Mark Ashurst-McGee and Matthew C. Godfrey are the Batman and Superman of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. According to Mark’s wikipedia page, he is a “specialist in documentary editing conventions and transcription methodology.” Professor Steven Harper, stated Ashurst-McGee “probably knows the field of documentary editing better than anybody that I know.” Matthew Godfrey is the managing editor of the JSPP and probably knows the field of 19th century sugar production better than anybody that I know. He holds a PhD in American and public history from Washington State University. Before joining the project, he worked for eight years at Historical Research Associates, a historical and archaeological consulting firm headquartered in Missoula, Montana, serving as president of the company from 2008 to 2010.
We are pleased to take this opportunity to talk about Documents, Volume 2, the latest release in The Joseph Smith Papers. Several editors worked on this volume, including the two of us, Grant Underwood, Bob Woodford, and Bill Hartley. We believe that the volume does much to advance our knowledge of early church history and of Joseph Smith.
Documents, Volume 2 (D2) covers July 1831 through January 1833. The first document in the volume is the July 20, 1831, revelation that designated Missouri as the place for the city of Zion and Independence as the “center place.” This is a fitting opening to the volume as the prospect of building the city of Zion is an overarching theme throughout. Documents in the rest of the volume highlight the Saints’ efforts to establish the city, including the logistical problems of dealing with two major centers of gathering in the church (Missouri and Ohio) and the resultant administrative structure that begins to emerge in the church because of this. Formation of the United Firm figures prominently in the volume; it appears that this was an administrative body that had much more governing authority in the church than we had previously supposed.
The volume also contains documents that highlight Joseph Smith as a person—especially in his relationships with his family. Particularly poignant are two letters that Joseph wrote to Emma: one in June 1832 as he languished in Greenville, Indiana, waiting for Newel K. Whitney to recover from a broken leg; and one written in October 1832 from New York City, where he and Whitney were preaching and purchasing goods for Whitney’s store. Both of these letters show that Joseph cared deeply for his wife and daughter Julia, that he missed them when he was apart from them, and that he took his role as husband and father seriously. They present a side of Joseph that we don’t always see.
Other documents include revelations that provided foundational theological concepts to church members, such as Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s 1832 vision of the afterlife or the September 1832 revelation that explained the two priesthood authorities in the church. But there are also several other genres of documents, some of which presented great challenges in trying to determine the context of their production.
One document from 1831 concerns Edward Partridge’s ordination as the church’s bishop. The body of the document is in Sidney Rigdon’s handwriting, and it was signed by most of the prominent elders of the early church: Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Martin Harris, Isaac Morley, Sidney Gilbert, Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and several others. All of these are original signatures! No other document that we know of from the first decade of the church contains so many original signatures. The verso bears the docket “Bishop’s License.” This appears to be in Partridge’s own hand, and the document apparently came into church possession from the Partridge family. We thus regard it as Partridge’s bishop’s license.
But questions arise when we look more closely at the document. First, we have several licenses for early church officers, including Partridge’s own elder’s license. None of them look like this document or contain similar language. Secondly, you cannot find all of the signatories in the same place at the same time. On the face of it, it looks as if Sidney Rigdon wrote out the document and then the rest signed it. But this could not have happened. Our co-editor Bob Woodford noticed that some of the groups of signatures matched the attendance at conferences held in Zion (Missouri) in August 1831. But Partridge had been ordained a bishop in Ohio in February 1831. Why then does the license appear to have been produced in Missouri in August? This caused us to look more closely at each of the signatories and when they could have signed the document. It turns out that John Whitmer, the final signatory, could not have signed it until January 1832. We subjected the document to X-ray flourescence, which confirmed that the signatures appear in groups of different inks.
So what appeared straightforward turned out to be more complex upon further investigation. Historical research and textual analysis lead us to a different understanding of the document—one that may place the production of its body in Ohio in the summer of 1831, with most of the signatures being affixed later in Missouri. In fact, the summer context points to the possibility that the document was more than a license, or maybe not a license at all. One possibility is that it was a recommend intended to help Bishop Partridge obtain a federal permit to cross over into Indian Territory. If you are interested, you can read the editorial treatment of the document in D2 to get the details.
Another curious document in D2 is a list of complaints, or “charges,” lodged by some of the elders in Ohio against some of the elders in Missouri. Oliver Cowdery had sent minutes of a conference held in Missouri in January 1832 to the brethren in Ohio. When Sidney Rigdon and others read the minutes, they objected to how some of the business of the conference had been conducted. As with the Partridge “license,” Rigdon wrote the body of the “charges” document and then he and others signed it. The others who signed it were (in order): the elusive Jesse Gause, David Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., Hyrum Smith and Reynolds Cahoon. Again, whereas most early texts exist only in copied versions, this document is the original, with original signatures. It is a beauty!
As with the Partridge “license,” it appears that these signatures were added at different times. Research into the historical context of the document clarified that at the time, the first four signatories were residing in Hiram, Ohio, about 30 miles south of Kirtland, whereas the last two signatories were living in Kirtland. Again, we couldn’t find everyone in the same place at the same time.
Textual analysis seems to confirm the idea of the document being signed on two occasions. Ink from the heavy signature of Peter Whitmer Jr., the final signatory from Hiram, has transferred onto another part of the paper, which corresponds with a fold in the paper. There are many folds in the paper, but they belong to two different folding patterns. One pattern corresponds with the docketing on the document. This is the usual pattern seen on early Mormon loose-leaf documents that were folded for document storage bundling. The other initial folding pattern indicates that the document was folded to pocket-size. This folding corresponds to the ink transfer in the signature of Peter Whitmer Jr. Our most plausible reconstruction is that Rigdon wrote the document and had it signed by the others from Hiram, whereupon he folded it up to pocket size to carry to Kirtland where it would be signed by the others. Again, close inspection of the historical context and textual analysis revealed a more complex account of document production.
These are just two examples of documents that turned out to be more complex than they initially appeared. At the Joseph Smith Papers Project, we have tried to thoroughly examine the text and context of each document in order to help people better understand Joseph Smith’s papers, Joseph Smith himself, and early Mormon history. Because of this, D2 provides an in-depth look at the growth of the church in its formative years, both administratively and theologically, while also providing insights into Joseph Smith as a leader and as a person. We believe it is an invaluable resource for anyone dealing with the history of his life and of the church in the early 1830s.