Joseph Smith preached more Sunday discourses during his final years in Nauvoo, Illinois, than any other period of his life.
He spoke on a variety of topics but was never comfortable writing himself and left behind no outlines or written notes. But he had scribes to record his words, along with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Saints looked forward to his sermons and often carried their own paper and pen to capture his messages.
Thanks to their diligent note-taking, about 20 of Joseph Smith’s discourses are available for study today as the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, “Documents Vol. 12: March-July 1843,” goes on sale.
“‘Documents Vol. 12’ is really a treasure in that sense,” said David W. Grua, the volume’s lead editor and a historian with the Church History Department.
What you should know about ‘Documents Vol. 12’
“Documents Vol. 12” is the 23rd installment of the Joseph Smith Papers series, which launched in 2008. The project is an ongoing effort to collect and publish all Joseph Smith documents with complete and accurate transcripts, as well as textual and contextual annotation, according to JosephSmithPapers.org.
This scholarly book features 96 documents, including Joseph Smith’s mail, accounts of his discourses and his last major revelation. Readers will also find deeds and ecclesiastical authorizations, as well as financial and legal records.
Several volumes of the project cover the Nauvoo period and show how engaged Joseph Smith was with church leadership responsibilities, teaching key doctrines and managing missionary work from the United States to Great Britain, not to mention serving as city mayor and a general in the Nauvoo Legion. At the same time, he was also dealing with pending threats to his liberty and security from the state of Missouri, said Jessica M. Nelson, one of the volume editors and a historian in the Church History Department.
“He has a lot going, he’s really busy,” she said. “This is an exciting time in his life, probably a little more exciting that he would have liked.”
Here are five interesting documents and images readers can learn about or see in the new Joseph Smith Papers volume.
Insightful quotes by Joseph Smith
His Sunday morning discourses from March to July 1843 touched on themes from the last days, his 1820 vision of deity, fundamental gospel principles and the doctrine of salvation and exaltation.
“These are discourses that have been quoted, I think, in manuals, but people don’t necessarily know the source of these quotes,” Grua said.
One classic example of Joseph teaching basic gospel principles came after two officers arrested Joseph in June 1843 and attempted to extradite him to Missouri. The men treated him roughly, keeping the prophet in a state of anxiety for 10 or so days while legal maneuvering played out. He was eventually released.
“You might expect that he would be angry and frustrated and talk about how awful the Missourians were,” Grua said. “Instead he stands up and tells the Saints that forgiveness is what is needed and the grand fundamental principle of the restored gospel is love and being willing to defend the rights of others.”
Joseph returned the brutality with kindness, even inviting the lawmen to have dinner in his home. Wilford Woodruff recorded the following from a discourse by Joseph on June 30, 1843:
“By the power of God & generalship & I have brought them to Nauvoo & treated them kindly I have had the privilege of rewarding them good for evil, they took me unlawfully treated me rigorously, strove to deprive me of my rights & would have run me to Missouri to have been murdered if providence had not interposed: but now they are in my hands, I took them to my house set them at the head of my table & set the best before them my house afforded & they were waited upon by my wife whom they deprived of seeing me when I was taken. ... However you may feel about the high hand of oppression, I wish you to restrain your hand from violence. <against those men who arestd me> My word is at stake a hair of their heads shall not be harmed.”
Here are three other notable statements found in discourses by Joseph Smith during this period (please note this is how the quotes are represented the historical document):
- “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm. and administ(er)ing to the poor & dividi(n)g his substance. than the long smoothed faced hypo(c)rites,” Joseph said in a sermon recorded by Willard Richards on May 21, 1843.
- “It is a love of libe(r)ty which inspires my soul. civil and religious liberty — were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers. while they dandld me on their knees,” the prophet said on July 9, 1843.
- “Frie(n)dship is the grand fundamental prin(c)iple of Mormonism,” Joseph said in July 23, 1843, also preserved in Richards’ handwriting.
Sarah Ann Whitney’s blessing
On March 23, 1843, Joseph Smith wrote a blessing for Sarah Ann Whitney, one of his plural wives, promising her and her family blessings based on her faithfulness to the everlasting covenant. It’s one of the rare documents written in the prophet’s own handwriting, said Matthew C. Godfrey, one of the volume’s editors and a historian in the Church History Department.
“Here’s an example of a document that in my mind kind of lays out what Joseph Smith saw as the spiritual blessings from the practice of plural marriage and the blessings he hoped they would receive from it,” he said.
Orrin Porter Rockwell and the Nauvoo Legion cannons
After an unknown assailant shot former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs in his Jackson County home on May 6, 1842, an excommunicated member of the church, named John C. Bennett, alleged that Joseph Smith had sent his longtime friend Orrin Porter Rockwell to shoot Boggs. Rockwell happened to be in the area visiting his wife, who had just given birth.
Rockwell was arrested a year later while in St. Louis and remained imprisoned in Missouri during the months covered in “Documents, Vol. 12,” which includes correspondence between Joseph and attorneys regarding Rockwell’s legal situation.
The earliest known photo of Rockwell, with short hair and bushy beard, was taken circa 1866 and is among many images featured in the volume.
Another eye-catching image in the volume shows a cannon used by the Nauvoo Legion in the 1840s. The legion had at least two cannons in 1843, according to the volume.
Analysis of the word, ‘Mormon’
On May 20, 1843, Joseph wrote a letter to the editor of the Times and Seasons, a Latter-day Saints newspaper in Nauvoo, in which he explained the meaning of the word, “Mormon.”
“I may safely say that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation ... we have the word MORMON; which means, literally, more good,” Smith wrote.
The letter was an effort to correct misunderstandings and negative perceptions about not just the word, but more importantly, about the church in the faith, which seems to parallel modern day efforts by President Russell M. Nelson to correct the name of the church, said Brent M. Rogers, a volume editor and historian in the Church History Department.
“The Book of Mormon gives readers more of Jesus Christ, more of his ministry, more of his teachings. So in this way, I see this analysis that Joseph gives as kind of a parallel or similarity to what our current prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, has focused on in his teachings about using the correct name of the church,” Rogers said. “They want to center the faith of the members on Jesus Christ because that’s where the focus belongs, because he is ‘the good.’”
3 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants
For those following the church’s “Come, Follow Me,” program for individuals and families this year, three sections — 130, 131 and 132 — were received during the time span covered in “Documents Vol. 12.”
- Section 130 is referred to as “Instruction, 2 April 1843.”
- Section 131 is listed as three documents in the volume’s table of contents:
- Instruction 16 May 1843 (131:1–4)
- Discourse, 17 May 1843–A (131:5–6)
- Discourse, 17 May 1843–B (131 7–8)
- Section 132 is listed as “Revelation, 12 July 1843 [D&C 132].”
The volume provides additional context regarding these revelations, Rogers said.
“For somebody who really wants to get deep into their Doctrine and Covenants study, there’s a lot on those three sections,” the historian said. “They give a lot more understanding for how those revelations came to be.”
Along with Grua, Nelson, Rogers and Godfrey, Robin Scott Jensen and Christopher James Blythe also served as volume editors. Jensen is a historian for the Church History Department and Blythe is a research associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University.
Content from the Joseph Smith Papers project is online at josephsmithpapers.org.