Book Review: The “Joseph Smith Papers – Documents Volume 4: April 1834 to September 1835”


Editors: Matthew C. Godfrey, Brenden W. Rensink, Alex D. Smith, Max H Parkin, and Alexander L. Baugh
Publisher: The Church Historians Press
Number of Pages: 668
Binding: Cloth
ISBN: 13:978-1-62972-174-3
Price: $54.95

I was on my LDS mission on Oklahoma City when I first began taking a very serious interest in trying to learn as much as possible about what Joseph Smith said and did. If I was going to go from door to door telling people that Joseph had obtained revelations and instructions directly from God and had used these instructions to start a church and change people’s lives, I wanted to know everything about him. To this end I purchased a copy of “The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” and began to devour it. I later obtained a copy of the full set of “The History of the Church” and started reading through that. One of my companions gave me a copy of Truman Madsen’s six talk tape set “Joseph Smith the Prophet” that had originally been delivered at a BYU education week in 1978 which I listened to so many times that I practically had them memorized.

Unfortunately, though the creators of these volumes (Joseph Fielding Smith, BH Roberts and many Church historians before him, and Truman Madsen and those who assisted in his research) had a great love for Joseph Smith and produced their works in all sincerity, their works all suffered from being based on documents that had experienced many layers of editing and well-meaning changes done by historians and Church leaders who were following accepted editing practices of their times.

While they all meant well, and did the best they could with the materials that they had available, their works could not ultimately provide their readers and listeners with a true, direct picture of Joseph Smith and what he said and did. The historians of the Joseph Smith Papers project are now trying to provide what previous authors and editors could not, and what I began searching for some 25 years ago.


Depiction of “Protecting Storm” during Zion’s Camp by C.C.A. Christensen

Documents Volume 4 includes 93 documents produced by or under the direction of Joseph Smith in the 17 month period from April 1834 to September 1835. According to the volume introduction, many of these documents focus on the interest Joseph Smith and the early Church members had in the “redemption of Zion” and the desire that they had to return to their sacred lands in Jackson County, Missouri. Along with an emphasis on redeeming Zion there are documents in this volume that are about “Zion’s Camp,” some that introduce new leadership positions such as the 12 apostles and the Seventies and their administrative duties to the early Church, papers of the blessings given to these newly called leaders that show the importance to Smith generally of providing formal priesthood and patriarchal blessings to Church members at that time, items that document the change of the Church’s name from the “Church of Christ” to “The Church of The Latter Day Saints,” and documents that discuss the importance of printing Smith’s revelations in what would become “The Doctrine and Covenants” (see p xvii).

The format of Volume 4 is the same as previous volumes in the series: it starts with a brief timeline and several maps. Next there is a volume introduction that provides context to the included documents by discussing important historical and doctrinal developments from the time period covered by the volume. The documents are then presented in four parts that vary in length but are around 100 pages each. After the main section of documents there are five appendices that include documents that may have been produced by or overseen by Smith but whose authorship/overseership cannot be proven. These items are 1) The “First Lecture on Faith,” 2) “Letter to the Saints Abroad, June 1835,” 3) “Statement on Marriage, circa August 1835,” 4) “Declaration on Government and Law, circa August 1835 [D&C 134],” and 5) blessings to several members of the Smith family. These appendices are followed by a more detailed chronology, a geographical directory, more maps, a biographical directory, organizational charts, works cited, a chart comparing various editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, and the index.

My brief description of Documents Volume 4 is that it is an essential book of history, filled with top notch scholarship, well written and informative introductions/historical essays, and documents of vital importance to understanding the developing thoughts and doctrines of Joseph Smith and the church that he founded. There are so many things about this volume and its documents that are important that I cannot highlight them all, so I will cover a few of the things in this volume that impressed me the most.

It is no secret that at one time all writings on history that were in any way connected to or endorsed by any agency of the LDS Church were required to be written in a “faith promoting” manner that showed “God’s hand in the Church” on every page of the text. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Church historians were excoriated by apostles Ezra Taft Benson and Boyd K. Packer for writing history that they felt was not faith promoting enough and that they believed improperly showed the human weaknesses of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders. The Church writings of the time had to be worded in such a way as to describe all of Joseph Smith’s actions and writings as being directed by God and could not intimate that Smith and other early Church leaders may have been influenced by their contemporaries and environments.

Leonard-ArringtonIt is a well-known point of history that objections about these issues by apostles such as Benson, Packer and a few others led to the release of Leonard Arrington as Church historian and to the transfer of his entire Church History staff from Church headquarters to the campus of BYU. That history, which is highlighted by the recent release of the biography “Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Church History” by Greg Prince, released by the University of Utah, makes the professional and scholarly tone of this current volume of the Joseph Smith papers all the more remarkable. Where once Church writers were required to write in a devotional tone and always in such a way as to always promote faith, this volume constantly conveys a scholarly and professional tone. Let me provide a few examples:

“71. As a part of his Bible revisions, JS added, changed, or clarified material in the Bible according to what *he believed* was God’s inspiration” (p. 17)

In the essay for “Declaration, 21 June 1834,” after describing the storm experienced by Zion’s Camp at Fishing River, a storm traditionally seen by the LDS Church as a direct intervention by God, the authors state, “Camp members *interpreted* the storm as providential” (p. 63).

Similarly, in the essay for “Revelation, 22 June 1834 [D&C 105]” after describing the cholera that was experienced by the camp (traditionally seen as a punishment from God for the camp members’ disobedience to God’s commands through Joseph Smith), the authors state, “The dispersal [of the camp] was hastened by an outbreak of cholera, which *some camp members interpreted* as punishment from God for their rebellious attitudes” (p. 72).

In the footnotes for the same document it states: “345. In February 1832, JS and Sidney Rigdon *reported* experiencing a vision of the afterlife” (p. 73). There was a time where saying that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon “reported” having the vision of the Degrees of Glory instead of saying Joseph and Sidney “did” have the vision could have cost an LDS historian his or her job.

In several places visitations to Joseph Smith and others, instead of just being described as “having happened,” are described as having happened “according to later accounts,” “according to a later JS history,” “A later JS history indicates that…” (see p 191, FN 404 on p. 196, FN 303 on p 408).

These are just a few examples of how Documents Volume 4 takes a scholarly tone instead of the traditional devotional tone found in/required in previous official LDS histories. Since the volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project are required to be reviewed by LDS general authorities before they are published, this book is a good sign of the new, more forthright direction that the LDS Church is taking in regards to its history and shows that this desire to take a more scholarly and forthcoming approach to LDS Church history is supported by leaders at the highest levels of the Church.


Image from the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants of the Section that would become the modern LDS D&C 107

Another important thing that Documents volume 4 does is it shows very clearly the developments and changes that took place in the revelations that became a part of the Doctrine and Covenants. There was a time where suggesting that there had been changes in Joseph Smith’s scriptures and revelations, or at least suggesting that the changes that had been made carried any real significance or importance, would not have been allowed. Past leaders taught that there were no changes in Joseph Smith’s revelations and books that suggested otherwise were banned from sale at Deseret Book. For example:

Parley P Pratt, speaking of how Joseph Smith received revelations for the Doctrine and Covenants said:

“After we had joined in prayer in his translating room, he dictated in our presence the following revelation: – (Each sentence was uttered slowly and very distinctly, and with a pause between each, sufficiently long for it to be recorded, by an ordinary writer, in long hand.

This was the manner in which all his written revelations were dictated and written. There was never any hesitation, reviewing, or reading back, in order to keep the run of the subject; *neither did any of these communications undergo revisions, interlinings, or corrections.* As he dictated them so they stood, so far as I have witnessed; and I was present to witness the dictation of several communications of several pages each.)” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, edited by his son, Parley P. Pratt [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985], 47-48).

Hugh B. Brown, while serving as a counselor in the First Presidency, wrote a letter in which he stated, “None of the early revelations of the Church have been revised, and the Doctrine and Covenants stands as printed.” (Brown, Hugh B. Letter to Morris L. Reynolds. 13 May 1966.) Around the time that Brown wrote this letter, Wilford Wood‘s book, “Joseph Smith Begins His Work,” was removed/banned from Deseret Book because it documented that changes in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants revelations had occurred. According to historian Joseph Geisner,

“Individuals were told the books were out of print when, in fact, the book was still in print and available to other stores. Those who inquired after the books were told that the Scriptures in their present format were identical in content” (review of “The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books, Facsimile Edition” Published in “Irreantum”, Orem, Utah, 12:1 (2010), 142 – 148).

In 1974, in the annual LDS General Conference, Elder Boyd K. Packer delivered an address on the theme of “We Believe All That God Has Revealed.” In this discourse, speaking on the Doctrine and Covenants, Packer said:

“Some have alleged that these books of revelation are false, and they place in evidence changes that have occurred in the texts of these scriptures since their original publication. …

“Of course there have been changes and corrections. Anyone who has done even limited research knows that. …

“Now, I add with emphasis that such changes have been basically minor refinements in grammar, expression, punctuation, clarification. Nothing fundamental has been altered.

“Why are they not spoken of over the pulpit? Simply because by comparison they are so insignificant, and unimportant as literally to be not worth talking about. After all, they have absolutely nothing to do with whether the books are true.” (Ensign, May, 1974 p. 93 or

Despite what these past LDS leaders said and taught, changes in content and meaning did take place in many of Joseph Smith’s revelations that eventually became a part of the Doctrine and Covenants. Documents Volume 4 highlights the changes to two of these revelations, LDS sections 107 and 27. For the revelation that became LDS section 107 these changes are documented in the footnotes. Footnote 515 states in part, “Here begins the portion of the instruction taken from a November 1831 revelation. Differences between the revelation as it was originally recorded in Revelation Book 1 and as it appears here are noted.” (p. 317). Following this there are 19 footnotes that document the change of, deletion of, and addition of everything from single words, to sentences, to whole paragraphs.

Of the changes/differences between the “Revelation Book 1” version of this revelation and the version that eventually appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants, the most important one that I can see, and definitely one that has an impact on current LDS teachings and doctrine, is that the original version had none of the language indicating that a Bishop, if he is not already a high priest, should be a literal descendant of Aaron the brother of Moses from the Old Testament (see pages 318-320, especially FN’s 519 and 524). The historical introduction to the revelation that became LDS section 27 states:

“The 1835 [Doctrine and Covenants] version…contains information not present in the earlier versions; in fact, less than one third of the 1835 text appears in the 1831 or 1833 texts. The additional information contains considerable detail about Jesus Christ one day partaking of sacramental wine with JS and various prophets and apostles from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Also included is material emphasizing the transmission of priesthood keys – or the authority to govern and lead the church-to JS by biblical prophets, apostles, and patriarchs” (p. 408)

The documentation to these two important sections of the Doctrine and Covenants alone makes Documents Volume 4 a very valuable book.

One thing that is particularly fascinating about Documents Volume 4 is that it demonstrates very clearly the impact that the Joseph Smith Papers Project is having on the LDS Church. “The United Order” is something that appears in the current LDS version of the Doctrine and Covenants and for a very long time the LDS Church has taught that Joseph Smith tried to institute “The United Order” during the early 1830’s. But the JSPP has made it clear that there was never any such thing as “The United Order” during the time of Joseph Smith. Rather Joseph Smith started “The United Firm” and the term “United Order” was introduced after the “United Firm” had failed. All of that history, what the name change means, and why it is important is a discussion for another essay, I will focus on the impact that this new knowledge is having on the current LDS Doctrine and Covenants. From 1981 to 2012 the introduction to LDS Section 104 read:

“Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, April 23, 1834, concerning the United Order, or the order of the Church for the benefit of the poor. HC 2:54–60. The occasion was that of a council meeting of the First Presidency and other high priests, in which the pressing temporal needs of the people had been given consideration. The United Order at Kirtland was to be temporarily dissolved and reorganized, and the properties as stewardships were to be divided among members of the order.”

The introduction to the 2013 LDS edition reads:

“Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, at or near Kirtland, Ohio, April 23, 1834, concerning the United Firm (see the headings to sections 78 and 82). The occasion was likely that of a council meeting of members of the United Firm, which discussed the pressing temporal needs of the Church. An earlier meeting of the firm on April 10 had resolved that the organization be dissolved. This revelation directs that the firm instead be reorganized; its properties were to be divided among members of the firm as their stewardships. Under Joseph Smith’s direction, the phrase “United Firm” was later replaced with “United Order” in the revelation.”

This updated LDS Section 104 introduction is essentially a one paragraph version of the three page Historical introduction to Section 104 in Documents Volume 4 that can be found on pages 19-22. When you read both versions of the Doctrine and Covenants section headings together along with the Documents Volume 4 Historical Introduction you can very quickly see the impact the JSPP has had and is having on LDS scripture, history, and thought.

There are many other documents in this volume that are fascinating and demand more study. I was fascinated by the inclusion of ledger documents from the Camp of Israel/”Zion’s Camp” that document individuals’ donations to “Zion’s Camp” and the disbursement of those funds. These documents help to show the involvement and sacrifice of the average Church member in/for “Zion’s Camp.” Many of these people would otherwise never pop up in an official Church history or document. For me seeing these names and having their contributions recognized made the history of the camp more real and personal (see pages 135-163).

R Orton etc

Ordination blessings of Roger Orton, JB Smith, and Harvey Stanley

Another fascinating set of documents details the accounts of the blessings/ordinations given to the men who were called to the Quorum of the 12 apostles and the original Quorum of 70. These men were given all sorts of interesting promises in these blessings. Some were told that they would “hear the voice of God,” others that they would bear testimony to the kings and nations of the Earth, they were told that they would see the wicked consumed, that they would give sight to the blind, cause the lame to walk, that they would be given power over the winds and the waves, that they would have power over wild beasts, that they would see the Lord return, at least three of these men were promised that they would live to an old age or have power over death but in actuality died at a young age (and active in the faith). It would make a very interesting study indeed if someone could take the accounts of these blessings and research these men’s lives and see what became of them and which promises came to pass, which ones did not, and how this affected these men’s lives and faith.

There were only two things about Documents Volume 4 that disappointed me. This volume (and the Documents series as a whole) contains a number of revelations and writings by Joseph Smith that ended up in the Doctrine and Covenants or relate to it. Because of this the Doctrine and Covenants is cited in a number of document headings and is cited in footnotes on a majority of the book’s pages. For example, here are the relevant headings in this volume: “Revelation, 23 April 1834 [D&C 104]” (p 19), “Revelation, 22 June 1834 [D&C 105]” (p. 69), “Revelation 25 November 1834 [D&C 106]” (p. 180), “Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107]” (p. 308), “Revelation, circa June 1835 [D&C 68]” (p. 354), “Revelation, circa August 1835 [D&C 27]” (p. 408), and “Declaration on Government and Law, circa August 1835 [D&C 134]” (p. 479). Here is a sampling of footnotes: “8. Revelation, 16-17 Dec 1833, in JSP, D3:393-396 [D&C 101:43-57, 67-74, 86-89]” (p. xviii), “7. Revelation, 11 Nov. 1831 B, in JSP, D2:135 [D&C107:82]” (p. 98), “See Revelation, 20 May 1831, in JSP, D1:316 [D&C 51:4]”; and “Revelation, 20 July 1831, in JSP, D2:5 [D&C57]” (p. 205), and “477. See Revelation, 24 Feb. 1834, in JSP, D3:460-461 [D&C 103:11, 16-17]” (p. 438). As you can see, every time that the Doctrine and Covenants is cited, it is *only* the LDS version of the Doctrine and Covenants that is cited, not once are the sections or verses from the Community of Christ edition of the Doctrine and Covenants given. There is the previously mentioned chart in the very back of the book, right after the “Works Cited” section, which gives the “Corresponding Section Numbers in Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants.” This chart does show how the LDS Doctrine and Covenants sections relate to the Community of Christ version (for example, LDS D&C 107 is Community of Christ D&C 104), but this chart is at the very back of the book, is hard to use, and does not give verses.

I fully realize that this volume, and the entire Joseph Smith papers Project, is being funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church is employing all of the scholars who are doing the editing of the volumes and all of the transcription, restoration, and preservation work on the documents. The LDS Church is the organization that is printing the books through its publishing arm “The Church Historians Press” and maintaining the website where images of all of the documents and transcriptions of the documents are made freely accessible to the public. The LDS Church is using a company that it ultimately owns, Deseret Book, to distribute the printed volumes. So yes, I get it, this is an *LDS project*, I fully understand that. But, that said, this is not the “LDS Papers Project,” this is the “JOSEPH SMITH Papers Project” and Joseph Smith does not belong to the LDS Church alone. Everyone with an interest in the Joseph Smith Restoration Movement, be they LDS, members of the Community of Christ, members of any of the other smaller denominations that connect back to Joseph Smith, or who believe in Joseph Smith but have no denomination, have a claim on Joseph Smith. The LDS Church may own the project, but they don’t own Joseph Smith.

Also, this project, and this volume, would not be possible in as a complete a form as it is, without the cooperation of the Community of Christ. The Community of Christ has opened their archives to the LDS Church and is allowing them to incorporate all of the Joseph Smith material that they own into the Joseph Smith papers project. For example, in this volume, the document titled “Letter to Emma Smith, 18 May 1834” that is described on pages 48-49 and printed on page 50, is owned by the Community of Christ. Given that this project would not be as complete as it is without the cooperation of the Community of Christ, and since this project *is* supposed to be about Joseph Smith and not just the LDS Church, I think that as a professional courtesy, and to make the volumes as user friendly to as many people as possible, it would be nice if the Church Historians Press/LDS Church could, in future volumes, find a way to include citations to the Community of Christ version of the Doctrine and Covenants in the text. I realize that this would take up space, it might necessitate using a smaller print/font in the footnotes and maybe a few more pages of text (which could cause a higher expense/volume price), but it would be nice if they could pull it off.


Published version of the minutes o the 3 May 1834 meeting that changed the name of the Church

The second thing that disappointed me relates to how the volume deals with the document titled “Minutes, 3 May, 1834.” This document deals with the change in the Church’s name from “The Church of Christ” to “The Church of the Latter Day Saints.” In the “Historical Introduction” for this document and its footnotes the editors of this volume outline that the name “The Church of Christ” came both from the Book of Mormon and an early revelation received by Joseph Smith (see footnote 202, p. 42). They state that “The minutes do not give the reason behind [the name] change, and few other records discuss it” before citing two articles from “The Evening and Morning Star” by Oliver Cowdery that say “that God ‘should call his people by a name which would distinguish them from all other people.’” The editors use this to put forth the idea that the change in the Church’s name was meant to distinguish the Church that Joseph Smith started from Alexander Campbell’s Church of Christ. They then cite Oliver Cowdery’s articles again to establish the importance of the name “Latter Day Saints” as it related to the idea of Christ’s imminent return, and then cite other earlier documents where the Church had used the term (see pages 42-43).

I’ll give them this, the editors’ logic in the Historical Introduction is certainly good, and quite frankly, they may well be correct in their explanation for why the Church’s name was changed. But they are leaving an important point of view out of the discussion. They acknowledge other possible reasons for the name change when they state, “*Whatever the reason* for the change, the term Latter Day Saints was not entirely new” (p. 43, italics in original). There *is* at least one more important opinion/explanation on why the Church changed its name from “Church of Christ” to “Church of the Latter Day Saints.” This other possible reason that Joseph Smith changed the name when he did was to avoid paying creditors to whom the Church was in debt. By May of 1834 the Church that had been started by Joseph Smith in upstate New York had already been through a lot. The Church had relocated its headquarters from New York to Ohio. They had started an ambitious building program that included print shops and a temple. Members of the Church had spent a lot of money on buying and improving lands in Jackson County only to be driven frrm those lands. Their expensive printing press had been destroyed. A store that they had funded and supplied in Jackson County had been lost. The United Firm had collapsed. The Church was about to attempt to fund an army that would be come to be called “Zion’s Camp.” All of this had cost, and would continue to cost, a lot of money. Even with many Church members being willing to donate what they could, the Church was deeply in debt and there was not enough money on hand to pay all of the debts and fund all of the buildings and programs that Joseph Smith had in mind.

In an article printed in 2013 in the “John Whitmer Historical Association Journal,” scholar H. Michael Marquardt outlines the Church’s debt, quotes this very 3 May 1834 document, pointing out that it changed the Church’s name *as well as* giving an alternate location from previous documents as to where the Church had been formally organized (previous documents listed Manchester, New York; this document lists Fayette, New York) and then states:

“The idea of breaking up the United Firm, changing the name of the church, and the April 6, 1830, location [of where the Church had been organized], functioned to steer creditors away from suing the church or firm members, if only for a short time. The use of pseudonyms in the 1835 D&C, including changing “United Firm” to “United Order,” (1835 D&C sections 93 and 98; LDS D&C 92 and 104), show the continued concern regarding debts after the firm was divided in 1834. The sections were said to be a “Revelation to Enoch” and a “Revelation given to Enoch” but were actually proclaimed by Smith.

Publishing that the church was “organized in the township of Fayette, Seneca county, New-York, on the 6th of April, A. D. 1830” created an elusive location for the April 6 [organization] meeting. This may have been done intentionally to throw creditors off. In fact, this seems evident since Manchester was still printed in church works after the 1835 D&C was printed.” (“Manchester as the Site of the Organization of the Church on April 6, 1830”, H. Michael Marquardt, Published in the “John Whitmer Historical Association Journal” 33:141-53).

I understand that the LDS Church and the scholars working for it consider Marquardt’s ideas to be controversial. I understand why they would not want to include his ideas in their book. But Marquardt’s article is well written and documented and his arguments and logic deserve to be addressed in a scholarly discussion of why the name of the Church was changed.

I realize that I just used the better part of two pages worth of text to outline two concerns that I had with this book. PLEASE do not misunderstand me. While I may have been long winded in outlining these two concerns, they are really quite minor ones. This book and the Joseph Smith Papers series are excellent. The scholarship is top notch and very thorough. The things that are being done and written by fine scholars and historians that produced this volume and the JSPP series could not have been done and would not have been allowed to be done by previous generations of LDS scholars and historians. It is *not* hyperbole to say that these volumes are “game changing” and are “must reads” for all serious scholars of the Joseph Smith Restoration Movement. The things that we thought we knew about Joseph Smith 20 years ago when I was listening to Truman Madsen and reading “The History of the Church” when I was in Oklahoma are now relics of the past. The Joseph Smith Papers project, though volumes like “Documents Volume 4,” is moving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the entire Joseph Smith Restoration movement into new directions and exciting territory as it pushes into the 21st century and beyond.

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s