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Spencer: By the end of the year 1832, Joseph Smith had dictated more than ninety revelations. Some were directed to individuals seeking inspired counsel for their lives and for their discipleship. Some were directed to Joseph Smith and other church leaders on how to proceed in building up and leading the church. Revelations presented the church with new doctrines or clarified disputed theology. But how do you get the revelations to the wider church, especially when that church is rapidly growing because of expanding missionary efforts in the United States and Canada? The publication of Joseph Smith's revelations and all the twists and turns involved in that effort is what we're talking about in this episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 4: “Publishing Revelation”
Spencer: A major part of leading a church with the majority of its members in two cities hundreds of miles apart was managing the temporal affairs of the organization. To this end, a November 1831 revelation received by Joseph Smith established a means of better managing the church’s temporal needs.
Matthew: So, one of the major administrative bodies in the church between 1832 and 1834 was a body that was known as the “United Firm.”
Spencer: That’s Matthew Godfrey, a general editor of The Joseph Smith Papers. In our conversation he noted that the establishments of communal societies later in the nineteenth century by Brigham Young that were called “United Orders” has sometimes led to confusion on what the United Firm was in Ohio and Missouri. He explained what references to the “United Order” in the revelations of the 1830s are actually about.
Matthew: It’s talking about this administrative body known as the United Firm. And the United Firm springs up out of a need to coordinate some of the church’s mercantile and publishing endeavors that it had put into place in 1831 and 1832. And it also stems from the church having two main centers or main headquarters during the early 1830s. So you had the Saints who were living in Kirtland, where Joseph Smith was, and then you had the Saints building the city of Zion in Missouri. And so there was a need for some coordination.
Spencer: As part of the work of the United Firm, William W. Phelps moved to Missouri where he opened a print shop and published a newspaper for the church. Bishop Edward Partridge and Sidney Gilbert tended to the temporal needs of the church in Missouri, with Partridge running a bishop’s storehouse for the care of the poor. In Kirtland, the caring for the poor was the stewardship of Newel K. Whitney. This calling required a shift in how Whitney ran his own business.
Matthew: Now Whitney’s store was a for-profit endeavor; it’s something that he had had for years before he joined the church. But in December of 1831, Newel K. Whitney is called as a bishop in the church. He was the second bishop called in the church; Edward Partridge was the first. But because Edward was in Missouri, there needed to be a bishop in Kirtland as well.
And so the Lord called Newel K. Whitney as this bishop in Kirtland. And in the revelation, talking about Whitney’s calling as bishop, it says that he needed to operate his storehouse the same way that the church was operating the storehouse in Missouri. It was to be a place where the poor and needy could come and could get goods.
Spencer: But the United Firm had another component. It appointed six men as stewards of the revelations received by Joseph Smith. A November 1831 conference of the church had deemed these revelations “a great blessing” upon the church, and these six stewards were charged with publishing them.
Spencer: From the convenient perch of the present, it might be easy to assume that the revelations received by Joseph Smith were readily available to all church members. But in the 1830s, spreading the word of new revelations—and distributing the text of those revelations—required considerable effort and coordination from church leaders. Sharalyn Howcroft, the project archivist for The Joseph Smith Papers, explained to me the excitement in the church surrounding these revelations, how they were recorded, and how they were shared.
Sharalyn: These revelations when they were received were spread by mouth and by copies. And so there was this immediacy of the revelations that escapes us in our stance now of canonized revelations, but these revelations were perceived as very significant, and they proliferated through copies and there was this great interest in the revelations.
Spencer: As historians, we are particularly grateful for the copies of these revelations that people made because sometimes they are the earliest surviving records of the text.
Sharalyn: So there’s one thing that most people don’t understand is that the revelations, there’s this anticipation that we have these revelation texts as they fell from the lips of Joseph Smith, and there was a scribe dutifully recording that. And we don’t have that initial record. What we have is the proliferation of copies that come from that. A lot of those are in the form of loose manuscript revelations that are in the handwritings of Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, and John Whitmer sometimes, and sometimes the individuals for whom the revelations were given.
We also have little booklets that were written by Orson Hyde, Sidney Gilbert, and others that were created to accompany them on missions. And they’re really the predominant copies, the predominant revelations that were imperative in church governance and instruction on how to conduct themselves in official priesthood capacity, so like the Articles and Covenants of the church, that which is Doctrine and Covenants, section 20, also Doctrine and Covenants, section 42. Those revelations that were very important for missionary work.
Spencer: But the early copies of revelations by church members are not all that survive. Sharalyn explained that fellow church leaders helped Joseph Smith collect his early revelations in record books.
Sharalyn: We have what’s called the Book of Commandments and Revelations, which was written by John Whitmer, with some editing by Oliver Cowdery and William W. Phelps, Sidney Rigdon, and Joseph Smith. That contains over 100 revelations. The Book of Commandments and Revelations was inscribed between March of 1831 and through mid-1835, but then we also have the Kirtland Revelation Book, which was inscribed from March of 1832 to 1834, and that has the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams.
Spencer: Yet handwritten copies of the revelations soon proved inadequate for circulating them to the rapidly growing church. Robin Jensen, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Robin: It quickly became apparent that these revelations were something that people wanted to read, and that’s totally understandable. The word of God being spoken by Joseph Smith, people want to know the content of those revelations, and so the church quickly decided to publish these revelations. Now, November of 1831, they made a decision that as they were gathering to Zion in Independence, Missouri, they would establish a press. And that eventually would publish a collection of revelations called the Book of Commandments.
Spencer: While working on the Book of Commandments, church leaders published several revelations in a periodical that functioned similar to the way that the church’s magazines function today.
Robin: But before the book was published, they published a church newspaper. This was called The Evening and the Morning Star. This church newspaper, it would have articles that church members would be interested in, it would have letters for missionaries about their successes, and it would also have revelations.
Spencer: It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these revelations appearing in the church’s newspaper.
Robin: This was the first time in print that Latter-day Saints had access to these declarations. And so in 1833, this Evening and Morning Star, they printed nineteen complete revelations and portions of seven revelations, and there were only a few of the issues that did not have any revelations. So this was a common occurrence. People in Independence that would open up this newspaper would find revelations published, and this newspaper circulated throughout the entire country.
Spencer: Sharalyn Howcroft told me that church leaders hoped to publish an ample supply of the Book of Commandments but that they soon ran into challenges pertaining to supply shortages.
Sharalyn: So in November 1831, there is a conference of elders in Hiram, Ohio, and in that conference it was determined to publish the revelations in book form. At that time, the sense was that they would produce 10,000 copies, but that was later reduced to 3,000 copies due to issues relating to paper shortages.
Spencer: Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were assigned to take the Revelation Book to Missouri to be published.
Sharalyn: So in July of 1831, William W. Phelps was appointed to be the church printer, and he was told as a part of that revelation to stay in Jackson County, Missouri. And so the church printer was located there in Missouri, and that’s when Phelps started producing The Evening and the Morning Star. And the revelations were printed there, but then they also, in tandem, started to put to type the Book of Commandments and Revelations.
Spencer: Everything seemed set for the publication of the Book of Commandments in late 1833. However, the critics of the church in Jackson County, Missouri, were growing increasingly intolerant of their Latter-day Saint neighbors. When their intolerance eventually boiled over into violent persecution, it would have devastating effect on the publication process.
Spencer: Even amid brewing hostilities in Missouri, church leaders continued in one of their primary missions as Christians—caring for the poor and needy among them. Several of the revelations Joseph Smith dictated mixed with inspired ideas of the church’s bishops. Together they led to innovative attempts for accomplishing this important mission.
A portion of the revelation known as “the Law” spelled out a new economic order that became known as the Law of Consecration. As a guiding principle, it stated, “And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support.” The way that Joseph Smith and church leaders implemented this command in Missouri was a form of communal living that would ensure eventually, that there would be no poor among the Saints. Church members would consecrate their property to the church and then be designated a stewardship from among that property, be it a farm or a store or something else. The surplus would then be used by the church’s bishops to help the poor. This approach to the Law of Consecration was implemented more fully in Missouri than it was in Ohio.
However, in both Kirtland and Missouri, the bishops of the church operated storehouses where the poor could come and receive food and goods they needed to sustain life.
In Kirtland, Bishop Newel K. Whitney and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, demonstrated a deep conviction to care for the poor in their community. In addition to using their store as a storehouse, they participated in a tradition common among many Christian denominations in nineteenth-century America called “feasts for the poor.” Jenny Reeder, a historian in the Church History Department, explains.
Jenny: There’s one account that I love where Elizabeth Ann Whitney and her husband worked really hard to care for the poor. Emma and Joseph attended the three-day “Feast for the Poor” that Newel K. and Elizabeth Ann prepared in January of 1836.
Elizabeth Ann describes it as a means to share their abundance according to our Savior’s pattern. She remembered how Joseph considered the opportunity to comfort the poor and to provide genuine satisfaction.
Spencer: Where did the Whitneys get the idea to hold these multi-day feasts and how did they work?
Jenny: So this is actually a great practice in the Methodist tradition, where they would have “Feast for the Poor” and Newel K. Whitney, as the bishop, and as also a store owner, would gather things and accept contributions from other Saints who could afford it and could provide it, and they invited the poor to come and eat. Not only eat physical food, but he also invited Joseph Smith to come and to feed them spiritually. So it was a really rich, powerful experience.
I think initially it was Newel K. Whitney’s idea and his inspiration as a bishop, but I think then that others took that and saw that Elizabeth Ann Whitney worked hand in hand with her husband to produce these three-day feasts.
Spencer: Jenny told me that these feasts were part of the larger efforts in the church at this time to care for the poor and the needy, but that they also represented important steps to enhanced efforts that would come years later in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Jenny: And I love this because I think this is just the beginning of relationships and friendships and caring for the poor that extends out into Nauvoo. When Newel K. Whitney and Elizabeth Ann Whitney came to Nauvoo, they had nothing. They were poor and, of course, who took them in? Emma Smith and Joseph Smith. And the 1836 “Feast for the Poor” really served as a training for Elizabeth Ann and Emma Smith in providing for the poor in the 1840s Nauvoo Relief Society. I love that they shared that experience, they learned through experience, and they figured out how to start this tradition of caring for the poor.
Spencer: As the church implemented continual efforts to care for the poor, Joseph Smith implemented plans for better education, to teach and to prepare church members for ecclesiastical leadership and for service as missionaries. These plans included something called the School of the Prophets.
Spencer: In December 1832, Joseph Smith received a revelation instructing the Latter-day Saints on a number of matters. Those instructions included direction to construct the House of the Lord in Kirtland, also known as The Temple. And once that temple was built, they were to sanctify themselves in a solemn assembly in that building. The revelation also directed them to receive instruction on spiritual and temporal subjects before embarking on missions.
When Joseph Smith informed church leaders in Missouri of this revelation two weeks later, he wrote that in Kirtland, they were “to build a house of God & establish a school of the prophets.” Let’s consider for a moment what Joseph Smith meant when he referred to a “school of the prophets.” What does that phrase mean? Where does that phrase come from?
To better understand the meaning and the origins of the name, School of the Prophets, I spoke with Joseph Darowski, who worked for years on the Joseph Smith Papers Project prior to his retirement.
Joseph: If you look first at New England, it was first used in regard to Harvard University. They needed a school to train ministers, just as it had been done in England, and they used that terminology, that they needed a “School of the Prophets” to provide ministerial training. And then later, Yale University will use the same designation.
Spencer: So the phrase comes from the way that ministers in the British colonies established in the United States referred to religious training of future ministers. But they did not invent the title. They brought it with them from England. And where did the English get it?
Joseph: It hearkens back to the Bible; Samuel, Elijah, and Elias are associated with what was called the “Sons of the Prophets” in the Old Testament. And one source of the term “Sons of the Prophets” actually could be translated as “Guild of the Prophets.” It’s a sense of a training academy or apprenticeship.
Spencer: So while the name “School of the Prophets” might not be instantly familiar to men and women in the present, in the United States during the 1830s it would have been quickly recognizable as a phrase referring to a school to train church leaders, as a place to train men for missionary service. And that is precisely what the School of the Prophets did.
The school met on the upper floor of Newel K. Whitney’s store. New members were initiated by the washing of feet, an act modeled after the biblical account of Jesus Christ washing the feet of His disciples. The school then proceeded with instruction on temporal and spiritual matters.
However, in addition to education and training, the School of the Prophets was a forum in which some of the leadership structures of the growing church were put in place. Most notably, on March 18, 1833, Joseph Smith ordained Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams as presidents of the high priesthood. Church members soon started referring to this three-man presidency as the First Presidency of the church.
The School of the Prophets also led to several important revelations for the church in Kirtland. One of these became known as the “Word of Wisdom.” Matthew Godfrey explains.
Matthew: In the School the Prophets, Joseph is trying to prepare people to go out and preach the gospel. He’s trying to teach them more about how to become more like God, how to become holier in their lives.
But one of the problems was, is that most of the men who attended the School of the Prophets were heavy users of tobacco. And so as soon as the School of the Prophets would begin, according to Brigham Young, they would pull out their pipes, they’d fill up their pipes with tobacco, and they began smoking so much so that there was often kind of this cloud of smoke that was in the room at the time.
Now many of them also chewed tobacco, and as they’re chewing, they would spit on the floor. Now, apparently Emma Smith was the one who had to clean the floor of this room. And Emma, because of all of the tobacco spit on the floor, complained to Joseph about it and wondered, was it really good for these men who are trying to learn how to be more holy to be chewing tobacco and creating a mess of the room in which they’re learning these principles.
And so that’s the immediate cause, that’s one thing that leads Joseph to go to the Lord and receive the revelation that becomes known as the “Word of Wisdom.”
Spencer: So how did these teachings on healthy habits fit into the larger culture of nineteenth-century America?
Matthew: This all occurs in a larger context in the nineteenth century, where in the United States, there’s kind of this trend toward cleanliness, hygiene, and health. And so this is going on at the same time. And people in the United States are especially concerned about the consumption of alcohol and the high rate of consumption that has been reached in the United States. So in 1830, Americans consumed an average of seven gallons of alcohol per person per year, which is about three times today’s consumption rate.
So there was a lot of drinking that was going on in the early United States. And so this leads to a temperance movement that occurs at that time. The American Temperance Society is formed in 1826. Many of its members sign a pledge to abstain from alcohol, to not drink at all, and there’s also local temperance societies that develop, including one that’s formed in Kirtland in 1830, and that lasts until about 1835. And so these temperance societies are trying to get people to join and to pledge to moderate their use of alcohol or completely abstain from the use of alcohol as well. And so, kind of this national trend towards temperance, towards trying to cut down the use of alcohol in the United States, is also an important context for the revealing of the Word of Wisdom in 1833.
Spencer: How did the members of the School of the Prophets respond to the Word of Wisdom?
Matthew: Right after Joseph received the revelation, he actually read it to the School of the Prophets. And according to Brigham Young, after he read the revelation, there were several men in that meeting who got up, took their pipes and threw them into the fire to kind of show that they were willing to obey the Word of Wisdom.
Spencer: What about the rest of the church?
Matthew: Now some members of the church accepted it and followed it strictly; others followed parts of it, others believed that they could use the prohibited items if they did so in moderation. And part of the issue was that the revelation said that it was given not by commandment or constraint. And so this led many people to believe that it wasn’t necessarily a binding commandment on them but that it was more kind of a guideline or a principle that they could use if they so desired.
Spencer: Years later presidents of the church began emphasizing the need for church members to more strictly obey the counsel given in the Word of Wisdom, which is included in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 89.
The School of the Prophets met through the spring of 1833. It became the predecessor to several education enterprises in Kirtland in the years that followed. Joseph Darowski explains.
Joseph: So it’s fall of 1834 before they are in a position to hold another school. And at that point in time, it’s going to be expanded. More are going to be able to participate and they’re using the term “Elder School.” They made it a little bit more generic. There’s two reasons for that—one is they are expanding it, they’re opening it up, and actually by “Elders” they're including priests, teachers, and deacons. And they’re also going to hold classes of a more secular nature where they’ll teach math and other disciplines.
And they’re going to teach writing, penmanship, math, geography, history, some literature. This becomes the Kirtland School and then the Kirtland High School.
Spencer: But the greatest legacy of the School of the Prophets may be the education and training that it provided church members for serving as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The School of the Prophets was also an act of empowerment. Joseph Smith reaffirmed his calling as a prophet who received revelation for the church, but in the School of the Prophets he once again signaled that one did not have to be a prophet to connect with heaven or to receive revelation.
The School of the Prophets, in addition to the education and training its members received, pointed the Saints’ attention to the construction of the temple in Kirtland and the endowment of power that they would receive in a solemn assembly in that building.
Spencer: In early 1833, the church had plans to build a temple in Missouri and another one in Kirtland. But as the year rolled forward, tensions between church members and others in Missouri increased and threatened to disrupt these plans.
Matthew: By about the summer of 1833, there’s roughly 1,200 members of the church living in Missouri. Now there’s various reasons why this happens, but the church members, the Saints, began to run afoul of others living in Missouri who are not members of the church.
Spencer: Some of these tensions centered on political concerns, a concern that a growing concentration of church members would result in their control of elections in the county. Other tensions were economic in nature, a concern that the growing population of church members tended to do business with each other. But intertwined in both of these tensions and all of these concerns was religious bigotry.
When the critics of the church in Jackson County, Missouri, gathered to discuss a plan of action against the Latter-day Saints, they drafted a set of resolutions. They laced all of their political and economic concerns with bigoted critiques of the Latter-day Saints, dismissal of their religious claims, essentially dismissing their beliefs as a fake religion and as not deserving protection under the state’s guarantee of religious freedom.
With these resolutions in hand, the church’s critics formed a mob and marched on the Saints’ settlement.
Matthew: There’s mobs that spring up in the summer of 1833. They tear down the church’s printing office that’s in Missouri. They take Edward Partridge who’s the bishop in Missouri and they tar and feather him, and the violence doesn’t really stop until the leaders in Missouri promise that the Saints will leave the county. They say half of us will leave by the end of the year, the other half will leave by April 1, 1834.
Spencer: This promise to leave pacified the mob for a time.
Matthew: But then church members and church leaders there start to think, you know, we legally purchased our land here in Missouri, and we should have every right to live and stay on this land. And so they begin to explore possibilities of how they could stay on the land. Now when those living in Missouri hear about this, the violence springs up again in the fall of 1833, and this ultimately results in the church being kicked out of Jackson County, Missouri.
And those who are living there, most of them cross the Missouri River into Clay County, where they began to try to find shelter, try to find work. They’ve basically lost everything because all of their property is in Jackson County.
Spencer: Under any circumstances, such an illegal and violent expulsion of a people from their property is a devastating event. But what compounded the devastation was the belief that the land they were forced to vacate was the land appointed by revelation as the center place of Zion. What would they do next? For that guidance they would look to revelation through the prophet Joseph Smith.
The mob violence in Missouri was also a major setback for the publication of Joseph Smith’s revelations. Recall that the way the United Firm was set up placed the church’s printing operations in Missouri. Well, that shop and its printing press—and the revelations it was printing—became a target of the mob. Sharalyn Howcroft explains.
Sharalyn: So at the time of the destruction of the press, it’s more than just throwing the type out of the building. I mean, they actually throw the press out of the building. They’re even tearing down the walls of the building, and at that point, there’s several of the sheets of the Book of Commandments that are in the building, and when I say several, they’ve got stacks of these gatherings that are in there and those are being streamed to the four winds.
And we have these two girls, Mary Elizabeth Rollins and Carolyn Rollins, who are picking up the sheets and these girls are nine and eleven. And they’re running into an adjoining cornfield and covering these sheets, hiding from the mob, and covering the sheets with their bodies in this cornfield.
Spencer: Let’s let this story sink in for just a moment. Two young girls, aged nine and eleven, in the midst of scene of horrific mob violence, spotted the printed pages containing prophetic revelations on the ground. Instead of merely hiding themselves, they risked their own safety for the sake of protecting and preserving these revelations. Think about what that tells us about how even some of the youngest Latter-day Saints understood and valued the revelation the church was receiving from Joseph Smith?
The Book of Commandments was never completed, but as Sharalyn explains, the church made use of what pages had been saved from the mob.
Sharalyn: As a result of their efforts and presumably others, we have some incomplete copies of the Book of Commandments that was anticipated for publication. There’s less than three dozen copies of these books in existence. They contain about sixty-five chapters or 160 pages of revelation text that are in five gatherings. It’s anticipated that there were supposed to be six gatherings in this publication. But these uncut sheets from the press were salvaged and bound into incomplete books, and these books are very unique in and of themselves; they’re unique to the person who owned them.
Spencer: This limited supply of books—books that were unfinished compilations of Joseph Smith’s revelations—are a fascinating artifact of church history. But some of the surviving copies also reveal just how precious these revelations were to church members. Consider this example from recent convert and future church president Wilford Woodruff.
Sharalyn: One of my favorite copies of the Book of Commandments is Wilford Woodruff’s copy. Because at the very end of the book, you have Doctrine and Covenants, section 89, which is the Word of Wisdom, and it stops mid-sentence, and he proceeds to inscribe the rest of the revelation in it. So not only do you have this abrupt termination of the text, but you have Woodruff doing his part to complete the revelation.
Spencer: Still, the 1833 mob violence in Missouri was a major setback. As the Saints regrouped and their leaders sought divine revelation on how they should proceed, they moved the printing operations to Kirtland and reformulated their plans to print a compilation of Joseph Smith’s revelations to the church.
Spencer: The expulsion of church members from Jackson County, Missouri, meant that Kirtland’s status as a stake of Zion was more important than ever. Joseph Smith and the First Presidency would continue to reside in that city, and in that city they would continue to seek revelation. In particular, they would seek to discover the mind and will of God pertaining to the redemption of Zion. But they would also discover a greater sense of urgency in constructing the Kirtland House of the Lord. The endowment of power they believed that they would receive in that temple seemed more important to them than ever before.
And that is where we’ll pick up the story in the next episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.