What Masonry, Relief Society, and a Church newspaper have to do with the latest volume of Joseph Smith Papers

Joseph Smith held many roles during the Nauvoo era — Church president, mayor, judge and editor, among others.

A letter the Latter-day Saint prophet wrote to convert Edward Hunter on Jan. 5, 1842, reveals a possibly unexpected role that brought Joseph Smith great joy: store clerk.

In the letter, Joseph tells Hunter about the opening of his new general store.

“The store has been filled to overflowing all day and I have stood behind the counter dealing out goods as steady as any clerk you ever saw,” Joseph Smith wrote. “To oblige those who were compelled to go without their usual Christmas and New Year dinners for the want of a little sugar, molasses and raisins, etc. etc., and to please myself also for I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.”

Among the letters featured in the newest Joseph Smith Papers volume are several correspondence between the prophet and a Pennsylvania convert named Edward Hunter.
Among the letters featured in the newest Joseph Smith Papers volume are several correspondence between the prophet and a Pennsylvania convert named Edward Hunter. Credit: Joseph Smith Papers

The Edward Hunter letter, which offers insight into Joseph’s tender nature and warm feelings toward the Saints, is one of more than 100 documents featured in the new Joseph Smith Papers volume, “Documents, Vol. 9: December 1841-April 1842” set to be released on Oct. 8.

Christian K. Heimburger, one of the volume editors for “Documents, Vol. 9,” said for him the letter represents Joseph’s character.

“We know Joseph doesn’t spend a lot of time behind the counter,” Heimburger said. “This may be the only time that we know for sure, but the enthusiasm is tangible. And I think the opening of the store represents a new period in Nauvoo.”

The contents of “Documents, Vol. 9” demonstrate a productive, “organizational” time for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a breadth of Joseph’s personal activities, said Alex D. Smith, an editor of “Documents, Vol. 9.”

Smith spoke at a public lecture titled “Joseph Smith, the Leader” at the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City on Sept. 26. The lecture explored the many roles Joseph held in Nauvoo in 1842 and possible motivations for his involvement. Smith was joined by Elizabeth A. Kuehn, an editor for “Documents, Vol. 10,” which is scheduled for release in spring 2020.

In 1842, two years before his death, Joseph Smith was not only engaged in Church, business and family activities, but the prophet also organized the Relief Society and set up a Freemasonry lodge. He served as mayor and judge of the city of Nauvoo and editor of Times and Seasons.

Some may wonder why Joseph Smith held so much power and control in Nauvoo, but the evidence provided in these documents illustrate a different story and dimension to his leadership style, Smith said.

Credit: Joseph Smith Papers lecture slide, Church News graphic

“We can look at every role that he plays, every leadership responsibility he takes on, every authority and power he yields … and find evidence of how he is trying to protect, how he is trying to serve, how is he trying to care for his people,” Smith said.

For example, Joseph Smith’s decision to become editor of Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper, was based on the need to unify messaging and create “an official communication arm of the Church,” Smith said. He did it because he cared about the members.

“Joseph Smith’s activities become an overarching theme of this time period,” it says in the volume’s introduction. “Joseph Smith remained in Nauvoo, hardly venturing outside the city. But it was a period of intense activity. … The documents in this volume are vital to understanding Joseph Smith’s life and the Church’s growth and development during this period.”

“Documents Vol. 9” features 102 documents, including:

  • 53 letters to/from Joseph Smith
  • 14 business or legal documents
  • 10 discourses
  • 8 documents related to Joseph Smith’s role with the Times and Seasons newspaper
  • 4 revelations
  • 4 meeting minutes
  • 9 miscellaneous documents

“Letters make up half of the documents that appear in ‘Documents, Vol. 9,'” Heimburger said. “These letters kind of reflect the nature of what’s going on in Joseph’s life at the time — Joseph as the prophet, Joseph as trustee in trust of the Church (a lot of the letters relate to land transactions), as well as correspondence with missionaries.”

Readers will be interested to see a document titled “Church History,” dated March 1, 1842, but more commonly known as the “Wentworth letter.”

In response to a request from a newspaper editor named John Wentworth, Joseph Smith published a narrative history of the Church, including a description of the First Vision, the well-known “No unhallowed hand” quote, and a series of statements later known as the 13 Articles of Faith, in the March 1 issue of the Times and Seasons.

“Joseph had previously published manuscripts that chronicle the history of the Church, but this is really the first time that he publishes this information in his own words for Church members to read,” Heimburger said. “We think that’s a pretty exciting document.”

Another noteworthy document in “Documents, Vol. 9” is the floor plan of Joseph Smith’s two-story brick store. More than just a place of business, the store filled a variety of purposes, including private office, Relief Society and Masonic meeting place, and later temple ordinances.

“The store serves as the geographical focal point of our volume,” Heimburger said.

Joseph Smith's brick store circa 1886 in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Joseph Smith’s brick store circa 1886 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Credit: Joseph Smith Papers

Readers will also learn about the organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, which occurred on March 17, 1842. Joseph Smith met with 20 women, including his wife Emma Smith, in the upper room of the Nauvoo store and organized the society under the priesthood. The purposes of the organization were to care for the poor, encourage moral reform and strengthen spirituality, Kuehn explained during the lecture on Sept. 26. The women who joined had to be worthy of membership.

From March to August 1842, Joseph Smith spoke at six meetings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo and his sermons are featured in “Documents, Vol. 9” and the forthcoming “Documents, Vol. 10.” In his sermons, Joseph Smith emphasized charity, unity and the priesthood, Kuehn said.

However, he never assumed a leadership role in the organization or made organizational decisions, Smith pointed out.

During the lecture, Smith highlighted the timing between the organization of the Relief Society, Joseph Smith’s decision to join the Free Masons two days before on March 15 and the reception of the endowment which occurred in early May. Masonry and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo prepared the Saints for the endowment, Smith said.

“That’s one of the things that we see in this volume that’s coming out, is the relationship between these (events),” he said. “Because all of Joseph Smith’s documents in these books are presented chronologically, you’re going to see one after the other, right in a row.”

While a lot of books and articles have been written on Joseph Smith, the documents readers find in the new volumes will help answer the question of “why” he was so involved in Nauvoo and the development of the Church at this time, Smith said.

“They provide what we hope will be enough context to really come to know who Joseph Smith was, not only as a leader of the Church and the people, but as a man,” he added.

David Hyrum Smith, son of Emma and Joseph Smith, painted this Nauvoo, Illinois, scene sometime before 1869. It's titled "Bend in the River," and is featured in the "Documents, Vol. 9."
David Hyrum Smith, son of Emma and Joseph Smith, painted this Nauvoo, Illinois, scene sometime before 1869. It’s titled “Bend in the River,” and is featured in the “Documents, Vol. 9.” Credit: Joseph Smith Papers