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First Impressions of the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations Volume

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 23, 2009

Everybody comments on the size of this volume; its weightiness, both physical and metaphorical, is inescapable. Other reviewers will do a more scholarly job of analyzing the contents. This is my idiosyncratic first impression of this beautiful book.

The left-hand side of every spread is a color photograph of a page from one of the two manuscript books used to record early revelations and commandments, with the right-hand side being a transcription of that manuscript page, line by line, each line of printed text breaking where the manuscript line breaks, insertions and overstrikes and erasures being marked on the text to mimic in type the handwritten page, as nearly as possible. The photographs are beautiful and clear, and I loved the detailed description in the forematter of how those photos were produced – the editors even tell us that the binding would not allow certain (identified) pages to lie flat, so archivists used small metal spatulas to hold the pages in place for photography (assuring us that no text was obscured in any case), then cloned color from the surrounding area to remove all visual trace of those spatulas.

This may be the first time that many readers have a chance to examine, even second hand, a primary manuscript from the 19th century. At some point, many will probably test themselves at trying to read a few lines of manuscript before looking at the printed “cheat sheet.” Depending on the chosen page, there will likely be some pride at how well the novice can read the unfamiliar handwriting, or – if the chosen page is one that is faded or particularly carelessly written – some marveling at the success of the volume editors in transcribing what seems an impossible mass of pale pen strokes.

I’ve transcribed tens of thousands of handwritten pages, although, I admit, in perhaps only two cases with anything remotely approaching the letter-by-letter care taken by the JSP editors, and never with the technological tools available to them. The revelations books are largely – not entirely – beautifully legible by the standards of some of the documents I’ve transcribed: in my first run-through, I didn’t notice any of the water-soaked, pencil-smeared, less-than-semi-literate handwriting and spelling of some of my documents. The writing is relatively dark, and relatively regular. Also, in many cases we know what to expect the manuscript to say, which can be a help to deciphering the text – although, as the JSP scholars have already demonstrated more than once, expectations can also be traps when they lead you to “see” something that isn’t really there.

My saying that “I’ve seen worse” is in no way intended to downplay the achievements of the editors of this volume. Quite the opposite. I’m only claiming enough experience to appreciate what they have done. And I’m only talking about completing the basic transcription – I have not the vaguest claim to understanding how they were able to determine the identity of the scribes who made minute alterations in the text, or some of their other stunning work.

Yet even someone who has not transcribed 19th century documents will likely be astonished when he compares the manuscript to the typescript. Even something as familiar as the sacrament prayers, which appear in fair copy in the revelation book (meaning they appear to have been copied by a scribe from a previous document – the scribe wasn’t taking down the words as they fell for the first time from the lips of Joseph Smith, in which case you’d expect lots of false starts and crossouts), involves some corrections and erasures and insertions. When you read manuscript for the content, your eye tends to glide right past those clerical stumbles – but not the JSP editors. Every mark, every tiny smear that indicates the erasure and rewriting of a single character, is duly noted on the transcription. This tends to make the transcription look even more complicated than the manuscript!

Any random page in this volume will illustrate a problem I’ve run across time after time after time when dealing with church members who don’t appreciate the raw materials of history: Good people are genuinely mystified by the multiplicity of books on a single event – how can there be so many different versions of what happened at Mountain Meadows? Why can’t all those authors just look up what happened and write it down? Why doesn’t everybody just tell the truth?

This volume illustrates how difficult it is even to establish the words that are right there on the page. When it requires the skill of so many experienced scholars, coupled with the tools of an advanced technology, just to get the words down right, how much more effort must it take to understand what those words are trying to record?

Echoing a salute once given by a grizzled Colorado miner to aging Civil War veterans aboard a passing train, I say, “Three cheers for the boys what did!” Congratulations, Messrs. Jensen, Woodford, and Harper.



29 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Ardis. I’m still waiting for mine to arrive in the mail.

    Any random page in this volume will illustrate a problem I’ve run across time after time after time when dealing with church members who don’t appreciate the raw materials of history: Good people are genuinely mystified by the multiplicity of books on a single event – how can there be so many different versions of what happened at Mountain Meadows? Why can’t all those authors just look up what happened and write it down? Why doesn’t everybody just tell the truth?

    I’ve had my share of experiences with this mentality. I once told a fellow BYU student that I worked for the JSPP and he looked at me and said, “What do you do, memorize the words of dead prophets?” The implication being that all the history’s been written and so all historians can do these days is just memorize. Jeff Cannon (who was also there) and I still laugh about that on occasion.

    Comment by David G. — September 23, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  2. Reminds you of that urban legend, doesn’t it, about the proposal to close the Patent Office in 1900 because everything that could be invented had been invented.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  3. Excellent. Thanks for the review, Ardis. Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to spend on a volume right now and because I no longer live in Utah, I probably won’t be seeing one until this winter.

    Comment by Christopher — September 23, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  4. This is a wonderfully insightful (and personal) review Ardis. You bring such an important perspective to this. I really enjoyed reading this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 23, 2009 @ 8:57 am

  5. I loved how you used the experience of perusing this volume to teach a lesson about the malleability of and difficulty associated with recording historical items. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — September 23, 2009 @ 9:02 am

  6. Also waiting on my pre-ordered copy. Amazon says mine won’t ship until October 2nd, which makes me wonder if — as with Journals Vol. 1 — the actual demand for the volume is significantly exceeding expectations.

    Great review, especially given your own background. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — September 23, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  7. David, you made me laugh. People say the same about mathematics. When I was a graduate student lo, those many years ago, and my father would proudly announce that I was a mathematician, people would retort that they had high school algebra too, or question: “Do you memorize those geometry proofs?” or “So when will you learn calculus?”
    The beauties of documentary editing may be lost on the unwashed, but I promise that the results of this effort will finally impact most everyone in the Church, and a lot who are not.

    Comment by WVS — September 23, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  8. Thank you, gentlemen. I know there will be many other reviews, and since this is outside of my time period or area of familiarity (I know little more about the Joseph Smith era than anyone else who attended seminary), I wanted to chime in early with the one facet I am, er, adequate to address.

    It’s a treasure, and I hope you at a distance get access to a copy soon. I picked mine up at Deseret Book — too impatient and transportion being too difficult to save $10 by going out to Benchmark and subscribing to the series through them (they’re offering a 10% discount on all volumes if you subscribe) — but DB had literally hundreds of copies stacked in mountains in at least four spots in their store. I think all copies are committed to various dealers, but I doubt that any truly significant share of the copies has been committed to individual buyers yet.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  9. Love this review, Ardis. I love the messiness and physicality of history work that you capture here. Most people think of history as a more passive endeavor than it is.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — September 23, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  10. All the way up to my mission, I never really understood the difficulties in figuring out “what really happened”. After all, school pretty much taught me you just look it up in a book.

    Funny thing is, now that I know a little more about how hard it really is, I find myself somewhat suspicious when a historian collects a bunch of facts and draws a “conclusion”. Not that I’m cynical about the historian, it’s just you never know what’s been missed.

    On the other hand, the lack of surety kind of makes history that much more interesting.

    Comment by Martin — September 23, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  11. I find myself somewhat suspicious when a historian collects a bunch of facts and draws a “conclusion”.

    Ha! That’s what keeps everybody asking new questions and looking at the sources again! I once tried to make the point (unsatisfactorily, judging by comments) that just because you had connected a lot of dots to make an historical conclusion with lots of supporting citations didn’t mean at all that the picture you had drawn was anything like what had actually happened in the past. And I agree with you — that’s what makes history interesting — and maddening.

    Thank you, Cynthia. The wrestling historians do with the sources is also part of what makes it interesting. A book like this one doesn’t reserve the wrestling for just the editors — it invites everybody in. I’ve never seen a book like this one in that regard.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  12. excellent, ardis.

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  13. I’ve been wavering back and forth about picking this one up, both due to cost, and wondering how often I would actually use it after a first reading. However, I am rethinking, and after reading your review, I’ve just about decided that my library will hardly be “adequate” without it.

    Comment by kevinf — September 23, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  14. I understand the hesitation, wondering how long I’ll be able to continue to buy the volumes, thinking that if I’m going to stop after four or five, I should probably just as well stop now. These aren’t books that I will use often, either. But I couldn’t resist. They certainly will do nothing to harm my library (we won’t talk about my budget), and I’ve wasted tons of money on individually cheaper but collectively far more expensive, less worthwhile books.

    Is that an adequate excuse?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

  15. I actually wavered back and forth on the first issue, wondering if I would really NEED the book, or could I just look at it at the Church History Library when I needed something. Money was a factor, also.

    When I finally decided that I probably wouldn’t have access to one when I needed it, and when I had the money to purchase one, I accually bought volume one and preordered (and paid for) this volume from Deseret Book. So, now I can go pick it up without shelling out the money, and feel like I’m getting a gift.

    I attended the sessions at MHA this spring and listened to the editors explain what went in to getting this volume ready, and how to use it. I have been anxiously awaiting it ever since. I appreciate your review, Ardis.

    Comment by Maurine — September 23, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  16. Thanks for the review Ardis. I don’t want to move too much beyond the scope of your post but I have a question. How do you utilize these volumes? I didn’t purchase the first one for myself but I bought it for my dad and he liked it but I don’t think he really read it. And I don’t see myself sitting down and reading these. I see the value as a reference but I have so many other books to get through. Did you sit down and read volume one or will do so with volume two? How do you maximize your experience with these books? Thanks in advance if have time to respond.

    Comment by Sanford — September 23, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

  17. I actually did sit down and read Vol 1, and found it a great experience, if somewhat challenging. Not quite the same reading experience as RSR, however. I’ve gone back and looked at it a few times since, trying to put certain events or individuals in context through the journals. I’m not an academic, so your mileage may vary.

    I’m still not sure about Vol 2. I don’t want it to just be a big impressive book on the shelf, never used, and the price is an issue. I think I need to look at one, and see what my reaction is. I do believe it is a great resource, but right now, my interest is in 1873 Arizona, and some personal family history.

    Comment by kevinf — September 23, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  18. I have not read either volume cover-to-cover, Sanford, and I doubt I ever would. That’s a major reason why these volumes are luxuries. Maybe, rather, they’re vanities — I can pretend they’re investments, or be able to talk about them with the few who actually *will* read them carefully, or look up and read for myself the pages that will be cited in future historical narratives by authors who draw on these records as sources. But I don’t desperately need them, either for personal or professional reasons. That’s probably true for you and virtually every other person who will ever see this review, too.

    As I’ve mentioned, the Joseph Smith era isn’t *my* era — I don’t pretend to know much beyond what any average active church member knows. If, however, these volumes were documents of the last half of the 19th century, I *would* read them, cover to cover. I would need to do that professionally since I claim to know more about the church in the Utah period than most other people do and I would need to thoroughly understand this newly available source. But in that case it would be a pleasure for me to read them that carefully, because they would illuminate events and ideas that I was already familiar with, and I would recognize connections and allusions that wouldn’t be obvious to most readers, and certainly they would give me new ideas to pursue. That reading would better qualify me to be a resource for my clients, and to find the materials for the books and papers I expect to write someday.

    Like your dad, I like these volumes — to a point. There’s something reassuring about knowing that the materials are available and that I can hold them and dip into them myself. But for me — and your dad, and virtually everyone else — they are like dictionaries or atlases or encyclopedia that sit on the shelf unopened most of the time, ready to help if and when they are needed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  19. I wish I could say I were more like kevinf, or the guys that you hear about who have read entire encyclopedias. But I’m not. Way to go, kevinf!

    I do think that if we were just starting the Doctrine and Covenants year in Sunday School, instead of just coming to the end of that book, I would certainly read the sections of JSP:R1 that matched the SS lessons. During the last Book of Mormon year I read the pertinent pages in my facsimile of the 1830 edition — it’s a very different, time-traveling experience to read scripture in the unversified, unfootnoted format that the first generation of Latter-day Saints knew. I’m sure it would be the same kind of experience reading those pages of this volume.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  20. Ardis,

    Your review taught me about the information that a manuscript contains beyond the script and how a scholar can wring meaning out of every mark, tiny smear, erasure and rewriting.

    I wonder about the historians of the future reading electronic prime sources of today. Will the absence of process in digital documents make their lives easier yet poorer?

    Comment by KLC — September 23, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  21. I got a call yesterday that the copy I pre-ordered at the local bookstore is in… I can’t wait until I can pick it up! Thanks for your review Ardis.

    Comment by Tracy M — September 23, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  22. mmm I love the smell of new books…

    Actually I have been trying to decide whether I should buy this or the New Mormon Studies CD-ROM (2009 Edition) which Signature is supposed to be releasing next month.

    I am desperate for both… although I think the CD will help me more with my research.

    Hi,

    My name is Jonathan Williams and I am a book addict…

    Comment by JonW — September 23, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  23. both of which are 100 buckish and I think my wife would not be impressed if I spent 200+ bucks in one month on books.

    Comment by JonW — September 23, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  24. Why can’t all those authors just look up what happened and write it down? Why doesn’t everybody just tell the truth?

    Excellent, and you implicitly answer the question in your overall review, which is written from a specific perspective with specific considerations in mind that someone else might entirely overlook. History keeps being written because it is written from different perspectives. Robin Jensen, for instance would be interested in the implications of the documents themselves being written the way they were, what that meant about the people involved, and so forth. Ardis has focused here briefly on the work involved in the transcribing. An economic historian might consider the revelations for entirely different questions. Why can’t they just tell the truth? Because the truth is such a mobile little being.

    Comment by BHodges — September 24, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  25. And of course you’ve struck on something I really care about: that is, helping latter-day saints better understand the nature of historical inquiry in general.

    Comment by BHodges — September 24, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  26. I once tried to make the point (unsatisfactorily, judging by comments) that just because you had connected a lot of dots to make an historical conclusion with lots of supporting citations didn’t mean at all that the picture you had drawn was anything like what had actually happened in the past.

    I’ve been reading up on this issue a lot over the past year and it has been remarkably fun.

    Comment by BHodges — September 24, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  27. […] Lots of commentary to the new JS Papers. I’ll not link to them all except to Ardis’ nice discussion. […]

    Pingback by Reflections on the Joseph Smith Papers : Mormon Metaphysics — September 24, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

  28. […] review of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project see Ardis E. Parshall, “First Impressions of the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations Volume,” keepapitchinin.org, 23 September 2009. The photo is by Jason Olson, “Original Book of […]

    Pingback by FAIR Blog » Blog Archive » “In their weakness, after the manner of their language” — October 25, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  29. […] which will perhaps be eventually seen as the jewel of the whole project, has received plenty of praise from the bloggernacle, and even from the wider blogger world. The volumes on Eliza Snow and the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » 2009 in Retrospect: A Glance at Important Books and Articles from the Last 12 Months — December 1, 2009 @ 6:43 am

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