The Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Documents 5: October 1835-January 1838 provides an in-depth series of sources relating to building of the Kirtland Temple, economic collapse related to the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society, the expulsion of Mormons Missouri, and religious dissent. In this post, I’d like to highlight how a teacher might use documents from this volume in a broader American History class.
In 1836, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to Oliver Cowdery (published in the Mormon newspaper Messenger and Advocate) regarding abolition. First, a note about the text of the document itself. The letter opens with instructions that, if Cowdery think it wise, he could publish the letter publicly. The concerns immediately after that direction, though, turn to how the public had (not) reacted thus far to abolitionist and Oberlin College student John W. Alvord’s meetings in Ohio. Smith’s concern came through the channel of information via missionaries in the South: “I am aware, that many who profess to preach the gospel, complain against their brethren of the same faith, who reside in the south, and are ready to withdraw the hand of fellowship because they will not renounce the principle of slavery and raise their voice against every thing of the kind.” Smith countered against these supposed Northern and anti-slavery Mormons by asking: “If slavery is an evil, who, could we expect, would first learn it? Would the people of the free states, or would the slave states?… And besides, are not those who hold slaves, persons of ability, discernment and candor? Do they not expect to give an account at the bar of God for their conduct in this life?” This creates a conundrum for anti-slave Mormons who admit that there are respectable slaveowners in the South. Smith continued: “I do not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall.” Smith’s distancing, then, came from a sense of regional responsibility, human trust, and autonomy. The letter continued with a typical biblical defense of slavery, and ends by instructing missionaries not to “interfere with slaves contrary to the mind and will of their masters… it would be much better and more prudent, not to preach at all to slaves, until after their masters are converted.”
Historical context can help make this Mormon letter legible for American History students. It seems strange that there isn’t anything particularly Mormon in this letter. Other religious groups proselytized among enslaved people and some defended slavery in similar biblical terms. Other white Protestants in the 1830s distanced themselves from abolition in the same language of autonomy and piety. New scholarship on Mormon History and race, though, casts these typical racialist responses in a different light. How might a classroom read this letter in the context of a religious group trying to become white? Or in the context of Mormons baptizing enslaved people in the same time period? Or from a space of intersectionality, with regard to free black women, and the religious environment that such a letter helped make for such religionists? What do these religious spaces and lives mean for the history of abolition, and for the people of African descent who lived their lives in its wake?
One way to deal
with these questions might be to require students to imagine the conditions
necessary (and sufficient) for creating such a letter.
Students can approach these conditions starting with normal questions about the
letter’s provenance: when was it created? Who wrote it? What kind of document
is it? For what audience? Why is it significant? What function might the letter
serve for different groups of people in the past? What was at stake for those
people? Referring to the additional information that the Joseph Smith Papers
Project provides will answer some of these questions and reading the letter
itself will answer some of the others. The instructor can provide context in
the form of a few biographical summaries of people whose lives may have
intersected with the letter—maybe one from the traveling abolitionist John
Alvord, or from Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery, and maybe one from a later
convert Jane James. Students could then inhabit one of these past people and
try to reread the letter through their eyes. All of these activities keep
students as actors in the present while asking them to think critically and
enter the minds of historical subjects. A subsequent discussion, either in
groups or as a class together, can tease out the differences from each religionist’s
point of view and determine the agentive scope that such a letter might have
This is just one
document of many (of many). The Joseph Smith Papers Project has produced
thousands of documents that have helped scholars piece together the worlds of
early Mormonism. It’s one of the best-funded documentary editing projects and
pieces of public history from any religious institution. It’s time for their
scholarship, crafted for the public, to become as central to teaching Mormonism
in the classroom as it is to publishing academic work.
 The JSPP provides some curricula outlining here: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/articles/curriculum.
 “Letter to Oliver Cowdery, circa 9 April 1836,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-oliver-cowdery-circa-9-april-1836/1.
 For the history of abolition, see Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
 See Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003) and Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
 W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Quincy Newell, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
 I’m drawing from Catherine Denial’s resources here: https://catherinedenial.org/blog/uncategorized/socc-at-the-aha/. Read her blog, use her resources, and support her work!