An excerpt from an interview with Christopher Blythe, a Research Associate at BYU’s Maxwell Institute working on a book about the cultural history of Book of Mormon geography. Blythe received his PhD in American Religious History in 2015 and has worked on the Joseph Smith Papers. He is also the associate editor for the Journal of Mormon History. For the full interview, head over to Kurt Manwaring’s site, From the Desk.
How did your understanding of Joseph Smith change during your time as a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers?
My thoughts on Joseph Smith as a prophet and visionary are much the same as they have been from when I first read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith as a teenager. I’m enthralled and moved by Joseph’s vision for mankind and his theology of the divine.
As a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, I became acquainted with Joseph not only as a prophetic figure but as a political leader and businessman as well.
I was surprised to learn just how involved he was in real estate, local politics, and business. This can be disorienting for someone who is only aware of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry, but, for Joseph, this was all wrapped up in his vision of building the Kingdom of God on earth.
What are a few of the most pressing issues in American Religious History today?
I think matters of race have moved to the center of conversations on religious studies in the United States. There is also extensive work being done on the role of scripture in American churches, what is termed “scripturalization” – how texts or ideas become sacralized within a community. Since the 1990s, and at the center of my own research, is an ongoing effort to bring out the lived experience of ordinary believers. Religious intolerance remains a crucial discussion in American religious history as well. Increasingly we have Latter-day Saint scholars and Latter-day Saint subjects integrated into these wider studies, whether it be race, scripture, or religious prejudice.
What are two or three breathtaking documents you have personally handled in the Church History Library archives?
As a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers, we would check typescripts against the original manuscript, so I have had the opportunity to work with many documents that were handled by Joseph Smith and other early church leaders. I have a special place in my heart for a little booklet from 1840 that Wilford Woodruff used to record Joseph Smith’s teachings. He included revelations that weren’t yet canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants and in a few instances, notes about more private interactions with the prophet. The document was re-discovered in the past several years in the Church’s holdings and was made available digitally about two years ago. It includes esoteric beliefs—speculative ideas—that Joseph would never discuss publicly, but which he felt comfortable discussing with his closest friends.