Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: “Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources”

Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources, edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen and Sharalyn D. Howcroft (Oxford University Press, 2018) reviewed by Clair Barrus.
In determining the scope of their book, the editors of this collection of essays defined "foundational" in two senses, the foundational period of Mormonism through the life of Joseph Smith, and the major sources that inform historians when studying this period. The goal of the editors of Foundational Texts was "to provide a deeper level of understanding of these sources so historians and other scholars can use them more critically." (p.2) I believe the editors succeeded in their objective.

Symbols included with the text of a vision recorded in Wilford Woodruff's journal

The book follows the approach established in Mormon studies by historian Dean Jesse, who critically examined important source documents. The authors looked at the texts from the angle of the archivist, the descriptive bibliographer, and the documentary editor. To them, the creation or production of a foundational document is considered itself an historic event. Through this unique approach, new light is shed that otherwise might go unnoticed.
A sampling of the essays includes:
  • Grant Underwood looking at the process of revelation through Joseph Smith – from the moment of dictation, on to the process of compilation and correction, and finally to the canonization of the revelations. Regarding correction of the revelations, he includes statistics about how much text was added, deleted, or changed from the original dictation. Additionally, he includes percentages of changes that were stylistic, clarifying, presentational, grammatical, elaborative, or updates. This analysis is done for both the 1833 Book of Commandments, and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.
  • Thomas Wayment discusses Joseph Smith's harmonization objectives in Smith's Bible "revision" (a term Wayment prefers over "translation"). Wayment views the revision as a method to bring the Bible more in line with Smith's thought, particularly the perception that Christianity existed from Adam forward. Wayment's careful analysis of changes to the multiple Book of Moses manuscripts, plus different translations of the same New Testament text, provides insights, and a greater sense of the revision process.
  • Jennifer Reader analyzes the minutes of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, noting that the presidency was a "living constitution", a concept Joseph Smith would later incorporate into the Council of Fifty. She notes the masonic aspects of the Society, overviews characteristics of the meeting minutes, provides historical context of other female societies, and discusses the curious fact that most of the leadership were polygamously married to Joseph Smith.
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich claims that Wilford Woodruff's diary is a "great American diary" and she moves beyond the text, noting the elaborate symbols and sometimes elaborate art in his diaries. Entries that would otherwise seem bland, come to life with sometimes profound emphasis through his symbology and illustration.
And of course, there are additional intuitive essays bring the total to thirteen.
Those considering diving into Mormon historical studies would be well served by this book, while seasoned readers of Mormon history would enjoy new perceptions gleaned from the insightful essays. In all, Foundational Texts of Mormonism stands as an excellent collection of essays, providing a new lens, or approach through which to view the rise of Mormonism by giving serious consideration to the foundational source material of early Mormon history.