Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Volume 6: February 1838–August 1839, edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, David W. Grua, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Alexander L. Baugh, and Brenden W. Rensink.
The ink was barely dry on the sixth volume of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers when I was able to meet with three of the very capable editors of the volume—Mark Ashurst-McGee, David Grua, and Elizabeth Kuehn. That week I also heard JI’s own, David Grua, lecture on the Liberty Jail letters. It was all a lot to take in. In the time that has passed, I’ve been able to understand the depth and breadth of this volume a little better. The Missouri experience looms large in the Mormon memory and the contribution of this volume is essential to our understanding of this critical period—though it will take a very long time to take it all in.
This tome is the largest volume thus far in the Papers project. Its 776 meticulous pages cover just 19 months in four sections. Add the front matter and you’re over 800 pages. (Let’s hope the binding can hold up.)
The first part covers February 1838 to June 1838 and the beginnings of the Saints’ expansion into northern Missouri. Though a January 1838 revelation told Joseph to “get out of this place,” Joseph did not leave all those troubles behind in Kirtland. The documents (regrettably) do not add to our understanding of the relationship between Fanny Alger and Joseph Smith. However, the topic keeps on bubbling up and there is dissent originating in those rumors. This section also involves the excommunication trial of Oliver Cowdery and action against other dissenters.
The failure of the Kirtland Safety Society is a significant part of the collapse of Kirtland, yet this section likewise involves many financial documents not related to the bank. There are land debts and temple debts and despite physically leaving Kirtland, they do not leave the debts behind. Mark Ashurst-McGee commented that Joseph is demonstrably concerned that they pay their debts as a mark of his own personal integrity as well as an important reflection on the church.
The second part covers July to 29 October 1838—just after expulsion order. This involves the further expansion of the Saints in northern Missouri, the conflicts that resulted, the role of rumors in those conflicts, and the beginning of the Danites—including testimony of Mormons who saw the Danites as protectors. The volume introduction begins the work of illustrating a broader contextual understanding of violence in antebellum culture. Vigilante action becomes a central element here and a significant transition to the narrative. Determining accurate terminology was a significant task for the editors; significant word choices like vigilantism, expulsion rather than extermination, and whether or not this conflict truly fit the characterization of war were critical. The failure of local Missouri government to protect the Saints led Latter-day Saints to choose extra-legal justice. Rigdon and Smith worked to legally contend against rumors that Mormons were uniting with Native Americans (perhaps one of the most consistent nineteenth-century Mormon rumors). Vigilante action on the part of both Mormons and Missourians becomes critical to understand the breadth of this violence and the accuracy of the label of the Mormon War. The Adam Ondi Ahman stake president reported in his journal on 22 October that “We have driven most the enemy out of the co[unty].” (266) Extra-legal action transitioned to state-sponsored violence against a minority group, yet that minority group would continue to defend themselves in specific ways. This section likewise includes the role of theology specifically buttressing the Mormon actions against Missourians as well as the dissenters.
A weighty absence marks the transition from section two to section three. While examining the document dates there are 5 critical days absent from the record—yet none of those sources are from Joseph. There are no extant sources from Joseph in October 1838. Though there were letters written back and forth, chaos overwhelmed any ability to preserve documentation. Unfortunately, the extant sources do not add any women’s accounts to the contemporary record of sexual violence in Missouri.
Part three is focused on Joseph the prisoner with a collection of prison letters to rival Jeremiah and maybe even Paul. It covers 4 November 1838 to 16 April 1839—the day of their escape. The section begins with a letter written to Emma from Independence, Jackson County on 4 November. Joseph felt a responsibility to write to Emma in his own hand. If I’m correct, his letters to Emma are the only letters in Joseph’s own hand in this volume. (He may have also penned a letter to Prescendia Buell.) After Independence Joseph and his penitentiary cohort were moved to the Clay County Jail in Liberty, Missouri. (The official name.) Joseph’s prison letters illuminate his own suffering, the suffering of the Saints as they are pushed from the state of Missouri, their legal efforts at redress, but also offer more details of the continuing contest between the Missourians and the Mormons. Moreover, they are a spring of what will become significant theological tenets of the Latter-day Saints. The juxtaposition of the extremities of Joseph’s experience in Liberty led B. H. Roberts to dub the Clay County Jail a “prison temple.” This volume importantly expands and offers additional nuance to that notion.
While Joseph languished in jail, Church debts continue to be paid. Joseph B. Noble’s mother-in-law, Sarah Burt Beman, was reimbursed for a portion of a loan she made to help alleviate some of the church’s debts in Kirtland. Along with Emma, Sarah is one of the very few women who make it to the text by name—more appear in the notes. Of course, these are Joseph Smith’s papers but many men’s sources are used to round out the narrative. Many women visited the jail—editor David Grua actually used many women’s sources in his lecture on Liberty Jail; however, none of the full text of those sources was included. Women make copies of Joseph’s prison letters as they begin to demonstrate dissemination. 17-year-old Zina Huntington was one of those to copy Joseph’s letters. One letter from Emma to Joseph in March 1839, as well as a letter Joseph and Emma wrote together, are the only women’s writings included in the volume.
Part four details the period from 24 April to 12 August 1839 and the quest of Latter-day Saint refugees to create new communities once again, this time on a swampy bend of the Mississippi. Though there is much here including the altruism of the residents of Quincy and the purchase of land both in Illinois and across the river in Iowa, I want to focus on what might be my favorite contribution of this volume. Revelations 1 introduced us to the Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR—known as Revelation Book 1 in the Papers) with some of the earliest manuscript copies of revelations. The BCR came from the First Presidency’s vault. After finding that, the items in the First Presidency’s vault were thoroughly cataloged with several items turned over to the Church History Library. Included in this was a small Wilford Woodruff volume titled “A Book of Revelations” here photographed. Joseph spent June instructing the Twelve—“important items & plain & precious principles.” Wilford carried the volume as he left with the majority of the Twelve on their mission “over the great waters” to Great Britain. Three of Joseph Smith’s discourses from Wilford’s book are included in this volume. (516-528, It is likely the source for Willard Richards’ Pocket Companion and three additional texts also come from Richards’ volume.) Full of allusions to the biblical text as well as the Book of Mormon and the revelations, in the first discourse Joseph pleads with the Twelve to act in mercy, grace, forgiveness, loyalty and preach with the “power of the Holy Priesthood & Holy Ghost.” Wilford draws keys where Joseph expounds the “mysteries of the kingdom.” The second includes discussions of the “doctrines” of faith, repentance, baptism, tongues, and election.
There is really so much to explore, this volume has the capability to shift not only how we narrate the Saints’ time in Missouri, but how we think about Mormon violence, as well as ideas about canon and revelation, and much much more.