Reviews – The Essential Joseph Smith
Library Journal, Diane H. Albosta
Fifty selected documents of Joseph Smith are presented here as a readable, chronological overview of the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Through letters, diary entries, speeches, and revelations, the book traces the development of the Mormon Church and Smith’s leadership growth. An excellent foreword by Hill (history emeritus, Brigham Young University) specifically addresses Smith’s contradictions and controversies. The original text is clarified with bracketed insertions of missing words and punctuation, but the attempt to present Smith’s messages as originally written is most successful. A prefatory note placing the document into context would have been helpful, but overall, this is a well-researched and -presented survey of primary source material. A valuable addition to larger collections of 19th-century American history, as well as most collections of religious history.
New York History, Kathleen Smith Kutolowski
Joseph Smith’s intrinsic interest to readers of New York History endures. The Mormon prophet’s early life and the revelations that led to publication of The Book of Mormon shed light not only on the Second Great Awakening in the Burned-Over District, but as well on the origins of a major religion founded in New York, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Current scholars, moreover, have taken more interest in Smith and early Mormonism as part of a renewed emphasis on religion as a determining factor in American history. The question then is whether this fourth volume in the Classics in Mormon Thought Series offers a new dimension to the growing literature on one of America’s few home-grown religions.
According to the publisher, The Essential Joseph Smith is meant as a kind of starter volume with a dual purpose. For one, this collection of fifty works by Smith, eclectic and spanning his entire public life (1829-1844), will introduce neophytes to a microcosm of the prophet’s central “intellectual explorations” (p. xi). Secondly, in contrast to other collections, these writings remain largely unedited and thus reveal the essential Joseph Smith in another way, with “the contradictions, digressions or occasional earthiness” (p. xiv) remaining.
These fifty documents present Joseph Smith’s thinking in a variety of contexts, from revelations on doctrine to wondering from a lonely jail cell why his first wife, Emma, had not written to him. Smith’s concerns range from the theological (including such controversial issues as polygamy and baptism of the dead), to the pragmatic (the structure and governance of the church), and the personal (the welfare of his children and relationships with siblings). The collection is weighted toward theological issues; exactly half of the documents are sermons and another four concern revelations and visions. The thirteen letters include five to family members, three of which are to Emma. A letter to fellow leader Oliver Cowdery illustrates the publisher’s desire to present the unedited Smith, who after a visit to Kirtland, Ohio, by abolitionists described the Biblical origins of slavery and hoped that Southerners would not consider all Northerners as abolitionists.
Time-wise, the collection includes one letter from 1829, twenty-six from the 1830s, and the remainder from 1840 through Smith’s murder in 1844. Nearly one-third date from the last two years of his life. Marvin S. Hill’s brief Foreword presents examples of contrasting interpretations of Smith in his own day and suggests that present-day Mormons perhaps sometimes expect too much of the prophet. Unfortunately, although Hill is an academic historian, he adds nothing to help readers with the documents themselves, either in terms of their contemporary contexts or historiographically. Indeed, readers will wish for some assistance, at least in the form of explanatory notes and a bibliography of suggested additional publications to which they might turn. Also, a chronology of Smith’s life and the many moves of the early Mormon church would help to contextualize the sources and sort out some confusion for the reader new to the subject. One wonders, too, about the retention of “editorial insertions” (p. xiv) in some of the previously published documents, since the book aims to present Smith’s works as they appeared.
In sum, this volume will enable general readers to sample an eclectic core of Joseph Smith’s works and to get a flavor of the Mormon founder’s writing and thinking. However, scholars and all who wish for scholarly context, will turn to one of four more complete editions of Smith’s writings published in the 1980s as part of the new Mormon history.
Journal of Mormon History
With a preface by the publisher and a foreword by Marvin S. Hill, The Essential Joseph Smith is a collection of what the publisher considers “unquestionably Smith’s.” “Though often recorded by fallible scribes,” they are offered “in their original manuscript or early published forms” (xiv). The documents include some editorial clarifications but no annotations. Arranged chronologically, the documents span from pre-Church organization in 1829 until just before Smith’s death in 1844. Correspondence, sermons, general instructions, autobiographical information, and diary entries provide both public and private views of the Prophet. An intimate glimpse is a letter to Emma in which he says he daily goes to a “grove which is Just back of the town almost every day where I can be Secluded from the eyes of any moral and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meditation and prayr” (22).
Building on these insights into the mind and character of Smith are the theological summations and revelations that are most prominent among his works. These include “the Vision” (LDS D&C 76) which reveals the glories that await humankind in the life beyond, and an amalgamated version of “The King Follet Discourse.” Containing the doctrines of human origins and ultimate destiny, many consider this sermon to be Joseph’s greatest theological discourse. Furthermore the book contains a spectrum of doctrines wide enough to include Smith’s “Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the U.S.” (213).
Some of the materials are gleaned from sources that are not readily available; but of the fifty entries included in The Essential Joseph Smith, many can be found in their entirety in such works as Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., and comps., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 1980); Dean C. Jesse, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989), 2+ vols.; Dean C. Jesse, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984); and Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987).