|"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."|
Writings of Joseph Smithby Dean C. Jessee
The Prophet Joseph Smith's writing career began at age twenty-two when he commenced translation of the Book of Mormon. At his death seventeen years later, in 1844, he had left a substantial archive for the study of his life and the church he was instrumental in founding. In addition to the Book of Mormon, his papers include diaries covering intermittently the period 1832-1844; correspondence; reports of discourses; more than 130 revelations, published as the Doctrine and Covenants; a record of Abraham; a Bible revision, including some restored writings of Enoch and Moses; and the beginnings of a multivolume documentary History of the Church based upon his papers.
Several factors influenced and initially limited the extent of Joseph Smith's writings and the literary style of his prose. Because of the indigent circumstances of his family, his formal schooling was very little, the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic constituting, so he said, his entire scholastic preparation. Some who heard him noted that he seemed to have little native talent or training as a speaker. He felt inadequate as a writer, referring on one occasion to "the little narrow prison almost as it were total darkness of paper, pen, and ink."
But whatever the Prophet lacked in formal rhetorical training was compensated for by his message. Beginning in his early life, religious experiences inspired him with a strong sense of mission that propelled him onto the stage of public controversy. He saw his mission as laying a foundation that would revolutionize the whole world, not by sword or gun but by "the power of truth." The articulation of that truth was the impetus of his writings. Many who heard him were awed by his ability to make plain the way of life and salvation. Many outsiders found his views striking and magnetic. His writings carry the same sense of purpose and conviction.
A study of early Mormon sources indicates that only a fraction of Joseph Smith's writings and teachings were preserved. This was the result of haphazard record-keeping procedures during his early lifetime; the incompetence or untimely death of some of his clerks; long imprisonments; vexatious and repeated lawsuits; poverty; and disruptive conditions that forced the migration of the Latter-day Saints across two-thirds of the American continent.
Joseph Smith's dependence upon others to write for him also complicates the record. His philosophy was that "a prophet cannot be his own scribe." Hence, most of his writings were dictated, and some ghostwritten, but approved and accepted by him. While the presence of clerical handwriting in his papers helps date the source material, it does obscure his own image and necessitates a careful look at the sources for those who would distinguish the Prophet's mind and personality from those who assisted him.
Joseph's writings are characterized by long, unbroken sentences connected by conjunctions, descriptive images, and an astute narrative sense. As a keen student of the scriptures, his prose is interspersed with biblical word forms and examples, and breathes a positive tone, reflecting a sense of vitality and love. His writing style and personality show up most clearly in his holograph writings. These show a conversational style, in contrast to the more formal manner of associates like Sidney Rigdon. Typical of his handwritten prose is this extract from an 1838 letter to his wife Emma written while in jail at Richmond, Missouri:
Brother Robison is chained next to me he he has a true heart and a firm mind, Brother Whight, is next, Br. Rigdon, next, Hyram, next, Parely, next Amasa, next, and thus we are bound together in chains as well as the cords of everlasting love, we are in good spirits and rejoice that we are counted worthy to be persecuted for Christ sake, tell little Joseph, he must be a good boy, Father loves him With a perfect llove, he is the Eldest must not hurt those that Are smaller then him, but cumfort them tell little Frederick, Father, loves him, with all his heart, he is a lovely boy. Julia is a lovely little girl, I love hir also She is a promising child, tell her Father wants her to remember him and be a good girl, tell all the rest that I think of them and pray for them all, little baby Elexander is on my mind continuly Oh my affectionate Emma, I want you to remember that I am a true and faithful friend, to you and the children, forever, my heart is intwined around you[r]s forever and ever, oh may God bless you all amen you I am your husband and am in bands and tribulation &c [Jessee, 1984, p. 368].
Joseph Smith's writings
Works by Joseph Smith
Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook., comps. and eds. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, Utah, 1980. A compilation of original reports of Joseph Smith's discourses during the Nauvoo years (1839-1844) of his life.
Faulring, Scott H., comp. and ed. An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1987. A compilation of Joseph Smith's diaries, but missing his 1842 journal, one of his largest.
Jessee, Dean C., comp. and ed. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1984. A compilation of all of Joseph Smith's known holograph writings and core dictated material.Jessee, Dean C., comp. and ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 1, Autobiographical and Historical Writing. Salt Lake City, 1989. The first volume of a comprehensive edition of Joseph Smith's papers.
Smith, Joseph, ed. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Period 1. History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself. Introduction and notes by B. H. Roberts. 2nd ed., 6 vols., Salt Lake City, 1964. Written in the form of a first-person daily journal, using the text of Joseph Smith's diaries interspersed with his correspondence and other documents, this work is the most extensive publication of the Prophet's papers to date. Its main limitation is the outdated editorial treatment of the sources.Smith, Joseph Fielding, comp. and ed. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1938. A compilation of excerpts from sermons, letters, and other writings of Joseph Smith taken almost exclusively from History of the Church and arranged in chronological order.
Jessee, Dean C. "The Writing of Joseph Smith's History." BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971):439-73.
King, Arthur Henry. The Abundance of the Heart. Salt Lake City, 1986.
Partridge, Elinore H. "Characteristics of Joseph Smith's Style." Task Papers in LDS History, No. 4, 1976. Typescript, LDS Church Archives.
Searle, Howard C. "Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons 1830-1858." Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1979.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 3, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company