SALT LAKE CITY — By 1840, William W. Phelps couldn't bear the guilt and remorse any longer.
Excommunicated in 1838 over issues dealing with church finances and land, Phelps became bitter. He betrayed the Mormons and helped send Joseph Smith to be incarcerated at Liberty Jail, an act that deeply hurt the Prophet.
Two years later, Phelps' heart had changed. He wrote to Joseph: "I am as the prodigal son. ... I ask my old brethren to forgive me. ... I want your fellowship. If you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet."
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a 1984 Brigham Young University devotional that Joseph's response "powerfully demonstrates the magnificence of his soul."
Despite much suffering, "the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive," the Prophet wrote to Phelps.
"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," Joseph Smith wrote before paraphrasing Methodist poet Charles Wesley. "Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last."
The documents featuring this tender exchange between Phelps and Joseph Smith are among the highlights found in "The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Vol. 7, September 1839-January 1841."
The new volume, released this week, spotlights the early years of the Nauvoo era with documents that offer insight into the building up of the city, what the Saints lost in Missouri, missionary efforts in England and new teachings and doctrine, volume editors Matthew C. Godfrey and Spencer W. McBride explained in an interview with the Deseret News.
"I think it’s an overlooked period of church history," Godfrey said.
Readers will learn something about Joseph Smith's character, McBride said.
"We see a Joseph Smith who has been at the low point of his life in Liberty Jail. And here he is, several months later, in a new state, a new tract of land to develop for his people, and you see this resolve in him," McBride said. "I don’t think anyone would blame Joseph Smith if he had gotten out of Liberty Jail and decided he wasn’t going to gather the Saints to build up a city again, because it had brought trouble for them before. But here we see this resolve, this man who was so committed to what he believed that he was going to do it again."
The Prophet goes to Washington
In an effort to appeal to the federal government for property lost and all that happened in Missouri, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Elias Higbee traveled from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in 1839.
With the Saints trying to build a new life in Illinois, it was not an ideal time for the Prophet to leave his people. Yet he had to try, he wrote to his wife Emma Smith on Nov. 9, 1839.
"Nothing but a sense of humanity could have urged me on to so great a sacrifice but shall I see so many perish and not seek redress," the Prophet wrote. "No, I will try this once in the name of the Lord."
Joseph Smith was introduced to U.S. President Martin Van Buren at the White House, along with several senators and representatives at the U.S. Capitol, but none would help the Saints.
"Joseph quickly came to understand the reality of 19th-century American politics," McBride said. "In this instance, both the president and the United States Congress determined they would do nothing to relieve the plight of the Latter-day Saints."
McBride will give a presentation titled "Joseph Smith in the White House" at Temple Square's Assembly Hall on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m.
Apostles' mission to England
"Documents, Vol. 7" features several documents from the early apostles' 1839 mission to England.
One is a letter from Heber C. Kimball to Joseph Smith, dated July 9, 1840, where he described his journey to the mission field, almost dying at one point but surviving, arriving and engaging in the work.
While the apostles and other missionaries were doing missionary work in England, documents in "Vol. 7" show how their families suffered in extreme poverty. In one example, Joseph Smith asks storekeeper Newel K. Whitney to give Brigham Young's wife, Mary Ann Angell Young, "anything she wants," including a shawl, a pair of shoes and nutmeg, a total cost of $3.10, Godfrey said.
"There are some heart-wrenching letters," Godfrey said. "I think this highlights that while this great work is being done by their husbands, the women are in Nauvoo trying to take care of the families and really suffering quite a bit. Sometimes I don't think we recognize their sacrifice as much as we recognize the success of the missionaries. I think that's something that comes out in this volume."
Baptisms for the dead
In a letter from Joseph Smith to the Quorum of the Twelve, the Prophet detailed a new revelation he received introducing baptisms for the dead. The first baptisms for the dead occurred in the Mississippi River as early as August 1840, Godfrey said.
In another letter, Vilate Kimball wrote to her husband, Heber C. Kimball, in England: "Joseph had taught that the Saints could be baptized for all their kinsfolks that have died before this gospel came forth, even back to their great-grandfather and mother, if they have been personally acquainted with them."
"It's a doctrine that almost immediately electrifies the Saints. They cling to this as an important thing in their lives," Godfrey said. "Of course the doctrine develops over time into how we know it today. But it really is important to the Saints. It's also another reason they want to build the Nauvoo Temple."
"Documents, Vol. 7" is the 17th volume to be published in the Joseph Smith Papers series, with roughly seven more volumes in the works. About 70 percent of the published material is available on josephsmithpapers.org, according to Ben Godfrey, senior product manager with the Joseph Smith Papers project.
The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers project is to publish documents created by Joseph Smith or by people whose work he oversaw, including journals, revelation and translations, contemporary reports of discourse, minutes, business and legal records, editorials and notices, as well as papers he received, such as incoming correspondence. Each document is published according to accepted documentary editing standards, and the overall Joseph Smith Papers project is considered to be a standard in the documentary editing community, Godfrey said.
For more on the Joseph Smith Papers, visit josephsmithpapers.org.