Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Journey of a People, 1820-1844”

Journey of a peopleThe Journey of a People: The Era of Restoration, 1820 to 1844. By Mark A. Scherer. Independence, MO: Community of Christ Seminary Press, 2013. vii + 535. Acknowledgments, illustrations, footnotes, bibliographic essay, selected bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8309-1381-7. Hardcover with dustjacket. $30.00.

This book has been a long time coming. It has been underway for some 15 years and the author has been talking about it at conferences and elsewhere for more than a decade. It is a basic history of the first generation of the Mormon Church between the time at which Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) formed the church until his assassination in Illinois. It is a competent general history that will be of interest largely to members of the Community of Christ (CofC), an organization known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from the 1850s until 2000, an offshoot of the original Mormon Church. Written by the Community of Christ’s official historian, it presents a gentle, relatively priestly, and often faith-promoting account of the church’s early history.

Scherer is honest in his assessments, but he often soft-petals difficult issues. One of the most important was Joseph Smith Jr.’s “First Vision,” long a subject of considerable controversy. Some have suggested that Smith fabricated it in 1838 when he began dictating his history to provide a starting point for his prophetic career that would counter charges that he was nothing more than a treasure seeking charleton. Scherer recounts at least some of the controversy but then asserts a conclusion that ignores all of that in favor of CofC members dealing with it as “subject of introspection.” He offers only that it is “important to find in the First Vision the key elements of Restoration heritage that are useful today” (p. 66). Scherer suggests that rejection of creeds, God’s love for all, forgiveness and salvation, and the search for the divine represent the sum of what might be appropriately taken from this story. That is a result that essentially sidesteps the necessity of trying to deal with the historical reality. I find it strikingly unhelpful.

A second area considered is the whole issue of Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking and its relationship both to the Smith family and Mormon origins. In the case of The Journey of a People, Scherer discusses this difficult subject by casting it as a part of the cultural heritage of early America, linking the family to vernacular expressions of enchantment and the occult. While he expended 17 pages on explanations of the “First Vision” he only used seven pages to cover the treasure-seeking, money-digging aspects of Smith’s early career. His assessment: “Joseph Smith Jr.’s active seven-year career of treasure seeking built his reputation as one among many upstate New York scryers to be known for his skilled use of a seer stone” (p. 74). I would take issue with that assessment since it ignores his other soothsaying activities for the rest of his life, but more important it fails to offers anything more than warmed over apologetics offered over the years by Mormon historians.

Third, Scherer examined the origins and content of the Book of Mormon, a subject of critical debate from its publication in 1830. Was it an historical account of actual events in ancient America translated through “the gift and power of God,” as Joseph Smith claimed, or was it a product of Joseph Smith’s vivid imagination and not an actual history of any group of people who came from Palestine to America? This is a core challenge for all students of the early history of Mormonism. Scherer includes the story of the “First Vision,” the message of the angel Moroni, the recovery of “plates unto the likeness of gold” on which was written a spiritual history of ancient Americans, and the translation and publication and power of the Book of Mormon as a work of scripture. Using traditional scholarly tools, the author pieces together the story, raises the controversies, and tries to deal with this for a community of faith. He does a credible job with this task, but it is very much an apology for Joseph Smith. He calls into the question the Book of Mormon as an historical account, but firmly states it’s important as sacred scripture. I found his chapter on this subject more satisfactory than others in this book, in no small part because of all of the other work on this subject by other historians who have done the heavy lifting on its analysis. It will be a useful synthesis for members of the Community of Christ.

Fourth, Scherer takes a gingerly approach toward plural marriage and especially Joseph Smith Jr.’s role in its origination and practice. He notes the duplicity Smith registered in originating it while denying it publicly. He also trots out the standard Community of Christ position that Smith may have started the practice and that was wrong, but Smith “repented” of it before his death. He concluded: “Because of this aberrant marital practice the Latter Day Saint tradition would have to carry these events of the Restoration Era as their burden of history” (p. 409). This is not a very helpful analysis. It might be appropriate for the majority of the rank and file membership but in terms of explanation it fails to deal with Smith’s origins of this licentious practice, the behavior that it engendered, the subterfuge it promoted, the lies in responding to accusations, the pressuring of women into the practice, and perhaps worse. I expected more from Sherer in this arena.

Finally, I expected more from Scherer in dealing with the tyranny Smith always displayed. He does very little with the issue of Mormon militarism. There is no question, but that Smith embraced the use of military force to achieve ends that he believed appropriate for his followers. And he did so early in his career and repeatedly engaged in it, often and repeatedly taking a belligerent stance. The history of Joseph Smith and the LDS is that it mobilized armies and engaged in combat operations at least by 1833, did so with Zion’s Camp in 1834, and did so again with catastrophic results in Missouri in 1838. This culminated in Nauvoo with the establishment of a large and capable militia, the Nauvoo Legion, which terrified the non-Mormon population. This militarism supported a Mormon theocracy that emerged on the Illinois frontier. And Smith had plans to create his own theocratic state with himself in charge independent from the United States.

In the end The Journey of a People is at best a partially successful general history written for the church faithful. One has to look long and hard for a thesis anywhere in it. The book offers some useful perspectives and exposes Community of Christ members to issues poorly considered before, if at all. Scherer overemphasizes the positive attributes and deemphasizes the less savory attributes of Smith and the early Mormon movement. I’m not sure that this is enough to make this a useful work for anyone but the most elementary of church members.




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6 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Journey of a People, 1820-1844”

  1. I agree completely with your conclusion. Indeed an “apologetic” in the full sense of the word. As an employee of the church, that is what might be expected of Mark. As for what we should expect from the Seminary press, well, that is another matter. I doubt if we will ever get in depth analysis from those that have access to the most interesting archival material in either LDS or RLDS. What I’d like to see is the equivalent all these years later of the pioneering work by Richard Howard, Restoration Scriptures 1969/1995. To me, that is the bar to surpass. This work does not appear to be the equivalent leap from self imposed obscurity to a more open examination of the origins of the movement.


  2. Dan Campbell says:

    Again, the oft repeated assertion that the RLDS, now Community of Christ” is: “an offshoot of the original Mormon Church”. This is a debatable subject only among the uninformed. Legally the issue was settled long ago. A small point, that really doesn’t matter much, but non-the-less it is not a definitive fact. The Community of Christ has a very good claim to say that the LDS (Mormon) church, HQ in Utah, is an offshoot of the original Mormon Church. not the other way around as suggested. Again, a minor point that doesn’t change much of anything in today’s world.


    • launiusr says:

      I could call CofC a “successor” to the original Mormon church rather than an “offshoot.” But I don’t think that characterization is appropriate.


      • Dan Campbell says:

        Successor could apply to all factions, RLDS (Josephites), Mormons (Youngites), Strangites, Rigdonites, etc. The various factions have clashed legally a few times in the past with mixed rulings that lend to much dispute as to who is the “original” church founded by J Smith. The issue is nuanced to be sure. When it comes to doctrine, I would say the successor was the Young faction. But, the RLDS claim to being the “successor” or “original” for what ever that means, was decided in a court case some time ago in favor of the RLDS. I can find the case if given a little time. But, so what. The RLDS church lost the “Temple Lot” case, so how does that affect things? Who knows? In any event. Instead of referring to any of the factions that presented themselves post 1844 as “offshoots” why not simply say “one of the factions” and put them all on equal footing? I don’t think anyone could argue with that. Although with over 150 derivations of the Restoration Movement begun by Smith since 1844, you can always count on some sort of disagreement at all times.


  3. launiusr says:

    Fair enough. I think we are parsing words more than necessary here. This was a very important issue in the 19th century but not so much in the 21st.


    • Dan Campbell says:

      Agreed. It is of no importance now but back then they did clash over it. I looked up the wiki entry for it and here is what it says. Obviously, I had my facts a little off. According to this entry the matter did not reach a final court ruling on the matter in either case.

      As to Mark Scherer’s book. I have both books (this one and the 2nd book). Haven’t read either one yet but I did attend a workshop with Mark. Fascinating! As always I suspect that in person he reveals much more than he was able to put in the book. I look forward to reading it and considering it along with the many other historical works on this matter. Thank you for your frank review.

      Succession claims[edit]
      See also: Succession crisis (Latter Day Saints)
      Virtually every Latter Day Saint denomination claims to be the rightful successor to the original Church of Christ and claims Joseph Smith, Jr. as its founding prophet or first president. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,[43] Community of Christ,[44] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite),[45] Church of Christ (Temple Lot),[46] and Church of Christ with the Elijah Message[47] all claim to have been organized by Smith on 6 April 1830, the date on which the Church of Christ was organized. Other denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite),[48] acknowledge that their organizations were created after this date, but nevertheless claim to be a re-establishment of the original church.[citation needed]
      In an 1880 lawsuit, an Ohio court found that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church, since renamed “Community of Christ”) was the lawful successor to Smith’s original Church of Christ.[49] The court also explicitly held that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not the lawful successor because it “has materially and largely departed from the faith, doctrines, law, ordinances and usages of the said original Church”.[49] However, these holdings were only preliminary findings of fact based on the RLDS Church’s unopposed legal submissions; the court issued no final judgment on the matter because the case was dismissed.[50]
      In 1894, a federal United States court in Missouri held again that the RLDS Church was the lawful successor to the original church.[51] However, on appeal the entire case was dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit without any discussion by the court of the issue of legal succession.[52]


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