Documents, Volume 14 of the Joseph Smith Papers captures the beginning of the end of Joseph Smith’s life. This fascinating collection of documents starts in January 1844, on the heels of the conflict resulting from the kidnappings of father and son Daniel and Philander Avery in late 1843. The year 1844 saw tension continue to build in Nauvoo as relationships with a few former friends and leaders became acrimonious. In the midst of these conflicts, loyal friends and Church leaders nominated Joseph as a candidate for president of the United States. During this time, he founded the Council of Fifty, petitioned Congress and President John Tyler to make him a member of the U.S. Army, and delivered memorable sermons to audiences of thousands—including the well-known King Follett discourse. As mayor of Nauvoo and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion, he also balanced other civic and Church responsibilities.
The Joseph Smith Papers team is thrilled to announce the publication of this volume and to share the documents that tell the story of some of the last few months of the prophet’s life. In this article, we highlight five documents from this penultimate volume that illustrate the important dimensions of Joseph Smith as a person, prophet, civic leader, and aspiring presidential candidate.
Correspondence with Governor Ford
The first document in the volume is a letter dated January 1, 1844, from Joseph Smith to Illinois governor Thomas Ford. Joseph’s words were filled with great concern about his personal freedom and the safety of the Saints. The Avery kidnappings had nearly led to war in December 1843. With these recent events in mind, Joseph wrote Governor Ford providing his perspective on why it might become necessary to call up the Nauvoo Legion to protect the city: “[W]hen my old friends, men, women, and children of kidnapped men beg with tears for Justice and protection,” Joseph wrote, “I am bound by my oath of office and by all laws human and divine to grant it.” As mayor, Joseph felt bound to use what power he did have to ensure the Saints’ safety. Joseph and his fellow Latter-day Saints had already experienced state-sanctioned mob violence, and they had no desire to do so again. Even so, Joseph promised Governor Ford that the Saints would not be the aggressors in this conflict and that they would not act without Ford’s counsel. What actions they would take, if any, would be in self-defense.
Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign Platform
1844 was a presidential election year. Joseph Smith wrote to frontrunners from both the Democratic and Whig parties in late 1843 to ask them what their intentions or actions toward the Latter-day Saints would be if they were to be elected. Of the five recipients, only three wrote back: John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Lewis Cass. In January, Joseph responded to Clay’s letter, sharing his feelings of exasperation at Clay’s view that the federal government could not do anything to protect the Saints or secure their rights.
Joseph discussed those frustrations in a meeting with the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and trusted associates on January 29, 1844, when they encouraged him to put his hat in the ring and run for president of the United States. A few days before that meeting, Joseph shared his position regarding executive power in the United States with William W. Phelps. Over the course of the next few weeks, Phelps captured what became Joseph’s presidential campaign platform and published it as General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. Some of the reforms he suggested included establishing a national bank, restructuring the criminal justice system, and ending slavery through gradual manumission by 1850. Fifteen hundred copies of General Smith’s Views were printed by the end of February. Campaign missionaries then distributed these pamphlets throughout the United States over the course of the next several months. Documents, Volume 14 presents the text of the first edition of this printed pamphlet.
Blessing to John and Catharine Paine Wilkie
Latter-day Saints made many sacrifices to help build the Nauvoo temple. Many donated their time in the form of labor tithing by working to physically construct the temple. Money was hard to come by, so many Saints donated to the temple building fund by offering goods such as produce, livestock, clothing, and bedding. William Clayton, one of Joseph’s scribes and temple recorder, recorded donations in a ledger book called The Book of the Law of the Lord. John and Catharine Paine Wilkie planned to make a donation to the temple but wanted to meet with Joseph Smith in person before doing so. Joseph came to their home and talked about the gospel principle of consecrating one’s means to building up the Kingdom of God. The Wilkies proceeded to donate $300, and John promised to pay more when he could. Joseph then pronounced a meaningful blessing upon both of them in which he prayed that “their faith increase from day to day until they shall have power to lay hold on the blessings of God and the gifts of the spirit.” Clayton took notes and then recorded the blessing in the Book of the Law of the Lord; the text is represented in this volume.
King Follett Discourse
In April 1844, the Church held its annual conference. Joseph spoke at several sessions, persisting through a weakened voice and lungs related to illness. On April 6, his health condition made it difficult to speak to the thousands in the crowd and so he kept his remarks short. But on April 7, the second day of the conference, he delivered a lengthy sermon in memory of his friend King Follett. He had wanted to preach a funeral sermon for Follett two days earlier, but his illness prevented him from doing so. Finding the words to comfort a grieving family was on his mind, and so he delved into a discussion about death, the nature of God, and the larger implications of the plan of salvation. Documents, Volume 14 features seven accounts of the sermon that became popularly known as the King Follett Discourse, including the account published in the Church’s newspaper, the Times and Seasons. The other accounts were recorded by men in the audience, such as Willard Richards, William Clayton, and Wilford Woodruff, who had the foresight to write down Joseph’s words.
Poem to Barbara Neff
The last document in the volume is unique. In May 1844, a young woman from Pennsylvania named Barbara Neff visited Nauvoo with her family. Her parents started preparing to move to Nauvoo by scoping out where they could live. While in town, Neff’s mother even received a patriarchal blessing from Hyrum Smith. Neff brought an autograph book with her and asked for people she met to record messages and signatures. Among the many signatures she gathered on her trip was an autographed poem from Joseph Smith himself.
His poem was about the importance of truth, virtue, and charity, and he signed it with a fantastic rhyme: “And so forthwith, remember Joseph Smith.” This poem appears beneath a poem written by William W. Phelps that advised “Let virtue decorate the truth.” Joseph’s poem appears to play off the rhymes and theme from Phelps’s poem. This document is rare: only one other poem written by Joseph Smith is extant, or in other words, is known and currently exists. But it also provides evidence of an interaction that might have been lost over the passage of time had Neff not carried her autograph book with her. It’s a tremendous artifact, as her family continued to gather signatures from other Church leaders even after her death.