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The Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Volume 5, October 1835 - January 1838 Hardcover – May 15, 2017
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About the Author
Brent M. Rogers, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Christian K. Heimburger, and Steven C. Harper are historians for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Max H. Parkin is a retired instructor for the Latter-day Saints Institute4 of Religion. Alexander L. Baugh is a professor Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
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The book starts with the usual material for this series, including a timeline of Joseph Smith’s life, maps, an explanation of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, a volume introduction, and an explanation of the editorial method. The book is then divided into seven parts, based on time periods. There is an appendix with blessings to Don Carlos Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, and Sidney Rigdon. And then there is the usual reference material with source notes, a chronology, geographical directory and maps, pedigree chart, biographical directory, organizational charts, essay on sources, works cited, a cross-reference with the Doctrine and Covenants, index, etc. At the very back is a note about resources available on the Joseph Smith Papers website that relate to the series as well as this particular book.
Most of the first and second chapters of the Book of Abraham are included as “Book of Abraham Manuscript, circa Early June - circa November 1835-A [Abraham 1:4-2:6].” There is a historical introduction that explains how the papyri were obtained and what is known about the translation, as well as the publication in Times and Seasons. A footnote points out that “Though a notice printed in the 1 February 1843 issue of the Times and Seasons suggested that JS would publish ‘further extracts’ from the Book of Abraham, there is no documentary evidence that other extracts were produced. All extant manuscripts generated by JS and his associates during their study of the Egyptian papyri, dated circa 1835 to circa 1842, are available at the Joseph Smith Papers website.” (page 77)
This is followed up by “Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July - circa November 1835-A.” This is explained as “the only extant document among the larger collection of Egyptian-related materials that contains JS’s handwriting; portions of the text are also in the handwriting of Cowdery and Parrish. Five pages in length, the manuscript contains various characters, some of which are followed by their pronunciation and interpretation…. That the characters in the Egyptian alphabet presented here were copied from more than one source suggests that what is termed as ‘Egyptian alphabet’ may have been part of a comprehensive project that synthesized characters from various source texts” (page 82.) It is unknown how the document was produced, but the interpretations do not match modern translations. It “may have been an effort by JS and his associates to decode characters that they assumed stood for larger concepts.” (page 83)
There are many documents related to the Kirtland Temple, including minutes of the dedication with all the words to the hymns sung and the dedicatory prayer. There is a diagram of the temple and a photo of the interior. “The spiritual outpouring that occurred in Kirtland, Ohio, when the House of the Lord was dedicated on 27 March 1836 continued in the days following that special event. Three days after the dedication, participants reported, the promised endowment of power occurred at a solemn assembly. This event marked the culmination of a series of instruction from JS and other church leaders, the organizing of the church’s priesthood structure, and the administration of rituals. JS’s journal records that another significant event took place on the afternoon of 3 April: JS and Oliver Cowdery experienced a vision of Jesus Christ and visitations from Moses, Elias, and Elijah…. FInally, 6 April 1836, the sixth anniversary of the church’s organization, was ‘set apart as a day of prayer to end the feast of the Passover and in honor of the jubilee of the church.’ That day men ordained to the priesthood met to observe and participate in sacred ordinances. According to Heber C. Kimball, as the meeting continued, ‘the spirit of prophecy was poured out upon the Assembly,’ and this ‘marvellous spirit’ continued for several days.” (page 213)
Part 5 contains documents associated with the Kirtland Safety Society. The volume introduction and the section introduction give the history of the institution in the broader context of the financial troubles of the time, which were both the motivation for its creation and the cause of its downfall. The documents include the Constitution of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, Articles of Agreement for the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, pictures of the notes that were produced, and associated agreements and correspondence. “Extant sources offer little credible documentation of monetary losses caused by the Kirtland Safety Society’s closure, but it is clear that only a few individuals invested sizable funds in the institution. Joseph Smith invested the most money, several thousand dollars, and no one lost more in the collapse of the Safety Society than he did. The devaluation of society notes and the unwillingness of other banks to accept the notes as payment contributed to the financial hardships in Kirtland, but most individuals there were more adversely affected by the broader Panic of 1837, which caused the price of goods to increase and land values to decrease drastically.” (page xxxii)
As with the other volumes from the Joseph Smith Papers Project, there is much of interest between the covers of this book. Many hours can be spent perusing its contents by anyone interested in the Kirtland period of church history or in the life of Joseph Smith in general. I found that my reading of the material about the Kirtland Temple enhanced my experience covering the same topic in Sunday School today.
Joseph Smith was a complex person. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in this volume discussing such a complicated period in US and LDS Church history.
As the introduction asserts, Documents, Volume 5 covers “moments of elation and moments of upheaval” (xix), including an 1835 recounting of the First Vision, purchase of mummies and manuscripts leading to the Book of Abraham, the School of the Prophets, a physical altercation between William and Joseph Smith, attempts at reconciliation, construction of the House of the Lord in Kirtland, glorious heavenly visitations during the dedication ceremony, a national recession and failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, widespread apostasy, launch of the "Elders’ Journal," and Joseph Smith’s move to Missouri. As with other volumes in the Documents series, the editing team succeeds in providing helpful and professional discussion of the documents, historical context, and artifacts.
Part 1 focuses mainly on an 1835 recounting of the First Vision (40–47) and translation of the Book of Abraham (69–88). This section raises intriguing questions: What connection do the Egyptian alphabet and grammar have with the Book of Abraham? How much time did the Prophet and his scribes focus on producing and recording revelation, and how much were they trying to reproduce the origins of human language? Here we are left with perhaps more questions than answers, but we look forward to more discussion in a future planned volume by Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid.
Part 2 begins with tension. Elder Orson Hyde offered “a litany of complaints” against the top leadership (105). Then a disciplinary council led to a deposition by Lucy Mack Smith. An argument over that deposition erupted between sons William and Joseph Smith. When the Kirtland high council planned to censure William, he insisted he “had not done wrong” and accused Joseph of determining to always support his arguments “whether right or wrong” (111). After heated argument in a debating school, William and Joseph engaged in a fight, leaving Joseph “unable to sit down, or rise up, without help” (112). The brothers sought reconciliation. This section ends with a solemn assembly, washing and anointing, and a vision of the celestial kingdom involving the Father and the Son and the faithful deceased, including Joseph’s brother Alvin (157–59). The section of the vision involving Brigham Young preaching to “men of colour” is thought provoking in light of the later move to Utah (160).
Part 3 records the Hebrew School, priesthood ordinations, and heavenly visitations relating to the dedication of the House of the Lord. Some of the recorded visitations are quite dramatic (190). The hymn “Ere Long the Vail” was quite impressive (192–93). On page 206, the word “retuning” would benefit from an editorial clarification to “retu[r]ning.”
Part 4 recounts the familiar and well-documented visions of heavenly messengers (224–29). Less familiar is the section describing W. W. Phelps’s editorial about abolitionism in Ohio and the resulting backlash in Missouri (234–35), the ordination of blacks to the priesthood (235–36), and Joseph Smith’s seemingly contradictory claim in the April 1836 Messenger and Advocate “that the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan” (240). These documents and accompanying notes are vital as we seek to examine Joseph Smith’s notions of race, abolition, and emancipation.
Part 5 describes the banking experiment of the Kirtland Safety Society in ways that are both satisfying and challenging. The images of currency are particularly helpful. As the leadership pressed forward with a bank despite lack of state sponsorship, readers may wonder, What qualms did board members or the general members express about the way the leadership pressed forward? The editors do a fine job contextualizing how the national panic influenced the failure of the bank experiment.
Part 6 begins after the failure of the Safety Society with pressing financial and legal problems, dissension by Warren Parrish and many others, and Joseph Smith’s grave illness. As the volume introduction states, “The spiritual exuberance that attended the dedication at of the House of the Lord just eighteen months earlier seemed a distant memory” (xxxii). This section concludes with the bold and visionary calls of Wilford Woodruff and Jonathan H. Hale to preach as missionaries in “the eastern country” and of Heber C. Kimball to serve the first transatlantic mission in England.
Part 7 includes the launch of the "Elders’ Journal"; Wilford Woodruff’s report of missionary labors in New York, Maine, and the Fox Islands; excommunications in Kirtland; and Joseph Smith’s announcement of moving his family to Missouri. Brief mention is made of the burning of the Church printing press in Kirtland days after it was auctioned off (xxxiv, 537), a topic reserved for discussion in a later volume of the Documents series.
Overall, this volume makes an important contribution to Mormon history and is well worth the time to search for historical treasure therein.