Q&A with Foundational Texts of Mormonism editors

In the next couple of months Oxford University Press is publishing Foundational Texts of Mormonism. An important edited volume for any scholarship on Mormon history, the volume has chapters from folks like Richard Bushman, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and BCC regular Bill Smith. The editors have kindly answered a few questions about the project for us. Also, OUP’s annual holiday sale extends into mid-January. They are offering 50% off many books, including Foundational Texts of Mormonism. Enter the code HOLIDAY17 to preorder this book for half price ($74.00 >> $37.00). This offer ends January 12, so if you want this book in your library now is the time to order.

What is “textual criticism?” Where has it been applied outside of Mormon History? The introduction of the volume places Dean Jessee as the principle pioneer in Mormon textual criticism.  Are there parallels or difference between what he was doing, and, for example, what scholars were doing with the Bible in the late nineteenth century?

Ashurst-McGee: Textual Criticism is close and careful analysis of a text, emphasizing especially an understanding of its immediate origins and meaning. Textual criticism, loosely defined, has indeed been going on for many decades among scholars of various disciplines. There are separate academic traditions among the Hebrew Bible scholars (using Hebrew and other ancient near eastern texts), New Testament scholars (focusing on Greek texts), Classicists (focused on Homer & Cicero &c.), Literary scholars (from Beowulf to Shakespeare to Twain), and Historians (from the Founding Fathers to Woodrow Wilson and Ike to Emma Goldman and MLK). Unfortunately, these various schools of textual criticism do not communicate very well. I once attended a joint conference of the Society for Textual Studies (the sort of folk associated with English departments) and the Association for Documentary Editing (the sort of folk associated with History departments). I was struck by how much they shared in terms of common problems and issues and how little they had shared their scholarly traditions (or even vocabulary). Jessee was squarely influenced by the school of documentary editing in the American history tradition, particularly by Julian Boyd and his Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

What are some of the common pitfalls scholars have made or continue to make without considering a critical approach to common historical texts?  What are some good examples of work that uses textual criticism to expand understandings?

Ashurst-McGee: We have come a long way already. For example, thanks largely to Dean Jessee, historians no longer write things like this:

Joseph Smith wrote . . . “[quotation from the Roberts edition of the History of the Church].”

And historians now use the HC’s information critically. Unfortunately, historians still write things like this:

Joseph Smith said “[quotation from Words of Joseph Smith].”

According to Lucy Mack Smith, “[quotation from Lucy’s Book].”

The chapter in Foundational Texts of Mormonism by William V. Smith is a great study on Smith’s sermons and a reminder that we should not write like this about JS’s sermon audits. The chapter by Sharalyn D. Howcroft shows very clearly why we should not write like this about Lucy Mack Smith’s memoir.

Jensen: The secret of academia is that scholars often look for reliable shortcuts in their research. There is a reason that documentary editing is done and cited by other scholars. It takes a significant amount of work to research at archives and if there’s a reliable edition of someone’s papers, that’s hundreds of hours saved to use the print edition, rather than do additional research in various locations. But good scholars recognize when to rely on others and when to do the research themselves. This is a balance of the topic of one’s research and the nature of questions being asked of the archival sources. Someone looking to the reception history of the Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saints in the early twentieth century won’t find much use in scrutinizing the original manuscript. But scholars looking for clues in how the earliest followers of Joseph Smith heard and understood the revelations dictated by Joseph Smith ought to be quite familiar with the manuscript record of the revelation texts. More than anything, I hope the different approaches laid out by the authors of this book will remind scholars of the untapped potential of a deep dive into the archival record. There are hundreds of questions waiting to be asked of the records, revealing new insight into not just the texts themselves, but the history in which the texts were created.

Howcroft: Scholars use source materials to interpret the past; however, they less frequently assess records as physical artifacts to see if they correlate or refute what is stated in the historical sources. For example, Lucy Mack Smith reportedly dictated her history to Martha Jane Coray; however, the extant manuscript doesn’t show evidence of dictation and there are other clues in the manuscript that suggest what we have is a few generations removed from a dictated text. Additionally, scholars have presumed the fair copy was a contiguous history, but physical clues indicate it was two separate copies of the history that were combined. This kind of analysis and discovery extends our understanding beyond what the content of a historical source divulges.

After Jessee, there were a few folks—Howard Searle’s dissertation in the late 1970s comes to mind—who have worked on the “Manuscript History.”  Is this work entirely depreciated by projects such as the Joseph Smith Papers?  If not, what works should be on the radar of scholars?

Howcroft: Documentary editing projects like the Joseph Smith Papers will not replace the work of Searle and others who have written about foundational Mormon records. The primary objective of documentary editing is to publish authoritative texts and grant readers unprecedented access to particular documents and records using minimal interpretation. Think of it as a one-stop shop for mined raw data that scholars and historians can use as a foundation for their own work. Having said that, scholars build upon each other’s work and as new information surfaces, interpretation will shift.

Jensen: Current scholarship is nothing without the scholarship of previous generations. (This book is dedicated to Dean’s work and wouldn’t be what it is without his trailblazing efforts.) But scholarly views on archival sources also have a “shelf life.” Take the Manuscript History, for example. This was never meant to be a primary source—it was created to be read and used as a history drawing from other primary sources. That some scholars today use it as a primary source (without looking to the sources from which the Manuscript History was drawn) is unfortunate. The primary sources on which it was built were also created within their own historical contexts—by individuals with agendas, personalities, and cultural assumptions. Just as Dean taught us that we shouldn’t use the Manuscript History uncritically, so too are Alex Smith and Andy Hedges showing us in their chapter of the book that we should take a closer look at Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo journals. We as scholars need to understand what questions we can and cannot ask of these journals. What message was being sent by Willard Richards and William Clayton in creating the journals and their specific content.

Explain to me the idea of “Foundational Texts” as presented in this volume. Will the chapters explain how to use these specific materials more responsibly, or after reading a chapter will someone take with them the skills to approach other texts more critically?  How will this volume change how a scholar works?

Ashurst-McGee: We use the word foundational in two senses. First, we refer to Mormonism’s founding period—specifically, between 1820, when Joseph Smith experienced his first vision, and 1844, when he died. Second, we mean those major sources that historians repeatedly use in their research when they study Joseph Smith and early Mormonism and upon which they primarily build their historical narratives and arguments. The purpose of this book is to provide a deeper level of understanding of these significant sources, so historians and other scholars can use them more critically in their work.

Jensen: I think that the chapters will offer both approaches. Jeff Cannon’s chapter, for example, will provide a better understanding the visual media of Mormon photographs. But Canon’s study may also prompt scholars to build upon this approach, looking for clues about other visual media and the context in which those arose. It’s always the hope that something one works on will have deep impact upon the field in which one works. What I hope this volume does, however, is to assist scholars in taking a deeper look at the records themselves. Scholarship constantly evolves. But this book is clarifying, expanding upon, offering context, and otherwise showcasing the records themselves, which, ultimately, are finite. If this book prompts scholars to look deeper into the records upon which early Mormon history is based, then I will consider the volume a success.

Are there any “big reveals” in the volume, or surprising conclusions that readers should be anxiously looking forward to?

Ashurst-McGee: As an editor, you worry about what will come of your solicitations, but it all turned out so well. I’m very pleased with what was contributed. I’ll just mention a few highlights. Richard Bushman’s chapter on the golden plates is a magnificent contribution to Book of Mormon interpretation. I think that getting Grant Hardy’s take on the work of Royal Skousen is also a good contribution to Book of Mormon studies. Thom Wayment’s chapter on the JST is a huge addition to JST interpretation. Grant Underwood provides an expert overview of the revelations. David Grua’s mastery of Joseph Smith’s prison correspondence is unparalleled and his reading of Smith’s missives within the genre of the prison letter (stretching from Paul to MLK) is interesting and insightful. Jenny Reeder’s juxtaposition of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society’s minutes and its leadership’s secret polygamist relations with Joseph Smith is eye opening. Bill Smith’s account of the evolution of the Mormon sermon audit changed my understanding entirely. The chapter on Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo journals by Alex Smith and Andy Hedges is so masterful that I doubt it will ever be surpassed. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s chapter on the early Woodruff journals is so insightful in so many ways, but I’ll just share my favorite thing about it: Ulrich, who elucidated the early American diary of Martha Ballard in her Pulitzer Prize winning book A Midwife’s Tale, states that Woodruff also produced one of the Great American Diaries. Sharalyn D. Howcroft’s stemma on Lucy’s history is worth the price of the volume. Jeff Cannon’s chapter shows how so many of the images of early Mormonism that authors use over and over again when they illustrate their writings grew out of the historical context of the succession crisis following Smith’s death (and ought to be used with at least some understanding of their production context). Ron Barney’s chapter on what early Mormon documentation could or should have been produced but wasn’t, and why, is a fitting conclusion and complement to the other chapters in the book about the records that were created. Woops – I just went through the whole dang book.

Jensen: It’s not fair to ask about particulars in a volume like this. There are new discoveries in each chapter. So perhaps I’ll say a bit about one aspect of the entire book. We really fought for an image-heavy volume. Too often scholars use images as illustrations only. I think scholarship is better served when the images become a tool in the historical analysis of the study at hand. We asked our contributors to think about the images they were using as a way to assist with the argument of the chapter. The result, as biased as I am, is a wonderful work full of images that add significantly to the documentary analysis the chapters rather than merely illustrating them.

Howcroft: As I reviewed the chapters contributed to the volume, I was stunned by how well they complement each other and generate a conversation about early Mormon records. As a scholarly community, we need to be more critical in our assessment of Mormon records, how they were produced, and how we interpret them. If we do not understand the records, we do not understand the history and are prone to misinterpret it. This volume provides several guidelines and approaches to interpreting records and text that could be applied to other Mormon records as well.


  1. Phenomenal Q&A — thanks Stapley!

  2. Agreed. Great Q&A, especially the As.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Sounds really outstanding. So much so that I just now placed an order. (Thanks for that promotion code; it worked, and that’s a serious haircut off the regular price.)

  4. Sounds like a must buy book. And, according to Oxford’s site, it’ll be available as an ebook. (Hopefully iBooks and not just Kindle)

  5. Really looking forward to reading Richard Bushman’s piece, and the Grua chapter–he has the chops. And Wayment–that’s important stuff that needs wider circulation I think.

  6. Great Q&A – especially as an intro to the book. Secured my review copy last week and looking forward to digging in. This Q&A is a great bonus. I’d love to see more posts like it.

  7. Thank you for posting this. I took advantage of this great sale as well. I ordered this book and another book on Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology by some guy named Stapley. Looking forward to reading both books.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Curtis (and everyone else)!