtland Temple)

Next, he showed the plat of Kirtland. As time went on, the concept of Kirtland as a gathering place developed. The 1837 plat drew on the Zion idea that leaders had attempted to implement in Missouri. Looking back, we often think of Kirtland as a place that would be abandoned in 1838 but it continued to be a stronghold for several years beyond that.

(plat of Kirtland City, 1837) 

Elizabeth Kuehn, working on her first volume, then discussed the importance of women in this volume. Though more women are highlighted herein than in any previous volume, she cautioned that this still represents only a fraction of those who were there. She discussed two letters from Emma to Joseph (unfortunately, only copies in a letterbook rather than the originals) that point up the growing dissent in Kirtland, much of it on economic grounds. Women were stockholders in the Kirtland Safety Society and also were involved in other financial transactions.

(letterbook showing letters between Emma and Joseph)

She noted the scarcity of documents during this period—no personal journal, no high council minutes and so on. For example, there is no contemporary record that elucidates the motives of leaders in wanting to create a bank. Looking back, this episode is ripe for misunderstanding and exaggeration. In the absence of primary sources, contextual examination shows that the endeavor was not as crazy or outlandish as it might seem today. She noted that a host of factors were responsible for the downfall of the experiment and it is unfair to blame it as a primary cause for the conflict in Kirtland. Rather, it should be seen as a catalyst that brought out underlying tensions.

(full set of Kirtland Safety Society banknotes) 

Finally, Christian Heimburger–another first-time editor–focused on two letters, one printed in the Messenger and Advocate and one copied into Joseph Smith’s journal. At a meeting of the debate school in Kirtland, a scuffle broke out between William and Joseph Smith that left Joseph unable to sit down or get up without help. The letters deal with this conflict which lingered and cast a shadow over Joseph Smith for some time. It is helpful to remember that Joseph is 29 and William just 24 at the time of this event. The letters show Joseph as caring for his brother’s salvation but also concerned about the results of William’s anger and dissent.

 (Joseph Smith journal, during William Smith episode)

Another prominent theme in this volume is the ongoing debate about slavery. A lecture on abolition in Kirtland seems to have brought the idea to the forefront. Abolitionist societies were as popular in Ohio as anywhere in the country—Oberlin College particularly was a hotbed for anti-slavery sentiments. An 1836 letter written by Joseph Smith and published in the Messenger and Advocate distances Mormons from their ideas. While we see abolitionists as heroes today, their ideas and tactics were viewed by most as radical at the time. Most Northerners disapproved of slavery in the southern states but did not support the methods of abolitionist leaders, seeing the potential for riots in the North.

(letter from Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery regarding abolition)

Matt Grow, director of publications, then gave a short overview of the publishing history of the project. The Documents series is planned to include 15 volumes and the project is about 60% complete overall. Documents vol. 6 is slated for a fall release. Spring 2018 will see Documents vol. 7, fall will be a volume in the Revelations and Translations series covering the Book of Abraham/Egyptian grammar and alphabet. 2019 will see Documents, vols. 8 and 9. The website includes many more peripheral documents (and other copies of those included) than are contained in the print volumes.

A question about updating curriculum to point to the Joseph Smith Papers. Matt mentioned the publishing cycles and noted that they are making efforts every time something comes up for publishing again to update sources and content.

A question about D&C 112—why would you sent trusted leaders away at this time (beginnings of British mission)? Elizabeth noted that there were preparations underway already with efforts in Canada to expand the scope of missionary work. In the volume, they contextualized the revelation as a larger effort to combat dissent also, rather than a pointed rebuke to Thomas Marsh.

A question on women’s voices in this volume—in the process of creating the book, were they “foundational” or “decorative”? Elizabeth noted that, for her, these were part of her work from the beginning. She noted how Mark Staker used the letters she mentioned earlier in Hearken, O Ye People but they tried to mine them further for the emotional element, particularly since they have so little from Joseph Smith personally during this period. Brent noted the selection of the land deed to Caroline Smith included in the volume—they could have chosen another example but selected this particular one because it is unusual and highlights the involvement of women in land transactions in Ohio at that time.

A question on methodology—the series in the Joseph Smith Papers (Journals, Revelations and Translations, Histories, etc.) artificially separates items into categories. How do you make sure you don’t miss something when you are annotating? Riley Lorimer noted that the Journals series, having been published previously, is a good source. Brent described how they consult with other project team members to see what they might have to help give context.

A question on Mormon use of the volumes—how is this material relevant to current concerns? Riley noted the possibility of using stories from the Documents volumes in lessons and talks. Today (and in other venues) Elizabeth has discussed in dissent in Kirtland using Vilate Kimball’s perspective from the time—a very relevant topic for today. Matt talked briefly about audience—in the early days of the project, the core audience was seen as scholars. However, they realize that the majority of readers and visitors to the website are not scholars but just average Mormons without a strong background in history so they have tried to make the project appealing to them as well.

A question on how the Joseph Smith Papers will impact Mormon and American religious historiography? Elizabeth mentioned her research into the Kirtland Safety Society and looking at stock trends and other research questions that don’t fit into documentary editing. Christian voiced a hope that scholars of American history will use some of these texts as a lens through which to see larger concerns (race, panic of 1837, etc.). Matt identified a study of religious dissent in antebellum America as another good opportunity.

A question on the final months in Kirtland before Joseph Smith leaves—what corrections will your research make to the narrative of this period? Elizabeth noted the acquisition of the Oliver Granger papers four years ago that shed light on his role in alleviating Joseph Smith’s debts. While he did not pay them all, these and other sources show honest efforts (until his death) to resolve these financial concerns.

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