The Joseph Smith Papers are valuable and I am very grateful to the LDS Historian’s Office for publishing them. When they are released, I get them and read them cover to cover, like a novel. I have marked, added, cross-referenced, highlighted, and corrected mine.
It is perhaps an impossible task for the LDS Historian’s Office to view the historic documents outside of the LDS tradition. Their commentaries and footnotes are composed in the context of their traditions, and do not always give an accurate picture of the documents. Hence, the many additions I have added to my copy
I think the Historian’s Office is doing their best to be helpful, and I believe they are being as honest as they can be in their circumstances. But they weave into the actual historical documents an incorrect LDS narrative through the “General Introductions”, “Historical Introductions”, “Chronologies”, “Bibliographical Directories”, and footnotes. They are unable to allow the plain words of the documents to speak for themselves. Just one example taken from the volume 4 of the “Documents” illustrates the point:
In 1921, the highest authorities in the LDS church discarded Lectures on Faith without a vote of the church. Lectures had been adopted as a “law” for the church at a conference on August 17, 1835. In that conference, every division of priesthood voted quorum by quorum to adopt Lectures as scripture and a law, followed by a vote of the entire church – men, women and children doing likewise.
The actual events presents a troubling dilemma for the LDS institution. Rather than concede that deleting Lectures in 1921 was an error, they have offered various excuses for its deletion. In the Joseph Smith Papers treatment of this awkward matter, they offer the excuse that the original adoption of Lectures was defective. In this, they are unwilling to be accountable for what is a rebellious departure from a law binding on the institution.
The LDS Historian’s Office introduces the August 17, 1835 conference minutes by describing the Lectures as an improper deviation from what was authorized. They write:
The book that Cowdery presented differed from the one foreseen by the Kirtland high council. It did not contain excerpts from the Bible or the Book of Mormon, but instead had two sections, one of which was devoted to seven theological lectures that were prepared in the winter of 1834 and 1835 for the Elders School in Kirtland. The other section contained many of JS’s revelations, which constituted the “covenants and commandments of the Lord.” No extant record indicates when or why the committee decided to deviate from its original instructions, but the change had occurred by February 1835, when the committee composed the preface to the book. (JSP Documents Vol. 4, p. 383, italics in original.)
This is how the Historian’s Office undermines confidence in the Lectures. The assertion that “no extant record indicates…why the committee decided to deviate” and adopt Lectures is not true. The conference minutes that follow this Historian’s Office introduction explains the matter:
The presidency of the church approved the book, including Lectures, by adopting the following language:
The names of the Committee are as follows Joseph Smith Junior, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery & Frederick G. Williams. This Committee having finished said Book according to the instructions given them, it was deemed necessary to call the general assembly of the Church to see whether the book be approved or not by the Authoroties of the church, that it may, if approved, become a law, unto the church, and a rule of faith and practice unto the same. (JSP Documents, Vol. 4, p. 386, all as in original.)
The presidency did not believe there was a “deviation,” but the book was “finished …according to the instructions given them.”
After Oliver Cowdery, William W. Phelps, John Whitmer, and John Smith testified the book (including Lectures) was true and from God, John Smith asked for a vote from several bodies. The vote was taken to approve the following proposition:
That they would receive the Book as the rule of their faith & practice, and put themselves under the guidance of the same and also that they were satisfied with the committee that were chosen to compile it, as having discharged their duty faithfully. (JSP Documents Vol. 4, p. 394.)
Further testimonies were given by Levi Jackman, the 12 apostles (whose written testimony was read to the conference affirming favorably both “the Book and the Committee who compiled it”), and Leonard Rich (speaking for the 70 Apostles). Leonard Rich referred specifically to Lectures:
…he had examined the Lectures and many of the Revelations contained in it, and was perfectly satisfied with the same, and further, that he knew that they were true by the testimony of the Holy Spirit of God given unto him; he then called for the Vote of as many of the 70 as were present, which was unanimously given in favor of the Good, and also that they were perfectly satisfied with the committee that compiled it. (JSP Documents Vol. 4, p. 394-395.)
Bishop Newel K. Whitney, Bishop of Kirtland, next testified that he had examined the Lectures and knew them to be true. When he presented it for a vote by his counselors, he asked for a vote affirming the following:
He then called for the Vote of his counsellors, which was given in favor of the Book and also of the Committee that compiled it as having discharged their duty faithfully. (JS Papers Documents Vol. 4, p. 395.)
After this, John Corrill testified of his “entire satisfaction with the labors of the Committee.” (Id.)
Elder John Gould said, “he had received the testimony of the Spirit in favor of them, and that he was well satisfied with the committee” (Id.) and asked for the vote of the Elders, which was given.
Then Priest Ira Ames spoke, testifying: “he was present in the general assembly which appointed the committee, And that he was well satisfied with the fruit of their labors.” (JS Papers Documents Vol. 4, pp. 395-396.) The priests then unanimously approved the volume.
Teacher Erastus Babbitt testified the volume came “from God” and that “he was well satisfied with the labors of the committee.” (Id.) The teachers then unanimously approved it.
The most obvious reason the LDS Historian’s Office is unable to find any “extant record [that] indicates when or why the committee decided to deviate from its original instructions” is because the committee DID NOT DEVIATE from the assignment given to them.
When the assignment was given, most, if not all of those who approved the Lectures and revelations on August 17, 1835, were present. THEY understood the assignment. One of the Kirtland high council who approved the completed volume including Lectures was Samuel Smith. (JSP Documents Vol. 4, p. 387.) He was the one who originally nominated the committee. (JSP Documents Vol. 2, p. 97; 2:137, Vol. 4, p. 175; 4:421.) If anyone should have detected a “deviation” from the committee’s assignment, it would have been the one who nominated them. Yet he testified “This committee having finished said Book according to the instructions given them.” (JSP Documents Vol. 4, p. 386, emphasis added.)
The very people who understood the original assignment, including members of the committee, testified the committee had “finished said Book according to the instructions given them.” All of those involved, including the entire body of the church who voted to adopt the Lectures as part of binding scripture and a law for them, saw no deviation. It did not “differ from the one foreseen by the Kirtland high council,” as the LDS Historian’s Office asserts. Those involved saw only the faithful performance of an assignment by the committee.
Because the LDS institution inexplicably dropped Lectures by a decision made by church leaders without any vote by the membership, there can be only one of two conclusions: 1. They were wrong (which the LDS Historian’s Office is loath to suggest by any historical document they publish). Or, 2. They were right (and so “Historical Introductions” and footnotes need to support their decision).
Like many other parts of the Joseph Smith Papers, this example shows how the editors intrude into the published documents to add their defense of the institution employing them. They no doubt are convinced the institution tells a correct story of history, and therefore they construe the records to support the institution, even when it requires them to contradict the documents. But tradition should not blind us, and to read the historical documents in the Joseph Smith Papers for content, is to see that the editors often construe them to conform to a story different than the one told by the historical record.
It would be interesting if someone were to write a comprehensive account of the contrast between the editors’ explanations and the actual documents of early Mormonism.
I am very grateful for the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers. They help us to see a truer story of early Mormon events while Joseph Smith was alive, in a way that has never been possible before.