Final months of Prophet’s life covered in latest Joseph Smith Papers release

The final year in the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith is documented in the latest release in the Joseph Smith Papers, published by the Church Historian’s Press.

Journals Volume 3: May 1843-June 1844, the latest in the anticipated 20-volume project and the third and final volume in the “Journals” series, was introduced Nov. 30 to Internet bloggers and others invited to a gathering at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. Simultaneously, the release of the volume was made public in a news release to general media.

The new volume “illuminates a time that was both turbulent and productive for Joseph Smith,” said Matthew J. Grow, one of the general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, at the bloggers event.

“During this time he served as the highly visible and determined leader of one of the largest cities in Illinois and of a church with members spread throughout the United States and other countries. He balanced roles as Church president and prophet, mayor, judge and militia leader, all while responding to escalating conflict.”

Brother Grow said the volume covers topics such as the establishment of the Council of Fifty, a body formed in Nauvoo in 1844 that provided a pattern of political government. It also covers the Prophet’s candidacy for president of the United States.

The volume features the conclusion of Joseph Smith’s second Nauvoo journal, which was kept by his scribe, Willard Richards, Brother Grow explained. The scribe’s handwriting “is idiosyncratic, often hurried; many entries are brief and cryptic. As a result, many passages of the journal have been misread and misunderstood.”

But building upon the earlier work of LDS scholar Dean C. Jesse, who compiled and published the Prophet’s personal writings, and after several years of “painstaking analysis” by Alex D. Smith, one of the editors of the newly released volume, and others, “many of these obscure notations are now explained,” Brother Grow said. “That’s really one of the key contributions of this volume, that we now have a text that we can rely on. We feel confident that we know what Richards wrote in the journal, and that’s really crucial.”

He said annotation in the volume draws extensively for the first time upon the Council of Fifty minutes, a document that was only recently made available to researchers by the First Presidency. “And that’s one of the things that make the volume exciting.”

The volume documents many of the Prophet's most important sermons, those on subjects such as salvation, resurrection, baptism for the dead, a multi-tiered heaven and humanity’s potential to become like God, Brother Grow noted.

It offers a glimpse into his activities concerning the temple, as the Joseph at this time continued to introduce ordinances, including eternal and plural marriage ceremonies, to a growing number of people, he said.

The journal refers to conspiracies against Joseph’s life. Controversial teachings, his growing political power and other factors “led to loud criticism and threats toward [Joseph] Smith and other Church leaders by both disaffected Church members and prominent opponents in surrounding communities,” Brother Grow said.

Included as appendices are two sources never-before published that shed light on the final two weeks of Joseph’s life, he said. The first is an excerpt from Elder Richards’ journal from June 23 to June 27, 1842, and the second is an account of the Prophet’s activities from June 10 to June 22, made by William Clayton. With their proximity to the Prophet, “their records provide invaluable primary source material for studying the events leading up to his death,” Brother Grow said.

The three editors of the volume are Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith and Brent M. Rogers; Brother Smith and Brother Rogers spoke to attendees at the bloggers event.

Brother Smith said Joseph’s process of journal keeping over a 12-year span from 1832 until his martyrdom in 1844 was “an experimentation of sorts in record keeping.”

His first journal, begun in 1832, was kept faithfully for nine days. But then Joseph stopped making entries for months and returned sporadically to it thereafter.

“By the time we get to the Nauvoo, Illinois, era of Joseph Smith’s journals, I think we’ve arrived at what he sees as a workable solution for keeping this record of the Church,” Brother Smith said, explaining that in the final volume, the journal entries were never written in his own hand.

“Willard Richards always refers to Joseph Smith in first person, because these are Joseph’s journals, a fairly common practice at the time” he said.

But beginning in December 1842, there was a shift. At that time, Willard Richards began keeping the journal in what would eventually amount to four small books. One reason was that it was then that Joseph was obliged to go to Springfield, Illinois, to defend himself in habeas corpus hearings in the extradition attempt by Missouri authorities in the attempted assassination of Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs. Accompanying the Prophet, Brother Richards was obliged to take something small and portable for recording the journal entries of the Prophet.

The later 2½ of those small books are transcribed in this latest Joseph Smith Papers volume; the earlier 1½ were published in Journals, Volume 2 in the series. It is clear, Brother Smith said, that the journals are the deliberate basis for the Manuscript History of the Church, compiled later.

Because Brother Richards intended the journal to be as much a basis for Church history almost as much as a personal account of Joseph Smith, “it provides a foundation that we just don’t have in any other single source for this period,” Brother Smith said. “There’s enough of a framework here that we can use this journal as a starting point for researching any aspects toward the end of Joseph Smith’s life.”

Brother Rogers said the reader, in going through the journal front-to-back, will find it “incredibly fascinating” because of the “daily variety and complexity and the nuances,” the word-for-word sermons, and accounts of Joseph’s different political engagements and legal entanglements.

He said he was struck by Joseph’s encounters with Native Americans during the last few months of his life.

For example, on Aug. 28, 1843, is this entry: “Delegati[o]n of Indians at Josephs. they wished him to be their great father.”

Research revealed more about this encounter, Brother Rogers said. Members of the Potawatomie tribe visiting Joseph were seeking advice in how to deal with other white settlers who were encroaching on their lands.

In a response that William Clayton wrote for Joseph Smith, the Prophet said, “I shall be happy to render you any assistance in my power, giving instructions and advice, as well as to do any other business for you, which lies in my power at any time, if it be not contrary to the laws of the United States, which laws I am always obedient and subject to.”

Asked if there is anything in the latest volume that corrects or confirms past understanding, Brother Smith said the transcription accuracy has been closely attended to and because of that, there are corrections to details about events that take place in many of the entries.

“One of the things this journal does is show how various events relate to each other,” he said. “You can see how all of these things are interconnected in a way that you just can’t separate. It’s a web of increasing tension between the Mormons and their neighbors in western Illinois. I don’t think you get that picture from any of our other records or history.”

Journals, Volume 3 is the 12th volume to be published in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Brother Grow said, “We’re in the midst of the most exciting year we’ve had with the Church Historian’s Press.”

Five major works will have been published in 13 months that will “stand the test of time” and be “foundational for understanding the Latter-day Saint past, he said. That began with the publication in August of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon and will continue through next September, when the Council of Fifty minutes will be published in full.

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