Reviews – Early Mormon Documents: Volume Two

Early Mormon Documents 2Journal of Mormon History, Thomas G. Alexander
Continuing the project begun in 1996, Dan Vogel has published the second collection of documents relating to the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As in Volume 1, he has grouped the documents either under the names of those who collected them, those who published them, or those whom they concern.

Vogel organized the first section under the name of Doctor (his given name) Philastus Hurlbut. A native of Vermont and a Mormon excommunicant, Hurlbut visited Palmyra, New York, in 1833-34 at the behest of anti-Mormon editor Eber D. Howe. Grandison Newell, Orrin Clapp, and Nathan Corning of Ohio financed the project “to,” in the words of Howe, “obtain affidavits showing the bad character of the Mormon Smith family” (13). In fact, according to one of his potential interviewees, Benjamin Saunders, since Hurlbut “could not get out of me what he wanted,” he “went to others” (14).

What is the value of such “affidavits”? Vogel believes that Rodger I. Anderson was correct when he argued that the affidavits were accurate representations of the author’s views. By contrast, Richard L. Anderson raised serious questions about the reliability of the affidavits. Richard Anderson argued that “Hurlbut heavily influenced the individual statements from “Palmyra-Manchester,” because similar phrases regularly recur in these affidavits and because the structure of the affidavits appears quite similar. Hurlbut apparently prepared the community statements in advance, then he asked the people to sign them.1

Two conclusions seem reasonable: that Hurlbut selected witnesses whom he knew would give negative testimony and that he put his words in the mouths of many of them. Most historians would not deny that many people in the Palmyra-Manchester area disliked Joseph Smith and his family, nor that many local people believed that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon and his revelations were fraudulent. Nevertheless, the preponderance of the evidence seems to show that Hurlbut slanted his interviews and selected his interviewees to fit his and Howe’s intentions to discredit the Smith family. Thus, readers will not be surprised to learn that the affidavits are uniformly negative and that they contain similar adjectives such as “lazy,” “indolent,” and “intemperate,” and nouns like “drunkard” and “liar.”

The affidavits also verify something that historians have long known, that the Smiths engaged in money digging. Given Hurlbut’s intentions it should not surprise us that the interviewees were people who neither believed in the practice nor saw it as related to authentic religious experience.

Brothers William H. Kelley and Edmund L. Kelley collected the second set of documents. Officials in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, they went to the Palmyra-Manchester area in March 1881 to conduct interviews. They took notes in a “terse, fragmentary fashion” (82). William Kelley fleshed them out into finished pieces which he published in the Saints Herald. In 1884 the Kelleys visited Lorenzo and Benjamin Saunders in Hillsdale, Michigan. They took notes on the interviews but never published them. Not surprisingly, the Kelley interviews reveal the Smith family in a much more favorable light than do Hurlbut’s.

Some of the interviews were quite controversial. For instance, Lorenzo Saunders said that he saw Sidney Rigdon speaking with members of the Smith family in the spring of 1827. Such charges were often made in an attempt to demonstrate that Rigdon, who was relatively literate, instead of Joseph Smith, who was admittedly uneducated, had written the Book of Mormon. Rigdon, Smith, and others in a position to know, denied that the two had met before the publication of the Book of Mormon. (See History of the Church 1:122-23.)

The Chester C. Thorne Collection produced similar understandable contradictions. Thorne, minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Shortsville, New York, published a letter to the Cadillac Weekly in 1880 which included his own statements and statements from Dunford Booth, Orin Reed, and William Bryant about the Smith family. The Kelleys contacted those parties or their relatives and secured interviews with them denying the statements that Thorne made. Following the Kelleys’ interviews, Thorne secured affidavits contradicting the Kelleys’ claims.

The Arthur B. Deming Collection which follows is a series of affidavits similar to the Hurlbut documents. Next follows a group of clippings from Palmyra area newspapers. Some report events fairly accurately. Others use such pejorative terms as “pretended,” “imposition,” and “priestcraft.” Some stories credit Martin Harris as having an excellent reputation before Joseph Smith allegedly deluded him.

The longest collection in the book consists of documents about Harris. Born in Easttown, New York, in 1773, Harris moved to Palmyra in 1792 where he became a substantial landowner and respected citizen. He had declared himself a religious seeker long before Joseph Smith introduced him to his revelations and the Book of Mormon. Most Latter-day Saints know of Harris’s efforts to verify the authenticity of the Book of Mormon by taking copies of characters to Professor Charles Anthon and others. He guaranteed the publication of the Book of Mormon with a mortgage on his farm and lost the farm when book sales failed to repay his investment. Harris’s marriage to Lucy Harris, a first cousin, eventually failed because of Harris’s support of Joseph Smith and his conversion to Mormonism. The documents provide information on such events as Harris’s testimony of the Book of Mormon and his reasons for failing to join the Saints in Utah until 1870.

A major controversy in this collection relates to Harris’s meaning when he told interviewers that he had seen the golden plates through “the eye of faith” (255). Readers can generally guess whether the reporter was sympathetic or antagonistic to the Mormons by how he interpreted that statement. Those who wanted to discredit the Mormons believed that Harris meant that he did not really see the plates. Mormon partisans interpreted the statement as confirmation that his faith allowed him to see them. As with many other documents, interpretations by the interviewers provide the contradictions.

The next collection consists of documents about Oliver Cowdery. Again, many are contradictory. Especially problematic is the authenticity of a story about Cowdery’s justifying or repudiating (depending on the document) his connection to Mormonism as a defense of himself during a court trial in which he served as attorney.

The final collection, that of typesetter John H. Gilbert, details problems with the publication of the Book of Mormon. They give descriptions of the manuscript and references ad nauseam to Oliver Cowdery’s misspelling of the word “travail.”

Now, what of these documents? Readers should understand that historians have come to expect contradictions when multiple sources report on the same events or characterize the same people. Any practiced historian understands that eyewitnesses see things in different ways. Such differences provide ample fodder for attorneys in controversial cases. Most people will remember the phrase from the O. J. Simpson trial, “If the glove won’t fit, you must acquit.” Unfortunately, the lay public often does not realize that how a researcher, reporter, or oral history interviewer asks questions may influence the responses to a survey or an oral history interview. Interviewers do not have to ask such loaded questions as “are you still beating your wife?” to elicit the response that they want. They merely have to frame the question in such a way as to invite a particular reply. In many cases, the interviewees will respond as they do because the answer seems to follow from the question. Often the interviewer provides a context in statements prefacing the question to lay the groundwork for a particular answer. In some cases people will answer as they do because they do not wish to create ill will with interviewers, or they do not wish to contradict the interviewer’s obvious point of view. Surveys are particularly suspect when questioners have a clear agenda as Hurlbut, Thorne, the Kelleys, and Deming obviously did. That the responses were sworn affidavits may make absolutely no difference.

More seriously, interviewers with different agendas can secure contradictory responses from interviewees. The contradictory interviews secured by Thorne and the Kelleys provide ample evidence for this condition. More to the point, a careful reading of the Harris interviews shows that he generally responded much more positively if he knew that the interviewer was sympathetic to the Church than if he knew that the interviewer was an anti-Mormon.

Can we learn anything from the results of these interviews? German physicist Werner Heisenberg proposed the uncertainty principle which states that both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle cannot be accurately measured at the same time. I would suggest that historians should also recognize a historical uncertainty principle which states that a researcher or historian with a preconceived point of view cannot make an accurate assessment of the documents or the subject.

In practice, the historical uncertainty principle applies in nearly every case since historians generally approach a topic with a particular point of view. Since their results are nearly always uncertain, they have an obligation to make their point of view clear to readers as they write their narratives. In this connection, readers should approach the work of those who protest that they are simply writing objective history with particular suspicion.

Most importantly, readers have a right to expect honesty from a historian, which, in my estimation, is the highest attribute of good history. Moreover, honesty is not a synonym for objectivity.

On reflection then, the reports and interviews that Vogel has reproduced here frequently tell more about the interviewers and reporters than they do about the interviewees or subjects.

1. Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990); Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” BYU Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 286-87.