SALT LAKE CITY — From the gold plates and the Book of Mormon to the Nauvoo Female Relief Society Leadership and Minute Book to several of the Prophet Joseph Smith's journals and letters, the collection of 13 essays in “Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources” (Oxford University Press, $74, 448 pages) utilizes insights from the Joseph Smith Papers and a focus on historical context to more fully understand foundational texts of Mormonism.
The book is edited by three scholars who work with the Joseph Smith Papers — a multivolume project to publish documents by or related to the Prophet Joseph Smith as the founding prophet and first president of the LDS Church. “Foundational Texts of Mormonism" editors are Mark Ashurst-McGee, the project’s senior review editor; Robin Jensen, project archivist and associate managing historian, and Sharalyn Howcroft, archivist and document specialist.
The Joseph Smith Papers are unique in the world of documentary editing because they appeal to scholars as well as the general membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the editors could have published “Foundational Texts of Mormonism” through the Church Historian's Press, they wanted to make a distinctive mark.
“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,” said Ashurst-McGee in a recent interview with "From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring." "We decided to shoot for the top.”
“Oxford has now a long history of Mormon publication,” Jensen added, “and it’s rewarding to see them take seriously an in-depth study of early Mormon texts.”
One reason the book is considered “in-depth” is the exhaustive focus on textual analysis made possible by insights from the Joseph Smith Papers project.
“Close textual scholarship occurred well before the Joseph Smith Papers,” Jensen said, “but the project has made more accessible new analysis and answers to the types of questions not previously asked. ... 'Foundational Texts of Mormonism' considers some of the most important early Mormon documents.”
These documents are considered foundational to Mormonism in two ways, the editors noted.
“First, we refer to Mormonism’s founding period,” the editors write in the book’s introduction. “Second, we mean those major sources that historians repeatedly use in their research when they study Joseph Smith and early Mormonism.”
The book looks not just at the historical sources, but also the context in which they were created.
“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,” Jensen said.
“We have no question that any historical document has a story to tell,” Jensen continued. “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.”
The combination of scholarly expertise and contextual vision made the search for essay contributors especially important, the editors said.
“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,” Howcroft said. “We had a lot of trust in the scholars and knew their capacity.”
“The combination of essays exceeded our expectations,” Howcroft added.
Those familiar with Mormon history will instantly recognize the names of several contributors.
Richard Bushman, well-known for his biography “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” opens the volume with an ambitious essay that views the gold plates as a foundational text of Mormonism.
Thomas Wayment, a BYU professor, examines the purposes of Joseph Smith’s new translation of the Bible and takes special care to consider the context in which the translation took place.
Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich looks at the early diaries of Wilford Woodruff.
Nine other scholars examine topics ranging from the textual culture of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society to a re-examination of Lucy Mack Smith's history.
The application of new research made available via the Joseph Smith Papers helps dig deeper into the sources, while the focus on context shakes off the dust and adds a vibrant sense of color.
All the while, the book is made appealing to both scholars and general members of the LDS Church.
“This is a scholarly volume,” said Howcroft, “but attendance at our recent book signing at Benchmark Books demonstrated the volume appeals to individuals who are not professionally trained historians but have a passion for Mormon history.”
“Mormons have an inherent interest in their history,” Jensen said, “and this book offers some of the best insight on some of the church’s most important documents.”
Kurt Manwaring is a freelance writer and contributor to the Deseret News. He is online at fromthedesk.org, and on Twitter at @fromthedesk_