Joseph Smith Journals

John Turner

One of the great frustrations and blessings of Mormon History is operating within a remarkably deep well of sources and evidence. Thus, new discoveries regularly remind one of one's own relative ignorance. Depending on the day, I refer to this as the curse or blessing of D&C 21:1 ("Behold, there shall be a record kept among you..."), which adorns the wall above the entrance into the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

Recently, the Church History Department published the second of three annotated volumes of journals kept by Joseph Smith, his clerks, and -- in this case -- Eliza R. Snow, a teacher living in Smith's home who became one of the prophet's plural wives in June 1842.

Much of the discussion of this volume has centered around Joseph Smith's practice of polygamy, first firmly documented with his marriage to Louisa Beaman (one of my favorite women in LDS History) in April 1841. That marriage came slightly before the first journal in this volume; Smith married approximately fifteen additional women by April 1843, when this volume ends. The pages of Smiths' journals provide precious little information about these marriages, but the subject comprises the heart of the editors' introduction to this volume. Those pages do not constitute what most scholars would consider a frank examination of polygamy, but they do affirm that some of the marriages were consummated and that some of the women involved were already married. Most notably, the editors document that Smith married Marinda Hyde, already the wife of Mormon apostle Orson Hyde. The editors (Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Richard Lloyd Anderson) conclude that the "polyandrous marriages ... were primarily a means of binding other families to his [Smith's] for the spiritual benefit and mutual salvation of all involved." While Smith's practice of plural marriage certainly involved more than lust and sex, in my mind that conclusion (which rests on Richard Bushman's analysis in Rough Stone Rolling) reaches beyond the very fragmentary and contested evidence. Despite a small mountain of scholarship on Mormon polygamy, we know relatively little about how most of its earliest practitioners -- including Joseph Smith -- understood it at the time.

Readers interested in such matters can readily find full treatments elsewhere. The value of this volume lies in the journals themselves, the annotations, and the remaining scholarly apparatus. All reflect the resources and talent that the Church History Department continues to devote to this venture.

I was quickly struck by the passage for December 27, 1841: "Joseph. was with. Brigham [Young], Heber C [Kimball], Willard [Richards]. & John [Taylor] of the twelve, at his office. instructing them in the principles of the kingdom." The annotation for that sentence references Wilford Woodruff's journal: "I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM," the seer stones that Joseph Smith used during his translation of the Book of Mormon. I had never put those passages together, but I found it noteworthy that Brigham Young probably saw them for the first time on that date as well. Any student of Mormon History will encounter such nuggets throughout the volume.

The chronology, outstanding maps, biographical directory, complex charts of church officers, and bibliography will all also be of great use to anyone active in Mormon Studies. Any instructor with students who might write research papers on Mormon topics should have their libraries buy the (not inexpensive) volumes of the JSP. At this point, it is frustrating not to have access to the index, but it evidently will be available on the JSP website in teh near future. The JSP website also has a number of high-resolution scans of sources available on its website.


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