A Short History of Mormon Publishing: The Formative Period

2.10.10 | | 11 comments

The first of seven posts, following an introduction posted last week.

Effectively, Mormonism begins with the publication of a book.

The publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830 gave the nascent Church content and direction—content in the form of a tangible object that could be delivered to investigators, and direction in the form of a stated goal to preach the gospel to all the world.[1] Since religious and political tracts were already in widespread use in the U.S. (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, for example), early members and missionaries knew the power of the written word.

However, the publication of other LDS works was anything but certain. The Church membership was initially drawn from the so-called primitive gospel movement, a diverse group of independent efforts to return to the original, primitive, Christian faith. Like these efforts, early Church members were anticreedal: reacting to the conflicts among established churches by rejecting anything but the most fundamental principles gleaned from the scriptures.[2] As a result, anything that might be seen as a statement of doctrine outside of the scriptures, including books and tracts, was viewed with suspicion.

The Latter-day Saints, unlike these other “primitive gospel” groups, did accept other scripture, so publishing during the first four years of Mormonism was limited to new scripture (the Book of Mormon and Book of Commandments) and newspapers (The Evening and Morning Star, Upper Missouri Advertiser and Messenger and Advocate). The following year brought a hymnal, a volume of poetry (Pratt’s The Millennium) and the first tract—an account of how Parley P. Pratt was mistreated while trying to preach the gospel. But no doctrinal works or missionary tracts.

It wasn’t until after 1835 that Mormonism started to produce tracts for missionary work, along with administrative and creative works.[3] The publication of Parley P. Pratt’s highly successful A Voice of Warning in 1837 clearly demonstrated the value of these other works and opened a floodgate of pamphlets and books. Where Mormonism produced just a handful of works each year prior to 1840, starting that year output tripled.[4]

Once this barrier to doctrinal works had fallen, members and missionaries felt free to publish almost anything they wished. Many missionaries and enthusiastic converts wrote and published their own books and tracts and sometimes even their own periodicals, printing and selling them or soliciting donations to cover their expenses. This freedom led to the chaotic situation that Pratt described in his regulations (see last week’s Introduction for this description).While Pratt’s regulations didn’t specify it, the Church had experienced difficulties with some of those publishing in its name: Benjamin Winchester in Philadelphia, publisher of the Gospel Reflector newspaper, had proved hard to control and Pratt published his regulations after coming to New York to oust William Smith, the prophet’s younger brother, from running The Prophet. Even official actions were sometimes hard to coordinate, as when Brigham Young based the 1841 European edition of the Book of Mormon on the 2nd American edition (1837) instead of the 3rd edition (1840), about which he apparently was ignorant.

Pratt’s regulations specified for the first time that official Mormon publications would come from three places: Nauvoo (where John Taylor edited the Times and Seasons), New York (where Pratt operated the New York Prophet) and England (where Wilford Woodruff edited the Millennial Star).[5] However, this arrangement was short lived. In just a year both the Times and Seasons and The Prophet were shuttered as part of the migration to Utah. This left the Millennial Star as the principle LDS publication, and England as the official publishing center for the LDS Church.

Despite the regulations, publishing of Mormon materials still continued, at least among members who followed splinter groups or who chose to ignore Pratt’s regulation. Officially, outside of England, Mormon publishing was very quiet.


[1] Whittaker, David J., “Early Mormon Pamphleteering.” Journal of Mormon History 1977.

[2] Crawley, Peter, “Parley P. Pratt: Father of Mormon Pamphleteering.” Dialogue, 1982.

[3] Whittaker, David J., “The Web of Print: Toward a History of the Book in Early Mormon Culture.” Journal of Mormon History, 1997. The first known pamphlet, written by a Mr. Hyde, is only known through a reference in the first anti-Mormon book, Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unveiled (Painesville, Ohio, 1834). The earliest extant tract is Orson Hyde’s A Prophetic Warning to All the Churches of Every Sect and Denomination (1836).

[4] Outside of scriptures and periodicals (and materials reprinted from them) Mormonism produced 4 works in 1835, 3 in 1836, 2 in 1837, 9 in 1838, 6 in 1839, 22 in 1840, 24 in 1841 and 20 in 1842 (My analysis from Flake’s Mormon Bibliography online (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

[5] “Regulations for the Publishing Department of the Latter-day Saints in the East,” New York Prophet 1 (4 January 1845), as reprinted in Times and Seasons 6 (15 January 1845).

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11 comments: “A Short History of Mormon Publishing: The Formative Period

  1. Jonathan Langford

    Kent,

    What kind of material was being published in the early (pre-1835) newspapers? I’m under the impression that later on, sermons, doctrinal articles, poetry, etc., were being published in periodicals. Was that not the case in this earlier period?

    It’s always seemed odd to me that the Pearl of Great Price was initially published in England. I had never put it together with the fact that publication in Utah during the early colonization would have been difficult. Thanks for explaining England’s importance as a publication center for the early Church.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jonahan, from what I’ve seen (I haven’t done in-depth research) what you say later was largely the same earlier, but possibly with less doctrinal items. Perhaps someday we’ll have the information to tell for sure. [See, now you’ve got me tempted to start indexing the early Mormon newspapers–with all my free time.]

    But I’m not sure that periodical literature was perceived quite the same as books. I’m not an expert on these perceptions, but weren’t periodicals perceived as more transitory than books? Thus books were more of a threat to establish creeds, right?

    I don’t know. I’ll try to research it a bit more.

    As for publishing in England, I also didn’t realize, before I did this research, that the shift to England happened or what its causes were.

    Check out next week’s post for the problems that arose there.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    I don’t know. I could also see periodicals as seeming like *more* of a threat to established creeds, as they embodied within themselves the open-endedness of the scriptural canon to the Latter-day Saints. Who knew what new truths might be revealed next? I don’t know if early Church members actually saw it that way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. Keep in mind that one of the first things the Latter-day Saints did in every location was to establish a press and a newspaper. I can’t help but think that this may have played an essential revelatory role in the community.

    I’ve reproduced below the text of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on the Evening and Morning Star:

    “The Evening and The Morning Star was the first newspaper of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was published in fourteen eight-paged, double-columned monthly issues in Independence, Missouri, from June 1832 to July 1833. When the press in Missouri was destroyed by a mob, publication was resumed several months later in Kirtland, Ohio, with ten issues published from December 1833 to September 1834. W. W. (William Wines) Phelps, its editor in Missouri, printed in it a brief History of the Church, a number of LDS hymns, instructions to members of the Church, letters reporting its progress throughout the country, and many of the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Oliver Cowdery, its editor in Ohio, printed reports and commentaries about the Saints’ difficulties in Missouri and some of the doctrinal writings of Sidney Rigdon, a counselor in the First Presidency.

    “Because the circulation of the Missouri-printed Star was small and localized, Cowdery reprinted all the original twenty-four issues in Kirtland between January 1835 and October 1836, in a new sixteen-page format, with numerous grammatical improvements, and a few articles deleted. The Evening and the Morning Star was succeeded by the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in October 1834 (HC 2:167).”

    Back to Jonathan: The very fact that the issues were reprinted in Kirtland suggests to me that members of the Church did, in fact, see the periodical as essentially “scripture in process” — a first vehicle for dissemination, and possibly an initial trial balloon for eventual canonization.

  4. Wm Morris

    I don’t know that books were any more of a threat — much of the religion discussion of the day was accomplished through pamphlets, newspapers and journals. The same was true of politics.

    But then I don’t know that we should conflate pamphlets/tracts and newspapers/journals. Certainly tracts often came in series, but they weren’t necessarily considered periodicals. Or at least that’s my impression.

    Whatever the case, I too think that it’s interesting that England was the center of Mormon publishing for a while.

  5. Hugh Stocks

    I need to search for the quote, but somewhere in my thesis I cite Joseph Smith stating unequivocally that the official newspapers were maintained to provide an avenue to disseminate revelations. That’s one reason why he hardly let Oliver Cowdery change his clothes in Kirtland before shipping him off to NYC to buy a new press to reprint The Evening and the Morning Star.

    Cowdery and his brother Warren also started purely secular/political newspapers in parallel with the Messenger and Advocate, just as Ebenezer Robinson and John Taylor did later in Nauvoo (the Wasp and the Neighbor).

    As to the relationship between the Third American and the First European editions of the BoM, don’t be misled by the title page dates. The fact is that they went to press almost simultaneously in the summer of 1840, but Ebenezer Robinson pushed the Cincinnati stereotypers and printers to get the book finished so he could come back to Nauvoo with it by October Conference. Unfortunately, the printer in England was a)slow, b) clearly incompetent, and c) possibly dishonest. As a result, he took from July 1840 to February, 1841 to deliver the first boxes.

    None of this would be important, except for the fact that the Third American stereotype plates were lost in the exodus from Nauvoo, along with all the other contents of the T&S printing shop, and also that Orson Pratt, in revitalizing the British Mission after the move to SLC, chose to use his familiar copy of the First European as the basis for the Second European, which became the ancestor of all LDS editions from then to 1981. So we lost the final textual edits produced by the Prophet in 1840 and reverted to the text of the Second Edition of 1835.

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    Hugh, I bow to your expertise. You are the expert in the area of Book of Mormon editions. My own statement about the relationship between the Third American and First European editions came from a statement made in the current edition of Flake’s Mormon Bibliography, which is available on the BYU Library website. I appreciate your clarification of the facts. Fortunately, the case of the Book of Mormon is a small (but important) part of the overall publishing story.

    You do remind me of one area I need to research better — the early reliance on having actual printing presses. Today publishing is increasingly distant from requiring an actual printing press or control over a press, but during this period publishing a newspaper usually required that you own the press.

    Of the three publishing centers that Pratt made official in his regulation, both the Times and Seasons and The Prophet were printed on presses owned by Mormons or the Church. [The Millennial Star‘s press may also have been owned by Mormons, for all I know.] The press on which The Prophet was printed, as I understand it, was loaded on the ship Brooklyn and taken to California, where Sam Brannan used it to print California’s first newspaper.

    So, the exodus literally left Mormonism without the means to publish in the U.S.

  7. Hugh Stocks

    The church owned the press in Independence until it was taken over by the mob in 1833; then it owned the press in Kirtland, which was abandoned. Phelps had a press in Far West, which was buried when they left Missouri; then Don Carlos Smith and Ebenezer Robinson snuck back into Missouri and dug it up to bring to Nauvoo to start the T&S. That one was lost in the exodus.

    BY sent WWPhelps to NYC to bring a press to Winter Quarters, but they couldn’t find wagon room to cart it to SLC until 1849/1850; that was the start of the Deseret News. Even then, the lack of paper, ink, tools, etc., was critical. Between 1850 and 1869, they barely managed to print the DesNews, the proceedings of the Territorial Legislature and a few job pieces in the Valley. Everything else was produced in Great Britain until the railroad came through; at that point the British Mission press became an adjunct to the Deseret News Press.

  8. Kent Larsen Post author

    Hugh, wasn’t the post 1850 period when local members were called on “rag” missions — to collect rags that could be turned into paper for the Deseret News?

  9. Hugh Stocks

    That’s right, and the church established a paper mill in (I believe) Sugar House — but the amount of paper they were actually able to produce, and its quality left much to be desired.

  10. Th.

    .

    Although I knew a lot of this, I’m grateful to Kent and Hugh for filling in some of the gaps. Is there a book-length treatment of this topic for the layman?

  11. Kent Larsen Post author

    Th (10) wrote “Is there a book-length treatment of this topic for the layman?”

    No, there isn’t. Hugh’s dissertation (its a dissertation, right Hugh?) covers the publishing history of the Book of Mormon, a vitally important portion of this story. But once we get to home literature, the rise of Deseret Book and the 20th century, it is an increasingly small portion of the story.

    Who knows, maybe something like a book length treatment will arise from this. At this point I intend to keep researching it.

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