Review: Foundational Texts of Mormonism

Here’s the shortest review possible. If you’re even moderately interested in Church history or theology or even just in close reading of scripture you should get Foundational Texts of Mormonism. If it’s not already in your library, ask for it for Christmas.

I was supposed to have reviewed Foundational Texts in the spring. Unfortunately unexpected open heart surgery put me a little behind.[1] I really wanted to do this book justice, as it is a great book. If you’ve followed closely some of the topics there won’t be a lot new. However I suspect that you, like me, may have a few texts you’ve paid close attention to and other texts that you haven’t. What this book does so well is engage with each of the key texts of Mormon thought and history in a surprisingly short yet thorough fashion. Yes, you won’t get all the minutiae that you will from following all the debates in the various papers where they are found. You will get though an understanding of the key issues and more importantly a solid overview of the examples.

The things you expect to find in any analysis of key texts are here. Things like the Book of Mormon critical text, the issues in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, and so forth. What also is here though are surprisingly interesting analysis of the Relief Society minute book and Joseph’s Missouri prison letters. Analysis of the textual nature of such important texts like Joseph’s Nauvoo Journals, Wilford Woodruff’s journals, and the textual origins and nature of Lucy Mack Smith’s history are here. But so too are very important looks at Joseph’s post Missouri sermons and the place of images as foundational texts. In particular I think scholars are just now truly engaging with the place of image in Mormon though and particularly formal theologizing as well as folk theology.[2]

There’s so much in this book that it’s impossible to really mention them all. A few key things that really struck me. First off the history of the construction of Lucy Mack Smith’s history was fascinating. While I always had know there were textual questions about the final text, knowing the process of its construction really still surprised me. Howcroft does an amazing job here explaining not only how Lucy had practiced her narrative in numerous tellings long before the text was dictated, but that Martha Coray’s job as transcriptionist was far more than just recording Smith’s narrative. Martha Coray isn’t well known but was an extremely important figure in recording many works. Her husband Howard Coray was a key figure in producing a history out of a mass of letters and notes in Nauvoo. The role of these two in the text was surprisingly significant. This was not a simple dictation process. They appear to have suggested expansions to the text, presumably with Lucy Smith’s influence. The rough manuscript talks about where the “history should be augmented to form a usable narrative.” While 18 notebooks apparently were used in the process, only one is extant, limiting our knowledge somewhat. Howcroft goes through the textual questions of what came from where. Quoting her.

All of this confirms that Lucy’s history is the result of complex and somewhat unknown processes that historical sources do not explicate. The history was far from the result of a simple narration. …previous treatment of Lucy’s history and it text obscures this aspect of the manuscripts.

I’ll leave you somewhat hanging as to how Howcroft problematizes the text. This was by far my favorite chapter. It’s probably the best example of taking a well known text and showing its textual complexity.

The Book of Mormon unsurprisingly gets a lot of attention. If you’re not that familiar with the extensive textual analysis of the Book of Mormon by Skousen and others the past 30 years then this is a fantastic overview without going into too many details that some might find intimidating. Likewise Wayment’s chapter on the JST is a great overview of the issues there. Unfortunately Wayment appears to have written it prior to his recent work showing the extensive influence of Clarke’s Bible Commentary on the text of the JST starting with the New Testament translation.[3] That’s a major omission that keeps this book from being completely up to date on the latest scholarship.

Other interesting bits are the influence of Fox’s Book of Martyrs on the Missouri prison letters by Joseph Smith. Perhaps a somewhat small issue, it is one that contextualizes the letters in an interesting fashion. Likewise in the paper on the JST, some might be surprised to find that Moses 1 was originally a discrete text. Many have only read Moses 1 and Moses 2-3 together and assume what was stated in chapter 1 refers to what is in chapters 2 – 3. This most likely isn’t true at all.

Smith produced a document that promised to reveal a first-person conversation that took place between God and Moses. That document ended with a warning not to share its contents with anyone, and an assurance that further information regarding the conversation would be forthcoming. The promise of more information about Moses led Smith and his scribes to turn to the most obvious source for more information: the Bible.

How to take this theologically or textually isn’t quite clear. Is it Joseph trying to find out what Moses knew via the Bible by interrogating the Bible with a prophetic spirit? Or can one still try to embrace the more traditional reading seeing the creation accounts as the secrets of Moses, rather than as more post-exilic texts. (The questions of dating Genesis largely aren’t engaged with here)

About the only disappointing entry is Richard Bushman’s “The Gold Plates as Foundational Text.” It’s quite basic but probably important if this book is to function for non-member scholars who might not be as familiar with the context of the Book of Mormon. I was also surprised that the Documentary History of the Church, so oft quoted in 20th century writings and so textually problematic, didn’t get more attention. (Perhaps because it’s now seen as so deeply flawed that it’s not worth spending time upon)

While I have a mild historic interest in these things – history for history’s sake – my primary interest is more theological. Yet what’s so important for theology is the grounds of ones arguments. A significant weakness in much of 20th century theology was not questioning the nature of the texts theological thinkers appealed to. Typically these texts themselves have deep issues which affect how one can read or use them. While this was always known in some texts, like the History of the Church or Lucy Mack Smith’s History, with regard to common texts quoted in manuals there was always an assumption of the text being unquestionable. That’s unfortunate.

To return to my beginning, I can’t say enough about this book. This should be on nearly everyone’s book shelf. (Whether electronic or physical) It’s rare to find a book I’d call a must-read. This is one of those.

  1. Not just with reviewing this book but quite a few. I’ll hopefully be getting caught up over the next two weeks. So if you see a lot of reviews, my apologies. I just wanted to get them out in time for Christmas.
  2. An other great example of an analysis of the role of images is the discussion of how paintings of the translation of the Book of Mormon affected how people thought about the process. See for example Anthony Sweat’s “By the Gift and Power of Art” in From Darkness Unto Light for a particularly nuanced discussion of this.
  3. See the LDS Perspectives interview with Wayment on the issue of the Clarke Bible Commentary on the JST for more information.

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