Phrenology and More: Introducing the Joseph Smith Papers Documents Volume 7

By April 24, 2018

Matthew Godfrey, Spencer W. McBride, Alex D. Smith, Christopher James Blythe, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Volume 7, September 1839-January 1841. (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018).


I was introduced to the newest addition to the Joseph Smith Papers Project the day the books hit the shelves a couple weeks ago. We were given an opportunity to meet with the editors and talk about their favorite parts of this new volume. The Joseph Smith Papers Documents Volume 7 continues the inevitable march to June 1844 and as we get closer, the numbers of documents increase and the time period covered shortens. This seventh Documents volume covers just five months from September 1839 to January 1841 in 713 pages. We might consider the meticulous nature of the editing and annotation of each of these volumes, in that, this new volume is no different. All offer new nuance and detail to the narrative of Joseph Smith?s life. However, unlike the last volume, this volume is a period often skipped over. After the harrowing drama of the Missouri War and expulsion and the brief respite found for the refugees in Quincy we often narratively find ourselves in a fully formed and functioning Nauvoo. This volume zeroes in on Joseph Smith laboring to establish and bring the Saints to what he considers will be ?the greatest city in the world? as he likewise endeavors to seek political redress for what happened in Missouri, and begins to introduced distinctive Mormon doctrines that will shape the Nauvoo period.

Mired in the mundane aspects of establishing a city, Joseph Smith tired of selling city lots which took up much of his time. In June of 1840, he wrote a memorial to the Nauvoo high council and asked them to take up the work of selling land–he was ready to focus elsewhere. Though the land deeds are not all included, the editors use the deeds as an opportunity to bring people of color and more women into the white male-centric narrative. This includes land deeds for Elijah Able, a free person of color, and Jane Miller, a single woman. The church had gone into considerable debt to buy the land, but Joseph was eager to focus on more spiritual things. And this volume is on the cusp of a period of great doctrinal creativity beginning with teachings about the Constitution, baptism for the dead, the temple, and the first sealing. Some documents are familiar but changed, such as Smith writing to the Twelve in Britain in December 1840 which includes a significant paragraph about baptism for the dead expurgated from the published version of the letter. (See the vertical overwriting–otherwise known as a historian’s worst friend–in the original letter pictured here.) Other familiar stories are given more context such as the reconciliation of Smith with W.W. Phelps.

This volume also begins to incorporate more women?s voices, though they remain scant, it is a significant improvement over previous volumes and includes: a letter from Emma, sermon notes available via Martha Jane Coray, Jane Miller?s land deed, as well as continuing to allow women to provide important context as do Vilate Kimball and Phebe Woodruff on baptism for the dead. One of my favorite documents highlighted by the editors came from this same period, Brigham Young was on the mission in Great Britain and his wife, Mary Ann Angell Young, was in need. She and her children ?apparently lacked adequate food and shelter.? Joseph sent a note to Bishop Whitney, ?Sir, it is of my opinion, that you had better let Mrs Young have anything she wants, that so doing will be well pleasing in the sight of God.? If Whitney followed through with the request, all she wanted was nutmeg, a shawl, and some shoes.

Politically the volume likewise offers more colors and shades to paint well-known characters like Martin Van Buren as well as the notorious John C. Bennett and weighty events like Joseph’s trip to Washington and the creation of the Nauvoo Charter. President Van Buren attracts the biting comments of Smith, but D7 offers context to the vitriol. The establishment of the Nauvoo Charter, the continuing political atmosphere in Illinois, and Bennett?s central role in creating the Charter are all explored in meticulous depth. Not to mention including Joseph Smith’s phrenology reading. Documents Volume 7 has much to offer.


The D7 editors and the Church History Department have also been busy introducing the new volume to all of us, including short videos on the following topics (not including phrenology):
o Mormon Baptisms for the Dead
o The Apostles? Mission to England, 1839
o Joseph Smith in the White House
o Nauvoo, Illinois: From Swampland to Zion
o Joseph Smith Forgives William W. Phelps




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