A Long, Strange Trip

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.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Sam. I think we sometimes get too caught up in reading secondary literature that we overlook our primary sources. This is a refreshing reminder to remember to go back to the original texts for the purest interpretations of the early Church.

  2. purest interpretations of the early Church.

    Whoah, easy there. I’m with you on going back to the original texts, but purest interpretations?

  3. Glad to see a mention of my FAVORITE ancestor Addison Pratt. Reading his journals (edited by Ellsworth and published by U of U Press) was a life- (and testimony-) changing experience. The death in question here, involved his companion’s vision of what seems like our modern conception of the Spirit World.

  4. Thanks for the reference to Price Publishing. I have wanted an actual reprint of T&S for some time but just couldn’t bring myself to purchase anything from the Tanners; I wasn’t sure who else would offer it for a reasonable price. (Turns out Price charges a little bit less than the Tanners!)

  5. I’m always impressed by how utterly self-assured those early Saints were. Yes, it got them into trouble quite often, but they were never ones to back down from a fight — at least not until it became a choice between fighting and survival, hence their decision to abandon Missouri and then Nauvoo.

    But these guys weren’t shrinking violets, they were bold and dynamic in everything they undertook. It’s no surprise that they were willing to go toe to toe with people like Thomas Sharp, and to insinuate themselves into the highest circles of political intrigue wherever they went. They were not intimidated by power nor afraid to obtain and wield their own.

    They even, as we know, could engage in some vicious internecine warfare. There were many who were more than ready to assume the “throne” when they became convinced that Joseph Smith had gone astray. Mind you, they never once seemed to doubt his foundational stories; they almost invariably remained utterly convinced of the divine origins of the Book of Mormon, for example. But they could easily see themselves “finishing” what Joseph had started.

    I never cease to be amazed how Joseph Smith (and later, Brigham Young) succeeded in managing such a stable of talented, dynamic, and somewhat hot-blooded men. And yet they did. And they did it well.

  6. Thanks for this mini-tour of the T&S, Sam. It is definitely a treasure trove for cultural historians.

  7. Interesting stuff. Thanks Sam. T&S is always a fun read.

  8. This is very cool, thanks Sam.

    So when did we start to like rich people? Cuz I think we kinda like them now.

  9. Sam,

    For some reason I cannot locate them on BYU’s website, can you provide a link?

  10. Amri, I never started.
    MattG, http://relarchive.byu.edu/MPNC/ is the place to go. A wonderful contribution from Brigham Young’s University.

  11. What kind of bizarro world are we in where timesandseasons.org mentions the term “by common consent” and bycommonconsent.com mentions the paper “Times and Seasons”…
    Has anyone figured out how to posting something and use the term “feminist mormon housewives”?
    :-)

  12. Thanks Sam!

  13. Sam, do you have any notion of what literature Phelps was reading (what newspapers, books, works from Britain, other languages), particularly in the early 1830s?

    I’m trying to locate a likely text from which he picked up the ideas behind the following statement of his in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate (BRM’s “Races of Man” entry in Mormon Doctrine appears to be derived from the Phelps quote):

    “Is or is it not apparent from reason and analogy as drawn from a careful reading of the Scriptures, that God causes the saints, or people that fall away from his church to be cursed in time, with a black skin? Was or was not Cain, being marked, obliged to inherit the curse, he and his children, forever? And if so, as Ham, like other sons of God, might break the rule of God, by marrying out of the church, did or did he not, have a Canaanite wife, whereby some of the black seed was preserved through the flood, and his son, Canaan, after he laughed at his grandfather’s nakedness, heired three curses: one from Cain for killing Abel; one from Ham for marrying a black wife, and one from Noah for ridiculing what God had respect for? Are or are not the Indians a sample of marking with blackness for rebellion against God’s holy word and holy order? And can or can we not observe in the countenances of almost all nations, except the Gentile, a dark, sallow hue, which tells the sons of God, without a line of history, that they have fallen or changed from the original beauty and grace of father Adam?”

  14. check Adam Clarke’s Holy Bible, which they all read.
    they also all read Mosheim, though i don’t know whether they speculate much about race there.
    people were reading Josiah Priest pretty openly.
    Smith owned Horne’s bible commentary.
    I see them reading Methodist and Baptist literature the most, though they would read popular histories as well.
    I don’t think I saw any of that garbage in Buck’s.
    They read Pope and Addison, and Phelps quoted in that period from Jacques Saurin, I just remembered, all possibilities.

    The most likely source would be what they called the “exchange papers,” this nebulous mass of newspapers that flitted about the new Republic like passenger pigeons. They read the NY Sun, the DC Globe, papers from Cincinnati and St. Louis, London and Paris papers.

    If I had access (I know Harvard does and suspect BU would too, but you can always visit the society directly) and were you, I would search the American Antiquarian Society early american newspapers series looking for this kind of material. I suspect you’d find it fairly quickly.

  15. you might search for a [ or ] in period papers.
    sometimes they’ll set off an exchange paper name with square brackets.

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