Truman G. Madsen, foreword 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), xi–xiv.
What did Joseph Smith teach? The attempt to answer usually leads Latter-day Saints to three publications: the written revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price; the 7-volume History of the Church, and the compilation Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith. But most of these documents are based on the journals, diaries, and notebooks of those who surrounded the Prophet. Some were appointed by him to fulfill the commission: "There shall be a record kept" (D&C 21). Some were making private notes for their own use.
Here for the first time in church literature, presented with almost photographic fidelity, are the original sources of all the discourses of Joseph Smith delivered during his climactic five years in Nauvoo. These discourses not only shed light on the standard works; they also provide teachings beyond the scope of those heretofore published. (In fact, many of these utterances were not available to the first-generation historians when they began their compilations.)
The collection presents Joseph Smith during the era when he was dealing with Church doctrine and organization in its ripest and fullest form. As is clear in the sermons of his last year, he was struggling with a sense of urgency to present "all the strongest doctrines in public," to roll off all the keys of responsibility on his brethren. He was trying to prepare the minds of the Saints to receive the truth even when it opposed their traditions. And literally and figuratively he sought to place upon the Church the capstone by finishing the temple and conferring upon the Saints within it the most sacred and glorious consummations of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
These 177 separable discourses were recorded by some 36 individuals in 43 records. Probably still other contemporary records of the Prophet's discourses have not yet found their way into the Church Archives. But of these persons one can say they honored the commission of the Prophet (as recalled by Oliver B. Huntington) that they should "be prompt in keeping daily journals." They fulfill his prediction that their journals would be "sought after as history and scripture." In one classic admonition to the Twelve, he had said soberly, "The time will come, when, if you will neglect to do this thing, you will fall by the hands of unrighteous men." In lamentation that there were things already lost or never recorded, he said that without such records the "Great and glorious manifestations which have been made to us" could not be presented to the Church and to the world "with the same degree of power and authority" (Teachings, pp. 72-73).
Many of the full-bodied discourses of Joseph Smith can be traced to only one man, Wilford Woodruff. With an overwhelming conviction of his calling, he kept a faithful record of all the utterances of Joseph Smith he was present to hear. He could hardly sleep until he had taken his notes and transcribed them into a detailed account. Of his total effort B. H. Roberts wrote:
Other men may found hospitals or temples or schools for the Church, or endow special divisions or chairs of learning in them; or they may make consecrations of lands and other property to the Church but in point of important service, and in placing the Church under permanent obligations, no one will surpass in excellence in permanence or largeness the service Wilford Woodruff has given to the Church of Jesus Christ in the new dispensation, by writing and preserving the beautiful and splendid journals he kept through sixty-three years—so far do the things of mind surpass material things (Comprehensive History of the Church, 7:355).
This volume is the product of a decade of careful, consistent cooperative effort by two superb researchers in Mormon origins: Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook. The result is in many ways a first: Every firsthand contemporary account of Joseph's Nauvoo discourses is included here. The origin-sources are reproduced with scrupulous fidelity to the original text, including stylistic abbreviations and grammatical and spelling errors. Because a text without a context can become a pretext, the editors have provided thorough bibliographic, biographical, and doctrinal commentary in their lengthy, but essential, footnotes. The compilation is in exact chronology and is cross-referenced to all scriptural passages to which the Prophet referred or alluded in his discourses. These in turn are cross-referenced to each other and are extensively indexed.
There are side benefits in having the entire collection and commentary under one cover: we see connections and relationships that otherwise are obscure; we see glimpses of the Prophet Joseph Smith as a common man who identifies himself with the grinding labor and sufferings of his people; we see how richly furnished was his mind and how receptive, malleable, and bold was its sweeping inspiration and yet how his very thought patterns were rooted in the New Testament—especially in Paul. (There are fewer allusions to the Old Testament, The Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants.) We see something of the life-settings, the personalities, the needs, and even the crises surrounding many of his statements. We see humor and wit, we see trauma and prophetic vision. And through it all we see a man confident in his mission, assured of his divine calling—for all his light-hearted gregarious and social instincts, he was a man serious to the core.
The editors have done another service. Their careful footnoting and tracing of earlier authentic statements and later echoes affords the reader a fresh sense of the unfolding drama of the Restoration. The King Follett discourse, for example, which until now has seemed unprecedented, is here shown to be the outcome of earlier teachings. Its brilliance and stature emerge from its combining strands of prior insights of the Prophet into one majestic, comprehensive statement. Thus, the editors have done revelatory research on both the background and foreground of the discourses. The book becomes a perennial instrument for interpreting and understanding later reminiscences and recollections about the Prophet and his sayings. It is also a hedge against folklore and fiction, and against the charge that one cannot trust the sources of Mormonism in its formative stages.
For teachers in all levels of Church administration and practice, for parents who are concerned to "go to the source" when counseling and guiding and testifying in the home, for students who seek a handbook of Mormon sources that will withstand careful scholarly scrutiny, for Latter-day Saints who wish to treasure up the fundamental teachings of the Restoration at their very fountainhead, and for all in or beyond the Church who have begun to recognize that in his high and inspired moments Joseph Smith passed on to this generation "gems for the sanctified," this book is not only useful, it is indispensable.