In this collection of primary sources, editor Dan Vogel offers readers the pleasures and frustrations that greet professional historians. Raw and uncensored, all the documents upon which a history of Mormon origins could be based are here, with strengths and weaknesses inherent in any eyewitness account. They are colorful and detailed, opinionated and inconsistent. In tone they range from ultra-devotional to antagonistic. Yet each also contributes an important piece to the overall puzzle.
Note the personal odyssey of Ezra Thayre (see below) which tells about the world view of that place and time. Yet what should readers make of Thayre’s claim that an angel taught him how to blow a trumpet? Similarly in Solomon Chamberlain’s frank admission that he did not know whether “some genie or good spirit” had led him to Palmyra, New York, should one read into this a literary metaphor or an actual belief in supernatural guidance?
In part, the value one places on a source is determined by the questions one hopes to have answered by it. If one wants to know how the public initially reacted to the Book of Mormon, then the Rochester Gem‘s light, gossipy report is welcome, though it is not a fair representation of the Book of Mormon’s contents.
Compare this to the more thoughtful work of Palmyra native Orsamus Turner. Though not a Mormon, he nevertheless strove to understand what effect Joseph Smith’s religiously divided parentage had on his life and church, a topic that remains of interest today. However, Turner cannot provide the details offered by those who were more intimately acquainted with the Smith family.
Nor should one expect to find a witness who is uncontaminated by his or her environment or by the tug of folklore. For example, it was reported that two pranksters one night convinced Calvin Stoddard�husband of Joseph Smith’s sister, Sophronia�that God was speaking to him from their hiding place near his door. No doubt this happened: that is, the jokesters probably played this trick. What is not known without corroboration is exactly how Stoddard responded, and there is thereby a high probability of embellishment.
People interpret “facts” according to prior expectations. For example, rumors that circulated among church members included the claim that “pyrotechnics” lit the sky when Joseph Smith removed the gold plates from the Hill Cumorah. These reminiscences�despite the fact that they were remembered years after the fact�describe everything from what seems to be shooting stars to one man’s memory of the literal armies of heaven marching across the firmament.
Therefore readers will find themselves making judgments along with the editor about which details are most valid, aided by Vogel’s comprehensive annotation. It is his hope that readers will consult the sources in tandem rather than in isolation, because only out of this collective pool of information can a reliable rconstruction of events be made.
Two short excerpts:
“When Hyrum Smith began to speak, every word touched me to the inmost soul. I thought every word was pointed to me. God punished me and riveted me to the spot. I could not help myself. The tears rolled down my cheeks. I was very proud and stubborn. There were many there who knew me, so I dare not look up. I sat until I recovered myself before I dare look up. They sung some hymns and that filled me with the Spirit. When Hyrum got through, he picked up a book and said, ‘Here is the Book of Mormon.’ I said, ‘Let me see it.’ I then opened the book, and I received a shock with such exquisite joy that no pen can write and no tongue can express. I shut the book and said, ‘What is the price of it?’ ‘Fourteen shillings’ was the reply. I said, ‘I’ll take the book.’ I opened it again, and I felt a double portion of the Spirit, that I did not know whether I was in the world or not. I felt as though I was truly in heaven.” �Ezra Thayre, reminiscence for 1830
“The incidents I am about to relate would not be worth repeating only as illustrative of the wild fanaticism, superstition, and credulity of persons upon whose veracity mainly depends the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. That such a book, replete with self-evident plagiarisms and humbuggery that sink it below the dignity of criticism, whould find tens of thousands of persons of ordinary intelligence throughout Christendom, who have accepted it as a revelation from God to man, is indeed a moral phenomenon unparalleled in the nineteenth century. In view of these things it is not strange that some daring iconoclast should go forth with his merciless sledge, breaking in fragments the shrines and idols that for thousands of years have struck with reverential awe the hearts of untold millions of men, and leading captive the human will.” �Stephen S. Harding, Palmyra native and later territorial governor of Utah, to Pomeroy Tucker, former Palmyra postmaster and editor of the Wayne Sentinel
Dan Vogel is a writer living in Westerville, Ohio. He is the author of Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon: Religious Solutions from Columbus to Joseph Smith, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism, and (editor) The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, and is a contributor to Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, and The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith. The Mormon History Association awarded Early Mormon Documents, Volume One the Best Documentary Book prize. He followed with Early Mormon Documents, Volume Two. He has also published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, the Journal of Mormon History, and elsewhere. His current series encompasses five volumes, all dealing with pre-1831 Mormon origins.