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In the last year of Joseph Smith’s life, his influence was at its peak, as he balanced the roles of church president, prophet, mayor, judge and militia leader, all while responding to an escalating conflict around him.
This was a time when close associates like William Law turned to betray him, when a conspiracy was drawn together to assassinate him, when the Warsaw Signal was calling for his death and mobs were mounting. At the same time, Smith was actively directing the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, giving temple instruction, and revealing startling new doctrine as in the King Follett discourse.
The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 3 records his journal entries from this turbulent and productive time, giving us insight into the prophet at the center of a growing drama, who at the same time, managed to move the Church forward with continued revelation.
These journal entries cover the last months of his life from May 1843 to June 1844, a time when the Council of Fifty, also known as “the Kingdom of God”, was formed to contemplate relocating the Church to Oregon or the Republic of Texas, when Joseph was appealing to government leaders for redress for the Mormons who had suffered in Missouri, when he determined the only way to grab attention for this cause was to stand for President of the United States himself, when attempts continued in the effort to extradite him to Missouri, and when plural marriage began to be more widely practiced in Nauvoo.
It’s hard to imagine a time of greater conflict and pressure than these months represent.
The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which includes multiple volumes, each of which takes years to produce by a team of people, “is to present verbatim transcripts of Joseph Smith’s papers in their entirety, making available the most essential sources of Smith’s life and work and preserving the content of against manuscripts from damage or loss.”
It is at least a twenty-year effort to make Joseph Smith and his life completely transparent, compiling every available document in these volumes. These “include documents that were created by Joseph Smith, whether written or dictated by him or created by others under his direction, or that were owned by Smith, that is received by him and kept in his office (as with incoming correspondence).”
This becomes invaluable source material for scholars on the life of Joseph Smith, but also as one of the volume editors, Brent M. Rogers noted, “People find this volume incredibly fascinating. We know how it ends—with the martyrdom—but the daily variety, complexity and nuances that a reader will find in the prophet’s life demonstrates how much it was to take on.”
Willard Richards as Scribe
One could wish that in this most recent volume, these journal entries were made by Joseph, himself, putting pen to paper, so we could have a window upon the prophet’s thoughts and feelings against this stormy backdrop. However, by this point in his life, Joseph had turned to Willard Richards, his private secretary, to be his scribe and keep his journal for him.
Sometimes months would go by before Joseph would sit down with Richards and consider what had been written.
Willard Richards’ entries for Joseph tend to be terse in style and made based on observation, rather than checking with him for details. Until late in the journal, many entries document relatively few events, sometimes only one a day. Scholars believe this is more a reflection of Richards’ style and personality than his lack of familiarity with events, because at many key moments in Smith’s life during this period, Richards was there as well.
He was there, for instance, when Joseph and Hyrum, rowed across the Mississippi River as they considered if they should escape, just days before the martyrdom. He was there at the martyrdom in the Carthage Jail, though Richard’s entries end June 22, 1844 five days before the martyrdom.
Correctly deciphering Richard’s handwriting has been challenging for the scholars working on this project. They joke that Smith might have chosen someone other than a doctor to keep his journal.
The book notes, “Hurried note taking often resulted in missing words, informal abbreviations, inconsistent spelling, and poorly formed characters,” sometimes mark the work.
It is also true that “Because of Richards’s idiosyncratic handwriting, many passages of this journal have been misread and misunderstood in the past. To provide the most accurate reading possible, experts in Richards’s handwriting have meticulously transcribed Smith’s journal according to the highest standards of documentary editing.”
This editing has involved a process where transcripts were verified three times, each time by a different set of eyes.
In one sense, since Richards kept Smith’s journal, it is farther from the prophet’s voice, but in another, we have the freshness of Joseph Smith’s own thinking in the notes on 60 of the prophet’s sermons given in Nauvoo that Richards included in the journals.
These discourses covered a range of topics such as salvation, resurrection, baptism for the dead, priesthood ordinances and human’s potential to become as God. Many of these were groundbreaking doctrine and new insight for the listeners.
Here for instance are the notes Richards took from a funeral sermon 9 October 1843.
“All men know that all men must die.— What is the object of our coming into existence. then dying and falling away to be here no more? This is a subject we ought to study more than any other, which we ought to study day and night.— If we have any claim on our heavenly father for any thing it is for knowledge on this important subject— could we read and comprehend all that has been writtn from the days of Adam on the relation of man to God & angels. and the spirits of Just men in a future state. we should know very little about it. could you gaze in heaven 5 minute. you would know more— than you possibly would can know by read[ing] all that ever was writtn on the subject.”
Where the journal entries need additional explanation or understanding of references to people, events or places, the volume editors have provided extensive annotations, which include, among many others, references to the minutes from the Council of Fifty—which will be published in their entirety in an upcoming volume.
These annotations help to fill in the picture that otherwise could be difficult to understand. Often in the book, the annotations fill more space than the journal entries.
What is clear in these pages is that as the days barrel toward June 27, 1844 and the martyrdom, controversial teachings, the practice of plural marriage, Joseph’s growing political power and fear of a Mormon voting bloc, rouse the growing animosity both of avowed anti-Mormons like Thomas Sharp and those who had once been friends and had become disaffected members of the Church.
Joseph is very much aware of the scheme to assassinate him. From his 27 May 1844, we read:
“Joseph [H.] Jackson F[rancis] M. Higbee. & C[hauncey] L. Higbee were in A. Hamiltns [Artois Hamilton’s] Hotel when we [Joseph Smith and others] arrived. soon after our arrival Chas A. Foster took me in a private room & told me there was a conspiracy again[s]t my life. R[obert] D. Foster. told some of the breth[r]en there was evil determ[ine]d aga[in]st me. (& that with tears in his eyes.)— and that there were those who were determ[ine]d I should not go out of the village [Carthage, Illinois] alive. &c— Jackson was seen Loading his pistol— and swore he would have satisfaction of me and Hiram [Hyrum Smith]—”
Final Two Weeks of Joseph’s Life
Two appendixes appear in this book that further illuminate the last two weeks of Joseph Smith’s life. These are an excerpt from Willard Richards’s journal from 23-27 June and an account by William Clayton of Joseph’s 10-22 June activities. Since both of these men had close proximity to Smith their records provide important primary source material of those dark days leading up to his death.
Two videos prepared by the team who created this book explore some themes from the journal entries:
Joseph Smith: Presidential Candidate
Where is Zion?
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