Thursday, February 04, 2010

"Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844" (reviewed by Vickie Cleverley Speek)


Title: Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844
Author: Edited by John W. Welch with Erick B. Carlson
Publisher: Brigham Young University Press and Deseret Book
Genre: Nonfiction
Year Published: 2005
Number of Pages: 500
Binding: Hardback
ISBN: 0-8425-2607-2
Price: $32.95

Reviewed by Vickie Cleverley Speek

"Opening the Heavens" brings together all the known, firsthand historical accounts of the spiritual events that are the backbone of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: namely, the First Vision; the translation of Gold Plates into the Book of Mormon; the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedec priesthoods; the spiritual experiences that accompanied the dedication of the Kirtland temple; and the mantle of church leadership passing from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young.

This important book allows these many foundational documents to speak for themselves, although contributors present a summary at the beginning and/or end of each chapter in order to help put the experiences into proper historical context and perspective. Each account, or the relevant portion of each account, is included in the relevant chapter.

This volume is part of the Documents in Latter-day Saint History series produced by the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History and includes bibliographical materials and a historical name index

Editor John W. Welch is a professor of law at BYU, editor-in-chief of BYU Studies, publisher for the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saints History, and the founder of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Other contributors include Dean C. Jessee, James B. Allen, Brian Q. Cannon, Alexander L. Baugh, Steven C. Harper, and Lynne Watkins Jorgensen.

Chapter one, "The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," written by Dean C. Jessee, examines all the known primary accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision. These accounts are taken from thirteen documents—eight produced or reported in the first person by or from Joseph Smith and five accounts reported by others—written by people who heard Joseph relate his experiences and recorded what he said.

Compilers James B. Allen and John W. Welch examine Joseph Smith's First Vision in section two, "The Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820."  Allen and Welch expand on chapter one by providing historic perspective and context for each version of the First Vision. A chart (page 56) which compares the historic background conditions of each of the accounts  is especially valuable. Other charts (pages 60, 62, 66 and 68) compare the differing versions by certain words or phrases mentioned in Joseph Smith's own accounts.

Welch is also the author and compiler of chapter three, "The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon."  This chapter examines and compares 202 known documents that relate the process by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. This important chapter is followed by a 80 pages of pertaining documents, printed either in full or with the relevant portions extracted from the original.

Succeeding chapters include "Seventy Contemporaneous Priesthood Documents," an examination of the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedec Priesthoods, by Brian Q. Cannon and the BYU Studies staff; "Visions Upon Visions," by Alexander L. Baugh, relating Joseph Smith's seventy six documented visionary experiences; and "The Restoration of Temple Keys and Powers," by Steven C. Harper, which compares six eyewitness accounts of spiritual manifestations experienced before, during, and after the dedication of the Kirtland temple.

The final chapter, written by Lynne Watkins Jorgenson, relates 121 testimonies given by persons who claim they saw, felt or heard the temporary transformation of Brigham Young into Joseph Smith on August 8, 1844.

To me, the greatest value of this book is the compiling of all the known foundational manuscripts into one terrific reference source. I can pull one book off the shelf instead a dozen or more. There's also a historical names index, and a briefly annotated list of articles that have been published in BYU Studies relating to many important events in early church history, generally events that occurred during Joseph Smith's lifetime. I also enjoyed reading the many firsthand accounts written by persons who were previously unknown to me.

"Opening the Heavens" is an invaluable book, one that should be on shelves of every Mormon History scholar.


Clair Barrus said...

For a good review of the book that looks at the interpretive essays included in the book, see

Anonymous said...

Hi Vickie - I'd say it also belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in learning more about these sacred experiences. I thought you might be interested in my related post Kirtland Temple Pentecost.