A couple of weeks ago, I participated—by Skype—in the launch event for the newest Documents volume of the celebrated Joseph Smith Papers Project. I assume the project needs no introduction at this point, having already published more than a half-dozen volumes. The installment I’ll review here is already the third published volume in the Documents series (though note that seven or more volumes are projected in this series!). I’ll just say a bit about this volume, and perhaps about the Documents volumes more generally. If you aren’t interested in the details, here’s the short version: Buy the book, as well as its two predecessors!
First a couple of updates from the Joseph Smith Papers Project itself. If you aren’t already aware, the Project recently set up a semi-annual electronic newsletter, which I’d recommend signing up to receive. In addition, they’ve just rolled out a new website (already linked to above), which fantastically improves on previous iterations. What’s especially useful is that the website now has much-improved searching capability. So keep an eye on that. Also be aware that there will soon be added to the website a number of resources aimed specifically at those interested in using Mormon history in academic classrooms. This is a particularly welcome development. For those asking, the next volumes of the project due out are the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon (which will be made available in the large facsimile style of the first Revelations and Translations volume of a few years ago), due out this coming Spring, and the fourth Documents volume, due out in early 2016.
Now to Documents Volume 3 itself.
If you’ve been collecting and, more importantly, reading the Documents volumes, you’ll know in large part what to expect. But this volume marks a shift in the focus of the Documents volumes. The first three volumes taken together contain by far most of the revelations that make up the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 103 is the latest canonized revelation in Volume 3). But there are fewer and fewer revelations in each volume. Since Volume 2 concludes with D&C 88, this volume contains only fourteen of the documents that were eventually canonized (remember that D&C 99 was wrongly dated when it was inserted into its “chronological” position, so it’s appeared in an earlier volume). As a result, this volume is characterized by a much greater diversity of documentary material than the previous two volumes, and it marks what will prove to be a strong shift in that sort of direction from here out with the Documents volumes. Where the first volumes contain dozens of revelations in their earliest forms, the remainder of these volumes will be less revelatory in nature. As a result, however, these volumes promise to reveal only more of Joseph Smith’s thought and life as a result. We’re to expect less and less of the Lord’s voice through Joseph Smith and more and more of Joseph Smith’s own largely unmediated voice.
So what’s to be found in this volume? In addition to the revelations already mentioned, there are a great many letters and transcripts of meeting minutes. Both of these sorts of documents are especially important in this volume, since they track Joseph’s and the Church’s dealings with a number of significant crises—the difficulties with Philastus Hurlbut, for instance, but especially the catastrophe in Missouri in 1833 and the attempt to salvage the law of consecration and stewardship. (In some ways it’s a real shame the volume doesn’t extend quite far enough to include what’s now D&C 104, which arguably brought all these complex efforts to a sort of culmination.) In addition to letters and minutes, however, there are a few other sorts of documents here that are of great interest. There are a number of licenses, helpful for making sense of the developing understanding of the priesthood structure of the Church. (These should be compared with other licenses made available in previous volumes.) There are a number of architectural and geographical documents, laying out the city structures of Zion and Kirtland and the nature of the first planned temples. (Much of the launch event was dedicated to discussing the technical difficulties these caused the producers of the volume; they’ve done a fantastic job.) And there are a few miscellaneous documents, all of particular interest: a deed, a transcribed prayer, a warrant, and—most interesting to me—an attempt at an index for the New Translation of the Bible.
I’ve not yet had time to work all the way through the book, but perhaps I can mention a couple of things I’ve found interesting as I’ve begun to go through it. First, it’s worth mentioning the March 18, 1833, meeting minutes, to which the editors of the volume pointed out attention at the launch event. It contains a description of a shared visionary experience, had during the course of the meeting. This is a relatively infrequent phenomenon, and here we have a contemporary record of the experience. Second, let me mention my surprise at the decision apparently made to include Sidney Gilbert’s copy of the Word of Wisdom revelation rather than John Whitmer’s from the Book of Commandments and Revelations. I was under the impression that the consensus was that the latter was the earlier and better copy. The Gilbert manuscript has a great many textual variants, some of them interpretively significant, and this may suggest that further reflection is needed on this document than has been given it. Third, there’s the letter Joseph Smith wrote to Vienna Jaques, the earliest extent document in which Joseph Smith addresses a woman not from his own family. It’s a fascinating document for all kinds of reasons, and hopefully its publication in this edition, with helpful notes and an introduction, will help it to receive more attention than it’s received in the past.
Of course, there’s much, much more to say about the volume, I’m sure. I’ve only just begun to work through it myself. I’ll note, however, that what’s most useful about this volume, as with the previous volumes in this series, is the immense amount of work that has gone into the source notes, the introductions to the documents, the footnotes throughout. Some of the best historical work yet done on early Mormonism has been fitted into the scholarly apparatus of these volumes. They don’t read like a history, of course, but there may be more solid historical work available in these Documents volumes than anywhere else, when it comes to the first years of Mormonism’s existence. It’s a shame if these volumes are treated principally as documentary sources and not as gatherings of fine historical reconstruction as well. I hope we’ll see these have real effects on how we think of the earliest developments in Mormon history.