By March 19, 2015
In this personal essay, MHA president Laurel Thatcher Ulrich compares her own path into Mormon history (from Mormon Idaho native to historian of early-American women) to that of Jan Shipps (from “Gentile” to historian of Mormonism). Shipps had called herself an “inside-outsider” in Zion; here, Ulrich calls herself an “outside-insider.” She is referring to the fact that she never intended to write Mormon history; rather, she had come to see herself professionally as a scholar of 17th– and 18th-century New England women. Of her recent research into her religious roots, Ulrich concludes that her training as a colonial historian has enabled her to see connections between Mormon history and American history that she otherwise would not see. She tantalizes us with allusions to her forthcoming book on the relationship between early-Mormon polygamous families and American women’s activism. Of particular interest to me in this narrative of her personal and professional development, though, is the way that distance has worked to her advantage in the writing of Mormon history.
By December 2, 2014
On Monday, December 1, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released their newest volume: Documents, Volume 3 provides transcriptions of letters, city and temple plans, revelations, reports of discourses, and minutes dating between February 1833 and March 1834, a period that began with glorious hopes of building Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, but descended into crisis on two fronts. In Kirtland, the excommunicated Doctor Philastus Hurlbut began publishing negative accounts of Joseph Smith, and in Jackson County, mob violence led to the expulsion of Mormons from their legally purchased lands.
At the launch of this newest volume, Matthew Grow, head of the Publications Division at the Church History Library, also announced that Joseph Smith Papers Project staff have refreshed the project’s website. To improve the user experience, the team has improved the navigation and readability of the site, added a Table of Contents to the document viewer to enable users to switch pages more easily, and improved the site’s search capabilities.
While Documents, Volume 1 contained a profusion of early revelation documents, Volume 3 has fewer revelations, but a greater variety of documents. Noteworthy documents include: meeting minutes of a collective, shared vision at the School of the Prophets in March 1833; a warrant with a long list of names of prominent Mormons that prevented those named from attaining legal residency and voting rights in Jackson County; annotated drawings of temple and city plans (this is the first volume to reproduce architectural designs and drawings of city plans; it is quite the type-setting feat!); and letters that shed light on the lives of Joseph Smith’s less prominent contemporaries who moved to Jackson County directly in response to his revelations.
These documents are compelling for various reasons. In reference to the March 1833 meeting minutes, Gerrit Dirkmaat, one of the volume editors, observed that most visionary accounts come from Joseph Smith. A handful of visionary accounts come from small groups, such as the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses” to the Gold Plates. The account recorded by Frederick G. Williams of the collective vision at the March 1833 meeting is unique because a relatively large number of people participated in the event.
Alison Palmer, one of the editors, discussed the process of figuring out how to reproduce the city and temple drawings in a book format in a way that preserved the evolving relationship of the annotations to the designs. The document of the City of Zion Plat, for instance, is 17×22 inches in size. It depicts multiple religious buildings in the central block, and identifies the surrounding blocks as residential spaces. Ultimately, the team divided this document into nine sections and transcribed each.
According the to the volume editors, Joseph Smith’s correspondence reveals his unwavering confidence that Zion would be built. The time delay in communication (it took three weeks for a letter from Jackson County to arrive in Kirtland, for instance) was very interesting to me, especially in light of the need for immediate decisions in response to the increasing mob violence.
The Documents series is one out of six being published by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The other five series are: Revelations and Translations, Histories, Journals, Legal and Business Records, and Administrative Documents. Photographs, videos, curricula/lesson plans for secular universities, and, of course, images of the documents themselves are all available on the Joseph Smith Papers Project Website.
By November 20, 2014
Andrea’s recent comment about the portrayal of Joseph Smith’s marriage relationship(s) in popular Mormon history and art prompted me to do this little study. What have LDS Church members learned from the media produced by the institutional Church about Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages?
First, some theory.
The Exemplification of religion in the Media:
We have to be careful about assuming effects from the media because, with so many variables in play, media effects generally are not uniform nor strong. With that important caveat, empirical research in the field of mass communications on the theory of exemplification has demonstrated that the examples selected by storytellers (e.g., news reporters) do have an effect on people’s perceptions of the world—whether historical or current. This theory helps to explain why, after the passage of time, people tend to remember concrete examples rather than abstract assertions or numerical data.
Theorists have concluded from empirical evidence that the following process occurs in the brain: people use given examples to make intuitive leaps to a whole picture in their minds. In other words, “knowledge” of how the world works tends to be based on isolated, often-atypical evidence that is imprinted visually in the brain.
I would argue that this theory also has implications for religious education. Not only do religion teachers often carry the weight of propounding authoritative Truth, they also often rely on exemplification as a teaching method. That is, the use of examples (verbal and visual) to convey a larger concept is arguably an intuitive storytelling and/or educational strategy. Zillmann (1999) has explained the concept of exemplification:
“Everybody is familiar with examples. Everybody has been given examples, and everybody has related examples to others, in efforts to elucidate a broader concept or issue. Everybody, therefore, has some tacit understanding of a relationship between an example and a larger entity to be exemplified by it. Implied is that more than one example exists” (p. 72).
By June 10, 2014
Mechal Sobel has argued that the writing of autobiographies in the American Revolutionary period reflected and even promoted the development of the personal self, the “I”—as opposed to the “we-self.” This change was most pronounced among white males, as women and all blacks remained “enmeshed in a communality and…[continued to] serve the needs of increasingly individuated white males.” Sobel found that over half of the more than two-hundred autobiographies that she examined in her research contained accounts of dreams and visions. “The narratives, the dream reports, and the dream interpretations by the narrators provide vivid evidence of the change in self-perception in ideal and functioning selves. They also provide powerful evidence that American culture was a dream-infused culture and that work with dreams provided an important bridge into the modern period.”