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The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1 (1832-1839)
by Richard Lyman Bushman, Ronald Esplin, Dean Jessee
Reviewed by Jeff Needle
10/01/2009 3:56:31 PM
"Just who is this Joseph Smith fellow, and why are we so interested in him? Oh yeah, he’s the guy who started the Mormon Church back in the 1800’s. Aw heck, they’re just a nutty little cult. Who cares what their founder had to say?"

In fact, Joseph Smith is more than just the founder of a “nutty little cult.” He’s one of the pivotal figures in American religious history, standing head and shoulders above others who emerged in the same time period. Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G. White, Charles Taze Russell -- all are remembered in the history books, adored by their followers, and continue to influence the religious thinking of millions around the world. But no one has made such an impact on the American religious psyche as did Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.

Called to his vocation at a very early age, Joseph found himself at an interesting intersection in the popular culture. All around him, seekers were crying out for a manifestation of God's presence, His approval of the newly-independent nation, His watch-care over an emerging, distinct American religious paradigm. How early he understood the pivotal role he would play is a matter of dispute. But there is little question that, by the time he attained his 38th year, when he would reach an emotional high as he reframed his own self-understanding and reimagined his destiny, running for the Presidency of the United States, he would understand that future generations would be talking about him, his intellect, his book (the Book of Mormon), and the wildly fantastical story that formed the underpinning of the whole phenomenon.

Historians agree that the most interesting, and sometimes the most difficult, sources of information are first-hand accounts kept by participants and observers alike. Early on, as the introductory comments to this volume explain, Joseph understood the necessity of keeping records. Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the Church Historian, is fond of pointing out that the revelation to appoint a Church historian came very early in the history of the Church. Joseph Smith, and likely the Lord Himself, understood how important it would be to chronicle the acts and observations of the early pioneers. The result: a virtual avalanche of diaries, notebooks, recorded sermons and other observations about and by the early Saints, an enormous treasure-trove from which to learn about the infant Mormon movement. And, to the degree possible, they provide a glimpse into the mind and psyche of Joseph Smith that we would otherwise not have available to us.

Of course, pretending to understand another's mind and motivation is always a bit of a tricky act. We can't know with any certainty what's going on in the heart of another person. We can only infer from their words and their acts, what is happening in the heart of that person. Joseph Smith set the entire science of inference on its head, doing things that caused even his closest followers to wonder whether this was indeed the prophet for which they sought. Certainly Joseph's life was filled with disappointments -- the crash of his financial institution, the utter failure of Zion's Camp, I could go on -- but there were triumphs, too, spiritual and emotional highs that he was able to turn to his advantage and use for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. He was as skilled in celebrating his victories as he was in understanding, and explaining, his defeats.

One of the stumbling blocks in our desire to understand Joseph Smith, from the point of view of an outsider such as myself, is the insistence on identifying him as a "prophet." The word is used in such a loosy-goosy way these days, it's difficult to sort out the real prophets from the pretenders. And there was certainly no lack of self-styled prophets and reformers in the United States in Joseph's time. There are tests you can apply, but the tests themselves are often so subjective, and selective, that I suppose even *I* could be termed a prophet, given the appropriate criteria. And, frankly, as society as a whole begins to study Mormonism more seriously (witness the increasing number of Mormon studies departments at major universities), the Church has to find new ways of presenting Joseph Smith, not in the light of belief/disbelief, but rather as an authentic historical curiosity, a major mover and shaker in early American history, a towering figure in the history of American religion.

Understanding any historical figure from his writings requires a dual focus -- the content of the writings, and the context in which they were written. Biblical scholars have long understood that, for example, Paul's writings are inconsistent and illogical when studied outside their context. And since the Bible does not give much in the way of context, it remains for historians, archaeologists and anthropologists to fill in the gaps. Some commentators on the Book of Mormon have likewise tried to supply a historical setting for the text, but this has proven to be more challenging.

The present volume answers both needs. We have, for the first time, an ongoing release of the bulk of Joseph Smith's papers. Some of these papers have not been available to the public before; others have been in circulation for years. What is added here is content -- the full writing, with deletions and emendations noted. And there is context -- who are the people mentioned in these writings? What else was going on when Joseph wrote these words? How can we better understand Joseph's words in the context of the times?

Some of the entries are lengthy and fascinating given the tenor of the times. For example, pages 86 through 95 relate Joseph's meeting with the notorious Robert Matthews (not to be confused with the currently extant Robert Matthews, of course). Matthews titled himself the Prophet Matthias -- sometimes Joshua the Jewish prophet -- and managed to convince some gullible followers to adopt him as their prophet. It is worth noting that contemporaries of Joseph Smith characterized Joseph's followers in quite the same way. A note on page 86 places the entire meeting in perspective, leaving us to read the account as one of those fascinating, and fortunate (from the point of view of history), meetings.

Some of the entries are entirely uninspiring. A quick example:

"30 September 1835 - Wednesday

"30th. Stayed at home and visited many who came to enquire after the work of the Lord."

I recall thinking: ho hum, who cares if Joseph stayed at home that day? But Joseph cared. He cared about posterity to record even the mundane events of his exciting life. He clearly thought *someone* would care what he was doing that day. Historians will likely appreciate this level of detail more than the common reader.

An introductory essay titled "Joseph Smith and His Papers" gives the reader some insight into Joseph's attention to, and passion for, the keeping of records for his church. He truly understood the value of recording its history for future generations. The rich tradition of journal keeping and diary making has preserved for our generation, and those that will follow, an enormously valuable corpus of knowledge which, when fully mined by competent scholars, will surely yield a treasure trove of insight and understanding of the pioneer mind. The recent completion of the new Church History building in Salt Lake City is a testament to the Church's commitment to the preservation and study of these valuable documents.

The last 140 pages or so contain important supplemental information. These include a chronology of the period covered by this book; a geographical directory enlarging upon the places mentioned in the writings; a series of maps illustrating the periods covered in the book; a pedigree chart of Joseph Smith's family; a biographical directory of the people we meet in the journals; ecclesiastical organization charts, illustrating the evolving nature of the Mormon hierarchy; a glossary of terms used in the writings; some explanatory notes about the use of sources; and a chart that helps readers line up the various editions of the Book of Commandments/Doctrine and Covenants.

This first volume in the upcoming 30-volume series is a monumental achievement in so many ways. It provides both content and context -- it relates what Joseph wrote, and gives the modern reader a glimpse at what was going on around him. And, in many ways, it represents a major step in Mormonism's emergence into the light of the 21st century. While it may at one time have been possible, and maybe even preferable, to keep certain historical facts close to the ecclesiastical vest, in today's world of rapid communication and widespread electronic access, no institution can profit by keeping back any of its past.

Mormonism has grown and matured to such a degree that it no longer needs to worry about the warts in its past. One can hold two points of view -- that the Church is a divinely-inspired institution that is run by fallible human beings -- and emerge from an honest, open study of its history with one's testimony intact. The release of the Joseph Smith papers may reveal some information that true believers will find a bit uncomfortable, but I truly believe that even the most stalwart among them will come to the table stronger and wiser from having to cope with the disparities in the life of Mormonism's founder.

In the end, each reader must decide for himself how the person and writings of Joseph Smith are to be understood and internalized. In my mind, one thing is certain -- no one can read the story in its entirety without being affected one way or the other. You can run screaming from the story, proclaiming it to be the result of some madness, some deceit being promulgated by a master showman. Or you can sit back and drink it in, seeing the hand of God at work in the life of a complex, sometimes-conflicted young man whose name and office would change the religious world forever.

However you come down on this issue, this volume, and, I suspect, the ones that will follow, will be constitute one of the greatest contributions to the lore of Mormonism's founder that we've seen in some time. This is a book well worth owning, if only for its appendices and other notes. This is a treasure trove. Dive in. I think you'll like it a lot.