A Few Items of Interest in Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, Part II

Part I can be found here. Gerrit Dirkmaat is a historian working as an editor of The Joseph Smith Papers volumes. He joined the Joseph Smith Papers project in 2010 and has since served as a historian/editor on Journals Vol. 2, Documents Vol. 1, and as the lead volume editor of Documents Vol. 3, which will be published in 2014. He is currently serving as an editor for the first volume in the Administrative series.

“Caractors” and Money-Digging

The hefty appendix of Documents, Volume 1 contains some fascinating documents connected to Joseph Smith. First, the document containing “caractors” drawn off of the gold plates is examined.  While it has been assumed for years that this document was the actual manuscript Martin Harris took to Professor Charles Anthon in 1828, research conducted in conjunction with Robin Jensen not only demonstrated that the document was of later origin but also allowed us to publish the document with the inclusion of a bottom portion that had long since been torn away. The various Joseph Smith–era documents containing characters from the gold plates are examined and shown to the reader (pp. 353–367).

Also included in the appendix is the text and analysis of an agreement purporting to be between Joseph Smith and several other men during the time in which Joseph Smith was employed as a treasure seeker and digger.  The provenance on the document is so poor that it is difficult to conclude with certainty that it is legitimately a Joseph Smith document, but because it very well could be it was included as an appendix item (pp. 345–352). The document should be fascinating to readers unaware of this early period of Joseph Smith’s life.

The Melchizedek and High Priesthood

Priesthood restoration is only covered to a limited degree in the volume introduction, simply because there are almost no contemporary documents associated with those events.  The reader is informed of the later sources and how they were used during Joseph Smith’s lifetime (pp. xxxvii–xxxix). The minutes of the 3–4 June 1831 conference of the church and surrounding sources are analyzed in depth, revealing that it may have been in connection with the first ordinations to the high priesthood at that meeting that the term “Melchizedek” was first employed by early Mormons in reference to priesthood power (pp. 317–27).

Early Correspondence of Joseph Smith

For those familiar with Latter-day Saint history only through the Doctrine and Covenants or a limited exposure in institute or Gospel Doctrine classes, no doubt the letters written to and by Joseph Smith during this early period will simply be fascinating.  In them, the reader can get a feel for Joseph Smith’s unvarnished understanding of the unfolding of the new church and especially the search for Zion.  For instance, one letter from Oliver Cowdery to Joseph Smith in 1829 demonstrates that Cowdery and Smith believed the Book of Mormon would be printed by 1 February 1830 (pp. 98–101). The first books were not available for sale, though, until nearly two months later on 26 March. Modern Mormons may marvel on occasion at how quickly E.B. Grandin published the large volume, but for Smith and Cowdery the two-month delay would have been seen as a disappointment.

Regulating False Spirits

To those unfamiliar with early Mormon history, one of the more interesting and fascinating controversies in the early church surrounds the months-long effort undertaken by Joseph Smith and others to regulate what he deemed to be inappropriate physical responses by those who believed they were feeling the Spirit.  Having received only the briefest of training— and this from men who themselves had been members of the Church for less than a year following its founding—many of the Ohio converts were given to displays of spiritual exuberance more common among evangelical revivals occurring in their surroundings. Some of this spiritual excess, like that of “Mrs. Hubble,” directly challenged Joseph Smith’s claim to be the only oracle for receiving revelation for the entire church.  But most of the difficulties involved members having ostentatious reactions to feeling “the spirit.” John Whitmer, Parley P. Pratt, and Joseph Smith variously reported members rolling on the ground, sliding across the floor, throwing themselves into the snow, and even pretending to wield the “sword of Laban” when feeling spiritually moved upon. Various letters and revelations in the early Kirtland period, such as Doctrine and Covenants 50 (pp. 303–308), were written or received in the context of these perceived improprieties of spiritual expression.  For example, in early March 1831, Joseph Smith wrote to his brother Hyrum, “We arived here safe and are all well I hav[e] been ingageed in regulat­ing the Churches here as the deciples are numerous and the devil had made many attempts to over throw them it has been a Serious job but the Lord is with us and we have overcome and have all things regular the work is brakeing forth on the right hand and on the left” (pp. 267–73).

The Lamanite Mission and the Quest for Zion

One of the themes running throughout the documents in Volume 1 is the anticipated revelation of the location of the city of Zion prophesied of in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. This anticipation led to numerous questions about Zion.  Hiram Page’s revelations from his stone (which prompted Doctrine and Covenants 28) apparently provided the location of Zion in a way that persuaded all of the Whitmers and Oliver Cowdery that the revelations were genuine (pp. 183–86). While section 28 provided the general outlines that the promised city would be established “among the Lamanites,” nearly a year would pass before Joseph Smith would specifically designate the area in Jackson County, Missouri, as the place where the city would be built.  In the meantime, members anxiously wondered and theorized where Zion would be established. The covenant signed by Oliver Cowdery and his missionary companions in October 1830 listed one of their purposes as “to rear up a pillar as a witness where the Temple of God shall be built, in the glorious New-Jerusalem” (pp. 202–205). Section 48 specifically responded to the belief among some members that Kirtland was in fact the promised Zion (pp. 286–88).

While this undercurrent of the promised Zion pervades most of the documents created during this time period, readers will find fascinating the letters written to and from Cowdery and his missionary companions and details regarding their efforts to preach to American Indians in present-day Kansas. In what became their first disagreeable interaction with officers of the federal government, Cowdery and his cohorts were ordered off of the Indian lands and threatened with imprisonment by the local Indian agent, whose supervisor was none other than the renowned William Clark of Lewis and Clark expeditionary fame (pp. 288–94).

These documents and many more contained in Documents, Volume 1 will paint for the reader a fuller portrait of Joseph Smith and events that surrounded the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, the foundation and early struggles of the church, and the exodus from New York and the early days of the Kirtland settlement.  The various documents and the stories surrounding them will interest and inform both serious academics and more casual readers.


  1. Thanks Gerrit. I’ve thought a lot about these reactions to “enthusiasm.” I seem to remember Staker claiming that because of JS’s first vision, he came to see the “slaying power” of the spirit to be the overwhelming power of the devil. With H1’s description of the first Church Conference in NY, and all the BoM accounts, I’m sure about that. The regulation of these spiritual manifestations is really interesting.

  2. Thanks, Gerrit. The narratives on priesthood are fascinatingly complex. The way usage intertwines, connects, and diverges means there is still a lot to say, and that’s saying nothing of the “Ancients” Freemason mythos about Melchizedek. Thanks again for the posts.

  3. Thanks for the teasers! I’m really enjoying all the notations that have been placed in these volumes.

    Is there a schedule yet for D3 and Admin 1?

    J. are you referring to Staker’s “Hearken”? I’ve been looking for the various accounts of the Kirkland Enthusiasm if you have places to go. I’ll start with the JSP, I haven’t got that far yet!

  4. Gerrit Dirkmaat says:

    Thanks for the kind remarks all. N8C, Documents Vol. 3 will be on the shelf by the end of the year…late November most likely. We are annotating and working through A1 right now, but it will be a while yet.

  5. n8c, yep. Definitely worth the read.

  6. I think it’s great that the church is finally being a little more open in regard to Joseph Smith. However, it begs the questions as to why there needs to be editors of his papers in the first place and why it’s taking soooo long to produce and the price point? Why doesn’t the church simply disclose the documents, make it affordable, and let the children decide how to view them? It strikes of the same obfuscation that has plagued the church since the beginning? What have you edited out? Can we see it? Or do we have to trust Boyd Packer again?

  7. Jimmy, unfortunately your comment reflects a bit of ignorance about both the project and the state of the documents in question. Even the task of ascertaining which documents are actually authentic takes tremendous effort by professionals. Then there is the transcription of these documents as well as their ongoing preservation. It is a herculean effort. It’s not like the church has simply locked out readers to JSJ’s blog or something. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the JSPP and their efforts thus far – you may find it illuminating.

  8. PS Jimmy, the documents are in fact available for free on the project’s website.

  9. Fair enough on the price now. I forgot they were put online recently. Anyway, does a member(s) of the twelve or first presidency need to give their approval before it gets put online? Have there been delays because certain documents were being debated. Is this why it’s taken this long? Weren’t the papers already organized when the project started? And will we be able to know what documents were excluded or will be excluded?

  10. Matt Godfrey says:

    JimmyS, I would direct you to a couple of explanations of the project: (a) http://josephsmithpapers.org/aboutTheProject; (b) http://publichistorycommons.org/serving-two-masters-part-1/ (Note that this is a three-part article). In short, the Joseph Smith Papers will publish, either online or in print editions, all extant Joseph Smith documents (this includes the Council of 50 minutes, as noted in above comments). All of the documents are published just as they really are, in full, with no censoring or revision. Some General Authorities do review the annotation on documents (not whether a document is included) and supply some feedback. This is done as part of a larger review effort that includes reviews by a National Advisory Board of scholars, all but one of whom are non-Mormons and who are highly esteemed in the fields of religious history and/or documentary editing (Stephen Stein, Susan Perdue, Harry Stout, Teryl Givens, Laurie Maffly-Kipp). The feedback from General Authorities is usually in the way of comments, questions, and suggestions–there are no mandates. In terms of how long the project is taking, I’d direct you to other large-scale documentary editing projects, some of which, like the Thomas Jefferson Papers, have been in process since the 1940s. As Steve noted, it is a herculean effort to get the papers published. In the last few years, we have been publishing two volumes a year, which, as editors of other projects would tell you, is an extremely ambitious pace.

  11. Matt Godfrey says: