Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mormonism at the New York State History Conference

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is everywhere.  If there is a conference devoted to American history going on somewhere, there is also a good chance that we will be there, in one form or another, to cover some of it.  Last weekend Elizabeth Covart was at the Annual Meeting on New York State History in Poughkeepsie and has registered this report from a session on Mormonism.

Liz, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, has been doing some very innovative work at the intersection of American history, digital history, public history, social media, and platform building.  I highly recommend her website.  She is no stranger to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also recall that she did some writing for us at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association.  --JF

Here is her post:

On Friday, June 13, 2014, Gerrit Dirkmaat (Joseph Smith Papers Project) and Michael Hubbard MacKay (Brigham Young University) presented “Mormonism and the Empire State,” a panel at the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History. Together these scholars analyzed Joseph Smith’s interaction with the scholarly and print culture of 1830s New York to demonstrate the connection Mormonism has with the state.

Michael Hubbard MacKay argued that Mormonism was “ensconced” in New York culture because Joseph Smith connected the religion with the state’s scholarly community. The Mormon tradition holds that in 1823, an angel visited Smith and directed him to a stone box buried on a hill near his Manchester, New York home. Inside the box, Smith found golden plates. The plates contained many cuneiform-looking characters. As the angel instructed Smith not to show the tablets to anyone, Smith kept the plates hidden and transcribed their symbols on to paper.

The symbols on the golden plates formed the basis of the Book of Mormon. However, neither Smith nor anyone else could understand what the Book of Mormon said until they deciphered the characters. Smith sought translational assistance from scholars around New York State.

A letter from Joseph Knight Sr. shows that Smith wanted a learned man to translate the symbols from the plates. Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, confirms this idea when she wrote that her son transcribed the “characters Alphabetically and sen[t] them to all the learned men that he could find and ask[ed] them for the translation of the same.” Smith worked with his friend and follower Martin Harris of Palmyra, New York to find a scholar who could help them.

As one of the richest men in Palmyra, Martin Harris had connections. Harris made use of his personal network to connect Smith with Luther Bradish, a scholar in Albany who had an interest in the Egyptian language. Smith traveled to Albany via the Erie Canal, but Bradish could not help him with a translation.

Harris and Smith contacted other scholars around the Empire State, but no one could make sense of the cuneiform-looking characters. Eventually the symbols made their way to Charles Anthony at Columbia University who said “I cannot translate it.” Anthony’s response prompted Smith to embrace the task of translating the characters himself.

Over sixty-seven days, Smith dictated the 588 pages of text that comprise the Book of Mormon. Smith translated the characters with seer stones that he had placed in the bottom of his hat. The darkness provided by the hat allowed Smith to see the words the seer stones showed him. MacKay stated that the act of translation imbued Smith with priestly power.

MacKay argued that Joseph Smith’s attempts to have a scholar translate the symbols on the golden tablets demonstrates the importance of education and learnedness to New York culture. Smith wanted a scholar to imbue his text with legitimacy by providing a translation. Smith reasoned that if a scholar could translate the characters then they would also link the Book of Mormon to an ancient culture. Only when the learned community failed to supply a translation did Smith undertake the challenge of deciphering the characters, which ultimately prompted Smith to fulfill his Isaiah-like prophecy.

Gerrit Dirkmaat continued MacKay’s story of the Book of Mormon’s connection with New York State. Dirkmaat connected the Book of Mormon with New York print and political culture by exploring Smith’s quest to find a printer to publish his translation.

Smith wanted to print his translation before someone altered his dictation. Martin Harris agreed to pay for the printing of the first 300 copies of the Book of Mormon. Smith and Harris approached Harris’ friend E.B. Grandin, printer of the Wayne Sentinel. Grandin refused. Dirkmaat believes that Grandin declined for two reasons: First, the cost for the editions stood near $5,000, equivalent to approximately $140,000 today. Grandin did not believe that the book would recoup its printing costs. Second, Grandin and Harris were friends. Grandin did not want to take his friend’s money. Unable to convince Grandin to reconsider, Harris and Smith approached the other Palmyra printer, Jonathan Hadley.

Jonathan Hadley printed the Palmyra Freeman, a newspaper that promulgated his anti-masonic viewpoints. Hadley refused to print the Book of Mormon because he believed the book espoused mysterious, superstitious, and strange rituals and beliefs—rituals and beliefs as strange and mysterious as those practiced by the Masons. Hadley printed a scathing article about Smith, his book, and beliefs. The article appeared in the August 11, 1829 edition of the Palmyra Freeman.

Rebuffed in Palmyra, Smith and Harris traveled to Rochester, New York. Smith and Harris attempted to get Thurlow Weed, printer of the Rochester Telegraph, to print their book. In 1845, Weed recounted his negotiations with them. Weed referred to Mormonism as a “delusion” and as a “mental disease.” He explained that “Harris mortgaged his Farm to raise the money required for the temporal support of the Prophet, and print of the ‘Book of Mormon.’” Weed refused the job, but for whatever reason he sent Smith and Harris across the street to the print shop of Elihu F. Marshall.

Smith and Harris found a willing partner in Marshall. Dirkmaat stated that although we cannot know why Marshall agreed to print their book, he suspects that it has to do with Marshall’s radical views on religion. Raised as a Quaker, Marshall had strong views that everyone should be able to hold whatever religious beliefs they liked.

Delighted that they had found a printer, Smith and Harris returned to Palmyra. For whatever reason, both men wanted the first copies of the Book of Mormon to be published in their hometown. Armed with the knowledge that Marshall would print their book, the two men approached E.B. Grandin a second time. Grandin relented and agreed to print it. Although Grandin had declined their first request because he did not want to take his friend’s money, he agreed on their second appeal because Harris was determined to print the book and someone else had agreed to take his money. Grandin accepted the job and profited between 33 to 55 percent per copy.

Dirkmaat concluded his presentation by situating the Book of Mormon in New York History. He posited that *Smith and Harris had a difficult time finding a printer to print the first copies of the Book of Mormon because they had sought to do it at the height of the anti-masonic movement. Jonathan Hadley and Thurlow Weed had refused to print the text based on their anti-masonic sentiments. E.B. Gradin had refused on the grounds of friendship, but relented when Elihu F. Marshall agreed to take his friend’s money.

One audience member asked Dirkmaat and MacKay how the culture of New York determined anything for Joseph Smith and Mormonism when Smith had lived in New York for just fourteen years. Both scholars replied that Smith had his divine visions while living in New York and that most of his converts and funding came from the state. They also pointed out that Joseph Smith had acknowledged the importance of the state. Smith admitted that the culture of the ‘burned over district’ had prompted him to ask the questions about faith that led to his angelic visitation and his discovery of the golden tablets.

Thanks, Liz!