Book Review Roundup: JSPP, Spencer, Johnson/Reeder

Once again, three quick reviews of some highly interesting books, any one of which is worthy of serious long-form discussion. Three very affordable books that really ought to be in everybody’s library/kindle collection, quite frankly.

Ron Esplin, Matthew Grow, Matthew Godfrey, Joseph Smith’s Revelations: A Doctrine and Covenants Study Companion from the Joseph Smith Papers (SLC: The Church Historian’s Press, 2016, $10.49). Imagine if your Doctrine and Covenants study guide were an authoritative, thorough historical introduction to each section of the D&C from the best scholars in the Church. Imagine that your study guide also included the earliest extant versions of each section, with all the typos, cross-outs and errors. Imagine that this study guide were published by the Church itself. Imagine that this study guide were only available online as an e-book. Wait, what?

Yes, the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume is only available as an e-book. It is quite obviously being pushed out as an aid during this year’s D&C study, and there’s a lot here to unpack. As with the more fulsome volumes of the JSPP, this presents the transcripts of revelations and annotations giving context, as well as some textual analysis and history. This is not a doctrinal commentary, and as such the current D&C course materials will amply serve that purpose. The e-book consolidates much of the introduction and explanatory elements from the other JSPP volumes, including corresponding versification to current D&C format and a chronological order chart. This is what you need on your phone or ipad during class, not just to be that obnoxious person who points out what the text originally said, but also to give yourself a little deeper dive for when class just isn’t gonna cut it. In all seriousness, it’s nearly indispensable for truly understanding early church history as we’re studying the D&C at Church. $10 is a small price to pay for high-octane rigorous scholarship of the revelations.

indexJoseph Spencer, The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record (SLC: Kofford, 2016, $21.90). Nothing drains the blood from by face or the enthusiasm from my scripture reading more than realizing I’m hitting the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. There’s a reason they are so intimidating: they are long, hard to understand, they disrupt the narrative flow, and man don’t we already have all those in the Old Testament?? Spencer, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, has done the impossible: he has made me want to read Isaiah. Well, almost.

The book wisely takes into account the common complaints about the Isaiah chapters (see above: boring, hard, long, repetitive) and constructs itself around a series of informal lectures. Spencer’s book is composed of talks about Isaiah, speeches that hit major topics in the BoM Isaiah chapters. As such, there are no (well, virtually no) footnotes, no complicated readings, no overly complicated stretches of textual analysis. It is an accessible book, but it is not dumb. The lecture approach brings us back to a discussion about Isaiah that provides understanding, but more importantly Spencer is able to convey to us his energy and love for the text. At the same time, Spencer’s view of Isaiah in the BoM is frank and takes on some of the more interesting questions that come from modern Bible scholarship. What are we to make of the prevailing theory, for example, that dates some of the Isaiah chapters in the BoM to after the time Lehi is said to have left Jerusalem? What about Nephi’s tendency (and our own) to read the text in a messianic way that the context of the book does not support? How credible is Nephi’s exegesis, held up against how we view Isaiah today? Spencer addresses these questions in a faithful way, but with a certain wit and friendliness that is engaging and memorable.

Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder, The Witness of Women: Firsthand Experiences and Testimonies from the Restoration (SLC: Deseret Book, 2016, $16.41). I want to give proper deference to this book, which is not long but is one of the most spiritually powerful books I own. I refer you to Meredith Nelson’s excellent review, with which I agree. The book is a collection of anecdotes, testimonies and thoughts from women in LDS history; organized by topic, the authors state their purpose thusly:

Our hope is that The Witness of Women will help to create a more inclusive narrative of the early history of the Church as it documents the witness of early Latter-day Saint women in their own voices. These women describe their experience of the Restoration, testifying of the restored gospel and demonstrating how they faithfully applied doctrine and principles. As Latter-day Saints come to understand both their shared identity and individual value, they will better realize their own essential role as the Restoration continues.

This is a noble aim, and the collection is a worthy effort. Johnson and Reeder, two of the finest historians in the Church, have poured a great deal of work into the book, and it shows. They provide insightful and welcome introductory material and biographical pieces for each woman included, and then they wisely step out of the way and let amazing people, from Vilate Murray Kimball to Jane Manning James to “Excelette”, tell their stories in their own words. This book can be used effectively along with the JSPP volume to add to personal study of the Restoration, but more than this, The Witness of Women filled me with a sense of gratitude and inheritance. If we are under condemnation for not remembering the Book of Mormon, surely we also stand condemned for neglecting the contributions of some of the best and brightest Mormons to have ever lived — our women. Johnson and Reeder make the case, simply and powerfully, that we will never fully understand Mormonism or God’s hand in the Restoration without knowing these women and witnessing their faith and their sacrifices. I am still thinking about their chapter entitled, “Abrahamic Sacrifices”. What will God ask of us? What will faith require? These women knew, and can teach us so much. Every member of the Church can benefit from reading this wonderful collection.

Comments

  1. Great reviews. Thank you.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for these reviews.

  3. Does the Revelations book discuss how Joseph Smith changed his revelations over time? (eg “rod of nature” to “rod of aaron”) It would be great to see how these mormon scholars treat this issue.

  4. In some cases. Mostly it deals with differences in transcription or interpretation.

  5. I just bought the ebook and it is great (at first glance). Well worth the $10. I hope it’s eventually printed, as it’s a bit unwieldy in flipping back and forth, as I am wont to do with this type of book.

    But undeniably a great resource that will add texture and richness to the narrative. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. I think there’s a reason the D&C book is only an ebook: The introduction explains that since the Joseph Smith Papers Project is ongoing they simply haven’t completed their work on all the sections yet, and it promises that the book will eventually contain more (I’m assuming the e-book can be updated later?). I don’t know if there is any plan for a future print version, but since the e-book is itself incomplete that would explain why there’s no print version for now.

  7. Yes, I believe revisions are the intent, but I don’t know if a paper edition is in the works. That book would be heavily redundant to the current paper offerings.

  8. The e-book vs. print book thing has been going around a bit lately. Another example of this kind of “work in progress” is the BYU NT Commentary series. The e-book for Revelation came out first and then didn’t hit print for a couple of years. Luke was second but printed first and the 1 Corinthian volume hasn’t been printed yet. Like others above, I prefer the printed page, but when the authors are still revising (and the BYUNTC volumes need some revision at times) then its foolish to print them until they’re more ready. In the mean time, the e-versions give us a great place to start.