SALT LAKE CITY — Joseph Smith had a tempestuous relationship with newspapers from the beginning of his ministry, when one editor wrote that he was a long-legged ignoramus, to his death, when another editor stood trial for his murder.
Objectivity was not yet a concept in American journalism in the 1830s and early 1840s. Such indignities sometimes led Smith to rail at the media after another misrepresentation of him or Mormonism.
"I have been in their mill," he once said. "I was ground in Ohio and New York states. I was ground in the Presbyterian smut machine, and the last machine was in Missouri, and now I have been through the Illinois smut machine."
"He was talking about the press," said Terryl Givens, author of "The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism," who relishes the colorful quote. American newspapers at the time were overtly political and biased. Many of their subjects easily would have understood the metaphor of feeling like they had been put through the machine that separated smut fungus and other substances from wheat to make it fit for grinding.
No matter how bad it got, the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints yearned for a voice in the papers, said biographer Richard Bushman. Ironically, Smith's persistent efforts to work with rowdy, obstreperous editors eventually led to new Mormon scripture, a list of beliefs that are striking because of Smith's long reluctance to publish them and remarkable because of their staying power in spite of leaving out key hallmarks of LDS theology like the temple.
Every Mormon child sets out to memorize them. Virtually every Mormon missionary knows them. The list, known as the Articles of Faith, were first published 175 years ago this month and later canonized.
Historians say the origin story of the Articles of Faith is more interesting and richer than the one most Primary children hear, just as Mormon studies scholars say LDS theology is richer, broader and deeper than what is found in the Articles of Faith.
One of Joseph Smith's contemporaries, the writer James Fenimore Cooper, described newspapers in the 1830s as self-interested — many were organs of political parties or existed to support a single agenda. He also said they displayed no tolerance and frequently exhibited no decency.
Smith experienced it all, beginning even before he organized the LDS Church in April 1830.
One editor pirated portions of the Book of Mormon before Smith could publish it. The Reflector, a freethought or atheist newspaper, was printed in the same Palmyra, New York, shop where printer E.B. Grandin was preparing the Book of Mormon for publication in the fall of 1829. The Reflector's editor, Abner Cole, stole sections of the Mormon scripture and mockingly leaked them in the paper months before the book would appear for sale in March 1830. When Smith confronted him, Cole challenged Smith to a fist fight and, in print, called him a "spindle shanked (long-legged) ignoramus."
American newspapers experienced dramatic expansion and broad upheaval during the Jacksonian era. In a single decade, the number of papers more than doubled, proliferating far faster than a fast-growing population. The advent of the Penny press caused a huge spike in circulation. The media objectivity Americans argue over today didn't exist in frontier newspapers of the time. In fact, one paper in each state served as the Democratic Committee organ for President Andrew Jackson.
"You were derelict in duty as a newspaper, you were kind of wimpy, if you didn't have a political perspective," said Elliot King, chair of the communications department at Loyola University of Maryland and founder of the Media History Exchange. "Newspapers in places like Chicago, which is still a backwater in 1842, are very personal, owned and run by one person, two people. They're publishing 500 copies in small shops, with a single editor/publisher."
King and other media historians say the initial ideas about objectivity first began to emerge in the East during this time, though the term was never used by journalists and the concept was slow to take root.
The idea that journalists should apply objectivity began to take hold broadly in the 1890s, but it didn't emerge in the way Americans understand it today until after World War I.
Eventually, "news" triumphed over editorial and "facts" over opinion, media historian Michael Schudson wrote in his book, "Discovering the News."
Editors did regularly ask each other for information about news in another paper's area. Eber D. Howe, the editor of an abolitionist newspaper, the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph, wrote a letter in 1830 to a newspaper publisher in Canandaigua, New York, W.W. Phelps, asking him about the origins of the Mormon faith. Howe's wife, sister and niece — and Phelps — soon joined the church. By early 1831, Howe became Smith's antagonist, Bushman said, eventually writing, "Mormonism Unvailed," the chief critical work against Mormons in the 1830s.
"He really yearned to have a voice in the papers because he was always looking for every way to get the word out," said Bushman, author of the definitive Smith biography, "Rough Stone Rolling." "So when anyone was sympathetic to him, then he was very grateful."
In 1833, Noah Saxton, the editor of a revivalist paper in New York, the American Revivalist and Rochester Observer, asked Smith to write a statement of what he was about. Smith provided a long explanation. Saxton printed just two paragraphs. Bushman said Smith was frustrated.
"I was somewhat disappointed on receiving the paper with only a part of my letter inserted," Smith wrote to Saxton. "The letter which I wrote you for publication I wrote by the commandment of God, and I am quite anxious to have it all laid before the public." He admitted "some parts of the letter were very severe upon the wickedness of sectarianism ... (but) this is no reason why it should not be published but the very reason why it should."
Saxton never replied.
By the late 1830s and early 1840s, Smith began to find sympathetic ears in the East, where, again, the first ideas about objectivity were circulating.
"He's eager to take advantage of any publicity that he can get through the national press," Bushman said. "He really sees himself as a national figure. When he runs for president, he'd had some experiences with sympathetic editors complaining of the mistreatment of Mormons. He thought he could appeal through those people for support and eventually votes. That's really his aim in writing."
Meanwhile, some continued to ask for clarification about what Mormons believed.
"People wanted to know, what's the content of the revelations?" Bushman said. "What's new?"
Smith resisted because he was allergic to the formal statements of belief traditionally made by Christian faiths and known as creeds. One LDS leader at the time wrote that Mormonism is "the great leveling machine of creeds."
"Against this need to state what we believed," Bushman said, "there was the problem of a disillusionment with creeds for lots of Mormons, including Joseph, who didn't want nailed down exactly what we believe because of ongoing revelation, his belief that there would be growth and development. You could never say at one given moment a final statement on what we stood for."
Smith was grateful to supply a summary of the origins of the church or provide a list of grievances of church members abused in Missouri and Illinois, but he was reluctant to make a list of the new faith's beliefs.
After all, he had declared that God was speaking again through a prophet, restoring the pure gospel of Jesus Christ previously obscured by creeds. In fact, Smith said God told him in the First Vision that creeds were an abomination. For early Latter-day Saints, a creed or list of beliefs was useless and possibly dangerous; ongoing revelation was expected to provide new doctrine, and Smith intended to leave space for it.
"The Latter-day Saints have no creed," he said, "but they are ready to believe all true principles that exist as they are made manifest from time to time." He added, "It feels so good not to be trammelled."
Some church members even objected when Smith published the faith's second set of scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants, in 1835. They feared the publication of these revelations would stabilize church beliefs.
"There's this sort of tension," Bushman said. "How do we state what we stand for, but on the other hand how do we prevent it from becoming so static that we lose the dynamic development of the church?"
While Smith resisted, others in his inner circle began to publish lists, often compelled by missionary work. Oliver Cowdery listed eight items when he published "broad principles" of the faith in 1834, beginning with, "We believe in God, and his Son Jesus Christ."
In 1836, Brigham Young's brother Joseph Young provided a list he called the faith's "principal articles of faith" to a man publishing a book on American denominations. Over the next four years, Parley P. Pratt wrote a book, "Voice of Warning," and several pamphlets with phrases echoed in the Articles of Faith. Pratt's brother, Orson Pratt, published a pamphlet in Scotland in 1840 with what would become the first Article of Faith: "We believe in God the Eternal Father, and his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost... ."
In 1841, Orson Hyde wrote to Smith and said, "I have written a snug little article on every point of doctrine believed by the Saints."
While Hyde was working to publish his list in Germany, another American newspaper contacted Smith. George Barstow, who was writing a history of New Hampshire, had written a letter to Col. "Long" John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, asking Wentworth to have Smith, who was living in Nauvoo, Illinois, provide a summary of the history of the church and its beliefs.
Perhaps thinking of Saxton, who had slashed a previous summary to two paragraphs, Smith complied while making a single, clear request of his own.
"As Mr. Barstow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information," Smith wrote, "all that I shall ask at his hands is that he publish the account entire, ungarnished and without misrepresentation."
Articles of Faith
Neither Wentworth nor Barstow published Smith's summary of his history, with the Articles of Faith listed in 400 succinct words at the end.
"We don't even know if Wentworth received it," said David Whittaker, co-editor of the first two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Nothing new appeared in the Wentworth list of beliefs, Whittaker said. "Every item had been presented in Mormon literature before the time of its composing."
But what happened to the Articles of Faith over the next 40 years fascinates religious historians.
"Mormonism is one of the richest archives or labs we have, whether one is a believing Latter-day Saint or not, as I am, for how religions are made and how scripture is made," said Philip Barlow, a 2017 fellow at BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. "It's a fascinating thing to see the history of how something becomes scripture when we're so close to the situation and have such rich, historical documents accessible to us.
"It's really a prism through which to understand how religions are birthed."
Smith published the Wentworth Letter in the Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons in March 1842. Assassins murdered him two years later. For the next 20 years, multiple lists appeared, according to Whittaker, who wrote the definitive study, "The Articles of Faith in Early Mormon Literature and Thought" in the 1987 book, "New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington."
In the 1850s, Mormon missionaries in England published a broadside to hand out with the Articles of Faith and a blank space where they could fill in their preaching times and locations.
By the 1860s, the centralization of the Mormon press standardized the usage of the Wentworth list; as early as the 1870s, young children were memorizing the Articles of Faith. Missionary cards containing the 13 articles soon became standard.
Finally, the Wentworth list was canonized as "The Articles of Faith" along with the rest of the final set of LDS scriptures, The Pearl of Great Price, during the church's October 1880 general conference. The Articles of Faith were re-canonized in 1890 when church President Wilford Woodruff asked Elder Orson F. Whitney to read the Articles of Faith just prior to the announcement of the manifesto which rescinded church approval of plural marriage.
Legacy of faith
Today, 175 years later, Mormon children memorize the Articles of Faith — which Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has called "our only formal declaration of belief" — while attending weekly Primary classes between the ages of 3 and 11.
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, now 89, has told the story of how a Primary teacher helped him, as a rambunctious boy, memorize them.
"They do serve as a sort of a portal, a handy entryway" for children and for missionaries and members describing their beliefs to others, Barlow said.
"It is a little ironic," he added. "They do sort of function as an informal creed. We do catechize with it. We don't use terms like the Catholics do, but we do school our young people in Primary to study these things, memorize the Articles of Faith, and even the missionaries. They weren't working like that in Joseph Smith's lifetime and in Brigham Young's lifetime."
Church leaders and scholars alike acknowledge that despite their long, evolutionary history, the Articles of Faith are incomplete, missing several hallmarks of Mormon theology.
The beauty of their conciseness, Whittaker said, make them strong, minimal statements of Mormon doctrine intended primarily for a Protestant audience in a missionary context.
They are effective, too, at helping LDS children begin their religious scholarship.
"At that age, it's a good place to start," Givens said, "as long as at the earliest opportunity we inculcate in our young people an appreciation for the much greater richness and depth and power of Mormon ideas."
Givens and Barlow agreed on this point.
"It's all well and fine to honor and celebrate the Articles of Faith," Givens said, "as long as we don't make the mistake of thinking that in any way, shape or form they capture the essence of what really makes Latter-day Saint thought distinctive and a valuable contribution to the world of Christian thought. Our most powerful, revolutionary and redeeming ideas are not found in the Articles of Faith — the eternal nature of the soul, a Godhead that comprises a Heavenly Mother, a possibility of eternal sociality, a much more vibrant conception of individualized dialogic revelation and literal co-heirship with Jesus Christ. Those are the ideas that have the power to revolutionize the Christian world, and our Articles of Faith are silent about those contributions."
Barlow called the Articles of Faith "quite remarkable statements" but partial in scope.
"There's no eternal progress in this list," he said, "there's no temple, with temple ritual coming out at the very same time (in the 1840s), and eternal marriage or polygamy or three kingdoms or the possibility of partaking of the divine nature. There's a reference to Zion...but there's no articulation of what that means, what Zion even is."
They may have been largely palatable to Thomas Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal. Joseph Smith gave Sharp unprecedented access. Sharp visited Nauvoo, attended rallies of the Nauvoo militia and ate with Smith. But when Smith changed his vote from Whig to Democrat in 1843, Sharp turned against him, and he turned the Warsaw Signal into an anti-Mormon paper.
"Joseph was furious, and wrote him a scalding letter about the way he'd been mistreated," Bushman said.48 comments on this story
The relationship turned ugly. When the Nauvoo City Council declared the Nauvoo Expositor was a "nuisance" and directed the police to destroy its press, the Signal wrote, "War and extermination is inevitable." Three days later, in an extra edition, Sharp published that the Mormons should be driven out of Nauvoo and should hand over Smith or "a war of extermination should be waged to the entire destruction, if necessary for our protection, of (Mormonism's) adherents."
Thirteen days later, Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in an Illinois jail by a mob. Sharp stood trial with four others for the murders, but a jury acquitted them.
Ironically, Whittaker said, "The very last thing (Joseph Smith) did before his death was to respond to Daniel Rupp, who published a history of U.S. denominations. Joseph and W.W. Phelps sent a response to Rupp in Philadelphia with the note, 'Please publish this as given you.'"