For the last few months, my down-time reading has been the main church organ of the Nauvoo period, the Times and Seasons. I guess it became my version of reading the Ensign. Tonight I finally finished volume 6. I read the History of the Church when I was in college, then my way of proving that I could “handle” Mormon history as a faithful Mormon (I could). I turned to the Times and Seasons this time for material relevant to my research on the meaning of death and religious enthusiasm in early Mormonism. This newspaper is a fascinating and exciting window into the lives of early Mormons. In honor of the time I spent with these texts and, figuratively, the people who produced and first read them, I thought I’d mention a few of the things I have learned from reading this newspaper.
First and foremost, my research goals were easily met. Death and the threat of death saturate this paper. From the unexpected deaths of editor Don Carlos Smith (followed in the next number by the announcement of the death of his namesake, Joseph’s son–“aged 14 months and 2 days—Like the bud of a beautiful flower, ere it had time to expand twas cut down”) to co-editor Robert Thompson, who himself had shortly before eulogized Father Smith, to the wonderfully poignant and quintessentially Mormon deathbed of Brother Hanks buried at sea at “latitude 21-34 north longitude 26-11 west from Greenwich” sailing with Addison Pratt and company to start the mission to the Pacific (his companion Noah Rogers brought back a Tahitian New Testament, which John Taylor proudly published in 1846), to the much-commented death of Lorenzo Barnes in the British mission (first missionary to die on a foreign mission, his grave a site of pilgrimage for early Mormons), to the devastating deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and the myriad quieter obituaries of the dead (about one death every 1.5 days by my calculations).
Second, our religious ancestors were a spunky crew. They readily appropriated the language of antebellum journalism, the kind of invective I find these days on unmoderated blogs. Though William Smith’s Wasp was notorious for excessive polemics (and criticized for it), the same style infiltrates even the official religious paper of Nauvoo. I had never quite appreciated how potently anti-Protestant the early LDS were. I say it not to criticize them, but to try to understand how they saw themselves, their neighbors, and their critics. At least in the rhetoric of their paper, they were Davids to the worlds Goliaths, and it is an odd pleasure to see them taking on the world.
Third, they were much better educated than most of us give them credit for. They read the exchange papers, the standard ecclesiastical histories, knew a smattering of languages, founded a museum, and many of the missionaries collected cultural artifacts to bring back to Nauvoo (Wilford Woodruff discovered Lorenzo Barnes’s trunk full of such treasures on his pilgrimage). They were in frequent dialogue with texts read by the educated, thinking through the meaning of the claims of the culture beyond them.
Fourth, I had little idea how important William Phelps was to earliest Mormonism. He ghostwrote Smith’s political works, which I knew, but he also ghostwrote for John Taylor during his editorship. Phelps had a wide-ranging and untameable mind. While it would be easy to mock his errors of both judgment and fact, my heart is warmed by the urgent sincerity of his attempts to decode ancient languages and interpret the Bible in its true sense. He is also an early witness to Smith’s divine anthropology–his absolutely glorious science fiction short short story in the summer of 1845 appears to be the earliest statement of what would become Adam-God, and his Christmas 1844 letter to William one of the earliest statements of Mother in Heaven. We owe “Judge” Phelps a debt of gratitude.
Fifth, they resented the wealthy and the proud. Though I am no Marxist, the language of class conflict often informs the complaints of Mormon editors and believers. They found salaried ministers corrupt, wealthy businessmen a threat, and believed, religiously, that people ought to dress and live plainly, sacrificing their comforts for the good of their community. This was not specific to Mormons in this period of American history, but I had not appreciated before how close to the surface it was.
There are vastly more themes and material in Times and Seasons than I have mentioned here. I highly recommend digging into the paper rather than just searching out keywords in the digital databases. Scanned PDFs are available at the BYU library website, and Price Publishing of Independence, Mo has provided at low cost the convenient paper reprints I personally preferred to read away from the computer. Happy reading.