Even though Joseph Smith left a rich record from the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are relatively few accounts of his sermons. Of the sermons we do have records for, most come from the last years of Joseph’s life, a time when his scribes and others kept detailed accounts of his words and actions.
The most recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, "Journals, Vol. 3: May 1843–June 1844," covers the final 14 months of Joseph’s life, and it includes some of the richest accounts of Joseph’s public sermons were left behind.
During these months in 1843 and 1844, Joseph delivered more than 60 public addresses, some of which were recorded in the all-but-illegible hand of Willard Richards, his private secretary. Notorious among historians for his poor handwriting, Richards often abbreviated and misspelled words as he raced to keep up with Joseph’s public preaching.
Most of these 60 discourses are noted in the journal, although the detail with which Richards recorded their contents varies considerably. Joseph delivered most of them in his capacity as prophet and president of the LDS Church, though he gave some in his other roles, such as mayor of Nauvoo and lieutenant-general of the Nauvoo Legion.
In the sermons that Richards recorded, Joseph spoke on a variety of topics, often moving freely from religious themes to civic and political ones.
Prominent among the more temporal concerns he addressed were the ongoing threats of violence directed against him and his followers, the government’s inability to offer protection and his political views, especially as he was a candidate for the president of the United States in early 1844. He also defended the Nauvoo city charter, which some Illinois residents and lawmakers wanted amended or revoked, and which the Latter-day Saints believed was necessary to protect their rights.
Religious topics included salvation and resurrection, as well as more unique Mormon doctrines such as baptism for the dead, priesthood ordinances and a multitiered, complex heaven.
The journal Richards kept in 1843 and 1844 includes many of Joseph’s classic teachings. On Oct. 9, 1843, he instructed his followers, “could you gaze in heaven 5 minute. you would know more — than you would by read(ing) all that ever was writt(e)n on the subject.” In another Nauvoo sermon, he spoke the lines that have been immortalized in Richard Bushman’s acclaimed biography of Joseph Smith. One entry quotes him saying “I a rough stone;” another says simply, “Rough stone rol(l)ing down hill.”
Entries in the journal show that Joseph’s sermons often highlighted his teachings on compassion and love. On May 21, 1843, he stated, “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm. and administ(er)ing to the poor & dividi(n)g his substance. than the long smoothed faced hypo(c)rites.”
Two months later, in July 1843, he emphasized his strong beliefs in religious liberty. “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a mormon,” he told his audience, “I am bold to declare befo(r)e heaven that I am just as ready to die for a presbytiran. a baptist or any other denomination.”
A few weeks later, he preached, “frie(n)dship is the grand fundamental prin(c)iple of Mormonism,” which would “civilize the world.” As such, he told his followers to “pour forth love.”
In April 1844, at the largest church conference he attended in his lifetime, Joseph delivered his most famous sermon, known as the “King Follett discourse” because he delivered it as a funeral sermon for a faithful LDS Church member named King Follett.
In the discourse, Joseph emphasized that the eternal destiny of man was to become like God. According to the account in the journal, Joseph stated, “If men do not compreh(e)nd the character of God they do not comprehe(n)d themselv(e)s.” In addition, he taught the Latter-day Saints that they could become like God “by going from a small to g(r)eat capacity.” Man was created in the likeness of God, Joseph taught, and our Father in Heaven “is gra(ti)fied in salvati(o)n Exaltation— of his creati(o)ns.”
Joseph referenced the eternal nature of family relationships: “Will Mothers have their children in Eternity yes, yes you will have the children.” Finally, he referred to his own life experiences, “I dont blame you for not believi(n)g my histo(r)y had I not expe(r)i(e)n(ce)d it (I) could not believe it myself.”
Latter-day Saints today are indebted to Richards for recording of some of Joseph Smith’s most profound doctrinal and social teachings — teachings that readers can access in "Journals, Vol. 3," of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Andrew H. Hedges is a co-editor of "Journals, Vol. 3" of the Joseph Smith Papers project.