Title: The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, volume 3: May 1843-June 1844
Author: Joseph Smith Papers Project
Editors: Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Brent M. Rogers (volume editors)
Publisher: The Church Historian’s Press/Deseret Book
Genre: Documentary history
Reviewed by Greg Seppi for the Association for Mormon Letters
The final volume of the “Journals” series within the Joseph Smith Papers project, this volume contains detailed accounts of Joseph Smith’s experiences over the last year of his life. Some readers will find this book a bit of a surprise. For example, the “woman on the street” will likely be surprised that none of the journal entries for this time period were actually written by Smith; rather, they were recorded by one of Smith’s scribes, Willard Richards. Richards, an apostle who had only recently returned from opening the British mission, was one of Joseph Smith’s closest confidants, but our inability to access Joseph Smith’s ideas and thoughts without a filter necessarily renders Smith at least somewhat unapproachable.
On the other hand, this is one of the most interesting volumes to read—after all, 1843-44 was the infamous last year of his life, where he publicly denied that the Saints were practicing polygamy while teaching it to a highly select group of Mormons—including the wives of some of his apostles. This was also the year the Nauvoo Expositor began to expose the practice through the publication of anonymous letters and affidavits regarding the practice, and of course 1844 was the year of his death.
Historians will note that little “new” material is included in this particular volume, at least as far as I could determine. That being said, I suspect that many scholars trying to get a better understanding of the last year of Smith’s life will benefit from the extensive annotations within the footnotes. Indeed, the true value for this volume comes from the added material that the Joseph Smith Papers Project scholars reference and discuss in their entries. The scholarly apparatus (meaning the index, maps, appendices, and other supporting materials) contains an overwhelming amount of information. For example, because the index covers all three volumes, this volume is especially valuable. I was also impressed by the detailed, short biographies, found in one of the appendices, of seemingly everyone Smith ever met.
For those interested in the early history of Mormonism, this book, like the others, will likely appear in reference citations for the foreseeable future. Mormons outside of academia might consider owning a book like this is —which contains numerous documents alongside explanatory summaries and detailed source notes — a bit superfluous, as the material is available online from the JSP (Joseph Smith Papers) website. But serious students of Mormon history and theology, as well as those who value print resources, will want a copy of this book on their shelves because it is one of the most significant reference books with regard to our current understanding of Mormon history.
While the subheading to this volume is “Journals,” a better title may be “administrative reports,” as the entries were written, compiled, and edited by Joseph Smith’s personal scribe and historian, Willard Richards. Thankfully, despite numerous dry and vague reports regarding Smith’s activities, the footnotes (wisely provided on the actual page they’re noting!) are incredibly detailed. For example, where Richards notes “[William] Clayton & Markham [Stephen Markham] started to inform Joseph—“, the footnote is ten lines long and full of detail from William Clayton’s diary about a particular event (p. 38; all page references refer to the text under review unless otherwise noted).
However, it is not merely as a supplemental text that this volume enriches the study of LDS history—Richards also noted some of Smith’s sermons. These entries often include the most notable statements made during the sermon. For example, the entry for a 6 August 1843 Sunday meeting recorded Smith saying, “in relation to national matters I want it to [go] abr[o]ad to the whole wo[r]ld that every man should stand on his own merits.” While this is hardly a surprising attitude for Smith to take, it still enriches our understanding of how Smith (at least in public) recommended voters decide on politicians—let them stand on their own merits.
An entry dated 27 December 1843 notes a portion of Joseph Smith’s response to Lewis Cass and John C. Calhoun, presidential candidates. Smith had written to all of the major presidential candidates asking for their assistance if elected in redressing the Saints’ rights in Missouri. Calhoun and Cass responded in similar fashion, stating that they did not believe it was the province of the president or federal government to intervene in the matters of states. Smith instructed W. W. Phelps to respond and “shew them the folly of keeping p[e]ople out of their right and that there was power in government to redress wrongs” (Journals vol. 3, p. 152). I was intrigued by Smith’s assertion regarding the federal government’s “power” to redress wrongs.
The statement somewhat foreshadows a late 19th/early 20th century view that asserted the powers of the federal government over the individual and the states. Certainly Lincoln would use the power of the federal government to great advantage, but he always seemed somewhat hesitant in his approach, moving slowly to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, and leaning on the “negative” power of the government to incarcerate potential traitors by suspending Habeas Corpus. Smith’s assertion in 1843 seems to lean toward the idea of a positive, productive power invested in the federal government—the power to improve the lives of the citizens of a nation, not just the citizens of a city or state.
Beyond political philosophy, local administrative details related to Joseph’s role as the mayor of Nauvoo, and sermons, this volume also includes a heavily annotated appendix detailing Joseph Smith’s final days from Willard Richards’ perspective. I felt that Richards’ narrative captured Joseph Smith’s final moments at a level of detail that we don’t usually get. For example, I don’t think my Doctrine & Covenants teacher in Seminary ever mentioned Joseph Smith sipping wine with John Taylor and Willard Richards moments prior to his death (p. 327). Certainly our understanding of the Word of Wisdom has changed over time! However, the intensity of the moments that follow drive any levity from that detail.
Willard Richards writes of Joseph and Hyrum’s deaths in a fractured prose that gives the reader a strong sense of the trauma Richards must have experienced. Few additional details follow; the volume editors wisely close off the narrative with Joseph’s death. Perhaps future Church Historians will be able to justify a volume such as this for Brigham Young’s papers, but either way, this volume is brilliantly compiled, annotated, and supported with maps, incredibly detailed short biographical sketches, and a comprehensive index for all three volumes of the Journals series.
I think that most seminary and institute teachers, as well as any professional researchers or faculty with an interest in Mormonism, would do well to seriously consider picking up a copy of this book to have on hand. This book is the strongest history on the last year of Joseph Smith’s life written thus far, and it would be difficult to do better without extensive additional information—probably another three volumes. At that point, only the most minutiae-oriented historians will be interested anyway; this volume should be at least most readable to any audience.
While the concepts are occasionally difficult to understand (especially Joseph’s public stand against polygamy and private advocacy for it), and the editors probably should have added significantly more information about Joseph Smith’s wives, as a documentary history, this volume represents the successful culmination of decades of work by dozens of historians. It deserves to be appreciated for the incredible effort and funding required to produce it—without Larry H. Miller, the Joseph Smith Papers Project never would have happened.
Certainly Leonard Arrington and Dean Jessee also deserve significant credit — Arrington, for making Church History respectable, and Jessee, for the decades of work that he poured into systematically untangling the complicated authorship of the primary sources for LDS history. While both are missed, the Papers Project has also provided many young Mormon historians with an opportunity to ply and refine their craft. In fact, many have already been absorbed into the Religious Education department at BYU, and I suspect the benefits of their working knowledge of Joseph Smith’s papers will be extensive.
While this volume is by no means the complete and perfect history of Joseph Smith’s last year of life, such a volume is likely impossible to produce. Instead, this book provides as accurate a telling of that year from Willard Richards and Joseph Smith’s perspectives as can realistically be provided. The sermon notes, which are by no means extensive, are fascinating to read, while the political philosophy of Mormonism is elucidated by Smith’s experiences as mayor and a presidential candidate.
Certainly our circumstances are quite different from those he faced, but there are many lessons to be learned here. Historians today have barely begun to scratch the surface of the extensive raw primary source materials provided by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, but it will be impossible to write intelligently about the Mormons in 1843-1844 without reference to this volume for the foreseeable future.