The history of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been told many times—often using the same sources. But the context of these critical documents have rarely been considered. In this interview, Latter-day Saint scholars Mark Ashurst McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft talk about placing important sources in their historical contexts.
Read their book, Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Early Major Sources.
Who are the editors of Foundational Texts of Mormonism?
I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m married with six kids. Love my family. Love the gospel and the church and our history. Also, I’m crazy about mountains—especially the mountains of Utah, Colorado, and Ecuador (my highest peak is Illiniza Norte 16,800).
I was raised on classic Rock-and-roll, which is still the best (recently saw Paul McCartney and Van Halen). I have a newfound love of the old Country music outlaws (especially Waylon). Also, a few years ago my punk teenager introduced me to screamo (ADTR at SaltAir – Amazing!).
OK, now let’s get serious. I studied history at BYU, USU, and ASU. In 2002, I was recruited to work on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, where I’ve co-edited five volumes of the edition.
I’m currently serving as the project’s Senior Review Editor, which means that now I’m reviewing all the volumes just after the primary historical research is completed.
I’ve also trained at the Institute for Editing Historical Documents and have developed expertise in document analysis, descriptive bibliography, and documentary editing methodology.
Robin Scott Jensen
I am a Utah native (born in Provo but raised in the Tremonton area). As a young father at BYU I was blessed to find a job with the Joseph Smith Papers Project as a research assistant.
More than ten years later, I’m still part of that wonderful project, though my responsibilities have grown. I currently serve as the Project Archivist and Associate Managing Historian. I have co-edited all the volumes in the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Sharalyn D. Howcroft
I grew up in Southern Idaho, then received degrees from Ricks College, BYU, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My undergraduate training was in English, so I fell into the archives profession almost by accident. Church history never really resonated with me growing up until I encountered the records themselves, and then it became vividly real.
My passion for records occurred at an early age when my grandmother showed me old family pictures, journals, and artifacts. I have also kept a journal off and on since I was eight years old.
I started working on the Joseph Smith Papers (then the Papers of Joseph Smith) in 2000. My Joseph Smith Papers responsibilities include searching for, acquiring, and organizing the documents; researching custodial history; and identifying handwriting.
What role did the Joseph Smith Papers Project play in the publication of Foundational Texts of Mormonism?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: The project has had a huge influence on the book, which is easy to see. The book was inspired by Dean Jessee’s work on the “History of the Church” and the “Joseph Smith Papers.” In fact, the book was originally conceived as a festschrift for Dean. All three of us (the co-editors) work for the project and nine of the thirteen contributors have worked for the project in one capacity or another. When we were soliciting the chapters, we used Dean’s article on “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History” as model to emulate in the submissions.
Robin Scott Jensen: The “Joseph Smith Papers” has turned its focus on the manuscripts—their creation, context, and reception. Close textual scholarship occurred well before the “Joseph Smith Papers,” but the project has made more accessible new analysis and answers to the types of questions not previously asked or infrequently asked of the documents. “Foundational Texts of Mormonism” considers some of the most important early Mormon documents and then expands the type of the textual focus found in the “Joseph Smith Papers.”
How did you choose Oxford University Press to publish Foundational Texts of Mormonism?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Oxford University Press, founded in 1586, is the most prestigious scholarly publisher in the world, and has a newfound interest in acquiring Mormon history titles. We decided to shoot for the top.
Robin Scott Jensen: Though unclear what the future might bring for Church Historian’s Press, we wanted a wider non-Mormon audience that Oxford University Press offered. Oxford has now a long history of Mormon publication, and it’s rewarding to see them take seriously an in-depth study of early Mormon texts.
What are the challenges of soliciting essays intended to reinterpret essential aspects of Latter-day Saint history? Do you move forward based upon trust in the abundance of resources now available, trust in the scholar, a combination of both—or something different altogether?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: We definitely had a lot of trust in the contributors. When you are working with the likes of Richard Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, you don’t have a lot of worry there. You know that they can handle anything with brilliance, honesty, balance, and fairness.
Robin Scott Jensen: There are some challenges in finding scholars who have the familiarity of Mormon documents required to write a chapter for a publication such as this. But the early example of Dean Jessee has found its way into the works of several scholars. I think the real trust—a trust I have completely—is in the documents themselves. We have no question that any historical document has a story to tell—and usually the story waiting is quite interesting. All one must do is dig deeper than the casual, surface-level reading often done with these manuscripts.
Sharalyn D. Howcroft: Initially, there is a concern of whether the vision for the book has been adequately conveyed to the contributors and if the essays will go in the intended direction. We had a lot of trust in the scholars and knew their capacity. The combination of essays exceeded our expectations and the intertextual conversation that arose from it is timely.
What do you mean when you say that “sources of information, but artifacts that reflect the culture in which they were created”?
Robin Scott Jensen: Historical texts are the bread and butter of historians. We analyze, quote from, and otherwise utilize the sources created in the past in order to make our arguments or tell a story.
Too often (myself included) historians simply read the sources for the information contained in their surface content, rather than thinking of the context in which the documents were created—not the intellectual context of the content of the particular text, but the intellectual context of the physical artifact itself.
To put it simply, there is a difference between reading the early revelations for clues on the theological development within Mormonism and to analyze the revelation manuscripts and determine how they were produced, transmitted, received, and read; by when, by whom, and how widely they were circulated; or how the changes to the actual text affected their reading by members of the church.
Or, to provide another example, it’s the difference between reading the journals of Joseph Smith created in Nauvoo to reconstruct events rather than looking at the sacred and historical reasons for which Smith and his clerks created those journals in the first place and how that shaped what they produced.
Sharalyn D. Howcroft: Scholars mine sources for the information they contain. The chapters in this volume go beyond the information to look at texts and culture.
For example, my chapter on Lucy Mack Smith’s history considers the prevalence of social publication in New England and how Lucy inherited this tradition from her forebears. As a result, her history deliberately incorporates several texts created by others and contains much less of her voice than it appears on the surface.
Additionally, closely examining the original manuscripts of Lucy’s history as an artifact reveals clues to its composition methodology that in some cases confirm what historical sources explicitly state and in other cases altogether refute them.
Chapters by Ron Barney and Bill Smith consider cultural aspects of sermons that explain why Joseph Smith’s sermons were recorded the way they were (or not at all).
I don’t think this is an issue of weighing text and context to achieve balance; rather, it is doing everything in our power to understand the records and the past so we do not misinterpret them.
Can this volume appeal to non-scholars who have an interest in Mormon history?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: I have passionate feelings about public history, but this book is simply not in that category. The fact of the matter is that it’s pretty hard-core in terms of detailed documentary analysis. It’s not for everyone. Did I just totally fail in promoting the book? Um, sorry co-editors and contributors.
Sharalyn D. Howcroft: This is a scholarly volume, but attendance at our recent book signing at Benchmark Books demonstrated the volume also appeals to individuals who are not professionally trained historians but have a passion for Mormon history and are well read in the field. This book is an intense read. People who are into that kind of thing won’t walk away disappointed.
Robin Scott Jensen: The book looks to the documents not as a means to an end (reconstructing events in the Mormon past), but as a way those documents reflect the Mormon past. Not to disagree with my co-editor, but I do think that non-academics could find many things interesting in this book. Mormons have an inherent interest in their history — compared to most faith traditions we are very serious about our history — and this book offers some of the best insight on some of the Church’s most important documents.
Mark Ashurst-McGee (again): What my co-editors said.
How does the proportion of women contributors reflect the number of women working in Latter-day history?
Sharalyn D. Howcroft: This is an important question about the gender parity of Mormon history scholars. It’s a complicated question in general, but with this book in particular, we had an idea of the foundational Mormon texts we wanted to incorporate into the volume. Authors were selected based on their subject and content matter expertise. Three of these experts are female. We also wanted to include foundational texts by and about women that are heavily consulted when exploring Mormonism’s founding era.
Robin Scott Jensen: Unfortunately, Mormon scholarship has suffered from the small number of voices from women and under-represented voices. I see it as a responsibility of those of us (me, for instance, as a white man) to actively seek out voices who have been silenced in the past. Three out of twelve is still not good enough, but we should also be mindful of placing too much of a burden on a smaller percentage of the scholarly field. It’s an ongoing issue that we all need to work on to address.
Are any of the contributors working on lengthier projects based upon their essays?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Yes indeed. Richard Bushman is working on a golden plates book, Thomas Wayment is working on a JST book, David Grua is working on a Missouri book, Bill Smith is working on a Joseph Smith sermons book, and Ron Barney is working on a Joseph Smith book.
Also, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s research on the early Woodruff journals coincided with her research for A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870 (Knopf, 2017).
When a new finding or a new paradigm can entirely alter the way history is perceived, how do you move forward with the research process knowing the key findings of today may be relegated to the footnotes of tomorrow?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: That’s the biz.
Sharalyn D. Howcorft: We all stand upon the shoulders of those who have come before us. Historical interpretation is no different.
Robin Scott Jensen: Modern scholarship is built on the work of earlier generations now “relegated to the footnotes.” Scholars are prepared in graduate school to take up this frame of mind. We’re well aware that today’s scholarship will be upended by future scholarship. It’s an exciting process of continual discovery.
Scholarship should be less about the territorial claims of one’s own research and more about a shared sense of stewardship for the larger body of historical knowledge, as well as a generous recognition that many publications are further enlarging that knowledge.
Should religious believers be afraid of history if it occasionally reveals findings that deviate from long-held beliefs?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: I don’t mean to take your question lightly, but I would say no. Studying early Mormon history has certainly challenged my faith, especially when I first dived in, but over the years my understanding has grown, most of my problems with our history have been solved to my satisfaction, and my faith has endured.
Sharalyn D. Howcroft: No. Religious believers, particularly the Latter-day Saints, should embrace their history. One cannot understand Mormon doctrine without understanding the history.
Historical issues have tried my faith in the past, but when I really dug in and sought to understand them and took the time to research them deeply rather than having a knee-jerk reaction, it became apparent that my framework was inaccurate, and that I needed to expand my knowledge base.
Knowledge dissipates fear and brings personal power.
Robin Scott Jensen: When faith is based upon historical facts or assumptions, corrections to those facts or assumptions will reshape one’s faith. This is an age-old problem for people of faith. I think an important solution is to develop a more nuanced understanding of faith and the source of that faith.
If you could go back in time to observe any event or procure any document from Latter-day Saint history, what would would it be?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Well, as for documents, I suppose I would start at the beginning: the golden plates, the sword of Laban and the Liahona (they had writing appear on them so they’re documents too), the Anthon transcript, the lost pages of the Book of Mormon, the original dictation transcripts of the revelations, the correspondence between Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, the early Oliver Cowdery history, the missing initial pages of the Joseph Knight history,. . . and a whole lot of other stuff.
Videotape: the First Vision, Joseph Smith finding seer stones, a treasure dig, the angel Moroni visits (especially 1823 on the hill), exactly where and when the priesthood angels appeared (old-skool, I know), Joseph Smith locating the spot for the Zion temple, &c. &c.
Robin Scott Jensen: I would go back to the day that Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery (wife of Oliver Cowdery) burned her and her husband’s papers and try to convince her otherwise. I would go into the past and talk to people whose papers don’t survive and better understand their experiences in and motivations for engaging (or disengaging) with the church.
Sharalyn D. Howcroft: I’m an archivist by training, so I immediately gravitate toward the records.
- The bushel basket of Joseph Smith records that Emma Smith refused to give to William Clayton post-martyrdom
- The contents of Joseph Smith’s secretary (writing desk)
- Emma Smith’s papers
- The papers of all of Joseph Smith’s agents
- The records of law firms he employed as his legal counsel
- The Missouri court records from Mormon inhabited counties that were burned during the Civil War
- The records of all Smith court cases in their entirety
- The complete corpus of all his correspondence
- Every note, page, and inscription incorporated into Lucy Mack Smith’s history
- The complete corpus of the Nauvoo Mayor’s Court
- The Nauvoo Municipal Court records.
Furthermore, I would love to observe every heavenly visitation JS had, the Kirtland temple dedication, and hear Joseph give the King Follett discourse and his several sermons to the Nauvoo Relief Society.
I would like to hear Mother Smith dictate her history to Martha Jane Coray and be in the court room to witness the trial of the accused assassins of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
Did you enjoy this interview?
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Foundational Texts of Mormonism resources
- Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Early Major Sources (Oxford University Press)
- Book Notice (BYU Studies)
- Foundational Texts of Mormonism Review (Reading Religion)
- A Closer Look at the Foundational Texts of Mormonism with Sharalyn D. Howcroft (LDS Perspectives)
- Revelations in Context: The Stories behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)