Review: Journal of Mormon History 37:2 (Spring 2011), part 2

By June 4, 2011

Our own Chris Jones’ excellent article, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” explores, first, the significance of the rebuke Joseph Smith related in his 1838 First Vision account that all other Churches had a form of Godliness but denied the power thereof. This had actually been a significant concern of John Wesley’s–one of the founders of Methodism (which, of course, was the sect that Joseph Smith felt most inclined to before the vision). Speaking of Methodist adherents, Wesley feared “lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” This concern, Chris explains, of having not only a form of godliness but the power also was central to Methodist claims and thus, Smith’s pronouncement was a particularly stinging indictment. Chris also talks in greater detail about how Joseph Smith’s experience compares and contrasts with the conversion experiences of others in the Methodist vein. Additionally, Chris argues that while it has been argued that Joseph Smith’s 1832 first vision account is significantly different than his 1838 account, and that they had different purposes (the former an account of personal religious conversion and the latter more aimed to provide a foundation for the Church’s institutional importance) they are actually more related than previously recognized. “Suggestions that the 1838 account diverges sharply from the Protestant pattern of evangelical conversion narratives are not entirely accurate…Even as Joseph Smith reinterpreted his earliest vision to assume larger meanings that were crucial to the development of early Mormon identity, the fundamental narrative remained constrained by the discursive community of Methodist conversion literature from which it emerged” (97, 99).

Heather Bigley’s article on women in Mormon historical film is very interesting and also complex. For brevity, I’ll quote the conclusion:

“Through visual and narrative tropes, recent historical films make no effort to expand the historical significance of women’s roles in the early Church, instead portraying them as embedded in the private, domestic sphere. Thus, they communicate the contemporary Mormon attitudes toward female engagement in Church growth and stability. These films are the result of turning to traditional models for self definition. Indeed, the films discussed here are created by men now at the center of Mormonism (male, middle-class, living in the American West) in reaction to the ever-expanding, fluid margins of Mormonism’s self-created diaspora. Even though the filmmakers who produce these films usually work outside the institutional networks of the Church, the films reflect an engagement with and valorization of current Church understandings on female power and autonomy.”

Christian Goodwillie’s brief transcript and discussion of Shaker Richard McNemar’s 1831 assessment of the Book of Mormon is one of the earliest theological reviews of the Book of Mormon and sheds some additional light on early Mormon-Shaker interactions.

Casey Griffiths’ article on the 1978 Lanner v. Wimmer lawsuit is something of a follow up to his article in BYU Studies last year on the 1930 legal controversy regarding released time seminary. Basically, Ronald Lannier, professor at USU, raised Jewish, became concerned about the nature of seminary classes offered that his daughter participated in. At the time, high school credit was offered for Old and New Testament classes, which were supposed to be non denominational in nature. Becoming convinced of the non-non-denominationalness of these classes, Lannier initiated a process that brought suit against the Logan School District over the granting of high school credit for these classes. In the end, the court found that “released time itself did not constitute a per se violation of the establishment clause but that certain practices, chiefly the granting of ‘course credit’ and the collection of seminary attendance by the school did.” Some general confusion ensued about what the ruling actually meant with both sides claiming victory. Appeals and other legal suits followed, but ultimately the granting of school credit for seminary classes was discontinued. Opponents were satisfied that school credit was not being granted for sectarian education and seminary teachers felt free to teach the Old and New Testaments (and other courses) according to unique LDS teachings whereas before they had to make the classes more generalized. Casey has done some good research and conducted a number of interviews from participants including Lannier and seeks to discuss this legal conflict in terms of “culture class and accommodation.”

Finally, we have a fine article by another JIer, Max Mueller, “Changing Portraits of the Elect Lady: Emma Smith in Non-Mormon, RLDS, and LDS Historiography, 1933-2005.” To make the comparisons, Max analyzes how these respective groups handle three pivotal events in Emma’s life: 1) her response to polygamy, 2) her role as relief society president, and 3) Emma’s decision to remain in Nauvoo. He discusses a wide range of works including a few that are not usually looked to such as RLDS Presiding Patriarch  Roy Cheille’s Joseph and Emma Smith: Companions for Seventeen and a Half Years 1827-1844 and LDS works by John Henry Evans (1933) and First Presidency Secretary Francis Gibbons which, while not having a great deal new to say about Joseph or Emma, stand out as products of their time and barometers of sorts for how Emma was viewed generally. For example, Max notes that Gibbons’ book was published a year after the LDS Church came out in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.  Gibbons’ portrayal of Emma, deemphasizing her leadership (apparently never mentioning her role in the Relief Society) and emphasizing her opposition to polygamy (rebelling against revelation/council) can be seen as reflections of larger concerns related to national political events. I haven’t done his article justice here, but suffice it to say, it’s well worth the read. I will say that it ends a bit abruptly and I would have liked to have had a summary paragraph or conclusion that ties it all more tightly together, but this is a very minor quibble.

I’ll pass by discussion of the book reviews this round except to toot my own horn a bit and mention that I have a review in there that is an expansion of this review of a history of the Church in the Dominican Republic (1978-83).

All in all, another great issue. Thanks to all those that make this possible!

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Thanks for this, Jared; I always really appreciate these summaries. Can’t wait to read my copy!

    Comment by Ben — June 4, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

  2. I thought that Christopher’s article was quite significant. The Shaker diary was cool as another example of how common the stone-in-hat translation method was discussed.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 4, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

  3. I agree, J. His analysis breaks ground on how we interpret the First Vision and its accounts, particularly the 1838 account and gently critiques how that account in particular has been interpreted in Rough Stone Rolling and in other places. From here on out, those who discuss the First Vision will have to engage his analysis.

    Comment by Jared T — June 4, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

  4. Thanks for the nice summary and kind words, Jared. And thanks, J, as well. I hope the article is useful to others studying JS’s early religious experiences.

    As a side-note, that article (which is a revision of a thesis chapter) started out as a couple ofblog posts here at JI over three years ago. Several of the comments left on those posts were quite helpful in thinking through the issues involved as I reworked and expanded the piece into something publishable. Thanks to all who commented for their help!

    Comment by Christopher — June 5, 2011 @ 12:24 am

  5. Chris, I really enjoyed your article, and remembered your earlier posts here on the topic. I haven’t gotten through the entire issue yet, but it seems another solid effort all around.

    Comment by kevinf — June 6, 2011 @ 11:59 am


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