Letter to the Church in Caldwell County, Missouri, 16 December 1838
JS, Letter, , Clay Co., MO, to the church in , MO, 16 Dec. 1838. Featured version copied [between 16 Dec. 1838 and ca. May 1839]; handwriting of ; seven pages; JS Collection, CHL. Includes use marks, docket, and possible redactions.
Two biofolia measuring 12½ × 8 inches (32 × 20 cm). The bifolia were folded for filing. Later, they were fastened with two staples in the upper left corner; the staples were subsequently removed. The document has undergone conservation.
The copied letter was in ’s possession from the time of inscription until late 1839 or early 1840, when it was evidently used as a source text for the published version of the letter in the April 1840 issue of the Times and Seasons. In the 1840s, church clerk docketed the verso of the second leaf of the second biofolium: “Epistle from J. Smith | Liberty Jail— to the | Church of J. C. L. D. S | Decr 16— 1838.” The document has apparently remained in continuous institutional custody.
Huntington’s copy and the Times and Seasons version share about fifty variants that are not found in other versions. In one case, the Times and Seasons incorporated wording regarding Sampson Avard that was inserted between lines of text in Huntington’s copy. (See JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in Times and Seasons, Apr. 1840, 1:82–86.)
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.
On 16 December 1838, JS composed a letter from the in , Missouri, to the in , Missouri, as well as “all the Saints who are scattered abroad.” By 16 December, JS had been in state custody for more than six weeks and had undergone a seventeen-day criminal court of inquiry, or preliminary hearing, that resulted in his imprisonment in Liberty. There he awaited a spring 1839 trial on charges of treason and other crimes. Filled with indignation toward those he perceived were the cause of his imprisonment and dismayed at his doleful circumstances and the thought of spending the winter in jail, JS vented his emotions in this lengthy letter to the church. JS apparently patterned the letter after New Testament epistles, opening with a salutation, expressing prayers for church members, commenting on difficulties the church faced, and concluding with a blessing. He also quoted liberally from the Bible and other scriptures and placed the Saints’ predicament within the context of the long history of persecution against God’s people.
Much of the letter condemns dissenters—the devil’s “emissaries.” JS contended that they cooperated with the Saints’ enemies during the recent conflict and were therefore responsible for the deaths of several Latter-day Saints, for JS’s arrest and incarceration, and for the expulsion of church members from the . JS focused his ire on the delegation that had negotiated with Major General on 31 October 1838: , , , , and . JS argued that the delegation had betrayed him, resorting to deception to lure him into the enemies’ camp. Additionally, JS asserted that several other dissenters—including , and , and —had spread false rumors that endangered the church. JS also contended that the teachings of , a former general, were not authorized by the . In the letter, JS also stated that the many dissenters who testified for the prosecution at the November 1838 hearing had “borne false witness” against the Mormon prisoners.
Further, JS condemned the anti-Mormon forces that fought against the Latter-day Saints. He argued that religious and civil elites—whom he compared to Sadducees, Pharisees, and other opponents of Jesus Christ in the New Testament—instigated mob violence against church members. JS denied committing the crimes for which he and other Mormons were imprisoned, including treason and murder, and argued instead that the church’s enemies were guilty of these offenses.
Although much of the letter is colored by JS’s indignation toward the church’s opponents, portions of the epistle also reflect confidence that God would vindicate the Saints. Comparing the dissenters to Haman, Balaam, Korah, and Job’s false friends—biblical figures who sought to hinder and persecute God’s people—JS reassured church members that just as the Lord rescued his ancient followers from their oppressors, he would deliver his latter-day people. Perhaps responding to dissenters who challenged JS’s prophetic leadership, JS also included in the letter the text of a revelation that declared he retained the “,” or the divine authority, that had been given to him. Near the close of the letter, JS promised the Saints that although appeared to be dead, it would ultimately be revitalized.
It is unclear how JS produced the original letter, which is not extant. JS probably discussed the major themes of the epistle with his fellow prisoners—which perhaps explains the frequent use of the first-person plural in the letter—although he alone signed the document. Close examination of extant copies indicates that two distinct textual traditions—one based on a rough draft, the other based on a revised draft—may have originated from inside the . Assuming that the textual production of the 16 December 1838 letter was similar to that of the circa 22 March 1839 general epistle, JS likely dictated a rough draft, which then was edited and revised under his direction. One or more subsequent drafts would have then been made to incorporate the changes, and both versions would have been sent out of the jail, presumably to increase circulation of the letter’s content among the Saints.
JS’s scribe, , copied the rough draft or an intermediary version into a church record book, probably before moving to in spring 1839. Latter-day Saint likely copied a revised version or an intermediary copy prior to her move to Illinois in May. Consistent with the proposed scenario regarding the letter’s production, the differences between the copies made by Mulholland and Huntington reflect conscious editing decisions rather than routine copying errors. The variants include shortened phrases, modernized word forms (for example, “seeth” changed to “sees”), altered diction (for example, “God” changed to “the Lord” and “state” changed to “government”), deleted slang phrases, and improved grammatical constructions. In a few cases, entire phrases and sentences in Mulholland’s copy are absent from Huntington’s copy; for example, Huntington’s copy does not include “We stood in our own defence and we believe that no man of us acted only in a just a lawful and righteous retaliation against such marauders.” Given that Huntington’s copy likely represents the textual tradition of the most polished version produced under JS’s direction, it is featured here. Significant variants in Mulholland’s version are noted in annotation.
As demonstrated by the multiple copies that have survived, the epistle circulated broadly among the Saints in manuscript form. In a 14 May 1839 letter, Latter-day Saint David Foote included an eleven-line quotation from the revised version of the 16 December 1838 epistle to support his assertion that JS’s willingness to suffer for his religion proved his sincerity and his status as a prophet. A revised version of the 16 December letter was published in the April 1840 issue of the Times and Seasons, substantially increasing the letter’s circulation.
Two drafts of the circa 22 March 1839 general epistle are extant. JS dictated the first draft, corrected and revised it, and then had a fair copy made that reflected the changes. Despite differences between the drafts, JS evidently sent both versions of the circa 22 March epistle to the Saints, presumably to broaden circulation. (See Historical Introduction to Letter to Edward Partridge and the Church, ca. 22 Mar. 1839; see also Hall, Ways of Writing, 32–33.)
Hall, David D. Ways of Writing: The Practice and Politics of Text-Making in Seventeenth-Century New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
See JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in “General,” Record Book, 101–108. There are two indications that Mulholland copied the letter before moving from Missouri to Illinois. First, Mulholland inscribed the letter in the record book that was JS’s primary journal in Missouri in 1838. After Mulholland copied the letter into the record book, it remained unused until the mid-1840s. When Mulholland copied JS’s Missouri-era correspondence in Illinois, he used a different record book, JS Letterbook 2. Second, George W. Robinson probably corrected Mulholland’s transcript while the two men were working together in Missouri, perhaps when Robinson corrected Mulholland’s copy of a revelation in the Missouri journal that Robinson was keeping for JS. There is no indication that Robinson functioned as JS’s scribe after leaving Missouri. (See Source Note for Journal, Mar.–Sept. 1838; JS, Journal, Mar.–Sept. 1838, pp. 72–74; Mulholland, Journal, 22 Apr. 1839.)
“General,” Record Book, 1838. Verso of Patriarchal Blessings, vol. 5. CHL.
Mulholland, James. Journal, Apr.–Oct. 1839. In Joseph Smith, Journal, Sept.–Oct. 1838. Joseph Smith Collection. CHL. MS 155, box 1, fd. 4.
Huntington arrived in Commerce, Illinois, on 16 May 1839. Although it is possible that Huntington copied the epistle after her removal to Illinois, her own illness and the death of her mother makes it unlikely. Her copy includes an interlineal insertion regarding Sampson Avard that was later incorporated into the version of the letter published in the Times and Seasons, indicating that April 1840 is the last possible copying date. (Zina Huntington Young, Autobiographical Sketch, 10; Oliver Huntington, “History of Oliver Boardman Huntington,” 47–48, 52–54; JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in Times and Seasons, Apr. 1840, 1:85.)
Young, Zina Huntington. Autobiographical Sketch, no date. Zina Card Brown Family Collection, 1806–1972. CHL.
Huntington, Oliver B. “History of Oliver Boardman Huntington,” 1845–1846. BYU.
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.
At a later date, Phebe Carter Woodruff made an incomplete copy of the letter that reflected the rough draft’s textual tradition. Although Woodruff’s copy closely parallels Mulholland’s, her copy contains some copying errors—for example, writing “mental” instead of “mutual” and “starve” instead of “strive.” She also omitted some words and short phrases, apparently inadvertently. A few variants may have been editorial decisions, such as changing words (for example, revising “evidence” to “witness”) and adding phrases that were probably not in the original letter, such as the heading “An Epistle given to the church of Latter-day Saints in Caldwell County Missouri by Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith jr. while in Libertyjail.” For unknown reasons, Woodruff did not complete the copy. According to a note written on the letter’s wrapper, Phebe’s husband, Wilford Woodruff, donated the copy to the Church Historian’s Office on 27 May 1857. (JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, JS Collection, CHL.)
Smith, Joseph. Collection, 1827–1846. CHL. MS 155.
and from henceforth their works shall be made manifest. And now dear and well beloved brethren and when we say brethren we mean those who have continued faithful in christ men, women, and children, we feel to exhort you in the name of the Lord Jesus, to be strong in the faith of the , and nothing frightened at your enemies. For what has happened unto us is an evident token to them of damnation but unto us of salvation and that of God. Therefore hold on even unto death, for he that seeks to save his life shall loose lose it but he that loseth his life for my sake and the gospels shall find it sayeth Jesus Christ. Brethren from henceforth let truth and righteousness prevail and abound in you and in all things be temperate, abstain from every appearance of evil, drunkenness, and profane language, and from every thing which is unrighteous or unholy; also from enmity, and hatred, and covetousness and from every unholy desires. Be honest one with another, for it seemeth that some have come short of these things, and some have been uncharitable & have manifested greediness because of their debts towards those who have been persecuted & dragged about with chains without cause and imprisoned. Such persons God hates and they shall have their turn of sorrow in the rolling of the great wheel for it rolleth and none can hinder. shall yet live though she seemeth to be dead. Remember that whatsoever measure you meet out to others it shall be measured to you again. We say unto you brethren be not afraid of your adversaries contend earnestly against mobs, and the unlawful works of dissenters and of darkness. And the very God of peace shall be with you and make a way for your escape from the adversary of your souls we commend you to God and the word of his grace which is able to make us wise unto salvation. Amen.
JS was perhaps alluding to the rota fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a concept that is rooted in ancient philosophy and that entered Anglo-American culture through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays, and other sources. Such texts reference the idea that an individual’s prospects can rise and fall according to the dictates of fate and providence. (Robinson, “Wheel of Fortune,” 207–216; Chapman, “Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare’s Historical Plays,” 1–7.)
Robinson, David M. “The Wheel of Fortune.” Classical Philology 41, no. 4 (Oct. 1946): 207–216.
Chapman, Raymond. “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare’s Historical Plays.” Review of English Studies 1, no. 1 (Jan. 1950): 1–7.