An Interview with Robin Jensen, Part 2

This post is the second of a two-part interview with Robin Jensen, editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project (Part 1 available here). Robin continues to discuss his research in early Mormon record keeping.

In describing your thesis, you noted that you hope to “show where historians could look past this tradition to the texts themselves.” However, you draw some important distinctions in your research about texts and the commandments as oral creations. Could you introduce that history of orality?

I felt a study on the introduction and early development of the written commandments of Mormonism should begin at a point where no such commandments were being written down. Accepting Smith’s narrative would have him receiving religious visitations and divine instruction about eight years before his first known written text. [1] The birth of the written commandment is understood when we look at the different circumstances around which oral texts were created. (By “oral texts” I mean anything of an oral nature that accomplishes a transaction, communicates thoughts, or promotes lasting memory).

One extreme view of “oral culture” is a culture completely devoid of any dependency or knowledge of literacy. For obvious reasons, the early nineteenth-century American Republic would not fit the description of this culture. In my thesis, I was much more interested in how personal practices showed a relationship or interdependency between orality and literacy. But in studying oral text making, historians have a disadvantage from the start. Harry Stout has said: “as historians immersed in printed documents, we scarcely recognize the dominance of speech and oratory in aural cultures—an orality that, by definition, never survives in the written record.” [2] It is not a question whether Smith knew how to read, or even that he many have created records. In my thesis, I wanted to explore what not writing his visionary experiences down meant for Smith and how it influenced his later written commandments. I would argue that written and oral texts are different means to the same ends: conducting transactions and preserving cultural or individual memory. As such, my thesis explores how the birth of the visionary experiences in orality influenced the transfer of that record keeping in a written context.

Once written texts were available, what happened to them, i.e. the transmission of the written commandments?

This question is my entire thesis and then some. The transmission history of the revelations is a complex issue worthy of multiple studies far and beyond my own limited survey. My hope is to see my thesis plow the ground for further research and analysis. When Joseph Smith chose to write his commandments down, his previous oral culture influenced the shape the written commandments would take. The words of the commandments are spoken by Smith, but they are in the first person of God or Christ. The oral rhetoric of the revelatory language is striking: “HEARKEN my servant John, and listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer, for behold I speak unto you with sharpness and with power, for mine arm is over all the earth, and I will tell you that which no man knoweth save me and thee alone:” [3] Other elements of the previous oral culture are found in the commandments, but there is more to it than that. Looking at how the initial texts were created, it’s clear the texts were not created with a distant audience in mind. The absence of last names throughout the documents, for instance, hints at a familiar audience, one that is acquainted with the individuals giving and receiving the commandments. Little to no context or history of the reception of the document indicates little to no thought, whether purposeful or not, of the perspective future audience.

According to traditional accounts, there is a fairly simple process of revelation text transmission: Joseph Smith, when “moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” would dictate slowly enough so that a scribe could transcribe in longhand the entire revelation. It was read back and approved. [4] Once an original or dictated text was created, that text was copied and recopied by those spreading or interested in the gospel. The demand increased until the decision was made in November 1831 to publish the revelations by and for the church. As with most traditional accounts, it wasn’t this simple or universal—especially with the earliest commandments. One source closer to contemporary events seem to indicate that error could enter the commandment creation process. When the church was deciding to publish the revelatory commandments, Sidney Rigdon—one who was familiar with the revelatory process of Joseph Smith—remarked “on the errors or mistakes which are in commandments and revelations, made either by the translation [transcription] in consequence of the slow way of the scribe at the time of receiving or by the scribes themselves.” [5]

To wrap up, I found the reading of the Page incident in your thesis to be very important, and it relates to the shift between oral and written texts. Would you introduce us to those events?

Many Mormons are familiar with the story of Hiram Page and his seer stone. The current-day narrative often places Page in a role of usurpation or of rebellion or some other sort of injurious reason for receiving revelations. After all, many assume, early members knew that Joseph Smith was the prophet, seer, and revelator—the individual designated by God to receive revelations for the church. The revelation received by Smith upon this occasion (current section 28 of the Doctrine and Covenants) simply solidified what all members of the church already knew, many reason.

But let’s step back a bit to see what is going on at this time in Mormon revelation record keeping. Some of the earliest revelations given to Joseph Smith were to encourage Oliver Cowdery to participate in the divine translation process: essentially encouraging Cowdery to create scripture (see the revelations now currently known as sections 6 and 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants). It appears another revelation dictated by Joseph Smith influenced Oliver Cowdery to create the “Articles of the Church of Christ” which outlined various aspects of the faith. The document created by Cowdery wasn’t simply a list of tasks members or leaders should do, or a document full of quotes from previously available scripture (although it contained elements of both of those); this document was a revelation: “Oliver[,] listen to the voice of Christ your Lord & your God & your Redeemer & write the words which I shall command you concerning my Church my Gospel my Rock & my Salvation.” So in truth, JS seemed to encourage at least Cowdery, if not others, to receive revelations that were occasionally written down. It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that Page felt he could do similarly. But it doesn’t stop with Page. Converts in Northern Ohio also received written revelations. One former Mormon and observer of these activities stated that “commissions” from heaven “when transcribed upon a piece of paper, were read to the church, and the persons who had received them, were ordained to the Elder’s office, and sent out into the world to preach.” [6] There clearly seemed to be a movement in early Mormonism for members other than JS to produce written revelations not just for the individual, but for the church.

So following Page’s revelations, Smith dictated a revelation that current Mormons interpret as limited all revelation to Smith alone, but a close reading seems to indicate that the difference between oral and written revelation was included. In the revelation Cowdery was commanded: “& if thou art led at any time by the comforter to speak or teach or at all times by the way of Commandment unto the Church thou mayest do it But thou shalt not write by way of Commandment.” [7] The same early, former Mormon observer commented somewhat caustically on this very revelation and Cowdery’s role with it: “Cowdery was permitted to ‘speak or to teach, at all times, by way of commandment unto the church; but not to write them by way of commandment:’ thus Cowdery is authorized to give verbal commandments to the church by the inspiration of the spirit, which, if he afterwards writes, ceases to be inspiration; therefore, a commandment delivered orally, may be divinely inspired; but the same communicated, written verbatim, so far loses its former character, that it degenerates into a prediction of an infernal stamp.” [8] Commandments appeared to have been recorded by several individuals during the early years of Mormonism, but the recording those commandments on paper was limited to Joseph Smith; only the oral commandments could potentially be received by other leaders or members of the church. Thus Smith restricted and limited the role of revelation within the church but also continued to encourage it with some individuals. (Though beyond my thesis, Smith continued to open up the revelatory role within the church when he established councils to obtain the mind and will of the Lord through meetings of quorum meetings).

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  1. Going on a very large, but fascinating tangent: Some students of Mormon history have noted (with distrust or concern) that Smith wrote his first detailed account of the first vision twelve years after the fact. Understanding the record-keeping pattern shed important light on this episode. The first thing known to have been written by Smith was eight years after the fact. However, these writings were the commandments of God with virtually no introspective detail about Smith’s life. In 1832 Smith began to create non-scriptural records and one of the first things he created was an account that shared the detail of his first vision.
  2. Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origin of the American Revolution,” Williams and Mary’s Quarterly, 3rd series, 34 (July 1977): 527.
  3. Commandment dictated June 1829. The earliest copy of this text (and from where the above quote is located) is Chapter 13 of the 1833 Book of Commandments; the text is most widely available as Section 15 of the 1981 Doctrine and Covenants.
  4. William E. McLellin and Parley P. Pratt left reminiscences of the process: William E. McLellin, writing as editor for The Ensign of Liberty vol. 1, no. 7 (August, 1849): 98 and Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: One of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by Parley P. Pratt Jr. (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1985), 48.
  5. “The Conference Minutes, and Record Book of Christ‘s Church,” (also known as the Far West Record) 16, CHL.
  6. Ezra Booth to Rev. Ira Eddy, 24 October 1831 as found in “Mormonism No. III.” The Ohio Star (27 October 1831).
  7. Revelation now known as section 28 of the Doctrine and Covenants as quoted in Revelation Book 1, p. 41 (available in JSP, R1, p. 53).
  8. Ezra Booth to Rev. Ira Eddy, 29 November 1831 as found in “Mormonism no. VIII.” The Ohio Star (8 December 1831).

Comments

  1. Jonathan Green says:

    Thanks, Robin and J. This is some pretty groovy stuff. The distinction between oral teaching and writing revelation maps quite well onto current practice and onto debates going back centuries, doesn’t it? It looks like Joseph Smith and early Mormonism managed to recapitulate the entire history of Western literacy, from orality to script to print, in just a decade.

  2. Aaron R. says:

    Like Jonathan I thought this was excellent. I am curious about this transition toward councils writing revelations. I was under the impression (from Woodford’s work) that D&C 20, though drafted by Cowdrey was also discussed in council and therefore edited. Was this an anomaly or was it more common, is the shift toward an emphasis on councils reflect a shift practice in the council or is it a shift toward using the council in general.

    In other words, is this revelatory process a situation where JS provides the bulk of the content which the council refines over time or is it that JS used revelation by council as a means of democratising revelation whilst simultaneously retaining a sense of coherence?

  3. Robin Jensen says:

    Aaron R says: “In other words, is this revelatory process a situation where JS provides the bulk of the content which the council refines over time or is it that JS used revelation by council as a means of democratising revelation whilst simultaneously retaining a sense of coherence?”

    The latter. And if anyone will be at MHA next week, I will be addressing this very topic in a paper I’m giving on JS both restricting and expanding revelation both in the sense of receiving it and in the practical aspect of access to the revelation text itself.

  4. Thanks for taking the time for this, Robin. As I mentioned in the post, I think your reading of the Page incident is tremendously important.

  5. Thanks for this Robin and J. If you feel comfortable with it, I’d like to get a copy of your upcoming MHA paper at some point. On another note, the egalitarianism you note, would come back to haunt Mormonism in some ways.

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