In 2009 the Joseph Smith Papers Project published their second volume, the first in the Revelations and Translations series (review here). This volume included the “Book of Commandments and Revelations,” which had previously been unknown to researchers. Robin Jensen (RSJ) is an editor with the JSPP and worked specifically on Revelations 1 (Robin introduced some important aspects of the text in a series of posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Robin also recently wrapped up his thesis involving early Mormon record keeping and has graciously agreed to an interview about his important work. This is the first of two posts with him.
To start off, last fall was fairly eventful: publishing one of the most important documents of the JSPP, which you have been working on for quite some time and also successfully defending your thesis and graduating with an MLS. Did you move on to the next thing right away or did you have a chance to savor the moment?
R1 kept many of us busy for much of the beginning of last year, but by mid-June, the file was sent off to the printers. After some needed brain downtime during a week-long vacation, I jumped into revising my thesis with the goal to finish by December.
The release of R1 was something akin to a great reveal. We have had some months to processes the content. What were your expectations of its reception and has it played out like you thought it might?
R1 was released in late September and we were not quite sure what to expect. This was our second volume of the JSP, but at twice the cost, none of us were sure how well it would sell (although I’m please to report that sales have exceeded all of my hopes). Nor did I know what to expect regarding reactions to the content. On some level, I had huge unrealistic expectations from scholars: didn’t everyone understand deep down that it really did matter whether a particular punctuation mark was a comma or a period? I mean, this is important stuff. But it’s important to me, not necessarily to everyone. (Yes, I really do feel deep down that it’s important to get everything right—even the punctuation, that’s why it’s so frustrating to find an occasional error in the transcript). No one that I know have approached this text with that level of obsession. But I did expect scholars to “get” how important the entire volume (including both the Book of Commandments and Revelations and the Kirtland Revelation Book) is to our understanding of revelation record keeping. However, the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen thus far is that readers go straight to the “new” revelations (the Canadian Copyright revelation and the sample of Pure Language), which is understandable, but I hope this volume will become more than the go-to place for these scarce revelations.
Throughout this volume one finds examples illustrating the process of revelatory record keeping and the subsequent attitude about the permanence of those texts. JS and the other leaders and members of the church viewed revelations differently than in today’s church (although the divine power behind the texts was and is felt by both early and modern church members). Changes to the text of the revelations show that the “revelation” often spoken of was the concept behind the words, not necessarily the words themselves. The words were arranged and assembled to show the “revelation” but the words themselves were a means to an end. (I do not mean by this that the wording itself was not and is not inspiring to many people, including myself.) This volume has the potential to help scholars better understand the role revelation played in the early church, not just the role individual revelations played in various events of early church history.
Can you tell us how you were introduced to “A Book of Commandments & Revelations” as part of your job? Your thesis grows from this document in significant ways; how did your thesis topic come into being?
Casper, Wyoming, 2006 meeting of the Mormon History Association. A group of us were called into someone’s hotel room whereupon we were told of the existence of this remarkable book [for more on the provenance of the document, see the linked review in the intro paragraph]. Shortly after returning from MHA, I had an opportunity to spend an afternoon with the document. It was love at first sight. And the rest, as they say, is history. Regarding my thesis, it was just over four years since I had began the program and I was beginning to be more and more conscious that I had not yet finished my degree. Because of the nature of the degree (Masters of Library and Information Science with an archival concentration), I already knew the thesis topic would be focused on an archive topic. Initially I thought of doing a thesis on the contributions of Andrew Jenson to the records of the church (Jenson is a great hero of mine). I soon realized that a topic taking place during Joseph Smith’s lifetime was ideal due to my work, so I seriously contemplated focusing on record keeping of the Mormon Church during Smith’s administration. It only took 20 minutes of me making an outline to realize that the epic nature of that particular topic—not something for a mere thesis. When the Book of Commandments and Revelations surfaced I felt a topic on the development of revelation record keeping would be perfect.
Let’s talk about your thesis a bit. First off, a lot of early documentation hinges on the word “commandment” in a way that is not common today. Could you summarize how that term was used and perhaps introduce us to how this relates to early Mormon record keeping?
One of the things that caught me off guard was the different nomenclature surrounding the divine texts produced by Joseph Smith. For the most part the sacred texts were referred to as commandments by early church members. Most early sources discuss the commandments; in fact the language in the commandments themselves often refer to previously received commandments. When the saints choose to publish the sacred text, the first publication was titled A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ, Organized according to Law, on the 6th of April, 1830. I think the term commandment was a bit more descriptive generally speaking of the early texts received. For the most part the commandments given to the saints gave counsel, advice, and, obviously, commandments. I don’t want to claim that the commandments were always called this. Occasionally a text was referred to different terms. Some of the more theologically driven texts were referred to as “revelation.” That there was a distinction between “commandment” and “revelation” is hinted at in the opening of the text now known as the Word of Wisdom: the text was to be sent to the church “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation”.
The commandments and other scriptures played an integral part of early Mormon record keeping. Surveying the extant records of 1828 through 1831, scripture record keeping is not only the focus, it’s really the only type of records being kept. Aside from short recorded minutes from a conference here and there, and the random letter or priesthood license, the number of commandments is a stark contrast to the limited types of other records of the day. Think what our state of history would be like if we limited our understanding of Mormonism to the contemporary records created during the early part of Mormon history. The history of Joseph Smith and the early saints in Palmyra, Harmony, and Fayette would have to be reconstruction through the commandments. And even the commandments are steeped in a tradition acquired years and generations after their creation. Memory and tradition are the two filters historians face when reconstructing early Mormon history—except for when they turn to the commandments. My thesis attempted to show where historians could look past this tradition to the texts themselves.
…to be continued.