A Closer Look at Documents, Volume 2, of The Joseph Smith Papers

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.


  1. I’m sure it’s a fine work. I’m also grateful for the enormous editing job you all did. We as members really don’t need to see what the brethren wanted edited out of these volumes because it probably was faith destroying anyway. So thank you for all your work.

  2. Granger, you forgot to yell “FIRST!”

  3. Fabulous work, guys. The Partridge license is a fine example of doc. editing work. All around great stuff. These documents and the events surrounding them suggest something about how important Rigdon was at the time.

    We have little in the way of documents that point to female members. I’m curious about how you approached that problem, if at all.

  4. I had the same question, WVS.

  5. Matt Godfrey says:

    WVS and Steve, that’s a great question. One of the ways we’ve approached this is to look at ways we can restore women to the historical record, especially since so few of these documents are written by women or seem to refer to women. Some examples: (1) in our annotation, we tried to make sure that, if we were talking about a meeting that a document said was at John Johnson’s home, we called it the “John and Alice (Elsa) Johnson” home, not just the John Johnson home. (2) The first part of a revelation dictated by Joseph Smith on 7 August 1831 (Section 59 in the current LDS D&C) talks about those who had come up to Zion and died. It seems on the face of it like a rather general statement, but digging deeper, we see that Polly Peck Knight had died that morning. The verses in this revelation seems to be prompted by Polly’s death and we tried to point that out in the annotation. (3) The volume contains the minutes of a 22-23 January 1833 meeting that organized the School of the Prophets. Something we indicate in our annotation that I don’t think has been really emphasized before is that there were women in attendance at this meeting. The minutes speak of the gift of tongues being “poured out in a miraculous manner” at the meeting “until all the Elders obtained the gift together with several of the members of the Church, both male & female.” We tried to highlight this in the annotation. These are, admittedly, small things, but I think they help a little to combat the fact that most of these documents are written by males to males.

  6. Sort of the harsh reality, I suppose, is the paucity of records originating from women. Were they just not preserved?

  7. I’m glad to hear that you are making a conscious effort to include the women in these histories. It can take a lot of work to figure out the role they played,* but it does add a dimension of reality and complexity to the stories that might otherwise be lacking for the modern reader.

    When I was working on a short biography of Mary Parker Chidester, I lost track of the number of times people said to me, “Oh, I didn’t realize there were any women along with Zion’s Camp!” As a matter of fact, I had missed Andrea Radke-Moss’s BYU Studies article from fourteen years ago and also had no idea that the hardship of frontier travel, the mud, the snakes, the weather, the cholera, and the search for food and clean drinking water was shared not just by the men, but by a small group of women and children, including Mary, who was along with a toddler and an infant.

    So, thank you for doing those early, devoted Saints the courtesy of remembering their names and contributions when possible.
    * but sometimes it can be as easy as spending a couple of minutes with FamilySearch to figure out the identity of “Sister So-and-So” — I saw an instance of this with a recent BYU publication. There was only one “Sister So-and-So” in the town and it should have taken the author no more than two minutes to figure that out and include her name.

  8. “We as members really don’t need to see what the brethren wanted edited out of these volumes because it probably was faith destroying anyway.”


    Must …. Not … Feed … Trolls …

  9. Here’s a question, albeit a bit of a hack question: what’s been the biggest surprise so far in putting these together?

  10. Matt Godfrey says:

    I’m sure Mark has his own ideas, but in terms of D-2, the biggest surprise to me was working in these documents and realizing that, even with all of the excellent and voluminous scholarship that has been done on Joseph Smith to this point, there is still so much to learn about him and about the early church. I don’t think we have truly grasped much about how the early church worked in terms of leadership, for example. As we mentioned in the post, the United Firm seems to be a very important administrative body of the church in the early 1830s. Max Parkin did a great job of restoring the Firm to this early history with his BYU Studies article, but I think there is much more to do on it and on the Literary Firm. Likewise, the importance of The Evening and the Morning Star in promulgating doctrines of the church needs more emphasis, as does just using that newspaper as a source when exploring this early history. A concerted missionary effort occurred in 1832 that I think deserves more attention. As mentioned in comments above, examining more fully the influence of women in the early church definitely needs more exploration. All of this is to say that there is still much more work to be done on this time period, and hopefully Documents Volume 2 can aid historians and scholars who will do this work.

  11. Can you expand a bit on the role of The Evening and the Morning Star? How was it different from subsequent Church newspapers?

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the write up and subsequent exchange. I’m looking forward to reading through D2 carefully.

  13. One additional comment: I found a particular statement in the post interesting: “he took his role as husband and father seriously. They present a side of Joseph that we don’t always see.”

    Curiously enough, when my family has gone to church historical sites, that’s almost the only side of Joseph Smith the tour guides present. If I had to put a number on it, about two-thirds of the tour content has been about Joseph Smith as husband, son, brother, friend, and father, almost to the exclusion of his revelatory and ecclesiastical roles. We’ve been read tender letters from him to his wife, been told about his interactions with other men in prison and his place in his family and community, and so forth. The visits have always a great experience, but heavy on that content.

  14. Interesting, Amy. That actually makes sense to me as a proselytizing strategy, but I suspect it’s a recent change.

  15. No, this goes back almost twenty years. Of course, these visits to Nauvoo, Independence, Palmyra, etc., are a vanishingly small sample size for drawing any such conclusion. (But this is the internet! Precisely the right place for making wild conclusions based a handful of data points!)

  16. Matt Godfrey says:

    Thanks for all your comments. Amy T, that is interesting–and I didn’t mean to suggest that no one talks about that. I was thinking more about this earlier period in the church (rather than Liberty Jail or Nauvoo), where I don’t think we always look at his relationship with Emma and Julia.
    Steve, I don’t know that the Evening and the Morning Star was all that different from subsequent church newspapers, but looking at its content gives historians a wealth of information about church doctrine, policies on the gathering to Zion, the Saints’ belief that Christ really was going to return soon, the cholera epidemic as a real sign of the last days, the economic situation of church members in Jackson County in 1832-1833, etc. I gave a paper at MHA last year on the views of the Saints toward nature and land in Jackson County and found the Star to be a really important source of information. So I hope that historians and scholars don’t forget to use it when discussing the church in 1832-1834.

  17. Was there correspondence between Joseph and any of his other wives? If so, will that be (or has it been) included in the project?

  18. There is just a little bit there, which will appear in the later volumes of the Documents series.
    Thanks to everyone for the interest!

  19. D2 is fantastic, as is the whole JSP Project. Thank you Mark and Matt for your dedication to such an important work.


    What an insight!

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