I thought I was an outsider to begin with—fourteen years old.The Mormons had been driven out of Missouri, I knew that much. But the hostility didn’t seem of that vintage. Ed Decker was from the Seattle area where I grew up, though it had a different flavor in the home state of the Assemblies of God. I liked to think that it was my cosmopolitan upbringing that made me feel so odd, and not my deficient social skill.
I joined track and started running because an older girl invited me to the first practice, and there are some benefits with having a class of less than a hundred. I got to race, hurdles mostly. I learned the geography of my new home at the meets. I knelt next to them week after week. At first, I chased them—Richmond, Gallatin, Liberty and others. In a few years they chased me. At the time, I had been to the jail. I knew the animatronic prophet, and his friends; but the past seemed mostly inconsequential to my future. I didn’t know that it was my grandfather back several generations who, when seeing a fellow Mormon disenfranchised at a Gallatin voting station and beaten, picked up an ad hoc club and started the Missouri Mormon War. I wonder if any of those runners where their kin.Karen Lynn Davidson, Richard L. Jensen, and David J. Whittaker, eds., Histories, Volume 2: Assigned Histories, 1831-1847 in THE JOSEPH SMITH PAPERS, general editors Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012). xxvi, 453 pp. Cloth: $54.95; ISBN: 978-1-60908-945-0
With Histories 2 (H2) the Joseph Smith Papers Project has produced a documentary history that spoke to me in different ways than their previous volumes. To be sure it still maintains the editorial excellence that shines from all of their efforts. The juxtaposition of H2’s documents provides for a lesson in contrasting perspective, a key for historians, but hopefully also a key for everyone. It just so happens that the war that divided the Mormons from their neighbors also divided themselves. Joseph Smith’s first two historians (one a witness of the golden plates) no longer self-identified with the Saints by the end.
H2 comprises four distinct histories: The Book of John Whitmer; Willy Phelps’ brief “Rise and Progress…”; John Corrill’s A Brief History of the Church of Christ…; and the collaborative “A History, of the Persecution…” which was published in the Mormon periodical in Nauvoo. Each of these items has been previously available, though not in as high of a quality presentation and contextualization. The editors let the authors speak. Each gets details wrong here and there. The editors annotate accordingly. The fundamental disagreement between them, however, is integral to the volumes’ value. And it isn’t in one of these particular details.
Corrill’s work is particularly interesting as he published his account as a former Mormon and prominent Missouri citizen. Corrill’s history reads like a history of himself in many ways. He joined Mormonism the first year. He believed. He was also called as a Historian. He is generally compassionate and appears to treat the early church quite fairly, often defending it. He indicates when he is unable to confirm a statement or when he has merely heard of a detail second hand. In late Missouri, despite his proximity to Joseph Smith (or perhaps because of it), failed prophecies, mismanagement and the oath-bound para-military “Danite” group alienated him from his faith. It is hard to read him without empathizing, especially in our modern secular assimilation.Immediately following Corrill’s account is a history of the Church in Missouri written by prominent Mormons. As the title suggests, this history was to document the wrongs church members suffered there. Where Corrill aseptically denounces the Hawn’s Mill massacre while noting its aberrancy, the editors of the Times and Season published detailed affidavits from witnesses. The savagery is sickening. Immediately after empathizing with Corrill’s disaffection, the reader reels at the illegal treatment of the Saints, first in Jackson, then in the Northern Counties. Indignation is contagious. Who would not have run to their friend being beaten at the polls, Danite or not?
My notes focus almost entirely on Whitmer and Corrill, who have very rich accounts of the early church, their beliefs, and practices. This is essential reading. But what lingers with me—what I think about as I fly over the Midwest on my way home—is outside of my current research interests. All of those years I seemed to live for those cinder tracks. Then I left.
Histories 2 gathers previously available materials and presents them with the expected finesse of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The plurality in the title is merely situational. It does not intentionally evoke the idea that history is contested, and that there are more than one. The divergent perspectives of the authors is Histories 2’s greatest strength. Both professional historians and interested observers will benefit from their use.
I apologize for getting this out so late. I wanted it done six months ago, but life has had a tendency of getting away from me this year. You may also enjoy my more formal reviews of J1, MRB, R2, J2, and H1.