Several months ago, BYU Studies and Deseret Book issued the second edition of what I consider one of the most significant works of Mormon scholarship now in print — one with which I hope many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will become familiar: “Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844” edited by John W. Welch (Deseret Book and BYU Studies, 2017).
I fully concur with the endorsement provided by noted historian Richard Lyman Bushman on its back cover: “‘Opening the Heavens’ allows readers to decide for themselves about certain key events of the Restoration. All the crucial documents are laid open for inspection with enough commentary to put them in context. For serious students of Latter-day Saint history, nothing could be more helpful — and more inspiring.”
“Opening the Heavens” conveniently gathers the vital historical texts regarding six divine manifestations, or sets of such manifestations, extending over the crucial formative history of the Restoration from 1820 to 1844. These are the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, the various visions received by the Prophet Joseph Smith, the magnificent bestowal of keys of authority at the Kirtland Temple and the transferal of Joseph Smith’s prophetic mantle to the president of the Quroum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young, on Aug. 8, 1844.
Since the first edition of “Opening the Heavens,” published in 2005, new documents have been added, and the footnotes now offer references to the official Joseph Smith Papers Project. In fact, the e-book version of this new edition features links to online resources, including images of the original documents and background information about them.
The six cases on which “Opening the Heavens” focuses are well-chosen, because as Welch, who edited the book, puts it in his introduction, “These events are the backbone of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If these visions, revelations, miracles and powers were, in fact, received as claimed, nothing surpasses the importance of knowing so.”
They are pivotal. They substantiate the founding claims of the Restoration in general, confirm the unique priesthood authority of the restored church in particular, and demonstrate that Brigham Young was the divinely designated successor to the Prophet Joseph Smith — which, of course, strongly suggests that those who have followed him as presidents of the LDS Church are likewise the proper, legitimate heirs to the Prophet’s legacy and authority.
In each case, accurate transcripts of the relevant documents are provided — as Welch indicates, they are “presented unvarnished, according to the established standards of documentary editing” — and, thereupon, reputable historians provide useful supplemental information and insight. As Welch explains, the plan of the book “is to allow the documents, as much as possible, to stand for themselves.” Moreover, he observes, “The impact of these documents is cumulative. As one reads account after account, the truth becomes clearer.” Having spent a great deal of time with them himself, he reports his own reaction: “I notice especially their honesty, integrity, consistency and forthrightness.”
“The value of these documents,” Welch remarks, “is immeasurable. In the history of world religions, no other body of foundational documentation rivals it for its immediacy and size. Think, for example, how few documents have survived from the time of Mohammed. And what would New Testament scholars give for a single letter from Mary or Martha about the raising of Lazarus? Or a diary entry by someone who was present when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River? Or a brief report from Peter to the Twelve about what he had just seen and heard on the Mount of Transfiguration? In the case of Joseph Smith and the key events of the Restoration, we enjoy, by comparison, an overwhelming abundance.”
I earnestly recommend that Latter-day Saints and others interested in the claims of Mormonism give “Opening the Heavens” careful attention. The historical record is not hostile to essential Latter-day Saint claims; rather, it strengthens and supports them. As Welch quite correctly says, this “may be one of the most important LDS Church history books you will ever read.” And, I would add, it could rank among the most persuasive and convincing.
I’ve compiled a basic list of “Books that can help to build or reinforce testimonies” at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2015/10/books-that-can-help-to-build-or-reinforce-testimonies.html. Only four books are listed — including “Opening the Heavens” — because I’ve deliberately tried to keep the list both general and very short. Obviously, more titles could be (and may yet be) added, and many good articles and books are available regarding specific questions.