I delivered this essay at the 2014 annual conference of the Mormon History Association as the critic in an author-meets-critics (or more accurately, editors-meet-critic) session for Documents, Volume 1, 1829-1831, in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.
These are words of revelation to which all those interested in the human past muster a hearty amen, Latter-day Saint and non-Mormon alike. The process of heeding this call in the early Church of Christ started and restarted in fits of optimism. With time, even in Joseph Smith’s life, the documents eventually grew, and nearly two hundred years later we have mountains of material and temples to its preservation. And as with any particular records, the great controversy is not whether they should be kept, but instead the controversy is how they should be read.
I submit that there are three modes to reading any text: acontextual, traditional, and contextual. In order to help with our discussion today, I am going to unpack how these ways of reading differ. In doing so I recognize that it would be impossible to read discretely within any one of these categories. Instead the reader travels a vector between overlapping regions on a continuous spectrum.
To read acontextually is to read without regard to context, history, or precedent. Christians since the beginning have engaged in bibliomancy—a sort of divination where the reader randomly opens the book, frequently the Great Book, at random to read and find solace, wisdom, or answers to questions. Among Mormons, there is a practice of “likening the scriptures to oneself,” often going so far as to use the text simply as a catalyst for divine communication. The words are important insomuch as they deliver the reader to God. Devotional reading is not, however, the sole proprietor of acontextuality. Finding meaning or utility in an isolated reading is frequently compelling and proof texts in all disciplines function on the premise that there is little consequence to rupturing texts.
Proof texts, however, are often used and reused in systematic ways within communities. Within communities there are frequently narratives or traditions that frame how particular texts are to be read. These narratives have varying degrees of importance, but in some cases the narratives are so powerful that transgressing them can even delimit membership to the community. This is true of every community, academic, business or religious. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sustain their highest leaders as prophet, seers, and revelators, and give important weight to how these leaders read, or have read, any given text. Moreover, within the church, an entire bureaucracy has taken as its mission to inculcate church-members in reading canonical texts traditionally. Beyond establishing orthodoxy within communities, traditional readings can also serve to make texts comprehensible to readers; they have massive explanatory power.
There are many ways to find understanding within a text. One can find meaning from words alone (acontextually), and one can comprehend them from within the tradition of a community. There are, however, some limits to these methodologies. While valuable, they are also subjective—meaning is wholly contingent on identity. It is possible to approach, or at least attempt to approach, a text from the perspective of its creators, publishers, and audiences— the text’s context. And to be sure, in introducing this category of reading, I am aware of the irony that I do so in the vernacular of our Western secular academic community. We use robust critical methodologies to discover meanings that transcend identity. As our friend and colleague Robin Jensen has reminded us, “Only in peeling back the layers of tradition by discovering the underlying and undeclared context, modified record-keeping practices, shifting dictation patterns, and the contemporary culture can scholars know the limitations, strengths, and uses of the…texts.” [fn 1] This is ultimately a systematic attempt at empathy.
It is this last modality of reading which interests us today as we approach the Documents, Volume 1 (D1) of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Spanning July 1828 to June 1831, this volume is the first to form the core of the entire project. And without question, the Project in general and the editors of D1, in particular, have marshaled an unparalleled effort to ferret out even the most obscure references to people, places, and chronology and then critically assess them. As a result D1 offers sometimes surprisingly novel insights into the documents which it contains, and in several cases radically alters our understanding. D1 is the starting point for any serious study of early Mormonism. Nevertheless, there are criticisms to be leveled. The editors pepper their otherwise wonderfully contextuality with stray anachronisms. And while the contextualization presented in D1 is unquestionably important, the editors are frequently parsimonious when presenting items of liturgical, theological, or religious significance. The result is a skewed focus on temporality.
Presentism is a perennial threat in any study of the past, but because of the editorial procedures of Mormonism’s record keepers, it has been a disruptive force in contextual reading since nearly the beginning. Frequently D1 editors defy anachronism with deftness. An example is their contextualization of what I have come to call the proto-endowment of early June 1831, when the High Priesthood was revealed for the first time. While they only throw the “priesthood restoration” a passing and easily overlooked bone, the discussion of the actual ordinations not only clarifies the murky conflations of yore, but opens new and interesting possibilities regarding the relationship of “elder” and those ordained to the high priesthood in church ecclesiology.
In contrast to this exemplary contextualization, in a few areas, the editors frequently slip into the present. While straight-forward discussions of spectacles, seerstones and their uses by Joseph Smith are to be appreciated by any church Press, editors frequently use the terminology of “urim and thumim” in doing so. Similarly the word “missionary” or “missionaries” is used when referring to evangelizing elders. Both of these examples are foreign to the lexical terrain of the documents presented in D1, and both carry very particular valences, especially to lay readers who comprise the bulk of volume purchasers. The editors are our guides as we traverse and scrape our ways through the hidden past. Translations and signposts are certainly necessary along the way; the challenge is to not to impose the translation as normative.
To me, and I’m sure that the editors will argue strongly to the contrary, the strangest incidence of anachronism is in the editors’ discussion of apostles. In one footnote they point to possible evidence for a dating of Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s “ordination to the apostleship” (71n249). However, they also indicate several long recognized examples of evangelizing elders being referred to as “apostles” (123, 143-144, 215). The editors then include Smith and Cowdery (and only them) under the “office” of “apostle” in the charts comprising church ecclesiology in the volume’s backmatter (491-494). Apostle did have a dynamic meaning and many early ordained men in the church carried the title, but I’m unaware of any documentation for “apostle” as an ecclesiastical position during the period covered in the volume. Whereas the discussion of the High Priesthood clarifies, I believe that the discussion of apostles increases turbidity, and may reflect more of a traditional reading en lieu of a contextual reading.
The editor’s treatment of the revelation included as section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants is a prime example of the transformative understanding resulting from the editors’ methodologies. The editors’ research and analysis of the documents led them to conclude that this revelation was not created circa March 1830, as has been thought since 1833, but instead a summer 1829 revelation. The shift in eight or nine months is tectonic—the ground changes beneath our feet, and instead of consoling Martin Harris over his existing mortgage, it is a commandment to take out the mortgage in the first place (or else). With this shift, whole swaths of historical data and otherwise curious statements become coherent. Such an impressively bright effort by the editors also brings the shadows of their contextualization into stark contrast.
This same revelation is one of the first to indicate a Mormon soteriology. Jesus Christ declares that he “suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer, if they would repent, but if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I.” This clear statement indicating a general atonement goes without editorial remark. Similarly references to justification, sanctification, exhortation, and sundry other –ations, go without editorial notice. All of these words have important context and meaning in the period they are employed. While historians of Antebellum Christianity will recognize and assimilate their usage, the vast majority of those who read the volume will have no basis to comprehend the incredibly deep, important, and sometimes contested concepts communicated by them.
This lack of contextualization is perhaps most evident in the treatment of enthusiasm and spiritual gifts. The editors marshal impressive documentation to catalogue what was decried as irregular spiritual manifestations. However, in doing so the editors fail to contextualize these behaviors with any of the scholarly literature on “enthusiasm”—a pejorative term used generally by cessationists to decry spiritual behavior outside of their orthodoxy. For example, some evangelicals saw the “slaying power” as Christ’s redemption in action (a view shared by Book of Mormon prophets, and perhaps temporarily by church members in New York [H1, 366-368]). Moreover when the revelations direct the management spiritual manifestations by invoking the “gifts of the spirit”—glossolalia, healing, miracles, and more—instead of referencing examples of these activities among Latter-day Saints or other Antebellum Christians, the editors simply point to Bible verses. I don’t even want to talk about the reference to healing. How these events, people, and revelations interacted within their native context is barely viewable without explicit demarcation.
It also seamed to me that just underneath the surface of several documents was a body of scholarship that was simply ignored (and not just on healing). For example, what I believe to be the most illuminating contextualizations and my favorite treatments of the Hirum Page seer stone incident and the revelations on Zion, Robin Jensen’s thesis and Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation respectively, make no appearance. The reliance on primary documents alone is self-limiting.
Lastly, I am going to comment on D1’s necessarily finite scope, particular in relation to the subsequent editing of the document contained in it. The editors do supply what is essentially a variorum for very early extant documents. I understand how a complete variorum would not be feasible. However, permit me to submit that significant changes to the text in at least the 1833 and 1835 printings could have been reasonably incorporated. As a researcher it means more work for me, but I also worry that many readers simply won’t know how or even to make the effort.
There are many ways to read a text. We can approach the words alone, seeking inspiration or meaning, with fresh and unburdened eyes. And we can seek to understand them through the customs and stories of our communities. Both of these modalities are valid and important for every human. However we are here today in order to perform a different sort of reading. We hope to carve away the layers of the past with the aspiration that as the scales fall from our own eyes we then will be able communicate what we see to a diverse audience of believers and non-believers, academics and lay readers. The editors of D1 are to be commended. They deserve the highest praise, which I hope my criticisms do not dampen. As I read through D1 I found aspects of my research transformed. And to focus my critique I have ignored many notable items, among other things, the presentation of Oliver Cowdery’s “Articles of the Church of Christ” as a governing text for the earliest believers, and excellent work on the Book of Mormon characters. I do believe my criticisms to be fair. My hope for more religious context is something that was not met in previous JSPP volumes. Still I hope that the entire audience can join me in congratulating the editors of D1 and the entire Joseph Smith Papers Project with a hearty and well-earned congratulations.
- Robin Scott Jensen, “‘Rely upon the Things Which Are Written’: Text, Context, and the Creation of Mormon Revelatory Records,” (MLIS thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2009), 5.
A panel of four of the editors on the volume then responded. The resulting conversation was a lot of fun. They kindly acknowledged that many of my criticisms formed the basis of many of their own debates while preparing the volume and they ably defended their editorial decisions. I’d like to continue the discussion on apostles now that I have had a chance to sleep on their comments.