BYU Studies Chronology of Joseph Smith’s life

April 18, 2008 | 25 comments
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If you’re not a subscriber to BYU Studies (why not?), make haste to the bookstore and pick up a copy of the latest edition. It’s a nearly 200-page chronology of Joseph Smith’s life (transcribing the chronology available online at josephsmith.byu.edu ). In the print version, events are color-coded by category as well as being listed by date.

To call this compilation “extremely useful” would be a vast understatement. Simply put, this is a tool that every member should have access to. The information has been available for some time online (in a relatively little known spot), but putting in in book form makes it much more accessible. You should pick extra copies up for your bishop, your father-in-law (*may not apply to John F. or Rosalynde), your home teaching companion. It’s gold. It’s very rare to see this combination of scholarship and information, on the one hand, with a presentation that is this accessible to everyday members. Kudos to the Joseph Smith Papers team for assembling the chronology, and to BYU Studies for publishing it. Very well done.

I do have a few quibbles, of course.

-The most egregious omission comes on the Works Cited page. Is there any good reason why Bushman is not on the list? It would be one thing if the works cited were all primary sources, but they’re not. Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma is on the list, as is B.H. Roberts Rise and Fall of Nauvoo. Those aren’t exactly primary source journals. Once the door is open to secondary sources, it defies reason not to cite to Bushman, who may be the leading Joseph Smith scholar of this generation.

-I also wondered about a few of the editorial choices, which were . . . interesting, at times.

Take polygamy. It is discussed, some. The chronology lists marriages to Louisa Beaman, Sarah Whitney, Eliza R. Snow, and the Lawrence and Partridge sisters (explicitly noting that the last marriages were performed with Emma’s approval and in her presence). However, more controversial marriages (like Helen Mar Kimball or Zina Huntington Jacobs) are not included.

Similarly, the Kirtland Bank account is oddly abbreviated. Important events like the denial of the bank charter are omitted entirely. (A copy of a bank note is included, so one can see, if one checks carefully, the “Anti-Banking Society” legend.)

What’s the result of this editorial approach? Well, the chronology is rather safe. You can give it to your bishop or your father-in-law without wondering if they’ll think you’re an apostate. It’s safe enough that it could end up with widespread use in ward settings, and that would be excellent.

So, what’s the verdict?

For the average member, this chronology is extremely helpful, and entirely positive. It’s a huge improvement over the tools most members have for understanding Joseph Smith’s life.

For someone who has read Bushman and Brodie and Newell and Avery — I’d give a slightly more mixed review. The chronology is still extremely helpful. It’s very useful to see information laid out chronologically, and it makes it easy to make connections that hadn’t fully clicked before. Unless you’ve got RSR committed to memory, the chronology will probably be a useful tool.

However, it will also be frustrating in places. I’m tempted to take out a pen and start adding a few entries here and there. I like it a lot, but I do have complaints.

They aren’t going to keep me from picking up copies for bishop, father-in-law, home teaching family . . .

(P.S. It’s available for purchase online — not cheap at $12 a pop, but not all that expensive, either — at http://byustudies.byu.edu/Products/MoreInfoPage/MoreInfo.aspx?ProdID=2105&Type=6 ).

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25 Responses to BYU Studies Chronology of Joseph Smith’s life

  1. Christopher on April 18, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks for the write-up, Kaimi. Regarding your first sentence’s parenthetical question:

    If you’re not a subscriber to BYU Studies (why not?)

    I think your post highlights for me why I’m debating whether or not to renew my subscription to BYUS. Your analysis os this particular issue is fairly representative, I think, of BYUS in general. To paraphrase you, “For the average member, [BYU Studies] is extremely helpful, and entirely positive. It’s a huge improvement over the tools most members have for understanding [Mormon Studies]. … For someone who has read [more academic treatments of Mormonism], … it will also be frustrating in places.”

    I estimate that roughly every third issue or so is a solid issue with more than one article that seems like a significant contribution to the field. It’s really hit or miss, with the other issues having perhaps one article that fits that description, and other issues that are almost completely void of anything really useful to scholars and students of Mormon history and culture.

  2. Chris on April 18, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks, and great observations.

  3. maria on April 18, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    “bishop, your father-in-law, your home teaching companion” — it would also make a great Mother’s Day gift. :)

  4. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Get it for the poetry.

  5. maria on April 18, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Thinly veiled feminist snark aside, I was very excited as I flipped through it last night. Very easy to read, great structure, etc., which will make it more accessible to regular (non-academic) readers. I kept thinking it would be great to use as a supplement in Relief Society as we study JS this year.

  6. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    I got my copy this week, and have only glanced through it. Looks useful, but have not delved in depth yet.

    I echo the mixed feelings about BYU Studies. Some of it is very good, and some of it just doesn’t catch fire with me. It’s about 50/50 over the last year from my perspective, but I will renew my subscription anyway after the next issue. Only $25 for a year.

  7. Jared T. on April 18, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    I second what Chris said. Given my choices and limits on resources I passed on BYUS the last time I bought subscriptions. Even so, this chronology looks very useful, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.

  8. Ann on April 18, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    The chronology neglects to mention that the marriages to the Partridge sisters were mere shows for Emma’s benefit, and that he had been married to them both secretly some time before.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Is the online version copyable, so that one can create a file with one’s own annotations? THAT would be very useful.

  10. Kaimi Wenger on April 18, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    You’re right as usual, Maria — it would be a great Mother’s Day gift. I was making asides about fathers-in-law mostly for John and Rosalynde’s benefit; but I’m very happy to hear about your plans to use the chron in Relief Society. It would be great to share with RS sisters.

    Just make sure you get permission from the sisters’ husbands, ahead of time. ;)

  11. Kaimi Wenger on April 18, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    That’s a good point, Christopher.

    One friend I know really didn’t like the chron. That person’s objection was basically, “it’s not scholarship.” And I think that’s correct, and a valid objection. If you’re expecting it to be pathbreaking scholarship, you’ll be disappointed. The sources are relatively elementary — mostly History of the Church with some additions from Ehat and Cook, Jessee’s _Personal Writings_, Faulring, etc.

    What the chron does do is put together a fair amount of basic but often misunderstood or overlooked information, in a very digestible and readable way. And since 95% of members don’t have that, it’s a huge plus. (How many times have you heard a comment in Sunday School wondering why the Nauvoo Legion didn’t fight back at Haun’s Mill?) This chron should be a good educational tool for general members.

    And frankly, even if you’ve already got RSR on the bookcase, it can be nice to have a quick cliff-notes version of the chron at your fingertips.

    The material is mixed. In particular, the “personal observations” category of entries is mixed — sometimes cute and endearing; sometimes, they seem out of place. And the omissions do bug me.

    Still, this is going to be extremely useful for most church members.

  12. gst on April 18, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Christopher, that’s what we call a “rhetorical question.”

  13. Bob on April 18, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Kaima, I agree with your write up, I do. But you used “most church members” three times. Unless this is in Spanish…….

  14. BHodges on April 18, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Well, I submit that the bloggernacle elite get together and create a supplement to the timeline including what was left out. That way, it can be printed and tucked in the front cover for reference, as well.

  15. Christopher on April 18, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    gst, and that’s what we call trying to hard to make every one of your comments funny.

  16. Left Field on April 19, 2008 at 9:07 am

    It would be interesting to do a detailed comparison with Conkling’s “A Joseph Smith Chronology,” published by Deseret Book in 1979. I have just a few observations based on a cursory comparison. Conkling’s book scores a big plus right of the bat by having an index. In general, it appears that Conkling has longer and more entries. He includes some events less directly related to JS, such as the birth of his brothers and sisters and the comings and goings of people associated with him. Conkling’s entries generally appear to be more detailed (sometimes several paragraphs) and he has a much longer list of references.

    With regard to plural marriage, as far as I could find, Conkling lists only Joseph’s marriages to Emma and Eliza Snow. Conkling gives a 17 July 1831 date for Joseph first teaching plural marriage, citing a Phelps letter to BY. Other references are listed at the end of the entry supporting 1831 as the year that plural marriage was first taught. The BYU Studies chronology does not have an entry for 17 July 1831

    In the 1 July 1841 entry, Conkling reports that BY, HCK, and JT, returned from their English mission and met with JS late into the night, with JS explaining the law of plural marriage. BYU Studies does not have an entry for this date.

    Conkling’s entry for 28 October 1842 reports that “About this time a 37-page pamphlet titled ‘An Israelite, and a Shepherd of Israel. An Extract from a Manuscript entitled The Peace Maker, or the Doctrines of the Millennium’ is published in Nauvoo by ‘J. Smith, printer.’ The pamphlet uses the scriptures to defend the practice of polygamy and is published about a month after John C. Bennett’s expose of Mormonism (with its lurid tales of ‘spiritual wifery’) has been published. The author of the pamphlet, Udney Hay Jacob, is a non-member. When there is a negative uproar about the contents of the pamphlet, Joseph Smith, on Dec. 1, 1842, denies that he knew the content of the pamphlet before publication, but defends the author’s right to publish his opinions.” BYU Studies does not have any entries in October 1842, and none for December 1.

  17. Left Field on April 19, 2008 at 9:31 am

    With regard to the Kirtland bank, Conkling includes the following entries:

    Nov. 2, 1836
    Several of the brethren meet in Kirtland and draw up the articles of the “Kirtland Safety Society,” with Sidney Rigdon as president and Joseph Smith as cashier. They dispatch Orson Hyde to Columbus, Ohio, to gain a banking charter from the legislature. They dispatch Oliver Cowdery to go to Philadephia to get printing plates for the printing of their banknotes.

    Jan. 1, 1837
    Oliver Cowdery returns to Kirtland with the printing plates he has purchased in Philadephia. At the same time, Orson Hyde returns from Columbus, Ohio, with the disappointing news that the bank charter has been rejected by the state legislature. Joseph records that the charter was denied “because we were ‘Mormons.’” However, at this time the antibanking wing of the Democratic Party as just won control of the state legislature, and those in power are turning down all bank applications.

    Jan. 2, 1837
    The Kirtland Safety Society meets and revises its articles. They decide to go ahead with the bank in spite of the lack of a legal charter from the state government, but they call it the “Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Bank-ing Company.” (CHC a:401)

    Several more Conklilng entries for January report events relating to the bank.

    BYU Studies has only the following entries for that period relating to the bank:

    About November 2, 1836
    Legal Events–Joseph Smith and other brethren drew up the articles of agreement for the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, a financial institution of the Church.

    January 6, 1837
    Legal Events–Joseph Smith gave instructions concerning the Kirtland Safety Society that were later published in the Church Periodical Messenger and Advocate.

  18. Ann on April 19, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    #13, Bob, Kaimi probably meant “most church members who self-identify as members and actually attend church.”

  19. SC Taysom on April 19, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    The price for the chronology itself is reasonable, but the BYU Bookstore’s shipping prices are not.

  20. Anon. on April 19, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    As noted above, the BYU Studies chronology leaves out a number of known and non-controversial events in the Prophets life. For example, Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young reported numerous meetings with Joseph that did not make it into the BYU Studies chronology. In addition, many events set forth in Joseph\’s journal own journal entries (as published by Dean Jessee) appear to be left out. These events help give the full picture of what Joseph was up to — especially, during the Nauvoo years.

    The chronology would have been much more useful if more of any effort had been made to make this a comprehensive reference. I don\’t know why this effort was not made. BYU Studies has published much larger issues in the past, so I have a hard time thinking that the limitation was due to concerns over the size of the volume.

    Rather than having one place to go for all known chronological information, serious students will still have to rely on their own notes in many cases.

  21. Nate Oman on April 21, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Christopher: I agree with you that the quality of the pieces in BYUS is rather hit or miss, but I would point out that is true of just about any academic journal that one reads. It is certainly true of the other Mormon studies journals. (For my money the one with the consistently best quality is probably JMH.)

    I am continually letting my subscriptions to BYUS and Dialogue and JMH lapse because I pick up an issue and think “this is safe and boring”; “this is repetitive axe grinding”; “this is belabored minutiae.” On the other hand, at the end of the day I keep renewing my subscriptions because there is always good stuff in the end. As one senior scholar once reminded me when I was complaining about the quality of stuff in a well-respected law journal, “The important thing to remember is that the vast majority of everything is crap.” I’m not quite that jaded, but it is worth remembering that there is no scholarly nirvana where everything that gets published is insightful, new, and relevant and where the dull, pedantic, or tendencious never makes it into print.

  22. n8.c on April 21, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Does anyone know the link for the web? “The information has been available for some time online (in a relatively little known spot)”

  23. Alfonso on April 21, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    I ordered a copy from the BYU Bookstore on Saturday and received an email this morning that the journal is temporarily out of stock and on back order.

  24. Kaimi Wenger on April 21, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    n8,

    It’s at http://josephsmith.byu.edu/ , but the page is poorly coded and can be hard to navigate.

  25. Robin Jensen on April 22, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Perhaps a point of clarification is in order. The chronology as published in the recent issue of BYU Studies is based on several different sources and databases, some of which came from staff-members working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. However the project staff did not offer any resources in finalizing this chronology, nor do they endorse it as a production (or co-production) of the Joseph Smith Papers. An accurate, scholarly, and comprehensive Joseph Smith chronology is in the works, but it is now only in its infancy.

    Robin Jensen
    Joseph Smith Papers

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