Latest Joseph Smith Papers Release Covers Highs and Lows of Kirtland Era
Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
Perhaps no volume of the Joseph Smith Papers conveys the highs and lows of the Prophet’s life better than does the latest. Thus reads the dust jacket of the new book, introduced May 15 at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City for a gathering of bloggers and other writers.
Titled Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838, it covers the eventful Kirtland, Ohio, period of Church history.
Specific topics include the completion of the house of the Lord (Kirtland Temple) and the attendant endowment of power; the forced migration of Church members from Clay County, Missouri; and the economic collapse in Kirtland and the resultant dissent.
It contains revelations, discourses, prayers, legal documents, personal letters, a map, and banknotes.
Noteworthy highlights are an essay on abolition and a study of the Egyptian language stemming from the acquisition of the Egyptian papyri by Joseph Smith that resulted in the book of Abraham, now part of the Pearl of Great Price.
Three of the book’s four volume editors—Brent M. Rogers, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, and Christian K. Heimburger—in turn shared insights from the book. (The fourth volume editor is Steven C Harper.) Each editor is a historian at the Church History Department.
Brother Rogers displayed a broadside containing the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple.
“It is a beautiful document in a number of ways in that it asks the house of the Lord in Kirtland be a place where the glory of God could rest down upon His children,” Brother Rogers said.
Some 1,000 men and women met in the Kirtland Temple on the March 27, 1836, day of dedication, where they heard the Prophet give the words printed on the page, he said.
He said Eliza R. Snow commented, “A sense of divine presence was realized by all present.”
In the week following there were other spiritual outpourings, including the appearance of the Savior, Moses, Elias, and Elijah to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery inside the temple, he said.
A document in the volume records the experience in which Elijah bestowed the keys that unlocked “a new and great divine work to begin,” Brother Rogers said.
“So the Kirtland Temple plays a central role in this volume, and its dedication is one of those signal moments,” he noted.
Another document he displayed was the Kirtland city plat of 1837. “It represents the continuing planning and building up of Kirtland as a place for the Saints,” he said. It shows that there was a long-term plan for Kirtland, though it is often forgotten, as trials and other things came upon the Saints in 1837 and with Joseph’s departure in 1838 to Missouri.
Sister Kuehn touched on the women highlighted in the new volume.
“Although this is by no means a women’s history of the Kirtland period, there are more women represented in the pages of Documents, Volume 5 than in any previously released volume” of the Joseph Smith Papers, she said.
Some of the highlights she mentioned were an 1836 letter to Henrietta Seixus, the wife of Hebrew instructor Joshua Seixus; a certificate for a marriage Joseph Smith performed; an 1836 letter Joseph wrote to his wife, Emma, from Salem, Massachusetts; and two letters Emma wrote to Joseph in the spring of 1837.
“Emma’s two letters are particularly striking for their focus on financial concerns, her attention to Joseph’s business affairs as they were souring in this moment of economic difficulty, and the needs of their family and the Church,” Sister Kuehn noted.
“One of her letters is our earliest indication that dissent is coming,” she said, quoting Emma as saying, “I have more faith than some.”
The letter, she said, has a poignant plea for Joseph to come home.
“Women’s voices and their perspectives informed our annotation for many documents,” Sister Kuehn said. “The representative accounts of Eliza R. Snow and Lucy Mack Smith figure prominently in discussions of the Kirtland Temple dedication.”
Women were directly and indirectly involved in financial transactions, such as deeds and powers of attorney, she added.
“The central theme is the financial records that this volume highlights,” she said. “In the fall of 1836, Joseph becomes actively involved in starting businesses and other financial ventures. This is a change both in his life and the documentary record for Documents, Volume 5. It’s one we worked to explain and contextualize for readers.”
Church leaders were focused on resolving debts incurred in building the temple and on how to build Kirtland as a stake of Zion and a gathering place for the Saints.
Joseph and Sidney Rigdon opened at least one store in the Kirtland area, purchased a sizable amount of land, and, in connection with other Church members, decided to establish a bank.
Initially called the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, it “is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of this Kirtland era of Church history,” Sister Kuehn said.
“It seems probable they were drawing on the same optimism and sense of economic prosperity that led thousands of individuals across the United States to speculate in land, cotton, and other markets, counting on their ability to repay the large amounts they borrowed on credit,” she said.
“While we often look back in hindsight and condemn the Kirtland Safety Society, there is no indication in 1836 that this would be one of the worst times to start a new bank.
“Nor was it as crazy or as foolish an endeavor as it has sometimes been portrayed. Banks allowed illiquid assets like land, the only real asset the Church had, to be used as collateral for loans.”
Unfortunately, 1837 was a year of financial disaster. A financial panic caused bank collapses and debts being unexpectedly called in, Sister Kuehn explained. That led to an economic depression that would take the country years to recover from.
By August 1837, the safety society, suffering from lack of support from the Mormon community and considerable opposition, failed.
“No single factor led to this demise,” Sister Kuehn said. “There were problems in financial organization; its credibility and solvency were questioned by the press, religious opponents, and even Church members.”
The safety society has often unfairly borne the brunt of blame for the Saints leaving Kirtland, she said. While it contributed to dissent in the Church and gave enemies a means to attack it, the bank did not singlehandedly destroy the Kirtland economy or cause Joseph to move to Missouri.
The most adverse consequence of the bank’s failure was the dissension and division it caused within the Church, Sister Kuehn said, including among its high leadership. Many denounced Joseph as a false prophet.
Brother Heimburger highlighted two letters, one featured in the Church newspaper of the period, and the other quoted in Joseph Smith’s journal of 1835–36. Both give a better sense of Joseph Smith the man, he said.
One letter Brother Heimburger highlighted was from Joseph to Oliver Cowdery, who was editor of Messenger and Advocate, in which he addressed the issue of slavery and abolitionism in Ohio. It offers “a glimpse into how Joseph Smith attempts to balance the contentious national issue with the needs of a burgeoning though often scorned religious movement,” Brother Heimburger explained. In the letter, the Prophet distances himself, and by extension the Church, from the tenets of abolitionism.
In later years, Joseph advocated more progressive views regarding slavery and ultimately called for emancipation as part of his platform as a candidate for U.S. president, Brother Heimburger noted.
Fragment of Egyptian papyrus. A portion of what modern Egyptologists refer to as the “Breathing Permit of Hôr,” this leaf of papyrus was part of a larger Egyptian collection that Joseph Smith and other investors purchased from traveling exhibitor Michael Chandler in the summer of 1835. This fragment is one of only a dozen that remain from the 1835 purchase. Photo courtesy Church History Library.
One-dollar note, Kirtland Safety Society. Photo courtesy of Church History Library.
Interior of the Kirtland Temple. This longitudinal section shows the first and second floors of the building, each of which had an assembly room or court with terraced pulpits on each end. Joseph Smith used the top left room on the third floor for an office; schools and priesthood officers met in other third-floor rooms. Photo courtesy of Church History Library, courtesy of Library of Congress.
Christian K. Heimburger, one of four volume editors for the latest Joseph Smith Papers release, Documents, Volume 5, speaks at a bloggers’ event to introduce the new release on May 15, 2017. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.