A Response to Robin Scott Jensen

Devery S. Anderson

This is a tale about a persistent historical researcher and an ultra-critical book reviewer. It begins with Signature Books author John S. Dinger, who hunted down transcripts of the 1840s minutes of two of the ruling councils of Nauvoo, Illinois: the city council and the LDS high council. After determining that these important documents should be published, he went to the LDS Church History Library to view the originals, where he was flatly told that access was restricted and that he would not be able to see them. Undeterred, he introduced  and annotated the typescripts of the documents and published them in his 700-page book, The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. He was rewarded for his effort by the Mormon History Association at its June 2012 meetings in Calgary, where he received the Steven F. Christensen Best Documentary Book Award.

John S. Dinger, editorIn the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Mormon History, which was mailed shortly after the award was given, Robin Scott Jensen panned the book. Jensen is an employee of the Joseph Smith Papers project, headquartered in the LDS Church History Department, and co-editor of the “Revelations and Translations” series of published books. In his review, he positions himself and his colleagues as those who are most qualified to edit and publish any archival documents from the Church library/archives. In his review, Jensen asks how Dinger’s book could be credible when Dinger failed to consult the original documents. Jensen asserts, contrary to fact, that Dinger would have been able to see them if he had asked.

The question of how Dinger was able to publish documents he was not allowed to consult is a good one, but it is something he answered in his book’s preface. As he explains, he relied primarily on typescripts he discovered that were prepared by Edyth J. Romney, Lyndon W. Cook, and D. Michael Quinn, who were granted access to the documents during a more accommodating period in the history of the archives. The transcriptions made by these individuals are available today without restriction at Yale University, the University of Utah, and Utah State University.

Now I come into the picture. As an employee of Signature Books, I was asked to conduct an internal investigation of this matter and report back on whether I thought Dinger or anyone else at Signature Books had behaved unprofessionally. I have subsequently joined the Association for Documentary Editing and will attend its meetings this month in Virginia. In addition, Signature’s Editorial Advisory Board discussed Jensen’s criticisms at its semi-annual meeting earlier this year and may do so again at its next meeting. Three individuals who worked with Dinger on his book have submitted responses to Jensen’s review. The responses will appear in the fall 2012 issue of the Journal of Mormon History: in one response Dinger discusses the content of the book; in another Gary Bergera addresses the accessibility of the documents; and Ron Priddis treats issues of editorial approach. I will not repeat what is contained in the three letters but simply refer interested readers to the forthcoming issue of the journal.

For my part, I went to the Church History Library to ask to see the Nauvoo High Council minutes. The online card catalog identified the record, CH 2102 22, as an “Open Record in Church History Library.” However, when I arrived at the facility, I was told that no, they are in fact “restricted.” Back in my office, scrutinizing the online card catalog more closely, I found a note in small type at the bottom of the screen: “Terms governing access: Access limited, consult reference staff.” Thus, I concluded that the collection is closed to the public, as Dinger had discovered, but that even Jensen might have been confused by such contradictory classifications. Compare my experience with what Jensen asserted in his review: “Dinger was disadvantaged, partly through misinformation given him, and partly through his own negligence, in believing that access to the majority of the records he published was restricted.”

Everyone involved with this project at Signature, notably Priddis, Bergera, and Tom Kimball, made trips to the library with the same disappointing results. Later in this essay, I will pursue the issue of accessibility of resources a little more fully. First, I would like to respond to Jensen’s other two criticisms having to do with the content of Dinger’s book and the editorial apparata, again giving my own impressions and not treading the same path that others traverse in their letters to the Journal of Mormon History.

“Not Helpful to Scholars”?

Jensen acknowledges that the minutes Dinger published, covering the years 1839-1846, are “two of the most important primary sources for the period.” Toward the end of the review, he even calls Dinger’s book “enlightening and informative,” then dismisses it with the claim that it “will not satisfy many scholars of Mormon studies who wish to understand the rich history of the Nauvoo City Council and Nauvoo Stake High Council.” Let me see if I understand this. The book is “enlightening and informative” but “not very helpful.” I realize that there are, as publishers sometimes quip, lies, damned lies, and book reviews, and most people involved in publishing develop a thick skin in the face of negative reviews; but in this case, I think the stark contradiction invites a closer look at Jensen’s claims and at his own publications.

It strikes me that Dinger’s book would satisfy virtually any student of Mormon history—at least the MHA book awards committee was pleased with it. Even a cursory look at the volume reveals two appendices that reproduce the Nauvoo City Charter and portions of the Nauvoo Expositor, giving readers easy access to these documents. The volume opens with a forty-two-page biographical register that gives background information for each member of the two councils. Continuing to thumb through the volume, most readers (evidently not Jensen) notice that there are 1,069 footnotes which draw on outside sources in explaining archaic phrases, arcane rituals, and local and national context.

Here are a few examples of how interesting the footnotes are. After the Nauvoo City Council ordered the opposition newspaper destroyed, the council received a report that a mob of anti-Mormons had gathered and was threatening the city. The police provided names, which Dinger researched them and found they were the teenage sons of prominent Mormon families (Tallman Rolfe, 15 years old; Jerome Rolfe, 17; Moses Leonard, 17, Joshua Miller, 17; pp. 266-67). The boys were no doubt curious onlookers who were interested in the spectacle of the police and militia destroying a newspaper office. This was not an anti-Mormon mob, but it shows the level of hysteria even among the city council.

Another example of Dinger’s annotation is his interpretation of the confused spelling of “Dieuchiene,” for which Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, was intended (513). Attentive readers will notice the similarity of the misspelling with the later Utah town of Duchesne and the importance of this decipherment. There are footnotes explaining breeds of pigs (231); concepts from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (258); post-Nauvoo activities of Chauncey Higbee (268); anecdotes such as, in one instance, a “cripple using crutches” getting into a fist-fight with someone in a wheelchair (525); and the Mormon lynching of blacks in Nauvoo in 1844 (244). Jensen ignores all of this and implies that the annotation is thin.

The Challenges of Documentary Editing

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” remarked Daniel P. Moynihan, the late senator from New York. By contrast, Jensen strings together one inaccuracy after another in his sweeping mischaracterization of Dinger’s book. The point of my investigation was not to critique the Joseph Smith Papers, but Jensen’s review invites a few brief comparisons. In fact, it is instructive to know that even a project of the magnitude of the multi-volume Joseph Smith Papers project, with its large staff and extensive resources (including privileged access to restricted materials), can suffer from imperfections. After looking closely at both, I think Dinger’s volume stands up well against the Joseph Smith Papers. For the sake of comparison, the Joseph Smith Papers project has about forty people working on their volumes. At Signature, a total of fourteen people contributed to Dinger’s volume.

I notice that the volumes in the “Journals” series of the Joseph Smith Papers carry a statement that the books “meet or exceed the transcription and verification requirements of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Scholarly Editions.” The problem with this statement is that the emblem signifying certification is missing from the books, indicating to me that certification was withheld from CSE. It should be pointed out that the Joseph Smith Papers website carries long errata lists of errors, witness to how difficult it is to produce a perfect transcription. Jensen provides a few examples of transcription errors in Dinger’s book, but with only transcripts to work from, these little mistakes should probably be seen in the same light as the similar errors that were published in the Joseph Smith Papers.

Let me also mention that the Joseph Smith Papers bibliographies contain egregious lapses. For instance, the editors of volume 2 of the Journals series rely on Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness and George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy for polyandrous marriages but fail to cite these important works as sources. As another case study in selective citation, the Joseph Smith Papers editors cite a letter from Willard Richards to his wife, Jennetta, dated February 26, 1842, in which Joseph Smith described Richards as “a man after his own heart, in all things, that he could trust with his business.” Significantly, the letter provides confirmation for Smith’s “Happiness Letter” that he dictated to Richards and had delivered to Nancy Rigdon in April 1842 as a plural marriage proposal. But the editors question the Happiness Letter’s authenticity; they do so without mentioning the similar language and identical concepts in the Richards letter they cite. They even go so far as to suggest that “difficulties between” Smith and his counselor Sidney Rigdon may have been because Joseph “reproved Nancy for immoral behavior.” The “nature of the sources precludes any firm conclusions,” they say. This is untrue. The source they rely on for gossip is Orson Hyde, who was absent from Nauvoo for over two years, including the time in question. In their bibliography, we do not find Dean C. Jessee’s Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, which includes the Happiness Letter, nor Van Hale’s important 1988 MHA discussion of the letter, nor do we read that the letter was inserted into the Manuscript History of the Church in 1855. Such selective, lop-sided annotation is not good scholarship.


The issue of accessibility is important enough to consider in more detail. In his review, Jensen admitted that “through a cataloging oversight, the city council minutes were listed as both open and closed,” but then claimed the city records had been “completely open for public research since at least 2006.” He said the rough minutes, housed in a separate collection, had been open “for several years.” Since this claim is the basis for most of Jensen’s critique, I decided to fact-check it. Here is what I found.

The records of the city council are housed in three separate manuscript collections at the Church History Library. They also have the original copy of the typescript, Ms 2737, prepared by Edyth J. Romney in 1976. A photocopy of the typescript, now part of the Leonard J. Arrington Papers at Utah State University, was one of the sources Dinger made use of. At Church archives, the typescript was closed during the period Dinger was preparing his volume. The rough minutes, jotted down by early scribes before the polished versions were worked out, are in Ms 16800, box 1, folders 2, 4, and 5. Folder 3, covering January-November 1842, is missing. The handwritten final version of the city council minutes from 1841-45, Ms 3435, is titled “Proceedings.”

Jensen says that Dinger missed a few entries for the city council because he did not have all the sources at his disposal. This is true, since the originals of these materials were not open to the public when Dinger worked on the book. In fact, Tom Kimball of Signature sought access to the documents three times while Dinger’s book was in preparation and finally received permission to view the Romney typescript, but not the originals, as the book went to press in December 2011. I cannot account for the discrepancy between Kimball’s experience and Jensen’s assertion that the manuscripts were available to scrutinize except to conclude that Jensen is mistaken. I found no negligence on the part of Dinger or Signature in attempting to access the manuscripts in question.

I should note that although the city council minutes are now open to the public, the high council minutes are not. Jensen devotes little space in his review to the high council minutes except to suggest that librarians might have been willing to describe the physical features of the documents to Dinger or perhaps even confirm some of the wording. If by this, Jensen is offering to help us with our forthcoming publication of the Council of Fifty minutes, which are also restricted, we will be happy to take him up on it.

For the high council portion of his book, Dinger utilized the Romney typescript, supplemented by the Cook typescript, then filled in additional entries with materials supplied by H. Michael Marquardt and materials in the Valeen Tippetts Avery Papers at USU. Dinger annotated the minutes by drawing on some of the 2002-03 DVDs, released by Church archives, which contained the Nauvoo Stake High Council Court Papers, 1839-1844 (LR 3102 23). Because the editors of the DVD redacted the names of individuals, Dinger had to devote hours of detective work to match those records to the corresponding minutes of the high council, then explained in the footnotes what one would have been able to understand from the minutes alone.

Another of Jensen’s criticisms is that Dinger included the trial of Sidney Rigdon with the high council minutes. According to Jensen, the trial was a “gathering of the Church,” not a high council matter.  Although Brigham Young and the Twelve took over the meeting, the high councilmen were seated on the stand as the presiding officers. Admittedly, any fuzziness as to the nature of the meeting and which body had jurisdiction could have been cleared up, had Dinger been given access to the high council minutes.

That aside, Jensen complains that “Dinger presented not the more historically useful first copy, but the secondary clean copy created from the rough minutes” of the trial. Again, access to the documents would have been helpful. The day after I sought and was denied access to the high council minutes, I visited the library again in search of the Rigdon trial minutes. The only reference to the trial I could find was in the General Church Records, CR 100 318, which is the clean, second copy that Dinger used. No rough minutes are listed. I asked a librarian at the front desk about this, and she found that, on the restricted card catalog that only Church employees have access to, the rough minutes made by John McEwan and kept in “the Vault.” She assured me that, although if I wanted to go through the futile effort of putting in a special request to see them, no one ever gets to see material housed in the vault.


Jensen concedes that when it comes to “documentary editing over the last several decades, Signature Book’s [sic] important role is obvious.” Because of the care we have taken in gathering materials and presenting them in an understandable way, with what we think are clearly reasoned, fair interpretations, our publications have generally been well received in scholarly circles. We do everything possible to obtain access to the materials that might cast light on issues, despite obstacles that are sometimes placed in our way. That said, we are always looking for ways to improve. Imperfection is one thing, negligence is another, and we resist the attempt to brand us with the latter. Over the thirty years that Signature Books has been in business, we have received fourteen Best Documentary Book Awards from the John Whitmer Historical Association, the Mormon History Association, the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, and the Utah Historical Society.

Excuse the bragging, but there is a point to this. I have asked myself what an editor like Dinger, or a publisher like Signature, should do when a repository refuses to grant access to an important historical document. Should they abandon the project until the repository relents? Should they go with what they have and create the best book possible under the circumstances? Personally, I think Dinger did the right thing by forging ahead, and I think his book stands as a testament to open, responsible scholarship. He exhibited the best qualities of a researcher who pursues leads wherever they take him and does not let anyone stand in the way of his full understanding of the facts.

I cannot resist pointing to a favorable review of the Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes at the Association for Mormon Letters site. I’ll end, in an attempt to be comprehensive and fair, by noting that in 2004, the Joseph Smith Papers editors sought and received endorsement from the National Archives, for which they should be congratulated. The Joseph Smith Papers project has come a long way in the eleven years since it was first organized. I celebrate their accomplishments and anxiously await each new volume. I also rely heavily on material from the Church History Library and on the advice of its staff, who are generally very helpful. That said, I wish the library would adopt a policy of universal openness and allow all responsible historians, not just some, access to the documents it currently restricts. I retain optimism that our journey through publication of the Council of Fifty minutes will be a smoother one.

I have no personal issue with Robin Jensen and wish him the very best with the subsequent volumes in his series. But for anyone interested in an exciting ride through Mormon Nauvoo, there’s nothing better than The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, as expertly edited and annotated by John Dinger. Enjoy!

Salt Lake City
August 7, 2012