Sponsored by BYU Studies—Devery Anderson is the marketing manager for Signature Books and the author/editor of several books, including the forthcoming “Salt Lake School of the Prophets: 1867-1883” (Signature Books, 2018).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your new book?
I am from Longview, Washington, but moved to Utah with my wife and children twenty-four years ago. I earned a B.A. in history from the University of Utah in 1997 and recently graduated from George Washington University with a master’s in publishing. I have been with Signature Books since September 2011, at first as an editor, but a year ago I became the company’s marketing manager. This is my fifth book and fourth centering on Mormon history. I began Salt Lake School of the Prophets some time ago and finished the first draft in 2006. It finally moved up the pipeline at Signature and throughout this past year it underwent serious revisions by me and a thorough round of editing at Signature before recently going to press.
When did you first fall in love with Mormon history and what were some of the first books that influenced you?
I remember specifically picking up the first volume of B. H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church in 1983 and reading it closely. I decided then and there that I would read everything I could to gain a thorough understanding of the history of the church. The more I read the more I began seeing footnotes to publications such as Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, BYU Studies, Sunstone, and the Journal of Mormon History. I began reading and subscribing to those. From there I discovered authors such as D. Michael Quinn and Richard Bushman. Quinn’s 1985 Dialogue article, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriage, 1890–1904” and his 1987 book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View were two of the first studies that had a profound effect on me. This took me to an entirely new level of study than I dreamed was possible.
What was your research process for this book and what sources are you proud of being able to include? Are there any research challenges you are particularly pleased to have overcome?
With documentary histories such as this one, the one thing an editor needs to do is create as perfect a transcript of the documents as possible, staying as close to the original as they can, adding punctuation and other material as needed, silently when appropriate, but bracketed when correcting spelling or adding clarifications.
At first, I had only a transcript of the original minutes to go by, which was not very satisfying, as I did not have access to the original minutes and could not verify the accuracy of the transcript.
A few years ago, the LDS Church History Library made color scans available of the original minutes, which allowed me to do a line-by-line comparison and to make corrections where necessary. Much of the material had to be corrected, chunks were missing, and so the availability of the scans made all the difference and made the minutes publishable. The sources used in annotating the book were numerous. Several on plural marriage, early Utah history, cooperative movements, the Godbeites, etc.
Where and when did the School of the Prophets originate and what role did it play in the lives of Joseph Smith and early Mormon leaders?
It originated by revelations to Joseph Smith in December 1832 and January 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio. The first meetings of the school were held above the Newel K. Whitney store on January 22, 1833. The school started out with fourteen men. Joseph Smith ritually washed their feet, reenacting Jesus’s washing the feet of his disciples as described in John chapter 13. This created a sense of brotherhood among the men but also served a purpose of purification as he “pronounced them all clean from the blood of this generation.”
The Kirtland school grew, and before it was disbanded in 1837, it served as a place for gospel education for students preparatory for serving missions and served as a place for secular education. Joshua Seixas, from Hudson, Ohio, came and for $320 taught the men a course in Hebrew over several weeks.
The School of the Prophets was the Mormons’ first real educational institution in Kirtland.
How prominent was Brigham Young in the School of the Prophets before coming to Utah?
Brigham Young was not one of the founding members of the school and later said he was not part of the school as it was established in 1833. There are no minutes to determine if he was involved in any of the later iterations of the school from 1834–37, but he is said to have taken the Hebrew classes in 1835.
What was the purpose of the School of the Prophets? Would you give us a brief overview of the school from its convening in Utah to when it died out?
The Salt Lake School of the Prophets was organized by Brigham Young in December 1867 and it ran uninterrupted until August 1872. Young then rebooted the school in November of that same year, and it functioned until June 1874. The school was organized again, but only briefly, under John Taylor in 1883.
The first phase of Brigham Young’s schools encouraged all worthy priesthood holders to become part of it, and as a result it reached nearly a thousand members at its peak, making it the largest organized body within the church. It became a decision-making group concerning things both temporal and spiritual. Temporal concerns focused on elections, and the school nominated candidates for office. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 meant that an influx of outsiders would end Mormon isolationism and many meetings focused on this. Spiritual and theological themes focused on the Word of Wisdom and discussing theological questions and subjects such as the nature of God, the Adam-God Doctrine, and various items related to the Book of Mormon, to name a few.
Those in attendance often spoke about the camaraderie they felt in being part of the group, and this meant a lot to them. The spiritual and temporal concerns often overlapped, such as discussions about the anti-polygamy bills in Congress that caused a very central doctrine within Mormonism to come under attack in unprecedented ways.
Three different prophets presided over the School of the Prophets. What is one phrase you would use to describe each leader’s philosophy for the school?
Joseph Smith was a pioneer as he was giving Mormonism its first real foray into education. He was taking unpolished adult farmers and teaching them things of a spiritual and temporal nature without really knowing what the outcome would be, although he had high hopes for them.
Brigham Young revamped the school through his own vision of what he thought it should be at the time—a large body (around a thousand members at its peak). Times and needs had changed, and he saw no reason to duplicate Joseph Smith’s exact format, but he was cognizant that the organization had been founded based on a revelation and felt the need to honor that.
John Taylor was a restorer in his philosophy of the school, assigning others to do research to be careful to develop a purpose and format that resembled Joseph Smith’s school, including the washing of feet.
The membership of the school grew to become somewhat unruly and Young became very frustrated with leaks. What did he do to address these concerns and what were the results of his actions?
Brigham Young had been warning the members to keep the meetings confidential and to be more careful with the membership cards that allowed them entrance to meetings. But leaks occurred, and cards were lost. Then, without warning, Young ended the school in 1872 because of these problems, although he began it again later that year. People were vetted much more closely for the new school and membership was kept to a minimum, therefore safeguarding it against the same problems as before.
What is an approximate percentage breakdown of issues or topics covered in the minutes?
It is hard to say exactly, percentage-wise. Major topics, among several others, are agriculture, apostasy, cooperative movements, home manufacture, politics, polygamy, public education, the railroad, relationships with Native Americans, salvation, Word of Wisdom, and dealing with the aftermath of non-Mormon residents settling and setting up business in the territory.
Would you share one or two entries from the minutes you consider to be gems and provide your own brief commentary?
My favorite, I suppose, are the minutes of the trial of William Godbe and Elias L. T. Harrison. Although this is not part of the actual school minutes portion of the book, they are included in full as one of the appendixes, and the apostasy of the two men is discussed regularly in the minutes.
The trial minutes shed light on how independent thought and action opposing policies of the leading authorities of the church were handled. The arguments from both sides are fascinating and still resonate today among members who feel strongly about issues and take exception to various policies the church implements or endorses.
The Godbeites, as Godbe’s followers came to be known as, founded the Utah Magazine, which later became the Salt Lake Tribune. They were critical of Brigham Young’s economic policies that Young insisted church members follow.
If you could go back in time and witness any meeting of the Salt Lake School of the Prophets, when would you go—and why?
I would want to witness the washing of feet done by John Taylor at the first meeting of the 1883 school. It was a spiritual experience for those in attendance and showed a degree of humility on Taylor’s part that would have been fascinating to watch. Zebedee Coltrin, the last surviving member of the original Kirtland School, was there, and his feet were washed; he in turn washed Taylor’s, thereby establishing a link between the original and new school. Even though there were several meetings I’d have loved to have sat in on, seeing the performance of this ritual in the Endowment House would have been fascinating.