The 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.