RS/MP Lesson 38: “The Wentworth Letter” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on July 4, 2009
This lesson is made up of (basically) the entirety of the famous Wentworth Letter, which the introductory section of the lesson introduces briefly. (Only half a paragraph of the letter is omitted in the lesson, and it consists only of a brief summary of the various peoples described in the Book of Mormon. The editors of the lesson manual likely thought it somewhat beside the point for the purposes of the lesson. See page 441 for the ellipses.) I think that introductory section can speak for itself, for the most part, though there is at least one rather important detail that it fails to mention that I will address before turning to a commentary on the letter.
The vital detail: the Wentworth Letter was drawn, in large part, from a pamphlet published in England in 1840 by Orson Pratt, titled A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records. Orson’s pamphlet is quite important, not only because it eventually became the source of much of the Wentworth Letter, but also because it was the first published account of the First Vision. In fact, Orson’s pamphlet is one of a whole series of pamphlets and articles that were published in 1840 and 1841 by Joseph’s closest associates, all “exploiting” a kind of new theological era that seems to have dawned at the close of 1839. This deserves a bit of explanation.
Beginning as early as 1830, Joseph’s prophetic ability was questioned and constantly tested by his “spokesmen.” Oliver Cowdery, for all the help he provided to Joseph in 1829-1830, was the first of these “mild opponents.” During the months following the organization of the Church, he began to challenge Joseph’s position of authority, a situation that led to a number of different revelations clarifying Joseph’s role as Moses and Oliver’s role as Aaron for the new church. As if to get Oliver out of the way and to put him to more useful work, the Lord sent Oliver on a mission to the Lamanites (in Missouri) in the late summer of 1830. By December, Oliver’s role as scribe to and closest confidant of Joseph Smith was given to the Church’s newest and most famous convert: Sidney Rigdon.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Sidney began doing things quite similar to Oliver. At one point during 1832, while Joseph was out of town for some business, Sidney called the Church in Kirtland together and announced that the keys of the kingdom had been lost and that the restoration had been abandoned. Hyrum retrieved Joseph, and several days were spent fixing the unfortunate situation. The result, for Sidney, was a brief excommunication and a clarification of roles. Sidney would, by the Nauvoo period, become essentially estranged from Joseph and eventually attempt to commandeer the entire Church after the death of the Prophet.
At about the time Sidney began to fall out of favor, the Lord was providing the Church with a robust new organization, one that displaced the centralized authority of Joseph Smith in important ways by granting organizational authority to a series of different councils. This reorganization of things culminated in the dedication of the Kirtland temple. However, shortly after that dedication, the Kirtland apostasy occurred, and many of those who had been given a little authority through the reorganization of the Church’s hierarchy turned against Joseph. The councils that had been formed to govern the Church were suddenly becoming secret combinations that were plotting to rid the Church of Joseph Smith. Again Joseph was facing the reality he would eventually announce in a letter from prison in Missouri: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
The continuing pattern of Joseph’s associates—receiving a bit of authority, immediately assuming that Joseph was out of the way, and making efforts to displace his prophetic position—came to its conclusion with the massive confusion of the Missouri war. Whatever Joseph Smith’s involvement, for example, in the Danite organizations in Missouri, it is clear that the atrocities associated with those groups were another example of the same pattern: a little authority immediately led to excesses that went beyond the bounds announced by the Prophet. And the result was Joseph’s imprisonment.
But Joseph’s six months in prison seem to have been a curiously productive time. There it seems he finally began to come into his own. Though he had had prophetic authority and the gift of translation before that, it was only after he emerged from Liberty Jail that he began to take what might be called rhetorical command of Mormonism. Whereas before his authority was a question first and foremost—if not exclusively—of his written prophetic revelations and translations, he now began to command the attention of the Saints through his spoken prophecies, interpretations, expositions, and prescriptions. Joseph became a different kind of prophet after he escaped from Missouri.
Shortly after his imprisonment ended, Joseph left for Washington D. C. to speak with the president of the United States about the Missouri persecutions. Once he arrived there, he found himself away from Oliver Cowdery (who had apostatized), away from Sidney Rigdon (who was still in Nauvoo), away from the councils that so often imposed on his authority, and so began to come out of his shell. He began to announce what has come to be called the “Nauvoo theology,” the expansive notions associated with “temple Mormonism” (premortal existence, baptism for the dead, eternal gender, plural marriage, deification, angels with keys, etc.). Thus during the last weeks of 1839 and the first weeks of 1840, all the Saints who were lucky enough to be serving missions or to be otherwise located in Philadelphia and Washington D. C. found themselves being let in on what seemed to them to be great doctrinal secrets. Of course, Joseph not only spoke to the Saints in private; he also delivered public sermons on the same doctrines while he was in the East.
A number of the missionaries who were with Joseph in the East then went on to begin writing pamphlets promoting and defending the Church. And because of the exciting ideas Joseph Smith had begun to communicate, they naturally began to write about the “Nauvoo theology” in their various publications. Orson Pratt’s Remarkable Visions was one of these many pamphlets published in 1840 and 1841 expositing Joseph’s teachings.
Interestingly, Joseph Smith himself was critical of those who had published such pamphlets, and he even singled out Orson Pratt in one of his sermons. He seems particularly to have been frustrated by the elders’ desires to publicize what Joseph had communicated to them in relative privacy, and he seems to have been concerned that the elders were claiming as their own revelations and doctrines the ideas that the Lord had revealed to him. But whatever negativity Joseph felt toward Orson’s efforts to publicize Joseph’s “remarkable visions,” he seems eventually to have seen fit to borrow extensively from Orson’s pamphlet.
What follows, then, in my commentary, is twofold. On the one hand, I will, of course, try simply to draw out what seem to me interesting and productive points in the Wentworth Letter itself. But, on the other hand, I will try to keep a constant eye on the complex relationship between the letter and Orson’s pamphlet. This, I think, yields some interesting insights into how Joseph’s approach to his own and the Church’s experiences was unique.
God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith in answer to his prayer.
The two paragraphs that make up this first section are almost entirely taken from Orson’s pamphlet, though Joseph has clearly revised it in a number of ways. An important example is that, where Orson spends a full paragraph discussing Joseph’s lack of education, Joseph cuts all of this material, whether for the sake of brevity and concision, or whether for the sake of bracketing what might have been embarrassing. At any rate, it is clear that whereas Orson (like many apologists today) wanted to portray an uneducated farmboy who could never have produced what he produced without divine help, Joseph was content to let the events speak for themselves.
Another striking difference is in the discussion of the arguments among the churches that confused Joseph. For Orson, the question was one of doctrines. For Joseph, however, it was a question of plans: Joseph alters Orson’s language so that he was inquiring not about doctrines or organizations, but about “the plan of salvation”; and rather than finding that all the churches disagreed with one another’s doctrines, he presents them as conflicting over the “plan.” This emphasis on “the plan” I find very interesting. Joseph Smith, in Nauvoo, was talking a great deal more than before about a kind of plan for the history of the world, one that differed from the standard Christian approach. Where the Christian plan was a plan introduced to overcome the unfortunate fall of Adam and Eve, the one Joseph was presenting was a plan introduced to premortal spirits in a foundational council with God. Joseph definitely found nothing like this among the mainstream Protestant churches!
Another difference is interesting. In Orson’s account, Joseph is confused until he discovers James 1:5 (as the story goes in the Pearl of Great Price as well). Here, however, Joseph presents himself as broadly familiar with the Bible as a youth: “Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James,” etc. Joseph makes it sound as if his early acquaintance with the Bible, and his commitment to it led him quite naturally to pursue prayer. There is no shattering moment of discovery.
Several rather striking phrases in this second paragraph are drawn directly from Orson. For example: “I retired to a secret place in a grove”; and “my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded.” The romance of the idyllic setting in the former statement and the almost mystical and certainly solemn air of the latter statement are curiously distinct from Joseph’s account in the Pearl of Great Price. They come from Orson, yes, but why would Joseph adopt them?
One further difference seems important. In the communications described during the First Vision, Orson spends time dwelling on the personal message that was delivered to Joseph: his being forgiven, etc. Joseph, however, subtracts those elements from his telling of the story, though he draws on Orson’s language to tell the story. This subtraction of the personal is in continuity with his bracketing of his lack of education in the first paragraph: Joseph seems intent either on subtracting elements of the story that put him in a semi-foolish light in his early years, or on subtracting all personal questions from the story so that he is merely an instrument in bringing forth the work of God. This will continue in subsequent paragraphs as well.
The Book of Mormon was written anciently upon gold plates and delivered to Joseph Smith by a divinely sent messenger.
The account of Joseph’s prayer before Moroni’s visit is curious in that, again, he subtracts the personal elements from the story. Orson highlights the foolish errors of Joseph’s youth that apparently led to his prayer for forgiveness. Joseph leaves these details out and describes himself simply as “endeavoring to exercise faith in the precious promises of Scripture.” Again it is clear that Joseph is trying to tell a very particular kind of story. And again it should be noted that this doesn’t seem to be a desire to cover over his faults, since he was willing to insert all of these details into his Pearl of Great Price account.
The remainder of this first paragraph in this section is drawn directly from Orson’s pamphlet. This is significant, in certain ways, especially because Joseph then draws on Orson’s emphasis on “the covenant which God made with ancient Israel,” as well as “the second coming of the Messiah” and “the Millennial reign,” themes that Joseph himself did not necessarily emphasize as often as the elders.
In the second paragraph, Joseph emends Orson’s references to the “American Indians,” referring instead to “the aboriginal inhabitants of this country,” perhaps because of the brethren’s then recent reading of Stephens and Catherwood’s discoveries of civilizations in Guatemala and Mexico. He then summarizes what in Orson’s pamphlet is a rather lengthy discussion of what Joseph simply terms the Nephites’ “origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments,” etc. Further along in the same paragraph, Orson’s many discussions with Moroni alone becomes “many visits from the angels of God.”
The paragraph that finishes off page 439 and continues through page 440 and onto 441 is drawn directly from Orson’s account. This is curious because it is the only physical description of the plates we have from Joseph—as the introductory part of the lesson points out. How odd that the only physical description we have comes from Orson’s pamphlet, copies into Joseph’s letter. However, it is at this point worth pointing out that Orson seems to have taken notes when he had his discussions with Joseph. At various points in Orson’s pamphlet, he puts quotation marks around his statements, though without adding a footnote or a reference to make clear his source. One assumes he is drawing from his notes (or at least his memory) of what Joseph said. One assumes that Orson—ever the scientist and mathematician—made careful note of these physical characteristics when Joseph discussed them.
In the first full paragraph on page 441, the ellipsis occurs. It covers material taken directly from Orson, entirely a summary of the history of the Nephites and Lamanites and Jaredites, a kind of summary of the Book of Mormon. The paragraph that has not been elided is a summary of a great deal of material in Orson’s pamphlet. Several pages have been reduced to a single paragraph. Importantly, Joseph refers for further information not to the account he is summarizing (Orson’s pamphlet) but to the Book of Mormon itself (“which can be purchased at Nauvoo, or from any of our Traveling Elders”).
With the last paragraph of this section, Joseph rearranges the material in Orson’s pamphlet. For Orson, the discussion of the initial persecutions is told as part of the translation story, but Joseph displaces it until after he has described the translation and the book itself. But there seems to be good reason for this rearrangement: Joseph puts the question of persecution at the end of his story of translation because he is about to launch into a massive history of the persecutions of the Saints.
Although persecution may rage against the Church, nothing can stop the progress of truth.
Only the first paragraph of this next section draws at all on Orson’s pamphlet, and it only does so in its description of the first months of the Church’s organized history. So soon as it describes the initial pouring out of the gifts of the Spirit, Joseph summarizes the remainder of Orson’s historical account with the phrase “From that time the work rolled forth with astonishing rapidity.” After that, Joseph turns to the story of persecution.
What is interesting about the history of the Church as Joseph then tells it is what is missing. With that one summary phrase, he seems to want to cover the entirety of the development of the Church, its revelations, temple building, organizational development, etc., etc., etc. The history he goes on actually to detail is entirely a history of persecution. In part, this was of course a part of the injunction from D&C 123, that the Saints were to publish to all the world the atrocities of Missouri. And in part, this was of course an attempt on the part of Joseph to portray the history of the Church as a history of martyrdom. But it is remarkable how this way of telling the history leaves out every question of translation projects (the Bible, the Book of Abraham), the temples (Zion, Kirtland, Far West, and Nauvoo), the restoration of priesthood keys (visits from John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Moses, Elias, and Elijah, etc.), the angelic experiences of the Kirtland temple dedication, changes in priesthood organization and the development of councils, Kirtland in its entirety(!), the various apostasies of the members of the Church, Joseph’s foray in Liberty Jail, etc., etc., etc. The entire focus is on the unfairness and unAmericanness of the Church’s persecutors.
The persecution narrative makes up basically the whole of pages 442 and 443. I think they mostly speak for themselves: Joseph wants to create a sense of sympathy among his readers by portraying the Saints as suffering. In this, it should be noted, he is following (1) the injunction of D&C 123 and (2) the pattern established by Parley P. Pratt in his History of the Late Persecutions. With that, I think I’ll let the persecution narrative speak for itself and turn to the way he concludes the story, a conclusion that departs from the usual pattern.
The last paragraph beginning on page 443 marks a shift from the portrayal of the Saints purely as a suffering people. Here they arrive in Illinois and find “a hospitable people and a friendly home,” since the Illinoisans were “willing to be governed by the principles of law and humanity.” So soon as Joseph announces this, he makes a kind of brief advertisement for Nauvoo, describing the size of the population, the city charter, the Nauvoo Legion, the charter for Nauvoo University, the Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, the laws and government, etc., etc., etc.
The purpose of making a kind of advertising spot is clear: it shows that the Saints are not the suffering Saints of the persecution narrative—mere martyrs—but the strong who overcome. Hence, while Joseph can arouse sympathy by telling the story of the persecution, he presents the Saints immediately thereafter as a people who militantly endure through persecution as if it were nothing. This then allows him to announce triumphantly: “Persecution has not stopped the progress of truth, but has only added fuel to the flame, it has spread with increasing rapidity.”
Joseph’s narrative, then, is quite carefully constructed (and note that in all this, he has left Orson far behind!): if “the work rolled forth with astonishing rapidity” so soon as the gifts of the Spirit were poured out (p. 441), it has only been furthered, increased, and accelerated by the inevitable persecution that the Saints have faced. And so Joseph begins into what has become famous as “the Standard of Truth”:
The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done. (p. 444)
That is the narrative Joseph wants to tell. Joseph was an instrument to get something started, but he was only the spark. And then the Church began to grow in a remarkable way. The result, of course, has been insistent opposition, but the truth cannot be compromised by such persecution. The truth will go forward still.
Finally, then, as if to lay out what that truth is, and so to offer a kind of concluding invitation to come and find the truth, Joseph pens the Articles of Faith as a conclusion to the letter. They deserve careful treatment.
The Articles of Faith describe fundamental doctrines and principles of our religion.
Here, with the thirteen Articles of Faith, Joseph returns, oddly enough, to Orson Pratt’s pamphlet. The entire persecution narrative, as well as its distraction by the discussion of the progress of the truth, was a departure from Orson, but here Joseph resumes his interest in Orson’s work. But here he does much more interesting editorial work, in my opinion. Rather than simply trying to pick out the most important parts of the story as Orson had told it, Joseph begins to correct, reinterpret, and make sense of Orson’s basic outline of Mormon theology.
The relevant portion of Orson’s pamphlet he simply introduces with the sentence: “We now proceed to give a sketch of the faith and doctrine of this Church.” And here begins the work of careful comparison.
Orson begins: “First,—We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost, who bears record of them, the same throughout all ages and for ever.” Joseph adopts this directly, but drops the description of the Holy Ghost—whether for purposes of simplification, or because there is some question of what the Holy Ghost is, it isn’t clear.
From this point, the borrowings become much more complex.
Orson’s second paragraph deserves quotation in full: “We believe that all mankind, by the transgression of their first parents, and not by their own sins, were brought under the curse and penalty of that transgression, which consigned them to an eternal banishment from the presence of God, and their bodies to an endless sleep in the dust, never more to rise, and their spirits to endless misery under the power of Satan; and that in this awful condition, they were utterly lost and fallen, and had no power of their own to extricate themselves therefrom.”
At first it might seem that Joseph’s rather straightforward “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgress” is a correction of Orson’s doctrine. But I don’t think this is quite right. Orson’s version of what Joseph will render a single sentence in the third article of faith runs to five paragraphs, two of them very long; and the intention and meaning of this paragraph roughly parallel to Joseph’s second article of faith is clarified and contextualized by those five paragraphs. Hence, I don’t see Joseph so much correcting or even contradicting here as I see him simplifying.
I think this is especially important to understand since Orson, in the course of the paragraph parallel to the second article of faith and in the course of the paragraphs parallel to the third article of faith, comes the closest of anyone I have ever read in early Mormonism to articulating the atonement theology of the Book of Mormon. Orson is not, I think, wrong in what he says, though he says it at such length and in so emphatically a theological way that Joseph seems to have seen fit to find a way to simplify it all.
Hence, the key change Joseph makes to Orson’s paragraph on the Fall (which I’ve quoted in full above) is to change both the verb and the tense of the verb. Whereas Orson speaks in his version of “pentalty,” “consign[ment],” “banishment,” and “condition,” Joseph speaks only of “punish[ment].” And whereas Orson speaks of the present circumstances that result from the fall, Joseph speaks of what will be the case—of how human beings will be punished.
If there appears to be a contradiction, then—especially in light of Orson’s “all mankind, by the transgression of their first parents, and not by their own sins, were brought under . . . penalty” and Joseph’s “men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression”—there ultimately is not. Orson shows only that the Fall is a real fact right now; Joseph goes on to show that eventual judgment will not be a question of that Fall.
But if these are not contradictory, then it must be noted that the common reading of the second article of faith—that Joseph summarily dismissed “original sin”—is not quite accurate. Joseph is speaking of the judgment and of eschatological punishment, not of the curse resultant from the Fall. This, it seems to me, is vital.
The third article of faith, as I’ve already intimated, amounts to a massive abridgment. Where Orson goes on for five long paragraphs, Joseph states quite simply “We believe that through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” Orson teaches the same, though he spells out (1) the way the atonement reverses the curse of the Fall, (2) the way the atonement renders all equal before the law, (3) the fact that the complicated circumstances of the Fall, when countered by the atonement, call for a displacement of the Fall’s curse, (4) the manner in which those without law are excepted from the displaced curse, and (5) the fact that judgment will be a question of works, and hence, a question of “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”
In short, I think Orson and Joseph are teaching much the same thing.
The fourth article of faith very clearly draws on Orson’s work. But what Joseph renders a short list, Orson spells out in four paragraphs. The major difference, however, between them is that while Joseph calls these principles and ordinances, Orson describes them as “conditions.”
Joseph’s fifth article of faith, interestingly, seems to be drawn from the paragraph that is Orson’s discussion of the fourth “condition” (Joseph’s fourth principle/ordinance). Orson says: “the fourth condition is, to receive the laying on of hands in the name of Jesus Christ, for the gift of the Holy Ghost; and . . . this ordinance is to be administered by the apostles or elders, whom the Lord Jesus hath called and authorized to lay on hands, otherwise, it is of no advantage, being illegal in the sight of God.” This clarification of the source of authority in Orson’s pamphlet becomes an entirely separate article of faith in Joseph’s letter. As a result, Joseph’s description of the doctrine here is much broader. It is a question of being called by prophecy, being ordained by the laying on of hands, of being ordained by those in authority, of being enabled to preach the gospel, and of being enabled to administer in the ordinances of the gospel.
Joseph’s sixth and seventh articles of faith appear in Orson in reversed order. They appear in the same paragraph, following a paragraph on the need for the baptized and confirmed Saints to be humble, etc. For Orson, the idea seems to be that if the Saints discipline themselves, the reception of the Holy Ghost will lead immediately to the gifts of the Spirit: tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, etc. Orson then ties this to the idea of restoration: these gifts must be present if the Church is to be as it was in the time of the New Testament. And so he tacks on the idea that the same organization must exist in the present Church as in the ancient church as well, mentioning specifically prophets and apostles, and then simply saying that all other offices must be present as well.
Joseph, while adopting Orson’s work, seems to have had a very different project. Having expanded the discussion of the need for genuine authority, Joseph turns first to the question of organization, leaving the question of spiritual gifts for afterward. Thus, it seems quite clear that, for Joseph, there is a specific tie between lawful ordination and the organization of the Church. When Joseph then turns to spiritual gifts, it would seem that these are to be governed, watched over, and regulated by the duly organized officers of the Church. Yes, they must be restored, but they are clearly to be restored within the organized and ordered church of God. This also allows Joseph to draw a connection between the gifts of the Spirit and the question of scripture and revelation.
Orson takes a paragraph or two to describe the apostasy, and then claims that the Book of Mormon embraces the gospel that appears in the New Testament. Joseph drops the discussion of the apostasy entirely (a point very worth thinking about!), but does take up the question of scripture. However, he clearly reverses Orson’s point. For Orson, the Book of Mormon takes its legitimacy from the New Testament: because the Book of Mormon bears the same gospel that appears in the New Testament, it is true. For Joseph, however, the Bible is believed to be the word of God only so far as it is translated correctly. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is reckoned to be the word of God. This would seem to make the truth of the Bible dependent on the Book of Mormon, something that is stated outright both in D&C 20 and in several places in the Book of Mormon.
Having thus staged the new revelation as being foundational for making sense of old revelations, Joseph sets up nicely his discussion of revelation. In Orson’s pamphlet, it is clear that revelation is discussed in order to set the Doctrine and Covenants side by side with the Book of Mormon and the New Testament. In a much wordier paragraph than Joseph’s rather straightforward triple statement, Orson argues that the revelations that have been given to the Church are vital, and that more is still to come. Joseph simplifies this so much that it is hard to recognize that it might be a reference to the Doctrine and Covenants. Indeed, it most straightforwardly appears, in the articles of faith, to be a kind of clarification of the statement about the Bible: yes, we worry about the Bible’s accuracy, but we do believe all that God has revealed. For Joseph, of course, revelation is much more expansive than it is in Orson: God has revealed, is revealed, and will yet reveal much. Moreover, where for Orson, what will be revealed is a question of overcoming “ignorance,” for Joseph, future revelation is a question of making known “many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” One can only assume that he had much of what was about to be revealed concerning the temple in mind.
The remaining eight paragraphs of Orson’s pamphlet after this point are all dedicated to a description of the calamities of the end times. He details the prophecies from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon in order to spell out the dangers and to call the world to repentance. All of this Joseph collapses into the tenth article of faith, making it a question simply of belief, and not of a call to repentance. The tenth article of faith is, really, a remarkably beautiful statement of the barebones doctrine of the eschaton: Israel gathers, the Ten Tribes are restored, Zion is built on the American continent, Christ reigns on the earth, the earth is renewed in paradisiacal glory.
After this, Joseph ventures out on his own again. Orson’s pamphlet has concluded with his call to repentance, but Joseph adds three last articles of faith: the universal privilege of worship, the Saints’ relationship to governments, and the belief of the Saints that one must be a generally good person. It is clear that the troubles on the horizon in Nauvoo were already troubling Joseph. And these last three articles of faith definitely correspond to the other material Joseph puts into the letter that departs from Orson: the picture of the persecuted but triumphant Saints who have proved themselves to have been true and good citizens is here spelled out in three articles of faith.
And let me hope, with Joseph, that the truth will indeed prevail.