Essay on Sources Cited in Documents, Volume 1

A scarcity of contemporary sources makes analyzing the period covered in this first volume of the Documents series difficult for historians. While this volume contains a significant collection of contemporary sources—including JS revelations, minutes, JS correspondence, and other documents, such as those created through legal and ecclesiastical processes—many of the texts featured herein are copies of original documents and were not created contemporaneously. The majority of sources for this early period survive through later copies that appear in Revelation Book 1 (1831–1835), Revelation Book 2 (1832–1834), JS Letterbook 1 (1832–1835), and Minute Book 2 (1838–circa 1839, 1842, 1844). Many histories, reminiscences, and autobiographies of various figures in early Mormon history are also helpful in understanding this period.
JS’s revelations comprise the majority of the documents in this volume and are essential for understanding JS’s early history. The revelations embodied JS’s religious values, conveyed his sense of mission, and outlined his agenda for building Zion. Most of JS’s early initiatives grew out of the revelations. JS and his associates made painstaking efforts to record, preserve, publish, and disseminate his revelations and their content throughout his life. Early loose manuscripts and revelation manuscript books, early church periodicals and other newspapers, and the church’s published compilations of the revelations all preserve revelation texts of this early period. The first known attempt to officially compile the revelations occurred in the summer of 1830, as JS later recounted: “I began to arrange and copy the revelations which we had received from time to time; in which I was assisted by .” The product of that effort was apparently revised and copied, mainly by John Whitmer, into “A Book of Commandments and Revelations” (Revelation Book 1), which was begun in 1831 and later sent to , Missouri, as a source text for publishing the revelations. In early 1832, leaders in , Ohio, began copying revelations into Revelation Book 2.
Later that same year, , the church printer in , and others began to set type for the first printed compilation of revelations, to be called the Book of Commandments. Phelps also published some two dozen revelations in the church’s first newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, a monthly newspaper printed in from June 1832 to July 1833. Phelps had printed the first five sheets (160 pages) of the projected contents of the Book of Commandments and may have been working on the last when, in July 1833, opponents destroyed the Independence printing office. A few copies of printed sheets of the Book of Commandments were saved and bound, but the edition was never finished. A printing office was established shortly thereafter in , which continued printing the interrupted Star and which also later published an edited reprint of the entire run of the Star under the shortened title Evening and Morning Star. A second effort to publish a compilation of the revelations was completed in Kirtland in 1835, titled the Doctrine and Covenants. For more information on the revelations, see the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
To preserve letters and minutes of church meetings, official church clerks copied texts from loose sheets into more permanent record books. Beginning in 1832, clerks copied surviving letters, some dating as early as 1829, into JS’s Letterbook 1. Inscribed in 1838 (though likely from an earlier compilation), Minute Book 2 preserves copies of minutes of church meetings in , , and , the first dating June 1830. Both letterbooks and minute books contain source texts for this volume and provide important context for understanding JS and the early church.
A variety of other contemporary records help contextualize the featured texts. Correspondence and legal records were drawn upon when possible. Contemporary newspaper accounts provide some details not otherwise available and a useful non-Mormon perspective. , Ohio, newspaper editor lived close to the Mormon settlement in and saw some of his own family members join the new church. He compiled his observations and much written material into his 1834 publication, Mormonism Unvailed. Though Howe was clearly antagonistic toward the church, his firsthand experiences and observations provide information not found elsewhere. Similarly, after he left the church, wrote a series of negative letters about his brief experience as a Mormon which contain information about early (especially 1831) events not otherwise recorded.
JS’s historical narratives supply important contextual information concerning many of the documents featured in this volume. JS’s circa summer 1832 history is a six-page recital of early events up through 1829. For the next several years, JS and his scribes created several other histories, including a series of letters from to , published in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in 1834 and 1835, and ’s revision of JS’s diary entries, recast to read more like a history; both accounts are found in JS’s 1834–1836 history. The most complete composition is JS’s multivolume manuscript history, which was a scribal enterprise incorporating JS’s memory, institutional documents, and private papers and collections into a documentary history of JS and the church. The compilers of JS’s history often relied on the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants for the dates of revelations. When dates in that publication were in error, this led to misdating and incorrect sequencing of events in the history. (Others who evidently later relied on the history when dating their own narratives, such as , then unwittingly perpetuated the errors.) Because the early portion of the JS history incorporates JS’s personal account of events, it provides essential context for many documents herein. Even though it must be used with caution, the editors mined the history for a JS perspective not otherwise preserved. For more information on JS’s historical narratives, see the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Often, the only sources for a specific event in this volume’s time period are personal recollections and autobiographies written years after the fact. Notable among these is “The Book of John Whitmer,” an attempt by the official church historian to chronicle his own experiences, as well as those of JS and the church, in , , and . ’s manuscript, published in volume 2 of the Histories series, contains copies of revelations, letters, and petitions related to episodes in Missouri through 1838. Other early church members who created valuable personal histories include , who left several late reminiscent accounts, and , who authored several accounts of his experiences with JS and the early Church of Christ, one of which contains copies of JS letters not otherwise available. Often such reminiscences were based upon early documents, including what seems to be a daily diary in the case of . The 1844–1845 autobiography dictated by JS’s mother, , also supplies essential context.
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    JS History, vol. A-1, 50.