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New Joseph Smith Papers Volume Published

May 10, 2023

The Joseph Smith Papers Project is beginning to wind down its work. This year will mark the conclusion of the project with the publication of its final two volumes: Documents volumes 14 and 15, which cover the final year of Joseph Smith’s life (1 January–27 June 1844). Recently, volume 14 of the Documents series (covering 1 January–15 May 1844) has been published, giving a glimpse into the final tumultuous months of Joseph Smith’s life. “For Joseph Smith and his family and friends in Nauvoo, Illinois, the story of 1844 was one of overriding conflict,” begins the volume’s introduction. 

During the months treated in this volume—from the beginning of the year to mid-May—tensions continued to escalate between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa Territory. In addition to dealing with regional antipathy, Smith wrestled with internal strife as he confronted increasing animosity from former church and civic leaders, once his friends and associates. Despite these obstacles, he bolstered the church and the Nauvoo community, expanded the Saints’ theological understanding with new doctrine and revelations, corresponded with missionaries in the United States and Great Britain, and participated in the creation of a new theocratic governing body known as the Council of Fifty. (p. xix)

Several of the documents that appear in this volume of the JSP pertain to the rapidly developing political affairs in Nauvoo and on a national stage. For instance, the volume features General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States, which is Joseph Smith’s presidential platform. As noted by the volume’s editors, “the pamphlet consists of JS’s political platform framed as a plan to improve the government of the United States and the lives of its citizens. It includes several proposals for reform, including constitutional, economic, and social measures, and focuses on minority rights, a national bank, the criminal justice system, the abolition of slavery, and territorial expansion” (p. 136). Joseph Smith’s run for the presidency of the United States has been covered extensively by Joseph Smith Papers scholar Spencer W. McBride in his recent book Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom. (See also the concise article in the Ensign published in August 2009 and the “Church History Topics” article published a few years ago.)

Another noteworthy feature of the new JSP volume is the transcriptions of the extant accounts of Joseph’s 7 April 1844 “King Follett Discourse.” Perhaps the Prophet’s most famous sermon, this discourse, delivered at a conference of the Church in Nauvoo, has captivated generations of Latter-day Saints. Originally a funeral sermon for the recently departed King Follett, who perished in an accident on 27 February 1844, “JS’s sermon was meant to console Follett’s family, but it was not a eulogy,” the volume editors explain.

Instead, JS addressed the subject of death broadly. Although he occasionally addressed Follett’s family and friends directly, he generalized his remarks to all in the audience who had lost family and friends. JS sought to comfort the survivors by teaching about the nature of God—specifically, that God had the form of a man and that God had once been a man and had incrementally advanced to godhood. JS also stated that men and women must similarly learn to become gods. He argued that God had organized the world from existing eternal elements rather than creating it ex nihilo. Likewise, JS declared that “intelligences”—or “the intelligent part” of the “mind of man”—are self-existent and have no beginning or end. Furthermore, God gave these intelligences laws to help them progress to become like him. JS then emphasized the great responsibility of the living to help save the dead and declared that all can be saved except those who commit the “unpardonable sin” of “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.” (p. 313)

Besides transcribing the audits of this sermon made by scribes such as Thomas Bullock, William Clayton, and Wilford Woodruff, the new JSP volume provides useful contextual notes that help readers better appreciate the Prophet’s teachings. For instance, in his 7 April discourse Joseph used his knowledge of Hebrew that he had gained some years previous to expound upon the opening verses of the Bible. The editors of the new JSP volume help explain what Joseph was doing with his knowledge of Hebrew as so utilized in the King Follett Discourse in addition to providing other useful contextual information about the surviving accounts. (For more, see Kevin Barney’s BYU Studies article from 2000 and the recent book The King Follett Sermon: A Biography by William V. Smith.)

There is not much in the new JSP volume that touches on the Book of Mormon directly, but a few documents stand out. One is a letter from apostle John E. Page written to Joseph Smith on 16 April 1844. In this letter, Page reported on his missionary activities in the eastern United States. He furthermore “recounted his latest missionary efforts and the ways he had used scholarly literature on Central America to substantiate the authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” something Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints had done as well. “As a missionary and church leader in Pittsburgh, Page had previously defended Latter-day Saint doctrine and scripture in print and had already argued that Mesoamerican ruins validated the claims of the Book of Mormon,” write the volume editors. “Page hoped to convert audiences by showing that explorers of the Americas had found evidence of peoples and cultures described in the Book of Mormon. In his letter of 16 April 1844, Page informed JS and Young that the public had been ‘perfectly astounded’ by his command of parallels between places described in the Book of Mormon and archaeological discoveries in Mesoamerica” (pp. 389–390). As I have shown in a recent article in the Journal of Mormon History, Page’s letter is just one of many examples of how early Latter-day Saints defended the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon by appealing to the recent discovery of ancient ruins in places such as Mexico and Guatemala. Joseph Smith, as editor of the Church’s Times and Seasons, also favored this approach, and taken together with other documents such as Page’s letter featured in the new volume paint an interesting picture of how early Saints read, understood, and defended the Book of Mormon.

Another document, a letter from Udney H. Jacob written on 6 January 1844, is interesting as well because it reveals how some critical arguments against the Book of Mormon encountered today are nearly as old as the book itself. In his letter to Joseph Smith, Jacob wondered how the Book of Mormon could be authentic when it contained supposedly anachronistic elements such as a mention of crucifixion as a method of execution and non-biblical phrases such as “infinite atonement.” The discussion around alleged anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, a subject Matthew Roper discussed at length in a recent FAIR conference, is one of the oldest that readers of the Book of Mormon have had since it first appeared in print.

As would be expected, the new volume of the Joseph Smith Papers is an outstanding contribution to the field of Latter-day Saint history. All signs indicate that the project will conclude later this year strongly and with the same high quality that can be expected from any other works that appear with the Church Historian’s Press imprint. 

Information on where to purchase print copies of the new volume and additional details can be found here.

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