Revelations, Letters, Reports of Discourses, Editorials, Minutes of Meetings, and Other Documents
The Joseph Smith Papers are divided into six series that cover the range of Joseph Smith’s personal, ecclesiastical, and civic life. The Documents series is the core series, presenting in chronological order with historical introductions and annotation most of the extant (or surviving) documents owned, created, or authorized by Smith, with certain major exceptions explained below.
At the outset Joseph Smith wrote very little. His family were not writers. He and many of his peers read comfortably but were less practiced and perhaps less at ease expressing themselves in writing. While he was clearly literate, no specimen of his handwriting created before 1829 is extant. Even as a mature adult, Smith noted ongoing frustration with the limitations of writing. In a 6 June 1832 letter to his wife Emma he wrote, “I hope you will excuse . . . my inability in convaying my ideas in writing.”1 Nonetheless, beginning in 1827 at age twenty-one, he produced extensive texts given him, he said, “by the gift and power of God.”2 In practice this meant dictation rather than writing in his own hand, and in this mode he was prolific. Not only did he dictate to scribes the more-than-500-page text of the Book of Mormon, beginning in the summer of 1828 he also dictated hundreds of pages of revelatory texts in the voice of God.
On 6 April 1830, the day Joseph Smith formally organized the Church of Christ (forerunner to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), a revelation called for record keeping.3 Over the next few years patterns for the creation and preservation of major categories of documents began to form. Although Joseph Smith occasionally wrote himself, he delegated most record-keeping tasks to others while retaining ultimate responsibility.
Soon after the formal church organization, Smith and his assistant John Whitmer gathered loose copies of his revelations, and by early 1831 Whitmer began copying them into a large bound book. Minutes of important meetings also received attention. No contemporaneous minutes exist for the April 1830 organizational meeting or any of the perhaps less formal meetings that preceded it, but beginning with the first conference in June 1830, notes were kept of many meetings, probably on loose sheets, and were later copied into books.4
Although Whitmer began gathering materials for the first narrative history in June 1831, not until about 1838 did he begin copying this information, with connecting narrative, into a book. Meanwhile, in 1832 Joseph Smith composed a brief personal narrative focused on the early visitations of heavenly messengers. Other histories followed, some under Smith’s supervision and others commissioned by him. The most extensive Joseph Smith history was begun in 1838, the same period when Whitmer wrote. For this new history, Smith, with the help of his counselor Sidney Rigdon and secretary George W. Robinson, again opened with his early religious experiences, but the history eventually encompassed a broad sweep of personal and institutional history.5
Although Joseph Smith wrote letters at least as early as 1829, little of his correspondence from this early period has survived. Some early letters survived because they were copied into bound books beginning in 1832.6 Others survived in the possession of the receiver and were donated decades later to the Church Historian’s Office. But it appears that most of the early letters are no longer extant.
Whether revelations, minutes, histories, or letters, the approach to most record keeping by about the end of 1832 was the same: originals were copied into an official record book, and once a document was inscribed in the official book, that (and not the original) became the “copy of record.”7 These books (revelation books, minute books, and letterbooks) still exist, but in most cases the original individual documents are no longer extant. For this reason, especially for the early years, the texts featured in this series often are not the original inscriptions but the versions that were copied into the record books.
A July 1832 letter from Joseph Smith in Ohio to church printer William W. Phelps in Missouri provides a glimpse of the practice. When Phelps and church historian John Whitmer traveled to Missouri in late 1831, they carried with them the “Book of Commandments and Revelations” (or Revelation Book 1), a manuscript book into which Whitmer, with help from a few others, had transcribed copies of early revelations. Whitmer, Phelps, and others used this book to prepare the revelations for publication. In late June, aware that new revelations had been dictated since their departure, Phelps wrote to Joseph Smith with a request for copies that could be added to the record and potentially published. In his reply, Smith gave “my reasons for not sending the remainder, & also the Vision.” Such revelations had tended, he wrote, to be “snatched from under my hand as soon as given,” but he would nonetheless “send them to you as soon as possable.”8 The account of the 16 February 1832 vision, in which both Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon participated, and other subsequent revelations were later inscribed in the manuscript Book of Commandments and Revelations. Meanwhile, a second revelation book was begun in Ohio into which the February 1832 vision was also copied, along with other new revelations soon after they were dictated.9
In addition to his translations, revelations, historical narratives, and correspondence, Joseph Smith’s literary production included personal journals, beginning in 1832, and articles and editorials for publication. In his capacities as ecclesiastical and civic leader he authorized the creation of minutes, certificates, and other documents, all of which are included in The Joseph Smith Papers, many in the print edition and others online.
There were ebbs and flows in record keeping and no doubt also in what has survived. For some periods, an abundance of certain kinds of documents exists; at other times documents of the same type are few. While the vast majority of Joseph Smith’s extant revelations and translations were dictated from 1829 through July 1833, his journals cover only two weeks of that period.10 The number of letters he is known to have sent and received in 1833—correspondence describing both ambitious plans for Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, and the expulsion of the Saints from that county—is larger than in previous years and in the following year. In 1837, facing a bank failure and an unprecedented number of lawsuits, and with the defection of former scribe Warren Parrish, Smith kept no journal and apparently sent few letters. In Nauvoo, Illinois, with a rapidly increasing community of Saints and expanding business involvements, he hired a staff of professional clerks to maintain records. Although incoming and outgoing correspondence continued to be registered in Smith’s letterbooks, his clerks now also filed the originals of incoming correspondence. The volume of documents created, received, and preserved expanded dramatically. The number of items in his incoming and outgoing correspondence from his arrival in Illinois until his death is about three times as large as the number of known items for his entire life up to that point. Judging from the extant record, Smith sent more letters in the first six months of 1844 than in any previous full year of his life.11 His journals from December 1841 to the end of his life in June 1844 include about the same number of entries as do all his other journals combined.
By presenting Joseph Smith’s papers in chronological order according to the original dates of production, the Documents series facilitates the study of the unfolding of concepts, practices, relationships, and other developments over time. Multiple-entry documents that cover an extended period of time and are not assignable to a single date, such as Smith’s journals, minute books, most of his histories, and lengthy translations like the Book of Mormon, are handled differently. Including these multiple-entry documents, many of them lengthy and each with its own chronological flow, would significantly complicate the chronological arrangement of the entire series. Thus the multiple-entry documents in each of these categories have been placed in their own series in The Joseph Smith Papers. However, a very limited number of excerpts from such manuscripts, such as the Book of Mormon translation, appear in this series as indicators of key efforts in which Smith was involved and as placeholders pointing to the larger works elsewhere in The Joseph Smith Papers.
Certain items in multiple-entry documents will appear more than once in The Joseph Smith Papers. Some individual items within such documents will appear as integral parts of the complete multiple-entry document within their own series and as discrete texts in the Documents series. For example, the entire contents of Joseph Smith’s bound letterbooks will appear online as a subset of the Administrative Records series. At the same time, letters to and from Joseph Smith found in those letterbooks will also appear individually in the Documents series, placed chronologically among other documents, each with historical annotation. Revelations that were incorporated into journals, histories, manuscript volumes of revelations, and church publications are presented in the respective series: Journals, Histories, and Revelations and Translations. The revelations are also featured individually in the Documents series with extensive contextual annotation, along with historical introductions for each document. The Revelations and Translations series provides textual analysis, noting all redactions and emendations in each revelation text as it developed; the Documents series presents the earliest complete text and generally ignores later changes.
As early as June 1830, minutes were created of meetings in which Smith participated and played a noteworthy role.12 Most of the extant minutes for the 1830s survived because the original records or notes were gathered and inscribed in bound minute books.13 Images and transcripts of these minute books will be included in their entirety in the Administrative Records series on the Joseph Smith Papers website. Minutes of some individual conferences or councils that recorded Smith’s attendance, administrative actions, or comments will also appear in the Documents series in chronological order, accompanied by historical introductions and contextual annotation. In the 1840s, meetings and their minutes multiplied beyond such church councils and conferences to the Nauvoo municipal offices in which Smith was involved, resulting in the creation of numerous manuscript minute books. For the Documents series, entries are extracted from the minutes and proceedings of pertinent Nauvoo organizations.
Legal and business papers constitute their own series, arranged in a format that facilitates the study of their interrelationships. Multiple-entry documents in that series, such as business ledgers, will appear online. Of the relatively few individual legal and business documents owned or created by Joseph Smith, a number will also appear in the Documents series.
The Documents series, then, includes Joseph Smith’s outgoing and incoming correspondence, his revelations, reports of discourses, editorials for which he was responsible as editor of a periodical, minutes of meetings in which he played a role, and other ecclesiastical and miscellaneous materials, all arranged chronologically. The series begins with a revelation dictated in July 1828 in response to the loss of a Book of Mormon manuscript and ends with a letter Smith wrote to Illinois lawyer Orville Browning just hours before he was killed.14 It is the most extensive series of The Joseph Smith Papers, with a breadth of coverage unequaled in any other component of the Papers.
Revelations provide an essential framework for understanding Joseph Smith and the movement he led, particularly in the early years. The Documents series features some 160 texts of Joseph Smith that were written in the firstperson voice of Deity.15 One revelation begins, “Hearken O ye people of my Church to whom the Kingdom has been given hearken ye & give ere [ear] to him who laid the foundation of the Earth who made the Heavens & all the hosts thereof.”16 Several texts provide narrative descriptions of visions or visitations, while others present instructions “given . . . by the gift & power of God.”17 These revelatory documents, most of which were published and canonized as scripture during Smith’s lifetime, provided the foundational structure of the Church of Christ and enunciated important features of its theology. The copying, organization, and publication of the revelations was a major focus of Smith’s attention during the early years of his ministry. The first two volumes of the Revelations and Translations series present much of this work and inform the treatment of revelations in the Documents series.
Joseph Smith’s correspondence constitutes another important element of the Documents series. Copies of some of his incoming and outgoing correspondence are preserved in two volumes of letterbooks, both of which will appear in the Administrative Records series on the Joseph Smith Papers website. Other letters were copied into journals or histories, and a few received copies survive in repositories or private collections. By comparison with the correspondence of other prominent figures of the nineteenth century, the Smith correspondence is not voluminous. His extant letters sent number only about 305 and those received about 430. All this correspondence is published in the Documents series.
As with Joseph Smith’s writings in general, most of his letters were dictated to scribes or written by assignment on his behalf. Of his outgoing correspondence, only about two dozen extant letters bear the marks of his own pen. Though few, these letters provide a perspective from which one can begin to separate Smith’s own thoughts and feelings from those of people who wrote for him, revealing dimensions of his personality and character not conveyed through the filter of a scribe.18 For example, to his wife in 1832 he wrote,
“This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the city of New Y[ork]— the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing of eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all things magnificent and splended be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it cannot be seeing these works are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord kindled because they Give him not the Glory.”19
And after spending nearly six months in Missouri jails and witnessing his people driven from the state, he dictated these sentiments to the scattered church members: “O God where art thou and where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place how long shall thy hand be stayed and thine eye yea thy pure eye behold from the etearnal heavens the rongs of thy people and of thy servants and thine ear be penetrated with their c[r]yes yea o Lord how long shall they suffer these rongs and unlawfull oppressions before thine hart shall be softened towards them and thy bowels be moved with compassion to-wards them?”20 Such writings reveal a more emotionally open and accessible Joseph Smith than the persona conveyed through the writings of his scribes and clerks.
A third significant component of the Documents series is the reports of Joseph Smith’s discourses. The papers of Smith and others associated with him preserve reports of only a small fraction of his public addresses. A comprehensive calendar of documents, available at the Joseph Smith Papers website, notes known occasions on which Smith gave a speech or a sermon, but The Joseph Smith Papers feature only those contemporary reports of Smith’s sermons that attempt to recreate at least a partial text, rather than accounts that list topics he covered or describe the nature of his delivery or the impact of the discourse.
Joseph Smith rarely produced notes or outlines for his speeches, sermons, or prayers. One exception is the text of the dedicatory prayer he pronounced for the Kirtland, Ohio, temple, in March 1836, which he composed with the aid of several collaborators.21 Another is a discourse he dictated to his clerk Robert B. Thompson, which Thompson read at the church’s general conference in Nauvoo, Illinois, on 5 October 1840.22
Smith’s own journals are among the sources from which reports of his public addresses are excerpted. The priority given to the Joseph Smith revelations in the first decade of his ministry may help explain why only a small number of his sermons and discourses were recorded, most of which come from the last three years of his life. Of fifty-two public addresses reported in some detail in his multivolume manuscript history, thirty-five date from the last eighteen months of his life; the remaining seventeen average about two a year between 1834 and 1842. During his last eighteen months, Smith is known to have spoken an additional sixteen times, but no report of these addresses has been found. Not until December 1841 did any of the scribes assigned to keep Smith’s journal record a partial text of one of Smith’s sermons,23 and because neither Willard Richards—the scribe on that occasion—nor others who captured portions of Smith’s sermons were proficient in shorthand, even the best of existing accounts suffer from the inaccuracy and incompleteness of what might best be described as note taking. Indeed, many accounts were short, and even though a few were more extensive, there is no verbatim account of any sermon by Joseph Smith. George D. Watt, a British convert proficient in Pitman shorthand, arrived in Nauvoo in the spring of 1843 but was never assigned to record a Smith discourse.24
Joseph Smith served as editor of the periodical Elders’ Journal of the Church of Latter Day Saints for its October and November 1837 issues published at Kirtland, Ohio, and its July and August 1838 issues published at Far West, Missouri. He took editorial responsibility for the Nauvoo periodical Times and Seasons for seven months in 1842, from the 1 March through 15 October numbers.25 The extent to which he was personally involved as author or coauthor of editorials and articles and the degree of editorial oversight he exercised on the contents of these publications during his editorial tenure varied widely. From August through October 1842 he was frequently absent from the office, evading arrest by Missouri law enforcement officials, and he eventually resigned as editor because he was unable to devote the required attention to the paper. The Documents series includes editorials, articles, and other items published during Smith’s tenure as editor for which he had at least nominal responsibility. Historical introductions for the individual documents discuss the available evidence concerning his involvement with each.
Of the numerous routine documents, such as licenses, certificates, banknotes, and other miscellaneous documents in the Smith papers, only a representative sampling is featured in the letterpress publication. The electronic edition includes images of all extant originals of those items, many in private possession, that the project has permission to publish, and transcriptions of many of them. In its letterpress and online editions, The Joseph Smith Papers constitutes the most extensive collection of Joseph Smith’s records available, helping researchers better understand the church founder, the Latter-day Saint movement, and America in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Documents series is the core offering of The Joseph Smith Papers, allowing firsthand access to Smith’s mind and activities at hundreds of points in time throughout his relatively brief adult life.