Let me begin by warning our fair readers that I do not claim the historical chops of, say, my blog mates J. Stapley or WVS, but I do claim a layperson’s interest in Mormon history. So this will be more of a personal reaction than a scholarly dissection.
I should acknowledge at the outset that I’ve been sort of a lazy collector of the JSP volumes. I currently own ten of the volumes (not counting the ARC reviewed here): the three facsimile volumes, one of the Revelations and Translations volumes, both Histories volumes, two Journals volumes, and two Documents volumes. The last few years I’ve asked Mr. Claus for a volume or two on Christmas morn, but they’re not cheap so I feel as though I can’t push my luck too far (this past Christmas for instance I got both the printer’s manuscript volumes, which I imagine cost the old man some serious coin.)
My lazy collection habits notwithstanding, I will go on record here as being a huge fan of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. (And praise the Lord for Larry Miller and the very substantial financial support he gave to the project to get it off the ground.) What a great idea it was to undertake a comprehensive papers collection (modeled after those done for example for a number of our Founding Fathers), using absolute state of the art documentary editing standards. I love the confidence it took for the Church to be willing to put all of this material out there. In this internet age of the democratization of information, making this material widely available is absolutely the right thing to do. The old impulse to want to hide the ball was entirely the wrong approach. Just one illustration of this is the publication of the Council of 50 minutes, which while important turned out to be far less scandalous than people imagined them to be back when they were entirely off limits to the public.
Documents Vol. 4 covers the 18 months from April 1834 to September 1835, broken down into four Parts or tranches to make the material more manageable for the reader. (“Documents” means things like letters, minutes, revelations, financial accounts, and resolutions.) The book begins with a Volume Introduction putting the entire period covered by the book into its historical context. The first part of the book is largely devoted to material related to the effort to “redeem Zion” in the wake of the expulsion of the Mormons from Jackson County, Missouri in 1833 (which is why I used a map of Zion’s Camp as the illustration to this post).
To be clear, this book is not itself a history (nor does it claim to be); it does not try to tell the story of those 18 months in a coherent way the way an actual history would do. It is rather a presentation of the primary documents that historians would use to inform such a history. Still, so much context is given to each document that one cannot help but come out the other end knowing a lot about what happened during this year and a half.
By my count, the volume presents some 96 documents (not counting Appendices) Each document is introduced first by an italicized Source Note, then a (very complete) Historical Introduction, followed by the actual text of the document itself. The introductory material to each document is not only fulsome but very helpful; trying to read these documents without the introductory material would often leave the reader confused as to what was going on.
Seeing the actual words of these early actors in early Church history actually conveyed a kind of voyeuristic quality to the material for me. You’re not reading an analysis of events by a modern scholar; you’re looking over the shoulders of the actual actors themselves in real time and reading their very own words. In that sense, I found it a fascinating experience to read the actual documents themselves.
Another effect the material had on me was that I more than once found myself wanting to go back in time and have a heart to heart with Joseph and warn him when he had not thought things all the way through and his decisions and policies were going to backfire. For instance, I’m sure it seemed a good idea at the time to march some 200 armed men (and a handful of women and children) across Missouri, but I would argue that this show of martial force was actually counterproductive and did not advance the interests of the Saints the way Joseph hoped it would.
As an example of one of the Documents presented in the volume, consider the Certificate from Michael Chandler, 6 July 1835, at pp. 361-65. The document itself reads as follows:
Kirtland, July 6th, 1835.
This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jr. deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters, in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, shown to the most learned. And, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr.to correspond in the most minute matters. (Signed)
Michael H. Chandler,—
Travelling with, and proprieter of Egyptian Mummies.
The source note explains that the featured version (indicating that there were other versions in circulation) had been copied into the Oliver Cowdery Letterbook, 72, in the handwriting of James M. Carrel, now in the Huntington Library.
This short text is given three pages of Historical Introduction, which is essential because it clarifies several important matters. I’ll mention three of these points here. First, Chandler claimed to have been the nephew of the excavator of the JS Papyri, Antonio Lebolo, and to have received these antiquities pursuant to Lebolo’s will. We now know that this story is a complete crock. (Why he felt the need to make up such a story is unclear; presumably the intent was to obscure his financial motives in his tour with the antiquities.)
Chandler also claimed to have compared the provisional translation Joseph gave him of some of the material with one Charles Anthon of Columbia (yes, that Charles Anthon) had previously given him and found them to be in agreement. While such a previous meeting with Anthon cannot be absolutely ruled out, there is no other evidence that it actually took place.
What I especially appreciated in the Historical Introduction was the frank acknowledgment that Chandler was probably so free and eager to give Joseph the certificate because of his motive to sell the antiquities to Joseph or others in Kirtland, and stroking Joseph’s ego on this topic would have greased the skids for such a transaction, which in fact did later take place. The older approach to this was to assume that the certificate had some sort of actual evidentiary value for the competence of Joseph’s rendering, but realistically Chandler was not in a position to make such a judgment, and simply comparing Joseph’s opinions to other uninformed opinions would have had little real evidentiary value.
So do I give this volume a big thumb’s up? Why yes. Yes I do. Go forth and purchase, grasshopper.