Review: Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Volume 8: February-November 1841

By May 13, 2019

The Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Documents 8: February-November 1841 reveal Joseph Smith’s life as he endeavored to build a city and expand the faith that he led. These documents also reveal the interstices between these two projects. Through correspondence, revelations, sermons, financial documents, meeting minutes and other significant documents, Volume 8’s editorial team helps readers to understand the multifaceted growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after its first large-scale transatlantic push and before the introduction of temple liturgy.

In the documents created over ten short months, readers begin to see how Joseph Smith’s life was complicated by the many forms of government that he oversaw. Most notably, to me, Joseph Smith and his followers strove to build a city that offered a liberal view of religious tolerance to any who would live in it. The Nauvoo City Council Book records, “Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-Day-Saints, Quakers, Episcopalians Universali[s]ts Unitarians, Mahommedans, and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration and equal Privilieges in this City.” Joseph Smith himself promised to hear any case wherein any person “guilty of ridiculing abusing,  or otherwise depreciating another in consequence of his religion or of disturbing, or interrupting any religious meeting, within the Limits of this City,” could be fined up to $500 and receive six months imprisonment.[1]

This commitment to religious liberty did not arise in a vacuum. As editors Brett Dowdle and Brent Rogers explained at a Q&A event in Salt Lake City, these types of documents reveal how much the “ghosts of Missouri” shaped Joseph Smith’s attitudes towards legal issues of religious protection. The federal government could not help the Mormons in Missouri because, as Martin Van Buren famously said, their cause was just, but he could do nothing for them with the might of the federal government. This city statute gave Smith sweeping power to enforce a broad definition of religious freedom (the Nauvoo Legion allowed him to enforce laws that protected Nauvoo’s citizens with force, too). Although, [SPOILER], as we shall see, Joseph Smith’s interpretations of religious freedom could stretch like an accordion based upon the amount of power he held at the time and the presence of outside threats. In 1840, he flexed his political muscles to afford broad protections to others. In turn, as Documents 8 shows, others chose to do the same for Latter-day Saints.[2] It will be interesting for future scholars to explore these documents in an effort to examine how Joseph Smith and his followers balanced religious freedom and a desire to build bridges with members of other religions with their claim to sole authority to extend the Kingdom of God on earth.

Mormon and American religious historians will be particularly excited to read excerpts from Joseph Smith’s sermons. They are not in his own hand, and thus reveal the choppy, idiosyncratic nature of scribal scribbling, but they nonetheless bring Smith’s thinking to the fore. He was a religious leader fluent in biblical texts who took time to answer questions about supernatural beings and resurrection, among other topics.[3] A senior scholar once told me that they believed that Joseph Smith had a genius imagination; he could take the raw intellectual material found in texts or borrow from existing ideas and synthesize them into something that he believed would “mend [the] fractured reality” of nineteenth-century life.[4] None of the sermons in Documents 8 hint at the immensity of Joseph Smith’s later cosmology and liturgy. But, as students of Mormon history meticulously read the texts with the context provided by the volume, I suspect that they will find connections between the vastness of his later work within the minutiae of his sermons or the letters he is sending back and forth across the oceans with missionaries. Historians may also find it fruitful to examine moments of disjuncture, or threads of thought that he did not expound upon in the last years of his life.

The Volume also helps scholars uncover how Latter-day Saints built a city on the American frontier, on the very soil over which the Blackhawk War had recently been fought. American religious historians often minimize Nauvoo’s frontier locale, and instead narrate the presence of Mormons in cities across the American Northeast, Europe, and in this volume, Jerusalem, as spaceless connections to larger metropoles. Hancock County was connected to the Mississippi River, but it would hardly have shown up on most maps of the United States in 1840. Historians of the West will benefit from witnessing the legal incorporation of a city on the United States’ western frontier. Nauvoo is much more a part of western history than Mormon historians ascribe it to be, perhaps due in part to the Exodus to the Great Basin in 1846.


[1] In doing so, he asserted his governmental power while protecting his right to exercise faith-based authority.

[2] Letter from John Laws defending Mormonism

[3] October 1841 Sermon

[4] Phillip L. Barlow, “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 28-50. LINK

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Hi, it may be better to substitute “enormousness” or “immensity” for the two instances of “enormity” in this post. See https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=Enormity&submit.x=0&submit.y=0

    Comment by thechair — May 13, 2019 @ 8:41 pm

  2. Thanks, the chair.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 17, 2019 @ 9:15 am


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