Introductory Essay

Introduction to The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, comps. and eds. Lyndon W. Cook and Andrew F. Ehat (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1980), xv–xx.

Introductory Essay

In the latter-day Restoration no individual stands taller than Joseph Smith, the Lord's prophet. As the first prophet of the last dispensation, he commands the respect and attention of all members of the Church. An early revelation received by Joseph Smith declared, "This generation shall have my word through you" (D&C 5:10), and no one would dispute the validity of this statement: the Prophet's teachings are the foundation of Mormon theology.

In recent years a greater sense of "getting to the sources" has marked Mormon historical writing. Serious students of Mormon history have sought to apply modern historical research methods to verify, firm up, and fill in the gaps of our seven-volume history. This approach has helped us understand and appreciate the efforts of early Church members in preserving our history. However, some have argued that the sources of official Church writings were altered to create faithful, but inaccurate history. Some have even argued that Joseph Smith's public teachings were not actually his but were created after his death—that Church historians took a free hand in creating or amplifying nonexistent or cryptic notes into full-blown discourses.

However, the following compilation of contemporary accounts of 177 known public discourses shows that all the Prophet's teachings during the Nauvoo period can be documented from original sources. Admittedly the reports of his discourses were incomplete, but having multiple accounts of many of the sermons allows one to compare and contrast what each reporter recorded of the Prophet's ideas. Thus, there is no evidence that Church historians who prepared Joseph Smith's discourses for publication went beyond a reasonable interpretation of the original recorded statements.

It is not our purpose to reconstruct how the Church historians, particularly George A. Smith, amalgamated the various versions of Joseph Smith's discourses in preparing them for publication. Suffice it to say that all available reports were synthesized into a single, coherent account. Of this process George A. Smith said, "The greatest care [was] taken to convey the ideas in the Prophet's style as near as possible; and in no case [was] the sentiment…varied that I know of; as I heard the most of his discourses myself, was on the most intimate terms with him, have retained a most vivid recollection of his teachings, and was well acquainted with his principles and motives" (Letter from George A. Smith to Wilford Woodruff, 21 April 1856).

Only those people who recorded Joseph Smith's teachings at the time could have preserved his doctrine and phraseology. One who desired to preserve the words of Joseph Smith was twenty-two-year old Franklin D. Richards. He began a personal record of the Prophet's teachings in 1843 and called it "Joseph's Words."

Because there were no mechanical devices for recording the Prophet's sermons, verbatim accounts of his words do not exist. Therefore, contemporary reports (almost always in the form of private notes and diaries) constitute the closest approximation of Joseph Smith's actual words.

This volume presents for the first time the original accounts of all Joseph Smith's public discourses given during the Nauvoo period. This includes records of previously unpublished sermons, contemporaneous reports not available when the Church historians finished their official reports of the discourses, and the originals of those used in the published accounts. The criterion for inclusion of a source in this work was whether that source was a contemporaneous record of a public discourse. While reminiscent accounts often contain much that is authentic, there is always the risk that recorders will make interpolations. Perhaps the clearest example of this problem is in reminiscent accounts of the Prophet's final public address—his address to the Nauvoo Legion. In reminiscent reports the Prophet is remembered as saying that the Saints will go to the Rocky Mountains to settle. However, according to contemporaneous records, he "called for all philanthropic men from Maine to the Rocky Mountains" to aid the Latter-day Saint people in overcoming mob oppression. Because we have selected only those sources that were unmistakably recorded at the time, the collection can serve as a standard against which to judge the myriad recollections.

The reports of Joseph Smith's sermons were copied and recopied by his disciples. For example, some of James Burgess's reports of the Prophet's discourses were copied from Willard Richards's "Pocket Companion," accounts Richards had earlier obtained from Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor. Later (probably while they were both clerks for the Prophet) William Clayton copied Richards's "Pocket Companion" records of discourses given in Nauvoo before Clayton arrived from England. William Clayton then added these teachings to his own collection of the Prophet's words that he recorded while Elders Richards, Woodruff, Taylor, and Burgess were in England. Even after Joseph Smith's death this sharing continued. James Harvey Glines, for example, copied some sayings of the Prophet from William Patterson McIntire's notebook. And Howard Egan recorded in Wilford Woodruff's private journal Joseph Smith's 28 April 1842 discourse to the Relief Society.

Aware of this sharing, we have analyzed each report and selected for inclusion in this volume the earliest reports available. Full bibliographic detail is noted the first time a source is used.

Without question, Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff were the two most important reporters of Joseph Smith's sermons. Richards, who was appointed in December 1842 to record the Prophet's activities, reported in Joseph Smith's diary more than one-third of all the discourses we have reproduced. Wilford Woodruff, though having no special assignment, recorded more than twice the number of discourses reported by any other individual (except Willard Richards). Moreover, it is significant that half the discourses reported by Woodruff were recorded by no other person.

In terms of technique of recording, Willard Richards's entries in Joseph Smith's diary were, if not always dictated, written as if they had been dictated. However, Richards's reports of the Prophet's discourses in the diary are often cryptic and conceptually incomplete when compared with the well-rounded accounts by Woodruff. The disparity between the recording methods of these two men helps illustrate the problem of record-keeping in Nauvoo. Though both men knew some shorthand, neither was sufficiently skilled to take verbatim reports. Nevertheless, though their reports and the large number of companion reports of the Prophet's words comprised in this book are in this sense incomplete and lack some of his phraseology and personality, they do reflect Joseph Smith's mind and his doctrine.

Public discourse in Nauvoo occurred most often in the open air. While many meetings were held at or near private residences, in Joseph Smith's store, and on the rough floor of the Nauvoo Temple (still under construction), the majority were held in a grove. Usually the focal point of the meeting place was a portable platform called a "stand." Church leaders sat on the stand, and the audience sat on benches of split logs or on the ground. Rain and cold often precluded Sabbath meetings.

The physical strength required to preach from week to week to large open-air congregations was considerable. Naturally Joseph Smith was the preferred speaker at Sunday meetings, but occasionally he "used the boys' lungs," because his own constitution could not tolerate weekly use. For example, the day following the celebrated King Follett sermon, the Prophet was so worn out that he could speak only a few minutes. But he had given instructions to George J. Adams to speak. Rhoda Richards observed, "I heard brother Joseph by the mouth of brother Adams." On another occasion Willard Richards recorded that Joseph was sick because his lungs "were oppressed" and "overheated" from preaching the week before.

Before 1839, Sidney Rigdon stood as the public spokesman of Mormonism, having been so designated by revelation (D&C 100:9). But when he began to neglect this responsibility, in late 1839 Joseph Smith "came of age" in public discourse. After spending six months in a Missouri jail and seeing the entire Mormon population expelled from that state, the Prophet's desire for redress and justice compelled him to speak before national leaders. In many ways the 1839-40 trip to Washington, D.C., was a milestone in Joseph Smith's career, and of particular significance is the fact that on this occasion Joseph Smith himself did the speaking. And the Prophet did the preaching. It was not Sidney Rigdon (as in previous visits to the East Coast) but Joseph Smith who local newspapers and reporters announced would preach. It seems that sheer necessity and commitment of purpose compelled the Prophet to stand for himself and his people and defend his mission. Mathew L. Davis, a Washington correspondent who observed the Prophet at this time, stated,

He is not an educated man: but he is a plain, sensible, strong minded man. Everything he says, is said in a manner to leave an impression that he is sincere. There is no levity, no fanaticism, no want of dignity in his deportment…. In his garb there are no pecularities; his dress being that of a plain, unpretending citizen.

Nor was the Prophet's desire solely to speak out for his people. By 1839 he had done a lot of thinking about the temple and the plan of the Kingdom as he alone then understood it. He had a keen desire to articulate these ideas to his people. His understanding was not yet complete, but there is no doubt that the seeds had been planted. From then on, he rarely spoke without making reference to some aspect of temple theology. And as he unfolded his vision of the Kingdom, his people yearned more and more for his words.

The Saints' anxiety to hear the Prophet is graphically described by Charlotte Haven, a non-Mormon, who visited Nauvoo in 1843. As she went for the first time to hear Joseph Smith preach, she was amazed at "such hurrying" at least two hours before the services were to commence. "One could have thought it was the last opportunity they would ever have to hear him." On another occasion, at the Nauvoo Temple, the Saints swarmed to hear Joseph Smith. Willard Richards recorded that nothing could be seen "from the stand but the heads and bodies of the congregation. They stood on the walls of the uncompleted building and the floor. It was one mass of Saints. To speak was literally to speak to the people, for there was nothing else to be seen."

At the Nauvoo lyceums the Prophet often spoke. On one of these occasions Mercy R. Thompson "heard him reprove the brethren for giving way to too much excitement and warmth in debate. I have listened to his clear and masterly explanations of deep and difficult questions. To him all things seemed simple and easy to be understood, and thus he could make them plain to others as no other man could." When English convert William Rowley first heard Joseph Smith speak, he wrote that he "knew he was listening to one that had not been taught of men so different were all his thoughts and language."

The authority and power with which the Prophet delivered a message was convincing. Even Willard Richards, who knew the Prophet's private life better than any other man, told his sister, following a public sermon on the resurrection, that he had "heard the sweetest sermon from Joseph he ever heard in his life." Charles Smith observed that when the Prophet spoke he "drew your soul out in love towards him."

Although his testimony was not borne in our traditional fashion, Joseph Smith did radiate a conviction of his own divine appointment. In 1843 he said, "If I had not actually got into this work, and been called of God, I would back out, but I cannot back out, I have no doubt of the truth." In Washington, D.C., in 1840, Joseph Smith affirmed that the Book of Mormon was "communicated to him, direct from heaven. If there was such a thing on earth, as the author of it, then he was the author of it; but the idea that he wished to impress was that he penned it as dictated by God."

So spoke Joseph Smith's contemporaries about his manner, authority, and conviction in public discourse. In the wake of the Prophet's martyrdom his influence continued to spread. Bathsheba W. Smith, the last living person who heard Joseph Smith's public and private teachings in every facet of the gospel, stated, "I never like to hear a sermon without hearing something of the Prophet, for he gave us everything, every order of the priesthood."