This book is from the 2013 BYU Church History Symposium, held March 7–8, 2013. The Church History Symposium is a nearly annual (there apparently wasn’t one held in 2015) event that draws speakers from places such as Brigham Young University, other universities, the LDS Church History Department, and often LDS general authorities as well. The book contains many of the papers that were presented, but unfortunately there are a few missing, such as Steven C. Harper’s presentation on masonry. However, that and most of the other papers that were given (including all but one that is in the book) are available to view here, although the video presentations are generally abbreviated versions of what is in the book.
The conference spanned two days. The first day was held at BYU and the second was at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. I was only able to attend the first day, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this book. The keynote address was given by Richard L. Bushman, and it was very crowded, which left many of us without seats until after he was done (apparently there were many students that had come just to hear Bushman).
The preface of the book states that the theme for the conference came out of a professional development training trip taken by new faculty from the BYU departments of Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine to church history sites in Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo. As they visited these sites, they “were impressed as the extraordinary range of Joseph’s encounters with antiquity became increasingly apparent” (page xiii) and “deeper reflection upon these issues convinced us that there was an important, dynamic, and under-explored relationship between Joseph Smith’s personal interactions with ancient material and many of his unfolding revelations” (page xiv).
It also says that in the past, studies of this topic have tended to be either critics trying to prove plagiarism, or apologists showing parallels to things to which he couldn’t have had access. The presenters at this symposium “explored a critical and less dichotomous ‘middle ground’ as they offered a more complex, sophisticated, and nuanced treatment of early Mormon intellectual history than had been previously available” (page xvi). It is interesting to note that some of the scholars that have written things that fit into the apologist category referred to above were actually speakers at this conference.
Within the overall theme, the book is divided into seven different sections. “Prophets and the Study of Antiquity in Early America” has Richard Lyman Bushman discussing Joseph’s interest in Latin and Greek, Hebrew, and Egyptian, while David F. Holland compares Joseph Smith with his contemporaries Mary Baker Eddy and Ellen White. In “Early Mormon Interaction with Scholars and Scripts of Antiquity,” Richard E. Bennett and Michael Hubbard MacKay both discuss Martin Harris’s trip to have a transcription of the Book of Mormon characters examined.
“Joseph Smith’s Interest in the Ancient Americas” has Mark Alan Wright talking about physical objects such as the gold plates and related artifacts, the arrowhead purportedly found with the remains of Zelph, the ruins at Adam-Ondi-Ahman, the Kinderhook plates, etc. Wright refers to Don Bradley’s research given at the 2011 FAIR conference that shows a character on the Kinderhook plates that corresponds to a character in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (from the papers associated with the Book of Abraham), which appears to be the source of the cursory summary that was recorded by William Clayton.
Also in this section, Matthew Roper discusses Joseph Smith’s fascination with Central American ruins, fueled by the works of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood’s “drawings provided, for the first time, a conceivable real-world picture of what Nephite cities and monuments could have looked like. This influence can be seen in examples from the earliest portrayals of Book of Mormon scenes in the nineteenth century to those of contemporary Mormon artists” (page 146). Also, “these works provided interesting information on Central American history which [Joseph] felt corresponded with that in the Book of Mormon” (page 154).
The next section is on “Joseph Smith, The Bible, and Nineteenth-Century Biblical Scholarship.” Kent P. Jackson talks about the relationship of the Bible with the restoration, the Joseph Smith Translation, and the Bible commentary that frequently was part of his sermons. Nicholas J. Frederick then talks about “Joseph Smith’s Engagement with the Gospel of John,” including the translation of the parchment that is now in the Doctrine and Covenants, as well as its influence on things such as the King Follett Discourse. And Matthew Bowman addresses “Mormonism, Early Christianity, and the Quest for the True Religion in Antebellum America.”
Following is “Joseph Smith’s Study of Biblical Languages.” Matthew J. Grey talks about the study of Hebrew in Kirtland, and John W. Welch tackles Greek and Latin. Then, in “Joseph Smith and Ancient Texts,” Thomas A. Wayment discusses “Joseph Smith’s Developing Relationship with the Apocrypha” and Lincoln H. Blumell talks about Josephus. Kristian S. Heal then focuses on the early church fathers and their influence on early Mormonism. “…In almost every case, Joseph Smith is one step removed from the sources. Thus, the documents offer, at best, a reflection of the views held by Joseph Smith and his immediate circle. More properly, these sources give a clear picture of what Latter-day Saints were writing and reading concerning early Christianity and the early Church Fathers in their own publications during Joseph Smith’s lifetime” (page 408).
The last section is on “Joseph Smith and Nineteenth-Century Egyptology.” John Gee addresses “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt.” He gives us an overview of the state of Egyptology in Joseph’s time. He also discusses the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, concluding that “the majority of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers belongs to Phelps. So they cannot be used to reconstruct Joseph Smith’s knowledge of Egyptian, only that of W. W. Phelps” (page 441). Kerry Muhlestein gives us “Joseph Smith’s Biblical View of Egypt,” covering connections Joseph made between the papyri he obtained and the Bible, particularly tying them to Abraham and Joseph. The final paper is the only one without a video available for viewing. In it, Brian M. Hauglid gives us an overview of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and explores the connections they may have to Joseph’s and his colleagues’ interest in Egyptian and the Book of Abraham.
This collection of papers should be of interest to any student of early church history. It’s unfortunate that some of the conference presentations were left out of the book, but it does contain a worthwhile amount of information on many different topics by some of the best scholars of the respective subjects.