Review: Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources

By June 27, 2018

Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft, eds. Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Most historiographical essays on recent shifts in Mormon Studies point to new subjects of study or new theoretical frameworks that build on, depart from, and challenge earlier generations of scholarship. In Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources, editors Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft have compiled a set of original essays that encourage scholars to return to the archival and documentary roots of the earlier historiography. But instead of simply mining those records for content, the editors invite students and scholars of Mormonism to “interrogat[e] documents as products of history rather than just as sources of historical information.” Historians, they insist, should take a nod from “archivists, descriptive bibliographers, and documentary editors” and ask “routine methodological questions of textual interpretation, production, transmission, and reception” (2). Their call here builds on both their own training and the Joseph Smith Papers Project that employs each.[1] The goal of the volume isn’t simply to tell historians what to do, but rather to demonstrate what more sustained attention to the production, transmission, reception, and custodianship of the documentary record can illuminate about early Mormonism.

Roughly one-half of the essays in the volume focus on documents produced by Joseph Smith, with individual authors offering fresh assessments of JS’s new translation of the Bible (Thomas Wayment), the Book of Mormon (Richard Bushman; Grant Hardy), and his revelations (Grant Underwood), sermons (William V. Smith), journals (Alex Smith), and prison letters (David Grua). The remaining essays expand the source basis for early Mormonism to include the Female Relief Society (Jennifer Reeder), Wilford Woodruff’s diaries (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich), Lucy Mack Smith’s history (Howcroft), and early Mormon images (Jeffrey Cannon). These essays are bookended by the editor’s introductory essay and a chapter considering the collective corpus of JS’s writings (Ronald Barney).

As I read through the several essays, I was struck by a recurring theme introduced first in Richard Bushman’s opening chapter on “The Gold Plates as Foundation Text.” In his conclusion, Bushman points out the ways in which the golden plates from which JS translated the Book of Mormon collapsed the boundary between the sacred and the profane. “In the plates’ backstory,” he notes, “the angel did not hand the plates to Joseph Smith. He had to dig them out of the ground. … They emerged from human history, not from the heavens. That is the way God works, the plates insist—through humans” (35-36). Whether or not one accepts the truth claims of Mormonism is largely irrelevant here. What matters is that early Mormons—a group of people that firmly believed they were living out divine history—relied upon the rudimentary, and decidedly human tools of handwriting and record keeping to both experience and document their interactions with God.

This tension was understood by Joseph Smith himself, who lamented the difficulties of communicating “eternal wisdom” through “the little narrow prison” and “totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language,” and, as Grant Underwood shows, shaped the recording, editing, and publication of JS’s revelations, first in the Book of Commandments and then the Doctrine and Covenants. The inability to perfectly capture the pure message of heaven was part of the reason “the revelation texts were not viewed as fixed and complete, beyond revision, but as articulations that could and should be updated” (105-6, 122).

That theme carries over into those essays focused on subject and sources other than JS’s writings. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in her fascinating analysis the writings, sketches, coded shorthand, and doodlings found in Wilford Woodruff’s personal diary, points in passing to the irony of “the unfolding Latter-day movement” being recorded in “plebian hieroglyphics.” “God spoke to his children through earthly artifacts,” including the diaries and letters of His earthly followers (270).

Two particularly insightful essays come from to Juvenile Instructor bloggers. David Grua examines the ways in which JS turned to the age-old medium of prison letters to “bind the Mormon community together” during his imprisonment in Missouri. By putting pen to paper and drafting epistles to the scattered Saints, and then insisting “that the originals be preserved in his papers” for future generations, Smith “recontextualized persecution as part of God’s plan” (125, 153). Whereas Grua contextualizes JS’s 1839 missives within the broader literary tradition of prison letters, Jenny Reeder places the early documentary record of the Female Relief Society within the broader social contexts of both female reform in antebellum America and the private relationships and ecclesiastical hierarchies that shaped Mormon Nauvoo. Especially interesting is her examination of the transmission, reception, and custodianship of the Relief Society Minute Book. The periodic absence and reappearance of the minute book from official institutional inventories compiled after the Saint’s expulsion from Nauvoo reveals the shifting place of women in early Mormonism.

Foundational Texts of Mormonism is a must-read for all historians of the early Latter-day Saint movement. But its potential reach is even broader, as it models for scholars of all subjects the potential in paying closer attention to the textual production, transmission, and reception of the documentary record.

_______________________

[1] In addition to their advanced degrees in history, Jensen and Ashurst-McGee both completed training at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents. Jensen and Howcroft each received a master’s degree in library and information science, both with an archival studies concentration. See bios for each at http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/articles/project-team.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins JIers in Print Material Culture Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Thank you, Christopher. Robin Jensen’s presentation at MHA and your review have my mind buzzing with ideas about texts and their creation.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 27, 2018 @ 9:37 am

  2. Nice review, Chris.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — June 27, 2018 @ 10:17 am

  3. Thanks, J Stuart. It really is a provocative volume.

    Comment by Christopher — June 28, 2018 @ 12:07 pm


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