New Book Chronicles Divine Manifestations

Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820—1844, recently published by BYU Press and Deseret Book, brings together for the first time all the known contemporaneous documents relevant to six key events of the restoration of the gospel. The sheer number of documents presented is impressive. In one convenient volume, all 13 known accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision are given, 202 documents nail down the miraculously short time in which the Book of Mormon was translated, 70 accounts during the lifetimes of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery mention the restoration of the priesthood, 76 visionary experiences of Joseph Smith are documented, 6 eyewitness accounts describe the manifestations at the Kirtland Temple, and 121 first- or secondhand testimonies tell of seeing the mantle of Joseph Smith fall on Brigham Young on 8 August 1844.

“The plan of the book is to allow the documents, as much as possible, to stand for themselves,” writes John W. Welch in the introduction. “Contemporaneous documents are critical in getting close to these key events. Firsthand accounts uniquely convey the spirit of these important occasions. Eyewitness reports provide precious details that help modern readers construct a vivid image of what transpired.” Welch, the founder of FARMS and a professor of law at BYU, edited the volume with help from Erick B. Carlson.

Of greatest interest to FARMS readers will be the longest chapter in the book, on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (which now updates and supersedes a 1986 FARMS Preliminary Report entitled “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information”). An 18-page chronology details events from September 1827 (when Joseph obtained the plates) to March 1830 (when the Book of Mormon was printed). The documents themselves include accounts from scores of people, from the Smith and Whitmer families to newspaper reporters to Emma Smith’s hostile relatives. (Interestingly, even hostile accounts confirm that Joseph translated the book in a brief period of time and did not use source material.)

Edmund C. Briggs’s interview with Emma is representative of how informative and how fascinating these documents are:

When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him. (p. 129)

Each section in this volume includes an introductory essay accompanying the documents. The section on priesthood restoration, for example, opens with an essay by BYU associate professor of history Brian Q. Cannon, who discusses such topics as how Joseph’s and Oliver’s testimonies of John the Baptist’s visitation were used in missionary work, evidence suggesting that the Melchizedek Priesthood may have been restored in connection with the translation of the Book of Mormon (which models two levels of ordinations: one in 3 Nephi 11:22 and the other in 3 Nephi 18:37—38), and divergent conclusions regarding the timing of the appearance of Peter, James, and John.

Among the documents is a particularly powerful testimony from Oliver Cowdery. After a decade out of the church, Oliver and his family were reunited with the Saints when they arrived at a conference held near Council Bluffs, Iowa, on 21 October 1848. Addressing an audience of 2,000 people—the largest gathering of Saints he ever spoke to—Oliver stated:

The priesthood is here. I was present with Joseph when an holy angle from god came down from heaven and confered or restored the Aronic priesthood. And said at the same time that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the Melchesideck priesthood was confered by the holy angles of god—this was the more necessary in order that by which we then confirmed on each other by the will and commandment of god. This priesthood is also to remain upon the earth until, the Last remnant of time. (p. 244)

As with all other documents in the collection, this one is reproduced as it was originally recorded. In addition, each document is accompanied by an endnote that offers complete bibliographic information on the source (in this case the journal of Reuben Miller, which is housed in the Family and Church History Department Archives). A concluding bibliography provides details on articles published in BYU Studies relating to many important events in early church history.

The authors of the chapters in Opening the Heavens are Dean C. Jessee, James B. Allen, John W. Welch, Brian Q. Cannon (with the BYU Studies staff), Alexander L. Baugh, Steven C. Harper, and Lynne Watkins Jorgensen. By compiling, transcribing, and carefully annotating hundreds of important documents, the authors and editors have produced a rare volume that will prove invaluable for many years to come to both general readers and scholars.