From “pulp tub” to online hub: Lucy Mack Smith manuscripts and the Joseph Smith Papers Project

06.19.2013 | Blair Hodges

In 1861, Brigham Young called on Latter-day Saints to light all copies of a certain book on fire. The book wasn’t an untoward novel or a scandalous exposé of Mormon practices. It wasn’t the inflammatory writing of a federal agent or a former polygamous wife. In fact, the book was dictated by Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the prophet Joseph Smith, during the 1840s, and was published by Mormon apostle Orson Pratt in 1853. In spite of Young’s regard for Lucy, he instructed George Q. Cannon to deliver any remaining copies “to the pulp tub of the paper makers.”1 Fortunately, a few original copies survived. A great scan is available online in BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library digital collections.

Readers today might wonder at Young’s opposition to the book, especially given its positive portrayal of Joseph Smith. The book’s popularity is manifested by the publication of multiple editions over the years. Like most stories from Mormon history, scholars disagree about the stakes, motives, and outcomes of these events; arguments sometimes hinge on the smallest of matters (like punctuation and spelling). Lucy’s text itself—especially its subsequent editing—raises many questions about the crafting of Mormon history. The FAIR Wiki addresses a few apologetic angles, but nothing beats direct engagement with Lucy’s actual text. It is likely that everyone can agree with Samuel Morris Brown’s description of Lucy’s book as “the best record of [the Smith] family history” available today.2

Lavina Fielding Anderson’s 2001 critical edition, Lucy’s Book, included transcripts of original manuscripts alongside the 1853 edition, plus comparisons to other editions. Anderson’s edition has become the go-to source for serious historians seeking a witness from the mother of the prophet. Unfortunately, the book is out of print (I’m calling for a new print edition!), but the good news is that Signature Books has made the full text available online.

And now there’s even more good news. This week, the Joseph Smith Papers Project announced that the two original manuscripts of Lucy’s record are available in their entirety online—a small part of the continuing democratization of primary-source access for Internet-connected Mormon history fans:

We look forward to accessing even more sources from the JSPP. Making such sources available is one of the best ways the Church has been encouraging Latter-day Saints to become better educated about Mormon history. Such availability portends a different sort of flame than was called for by Brigham Young back in 1861. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf emphasized in a recent General Conference address: “Education is not so much the filling of a bucket as the lighting of a fire.”

Footnotes:

1. John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 335. See also Gary J. Bergera, Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), chapter 11.

2. Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 22.