Monday, October 15, 2007

Preliminary Look at Joseph Smith Manual

As has already been commented on, the next Priesthood/Relief Society LDS manual will be the life and teachings of Joseph Smith. In fact, it will be used the next two years. I can agree with a quote from the link that "this is a good book," but I disagree that, "this is the best manual to be released by correlation." Some things that will be mentioned are to be commended. Others, by the very nature of the manual's teaching style, are problematic. For the record, the problems don't have to do with its approach to history.

Each chapter in the book starts out with an historical event from the life of Joseph Smith. That is nothing new compared to the others that have been published. The difference is that, unlike the others where the lessons drive the life events, the life events introduce the lesson topics. In some ways the manual is as much a biography of the Prophet as it is gospel doctrine. Most of the chapters follow the same outline as "The Life and Ministry of Joseph Smith," an introductory chapter. There are some time jumping in the vignettes, but mostly they follow chronologically. Those who want an unvarnished "inoculation leaning" history are going to be disappointed. It is purely of a religious and mostly traditional viewpoint. The manual sums up the narrative focus:

Through Joseph Smith, the choice seer of the latter days, the doctrines and saving ordinances of the gospel were revealed, and the true Church of Jesus Christ was once again established on the earth. The testimonies of ancient and modern prophets join together to proclaim that Joseph Smith was the instrument through whom God restored the fullness of the gospel for the blessing of “the whole human family, from eternity to eternity.”4

Chapter 47: “Praise to the Man”: Latter-day Prophets Bear Witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 541–57

Considering the purpose of all the manuals as religious devotional material, such need for scholarly purity seems unwarranted. They have been for church doctrine and not history class.

There are some interesting historical highlights nonetheless. Probably the best addition to a church wide introduction is the explanation and use of source material. Unlike the person in the link (Tom), I wouldn't call it "transparency" as much as good professionalism. To be honest, it has the hallmark of someone familiar with Rough Stone Rolling as much as the new Joseph Smith papers project. It is too bad that the link at doesn't include the appendix, because it contains a fascinating look at how the (Documentary) History of the Church was compiled. None of that new to myself, but probably not to many members. It also reinforced for me the need for an updated version that reexamines and uses the original source material, including new notes. The last one to edit what we have now is B.H. Roberts who sometimes contributed myths about the material.

Probably the single most interesting detail is the almost repetitive comment about the First Vision. It clearly states:

"4. Joseph Smith—History 1:5, 7–13. On several occasions the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote or dictated detailed accounts of the First Vision. Quotations in this chapter are from the First Vision account first published in 1842 in “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, Mar. 15, 1842, pp. 726–28; Apr. 1, 1842, pp. 748–49; and later included in the Pearl of Great Price and published in the History of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 1–8. This is the official scriptural account. The Prophet Joseph Smith prepared this account in 1838 and 1839 with the help of his scribes."

“Chapter 1: The First Vision: The Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 26–35

This acknowledgement continues with a chapter entirely devoted to the Wentworth Letter, "It is an original account by Joseph Smith testifying of his sacred call from God, his visions, and his ministry and teachings. It recounts the rise and growth of the Church and the persecutions of the Saints." (“Chapter 38: The Wentworth Letter,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 435–47). By and large the letter has become a de-facto scriptural account of LDS Church history second only to the 6 volume History. There could be a time when the section in the Pearl of Great Price with the 13 Articles of Faith could be replaced with the entire letter.

Just one final note on a detail that was included that usually draws specific meanings. The time when Joseph Smith refused liquor during a painful leg operation has often been used as a lesson on the Word of Wisdom. Regardless, such a connection has been ignored and replaced with parent and child trust. The manual states, "Refusing liquor to dull the pain and relying only on his father’s reassuring embrace, Joseph bravely endured as the surgeon bored into and chipped away part of his leg bone." (“The Life and Ministry of Joseph Smith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), xxii–25). Again, this seems the influence of Rough Stone Rolling that ignores the same popular interpretation and focuses on character.

The largest problem is the text itself. Strangely, it is the combination of the relatively rich use of resources and its teaching method that hurts the overall reading material. Like all the Teaching of the Presidents manuals, the chapters are a patchwork of quoted sermons. What sets this apart from the others is the often short quotes that make reading it difficult. There are some longer paragraphs, but sometimes all that exists is a string of one or two sentences connected only by theme. A brief one sentence introductory sentence offset by italics often tries to make up for lack of context. Although this is partly because of the nature of the source material of Joseph Smith's sermons, that doesn't explain all the difficulty. Similar to the DHJS, this has reinforced my thoughts that there needs to be an updated Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that compiles more extensive source material.

In conclusion, there are two points that can be observed. The LDS Church Curriculum Development department is more open to tiny scholarly trends. This is mostly in relation to source use and citation, but does cross into a few historical treatments. What is not going away any time soon is the traditional devotional nature of what the LDS Church publishes. This is only natural. It is a religious institution trying to bring souls to Christ and not a scholarly research group looking for peer review.


Eric Nielson said...

Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the sincerity of your review of the new Joseph Smith manual. However, I think your comparisons to "Rough Stone Rolling" were off the mark.

At my first reading, it seems the new manual purposefully avoids any of the controversies of Joseph's life. They do mention plural marriage in the introduction (only to justify not addressing it in the lessons), but they only state that Joseph performed a number of such marriages...not that the majority were for his own wives.

In contrast, Bushman gives a fair treatment of the majority of Joseph's controversies. While he always ends with a faith-promoting take on them, at least he gives them an ostensibly thorough and unflinching review.

I wish the brethren trusted the members with a similar approach