JS, Discourse, , 5 Feb. 1840. Featured version in , Letter, , to , , New York Co., NY, 6 Feb. 1840; handwriting of ; three pages; CHL. Includes address, dockets, and notation.
Bifolium measuring 10⅛ × 7⅛ inches (26 × 18 cm) and containing twenty-eight printed lines on each page. The document was trifolded in letter style and sealed with a red adhesive wafer.
It is unclear precisely when and from whom the Church Historian’s Office received the document. The docketing by suggests that the office may have possessed the document as early as 1845, when Bullock inscribed entries dated February 1840—including this discourse—for JS’s 1838–1856 history. In any case, the historian’s office had the letter by the time Bullock stopped working for the office in 1856. The letter appears in later office inventories, suggesting continuous institutional custody since 1845.
“Index to Papers in the Historians Office,” ca. 1904, draft, 4; “Index to Papers in the Historians Office,” ca. 1904, 4, Historian’s Office, Catalogs and Inventories, 1846–1904, CHL.
Historian’s Office. Catalogs and Inventories, 1846–1904. CHL. CR 100 130.
On 5 February 1840, JS preached a discourse in in which he described his religious beliefs. The only extant record of this discourse is in a letter wrote to his wife, . Matthew Davis, a former Whig editor and printer and an Aaron Burr biographer, was present in the audience to hear JS preach. Though a resident, Davis was working in Washington as a political correspondent for the New York Courier and Enquirer and as a news correspondent on American affairs for the Times. His interest in hearing JS speak does not appear to have been linked to his profession but was rather, as he explained to his wife, born from a desire “to understand his [JS’s] tenets, as Explained by himself.” It is unknown in what venue JS delivered this discourse or how it was generally received by those in attendance. Later reminiscences claim that JS spoke frequently and in a variety of settings during his stay in the national capital and that he often attracted large crowds that included prominent political leaders.
According to this record of the discourse and contemporaneous letters written by JS and other leaders, rumors about JS and the church apparently had spread throughout the country, and JS wanted to emphasize that they were false. JS may have been responding here to specific allegations that George G. Cookman, a prominent Methodist clergyman, had recently preached against him. It is also possible that JS was addressing the public’s general misunderstandings of the church. JS and other church leaders hoped that preaching, coupled with letters published in eastern newspapers, would help to dispel falsehoods about the church’s teachings and win public support for their efforts to obtain redress and reparations from the federal government.
The discourse lasted over two hours as JS addressed many aspects of the church’s beliefs, including the attributes of God, the difference between omniscience and predestination, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the fall of Adam, the rejection of the doctrine of original sin, the Bible as scripture, the eternal nature of the soul, the finite nature of humankind’s postmortal punishment, and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Near the end of the discourse, JS denied charges that he held himself up to his followers as a savior or miracle worker.
indicated that he sent his report of the discourse in order to satisfy his and his ’s curiosity regarding JS and the church. Near the close of this letter, Davis wrote, “I have changed my opinion of the Mormons. They are an injured and much abused people. Of matters of Faith, you know I Express no opinion.” In addition to recounting JS’s discourse, Davis included a physical description of JS, writing that he appeared to be “from 40 to 45 years of age; rather above the middle stature, and what you ladies would call a good looking man” and that he dressed like “a plain, unpretending Citizen.” Davis also described JS’s comportment and speaking style, stating that JS was “not an Educated man” but “a plain, sensible, strong minded man.” Davis added that JS spoke “in a manner to leave an impression that he is sincere,” with “no levity—no fanaticism—no want of dignity in his deportment.”
The report of JS’s discourse featured here constitutes the bulk of ’s letter to his . The single paragraph that precedes Davis’s summary of JS’s remarks contains the aforementioned description of JS’s appearance, demeanor, and communication style. Two paragraphs follow the summary, in which Davis expressed his changed opinion of the Mormons and conveyed kind sentiments to his family. In a postscript, Davis added that JS “does not believe in infant baptism, sprinkling but in immersion, and eight years of age.”
It is unclear how sent the letter to his . He possibly dispatched the letter to by a private party because the letter bears no postmark. Mary Davis presumably received and read the letter before relinquishing possession of it. When and how it came to the Church Historian’s Office is also unclear. It is possible that she gave it to one of the many church missionaries who passed through New York during the 1840s and that this missionary then carried it to , Illinois.
“Death of Another Old Resident,” New-York Commercial Advertiser (New York City), 22 June 1850, ; “The Late Matthew L. Davis,” New-York Commercial Advertiser, 27 June 1850, . Davis wrote under the pseudonym “Spy in Washington” for the New York Courier and Enquirer and the pseudonym “A Genevese Traveller” for the London Times.
According to Representative John Reynolds of Illinois, JS “stood at the time fair and honorable, as far as we knew at the City of Washington, except his fanaticism on religion. The sympathies of the people were in his favor,” and he “preached often in the city.” Robert D. Foster recalled organizing around the end of January 1840 a large meeting “in the open air on Pennsylvania Avenue” and another in “Carusi’s Saloon” (on the corner of 11th and C streets), which he called “one of the largest and most suitable rooms in the city, outside the capitol building.” JS, having just arrived by train from Philadelphia, addressed an audience that, according to Foster, included “a great many of the members of Congress and heads of departments,” including Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and President Martin Van Buren. (Reynolds, My Own Times, 575; Robert D. Foster, “A Testimony of the Past,” True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, 15 Apr. 1875, 228–229; Watterson, New Guide to Washington, 85, 145.)
Reynolds, John. My Own Times: Embracing Also, the History of My Life. Belleville, IL: B. H. Perryman and H. L. Davison, 1855.
Saints’ Herald. Independence, MO. 1860–.
Watterson, George. A New Guide to Washington. Washington DC: Robert Farnham, 1842.
Cookman was a chaplain in the United States Senate and a well-known preacher in the national capital. On 29 December 1839, Cookman reportedly preached against JS and the church, claiming falsely that he had interviewed JS the week before. (Ridgaway, Life of the Rev. Alfred Cookman, 76–80; Robert D. Foster, “A Testimony of the Past,” True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, 15 Apr. 1875, 227–228; Letter from Robert D. Foster, 24 Dec. 1839.)
Ridgaway, Henry B. The Life of the Rev. Alfred Cookman; with Some Account of His Father, the Rev. George Grimston Cookman. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1873.
Missionaries passing through New York City between 1840 and 1845 included several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who were returning from England in May 1841 and Parley P. Pratt, who traveled to New York City when campaigning for JS in the presidential election of 1844. (Woodruff, Journal, 23 May 1841; “Jeffersonian Meeting,” Prophet, 15 June 1844, .)
Woodruff, Wilford. Journals, 1833–1898. Wilford Woodruff, Journals and Papers, 1828–1898. CHL. MS 1352.
The Prophet. New York City, NY. May 1844–Dec. 1845.
He then entered into some details, the result of which tended to shew his total unbelief of what is termed Original Sin. He believes that it is washed away by the blood of Christ, and that it no longer Exists. As a necessary consequence, he believes that we are all born pure and undefiled. That all children dying at an Early [age] (say eight years) not knowing good from ill, from were incapable of sinning; and that all such assuredly go to Heaven.
I believe, said he, that a man is a moral, responsible, free agent, that although it was fore-ordained he should fall and be redeemed; yet after the redemption it was not fore-ordained that he should again sin. In the Bible a rule of conduct is laid down for <him>. In the Old and New testaments the law by which he is to be governed may be found. If he violates that law, he is to be punished for the deeds done in the body
I believe that God is Eternal. That he had no beginning and can have no End. Eternity means that which is without beginning or End. I believe that the Soul is Eternal. It had no beginning; it can have no End. Here he entered into some Explanations, which were so brief that I could not perfectly comprehend him. But the idea seemed to be that the Soul of man— the Spirit, had Existed from Eternity in the bosom of Divinity, and so far as he was intelligible to me, must ultimately return from whence it came
He said very little of rewards and punishments. But one conclusion, from what he did say, was irresistible. He contended throughout, that every thing which had a beginning must have an Ending; and consequently, if the punishment of man commences in the next world, it must, according to his logic and belief have an End
During the whole of his address, and it occupied more than two hours, there was no opinion or belief that he Expressed, that was calculated, in the slightest degree, to impair the morals of Society, or in any manner to [p. ]
According to Davis’s letter, JS stated that he “does not believe in infant baptism.” His declarations, as recorded by Davis, echo a doctrine taught in the book of Moroni in the Book of Mormon. Earlier JS revelations rejected the notion of original sin, the belief that all men and women are born in a sinful state as a result of the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In 1836 JS taught that all children who die before reaching an age of accountability will be saved in the highest degrees of heaven. An 1829 revelation stated that children were not to be baptized until they reached the “years of accountability.” Sometime between 1 February and 7 March 1831, JS revised Genesis 17:11 so that it explained “that children are not accountable before me till eight years old.” An 1831 revelation declared that “children shall be baptised for the remission of their sins when eight years old.” (M. L. Davis to M. Davis, 6 Feb. 1840; Book of Mormon, 1837 ed., 613 [Moroni 8:8–15]; JS, Journal, 21 Jan. 1836; Revelation, June 1829–B [D&C 18:42]; Old Testament Revision 1, p. 14 [Moses 6:54–55]; Faulring et al., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 64; Old Testament Revision 1, p. 41 [Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 17:11]; Revelation, 1 Nov. 1831–A [D&C 68:27]; see also Explanation of Scripture, 1830 [D&C 74:6–7].)
Davis, Matthew L. Letter, Washington DC, to Mary Davis, New York City, NY, 6 Feb. 1840. CHL. MS 522.
Faulring, Scott H., Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds. Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004.
In an 1829 revelation, the voice of the Lord declared, “Endless is my name: Wherefore— Eternal punishment is God’s punishment: Endless punishment is God’s punishment.” (Revelation, ca. Summer 1829 [D&C 19:10–12].)