Thoughts on the introduction to the new JSP Volume: Journals Vol. 2 (1841-43)

By November 22, 2011

Though they haven’t held a “bloggernacle event” or “virtual launch” yet, the Joseph Smith Papers just released the most recent addition to their foundational series. Journals, Volume 2 (1841-1843) covers the first half of Smith’s Nauvoo journals, and includes many great gems that will help future researchers of this important period in Mormon history. While there is much to cover in the actual journals—I’ll leave that to J Stapley, who I hope will do another excellent review of the overall text like he’s done for the other volumes—I just want to comment on a single section of the introduction; in fact, only about seven pages of the introduction.

Introductions in documentary editing collections are supposed to be short, efficient, and, often, bland. They give a general background to the period in which a text is written, an overview of the people involved, and a description of several key issues that make better sense of the edited document. The job of the document editor, most practitioners will tell you, is not to push specific interpretations or make detailed arguments, but to present the documents as a foundational work for other interpretive scholars. The Joseph Smith Papers have largely followed this scholarly practice, and have (rightly) focused on a specific objective: provide transcripts (and in some printed cases, as well as online, high-resolution images) of Joseph Smith’s “papers,” and allow other historians to come to their own conclusion.[1]

However, the introduction to this most recent volume breaks, albeit slightly, from this tradition—a break that, at least in this case, is cause for celebration. I am not envious of the editors who had to write this particular introduction: in a little over twenty pages, they had to update their readers on what happened between 1838 (when the last Journals volume ended) to when Willard Richards became Smith’s journal keeper in December 1841 (including settlement in Nauvoo and Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington DC), give an overview on ecclesiastical developments that took place in the early 1840s (including the growing power of the Quorum of the Twelve), touch on doctrinal developments (including baptisms for the dead), summarize continued legal problems with Missouri, explain Smith’s growing roles in Nauvoo’s city government, introduce the Church’s new emphasis on the Temple and participation in Masonry, discuss Smith’s financial and business endeavors, detail changes in Smith’s inner family, and briefly mention the creation of the Relief Society. No lack of important information, there! Thus, most of these crucial matters could only be granted a paragraph each, leaving most of the details and information to future scholars who will draw from these texts. Given this horrendous lack of space, it would have been actually understandable if they skimped on one of the biggest accusations against the institutional LDS Church: an avoidance of a deep discussion on polygamy. A single paragraph, with (hopefully) a frank and honest discussion, probably would have sufficed, especially given that there are only a handful of explicit references to polygamy in Smith’s journals.

But we got more than a paragraph; much more, actually. What the editors gave us were seven pages—i.e., about a third of the entire introduction—of discussion on the origin, documentation, and controversy over polygamy. And it’s not just the length of the discussion that’s surprising, but also the content. They openly discuss controversial issues with the practice, using terms like “conjugal relations” (xxv) and “polyandrous marriages” (xxvii), and refuse to shy away from facts that the Church has in the past ignored. They admit that Smith likely consummated some, but not all, of his plural marriages, they list several plural wives who were already married to other men at the time of their sealing to Smith, and they detail the secretive nature of this controversial practice during the period. While they do spend most of their time on the problematic nature of the documents that outline polygamy[2]—and, if I were forced to make one critique, I would say that they spend too much time trying to discredit John C. Bennett—I found their discussion surprisingly fresh and detailed.

Of course, these details aren’t new. Indeed, a cynic might say this publication deserves more of an “about time” shrug than a celebratory post. But as an optimist, I find in this introduction an important sign of change in how the Church handles its history—or, perhaps more correctly, an important sign of the continued change that has taken place over the last decade. These volumes go through a horrendous gauntlet of review before they can be finished, a review process that includes not just external, academic reviewers (a list that includes several prominent documentary editors), but also a group of internal, ecclesiastical reviewers, including a number of the Brethren we sustain to lead the Church (and whom others accuse of hiding our history). The fact that this introduction passed this review of Church leaders, is found in a book sponsored by the institutional Church, is printed through a Church-controlled press (Church Historian’s Press), and is marketed by the Church’s conservative merchandise arm (Deseret Book), should, I think, be cause for celebration. Kudos to the Joseph Smith Papers Project for providing this great project, to the volume’s editors for producing responsible and credible scholarship, and to the Church for encouraging this change.

The charge of the Church hiding its history is finally becoming less credible.


[1] Note: this practice has not been followed in many documentary edition projects within Mormon studies, especially by those edited by historians who lack academic or professional experience.

[2] I do have to give a Colbert-style “wag of the finger” to them for problematizing Smith’s “happiness” letter to Nancy Rigdon; I rely on that letter for an insight into Smith’s polygamous vision in several of my articles, darn it!

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins


  1. Thanks for this, Ben. Reason for optimism, indeed.

    Comment by Christopher — November 22, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  2. Ben, thank you for sharing. This is an important step.

    Comment by Aaron R. — November 22, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  3. Excellent news.
    Now if we can just get some of this openness and complexity/nuance to trickle down into Sunday manuals.

    Comment by Ben S — November 22, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  4. I’ve heard lower-level General Authorities say that one of the problems is that overlap in the Venn diagram between manual writers, Church History employees (or other academics), and Church leaders is a very small area. Not enough cross-pollination.

    Comment by Ben S — November 22, 2011 @ 11:33 am

  5. Cool.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — November 22, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  6. Fun stuff, Ben. Re n2: I’m sort of fascinated with the idea of how scholars will be treating the Rigdon letter, moving forward.

    I’m trying to burn through the volume and get a review up. There are more than a few little nuggets to be pleased with. The Clayton diary excerpt was wonderful. I just haven’t known what to do with the published Allen transcript.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 22, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  7. I like mini-reviews like this a lot, focusing on one main element to explore an over-riding theme (openness). Nice work, and I join in the praise of this development!

    Comment by BHodges — November 22, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  8. Any idea if the council of 50 minutes will be published in an upcoming volume?

    Comment by john willis — November 22, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

  9. They live in eternal optimism, John.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 22, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

  10. Really important trend here. I have high hopes for it continuing. And someday, a Brigham Young series. Got to happen. While some might think this volume is anticlimactic, given the Manuscript Revelation Books volumes, this volume has elements that signal good things to come.

    Comment by WVS — November 22, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  11. Thanks for the post, Ben. I agree this is a great development. I think the editors and project directors are to be commended, and thank goodness it passed review.

    Comment by David G. — November 22, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  12. Amen, and amen.

    Comment by David T — November 22, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

  13. Wonderful article. Thanks for your optimistic evaluation.

    Comment by Ammie — November 22, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  14. Love the mini-review Ben. Looking forward to adding this to my collection of the JS Papers. Thanks for pointing out the important step in the acknowledgement of historical facts in this volume. Hopefully we’ll continue to see this in upcoming volumes.

    Comment by Guy — November 22, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  15. Thanks for the comments, Ben.

    Comment by Alex — November 22, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

  16. I share your excitement Ben! I would love to know Bushman’s influence over those 7 pages..To me we have to nod to him, rather he actually wrote the intro or not he has re-written the culture and connection of the faithful accepting the historic record. Again, Christmas came early.

    Comment by n8c — November 23, 2011 @ 1:06 am

  17. Do you think I can expect to be recruited to teach in the BYU religion department now? Seriously, this sounds like good news.

    Comment by Todd Compton — November 23, 2011 @ 1:13 am

  18. Nice, Ben. Thanks.

    Comment by Ryan T. — November 23, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

  19. This is a massive change. I too am glad to see a greater openness about Joseph Smith and polygamy. Although I think as long as the council of 50 minutes are kept under lock and key the charge of hiding our history is always going to remain.

    Comment by Jake — December 8, 2011 @ 3:17 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”