Tuesday, June 21, 2016


The Juvenile Instructor blog is keeping up with newly digitized sources here. This is a very helpful resource for historians.

BYU has also made the journals of James E. Talmage, from 1879-1911, available here.

11 Documents: Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon geography, Part 1

[cross-posted from http://www.lettervii.com/2016/06/11-documents-joseph-smith-and-book-of.html]

In 2007, Andrew Hedges published an excellent article in the Mormon Historic Sites journal that discusses the 11 "particularly noteworthy" documents generated during Joseph Smith's lifetime that pertain to Book of Mormon geography. Brother Hedges states that "These are documents that were generated during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and that Joseph at least allowed, in one way or another, to be associated with his name in significant ways." None of these documents are holographic (in Joseph's handwriting) and none bear Joseph's actual signature.

Brother Hedges writes, "In the absence of any holographic material from Joseph, or a clear understanding about how each letter and document was generated and reviewed, the most that we can safely conclude is that Joseph allowed his name to be attached to them without later offering any sort of correction to them. Whether he completely agreed with everything they contained or not is impossible to say."

The idea that Joseph allowed all these articles to be associated with his name has long been the consensus view. However, new evidence made available since 2007, primarily through the Joseph Smith Papers, has given us more understanding about how these letters and documents were generated and reviewed. Based on my research, I think the consensus about Joseph's involvement with many of these items is inaccurate. I think most historians will agree when they examine the evidence. 

Brother Hedges divided the documents into three categories.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

The Plains of the Nephites and the Hill Cumorah

Stephens’ Incidents of Travel and the Times and Seasons

Here I'll briefly discuss the first category. In subsequent posts, I'll explore the remaining two categories, and eventually each item in more detail.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

1. 1833 letter addressed to N.C. Saxton. This letter describes the Book of Mormon as “a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians. . . . By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph who was sold into Egypt, and the land of America is a promised land unto them.” [There are debates about what Joseph meant by "our western tribes of Indians" and "the land of America."]

2. 1839 history. Here, Moroni tells Joseph Smith that “there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” [Note: In Letter VII, Oliver says Moroni told Joseph the record was "written and deposited" not far from his home, an important clarification. If the record was written near Joseph's home in New York, it obviously wasn't written somewhere else and then hauled to New York.]

3. 1842 Wentworth letter. The letter, written in first person and signed in print by Joseph, claims Moroni visited Joseph and told him about the plates containing "the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent." Moroni also taught Joseph “concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country.” “[T]he history of ancient America” unfolds in the text, and “America in ancient times was inhabited by two distinct races of people,” with the “remnant” constituting “the Indians that now inhabit this country.”

Debates have ensued about what Joseph meant by "continent" and "this country." When we realize that Joseph Smith resided in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Mr. Wentworth resided in Chicago, Illinois, the plain meaning of "this country" would be the United States (or, possibly, the "countryside" the two parties shared). There is nothing in the letter or context that would suggest Joseph used the term "country" to refer to Central or South America. The term "continent" is presumably more expansive, and could refer to the entire hemisphere (North, Central and South America) or just North America. A variety of terms are used in the Times and Seasons, for example, including the “Continent of Europe,” the “Oriental Continent,” and the “Continent of America.” The last reference is in an epistle of the Twelve “to the brethren scattered abroad on the Continent of America,” all of whom were east of the Mississippi. For whatever reason, Joseph left the terms vague here. They are susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Summary: Brother Hedges concludes, "The documents cited above, all of which were associated with Joseph’s name in one way or another, were simply conveying the idea that the events in the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in the New World, and that the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples were still around." That's a fair statement, although I interpret the terms "this country" and "our western tribes of Indians" to be more specific than he does.

End of Part 1

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Bernhisel letter

November 1841 letter to Bernhisel
This post focuses on what I consider one of the best examples of a single document that created the groundwork for an entire historical narrative. I'm writing because I think that narrative is erroneous.

A November 1841 letter written from Nauvoo to Dr. John Bernhisel (an LDS leader in New York City) has created a historical narrative that I think contradicts the facts and has led to considerable confusion.

No one knows who wrote the letter; the handwriting remains unidentified. However, it is written in first person and signed in the name of Joseph Smith, which had led historians to assume Joseph dictated the letter.

The letter (essentially a brief thank-you note) thanks Bernhisel for the gift of a two-book set about ruins in Central America.  The books were written by John Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Stephens also discusses North American archaeology.

The note states that the Stephens book "unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon."

Based on this thank-you note, LDS scholars have concluded that Joseph Smith was enthusiastic about the ruins in Central America and their supposed connection with the Book of Mormon. The note has also contributed to the ideas that 1) Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, 2) he merely speculated about its setting, and 3) he changed his mind on this topic. I think those three ideas are not supported by the historical record.

An explanation in the Joseph Smith papers (JSP) refers to the Stephens books this way: "JS greeted it enthusiastically and church members used it to map Book of Mormon sites in a Central American setting."

That claim, like the others, is based on the Bernhisel letter. I don't think Joseph greeted the letter at all, much less enthusiastically.

Because I think JSP and others are making an erroneous inference. I summarized the historical data in a chapter of my next book titled The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos.

  • Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers project, new information has been brought to light that suggests a different reality. In this article, I offer evidence showing that 1) the thank-you note originated with Wilford Woodruff, 2) Joseph never read the Stephens books, and 3) Joseph had nothing to do with the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons.

I realize there is a lot of institutional inertia behind the standard interpretation of the Bernhisel letter. However, I have a lot of confidence in LDS historians, and I think that sooner or later they will take another look at the events of 1841 and 1842 and revise the historical narrative accordingly.


For those who accept Letter VII, I have a comment on this on that blog here.

Oliver Cowdery and the translation

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery published his famous account of the trsanslation: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a...