Letter to the Church in Caldwell County, Missouri, 16 December 1838
JS, Letter,Liberty, MO, to the church in
Located in western Missouri, thirteen miles north of Independence. Settled 1820. Clay Co. seat, 1822. Incorporated as town, May 1829. Following expulsion from Jackson Co., 1833, many Latter-day Saints found refuge in Clay Co., with church leaders and other...More Info
On 16 December 1838, JS composed a letter from the Clay County jail in Liberty, Missouri, to the Latter-day Saints in Caldwell County, Missouri, as well as “all the Saints who are scattered abroad.” By 16 December, JS had been in state custody for more than six weeks and had undergone a seventeen-day criminal court of inquiry, or preliminary hearing, that resulted in his imprisonment in Liberty. There he awaited a spring 1839 trial on charges of treason and other crimes. Filled with indignation toward those he perceived were the cause of his imprisonment and dismayed at his doleful circumstances and the thought of spending the winter in jail, JS vented his emotions in this lengthy letter to the church. JS apparently patterned the letter after New Testament epistles, opening with a salutation, expressing prayers for church members, commenting on difficulties the church faced, and concluding with a blessing. He also quoted liberally from the Bible and other scriptures and placed the Saints’ predicament within the context of the long history of persecution against God’s people.Much of the letter condemns dissenters—the devil’s “emissaries.” JS contended that they cooperated with the Saints’ enemies during the recent conflict and were therefore responsible for the deaths of several Latter-day Saints, for JS’s arrest and incarceration, and for the expulsion of church members from the state. JS focused his ire on the delegation that had negotiated with Major General Samuel D. Lucas on 31 October 1838: George M. Hinkle, John Corrill, Reed Peck, William W. Phelps, and John Cleminson. JS argued that the delegation had betrayed him, resorting to deception to lure him into the enemies’ camp. Additionally, JS asserted that several other dissenters—including Oliver Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, and Thomas B. Marsh—had spread false rumors that endangered the church. JS also contended that the teachings of Sampson Avard, a former Danite general, were not authorized by the First Presidency. In the letter, JS also stated that the many dissenters who testified for the prosecution at the November 1838 hearing had “borne false witness” against the Mormon prisoners.Further, JS condemned the anti-Mormon forces that fought against the Latter-day Saints. He argued that religious and civil elites—whom he compared to Sadducees, Pharisees, and other opponents of Jesus Christ in the New Testament—instigated mob violence against church members. JS denied committing the crimes for which he and other Mormons were imprisoned, including treason and murder, and argued instead that the church’s enemies were guilty of these offenses.Although much of the letter is colored by JS’s indignation toward the church’s opponents, portions of the epistle also reflect confidence that God would vindicate the Saints. Comparing the dissenters to Haman, Balaam, Korah, and Job’s false friends—biblical figures who sought to hinder and persecute God’s people—JS reassured church members that just as the Lord rescued his ancient followers from their oppressors, he would deliver his latter-day people. Perhaps responding to dissenters who challenged JS’s prophetic leadership, JS also included in the letter the text of a revelation that declared he retained the “keys,” or the divine authority, that had been given to him. Near the close of the letter, JS promised the Saints that although Zion appeared to be dead, it would ultimately be revitalized.It is unclear how JS produced the original letter, which is not extant. JS probably discussed the major themes of the epistle with his fellow prisoners—which perhaps explains the frequent use of the first-person plural in the letter—although he alone signed the document. Close examination of extant copies indicates that two distinct textual traditions—one based on a rough draft, the other based on a revised draft—may have originated from inside the jail. Assuming that the textual production of the 16 December 1838 letter was similar to that of the circa 22 March 1839 general epistle, JS likely dictated a rough draft, which then was edited and revised under his direction. One or more subsequent drafts would have then been made to incorporate the changes, and both versions would have been sent out of the jail, presumably to increase circulation of the letter’s content among the Saints.JS’s scribe, James Mulholland, copied the rough draft or an intermediary version into a church record book, probably before moving to Illinois in spring 1839. Latter-day Saint Zina Diantha Huntington likely copied a revised version or an intermediary copy prior to her move to Illinois in May. Consistent with the proposed scenario regarding the letter’s production, the differences between the copies made by Mulholland and Huntington reflect conscious editing decisions rather than routine copying errors. The variants include shortened phrases, modernized word forms (for example, “seeth” changed to “sees”), altered diction (for example, “God” changed to “the Lord” and “state” changed to “government”), deleted slang phrases, and improved grammatical constructions. In a few cases, entire phrases and sentences in Mulholland’s copy are absent from Huntington’s copy; for example, Huntington’s copy does not include “We stood in our own defence and we believe that no man of us acted only in a just a lawful and righteous retaliation against such marauders.” Given that Huntington’s copy likely represents the textual tradition of the most polished version produced under JS’s direction, it is featured here. Significant variants in Mulholland’s version are noted in annotation.As demonstrated by the multiple copies that have survived, the epistle circulated broadly among the Saints in manuscript form. In a 14 May 1839 letter, Latter-day Saint David Foote included an eleven-line quotation from the revised version of the 16 December 1838 epistle to support his assertion that JS’s willingness to suffer for his religion proved his sincerity and his status as a prophet. A revised version of the 16 December letter was published in the April 1840 issue of the Times and Seasons, substantially increasing the letter’s circulation.