10 questions with Christopher Blythe

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Christopher Blythe was researching 19th century dreams and visions when he stumbled across an unexpected find: a previously unrecorded revelation given to Brigham Young.

Blythe is a Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and author of the forthcoming book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse. He has a new article in BYU Studies Quarterly, “Brigham Young’s Newly Located February 1874 Revelation.”

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?

Sure. I am a scholar of American religion with a specialty in Latter-day Saint history and folklore. I received my PhD in American Religious History from Florida State University in 2015 and before that had received a master’s degree in History from Utah State University and bachelor’s degrees in Religion from Utah State University and Anthropology from Texas A&M University.

I worked as a historian/documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers for a few years and now I am a Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. I am also the co-editor for the Journal of Mormon History. My first book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse, will be out in the summer of 2020 from Oxford University Press.

How did your understanding of Joseph Smith change during your time as a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers?

My thoughts on Joseph Smith as a prophet and visionary are much the same as they have been from when I first read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith as a teenager. I’m enthralled and moved by Joseph’s vision for mankind and his theology of the divine.

As a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, I became acquainted with Joseph not only as a prophetic figure but as a political leader and businessman as well.

I was surprised to learn just how involved he was in real estate, local politics, and business. This can be disorienting for someone who is only aware of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry, but, for Joseph, this was all wrapped up in his vision of building the Kingdom of God on earth.

What are two or three breathtaking documents you have personally handled in the Church History Library archives?

As a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers, we would check typescripts against the original manuscript, so I have had the opportunity to work with many documents that were handled by Joseph Smith and other early church leaders.

I have a special place in my heart for a little booklet from 1840 that Wilford Woodruff used to record Joseph Smith’s teachings. He included revelations that weren’t yet canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants and in a few instances, notes about more private interactions with the prophet.

Wilford Woodruff’s book of revelations. Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The document was re-discovered in the past several years in the Church’s holdings and was made available digitally about two years ago. It includes esoteric beliefs—speculative ideas—that Joseph would never discuss publicly, but which he felt comfortable discussing with his closest friends.

Another document that I contextualized for Joseph Smith Papers Documents Vol. 7 that I find fascinating is Joseph Smith’s December 1840 letter to the Twelve Apostles who were then on a mission in England.

This is an incredible letter where Smith relays news from Nauvoo. In it he discussed the Saints’ intention to build a temple and explained the new practice of baptism for the dead.

It’s a particularly unique document in the collection. It was recorded on a bifolium which is a single page folded into two leaves or four pages. When Robert B. Thompson, then acting as Joseph’s scribe, finished writing on the fourth page, he turned the paper sideways and began writing over the text. This is referred to as a crossed letter, a method that was used in the nineteenth century to conserve paper or save postage.

I could go on. There really are hundreds of incredible documents included in the Joseph Smith Papers. Many of these documents and soon all of these documents will be made available on the project’s website making them accessible to anyone with an interest in Smith, his life or teachings.

What led you to choose Florida State University for your PhD? What are a few of the most pressing issues in American Religious History today?

Florida State University is one of several well-respected programs in American religious history. There are also few Religion departments that have prioritized American religion like FSU. When I was deciding between programs, most had one faculty member specializing in American religion. In contrast, FSU had three (and now five) full-time professors devoted exclusively to religion in the United States.

I was particularly excited to work with my advisor, John Corrigan, a prolific scholar who has written extensively on religion and emotion and religious intolerance.

As for the more pressing issues, I think matters of race have moved to the center of conversations on religious studies in the United States.  

There is also extensive work being done on the role of scripture in American churches, what is termed “scripturalization” – how texts or ideas become sacralized within a community.

Since the 1990s, and at the center of my own research, is an ongoing effort to bring out the lived experience of ordinary believers.

Religious intolerance remains a crucial discussion in American religious history as well.

Increasingly we have Latter-day Saint scholars and Latter-day Saint subjects integrated into these wider studies, whether it be race, scripture, or religious prejudice.

What do you do at the Maxwell Institute?

I am a research associate generously funded by the Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. It’s a visiting position—I’ve been here just over a year and will likely be here for another two.

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The institute is on a mission to nurture scholars and their research; which is to say, I have the amazing opportunity to devote myself fully to research and writing.

I was specifically brought on at the Maxwell Institute to write a book on the cultural history of Book of Mormon geography. The book will look at how Latter-day Saints have speculated about the setting of the Book of Mormon and why different theories have been more or less influential at different times in LDS history.

We are a community of scholars, so we meet up a few times each week to collaborate and discuss our individual projects.

You wrote a review of Daniel Stone’s biography of William Bickerton that won the Mormon History Association’s Best Biography award in 2019. Would you tell us a little bit about what makes this book so fascinating and share a few thoughts about Stone as a historian?

I found William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet fascinating.

We have  known so little about the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) and Stone’s biography responded to that gap.  As a result we know more about how the early church  differed from other nineteenth century Restoration groups—their unique liturgical practices and beliefs.

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Stone’s biography really highlights the history of the nineteenth century Bickertonites through the life of William Bickerton and, in that way, the book is a less traditional biography.

And that’s great.

Scholars have often assumed the Bickertonites were heirs to the church that Sidney Rigdon founded in 1845 – in truth, it was much more complex. After Bickerton was baptized into Rigdon’s denomination, he later joined and later separated from the church led by Brigham Young. He would eventually receive an independent revelation naming him the last defender of the restoration.

I am also intrigued by Bickertonite charismata, which Stone does a great job at highlighting,– it is the only community in the Latter-day Saint diaspora to  preserve the gift of tongues to the present.

And, of course, Daniel Stone is a wonderful new addition to the field of Latter Day Saint studies.

Stone is himself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) which offers us a new perspective and some much-needed diversity within our community of scholars.

Because of his insider knowledge of the Bickertonite tradition and his access to the faith’s archives, Stone has been able to access a wealth of previously unknown sources.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Stone’s next project will be. He has some great ideas, including a documentary study of Bickertonite sources.

Introduce your essay in BYU Studies Quarterly. How did you stumble across this revelation? 

The issue of “discovering” a document in the archives is complicated. Documents come to the Church History Library (CHL) through a donation, often through a descendant. One of the CHL’s archivists then catalogue the collection and provide key words that would help researchers find pertinent material.

So, I actually came across Thomas C. Haddon’s writings while I was researching nineteenth century dreams and visions. Haddon recorded two of his own dreams in addition to Young’s sermon and other materials on the United Order.

When I read this discourse, I was blown away.

A portion of the 1874 discourse given by Brigham Young and documented by Thomas C. Haddon which includes a rare dialogic revelation. Christopher Blythe found the documents while researching 19th century dreams and visions at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I knew a professed revelation from Young would be a valuable source, so I walked down the hall in the offices of the Joseph Smith Papers and visited my friend, Brett Dowdle, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Young and mid-century Utah. He also thought it was significant and looked it up in Richard Van Wagoner’s Complete Discourses of Brigham Young. which, it turns out, was not exactly complete.

Why was Brigham Young hesitant to place his revelations, visions, and dreams in writing?

First, I should say that it is surprising how often Brigham Young spoke about his own visions and dreams. On several occasions, he mentioned seeing apparitions (sometimes in dreams) of Joseph Smith. He publicly referred to his waking vision of the Salt Lake Temple before it was built – revealing where and how it should be built.

Brigham wasn’t much of a writer so he rarely wrote about his experiences — like Heber C. Kimball or Parley Pratt might have done. Although, his sermons were regularly featured in the Journal of Discourses. So, we have lots of transcribed dreams and visions from Young.

What we don’t have are many dialogic revelations. In fact, what became Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants is in many respects the only known revelation of any length.

Of course, people wanted revelations. James Strang, the most successful of the Twelve’s prophetic competitors coming out of the succession crisis, regularly brought forward new revelations.

So Young responded to his lack of dialogic revelations on numerous occasions. He explained that when a revelation was placed into the words of deity and the Saints were not abiding its precepts, they risked greater condemnation than if it was just given as encouragement from a church leader. He argued that the Saints should not expect new revelations when they hadn’t lived up to the “thus saith the Lord” revelations that Joseph Smith had received—including the law United Order which the revelation I published addresses.

Brigham Young, circa 1867-177. Credit: L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, BYU. This work is in the public domain in the United States and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Who was Thomas Christmas Haddon and what do we know about his recording of the revelation?

Thomas C. Haddon was a British convert who migrated to Utah in 1852. At that time, he would have been close to 40. According to his obituary, he spent five years working as Brigham Young’s gardener in Salt Lake City before moving south to Ephraim. He was a farmer and later in his life, a well-respected Sunday School teacher. He spent time in St. George in the 1870s working on the St. George Temple.

The revelation was included as a part of a sermon that Young preached on February 1, 1874.

We know very little about how Haddon recorded the sermon and revelation. What we do know is that the copy we have was not written until a year after the actual sermon. Which leads to the possibility that he reconstructed the whole thing by memory; however, that seems less likely given that portions of the sermon were included in another account of the sermon (that likely would not have been available to Haddon).

So, the most likely scenario, in my opinion, is that Haddon recorded notes at the time the sermon was given and later returned to clean them up at the time he cleaned up other documents he wanted to preserve. The other documents in his collection suggest that they are copies, so this would make sense.

Regarding the use of “Thus saith the Lord,” do we know if this was in the original sermon by Brigham Young or if it may have been added in after-the-fact by Haddon or another one of the local leaders?

Of course, this is a possibility. If this was the case, it would have been added by Thomas Haddon.

Haddon was very disappointed that the Saints had not devoted themselves more fully to Brigham Young’s vision of developing united orders throughout Utah. By recording a revelation, rather than just a sermon, he would have driven home the importance of this moment when Young urged the Saints to commit to the practice.

Other scriptural writings have gone through similar processes. But, I don’t think this is the case.

One of the reasons I think Young may have offered the revelation on this date in St. George was because the remainder of the sermon, as available in other sources, seems to be in the same vein of Haddon’s recorded revelation—it’s style and theme.  

“The Father says Come; the Son says Come; the Spirit and the Bride say Come; the servants of God say Come, enter into this Holy Order.”

This sort of bold language was itself an expression of revelation.

I also think it’s telling that six months later, he publicly gave a “Thus Saith the Lord” revelation in a similar sermon before the United Order in Lehi. But in that case, he addressed the revelation to himself rather than the Saints—the Lord commands Brigham to call on the Saints to live the United Order.

How often were Brigham Young’s sermons recorded outside of Salt Lake City and what do we know about some of the mechanics involved (e.g., who were the people that most often recorded them, were they recorded in shorthand, etc)?

One of my good friends at the Joseph Smith Papers, Brett Dowdle, as I said earlier, has an encyclopedic knowledge of Brigham Young. He was the first person to introduce me to the wealth of Brigham Young sermons that were given in local settings, documents that have, for the more part, escaped the attention of scholars (in fact, that hadn’t appeared in Richard S. Van Wagoner’s 5-volume Complete Discourses of Brigham Young.)

I brought this question to him. In his words,

“Brigham’s sermons were frequently recorded outside of Salt Lake City. In fact, there are many that can be found in diaries and local minute books that have never been published before—sometimes having been recorded in great detail by the local clerks.

I’m not entirely certain how many of these sermons were recorded by Church clerks and made their way into the broader public, but many of the local record keepers took notes on those sermons.

A quick glance through the Van Wagoner volumes shows how often some record was made of Brigham’s sermons outside of Salt Lake. Not as many of these sermons were published, and those that were are often shorter and less detailed than his sermons in Salt Lake, but this would suggest that someone was coming along with Brigham, taking notes, and then forwarding them onto the Deseret News. The local minute book reports of those sermons are often much more detailed than what appeared in the Deseret News.”

Does this revelation change anything about the way we understand Brigham Young’s approach to written revelations?

To me, the document shows that there is more to learn about Young and his prophetic ministry, despite the fact that he is one of the most-studied figures in Mormon studies. Scholars should delve into his revelatory experiences, even if they differ from those of Joseph Smith or were rarely canonized in the church’s scriptures.

By finding a written revelation ascribed to Brigham Young, it helped me to ask why we don’t find more such documents.

It also demonstrates just how important the subject of the law of consecration was to Brigham Young. The revelation contained powerful promises that if the Saints would “concentrate their labour, there time, and their means,” they would “get along with less labour, and less means, and become a great deal richer, and happier, and be enabled to do a great deal more good.”

If you could go back in time and observe any event from Brigham Young’s life, what would you most want to witness?

Young lived a fascinating life. He was one of the great American leaders of the nineteenth century. But if I could choose one event, I would like to watch him in September of 1827, when he and his wife, Miriam, stood outside their home in New York and watched what they believed was a heavenly manifestation.

They watched as soldiers marched through the sky.

Why solders? I don’t know, but it was a moment in which they both knew great things were in store for themselves and the young nation.

Heber C. Kimball watched elsewhere in New York and saw the same manifestation. Kimball came to believe it was the same night that Joseph Smith acquired the gold plates.

The implication was that Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball were also being prepared to help nurture the new church, even before it had officially been organized.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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4 Replies to “10 questions with Christopher Blythe”

  1. Chris, regarding your answer to Question 10:

    At JWHA, Joseph Johnstun presented reports of a rare but dramatic aurora borealis appearing 1827 September 25 that was reported as far south as Virginia.

    Joseph Johnstun, “‘For Signs and For Seasons’: Environmental Phenomena and the Early Saints,” 28 September 2019, Back to the Burned-Over District 200 Years Later, 1819-2019: Impact of the Second Great Awakening on the Restoration Movements, 47th Annual Conference of the John Whitmer Historical Association, Rochester/Palmyra, New York, 26-29 September 2019.

  2. Rachel,
    Thanks for posting that link. I’ve posted it as a hyperlink in the text. I’ll see if I can get permission to include an image as well. That’s an incredible booklet. No wonder Chris was in awe!

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