In February 1833, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had established themselves in Kirtland, Ohio, and Jackson County, Missouri. For a few months, there was relative peace, prosperity and growth in both locations.
Then in July, mob violence erupted in Jackson County, eventually driving the Saints from Missouri. Opposition was also mounting in Ohio. It was a formative and, at times, chaotic period in church history, historians have said.
It's the period examined in the latest installment of the Joseph Smith Papers project, "Documents, Volume 3: February 1833-March 1834" (The Church Historian’s Press, $54.95). The documents presented in this book will allow readers to see both the administrative growth of the early church and Joseph Smith’s maturation as its leader, said Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, an assistant professor of religion at Brigham Young University and editor on the project.
"One of the things people will see through these documents is Joseph Smith and the church under adversity," Dirkmaat said. "They start off with hope for the future and want to create a center for the church, but the opposition becomes too great. ... There is an awful lot of events that occur in this short period."
This volume contains nearly 90 documents, including revelations, minutes of meetings in which Joseph Smith participated, letters written to and from the Prophet, early church disciplinary councils, licenses provided to church officers, legal documents, architectural and city plans, and an effort to create a topical guide to the scriptures. "Documents, Volume 3" is also the first volume in the project to publish transcripts of architectural plans for building temples and city plans in Jackson County, Missouri, and Kirtland, Ohio, according to a news release.
"(The project) isn't just a publication of what documents the Church History Department has on Joseph Smith," Dirkmaat said. "It's every document that relates to him that we know exists."
Other editors for "Documents, Volume 3" include Brent M. Rogers, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford and William G. Hartley.
In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Dirkmaat and Rogers discussed six highlights found in "Documents, Volume 3."
1. The Word of Wisdom
One of the first documents featured in the book is a revelation received by Joseph Smith on Feb. 27, 1833. Commonly known as the "Word of Wisdom," it became Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The copy of the revelation in the book is a private copy made by Sidney Gilbert.
The revelation was received in connection with the School of the Prophets, which met in the upper room of Newel K. Whitney's store, after Emma Smith, the Prophet's wife, complained about the recurring need to clean tobacco spittle from the floor after meetings. Joseph inquired of the Lord and presented the revelation in a room of more than 20 men, instructing them to abstain from tobacco, alcohol and hot drinks, among other things.
The contents of the revelation were available to many church members within a few months, according to the book.
2. Minutes from School of the Prophets
On March 18, 1833, Frederick G. Williams recorded a profound event in the minutes of a School of the Prophets meeting.
Joseph Smith promised those present that the "pure in heart would see a heavenly vision," and "many of the brethren saw a heavenly vision of the Saviour and concourses of angels," the minutes record.
Zebedee Coltrin, one of the earliest converts in Ohio, recorded his memories of the meeting 50 years later in Salt Lake City in an annotation.
"A personage walked through the room from east to west, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him," Coltrin wrote. "Joseph answered that is Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother."
Coltrin recorded that "another person came through, surrounded as with a flame of fire." He wrote that he experienced "a sensation that might destroy the tabernacle as it was of consuming fire of great brightness."
"The Prophet Joseph said this was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," Coltrin wrote. "I saw him."
"You wish Frederick G. Williams had recorded more in his minute book here," Dirkmaat said. "As people read the annotation (by Coltrin), they'll get much more than they could get from the actual document, although it's a powerful document."
3. Letter to John S. Carter
This document, dated April 13, 1833, and written in Joseph Smith's handwriting, is a response to a letter from John S. Carter of Benson, Vermont. Carter had written to his brother with some questions addressed to the "Elders in Kirtland," specifically one regarding a female convert who said she had a vision. Carter wanted to know about the nature of heavenly encounters and how to respond to them. The Prophet's reply offers counsel on that topic.
"We do not consider ourselves bound to receive any revelation from any one man or woman without being legally constituted and ordained to that authority," Joseph Smith wrote. "I will inform you that it is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church or any one to receive instructions for those in authority higher than themselves, therefore you will see the impropriety of giving heed to them, but if any have a vision or visitation from a heavenly messenger it must be for their own benefit and instruction."
This gospel principle still has doctrinal relevance today, Dirkmaat said.
"We absolutely are a church of angels and miracles and revelation ... but you can't have revelation beyond yourself," Dirkmaat said. "We have this amazing letter that speaks so well to that."
4. Letter from John Whitmer
On July 29, 1833, John Whitmer and William W. Phelps sent a letter to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in Ohio describing the violent events unfolding in Jackson County, Missouri.
An editorial published by Phelps in The Evening and the Morning Star on the topic of slavery led to the destruction of the printing office and the tarring and feathering of Charles Allen and Bishop Edward Partridge. The Saints were eventually driven from their homes and suffered greatly.
After reading a portion of the letter, Dirkmaat said it's easy to perceive the venom.
"The enemy has accomplished his design in demolishing the printing establishment," the letter reads. "Notwithstanding the great rage of Satan, which we can behold in his followers, for it is visible to the natural eye, but enough on this subject, for you will be able to tell more than I can write."
5. Letter from Joseph to Vienna Jaques
Vienna Jaques joined the church in 1831 and moved to Kirtland the following year. In 1833, she was called by revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 90:28) to move to Missouri. She is one of two women specifically named in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Before she moved, Jaques made a large monetary donation to the church and was promised an inheritance of blessings in Missouri. Five weeks after she arrived, however, the violence began. While trying to save documents from the printing press, she witnessed the tarring and feathering of Bishop Partridge, Dirkmaat said.
Jaques wrote to Joseph Smith and received a comforting response.
"I have often felt a whispering since I received your letter," Jospeh wrote. "Joseph, thou art indebted to thy God for the offering of thy sister Viana which proved a Savior of life as pertaining to thy pecunary concern, therefore she should not be forgotten of thee for the Lord hath done this. Thou shouldst remember her in all thy prayers and also by letter for she oftentimes calleth upon the Lord saying, 'O Lord, inspire thy Servant Joseph to communicate by letter some word to thine unworthy handmaid.' "
6. Letter to Edward Partridge and others
In response to earlier letters, Joseph Smith wrote to church leaders in Missouri on Dec. 10, 1833, offering sympathy and telling the Saints to retain their property.
Dirkmaat and Rogers described the letter as powerful, evocative and edifying.
"There is a lot of emotion in this letter. We talk about getting to know Joseph Smith better; reading this letter to suffering church members gives insight into character, thoughts and feelings," Dirkmaat said. "And while he's a prophet, he doesn't know everything. He learns line upon line the same way we all do. You can see his struggle.
"It's instructive to people who are going through difficult times. I think that's one of the takeaways from this volume."
Dirkmaat and Rogers said reviews of the Joseph Smith Papers in the scholarly community have been "overwhelmingly positive."
Kenneth P. Minkema of the Journal of American History 100 said the Joseph Smith Papers project would benefit not only LDS Church members but also Mormon scholars and historians.
"In reviewing the Joseph Smith Papers, the word 'model' comes to mind," Minkema wrote in September 2013.
John G. Turner, a historian of American religion, said the Joseph Smith Papers project was "the single most valuable resource for students of early Mormonism." While the bulky books aren't intended for casual reading on a vacation, they are "a pleasure to behold and to study."
"For their attention to detail, for their abundant citation of other primary sources, for their lavish inclusion of photographs and maps, for their contextualizations of Smith’s prophetic career, the JSP is indeed a 'great and a marvelous work,' " Turner wrote last September. "The Joseph Smith Papers project matches the audacity of its subject. Presidents and poets, ministers and marchers can only hope for similar treatment."
To know Joseph
Amid the long hours of reading and careful study, Dirkmaat and Rogers said, working on the Joseph Smith Papers project has enhanced their appreciation and testimonies of Joseph Smith. They are also inspired by the courageous and faithful examples of the early Latter-day Saints.
"You get to see his personality, his character, some of his flaws, his love for others. You get to learn about Joseph in ways you can’t by hearing a lesson that says, 'Joseph Smith was great,' " Rogers said. "He’s an interesting and complex person. I think a lot of that comes out in these documents."
"There is a different kind of power in reading the actual words," Dirkmaat said. "I could say Joseph Smith wrote this very sympathetic letter to those who were suffering in Jackson County, and that would be true. But it is not the same thing as reading the actual words and understanding the context in which those words were written."
Dirkmaat said he is often surprised when people ask if his faith has been shaken by anything he's found while researching the life of the Prophet.
"It’s like they assume there is some great hidden thing that you will read and say, 'I guess Joseph Smith isn’t a prophet anymore.' I would say it's absolutely the opposite," Dirkmaat said. "The more of Joseph Smith’s words you read, the more certain you are he is a prophet, the more undeniable it becomes."
When completed, the Joseph Smith Papers series will include more than 20 volumes, with the "Documents" comprising about half of the total. For more information regarding the Joseph Smith Papers project and publications, visit josephsmithpapers.org.
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