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The Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Volume 7: September 1839-January 1841 Hardcover – April 2, 2018
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About the Author
Matthew C. Godfrey, Spencer W. McBride, Alex D. Smith, and Christopher James Blythe are historians for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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This is the seventh volume of the “Documents” series in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. In it the editors present all 129 known and available documents received by or created by Smith or by the staff whose work he directed during the initial months of the creation of what the Latter-day Saints would name the City of Joseph. Documents, Volume 7, covers the 17-month period September 1839 through January 1841. The editors provide unaltered and unabridged transcripts of journals, revelations and translations, contemporary reports of discourses, minutes, business and legal records, land transactions, editorials, notices, and more.
The documents are divided into six time periods, each with its own historical introduction. With notes, footnotes, illustrations, maps, biographies, and index, this volume provides us with a wealth of background and context to the documents themselves.
Part 1: 5 September – 7 November 1839.
Joseph and other church leaders had as a first priority establishing Commerce as a gathering place, purchasing large plots of land and selling individual plots to arriving members.
Located near the Mississippi, Commerce was “a low marshy wet damp and nasty place,” and hundreds of the settlers, including Joseph Smith, contracted malaria; more than a dozen died. The plague caused many to wonder whether their physical ailments were a manifestation of divine punishment. In an important discourse as recorded by one of the members, Joseph told them “it is a false idea that the saints will escape all the judgements whilst the wicked suffer,” and that “it is an unhallowed principle to say that such and such have transgressed because they have been preyed upon by disease or death, for all flesh is subject to death.”
In the meantime, much of Joseph’s time was occupied in preparing for a trip to Washington, D.C., as part of a delegation to petition the federal government for redress for the loss of life and property suffered by the Mormons in Missouri.
Part 2: 8 November 1839 – 25 January 1840.
Joseph and his companions set out for the nation’s capital on 29 October 1839. It was while on this trip that Joseph saved lives of some passengers when the horses ran away with the stage coach in which they were riding. Joseph climbed out of the stage, grabbed the lines, and stopped the horses. “He was highly commended by the whole company for his great exertions and presence of mind through the whole affair,” wrote Elias Higbee, who himself was slightly injured in the accident.
Church leaders had spent months gathering documentary evidence to present to the Congress and to the White House in support of a “memorial,” or petition, for redress and reparations. They were encouraged by, and expressed appreciation for, the letters of support and introduction given them by the Illinois congressional delegation.
On 29 November 1839 Smith and Higbee did get their audience with President Martin Van Buren. Joseph’s letter a few days later to his brother Hyrum and the Nauvoo High Council left no uncertainty as to his feelings about the encounter: “We found a very large and splendid palace, surrounded with a splendid enclosure decorated with all the fineries and elegancies of this world we went to the door and requested to see the President; when we were immediately introduced into his parlor, where we presented him our Letters of introductions; -- as soon as he had read one of them, he looked upon us with a kind of half frown and said, what can I do? I can do nothing for you,-- if I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole State of Missouri.” (The editors explain that “come in contact with” was an idiom meaning to contradict or to disagree with.) Joseph left no doubt as to what he thought of Martin Van Buren. He wrote that the man was “so much a fop or a fool, (for he judged our cause before he knew it,) we could find no place to put truth into him—We do not say the Saints shall not vote for him, but we do say boldly, (though it need not be published in the streets of Nauvoo, neither among the daughters of the Gentiles,) That we do not intend he shall have our votes.”
Part 3: 27 January – 8 April 1840.
Over the objection of some of his colleagues, Illinois Senator Richard M. Young prevailed upon the Senate to have the full 28-page memorial read before the chamber. It set forth a long list of the murders, arson, pillaging and other attacks on the Missouri saints. “Some of their people were shot at; others were whipped without mercy; their houses assailed with brickbats; the doors broken open; and thrown down; their women grossly insulted; and their weeping daughters brutally abused before their mother’s eyes.” The memorial suggested $2 million as an appropriate amount for reparations.
The response of the Missouri delegation was predictable. Senator Lewis F. Linn of Missouri spoke against it, insisting that “a sovereign State seemed about to be put on trial before the Senate of the United States, and he was entirely opposed to the jurisdiction.” The Senate agreed that there was a serious jurisdictional question here, and on 12 February the memorial was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
On 1 March Joseph Smith preached a discourse recounting his trip to Washington and what had transpired there. A newspaper journalist reported on the discourse, noting mockingly that Smith said the United States would incur divine displeasure and punishment if the nation continued to deny the petitions of the Saints for redress.
A few days later the Senate Judiciary Committee made its report. The federal government was without jurisdiction over the matter, it said, and committee members “have not considered themselves justified in inquiring into the truth or falsehood of the facts charged in the petition.” The committee said the Mormons should instead seek redress in the courts and legislature of the State of Missouri.
Thus, the evidence of the lawlessness committed against the Mormons had not even been considered; instead, they were directed to return to the very government that had not only condoned but had directly participated in the atrocities.
Part 4: 12 April – 3 July 1840.
The months spent in preparing the memorial and the trip to Washington had occupied a great deal of the Prophet’s time. His next several months were devoted to helping develop Nauvoo. He asked the Nauvoo High Council to relieve him of the responsibility of supervising land sales so he could give his efforts to building up the Church.
Most the members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles had been called to preach the gospel in Europe and England. Brigham Young wrote to Joseph describing the successes he and his brethren were having there. He introduced a group of 41 Latter-day Saints who would be immigrating to Nauvoo, the “first Company of Saints from England.” Apostles Orson Hyde and John E. Page were appointed to serve a mission to the Jews in New York, Europe, western Asia and the Holy Land.
On 29 June 1840 William W. Phelps wrote a letter to Joseph Smith which would have profound implications for LDS services for generations to come. Phelps had been one of the church’s leading figures during the 1830’s and served as a member of the church presidency in Missouri. He had helped compile the Doctrine and Covenants and the first Latter-day Saint hymnal in 1835. But in 1837 and 1838 he clashed with other church leaders over finance issues and land transactions in Missouri, even to the point of being willing to testify against the Prophet when he was charged with treason and then incarcerated in Liberty Jail. Phelps was excommunicated not once but twice, in 1838 and 1839. In his June 1840 letter he begged Joseph Smith for forgiveness and for readmission into the church. “I will repent and live, and ask my old brethren to forgive me, and though they chasten me to death, yet I will die with them – for their God is my God. The least place with them is enough for me, yea it is bigger and better than all Babylon. . . . I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. . . . I have done wrong and I am Sorry. The beam is in my own eye.”
Part 5: 7 July – 30 September 1840.
It did not take long for William W. Phelps to get his response. On Sunday, 19 July 1840 the congregation at Nauvoo voted “with one voice and uplifted hands” to restore him to fellowship. On 22 July Joseph Smith wrote Phelps back. “It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior – the cup of gall already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us: One with whom we had oft taken sweet council together . . . . However the cup has been drunk, the will of our heavenly Father has been done, and we are yet alive for which we thank the Lord. . . . Believing your confession to be real and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.
“Come on dear Brother since the war is past,
“For friends at first are friends again at last.”
Shortly after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June of 1844, Phelps would pen the words to a hymn which is today sung thousands of times a year in LDS Sacrament Meetings around the world, “Praise to the Man.”
Nauvoo continued to grow. By July of 1840 there were approximately 3,000 Saints living there, with 2,000 living across the Mississippi River in Iowa and many more in surrounding areas. Malaria continued to plague the Saints, and Joseph Smith delivered a discourse attributing the Saints’ illness partly to disunity and backbiting. Nevertheless, this was the gathering place for the Saints, and in July Joseph announced that the church would build a temple in Nauvoo.
Nauvoo was not the only place seeing tremendous church growth. In September Brigham Young wrote from England to Joseph Smith saying, “We find the people of this land, much more ready to receive the gospel, than those of America” Indeed, there were over 3,600 converts in England by October of that year.
Part 6: 3 October 1840 – 30 January 1841.
The fall and early winter months of 1840-41 saw an outpouring of administrative improvements in both the city of Nauvoo and of the church, and of doctrinal revelations and pronouncements. John C. Bennett, a recent arrival into the city, lobbied successfully in the Illinois legislature for the approval of the Nauvoo Charter, which was signed into law 16 December 1840 by Governor Thomas Carlin and certified as such by Illinois Secretary of State Stephen A. Douglas. The charter’s broad powers had been crafted so as to prevent a repeat of the Missouri experience. It granted Nauvoo its own legislative city council, a state-authorized military, and authority to grant writs of habeas corpus, following the federal right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
In October Joseph spoke on a new church doctrine that members could be baptized on behalf of deceased persons. He wrote to the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles then serving in England, explaining the doctrine: “The saints have the priviledge of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, who they feel to believe would have embraced the gospel if they had been priviledged with hearing it, and who have received the gospel in the spirit through the instrumentality of those who may have been commissioned to preach to them while in the prison.”
Joseph also give instruction to smaller groups of people on a variety of subjects, such as when he spoke at a 5 January meeting in a “school of instruction” in his office. According to one of those in attendance, he explained to his younger brother, Don Carlos Smith, that “to be free from the Coruption of the Earth that man the speaker should all ways speak in his natureal tone of voice; & not to keep in one loud strain, but to act without affectation.”
In that same meeting he told his listeners that “God did not make the earth out of nothing;-- for it is contrary to a rashanal mind & reason. That a something could be brought from— a nothing.” Another person present recorded that Joseph said, “At the first organization in heaven we were all present and saw the Savior chosen and appointed, and the plan of salvation made and we sanctioned it. We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom.”
The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 7, is a scholarly work. It is more than 700 pages in length and has several thousand footnotes. It has 137 pages of reference material plus meticulously researched source notes for each of its 129 documents and an exhaustive index. It is a prodigious work, “worthy of all acceptation.” It gets five stars.
Documents Volume 7 is no different from any of the previous volumes in its top-notch approach to presenting and contextualizing documents from Joseph Smith's life. It covers the early Commerce/Nauvoo period, and includes documents relating to land purchases, Joseph Smith's travels to Washington DC to meet with the president and other government officials to seek redress for the persecution the church suffered in Missouri, letters to and from the apostles preaching the gospel in England, and several sermons from Joseph Smith. Doctrine and Covenants 124 also appears in the volume.
The sermons were my favorite things to read in the volume, and there are a lot of them here, with teachings about effective missionary work, the lack of connection between wickedness and illness (something the saints suffered quite a bit the first couple years in Commerce), instruction on the priesthood, and how to serve well in callings. JS also began to teach publicly the doctrine of baptisms for the dead during this time period, and one of the most interesting passages was JS's introduction of this subject to the apostles serving missions in England. The book also contains JS's infamous prophecy about the saints saving the U.S. Constitution from the brink of ruin.
Like prior volumes, this book contains some interesting, "humanizing" details about JS. For example, JS complained in a (relatively short) letter to his wife Emma that his hand was cramping up, requiring him to end his one-page letter to her. If that was all the stamina his letter-writing hand had, it's no wonder he used scribes for nearly all of his writing. I also enjoyed reading a description of JS written by a man who heard him preach in Washington DC, which included the statement that JS was "what you ladies would call a good looking man." The volume contains many other documents in which people react to JS or his teachings or actions. My favorite is Brigham Young's description of the converts to the church in England, who were "beg[ging] and plead[ing]" for the Book of Mormon.
As with all of the other JS Papers books, the introductions, annotations, and supplemental materials in the back of this volume are superb, spanning topics from the political climate in DC in the late 1830's and early 1840's to what caused JS to believe that "Nauvoo" was a Hebrew word meaning "beautiful situation" with the idea of "rest." The lengths to which the editors and historians go to make sure every document is accurately presented in its historical context is absolutely astounding.