The Latter-day Saints had endured outrageous oppression in Missouri, been driven from the state by order of its governor, been taken in as refugees by generous Illinoisans and had reclaimed swampland to establish a new settlement on the bank of the Mississippi River.
Joining them after his recent five-month confinement in the jail at Liberty, Missouri, in the winter of 1839-40, the Prophet Joseph Smith named the settlement Nauvoo and looked ahead to making it “the greatest city in the world.”
It was time for a period of recovery, covered in the latest Joseph Smith Papers release, volume 7 in the Documents series, September 1839 to January 1841.
The new volume contains 129 documents — personal correspondence, discourses, minutes, a revelation, even a memorial to the United States Congress appealing for help in obtaining compensation for their losses.
Well known in Church history is the Nov. 29, 1839, visit of Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee to U.S. President Martin Van Buren for that purpose and Van Buren’s reported response, “I can do nothing for you — if I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole State of Missouri.”
Thus, over the years, the onus has been on Van Buren for the federal government’s refusal to help the Saints.
“It’s one of the general misconceptions, and it’s largely based on the readings of History of the Church out of context with the rest of the documents,” said Spencer W. McBride, one of the four volume editors who, along with two of his colleagues, recently spoke with writers and bloggers about the new book.
Taken as a whole, McBride said, the documentary record suggests that the two Church leaders were hoping to get Van Buren to use his influence with U.S. Congress to gain support for a petition, or “memorial,” they planned to submit to Congress the following week.
“We’ve long thought that executive action on behalf of the Saints was rare at this time,” McBride explained.
“But not only was it rare, if there was anyone least inclined to make such action, it would be Martin Van Buren,” he added, noting that the U.S. president was a staunch advocate of states’ rights. “So the question is, what are they asking Van Buren for? I can’t say this with 100 percent certainty, but looking at the corpus of the documents together, there’s a real sense that they are asking for his support with Congress.”
It seems they were hoping, McBride said, that Van Buren, in spite of his rebuff, would change his mind and include this support in his annual written message to Congress, an earlier counterpart to today’s State of the Union address.
In this they were disappointed. There was no mention of the Church’s petition in Van Buren’s address.
The memorial signed by Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Elias Higbee and presented to Congress on their behalf by U.S. Sen. Richard M. Young of Illinois is reproduced in full in the new volume.
Also included, as an appendix to the book, is the report of the Senate Judiciary Committee, essentially stating that Congress lacks jurisdiction in the matter and that the Mormons must seek “relief” through the courts in the state of Missouri.
“It’s so easy for us, looking back on Mormon history, to put all the blame on Van Buren as we divide history into bad guys and good guys,” McBride said. “But the record shows they were equally frustrated by Congress. In the political culture of the time, they saw Congress as the group that’s able to bring about this redress.”
The episode, he said, amounts to the “shattering of Joseph Smith’s American idealism. He hadn’t really engaged in federal politics before. There wasn’t much need. But here, it’s out of necessity, out of desperation that he enters the federal political sphere, and it’s disappointment after disappointment after disappointment.”
Documents in the new volume convey the character of Joseph Smith as a man deeply concerned about the spiritual as well as the temporal welfare of his followers.
For example, volume editor Matthew C. Godfrey displayed a petition written by the Prophet to the high council at Nauvoo. “He basically asks them if there is any way they can relieve him of the responsibility for land sales in Nauvoo because his spiritual leadership of the Saints is suffering in the meantime. … He would much rather be spending his time translating the Egyptian records or the Bible and waiting upon the Lord for such revelations as may be suited to the condition and circumstances of the Church.”
In addition to the document are minutes of three high council meetings in which the petition is considered. Ultimately, they decide to take no action, “but Joseph seems to feel better after these three meetings, maybe because he was allowed to have his voice be heard,” Godfrey said.
Volume editor Christopher J. Blythe displayed a letter written by Joseph Smith to members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on missions in Great Britain during this period, answering some of their questions and sharing news from Nauvoo.
The letter, written in the hand of scribe Robert B. Thompson, is cross-written to preserve paper. It shares news of the death of Joseph Smith Sr., father of the Prophet, and the arrival of the first company of converts from Great Britain.
One of the most striking items in the letter, Blythe said, is a one-paragraph description of the then-new doctrine of baptism for the dead. The doctrine was so new, in fact, that when the contents were later published in the Millennial Star, the Church’s periodical in Great Britain, the paragraph about baptism for the dead was left out, awaiting a formal, written revelation.
And so it is that documents in this latest Joseph Smith Papers volume convey a formative period of Church history.